Defying capitalism and socialism, Kumarappa and Gandhi had imagined a decentralised Indian economy

First posted January 18, 2017

Venu Madhav Govindu & Deepak Malghan

In November 1933, following his fast against a separate electorate on caste lines and the subsequent political settlement known as the Poona Pact, (Mohandas Karamchand) Gandhi embarked on a year-long nationwide campaign against untouchability. Thanks to his extensive travels across the country, he got a first-hand sense of the state of affairs across India. The countryside had not yet recovered from the severe economic dislocation caused by the combined effects of the Great Depression and Britain’s 1931 decision to get off the gold standard.

While the agrarian economy was crying for immediate redress, Gandhi was also confronted with evidence that khadi had its limitations as a means of economic sustenance. Thus, at a time when the urban leadership was keen on rapid industrialisation, Gandhi concluded that the needs of rural India could wait no more. He decided to widen the message of self-sufficiency and self-reliance by reviving other village industries.

The challenge was to enable ordinary people with limited assets, skills, and education to become meaningful economic actors. This, Gandhi argued, was only feasible with a revival and scientific rationalisation of India’s many village industries. Such a move would enable the village to make the best use of its resources and thereby stem the flight of economic surplus from the village to the city. The development of the village economy was meant to be an appropriate answer to the debate between the prevalent economic ideologies of capitalism and communism.

However, Gandhi could neither carry Congress opinion with his political convictions nor generate enthusiasm for constructive work. Therefore, desiring “complete detachment and absolute freedom of action”, in October 1934, at the Bombay session, he resigned from primary membership of the Congress. At the Bombay session, the Congress politely rejected many of Gandhi’s proposals but agreed to put into effect the agenda of the revival and improvement of village industries with (JC) Kumarappa being chosen to lead the effort. On 28 October 1934, the Andhra leader Pattabhi Sitaramayya moved a resolution proposing the formation of the All-India Village Industries Association (AIVIA), also known in Hindustani as the Akhil Bharat Gram Udyog Sangh.

In the early days, Kumarappa occupied one corner of the spacious accommodation and tried to avoid the nuisance created by some of the other inmates of Maganvadi. However, it was scarcely possible for Kumarappa and others to avoid being experimented upon by the food faddist in Gandhi, who dictated the meals in the common kitchen.

Gandhi’s Maganvadi experiments with nutritious but unappetising soya beans have been remarked upon by many writers. If the unappetising lumps of boiled beans could somehow be tolerated, both Kumarappa and his brother Bharatan seem to have been particularly affected by Gandhi’s experiments with a chutney of neem leaves! Writing many years later, both brothers recalled Gandhi’s paternal indulgence towards them which took the form of additional doses of this culinary delicacy.

Bharatan was a new arrival into the Gandhian fold having chosen to follow his brother into public service. As a result, he was regularly seated next to Gandhi, who plied his ward with extra helpings of goodies like boiled soya beans, orange-skin marmalade, raw garlic, and “bitter as quinine” neem chutney. On one occasion, Kumarappa himself was a recipient of similar munificence when Gandhi placed a spoonful of the chutney on his thali. This act of love was witnessed by Vallabhbhai Patel who wryly remarked, “You see, Kumarappa, Bapu started with drinking goat’s milk, and now he has come to goat’s food!”

Gandhi’s experiments might have led to some humour, but the intent behind them was serious. When he wrote to many scientists asking for scientific information on common Indian foods, Gandhi drew a blank. No such information was available, which led him to wonder: “Is it not a tragedy that no scientist should be able to give me the chemical analysis of such a simple article as gur?”

It was precisely this lack of attention towards the needs of the agrarian economy that the AIVIA was meant to address. But, as is the case today, during his lifetime Gandhi’s agenda of constructive work was deeply misunderstood. Thus, the widening of the constructive agenda to encompass village industries invited great ridicule.

Echoing the socialist critique of Gandhi’s economic programme, his old acquaintance VS Srinivasa Sastri characterised the newly formed association as part of Gandhi’s “endless and quixotic war against modern civilisation”. Gandhi, in turn, pointed out to his critics that the cry of “back to the village” was not meant to be a setback to progress but was merely a demand “to render unto the villagers what is due to them”. If all the needs for raw materials were to be met by the village, Gandhi wondered why the villagers should not be taught to work on it themselves instead of being exploited by the more resourceful city-dwellers.

Much of Kumarappa’s time as the prime mover of the AIVIA was spent in applying his philosophical ideas to everyday practical problems. Keenly aware that philosophers in dealing with the higher aspects of life tend to forget “mundane applications”, he argued that a clear conception of the eternal principles of satya and ahimsa can only be had by “watching them in everyday action”. As a result, he forged a distinct and perceptive understanding of the “economic question” and its relationship to individual and social well-being… read more:

Karl Marx in the Anthropocene: the post-capitalist, green manifesto captivating Japan