The Gandhi Way

KINGSLEY MARTINbecame editor of theNEW STATESMANin 1931, and in the intervening years he has made his paper the most penetrating, caustic, and widely read weekly of critical content in Britain. He travels extensively, especially in the East; he has been five times to India in recent years; and, as this paper shows, he has come to a close understanding with vinoba Bhave.

VINOBA BHAVE, Gandhi’s most faithful disciple, has walked some 35,000 miles in the last nine years. He is a frail–looking man of about sixty with a white beard — and long legs, as many people have ruefully commented as they followed him from village to village, sometimes in the intolerable heat of the Indian plains or blinding rain of the monsoons. He walks not to gain publicity‚ or even to prove that you can keep remarkably fit on a diet of milk curds. He walks for the same reason that Jesus Christ did. He goes with his disciples from village to village, teaching as he goes, his party enlarged by new followers on each day’s walking. One of his admirers quotes him as saying: “We need machines of high speed. But our legs, too, are not without some value. In the old days, our ancestors used to carry Ganges water to distant parts of the country. This tradition brought people together, and the whole country experienced a sense of unity. But what is the picture today? Hundreds gather at the booking offices without knowing the people in front of or behind them. Nobody has the leisure to take an interest in anyone else. But a journey on foot will help me to get to know the country and to identify myself with the poorest in the land, who cannot afford to use any other means of transport. That is why I have decided to travel by foot.”

What is it Bhave has to teach? To understand his message, it is not enough to have visited India or even to have driven through half a dozen of the half million Indian villages. Bhave is at one with all serious students of rural India in seeing that, to overcome its shocking poverty, the traditional structure of the Indian village must be changed. The problem of Indian poverty cannot be overcome by the most generous gifts, welcome though they are, nor even by large sums spent on industrial development, essential though that is. The village is designed for a self-sufficient life at an extremely low level. A village may be hundreds of miles from the nearest town, and connecting it to the next village there may be no more than a track that a bullock cart can travel on at two miles an hour in dry weather and which nothing at all can use in a flood. The present Indian government, aided by air transport and gifts from America, can provide against actual famine. But if the ribs are not to stick through the flesh of the peasants, the village, increasingly overpopulated as science conquers disease and postpones death, must discover the way of doubling or trebling what it wins from the maltreated earth. Caste belongs to a self-sufficient past. It rigidly divides the Brahmin from the fighting man, the trader, and the laborer; it condemns some sixty million outcasts to the most menial tasks and the most abject poverty. All this is held together by Hinduism, which is as much a social system as a religion. Its basic effect is to enable the man who is hungry and without rights, the man who has no land and no hope in this world, to accept the cruelty of his superiors with the same fatalism that he displays toward flood or drought or disease. His next incarnation will adjust the balance, if he honors the gods and learns resignation.

Gandhi’s influence lay in understanding the villager. A revolutionary nationalist, he fought to turn the British out of India without violence. But in economics he was a conservative, in religion a reformist. He stood in relation to orthodox Hinduism much as Christ stood in relation to orthodox Judaism, and his death at the hands of a fanatical Hindu who hated his tolerance toward Muslims corresponds very closely in the Indian mind with the Crucifixion. Above all, Gandhi fought against caste. He regarded the traditional Hindu’s refusal to share in all matters of food, drink, marriage, and social intercourse with the Muslim as the worst example of caste intolerance. It was for his tolerance toward Muslims that he was killed. Similarly, he struggled always for the emancipation of the untouchables, whom he called Harijans, or “the children of God.”If the nationalist struggle had not so absorbed his energies, he would, no doubt, have added to his many tentative experiments with village cooperation. As it was, he died, leaving this part of his work to Vinoba Bhave.

HALLAM TENNYSON, who walked for many months with Vinoba Bhave, has vividly described a village meeting at which Bhave preached his gospel of love and called upon those with land to give up some of it, often one sixth, to the landless and impoverished. His early meetings were often like those of a revivalist preacher. The consciences of the well to do were moved; no doubt the emotional pressure of the packed village audience, stirred by Bhave, played its part in persuading them to generosity. In this way, millions of acres were voluntarily surrendered and divided among the landless. The limitations of this form of revolution were, however, quickly obvious. Sometimes a landlord changed his mind. Often the plots of land given to the poor provided them with no kind of living; they promptly fell into debt to the village moneylender and again lost their land. As happens with conversions, changes of heart too often prove temporary.

The next stage in Bhave’s progress was spectacular. He persuaded villages to pool their entire land, so that when he went to the next village, he had, nominally at least, succeeded in creating a new commune in which there would be no rich or poor; all would share equally. Some five thousand villages responded to his appeal, not with bhoodan, gifts of land, but with gramdan, the gift of the whole village.

I visited one such gramdan village in Rajasthan, where the present minister of community development, the energetic S. K. Dey, has initiated a revolutionary experiment and has given powers of election and taxation to the villagers; if they use their powers, they can transform the land and social system with official agreement, but without too much guidance from Delhi. The villagers sat around me and talked of how they might acquire another well, of how they might be able to borrow money from the cooperative bank to tide over the ravages to their crops caused by a disastrous hailstorm, of how possibly they might grow a crop which they could sell and thereby be able to buy some of the goods usually thought necessary for existence. They lived in an arid waste with no amenities of any kind. They had dedicated their village to Jaya Prakash Narayan. Jaya Prakash was once regarded as a likely successor to Nehru; he is a socialist who, disillusioned with politics, joined Vinoba Bhave and somewhat rashly swore to dedicate the rest of his life to Bhave’s movement.

At this stage, the many villages which accepted gramdan seemed, temporarily at any rate, to give Vinoba’s movement a new political importance. It could no longer be waved aside merely as a conversion of some of the better-off peasants to Gandhi’s principles. The government itself had set about the experiment of organizing communes, each composed of a group of a hundred villages, but it was only too obvious that officials from Delhi could not carry out this transformation and that there was quite inadequate response in the villages. The Communists had also tried, and had been successful in creating village cooperatives in Telingana. They had managed forcibly to drive out the landlords and had actually made transfers of land, which Delhi had to accept as final. Vinoba Bhave visited this area and tried to persuade the Communists to give up violence and to help him to find “a peaceful way out of our problems.” Like the Communists, he was prepared to accept legislation to put the seal and add permanency to the revolution he was trying to carry out, but unlike them, Hallam Tennyson quotes him as saying, he would not “begin with loot and murder, but with pity and kindness. When every heart feels that the present order is unjust, when pity is created and there is a proper understanding of the situation, then the right sort of legislation can come.” To this the Communists replied: “But how can you believe it possible that the landlords will voluntarily liquidate themselves? No class has ever committed suicide, and none ever will. It is against the law of psychology.”

“Perhaps I do not know much about psychology,” Vinoba replied. “But I have faith in the human heart.”

As the gramdan movement spread, it seemed possible that India was the exception. Perhaps, after all, some progress might be made without force and by changing the human heart. The Communist Prime Minister of Kerala at least treated the Bhave movement with marked respect. He did not imagine that Bhave was carrying out a peaceful Communist revolution, but he did see in it a powerful movement that he had to treat as a step forward, not as another betrayal of the workers.

MOST of this was in my mind when I went to see Bhave this spring. An Indian friend came with me. She made notes of his replies to my questions. We found him at a village only about two hundred miles from Delhi. Like Gandhi, Bhave is a clever man. He has written competent books on Hindu philosophy and its social implications; he is a remarkable linguist and an intellectual as well as a sadhu.

A large crowd had collected around the schoolhouse which he had made his headquarters, and a dozen or so disciples were squatting on the floor near him. A tape recorder was on the table, and he was talking quietly and authoritatively to individual journalists, politicians, and villagers who came to listen to his wisdom. When my turn came, he put his arm around my shoulders and drew me down by his side. He had sent a message asking me to write down my questions. He pleads deafness as the reason and explains the deafness as the result of a blow with a stick delivered by a priest when Bhave tried to help untouchables to enter a Hindu temple. In any case, he prefers carefully formulated questions; he answers them quickly and firmly in the manner of a teacher, not so much expecting argument as expounding a philosophy which you are to think about afterward.

I asked him first whether he felt that gramdan villages were significant contributions to India’s economic problem and to what extent this was merely a symbolic or moral movement. He answered that it was both, provided that it had momentum. It would change the economic pattern of India if it got going; otherwise, it would remain merely symbolic. Today, it seemed no longer to be making much progress. It lacked workers, and he was concentrating on educating and training a body of them. In point of fact, he was making an admission which 1 was very sorry he had to make — that his movement is no longer making headway.

I asked whether the vast change which we both thought necessary in the structure of village life could be voluntarily carried out. He replied that “You can’t have an air-conditioned village,” you had to have “a two-pronged attack” to create gramdan villages and to foster the climate for them everywhere. As to state planning, he said, “There is nothing in the world that is purely voluntary. An element of compulsion is always involved.” But the compulsion is social. “The climate of Asia, not only India, is compelling us to decentralize our economy. Unless we have industries in the villages in addition to the meager resources of the fields, our villages will never prosper.” I asked him whether caste was an obstacle. He made the depressing reply, which I have heard confirmed elsewhere, that the popular vote, far from destroying caste, has actually strengthened its hold. “A new emphasis is given to caste by the electoral system.” In short, the system that is supposed to end caste because it gives everyone equal rights may, in fact, stabilize the least equal of all systems; men may vote for their caste choice and not for any policy or program. It is as if all Catholics plumped for Catholics and all Protestants for Protestants, irrespective of whether they were Democrats, Republicans, or neither.

I asked him about the future of the villages where his teaching had been accepted. Did “cooperation” rule out all private holdings in land, or did it mean that the joint produce of the village should be divided between the landed and the landless, or was it just a matter of joint marketing? His answer was revealing. “I am not,”he said, “dogmatic about the economic planning of a gramdan village. Just as air and water are free for everyone, so land should be free. No one should own the land. If that is admitted, you can have any pattern which the villagers choose. It is for them to decide.” It is, I think, because he has been content with this general acceptance of his doctrine and not had with him a team of experienced organizers who could work out the right system for each type of village and stay behind long enough to see it through that so many gramdan villages have relapsed from grace.

He rejected the extreme view that India can do without mechanical power. “But,” he said, “we have a bullock economy. People here do not eat beef, and bullocks have to be given special protection. That means we have to use them rather than tractors to reclaim our land. No part of India, to my mind, is suitable for tractor cultivation.”

He side-stepped the population problem. Population, he said, was a world problem to be thought of in world terms. He was “not in love with family planning” and thought that the solution lay in utilizing empty spaces everywhere — in Australia, for instance. No doubt I ought to have argued about the problems of shipping or accommodating millions of people to a desert area, about the feelings of Australians and theories of Malthus. But I refrained. I preferred to get him to explain whether he thought that cooperation was a sufficient motive for social progress. Had not competition a vital part to play? He replied: “There cannot be two laws, one for the family, one for society. In a family, competition does not work. Why should the same law not work for the village? Why must we have two laws because we have entered the age of science? Progress is retarded by competition. Even in a competitive society, the state has to protect and feed the weak. Why should we call on the state to do this and not found the whole village community on love, just as we do the family? There is nothingimpracticable in a cooperative community. The weak and lazy have to be educated and induced to work, just as in the family. Competition creates frustration, love gives hope.” He said that no competitive society was actually cruel enough to allow the weakest to go to the wall. “The necessity of love is admitted in any case.”His job, he said, was to persuade people to give it full scope.

In the evening the village collected to hear him. There must have been two or three thousand men, women, and children squatting on the ground when he arrived. He began to speak in Hindi. I noticed that one or two people near me, especially a Sikh who was in charge of the microphone, looked puzzled. The Sikh borrowed my pencil, wrote a note, and passed it up to him. He waved it aside. I read the note, which ran: “These people have come to hear your views about the economic changes you advocate and how you would Carry them out.” In fact, he told them nothing of the kind. He said that he was conscious that the village was not in a receptive mood. They were restless and undisciplined; they were not ready to receive his gospel. So he would not address them, but merely lead them in prayer. He did so, and the meeting broke up quietly, but the people were disappointed and, I thought, rather resentful.

Afterward, people expressed surprise to me. The village was respectful, wasn’t it? Of course, there is always some restiveness where there are children. What did he expect? Perhaps the clue lay in the fact that Punjab villagers had not been willing to part with their land. It is one thing to persuade people to make gifts of land, and even to accept the cooperative idea, in areas of great poverty where some have tiny holdings and others are still living on the labor of the landless. It is quite another to persuade the comparatively well-to-do and very independent farmers of the Punjab to abandon their traditional individualism. In short, the Punjab district as a whole has rejected his philosophy.

I was not surprised, the other day, to learn that Bhave has embarked on a peace mission to the bandit area of Uttar Pradesh. The police were willing to cooperate. How many known bandits would accept a promise of Ireedom from arrest and come out of hiding to listen to him? How many would be persuaded to become honest men? Would the Mahatma’s teaching of love and cooperation work here, among a class who are supremely unloving and individualistic?

It is too early to say. Reports so far are that the bandits are not prepared to run the risk of coming into the open. All one can say for certain is that if India, or any Western country, for that matter, is to reach a further stage of civilization, it must move in the direction pointed by Vinoba Bhave. The mere multiplication of advertised goods, the mere speeding up of communications, the greater efficiency of machinery will benefit no one unless, like Bhave, we learn to think of ourselves as a family sharing, rather than as animals in a jungle in which we prey on each other. Bhave will be remembered as one of those who tried to make men understand this and act upon it.