Gandhi’s Quest for “Swaraj” Already in the ‘Palm of Your Hand’

This piece, written by Adam B. Lerner, covers Nazmul S. Sultan’s  new article, Self-Rule and the Problem of Peoplehood in Colonial India.

The concept of ‘swaraj’ (self-rule) became a rallying cry for India’s anticolonial movement in the decades before it and neighbouring Pakistan achieved independence in 1947. Harnessed most famously by MK Gandhi, the idea galvanized an enormously diverse population into pursuing independence from the British empire, an early domino in a wave of decolonization that spread across the globe.

But, as Nazmul Sultan writes in his latest article for the American Political Science Review, the idea of swaraj raised important questions of collective authorization for the Indian people: Were Indians a people “developed” and “united” enough to be sovereign and self-governing? If Indians were to rule themselves, would they need to be granted the right by the British authority or could the people self-authorize?

As Sultan writes, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two key approaches to these questions developed. First, many leading Indian political figures continued to justify British rule on the grounds that the India was too impoverished and its people too underdeveloped to rule themselves. This developmentalist viewpoint, ironically, posited that colonialism brought diverse groups of Indians together into a ‘people’ under British rule, but also noted that foreign rule demonstrated Indians’ unfitness for self-government. Without political and economic development, one Indian anticolonial thinker wrote, an independent India would suffer the “disastrous consequence” of the French Revolution.

In the wake of Dadabhai Naoroji’s declaration of swaraj, a group of Indian anticolonial thinkers sought to overcome the denial of self-rule to the colonized. Bipin Chandra Pal and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in particular, argued that the Indian people could only become fit for swaraj by way of participating in self-government. While this theoretical move allowed Indians to lay claim to self-government, this developmental framework delayed popular sovereignty. On the other hand, some Indian anticolonial thinkers like the London-based Shyamji Krishnavarma, advocated an instrumentalist approach that would physically expel the British from India. While the instrumentalist approach emphasized the immediate necessity of independence, it had no answer to the problem of peoplehood.

The backdrop of this debate between developmentalist and instrumentalist visions of swaraj, Sultan writes, facilitated Gandhi’s theoretical innovation. Gandhi learned of these differing viewpoints while working in South Africa, but rejected both as misguided. According to Gandhi, the developmentalist approach would lead India to emphasize material progress over moral progress and would further delay self-rule. But the instrumentalist framework was equally problematic, as it would expel the British only to import their oppressive institutions like those that supported British imperial rule.

Instead, Gandhi advocated a moral vision of swaraj, which he argued was already “in the palm of [Indians’] hands.” Emphasizing the individual as the source of swaraj, Gandhi argued that through his program of non-cooperation Indians could authorize themselves to control their political destinies. By taking on this responsibility as individuals, Indians would come together and enable swaraj for the entirety of the people, bypassing any need for external authorization.

“Swaraj will not be a gift from anyone,” Gandhi wrote. “It will not fall from above, nor will it be thrown up from below.” Indians did not need to wait to develop or push Britain out to justify their self-rule—by turning to themselves, Indians would achieve the moral authority for self-rule internally.

This powerful rejection of the parameters of existing debate laid the foundations for Gandhi’s political thought. Building on ideas of self-authorization, Gandhi developed a vision of swaraj comprised of self-sufficient villages. Gandhi’s account of the village republic attempted to avoid all forms of collective authorization. He instead sought to ground political authority in individual self-sacrifice. Sultan argues that Gandhi’s vision of moral self-rule has to be read in the context of the colonial problem of peoplehood.

As Sultan writes, Gandhi’s reinvention of the concept of swaraj dramatically transformed the anticolonial movement into a mass movement.  Yet Gandhi also resisted institutionalization of his moral vision of self-rule. Sultan’s article ultimately explains the political dimension of Gandhi’s otherwise moral theory of self-rule. As the developmental framework continues to mark international and postcolonial political landscape, these reflections on the meaning of self-rule remain relevant as ever.