Constructive Programme

“There is no such thing as Gandhism.”

by M. K. Gandhi

Editor’s Preface: In our continuing series on original texts, we are posting here Gandhi’s little known rejection of “Gandhism”. The editorial notes at the end give textual and other details. JG

Poster art courtesy Elevate to Great;

There is no such thing as Gandhism, and I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems. There is therefore no question of my leaving any code behind like the code of Manu [an ancient Hindu Lawgiver]. There cannot be any comparison between that lawgiver and me. The opinions I have formed and the conclusions I have arrived at are not by any means final. I may change them tomorrow if I find better ones.

I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both, on as vast a scale and as best as I could. In doing so I have sometimes erred and learnt by my errors. Life and its problems have thus become to me a series of experiments in the practice of truth and nonviolence. By instinct I have been truthful, but not necessarily nonviolent. As a Jain Muni [Jain holy man] once rightly said, I was not so much a votary of Ahimsa as I was of Truth, and that I put the latter in the first place and the former in the second. For, as he phrased it, I was capable of sacrificing nonviolence for the sake of truth. In fact, it was in the course of my pursuit of Truth that I discovered Nonviolence. Our scriptures have declared that there is no Dharma [law] higher than truth. But nonviolence they say is the highest duty. The word Dharma, in my opinion, has a different connotation as used in the two aphorisms.

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Gandhi’s Constructive Program: A New Society in the Shell of the Old

Earth Charter logo courtesy

by Joanne Sheehan

Gandhi called for complete independence by truthful and nonviolent means. He counseled that social change requires building the new society in the shell of the old, which he termed the constructive program. The nonviolence movement in the West has not emphasized this goal for the most part. In the United States, we mostly focus on political action, in particular on protest and civil disobedience. We do little organizing around what Gandhi thought was one of the most powerful political actions: non-cooperation with power, “not against men but against measures.” As Robert Burrowes explains in The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1995), “Nonviolence for Gandhi was more than just a technique of struggle or a strategy for resisting military aggression. It was intimately related to the wider struggle for social justice, economic self-reliance, and ecological harmony as well as the quest for self-realization.”

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Gandhi and Ecological Marxists: The Silent Valley Movement

by A. S. Sasikala

Silent Valley rainforest; photographer unknown; courtesy

Environmental concerns were not much considered at the time of Gandhi, but his ideas on village decentralisation and national unity such as Swaraj, Swadeshi, Sarvodya, and especially the Constructive Programme makes him an advocate of environmentalism. He is generally considered to have had deep ecological views and his ideas have been widely used by different streams of environmentalism such as Green parties and the deep ecology movement founded by Arne Naess. The eminent environmental thinker Ramachandra Guha identified three distinct strands in Indian environmentalism, crusading Gandhians, ecological Marxists, and appropriate technologists, these last being advocates of small-scale, environmentally sound technology, most often known as “intermediate technology”. Guha observed that, unlike the third, the first two rely heavily on Gandhi, but Indian ecological Marxists also used Gandhian strategies and tactics. The Silent Valley Movement in Kerala, south India, is a case in point of just how ecological Marxists were willing to use Gandhian techniques in order to fight against environmental injustice. The role of the Marxist KSSP, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (translated as Kerala Science Literature Movement, and also referred to as Kerala People’s Science Movement, PSM) illustrates their various strategies. Methodologies adopted throughout the movement were inspired by Gandhian methods, as previously used by other environmental movements like Chipko [see Mark Shepard’s article here].

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“Hug the Trees!” Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Gaura Devi, and the Chipko Movement

by Mark Shepard

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.
M. K. Gandhi

Chandi Prasad, 1978; photo by Mark Shepard

At the time of my India visit, I knew next to nothing about the rapid destruction of forests in Third World countries, or about its costs in terms of firewood shortage, soil erosion, weather shifts, and famine. Still, I was at once intrigued when I heard about the Chipko Movement, mountain villagers stopping lumber companies from clear-cutting mountain slopes by issuing a call to “hug the trees.”

So, one fall morning in 1978. along with a Gandhian friend, a young engineer, I found myself on the bus out of Rishikesh, following the river Ganges toward its source. Before long we had left the crowded plains behind and were climbing into the Himalayas. Thick forest covered the mountain slopes, interrupted only occasionally by terraced fields reaching dramatically up the mountainsides. Our bus bumped along a winding road halfway between the river below and the peaks above, as it followed the river’s meandering around the sides of mountains.

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Soldiers of Peace: Narayan Desai and Shanti Sena, the “Peace Army”

by Mark Shepard

We are constantly being astonished at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence.
But I maintain that far more undreamt-of and seemingly impossible discoveries
will be made in the field of nonviolence.

M. K. Gandhi

Cover art courtesy

The first time I heard of Shanti Sena” was in 1978, at an international gathering of activists in India. The speaker was Narayan Desai, and his topic, Shanti Sena, the Gandhian “Peace Army.”

“The time was during World War II, when Japan was advancing on India. I was lying in my room one night, and my parents thought I was asleep. But I was just pretending to sleep, because, like all children in the world, I wanted to listen to my parents. So they were talking about me—which made me even more interested. The topic was this: that afternoon, Gandhi had said that if he had an army of nonviolent soldiers, he would like to defend the country nonviolently by standing before the advancing Japanese troops. And so these two members of Gandhi’s ashram were trying to decide which of them should join this army. Since they had an adolescent child, namely me, they were thinking that one of them should stay behind. That way, at least one parent would survive. My mother was saying, ‘He is nearly grown now, and you can probably look after him better. Let me join.’ But my father was saying, ‘Even if I remain behind, I might not have time to look after him. So I should join.’ That was the kind of tussle going on. But in the end, they decided they would both join. They would leave their child in the hands of God.”

Narayan is the son of Gandhi’s chief secretary, Mahadev Desai. At the time of this talk he was already a top leader of India’s Gandhians and best known as a long-time head of Shanti Sena. Today he directs his Institute for Total Revolution, a training center for nonviolent activists, and is known world-wide for leadership roles in War Resisters International and Peace Brigades International—an organization that Shanti Sena largely inspired.

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Gandhian Socialism: The Constructive Programme

by Raghavan Iyer

Dust jacket art courtesy Oxford Un. Press;

Mahatma Gandhi’s genius as a social reformer lay in his intuitive ability to fuse timeless principles with evolving strategies. This is best seen in the vast array of activities he initiated under the single umbrella of the Constructive Programme. From the twenties until his death in 1948, Gandhi gradually shifted the emphasis of his political endeavours from nonviolent resistance to constructive schemes for the social good. For him, nonviolent resistance (satyagraha) and the Constructive Programme were a concrete embodiment of sarvodaya [literally, universal uplift]. They were logical corollaries of the same philosophical perspective. Nonviolent resistance, however, aimed to set right entrenched abuses or to abolish some patently unfair law or practice. But persisting non-cooperation with perceived evils cannot by itself create a socialist society. Gandhi’s position was not wholly like Thoreau’s and he could readily concede the importance, stressed by T.H. Green, of invoking the public interest (sarvodaya). He could also concur that the dictates of individual conscience, if genuine, would culminate in social action that would arouse and appeal to the conscience of others. But he could not make the enlightened individual’s duty to follow his conscience dependent upon social recognition or public approbation.

Gandhi’s continual concern was always with duties rather than with rights; in fact, there is no concept of “rights” as such in Indian political thought. Further, his lifelong emphasis on ahimsa [nonviolence] as the sole means to be used in the vindication of satya [truth] required him to hold that the courageous resistance to injustice, properly conducted, could not lead to general anarchy. Thus Gandhi differed from Thoreau chiefly in that his language and his emphasis were less anarchistic, but he distinctly differed from the English philosopher and radical political reformer T.H. Green (whom he had never read) in his own moral conception and political justification of the right of resistance to the State. (1) Cessation of persistent wrongdoing is a necessary prerequisite for, but is hardly identical with, positive social welfare. The Constructive Programme did not rule out nonviolent resistance or non-cooperation, but it simply focused upon constructive ways of rebuilding a demoralised society. It sought to transform a servile nation habituated to sectional loyalties and social apathy into a fearless community of mutual service and sacrifice, in which every responsible individual readily identified with others, especially the poor and the meek.

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Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place

by M. K. Gandhi

Editor’s Preface: We are presenting here the full text of Gandhi’s Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place, published on March 11, 1941 (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House). Although for decades he had been airing these views, this last version consolidated his ideas into something of a manifesto that, he hoped, would shape the campaigns and purpose of his later years. Gandhi conceived of satyagraha as having two branches, the Constructive Programme and nonviolent Civil Disobedience, and after decades of civil resistance campaigns had increasingly turned his attention to social action, local community development, self-improvement schemes, education and the like, which he attempts to codify here. Although this pamphlet was written and published near the end of his life, Gandhi had already articulated these views, as early as his South African campaigns, and before his return to India in 1918. The Constructive Programme also had a profound influence on the post-Gandhian, Indian nonviolent movement, now referred to, somewhat misleadingly, as the Sarvodaya Movement, although it was many movements interpreting Gandhi in diverse ways. See also the textual note at the end of the article, for further bibliographical information. JG


Cover of first printing; courtesy

The constructive programme may otherwise and more fittingly be called construction of Poorna Swaraj or Complete Independence by truthful and nonviolent means. (1) Efforts for the construction of Independence so called through violent and, therefore, necessarily untruthful means we know only too painfully. Look at the daily destruction of property, life, and truth in the present war.

Complete Independence through truth and nonviolence means the independence of every unit, be it the humblest of the nation, without distinction of race, colour or creed. This independence is never exclusive. It is, therefore, wholly compatible with interdependence within or without. Practice will always fall short of theory even as the drawn line falls short of the theoretical line of Euclid. Therefore, complete Independence will be complete only to the extent of our approach in practice to truth and nonviolence.

Let the reader mentally plan out the whole of the constructive programme, and he will agree with me that, if it could be successfully worked out, the end of it would be the Independence we want. Has not the Colonial Secretary Leo Amery said that any agreement between the major parties will be respected? We need not question his sincerity, for, if such unity is honestly, i.e., nonviolently, attained, it will in itself contain the power to compel acceptance of the agreed demand.

On the other hand there is no such thing as an imaginary or even perfect definition of Independence through violence. For it presupposes only ascendancy of that party of the nation which makes the most effective use of violence. In it perfect equality, economic or otherwise, is inconceivable.

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Navdanya and the Seed Satyagraha

by the Navdanya Nine Seeds Movement

Editor’s Preface: This article inaugurates a series we shall be posting on contemporary movements and communities based on Gandhi’s Constructive Programme, which we are also posting in its entirety. For more information and links please consult our Editor’s Note at the end of the article. JG

Bija cover; artist unknown; courtesy of

Navdanya means “nine seeds”, (symbolizing protection of biological and cultural diversity) and also “new gift” (for seed as commons, based on the right to save and share seeds). In today’s context of biological and ecological destruction, seed savers are the true givers of seed. This gift, or “dhanya” and nava-dhanyas (nine seeds) is the ultimate gift, a gift of life, heritage and continuity. Conserving seed is conserving biodiversity, conserving knowledge of the seed and its utilization, conserving culture, and conserving sustainability.

Navdanya is also a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 17 states in India. It has helped set up 111 community seed banks across India, trained over 5,000,000 farmers in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture over the past two decades, and helped establish the largest direct marketing, fair trade organic network in India. We have also founded a learning center, Bija Vidyapeeth (School of the Seed / Earth University) to teach biodiversity conservation, and we have an organic farm in Doon Valley, Uttarakhand, North India.

Navdanya is actively involved in the rejuvenation of indigenous knowledge and culture. It has created awareness of the hazards of genetic engineering, and defended people’s rights from bio-piracy and food rights in the face of globalisation and climate change. It is a women centred movement for the protection of biological and cultural diversity.

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Declaration on Seed Freedom

By Vandana Shiva

“Seed must be in the hands of the farmers”; photographer unknown; courtesy of

At a time when mega corporations want to control our food, it is imperative that we stand together to protect our food, the planet and each other.

In this earth
in this earth
in this immaculate field
we shall not plant any seeds
except for compassion
except for love. — Rumi

The Declaration on Seed Freedom

Seed is the source of life; it is the self-urge of life to express itself, to renew itself, to multiply, to evolve in perpetuity, in freedom.

Seed is the embodiment of bio-cultural diversity. It contains millions of years of biological and cultural evolution of the past, and the potential of millennia of a future unfolding.

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The Mahila Shanti Sena: A Women’s Nonviolence Peace Movement in India

by Anne Pearson

Are Gandhian ideals dead in India? Some people have thought so as India’s political leadership since India’s achievement of independence in 1947 has largely ignored Mahatma Gandhi’s prescriptions for economic, political and social development. Even so, apart from such notable figures as Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, both of whom led mass movements for social change respectively in the 1960s and ’70s, there have been some stalwart Gandhians who have continued to attempt to put the Mahatma’s ideals into practice. One of these figures is 91-year-old Acharya Ramamurti, a man who in his twilight years has recently inaugurated a new social movement aimed at integrating village and district level democracy with nonviolence and the rights of women. His nonpartisan movement has been meeting with spectacular success. Tens of thousands of women have now been trained in a women’s peace corps and their collective efforts are beginning to change the social and political climate in parts of northern India.

Gandhi’s Call to Women

Mahila Shanti Sena conference, Bihar 2001; courtesy of McMaster University

Gandhi had long believed that women had special capacities for sacrifice and for leadership in peace building. He thought that the world had been too long dominated by “masculine” aggressive qualities and that it was time that the “feminine” qualities came to the fore. He wrote: “Nonviolence is woman’s inborn virtue. For ages man has been trained in violence. To become nonviolent they will have to generate womanly qualities. Since I have adopted nonviolence, I am myself becoming womanly day by day. Women are accustomed to making sacrifices for the family. They will now have to learn to make an offering for the country. I am inviting all women… to get enlisted in my nonviolent army.”

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi