Freedom Issue 2017: Dispatches from History

Who Killed Swaraj?

Aseem Shrivastava is the author, with Ashish Kothari, of Prithvi Manthan and of Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India
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The fallacy of the development doctrine

They no longer use bullets and ropes. They use the World Bank and the IMF
—Jesse Jackson

Given the frenzied pace of change in the modern world, 70 years is a very long time in the life of an independent nation. It should have been more than enough time to banish poverty from a country even as large as India, given the enormous economic growth that has happened. Several countries have done just that. However, the truth is that today, in 2017, the number of the officially poor, a severely conservative estimate in itself, is still much greater than the entire population of undivided India at the time of independence in 1947.

This extraordinary public failure is not coincidental. Economic development was supposed to have tackled the challenge of poverty. Why has this not happened? Could it be that we have been nationally deceived about the nature and character of development? Was it always perhaps a form of disguised warfare, rather than the ‘freedom’ some eminent economists have claimed for it, a fact now ever more apparent every month, every week, with what is euphemistically described as ‘displacement’, and by the systemic ecological plunder of the Subcontinent, all on account precisely of the process of development which our ‘Vikas Purush’ Prime Minister now preaches as a national religion?

Development was, from the start, a colonial idea. To grasp this hitherto hidden reality, it is worth going back to the 1940s, when the idea of development was first crafted by a rising imperial power, but also because it was in the 1940s that its primary contender Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj was summarily dismissed by the country’s first Prime Minister.

It is well-known that Jawaharlal Nehru diverged significantly from the Mahatma when it came to the question of how Independent India was to give shape to its destiny. As a committed moderniser, Nehru rejected outright Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj even before Independence. What is less known is that Gandhi wished to make their differences public, since to him they were significant.

In a letter to Nehru on October 5th, 1945, Gandhi wrote: ‘I want to write about… the difference in outlook between us. If the difference is fundamental then I feel the public should also be made aware of it. It would be detrimental to our work for Swaraj to keep them in the dark. I have said that I still stand by the system of Government envisaged in Hind Swaraj. These are not mere words. All the experience gained by me since 1908 when I wrote the booklet has confirmed the truth of my belief.’

In a statement that continues to prove eerily prophetic about life in metropolitan India in recent times, Gandhi further elaborated the substance of his vision in the following words: ‘I am convinced that if India is to attain true freedom and through India the world also, then sooner or later the fact must be recognized that people will have to live in villages, not in towns, in huts not in palaces. Crores of people will never be able to live at peace with one another in towns and palaces. They will then have no recourse but to resort to both violence and untruth. I hold that without truth and non-violence there can be nothing but destruction for humanity.’

Writing in the wake of World War II, Gandhi felt that the world as a whole was ‘going the wrong way’, worrying, again ominously, that ‘it may be that India too will go that way and like the proverbial moth burn itself eventually in the flame round which it dances more and more furiously.’

Expressing his disagreement with his supposed mentor sharply, Nehru criticised rural life in no uncertain terms: ‘A village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment. Narrow-minded people are much more likely to be untruthful and violent.’ Nehru’s statement appears to suggest that villages (and thus villagers) have some sort of a monopoly over dishonesty, violence and cultural backwardness; that cities are uniquely free of such ailments.

Nehru felt that India had to urbanise and industrialise and expressed a degree of urgency with respect to the need to achieve ‘sufficiency of food, clothing, housing, education, sanitation…for everyone.’ ‘It is with these objectives in view,’ he said, ‘that we must find out specifically how to attain them speedily.’ He also felt it ‘inevitable that modern means of transport as well as many other modern developments must continue and be developed. There is no way out of it except to have them. If that is so inevitably a measure of heavy industry exists.’ Nehru wondered ‘how far that will fit in with a purely village society’. He hoped that ‘heavy or light industries’ would ‘be decentralized as far as possible’. But at the same time he justly feared that ‘if two types of economy exist in the country there should be either conflict between the two or one will overwhelm the other.’

As a modern socialist—though sounding virtually as a gentle, euphemistic forerunner to a builder’s billboard from an airport expressway to 21st century India—Nehru wanted a tempered urbanisation: ‘There is no question of palaces for millions of people. But there seems to be no reason why millions should not have comfortable up-to-date homes where they can lead a cultured existence.’ Recognising mildly some of the morally serious problems that inevitably grow with urbanisation, which Gandhi was trying to draw his attention to, he did concede his point in a limited way: ‘Many of the present overgrown cities have developed evils which are deplorable. Probably we have to discourage this overgrowth and at the same time encourage the village to approximate more to the culture of the town.’ Like Ambedkar, and unlike both Gandhi and Tagore (albeit in different ways), Nehru had unlimited faith in cities and no confidence in villages or villagers whatsoever. It seemed to matter little to him that more than four out of five Indians were living in villages at the time of independence. The same people who were not to be trusted as villagers somehow won his confidence as city-dwellers.

Nehru explicitly rejected Gandhi’s vision as expressed in Hind Swaraj: ‘It is many years ago since I read Hind Swaraj and I have only a vague picture in my mind. But even when I read it 20 or more years ago it seemed to me completely unreal.’ Despite Gandhi’s own statement to the contrary, Nehru felt that the former’s own writings and speeches since the time that Hind Swaraj was published were ‘an advance on that old position and an appreciation of modern trends’. He was ‘therefore surprised’ when Gandhi wrote to him saying how little his views had changed since the book was first written. He said that Gandhi’s ‘old picture’ was never considered seriously by the Congress and nor had Gandhi asked it to ‘adopt it except for certain relatively minor aspects’.

As a committed moderniser, Nehru rejected outright Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj even before Independence. What is less known is that Gandhi wished to make their differences public, since to him they were significant

Nehru, while admitting that the approaches in question embodied widely divergent world-views, goes on to say in his letter that it was important to avoid any possible confusion in the top leadership which could potentially inhibit action: ‘How far it is desirable for the Congress to consider these fundamental questions, involving varying philosophies of life, it is for you to judge. I should imagine that a body like the Congress should not lose itself in arguments over such matters which can only produce great confusion in people’s minds resulting in inability to act in the present. This may also result in creating barriers between the Congress and others in the country.’

Nehru thus inadvertently expressed his preference for collective clarity over sustainable justice, never suspecting that the path (India’s no less than the world’s) could be altogether wrong. More justly stated— with sustainability never a thought in Nehru’s mind, nor modernity a matter of moral doubt, despite its obvious inevitable concomitants of conquest and imperialism—he thought that what he was expressing and wished for, combined uniquely justice with clarity. He feared that the path the Mahatma was suggesting, on the other hand, would hurl India, against the momentum of modern history, to the same backwardness from the dark ages that he and his fellow-freedom fighters had fought so hard to dispel and banish to forgotten places under the debris of the past.

Nehru thought that Gandhi’s ideas about Swaraj were anachronistically dated: ‘I have a feeling that most of these questions are thought of and discussed in terms of long ago, ignoring the vast changes that have taken place all over the world during the last generation or more. It is 38 years since Hind Swaraj was written.’ However, while claiming that ‘the world has completely changed since then’, Nehru, having lived through two barbaric world wars, also admitted that it had done so ‘possibly in a wrong direction’. ‘You are right in saying that the world, or a large part of it, appears to be bent on committing suicide. That may be an inevitable development of an evil seed in civilization that has grown. I think it is so. How to get rid of this evil, and yet how to keep the good in the present as in the past is our problem. Obviously there is good too in the present.’

In retrospect, Nehru’s grand illusion was to imagine that the ‘good’ in the modern world could be somehow magically preserved while allowing the ‘evil seed’ (gluttony of power?) to flourish into a ravishing rainforest of destructive avarice, an inevitability our times on the 21st century globe are having to face, as barbarism knocks on every door. Gandhi’s fears are globally vindicated today.

In his letter to Gandhi, Nehru had loftily written that the course that India ultimately ought to take ‘will have to be decided by representatives of free India’. However, in actual fact, he and his fellow Congressmen paid but lip-service to the promise of a participatory democracy. There never took place any serious, open debate on the shape that India’s economic future was to take. The idea of ‘Hind Swaraj’ was buried with Gandhi’s ashes. We would have been living well today had ‘prakritik swaraj’ (natural self-rule), instead of development, been our living national philosophy. Alas, it was not to be.

UNDER THE FIRST PRIME Minister’s hopeful leadership, India embraced the development doctrine. Nehru’s default development strategy after independence had the open support of his fellow party-men, communists and industrialists alike, as the consensus for a ‘mixed economy’, whose ‘commanding heights’ would be in the public sector, took shape—the opinion of ordinary people on the ground, peasants and workers, Adivasis and fisherfolk, children, housewives and village elders of no consequence whatsoever. At no stage did the leaders of Independent India deem it fit for the public to openly discuss and debate the question of Swaraj which Gandhi or Rabindranath Tagore (whose real-life experiment with Swaraj in Sriniketan only a few know about) would have counselled. India was to blindly follow the modern Western (and Westernising) world on the hasty, seductive path towards the ecological abyss into which 21st century global humanity now stares with the restless eyes of an anxious adolescent, a predicament of which both prophets had issued adequate warnings three to four generations ago.

As an idea, ‘development’ originated on the home grounds of the new inheritors of Western, Anglo-Saxon imperialism, the United States. That the idea of development took birth not in the hearts and souls of our freedom-fighters but in Washington DC and Bretton-Woods, New Hampshire, even before India’s independence in 1947, is not something readily acknowledged (thanks perhaps to national vanity) among most intellectuals and scholars. Our ruling and policy-elites—in India and abroad—still do like (and need) to purvey the illusion of national sovereignty even as the evidence against it, in this so-called ‘global’ age, mounts by the day.

That ‘development’ was an idea ‘whose time had come’, an idea that the new rulers of the world, after the Allied victory in World War II, found handy to re-draw and extend the boundaries of their new global empire across the whole wide earth, that it was (along with ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’) the newer, upgraded version of ‘the White Man’s Burden’ and the ‘Christian Mission’ (both having run their course), entitling them to rule the world in the latter’s own interest (thus saving them and themselves from the fear of communism), is acknowledged even less. It would perilously expose our shared national hypocrisies to admit all this. So we still need the smiling Mahatma on our new (post- demonetisation) Rs 2,000 currency notes to hide our lies and sins.

The most stark evidence that our freedom- fighters under Gandhi’s leadership did not think about our people’s challenges and problems primarily in terms of the American notion of ‘development’ is to be found by the virtual absence of the word from India’s 1949 Constitution. On a quick online word search through the document framed by Ambedkar, the word ‘development’ showed only a handful of references to the concept, mostly in connection with ‘economic development and social justice’ in urban municipalities, village panchayats and ‘Scheduled Areas’, inhabited by ‘Scheduled Tribes’. A word which has become so loud in the political rhetoric of recent India barely makes an appearance in the index to the Constitution. (There is a single entry for ‘Development Boards’).

What is more important than the above is the timing of the entry of the word ‘development’ in global public discourse. While the word itself had been in usage in a variety of scientific and other specialised contexts for a long time, it made its first big appearance in the discourse of global public policy at the all-important conference at Bretton-Woods, New Hampshire, in July 1944. It was in these beautiful mountains of the US north-east that the present-day world economy was first crafted towards the end of World War II, initiating the global era which came into its own only after official communism had withdrawn from the Cold War by 1990.

Nehru’s default development strategy had the open support of his fellow partymen, as the consensus for a ‘mixed economy’, whose ‘commanding heights’ would be in the public sector, took shape

At Bretton-Woods powerful leaders in the Western world met—in the absence of any leader from the still colonised world. They laid out the architecture and road-map for the entire system for international trade and monetary payments after the end of the War. This was the occasion when the two most powerful institutions (some refer to them as ‘the shadow state’) that continue to shape the global economy to this day were created. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), later to become the World Bank, were conceived and formed by Western leaders. Europe was to be ‘reconstructed’ and the poor world, about to be decolonised from European influence by freedom struggles, under the benign eye of American liberators, was to be ‘developed’. This was the plan that the Americans, led by Harry Dexter White, succeeded in pushing through, overriding significant objections from no less an Englishman than last century’s greatest economist John Maynard Keynes.

The latter commitment to the development of what one influential Western premier later came to describe as ‘the Third World’ (after the ‘Second’, communist one), found its formal American statement in President Harry Truman’s Second Inaugural Address when he once again became President of the US in January 1949. The precise date is important, since India’s Constitution was passed ten months thenceforth.

The first significant thing to notice about Truman’s Address is the appearance of a new word, ‘underdeveloped’, applied to decolonising countries struggling with long-standing poverty, in good measure on account of the European colonial impact (India’s literacy rate in 1947, for all the tom- toming these days about Thomas Macaulay’s heroic efforts at educating Indian people, especially lower castes, was a measly 12 per cent, an order of magnitude lower than what it was 150 years prior to that, as Gandhi had noted in London in 1931). Here is what Truman precisely said: “We must embark on a bold new programme for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” Suddenly, hundreds of millions around the world, having just woken up from the European nightmare of centuries of conquest, pillage, genocide, slavery, exploitation and colonialism, discovered that they were all variously underdeveloped.

It is noteworthy that we hardly hear from Western leaders of poverty and underdevelopment in the decades preceding World War II. Even when the IBRD was set up in 1944, poverty was not a big stated concern. Other goals were more important— and dare one claim, continue to be in the 21st century. A good statement of the founding goals of the World Bank can be found in Article 1 of its statutes, a document adopted at the 1944 Bretton-Woods conference. The institution, which claims to work, since Robert McNamara’s ‘end poverty’ decade of the 1970s, for ‘a world without poverty’ (if you visit its website), failed to mention even the ‘basic needs’ of people (a term which became popular with UN later) or the need to end mass poverty across large areas of the hitherto colonised world. Instead its aims, according to the document, was to ‘promote private foreign investment’ the ‘growth of international trade’ and various related goals.

This was of course in line with the official goals of the American government. In his 1949 Address, Truman duly claimed that “the old imperialism—exploitation for foreign profit—has no place in our plans. What we envisage is a programme of development based on the concept of democratic fair dealing.” However, in the same speech, and virtually in the same breath, he spoke of “guarantees to the investor” (something the global age is now fully familiar with), which of course “must be balanced by guarantees in the interest of the people”, as though there could never possibly be a trade-off between these two stated goals.

Virtually taking a leaf out of Nehru’s 1945 letter to Gandhi, Truman said “our aim should be to help the free peoples of the world, through their own efforts, to produce more food, more clothing, more materials for housing, and more mechanical power to lighten their burdens.” Clearly, despite the fact that Nehru adapted a Soviet-style model of economic planning to achieve the same goal, his vision had more in common with Truman’s, than with Gandhi’s. Not that Gandhi glorified poverty—far from it. However, like Tagore, he did not interpret and diagnose material challenges in purely material terms, which is why Swaraj was so important to him.

Once the World Bank became influential, ‘development’ arrived in the economics profession too, as a new field. Funds were allocated to expand economics departments in American and British universities to include development studies, seminars and conferences were organised, books and papers were published. In subsequent decades, Nobel Prizes were also awarded (to Gunnar Myrdal, Arthur Lewis and Theodore Schultz, and much later to Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz too).

Powerful Western elites had succeeded in forging a set of institutional and intellectual arrangements with which continued economic domination of the rest of the planet could be ensured. A new kind of ‘empire’, in which ‘development’ was promised to the recently decolonised poor countries, had come into being to take the place of declining European powers. Such a trend had long been foreseen decades earlier by men who had fought for India’s freedom from Britain. Ironically, none other than Jawaharlal himself had written eloquently to his daughter from Ahmednagar jail in 1934:

‘Most of us think of empires... like the British in India, and we imagine that if the British were not in actual political control of India, India would be free. But this type of empire is already passing away, and giving way to a more advanced and perfected type. This latest kind of empire does not annex even the land; it only annexes the wealth or the wealth-producing elements in the country. By doing so it can exploit the country fully to its own advantage and can largely control it, and at the same time has to shoulder no responsibility for governing and repressing that country. In effect both the land and the people living there are dominated and largely controlled with the least amount of trouble… It is quite possible that Britain’s visible hold over India might go before long, and yet the economic control might remain as an invisible empire. If that happens, it means that the exploitation of India…continues… Economic imperialism is the least troublesome form of domination for the dominating power. It does not give rise to so much resentment as political domination because many people do not notice it.’

If this sounds familiar to readers today, it is because of the fact that we all now live our times in the digital shadow of the globally networked cloud elites—mostly anchored in the Western world, though new centres of metropolitan power have developed elsewhere too.

IN HIS LAST years, there were some signs that Nehru regretted the grand idea of development, and perhaps secretly longed for the Mahatma’s foresight. Here is what he told a bunch of irrigation engineers in 1958: “For some time past, however, I have been beginning to think that we are suffering from what we may call, ‘disease of gigantism’. We want to show that we can build big dams and do big things… the idea of having big undertakings and doing big tasks for the sake of showing that we can do big things is not a good outlook at all…We have to realise that we can also meet our problems much more rapidly and efficiently by taking up a large number of small schemes, especially when the time involved in a small scheme is much less and the results obtained are rapid. Further, in those small schemes you can get a good deal of what is called public co-operation, and therefore, there is that social value in associating people with such small schemes.”

This was long before vast shopping malls, expressways and airports came to dominate India’s visual metropolitan landscape. But Nehru was already too late in 1958. His own words and actions of the previous decade-and-a-half had already set the powerful initial conditions which continue to shape India’s cultural, political and economic destiny in profound respects. For the nation’s first Prime Minister’s failure to see that development was the latest well-masked imperial idea, millions—from hundreds of thousands of farmers who have committed suicide to tens of millions whose lives, livelihoods and cultures have been eviscerated and uprooted to make room for ‘development’ projects in the ‘national interest’ —have been paying the price for seven decades.

Those who have ruled the world for centuries never gave up their lust for conquest. They only changed the global ruling lie when Europe made imperial way for the American way of life, now a terminal ecological cancer hung around the planet’s neck like a fatal garland. ‘Development’ was always their idea for us, but an idea seductive enough to lure us into a false feeling of sovereignty. Their plans for us are always crafted with due respect to our intelligence and vanity.

Now, seven decades on, and three decades after the demise of communism and the Cold War, India and the world are ruled by a globally networked corpocracy which says in every other commercial that it wants everyone to help it ‘build a smarter planet’, as if it is the planet that was always stupid.

Sadly, thanks to digital hubris, our children and our grandchildren are about to find the grim truth about modern human existence, as growing ecological chaos and climate change overrun a digitally civilised modernity after the famed ‘conquest of nature’.

After searching for ‘development’ in our Constitution, I hesitantly looked for ‘swaraj’. Guess how many results I found? Zero.