Sunday, March 02, 2008

Ambedkar Against Gandhi

Note: I wrote this essay for the Breakthrough Institute Blog, where it was first published in two parts (Part-I is here and Part-II is here). The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is a progressive think tank focusing on environmental issues.

A guilty liberal finally snaps, swears off plastic, goes organic, becomes a bicycle nut, turns off his power, composts his poop, ... generally turns into a tree hugging lunatic who tries to save polar bears and the rest of the planet from environmental catastrophe. - "No Impact Man" Colin Beavan

The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need but not every man's greed. - Mahatma Gandhi

The two quotes above are far separated in time and place, and may differ ever so slightly in phraseology, but they articulate a remarkably similar world-view: mankind has sinned against Nature by promoting industrial development, mass production, and mass consumption; the only way out is to abandon our vain attempts to achieve progress and growth, and instead, embrace a society based on limited ambition, limited needs and subsistence production.

Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, venerated today as the "father of the nation," can be viewed from many different angles - there is Gandhi the nationalist; there is Gandhi the politician; there is Gandhi the prophet of non-violence; and then, there is the Gandhi of Hind Swaraj, the repudiator of modernity and technology and "Western-style" industrial development. It is this last anti-modern Gandhi that is ideologically very close to the eco-austerity paradigm advocated many environmentalists today.

Gandhi's rejection of modern civilization and development comes out most forcefully in Hind Swaraj, a short book he published in 1909. Here are some quotes.

Let us first consider what state of things is described by the word "civilization". ... Formerly, in Europe, people ploughed their lands mainly by manual labor. Now, one man can plough a vast tract by means of steam engines and can thus amass great wealth. This is called a sign of civilization. Formerly, only a few men wrote valuable books. Now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people's minds. ... This civilization takes note neither of morality nor of religion. ... This civilization is irreligion ... This civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed. According to the teaching of Mahommed this would be considered a Satanic Civilization. Hinduism calls it the Black Age.

To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. So doing, we know ourselves... We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors therefore set a limit to our indulgences. They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich or unhappy because he is poor. .... Millions will always remain poor. Observing all this, our ancestors dissuaded us from luxuries and pleasures. We have managed with the same kind of plough as existed thousands of years ago. We have retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remains the same as before. We have had no system of life-corroding competition. Each followed his own occupation or trade and charged a regulation wage.
Postmodernist scholar, Ashis Nandy, approvingly describes how this anti-modern Gandhi serves to inspire various fringe anti-development, anti-progressive movements today.
This Gandhi is more hostile to Coca-Cola than to Scotch whiskey and considers the local versions of Coca-Cola more dangerous than imported ones. This is because ... he considers it more dangerous if ... long-lasting, deep-rooted Indian structures are created to produce superfluous items of mass consumption. ... This Gandhi - vintage Hind Swaraj - is also bit of a nag and a spoil-sport... It is this Gandhi who has guided the notorious agitation of Medha Patkar against the Narmada dam, Claude Alvares against Operation Flood, and Vandana Shiva against the Green Revolution.
In spite of Gandhi's iconic status in India, his Hind Swaraj world view was never widely accepted by the mainstream. In 1945, Jawaharlal Nehru (who was to become independent India's first Prime Minister in 1947) wrote to Gandhi, "it is many years since I read Hind Swaraj ... but even when I read it twenty years ago it seemed to me completely unreal." He further reminded Gandhi, "the Congress has never considered that picture (portrayed in Hind Swaraj) much less adopted it." It was the nationalist, non-violent, humanist Gandhi who Indians admired and respected - not the Gandhi of Hind Swaraj.

In my view, the most important critique of Gandhi's Hind Swaraj world view came from Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of modern India's most important thinkers and leaders.

Bhimrao Ramji 'Babasaheb' Ambedkar was born in 1891 to a family of "untouchables," who were (and are) at the very bottom of India's strictly hierarchical and hereditary caste system. With his father serving in the Army, young Bhim got a rare opportunity to acquire a modern education. He eventually earned doctorate degrees from Columbia University in the U.S. and from the London Schools of Economics in England, and qualified as a barrister in London. Ambedkar went on to become an important political figure in India and an inspiring leader of the untouchables, the poorest and most underprivileged section of Indian society. Ambedkar is known as the "chief architect of the Indian Constitution" and can be considered as one of the founding fathers of modern India. Today, Ambedkar and his ideas are held in great esteem by the Dalit movement (former untouchables now call themselves "Dalits," which means "oppressed"). Gandhi and Ambedkar are probably the two most revered and idolized figures in India today.

Ambedkar spent three years at Columbia University in New York City - three years that played a crucial role in his intellectual development. Especially influential was his professor John Dewey, of whom Ambedkar reportedly remarked, "I owe my whole intellectual life to Prof. John Dewey." Ambedkar eventually developed a political philosophy that was almost diametrically opposed to Gandhi's Hind Swaraj world view. In Ambedkar's view, the traditional Indian village economy and society - so favored by Gandhi - was fundamentally exploitative of the lower castes. Rather, Ambedkar saw modernity and economic and industrial development as fundamentally emancipatory for the oppressed. Here is a quote from Ambedkar.

In Gandhism, the common man has no hope. It treats man as an animal and no more. It is true that man shares the constitution and functions of animals, nutritive, reproductive, etc. But these are not distinctively human functions. The distinctively human function is reason, the purpose of which is to enable man to observe, meditate, cogitate, study and discover the beauties of the Universe and enrich his life. ... The conclusion that follows is that ... the ultimate goal of man's existence is not reached unless and until he has fully cultivated his mind. ... How then can a life of culture be made possible? It is not possible unless there is sufficient leisure. ... The problem of all problems which human society has to face is how to provide leisure to every individual. ... Leisure means the lessening of the toil and effort necessary for satisfying the physical wants of life. ... Leisure is quite impossible unless some means are found whereby the toil required for producing goods necessary to satisfy human needs is lessened. What can lessen such toil? Only when machines take the place of man. ... Machinery and modern civilization are thus indispensable for emancipating man from leading the life of a brute. ... The slogan of a democratic society must be machinery, and more machinery, civilization and more civilization. Under Gandhism the common man must keep on toiling ceaselessly for a pittance and remain a brute. In short, Gandhism with its call of back to nature, means back to nakedness, back to squalor, back to poverty and back to ignorance for the vast mass of the people.
Gail Omvedt, an American-born Indian scholar and activist, and a leading authority on Ambedkar, has this to say.
The great values of the Enlightenment and the French revolution are today under attack ... not only in India from advocates of pseudo-swadeshi who would see them as merely "Western" but also world-wide, from postmodernists and eco-romanticists who think "progress" is impossible... Eco-romanticism, taking its justification from Mahatma Gandhi, tends to see history as heading into a downspin. ... [They argue] that the French Revolution is finished; its ideals cannot be extended to Dalits, women or other sections of the marginalized in the world, and we must turn away from this vain effort to achieve "growth" to acceptance of a society based on limited needs, subsistence production, and stasis.

Many environmentalists today take the view that we must abandon the entire concept of development and progress, and should instead embrace the Gandhian ideal of a traditional village-based society with limited needs, limited ambitions, and small-scale subsistence production. They argue that there is no other way out since the earth is threatened by global warming and world is fast running out of its natural resources. I agree that global warming is a serious problem, and indeed, there are certain non-renewable natural resources, like oil, that are in short supply. However, I do not think that things like oil are our most important natural resources. Rather, our most valuable natural resources are human resources - human ingenuity, human creativity and human intelligence. And guess what? Human resources - with some nurturing - are infinitely renewable and have infinite potential. To me, the fundamental idea of development and progress means unlocking human potential - it means making more opportunities available to more people. This process may indeed involve some use of natural resources like oil, and possibly some greenhouse gas emissions, but over-use of natural resources and excessive greenhouse gas emissions are neither necessary nor sufficient for development and progress.

Traditionalism, as advocated by Gandhi, is not all bad. Our traditions and culture give us our sense of community and family. They give us pride and confidence, and a sense of security and belonging, and values that we hold dear. We live in a rapidly changing, globalized world and are faced with a bewildering array of choices. As we negotiate this perplexing but fascinating world, our traditions serve as our foundations, and make us conscious of who we are and where we come from. At the same time, it is extremely important that we embrace development and progress, which empowers us to discover new horizons and open up new vistas. As a well known saying goes, "there are but two lasting bequests we can give our children; one is roots, the other, wings." Tradition serves as our roots, while progress gives us wings.

Note: a slightly longer discussion of Gandhi's and Ambedkar's thoughts is available at my blog here.