Dialogue  October-December, 2010, Volume 12 No. 2

Role of Gandhians in Nation Building


What is the role of the Gandhians, the constructive workers and all those who are engaged in varied voluntary activities in the post-1947 era? Is it (a) to sketch the future society of their varied dreams and to practice it in the present, in the best way they can, or (b) by personal example. help in the setting up of better standards in various fields of human endeavour, or (c) to be at the beck and call of the Swarajya government dedicated to the welfare state; to do all that which it wishes to be done by them, or (d) is it in the words of Gandhiji, though said in another clime and age, it is still their main task to help the people in “the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused” and further of “educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority”,

It is with much sadness and considerable hesitation that the writer is putting down the following thoughts on paper. Almost certainly many amongst the Gandhians must have considered what is being discussed below much more seriously. There is also, no doubt, that the situation we are in, has distressed them much more and that it is not lack of realisation but more basic reasons which hamper them in responding in the right manner to the demands of the day. Not possessing their patience nor having their experience and foresight, the present writer is compelled to express himself publicly. In this, he hopes, he has their indulgence.


At the time of independence, several paths were open to all those who had been participating in the freedom struggle under Gandhiji. Gandhiji's view was that except a few who may be required and were specially interested to get in government, all others should become members of a vast Lok Sevak Sangh to rebuild and rejuvenate Indian society from some two centuries of neglect, disruption and rnisrule. More than the government it was for these lok sevaks to bring swaraj, which had reached Delhi, to every city, town, village and in fact to help reach it to every citizen. To give flesh and bone to this swaraj, he advocated a new polity, new economic relationships and the testing of all technology from the viewpoint of the new society. The constructive programme which he gave to the country in the twenties and to which various items got added to, till the very end were according to Gandhiji, the vehicle of this swaraj.

Matters worked out differently. Except a few, most of the freedom fighters chose to be associated with government either serving as its pillars or as agents at several levels or as its official critics. The few who remained out and to most of whom politics invariably had been an anathema decided to re-dedicate themselves anew in constructive activity, with one difference, however. The difference lay in their attitude to government, the government which freedom had bestowed.

The constructive programme as it originally arose was Gandhiji’s answer to alien rule. Even though there were periods of relative co-existence, the Indian freedom movement had no quarter for all that symbolised and resulted from the alien rule in India. Tne constructive programme did not recognise the relevance of anything that was done by the goverrcrent and intended to completely replace or recast everytning linked with India’s subjection. After independence, even when those wedded to the constructive progranune deplored many aspects of the new government's activity and thinking. By and large, they have acquiesced to most of what has been initiated or carried out by the government ever since. Yet there has been neither any commitment nor any enthusiasm in this acquiescence.

It may be possible to argue that the Gandhian constructive workers and much more so, the others who had not been reared in the tradition of satyagraha took a wrong turn in being soft to the government of free India and conceding it respectability. Nonetheless, though it may have been possible for them to take a firmer line and publicly disagree with whatever they felt were contrary to the cherished national aims, it would have been unnatural as well as unrealistic if they had continued their earlier stance, of limitless hostility to governmental authority, to the new government. The government of free India belonged to them as much as to other citizens. Their error lay not in changing their earlier attitude of hostility and boycott but in restricting their own sphere of   activity. The choice they made in altogether devoting themselves to a routine and ritualistic constructive programme or its equivalent in non-Gandhian circles. well meaning as it was, defeated their very purpose and took them out of the larger field of national policy and endeavour.


It is to be greatly deplored that none amongst the Gasdhians have really given much thought to their role in present-day society after the passing away of Gandhiji. It appears as if one did not even find the time or had the inclination to think about the role of the government and define ones own attitude to it. For many, the government signified an unmitigated evil, not to be dreamt of in the society of their dreams. The others, on the contrary, though they deplored one or the other policies and actions of government, somehow reposed all trust in the  elder members of the freedom fighters’ fraternity who now ran the country. The view that, even if in the long run one may wish to do  away with government altogether, in the short run as long as governmental and other authority exists, one has to be vigilant and control all authority, does not seem to have concerned the constructive and voluntary workers much.

Despite their softness and acquiescence to the doings of the rulers, the Gandhians have been reluctant to admit, perhaps even to themselves, that in a free society most activity including that of democratic government is not so very different to what may be termed as 'constructive programme’. The quality and the techniques of the two may differ but in essence both aim to achieve the same purpose.    

The difficulty of the Gandhians seems to be their mental commitment to an ‘ideal society’ which has unconsciously made them indifferent to improvements in the present, and has led them to (i) vichar prachar, or (ii) experimentation with models of the future, or (iii] a more or less mechanical repetition of earlier personal austerity and devotion to ways learnt in the days of Bardoli, Sabarmati and Sevagrarn.

All this is not to be decried. But one must state that the Gandhians have failed with regard to “the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused”, which according to Gandhiji was a pre-condition of real swaraj. Gandhiji further said, “Swaraj is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority." In their concern for eliminating the State altogether or because of their attachment to a little oasis of constructive activity, the Gandhians have become party to the decline of whatever little capacity the people of India had acquired to regulate and control authority in the days of  Gandhiji.


It is not the intention of the writer to decry all activities thar thousands or constructive and voluntary workers have been engaged in, in their respective areas and fields. Many of them have done pioneering work which demands greater notice and extension, All of them, one way or the other, have been serving the community and providing much succour and support to the needy. Their effort in making life bearable for those amongst whom they work deserves high praise.                

Nevertheless, despite the quality of such work and the devotion, loving care and personal concern which usually goes along with it, the sum total of the achievement of a few scores of thousands of constructive and voluntary workers amounts to little in relation to total national activity and even in terms of what is directly being done by the government. It would just about amount to even less than one percent of governmental effort. Further, notwithstanding all the noble qualities of the constructive and voluntary effort, our society is much grosser today and is more prone to falsehood and emptiness than it ever has been in recent times.

From the above, it may seem as if I am advocating the giving up of all constructive and voluntary activity and endeavour. Far from it my plea is that we must take stock of the present situation in India and should reformulate our primary role in the running of Indian society. I am, by no means, suggesting the waging of a struggle or the launching of a satyagraha against authority. These may come in their own time by the deliberations of those who are competent in this regard. My only concern is that despite all the dedication, goodness and hard work, life in India is becoming more and more meaningless and much harder to live for most people, It is the irony of our freedom struggle that after independence, most people have begun to feel much less free in their day-to-day life and find themselves harassed practically at every step. Such an occurrence may be no one’s particular fault. But no thinking people, least of all the Gandhians, the constructive and voluntary workers. can allow such a state of affairs to continue. What is happening is negation of the very basis of constructive activity.


One other point. Their unthinking acquiescence in various matters probably in the pursuit of speedier ‘constructive’ activity has resulted in the Gandhians even lending their support to what Gandhiji would have called the perpetuation of various falsehoods. Illustrations of this are plentiful. The more innocent, yet probably more damaging, are the constructive workers formally accepting, though actually not agreeing  to the purposes, procedures and methods, as stated by the government regarding various prograrmmes of training, apprenticeship etc., in the running of which they provide their auspices.

Take for instance the training of village level workers. According to the government the village level worker is or should be a friend, philosopber and guide of the villager. He is supposed to provide such wisdom and guidance in various fields of rural activity including agriculture, education, the various crafts, etc. In reality, the village level worker is no such thing and even if one could imagine him to be prime ministerial material there is no earthly possibility of his fulfilling such a role for generations to come. At best, he is a runner of the village, a clerk, a literate younger brother to the village community who can count on his ability to get small jobs done for them which require approaching .authonry, be it governmental or other. His normal role is of an errand boy and at certain moments he can display his ingenuity and understanding by being the communication channel between the village  and the urban world. All this, though earthy, is verv honourable and useful. Further, such a definition of his role would have given much more satisfaction and fulfilment and a wish to achieve much more to each one of the thousands of village level workers we have in the field. Instead, there is widespread frustration, cynicism and disbelief amongst practically all village level workers in what they are supposed to be doing.

By taking a firm stand on such matters and pointing out the meaninglessness of such hyperbole, the constructive workers could have done much in reducing and halting the ever-increasing cynicism and disbelief.


One could cite any number of situations where one has unthinkingly compromised one’s principles and the regard for truth. More than harming oneself, such compromise has done immense public harm and has been responsible for undermining and corroding the right responses of the people towards injustice, falsehoods of various types, callousness, etc. It has further made the people sceptical of even modest claims and achievements. Hoping for the moon when even the earth may be slipping underneath has rendered meaningless all dreams, however noble these were.

My plea to the Gandhians and leaders of voluntary effort is that they should sit down to reconsider their role in present-day India. More than any other group they are still nearer the people and have not altogether become hypnotised by slogans of various types and prey to a variety of alien idioms. They can still be able, with some effort, to overcome the barriers of mind and culture which has begun to separate the people of India from the ruling elite, of which they themselves are an integral part. Such kinship, however, need not be their misfortune.

        Given will and determination and above all understanding and compassion for everyone, the Gandhians can still turn the ruling elite from its callousness, misdeeds, authoritarianism and indifference towards doing what is desired or suits the people of India. Alone, however, they cannot do it. Even Gandhiji was able to do what he did because the people were with him. He symbolised in himself what they felt and cherished and aspired to, and yet were unable to express it by themselves. The Gandhians and the voluntary workers must at least for the present put away their own fanciful ideas, theories and solutions no matter of what origin, and begin to listen to the people, to make an attempt to appreciate what they wish today or tomorrow and help in the achievement of their modest needs. If they need to sermonise let them do it at the doorsteps of the ruling elite. In relation to the people they must first learn to be their errand boys and make a success of such task. Some day they may have an opportunity to marshal forth their own views if these still interest them. For the present, they should desist from selling their own wares and become spokesmen of the people.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati