Gramdan and Shanti Sena

by Narayan Desai

Cover illustration courtesy

If the ultimate objective of Gramdan is to replace the present centralised state with decentralised village republics, the objective of the Shanti Sena is to replace the police and the army with a nonviolent volunteer force. Therefore, Gramdan and Shanti Sena are very closely interrelated. [See the Glossary at the end of the article.] Shanti Sena began as an offshoot of the Gramdan movement. Vinoba Bhave, who was walking in Kerala State in 1957, was concerned about the violent disturbances, which had spread after the reorganisation of states in India. Some riots took place very close to the Gramdan villages. “If they spread among the Gramdan villages,” Vinoba pondered, “the whole purpose of Gramdan will be lost. We must build a nonviolent army to defend the Gramdan villages from violence.”

Before he died Gandhi had outlined his concept of Shanti Sena. When Vinoba started on his march to Hyderabad in 1951, where he hit upon the idea of Bhoodan (land gift), he described himself as a volunteer of the Shanti Sena. A few years later when he was in Kerala he organised the first batch of Shanti Sena volunteers. During the eleven years since the launching of the Sena, it has grown into one of the major voluntary peace movements in India. On the other side Bhoodan has grown into Gramdan, Block-dan and District-dan. Both Gramdan and Shanti Sena are part of the larger movement called Sarvodaya. For the first five years most of the volunteers who joined the Shanti Sena were Bhoodan workers and it is only since 1962—after the clash with China—that more and more people outside the Bhoodan movement have joined it.

The Gramdan workers have felt that while Gramdan fulfils the first condition of starting community life today, the foundation for nonviolent society based on the principle of equal opportunity for all, by itself it is not enough. For creating the nonviolent strength necessary some additional dynamic element is also necessary. If Gramdan offers the possibility of social and economic justice, Shanti Sena provides that nonviolent element, which not only keeps law and order but also channels the stresses and strains existing in the society.

Building nonviolent strength in the society depends upon: (i) creating social awareness among people; (ii) developing conviction and commitment for nonviolence, and (iii) training in the techniques of nonviolence. Shanti Sena is concerned with all these tasks, which are also closely related to the concept of Gramdan. It must however be made clear that much of it is still in the theoretical stages and that its efficiency will be tested only when it is properly applied on a mass scale.

Let us try to describe the functions of the Shanti Sena in the Gramdan villages based on the experience of recent months:

(1) Solving intra-community conflicts by peaceful means.
(2) Security of the village.
(3) Building land armies for land development, digging wells and general activities for the benefit of the community.
(4) Striving towards the eradication of the social evil prevalent in villages, through social education.
(5) Training and organising village youth.
(6) Youth activities including study of current events, celebration of festivals, etc.

Although the Shanti Sena had its roots in rural India and the majority of its volunteers drawn from there, in the initial stages it was not well organised in the villages. It was only when the Gramdan movement grew into Block-dan and District-dan that the village Shanti Sena began to show its impact on the community. For instance, the Poornea district of Bihar now has a network of Shanti Sena centres. Through these centres people have organized and are fighting against corruption. There have been cases where amounts received in bribes were returned at the intervention of the Shanti Sena. Because of the existence of Shanti Sena centres in some villages officials are not able to behave corruptly as in other villages.

In Tamilnad the land army of the village Shanti Sena has built a number of wells in the Gramdan villages. It has also trained youth from among the landless labourers. This is a very significant achievement for the landless labourers are among the most backward people in the country.

In Orissa the village Shanti Sena has given a new sense of solidarity to the villagers. The village Shanti Sainiks, clad in their saffron turbans, successfully demonstrated against many an injustice in the rural society. They were also instrumental in partly abolishing the illegal “Goti” system of semi-slavery, which has been lingering on even after independence. In some villages they were able to persuade the “serfs” not to accept the system and the “masters” not to practise it.

In Assam the village Shanti Sena has led successful Satyagrahas against eviction of peasants from their land by government officials. They bravely faced armed police and even elephants to defy the eviction orders.

Although building a nonviolent force in the country, which would ultimately replace the police and the army, is still a distant dream, from the way the Shanti Sena has started functioning in Gramdan villages it has already shown how it can help in creating the strength necessary to resist intra-village or inter-village injustice, bribery and corruption. It is becoming that dynamic force which is necessary to bring about social change and the reconciling element, which governs the conduct of the individual and the community to create healthy mutual relationships.

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 111: Folder 1, Subfolder 2.


Bhoodan was a voluntary donation by landowners of a portion of their land to the indigenous poor, who could not become self-sufficient on their own small plots. This Land Gift Movement was started by Vinoba Bhave in 1951, and marks a significant application of Gandhi’s Constructive Programme to wealth distribution. Most often title of the donated land parcel was turned over to the local village council for management.
Gramdan was the extension of the land grant concept to villages, which would make a declaration that they agreed to the principles of Bhoodan outlined by Bhave. As noted in the article above there was an attempt to extend the concept to Indian districts and states.
Shanti Sena means literally “peace army”, and has been variously referred to as the Nonviolent Peaceforce, or the World Peace Brigade. Gandhi coined the term near the end of his life, as he was trying to rally a voluntary nonviolent peacekeeping force to halt and prevent communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, especially in northern India.

For further information about the above terms please consult our Constructive Programme category, especially the articles posted there by Mark Shepard. Shepard’s bibliographies, at the end of his articles, are helpful beginning points for further research. There is an extensive literature on each of the above terms, including important works by Vinoba Bhave (see the cover illustration reproduced above) and Thomas Weber. We might also recommend Geoffrey Ostergaard and Melville Currell, The Gentle Anarchists: A Study of the Leaders of the Sarvodaya Movement for Nonviolent Revolution in India, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, a very astute study of the movement, which has hardly been bettered.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Narayan Desai (b. 1924) is the son of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s chief secretary until 1942. Narayan Desai is the founder of the Nonviolence Training Center, the Institute for Total Revolution, and the author of a four volume biography of Gandhi among other works. He has been awarded both the Jamnalal Bajaj Award and the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Prize for his work in nonviolence and pacifism. At the time of writing this article Desai was Secretary of the Shanti Sena Mandal. This article is taken from a WRI brochure, printed for members, Gramdan: The Land Revolution in India, published in London on 15 July 1969. With thanks to WRI/London and especially to their director Christine Schweitzer for permission, and for their generous cooperation with our WRI Project.

“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