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

Experiment with Hind Swaraj

Rajiv Vora

When India is leaderless and its institutions rotting and decadent, what is there to inspire our people across all differences and diversities to rise above narrow self interests so that polarization, often violent, of Indian society on the lines of its plurality can be stopped? Can we make some humble experiment?   

     Has the modern version of “freedom” and that of “justice” totally erased from Indian mind what Gandhi saw and re-established as its perpetual and uppermost quest — something where, as he points out in Hind Swaraj, “India is soundest at its core”?  Is the conquest of India complete, irreversible and final or, again as Gandhi states about India in 1909 that there are areas untouched by “this demonic civilization”, is there any spot left today where the Indians are not conquered?  What is behind the reality of the lot of unrest, agitation and violence that seems to have engulfed us? Are the aspirations upon which Gandhi awakened India still valid and alive? What is the state of Indian masses’ self awareness finally? Conflicts will always be there, but is there still possibility for nonviolent conflict transformation? Is Hind Swaraj alive? And, can we, with our very humble capacity, rediscover its appeal and power? Long association with Gandhian movement and other political, social and cultural movements and the study of Mahatma Gandhi’s Collected Works made it clear that all these needs to be understood and reviewed in the light of Hind Swaraj.

      These and such trublling questions lead us to an experiment in  public discourses on Mahatma Gandhi’s root text or manifesto, Hind Swaraj. Hind Swaraj takes one to that India, which is “soundest, is its core”! Here is a story of experiencing  ordinary people’s unbelievably enthusiastic response to the message of Hind Swaraj.

Redefining freedom: Harmonizing Liberty and Justice :

This is a story of our experiment with Hind Swaraj in order to  rediscover that vision and thought of Gandhiji, which had inspired Indians of all faiths, classes and ages, galvanised entire nation; and above all, transfomed violent miltancy into an epic nonviolent struggle for the revival, reform and empowerment of the best that was in Indian civilization. In his explanation of the vision and idea of Swaraj,  as different from independence, Gandhiji  put before us an image of  India  in which every one, lowliest of the low, could visualise his/her own identity and aspirations. While he stated “ God comes to the hungry in the form of bread”, he did not stop there. The ‘adhibhautic’- satsfaction of the ‘material’ needs —was at the foundation of the ‘adhyatmic’ or the spiritual salvation. Threfore, he made it very clear why the ‘rajya’ or the State, the British empire at that time, was demonic. By robbing and pauperizing Indian masses, “by robbing the Indian masses of their economic freedom” Gandhi stated “the demonic rule of the British have robbed them of their spiritual freedom.” According to Leo Tolstoy “This European life is very clean materially, but terribly dirty spiritually.”

Today, India is a nation without a vision – a vision that saw Truth behind the Reality and guided its corporate national activity in a way that Indian civilization could optimise true human freedom. Gandhi saw the loss of awareness and intellectual and spiritual lethargy as the cause of India’s conquest by a civilization intrinsically incapable of healthy, moral and just life. In seeing through the modern civilization so called, Gandhi touched something innate to the human being; namely, the quest for freedom as a state of being that blossoms in all-round justness and moral conduct. But modern civilization has reinvented the meaning of freedom in order to perpetuate and empower a global order based on injustice, exploitation and domination of the weak by the mighty. The meaning of freedom is severed from its embedding in justice. Subjected to reinterpretation in the justification of a civilization borne of a very narrow and unrestrained human “rationality” that is destructive and essentially irrational, and legitimizations of modern violent versions of “Survival of the Fittest” that threaten our evolutionary development and survival, the term Freedom is divested of its moral underpinnings and its meaning. Not liberation and freedom from wants, but unrestrained free play of wants is the driving force of the so called modern civilization. Thus justice and liberty are set apart as incompatible goals. In the negation of justice, freedom has been negated. Mahatma Gandhi therefore defines civilization in order to re-establish the meaning of freedom in terms of Swaraj. Truth being the foundation, nonviolence is the only means to attain a truth-bound life.

It was the power of that thought and vision of Hind Swaraj that slumbering India rose as no nation in history had ever risen, became a super power of nonviolence, right at the time when the USA and its European allies were single mindedly pursuing the development of and mastery over Weapons of Mass Destruction; Hydrogen Bomb, after having experimented  Atom Bomb  “successfully” on an Asian nation. 

The builders and users of WMD are also the modern day champions of human liberty. They have appropriated freedom for them at the cost of justice to others; and those who rose against it in the name of justice and equality, inevitably repressed freedom. The human culture struggles for a corrective, but modern civilization is intrinsically incapable of freedom; it is incapable of achieving harmony between true liberty and justice. The licentiousness of the one and the repressiveness of the other are intrinsic to the mother-culture of the both; namely the materialist vision. It has no solution therefore to minimizing human greed and violence. It has no clue as to how to inspire and institutionalize voluntary restraint on human desire and wants.

With a view to providing a more meaningful understanding of Freedom, Gandhi re-defines it in terms of Swaraj, “a sacred word, a Vedic word, meaning self-rule and self-restraint, and not freedom from all restraint, which independence often means”. For a person with a nonviolent mindset, freedom means freedom from unrestrained desires and wants. Nonviolence to Gandhi was therefore the means to achieve Swaraj. Today, we are witnessing irrevocable destructive consequences of such ways of life which are being followed in the name of freedom and progress. Gandhi offers in the vision and methods of Swaraj a harmonious, healthy, fearless, just, equalitarian, aesthetic and progressive way of life.

At a time when people are facing the challenges of violence, insecurity, ecological disaster, unsustainability and civilizational conflicts, sanity demands that we seek guidance from the teachings of Gandhi as encapsulated in Hind Swaraj. He suffixed it with “Hind” because he was struggling for India’s freedom, but what he writes in Hind Swaraj is for all seekers of justice and freedom, not only for themselves but for all, and who are desirous of attaining their own Swaraj or liberation. 

Exploring the Appeal of Hind Swaraj: Development of nonviolent Conflict Resolution

Does Hind Swaraj hold the same appeal today, we questioned ourselves. In absence of inspiring national leadership and similarly in absence of any inspiriting national institution, we believe that we still have a vision and a system of thought which has unbelievably proved its inspirational power. That vision and thought is encapsulated in Hind Swaraj. We must explore and test ourselves also in the process of bringing Hind Swaraj to common masses. It was more on us and not on Hind Swaraj to prove its appeal. Therefore, sometime in late 90s both of us, Dr. Niru Vora  and  Rajiv Vora, decided to conduct this experiment by ourselves. We had known Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, a highly attained lama and scholar, whose faith in Hind Swaraj is so absolute that, according to him,  if he had to make a choice today between Hind Swaraj and ‘Dhammapad’, he would choose Hind Swaraj. We went to him with a request to guide Swaraj Peeth’s work on Hind Swaraj and chair 'Hind Swaraj Centenary Committee' of Swaraj Peeth. We decided to conduct Hind Swaraj study camps among variety of people and see what response it generates. It was a completely unique, most elevating experience conducting dialogues and dscourses on Hind Swaraj. Story of a few Hind Swaraj Study Camp/discourses is given bellow.

After every Camp most of the participants want to do something positive in the spirit of Hind Swaraj. At this point the idea of community level self reliance in conflict resolution and violence prevention- Shanti Sena - is introduced.  Those who enroll are involved in Shanti Sainink training.

Out of this emerged a concrete programme of empowerment and community’s capacity building — i.e. self relience — in the area of resolving conflicts through nonviolent means. Gandhiji called such a force as Shanti Sena. Swaraj Peeth began initiating dialogues at the grassroots level on the forms and  causes of violence and conflicts  and nonviolent methods of resolving them.  We later called  this dialogue Swaraj Samvad. While experimenting with Hnd Swaraj, Swaraj Peeth has been able to evolve a four-stage process of building Shanti Sena. We also had to bring out th first ever Urdu translation of Hind Swaraj while celebrating the commemorating the Centenary of Satyagraha. 

Wherever Swaraj Peeth conducted Swaraj Dialogue, people expressed their concern about the absence of nonpartisan groups in our society that was trusted and respected enough by all and which could mediate without vested interest when conflicts arose. Conflicts are bound to remain, but if people are incapable of resolving problems through the means of peace and nonviolence, they may develop economically but that can neither add into real prosperity nor can it strengthen democratic fiber. Even with less means family, village, communitiy and a nation can achieve propsperity if there is harmonious unity. Swaraj Dialogue and Gandhi Shanti Sena are  for building social and communal harmony and resolvinmg conflicts through the ways of nonviolence.

Our society is diverse in social, cultural and religious composition. Diversity that enriched our society and nation and provided deeper foundation and sustainability, often leads today to tenstions and conflicts, social and communal polarisation and disunity even among neighbours. Cultural diversity and pluralisim must be protected and developed, while disunity must be tackled. This depends on society’s internal capacity to resolve its conflicts through  peaceful and nonviolent means. Democracy grows proportionate to the growth of nonviolence. Social harmony and the capacity to resolve conflicts without violence are fundamental factors in the establishment of a peaceful, developed society and democratic governance. Nearly all the other principal elements of social and economic development, as well as of the democratic system, rest on the ability of individuals to live and work in an environment free of violence, serious tensions, and fear. Therefore Swaraj Peeth has set out to establish Swaraj Dialogue and   Shanti Sena to nonviolently interven in conflicts and tensions  to prevent  violence and build unity. 

The Shanti Sena is a network of community-based civilian peace-building and peace-keeping teams trained to prevent conflicts from becoming violent. If violence does break out, Shanti Sainiks are prepared to serve as nonpartisan mediators, emergency relief workers, and human rights monitors, while performing other duties.  

Since 2002 Swaraj Peeth (SP) has been developing the foundations of the Shanti Sena, and since 2004 it has concentrated in the Western Uttar Pradesh towns of Bijnor, Rampur, Baharaich. Gandhi Shanti Sainiks in these places have undertaken some successful initiatives to resolve conflicts and tensions in their area; in some cases resolved amicably long standing communal issues and in some other cases they prevented violence.  

The appeal of Swaraj Peeth’s vision and methods activated people locally through series of public meetings. Out of this emerged a new cadre. They felt that  the purpose and methods were totally different from other actors in the field. People described this effort as a movement.   There are teachers, artisans, peasants, small town professionals, shop-keepers, students, socially active people, poets and others who are locally involved.

Most important part of this experiment is development of a four-stage process of raising and training Shanti Sena. In brief they, one leading to the other, are: Swaraj Samvad, Hind Swaraj Study Camp, Pledge of nonviolence, recruitment and training of Gandhi Shanti Sena.

Hind Swaraj Discourses and Study Camps: Story of Experiences

We have conducted more than a dozen three to five day discourse among variety of participants. It is an ongoing campaign. Whoever is interested or inspired is most welcome to contact Swaraj Peeth. Only a few random experiences are given here in brief.


“If I have to Choose…”

“If I have to make a choice today  between Dhammapad and Hind Swaraj, I will chose Hind Swaraj”, declared Prof Samdhong Rinpoche, one of the most revered Budhhist lama and Kalon Tripa – Prime Minister – of  His Holiness Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government in-exile, statesman and philosopehr. He was speaking at the first Hind Swaraj study camp, November 22-24, 2001, in Dharamsala, to inaugurate the Centenary of Hind Swaraj programmes by Swaraj Peeth Trust. It was a group of senior Tibetan activists and leaders organized by Friends of Tibet. For Prof. Rinpoche to say such a thing has since then inspired many within the Tibetan movement, Gandhian movement and in scholarly and other circles here and abroad to study Hind Swaraj.

For a high Budhist lama of his stature, attainment and scholarship to make such a statement is thought extra ordinary; it speaks of the centrality of Hind Swaraj in the vision of Tibetan freedom struggle. Tibetans are a struggling nation. The youth dream freedom.  It has been an important exercise among the activist leaders of the Tibetan movement to explore the real meaning of freedom in terms of Swaraj; ‘rangwang’ in Tibetan. 

Frequent discourses and debates on Hind Swaraj among the Tibetan youth has not only generated deep commitment to this vision, today it is among the Tibetans that Hind Swaraj is alive as a nation’s guiding vision. Hind Swaraj since then has become a regular feature among Tibetan leadership and activists. A revised Tibetan version of Hind Swaraj was released by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the occasion of the Hind Swaraj International Centenary Conference organized by Swaraj Peeth in November 2009.

Following this, the massege spread out to all the settlements of Tibetans all over India to organise Hind Swaraj camps and distributed hundreds of its copies. In one of the study camps, the participants, while reading and interpreting Hind Swaraj, replaced reference to ‘India’ with ‘Tibet’ and ‘British’ or ‘England’ with ‘People’s Republic of China (PRC)’.  With this change, they said the entire text of Hind Swaraj, except for the mention of certain historical events and names, exactly talks about  the Tibetan situation, Tibetan vision, Tibetan path.


“Gandhiji  Wrote On Our Behalf”

I was facing an almost exclusively women’s group for the first time since we started Hind Swaraj Study Camps. It was June 2002 at Kausani in Uttarakhand. We sat on the floor in rectangular fashion so that every one faced everyone and the speaker. I could see on their faces a certain passive reluctance. Lakshmi Ashram was established by Mahatma Gandhi’s English disciple Sarla bahen for promoting women’s education on Gandhian lines.

I introduced Hind Swaraj by exploring the meaning of the term ‘mukti’ or liberation. Uttarakhand being a land of Himalayas, the Ganges and high pilgrim places, has a  sacred self-image. When I explained how the Mahatma related ‘bhakti’ — devotion – with ‘mukti’— liberation — and  chose the path of national service, which,  he said “…was his training for the liberation of his soul from the bondage of the flesh,” participants had a lot to say how they understood ‘liberation’. Taking example of anti-liquor campaigns they analyzed it in its political, economic, social and moral dimensions. Spirituality is what makes individual and society moral. This brought us to the central theme of Hind Swaraj. What do we mean by ‘freedom’, ‘independence’ ‘sovereignty’, ‘autonomy’, ‘liberation’ and ‘swaraj’. Participation became spontaneous.  

After the first session a middle aged lady, Vimla bahen, remarked that they “had expected a usual boring, repetitive, cliché-ridden  Gandhian discourse;  that is why they were very passive and reluctant. But it was just when, at the beginning, you asked us what we understood by ‘Swa’  – we thought this was different. “You spoke our language”.

As the post-lunch session started, they asked me if I can extend the sessions for one more day; four instead of three days! 

It was educative to learn how close the meaning of each line of Hind Swaraj was to them. They did not laugh at Gandhiji’s attack on railways, doctors and lawyers, much less on Parliament. They could grasp the inner meaning of it all . Every one, like earlier groups, wanted Hind Swaraj discourse in their villages. Kavita  of Dhaniya said “It was not a religious language, nor a political, it was Mahatmaji’s language of our culture and our dharma…” Gayatribahen thought that “the uniqueness of Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj was that it is not talking of any one aspect of life as separated from others.”  Parvati Keda wrote “There must be a continuous dialogue in our society on Hind Swaraj…Good thoughts came to my mind after reading it, because Gandhiji made nonviolence and power of Satyagraha the weapon of God containing trust and love…In order to better serve our society we must develop a better understanding of Gandhiji’s thought and Hind Swaraj…I will study this book again and again and promote its study”.

Throughout four-and-a-half days it was most enjoyable because of the lively, informal and spontaneous participation and discussions in which everyone would get involved. Chandra bahen remarked as she finished her part of the reading “If I knew writing, I would have written similarly. When we read other books we don’t feel that the author is writing on our behalf; but here, Gandhiji is writing on our behalf…”

One of the three male participants, Munna Joshi, working at Lakshmi Ashram read out a poem he composed during these days inspired by the experience ! Nima Vaishnav, the Director of the place, herself a student of Gandhian thought, later told me that even after three months their colleagues and students were talking about the Hind Swaraj study camp. It has created strong sense of sharing a common vision and purpose, which is so crucial for us. “It has infused new life in our work” she said.


“ We Don’t See Our Self-Image in Modern India”

They were  Kohl tribals in a four day study camp organized  by social worker, Shri Shamshad Khan in September of 2002 at village Sukada, Dist Mirzapur in eastern Uttar Pradesh and adjacent to Sonbhadra district known for Naxalism. Hind Swaraj was introduced in the first session in the light of the problem of justice and dignity that the tribal people face. A question was raised about what is it that can protect their rights and dignity. Corollary to that the question of comparative and seeming advantages of the violence as against nonviolence came up. At the root of the issue of protection of dignity, as pointed out by “Pradhanji”, a semi-literate Muslim gentleman and Chief of the village Panchayat, was the question of their own self-identity as a peasant community. He was supported by the entire group of more than 60 men and women (about fifty men and ten women) in one voice. It set the tone for exploring the meaning of ‘Swa-raj’ with reference to meaning of essential identity; and the ones that we acquire. The discourse became easy and intense in the company of people who understood the meaning of moral self-identity. To the question “do you see your self-image in the image of modern India” the spontaneous answer was a “No”. This is what Hind Swaraj essentially explores through defining the meaning of civilization. Everyone was intensely riveted to the discussion on civilization as defined by Gandhiji in Hind Swaraj. That appealed to their moral, political, intellectual and spiritual understanding of self, duty or “dharma” and “swadharma” as the immutable Law of Being; society and harmonious co-living.

Next day a lady, aged about thirty, came over to the front row; and, before we began, she stood up to say that she wanted to say something. “I didn’t come yesterday. I work here with small hand operated tool and make jute ropes. I could not hold back as I was told you were speaking about our dignity, culture and honor. I want to sit in the front because I can’t write and take notes as many of you are doing. But I have powerful brain and I will register every word there.”, she said. The assembly welcomed her with a big clap. Pradhanji became so involved that on occasions he would respond quoting from Ramayana, Mahabharat and  Qurran. As a young man he always took part in Ramleela. Everyday the number of participants would swell as they would bring their neighbours and friends. Hind Swaraj  gave them insight into understanding the changes around them that they thought were sinful, unjust and immoral, but would not have courage to say so. “Gandhiji speaks for us” and also shows our weaknesses. “The inward and the outward are not two separate struggles” said an elderly man. 


Now we know Gandhi was our man; not Birla’s agent as we are   tought”

In Simultala the study camp, 13-16 Sept 2003, was organized by Gram Bharti Ashram, one of the well known Sarvodaya rural institutions in Bihar run by a very dedicated and powerful couple, Shri Shivanand Bhai and Sarala Bahen Jha. They have invested more than four decades in this area. For past couple of years the forest and the entire tribal area has come under the grip of Naxalism. In the midst of the forest about one hundred fifty representative of Gram Sabha (the Sarvodaya village councils) assembled for a two and a half day Hind Swaraj discourses. Within the period of past one and a half month at least three major incidents of violence, ambush and encounters had occured in  Simultala and the villages from where these one hundred fifty men and women came. About two months back, around a hundred men and women alighted from a local train at Simultala station, walked up to the police station in the little bazaar across the railway station, attacked it, set fire to it and disappeared in the jungle with some guns.

It was in the midst of this environment that we had gathered to talk about Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and nonviolence. On the very first morning when I had just began explaining what ‘Swa’ of the Swaraj means, Budhni Devi, a harijan lady who cleaned my room in the morning, sitting right in my front, very clean and alert, could not hold herself back. She got up and said “what you are talking is contained in my “Guru Mantra”. I cannot pass on this Guru Mantra to anyone else, but to you I will surely tell what it is!” This lady later told me how her Guru had taught her about what is the physical self, the body, and what is the mind and how we are all one; even the animals and vegitation” It was my turn here to learn what profound urge and understanding this lady had, though this was my most common experience throughout my communication with participants in all these Hind Swaraj discourses among various sections.

This was one of my most memorable camps. When, on the third day evening everyone had left, Shivanand Bhai told me that a small group of six Naxalite leaders of the area had mingled incognito with the participants. At the end of the camp they came up to one of them and revealed their identity. They had something to tell. “We had never known that Gandhi was our man. We were only told that in order to look like one of us he put on  loin cloth and went bare bodied, drank goat milk; but he was Birla’s man. Now we know that he fought for our dignity and justice. We have not taken to guns because we like to kill people. We have taken to guns because we want to protect our honor and livelihood. We realize that nonviolenc is superior to violence.” 

All the participants had collectively expressed their view that Hind Swaraj needs to be taken to all villages in this area because it can really show us a path to deal with our problems of violence. The study of Hind Swaraj has given us an understanding of our reality and the methods of changing it so that we also don’t become like our exploiters and adversaries. It is very clear how struggling against exploitation and injustice turns into fight against only the exploiters and not against exploitation as such. Indradev Bhai explained “Your talk is firmly established in every one’s heart and mind….. No one till now has talked to us in this language.  Our attention was fixed when you were explaining Swaraj and civilization. There is so much power in Gandhiji’s words.  We want you to come to each of our villages… our boys and girls are turning to violence…We can see that Hind Swaraj has power to change this lure of violence.”

Representatives of 50 village councils took a decision to follow-up the teachings by standing against the evil of caste and religious discrimination. 

These responses created a bond between me and the participants everywhere. For example, in a similar camp at village Karjain, in the Saharsa district of Bihar, a lady came up, held both my hands in her hands and asked if I would become her brother and would visit her village one day!  She had offered satyagraha against cow slaughter under the leadership of Sarla Bahen Jha, laid down before a truck carrying cows to the slaughter house and was, at one point, dragged by the truck.  In Karjain we started in a room of the school; next day we had to shift to the varandah as the attendance had risen from 30  odd to more than a hundred with about 50 women as some of the enrolled participants went back to their villages to have their friends and neighbours  the “opportunity to listen to something which was neither a political, nor religious, nor a spiritual discourse as they know; but it was all in one..” . Third day almost half of the Karjain was there and we were moved from verandah to the compound. My host Haribabu, who has been host to Vinobaji and Jai Prakashji during their movements, said, he had shelved Hind Swaraj long long back. He took it out again with a new meaning.

       Swaraj Peeth invites you to join this most encouraging, revealing and meaningful journey for our self renewal.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati