The Leftist within Gandhi

Sahil M Parsekar

Within the fold of political theory, Gandhi is understood to be a conservative politician. His heavy reliance on Hindu literature as the source for his moral outlook, his references to scriptures, his defence of caste and his preaching against modernization gives sufficient reason to justify this reading of Gandhi. The contemporary debates around Gandhism are heavily dominated by the Left and Ambedkarites, for whom Gandhi still remains in the periphery of religious orthodoxy. It is therefore compelling when Ramchandra Guha, the celebrated Indian historian and author of two biographical books on Gandhi, suggests in his book Makers of Modern India[1] that Gandhi “cannot be categorized according to convention at all”. After composing two volumes on Gandhi’s life, Guha provides his readers the space to look at Gandhi with a broader outlook. It is difficult for contemporary students of political theory who are surrounded by the rigid Left and Ambedkarite activists to see Gandhi as something other than an orthodox old thinker caught in his times. In this present piece however, we shall try to expand our understanding of the young lawyer who returned to his motherland after having led a successful agitation outside of his country.

Gandhi had given birth to a unique idea of satyagraha[2] during his struggle for the Indian labourers and settlers in South Africa. His moral theories which gave a base to the political struggle attracted many, including Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Gokhale demanded that Gandhi return and provide his services to his country. Gandhi returned to India in 1915. After refusing to register as a member in Gokhale’s Servants of Indian Society, he stood puzzled about the future of his contribution to the nation. It is at this stage that Gandhi is approached by one Raj Kumar Shukla from Champaran in Bihar. At the 1916 Lucknow session of the Indian National Congress, Shukla insisted that Gandhi visit Champaran to witness the exploitation of the indigo farmers. Having initially been reluctant, Gandhi is persuaded by Shukla’s persistence when he approaches Gandhi once again at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. The condition of the indigo farmers is disastrous and Gandhi quickly realizes the need for taking up the battle immediately. Gandhi first tasks himself with recording the statements of the farmers. He is greeted with help from young Indian lawyers absorbed with the feeling of nationalism. Gandhi admits the lawyers for volunteering on the peculiar condition that they will wash their clothes themselves! Having travelled to every village in the Champaran district, disobeying the orders of the British officers, Gandhi collects almost 7000 testimonies. Following such a massive record of testimonies, the government is forced to set up an official enquiry committee. The committee ruled in the favour of the indigo farmers, having listed the evidence provided by Gandhi. This leads to the first victory for satyagraha in India and thus advances Gandhi’s political journey.

With the first battle in India won, Gandhi is brought back to Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Here, the factory workers are facing a dispute with the mill owners. The mill owners are led by Gandhi’s personal friend, Ambalal Sarabhai, while his sister Anasuya pleads on behalf of the workers. Gandhi recognized the inhuman living conditions of the workers and the risk they faced with the coming of the plague that year. For Gandhi, there was no doubt in his mind that he must take up the cause of these workers. Gandhi asks the workers to initiate a strike. On Gandhi’s word, the workers promise to continue their struggle through non-violent means. It is here, that Gandhi sits on his first political fast to connect with the workers. Seeing him fasting for the cause of the workers, Ambalal Sarabhai is moved and accedes to the demands of the workers. Gandhi is now free to look at the cause of farmers in the neighbouring district of Kheda. The drought had led the farmers to a position where they could not pay their taxes to the government. The government officials however refused to grant any relief. Gandhi tries to negotiate on behalf of the farmers. The officials meet with a compromise, and Gandhi sets further his cause of satyagraha.

These three battles are unique in their own ways and confer on Gandhi the stature of a national leader. It is from here that Gandhi assumes the leadership of the Indian National Congress (hereinafter “INC”) and sets the ball rolling for the upcoming Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-22). But, it is necessary to examine these three struggles that Gandhi had first undertaken  and why and how exactly did it further his political journey. The Indian National Congress for many decades had been a club of ambitious nationalist industrialists and foreign-educated lawyers. They were limited to their urban circles and catered majorly to the demands and responses of the educated classes. This was not a problem limited to only the leadership; the volunteers too came from a high-class urban-centric and educated backgrounds. Therefore, the INC was criticized as being a bourgeois party. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the rise of an extremist faction led by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak led to some social change in the composition of the INC. Along with the upper-class bourgeois nationalists, Tilak brought in more conservative upper caste disgruntled nationalists who defended violent methods to achieve Swaraj[3]. The social change was limited to the effect that a new set of journalists were added to the existing club of industrialists and lawyers. The change was not as dynamic and now the Indian National Congress moved from being a solely upper-class party to an upper-class and upper caste party. The arrival of Gandhi changed this drastically. His first three satyagrahas undertook the cause of peasants, workers and farmers respectively. Gandhi realized early that the Indian masses largely come from these subaltern classes and that the INC lacked coordination with them which in turn was one of the chief reasons why it could not lead a national movement yet. Gandhi toured India by rail, in the first year when he returned from South Africa, always choosing to travel in the third-class compartment to understand the problems of the common people. He visited every village in Champaran. He sat and dined with the villagers, irrespective of their caste-which was a revolutionary thing to do in those times, and studied their daily activities. It is through him that the peasants started identifying the Indian National Congress. Gandhi thus became the face of the party for the masses, and the face of the masses for the Congress.

Apart from leading satyagrahas for the very people that the ideological Left claims to fight for – peasants, workers and farmers, Gandhi also expanded on the idea which could be understood to be on the margins of anarcho-communism. Gandhi actually ran a commune. Before theorizing on what would later evolve into ashrams[4], Gandhi was deeply motivated to start a society where everyone would share the responsibilities of daily labour. Gandhi then ran a press called Indian Opinion[5]. Gandhi wished that the members of his press would settle at a farm, co-ordinate and share each other’s work and also publish their writings. Even in contemporary times, this seems to be wishful thinking. And yet Gandhi was able to convince the workers of his time to live such a utopia. Phoenix Settlement[6] is the first commune Gandhi establishes in South Africa where people not only are connected via the organization of the press but also through the membership of a commune where they respect each other and value the labours associated with everyday life. Gandhi later established the Tolstoy Farm[7] in South Africa, another commune which was named after Tolstoy, someone Gandhi revered and even corresponded with. There are some conservative, and at times also autocratic, views that Gandhi holds within his commune, especially once they develop into ashrams. These views are related to brahmacharya (celibacy) and the segregation of sexes. However, one must not forget the radical steps taken by these ashrams relative to the times it was situated in. The first ashram Gandhi built in India was the one at Ahmedabad in Gujarat in 1915. Gandhi was soon in financial trouble, as the initial funders had rolled back their funding on account of Gandhi accepting and housing “untouchables” in the ashram. Despite the fact that Gandhi had been very clear about this from the very start, the funders had not thought that it was possible for an “untouchable” family to actually considering moving into the ashram. Gandhi however did not budge despite the financial threat and even considered shifting the ashram. Another radical element within his communes and ashrams was the respect for manual labour. Every form of labour was respected and Gandhi delivered lectures to his disciples on the value and dignity of labour. One of the most important parts of Gandhi’s respect for manual labour was registering every member to clean the toilets in turn. At a time when the Hindu society considered this to be the work for members from the “untouchable” caste, Gandhi dared to ask his upper-caste fellow dwellers to deliver on those tasks. In fact, one of the rare instances when Gandhi had gotten anywhere close to violence was when Kasturba, his wife, refused to clean the toilets. Community service, respect for labour, sharing of responsibilities and rejection of “untouchability” were the principles of Gandhi’s ashrams.

It is therefore extremely pertinent to locate Gandhi out of the conservative box and allow him some freedom from the traditional axes of political theory. In his article “A Marxist Interpretation of Gandhi”, United Kingdom Member of Parliament Bhikhu Parekh narrates the relationship of Gandhi with his Leftist contemporaries. The fact that Gandhi could indulge in a healthy conversation with them despite his sticking to Hindu spirituality and his defence of caste, was because his concern for the poor and the oppressed was never doubted. The author does not intend to argue that Gandhi was a Leftist, nor that his world-view didn’t have any problems. His positions on patriarchy, caste system, the position of man and woman, etc. are regressive, and he is rightly criticized for these views, particularly by Ambedkar and his followers. However, these criticisms should not be a bar to studying the complexities that Gandhi held. His first three agitations in India, his ashrams and most importantly, his radical view of satyagraha (radical in the sense that the world still finds it difficult to comprehend and practice) are testimony to the fact that Gandhi had Leftist principles at the core of his philosophy. To surrender Gandhi to the bracket of the ‘right-wing’, especially at a time when we so desperately need him and his philosophy, will be a gross disrespect to his life, his struggle to the larger cause of history and to our present and future generations.

Sahil is the CYSS Maharashtra President, having worked as a psephologist for the AAP in 2020 Delhi elections, studied political management and governance from MIT School of Government.

Photo by Dinodia Photos


[1]Ramachandra Guha, Makers of Modern India (Penguin India, 2011).

[2] Sanskrit, ‘insistence on the truth’

[3] Sanskrit, “self-rule”

[4] Sanskrit, “hermitage”, “place of religious retreat”

[5] First issue was published in 1903 in South Africa

[6] Established in 1904 by Gandhi, with approximately 100 acres of land near Durban.

[7] Established in 1910 by Gandhi near Johannesburg


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