Concept of Gram Swaraj (‘Village Self-Reliance’) and Its Increasing Relevance for Our Times


The freedom movement of India to get independence from nearly two centuries of colonialism was one of the most inspiring phases of the history of India. People were motivated to take up very inspirational work and were willing to suffer unending hardships including imprisonment and torture with courageous songs and slogans. This inspirational spirit must be retained even now as there are very big challenges to contribute to reducing very serious problems of the country and indeed the entire world. Some concepts which were very popular and inspirational at that time have an enduring relevance in terms of contributing much to guiding us in resolving some of the most serious problems, at national and world level, particularly as leaders of freedom movement were far-sighted and tried to guide these concepts towards more enduring objectives.

One of the most crucial concepts is that of ‘swaraj’ which is often translated literally as ‘self-rule’ which worked well for most people in the colonial days but is probably better translated as ‘self-reliance with increasing decentralization and self-rule’ to convey its more complete meaning and avoid any misunderstandings as well.  Leaders of the freedom movement, most particularly Mahatma Gandhi, were careful to interpret and explain this in a wider sense which would have enduring relevance and guidance role even after the ending of colonial rule.

One important aspect of this wider interpretation relates to linking ‘self-rule’ closely to ‘village self-rule’, or linking ‘swaraj’ to ‘gram swaraj’ (gram means village). Further this has three important aspects. Firstly, the concept of gram swaraj asserts that the village should be the more important unit of human life, and must remain so in the course of human progress and ‘development’. This is an important assertion, as a widely prevalent tendency has been to relate development almost instinctively to urbanization. On the other hand, the concept of ‘gram swaraj’ asserts that villages should retain more importance. For Mahatma Gandhi in particular, this was important in the context of the wider aims he valued in terms of a simpler life of more limited needs and more equality, whereas the bigger cities were seen more as symbols of luxury, higher inequalities and even as symbols of exploitation of the many by the few, or of villages by city.

This is relevant in the present-day context also, but it is very important now to state more clearly that a village-based society has much more potential for protecting environment. Of course a village with wrong and distorted priorities and policies can also be destructive towards environment, while an enlightened city can show much sensitivity regarding environment protection, but by and large the potential for achieving more environment protection is in villages.

While the village should get higher priority in the course of development and policy must seek to ensure this, (thereby reversing the more prevalent trend), the second important aspect of gram swaraj is that this should be on the basis of very genuine democratization of the village so that all people, including the poorest and the weakest, have a sense of ‘self-rule’. Mahatma Gandhi therefore was firmly in favor of more equality, as opposed to highly exploitative trends promoted during colonial rule, and in this he was joined by other prominent leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru. This viewpoint seeks to correct several socio-economic inequalities of India’s villages by legally ending various unjust and discriminative practices while at the same time special provisions for helping women and economically weaker and exploited sections are introduced too.

Further, the third aspect is that villages should not only get more importance but also should get more freedom in terms of deciding their priorities and policies, its present and future, in accordance with the principles of self-rule. This means very high levels of genuine decentralization and genuine democracy, so that on the one hand the danger of village communities being pushed or even trampled under powerful centralized governments and bureaucracies can be avoided, and on the other hand the possibility of weaker sections being exploited and over-ruled arbitrarily by a few dominant persons in the village can also be avoided.

This then is the principle of gram swaraj with its basic tenets of more emphasis on villages, equality and justice based rural life, genuine democracy and decentralization. Moreover gram swaraj is only a part of the wider concept of swaraj, which certainly has a strong anti-imperialist connotation, rejecting imperialist ideas and paths in favor of independent ideas and self-reliant paths. Original and independent thinking as well as self-reliant paths are therefore integral parts of gram-swaraj.

What is more, as village communities need to strengthen and improve themselves in order to do well on the path of self-reliance, and in a wider sense, so social reform efforts to minimize liquor and intoxicants, to increase the freedom and social role of women, to check corruption and needless litigations etc. are integral parts of gram swaraj.

The idea of village communities which are self-reliant in meeting their needs on the basis of sustainability while protecting environment is something very important to present day world with its extremely serious environmental crisis, and this is part of the reason for the enduring and in fact the increasing relevance of the concept of gram swaraj.

The other part is that self-reliance and autonomy make it more possible for village communities to create and protect sustainable livelihoods, while avoiding the crisis situations that have resulted in the impoverishment and displacement of small farmers and family farm households in various parts of world including India.

Thus the concepts of swaraj and gram swaraj remain of high relevance in India and elsewhere. These concepts have retained a lot of respectability, a legacy of the freedom movement, but one unfortunate consequence of this is that these tend to be used rather loosely, often departing from their real relevance, and sometimes are even used by those who are acting against the basic principles of swaraj.

Hence even those governments which impose highly centralized policies on most villages and go to the extent of imposing the GM seeds and technology controlled essentially by a few multinational companies—which is clearly an imperialist policy—sometimes invoke the name of swaraj. It is therefore not surprising that India has seen steady accentuation of trends to integrate villages into world capitalist and imperialist systems ( as seen in policies of green revolution, white revolution, blue revolution, the second green revolution of GM crops etc.),even while mentioning gram swaraj.

Hence there is a clear need to re-establish the true spirit of swaraj and gram swaraj, and link it to such important objectives as resolving the farmers’ crisis and checking various serious environmental problems such as climate change. In addition efforts to strengthen commitment to peace within gram swaraj should be made ( and gram swaraj  is conceptually very suitable for this), both in order to strengthen gram swaraj but also to create a strong base for wider national and world level peace efforts.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine (Gandhian Ideas for Our Times), India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food and Planet in Peril.


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