Gandhi's theory of the state


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Gandhi's theory of the state
(By Subrata Mukherjee)
Opinion - The Hindustan Times, Feb 1, 1999

It is generally agreed that one of the major consequences of colonial rule in India
was the emergence and consolidation of an overdeveloped state and a relatively
underdeveloped society.

This distorted development has important implications for class formation and
domination in the developing societies. As Richard L. Sklar points out in the
context of Africa, “class relations, at bottom, are determined by relations of power,
not production”.

This negates the well known Marxist theory of class consolidation on the basis of
economic categories. This also means that the classification employed by the
Marxists in the advanced capitalistic countries has very little practical relevance in
comprehending class based politics in post-colonial societies.

The crucial role of the state in the developing world is reflected by the fact that the
modern state is a leviathan in power, wealth and domination with regard to other
societal formations, institutions and organisations.

This is one major reason for the breakdown of constitutional governments in many
parts of the developing world and the consequent absence of constitutionalism, civil
liberties and plurality of institutions. During the period when Gandhi led the
nationalist struggle in India, the colonial state had reached its zenith. He
encountered and reacted against this state for the next three decades.

Following his anarchistic leanings and his total rejection of modern industrialised
civilisation of the West, he charted a new course for India by restricting the activity
of the state and focussing on the grassroots development. His ideal thereby was far
removed from the various conceptions of state projected in the Western political

Gandhi distinguished between state and society. He opposed the notion of
absolute state sovereignty in the Austianian sense for an all powerful state
represented violence in its concentrated form. It stood for uniformity, compulsion
and hindered individuality and self-help.

However, he realised that the state is a necessity since human beings are social
by nature and are incapable of acting in isolation. He believed in limited state
sovereignty for he conceived of an obligation higher than mere politics. Gandhi’s
belief in the primacy of the individual led him to conceptualise a state composed of
self-governing and self-sufficient village communities based on majority rule.
However, majority rule would be constrained by two factors.

First, it cannot run roughshod on an issue on which the minority harbours strong
views and, second, a human being should not act contrary to the dictates of his
conscience since he is essentially a moral person.

Therefore, Gandhi grants the right to engage in acts of civil disobedience to every
individual against policies that he regards as contrary to what is morally right and
appropriate. A non- violent state for Gandhi must aim at the welfare and upliftment
of its citizens. In such a state the police would be social workers ready to use
moral persuasion and public opinion to deal with anti-social elements.

Crime would be treated as a disease that required understanding and help, and not
punishment. It would be a state free of exploitation and conflicts between the labour
and capital in industry, between the tenant and landlord in agriculture and between
the city and village.

These conflicts would be resolved through passive resistance and trusteeship.
Property would be limited so as to prevent exploitation, sensual indulgence and
contempt for one’s fellow beings. Though Gandhi described property as “a sin
against humanity” he was against its violent confiscation for that impoverished
society for it lost out on the talent of those who know how to make money.

Instead he proposed a system of trusteeship where the rich would use their
property and wealth as a trust for the community. Interestingly, in spite of his
minimalist attitude towards the state he proposed a greater role for the state in
economic affairs with limitations on the right of inheritance, state ownership of land
and heavy industries, heavy taxes and nationalisation without compensation. The
Indian state, contrary to Gandhi’s vision, is a centralised and overdeveloped state.
As a result, the state, in spite of its enormity of strength and resources, has not
been able to provide a consensual order.

Equality and an innovative spirit have also remained a far cry. The bourgeoisie is
parasitic. In the cultural and educational spheres, instead of creating an indigenous
tradition, we react to the West. Far from liberating, the state, as Gandhi rightly
pointed out, has made people more subservient. It has widened the gulf between
the elite and the masses. It is important to reduce this overdeveloped state by
harmonising it with societal forces and aspirations.

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .