Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule is a small tract written by Gandhi in 1908. Gandhi had been living in South Africa for some years, had been to India on a visit, and on the voyage back to South Africa from London he penned this work in less than ten days, writing with his left hand when his right hand started giving him some pain. Hind Swaraj appeared first in installments in the pages of Indian Opinion, a newspaper founded and edited by Gandhi, and in 1909 was published as a book, though it was proscribed at once by the Government of Bombay. Less than 100 pages long, and comprised of twenty short chapters, Hind Swaraj is cast in the form of a dialogue between Gandhi, who is called “The Editor”, and his interlocutor, known as “The Reader.” Some readers might be reminded of the Socratic dialogues, where Socrates has by far the greater number of lines; his interlocutors appear as sophists. Others will think, perhaps, of the Upanishadic dialogues, while yet others might think of Hind Swaraj as a Sunday school catechism, where matters of ‘truth’ and ‘doctrine’ are put in the form of questions and answers.

As Gandhi was to observe in a foreword which he called “A Word of Explanation”, he had in London come into contact with Indian “anarchists” or, in the language of the Indian government, “extremists”, and had encountered these people in India as well. While struck by their “bravery”, Gandhi thought the “zeal” of these extremists, who sought to procure India’s independence through the use of violence and techniques of terror, including political assassination and bombing campaigns, “misguided”. For over a decade, Gandhi had been experimenting with non-violent resistance in South Africa, and he held firmly to the view that India was especially equipped to show the way out of violence through the higher law of non-violent resistance. Gandhi thought of Hind Swaraj as a book that could be “put into the hands of a child. It teaches the gospel of love in place of that of hate. It replaces violence with self-sacrifice. It pits soul force against brute force” (p. 16).

However, it is not for this reason alone that Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj, and indeed its afterlife suggests that it is seldom read as a treatise on non-violence. Over the remaining forty years of his life, Gandhi would continue to write on non-violence, and his later writings have eclipsed Hind Swaraj in this respect. But if Hind Swaraj occupies a seminal place in Gandhi’s oeuvre, and can even reasonably be described as one of the most critical documents of the twentieth-century, it is because in this work he initiated what he himself described as “a severe condemnation of ‘modern civilization” (p. 16). Gandhi inaugurated the most far-reaching critique of modernity that one can imagine, and though it must have struck the preponderant number of his contemporaries as an absurd treatise, Hind Swaraj strikes the reader of late modernity as a work of extraordinary prescience and insight. All too often Hind Swaraj has been read as a denunciation of the West (qua West), but this reading is nowhere substantiated by the text. Throughout, Gandhi remains clear that the replacement of white rulers by brown rulers would be of little consequence to the people if the new set of rulers governed by the same principles, with the same objectives, and with a similar commitment to principles of modern civilization. As he put it with characteristic forthrightness, addressing his imaginary interlocutor, “we want English rule without the Englishman. You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India English. And when it becomes English, it will be called not Hindustan but Englistan.” As he adds, pointedly: “This is not the Swaraj [freedom, self-rule] that I want” (p. 30). Doubtless, Western civilization was already largely synonymous with modern, industrial civilization: to this extent, Hind Swaraj can be read as a critique of the West. But Gandhi remained unequivocally bound to the view that India had been grounded into submission not so much by the British as by modern civilization; it is the glitter of the modern world that seduced India and rendered it captive. As he wrote, in a chapter entitled “Why was India Lost?”, “”The English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them” (p. 38).

In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi launched into a ferocious critique of the “parasitic” professionals who staff modern society, particularly doctors, engineers, lawyers, and the like. He gave it as his opinion that sometimes “quacks are better than highly qualified doctors”; as for doctors trained in modern, allopathic medicine, Gandhi observed that “for the sake of a mistaken care of the human body, they kill annually thousands of animals. They practise vivisection” (pp. 59). Lawyers existed to “advance quarrels instead of repressing them” (p. 55). These and numerous other similar sentiments which crowd the pages of Hind Swaraj continue to be profoundly embarrassing to modernizing Indians, and Gandhi’s own contemporaries predicted that Hind Swaraj would soon be forgotten, repudiated by Gandhi himself. Gandhi’s own ‘mentor’, the political leader Gokhale, opined that Gandhi would consign Hind Swaraj to the dustbin of history, but Gandhi affirmed in 1921, and again in 1938, that he saw no reason to retract anything he had written in Hind Swaraj. There seems even less reason today to view Hind Swaraj as a merely Luddite or romantic document: in its ecological wisdom alone, and in its profound sense that there must be limits to human consumption, wants, and addiction to technological solutions, it remains an enduring and endearing work. Hind Swarajis the indispensable work in the Gandhian canon.

Further Reading:

Gandhi, M. K. Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule [1908]. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1938; various reprints.

Nandy, Ashis. “From Outside the Imperium: Gandhi’s Cultural Critique of the West.” In Traditions, Tyranny, and Utopias: Essays in the Politics of Awareness. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1987, pp. 127-162.