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Understanding Gandhi


Published: Sunday 31 October 1999

-- GANDHI's Vision and Valuesis meant to be a serious exploration into the contemporary meaning of Hind Swaraj and the kind ofpossibility it indicates for agricultural practices in rural India. Hind Swaraj herein refers to Gandhi's text and also to India's last 50 years as an independent country.

In recent times, the significance of Hind Swaraj for an understanding of Gandhi's thought has come to be widely recognised. Vivek Pinto's book isperhaps among the first few to attempt a serious and comprehensive examination of the significance of Hind Swaraj for agriculture and life in rural India. For that, it merits serious attention.

The principal concern, in the words of the author, is to see if it would be possible to reconstruct a "harmonious, poverty-free, non-violent and self-reliant society" on the basis of ethical principles marked by Gandhi's Hind Swaraj and his experiments with the agricultural communities. Pinto's argument unfolds at three related planes. The first section explores the cognitive significance of Hind Swaraj as a text. Another section seeks to clarify the significance of Gandhi's own attempts, as also of various individuals, to work out in practice the basic principles marked in Hind Swaraj. The third section is a "Gandhian critique" of the experiment with planned agricultural development in independent India.

If one were to present Pinto's work as a coherent argument, one could begin by saying that the thirdsection is really the starting point of the argument. It spells out in distressing detail the worsening condition of agriculture in India. Most of the people still depend on agriculture and nearly 40per cent of them live below the poverty line.

After Independence, India chose to adopt the path of planned development. It was seen as a more humane and speedier way of securing a decent living for themillions of poor in thecountry. But, 50 years later, agricultural productivity still remains low.

Most of these grim details about peasant life and agriculture are fairly well-known. What is relevant is to see how the author proceeds to establish a kind of link between Gandhi's text, his experiments and the present state of agriculture in the country.

Gandhi, while rejecting modern civilisation as a mode of life and work, invoked agriculture, charkha and the village as metaphors for sane human living. Pinto seeks out the implications of Hind Swaraj for agriculture as it could be practised in India. The citations from Gandhi's writings on swadeshi as an idea of service and sensitivity to the needs of proximate communities is appropriate. The varied range of writings and case studies make interesting reading. However, all that still does not yield a coherent argument, or even a set of propositions.

Pinto's work suffers from a recurrent confusion regarding the implications of the variety of arguments he seeks to harness. Take for instance the author's endorsement of the castigation of the prevalent price structure as an expression of dominant class interests. True, Hind Swaraj does not exclude class interests and the exploitation it engenders, but the essential point about agriculture it seeks to make belongs perhaps to a different order of insight and moral judgement.

To Gandhi, the practice of agriculture signified a promise of limitless reach. The act of breaking and tending the soil carriedwithin it an ageless quality. It signified a mode of work and being which, while sustaining life, could nurture an ultimate sense of meaning and worth. At this point, one could perhaps question the Hind Swaraj principles on two accounts:

- What is one to read into the fact that Gandhi, the creator of institutions, never sought to create one devoted specially to the practice and science of agriculture; and

- What about Gandhi's silence on the practice of shifting cultivation, which at several levels is so close to the fundamental principles of Hind Swaraj?

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