Skip to main content

What Sustains the Ordinary People of India?

What Sustains the Ordinary People of India?

What would Dharampal say?

“I don’t understand what you mean by Sustainability. To me a hundred families agreeing to live together in a village, with an understanding of the divine nature of their interdependency and that of the dependency on others is a sustainable society” – a village elder in Virudhunagar

“This large tree we are sitting under, it is the rosewood tree. Often visitors who come to village look at it and talk about its commercial value, for me, it is not just timer, it a tree I grew up with, I relate to. If we were to only think of the commercial value of the forest, what will be left for us to live in?”  - a Kurumba indigenous community leader in the Nilgiris

“In the local culture, no jati purana portrays any community as having been born low. Every community thinks of itself as having been part of a royal family or that of a rishi or deva. Even those who find themselves in a poor condition today, blame it on some curse that they would have acquired some point in time and there is always redemption at some future date” – Indigenous community artist and leader, Dandakaranya

“What makes our people function as a society? What makes our people strong? What sustains their faith in life?” these were questions and priorities that drove Dharampal. We heard it while we sat with him in the dark in his kuti in Sevagram ashram listening to stories of the colonial times and the society that the colonials encountered. We were a mix of young people from across the country who spent the time together for a few months. Unifying us was our concern about the state of the nation, confusions about the failure of ideologies, outraged at the perceived inactivity of Gandhians, rebelling against the outdated religious systems and yet recognising its cohesive capacity to bind traditional knowledge, never sure how to respond to the historical injustice inflicted during colonial period that we learnt through him and in wonderment as to how he could sustain an anger for so long and convert it  into a work that impacts.

Functioning society, Strong People and Sustainable Communities are all terms that we use in our discourse on Development sector today. Dharampal defined these with his deep understanding of the people of India, in this he combined the study of pre-Colonial India through the British archival documents, his own engagement with the people of this country and his understanding and interpretation of life of Gandhi. Here I present some of his concerns and reflections that came from several interactions over a period of 6 years and through them perhaps an understanding of what Dharampal may have opined on the entire thought flow of sustainability . 

“What are these flyovers meant for?” once he asked us when we were travelling in Chennai in a newly built flyover. I said maybe this was to facilitate more traffic as there are too many vehicles in the city. “You know in the West if tomorrow they find that such things are not useful, they would not hesitate to destroy them. Our problem is that we won’t destroy such facilities. We will retain them, somehow try to blend the one with the other, adjust to the disturbances that are created in the process and somehow live. This is what is wrong with our society, this is what renders a society dis-functional”. He would say explaining both a challenge as well as a perspective. Functioning society according to him will never hesitate to change course if it found that it made a mistake and do it courageously. Something I learnt later when studying village society. I had been to this small village where they had built several facilities in the village through a simple community tax levied on all the members. Among the facilities that the village had created were a balwadi, a school, a provision shop, a tea shop, a hairdresser, a cinema theatre, a rice mill and a very large scale dairy unit that employed many of the community as well as many other communities in over 40 surrounding villages. When I visited the village, the panchayat had decided to shut down the rice mill, they felt that it was unviable to sustain the unit and did not have any sentiment about shutting it down. Nor were they deterred by the complexity of technology in setting up of a milk sachet making plant that they were considering setting up in the village at that time. Most of the Panchayat members had not passed beyond high school, yet, they were confident about their capacity to understand and acquire a new technology. This is a functioning society, confident and clear about its priorities and learning as it goes. According to Dharampal a functioning society had the capacity and courage to make mistakes and correct the same as well, it may have disagreements and fight amongst itself, but, it had the process to resolve the same and did not stay divided.

“I am not interested to talk about such subjects”, he responded when an academician from Europe once tried to find out from him about the Aryan invasion theory. Historians in India were divided over whether the Aryans arrived from the European stock. The European historian was interested in his view and kept repeating the question, to which he refused and continued, “you see I do history to understand what makes the ordinary people of India strong? What gives them courage and confidence.” This summarized what motivated him and several other Gandhians who preferred to work with the people’s movements rather than the bureaucracy, academia, or organized institutions.   What made people strong? What gave them confidence? These were that drove him to be a critic of the modern bureaucracy which he called as maintaining the ‘’order of the grave’’ and at the same time, appreciate sometimes even a behaviour that did not meet with everyone’s expectations. When the head of a major institution commented to Dharampal about the tendency of the modern Indian youth to be playing video games for hours at end, he quipped, “that is similar to the rishis of the old, they too were engrossed on a single idea for long periods of time and that is how they accomplished a lot”. Once listening to a head of a religious order describe all the various social activities their order was doing, he said, “this is what gives people confidence, why is it not known widely outside?”, “What gives our ordinary people confidence?”, used to be his oft repeated question. In this he never hesitated to differ from scholars obsessed with latest happenings in Europe or America or what the scholars from the West were studying about India. He prioritized his history research with the question framed to provide confidence to ordinary Indians. To him, knowing that they are descendants of people who have gone through much worse and have survived made people strong and provide them courage to be ready to tackle the unknown.  

What sustains this society? How does the society continue to survive repeated onslaughts? What is it about the ordinary people of this land that made them build various processes and institutions to sustain themselves. For instance what makes the farmer year after year go on with farming despite knowing that each year his situation is getting no better. What are the tools, methods, institutions, and processes that the community has adopted to sustain this infinite faith in its own capacity? Asking this question today could provide answers for not just India but also many other parts of the world. 

This Dharampal believed in and wrote about, whether it be the education system that blended moral, religious and scientific knowledge together, the social systems that included methods of governance and conflict resolution, scientific system that had a deeply embedded ethical code of conduct or a political system that was moral in its core, he brought out through his scholarship the diverse nuanced manifestation of Indian vision of life. The same vision that Swami Vivekananda articulated as the core of the Indian civilization - its capacity to synthesize, to assimilate, learn and integrate. This vision, which later others have propounded using an ancient Indian word of ‘samanvaya’ or harmony. At different times we call it resilience, tolerance, inter-dependence, co-existence, etc., depending upon the political economy of the time. All of them fall short of the remarkable capacity of Indian people to practice Samanvaya.  

This vision becomes important in the age of Anthropocene, where humanity acknowledges that it has been the biggest disruptor of the harmony within the natural order. Scientists keep warning that we are getting closer to extinction; our capacity to obliterate diverse species will eventually destroy us altogether. The desperation in the voice of the youth who are aware of the fast-closing window of opportunity to make a difference is best summarized by the famous speech, “how dare you” by Greta Thunberg. 

The Western world discourse on Sustainability is dominated by its need to sustain its own ill-gotten wealth built over centuries of global plunder, murder and trade, and the realization that today as an unhealthy society it is less likely to survive the climate crisis. So, all polluting, extracting, and exploitative actions of economy are outsourced, and environmental impact externalized while its societies adopts clean energy, ecosystem and healthy practices. The non-western world, consisting of the African, Asian and South American people that forms the bulk of the planetary population and continues to provide all the resources and manpower for the western world, have to contend with not merely the consequences of climate catastrophe but also having to sustain the western world in its wealth. Carbon sinks being funded by the wealthy corporates of the European and American companies in the non-western world are expected to be accepted with gushing gratitude while their polluting, exploiting, extraction and forced market control are to be ignored. The non-western world continues to chant the outdated mantra of ‘technology transfer’ from the western world to overcome the climate crisis. The west has nothing to offer by way of healing, neither a perspective, nor a process or a solution, leave alone a technology. 

What that would the Gandhian Dharampal point to if he were to guide us through this crisis, we find ourselves in?

First, he would point out to us that we live in an eternal timeframe and unlike the west we need not be pessimistic that everything is irreversible. Our concept of time and life itself promises us otherwise. We live in a yuga that has a foretold life of decadence, but, also with a promise that there is an end to be followed by the yuga of truth. So, there is nothing irreversible in time for us, we need to move on with optimism and assurance. He would cite the story from Mahabaratha and Ramayana to state that even Gods need to be born in the same form again and that time is cyclical. Nothing need be considered irreversible in this framework, not even climate change. He would urge us to think beyond the modern scientific predictions and extrapolations and suggest that if there were other forms of reading the situations that were more hope giving.  


Secondly, we in India are not worried about death, but, pain; suffering and lack of respect worries us. He would cite several instances from ancient India to recent time to validate the opinion that people in this land have always considered life is not worthy of living if one has lost respect and standing in society. A respectable and dignified and a role in society is important for any person, this needs to be ensured to all. The concept of climate justice needs to be integral part of our approach to Sustainable life. Migrating and displacing a large section of our population into undignified labour, in the name of conservation or climate resilience building is not seen as a sustainable pathway in this world view. Indians like to live a sustenance life with not much suffering and with dignity within their community and society. This is important for them. Dharampal would point out how the Indian village system and samudhayam was organized as a self-sufficient economy. How it could trade globally with confidence and yet be independent.

Thirdly, he will inform us that we did not evolve so far as a civilization without science and technology and social organization of various kinds. He will point out that the values and ethics based on which these traditional knowledge and structures were built were different from the way the western world built. He would point us to the fact that it is such unethical technologies that has lead us to this path of planetary destruction in the first place and more of the same is not a solution. Once he famously informed a campaigner, “you see the uniqueness of the ordinary people of India is that they understood that everything in nature is connected, and they built their life around this understanding!”. He would advise us to steer away from the western social structures, science and technology, particularly those that divide people or destroy environment and instead put in place what comes from an ethos of Indian people.  

Lastly he would point us out to Gandhi and state the future leadership needs to learn the three things from him to ensure that they are able to sustain the society, viz., listen to the ordinary people of the land with respect and alleviate their suffering, set example for spartan lifestyle through ones’ own life and lastly ensure that the economy is subsumed to moral and ethical life for all. He would point out that whether it be the encouraging of immoral gambling through the various online portals and their sponsored betting games, or promoting intoxicants for government exchequer enhancement or be it corruption at various levels in academia, business, politics and bureaucracy are all signs of immorality in public life and needs to be weeded out as a priority. He would point out that these are the root of not just a cleansing of society but also way through which sustainable and climate resilient society can be built.