Gandhi’s Theory of Swadeshi and Social Trusteeship as a Doctrine for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’

The twenty-first century is a witness to large-scale production, mushrooming of hi-tech and IT sectors, extensive power-driven machinery, growing collaboration and international relations and a promise of a lifestyle that provides standardised happiness and designed development. But it also witnesses increasing usage of chemical fertilisers, farmer suicides on an exponential scale, massive unemployment and consequent displacement accompanied by corruption on a colossal scale. A lot has already been spoken about the current Covid-19 pandemic and the mass-scale migration and economic distress it has brought about, but efforts to solve social conflict are yet to take tangible form. When writing about social conflict, one immediately makes associations with Gandhi-the stalwart whose reliance on freedom and self-reliance has far reaching consequences for our contemporary issues. The Prime Minister’s address on ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is nothing but a reiteration of Gandhi’s dictum of Swadeshi aka self-reliance. In that respect it is pertinent to understand what Manchester did to the East is no different from what the multinationals have in mind for India. With its promise of an extravagant lifestyle, globalisation is but a myth and can be seen as an offspring of industrialisation; one that carries forward the same genes of large-scale production, division of labor, and a huge profit motive. Gandhi helps us to understand the underlying reality of ‘global citizenship’ and its various facets by articulating the thoughts of the voiceless multitudes lying dormant in the heart of India and seeks to provide resolutions for building a better society.

Gandhi, a self-reliant anarchist, was radical enough to identify man’s ‘greed’ as the primary cause of trouble. He opined that any society would bear an exploitative nature, if there were no limit to the wants of the people of that society. The present day consumerism posits the same dangers to society.

Napoleon once described the English as “a nation of shopkeepers”. It is this characteristic trait jointly shared amongst capitalism, materialism, and consumerism, that garner critique from Gandhi. Gandhi’s ideas resonate with that of Napoleon (Partha Chatterjee, 1986). The modern market looks at men as limitless consumers caught up in the vicious circle of multiplicity of wants and a rage for variety which calls for flooding the industrial production in order to satisfy consumer craving for luxury and indulgence. This craze for materialism has been termed as ‘development’ in today’s world. Gandhi attacks this very notion in Hind Swaraj (1921). He identifies materialism as the monster-god and argues that the concept of modernity and progress which is based on making a man self-indulgent and a prisoner of his cravings, is evil as it serves as a passport for inequality, poverty, unemployment, disease, war and suffering.

Even so, Gandhi recognises modern machinery as a “grand yet awful invention” (Dasgupta,1996) that tries to maintain the stronghold of capitalism. The urge for excessive consumption driving industrial production that calls for ‘mechanical contraception’ to get things done faster, has led to the displacement of labor force out of the production unit. Gandhi’s critique of poverty and unemployment as a result of substitution of men by machines, has far reaching consequences for both the rural public and well as the daily wage labourer in modern cities. As machinery starts denoting ‘power’, it creates a “Nation of idlers” (Sahasrabudhey, 2002).

Gandhi however is not opposed to machinery for the mere sake of going back to the primitive ‘dark ages’. He states-“Mechanisation is good when the hands are too few for the work intended to be accomplished. It is evil when there are more hands than required for the work as is the case in India.”

In industrial societies, the labourer working on the machine might not own the machinery and his labour is appropriated through daily wage. Such a system not only creates alienation amongst the workers but also leads to ‘physical and intellectual voluptuousness’. It becomes a site for social conflict which further leads to disorganisation of societies. The association of feelings of superiority/inferiority to mental and manual work respectively, with the manual work being looked down upon as menial, is an outcome of the same system. Gandhi was very perceptive in realising the unjust division between intellectual labor assigned to one class and body labor to the other, that he proposed the doctrine of physical labor (shram). He advocated all able-bodied men to earn their living and take pains rather than scavenge on others’ produce. This stress on physical labor occupies a significant place in Gandhi’s educational philosophy and makes its way into the curriculum in the form of crafts, sanitation, pottery, carpentry and so on and so forth. Gandhi views the pursuit of manual labour as a stepping stone for achieving social equality.

In the same respect, Gandhi’s plea for Swadeshi can be considered as bearing practical implications for economic equality. Swadeshi stands as an alternative to the desolate, exploited and alienated state victimised by globalisation which produces wealth and glitter for some and poverty, darkness and noise for others, by seeking revivification of the local. Gandhi asserts – “Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote…In that of economics, I should use only things that are produced by my immediate neighbours and serve those industries by making them efficient and complete where they might be found wanting.”

Conclusively, it is a call to serve thy neighbour. Swadeshi is that principle which along with proposing the use of local raw materials and exchange in local markets, re-establishes the control of the local markets in the hands of the local producer as well as instils the sacred values of service and cooperation among people, which might help restore the lost balance in the society. In complex societies like modern India, with globalisation taking its toll on people, it is not possible to think of restricting one’s interaction and demands to the immediacy but that’s not what Swadeshi is all about. The idea behind asking a person to serve one’s neighbour by indulging in trade with them even if it goes against self-interest, is to inculcate the value of empathy towards one another and to pull one out of the whirlpool of indulgence that capitalism has bestowed upon them. “It doesn’t do disservice to those who are far away, but rather the contrary.” More importantly, it talks about reviving the home-industry by contributing to the nation’s wealth. It becomes a boon for people who are not caught in the net of machinery like the handicraft industry which retains its ownership to the creators without getting trapped in the concept of ‘wage labor’.

When Gandhi came up with the idea of Khadi and Charkha, the motive was to make the villages self-reliant. The same stake prevails today. The Corona Virus Pandemic as well as the disruptive labour laws have shown that the revival of cottage industries is crucial if one were to solve economic distress for the teeming millions who have gone out of work.

A simpler interpretation of Swadeshi in the present times would be to not practically do away with the big industries but provide a platform for the co-existence of cottage industries vis-à-vis the ‘big daddys’ which might consequently help in developing an edifice for a just if not equitable society thereby reestablishing justice between the village and the city. This is also required to address the problem of high population density in the metros.

While Swadeshi gives a practical outlook to gaining self-sufficiency and economic independence, Gandhi’s theory of ‘Social trusteeship’ gives an insight into managing the economic resources in the society. Trusteeship reinstates the idea of setting limits to over-production and efficiently using only that which is an immediate requirement. The primary idea is to take what is required for legitimate need and leave the rest to fulfill the needs of the society. It resonates with the idea of Swadeshi to provide service to the ‘needy’ and to rescue the moneyed class from the overpowering passion for the riches, therefore not breeding personal aggrandisement but good for all.

Gandhi, propounds a non-violent scheme that is designed to appeal to the conscience and reason of humans and seeks to instill in them responsibility for their own actions. This is what the social trusteeship theory is designed for. It is a chance for the owning class to reform themselves by making them cognizant of the duty they hold towards the society and its people, thereby leaving the onus of internalising that duty on them. And if that necessarily does not happen, the ‘have-nots’ have the option of passively resisting and not co-operating with the ‘haves’ in the society. Because it is only due to the cooperation of the weak that the stronger get to rule!

A ‘visionary’, an ‘idealist’, ‘Mahatma’ and the various other adjectives one might use for Gandhi but the fact remains that his propositions not only attend to the material realities but also attend to the moral needs of a person which help in putting up a stronger stance against social conflicts. His theory on Swadeshi and Statutory Trusteeship are meant to not only take care of the physical space one lives in but also the social connections and relations one builds in the society and the social and moral responsibilities one holds towards fellow beings. The horrors of a pandemic and mass-scale migration have yet again brought us on the crossroads to the future. Gandhi’s sociology transcends time and appeals to us thereby instilling confidence in order to- “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

-Radhika Chaturvedi (Winner of Third Prize of Article Writing Competition 2020 in the 25-44 Years Age Group)


Chatterjee, P. (1986). The Movement of Manoeuvre: Gandhi and the Critique of Civil Society. In Raghuramaraju, A. (Ed.). Debating Gandhi. (pp. 75-128). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Dasgupta, A. K. (1996). Gandhi’s Economic Thought. New York: Routledge.

Gandhi, M. K. (1921). Hind Swaraj. New Delhi: Rajpal & Sons.

Gandhi, M. K. (1960). Trusteeship. Kelekar, R. (Ed). Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House.

Sahasrabudhey, S. (2002). The Machine. In Raghuramaraju, A. (Ed.). Debating Gandhi. (pp 175-194). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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