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Swaraj in our midst…

Paper presented in the National Conference on Relevance of Gandhi and Compassionate World, Xavier University, Bhubaneshwar, Jan 30 &31, 2018 under the theme, Rural Transformation & Grassroot Governance.  


Swaraj in our midst…

Based on evidence of the values underlying the Swaraj concept among the community institutions of India


CONGRATULATIONS – Fr. Paul Fernandes and the XUB team for organizing this wonderful event. In today’s political milieu to organize an event to celebrate the relevance and compassion openly and Gandhi as well, is an act of defiance. To defy and not being politically correct takes courage in the age of aggressive centralization that we are all in. Congratulations to all to students to have taken the time off your busy academic pursuit to have organized, to have bothered to read up Gandhi and participate in programmes here and to have put yourself to listen to several speakers like myself, thankfully, yesterday’s fascinating story telling by Ankit Chadda and Vedanth Bharadwaj and well choreographed Odissi dance, broke the monotony of speeches and I hope most of the students enjoyed those as well.  The organizers should be complimented to have added the story telling through music and dance as part of the event as it is truly an Indian tradition.




INTRODUCTION - I come from Tamilnadu, the southern most state of this country and a state that is as big as several countries of the world, it is as big as Thailand. It has a population that  traditionally consists of farmers, weavers, carpenters, warriors, salt makers, artists, musicians, musical instruments makers, dancers, crafts personnel, healers, teachers, accountants, agricultural labourers, pearls hunters, deep sea fishermen, village priests, story tellers, traders, cooks, etc., A German scholar visiting this country in 1707 lists about 70 such vocations and each one of these organized as groups within themselves. Those days the word ‘’castë” was not that much prevalent in Europe, so, he used the term, “guild” to denote such groupings. He doesn’t list them as an hierarchy based social theory just then, rather, trying honestly to record what he observes. These are available today[1].  His works contain some fascinating insights on the way the Tamil society was organized 300 years ago. But to go and dig archives and read up these materials takes scholarship and deep interests, something that many of us are unable to do these days, most of us are into management. I had the same problem, I worked with a  Gandhian scholar[2] who weighed every word and looked for archival references in several numbers before he made any statement. His works based on the British Archives of India Office Library are today inspiring a new genre of writing and understanding our history sans the colonial lenses. I didn’t go to the archives. But, I went to the communities and studied at what do they have as strength within their customs and cultures and their institutions today, and, I find traces of what the German scholar describes in his notes about the society still prevalent among the way people govern themselves. Remember, this was almost 150 years before Gandhi was born and 200 years before Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj.

So, today I wanted to share with you my understanding of how people, ordinary people in this country, the people who live in the villages, govern themselves based on my experience, observations and understanding of working closely with them for about 2 decades in my State, which is just a small part of this great country. My talk today will be in 3 broad sections – life as it is lived and governed with the principles of governance that are unique to us and that which is articulated as Gram Swaraj by Gandhiji. I want to propose that what he articulated as an ideal is not too different from what the villagers lived to begin with  and much of our own ‘development’ has wiped out these changes. That “Development” as we practice today is a poor abstraction of continued colonialism.

Secondly, I want to talk about engaging creatively with the government and transform the language and dialogue around development, something that we have been doing for the past 3 years  to some measure.

And finally,  I will try and summarize the two together with the Gandhian idea of village swaraj.

I know that I have approximately about 20 minutes to make this presentation and will try and keep it short and with a few anecdotes from my experience.




Your institute has been sending students, through the rural living and learning experience programme, to us since several years now. It is enriching to engage with the students. One of the things we do is to send students out into the village to stay and work with the communities, and invariably the students come back with the statement of deep appreciation and respect for the village community, ‘’they took care of us so well, they fed us well’’, etc. are often the statements that students come back from the villages with.  You can ask Dravid and Sarthak.

No one person who goes to the village comes back feeling less cared for or without feeling great about the hospitality. But, if the same person goes into a government job and joins the rural development department will start to call these people as ‘under developed’. Illiterate, etc., the categories that we have come to violently slap on our village community members more because of the needs of the multilateral agencies that need to ‘emancipate’ these poor people rather than the needs of the community themselves.

So, I will share  3 stories of how villages govern some aspects of their life that to me indicates something deep about the village priorities –

1. The headman’s insights

2. the bankers action and

3. the village tax

The Headman’s insight: In one of the first village I went to study the self-governance of the community was administered by a community based panchayat as against the government panchayat. Ever since I entered and spoke to the villagers, everyone mentioned how  the headman of the panchayat had the last say in everything that happened there. With my modern education, I thought of him as some kind of a dictator and tyrant, these are the stereotypes we consume in our educated world. So, I was granted the privilege of watching a small case being tried by the village panchayat and presided over by the headman (or so I assumed). In the middle of the hearing, the headman got up and left for a walk and a tea. Before he could return, the case was heard by the rest of the panchayat, a judgement pronounced and people had all started to leave before he returned. As I was to interview him immediately after that, my first question was in amazement, “everyone mentioned that you are the ultimate decision making authority in this village. But, you were not even present when a judgement was passed, and no one was waiting for your decision making, how come?”, he looked rather surprised by my question. But, his response was even more of a surprise for me, he said, “young man, how did you arrive at the conclusion, that we all think differently? The entire panchayat thinks together and alike and we are all capable of arriving at the right judgement and it will always be the same!”. This gave me an insight on the ways our village people govern themselves. I have heard from Dharampalji earlier, that in the Indian context, inclusion means that consensus is given utmost importance and people living and working in the shared space often have the same values and ethos and this is respected. It was fascinating to see this embedded into the way of functioning of a village institution. Mind you, this is a small village of farmers and this community governs several community institution of commercial and non-commercial nature including a very large dairy unit, a cinema theatre, a tea shop, a super market, a rice mill, a school and a creche, etc.,  all these are governed and managed by the members of this community, both men and women.

The bankers action: Another village had an unique tradition. This even smaller village largely consisted of sustenance farmers. Young men in this village left for far off places such as Singapore, Malaysia, etc., as road laying labourers in their prime youth for about 5-8 years to earn some extra income. They returned to their village with the wealth and went back to farming after that. But, these few years they were out, they earned money that was used for the repairing work of their houses, perhaps buying a few gadgets, etc., as they are poor farmers, obviously, they didn’t have the required money to get a passport done, scout for job opportunities with these countries, etc., these were, and are, expensive, so, they created a small bank to exclusively support this particular need of the community. The ‘bank’ built up its capital by the money that was donated by youth who had already gone abroad, a fixed amount that was contributed to the community by them. This amount became the paid up capital and the bank gave loans to the other youth with an understanding that they will repay loan later and also contribute further funds as long as they remain abroad regularly.

While studying this case, I enquired the headman of the village, who also headed the operations of the bank, “these days, there is so much talk of commission agents who cheat and promise, but, can’t get the kind of jobs abroad that they promise, we read in media many stories of youth who are stranded in far off countries without money or jobs”. He said if any of the youth were to face such a situation, the community will lend them again. When I persisted with the question, “what if, second time too the person is cheated?”, he responded by stating, “we would support any person 3 times and then we will stop”. But, what happens to the loan if he is unable to repay? “How can one demand money from a person or a family if they are already suffering? Such loans will be written off on our side”, was his response. Again,  I was reminded of a British archival document, once when the British wanted to know how they people in India were taxed before their arrival in India and started enquiring, they met with some interesting insights.  The farming community said that in earlier times, they would be taxed on the percentage of the final yield by the kings, but, during times of distress and disasters, the tax was waived off completely and instead the kings would support the farming community with food and fodder from their reserves.  An idea of governance where the poor are considered important members would always incorporate within its design methods of risk mitigation for the poor and vulnerable, not just as a dole out, but as a right. This is the wisdom of the land.  And here I was encountering the same.


The village tax: Tax for a common good is practiced in the villages in Tamilnadu since a long time. There has been taxation by the community called ‘Magamai’, whereby the tax collected is used for the investment on infrastructure, on facilities and services for the community, etc., So, in one of the villages governed with support from such community tax, I enquired the community members as to how the tax amount is decided and ended up with a fascinating insight. If a new family moves into the village with the permission of the villagers, the family is ‘under observation’ for good conduct for about a year before the head of the family can go over to the community elders and seek to be part of the community. The payment of the tax is the first step into being integrated into the community and the tax is decided based on the amount that family can afford. It is a fixed amount for the year and does not change. An estimate is made on the affordability of the family and then the elders decide on the tax system. It is ensured that the difference between the highest and the lowest tax payer is not more than 3 times. When I enquired as to why this is so, I was informed that, “if there are people who remit far more tax than others in the village, the chances are that these people may try and gain control over the village resources and dictate terms to others!”. Today, globally, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) has as one of its Goals, the reduction of inequality within and among nations. How can we do this without disturbing the existing interests of individual and collectives is a matter of much debate in Europe particularly where the SDGs are still considered seriously. Here in this small Indian village is an example of the ways in which inequity can be kept in check through the simple of logic worked by the common people of this land.   




These instances I have given, gives you insights into how village communities in this country govern themselves if they were left to be free to determine how they can govern. This is a real example of grassroot governance in our country.  I am not talking about communities that were portrayed as ‘higher’ in the caste hierarchy, these are all communities that are often shown to be in the very lower rungs of the social hierarchy, these are the poorer communities. But, the values that they exhibit in shaping the community institutions are universal in their appeal and resonate with other community institutions across this land. I have shared these instances and found that several more of a similar kind are shared by friends from other parts of  the country and the world as well.  There are many more that have been documented by friends and scholars from all over the country.  Indeed, I am convinced that all over the world there are community governed institutions of the pre-modern era that still carry similar values and practices in them.

Now, how does this wisdom impact our policies and government today?

Post Independence, we chose a path of centralized form of governance, where the Parliament house, became the centre of power and our own Rashtra-pati, the President, occupied the earlier colonial Viceroy’s house, which was a symbol of slavery and subjugation of the people of this country.  Today,  our  governments are busy with trying to get us all centrally digitalized. I call this age of aggressive centralization, we have the situation today where google remembers what you had for breakfast and where you went last week and based on such ‘big data’ provides you services and information whether you need it or not; we are coming up with deeply control based centralization of data, but, heavily “one size fits all” solutions. In the name of digitalization, we are being unified and standardized into a mass of data and our lives have become a slice in the pie under various government schemes and corporate interests. And with the integration of our identities and them being placed on the plastic boxes (phones) we carry with us, we are as humans becoming secondary, our manoeuvrable identities are our phones, these plastic boxes which have come to dominate our lives today, and we are supplementary carriers of these boxes, almost an attachment.  Today technology is connecting everyone in the name of convenience and thereby providing opportunities for aggressive intrusion in private lives and centralization of human behaviour, thinking patterns and aspirations. This is an age where the collective wisdom of the commons seems to be of least important, particularly so, if it doesn’t fit the interests of the multi-lateral agencies, the government schemes of various kinds and / or the interests of commerce and global trade.  We are entering an age of unprecedented commercial intrusion into the private lives of people through the technology today. That is why I call it aggressive centralization.




What we have done in the past few years is try and engage with the government, even if it be small, and try and change the language of governance, to bring in the changes within the system. We do it under the name of ‘sustainability’[3], again a name that has no meaning sans action, but carries a currency for engagement.

I prefer to look at our engagement not as with the system per se but with the individuals, because we have come to understand that the changes can happen with individuals first and later with the systems. We have had government officials who come to us who have adopted green practices in their life, in their choices, in their work to whatever extent possible. Yes, governance systems in this country is still a far cry from the systems of governance of the common people, as it adopted a system of bureaucracy that was primarily created to sustain slaves.

So, in our exchanges through the several training programmes on Sustainability that we provide for government of Tamilnadu, we have found within the communities an immediate resonance of these values when we recreate experiential learning of sustainability with these values in them. We found that, these values of inclusion, equity and poorer people being placed in the centre of thinking of governance are not too alien to the communities that are facing an onslaught of centralization through commerce, modern governance institutions, media and other services[4].

In fact, this has become a global phenomena today that is much documented and written about. That the mainstream institutions of knowledge, commerce and government that seem to struggle to find ways and means of achieving sustainability often find with surprise the traditional knowledge systems, their practitioners and their practices all over the world having the seeds of a sustainable future embedded in their institutions. Across the world today there is a revival of interests, because, we have come to finally recognize that we cannot live in a world where we can continue to delude ourselves that the linear growth of economic curve of human aspirations somehow will get nature to grow giving natural resources to suit our ambitions as well.  The delusion has been shaken up through the severe climate change phenomena that we have been subjected to in the last few decades. The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is an acknowledgement by humanity finally that, “yes, the modernity that has brought us much comfort and prosperity cannot progress in the same path as it has in the last few centuries and the values that drive it centrally have to be altered”. But, if these are wrong, what is right? Where do we look for solutions, if we are all looking at the same ways of solving problems? These are the questions for which a study of the traditional grassroot community institutions and Gandhi can provide us an answer.  





Now moving to my third part - What is it that Gandhi meant and continues to mean because of which he is an important part of our life?

I find Swaraj fascinating. I find his articulations on Hind Swaraj most radical and completely fresh every time I read the text. We have organized dialogues on Hind Swaraj for 15 years every year now.

Let’s take the words, “swa” means self and “raj” means rule. Literally, it means self-rule. But, it carries so many layers within it. What is it that is “self” and what all does one mean when one is talking about “rule”?

Among the concepts that Gandhiji spoke rather extensively, there are but a few that I have taken up to share today, these are the concepts of Trusteeship of wealth, where wealth is only valid if it is held by its stewards in trust for the larger common good; it includes the concept of the Oceanic Circle, as Gandhiji would term it, where the individual is in the centre and the circles emanating with the individual in the centre both strengthens and defines the form of governance and most importantly it incorporates the Talisman that Gandhiji gave to a few young men just before Independence. He spoke of his Talisman thus, “can you think of the face of the poorest person whom you have met, can your action bring any relief to the person, can the actions ensure that he gains strength and control over his life, that is the purpose of constructive work and action” or words to that effect. 

In the examples I have cited earlier, the first case is the case of Trusteeship, the second one of the Talisman and the third one is that of Oceanic Circle.  These are not an utopian Gandhi coming up with concepts and ideas of something that is way too unwieldy. These are ideas that have been permeating our common people and their ways of organizing themselves and governing themselves since a long time, these are the ways in which we would articulate if we were considering ourselves as free people. 

I once heard that to rule ourselves based on that which makes sense to us and that which is easier for us, or our own swabhava. This is an interesting definition. I believe that our swabhava in India is swaraj. Dharampalji, the Gandhian whom I had the good opportunity to work with, once commented what is great in India as, “the ordinary people of this country have figured out that everything in nature is connected, and they have established their life around this understanding”, this is the greatness of this country.  So, if we have to create a swaraj, we would place this understanding at the centre of our governance and institutions once again.  

If we were to use the terms of Swaraj in its broadest possible level and examine Democracy, does it stand the test of governance today? In the scale of Swaraj, where does one place Democracy or our current Economy? Does any system or institution that surrounds us today stand the scrutiny of Swaraj then?   Many of the rules of inclusiveness of economy, Social justice, Law and order, humane action, Compassion, Capacity to guarantee happiness to all, mutuality would be satisfied if only these values were incorporated on our people’s institutions that I had profiled earlier. 

Today several programmes on rural transformation are being launched all over this country, some of them are more absurd than the other and some of them have far more monetary commitment than the other. What do we mean by ‘transformation’ has not been adequately defined in most of these programmes and so also are not defined the final goal post. Intermediary goals such as creating an enterprise, setting up of a community institution are often made the very outcomes of these projects and government ventures. These obviously are not truly transformative. In fact, the very concept of ‘project’ as practiced and managed today is anathema to the idea of ‘swaraj’ or ‘transformation’. Unless we are able to integrate the immortal values of this land, of which several like I have outlined above in these instances abound in our midst even today, as values and practices in our grassroot governance structures and systems, and bring them into governance of individual lives, institutions, organizations and larger governance of the State, we will not be able to move towards a sustainable future.


Thank you for the opportunity and patient hearing.



[1] Works of Barthalomas Ziegenbalg, 1682 - 1719

[2] Late Sri. Dharampal, Gandhian Historian

[3] Sustainable Livelihood Institute, is the institute co-founded by the author of the paper as a joint venture between the Government of Tamilnadu and the Auroville Foundation. More information in the website –

[4] More information on the impact of the SLI training programmes can be found in the website, blog and facebook page of the Institute linked from the main website –