The Swaraj That I Want

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, otherwise known as Mahatma Gandhi, was different from other Indian nationalists because of his unique articulation of the idea of Indian independence.  Gandhi’s notion of independence is best articulated his 1909 treatise Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule.  In this work, formatted as a dialogue between the editor of a newspaper (Gandhi) and a reader (a Congress extremist[1]), Gandhi distinguishes between two concepts of swaraj.  The first is political swaraj, which simply means political emancipation from British rule.  This is the swaraj desired by the reader, and by extension, the extremists in the Indian National Congress.  This is not the swaraj Gandhi wants.  As the editor points out to the reader, wanting only political swaraj “means this: that 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 that I want.”[2]  The second concept is individual swaraj, or self-control.  This is the swaraj that Gandhi wants: says the editor, “It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves” (Gandhi, 73).  In other words, according to Gandhi, only when Indians learn self-control can they expect to rule themselves as a nation.

Gandhi calls for individual swaraj because he believes, contrary to other nationalists, that Indians are to blame for British rule in India.  “The English have not taken India,” asserts the editor, “we have given it to them.  They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them” (Gandhi, 39).  In Gandhi’s eyes, Indians gave India to the British because they were lured by modern Western civilization, or industrial modernity.  Now, the Indians keep the British in India because they have been corrupted that civilization. Gaining political swaraj without individual swaraj, then, would be useless because it would mean, as mentioned above, “English rule without the Englishman” (Gandhi, 28).  Therefore, Indians must obtain individual swaraj from western modernity before they can expect political swaraj.  As Gandhi writes in the Preface to the English edition, “if [his countrymen] would but revert to their own glorious civilization, either the English would adopt the latter and become Indianized or find their occupation in India gone” (Gandhi, 7).  With this, Gandhi set himself apart from all other nationalists.

Another reason that Gandhi was different from other Indian nationalists was that he advocated change in all aspects of Indian life.  Whereas most nationalists believed that winning Independence should supersede all other problems in Indian society, Gandhi believed—in line with his views about true swaraj—that social improvement should come along with winning Independence.  More than any other nationalist, “Gandhi laid special emphasis on issues cutting across India’s manifold class, caste and religious divisions.”[3] This is exemplified well in the Gandhi’s social reform program of the 1920s and the 1930s, known as the Constructive Program.  Some of the basic concerns of this program were the eradication of untouchability, the advancement of the rights of women, Hindu-Muslim unity, the promotion of khadi (hand spun and woven cloth)[4], basic education, and a campaign against liquor.  The program also looked to improve sanitation, nutrition, and hygiene in the villages.  Ultimately, the Constructive Program was designed to turn the attention of other Indian nationalists toward the village.

[1] In 1907, the Indian National Congress spilt into two camps, the moderates and the extremists.  The moderates were willing to work for swaraj within the framework of the British government.  The extremists, on the other hand, wanted to achieve swaraj by going beyond the constitutional framework (e.g. to take to the streets).

[2] M.K. Gandhi, “Hind Swaraj and other writings,” ed. Anthony J. Parel (New Delhi: Foundation Books, 1997), 28.

[3] Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2011), 117.

[4] Definition from Bose and Jalal, Modern South Asia, 212.


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