Monday, 11 January 2016


The developmental aspirations of the people of India unfolded themselves through the various stages of the freedom movement. The violent resistance of the Indian people to the British rule in 1857 and the subsequent tribal upsurges were defensive movements against foreign rule. They were almost totally political. 

But the peasant struggles that occurred since the late nineteenth century had a clear economic perspective. They were against the oppressive land revenue system that came along with foreign rule even though the peasants were not always aware of the colonial mechanism and they often turned their wrath on the intermediate landowners like the zamindars and mouzadars.

After the consolidation of the British rule in 1858, new organisations and movements of the people came to the fore choosing ‘constitutionalist’ strategies. Landlords formed their own organisations to demand reduction of Government revenue claims.

Simultaneously nationalist leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji, M.G. Ranade and R.C. Dutt  started critiquing the colonial economic exploitation. They argued that the main reason of poverty in India was the colonial exploitation. The end of colonial rule was necessary for the alleviation poverty in India.


In 1885 the educated elite formed the Indian National Congress as an umbrella organisation of all sections of the Indian people beginning with the demand for adequate representation of the Indians in the senior Government  services and the legislative bodies created by the Indian

Councils Act of 1861. Indeed, initially they did not take up the cause of the workers and peasants considering them as ‘local issues.’ But individual nationalists were engaged in ‘philanthropic works’ among the workers and the peasants.

The Indian National Congress was founded with a modest constitutionalist outlook and chose the strategy of petitions and persuasion rather than pressure and agitation. The earliest plea that it made to the Government was for the facilitation of the Indians’ access to the Indian civil service which indeed was an elitist demand. 

On the other hand, the organisation declined to take up the issue of  the condition of plantation and industrial labour which appeared to it to be ‘local’ issues even though philanthropists  and labour leaders were given platform. In 1893 the Congress demanded the uniform introduction of permanent settlement of land to save the landholders from harassment by the Government.

As early as 1895  Dr Annie Besant, founder of the Indian Home Rule League and a leader of the Indian National Congress, drafted a Constitution of India Bill envisaging a Constitution that guaranteed  to every citizen freedom of expression, inviolability of one’s house, right to property, equality before the law and in regard to admission to public offices, right to present claims, petition and complaints and the right to personal property. 

At a special session at Bombay in 1918 on the Montague-Chelmsford Report, the Congress demanded that the new Government of India Act contain a declaration of the rights of the Indians containing, among other things, equality before the law, protection in respect of liberty, life and property, freedom of speech and press and right of association.

In 1925 a sub-committee set up by the All-Parties Conference chaired by M.K. Gandhi prepared a Commonwealth of India Bill that demanded self-government for Indians from the village upwards – the village, the taluka, the district, the province and India. It also demanded the rights to liberty, security of dwelling and property, freedom of conscience and to profess and practise religion, freedom to express opinion, to assemble peacefully and without arms and to form associations or unions, free elementary education, use of roads, public places, courts of justice and the like, equality before the law irrespective of nationality and freedom of the sexes.

The Motilal Nehru Committee Report of 1928 incorporated all these demands and added the right of all citizens to the writ of habeas corpus’ protection in respect of punishment under ex post facto laws, non-discrimination against any person on grounds of race, religion or creed in the matter of  public employment, office of power or honour and in the exercise of any trade or calling, equal access of all citizens to public road, public wells and places of public resort, freedom of combination and association for the maintenance and improvement of labour and economic conditions and the right to keep arms in accordance with regulations.

It will be seen that, although the above demands had certain economic implications, the demands were essentially political and elitist. It was not until the appearance in the scene of Gandhi that the socio-economic problems of the common  people came to focus. Gandhi brought the common people into national politics. He had to reflect their aspirations.


Among the earliest Gandhian activities in the socio-economic field were his visit to Champaran in Bihar to save the peasants from the exploitation of the British indigo planters, his initiation of peasant satyagraha at Khaira in Gujarat against high revenue demands of the Government and his intervention in the labour dispute in the Sarabhai textile mills at Ahmedabad. 

The first two moves related to the agrarian economy of the country in which about 95% of the Indian people were involved in the second decade of the twentieth century and clearly had an antiimperialist edge. The third related to industrial relation within an Indian-owned undertaking. Gandhi’s mediation and moral pressure resulted in a happy ending of the dispute.

The three episodes in the early life of Gandhi suggest that, whereas Gandhi took a clear antiimperialist position, he was in favour of solving class conflict within the Indian society through persuasion. He was not in favour of class struggle within the Indian society. In fact the Ahmedabad experience seems to have led him to pronounce his famous ‘theory of trusteeship’ that advised the owning class to behave as the trustees of the national wealth in the interest of the working class. In fact, it was probably due to his influence that the Ahmedabad Textile Workers’ Union kept away from the All-India Trade Union Congress when it was set up in 1920. Even the Congress leaders did not join it until the party’s Gaya conference in  1922.

While the Congress fought for the interest of the peasants and farmers many of whom  actively participated in its satyagrahas it was not until about the end of the  freedom movement that it raised the demand for land reform, that is, abolition of zamindari and other intermediary rights in land and grant of ownership to tillers of land. In fact, as early as 1893 the Indian National Congress had demanded permanent settlement of land (as in Bengal) in order to protect the  landlords against harassing extortions of the landlords in the ryotwari areas.

Gandhi’s ‘Substance of Swaraj’

On January 26, 1930 Congressmen all over the country took the pledge of complete independence as demanded in the Lahore Resolution of December 1929. On January 30, 1930 in Young India Gandhi laid down his perception of the ‘substance of independence’ as follows: 

1) Total prohibition. 

2) Reduction of pound-rupee exchange ratio from 1 shilling 6 pence to 1 shilling 4 pence. 

3) Reduction of land revenue by at least 50% and making it subject to legislative control. 

4) Abolition of salt tax 

5) Reduction of military expenditure by at least 50% to begin with. 

6) Reduction of salaries of the highest grade services by half or less, so as to suit the reduced revenue. 

7) Protective tariff on foreign cloth. 

8) Passage of the Coastal Traffic Reservation Bill. 

9) Discharge of all political prisoners save those condemned for murder or attempt to murder, or trial by ordinary judicial tribunals, and withdrawal of all political prosecutions. 

10) Abolition of the C.I.D. or its popular control. 

11) Issue of licenses to use fire arms for self-defence, subject to popular control. 

The demands, it can be seen, watered down the concept of complete independence envisaged by the Lahore resolution of the Congress. On the other hand, all of them, except the first, had an anti-imperialist edge. Further, except for the 9th and 10th demand, all of them had an economic bearing.


It will be wrong to see the 1930 ‘substance of Independence’ statement of Gandhi as either the whole or the core of Gandhi’s economic ideas. Gandhi’s economic ideas cannot be fully discussed in the present unit. Suffice it to say that it was dynamic and evolved from his pamphlet on Hind Swaraj written in 1907 through a long course of his leadership of the Indian national movement.

Initially he opposed machines as instruments of imperialist exploitation and deprivation of the common masses of the people. Later he watered down his opposition to machines. All through his life, however, he insisted upon the spinning wheel which could give  the poorest Indian villager, particularly women, a means of independent earning.

Initially he opposed class contradiction by means of his theory of trusteeship and change of heart of the owners to solve the problem of exploitation. Toward the end of his life he appears to have grown disillusioned about the prospect of change of heart.

 He even ceased to emphasise the  need for revival of the idyllic self-sufficient village community. But he never ignored the common man and went on stressing the need for revival of the small-scale and cottage industry. It is interesting to note that the National Planning Committee’s sub-committee on agriculture headed by a Gandhian, J.C. Kumarappa, recommended an integrated policy of land reform beginning with abolition of zamindari and other intermediate rights and proceeding to grant of tenancy to the cultivator and imposition of ceiling on agricultural land holding.


It is necessary to remember that Gandhi’s economic thinking was a part of his broader social vision of sarvodaya (upliftment of all), that was originally conceived as antyodaya (unto the last). Towards this aim he devoted a major part of his ‘constructive programme’ towards the abolition of untouchability and the upliftment of the people he called ‘the Harijans’ (now called ‘dalits’).  Though he did not present a separate economic programme for them, his Puna Pact with Dr B.R. Ambedkar gave them a political status in British India’s electoral system that was retained in independent India.

It has been already mentioned that the spinning wheel gave the women an amount of economic independence through their own labour. It should also be mentioned that it was Gandhi’s satyagraha that brought the women into the arena of politics and liberated them from their domestic bondages.

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