Ahimsa as a Political Practice in Post-Gandhi India
Gandhi’s anarchist vision
Gandhi’s successors Vinoba Bhave, Jayaprakash Narayan, and Narayan Desai continuously followed and further developed with great commitment Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi‘s vision of the social transformation of Indian society through nonviolence. Subsequently, the second generation of Gandhians was active until the 1980s. Above all, Gandhi’s attempt to strengthen rural India, his decentralist, anarchist vision, was that of a society with autonomous villages.
“The councils elected by men and women of the village should have decided all issues affecting their village life. The society as a whole then was to be structured from the bottom up at district, regional, national […] level, with no particular emphasis on the national level.”1
Congress movement to Congress Party
Therefore, the transformation of the Congress movement into a centrally ruling political party was not in Gandhi’s interest. Accordingly, Gandhi’s ‘anarchist‘ visions became a stumbling block for more and more politicians. Positions in the great government apparatus that became vacant within the scope of the decolonization process were more luring for the members of Congress than Gandhian construction work in the villages.
In ‘The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi‘, Makarand R. Paranjape assumes that there was a conspiracy behind Gandhi’s assassination. Above all, he claimed, that not only right-wing Hindu fundamentalists were behind Gandhi’s assassination.
“Clearly Gandhi was not killed by a single Individual. The individual was perhaps just an agent of history, but behind his murderous act, were larger historical, political and ideological forces.”2
Gandhi’s last will
In his last will, written the night before his assassination, Gandhi demanded nothing less than the dissolution of Congress as a political organization.
“Though split in two, India having attained political independence through means devised by the Indian Congress, the Congress in its present shape and form, i.e, as a propaganda vehicle and parliamentary machine, has outlived its use.”3
The members of the former Congress movement should have carried out decentralized reconstruction work in the villages. Instead, they had formed a centralized government in Delhi.
“When national life becomes so perfect that it regulates itself, representation is no longer necessary. There is then a state of enlightened anarchy. In this state each individual governs himself. […] But the ideal is never quite reached in life. That is why Thoreau’s classic statement that ‘the best government is the one that governs the least’ applies.“4
This ‘imposition’, shortly after the congress movement had finally reached its goal, angered many congress members. After Congress had gained power, they took Gandhi’s uncomfortable idealism less and less seriously.
“The Congress government and at least some of the members of the Cabinet were fed up with the interventions of the meddlesome old man, a martyred Mahatma would be easier to live with. The way the investigation was carried out and the lackadaisical approach of the police in trying to protect Gandhi’s life, leads one to believe that the investigation was meant to hide more than it was meant to reveal.”5
Service to all
After the Congress movement had taken over the British bureaucratic apparatus, constructive work in the villages lost some of its urgency. Nevertheless, some supporters held fast to Gandhi’s vision of decentralized reconstruction even after his assassination in 1948. Vinoba Bhave, one of Gandhi’s friends, founded the Sarvodaya movement. Its aim was to turn the vision of strengthening Indian villages into reality.
Vinoba Bhave started his nonviolent land redistribution campaign with the Yama Aparigraha. “The root of oppression, he reasoned, is greed. If people could be led to overcome their possessiveness, a climate would be created, in which social division and exploitation could be eliminated.”6
Vinoba Bhave made it his mission to compensate for the often very unjust division of land within the village communities. He appealed to landowners to donate part of their land to the village community for shared use by landless people.
“In postcolonial India, the unresolved land issue was initially the cause of peasant uprisings. This quickly led to the formation of Maoist guerrilla groups […]. Charu Mazumdar propagated the strategy of ‘annihilation’ and the murder of landowners and spread the strategy of ‘retaliation’ in response to acts of repression by the police. Repression by the ruling class was extremely strong and since then, the police practices both, torture and [covered up] executions against social movements in India.“7
In order not to leave the field of land redistribution to the violent policy of the Maoist guerrilla groups and communists, Vinoba Bhave collected about nine million square kilometers of land. Although, often the land was fallow land or for other reasons poorly cultivated. However, Vinoba Bhave’s efforts to obtain ‘Bhoodan‘ (voluntary land donations) ultimately failed not only because of the lack of generosity. Rather it was the scale of his task: India has over five hundred thousand villages.
Nevertheless, in Uttar Pradesh, one village finally donated the entire usable area. This is how the first ‘Gramdan‘ (‘village gift‘) came into being. Vinoba Bhave and his companions reorganized this jointly administered commune according to Gandhi’s principles. In addition to a nonviolent social structure, the autonomy of the village was important in this reorganization. On the one hand, the Gramdan villages should be self-sufficient. On the other hand, it should offer protection to the casteless from repression by the police and members of higher castes. By 1964 there were already seven thousand Gramdan villages.
Nonviolent resistance against Indira Gandhi
Subsequently, Jaya Prakash Narayan chose a different path. Between 1973 and 1975 he organized nonviolent resistance, mass demonstrations, and general strikes against the Congress government under Indira Gandhi. As Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi had twice tried to undermine democracy. J. P. Narayan succeeded in making the protesters adhere strictly to Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence.
“In 1974, mass blockades of the state parliaments in the states of Gujarat and Bihar finally took place, lasting five weeks and directed against the corruption of politicians from all parties. The emergency government of Indira Gandhi was imposed against this movement from 1975-1977. When it could not be stabilized, [Jaya Prakash] Narayan managed to form an all-party coalition, which helped to get Indira Gandhi voted out of office. As a result, the prisons opened for a mass amnesty of political prisoners, and [in Bihar] the nonviolent land occupation movement of Bodh Gaya began.“8
Meanwhile, the Gandhian Narayan Desai led the peace army (‘Shanti Sena‘) which also operated according to Gandhi’s principles. Above all, the Gandhians had established the peace army to mediate riots between Hindus and Muslims and to dispel fear-inspiring rumors. The Peace Army was Gandhi’s answer to the unrest and riots in the course of the division of India. Ultimately, Shanti Sena was Gandhi’s last initiative before his death. Accordingly, most of the Shanti Sainiks (fighters for peace) were Gandhians, who did reconstruction work in the villages.
During riots, they came to the scene of the incident, where they tried to mediate between the religious communities. Moreover, Shanti Sena‘ also inspired a series of international actions, for example in Guatemala and South Africa. Subsequently, in 1961, fifty-five activists from thirteen countries formed the ‘World Peace Brigade‘. In 1962, after the brief Sino-Indian border war, these activists organized the peace march from Delhi to the Chinese border.
Nonviolent aid does not keep those, who need help, in permanent dependency. Rather, they should free themselves from a previously hopeless situation. Above all, this was one of the most important principles of all Gandhian constructive work.
A major obstacle in the fight against poverty in remote villages was moneylenders, who demand inscrutably high-interest rates. They took and still take advantage of the fact that their victims have no school education or simply have no other possibility to obtain the necessary funds for their undertakings. Extremely high-interest rates bring poor villagers so deeply into debt, that they become working slaves to the moneylenders.
The Agrindus Institute in Uttar Pradesh restructured villages according to Gandhi’s principles into so-called Gramdan villages. Consequently, they met the problem of the moneylenders with a multi-layered strategy. The largest population group settled there belonged to the Adivasi (a term for the indigenous population of India). Indian society excludes Adivasis, like Dalits, despite the SC/ST laws. They often lose their livelihoods through large-scale projects – either huge dams, the extraction of raw materials, or even nature- and leisure parks.
The modernization and deforestation of ever-larger forest areas in India have driven the Adivasis into poverty and hunger or into the slums of the megacities. Due to their precarious socio-economic situation as well as the lack of access to education, they easily become victims of moneylenders and corrupt officials.
To improve the situation of the Adivasi, Prem Bhai and the Agrindus Institute founded the first model farm according to Gandhi’s principles. The first step was to focus on agricultural development. The villagers should be able to feed themselves and learn the principles of farming from scratch.
Furthermore, they established a community fund, to free the village from the money lenders. Within the framework of a three-year program, the poorest families were first given a loan from the village fund. This enabled them to pay other villagers who were working on their development project and thus created new jobs in the village. Within a year, the families could repay the loan from the Agrindus institute. Subsequently, another family could use this amount to build their undertakings.
Oriented toward practical needs
In this way, the money always remained in circulation and the villagers could use it for their development. The harvest was, thus, more than doubled. Subsequently, Agrindus helped to develop handicraft businesses, to put the village economy on a broader basis. In order to disempower the money lenders, only money loans that had been recorded, were repaid. Hence, the villagers repaid their loans in full, so that no interest could be charged.
Furthermore, Agrindus implemented a school education oriented towards practical needs in all villages, redesigned according to Gandhi’s principles. Above all, the Agrindus strategy was based on a cooperative principle, which strengthened the cohesion and self-confidence of the villagers. They should be able to gradually emancipate themselves from their helpers.
The ‘Agrindus Institute‘ is still active in educating farmers to find more sustainable and creative solutions for agriculture. Recently, they are helping children of farmers who have committed suicide because they had slithered into a new version of the debt trap.
Last way out – drinking pesticides?
In India still, 48,9 percent of the population depends directly upon agriculture. The situation of the peasants in India recently became so severe, that alone in 2014 as many as 5642 farmers committed suicide. They hang themselves or even drink the very pesticides which were a part of their ruin. Pharma- and GMO Multis like Monsanto, who promise high crops, sell their genetically manipulated seeds of cotton. Moreover, they are almost controlling and monopolizing the seed market.
Cotton grown from GMO seeds is less resistant than not genetically manipulated cotton. Therefore it needs more fertilizers and pesticides. Additionally, in 2020 the BJP government has made it – with their farmer bills – even easier for huge companies to make pressure on the farmers. Often these companies pay less for the harvest than the farmers had to spend for the seeds, fertilizer, agriculture equipment, and workers. In this way, farmers are slowly but surely sliding into the debt trap.
Genetically manipulated cotton needs even more water than normal cotton, which is already quite a water-intensive plant. In Maharashtra, where the farmers traditionally grew most cotton throughout India, a water crisis occurred. Finally, even the Monsoon did not bring fresh water.
Besides the initiative of the Agrindus Institute to help the farmers to find new alternatives to cotton plantations, there are also approaches to tackling the problem of drought. Among them, the initiative of Rajender Singh with his organization Tarun Bharat Sangh is one of the most promising.
The ‘Gramdan‘ model focuses exclusively on villages. The Gandhians rather neglected strategies for the much more complex situation in large cities.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus has been pursuing a new approach to the fight against enslavement by moneylenders. While the Gramdan approach was only appropriate for villages, the micro-credit approach is also suitable for big cities. In 1967 Yunus started his ‘Grameen Bank‘, a bank for the poorest sections of the population in Bangladesh. The confrontation with a major famine in Bangladesh had torn Muhammad Yunus from the ivory tower of economic science.
When he saw people collapsing from hunger outside the gates of the University, he wanted to find out, if he could use his knowledge to help the poorest. For this reason, he studied the economic problems and the origins of poverty in a village in Bangladesh. Thereby he found that the biggest problem of the poorest population groups is getting capital for their ventures. Since the banks do not consider them creditworthy, they end up in the clutches of the moneylenders. This was the impetus for the ‘Grameen Bank’ and the idea of microcredit.
“Poverty can be looked at as a situation, where you leave human beings in total waste, in the sense, that they are not being useful to society or themselves. Poverty can be looked at as a blockage of the energy that all these people have to contribute to society. This [view] is related to [my] belief, that all human beings have unlimited potential, unlimited capacity, and unlimited creative energy. […] Poverty is not created by poor people; it is something that is imposed on the person.”9
In other words, for Muhammad Yunus social business is the way to open up the hitherto ‘unused‘, ‘infinite potential‘ of the poor strata of the population. Therefore, Yunus started several Social enterprises to tackle problems like undersupply of nutrients, poisoned drinking water, the supply of solar energy and communication infrastructure, and much more. However, Yunus’ approach is not as community-based as the Gramdan approach. It is rather oriented towards groups of individuals.
Micro-credit approach under critique
The anthropologist Aminur Rahman showed in his study ‘Women and Microcredit in Rural Bangladesh: An Anthropological Study of Bank Lending‘, how this strategy has not promoted the cohesion of the village community he studied, but rather destroyed it.
Likewise, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak criticizes the microcredit approach:
“As long as we remain only focused on the visible violence of world trade, endorse the credit-baiting of the poorest rural women of Southern hemisphere in the name of micro-enterprise without any infrastructural involvement, the subaltern remains in subalternity. And we legitimate the world trade coding of the finance capital market by reversal. […] The impossible solution is the infinite unguaranteed patience to learn from below how to teach the subaltern. Otherwise, corporate philanthropy and/or international protectionism see millions as only bodies or human capital.”10
Self-employed women’s association
SEWA is an initiative that grew out of the women’s section of the Textile Workers’ Association. It now has one million members. According to Gandhian Usha Thakkar, the SEWA Bank was a milestone in the West Indian women’s movement. It is still extremely successful today. Above all, Ela Bhatt realized early on that the classical concept of the union cannot capture the very people who are most exploited. Therefore, SEWA focuses on self-employed women with very little or no income.
Poverty: structural violence
“To my mind, Gandhiji’s message of nonviolence was a message against poverty. Because poverty is nothing but a form of violence perpetrated with the consent of society. […] Development is not a project. It is not about building systems and institutions. It is not even about economics. In the end, it is about restoring the balance between the individual, the community, and the environment. When this balance breaks down, we see poverty and exploitation at any stage – of the individual, of the community, and the environment.”11
The Gandhian practice of empowering women has its roots in the struggle for independence.
Consequently, it became SEWA’s aim, to provide women, who are living in very precarious conditions with a regular income and social benefits. However, Ela Bhatt’s approach differs from both ‘Gramdan‘ initiative and the microcredit concept. The SEWA approach is not building on an existing social village structure. Rather it encouraged the formation of new social groups of women in precarious situations, who can help each other. Moreover, the SEWA self-help groups aim to give women self-confidence and the necessary practical knowledge. Thus, they are less likely exposed to exploitation by middlemen and money lenders.
“Discrimination against women in cities is very different from discrimination in the countryside. […] There have therefore always been different women’s groups, and one current has been groups for self-administered businesses or self-administered work for women. The women [in the villages] did not ask for any services, they got what they needed themselves.“12
Most importantly, SEWA is based on the principle of local networking – ‘Hundred Miles Communities‘ – and mutual support. This self-help starts directly with the basic needs of the women. Subsequently, step by step, it then covers more and more areas of women’s life. For example, SEWA groups organize themselves to sell their agricultural products directly to consumers. As a result, they can get a better price for their products and do not have to sell them at dumping prices to middlemen. In this way, both the farmers and the consumers benefit from these associations.
Emancipation through education
In addition, SEWA organizes training courses for illiterate women. This education directly contributes to improving the women’s situation and helps them to financially stand on their own feet. Thus, for instance, women in dry areas of Gujarat can improve the hygiene of their households enormously by learning how to repair water pumps and build water basins to collect rainwater. At the same time, this practical knowledge makes them sought-after craftswomen. Similarly, SEWA trained women who had worked as obstetricians to become competent health advisors.
A classical trade-union fights for the labor rights of workers. The SEWA groups, on the other hand, help to build supportive, creative, and liveable alternatives to exploitative working conditions in factories or as landless agricultural workers. Therefore, SEWA’s approach is multifaceted and covers all the needs of the involved women. Due to the exchange of experiences in groups and between the groups, every problem one of the self-help groups can solve enriches the experience of all women who are engaged in the SEWA network.
Often people with great manual skills and expertise have to work as unskilled laborers for the industry because their knowledge is no longer in demand. Therefore, SEWA is promoting traditional handicraft techniques that are slowly threatened by extinction through industrialization.
Subsequently, the daughters of the women who have started to organize themselves under the umbrella of SEWA can often go to college or even study. Many of these young women wish to involve in SEWA groups as their mothers did. Consequently, they actively participate in sociological studies, create teaching material for new members, or become trainers.
“It is my belief that if the six basic needs of daily life – food, clothing, housing, health, education, and banking – can largely be met locally, within a hundred miles radius, people will find diverse, innovative solutions to the problems of poverty, exploitation and environmental degradation. The reduced distance between the consumer and producer, and the producer and the raw materials will empower the people to begin the process of restoring economic and political balance in the world.”13
Women in the liberation struggle
Hence, when women in poor, rural areas contribute to the economic prosperity of the family or even the entire village community, this not only strengthens their own position. Furthermore, it can become a guarantee for sustainable stabilization of their social environment in times of unrest.
In Bodh Gaya, Central Bihar, the Gandhian ‘Chhatra Yuva Sangathan Sabha’ (Association of Student Youth Battle Groups) had begun a nonviolent land reform in 1978. In 1980, farmers occupied the land and started collective farming and collective harvesting. Before that, the farmers cultivated the fields but big landowners and the police harvested them.
“We had decided from the beginning that this movement would be led by the most oppressed group in society, the oppressed women. The point was that the Harijan [casteless] women should dominate this movement. Nothing was done until these women were not organized. […] The situation of women was precarious at that time: many women were beaten and seriously injured, and some were burned alive.”14
Land should belong to those, who work on it
Because they were to play such an important role in the liberation struggle, the women wanted that the land that was distributed through their resistance struggle should be registered in their own name. Since it was mainly them, and not their husbands, who worked the land.
Therefore, when a woman moved away, she should give the land to the woman who would work it. Of course, the men did not immediately agree to this. Thus, it took more than a month of discussions between about 500 villagers and activists from the cities, to convince them.
“These completely illiterate women understood nothing about Marxism and socialism, but they understood that the land belongs to those who work it, today it belongs to one person and when they move away, it belongs to the next person who works on it.“15
Empowerment of Dalit women
Naxalite guerrilla groups and gangs were plaguing this region of Bihar for years. Furthermore, male caste leaders carried out downright massacres against resistant Dalits. Both, the guerilla groups and the caste leaders regularly raped, sexually exploited, and severely injured women as a pledge in the struggle. In this extremely harsh environment, the empowerment of Dalit women had a profound effect.
Whereas during the ten years in which the movement took place, only three people were killed and not a single woman was raped. Moreover, there were intercaste marriages and 150 women did not move in with their husbands but stayed in their villages. As a result of this land redistribution, in 120 villages around the town of Bodh Gaya, women have been granted land rights.
Finally, ten years after the movement began, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the land belonged to peasant women. No one came to these villages again, to commit massacres against the Dalits.
Adivasis in the uranium mines
In Jaduguda, in the north-eastern state of Jharkhand, India’s first productive uranium mine has been in operation since 1967. This area is the land of India’s indigenous population, the Adivasi. ‘Jharkhand‘ means ‘land of the forest‘. During the British colonial period, the East Indian Company mined coal in Jaduguda. Subsequently, they transported it to Kolkata. As a result, this new railway line brought even more industrial development to the region. The Adivasis lost their land, their culture was destroyed, and many indigenous people were driven to the slums of the cities or died.
Heritage of East India Company
“After all, mining was one of the main reasons for the colonization of India. Raw materials were the most important trading commodity. But Indian trusts began mining during British colonial rule. For example, the Tata Trust started here in 1906 and the steelworks in Jamshedpur was built as early as 1907. US companies [supported] the Tata Trust with their technology to oust British companies.“16
The British discovered the three uranium mines in Jadugoda, while they were actually looking for gold. But uranium had no strategic value before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, therefore, the British did not mine it. Subsequently, the price of uranium skyrocketed due to nuclear bomb-making in the USA. Consequently, after Independence, the Uranium Corporation India Ltd (UCIL), a purely state-owned corporation, began uranium mining in 1967.
640 meters underground
However, in Jadugoda, the uranium is mined 640 meters underground and it is not highly enriched. Therefore, Jadugoda uranium has to be enriched in Hyderabad, South India. While it is used for nuclear power plants and the Indian atomic bomb in Pokharan. Hence, some 35,000 indigenous Adivasi, who used to live in the forest, now live within a five-kilometer radius of the mine. Therefrom, about 5000 to 7000 people work in the uranium mine. Needless to say, most of the mineworkers are Adivasi.
“They are let down the shafts, the most dangerous work in a mine at all. […] But what determines everything in Jadugora is catastrophic management and the total absence of safety measures. Uranium is mined here as if it were coal.“17
Atomic waste field
However, in addition to the mine, there is a processing plant that produces the so-called ‘yellow cake‘. It is needed for nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. In India, twenty nuclear power plants and two research reactors of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center are in operation. In addition, there are four reactors at the Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research and six more are under construction. The uranium content of the rock in Jadugoda is only 0.06 percent. Therefore, enormous quantities of radioactive residues are produced. They are stored, mixed with water, in huge catchment basins.
Furthermore, nuclear waste from all over the country is brought to Jaduguda. It is stored in these basins, which, according to Xavier Dias, have the size of football pitches. Moreover, the safety precautions of these basins are minimal. They are not even covered, so Radon gas and gamma radiation are released. Above all, accidents occur time and again. For instance, in 2006 a pipe burst caused highly toxic liquid waste. It was discharged into the Subarnarekha River five kilometers away.
Radon gas and reactive dust
Beyond that, the mining and processing of uranium produce radioactive dust and release radon gas. Both are inhaled by the mineworkers and lead to internal radiation. Furthermore, the transport of uranium ore on open trucks repeatedly leads to radioactive debris falling down. Those radioactive stones simply remain on the roadside. For all these reasons, in 1991, the Jharkandis Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR) began to organize against radioactivity. This mass organization of all villagers living around the mines demands safety measures from the state-owned uranium company.
Victims of uranium reduction
“JOAR is exclusively an organization of victims of uranium mining in Jharkhand. We want to make it clear that by using our land as a nuclear waste storage facility, the Adivasi have been chosen by the ruling class, precisely because they are part of the indigenous population. They think we are idiots. So the character of our struggle will always be linked to our culture. […] The land is given to us, to use it carefully and to pass it on to our children.“18
Lived grassroots democracy
The Adivasi village councils hear each village member, even children, and make no decision as long as only one member is against it. Thus, this grassroots democratic organization of resistance prevents individuals from being bribed or bought by the state UCIL. Furthermore, the Adivasis in Jharkhand have founded an association of all tribal leaders. Ultimately, in 1994, UCIL wanted to build a third overburden basin for nuclear waste. However, this time the Adivasi resisted the expropriation, destruction, and radiation of their land.
Nonviolent resistance of the Adivasi
Women and children lay down in front of the bulldozers that were to roll down their houses. Meanwhile, more and more Adivasis came and organized demonstrations, hunger strikes, and sit-ins. Finally, they were able to prevent a third nuclear waste field for the time being. In 1999, all groups active in India against the mining industry joined together. They formed a common platform, the ‘Mines, Minerals & People‘ (MM&P).
Author: Eva Pudill
Estimated reading time: 21 minutes