The message from the Prime Minister for this year’s Gandhi Jayanti was to blend fitness and well-being with cleanliness. Sharing a video on X, in which he was seen taking part in ‘one hour shramdaan for swachhata,’ he said, “Today, as the nation focuses on swachhata, Ankit Baiyanpuriya (a fitness influencer) and I did the same! Beyond just cleanliness, we blended fitness and well-being also into the mix. It’s all about that Swachh and Swasth Bharat vibe!” Earlier, in the 105th episode of ‘Mann Ki Baat,’ he had requested countrymen to take part in the cleanliness drive to pay a tribute–swanchhanjali to the father of the nation. But should a swanch- hanjali to Gandhiji involve only cleanliness and good health?
It is true that to Gandhiji, cleanliness was never divorced from well-being and physical fitness. Pointing out how cleanliness can act as an antidote to plague, Gandhiji said that the eradication of plague from the country would produce fit citizens thereby enhancing the possibility of getting swaraj. He said, “If we could banish the plague from India, we shall have increased our fitness for swaraj.” It should however be remembered that Gandhiji never considered cleanliness to be merely an external accomplishment. To him, having a clean mind was as important as having a clean body and a clean surrounding. In his philosophy, well-being also never meant just good health.
Any meaningful drive on cleanliness as a swachhanjali to Gandhiji, therefore, can never be blind to eradication of manual scavenging, caste discrimination and inequality, and the upkeep of the dignity and freedom of every individual of the country. Gandhiji never treated cleanliness in isolation. A careful scrutiny of his life and work proves that cleanliness was a part of a programme that he devised for the holistic development of an
individual. It was a means to fight both external and internal imprisonment of man. In fact, using sanitation as a weapon, he wished simultane-ously to fight colonialism and reform Indian society.
Gandhiji’s preoccupation with cleanliness began in South Africa. There he had to fight the assertion of the white settlers that the Indians lacked hygiene and therefore needed to be kept separated. In an open letter to the Natal Legislative Assembly, Gandhi maintained that the Indians also could be at par with the Europeans so far as standards of sanitation are concerned, provided they were given the same kind of attention and opportunity. He, however, did not undermine the importance of improving the quality of sanitation for the Indians as he believed that the maintenance of global standards in sanita- tion would correct the image of India in the West to a large extent.
Upon his return to India in 1915, he placed sanitation at the core of his programmes for obtaining independ- ence. He said, “Swaraj ought to begin with our streets.” In 1941, he published a booklet, Constructive Programme, for the Congress workers. Village sanitation was the sixth of the eighteen programmes that Gandhiji laid down in that booklet. Some other important programmes were commu- nal unity, removal of untouchability, economic equality, civil disobedience and the like.
In the section on village sanita- tion, Gandhiji wrote, “If the majority of congressmen were derived from our villages, as they should be, they should be able to make our villages models of cleanliness in every sense of the word. But they have never con- sidered it their duty to identify themselves with the villagers in the daily life. A sense of national or social sanitation is not a virtue among us. We maytakeakindofabath,butwedo not mind dirtying the well or the tank or the river by whose side or in which we perform ablutions.”
In the foreword to the booklet, Gandhiji further wrote, “Readers, whether workers and volunteers or not, should definitely realize that the constructive programme is the truth- ful and nonviolent way of winning
Poorna Swaraj. Its wholesale fullfilment is complete independence. Imagine all the forty crores of people busying themselves with the whole of the constructive programme which is designed to build up the nation from the very bottom upward.” So, sanita- tion, as a part of this programme, was conceived of as contributing to the development of the nation as a whole as also as integrally related to issues, such as, the removal of untouchability and the practice of civil disobedience.
For Indians, sanitation, in the opinion of Gandhiji, as said already, was a necessity to combat the discourse of ‘the white man’s burden’ that supported the mission of colonialism arguing the need for civilizing the uncivilized teaching the Indians sanitation and hygiene. Sanitation was also needed to remove untouchability and to create an Indian society based on equity.
Gandhiji said, “Everyone must be his own scavenger. If you become your own bhangi (sweeper), not only will you ensure perfect sanitation for yourself, but you will make your sur- roundings clean and relieve those whom you call bhangis, of the weight
of oppression.” Sanitation and non-violence were indeed considered by him the two sides of the same coin. He believed that a sanitized mind with complete trust in truth is compelled to practise ahimsa.
In this context, one can’t help say- ing that too much focus on external sanitation and physical fitness might make swachhata a useless metaphor, segregating it completely from Gandhian philosophy. The use of a fitness influencer in his Swachh Bharat cam- paign puts a wrong emphasis on the Gandhian mission of swachhata, proving the vision of the government on swachhata myopic. Ever since the inception of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2015, the government has been circulating photos and videos of important personalities (including the Prime Minister) cleaning up statues, buildings and streets to motivate the masses to take part in the cleanliness programme. Such photos should not unlink external cleanliness from inter- nal cleanliness, making the countrymen forgetful about the real connotations of swacchata to Gandhiji.
Whereas the success of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in making India free of open defecation is undeniable, there is little doubt that the Abhiyan did not consider internal cleanliness seriously. It is high time that the government brings in changes in its directions of cleanliness drive. One of the objectives of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was “to bring about behavioral changes in the people towards sanitation and hygiene.” Such changes are yet to come by. Swachhata has become a ritual only to be performed on Gandhi Jayanti. More and more it is becoming a one-day event of cleaning streets and surroundings. This betrays Gandhiji’s thoughts on swachhata. The nation should not misappropriate the ideology of the father of the nation.
(The writer is Professor, Department of English and Culture Studies, and Director, Centre for A