Interpreting Gandhi's Hind Swaraj
Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj is not rejection of the liberative contribution of modernity. Rather his effort can be interpreted as an attempt to integrate these positive elements with a liberating re-interpretation of tradition. With his critique from within the tradition, Gandhi becomes the great synthesizer of contraries within and across traditions.
GANDHI’s Hind Swaraj (HS) is surely a foundational text for any understanding of the man and his mission. In dialogue with the text in its context, with the author and among ourselves, we hope to locate the text within it’s own horizon of meaning and then interrogate it from within our own contemporary. For Gandhi’s text is "a proclamation of ideological independence" [Dalton 1993:61] he never compromised, his "confession of the faith" [Nanda 1974:66] he never abandoned, "a rather incendiary manifesto" [Erikson 1969:217] to enkindle his revolution. No wonder it was banned by the colonial government in 1910 for fear of sedition.
I Gandhi’s Critique of the Modern West
For Gandhi civilization was by definition a moral enterprise: "Civilisation is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty" (HS, Ch 13). Hence it is the very basic ethos of this modern west that Gandhi sets himself against. For he finds two unacceptable and unethical principles at its very core: ‘might is right’ and the ‘survival of the fittest’. The first legitimated the politics of power as expounded earlier by Machiaveli; the second idealised the economics of self-interest as proposed by Adam Smith. In the west "with rare exceptions, alternatives to western civilisation are always sought within its own basic thought system" [Saran 1980:681].
The three recurrent themes in Hind Swaraj which we will discuss here are: colonial imperialism, industrial capitalism, and rationalist materialism.
Colonial imperialism: Gandhi categorically insisted that "the English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength: but because we keep them" (HS, Ch 7). He was one of the earliest to realise that colonialism was something to be overcome in our own consciousness first [Nandy 1983:63]. Unless this ‘Intimate Enemy’ was exorcised and exiled, unless we addressed this ‘Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism’ (ibid), we would always be a people enslaved by one power or another, whether foreign or native. Certainly, Gandhi would not want to exchange an external colonialism for an internal one, a white sahib for a brown one, or compensate the loss of ‘Hindustan’ with ‘Englistan’ (HS, Ch 4).
British India colonialism was first justified by a supposedly Christianising mission, but very soon this was articulated in terms of a civilising one. In rejecting this modern civilisation, Gandhi is subverting the legitimacy of the colonial enterprise at its core. For there could be no colonialism without a civilising mission [Nandy 1983:11] since it could hardly be sustained in India by brute force.
Industrial capitalism: Gandhi sees capitalism as the dynamic behind colonial imperialism. Lenin too had said as much, and like Marx, Gandhi’s rejection of capitalism is based on a profound repugnance to a system where profit is allowed to degrade labour, where the machines are valued more than humans, where automation is preferred to humanism.
It was this that moved Gandhi to his somewhat hyperbolic claim: "Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilisation; it represents a great sin" (HS, Ch 19). However, by 1919 his views on machinery do begin to change right up to 1947, as he gradually comes to concede some positive aspects like time and labour saving, even as he warns against the negative ones of concentrating wealth and displacing workers [Parel 1997:164-70]. He was acutely sensitive to how machinery can dehumanise and technology alienate, and he extends his critique to the professions of medicine and law (HS, Chs 11,...
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