Like many rich and famous people in post-independent India, who have declared themselves as farmers, albeit only on paper, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, too, called himself a farmer, but for reasons diametrically opposite. While the rich ‘farmers’ were trying to benefit from several government schemes and/or getting exemptions, the London-educated barrister, Gandhi, wanted to associate himself with the real India — the country of villages and farmers. As India witnesses farmers’ protests against the Narendra Modi government’s farm legislation, it’s worth understanding Gandhi’s worldview on farmers.
During the historical sedition trial of 1922, Gandhi had identified himself as a farmer and weaver by profession in a special court at Ahmedabad. His declaration for the Navjivan Trust in Ahmedabad, in November 1929, read: “Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Age 60 years, Hindu, profession weaving and farming….” (Navjivan, 19-03-22, Page 225, Khedut ane Vankar)
Also read: What economists like Ashok Gulati still don’t understand about agriculture in India
Gandhi’s introduction to farming
Gandhi had nothing to do with farming until he went to South Africa. Born to a family of high officials from princely states, he had no knowledge of farming or farmers. His first brush with farming was in South Africa. Henry Polak, a fellow vegetarian friend, introduced Gandhi to John Ruskin’s book Unto This Last in 1904. Gandhi saw “some of his deepest convictions reflected” in that book. One of the main teachings Gandhi derived from the book was that “a life of labour. The life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.” (An Autobiography, M.K. Gandhi, Navjivan, Ahmedabad, Pages 364-365, 1940)
Though the English translation by Mahadev Desai does not use the word ‘farmer’, Gandhi’s original Gujarati writing mentions the word khedut (a farmer) for the ‘tiller of the soil’ — the same word he used in the visitors’ book at Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, decades later. (Satya Na Prayogo Athava Atmakatha, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Page 298, Navjivan Prakashan, Ahmedabad, 1952)
His own experience with farming began at Phoenix settlement, 21 miles away from Johannesburg, in 1904. It was started as an experiment in community living with teachings of Unto This Last and the concept of bread labour in mind. Mornings at Phoenix were usually devoted to farm work along with domestic duties and Gandhi would join others. (An Autobiography, M.K. Gandhi, Navjivan, Ahmedabad, Page 364-365)
Also read: Rich farmers dominate farm protests in India. It’s happening since Charan Singh days
For Gandhi, India meant farmers
Hind Swaraj (1909) was Gandhi’s first major work explaining his world view and his critique of modern civilisation with full force. In its original Gujarati writing, Gandhi (‘The Editor’ in the book) told ‘The Reader’: “In your opinion, India means few princes. To me, it means millions of farmers on whom depend the existence of its princes and our own.” In the same answer, he hailed farmers as those already practising Satyagraha. “Farmers have never been subdued by the sword, and never will be. They do not know the use of sword, and they are not afraid by the use of it by others….The fact is that farmers, the masses have generally used Satyagraha in their own as well as in the state’s matters.” (Hind Swaraj, Navjivan, Ahmedabad, Reprint 2006, page 58-59) The English translation of the work, done by Gandhi himself, has terms like “teeming millions” and “peasants” instead of farmers. (Indian Home Rule, 1910, International Printing Press, Phoenix, page 80)
After returning to India and touring the country, Gandhi understood well that “an Ashram without it (agriculture) would be something like Hamlet without Prince of Denmark.” (Ashram Observances in Action, Navjivan, Ahmedabad, page 91) Agricultural activities were taken up on the initiative of Maganlal Gandhi at the Satyagraha Ashram in Ahmedabad, but Gandhi was “afraid that it would distract” their attention from other important things. With all his reservations, he thought: “No farming, no Ashram: for it must grow its own vegetables and fruits as far as possible”. (Ashram Observances in Action, Navjivan, Ahmedabad, page 92) Yet, according to Gandhi’s own admission, the Ashram farm remained at the experimental stage only.
Also read: Farm reform laws open the market. Now, a regulator is needed
Farmers should be the ‘Congress’
Most of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movements before the Dandi March (1930) were directly related to the issues of farmers: Champaran, Kheda, Borsad, Bardoli. But he was against mixing politics with farmers’ issues. Noting the importance and sheer majority of farmers in the working hands of the country, Gandhi wrote, “the kisans should be the Congress. But they are not. When they become conscious of their non-violent strength, no power on earth can resist them”. (Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place, Navjivan, Ahmedabad, page 22)
Back then, the Congress was the symbol of political representation. Today, it should mean all political parties.
As someone who understood the problems of farmers, Gandhi was against using them for power politics. Citing the success of his campaigns at Champaran, Kheda, Bardoli and Borsad, he wrote, “The secret of success lies in a refusal to exploit the kisans for political purposes outside their own personal and felt grievances”. He also advised against using the Congress’ name for those working for farmers but do not believe in non-violence. (Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place, Navjivan, Ahmedabad, page 23)
Gandhi’s assumed identity of a farmer remained intact even in the last phase of his life. When he visited The Bhandarkar Oriental Institute of Research at Puna in September 1945, accompanied by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, he wrote, “Khedut” (a farmer) under the column of designation in the institute’s visitor book. Sardar Patel, always more keen about his identity as a farmer than a barrister, obviously followed Gandhi.
The author is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.