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Gandhism, Optimism and the gandhians



By Thomas Weber


Interestingly, when the current state of the Gandhian legacy is discussed, the examples tend not to come from India. And this appears to be not merely a cultural misappropriation - Indian Gandhians will often say to foreign inquirers that Gandhi has been forgotten in India, that he is being re-imported from the West. In these conversations names such as that of Attenborough and Schumacher loom large. But there are still a great many dedicated Gandhians carrying on the work of the Mahatma in Bharat and in any discussion about the position of Gandhi today it would be instructive to examine their perspective.

The Gandhians do not necessarily speak with one voice. The differences, over and above those of individual characteristics, often depend on the ideology of the individual, whether his or her world view has been coloured more by Vinoba Bhave or Jayaprakash Narayan, and whether they believe that the political situation in the country is deteriorating so rapidly that the "need of the hour" forces them to compromise on ideals (if not their fundamental principles) in the way that Gandhi often did.

During the mid 1970s, as a result of the Bihar agitation and JP's campaign of Total Revolution which followed, the Gandhian movement split over fundamental philosophical issues. The two leaders of the Gandhian movement, JP and Vinoba, eventually came to differ in their interpretation of the use of satyagraha, in the methods to be employed to bring about societal change, the speed at which useful change was possible to achieve, the degree to which Gandhians should be involved in power politics, and the importance of spiritual vs. humanist reasons for acting.

Until then the movement seemed united and appeared to be speaking with the one voice. JP's general deference to Vinoba's leadership finally ceased following JP's frustrating experience of grassroots work in 1970-1 in the villages of Musahari in Bihar. This had two marked consequences: first JP's realisation that the results of constructive peacebuilding work in the Vinoban tradition did not justify the effort. This in turn led JP back to his pre-Gandhian roots in political activism. Secondly, his emergence from Vinoba's shadow into a position of rival leadership. This led to open differences and to JP taking active control of movement. The result was a split among the Gandhians that has still not quite healed. The lifting of measures aimed at suppressing the Gandhian movement during Mrs.Gandhi's "emergency" could have heralded a new high point for Gandhian influence in India, however the Janata debacle merely helped to marginalise an already weakened movement.


The Gandhians
Vinoba explained that with the progress of science and the creation of nuclear weapons humanity faced ultimate destruction. In order to neutralise this force of violence and to arouse the world's conscience Gandhi's nonviolence had to take on "more subtle and finer forms." Satyagraha could no longer afford to "create agitation or tension in the minds of the opponent," it had to avoid a "collision of minds and seek harmony in thought." Until change was brought about through understanding and acceptance, rather than through imposition, "the seeds of violence, imperialism and world wars would not be rooted out."

Satyagraha had to progress as the political situation progressed (from imperialist domination to "democracy" in India) and as science progressed. Consequently, Vinoba declared that Jesus' concept of "resist not evil" and Gandhi's "nonviolent resistance" were no longer adequate and what now had to take their place was "nonviolent assistance" in right thinking. Without this all that could be achieved was legislative reform, and that could never lead to total revolution. Vinoba saw the use of political structures as a method of solving problems as doomed to failure: "When one problem appears to be nearing a solution, ten others crop up", and when a solution appears to have been achieved "soon it raises its head again." In his analysis of the Bihar movement, Shah maintains that Vinoba had long been anxious to discover a new technique because of the traps of the false assumption that once an opposing leader is removed all will be well, and the "impassioned tensions" of political movements that distract people from their original objectives. With Bhoodan, the land-gift movement, he had already provided the classical example.

The transformation to a sarvodaya social order was to be accomplished without directly challenging the legitimacy of the state, for, after all, in a democratic system, power had been entrusted to the state by the people. However, it could not be achieved through the ballot which Vinoba saw as either a farce that left real power in the hands of the few, or as a formula for disruption. Vinoba's aim was to create conditions which would "do away with the need to use even the power of the State." The achievement of this anarchist polity was to come about gradually - he was not anti-state; he hoped to bypass the structures on which the state rested and thus allow it to whither away.

Vinoba was fond of saying that politics disintegrates and spirituality unites. He made it clear that for him there could be no outward revolution without a corresponding internal one, without a change in mental attitude: "All revolutions which take place, whether they are social or economic, have their roots in spiritual ideas. At first there is a change in spiritual values and later on social, political and economic values undergo change."

Given his activist background, it is not surprising that at the time of this intellectual reassessment, JP's analysis of the political situation and his understanding of satyagraha would mature into something substantially different from Vinoba's, that unlike Vinoba he would embrace the position of Gandhi the politician over Gandhi the saint.

While still very much in the shadow of Vinoba, JP saw bhoodan, bringing about "changes of the heart", as the vehicle for the establishment of a sarvodaya social order. If this failed in the first instance, he looked to the experience of Gandhi to provide a path for further action. Subsequent steps were to include an attempt to educate the public to the evil that was being opposed, followed by the launching of movements to place moral pressure on the "wrong-doer" or "mistaken party" and finally by resorting to non-cooperation on the assumption that injustice was only possible with cooperation of the wronged party.

In the diary that he wrote while in prison during Mrs.Gandhi's Emergency, JP noted that although Vinoba seemed to hold that "systematic change in the political order could be brought about without a struggle, even a peaceful struggle," after twenty years of effort nowhere had success been achieved. He continued, pointing out that one of the reasons for this was a lack of atmosphere of struggle: "It seems to me that in such an atmosphere psychological forces are created that attract men and drive them to accept challenges and to change themselves and others." While conceding that during the Bhoodan movement through "Spiritual and moral appeals, the saintly influence of Vinobaji, did bring about some remarkable moral changes in some individuals," he concluded that these could "never become a social or psychological force" that would be effective in securing a more just society. While Vinoba strove for perfect nonviolence, JP spoke of social change through a mass movement of peaceful people's power.

JP's primary concern was the achievement of real democracy and a society devoid of inequalities where all lived in a state of freedom. His concerns, like Vinoba's, were centred on the problems of the human condition - freedom of the human personality, of the mind and of the spirit - but his quest was a political, not a spiritual one. He was searching for the form of social organisation which would provide the masses with the maximum freedom, and the most appropriate way of bringing it about.

JP shared Vinoba's view of a village society and the way that it should be organised. In an open letter to his Praja Socialist comrades, when he finally announced his resignation from the Party in 1957, JP made the point that although he had withdrawn from politics, sarvodaya also had its politics - a politics of a different kind. Unlike the politics of party and power, sarvodaya politics rested on lokniti (politics of the people) as opposed to rajniti (politics of the state). He added that sarvodaya politics could have "no party and no concern with power." Its aim was to abolish all centres of power and to achieve a withering away of the state. As this "new politics grew" JP saw a corresponding diminution of the "old politics."

In his analysis of the relationship of the Gandhian movement to politics at the Thirteenth All India Sarvodaya Conference at Unguturu in 1961, JP noted that, as Gandhians, they did not belong in political parties and should not "take part, directly or indirectly, in any political contest for position and power." He added, however, that this did not mean that they should be unconcerned with what happened in the political field with the working of democracy. He asked rhetorically whether, if democracy was in peril or if there was danger of political chaos or dictatorship, they should "sit back smugly and twiddle our thumbs on the ground that we have nothing to do with politics?"

JP was for a partyless democracy but he saw that there was no alternative to parties in the short term, not until a lengthy process of mass political education had managed to eradicate the distinctions of class and caste. Rather than merely allowing the state to wither away he saw danger for the future if anti-democratic tendencies in power politics were not tackled. During the Bihar Movement he reiterated the partyless ideal while organising a party to oppose Mrs.Gandhi. In his prison diary, in direct contrast to the position of Vinoba, JP wrote: "No one, at least no one who has no party affiliation and therefore no motivation to exploit every situation for partisan ends, and who is still anxious to start a peaceful revolutionary movement, i.e. a movement to bring about basic changes in society and in social attitudes, can ever, in the conditions of our country, avoid a confrontation with the kind of government we have."

His rejection of the Vinoba's "positive" satyagraha came from his realisation that it was inadequate to produce the psychological climate necessary to bring about the social revolution he desired. And to the charge that his change of direction was politicising the sarvodaya movement he answered that such politicisation "should give it immense strength and make it more relevant to contemporary society."

Both Vinoba and JP knew that the nonviolent revolution they desired would only be achieved through the efforts of the people themselves. The differences centred around the means that would be employed by the people to bring this revolution about. Ostergaard makes the point that whereas Western anarchism is "immediatist", Indian anarchism is "gradualist". JP was more anarchistic in the Western sense, reverting to active struggle and "negative" satyagraha. Unlike Vinoba, he was also anti-state, pitting people's power against that of the state. Vinoba, on the other hand, was a gradualist, far more concerned with the purity of the means than with any immediate ends that may be achieved. In this he was following the Gandhian dictum that the ends grew out of the means employed, and echoing Gandhi's statement that even if a Hitler's heart was not "melted" by the efforts of the pure satyagrahi it did not matter because intrinsic values were as important as any instrumental considerations.

The differing approaches of the two Gandhian leaders was dependent on their personal convictions, and perhaps even more, on the differences in personality between Vinoba and JP. Vinoba, stressing spiritual values, placed primary consideration on the conversion of the individual so that these individuals could bring about the hoped for changes in society. For him changes in the social structure would not come about without adequate moral development. JP on the other hand, unsurprisingly given his lengthy association with Marxism, saw it as more practical and perhaps more logical that people would change once the environment had been changed.

The perceived failure of Vinoba's approach to bringing about meaningful change led to the more confrontational position of JP. However, given the failure of tackling the government head-on as a way to usher in the nonviolent revolution (and in any case the lack of resources to do so), a further re-evaluation was to be expected. That efforts in India are again being concentrated on local peacebuilding as a way of bringing about change, which is a far longer-term project, seems to reflect a return to what may be termed Gandhian basics enabled by the stubborn optimism of the Gandhian fraternity. Perhaps this can be coupled with the simple fact that this approach embodies a more realistic interpretation of the current political circumstances prevailing in the country.

With the passing of the old guard of Gandhian politicians and the alienation of the weakened Gandhian movement from the central authorities, there is very little scope for the toleration of a highly organised group whose avowed aim is to make the state redundant - even if it were possible in some way to recreate the heyday of the Gandhian movement.

The Marginalisation of the Gandhian MovementIn his landmark work, Asian Drama published in 1968, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal provided an analysis of the social and economic factors affecting India's rate and level of development. There, Myrdal designated the country a "soft state", that is one where governmental decision making shies away from placing obligations on the populace, and if policies are framed in legislative terms at all, often they are not enforced.

The Indian State bureaucracy did not have the ability to reach into every village, and this, coupled with the Gandhian legacy, including that of resistance to governmental coercion and a philosophical commitment to the proposition "that democratic planning requires the people's participation and the course of creating the new institutions for self-government and cooperation" ensured that a large part would be played by sarvodaya workers in the country's path to development. Myrdal believed that "rapid development will be exceedingly difficult to engender without an increase in social discipline in all strata and even in the villages." And here he means state imposed discipline. In other words for effective "development" a "strong" or "hard" state was a necessity - the Gandhians, however, by very definition, were the champions of an even further "softening" of the state.

Much has happened since the words of Myrdal were written. During his inaugural presidential address at the half yearly conference of the Sarva Seva Sangh, held at Ernakulam towards the end of 1972, Siddharaj Dhadda stated that:

The aim of the Sarvodaya movement is to make the people conscious about the reality of the present situation, to diminish their reliance on government, to help them organise their strength and take the management of their affairs in their own hands. We want the establishment of a real participatory democracy in the place of the present representative one. Representative democracy may have been good in the past when science and technology had not advanced to the extent as to enable the representatives to obtain a stranglehold on the lives of the people through state machinery. The exercise of the power of the Government in the old context was confined to performing its legitimate function of a peace-keeping and coordinating agency...the people were masters of their own lives and destiny, without let or hindrance from outside forces. But the phenomenal advance of science has created a strange paradox. It has made possible and has actually led to an ever increasing concentration of power, political, economic, military, into the hands of an ever diminishing number of people - a smaller and smaller coterie.


In short, India was rapidly losing its status as a "soft state".

With the passing of Nehru and the estrangement between the Gandhian movement and his daughter following JP's call for "Total Revolution", the sarvodaya establishment lost government support for, and was even actively obstructed in, carrying out its voluntary social work activities. As the nation increasingly took on the trappings of a "hard state", particularly under the regime of Rajiv Gandhi, the Gandhian movement (along with other voluntary agencies) was further pushed to the periphery in terms of the inputs it could provide to the shaping of social organisation and development. This trend has been exacerbated by the ever declining appeal of Gandhian philosophy to the youth of the country with a rapidly swelling middle class desiring an increase in consumer goods, and the absence of a charismatic leader among Gandhians that could counter it.

Perhaps a strong Gandhian movement, as it worked in the 1960s and early 1970s, cannot be tolerated by a state where the political leadership no longer has a philosophical commitment to the values of the "Father of the Nation", where Gandhian ideas about societal organisation are often derided as being utopian and irrelevant as the country moves towards the Twenty-first Century, and where the organisation itself is the self-declared vanguard of a revolution aimed at a destruction of the Indian polity as it has evolved in the years since independence. Further, perhaps these type of organisations can only be tolerated where bureaucracy does not permeate all levels of society, where the state does not have the resources to provide its own rapid and adequate intervention in times of social turmoil. As states "harden", the operation of such groups becomes incompatible with a government that seeks to establish its position as legitimate and sole sovereign.

In 1964, leading Gandhian Narayan Desai was already lamenting that the Sangh's peace brigade, the Shanti Sena, faced two problems that prevented it from being as "effective as it should be." He named them as a lack of means of quick communication and an extreme lack of finances. The situation for the voluntary sector has deteriorated since. At a time when the ability of the state to move its own functionaries around the country has been aided by the increasing mobility of its armed forces, Gandhian institutions, ever further removed in history from Gandhi himself, are increasingly feeling the economic pinch. And, as the government moves inexorably into areas that were once the domain of Gandhian institutions, people are less willing to donate money to groups that are increasingly seen as costly and amateur parallel organisations.

Erica Linton, an observer of the sarvodaya movement at the height of its power, made a telling point in this regard. Touring Gandhian pilgrimage sites in Pune with a non-Gandhian chauffeur, at the samadhi of the Mahatma's late secretary Mahadev Desai in the Agha Khan's palace, she turned to her escort and remarked "`You know, I suppose, that Mahadev's son Narayan is the secretary of the Shanti Sena?' `Oh, you mean the American Peace Corps', explained the driver. What a sorry state of affairs", she commented "when foreign volunteers make a greater impact on the community than their own young men." It was this realisation that led to the setting up of a youth wing of the Shanti Sena following the Bihar famine of 1966-7. The attempts at Gandhian peace and constructive work, however, never reached the critical mass necessary to make the ignorance of Linton's driver anything other than the norm. And with the decline in, and marginalisation of, the Gandhian movement in the years since, there is little evidence that there is any scope for optimism on the part of the Gandhian establishment that there will be any change in this situation in the foreseeable future.


Dictionary definitions of optimism mention the inclination to take the most hopeful view of a given situations, the opinion that everything will turn out for the best, that good in the end will triumph over evil. This in turn implies that humans are basically good and therefore can control the evil in themselves and in society.

Gandhi often wrote of his optimism. He based his optimism on his belief in himself and on his personal expectations. He placed himself among the "tribe of Columbus and Stevenson, who hoped against hope in the face of heaviest odds," noting that the "days of miracles are not gone." And although he claimed to base his optimism "on solid facts," the more cynical observers of his life need only to point to the mass killings in his homeland at the end of his long life of preaching the gospel of nonviolence to claim that the optimism was misplaced. In the end Gandhi would perhaps have agreed with them, and given what has become the India of his dreams perhaps pessimism is a more realistic attitude to hold.

The opening sentence of a recent book on pessimism informs us that "It is now difficult to be optimistic." The book, Pessimism, was written just before the end of the Cold War. It gives as the reasons for pessimism a declining faith in progress, the (now at least temporarily diminished) threat of nuclear war, and our destructive treatment of the environment with the resulting problems with feeding the hungry and generating safe energy. Since the heyday of the Gandhian movement, India has experienced increased communal violence, consumerism and centralising tendencies about which the heirs of the Mahatma have been able to do little.

Bailey, the author of Pessimism, sees new social movements, especially in the fields of ecology, peace and feminism as being the new sources of progressiveness. However, progressiveness and newness, or even popularity and persistence, are not measures of effectiveness. They do not of themselves demonstrate "success in shifting the old politics in a more benign direction." In his assessment of nuclear disarmament campaigns and "green" parties, he concludes that given the continuing arms race and exploitation of the environment, "there is little sign of encouraging success." Bailey sees little possibility of success in situations where the movements cannot win in parliaments. And for social movements this is extremely unlikely - except in the case of the Gandhian movement, perhaps the archetypical social movement, which ushered in the Janata government in India. And that lead to perhaps its last great failure.

Those descendants of the "irrepressible optimist" who threw their lot in with direct political action as the vehicle of change exhibit a noticeable level of pessimism. They saw a long-term view and strategy as inadequate in a rapidly deteriorating world - the "need of the hour" compelled immediate action. However, this approach also meant short-term defeats. Without a charismatic leader they are unable to capture the imagination of the populace, their message is considered irrelevant in the light of a growing consumerist ethic, people's candidates fail in elections that are dominated by personalities rather than issues; and as the state takes on an increasing number of the functions that were previously the domain of the voluntary sector, and the Gandhians are categorised (or were during the Indira Gandhi government when they were still a force to be reckoned with) as a de facto opposition party, the sarvodaya movement has become increasingly marginalised. While they cling to their long-term vision the lack of direct short-term victories dampens their feeling of optimism.

The followers of Vinoba have a different history. To generalise, their optimism appears to be based faith rather than experience and they tend to believe in the intrinsic good, regardless of the apparent instrumental applications, of their philosophy in action.


The walls of almost every Gandhian home or institution are adorned with pictures of Gandhi (who tried political and spiritual, long and short term approaches in his optimists quest to bring about change), and the pictures of both JP and Vinoba (who, perhaps not unrealistically, tended to be polarised in their approaches). It is possible to see Vinoba's gradualist approach as being ultimately correct in a deep Gandhian sense - while still maintaining a desire for tangible results. The path of ignoring the government, of working outside its structures and letting it wither away ("worldly" success), can only be achieved if enough people follow it through, not merely the odd saint. The result-oriented confrontational approach has a far better chance of mobilising the masses and seems to have a better chance of at least limited success, and also a greater chance of ultimate failure. Its success cannot make government wither away or achieve the "other worldly" ideals inherent in "pure" satyagraha, it can only replace the political structure with a less oppressive one.

Confronting the power structure head-on, however, means that the government cannot ignore its antagonist and ensures that all the forces at its disposal will be directed at crushing any direct opposition. Some opted for the political approach of JP hoping that it could succeed, while maintaining the nagging feeling that in the long run it could not provide the ushering in of the Gandhian ideal. Since the failure of the Total Revolution the conundrum involved in the "this-worldly" vs. the "other-worldly" manifestations of satyagraha is still being worked through.

Despite the objective reality of their present weakened position in Indian society, the Gandhians are nevertheless generally optimistic about the value of Gandhism as a force to be reckoned with, one which can bring about change for the good. And the most optimistic are the Vinoba supporters, who have not suffered the same tangible defeats as their colleagues who entered the political fray. They see that their message, if not necessarily their movement of old, is one for the ages. They realise that the process will be slow, that there will be setbacks, but are convinced that it will eventually win through, that with a continuation of grassroots work success is assured. By organic means, Gandhi's message will triumph. They firmly believe that all signs point to this outcome - the increasing number of social movements around the world now employing Gandhian methods and the approach of environmental collapse is forcing a re-evaluation of the hegemony of Western lifestyle and consumption patterns in a way that indicates a shift towards a Gandhian outlook. Although others may see them as anachronistic, and it is reasonable to be pessimistic about the future of the old Gandhians ever again being in the vanguard of a dynamic and influential social movement, they believe that the march of history is now coming the full circle and that they are merely ahead of the times. For life on the planet to continue a simple life is necessary, and in order to survive the rest of the world will catch up eventually. It is not a belief in the possibility of miracles, but one that says that humankind is wise enough not to destroy itself or its environment. This self-assured belief in being on the right path leaves no room for pessimism.

Published in Anthony Copley and George Paxton (eds.) Gandhi and the Contemporary World: Essays to mark the 125 Anniversary of His Birth (1997, Indo-British Historical Society: Chennai, India), pp.19-31.

© Copyright is with the Indo-British Historical Society.

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