ICSSR research project

“Rethinking the Mahatma: Gandhi as a hands-on Political Worker and Satyagrahi Scientist”
An ICSSR funded 2 Year Major Research Project on Mahatma Gandhi’s Constructive Program

Directed by Prof. Gita Dharampal, GRF Dean of Research
Date of Commencement: 15th June 2020


Mahatma Gandhi’s seminal role in the Indian Independence movement constitutes the backdrop of this investigation. Yet the prime focus of this research project will be on the more controversial aspects of Gandhi’s oeuvre, namely on his apparently ‘anti-modernist’ stance, the ulterior aim of which was to regenerate Indian traditions. The latter endeavour was governed, due to colonial subjugation, by the crucial need, as Gandhi perceived it, to ‘redress the balance’ in the asymmetrical power relationship between Britain and India, a socio-cultural and political necessity that constituted part and parcel of Gandhi’s understanding of Swaraj. This project, thus, highlights the importance of his concerted efforts in this direction, extending over several decades, which received concrete expression in his Constructive Program, a topic that has, unfortunately hitherto, been scarcely researched into.

Carried out by scores of workers (or satyagrahis) with the aim of initiating ‘village reconstruction’ to revitalise rural India, these meticulously documented forays into Indian village society also led to the amassing of a huge collection of field studies. Constituting rich ethnographical-historical material (in ca. 3000 volumes, with detailed descriptions about a variety of artisanal practices, agricultural techniques, specialized tools and implements, socio-economic organisation, indigenous medicine, religious-cultural beliefs, festivities, etc.), its analytical study would provide valuable insights into the knowledge, practices and institutions relating to Indian village life of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Also given that this collection of tangible and intangible heritage concerning rural society has not as yet received scholarly attention, the immediate aim is to produce a descriptive catalogue of this documentation, which will be transformed into a searchable database, thus making its contents easily usable and known not only to Gandhian researchers, but also, more significantly, to scholars of appropriate technology and scientists of sustainable development, in particular, as well as to social and economic historians, in general. Thus, this project is ultimately intended to contribute towards the initiation and development of several new research programs in the ongoing field of appropriate technology and sustainable development, thereby transforming Gandhian studies into a dynamic, future-oriented discipline of applied research.

In view of the above, it is therefore surprising that the major substantiation of Gandhi’s valiant endeavour to regenerate Indian society, namely through the enactment of his Constructive Program, has hitherto been either neglected or only cursorily mentioned in Gandhiana literature. This is most unfortunate, since it was indeed through his twin initiatives, Satyagraha (enacted in civil disobedience and non-cooperation) and the Constructive Program, that Gandhi, from 1915 onwards, set about radically transforming the elitist Congress debating society into a democratically instantiated mass movement that was able to challenge the legitimacy and credibility of the British Raj, thereby rendering the latter’s hold over the subcontinent virtually unsustainable. Indeed, Gandhi’s propagation of the Constructive Program, and its extension into the ‘700,000 villages’ of India, not only contributed to the democratization and indigenisation of Indian politics, but also exemplifies the Mahatma for what he was - namely as a hands-on political worker and an extraordinarily efficient organizer. This new reassessment of Gandhi’s exemplary organizational talents belies his dismissal as a ‘Luddite’ and a ‘utopian dreamer’ by many a scholar. Indeed, in pursuing his Constructive Program, primarily under the auspices of the Gandhi Seva Sangh, an organization founded by him in 1923, this indefatigable reformer, with utmost commitment towards propagating Swadeshi and sincere dedication to the welfare of India’s rural population, soon established a vast sub-continental network, comprising the Charkha Sangh, Gram Udyog Sangh, Harijan Sevak Sangh, Hindustani Taleemi Sangh, Go-Seva Sangh, Maharogi Seva Mandal, Sevagram Ashram Pratisthan, Rashtrabhasha Prachar Samiti, Hindustani [and Dakshin Bharat] Prachar Sabha, to name the most prominent units of this gigantic constructive umbrella formation. Given his charismatic personality, Gandhi was successful in enlisting the cooperation of equally prominent pillars of the Freedom Movement, such as Sri Rajagopalchariar, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Sri Rajendra Prasad and Sri Gangadharrao Deshpande, who, along with others, coordinated the seven regional centres of the Gandhi Seva Sangh. Furthermore, with the establishment of the All India Village Industries Association [AIVIA] in 1934, of which he was President, with the economist J.C. Kumarappa as Secretary, Gandhi focussed on restructuring India’s villages, reviving rural crafts and promoting rural agro-industries through innovative and scientific methods. On the AIVIA’s Board of Advisors were national celebrities such as Rabindranath Tagore (India’s Poet Laureate), Prafulla Chandra Ray (the father of Indian Chemical Science) and Chandrashekara Venkata Raman (Nobel Laureate in Physics). The meticulous scientific and organizational zeal guiding Gandhi’s enterprise was supported by thousands of selfless workers who were engaged in assiduous field studies in villages across India, and were instructed to provide in their reports minute details about the social, economic, cultural and above all, the ‘scientific’ practices and technological expertise, all of which was to be meticulously documented. Many of the artefactual findings were displayed at the annual conferences of the Gandhi Seva Sangh that were held in village locations and lasted for six to seven days. As a highlight, demonstrations of the manufacture of many traditional industrial products, including, for instance, the manufacture of indigenous iron and steel in 1936 and 1938, arranged specifically by the Bihar Gandhi Seva Sangh members who were hosting these particular conferences.

Hence, in evaluating and analysing the corpus (textual and artefactual) that emerged from the Mahatma’s Constructive Program - comparable to a contemporary pan-Indian Startup - to regenerate the Indian rural landscape, it is, above all, the scientific temperament of Gandhi, otherwise branded as a spiritual traditionalist, that becomes explicitly evident: in short, this study (besides acknowledging the predominant social-welfare aspect, viz. Sarvodaya and Antyodaya) aims to underscore the crucial ‘scientific’ significance of the Constructive Program, representing per se Gandhi’s most extensive and longest lasting ‘experiments’ with truth and non-violence.

For more details, please contact Prof. Gita Dharampal: prof.dharampal.gita@gandhifoundation.net