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Swaraj or Freedom
4 mars 2002, 09:41  |   GANDHI-RELATERAT  

For Gandhi, political independence was not an end in itself. Swaraj was above all about individual autonomy, involving self-respect, self-discipline and maturity. Such individuals would resolve differences themselves without resort to external coercion, such as the judicial system. So Gandhi appealed for individual Indians to free themselves mentally and through character development; if this transformation occurred then political freedom would come automatically.

There is another idea that is linked in Gandhi’s thought to swaraj and that is swadeshi, which has a range of meaning such as self-sufficiency, self-reliance and even patriotism. Specific expressions of swadeshi during the freedom struggle included developing homespun and woven cloth (khadi), which was combined with a boycott of foreign cloth. The idea is that one’s attention should first be given to one’s own situation, culture and enviroment. In this way one is rooted, but although living be the values of one’s own tradition one must be alert to the limitations and even corruptions of this tradition. Moreover one should be ready to learn from traditions other than one’s own. Gandhi was in fact particularly good at borrowing from cultures other than his own, such as Christianity, European liberalism and Jainism, and incorporated them into his predominantly Hindu culture. Reforms of the Hindu tradition he emphasied included greater autonomy for women and the abolition of untouchability.

India’s Swaraj

The swaraj which was achieved at independence in 1947 was not true swaraj, and in a number of respects. The greatest disaster was that the cultural unit of the sub-continent was split asunder. People who had been neighbours and friends became enemies. How often this has been repeated around the world since then! Gandhi’s free India was to be a tolerant and pluralistic one, externally working for the good of all countries. Its partition, and along religious lines, was a disaster then, and the consequenses of which Pakistan and India live with even today. Gandhi’s reaction at the time was to refuse to attend the indepence celebrations. One of the new states, India, did emerge as a basically democratic, pluralistic society but with little economic autonomy for the majority of its population, too many self-seeking politicians, and a high expenditure on armaments.

True Swaraj?

What would a society based on true swaraj look like? Gandhi gave some idea for a rural society like India. It would be characterised by a relatively weak central government but a strong base of nearly self-sufficient, self-governing villages containing independent, well-educated individuals. All adults would elect a small body (panchayat) to deal with disputes and crime, and also relevant political and economic matters. Villages would be grouped into districts, districts into provinces, provinces into states, each administered by representatives elected from its constituent units and not directly by the whole electorate. Higher education, certain industries and services which are desirable but are unable to be provided at village level would be provided by the larger units.

Today most societies are urban, and increasingly so around the world. In the foreseeable future it seems unlikely that there will be a return to the village as the centre of life for most people. However, the administration of towns and cities could be devolved to smaller units having real local power. The increasing size of private companies whose power extends around the globe and whose purpose is primarily to perpetuate their own existence is one that Gandhi surely would have been highly critical of. Bringing these large corporations under more democratic control, and at the same time encouraging smaller, local units whenever possible would be a way forward. The enviromental impact of economic activity has become much greater in the 50 years since Gandhi’s death but a low impact lifestyle is implicit in Gandhi’s approach and this can readily be transferred to the present.

Gandhi’s starting point was the individual. “The first step to swaraj lies in the individual. The great truth: ‘As with the individual so with the universe’, is applicable here as elsewhere”, he stated in 194. What applies to the individual can be extended to groups of increasing size up to the whole world community. Freedom – swaraj – for the individual can through nonviolence to freedom for all humanity.

The Author is editor

the Gandhi Way, quarterly magazine by

The Gandhi Foundationin Britain.