Atanu Dey On India's Development

Happy Gandhi Jayanti

| 14 Comments

Shri Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also known as the “mahatma,” was born on this day October 2nd in 1869. Popular opinion associates Gandhi with non-violence. I differ. I believe that poverty engenders more violence against innocent humans than any other single cause or condition. Perhaps he genuinely was against violence but what Gandhi achieved resulted in unimaginable violence.

It would be hard to estimate accurately how many people have suffered lives of unimaginable deprivation over the decades that India has languished in poverty since 1947. Current estimates of people below the poverty line vary but a conservative estimate could be as high as 400 million. Conservatively I estimate that a billion people have lived and died extremely impoverished lives since 1947 in India.

India’s poverty is entirely man-made. Nature has not been too unkind to India in terms of natural resources. India does not suffer devastating natural calamities. External aggression does not routinely lay waste all Indians build. None of those can account for India’s chronic poverty and backwardness.

India’s poverty is due to bad policies arising from flawed and dangerous ideas. Gandhi was one of the most fecund fountains of bad ideas. What is worse is that Gandhi forced Nehru on India. That one act alone is sufficient to damn Gandhi. But it will take a few more decades before people recognize the damage Nehru did to India. Nehru put India on the fast track to serfdom.

Gandhi made a fetish of poverty. It can be said of Gandhi what Christopher Hitchens had said of M. Teresa — that she was not a friend of the poor but rather a friend of poverty.

Gandhi did not understand the first thing about the nature of the world that he so powerfully intervened in. Human welfare follows from adopting good ideas — regardless of where the ideas originate. He rejected the best ideas merely because they were not home-grown in his tiny backyard.

The world is ideas. Every human artifact is in its essence a collection of embodied ideas. We humans are unique in the known universe as the creators and users of ideas. We create ideas, build upon previous ideas, we adopt ideas created by others, we do “mash-ups” of ideas, we delight in sharing ideas.

Rejecting good ideas is most definitely the best way to impoverish oneself. It leads not just to material poverty but to spiritual poverty, a diminishing of the human spirit.

India had been impoverished for centuries by foreign domination. Foreigners ruled India because India was weak. India’s vulnerability was because it had not adopted good ideas.

If Gandhi has been wise, he would have himself adopted good ideas and exhorted Indians to adopt good ideas — regardless of the origins of the ideas. His rejection of ideas merely because they originated in the West had tragic consequences.

Just as an example, consider the case Gandhi and machines. He rejected industrialization. Machines were bad, according to Gandhi. Actually, some machines were bad — those that Gandhi did not approve of were bad. Machines that Gandhi approved of were good. Gandhi appointed himself as the arbiter of that distinction.

Gandhi rejected machines that made cloth efficiently and approved of machines that humans had to use laboriously. Perhaps he thought that there was some special virtue in doing mindless drudge work. But if enough people are forced to do mindless drudge work for most of their lives, it leads to impoverishment.

If instead of 100 people slogging away on their tiny charkhas to make a few yards of cloth, machines (perhaps a “Western” product) were used to make large amounts of cloth using only a little human labor, wouldn’t that free many people to do other things such as growing food, writing poems, teaching, playing, contemplating the universe, etc?

Why is it OK to use charkhas (a primitive machine) but not a power loom? If the use of charkha is recommended because it employs more people than the use of a power loom would, then should one not recommend the use of bare fingers to employ even more people to make cloth?

People who reject machine made cloth on the grounds that Gandhi did not approve of machines and industrialization, should as a matter of consistency reject practically everything that we routinely use today. The entire edifice of modern life in even an underdeveloped backward economy such as India is intimately tied to goods and services that are made possible by industrialization.

Gandhi’s central idea was the rejection of good ideas merely because it was “foreign.” Gandhi’s idea has impoverished India as powerfully as any foreign invader ever had.

  • giri

    Even if one buys your argument, it seems a bit lame to be blaming India’s poverty on people who have died more than 50 years back. Couldn’t subsequent leaders have corrected course?

  • tp

    Perhaps Gandhi was hoping that a society with their nose to the charkha 24×7 would shrink in population fast enough that the rest can be educated a little. Press a button to weave cloth with electric power and you have plenty of energy left over at the end of the day. Didn’t work out that way, unfortunately. There are now more desperately poor Indians alive, in a manner of speaking, than the total numbers of Indians in 1947. If that’s not a final definition of a failed nation, give me a better one.

    Atanu is fond of thrashing up Nehru and Gandhi, and, indeed, these were clueless jokers with an unfortunate following. Perhaps the more interesting question for Atanu is, why did these nincompoops find such following? We can just scream for more education, and we should, but that does not suffice. How many high school graduates in India are told, or have the skill to critique Nehru and Gandhi, by the time they graduate? I was born in a household that loves to deconstruct everyone vociferously. But even in high school I found my classmates politically too bland to suffer.

  • SM

    I have read few blogs of Atanu da and I think he likes thrashing up Nehru and Gandhi. But one must recognise that to err is human. Gandhi did comit some follies but I think he did lot of things right too. In my limited intellect Gandhi viewed Charkha as a multiprong apparatus. It was means to unite people through a common action,enjoying simplicity,preventing the british from looting the coton aal way to Britain etc.
    About Gandhi being against machines I am not very sure about it but he advocated industry and I dont think he was fool enough to think about industry without machines. I would like to include some quotes atrributed to gandhi in the end.
    Disclaimer: My only connections with politics is limted to casting my vote

    Gandhi says-

    1.What they need is some kind of occupation, and the occupation that will give employment to millions can only be hand-spinning.
    2.Revival of the cottage industry, and not cottage industries, will remove the growing poverty. When once we have revived the one industry, all the other industries will follow…. I would make the spinning-wheel the foundation on which to build a sound village life.
    3.Take to spinning [to find peace of mind]. The music of the wheel will be as balm to your soul.

    Source and more-
    http://www.gandhi-manibhavan.org/gandhiphilosophy/philosophy_swadeshi_gospelcharkha.htm

  • RC

    Gandhi made a fetish of poverty.

    You seem to pin the entire culture of asceticism in India on Gandhi. All religious and cultural traditions from India put high emphasis on living simply and living on little. Buddhism and Jainism especially put emphasis on it.
    On this background comes in the philosophy of communism and it was a lethal mix. Socialism powered by the local cultural respect for ascetic and simplistic life made poverty a virtue.
    This CANNOT be pinned on Gandhi. In fact if Gandhi had not been an ascetic Saadhu type he would have never garnered the kind of nationwide following that he did. This following made the movement for self rule a mass movement otherwise as you yourself point out many times, there was NO REAL HUNGER for freedom at the common man’s level.
    You may not like things that Gandhi stood for, but pinning this on Gandhi is completely off base, in my view. It is because of this quasi-religious (whether appropriate or not) appeal of Gandhi that has resulted in India as the country in this shape. (Which is a HUGE mistake in my view. India should have been at least 5 to 7 countries … but thats a whole another topic)

  • ND

    You are attributing way more than they deserve.
    Gandhi has been gone for 60+ years.
    Nehru for 50+ years.
    3 generations have come and gone after these 2 jokers.
    Granted that the fools that came after used these 2 jokers as a crutch and kept pushing the crap till it hit the ceiling but you can’t blame that Gandhi for the fuck up of today’s Gandhis or the Gandhis that will come after this current lot – going by this logic, maybe we should blame the Civil war for all the woes of the US (not)…right?

  • Loknath

    Here are the concluding remarks on Gandhi by a member of Nobel Committee, Professor Jacob Worm-Müller, in deciding not to award the Nobel peace prize to Gandhi on 1937 nomination.

    He said

    “He is, undoubtedly, a good, noble and ascetic person – a prominent man who is deservedly honoured and loved by the masses of India.” On the other hand, when considering Gandhi as a political leader, the Norwegian professor’s description was less favourable. There are, he wrote, “sharp turns in his policies, which can hardly be satisfactorily explained by his followers. (…) He is a freedom fighter and a dictator, an idealist and a nationalist. He is frequently a Christ, but then, suddenly, an ordinary politician.”

  • Loknath
  • mallikarjuna

    Only if these thoughts resonated across the country….
    It could truly make India a better place to survive.

  • tp

    Atanu, more grist for your mill:
    http://www.economist.com/node/21563720

  • Kaffir

    “All religious and cultural traditions from India put high emphasis on living simply and living on little. Buddhism and Jainism especially put emphasis on it.”

    Yes, living simply. But, Sanatan Dharma doesn’t say every member of the society ought to become an ascetic, as half of the four purusharthas include artha and kama. One must work hard (following dharma), earn money, and enjoy life. When one has lived his life in grahast ashram and fulfilled his duties, there are the next two stages to strive towards moksha (vanaprastha & sanyas) – which is where asceticism come into play.

  • Ashish Deodhar

    To the best of my knowledge, Gandhi opposed not the “foreign” machines but the clothes made in England. It was because the British raj sourced cotton at cheap rates from India by exploiting the cotton growers and then sold clothes made of the same cotton to India and across the world at steep prices.

    It was to oppose the exploitation that he called for a ban on foreign clothes, from whatever history I have learnt. Of course, you are welcome to tell me that the history I have been taught is incorrect, that it’s all “Congress propaganda” and so on :)

  • http://www.himadrimayank.com Himadri Mayank

    Gandhi realised that mere speeches, writings and gatherings are not enough to galvanise 300 million people belonging to such degrees of plurality as India. He used Charkha, his own appearance as a ‘half naked fakir’, swadeshi, to an extent non-violence and many other symbols to mass-market the idea that the notion of Old India is much more fascinating than the New World; that people of India deserve to and should strive to live as free citizens in a free nation. Else, if just industrialization and economic prosperity is the issue, we could have just fought for better economic policies under British rule itself. Where was the need to be independent from the British?

    And to think that Gandhi wanted to keep Indians poor is simply naive. Think about India in the early twentieth century, when untouchability was rampant, casteism and racism was much more ingrained into the Indian social hierarchy. Gandhi simply wanted the poor to feel that they are an equal participant of the social fabric, if not the economic one. Extolling the poor and extolling poverty are two different things. Extolling the poor was just a means to an end: boosting their self-esteem. Extolling economic poverty is stupid.

    I totally believe that capitalism brings enormous benefits to the society, by creating a large working middle class, trickle down effects on low income population and most importantly keeping the aspirations of the populations high. However, I have the benefit of hindsight. For Gandhi, Nehru, Shastri and many others not only in India but globally, socialism was a romantic idea in the early twentieth century. It was a break from the existing capitalist exploitative framework. In theory, socialism does look very interesting. In practice, now we understand that it is a utopia. Under British rule, Indian workers were definitely exploited and to an extent the idea of capitalism became synonymous with imperialism. In my opinion, the break from capitalism stemmed largely from a hate for imperialist ambitions.

    Having said all this, I think it is nothing but the ancient virtues of this land that exalts sacrifice, ascetism, detachment and nirvana over commerce and materialism that has hurt India the most, economically. The Indian civilization probably peaked much earlier than others, due to abundance of everything – natural resources, people, ideas etc, and went much before into a post-materialistic ideology. Although they do not matter today, to keep Vaishya after Kshatriya or Brahmin has been the biggest undoing from our scriptures. Gandhi is a small plot in the larger scheme, but he did contribute immensely to the struggle.

  • Anonymous

    To me it does not matter what Gandhi did was right or not. Those were different times, and you cannot assess the decisions or actions then through today’s lens.

    But the main issue is that if we are damned for decades (or centuries) because one man made bad decisions, what does that say of the rest of the billions of people that have lived and died, and been put in decision-making roles (including the decision to vote a particular way, and to support or oppose certain poliocies)?

    If we are a country that can produce billions of idiots over many decades, we deserve to remain poor and backward. If our destiny depends on having produced one good or bad leader many decades ago, well then…

  • GAMJI

    I think Gandhi was very short sighted and this has done more harm to India than many things. The man failed to understand Islam so he spoke very approvingly of Muhammad. He thought by doing so the muslims would be placated and abandon the idea of a separate country. He failed to understand that by calling for ‘Pakistan’ the muslims were actually saying that they wanted nothing to do with the “UNCLEAN HINDUS” himself inclusive. When the muslims kicked out Hindus and Sikhs from their ancestral homes, Gandhi assured the muslims that what was left of India was their home. Today the Hindus and Sikhs are being systematically eradicated from their God given lands. India on the other hand has been left with a muslim population of 140 million. This makes India home to the second largest population in the world and each one of these is not interested in the well being of India. Each one has the potential to engage in acts of terrorism against India. I believe India would still have been independent without Gandhi. He did not do much to help the country.