Today, swaraj means the augmentation of India’s hard power through military prowess, economic empowerment, and determined diplomacy, on the one hand, combined with soft power of culture, spirituality, yoga, cuisine, couture and so on
From Mahatma Gandhi to Narendra Modi, the Indian democracy, despite its various drawbacks and failures, is somewhat of a political marvel. Here is where the notion of swaraj may serve as a useful lens through which we can measure its achievements. We can start by asking whether Indian democracy really embodies the ideal of swaraj, so eloquently enunciated by several leaders of the freedom struggle including Lokmanya Tilak, Dadabhai Naoroji, Sri Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, swaraj is not a contemporary, but age-old Vedic idea, going back to ancient times (Portions of this essay have appeared in my earlier writings).
Though we have completed seventy-two years of Independence, it is obvious that the struggle for swaraj is far from over. To me, the central purpose of understanding our swaraj parampara or tradition of autonomy is to bring us closer to understanding what freedom, independence, and democracy really mean. That is because swaraj is more than political independence; it is the reassessment and reassertion of our civilisational genius.
To achieve this, we must try to overhaul our entire intellectual infrastructure, for which we need nothing less than a new vocabulary of self-understanding. Such an overhauling would mean, at the least, the realignment of our intellectual enterprise with what we have truly sought and valued for millennia—the pursuit of self-knowledge, truth, virtue, beauty, and, of course, happiness—and the organisation of our material resources in such a way that our daily life conduces to these aims. In the previous sections we saw how this orientation was provided by our pursharthas, the cardinal aims of life—Dharma, Artha, Kama, and, ultimately, Moksha.
Throughout Indian history, the struggle for swaraj has gone on, often unrecorded. We have innumerable instances of villagers protesting against emperors, blocking roads, refusing to pay taxes,
fasting and so on
But in our attempts to regain our parampara, merely substituting Western ideas by half-understood Indian ones will not do. These languages of Indian selfhood are almost as colonised as Indian English is. Therefore, sprinkling some Indian words into our thinking process will not suffice. Just as language chauvinism is not the answer to our language-problems, conceptual chauvinism will not serve to liberate us either. We need to change our minds. This fundamental transformation is far more crucial than the superficial changes that are usually advocated by language, religion, or cultural nationalists.
Once we understand that swaraj is the issue, we see parampara not in dialectical opposition with its other, adhunikata (modernity), nor is Bharatiyata (Indianness) a mere opposition to Pashyatikarana (Westernisation). Parampara, instead, is whole, integral, not just fragmentary or antithetical. Not a knee-jerk reaction to the domination of Western categories over Indian ones, but a deep understanding of the difference will take us forward. This can be done, as we have seen, by opening a dialogue between Bharatiya parampara and Western modernity so as to create new spaces of knowledge and swaraj.
What is Swaraj?
Swaraj is a very old Vedic word but comes into the vocabulary of modern India in the nineteenth century. Some say Dayanand Saraswati’s Satyarth Prakash (1875) contains its first modern usage, but I have not been able to find it. Dayanand quotes the Vedic ‘यः स्वयं राजते स स्वराट्’, but does not apply it to political independence from Britain. The earliest modern use is probably in Sakharam Ganesh Deuskar’s pamphlet “Shivajir Mahattva” (1902), republished two years later as ‘Shivajir Diksha’. Deuskar was a friend of Sri Aurobindo, who also began to use the word. In a few years, with the struggle for freedom acquiring momentum especially because of Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905, it became the most evocative and popular of indigenous words for political freedom, whether purna or total or partial within the British Empire.
Several important political leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Dadabhai Naoroji and Aurobindo used the word, as did Gandhi, who also adopted the word, making it a household mantra in Hind Swaraj (1909). The latter is not only one of his most important books, but also a comprehensive statement of the aims and methods of non-violent revolution. In the discourse of the freedom movement, though swaraj mostly signifies political autonomy, Gandhi meant much more by it. Perhaps, he and others were intuitively aware with its etymology, though they did not explicitly explain it.
Actually swaraj is an adaptation and shortening of the Sanskrit word swarajya, which is an abstract noun (See C. Mackenzie Brown’s ‘Swaraj, the Indian Ideal of Freedom: A Political or Religious Concept?). The word is a compound of swa+raj; swa means self and raj, means to shine (the etymology being raj deepnoti). Hence, the word means both the shining of the self and the self that shines. The root raj gives us many words associated with power including Raja, Rex and Regina.
The symbology of light is very important in the Vedas because it suggests the sun of higher consciousness – tat savitur verenyam, as in the Gayatri Mantra. It is to that sun, savitur, that Aurobindo refers in his great poem, Savitri. So, svarat is a self-luminous person, and swarajya is a state of being svarat or enlightened. We might actually say that swaraj is a very ancient word for enlightenment, the power and illumination that come from the mastery of the self. When applied to a single individual, its form is svarat, an adjective. It is a word that occurs many times in the Rig, Sama, and Yajur Vedas, as it does later in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the Upanishads, it can be found in the Chandogya, Taitteriya and Maitri.
It is in India that political Independence came to be expressed even in modern times in so radically spiritual a manner in terms of enlightenment and self-illumination, not merely political power or independence. Opposing the colonisers and imperialists was thus the external aspect of swarajya; the internal aspect was to have a good, just, and beautiful state, an enlightened social order. Swarajya is, therefore, the principle that aspires for better self-management, more effective inner governmentality, because illumination comes from internal order, not oppression. Originally, swrajya referred to the inner management of a person’s powers and capacities, of the senses, organs and of all the different constituents of the person. When these were well-governed, the person too would be all-powerful. For Gandhi, the homology between the individual body and the body politic was a useful metaphor if not a self-evident truth.
Synonymous with liberty, freedom and independence, swaraj thus suggests a host of possibilities for inner illumination and self-realisation. The word swaraj is preferable to decolonisation because swaraj is not anti-anyone. One’s own swaraj can only help others and contribute to the swaraj of others. In swaraj the personal and the political merge, one leading to the other, the other leading back to the one. I cannot be free unless all my brothers and sisters are free and they cannot be free unless I am free. Swaraj allows us to resist oppression without hatred and violent opposition. To fight for swaraj, Gandhi developed the praxis of satyagraha or insistence on truth or truth-force for the rights of the disarmed and impoverished people of India.
Narendra Modi has understood the idea of swaraj better than his predecessors and is, therefore, the best instrument to confirm and fulfil the prophecy of rising India
Swaraj thus means self-restraint, forbearance, refusal to rule over others. One of the clichés about India is that no matter how powerful the country was, it did not send expeditions of conquerors to countries outside the peninsula, huge armies to conquer, colonise, and bring back pelf from overseas expeditions. This is how the Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Persians, Afghans, Portuguese, British, Dutch, French and the others behaved, coming to India to conquer or plunder, but there is no record of Indian armies doing the same in other lands. The historical record of India does not show a desire to go and rule other people, to enforce its will on them, to trample them, to exploit them economically, to oppress them, to crush them – that is not, it would seem, the Indian way. But, by the same token, to be ruled by others is also unacceptable to the Indian spirit; Indians, too, like other self-respecting peoples, have fought against it.
Throughout Indian history, the struggle for swaraj has gone on, often unrecorded. We have innumerable instances of villagers protesting against emperors, blocking roads, refusing to pay taxes, fasting and so on. The Vijayanagara Empire fought for swaraj, as did Chhatrapati Shivaji. In the 150 years of British rule, there was a revolt practically every single year in India. Some part or the other was always up in arms against British rule. So, Pax Brittanica was a great illusion. How could there be lasting peace without swaraj?
While swaraj has an inbuilt anti-imperialistic orientation, it also evokes a culturalist-nationalist position in which one’s civilisational heritage is owned up, even embraced, rather than discarded. It that sense, it suggests not a Western type of universalism, but a colourful cosmopolitanism, rooted in a radically different notion of ‘self’. But there is nothing ‘communal’ or fanatical about this project. That is why I believe that Gandhi took great pains to emphasise that swaraj is not a form of narrow nationalism or jingoism. Instead, it is a special, cooperative and pluralistic way of being in the world.
If debates on globalisation, sovereignty and culture, are ultimately, debates about which way we want India to go, it is clear that both modernity and post-modernity represent paths which we should not fully accept. At best, they provide convenient points of entry to the real questions that shape our lives. Because these paths have made inroads into our own life and consciousness, they must to be examined, understood, possibly appreciated from a distance, but ultimately negated or incorporated into the broader quest for swaraj.
Swaraj in Today’s Context
Narendra Modi’s elevation to the post of India’s Prime Minister in 2014, I have argued in several of my writings, marks a watershed for India. His winning again, with an even more impressive count of 303 in the 2019 general elections definitely signifies the end of the Nehruvian socialist, secularist consensus that prevailed almost as a state religion in India for some six decades of independent India. It was this combination of developmental nationalism and inclusive Hindutva which proved to be the winning ideology that swept Modi and the BJP to power a second time.
To my mind, Narendra Modi has understood the idea of swaraj better than his predecessors and is, therefore, the best instrument to confirm and fulfil the prophecy of rising India. Under Modi, India has progressed more, in the real sense of the word, in five years than possibly in the whole of its previous six decades. This great transformation cannot, of course, be measured merely in economic terms, although the figures indicate that our growth rates are among the highest and the inflation certainly the lowest since independence.
In addition, access to government services and schemes, whether Jandhan, Ujjwala, Saubhagya, Swachh Bharat, etc., has been unprecedented. A clean government led by a charismatic and strong Prime Minister with ministers and officials who deliver have redressed the trust deficit between the citizenry and the ruling elites. The concomitant rise of India on the world stage, thanks to the Modi doctrine, has led to a quantum leap in the respect accorded to India. Furthermore, improvement of both national security on the borders and reduction in crime, lawlessness, and violence on the home front suggest an era of peace and stability. Last but not the least, a new pride in our identity, culture and heritage, especially for the Hindu majority, have ended the self-loathing and civilisational inferiority complex which has plagued us for centuries.
Modi earned his mandate and popularity by delivering on good governance and development. Moreover, after the 2019 verdict, the signalling so far has not been belligerent or triumphalist Hindu nationalism, but inclusive Hindutva. The new government has also tried to reach out to all sections of the populace, not just Hindus, with special schemes for their education, upliftment and the safeguarding of their rights. To me, therefore, the new nationalism that Modi 2.0 represents is swaraj in its manifold dimensions.
Today, swaraj means the augmentation of India’s hard power through military prowess, economic empowerment, and determined diplomacy, on the one hand, combined with Soumya Shakti, the soft power of culture, spirituality, yoga, cuisine, couture, and so on, on the other hand. Together they add up to nothing less than India’s rejuvenation, renewal, and rise. This may sound hyperbolic or over-enthusiastic. But the mood of the nation is certainly upbeat.