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The Birth of Hind Swaraj
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Although HS was Gandhiji’s immediate response to what he experienced in his stay in England during 1909, its situational, intellectual and ideological roots are deeper. Those were the days of assassinations of British officers with the intention to set India free from the yoke of British rule and achieve what was called ‘swaraj’ or home rule. The violence was taking place not only in India but in England also. Having firm belief in the purity of means, Gandhiji thought it necessary to protest and condemn such violence. But more importantly perhaps he perceived such violent activities as an outcome of an impact of the modern western civilization itself. Further he also suspected the validity of the prevalent notion of svaraj itself. All these things were taken care in HS. -The Birth of Hind Swaraj: Prof. Sadanand More

The Birth of Hind Swaraj

Prof. Sadanand More, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


The place of Hind Swaraj ((hereafter HS) in Gandhiji’s life and thought is comparable only with Bhagavadgeeta in the life and thought of Lord Krishna with the difference that whereas the Geeta was delivered by Krishna in the mature period of his life HS on the contrary appeared at quite a formative stage of Gandhiji’s life. This difference however does not deprive HS of its richness and ripeness. This explains why Gandhiji never thought of altering fundamentally any of his views in HS in remaining period of his life which is considerably long.


Another important point of difference that emerges from the similarity of dialogical character of the two texts is that whereas Arjuna, the addressee of the Geeta is a humble disciple of Krishna in whom he has full faith, the reader-the addressee of HS is there as a sceptic who goes on arguing with the editor (Gandhiji himself) as his opponent; assuming that both of them are, as it were, on the same footing. It is obvious, therefore, that whereas Arjuna in the Geeta approaches Krishna with humility; the reader in HS on the contrary exhibits a questioning spirit. This spirit again needs to be noted, is not an outcome of an innocent curiosity. Arjuna explicitly admits that his mind is confused and he is unable to discriminate between dharma and adharma. The reader on the other hand would not admit any such confusion on his part. He comes out with conviction.


Importantly and interestingly enough, both Arjuna and the reader are placed in the similar situation. Both want to regain their raj which they have lost to the Kaurava and the British respectively.


The most glaring difference between Krishna and Gandhi is that the former wants Arjuna to opt for violence and the later tries to convince the reader of the futility of violence. This difference however does not matter much for Gandhiji who would soon come out with the novel interpretation of Geeta itself which claims that Mahabharata war was not a real historical war but a metaphorical presentation of internal conflicts taking place in human mind itself between good and evil forces.


The context of the Geeta for Gandhiji, in other words is metaphorical. However no one can put such a claim with reference to HS. Apart from its obvious transcendence of space and time, its trans-contextuality HS has its firm roots in its time. To ascertain its contextuality is in no way to deny or even undermine the universal character of this wonderful text. On the contrary, knowledge of the context that led Gandhiji to produce this text will enrich the understanding of this text itself.


HS was written in Gujarati by Gandhiji in the ship S. S. Kildonan Castle while he was traveling back to South Africa from England in the month of Nov 1909. It was published in the issues of Indian Opinion of e11th and 18th Dec 2009. Gandhiji wrote the text with both right as well as left hands alternatively. The very fact that instead of having some rest after his right hand was tired, Gandhiji continued his writing with the left, itself throws ample light on the internal pressure Gandhi was experiencing while writing it and the necessity he felt of bringing it out immediately.


Although HS was Gandhiji’s immediate response to what he experienced in his stay in England during 1909, its situational, intellectual and ideological roots are deeper. Those were the days of assassinations of British officers with the intention to set India free from the yoke of British rule and achieve what was called ‘swaraj’ or home rule. The violence was taking place not only in India but in England also. Having firm belief in the purity of means, Gandhiji thought it necessary to protest and condemn such violence. But more importantly perhaps he perceived such violent activities as an outcome of an impact of the modern western civilization itself. Further he also suspected the validity of the prevalent notion of svaraj itself. All these things were taken care in HS.


HS, was therefore, not an emotional outburst of Gandhiji. It is on the contrary a thoughtful articulation of his own views cultivated in almost early two decades and the critique of modernity in their light.


Although most of the violent activities of the revolutionary nationalists at that time took place in India the persons who used to argue for and justify them and with whom Gandhiji came to confront with were mostly related to India House a kind of residential and meeting place for Indian students in London managed by Shamaji Krishna Varma. Varma was himself a revolutionary and apart from supporting and helping students, also used to kindle a revolutionary spirit in them. The most important member of the India Home group was undoubtedly Vinayak Damodar Savarakar who arrived in England to obtain Bar at Law. However the degree was only a pretext, Savarakar had ambitious plans which would surpassed even Mr. Varma’s expectations. Much confident about his objective and method, young Savarakar had already developed himself into a conscious and cold blooded revolutionary. He had not only resolved to himself either to win freedom with revolutionary violence or to die striving for the same, but also organized the group of youngsters of his age called Abhinav Bharat. As a child Savarakar took great interest in worshiping the family Goddess Ashtabhuja Bhavani who was herself thirsty for ritual sacrifices of animals. Savarakar owed his inspiration of revolutionary violence to this Goddess. As he grew up Savarakar became agnostic and gave up his belief in God. However the Goddess Bhavani was metamorphosised into the mother Goddess India herself, who was to be worshiped with the blood of enemy. The nation was thus personified into the mother and then deified into the Goddess. This process can very well be understood with similar example in Bengal where an abstract nationalism assumed the powerful form of active and aggressive violent nationalism as Bankimchandra’s poem ‘Vande Mataram’ gave it a kind of theological-religious-mystical turn. There developed in Bengal a kind of nationalistic neo Shaktism as it were.


Having completed such an articulation of thought and organized the group of revolutionary colleagues at an early age in Bhagur and Nasik, Savarakar left for Pune and enrolled himself in Fergusson College for graduation. In Pune, he came in contact with Lokmanya Tilak and Shivaram Mahadev Paranjape who proved to be the sources of inspiration for him, as he himself sometimes explained. For his political ideology, Savarakar was influenced by Tilak and in rhetoric he was much indebted to Paranjape.


So far as the past figures are concerned Savarakar had a lot to learn from lives of Shrikrishna, Shivaji and Ramdas. In order to justify the thoughts and actions the political ideologists and activists of that period he often referred to and quoted from Krishna, Shivaji and Ramdas. Tilak had already restarted the Shivaji festival. The last decade of 19th century also witnessed the assassination of the British officer Rand at the hands of Chapekar brothers in Pune. This incident not only aroused woefulness but also gave rise to hot discussions regarding the justifiability of political violence. A fine distinction came to be made between an ordinary act of murder inviting penal action and a morally justifiable assassination (vadha) of tyrants like Kamsa and Afzal Khan comparable to that of Rand himself. Savarakar took keen interest in this discourse in which quoting from the Geeta became a regular practice.


The discourse was further widened when Savarakar became acquainted with the life of Italian patriot and revolutionary Joseph Mazzini. Savarakar was so influenced by Mazzini that the latter became almost the role model for him. He even imitated costumes of Mazzini. He baptized his organization as ‘Abhinav Bharat’ an Indian incarnation, as it were, of Mazzini’s ‘Young Itali.’


While he was in Nasik and Pune, Savarakar had already read L.G.Ghanekar’s Marathi and Boltan King’s English biographies of Mazzini. After his arrival in England in July 1906 he hastened to get hold of all available English sources of Mazzini’s life and thoughts. As a result, he succeeded in completing his own Marathi work on Mazzini as early as on 27th Sept 1906.


During this period, Gandhiji was engaged with his anti-racist movement in South Africa. He reached London on 20th Oct 1906 with a deputation to see Mr. John Morley who was the State Secretary for India. For Savarakar this must have been a time to enjoy hangover of his own work on Mazzini.


Because of his good relationship with Varma, Gandhiji could be easily accommodated in India House. As he was exerting himself for the cause of Indian nationals in S.A., the Indian students in India House naturally gathered around him to help and cooperate. They contributed in such works as writing addresses on the letters and posting them. Savarakar was one amongst them. Gandhiji himself recollected this in his letter to Shankararao Deo. This was the first encounter of the two leaders. Apart from their cordial relationship at that time, the paths they had chosen were not only different but diametrically opposite to each other. Savarkar under the impact of Mazzini’s ideas, was planning for revolutionary activities and Gandhiji was attempting at an actual application of Leo Tolstoy’s thoughts regarding non violence. Savarakar also had referred to these days. However he did not also forget to mention the debates and controversies that took place between them as a result of which the number of the supporters of Gandhiji diminished. However, to me it appears that here Savarakar is transposing the happenings during their second encounter in 1909 into 1906. Without challenging the personality and convincing rhetoric of Savarakar, it can be said that in 1906 Gandhiji had already established himself as a leader and must have been treated by the students with respect. Comparatively Savarakar was a new comer and was also yet to become influential. But in 1909 he had emerged as a powerful leader of the revolutionary group of the students in India House and was definitely in a position to challenge Gandhiji.


Although Savarakar owed a lot to Mazzini, he cannot be said to have followed the latter in every respect. Being a Staunch Roman Catholic, Mazzini was a severe critique of the Utilitarianism of Mill and Bentham. Savarakar on the other hand can hardly be said to be religious. His notion of Hinduism was all political. Further he was also a follower of Mill and Bentham so far as utilitarian ethics is concerned. Like the latter, for him too, happiness was the aim of life and therefore the criterion of morality of action.


Mazzini did not show any interest in Darwin’s theory of evolution. This theory of Darwin was applied to social life by Herbert Spencer. Savarakar followed Spencer in this respect too. In addition he also accepted Spencer’s agnosticism. Spencer’s Social Darwinism was used by him in order to justify violence in freedom struggle.


The impression that Gandhiji received in India House can be gathered from another source. As he learnt that his friend Dr. P. J. Mehata was leaning towards the ideology S. K. Varma in India House, Gandhiji wrote to him "I understand that you have been copying Mr. S. K. Varma’s teaching. I had long discussion with him and the result is that recoil with horror from it. I have watched the practical working of his teaching at India House and my humble opinion is that the atmosphere around that house is simply reeking with poison."


With all his fear and dislike of the atmosphere in India House, Gandhiji did not see any need to react publicly. After completing his work on deputation he returned to South Africa to resume his work there.


Savarakar remained in England only to continue his revolutionary activities such as establishing contacts with the persons who may help his revolutionary cause. He wrote letters to the King of Nepal appealing him to lead the struggle against British rule and assume the crown of the empire of India after the British were defeated. He even wrote to a number of Indian officers in Army inducing them to revolt against British power. He also wanted to arouse the spirit of discontent and resistance in common people of India. It is in order to serve this purpose that he engaged himself in writing the book on Indian mutiny of 1857 which would change the very perception of it and present it as the war of independence.


A reference also needs to be made to some parallel activities of political violence taking place in other parts of the world during this time. Philosophy of Karl Marx had rooted itself in the soil of Russia of Tsar. The Marxist revolutionaries were planning to overthrow Tsarian rule. Some of them had made Paris the centre of their activities. One of Savarakar’s colleagues P. M. Bapat who came in contact with some Russian revolutionaries, learnt how to make bombs from them and communicated it to Bengali revolutionaries.


Such actions of violence on the part of communist revolutionaries were bound to attract the attention of Europe in general and France in particular. This attention culminated into hot theoretical discussions. One of the famous syndicalist thinkers George Sorel was a leading theorist of violence. Sorel treated violence as a moral value and emphasized on a necessary connection between socialism and violence. His ‘Reflections on Violence’ was quite popular. Being sensitive as he was, Bapat could not help giving serious thought on the issue of violence and nonviolence. Later on he came out with his own theory of nonviolence which made it possible for him to work with Gandhiji.


It was during this time that Tolstoy was opposing violence of both individual as well as institutional kinds. Tolstoy was a staunch pacifist and a thorough opponent of war. More importantly, being a serious religious thinker, Tolstoy could see how the Christian countries in Europe had distorted the teaching of Jesus. According to Tolstoy, Christianity has no place for violence. Setting aside all the Churches as authentic interpreting institutions of the Bible, Tolstoy preferred to interpret it directly for himself and put forth his own version of nonviolent Christian religion according to which ‘though shall not kill’ is the essence of Christian religion. This was in stark contradiction with Mazzini who was a Roman Catholic. His two works ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’ and ‘Gospel in Brief’ exerted tremendous influence on Gandhi. For Tolstoy The Kingdom of God is nothing else than a society free from violence. He could see that even the very institution of state itself cannot function without violence. Hence, he became a proponent of anarchism. He even opposed any kind of nationalism and patriotism as they were bound to take resort to violence. ‘The Law of Love and the Law of Violence’ is a systematic and the most constructive exposition of his views.


However an important difference between Tolstoy’s presentation and the presentation of Gandhi needs to be spelt out. Tolstoy was a proponent of ‘nonresistance to evil by violence’ whereas Gandhi emphasized on resistance by nonviolence. This difference implies that whereas Tolstoy’s view may culminate into inaction whereas that of Gandhi necessarily leads to action. It is out of such an insistence on action that Gandhi started his anti-government movement for justice in South Africa. After his return to South Africa he had to restart the movement as a result of which he was sentenced for seven months on 15th Oct 1908. However, Gandhiji’s movement in SA was not the only movement against the British Empire. Mention has already been made to the activities in India House led by Savarakar. Here in India, Bengal was witnessing blasts of bombs and bullets fired by pistols. In Maharashtra, Lokmanya Tilak was engaged in publishing editorials in his newspapers and arousing feelings of unrest against the government thereby. The government was quick in perception of relation between his writings and violence in Bengal. Soon in 1908 he was tried, sentenced for six years and sent to Mandale in Burma. It is interesting to note that the Indians staying in London organized a meeting on 16th Oct 1908 to protest the decision of the court in which Savarakar seconded the resolution of supporting Gandhi’s movement in SA proposed by Bipin Chandra Pal. It was in the same week that Narendra Goswami, one of the accused in Maniktola conspiracy case was shot dead in the prison for his treachery. The most horrifying and sensational event, however took place on 1st July 1909 when Sir Curzon Wyllie, one of the top ranking British administrators was shot and killed by Madanlal Dhingra of India House. The scholars agree that no one else but Savarakar himself was the person pulling wires from behind. It was he who instigated and induced Dhingra to undertake such an extreme action.


On 1st July Gandhi was on his way to England again with a deputation to deal with the injustice in Africa. He reached London on 10th July and gathered some information regarding the tragic event. In the letter to his colleague Mr. Pollack he wrote "the terrible tragedy about Sir Curzon Wyllie and Dr. Lalkaka complicates the situation here." As Wyllie was invited by National Indian Association and as such he was an honorable guest; on 16th July Gandhi reacted for Indian opinion "Mr. Dhingra’s defense is inadmissible. In my view he has acted like a coward. All the same one can only pity the man. It is those who incited him to this that deserved to be punished. In my view Mr. Dhingra himself is innocent. The murder was committed in a state of intoxication. It is not merely wine or bhang that makes one drunk; a mad idea also can do so. That was the case with Mr. Dhingra." Again on 23rd July he wrote "Mr. Dhingra’s statement, according to me argues mere childishness or mental derangement. Those who incited him to this act will be called to account in God’s court and are also guilty in the eyes of the world. Dhingra was a patriot, but his love was blind. He gave his body in a wrong way, its result can only be mischievous."


Like Gandhi many people were aware of Savarakar’s hand in the plot. However as there was no enough evidence to prove it, British government was helpless. India House was itself under watch by the police who could have by this time gathered considerable evidence against Savarakar to suspect but not enough to implicate him. Otherwise quite cautious and careful Savarakar was a bit overconfident also. Further being upset with the sentence of life imprisonment in Andaman awarded to his brother Babarao under the charge of seditious activities, he was also anxious to do or get done some avenging act.


Gandhiji was watching all these events taking place in England and India. He had till then, not only developed his views regarding the issue of violence and nonviolence but also formed a worldview of his own. He certainly had some solace to notice that he was not alone. Count Leo Tolstoy also held similar views. Although he was very well acquainted with the writings of Tolstoy and had also drawn inspiration from them, Gandhiji had not yet contacted him personally. It was on the 1st Oct 1909 that Gandhiji wrote a letter to Tolstoy. On the very next day he was to cross his fortieth year.


Like Gandhiji, Tolstoy was also at pains to see the violence committed by Indians under the name of patriotism and home rule. He expressed his views through the letter he wrote to Tarak Nath Das, the publisher of the journal ‘Free Hindustan’ from Vancouver by way of the reply to the letter by the latter. Mr. Das declined to publish it. Incidentally Gandhiji happened to get hold of a copy of it. He not only appreciated it but thought of publishing it in Indian Opinion if Tolstoy permitted. Apart from communicating Tolstoy’s ideas to his readers, Gandhiji was also interested in communicating to Tolstoy about his own efforts in SA of putting into practice Tolstoy’s ideas.


Tolstoy gladly permitted Gandhiji to go ahead. He replied on 7th Oct. He also prayed in the same letter that "God help our dear brothers and co-workers in Transvaal. Tolstoy’s ‘Letter to a Hindu’ was accordingly published in Indian Opinion of 25th Dec. Gandhiji wrote his preface to the letter on 18th Nov in which he summarized Tolstoy’s views as "Tolstoy gives a simple answer to those Indians who appear impatient to drive the whites out of India. We are (according to him) our own slaves, not of the British. This should be engraved in our minds. The white cannot remain if we do not want them."


Gandhiji on his own worriedly added "it is for us to pause and consider whether in our impatience of English rule, we do not want to replace one evil by another and worse." In fact Tolstoy had written the letter and sent it to Mr. Das long before Wyllie’s assassination. Gandhiji published it after this sad event and hence had to take its cognizance. He wrote "One of the accepted and ‘time honored’ methods to attain the end is that of violence. The assassination of Sir Curzon Wyllie was an illustration in its worst and (most) detestable form of that method."


Gandhi had been already feeling an internal compulsion to react to such violent actions on the part of the nationalist revolutionaries. In the letter to W. J. Wybergh written on 10th may 1910, Gandhiji wrote "-having had the position of the pacifist practically forced upon me by circumstance, I felt bound to write for whom Indian Opinion caters." In the preface to the original Gujarati edition of HS Gandhiji himself brought out the process as "I have written because I could not restrain myself." However the credit must also be given to Tolstoy’s recent ‘Letter to a Hindu’ which must have encouraged Gandhiji to come forward with the similar views. He himself had acknowledged his indebtedness in the preface to ‘Indian Home Rule’ as "while the views expressed in Hind Swaraj are held by me, I have but endeavored humbly to follow Tolstoy, Thoreau, Emerson and other writers, besides the masters of Indian philosophy. Tolstoy has been one of my teachers for number of years."


The need, necessity and compulsion to write HS becomes more obvious if one also takes into consideration the place where it was written. He wrote HS in Gujarati on his return journey from England on the Kildonan Castle during 13-22 Nov 1909. This definitely indicates that he wanted to publish HS at his earliest. Accordingly it was published in two installments in Indian Opinion, the first twelve chapters on 11th Dec 1909 and the remaining on 18th Dec 1909.


It came out in the book form in Jan 1910. Gandhiji hastened to publish the English rendering of it entitled ‘Indian Home Rule’ as early in March 1910 as the Gujarati edition was proscribed in India by the Government of Bombay.

Let it be pointed out again that any such haste an the part of Gandhi to write or to publish HS in no way suggests that he was hasty or overenthusiastic in forming opinions or drawing conclusions. As he himself revealed in the preface to the Gujarati edition – "I have read much, I have pondered much, during the stay for four months in London, of the Transvaal deputation. I discussed things with as many of my countrymen as I could. I met, too, as many Englishmen as it was possible for me to meet." It is only after such a painstaking preparation that now he considered it his duty to place before the readers of Indian Opinion the conclusions which appeared him to be final.


Gandhiji was so convinced and certain of the finality of the views in HS that even decades after the publication of the text followed by doubts and criticism from various quarters he stood by every word in it except one i. e. ‘prostitute’ used with reference to the British Parliament and that to at the behest of an English friend.


As quoted from the preface to the Gujarati text Gandhiji referred to his discussions with his own countrymen during his four month’s stay in London. Although most of the active countrymen were certainly connected with the India House, it is no one else but Savarakar who can be described as epitomizing the very spirit of India House. As suggested earlier, Savarakar of 1909 was a different person from Savarakar in 1906 in the sense that now in 1909 he had become the leader of the group and even assumed the place of S. K. Varma himself informally although. He was no more a volunteer engaged in such trifle works as pesting stamps on the letters and posting them. He had turned himself into the leader enjoying high respect and obedience from the colleagues tantamount to followers. It was Savarakar who was mainly responsible for the plots and conspiracies cooked in India House. But apart from his skill in such articulating and executing revolutionary plans he was also gifted with the capacity to reason and argue theoretically and also to argue and convince to the extent of converting others to his views regarding violence as the justifiable means to home rule. The HS one can logically conclude, was mainly written to counter the views of the revolutionary group in India House in general and that of Savarakar in particular. The reader or addressee in HS could be no one else than Savarakar himself.


There did take place a face-to-face public encounter between Savarakar and Gandhi during the latter’s stay in London. The date was 24th Oct 1909. For the Hindus in India House, as it was the day of Dashahara festival, they decided to go for its public celebration. Accordingly the non Hindus in London were also invited. The problem was who would preside over the gathering. Since the India House and the students staying there were very much being condemned and looked down on account of their connection with Wyllie’s assassination it became difficult to get some honorable gentleman of status and influence as the president. Such persons were obviously reluctant to associate themselves with the organizers. Finally a request was made to Gandhijji who did not disappoint them.


Both Gandhiji and Savarakar had reported this event in Indian Opinion and Vihari respectively. Gandhiji tells that a feast was arranged and the students of medical and law faculties volunteered themselves for cooking and serving the food. Gandhiji also adds that "one of them was a very active fellow. He had struggled against odds to become a barrister."


This is an explicit reference to Savarakar whose degree was withheld owing to his public justification of Wyllie’s assassination by Dhingra. In his speech Savarakar did not fail to mention that Dashhara is preceded by Navaratra which is the festival of Shakti. Gandhi emphasized on the fasting and purifying ritual in Navaratra. Needless to say that Savarakar must have in his mind the sacrificial worship of the Goddess Durga when he referred to Navaratra. The war between Rama and Ravana was also mentioned. Here too, Gandhiji referred to the Vanavas and suffering of Rama for 14 years. He also said that despite his difference of opinions with Savarakar he was proud of the opportunity he had of seating near him.


The meeting went on smoothly. Both Gandhiji and Savarakar appreciated and praised the work being done by each other. Since there was already an understanding that neither party would touch the issue of Wyllie and Dhingra, none in fact did, and decorum was maintained. Apparently one may not even smell an iota of controversy between them. But each of them was aware of the fundamental and serious differences existing between them. This confrontation only foreshadowed the future conflict between them which ultimately culminated in the assassination of Gandhiji at the hands of the followers of Savarakar who perhaps thought of themselves being more Savarakarite than Savarakar himself.


The controversy between Gandhiji and Savarakar is not restricted only to the issue of violence and nonviolence. Other issues dealt with by Gandhiji in HS such as the relation between the end and means, Italy and Mazzini as the model for the freedom struggle, relation between Hindus and Muslims are also the issues on which both of them had serious disagreement. And most importantly perhaps they fundamentally differed on the evaluation of the modern civilization which was almost taken to be one with the western civilization. It is well known that Savarakar was a staunch supporter of the western modernity of which science is the soul. Gandhiji on the other hand was very much critical of it. HS itself presents a critique of modern western civilization.


Gandhiji and Savarakar, to summarize, had fundamentally different world views and paradigms of life which were bound to conflict with each other. It was only the glimpse of such a conflict that was responsible for the birth of HS. Gandhi-Savarakar controversy thus forms the necessary contextual background for the birth of HS.







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