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Enemy of modernity: Gandhi’s ‘Hind Swaraj’

Hind Swaraj (1909) is the only book that Gandhi wrote in Gujarati and translated himself. Even his autobiography, the work we know as The Story of My Experiments with Truth, was translated by somebody else — his secretary, Mahadev Desai. Hind Swaraj is written as a dialogue, with Gandhi himself asking questions as ‘Reader’ and replying as ‘Editor’. It is a Socratic or Platonic work in that sense. He does say that it is a faithful record of conversations he had with someone in South Africa, but it seems obvious that this declaration is merely a means of contextualising pre-existing questions and answers.

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Like Savarkar’s work Hindutva, Hind Swaraj is more a booklet than a book. It is a work of opinion, primarily, and is quite an eccentric work, if by eccentric we mean bizarre. Gandhi develops the idea of passive resistance quite well, and it is found fully formed here years before he returned to India in 1915. This is perhaps the book’s only saving grace.

Real education

For Gandhi, real education is not the sciences but the development of character: “Our ancient school system is enough.” Higher education is futile, for he says that he studied Geography, Astronomy, Algebra, Geometry, but could make no use of them. “I must emphatically say that the sciences I have enumerated above I have never been able to use for controlling my senses,” he says.

He gives another example of why education is useless: “A peasant earns his bread honestly. He has ordinary knowledge of the world. He knows fairly well how he should behave towards his parents, his wife, his children and his fellow-villagers. He understands and observes the rules of morality. But he cannot write his own name. What do you propose to do by giving him a knowledge of letters?”

He dislikes all aspects of modernity, which he finds immoral. “Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin,” he says. The railways are bad because they spread bubonic plague. Trains made pilgrimage accessible, thereby reducing the value of the penitent devotee (“Nowadays rogues visit them in order to practise their roguery”).

Gandhi dislikes lawyers and doctors and wants the professions abolished: “My firm opinion is that the lawyers have enslaved India, have accentuated Hindu-Mahomedan dissensions and have confirmed English authority.” Men suffered under the modern justice system because “they became more unmanly and cowardly when they resorted to the courts of law.”

All this leads to the well-known conclusion that machinery is evil: “It is machinery that has impoverished India.”

Hundred snakes

The following paragraph mixes his opinions, prejudices and distaste for anything that helped man out of his primitive state:

“Machinery is like a snake-hole which may contain from one to a hundred snakes. Where there is machinery there are large cities; and where there are large cities, there are tram-cars and railways; and there only does one see electric light. English villages do not boast of any of these things. Honest physicians will tell you that where means of artificial locomotion have increased, the health of the people has suffered. I remember that when in a European town there was a scarcity of money, the receipts of the tramway company, of the lawyers and of the doctors went down and people were less unhealthy. I cannot recall a single good point in connection with machinery.”

Hind Swaraj is brief but it is Gandhi’s primary work of philosophy. He kept returning to it. As his fame grew, people began to wonder at its absurd pronouncements. Gandhi felt the need to defend himself.

In 1933, he wrote in Harijan that his mind was evolving with time and his positions on some things he had spoken of in Hind Swaraj might have changed. “I would like to say to the diligent reader of my writings and to others who are interested in them that I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh.” Yet, in 1938 he wrote that in the 30 years since Hind Swaraj was written, “I have seen nothing to make me alter the views expounded in it.”

There is much to admire in this great man and yet, on reading this seminal work, there is also a lot to be wary of. Hind Swaraj remains a remarkable document.

Aakar Patel is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 10:36:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/enemy-of-modernity-gandhis-hind-swaraj/article34279413.ece

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