Svaraj and The Nation

~Prof. Makarand R. Paranjape

In 1909, Mahatma Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule. Not only was this his first major book, it was also the only book of his that Gandhi himself translated into English. Written originally in Gujarati between 13 and 22 November on board the S. S. Kildonan Castle journeying from England to South Africa, it appeared in two instalments in the 11 and 19 December issues of Indian Opinion, a journal Gandhi used to bring out. In January 1910, it was published as an independent booklet by Gandhi’s own International Printing Press from Phoenix Farm, Natal, with an English version appearing two months later in March.

Hind Swaraj was an imaginary dialogue between a Reader and the Editor, the latter presumably standing for Gandhi himself. This dialogue covers a range of topics including the Congress Party and its officials, the state of India, the reasons for India’s colonization, the meaning of svaraj (self-rule), the best means to attain it, Gandhi’s vision of an ideal society, the definition and practice of satyagraha (‘truth-force’), the qualities required to be a satyagrahi, Hindu-Muslim unity, railways, lawyers and doctors, and English education in India. The book became notorious for its attack on machinery and modern, Western civilization. Yet, more than that, it contained the earliest, most comprehensive, exposition of Gandhi’s philosophy. Extremely influential politically, Hind Swaraj was soon banned in India. However, it was reissued many times during Gandhi’s life and remained close to his heart; though his own thinking changed with time, he never disowned its key tenets. It still remains one of the most important documents of India’s freedom struggle and the discourse of decolonization the world over, besides being the handbook of nonviolent revolution.

I begin with this bringing to mind of Gandhi’s book only because the Gandhian project is central to what India means to me today. I wrote about this earlier in my book Altered Destinations (2009), the orthographic depiction of the title highlighting how nation is foregrounding in “destination.” A nation, I suggested, is also a destination, a goal, an objective, an ultimate aim. Many forget what the destination of India is. They think it is economic or social advancement, freedom, democracy, justice and so on. These words, while resonant of the directive principles set forth in the Preamble of the Constitution of India, still do not express the underlying purpose for which this nation was imagined into being.

For several years, I, too, was somewhat unclear if not confused about the meaning of India. In many seminars and conferences, so much time is spent trying to understand what we mean by ‘nation’. Is India a nation? Or is it a civilization? Or is it both? A civilization-state? If India is a nation, are Pakistan and Bangladesh nations, too? If Bangladesh is a nation are the Bengalis a nation? Are the Tamils a nation? Are Hindus a nation? So are we a nation of nations? What is the difference between the Indian nation and the Indian state? Is the former an abstraction, an idea, while the latter the actual institutional apparatus? How does Indian nationalism differ from Western nationalisms? Is communalism different from nationalism or is it in itself a type of nationalism? Is Indian nationalism actually a camouflage for Hindu nationalism? Is Hindutva a form of ethnic nationalism or is it a religious ideology? How is cultural nationalism different from Hindutva? Is pan-Islamism also a type of nationalism or is it a politics of identity? Are sub-nationalisms anti-national or are they also legitimate expressions of nationalism? Of the competing Indian nationalisms, which are more authentic and how can we distinguish one from the other? Does the nation-state that is India have a stable or successful future? Will it survive in its present shape and form? Or would the splitting of India into many smaller states be desirable? Is nationalism a flawed and outdated ideology? Are all nationalisms parochial, even murderous, or are some nationalisms better than others?

These, and a bewildering array of similar, questions assail us when we focus on the issue of the Indian nation. That is why I have found it much better to focus on an indigenous word such as svaraj instead of the nation. This came to me in a flash in a seminar at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies several years ago. While several learned speakers spoke on the idea of the nation and its pitfalls, almost none bothered to think of something much more vital and immediate—svaraj. Surely, all talk of the nation is futile if it does not, in some way, lead to svaraj. Our svaraj, the country’s svaraj, the svaraj of millions, and ultimately, the svaraj of non-Indians as much as Indians—surely, all these are interconnected. While words like ‘the nation’ may confuse us, svaraj is immediate and crystal clear. It concerns our autonomy, empowerment, dignity and selfhood; not just our rights, but our responsibilities and commitments to one another and to our highest selves. How is the nation doing? This question may be confusing, but if we ask, ‘Do we have svaraj?’ the answer will be much clearer. Do all Indians have svaraj? Is our society organized to maximize the svaraj of all or does it favour the few, the rich, and the powerful? What should we do to reinstall svaraj as a principle of governance if not as a national ideal?

The idea of svaraj is very powerful and meaningful in India. Originating in the Vedas and the Upanishads, svaraj found a new, largely political expression in the late nineteenth century. Deployed for political purposes by stalwarts like Dadabhai Naoroji, Lokmanya Tilak, Sri Aurobindo, and Mahatma Gandhi, it soon became synonymous with India’s demand for independence. Etymologically, the word is a modern variation of the Sanskrit svarajya, a compound made up of sva + raj; sva means self and raj means to shine. Hence, the word means both the shining of the self and the self that shines. While the word raj gives us many terms associated with power including Raja, Rex and Regina, svaraj is much more than just that. We might actually say that svaraj is another word for enlightenment in addition to signifying self-rule.

It is in India that political independence was expressed in terms of enlightenment and self-illumination; it is here that temporal power was considered only the material basis for higher consciousness rather than an end in itself. For us, no political independence was conceivable without a concomitant spiritual and moral liberation. Svarajya, then, is the principle of perfection, of perfect governmentality, because illumination comes from internal order, not from oppression or rule over others. Originally, svarajya referred to the internal government of a person, the government of the limbs, of the senses, of the organs and of all the different physical and psychological constituents of the individual. When all these could be well-governed, a person could rule himself, be svarat. Hence svarajya is the state of self-mastery; the master of senses is svarat. The opposite of svarat, anyarat, means someone ruled by anya, by others. The Upanishad clearly says that those who are anyarat perish; they go to the worlds of the doomed.

Combining spiritual liberation with political independence, svaraj also suggests a host of possibilities for inner illumination and self-realization. Svaraj is thus opposed both to imperialism and to totalitarian forms of government that crush the liberty of individuals and collectives. That is why the word svaraj might be preferable to decolonization, because svaraj is not tied up with the colonizer as decolonization is. In fact, one’s own svaraj can only help and contribute to the svaraj of others. The personal and the political are neither contradictory nor discontinuous; they merge, one leading to the other, the other leading back to the one. Svaraj is always both singular and collective; we cannot be free unless all our brothers and sisters are free and they cannot be free unless we are free. Svaraj allows us to resist oppression without hatred and violent opposition. It was on these grounds that Gandhi developed the praxis of satyagraha, or insistence on truth and truth-force, to fight for the rights of the disarmed and impoverished people of India.

Originally, svarat described a person who had good government of his own body and mind, or good self-mastery. Gandhi and the others applied it to the body politic. Simply speaking, they meant that just as we do not want to be ruled by others, we must eschew ruling over others. Svaraj thus implies self-restraint, self-regulation. If we are all self-governing, the state as we know it will have very little to do. For Gandhi, an ideal society consisted of highly evolved, self-regulating individuals, who respected themselves and others. Such a society did not need policemen, law enforcers, or a huge bureaucratic apparatus because each citizen would look out for the welfare of others.

Of course, there is the question of who rules over whom, just as it is usually not clear which part of oneself is in charge of the others.  But such a question arises because of a confusion in understanding raj not as shining but as powerful.  The power, originally, was secondary, the visible manifestation of the self-illumined person.  So, svaraj is more about expression than control; when the inner being expresses itself fully—and that can happen only when the senses and other organs of action are in harmony and internal order—then its power becomes visible and evident.  For Gandhi, too, svaraj was less about ruling others or being ruled by them than about being oneself as fully and fruitfully as possible.  That is why he devoted a good deal of his text to understanding the native genius of Indian civilization. If only we could be true to that, we would both be free and responsible, that is neither ruled by others nor interested in ruling others.  In that sense, Hind Swaraj is a blueprint not only of a different destination, but of a desination, a nation that is true to its own soil and spirit rather than a borrowed or imported nation, in sum a vernacular rather than metropolitan nation.

The idea of svaraj had large-scale ramifications in many areas of Indian thought and culture. In 1928, Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya, one of India’s leading philosophers, delivered a lecture called ‘svaraj in Ideas’. He raised the pertinent question of whether we had achieved autonomy in thought and ideas along with the quest for political independence. Bhattacharya was of the view that Indian intellectuals would have to work a lot harder if such an emancipation of consciousness had to be accomplished. Several years later, his essay was reprinted in a special number of the Indian Philosophical Quarterly (October–December 1984) also entitled ‘Swaraj in Ideas’. Many outstanding philosophers and thinkers debated this topic and their responses were also published in the same journal on the content and means of decolonizing the Indian mind.

Perhaps, much of my own work is about svaraj. Evidently, its significance has exercised me for over two decades. I first tried to come to terms with it in Decolonization and Development: Hind Svaraj Revisioned (New Delhi and London: Sage, 1993). That book is also fashioned as a dialogue, not between an Editor and Reader as in Gandhi’s original, but between a student and a teacher. It tries to take stock of where we were as a nation in the 1980s. I continue to use the spelling svaraj instead of swaraj not only because it is a closer transliteration, but also to suggest that we must each struggle to find our own meaning of the word, rather than simply assuming that it means what our predecessors have thought. More recently, in Altered Destinations, I continued my explorations of the meaning of svaraj. I realise that svarajis an unfinished quest; to that extent, we still seek it and will continue to do so.

In retrospect, however, the 1980s seem to have been more innocent times. The country was smaller, more circumscribed, even simpler. Today, our basic condition is much more complex, as are our problems. We have to deal not only with the scourge of terrorism, but also with the powerful forces of globalization. In the domestic sphere, the Nehruvian ideology of socialist secularism failed, but in its place no alternative as yet occupies the centre stage. On the other hand, various forces of “anti-nationalism” seem to have a field run. Young people are restive, even if some of their discontent appears “manufactured.” Several organisations and ideologies are hell-bent on dividing us on the lines of caste and religion. Much of the dissension is between Hindus themselves, giving the impression that we are in the midst of a protracted uncivil war, with competing and escalating intolerances ranged against each other in the public sphere.

Can the idea of svaraj help reorient our body politic from division to unity? Clearly, we need to extend the discussion on svaraj to today’s context, even if we don’t actually use the word overmuch. That is because it is not the word but the underlying orientation that is important. I think one way forward is to depoliticize public discourse away from party politics and the struggle for power, whether at the centre or the states. Instead, we could concentrate, broadly speaking, on the field of culture to see how ideas of autonomy, selfhood and cultural independence have been expressed, depicted and studied in India. This would bring into our ambit contentious issues such as Western appropriations or representations of our past, especially its rich cultural and literary heritage. We would have to grapple not only with the issue of Sanskrit, but also sanskriti, which is much broader and encompassing. We would have to contend with the real dangers both of desacralisation of the former and the secularization of the latter.

Understood thus, svaraj may be seen as a struggle for academic freedom and autonomy, an attempt to free ourselves from both Western and Indian forms of colonization. In this struggle, our main adversaries are not so much groups in the West, but the native elites, who continue to be selfish, slavish and seemingly incapable of independent thought. Their main concern is to belong with the dominant, to be considered on par with or a part of the dominant. But that is an unrealizable, if pious, pipe dream. Our elites continue to be seen as subservient and second-rate by the West and as disloyal by many Indians. Naturally, debates over nativism, cultural self-assertion or critiques thereof may also be viewed as a part of the continuing redefinitions of svaraj. The fight for svaraj, for certain, does not end with political independence, but must go on until every single citizen feels free of oppression and injustice. That is why svaraj is also tied up with ideas of identity and selfhood. That is why svaraj is closely implicated in questions of language, identity, and culture.  Especially in beleaguered or endangered languages, svaraj in literary texts means the preservation or assertion of cultural identities. All told, cultural svaraj can be a fertile field of inquiry and discussion.

I started this short reflection with Gandhi and I shall end with him. Indeed, I keep coming back to Gandhi, even though he is one Indian, one self-proclaimed “sanatani” Hindu, whom we love to hate or hate to love. To me, he still remains the touchstone to measure what has happened to India. Gandhi not only provides a moral centre to our efforts, but actually makes our daily life more meaningful. I am not suggesting that we follow him blindly, unquestioningly. Indeed, I believe it is of fundamental importance to dwell on his limits and limitations. Speaking for myself, even when I seem to depart from him, I am struggling to go closer to him—at least this is how I see my own journey. As far as India is concerned, a dharmic, plural, value-oriented idea of the nation is what we may derive from him.

Ultimately, when we speak of svaraj, we must also contend with the coherence[1] and continuing relevance of nationalism, at least in the Indian context. By nationalism I do not mean the view that one’s own country or culture is superior to that of others, nor an excessive patriotism amounting to chauvinism. Instead, I tend to use the word in a somewhat old-fashioned way as suggestive not just of a national spirit, but the sense of belonging, which gives us the feeling of being part of a collectivity that is bigger than our linguistic, regional, or religious identities. If we consider this sense of belonging as nationalism, then nationalism, despite its discontents, has neither broken down nor become obsolete. But if nationalism is both relevant and valuable, this does not mean that it is unitary or entirely harmonious. Indian nationalism, on the contrary, exhibits multiple tendencies and aspirations, each trying to re-fashion the nation according to its own programme. If Indian nationalism is still coherent, it still holds together and makes sense, then the methodology that we need is somewhat more plural and open-minded than any straightforward argument to such effect.

One of the underlying preoccupations of our search for svaraj will, therefore, be how to resolve the tension between civic nationalism and dharmic nationalism. Clearly, the latter ought not to be theological or exclusive, favouring one religion or community over others. Yet, it should be in tune with Indian civilizational values. The latter are what we need to re-examine. We must accept that Western values are not necessarily universal or neutral, nor are “Hindu”/Indic values, such as dharma or karma, necessarily parochial or narrow-minded. Instead, the perennial values of India, which we may call sanatana, also embody a universality. They are not special to any one community or people, even if they have been articulated most persuasively over millennia in this subcontinent. To subscribe to these values and to seek to orient our nation according to them is not automatically to endorse some sort of illiberal or ‘communal’ ideology. I have tried to show in my work that these are competing, not necessarily oppositional, universalisms. The crisis of secularism has given us, once again, the challenge to articulate such values afresh. The result is not necessarily an automatic or uncritical endorsement of ‘Hindutva’, but the exploration of new kind of nationalism that is culturally and civilizationally grounded in India, at the same time as being modern, liberal, and plural. A coherent statement of such a national ethos is still awaited.

(This article appeared in India Foundation Journal, January-April 2016 issue.)

[1] An earlier version was published as the Preface to my book, Altered Destinations: Self, Society, and Nation in India (London: Anthem, 2009).

2 As opposed to what Bhikhu Parekh (1999, 295–326) termed “The Incoherence of Nationalism” in the concluding chapter of Ronald Beiner’s Theorizing Nationalism.

Works Cited

Parekh, Bhikhu. 1999.“The Incoherence of Nationalism.” Ronald Beiner, ed. Theorizing Nationalism. Albany: SUNY Press.

Paranjape, Makarand. Altered Destinations: Self, Society, and Nation in India. London: Anthem, 2009; New Delhi: Anthem Paperbacks, 2010.

—–. 1993. Decolonization and Development: Hind Swaraj Revisioned. New Delhi: Sage


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