Gandhi Jayanti is celebrated annually on October 2 to honor Mahatma Gandhi for his invaluable contributions to India’s freedom struggle. But few people are aware of Mahatma Gandhi’s connection to agriculture.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, like many rich and famous in post-independence India, said a farmer, albeit on paper. While the rich ‘Farmers’ tried to take advantage of several government programs and / or obtain exemptions, Gandhi, a Lawyer trained in London, wanted to connect with the real India – the land of villages and farmers. As farmers protest against the The agricultural laws of the Narendra Modi government in India it is important to grasp Gandhi’s perspective on farmers.
Gandhi had described himself as a farmer and weaver by profession in a special court in Ahmedabad during the famous sedition trial of 1922. In November 1929 he issued the following statement for the Navjivan Trust in Ahmedabad.
Gandhi’s first foray into agriculture
Gandhi had nothing to do with farming until he moved to South Africa. He had no understanding of agriculture or farmers because he was born into a family of senior officials of the princely states. His first foray into agriculture was in South Africa. In 1904 a vegetarian friend, Henry Polak, introduced Gandhi to John Ruskin’s book Unto This Last. In the book, Gandhi saw “some of his deepest beliefs reflected.” One of the most important lessons Gandhi learned from the book was that a lifetime of work. The life of a plowman and a craftsman is worth living.
Although Mahadev Desai’s English translation does not include the word “Farmer”, from Gandhi the original Gujarati text mentions the word khedut (a farmer) for the “soil plowman” – the same phrase he used decades later in the guestbook of Oriental Research Institute of Bhandarkar.
His own agricultural experiment began in 1904 at the Phoenix Regulation, 21 miles from Johannesburg. It started as a community living experience based on the teachings of Unto This Last and the idea of breadwork in mind. Mornings in Phoenix were often devoted to farm chores as well as domestic responsibilities, and Gandhi joined in with others.
Gandhi’s association in India with farmers
Hind Swaraj (1909) was Gandhi’s first major work that fully articulated his worldview and critique of modern civilization. Gandhi (‘The Editor’ in the book) informed ‘The reader’ in its original writing in Gujarati: “From your perspective, India means a few princes. For me, this involves millions of farmers who rely on the survival of his princes and ours. In the same response, he praised the farmers for having already practiced Satyagraha. “Farmers have never been and never will be defeated by the sword. They do not know how to wield a sword and are not afraid that others will use one … Farmers and the general public have generally used Satyagraha for their own benefit and that of the state.
After returning to India and touring the country, Gandhi realized that “an ashram without her (agriculture) is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.” (Navjivan, Ahmedabad, Ashram Observances in Action, page 91) Agricultural operations were launched at the Satyagraha Ashram in Ahmedabad on the idea of Maganlal Gandhi, but Gandhi was “fearing that it might distract” their attention to other vital issues. With his reservations, he thought:“No agriculture, no ashram: for he should grow his own vegetables and fruits as much as possible.”
Farmers should be the “Congress”
Before Dandi March (1930), the majority of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movements were directly devoted to farmers’ problems: Champaran, Kheda, Borsad and Bardoli. However, he was opposed to mixing politics with farmers’ problems. Noting the importance and the large number of farmers in the hands of the country’s workers, Gandhi said, “The Kisans should be Congress. “But they are not. When they realize their nonviolent strength, no force on Earth can stand in their way.”
Congress was then the symbol of political representation. It should now include all political parties.
Gandhi, as someone who understood the plight of farmers, opposed their exploitation for political gain. He said,“The key to success lies in a reluctance to use kisans for political reasons beyond their own personal and felt concerns”, citing the success of his campaigns in Champaran, Kheda, Bardoli and Borsad. He also cautioned against using the Congress name for people who work for farmers but do not believe in non-violence.
Gandhi’s supposed identity as a farmer remained intact until the end of his life. When he visited the Oriental Bhandarkar Research Institute in Puna in September 1945, accompanied by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, he wrote “Khedut “(a farmer) in the guestbook section.
Sardar Patel, always more attached to his identity as a farmer than a lawyer, has definitely followed Gandhi’s example.