Man over Machine: A Path towards Peace is the kind of book you might want to preserve and return to, every once in a while. Author Bharat Dogra has worked for long years as a freelance journalist – never taking on a full-time journalism job in order to be completely free, and writing a prodigious number of articles, many of which are carried on Countercurrents.
In his latest book, Dogra attempts to look at the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, and how our troubled world could learn from it; he hopes that young readers, especially, will find his narrative worthwhile.
Dogra recalls Gandhi’s advice to policymakers and others: When it doubt, he had said, “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will it restore him to control over his own life and destiny?”
What Gandhi wanted policymakers to consider was the needs of the poorest and weakest; also, as is clear from this statement, he would not encourage consumerism and consumption without limit. What, one might wonder, would Gandhi make of a prime minister who thought it fit to wear a suit that cost Rs10 lakh, with his own name written all over it? And what advice would Gandhi offer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as he attempts now to persuade farmers that his new farm laws will work to their advantage? Gandhi’s imagination had perhaps failed him in this, that he had not ever considered that such a one as PM Modi would one day be India’s elected prime minister.
But this reviewer digresses – Dogra’s book is an account of the wisdom of Gandhi, who too was a mere mortal and not without flaws, as we now well know. Gandhi questioned the course of Western “development” and cautioned India against following it. He wrote, in 1929: “There is a growing body of enlightened opinion in the West which distrusts this civilization which has insatiable material ambition at one end and consequent war at the other. But whether good or bad, why must India become industrial in the Western sense?”
In the span of just one question, Gandhi was addressing the natural limits of the Earth’s ability to rejuvenate and the moral laxity that comes with unrestrained fulfillment of all wants. He was setting out a vision for the nation that was independent, respectful of people, and could have made for an alternative paradigm of development that would happen without exploitation.
Gandhi’s version of Atmanirbhar was also more sophisticated than Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s: “When dependence becomes necessary in order to keep society in good order it is no longer dependence, it becomes cooperation. There is sweetness in cooperation…”
Even in consumption, one had to decide wisely: “A votary of Swadeshi will carefully study his environment and try to help his neighbours wherever possible by giving preference to local manufactures even if they are of an inferior grade or dearer price than things manufactured elsewhere. He will try to remedy their defects, but will not give them up…”
Dogra cites the work of Nandini Joshi, who studied Economics at Harvard University and wrote a book in Gujarati explaining why Khadi was still a solution for India, in 1993. She showed that several thousand hectare of fertile land could be recovered for growing food, if Khadi was used more widely – while mills require long and medium staple cotton that depend on irrigation, fertile land and chemicals for cultivation, short staple cotton used in the charkha could be produced on less fertile land without agri-chemicals. This is a solution the Cotton Corporation of India would do well to look into. The Modi government, however, has been limiting the purchase of cotton through this government body, and even imposed a low ceiling on procurement, which will cause deeper distress to cotton farmers.
It would be good not to read the whole of this book in one sitting, but to dip into it turning to random pages. For what Dogra does is to use Gandhi’s perspective to make sense of our world. “Billions of dollars are spent every year in the advertising of liquor, cigarettes, junk food and useless or even hazardous drugs, cosmetics and pesticides. One particularly perverse aspect of advertising is how it distorts serious problems in such a way that solutions in the form of genuine social change are replaced by commodities that can be sold.”
Besides drawing on history to comment on society, Dogra offers philosophical insights into the manner in which exploitation, violence war are routinized; peace-making then becomes something that must be performed as part of daily activity, through conscious decision-making in our everyday lives.
Gandhi said, “The truly valiant are those who resist by non-violent means.” As we read, we remember the valour of India’s farmers on the borders of the national capital.
Rosamma Thomas is an independent journalist