What bothered Gandhi then is haunting us today

Gandhiji feared that the state and its administrative institutions would be misused by the mighty or the same institutions could get so powerful that they themselves could lose their purpose.


The fear that was absent during wartime started bothering Gandhi once the war ended. Gandhi ji started feeling lonely once it was sure that the British would leave and the preparations for the constitution started. Gandhi who never thought his convictions and his work would make him lonely did face this one fear till the end. The fear was of that of creating a modern state or the government system.

The concept of state or the administration system was born in western countries as part of the modern administration system. Gandhiji was opposed to modernism because he thought it undermines or reduces and makes the inner strength of a man irrelevant. The state or the administration system which comes as part of modernism was a soulless machine according to Gandhi Ji.

Gandhi Ji believed that this system would act cruelly on people and it suppresses them in an inhuman manner. He had absolutely no trust that this state would have a motherly heart. It is not that this question didn’t bother the then-contemporary giants like Babasaheb Ambedkar and Pandit Nehru. But they believed that this system would be in control. They believed that the immense power wielded by the state would be kept in check through laws/constitution/people’s power which meant through elections. Gandhi Ji didn’t seem to have that kind of confidence in democracy, its constitution, and other constitutional institutions etcetera. In his book Hind Swaraj, Gandhi Ji had criticised the British Parliament system in scathing words. Though Hind Swaraj was written in the first decade of the 20th century and it took some two decades for India to accept the parliamentary system based on the constitution, yet there were no significant changes in Gandhiji’s beliefs in that matter. His fears continued. Modern state, laws, court, audit institutions, and all such institutions were not completely trustworthy according to Gandhiji. There were clear possibilities that all these institutions would be misused by the mighty or the same institutions could get so powerful that they themselves could lose their purpose. His principle was that humankind has not discovered a mechanism(s) that would act as a barrier to prevent the misuse of the immense power that parliament, judiciary, and such institutions would gather. He believed some institution controlling people from outside or achieving success in people’s development is both a waste and vain. Because according to him, control and upliftment should come from within. He didn’t believe that an external institution is capable of such a thing. There didn’t see any special difference between ‘fear of king’ and ‘fear of having no king’ for him.

Even as Gandhiji was living with the burden of these ideas, India was on the path of the formation of the modern state of parliamentary system by embracing it through the constitution. Gandhiji who had wielded such influence during the freedom struggle and when the time for all his fears and ideas were to become fruitful, or while the nation was readying itself for a new administrative system, why did Gandhiji become so irrelevant? Why did Gandhiji keep quiet when a system he opposed, the system he didn’t agree to come into existence in front of his eyes? Why did Gandhiji’s warning didn’t work? We can ask all such questions. But the times were different. The world had come far on the path of embracing this modern system. And Gandhiji had lost strength of swimming against the tide the whole world was going with. He was aware that it would be forest cry that no one would hear. And there’s another reason too. Gandhi who had anticipated the dangers of the modern state was not able to strongly advocate an alternative for it nor was there an opportunity for it. In reality, though he did have an alternative model, it was yet in the initial stage of ideation or one can say that it hadn’t yet crossed the initial experimentation stage. To comprehend what his alternative model was, one must read this book, “The Gandhian Constitution of Free India’  written by his close associate Shriram Narain. Though Gandhiji himself did not write the book, he wrote in the foreword of the book saying ‘These ideas can be interpreted as mine’. This book published much before the drafting of the Indian constitution began is totally different than the administration model that we are following. But it was not a tested model. By that time, the British Parliamentary model of administration was both known and ‘successful’. And it drew everyone towards it. The Gandhi model remained half-baked and at the discovery stage itself.

Now, let’s come to the present. Doesn’t it feel that the fear what Gandhiji had is now bothering us too? A government that got majority through democratic means is acting without any control, not being accountable to any institutions, and acting as if it is paving its own way; this should scare anyone who has retained minimum values of humanity in them.  And this is not just the story of India. America, which kept telling the world as to how to strengthen democracy, how to deepen it is now overwrought by the gigantic power of the administrative system. Coming back to India, why do we not see the control of Parliament over power of the ruling system? Where is the control of the judiciary? Where is the control of constitutional laws? Everything is going in front of naked eyes as if there is no difference between totalitarian and democratic system. There is a point to the primary text which tells us about the difference between democracy and other systems. That point is, in a democracy anyone can question the ruling government or state. In the other system, one might have to pay with their head if asked questions to the state. But, the lesson of always asking questions in a democracy, forget the common citizen’s freedom to ask questions, the despotic nature has grown so much so that it has become impossible to ask questions in parliament. And those who are asking questions outside parliament are cruelly suppressed by slapping cases against them.

International Day of Democracy
PC: Shounak, https://5pvit.wordpress.com/2019/11/07/indian-democracys-identity-crisis/

This was the fear that haunted Gandhi Ji then. He was not against democracy per se but he had realised very clearly than anyone else that democracy too is a rule ‘ kratia’ (Latin word for the rule). How to control the rule in democracy was the puzzle which haunted him. There’s no answer for the question. There were others too who were aware of this fear about democracy and the lack of it. That’s the reason, many thinkers spoke in the line of ‘democracy is the worst system but we have accepted it because mankind hasn’t discovered a better system.’

But Gandhi is stubborn here too. His mind could never put his signature on the undeclared intellectual treaty. His mind kept craving for a strategy beyond democracy. But then his solution for this problem was in spirituality, which talked about the principle that a man should let go of the dependency on the state or administrative system.   After all, what is the reason for having a state; it is for controlling the society and the people of the society. The man should grow morally and ethically so much so that he or she should not feel the need to have any control of the state. The control should happen from within. If that happens, Gandhiji believed that there wouldn’t any need to control from outside. The very nobility of this solution makes us look at it as impractical. This is not a political solution. For this solution to work, man’s moral conscious needs to reach another level altogether. And that is another stage in evolution. What do we do till then? Is there a way to accelerate the cycle of evolution? We do not know. I don’t think Gandhiji has said something about this. But these ponderings represent both the past and future at the same time. The roots of this thought lie in Indian philosophy. After the battle of Mahabharata, the next king Yudishthir comes to Bhishma who’s lying on his deathbed to seek his blessings.  Bhishma then tells some subtleties to Yudhishthira about governance. “shape the people such that they wouldn’t need you” was one of the advice Bhishma gives Yudhishthira. That literally meant, create a society that doesn’t need a king. Gandhi’s thought too seems to follow this principle.

The reason for saying this idea is related to the future too is that, if the democratic system goes on in the same way of the present days, it’ll collapse under its own weight. The new model that might get discovered in that future stage can be a model that is closer to Gandhiji’s ideas. Already, experiments of living without the obligation of any government have been seen.

The author is a faculty at Azim Premji University. Views expressed are personal. 

Also Read- Some forgotten goals of Mahatma Gandhi: Rajmohan Gandhi



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