The saints in session

GASTON GERARD attended the last Sarvodaya Conference at Raipur, and kindly sent us this account.

Submitted by Reddebrek on February 27, 2019

EVERY YEAR THE SARVA SEVA SANGH, the principal Gandhian organisation in India, holds a conference of Sarvodaya workers. The movement for Sarvodaya—a term coined by Gandhi meaning the welfare or uplift of all—works for the non-violent social revolution which is designed to establish a caste-less, class-less and, ultimately, state-less social order, It includes within its ranks prohibitionists, cow protectionists and khadi (handspun and handwoven cloth) workers as well as those concerned with the well-known bhoodan (landgift) and gramdan (gift of whole village) movement initiated by Vinoba Bhave. Not all of them may share the ultimate social ideal envisaged by Vinoba, an India of self-governing village republics, but here, if anywhere, are to be found the Indian anarchists.

The last conference, at the end of December, was held at Raipur in Madya Pradesh. Fresh from his gramdan pilgrimage in the neighbouring state of Orissa, the Saint came marching in. For the movement, it was an especially significant occasion because it is three years since Vinoba, who insists on travelling everywhere on foot, has attended the conference. Vinoba’s presence undoubtedly swelled the number of delegates—some 5,000—who poured in from all parts of the sub-continent, from Assam in the north to Kerala in the south.

For a movement which has deliberately avoided a bureaucratic structure, the organisation of the conference was impressive by any standard let alone the Indian one which places a low premium on efficiency. To house the delegates a small town had been erected in the local college grounds, consisting of hundreds of huts built from panels of split bamboo tied to stakes and complete with electric lighting. Sanitation (a strong point among Gandhians) was taken care of by slit trenches, pits and an open drainage system and compared well with the provisions available in many Indian towns. The feeding of the five thousand took place in a vast covered arena. The seating accommodation in this “dining hall” consisted of long lines of split bamboo mats along which, at intervals of a few feet on either side, places were set: for each person a “plate” made of dried leaves sewn together and two clay pots. Removing one’s sandals at the entrance, one found an empty place and squatted cross-legged to be served the simple unspiced fare. The meal completed, one picked up the dirty ‘plate’ in one hand and the pots in the other, retrieved the sandals, and walked to the exit where the ‘plates’ were flung into one pit and the pots into another and where taps were available to wash one’s sticky fingers. In this traditional but also revolutionary way the Sarvodavites demonstrated how at least part of the dirty work of society—the washing-up—could be eliminated! (British anarchist summer school organisers, please note that modern technology has advanced to the state of dispensable plates and cups!)
The conference itself was dominated by the presence of the frail, bearded and be-spectacled old man in Vedic dress who, like Gandhi before him, is not even a member of the organisation. It opened—at least for those like me who did not rise at 4 a.m. to attend the prayer meeting—with a “review of the troops”: some thousand-odd members of the Shanti Sena or Peace Army who paraded with shovels and pickaxes and who, after a speech from Vinoba extolling the virtues of creative manual labour, marched off to do a day’s shramdan (gift of labour), deepening a dry pond in a neighbouring village. In the afternoon and for two successive days came the speeches. Under a huge and gaily decorated shamiana or awning, providing welcome shade from the brilliant sun, the delegates squatted and listened patiently to the torrent of words from the succession of speakers on the platform. (The average Indian’s capacity for listening to long speeches is equalled only by the capacity of the orators to make them.) For many of the audience, the occasion was used to perform the daily quota of spinning on their portable charkas or spinning wheels which is the hall mark of every good Gandhian worker.

Vinoba himself made two or three speeches daily, including invariably the last speech of the day in which he would express his opinions on the points raised by previous speakers. There was no touch of the histrionic about these speeches. The style is conversational and the manner that of a wise father explaining a difficult point to an intelligent and eager child. Like most natural leaders, Vinoba has the gift of simple exposition and his points are developed by homely and concrete illustrations, spiced by a gentle verbal wit-a product of his considerable linguistic ability. In the afternoons the conference attracted thousands of daily visitors from the neighbouring towns and villages. On the final day when, it is estimated, one hundred thousand were present for Vinoba’s concluding speech, the clouds of dust raised by these visitors, all eager to experience darsban (vision or contact) of this latter-day saint, were well-nigh suffocating.

The religious character of the movement was underlined by the act of prayer and the few minutes of silent meditation with which Vinoba concluded each day’s meeting. Its puritanical character, too, was evident not only in the stark simplicity of the general arrangements but also in the evening entertainments. There were no boisterous parties or drunken sing-songs for these ascetics: they were satisfied with a documentary film show of Vinoba on the march, a propaganda play about life in a gramdan village, and displays of classical Indian dancing.

The business of the conference included the adoption of a resolution drawn up by the Sarva Seva Sangh, a body which now embraces some 300 or so key workers. Theoretically, this could have presented difficulties since the Sarvodaya movement works on the unanimity principle and every Loka-Sevak or worker in the movement has the right of veto. When the resolution was moved, there were in fact some objections from the floor by those who wanted to include additional points. But the potential conflict between platform and floor which marks most conferences was readily dispelled. After a little persuasion, the objectors agreed either to have their points made in an additional, not the main, statement or to postpone consideration of them until a later conference.

The main statement emphasised three aspects of the movement’s programme of action. One was the need to develop the work of the Shanti Sena. This Peace Army is composed of sarvodaya workers who have pledged themselves to the principles of truth, non-violence, non-possession, etc., have agreed not to take part in party politics or power politics, and are prepared to go anywhere, when so ordered by Vinoba, to perform Shanti Sena work, even at the expense of life itself. The idea of such an army was conceived by Gandhi a generation ago but little came of it until it was revived by Vinoba in 1958. It is now some 6,000 strong but its weakness was glaringly revealed at the time of the border war with China at the end of 1962. Apart from its participation in the symbolic Delhi-Peking Friendship March, Vinoba would not countenance its use in the area of hostilities. Disturbed by this failure, the younger and more militant elements have been pressing for greater recognition of the role of Shanti Sena in Sarvodaya work. This need has now been admitted by the leadership and in recent months several hundred Shanti Sainaks have been sent to do constructive work in the border areas. The limitations of the organisation, however, are recognised. For the present, the Peace Army is intended for use not in international conflicts but within India itself. It will be used in situations of communal conflict but its main object will be to combat narrow nationalistic propaganda and to try to develop in the people a consciousness of world citizenship. In view of the virulent nationalistic current in Indian political life which rose to hysterical proportions last year, this in itself is no small undertaking.

The second point emphasised in the Sarva Seva Sangh statement was the development of khadi. After protracted negotiations with the central Government which is officially committed to the promotion of khadi and other village industries as part of its programme of rural development, it has been agreed to revise the basis of the Government’s subsidy to the industry. Instead of taking the form of a rebate on the price charged to the consumer, the subsidy henceforth will be made through the introduction of free weaving. By the Government paying the cost of weaving, roughly equal to the present rebate to consumers, the price of khadi in the shops will not be much affected but it is hoped that this form of subsidy will give a fillip to khadi work. The subsidy at the producer rather than the consumer stage should give an added incentive to use khadi, especially to those villagers who grow and spin their own cotton. Rural unemployment and underemployment remains India’s most pressing social and economic problem. In helping to solve this problem in an economy which, despite the industrialization of recent years remains and is likely to remain for a long time to come predominantly a rural economy, khadi could play a vital role. To emphasise this role and in an attempt to re-orientate the khadi industry towards the village rather than the commercial market, Vinoba’s padayatra (pilgrimage on foot) in the coming months will be centred on the cotton-growing area around Nagpur and Wardha.

The third point concerned the future development of gramdan. In recent years the emphasis of the movement in the sphere of land reform has been on the pooling of ownership of land in whole villages rather than on gifts of land from individuals for redistribution to the landless. The advance from bhoodan to gramdan was a revolutionary step, since gramdan makes possible the collective development and, if desired, the co-operative farming of the village land. Gramdan is not open to the charge levelled against bhoodan that it merely involves the parcelling out, often of inferior and unworkable land, among individual cultivators most of whom are too poor to develop it, thus aggravating the problem of rural poverty. Given the peasant mentality which prizes ownership of a plot of land, however small and uneconomic, as the most valuable of all social acquisitions, it is remarkable that to date over 6,000 villages have declared for gramdan. But 6,000 is only a tiny proportion of India’s 550,000 villages. For a variety of reasons, the pace of gramdan progress has slackened after the initial burst of enthusiasm for it a few years’ back. To quicken the pace again the Sarvodaya leadership has been looking for a new approach. This has now been developed in the form of simplified gramdan.

Under this form of gramdan every landowner in the village makes over the ownership of his land to the village community personified in the Gram Sabha or Village Council which consists of all adults and which is responsible for administering the affairs of the village. The villagers as a whole further agree to give one-twentieth of their land to the landless (on the average about one-sixth of the population of the village) for the latter’s cultivation and, in addition, each villager agrees to contribute one-twentieth of his net income to the Gram Sabha for use for development and community purposes. This done, the individual landowner retains possession of the remaining nineteen-twentieths of the land. By joining in gramdan he loses certain rights of ownership such as the right of transfer by sale or mortgage, but retains the right of cultivation which, moreover, he can pass on to his heirs.

First labelled “easy” gramdan—a term now repudiated by Vinoba in favour of “unique” gramdan—this new policy was criticised by some as a watering down of the original programme. It certainly represents a large concession to the principle of private ownership and its effects will be decidedly less egalitarian than the old-style gramdan. In addition, the neo-gramdan villages are unlikely to embrace the policy of co-operative farming. It should, however, be recognised that most of the existing gramdans have settled for individual rather than collective cultivation: the impression, sometimes given in the West, that India’s gramdan villages are the equivalent of the Israeli kibbutzim is wide of the mark.

At the conference the leadership successfully defended the new policy with the argument that the primary concern of the movement was not how much land could be got out of the big landowners but how it could change their attitude and induce them to develop a consciousness of concern for the village community as a whole. By spreading the gramdan spirit wider, if thinner, a new sense of direction, it was suggested, would be given to the increasingly frustrated movement for land reform.

In arguing thus the Sarvodaya leadership pinpointed one of the major problems of the non-violent approach: how far can the social revolution be carried by peaceful persuasion ? A minority within the movement would argue that, if persuasion fails, the technique of satyagraha or non-violent resistance should be used against the recalcitrant landowners. So far, Vinoba has opposed this course. Changes brought about by coercion, even the non-violent coercion implicit in satvagraha, would not, he believes, achieve the desired results. It would not effect the change of spirit, among the landowners as well as the landless, which is an essential condition of the revolution he envisages. The big landowners, as well as the landless, are members of the village community: to build a community concerned with the welfare of all requires their willing participation, not hostility. The new gramdan policy represents therefore, a continuation of the policy of persuasion. Whether this policy will justify itself cannot be predicted but this much, at least, must be said for Vinoba’s as against the more militant minority view. No one who has any knowledge of the encrusted conservatism of India’s villagers can doubt that the real problem is a widespread change in personal attitudes and perspectives: without this, as some of the gramdan villages as well as the Government’s land reforms bear witness, changes of institutional forms means next to nothing.

The call made at the conference for a vigorous nation-wide drive with an integrated programme of Shanti Sena, Khadi and Gramdan evoked high enthusiasm among the delegates. Vinoba’s presence and inspiration clearly gave a much needed lift to the movement. The year 1969, the centenary of Gandhiji’s birth, was set as the target year for the accomplishment of the basic structure of Gramswaraj (village self-government). It is a significant date and one which conveniently fits into the current myth among Sarvodaya workers. It is now twelve years since Vinoba publicly assumed the mantle of Gandhi by launching the bhoodan movement. The first six of these were fat years during which enthusiasm ran high and many new workers, including not a few disillusioned politicians, were swept into the movement in the wake of its initial successes. Then followed six lean years as it became evident that the movement would not achieve in the time set its declared objective of 50 million acres of bhoodan land. During this period the pace of the movement slackened, new recruits were slow in coming forward, and some of the former enthusiasts found reasons for concentrating on other matters. On the assumption of some kind of natural rhythm in the life of social movements, it is anticipated that in the six years 1963-9 the Sarvodaya movement will wax fat once again.

Whether this view will prove to be anything more than a self-sustaining myth remains to be seen. In the present situation of looming crisis in India and with the floundering of the Third Five Year Plan, especially in its agricultural aspects, the Sarvodaya movement could well take on a new significance. A rational observer would, no doubt, be sceptical of this possibility. Most native Indian observers no longer show even an academic interest in the movement, while the more perceptive foreign ones, like W. H. Morris-Jones (see Politics and Society in India edited by C. H. Philips, Allen & Unwin, 1963) who recognise the distinctive idiom of “saintly politics” in the Indian tradition, assign to it only a marginal and diminishing significance. The trend, at least from the perspective of the cities where the intellectuals dwell, seems to be relentlessly towards a Western type acquisitive society masked by the vague Congress ideology of democratic socialism. But India is a land of sharp contrasts and sudden surprises which continues to defy rational analysis. Gandhi may seem now to have been safely buried under a mountain of political rhetoric which hails him as the Father of the Nation while ignoring his real message. But the Raipur conference convinced at least this observer that his spirit is still alive in India and may yet provide through Vinoba the inspiration for the realisation of that apparently impossible dream—a non-violent social revolution.