Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj: The Messaging Behind India’s Fight for Independence
Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj is a unique manifesto. The book is written in almost a list-like form, laying out Gandhi’s ideas on a variety of topics pertaining to the Indian subcontinent. It is a dialogue, allowing Gandhi to express his thoughts and preemptively respond to counterarguments and conflicting positions. This format and messaging is crucial, as it is a clear, detailed, and inviting summary of the ideas of a man who, to that point, was relatively little-known to the Indian subcontinent. The book was a huge contribution to Indian nationalism. After years of stagnation and slow progress, Gandhi and Hind Swaraj presented a new strategy, a new discourse, and new goals. His ideas would help to define the Indian nationalist movement for decades after its publication. Hind Swaraj is a book filled with context on attitudes and events of the times, and is useful for understanding the state of the nationalist movement at the time. One can see the impacts of Gandhi’s words and attitudes on the future of India while reading Hind Swaraj. The book is an engaging critique of contemporary ideas of modernity, British rule, and both radical and moderate nationalism. It is a product of its time, but its conclusions on self-rule and improvement are timeless.
Hind Swaraj was written in 1909. At the time, the Indian nationalist movement was picking up steam, but was strongly in need of unity, leadership, and a common goal. Gandhi wanted to give the nationalist movement and the Indian people a sense of purpose, refute western ideas of modernity, and critique contemporary nationalist positions he saw as missing the mark. Modernity and development play a large role in Hind Swaraj and draw quite a bit of Gandhi’s ire. Gandhi is not against progress but wants to stick to what he sees as Indian civilization and not have India emulate Britain or buy into Western ideas of what modernity is. This is largely a reaction to the Indian middle class starting to warm up to British rhetoric of European superiority and the Western idea of modern civilization. Gandhi’s views on the divisions and course of the nationalist movement are also influenced by recent events such as the Partition of Bengal and the increasing violent and radical activism of expatriate Indians. While home rule is important, one of the most crucial points of Hind Swaraj is that how it is achieved greatly matters. Gandhi does not want moderates such as the Congress to wait for and beg for concessions from the British, nor does he want a violent Indian Risorgimento. Gandhi wants a unified movement based on passive resistance, unblemished by sectarian and political conflict, and with heavy emphasis on self-sacrifice and self-control.
Hind Swaraj is written as a dialogue between a newspaper editor and a “reader”. The editor clearly represents Gandhi’s views, and can be viewed as Gandhi himself talking. The reader is harder to pin down in terms of character. He is impatient and badgers the editor for answers that he often disagrees with. He seems to represent a more radical, young, and possibly expatriate side of the Indian nationalist movement, as opposed to the older and more conservative leaders who comprised the Indian National Congress at the time. The editor explains things to him slowly and in great detail, as if he is teaching the reader a lesson in school. This may be Gandhi’s intent in a sense. Gandhi could be looking to appeal to younger generations who will take up the mantle of the nationalist struggle. Gandhi, through the editor, evidently believes the process of achieving Home Rule will take a long time, so Hind Swaraj may be his first attempts at transmitting his ideas and strategies to the leaders of the future. The reader serves as a literary device that moves the conversation into new topics and allows Gandhi to get his ideas out in an organized manner without the entire book being a monologue.
Gandhi prepares the reader, both the one in Hind Swaraj and the actual reader of the book, for a long process. While he does not want agonizingly slow reform and British concession, he stresses that there is no immediate action that can secure home rule without a long process. Gandhi is trying to settle the reader in for a long journey to independence, which turned out to be correct for the most part. Full independence was not gained until 1947 after a long crescendo of discontent, protest, and resistance. He does not think that violent resistance will be effective or gain sovereignty for India. This leads him to defend the role of the Indian National Congress in preparing India for a prolonged resistance movement. He does not fully agree with the views of the older and more moderate men of the Congress but appreciates their efforts and role as a unifying body. This may seem to bring Gandhi down more on the side of the moderates. This is not entirely true, as the ideas he advocates for later on are truly radical in their scope, philosophy, and ambitions. However, Gandhi understands the need for unity between extremists and moderates and that there is a long fight ahead, so he appreciates the Congress for helping to lay the foundations. After all, in the editor’s words, “As time passes, the Nation is being forged. Nations are not formed in a day; the formation requires years.”
Another major point is Gandhi’s views on civilization. It is very important that this is understood in context. As the Industrial Revolution had come to an end in Europe, various machines and forms of technology were finding their way into the colonies and the developing world. This was a potent issue in India, which was being used as the main source of resources for the British Empire. The advent of machinery, especially railroads, was seen by Gandhi to degenerate and further oppress Indian society. He sees Western civilization as immoral, irreligious, and solely based on complacence and convenience (Gandhi, 36–38). European rhetoric of the civilizing mission and the White Man’s Burden was also popular at the time. This tied heavily into colonial administration, industrial buildup, and English efforts to regulate Indian society. Gandhi saw European civilization as a disease that would bring no benefit to India, and its increasing presence as pressing issue considering the trends and events of the time. As discussed before, he was very worried about larger numbers of Indians buying into European ideas of civilization. Hind Swaraj presents a different idea of civilization that is nearly antithetical to what the British are pushing upon India. In Gandhi’s eyes, “Civilisation is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms” (Gandhi, 67). This kind of civilization is essential to obtaining swaraj. Gandhi’s civilization focuses on self-control, reining in indulgences and temptations, balance between institutions, and traditional morality. The British push for Western “modernity” is strongly in contradiction to this, and Gandhi, living in an era of great change, wants to keep Indians grounded in their own culture and forms of morality.
Gandhi’s idea of swaraj is not limited to simply achieving home rule. This is certainly the goal, but there are many more conditions and deeper focuses that encompass swaraj. Hind Swaraj describes how swaraj emanates from the individual level to the national level. This is a crucial new step and understanding for the nationalist movement, where unity was a constant struggle. The ideology of swaraj does not discriminate between religions, regions, or social classes. Gandhi emphasizes improvement of the self for the benefit of the nation. Gandhi wants India to be ruled by Indians, and for individual Indians to keep themselves from falling into hate, complacency, and violence: “Real home-rule is self-rule or self-control” (Gandhi, 118). This involves making use of mental strength and an unwavering commitment to one’s morality and the goal of self-rule. This is especially important for unity in the nationalist movement. It plays to common Indian culture and forms of morality that transcend religion or class, and does not explicitly take sides in the struggle between moderate, conservative Indians and more radical Indians. While swaraj is nonviolent and a long process, it is fanatical in its devotion to a cause and the improvement of all Indians. This is explored more in Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance.
Hind Swaraj was crucial in laying out instructions and providing a manual for Gandhi’s strategy of passive resistance. This was evidently something Gandhi found extremely important to justify, and the fact that he was largely able to get Indians on board with the idea is a testament to his charisma and masterful writing. It was an incredibly tough sell to get radical factions of the nationalist movement on board with a broadly nonviolent strategy. For this, Gandhi had to demonstrate that there was strength in passive resistance, and that it was a better goal and would provide better results than brute force. He is against violent resistance and brute force because he believes that it will impact the conscience of Indians and create a worse nation. The editor tells the reader that the way the country gains independence will shape its fate as an independent nation: “Your belief that there is no connection between the means and the end is a great mistake” (Gandhi, 81). Gandhi asserts that passive resistance requires the aforementioned principles of swaraj, which would be marred by violence. Passive resistance requires one to be true to their conscience and morality in all facets of life, disobey and resist what they find unjust, and make tremendous sacrifices in search of a better self and nation. In a colonial society, resistance to the unjust was nearly all-encompassing and could carry harsh consequences. This sacrifice proved attractive to radicals who wanted to strongly devote themselves to independence, and acceptable by moderates who wanted to avoid violence.
Hind Swaraj is a seminal work for its effects. Gandhi’s words propelled him to the head of the pantheon of Indian nationalist leaders, and his ideas became widely respected in the movement that followed. Gandhi and his ideas did not fully unify the many factions of the nationalist movement nor eliminate religious and class divides, but they did provide coherent and respected leadership. His conclusions on self-control and sacrifice are timeless, still very relevant even outside of the context of the Indian nationalist movement and the early 1900s. Gandhi’s conclusions on modernity and civilization have helped to solidify and provide inspiration to movements resisting imperialism across the third world. Written to be an accessible dialogue, Hind Swaraj has touched many more than Gandhi could have ever imagined.
 Anthony J. Parel, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Hind Swaraj and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1997), xxxii.
 M.K. Gandhi, “The Congress and its officials,” in Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, ed. Anthony J. Parel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 20.