Much has been said about Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj over the last century. It has been seen as Gandhi’s answer to the revolutionaries, with whose methods he differed. Where does it stand for in the context of a time when colonial hegemony was the order of the day? What sentiments would it have evoked in minds of readers? We do not know for sure, but a textual analysis of the work can be a step towards analysing the message it contained. The text is like none other. It counters – even if through the employment of much polemic – the fundamental claims of colonial modernity in India.
The British came to India and colonised it at a time when western Europe was witness to an array of processes that would usher in a modern world. The Church had been questioned, the scientific revolution had burst forth, and the 18th century Enlightenment had also impacted the way people thought of themselves.
Reason had replaced tradition as an a priori path to knowledge. And perhaps replaced the idea of God, to a limited extent. Yet, this coming of age of autonomous human agency was in practice accompanied by colonial expansionism.
The normative promises of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution were seamlessly transformed into colonial exploitation and even racism in practice.
As Gauri Vishwanathan has put it, the ideal Englishman was very different from the actual Englishman, in the world of the colonised. Yet, the ideal Englishman was the cultural/intellectual shield for the exploitative, real coloniser. Such was the claim to hegemony of the British and competing colonial powers in Asia and Africa that the civilising mission was one of the defining ideologies of the 19th century.
True, in India, the Indian middle class developed critiques by the end of the 19th century. The name of Dadabhai Naoroji immediately comes to mind. So does his meticulous research to construct an economic critique of what he called un-British rule in India.
But it was in 1908 that Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj mounted the most hurting assault on colonialism. It went beyond economic and political freedoms to invert the civilising mission. Here was a “native” telling British that they were an enterprising people but modern civilisation – something the colonial state always evoked – was their problem.
Antonio Gramsci’s writings bring forth the distinction between the pre-modern, totalitarian state and the modern, hegemonic state. The British saw themselves as a “modern” and modernising state in India. Gandhi in 1908 mounted, in Gramscian terms, a counter-hegemony, a war of position, in the form of the Hind Swaraj . It attacked colonising Europe not on their not being European enough in a modern, hegemonic, sense, but in being fatally modern-European.
The text got down to the task of ripping apart each claim of British colonialism. If the rule of law was a claim made by the colonial state, Gandhi, a trained lawyer, attacked lawyers in Hind Swaraj. He said that while any civilised people would dissuade two persons in conflict, the lawyer tries to exacerbate conflict for an earning.
If modern, allopathic, medicine indeed was responsible for pushing up life expectancy at birth in the world, Gandhi said it offered temporary relief and ended up spoiling people’s habits.
The Railways – the instrument through which England’s industrial revolution found a vast market in India, thus funding the Industrial Revolution there while also offering a means of modern transport – were similarly taken apart by Gandhi. He said that while pious men could reach places of pilgrimage prior to Railways, rogues could also reach such places now, thanks to trains. He also called them carriers of disease.
Yet, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, for all its rejections of modern civilisation, does take into account the Indian nation, a modern formation in an academic sense. But this does not deter Gandhi’s war of position.
He imagined the nation in profoundly anti-modern ways in the Hind Swaraj . He dismissed mechanised production; centralised, modern states with powerful armies; modern medicine; the idea of rule of law, and also parliamentary democracy. The point here is not whether he retained these ideas till the end. The point is the breath of life these ideas may have brought to a struggling people further hurt by the colonial claim that they were an inferior civilisation.
Textually, Hind Swaraj is an engagement with what freedom means. It disagrees fundamentally with those for whom the freedom of India meant the transfer of political control from British to Indian hands but retention of all British institutions, from the Parliament to a modern, standing army. As Gandhi puts it, “We want English rule without the Englishman. You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India English. And when it becomes English, it will be called not Hindustan but Englistan. This is not the Swaraj (freedom or self-rule) that I want.”
He adds, “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.”
There were many anti-colonial nationalists in India, fighting political and economic subjugation. But colonialism was not just about coercion but also consent. It was an attempted hegemony to perpetuate subjugation. Gandhi reversed the latter like none other did, thus becoming India’s prime leader against colonisation and exploitation.
The hegemonic aspect of the colonial state was reflected in the civilizing mission: the claim that the British were in India not to rule it but to uplift it. The English education system, the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy and the Railways were shown as benefits of British rule in India. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj represents a powerful counter-hegemonic pitch. For, he rejected the claim of a paradoxical colonial modernity, arguing that not just British rule but modern civilisation was the problem.
We may not agree with him fully. Modernity has been a liberator for many. But Gandhi recognised that colonialism sought to present itself as modernity, and attacked the latter to deny the former the sway it held on Indian minds. Textually speaking, the Hind Swaraj was a transformative text challenging colonial claims the way they hadn’t been challenged before. Perhaps nationalism was the only aspect of modernity that Gandhi unhesitatingly accepted. But here too, he rejected a centralised nation-state and argued in favour of decentralisation with local self-government and “village-republics”, in sync with his counter-hegemonic charge.
He argues, “We have managed with the same kind of plough as existed thousands of years ago. We have retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remains the same as before. We had no system of life-corroding competition. Each followed his own occupation or trade and charged a regulation wage. It was not that we did not know how to invent machinery, but our forefathers knew that, if we set our hearts after such things, we would…lose our moral fibre. They further reasoned that large cities were a useless encumbrance and that people would not be happy in them. They were, therefore, satisfied with small villages.”
The point isn’t just what made Gandhi write Hind Swaraj . Or whether he changed his beliefs over time. What matters is that colonialism couched in civilising claims – and they would have been patronising, even if genuine – found its firmest intellectual and cultural resistance in the Hind Swaraj as early as 1908. It made the colonial and anti-colonial projects a fight for the mind. A fight Gandhi was to win hands down.