Threads of freedom

Just last week the Union minister for rural development, Jairam Ramesh, found himself at the centre of a controversy. Having been greeted with a garland of khadi yarn at a meeting, Mr Ramesh used it to wipe his footwear! If nothing else, this insult points to an immense gulf of cultural values between the hosts and the guest.

Earlier this year in May, Mr Ramesh delivered a convocation address at IIT Guwahati, recalling Jawaharlal Nehru’s scientific temper. In his lecture he alluded to the National Planning Committee (NPC) formed in 1938 and headed by Nehru that met with Gandhi’s disapproval. Mr Ramesh found Gandhi’s opposition to the NPC “inexplicable”. If Mr Ramesh’s misuse of a khadi garland indicates cultural ignorance, his bewilderment at Gandhi’s views on planning points to an incomprehension of modern Indian history that is equally troubling. In fact, Gandhi’s espousal of khadi and his critique of a planned economy were all of a piece. However, first, the back-story of that very Gandhian invention, the khadi garland.
In India, we use garlands of flowers in all manner of ways, such as to worship a deity, or to welcome an honoured guest. Adored by the masses, Gandhi was often greeted with such garlands. A very pragmatic man on a mission, Gandhi saw no value in “our weakness for offering flower garlands”, especially since the expensive garlands would soon be thrown away. Therefore, seeking yet another way to remind people of the meaning of khadi, Gandhi began insisting that he would only accept garlands made of hanks of hand-spun yarn which could later be put to good use. The implication was quite clear. If one wished to demonstrate respect for Gandhi, the way to do it was by honouring the values and causes he espoused.
As is well known, Gandhi championed khadi with enormous consistency and vigour for over three decades, till his assassination in 1947. While for many khadi is merely a type of fabric, for the Mahatma it was a means to a noble end: the rejuvenation of Indian society. The challenge was to provide effective employment to vast numbers of poor Indians who were either unemployed or underemployed, and lacked education or other skills. Khadi commended itself in all these respects. Not only was the charkha inexpensive, one could also quickly learn to ply it. Khadi allowed the spinner to use his/her time fruitfully and create a necessity of life, clothing.
If the poor were to spin as an economic activity, Gandhi demanded that the rich do so too, every day, as sutra yagna, i.e. the sacrificial act of spinning. Gandhi hoped that binding the lives of the rich and the poor together through spinning and wearing khadi would reduce the barriers of class and suit the democratic temper of the modern era. Gandhi also introduced a semiotic shift of great significance here. The yagna or sacrifice, often performed to propitiate the gods or ask for favours, is an idea going back all the way to the Vedic Age. Now Gandhi endowed this ritual act with a new secular meaning, that of making a sacrifice towards the larger welfare of society.
The immense energies that Gandhi and other constructive workers brought to the task of making khadi a part of Indian life had a transformative effect. In the face of many odds and obstacles, a simple fabric came to be intimately identified with India’s struggle for liberation from colonial rule. Jawaharlal Nehru had in a moment of rhetorical flourish called khadi the “livery of freedom”, and the phrase has stuck. In discussing this phrase, writers often ignore the fact that Nehru had also repeatedly stated his disdain for Gandhi’s ideas on khadi and village industries. Given the fundamental differences between Gandhi and Nehru on economic questions, it is important to examine Nehru’s imputation with some care.
Nehru’s felicitous description of khadi was in the context of the formation of provincial governments in 1937, in a speech essentially on political matters. The freedom that Nehru was alluding to was of a political nature. On the economic question, Nehru believed that the immense capacities of modern science and the powers of the state could be harnessed to rapidly solve the problem of poverty. This was the basis for the planned economy of Independent India.
In contrast, for Gandhi, freedom was of an entirely different order as he was primarily concerned with the autonomy of the individual to control his or her own destiny. Towards this end, Gandhi had consistently argued for a decentralised economy, since that was the only way to preserve the economic freedom of the individual. Given the investment levels and skills required to work in large-scale industries, the poor would be perpetually left out of the process of economic production, except as exploited labour. The dominance of the economy by large-scale industrialisation and the controls of the state would always be a threat to the true freedom of the individual. The Gandhian objection to the planned economy is that despite its noble intentions and honourable proponents it ends up stripping people of their agency and invests inordinate powers in the hands of the state and its professional experts. As Gandhi’s colleague, economic philosopher J.C. Kumarappa argued, “Centralisation of industries is inimical to the development of democracy in politics.” In the light of India’s experience with the planned economy, not only was Gandhi’s objection to the NPC quite understandable, it was also prescient.
The “socialistic pattern of society” is a thing of the past and today’s India is markedly different from that of the Nehruvian era. However, certain aspects of our national life persist. The challenge of tackling poverty and providing a life of dignity to large numbers of people remains. Curiously, as the recent scandals centring on spectrum allocation and land grabs show, the state continues to have a dominant role even under the current liberalised economic regime. In an era marked by the spirit of urbanisation and industrialisation, Mr Ramesh has an onerous task in fighting for rural development. While he celebrates the scientific temper of Nehru, Mr Ramesh needs to grasp the lessons offered by the man who best understood India’s villages, Mohandas Gandhi.

Venu Madhav Govindu, a Bangaluru-based academic, is currently working on a biography of economic
philosopher J.C. Kumarappa

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