Attitudes to India

Submitted by Reddebrek on February 27, 2019

AMONG THE CRITICISMS OF THE IDEAS associated with Gandhi and Vinoba which Adi Doctor makes in his book Anarchist Thought in India (Asia Publishing House, Bombay Rs. 8.50, London 18s.) is the following:

Gandhiji and Vinoba are also of the view that every man can develop non-violence and be a devotee of truth by restricting wants, by renunciation and by continuous tapasya. An increase in material comforts they argue does not in any way whatsoever conduce to moral growth. But this raises another problem. Is a man’s material progress so incompatible with his moral progress that the more of one can only be bad at the expense of the other? Strictly speaking there appears to be no logical relation between the two. How can, or rather why should, “the incessant crucifixion of the flesh” lead to the inculcation of the virtues of truth and non-violence? In actual life we can point to many characters who take a delight in living well, who eat to their full and make merry and yet are by temper mild and gentle as lambs. At the same time we can indicate several characters that eat little, wear plain clothes, regularly fast, but who yet possess a most vitriolic and violent temper. How then can it be claimed that the only path to truth and non-violence is the path of austerity? One is more prone to believe that a healthy mind, which here implies a mind devoted to truth and non-violence, lies in a healthy body. It will therefore be far better if instead of preaching austerity and ‘the voluntary limitation of wants’, attempts were made to enable our masses to acquire ‘healthy bodies’ which they can hardly be said to possess today. In a poverty-stricken country like India, where the masses live a sub-standard life, it is sheer cruelty to preach of “materialism, robbing man of the means to be truly human”, as the Sarvodayites do.

This will probably strike Western anarchists at least as a valid observation, and even if the only movement in India today which could possibly be called anarchist is Sarvodaya, this aspect of its philosophy is likely to make us chary of association ourselves with its teachings. If it is not cruelty, it is certainly hypocrisy for us to preach renunciation to people with nothing to renounce. Maybe a dose of wicked materialism would be salutary in helping the Indian peasant to clamber out of half-starved apathy and resignation. As Welles Hangen remarks, “The problem in rural India is not rising expectations: it is static expectations or none at all. Kusam Nair had to plead with many south Indian peasants to persuade them even to imagine how much land they would need to support their families. The horizons of most were so narrow that they could not visualise anything substantially better than what they had. She talked to thousands of peasants who had refused to take up irrigation water flowing near their fields or to adopt improved seeds and better methods of cultivation offered by government extension workers.” (Not because they were government workers: the villager does not distinguish between the worker for the government’s Community Development Projects, for Bhoodan, or for projects sponsored by bodies like War on Want or the U.N. agencies.

If we draw a distinction between the religious or ascetic philosophy of Sarvodaya and its practical programme of village development, we can more readily gauge its relevance. Eighty-two per cent of India’s people live in the 550,000 villages, and if you are ever going to change India you have to begin in the village. The most interesting and sympathetic of the Indian thinkers who follow this line of thought is Jayaprakash Narayan, who before joining Vinoba’s original Bhoodan campaign had been through a large part of the Indian political spectrumthe Communists, Congress, and the Praja Socialist Party. (An account of the evolution of his thought can be found in Selections from FREEDOM Vol 8, 1958). Among his more recent writings is his Plea for the Reconstruction of the Indian Polity, in which he reiterates his views on political and industrial decentralisation, advocating “agro-industrial” communities which would process wheat, rice, fruit and vegetables as well as cotton or sugar-cane, and would also manufacture such consumer goods as radios, bicycle parts, small machines and electrical goods for local use. He envisages this economic activity on an owner-worker or co-operative pattern, and declares that such a “small-machine, labour-intensive” rural economy would be neither “bureaucracy-ridden nor exploitive.”

To our eyes of course, this is precisely the kind of economy envisaged in Kropotkin’s Fields Factories and Workshops, the present relevance of which was discussed in the last issue of ANARCHY. The standard economist’s objection to it, on the “theory of comparative advantage” (the argument was used in the quotation from Gavin McCrone on p. 211 of ANARCHY 41) is raised by Adi Doctor in his book.

But in terms of the actual needs of the Indian villager and of alternative possibilities of satisfying them, Narayan’s argument convinces.

Asoka Mehta, the present leader of the Praja Socialist Party put a somewhat similar view to George Woodcock (reported in his new book Faces of India, published this year by Faber): “As a result of Gandhi’s influence, we have come to recognise the basic reality in India, the primacy of the peasant. Our socialism therefore is not proletariat-based, but peasant-based. Secondly we recognise that in a country where labour is perhaps the biggest single asset, we have got to adopt that technology which will utilise this wonderful asset in the most fruitful manner.” And Woodcock comments:

If Proudhon and Bakunin could have heard what he was saying, they would have smiled from their graves, for the present position of the Socialists in India really represents a kind of ironic triumph for the anarchists who were their opponents in so many European battles of the conference hall. For political and economic decentralisation and a reliance on the peasant as distinct from the urban proletariat were two of the main issues which the anarchists supported against the followers of Marx during the stormy ideological battles of the nineteenth century. Gandhi, whom the Indian Socialists have so thoroughly accepted in preference to Marx, was not in the full sense an anarchist, but he was certainly a libertarian, and his social ideas were largely shaped by what he had read in the works of European and American writers who stood close to and sometimes within the anarchist spectrum—writers like Tolstoy and Thoreau, Ruskin and Kropotkin.

Earlier in his journey Woodcock visited the writer Mulk Raj Anand who showed him villages in the Western Ghats where the average income per household was between 200 and 250 rupees a year. “ ‘The peasants here are so poor that they cannot use what land they have,’ Mulk explained. ‘They cannot even afford the seed to sow it. You’ll find peasants who own five acres, and manage to plant an acre or an acre and a half of it with rice. The people in those villages are so undernourished that by the time they are twenty-five the men are unfit for a day’s digging with a spade. It isn’t even that the land is bad. And the rainfall is so heavy that they should be able to grow three or four crops a year instead of one. But the water runs away quickly into the valleys, and up to now nobody has seriously set about trapping it for the use of the peasants’.”

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The fact that variations of this story could be told of a thousand districts all over India, explains why the emphasis on village development is a practical necessity, not merely an ideological one. Sir John Russell estimated that about 90 million acres of waste land in India could be reclaimed. India is a land full of cows, but milk yields are the lowest in the world. According to FAO, plant diseases and plant pests account for a loss of crops of about 30 per cent in India as opposed to 7 per cent in Japan. Yields of rice per acre planted in India are a quarter of those in Japan. If there were enough village level workers to patiently teach and demonstrate the “Japanny” method of rice cultivation, India’s stagnant agriculture would be transformed. But, as the people who have tried it—whether Sarvodaya workers or government Community Development workers—have found, it is incredibly difficult to change anything. William Clark, in the Overseas Development Insti-tute’s new report India at Midpassage, says: “The immense difficulty of passing on new agricultural techniques to the mass of the peasantry is, I think, sometimes under-estimated by the central planners. The advanced work carried out on the Government farms is immensely impressive, but the dead weight of inertia stops the spread of their new methods. Concentration should now be far more on how to get ideas accepted than on finding new ideas.”

In his chapter in the same report, Dr. E. F. Schumacher discusses the topic of rural industry. None of the developed countries, he says, “has ever had to face the problems which are posed in India today and which arise from the existence and partial infiltration of a foreign technology which is at once vastly superior and vastly expensive.“ Like Jayaprakash Narayan, he envisages a kind of technology which will provide both work and consumer goods in the village; a level of technology as he puts it, with a capital cost of about £75 per workplace, compared with the.£2,000 a workplace in the advanced industries of the West. On the question of electricity supply, for example, he declares that “Urgent attention has therefore to be given to the utilisation of such minor or scattered sources of energy as cow-dung methane, solar heat, wind-power, peat, etc. Technical work on these subjects I suggest, is of greater relevance to India’s problems than work on nuclear energy—the most capital-intensive and costly source of energy ever tackled.”

Schumacher, exasperated by the muddle and confusion of existing efforts in the field of rural industry, concludes that, in this context, workers’ control will not work, because he thinks it cannot cope with the problems of under-capitalisation, changing old habits, risk-taking and work-discipline which are involved in economically viable attempts. He therefore wants government control of local industry and a management hierarchy, instead of a system of the kind espoused by Jayaprakash and the Sarvodayites, in which the workers are “joint masters of their enterprise.”

One can sympathise with his exasperation. but is there the slightest evidence that his remedy would be any more successful than a worker-controlled system ? Every Indian concerned with rural development who we have met in London, whether it be Asoka Mehta, Jayaprakash Narayan or the India House representative, Mr. T. Swaminathan, would take a less optimistic view than Dr. Schumacher. For instance, Mr. Swaminathan, in discussing the errors and shortcomings of the original Community Development Programme, mentioned that “sentimental optimism with which we in the East are apt to be afflicted” and described the critical reports of the independent Programme Evaluation Organisation, which warned that “there is some risk of field staff again relapsing into a one-sided and excessive concentration on demonstrable results.” In a bureaucratic form of government, says the report, “this distinction between popular and official is clear, and it is easy to see that anything which the people have not planned, have not directed and have not voluntarily carried out is not popular. The bureaucratic and semi-bureaucratic schemes of rural development had no elements of vitality, dynamism and creativeness in them for the basic reason that they were not popular in these respects … The programme has to be opular, with officials participating, not the other way round—an official programme in which the people are exhorted to participate and in a few cases are almost dragged in.” Dr. Schumacher’s short-cut to viable village industry would not be likely to have any greater success.

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When we discuss India of course, we tend to forget that we are talking not about a country but a continent. Even when we emphasise that India’s basic problems are rural rather than urban, we are forgetting that the city population of India is infinitely greater than the total population of the British Isles, or of France or Germany. Professor Kingsley Davis in his report Urbanisation in India: Past and Future forecasts that Calcutta (present population 5.5 million) will contain between 12 million and 16 million people in 1970 and 36 million to 66 million in 2000. Delhi which at present has a population of 2.3 million will, he believes, have between 18 million and 35 million by the year 2000. These figures are too astronomical for us to grasp, but try to imagine what they mean in terms of urban services, housing, employment, transport, water supply, and provision for health and education.

The Indian urban working class is poorly organised. Charles Myers in his recent study of Labour Problems in the Industrialisation of India describes the four rival trade union federations, each with a different political allegiance. The workers’ lack of education means that leadership comes normally from outside, usually from politicians. Interunion disputes are frequent; funds are always pitifully low. “There is, however, the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association, founded by Mahatma Gandhi, to show how well a union can work in India.”

Apart from this example, there is virtually no influence of the Sarvodaya movement in the manufacturing cities, and certainly no other urban movement with any discernible anarchist tinge. This certainly reflects no credit on the insular anarchists of the West, like ourselves. Ideologies may not be transplantable, but the fact remains that, as Geoffrey Ostergaard puts it, “Other Western ideologies, such as liberalism, nationalism, communism, democratic socialism and even fascism have clearly taken root in modern India, but anarchism appears to be conspicuously absent.” (The only specifically anarchist literature published in India has been the series of reprints of works by Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rocker, and the American individualist writers, produced in the late nineteen-forties and early fifties by the Libertarian Book House (Arya Bhavan, Sandhurst Road, Bombay 4).

We anarchists have failed to present anarchism in a way which through its relevance or constructive character strikes a responsive chord in contemporary India. It is just possible, but not at all likely, that where we have failed, the Sarvodaya movement will succeed. Shouldn’t we be asking what we can do to help make its chances greater ?