An August Debate Revisited

Who is the Father of our Nation? – Mahatma Gandhi. No debate on that, please!

Who is the Mother of all debates on the future of India? – Mahatma Gandhi. At least historian Ramachandra Guha thinks so and not altogether without reason.

While the quintessential Indian loquaciousness has left no stone unturned to ignite a debate, especially regarding matters of public policy, it does not require much of knowledge or intellect to appreciate Gandhi’s pivotal role in igniting the debates that shaped modern India. Be it the secular polity of the Indian State, or the non-interventionist foreign policy, or the democratic rights of the citizens to express dissent against the establishment – hues of Gandhian ideologies are not hard to spot in the Indian socio-economic and political fabric. Nevertheless, one must not presume that Indians have been all too obedient to listen to the Mahatma on all grounds. It had often been the case that the side of the debate for which Gandhi had fought, did not get the majority support and thus the Gandhian philosophy regarding such issues have been systematically reduced to nothing more than obsolete ideologies of a “half naked Indian fakir” in the moth-eaten chapters of history. One prime example is of course the Charka fiasco.

Gandhi popularized the use of Charka (or the spinning wheel) as part of the Khadi Movement in the 1920s, with the motto that every Indian would spin his or her own cloth. Since its very inception, the concept of achieving economic independence from the capitalistic clutches of a colonial economy, only merely through the Charka evoked widespread dissent. However, such voices of dissent were not quite heard till Gandhi’s death (because of Gandhi’s sheer political stature: Gandhi himself noted, “The Congress did accept the Charkha, but did it do so willingly? No, it only tolerates the Charkha simply for my sake…if you continue with me without faith [that the Charkha has the power to achieve Swaraj (i.e., home-rule or independence)] you will be deceiving me and doing great wrong to the country.”); the exception being none other than Rabindranath Tagore. The Prophet and Poet, as is widely known, shared differences in their personal ways of life, religious views, socio-political and economic ideologies; but the debate on the Charka is one of significant importance to modern India, and hence I decide to make this revisit to the august debate.

Gandhi’s idea of the Charka revolved around two pivots: the first was obviously the precept that the village should ensure its own requirements of cloth itself. The idea was to meet the basic needs of cloth and food – in exchange of extra cloth – and freedom from unemployment for all the rural folks. Basically, the Charka promised economic independence to the millions of hapless people and prepared them economically and psychologically to stand up to exploitation. At the first glance, this might seem to be a prescription of a rather stern doctrine of self-sufficiency and dignity. True as it might be, for ‘the spinning-wheel gradually became the centre of rural uplift in the Gandhian scheme of Indian economics’ (B.R. Nanda, 1989), Gandhi’s advocacy of the Charka transcended the realm of economics. Herein lies the second pivot of the Charka ideology: Gandhi perceived the toil of spinning the wheel as a way through sacrifice for people who are better off to identify themselves with the less fortunate. He himself explains in no uncertain terms, “’Why should I, who have no need to work for food, spin?’ may be the question asked. Because I am eating what does not belong to me. I am living on the spoliation of my countrymen. Trace the source of every coin that finds its way into your pocket, and you will realize the truth of what I write.”

While Rabindranath seemed to be convinced of the Gandhian ideal of village self-sufficiency (for he himself experimented with rural reconstruction at Santiniketan and Sriniketan, where he introduced training in pottery, basket-making, paper-making, leatherwork, woodwork, weaving and other crafts to achieve self-sufficiency), he most certainly could not understand exactly how only the Charka can deliver that, let alone deliver Swaraj. As for the concept of Charka as an instrument of thought-provoking reflective penance, Tagore had his own misgivings – “The charka does not require anyone to think; one simply turns the wheel of the antiquated invention endlessly, using the minimum of judgement and stamina.”

In retrospect, it is fascinating how Tagore’s apprehensions about the practicality of Charka proved to be true. In fact, 3 years after Tagore’s demise, Gandhi had confessed, “I first introduced Khadi and only later studied its implications and experimented with it. I find that I have been deceiving myself. What I gave to the people was money but not the real substance – self-reliance. I gave them money in the form of wages and assured them that it contained Swaraj. People took me at my word and believed me, and continue to believe me. But I have now my own misgivings as to how far such Khadi can lead to Swaraj. I am afraid that Khadi has no future if we continue it as today.”

While Gandhi recognized the inherent flaw in his Charka ideology, it is not altogether worthless to consider revival and implementation of his economic policy – that of building a ‘non-violent economy’. Resonating well with the Gandhian philosophy, 20th century economist E.F. Schumacher notes that the poor of the world cannot be helped by ‘mass production’, only by ‘production by the masses’. The technological system of mass production, based on sophisticated, highly capital-intensive, high energy-input dependent, and human labour-saving technology is inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources and stultifying for the human person. On the other hand, the system of production by the masses mobilises the priceless resources which are possessed by all human beings, their clever brains and skilful hands; the philosophy of the technology is to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines.

In today’s world of mass xenophobia, workaholism and widespread apathy towards modern life, the Gandhian economic ideal certainly calls for reconsideration. It is an irony that Gandhi’s economic views were not put to practice in his own country. The Nehru-Mahalanobis model of rapid large-scale industrialization and mechanization of production in independent India under the tutelage of Gandhi’s own political heir, Pandit Nehru spelt doom for the Gandhian economic ideals. The inevitable result has been “a lurid counterfeit of prosperity”.

Until the time we recognize the significance of the Gandhian scheme of economics – a scheme which was beyond any debate between the Poet and the Prophet, I think we can only take recourse to Keynes’ speculation (a nagging habit of any Economics student like myself!): “We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful…But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”

***

References

  1. Bhattacharjee, B. (1986). Rabindranath’s Ideals of Rural Reconstruction
  2. Bhattacharya, S. (2003). The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941
  3. Dantwala, ML. (1964). Economic Ideology of Jawaharlal Nehru
  4. Gandhi, MK. (1908). Hind Swaraj
  5. Gandhi, MK. (1944). Discussion in Khadi: Why and How
  6. Guha, R. (2006). How Much Should a Person Consume?
  7. Guha, R. (2011). Makers of Modern India
  8. Joshi, N. (1986). Tagore and Gandhiji on Village Reconstruction
  9. Karmakar, AK. (2012). Development Planning & Policies under Mahalanobis Strategy: A Tale of India’s Dilemma
  10. Keynes, JM (1930). Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren
  11. Nanda, BR (1989). Mahatma Gandhi
  12. Schumacher, EF. (1973). Small is Beautiful
  13. Sen, A. (2005). The Argumentative Indian
  14. Tagore, R. (1908). Swadeshi Samaj
  15. Tagore, R. (1925). The Cult of the Charkha
  16. Tagore, R. (1927). Samavayaniti
  17. Tagore, R. (1928). City and Village

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