Mahatma Gandhi never used the words environment protection. However what he said and did makes him an environmentalist. His writings are replete with remarks on the excesses of industrial society. Political psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy has written extensively on Gandhi. In a freewheeling chat with Kaushik Das Gupta he spoke on Gandhi's vision of social change, his critique of industrialisation and the way movements draw inspiration from Gandhi. Edited excerpts:
We often talk of two visions of development, the Gandhian vision and the Nehruvian vision. What is the fundamental difference between the two?
The Nehruvian concept is the dominant concept of development. Gandhi never used the word development. The word was first used by the US president Harry S Truman in 1949. Yes, people often talk of the Gandhian model of development. But if such a model is genuinely Gandhian then it is not about development. And if it’s about development, then bringing in Gandhi is an exercise in legitimising something alien to Gandhi's vision.
Social change is possible without development. Society did not stop changing before the idea of development was coined. President Truman was not such a great thinker that the concept he enunciated is indispensable to human societies.
Many activists who are against big developmental projects talk of following the Gandhian way. Your comments
Yes. They draw inspiration from Gandhi to resist aspects of development that does not tally with the Gandhian vision. In one way they are humanising Gandhi. All social change is not development. The fundamental aspects of development—for example unending industrialisation, unending urbanisation, unending consumption—are not justifiable according to the Gandhian way.
Gandhians have tried to take head on some major assumptions of development. When Medha Patkar protests against dams she is following the Gandhian way. Those who challenge key aspects of development are doing us a service. They are resisting the framework in which we are caught.
Many of the solutions to the current environmental problems are actually within the purview of industrialised society. But there are others who talk of a path other than that of industrialisation. Is Gandhi’s vision in sync with such alternatives?
Gandhian vision is now seen as an inspiration, as a source, for many enterprises that offer alternative to industrialisation. These movements began in the 1980s.
None of the greatest Gandhians of today belong to India. In fact, the greatest Gandhians of our times have not read Gandhi that carefully. They perhaps read his works after people started calling them Gandhians. Lech Walesa, the Polish shipyard trade unionist who later headed Poland's non-Communist government, read Gandhi after people started calling him Gandhian. So did Benito Aquino. Gandhism has become a part of the process that offers alternatives to industrialisation. There are as many varieties of Gandhians as Marxists or liberals. I think that’s a very healthy development. Gandhi is a contemporary hero who is accessible—he was not a religious leader, yet religion has a big part in his politics, he was an ascetic but open to practical ways.
A lot of the de-growth movement, which believes progress is possible without economic growth, takes inspiration from Gandhi. Your comments?
I won’t use the word ‘progress' because that is a contaminated word. The colonisers used the word progress. But yes, positive social change is possible without economic growth. And Gandhi has been an inspiration for such movements. However, we should also remember that most of the de-growth movement has taken place in societies which are over-consuming, exploiting nature and over-arming themselves—all these are hardly markers of good life.
I don’t think the hedonism associated with globalised capitalism is conducive to human happiness. Many communities have lived in poverty—but not destitution—and they haven’t been unhappy about it.
There are alternative visions but there is little by way of putting them into practice—except the endeavours of a few grassroots organisations. Your comments?
They have not been put into practice because our regimes are technocratic. Our solutions are technocratic. Technocrats go by the development textbooks. They do not keep elbow room for alternatives.
Yes, many with alternative vision keep away from the party-based political system. But they are part of the political process. The movement against dams is part of our political process. I feel that Arvind Kejriwal would have done well to have not become part of the party system. We need a group outside party politics to rate parties, rate individual candidates on yardsticks of honesty. We need an impartial agency to do that. For example, Uttar Pradesh has a system where bureaucrats vote on who the most corrupt bureaucrat is.