On Gandhian Self-sufficiency

I am somewhat familiar with the concepts of Satyagraha and non-violence that Gandhi preached and sometimes practiced. They are interesting tools and can be employed effectively in some circumstances. But, like all tools, they too can’t be employed in every case; they are not easy for mere mortals to employ even under favorable circumstances. In fact, they have severe limitations in that they are not general purpose tools but are rather special purpose tools. The interesting thing is irrespective of whether they work or not, the user gets to occupy the moral high ground.

Occupying moral high ground is well and good if that is one’s objective. But one could be very dead at the end of the day — on high ground but still dead.

Those tools elevate the user in the user’s estimation at least. But the sad fact of this world is that it does not work in those cases where you most desperately want it to work. One needs an effective tool against mass murderers more urgently than against robbers. The former could not care less whether you have an elevated opinion of your own moral standing. Hitler, for instance, would have slaughtered without compunction those who responded to his aggression with non-violence; it would have eased the realization of his megalomanical dreams of world domination.

I must hasten to add that satyagraha and non-violence is a “first-best” tool. And that is precisely the trouble, ironically. First-best tools work in “first-best” worlds. A bit of reflection will convince most people that the world we live in is a “second-best” world.

Second best worlds are not perfect and indeed have multiple distortions. Employing tools that are meant for first best worlds could lead one to make a situation worse. And that is what most well-meaning but misguided moral busybodies end up doing — making a bad situation worse. Their enthusiasm to do good often outstrips their ability to comprehend the nature of the world. “Let me save you from drowning,” said the monkey to the fish, as he put the fish up on a tree.

Mere good intentions are not sufficient; often they pave the road to hell. In my considered opinion, it was Gandhi’s good intentions that have paved the way India’s descent into hell. My contention is that the ‘Gandhian Revolution’ is what has condemned hundreds of millions (if not more than a billion) people to lead inhuman lives.

By ‘Gandhian revolution’ I mean the notion of ‘Gandhian self-sufficiency’ and Gandhian economics. And here in a nutshell is the problem: in a world that is mutually interdependent, it is insanity to insist upon self-sufficiency at any level — whether it is the level of the nation, the city, the village, the family, or the individual. Mutual dependencies exist at all levels down to the gut level where we depend on bacteria for our lives.

A goal that seeks self-sufficiency (at any level of analysis) is a prescription for poverty — not just of the body but also of the mind. We are deeply and inalienably connected with all others, however one defines the ‘other.’

My criticism of Gandhi is that he did not comprehend the interconnectedness of the world we live in. But that is not surprising considering that he was perhaps one of the world’s greatest egotists. His ego was sufficiently large that he sometimes eschewed the use of reasoned argument for persuading others and instead blackmailed others into complying with his demands by threatening to starve himself to death. The public, like doting parents scared stiff that the child may indeed hold his breath till he turns blue, gave in to blackmail repeatedly. But that is par for the course for the unreasoning masses of India — they go for this kind of pathetic uncritical hero-worship. However noble the cause, blackmail is blackmail. And the larger the canvas upon which the ransom note is written, the more egregious the crime committed.

I claim that he was the greatest egotist around because to him, only his wishes counted. Sure, it was all dressed up in saintly rhetoric but in the end it was what he wanted that mattered. He wanted to be celibate; so the heck with Kasturba. He could make do with little if needed; therefore every Indian must make do with little. His needs could be satisfied with simple handmade goods, so every person must also aim for that. The spinning wheel and self-sufficient village economy and small scale enterprises were prescribed. He failed to see that in a world which is second-best, he was using a prescription that suited him best. Being an egotist, he could not comprehend that others’ preferences may be different.

Being an egotist is not against any laws, however. At worst, in the case of the average human, it is a handicap not much worse than extreme body odor. But it does have the unfortunate consequence of the person feeling a sense of being above others, not really connected to others. In the case of a ‘mahatma’, that sense of self-reliance translates into xenophobic isolation for the entire nation.

That is the Gandhian revolution that I am against.

The Gandhian revolution has been an unmitigated disaster. It ranks up there with communism as ideologies that have wreaked havoc on human societies. The Chinese suffered under communism and only in the past few years have they started up the road to development once they realized their mistake.

India has to look very critically at the burden we bear of the legacy of Gandhi. We must choose to free ourselves from a blind uncritical acceptance of a defunct ideology. Until we do that, I am afraid that we are condemning large masses of humans to needless misery.

Communism fails because it is a first-best recommendation (behave like saints) in a second-best world (where people are selfish and there is not enough to go around.) Similarly for the Gandhian revolution; it would have ushered in a heaven on earth had the nation been a collection of selfless ascetics. Instead Indians are average humans and therefore the same prescription has given the majority of us a living hell.

“It must remain to the wise to undo the damage that is done by the merely good.”

Author: Atanu Dey


12 thoughts on “On Gandhian Self-sufficiency”

  1. Many people found Gandhiji to be inconsistent because he used to change his mind quite often. That is because he was not rigid in his views. He was quite ready to change his mind if new evidence became available. He did not follow non-violence blindly; after all he supported the British in the second world war in return for independence. His emphasis on self-reliance must also be viewed from the perspective of the freedom struggle. The British were literally stealing raw materials to feed their growing industries and selling the finished goods in India. Self-reliance was a way of protesting against the British rule by hitting where it hurts them most. Fifty years ago the world was not as globalized as it is today. Iam sure Gandhiji would have seen the benefits of globalization. You are trying to judge what happened more than 50 years back by using todays standards; and moreover the comparison is pointless because 50 years back the objectives were different. What is unpardonable is that the people who came after Gandhiji were not wise enough to see the changing circumstances and tailor their actions accordingly.


  2. To call Gandhi a terrible egotist and to say it was dressed up in saintly rhetoric is not to understand the man at all. It is quite a terrible thing to say. And Gandhi did not insist upon self-sufficiency at every level. He did not claim man is not interdependent. His intent was to “build the ethic of self-sufficiency and self-discipline in the individual”, and no matter what the world we live in, first best, second best or nth best, it is an ethic worth striving for.

    In any case, fundamentally there is nothing wrong with the ideal of local self-sufficiency, to the degree possible. E F Schumacher wrote a very good book on that “Small is beautiful”. I believe you have read it as well.

    The idea that the world is second best is not new. Clearly first best ideas are difficult to implement. Practicalities automatically ensure we choose workable solutions, rather than the “theoretically best” solutions. The fact that Gandhi choose techniques that fit in with the Indian ethos, and that those worked clearly indicates he was aware of the necessity of being practical. He didn’t die fasting.

    50 years later, it has become the national passtime to pull down Gandhi and Nehru for everything that is wrong with India. We really ought to move on.

    On an unrelated note, Kirthi Ramakrishnan in response to one of your earlier posts said

    While I don’t disagree that population is a real issue, I prefer to concentrate on things which are practical and positive and have a reasanable chance of acceptance and success. Things like RISC, microfinance etc give hope and optimism while ideas like population credits and controls are restrictive, pessimistic, and scary. It is a path of high resistance and will not get traction when alternatives exist.”

    She/he has put it perfectly. Your ideas on population control and credits are indeed unfortunate. In a country like India, as much as we sorely need a national agenda for education, healthcare etc, change shall happen in small steps, in local communities. And in general, such changes are also more sustaining. Catalysing such changes call for optimism and hope.


  3. While I am not a Gandhian, and I believe a number of Gandhian ideas do not hold ground in the present day, I still respect the mahatma for what he was and what he did. I agree with Arun A., and I couldn’t have put it half as well myself.

    Yes, Gandhiji (perhaps the only person I don’t mind adding a “JI” to) committed some mistakes; yes some of his fast unto death were very close to a blackmail; but I don’t agree with him being called an egotist. I can’t argue in favor of him coz I don’t believe in his ideology, but that won’t stop me from respecting Gandhiji. Every such article makes me respect the man even more.


  4. Gandhi was a politician first and then anything else.Why do we refuse to acknowledge this identity? Until and unless we refuse to honour our true heros and not the “father of the nation” we are doing a gross injustice to all of them.

    He didnt have enough support for his policies in Congress; his real ascent was after the leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai and the “extremists” went away from Congress. Incidentally, it was only after around 1915- that alternative political parties came in to prominence. Prior to that, Congress was reduced to “firmans” or entreaties to British for their “sense of fair play”.

    Would anyone explain the Khilafat movement, the charkha,the support for the WW1 and nearly for WW2 and not stalling RajGuru’s and Bhagat Singh’s trial?

    No sirre; the history speaks otherwise.


  5. Though I agree that Gandhi’s satyagraha was not a effective tool against the British,I disagree with your point on self-sufficiency.

    Indian economy was shock-proofed by the practice of self-sufficiency at the village level.What happens in other parts of the world does not affect a village economy.

    Now instead of talking about villages,lets talk about energy in urban areas.I come from maharashtra where the energy crisis is deepening day by day.

    To counter this we have adopted the path of self-sufficiency by taking to Solar products.Now can you explain whether this is right or wrong.

    If we heed to your advise and depend on MSEB for power,we would end up spending the evenings in darkness and having cold water for an early morning bath(The gas cylinders have lately gone up in price)


  6. None among us can escape being the product of our times. Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru were a product of their times as we are of ours. In hindsight (which is always 20/20) it is easy to blame them for India’s weaknesses today.

    I am not sure if Gandhiji thought about it in this way or not, but when you have a large illiterate, superstitious mass of people who have been rendered humiliated and emasculated by a ruthless, exploitative foreign power, what recourse do you have in order to inspire your countrymen other than championing the exact opposite by being and advocating that everyone else be compassionate, inclusive and proudly self-sufficient?

    I too believe that a creed of compassion, inclusiveness and self-sufficiency carried to extreme can lead to adverse consequences as it has done for India, but that is not the fault of all the great men who led us to independence. Instead, it is the fault of those who followed them after independence and refused to open their collective mind to the possibility that the ideas (and the leaders )that were best for achieving independence may not be the best for achieving progress; or to the possibility that true inclusiveness requires acceptance of one’s limits, that true compassion requires a resolute commitment to one’s security and that for most nations true self-sufficiency only comes through trade and inter-dependency.

    Nevertheless, in order to have any chance succeeding as a nation we have mature psychologically as a people. One of the requirements of psychological maturity is that we stop seeing all things in black and white; we have to begin to accept that two seemingly contradictory things are not always so and can be believed at the same time without going insane.

    Being human, most visionary thinkers and leaders in history have demonstrated the flaw of being too slow to realize the ideas that they advocate for a particular set of circumstances may not be the best ideas for completely different goals.For all of us it should be possible to admire Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru as great men and awesome leaders of India’s struggle for freedom and to simultaneously believe that they had many ideas that were harmful to Independent India’s quest for rapid economic and political progress.


  7. He was not atleast an idle talker building theories in the air all the times. To understand this man I would only suggest you do to do something real productive to the society. Start a small reform association and try to build it that is when you’ll understand him.


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