The forgotten liberal ideas of M.K. Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is now in the headlines once again, this time for an alleged ‘bisexual’ affair. Provocatively-titled biographies such as  ‘Gandhi: Naked Ambition’ (Jad Adam) and ‘Let’s Kill Gandhi!’ (Tushar A.Gandhi) are now fashionable, but it is the beautifully-titled ‘Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India’ by Joseph Lelyveld that has stirred the latest controversy. The book has already been banned by in the state where M.K Gandhi was born 149 years ago. Expressing his displeasure on the ban, Lelyveld has said that “In a country (India) that calls itself a democracy, it is shameful to ban a book that no one has read, including the people who are doing the banning”.  However, this article does not deal in any way with the question of censorship. Instead, it attempts to recount the almost forgotten free market ideas of M.K. Gandhi.

I was one of the participants in the Colloquium on “the Indian Liberal Tradition” organised by the Centre for Civil Society (New Delhi) on June 13-15, 2010 in Bangalore, to deliberate on the liberal, free market ideas of B. R. Ambedkar, Prof. B. R. Shenoy, C. Rajagopalachari, Minoo Masani, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda and others. The focal question was: “Is there a unique brand of Indian liberalism?” According to the organiser,

the Indian liberal space, with its long history, old defenders and emerging advocates is as diverse and wide ranging as the liberal political spectrum. While the space includes thinkers and scholars with the conscious liberal tag, there are countless others whose writings without the tag could find resonance with the liberal ethos.

More interestingly, one of the participants, after reading a national political party’s Facebook account claiming that “the party advocates conservative social policies, self reliance, free markets” had asked “Last time, during recession, didn’t they talk about Gandhian economic policies?”.  His implication was that Gandhian economic policies are incompatible with free market economics.

Is this true? This is a crucial question for the present generation of Indians. Any well-informed scholar knows that Gandhi invariably advocated limited government intervention, unfettered individual liberty and freedom, and higher education in private hands. On these aspects there is no sign of deep discussion in the Gandhian literature, nor any public discussion.

On Moral Sentiments

Gandhi’s views on economics and ethics have strong relevance at this juncture. After the recent global financial crisis, the fabric of moral sentiments has become a key talking point in academia and among policy makers all over the world. Moral sentiments matter to an economy, but the tragedy is that governments typically ignore these and focus instead on political sentiments, such as vote winning.

Writing in ‘Young India’, Gandhi said (1921),

I do not draw a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics. Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral … The economics that disregard moral and sentimental considerations are like wax works that, being life-like, still lack the life of the living flesh. At every crucial moment thus new-fangled economic laws have broken down in practice. And nations or individuals who accept them as guiding maxims must perish.

This is akin to what Adam Smith emphasised in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he coined the phrase ‘invisible hand’. Gandhi, as a philosopher of human action, seems to be well aware of the consequences of the moral sentiments.

Advocating individual freedom and liberty, Gandhi wrote in the ‘Harijan’ (1943 & 1942),

If individual liberty goes, then surely all is lost, for if the individual ceases to count, what is left of society? … No society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom. It is contrary to the very nature of man. … Every individual must have the fullest liberty to use his talents. … Individual liberty and inter-dependence are both essential for life in society.

Indeed, there is a convergence between M.K Gandhi’s views and what B.R Ambedkar had reasoned on individual and society. Ambedkar said

Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, man does not lose his being in the society in which he lives. Man’s life is independent. He is born not for the development of the society alone, but for the development of his self.

the aim and object of society is the growth of the individual and the development of his personality. Society is not above the individual and if the individual has to subordinate himself to society, it is because such subordination is for his betterment and only to the extent necessary. … Man is an individual who holds himself in hand by his intelligence and his will; he exists not merely in a physical fashion. He has spiritual super-existence through knowledge and love, so that he is, in a way, a universe in himself, a microcosm, in which the great universe in its entirety can be encompassed through knowledge.

It is a paradox that not only have Gandhi’s opponents misinterpreted his argument on self-sufficiency, but so too have liberals! Gandhi wrote (1946 & 1945)

Only a Robinson Crusoe can afford to be all self-sufficient … A man cannot become self-sufficient even in respect of all the various operations from the growing of cotton to the spinning of the yarn. He has at some stage or other to take the aid of the members of his family. And if one may take help from one’s own family, why not from one’s neighbours? Or otherwise what is the significance of the great saying, ‘The world is my family’?”

Clearly this shows that Gandhi was not a believer in “self-sufficiency” in its absolute sense, as it has been often painted in the Gandhian literature.

On Violence

On the question of state intervention in public affairs, Gandhi was very much concerned about the state’s role in protecting the individual freedom and its role in promoting friendly relations with neighbours. With foreboding, he wrote (1948 & 1935)

I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress.

Further, he went to say that the state

represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence, to which it owes its very existence … What I would personally prefer would be not a centralization of power in the hands of the State, but an extension of the sense of trusteeship; as in my opinion the violence of private ownership is less injurious than the violence of the State. However, if it is unavoidable, I would support a minimum of State-ownership

This is all too true in the contemporary India. There is no guarantee that a year will pass without organized violence in at least one Indian state. If anyone would study the violence caused by the state versus the private sector, the state violence would be found to be far greater. In 1982, speaking in public on budget analysis, the late Nani A. Palkhivala said

Millions of man-days continue to be lost as a result of strikes and lockouts, not to talk of go-slow tactics which are equally pernicious but escape punishment … if there could a tax on violence, muscle power and irresponsibility … it would give me one of the fastest growing sources of revenue.

On Population Control

Today, the government rules out “coercion completely in the efforts for population stabilization”. It is a folly which prevailed for years: that the population is a problem rather than a key resource. Interestingly, Gandhi was completely against government control of the population. He said in 1925 that

If it is contended that birth control is necessary for the nation because of over-population, I dispute the proposition. It has never been proved. In my opinion, by a proper land system, better agriculture and a supplementary industry, this country is capable of supporting twice as many people as there are in it today.

He further said, writing in the Harijan (1946), that

The bogey of increasing birth-rate is not a new thing. It has been often trotted out. Increase in population is not and ought not to be regarded as a calamity to be avoided. Its regulation or restriction by artificial methods is a calamity of the first grade, whether we know it or not.

Or take this, from 1935:

This little globe of ours is not a toy of yesterday. It has not suffered from the weight of over-population through its age of countless millions. How can it be that the truth has suddenly dawned upon some people that it is in danger of perishing of shortage of food unless the birth-rate is checked through the use of contraceptives?

To Gandhi it was clear that the State would cause great disorder whenever it tried to impose family planning and population stabilization, and that it should not interfere with the purely private life of an individual.

On Education

In this age of debate over privatization of higher education, Gandhi’s views are worth recalling. Even the Gandhian pundits have sidelined some of his radical free market ideas in this area.

Gandhi said (1937, 1938, 1947 & 1948)

I would revolutionize college education and relate it to national necessities. There would be degrees for mechanical and other engineers. They would be attached to the different industries which should pay for the training of the graduates they need. Thus the Tatas would be expected to run a college for training engineers under the supervision of the State, the mill associations would run among them a college for training graduates whom they need. Similarly for the other industries that may be named. Commerce will have its college. There remain arts, medicine and agriculture. Several private arts colleges are today self-supporting. The State would, therefore, cease to run its own. Medical colleges would be attached to certified hospitals. As they are popular among moneyed men they may be expected by voluntary contributions to support medical colleges. And agricultural colleges to be worthy of the name must be self-supporting.

Higher education should be left to private enterprise and for meeting national requirements whether in the various industries, technical arts, belles-letters or fine arts. The State Universities should be purely examining bodies, self-supporting through the fees charged for examinations. Universities will look after the whole of the field of education and will prepare and approve courses of studies in the various departments of education. … University charters should be given liberally to any body of persons of proved worth and integrity, it being always understood that the Universities will not cost the State anything except that it will bear the cost of running a Central Education Department.

I am opposed to all higher education being paid for from the general revenue … It is criminal to pay for a training which benefits neither the nation nor the individual. In my opinion there is no such thing as individual benefit which cannot be proved to be also national benefit. … Universities must be made self-supporting. The State should simply educate those whose services it would need. For all other branches of learning it should encourage private effort … In my opinion it is not for a democratic State to find money for founding universities. If the people want them they will supply the funds. Universities so founded will adorn the country which they represent.

Views like the above are not well known among members of academia, politicians, and civil society activists in India. One of the main reasons is that the government, media, and sometimes even parents have been quite dangerously misleading children through biased textbooks and skewed public opinions with meaningless political agendas, rather than teaching the actual principles that Gandhi argued for.

Moreover, people in the private sector have also completely forgotten that M.K. Gandhi was in favour of privatization as far as higher education is concerned. Even though there was a big difference of opinion between M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, there are instances of convergence between their arguments and ideas, which need to be remembered. Clearly, to live up to the twenty-first century, we need to revive the understanding of the founding fathers of our nation.

One reply on “The forgotten liberal ideas of M.K. Gandhi”
  1. says: Michael

    Mr Chandrasekaran.

    Great to see how Gandhi, despite no economic education or background but only a strong respect for individual liberty naturally came to embrace the division of labour.

    I’ve always seen him celebrated by ‘left libertarians’ and never really given him much consideration as a defender of the free market.

    His admant rejection of the Malthusian population crisis, advocacy of private ownership and investment in land and anarcho capitalist like disdain for the state in all forms are truly inspiring, thankyou for this great introduction to the man.

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