Before Mahatma Gandhi entered Indian politics in 1915, the nationalist movement was spearheaded by the Indian National Congress (INC), then a collection of elites and bourgeoisie led by reformists who had faith in British justice.
Gandhi transformed the INC into a revolutionary mass organisation of millions that included all classes, castes and communities. He was unique among anti-colonial leaders for his attention to both politics and social transformation.
The transformation of society, according to him, raised two problems, namely, the way one set of social institutions and relations was to be gradually replaced by another, and the way in which contradictions and conflicts that arose in the process were to be resolved.
His solution to the first problem was the Constructive Programme (CP), a term coined by him.
His answer to the second was satyagraha which comprises of simple persuasion in the beginning followed by various types of non-violent resistance.
The CP describes non-violent action taken within a community to build structures, systems, processes or resources that are positive alternatives to oppression.
It often works alongside obstructive programmes, or Civil Disobedience, which usually involves direct confrontation (non-violent) to, or non-co-operation with, oppression. Gandhi drew up his programme in detail with special reference to the Indian context.
The CP and Satyagraha are thus the two closely interrelated means of social control in the social and political thought of Gandhi.
He never talked in terms of capturing power. While other political parties did not say ~ ‘work for independence’, Gandhi often said that the country’s freedom was to be attained by unitedly working for it.
From the beginning, the nation would have to be built and unified by means of various constructive activities. His CP was centripetal and acted as an integral part of the freedom struggle. According to Gandhi, the CP may otherwise and more fittingly be called construction of ‘Poorna swaraj’ or complete independence by truth and nonviolent means.
Gandhi wrote to his friend and supporter, Jamnalal Bajaj, saying, “My real politics is constructive work.”
Gandhi conceived of satyagraha as having two branches, the CP and non-violent Civil Disobedience.
After decades of civil resistance campaigns, he had increasingly turned his attentions to social action, local community development schemes, education and the like. However, after returning from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi toured the country, as per advice of Gopalkrishna Gokhale.
Through the extensive tours he not only understood the real issues but also found remedies. As a corrective step, in 1920, he got a resolution passed at the Nagpur Convention of the Congress to stir workers and those engaged in the freedom movement to start constructive activities for social change.
It was incumbent upon all Congress workers to remember that if civil disobedience was one branch of satyagraha, ‘constructive’ activities aimed at self-improvement and social upliftment through the building of structures and systems was equally important.
The CP which Gandhi suggested for India had been developing since 1922 when, after suspension of the Non-cooperation Movement, he retired from active politics for about eight years and devoted himself to the implementation of a constructive programme mainly based on khadi. In the early 1930s, Gandhi argued that the needs of villages could not be ignored any more.
While the Congress was lukewarm, the educated, urban India often criticised Gandhi’s CP. Even Jawaharlal Nehru had his doubts.
He wrote in his Autobiography: “To some extent I resented Gandhiji’s preoccupation with non-political issues, and I could never understand the background of his thought”. Some saw it as a distraction from politics, others thought it lacked revolutionary potential. Of course, some activities had created a big flutter.
Many robust institutions were set up such as India Spinning Association, Harijan Sevak Sangha, Hindustan Tamili Sangh and All India Spinning Association.
But Gandhi was not satisfied. He wanted society to collectively stand for changing its destiny and addressing issues which had been weakening it. He resigned from the Congress in 1934 and eventually moved to Sevagram to devote his energies to the pressing concerns of rural India.
As the weekly Harijan had suspended publication during political crisis created by World War II, he wrote a pamphlet to explain to explain his priorities to the public at large while travelling by train from Sevagram to Bardoli in December 1941 to attend a Congress meeting.
The pamphlet was to explain his priorities. The result was not a political tract, rather it was titled ‘Constructive Programme: its Meaning and Place’ and identified 13 issues that blocked our development for centuries.
It was in 1941 that Gandhi first presented his concrete programme in the form of booklet. It was revised by him in 1945, and the following year he added one more item to it, namely, ‘improvement of cattle’.
He was so confident about the collective efforts of society that in the revised edition of ‘Constructive Programme’ in 1945, he said: “Readers, whether workers and volunteers or not, should definitely realize that Constructive Programme is the truthful and non-violent way of winning Poorna Swaraj. Its wholesale fulfilment is complete Independence.”
The CP, as suggested by Gandhi, may be mentioned briefly in the same order as followed by him:
1. Establishment of communal unity through abolition of distinctions between communities and the cultivation of ‘an unbreakable heart unity’ through personal example.
2. Abolition of untouchability by influencing the orthodox Hindus through moral appeal.
3. Introduction of prohibition through efforts of doctors, women and students and by the opening of ‘recreation booths’.
4. Establishment of khadi production centres in every village. It is not enough to enough to produce to khadi, it is more important to develop khadi mentality, namely, the urge for ‘decentralization of production and distribution of the necessities of life.’
5. Development of other village industries like hand-grinding, handpounding, soap-making, etc. When we become village-minded, we will not want imitation of the West or machine-made products, but we will develop a true national taste in keeping with the vision of new India.
6. Improvement of village sanitation.
7. Introduction of new or basic education in every Indian village.
8. Organization of adult education throughout the country
9. Emancipation of women. The constructive effort to elevate women to their natural dignity and equality with men must begin with one’s own home.
10. Education in health and hygiene. This involved a detailed programme, including thinking of purest thoughts, breathing fresh air, establishing a balance between physical and mental work, being neat and clean, and control over the quality and quantity of food.
11. Development of provincial languages.
12. Development of Hindi mixed with Urdu i.e. Hindustani, as the national language.
13. Establishment of economic equality which is the ‘master key to non-violent independence’.
14. Organization of the peasantry for the improvement of their condition.
15. Organization of labour with a non-political purpose on a local basis.
16. Upliftment of the Adivasi
17. Service and rehabilitation of the lepers.
18. Organization of student service on a non-political basis.
19. Improvement of cattle. During the 1930s, Gandhi founded the All India Village Industries Association and entrusted J C Kumarappa with the task of developing means for the revival and scientific rationalisation of village industries. In addition to interventions in sanitation and nutritional issues, other important issues addressed by the association included extraction of edible oil, rice husking, manufacture of handmade paper, jaggery from palms and other affordable technologies that aided productivity without displacing human labour.
Here it is not out of place to point out the difference between Gandhi’s constructive actions and Rabindranath’s thoughts and work in rural areas. There were two basic differences. One, Rabindranath distanced himself from politics whereas Gandhi, starting from exactly similar perceptions, moved day after day, deeper and deeper, into the centre of politics.
Second, Rabindranath’s constructive work started with governmental aid and blessing, while Gandhi’s constructive programme began to instill fear in the heart of the government. Gandhi’s CP had other objectives: to keep workers of his movement in contact with people when there were no mass movements; to serve people and render economic assistance to them, and above all, to lay the foundation of an exploitation-free economy of independent India.
In the 1940s, Gandhi had to perforce divert his energies to political mobilisation and to contending with communal violence.
However, 26 January 1948 came as a reminder of India’s resolution to achieve Independence and as if that day offered Gandhi a new call for duty. Gandhi had also braced himself for the final venture of his life.
He chalked out plans to wind up camp in Delhi and proceed to Sevagram on 2 February. On 29 January, the day before his assassination, he advised INC to dissolve the party voluntarily into a Lok Sevak Sangh.
According to him, since the political objective had been attained, it was time for Congressmen to devote themselves wholly to educate and organise the masses for swaraj. He also offered his famed talisman of ‘recalling the face of the poorest and weakest man’ and asking if one’s actions helped such an individual.
Top leaders of INC were so enamored of power that they gradually isolated Gandhi who lamented, ‘I am a spent bullet.’ Gandhi’s death snapped the dialectic link between politics and CP. While contemporary India is vastly different from Gandhi’s times, many of his fundamental concerns are alive.
Today’s India is more prosperous, but also vastly more unequal. Agrarian India is gripped by chronic problems with no relief in sight, while all of India faces huge unemployment.
The virus of communal violence and hatred threatens to tear our democratic edifice apart. Indeed, Gandhi’s CP is in need of urgent attention. Shortly before his death Pandit Nehru admitted that the predicament that the country faced was rooted in deviation from the Gandhian path.