Relevance of Gandhi's ‘Constructive Programme’

Children from nomadic tribes learning their age old art at a centre
run by Bhatke Vimukta Vikas Parishad in Pune

Many of the fundamental issues that Gandhiji underlined in 1941 for Poorna Swaraj are still unaddressed. However, some individuals and organisations have done good work on some of those issues at several places such efforts need to be accelerated at the social level all over the country

Bharatiya society has traditionally never been dependent on government agencies for its certain needs. It was because of this self-sufficiency that we never succumbed to the onslaughts and invasion for centuries. Rabindranath Tagore has well explained this strength of the Bharatiya society in his book ‘Swadeshi Samaj’. But instead of promoting this vision the successive governments in ‘independent’ Bharat only made the people more and more dependent on government agencies even for minor needs. Not only in states but at Centre also this mindset was strengthened by madly racing to offer freebies. Gandhiji was against this mindset. He had dreamed of ‘Poorna Swaraj’ on the society’s strength only. Now when his 150th birth anniversary celebration is to conclude we need to revisit the vision that he advocated for ‘Poorna Swaraj’.
After returning from South Africa in 1915 Gandhiji toured the entire country. Then he not only understood the real issues that were weakening the Bharatiya Samaj but also found their remedies. As a corrective step, he, in 1920, got a resolution passed at Nagpur Convention of the Congress to stir the workers and those engaged in the freedom movement to start some constructive activities for social change in their respective areas. Following that resolution, a number of organisations including Gram Uydog Sangh, Akhil Bharatiya Charakha Sangh, Hindustani Talim Sangh, Harijan Sevak Sangh, etc. were formed. Some of these activities had created a big picture of change in some areas by the year 1940. But Gandhiji was not satisfied with that change and he wanted the whole society to collectively stand for changing their destiny and address the issues which have been weakening it. In order to push this mindset he, while travelling by train from Sewagram to Bardoli in 1941, wrote a book titled as ‘Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place’ identifying 13 issues that blocked our development for centuries. Later in 1943, he added five more issues to that list. He was so much confident of the collective efforts of the society that he, in the revised edition of ‘Constructive Programme’ in 1943, said: “Readers, whether workers and volunteers or not, should definitely realize that the Constructive Programme is the truthful and non-violent way of winning Poorna Swaraj. Its wholesale fulfilment is complete Independence” (CP, page 3).
The first issue that Gandhiji wanted to address with collective efforts was communal unity—not merely political unity, but “an unbreakable heart unity”. He wanted that we have the same regard for the other faiths as we have for our own. Undoubtedly, there is very much change in the mindset of people in seven decades of Independence, surely communal harmony is still a big challenge before the country, as some vested interests continue to instigate communal clashes time and again. Gandhiji wanted that the beginning of such a revolution has to be made by the people without any political motive.
The second issue in ‘Constructive Programme’ was Removal of Untouchability, which Gandhiji had described as “blot and curse upon Hinduism”. “So far as the Harijans are concerned, every Hindu should make common cause with them and befriend them in their awful isolation—such isolation as perhaps the world has never seen in the monstrous immensity one witnesses in India,” he writes on page 9 of the ‘Constructive Programme’. But the reality is that despite making untouchability a crime in the Constitution we are still to get rid of this ‘curse’. Compere to the urban areas, the problem is more at village level. We all must think as to why a section of our own people is discriminated merely on the ground that they are born in a so-called lower section.
The third point is prohibition. Though it has been in Congress agenda since the 1920s, no government after Independence honestly worked for prohibition. Rather, all the governments ‘promoted’ it in the greed of revenue. Gandhiji believed: “If we are to reach our goal through non-violent effort, we may not leave to the future government the fate of lakhs of men and women who are labouring under the curse of intoxicants and narcotics. Medical men can make the most effective contribution to the removal of this evil. They have to discover ways of weaning the drunkard and the opium addict from the curse.” If we are able to ensure prohibition, it will resolve many problems of the society. This issue cannot be addressed at government level alone, as forceful prohibition has nowhere been successful.
The fourth point was Khadi, which, Gandhiji said, “connotes the beginning of economic freedom and equality of all”. “Khadi must be taken with all its implications. It means a wholesale Swadeshi mentality, a determination to find all the necessaries of life in India and that too through the labour and intellect of the villagers. That means a reversal of the existing process. …This needs a revolutionary change in the mentality and tastes of many,” Gandhiji said. For him Khadi did not mean merely the homemade clothes, but the complete self-sufficient model of economy.
The fifth issue was ‘other village industries’. Gandhiji said village economy cannot be complete without the essential village industries such as hand-grinding, hand-pounding, soap-making, paper-making, match-making, tanning, oil-pressing, etc. “All should make it a point of honour to use only village articles whenever and wherever available. Given the demand, there is no doubt that most of our wants can be supplied from our villages. When we have become village-minded, we will not want imitations of the West or machine-made products, but we will develop a true national taste in keeping with the vision of a new India in which pauperism, starvation and idleness will be unknown,” Gandhiji added. This issue is very much pertinent as it can still resolve many problems of our people if addressed sincerely both at the social and government level. Remember, government can only support, work has to be done by society only.
The sixth point is the village sanitation. Gandhiji raised this issue in the early 1940s, but it was decisively addressed by the present Modi government which made sanitation a mass movement and started a healthy competition among the villages to be open defecation-free. In this sense, the Modi government has paid real tribute to Gandhiji. However, we have still to walk miles as 100 per cent sanitation is yet to be achieved.
The seventh issue is Basic Education. Basic education, for Gandhiji, meant the knowledge “to transform village children into model villagers”. He said: “Basic education links the children, whether of the cities or the villages, to all that is best and lasting in India. It develops both the body and the mind and keeps the child rooted to the soil with a glorious vision of the future in the realization of which he or she begins to take his or her share from the very commencement of his or her career in school” (CP, page 17). It is a big question before all of us whether present education system is moving in that direction or not.
The eighth point is Adult Education. Apart from imparting the knowledge of reading and writing Gandhiji, in adult education, wanted to focus on “opening the minds of the adult pupils to the greatness and vastness of the country”. This objective is missing from the mainstream education system. Now, there seem to be some efforts to reconnect the education to Indian roots through the new education policy, if implemented in coming days effectively.
The ninth point was ‘women’. Gandhiji wanted equal status for women in all spheres of life. “…woman has as much right to shape her own destiny as man has to shape his. But as every right in a non-violent society proceeds from the previous performance of a duty, it follows that rules of social conduct must be framed by mutual co-operation and consultation. They can never be imposed from outside. Men have not realized this truth in its fullness in their behaviour towards women. They have considered themselves to be lords and masters of women instead of considering them as their friends and co-workers (CP, page 19),” he said stressing that effort for change should begin from home. Compared to seven decades back, women have started coming out for the social cause in a big way, still we need to use their talent in nation-building.
The tenth issue is Education in Health and Hygiene. Gandhiji said that “the very high death rate among us is no doubt due largely to our gnawing poverty, but it could be mitigated if the people were properly educated about health and hygiene”. “Your water, food and air must be clean, and you will not be satisfied with mere personal cleanliness, but you will infect your surroundings with the same three-fold cleanliness that you will desire for yourselves,” he added. For it, we do not need any government intervention. It has to be done purely at the social and individual level.
The eleventh point is provincial languages. Gandhiji’s love for Indian languages is well known. He was against the domination of English and he repeatedly stressed on speaking Indian languages only. He said the masses can make no solid contribution to the construction of Swaraj unless every step is explained to them in their own languages. But fact is that we today are in the grip of English so much that anyone speaking his/her mother tongue is treated inferior.
The twelfth point is related to the national language. Gandhiji wanted to establish Hindi or Hindustani as national language as it is spoken by majority of the countrymen. He did not want English at all. He said: “The spell that English has cast on us is not yet broken. Being under it, we are impeding the progress of India towards her goal. Our love of the masses must be skin-deep, if we will not take the trouble of spending over learning Hindustani as many months as the years we spend over learning English.”
The thirteenth issue is Economic Equality, which he meant “abolishing the eternal conflict between capital and labour”. He said: “If ever we are to achieve equality, the foundation has to be laid now. Those who think that the major reforms will come after the advent of Swaraj are deceiving themselves as to the elementary working of non-violent Swaraj. It will not drop from heaven all of a sudden one fine morning. But it has to be built up brick by brick by corporate self-effort.”
The fourteenth issue, added in 1943, was the peasants. Gandhiji said: “Swaraj is a mighty structure. Eighty crores of hands have to work at building it. Of these kisans, i.e., the peasantry are the largest part.” Gandhiji wanted the whole nation to address the issues of the farmers but he was against using them for power politics. If we look at the peasantry movement for the last seven decades we find that the farmers have been used for power politics only. The problems are worsening day-by-day. The present efforts to double the income of farmers by 2022, if done successfully, can surely prove to be a drastic change in the lives of the farmers.
The fifteenth issue is labour. Gandhiji was against involving labour organisations in party politics. He wanted the labour organisations to follow the Ahmedabad Model, which, in those days, had its own hospital, schools for children of the mill-hands, classes for adults, own printing press, Khadi depot and own residential quarters. It was perhaps because of ignoring the advice of Gandhiji that the labour organisations associated with the Congress or left parties lost their relevance, but the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which has distanced itself from party politics, is number one labour organisation today.
The sixteenth point is tribal. Gandhiji said the idea of one nation will remain incomplete unless every unit has a living consciousness of being one with every other. He said the service to tribals is not merely humanitarian but solidly national and brings us nearer to true independence. This section of society still needs support.
The seventeenth point is lepers, the most neglected section of our society. Gandhiji stirred the countrymen to care for the lepers thus: “If India was pulsating with new life, if we were all in earnest about winning independence in the quickest manner possible by truthful and nonviolent means, there would not be a leper or beggar in India uncared for and unaccounted for.”
The last point was the students. Gandhiji was against the students taking part in party politics. He wanted the students to lose one year, not at a stretch but spread it over their whole study, for the society. During that period they would find that one year so given would not be a waste of time. The effort would add to their equipment, mental, moral and physical, and they would have made even during their studies a substantial contribution to the society. This aspect of education is still missing.
The issues that were mentioned in the ‘Constructive Programme’ in 1941 or 1943 are still relevant. Surely, we have made good progress in several fields, but on many fronts, we have failed to show the results. We have arrested leprosy, but we still need to rehabilitate the cured lepers. On village sanitation as well as health and hygiene, only Modi government could show some impact, whereas these issues should have been addressed immediately after the Independence. We have increased the literacy rate in all these years but our education system is disconnected from our roots. No problem, what could not be done in the previous seven decades has to be done now. The fundamental issues that Gandhiji underlined in 1941 to achieve Poorna Swaraj are still unaddressed. However, some people have done wonderful work on some issues in several parts of the country such efforts need to be accelerated all over the country. The documentation of such collective efforts by individuals and organisations has been done by the author in his latest book, ‘Unsung Builders of Modern Bharat’ that has been published by Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, New Delhi.