Mahatma Gandhi’s Constructive Program: Building a New India

by Allwyn Tellis 

Editor’s Preface: This article is Chapter One of Allwyn Tellis’s unpublished PhD thesis on Gandhi’s constructive program. The notes at the end of the article give details about the text, biographical information, a link to the complete thesis, and acknowledgments. JG

Gandhi poster courtesy, A Future without War;

In a three-part series of articles beginning in September 2006, The New York Times documented the severe water supply crisis that India has been facing for several decades, and that threatens only to get worse as the population increases, the available resources shrink, and the powers that be remain hopelessly ill-equipped and often callously indifferent. The opening article calls attention to the Indian government’s  “astonishing inability to deliver the most basic services to its citizens at a time when India asserts itself as a global power.” (1) This doomsday scenario can be extrapolated onto other basic services such as food supply, air quality, sanitation, health, education, and shelter. As India emerges as a promising “tiger” in the twenty-first century global economy, the majority of her population still leads a subhuman existence forever poised on the brink of epidemics, famines, and genocidal conflicts.

It seems that Mahatma Gandhi’s dire warning that a modernizing India could hope, at best, to be a “second or fifth edition of Europe and America” is becoming increasingly apparent. While India boasts the trappings of a twenty-first century economy and proclaims itself the largest democracy in the world, never before have so many millions of Indians been marginalized and alienated from the official frameworks of the state, political economy, and civil society. The indictments and reprimands that Gandhi hurled at the British Empire can be aimed with greater vehemence at the postcolonial Republic of India. Yet, every year, Gandhi Day is celebrated with a national holiday consisting of prayer meetings, ritual spinning bees, public sanitation drives, and the garlanding of statues of the Mahatma (great soul) or Bapu (father).

The state is preoccupied with its pursuit of superpower status in terms of economic, technological, and military might and pays more attention to achievements in nuclear science and space exploration than the provision of basic amenities to the exploded population. Politics remains a ruthless high-stakes game in which the ordinary citizen is no more than a pawn to be bribed or intimidated. The social fabric remains threadbare and stretched, ready to rip in countless places along the lines of religion, caste, region, and language. Civil society is still dominated by elites who do not identify with the majority of their compatriots and are obsessed with keeping up with the fashions and indulgences of the developed world. And so, sixty years after independence, the majority of Indians still find themselves where Gandhi discovered them on his first tour of India in 1914, in hundreds of thousands of “dung heaps,” wallowing in a subhuman existence of poverty, brutality, and vice.

On the other hand, there have never been so many individuals and associations working among and with dispossessed Indians. Countless social workers, activists, NGOs, religious organizations, aid agencies, and development foundations are devoted to studying and ameliorating the crushing problems that most Indians face. While many of these agencies work to include more Indians within the framework of the state and the formal political economy, a growing discourse has emerged around topics such as the “enfranchisement,” “empowerment,” and “mobilization” of the marginalized to resist the encroachment and exploitation of the state and global economy that they can never hope to be a part of. There is also growing discussion about ways and means to evolve alternative models of “sustainable development” and environmentally friendly “life support systems” that would allow those categorically excluded from the state and the global economy to meet their basic needs on their own.

Gandhi gradually moved, over the five decades of his public career, from a position at the very center of Pax Britannica and modern civilization, further and further away, until he arrived at a place absolutely outside its reach. He began his involvement in politics as a loyal imperialist in late nineteenth and early twentieth century South Africa and India, petitioning for a more conscientious and scrupulous implementation of Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858 (guaranteeing equity and justice to all Indians as subjects of the British Empire). In 1919, however, he promised Indians political sovereignty in one year if they would follow him in a campaign of nonviolent non-cooperation but soon realized Indians were not capable of the requisite nonviolence or the subsequent discipline and competence needed for self-rule. Another failed attempt at nonviolent civil disobedience in the 1930s proved that Indians still had a long way to go before they could shake off British rule and constitute a viable nation. Provincial self-rule in 1937 led to Gandhi’s complete disillusionment with representative politics and complete distrust in the ability of Indian nationalists to work together to constitute India into an independent, self-reliant, and self-determining nation that would include all her citizens within an equitable and regenerative nationhood. From 1937 onwards, after he resigned from the Congress, he worked more intensely to develop his constructive program—the positive dimension of his movement that focused on individual and communitarian discipline and service—into a platform comprising an alternative political, economic, and social praxis that would exist without any reference to the state, the official political economy, and modern civil society.

Gandhi saw clearly, beginning in 1937, that the new rulers of India (whoever they may be) would perpetuate the modernist and imperialist policies and politics of Pax Britannica and that the majority of Indians would remain marginalized, impoverished, and exploited or ignored. He spent the last decade of his life desperately trying to gather support for his constructive program from all constituencies, but especially from educated Indians and Indian nationalists, particularly the Congress. Towards the end of his life, he acknowledged his failure to raise enough interest in and commitment to his doomed project but urged his followers to continue their seemingly hopeless quest as it was the only way they could hope to reach hundreds of millions of Indians who would never have a place in the new republic.

Even today, for hundreds of millions of Indians, the formal political economy of the Republic of India, its institutions and structures, its accomplishments and promises, hold out no hope. Could these people live human lives in spite of their terminal marginalization? Would they ever have a chance of integration with their more fortunate compatriots? Could the Indian state and political economy ever be made to attend to these millions and accommodate them? Could all this be done nonviolently and without huge infusions of resources and expertise from the outside? Gandhi insisted, throughout his career, that all these goals were possible and desirable. He tirelessly held out his constructive program as the means to strive towards their achievement. Insisting that it was not a panacea for all ills, and could not give everyone everything they wanted, he maintained that it was the only way that Indians could work towards building a nation in which they could live nonviolently and equitably and constitute a model that might inspire the rest of the world. He was dismissed as a Luddite and a utopian dreamer by most of his contemporaries who were optimistic that modernization, rationalization, and technological innovation would provide the means to obtain what they wanted. Today, fewer people are willing to laugh off Gandhi’s warnings and admonitions even if they are not willing to follow his prescriptions. In any case, the largest and longest lasting of Gandhi’s experiments with truth, the constructive program, is worth revisiting if only in the hope that we might find Gandhi’s efforts at pursuing a seemingly hopeless goal with optimism, born of a belief in human ingenuity and the magical power unleashed by unstinting personal commitment and communitarian solidarity, heuristically stimulating.

Yet another Revisionist Reading of Gandhi?  

The “Gandhi Industry,” that began during his lifetime, has grown phenomenally since Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 and now spans several disciplines and fields. Over the past two decades, in particular, scholars have attended to diverse aspects of Gandhi’s project beyond well-worn topics such as his method of satyagraha (nonviolent resistance), his mass campaigns of civil disobedience directed against British rule and indigenous interests, and his observations on issues regarding religion and ethics. And yet, a major dimension of Gandhi’s project—the prime concern throughout his public career in South Africa and India—has received scant scholarly attention: his constructive program.

From the earliest phase of his activist career (as a champion of the civil rights of expatriate Indians in South Africa), Gandhi maintained that Indians should complement their “external” struggle for civil rights and enfranchisement with an “internal” struggle entailing introspection and reform in matters pertaining to their physiological, psychological, social, economic, political, religious, and moral welfare. He insisted that the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of Indians’ external struggle resulted largely from the poor state of their internal health—individual, communitarian, and national.

Gandhi’s sensational satyagraha campaigns, through which he nonviolently confronted the British Empire and indigenous vested interests, have understandably received close and sustained attention. His tedious and often invisible efforts at motivating, empowering, and reorienting three hundred million men, women, and children, exploited and brutalized for centuries, through loosely organized, non-programmatic, local initiatives, has received little attention. In this study, I begin the process of revisiting the constructive program, the little-known but integral component of Gandhi’s nationalist movement. I set out on this enterprise with the conviction that the constructive program should properly be fundamentally reconsidered as a parallel discourse (to satyagraha) that pervaded Gandhi’s movement from its inception, rather than a sketchy utopian fantasy (articulated in a hastily written pamphlet) held out as a last resort towards the end of his career. To that extent, my study is revisionist.

However, what I advocate is not a revisionism that denounces “outdated” understandings of Gandhi’s movement and promotes an updated “truer” version. Rather, I suggest that, to more fully understand Gandhi’s career and influence, we need to go beyond his confrontation of Pax Britannica and attend to his efforts at promoting an agenda of radical restructuring that went beyond formal politics and aimed at transforming all aspects of the private and public life of India’s millions. In revisiting Gandhi’s constructive program thus, we might come (as historians) to better grasp the scope of Gandhi’s movement, appreciate its role in and significance for Indian nationalism, and gauge the nature and extent of its legacy. More significantly, for me, Gandhi’s project presents an immense archive of compelling rhetorical artifacts that would reward rhetoricians with insights into critical issues related to rhetorical practice, criticism, theory, and pedagogy. Some of the most promising issues are the impact of Gandhi’s movement on nationalism, citizenship, leadership, the public sphere, and civic action.

The Rhetorical Dimension of Gandhi’s Constructive Program

Public address—oral and written—was crucially important to Gandhi’s movement in spite of his frequent dismissal of it as a dubious and ineffective form of political action. Throughout his career and, especially, through his constructive program, Gandhi attempted to initiate revolutionary change at several levels—individual, interpersonal, communitarian, regional, national, and international—while categorically condemning violence of all kinds. He criticized not only the unilateralism and violence of British (and indigenous) imperialism, but also the ruthless competitiveness of modern nationalism, the divisive conflicts of identity politics, and the disempowerment and alienation fostered by global capitalism and materialistic individualism. Throughout his career, Gandhi tried to claim and open up physical and rhetorical spaces—separate from the state, the modern economy, and the institutions of modern civil society—where those marginalized and exploited by imperialism, industrial capitalism, and modernity might engage in “direct action” to better their own lives in accordance with their own aspirations. Gandhi called upon nationalists to work towards building a political system that would integrate diverse peoples, a political agenda that would include popular needs and aspirations, and a political praxis that would include various forms of human agency.

Through his constructive program, Gandhi attempted to initiate a nonviolent but radical transformation of the lived experience of ordinary Indians—beginning at the level of the individual and moving into ever-widening social formations. In so doing, he was faced with a bewildering plethora of rhetorical exigencies and audiences. He had to field compelling demands and inducements from various agents of modernity: the imperial establishment, its indigenous allies, nationalists, religious fundamentalists, commercial and industrial interests, the modern professions, and a growing urban working class. He had to re-conceive the nation, redefine citizenship, revise the national agenda, reorient various constituencies and institutions, generate new publics, harmonize diverse and often irreconcilable interests, allot roles and responsibilities to volunteers, and manage ambitions, rivalries, and incompatibilities (often within his own movement).

Gandhi deployed a rich repertoire of rhetorical resources as he pursued the constructive program, making problems out of existing ideas and practices and inventing new ones. Bhikhu Parekh, a critical biographer of Gandhi, explains how the rhetorical aspects of Gandhi’s project contributed significantly to its nature and effectiveness:

Gandhi had mastered the indigenous style of symbolic discourse [that] was familiar to his audience… [He] confused and marginalized the foreign rulers and created a private space in which he could carry on a public conversation with his countrymen in relative privacy. He not only invented and used symbols but also became one himself, and his manner of dressing, walking, talking, eating, sleeping, sitting, raising his index finger and the choice of sites for his ashrams [communes] tapped deep historical memories. The symbols were both packed with and went beyond arguments, and both explained situations and stirred people into action. They gave Gandhi’s message a power no other form of discourse could have given. (2)

Parekh has offered a deeply insightful explication of Gandhi’s ideological contributions to colonial Indians’ consciousness, identity, self-esteem, and aspirations. What is missing from his critique of Gandhi’s movement and legacy is an explication of the utterances, performances, and practices whereby Gandhi actually exercised this phenomenal influence. In this dissertation, focusing on the long-neglected second dimension (parallel to satyagraha) of Gandhi’s movement—his constructive program, I set out to identify and outline the broad, deep, and lasting changes Gandhi effected in India’s political (rhetorical) culture and practice.

Through his twin initiatives of satyagraha and the constructive program, Gandhi managed to transform the nationalist movement from an elite bargaining game (a small clique of English-educated Indians petitioning for reforms within the framework of Pax Britannica) into a mass movement that not only rendered British rule increasingly unsustainable, but seriously eroded its credibility, legitimacy, and moral certitude. Moreover, he also compelled Indian nationalists to reinvent themselves as agents (free citizens rather than imperial subjects), to claim a vastly different agency than what they were allowed under the imperial system, and to reinvent India as a nation that would be free from the imperatives not only of British imperialism but also of modernity and global capitalism.

Mainly through the constructive program, Gandhi challenged the strategic public-private dichotomy that the colonial state had gradually constructed through its legal and administrative system, institutions, policies, and practices, and that was vital to the maintenance of its hegemonic power. In the process, he reclaimed certain areas of public life as private or communitarian concerns (such as medicine, education, and civil law) and publicized/politicized many areas of private life (such as diet, clothing, occupation, and sexuality) as vital sites of political engagement. He also problematized modern institutions such as civil society and representative democracy, insisting that citizens should participate in the public sphere—forums of deliberation and decision-making—for the most part through “direct action.” Through campaigns of resistance and sustained social service within their local communities, ordinary Indians could take charge of their own lives and welfare rather than surrender themselves to the machinations of inefficient and ineffective partisan politics and the labyrinthine and inaccessible institutions and associations of the modern state and civil society.

Gandhi redefined many aspects of rhetorical culture, such as nationhood, citizenship, leadership, political action, and civic participation. He invited the diverse masses of the Indian subcontinent to identify with one another as citizens of a nation defined in terms of shared morals and values and appealed for their devoted commitment to common ideals and goals. He rejected cultural homogeneity, religious affiliation, economic interest, or political expediency as acceptable bases of national integrity.

Gandhi redefined the concept of leadership by the very manner in which he conducted himself vis-a-vis his supporters. As Susanne Rudolph notes:

Unlike a more rigorously ideological leader, who might expect the human material with which he deals with to adapt itself rather precisely to his movement’s normative and behavioral requirements, Gandhi was strongly attuned to the varying inner states and potentialities of his followers. A movement leader committed to shaping men, he suited the shaping to the characterological contours of his followers, sensitive to the limits of their adaptability. This was not invariably true… Nonetheless, it was a distinguishing mark of his leadership. (3)

And, thus, the concept and practice of followership were also transformed. In his satyagraha campaigns (with their great potential for mob violence) Gandhi demanded strict adherence to a set of rules he stipulated. Outside of these limited campaigns, and in his constructive program in particular, Gandhi urged supporters to join him as fellow “experimenters in truth” to individually, collectively, and cumulatively question and reform their beliefs, attitudes, and practices with a view to bringing them more in keeping with the values of nonviolence, justice, and public service.

Through the constructive program, Gandhi transformed the notion of civic discourse. As Ainslee Embree notes, “the constitutional gradualism of the pioneers [of Indian nationalism] foreclosed participation in a whole range of political activity.” (4) Beginning in 1919, however, Gandhi threw open the arena of political participation to the masses at large, incorporating within its radically revised rubric a wide range of actions— symbolic, ritualistic, and pragmatic—that did not rely upon standardized, institutionalized, professionalized, commercialized, and bureaucratized structures and procedures, or purely rational-discursive practices and formalities that excluded and exploited the vast majority of Indians.

Gandhi introduced novel concepts and practices into the rhetorical culture of Indian politics or radically modified existing ones: a diverse but integrated agenda of revolutionary socio-economic reform to be prosecuted at the local level; an organically “national” economy and polity that linked local bodies and initiatives to regional and then sub-continental ones; radically innovative ideographs such as “experimentation” and “trusteeship” to characterize governance; and direct involvement of the masses in public deliberation and decision-making in their local communities. To accomplish the last, Gandhi simply suggested various initiatives of public service (components of his constructive program) as the proper means of national regeneration even as he shunned centralized, coercive, and bureaucratic programs initiated from “above.” While suggesting several courses of action to be pursued simultaneously within the rubric of his constructive program, Gandhi left the people free to decide how they would participate in it—what they would attempt and to what extent they would commit themselves.

Using the ideograph (metaphor) of experimentation. Gandhi stressed the tentative and ever-evolving character of his project. Moreover, he sought to confront oppression and exploitation throughout the nation but the initiatives would always have to originate at the local level and would have to focus on individual and communal attempts to alter or reinvent primary relationships and routine practices—the only appropriate sites for a grassroots program of radical but nonviolent reform. Such a comprehensive and provisional agenda could not be articulated in terms of discrete goals and specific plans of action, nor could any single person or group claim exclusive authorship or control of such a movement. Opportunism (the creative perception and exploitation of opportunities to ameliorate the status quo) and improvisation (constant self-reflexive critique and sharing of experiences and insights among volunteers) would have to be the key elements of such a project. Moreover, he set up ashrams (communes) that were different from the traditional monastic abodes of seclusion and meditation to serve, instead, as “training institutes” where new volunteers would be oriented to the principles and methods of satyagraha, as well as “laboratories” where volunteer workers would conduct experiments aimed at improving individual and collective discipline and civic participation through public service.

Gandhi insisted that leaders of satyagraha campaigns and volunteers in the constructive program would have to embody the key tenets of these enterprises in their persons, in their day-to-day routines and practices, in their relationships with others, and in their public service. Moreover, true independence (not just political sovereignty) could not simply be demanded from the imperial power and its indigenous collaborators, nor could it be obtained through the efforts of a few nationalist politicians however competent, but would have to be claimed by enacting and exercising it in their individual and communitarian life by the hundreds of millions of Indians.

Finally, Gandhi utilized several rituals and ceremonies to promote an empowered political consciousness and solidarity among the masses who would have little place in formal politics even after independence. For example, as Embree notes:

In a country of extraordinary diversity… the spinning of thread might not do much to alter economic conditions, but the experience of working together in great mass meetings gave people an exhilarating sense of participation in the political process. (5)

Although some of the public rituals that Gandhi initiated (such as spinning, wearing clothing made of homemade textiles, cleaning public places, and participating in public prayer meetings) might seem inane and superficial, they helped millions of isolated and alienated individuals and communities to become conscious of a common predicament and purpose as well as a means of working with one another within the nationalist movement and the constructive program. For all the above reasons, and more, the study of Gandhi’s project from a rhetorical perspective promises to be greatly rewarding, yielding insights into myriad aspects of rhetorical practice, theory, criticism, and pedagogy. To mention just a few, Gandhi’s project is a site replete with instances of individual and mass activism, nonviolent conflict resolution, charismatic and non-coercive leadership, invitational rhetoric, nonverbal argument, cross-cultural communication, community building, peaceable nationalism, multiple and compatible citizenships, and education for citizenship and civic participation.

Scholarly Attention to Gandhi’s Rhetoric

In 1972, Judith Brown presented an overview of the secondary literature on Gandhi and his movement that can be regarded as a valid characterization even today:

Most [authors have] set out to produce straight biographies, psychological studies, or assessments of Gandhi as moralist, political philosopher, social worker, exponent of passive resistance and the like. Few [have] analysed Gandhi’s role in Indian politics or explored the actual mechanisms whereby he emerged from obscurity to a dramatic assertion of power in 1920, and thereafter to leadership of the nationalist struggle against the raj [British rule]. (6)

Since 1972, however, some scholars have undertaken a critical, historicized examination of sections of the vast body of oral and written discourse that attended Gandhi’s movement as well as some nonverbal and performative elements that marked that discourse. However, they have largely focused on his satyagraha campaigns. This section outlines a few of the more prominent scholarly critiques of the rhetorical aspects of Gandhi’s movement.

Attending to key terminology in Gandhi’s nationalist messages, G. Aloysius charges Gandhi with leaving his definition of swaraj (self-rule) “delightfully vague” on purpose, (7) a concept that “was apparently everything for everybody, without actually disturbing anybody…[that] deflect[ed] the course of political awakening from the hard world of the economic and political to the nebulous and the mysterious.” (8) He accuses Gandhi of having defended establishmentarian interests through a ruthless manipulation of the less powerful sections of society as, with incredible mastery, he hijacked the peasantry, utilized them temporarily to achieve goals useful to the bourgeoisie and, finally, abandoned them. In doing so, Aloysius has paid exclusive attention to the mass mobilization efforts that Gandhi initiated from time to time—including his three major campaigns of 1920-22,1928-31, and 1942-44. He has ignored the other crucial component of Gandhi’s career—the constructive program. It was through this program that Gandhi sought to initiate radical change in agents, relationships, agendas, and agencies. It was through the constructive program that Gandhi reached out to constituencies historically excluded from participation in public affairs—peasants, untouchables, women, industrial laborers, and students. In this study, I set out to reclaim this vast body of discourse that crucially influenced Gandhi’s movement but that has been largely ignored by even the most dedicated Gandhi scholars.

Evaluating the role that Gandhi’s movement played in the larger nationalist movement in India, Partha Chatterjee lauds his definitive role in nation building:

The ‘science of non-violence’ was the form in which Gandhism addressed itself to the problematic of nationalism… to provide answers to the problems of national politics, of concretizing the nation as an active historical subject rejecting the domination of a foreign power, of devising its political organization and the strategic and tactical principles of its struggle. In its specific historical effectiveness, Gandhism provided for the first time in Indian politics an ideological basis for including the whole people within the political nation. (9)

Gandhi’s project was, indeed, more comprehensive and inclusive than that of any other nationalist leader or party. However, it did not solely (or even mainly) attempt to provide answers to the problems of modern nationalist politics. Rather, Gandhi contributed most significantly to the Indian nationalist movement by expanding its agenda (far beyond the limited demands for gradual and moderate constitutional reforms) and by initiating new platforms of direct popular action (satyagraha in various forms and several initiatives under the constructive program). Through this strategy, he compelled the imperial establishment and modern Indian nationalists to come to terms with many social, economic, and political issues that were hitherto neglected or deliberately ignored.

Chatterjee goes on to state that India’s attainment of independence from Britain short-circuited Gandhi’s larger nation-building enterprise by depriving it of its raison d’etre:

Gandhism as a political ideology… was no longer able to specify concretely the modalities of implementing [its ideal] as a viable political practice. Now that there were powerful and organized interests within the nation which clearly did not share the belief in the Gandhian ideal, there was no way in which the Gandhian ideology could identify a social force which would carry forward the struggle. (10)

Like Aloysius and many Gandhi scholars, (11) Chatterjee apprehends Gandhi’s movement only to the extent that it participated in the formal politics of the Indian nationalist struggle and, inevitably, he must conclude that it was a failure. But Gandhi’s constructive program worked entirely outside such a limited arena and aimed at organizing and empowering the vast marginalized remainders of the imperial (and postcolonial) state. It invited its participants to adopt revolutionary subjectivities, participate in unprecedented public spaces, devise radical agendas, exercise innovative agencies, and enact empowering citizenships. Only a closer examination of the impact of the constructive program during Gandhi’s life time and that of the various surviving Gandhians and Gandhisms all over the world could seriously address the issue of the success or failure of Gandhi’s movement and the nature and endurance of its lingering influence.

S.S. Gill concedes that Gandhi, through his constructive program, aimed at changing the “objective conditions of…existence” of the majority of impoverished Indians, but charges that “it relied for success on the voluntary effort of dedicated workers and the goodwill of the ‘haves’[while] the desired beneficiaries like the Untouchables and the agricultural and factory workers were never made active agents of the desired transformation, [and so] they never got empowered.” (12) Thus, the constructive program “could never acquire an autonomous momentum to snap its paternalistic apron strings.” (130 However, rather than merely helping “desired beneficiaries,” the constructive program aimed at more fundamental and radical outcomes—the transformation of agents, social relations, and political enterprises and the evolution of innovative and nonviolent agencies that would work for a more humane society, economy, and polity at the level of the local community. The “desired transformation” had to be conceived of and pursued by the agents themselves. Attending to the vast rhetorical archive of the constructive program, I have identified numerous messages in which Gandhi exhorts his associates and correspondents to “experiment” in self-discipline and social service and share their accomplishments and failures. The massive and complex collection of texts in Gandhi’s Collected Works are proof that Gandhi indeed did reach out to untouchables, and agricultural and factory workers with a view to empowering them and drawing them into the movement for independence and national regeneration.

Dennis Dalton sees Gandhi’s constructive program as a desperate afterthought that Gandhi resigned himself to after his influence in formal politics waned. He dismisses it as a safer and lesser alternative to the more important but dangerous task of formal political struggle against the imperial power and elite indigenous interests and does not regard the program as an integral and crucial dimension of Gandhi’s movement:

Gandhi’s faith in mass civil disobedience… was considerably shaken in [the 1922 non-cooperation movement] by several acts of violence… [and] his use of civil disobedience after 1922 grew even more controlled and restricted, subject to careful planning and orchestration… After the non-cooperation movement’s first flush, then, Gandhi turned increasingly to social reform. (14)

Dalton also notes that many of the issues within the constructive program “had been championed before by social reformers” and that “Gandhi’s contribution was, as a national political leader, to insist that these reforms were integral components of swaraj itself.” (15) Such a view belies the historical record of Gandhi’s project in which one can see Gandhi alternating mass activist campaigns with attention to constructive enterprises beginning in South Africa. His decision to pursue an activist or constructive initiative at any given time depended on his interpretation of the prevailing situation and his intuitive judgment as to the best choice of arena and action rather than any consideration of the success or failure of a particular campaign.

Joseph Prabhu identifies Gandhi’s philosophy of peace as the essence of his movement. He claims that there are “four elements of [Gandhi’s] wide-ranging philosophy of peace”:

(1) his critique of modernity and the values and institutions it promoted;
(2) his alternative modernity that embodied a different set of values and ideals;
(3) his focus on civil society as the agency that might forge and implement this alternative modernity; and finally,
(4) the revisions in conventional ideas of religion and politics that this new vision entailed. (16)

In this characterization of Gandhi’s project we see an emphasis on Gandhi’s ideas and ideals rather than on his policies and practices and the opportunities, motivations, constraints, and dynamics that informed those historical actions.

Surprisingly, Prabhu also asserts that “Gandhi’s was [an] Aristotelian picture of politics as a practical art that involved deliberation in the public sphere about matters of common concern.” (17) This observation is puzzling given Gandhi’s constant emphasis on direct involvement of the “dumb” millions in public service (an emphasis on performance and embodiment as the best forms of public deliberation and action) and his sweeping dismissal of rational-critical discourse as pointless wrangling about abstract constitutional provisions and institutional structures and procedures. Specifically, in his pamphlet, Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place (1941, 1945), Gandhi dismisses “oratory so called” as a futile endeavor and promotes social service in the villages as the best way by which aspiring leaders could promote public welfare.

Prabhu also states that, in Gandhian politics, “civil society—the space of people’s organizations, which come together around various initiatives…assumes great significance.” (18) But, from various utterances throughout his movement, it is obvious that Gandhi actually sought to go beyond the complex and remote institutions and associations of modern civil society. He acknowledged that modern civil society was ameliorative of some of the inadequacies and shortcomings of the modern state, but maintained that it was still inadequate for the achievement of true swaraj because so many millions still lay outside its scope and influence. He stressed the cultivation of discipline at the individual level as the first step in any quest for freedom and autonomy; then, the renegotiation of interpersonal and communitarian relationships to make them more equitable; next, voluntary social service to solve communal problems rather than conventional politicking that involved bargaining, bribery, and coercion; after that, the more formal and permanent institutions of civil society to deal with more complex matters; and, finally, the centralized structures and coercive procedures of the state. It is attention to the constructive program, therefore, that would yield the deepest insights into Gandhian philosophy, ethics, and politics.

Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph consider Gandhi’s project in terms of its invisible dimensions, particularly its psychological aspects:

Gandhi’s leadership, regardless of its objective success or failure, had important subjective consequences, repairing wounds in self-esteem, inflicted by generations of imperial subjection, restoring courage and potency, recruiting and mobilizing new constituencies and leaders, helping India to acquire national coherence. (19)

Through the constructive program, Gandhi aimed at achieving outcomes such as those listed above and an exploration of these efforts in their historic specificity and through the rhetorical performances that attended them would yield greater insights into the actual workings and influence of Gandhi’s movement. In addition, attention to the constructive program would elucidate how Gandhi’s project worked not only to provide psychological and social support to the Indian people, but also to make Indian politics, economics, and society more inclusive and empowering of the common people.

B.R. Nanda notes that satyagraha, Gandhi’s “unique method of nonviolent resistance to injustice and oppression” allowed him spectacular entry into and eventual domination of Indian nationalist politics. (20) But few scholars posit Nanda’s next observation—that satyagraha was the lesser component of Gandhi’s project (a tactic to be used sparingly) when compared to the more important constructive program. (21) Nanda also underscores the scant and cursory attention (if not skepticism and downright rejection) that the constructive program received from its very inception, during Gandhi’s lifetime, from his contemporaries (and, later, in independent India):

The British authorities heaved a sigh of relief when he engaged himself in such apparently innocuous activities [as comprised the constructive programme], but it hurt Gandhi when some of his close colleagues missed the significance of the constructive programme and grumbled that it was a distraction from active politics. (22)

Even today, scholars have not paid the constructive program the attention it deserves as the dominant dimension of Gandhi’s movement. While Nanda asserts that “Gandhi’s apparently apolitical activities…helped bring him close to the masses, thus indirectly making a tremendous contribution to political awakening,” he does not specify exactly how this happened and what this tremendous contribution to political awakening entailed. (23) In this thesis, I begin the process of elucidating “how” Gandhi’s allegedly apolitical activities worked to transform Indian politics and “what” effects they generated.

In his book, Colonialism. Tradition, and Reform. Bhikhu Parekh argues that Gandhi’s fundamental motivation was his desire to rescue Hinduism from the ravages of imperialism and modernity. Parekh explains how Gandhi revitalized (while also often fundamentally and unsettlingly transforming) Hindu concepts and practices that he then pressed into the service of his more comprehensive and secular (and often surprisingly modern) agenda. However, it would be more illuminating to have a historicized account of Gandhi’s efforts in this regard, especially as he also competed with other Hindu, Muslim, and secular leaders to redefine India and Indianness. Parekh declares that he wishes:

to explore the manner in which [Gandhi] used…[his] unique moral and political authority… in his battles with his tradition… his critical dialogue with it, his style of reform, his critique of and campaign against unacceptable beliefs and practices, and the manner in which he negotiated his way around and was sometimes defeated by its structural constraints. (24)

However, in his book, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy Parekh does not pay close attention to the bulk of Gandhi’s rhetorical efforts toward his radical purposes—the revolutionary transformation of individuals and communities, the forging of radically equitable social and economic relationships, the initiation of a new political system and civic participation via mass participation in satyagraha and the constructive program. As stated earlier Parekh devotes himself almost exclusively to a reclamation and representation of Gandhi’s ideology and philosophy and their antecedents rather than to a study of the rhetoric and practices of his movement.

Ronald Terchek suggests that Gandhi’s project was primarily concerned with reclaiming the autonomy, power, and dignity of the individual from “colonialism, violence, decayed traditions, modernity and modernization, and conventional democratic practices [that] create an incredible range of remainders” and that Gandhi sought “to make the world open to multiple logics and multiple discourses to advance standards that have been discounted or forgotten in the modern project.” (25) Terchek does not address, however, in any detail, the precise agenda that Gandhi drew up. As is quite obvious from the Collected Works. Gandhi’s movement was more than an intellectual reclamation of ideas and ideals or even a program of psychological encouragement; it was much more an action- and performance-based enterprise seeking to revolutionize bodies, minds, spirits, society, the economy, politics, and religion.

Terchek identifies some of the radical components of Gandhi’s project such as its attempt to “disclose the many sites of power in both the public and the private realms,” and its efforts to popularize the notion of “power residing not only in the state but also in social practices (such as untouchability), ideology (the authority of modernity), the structure of the economy, and the myriad ways that ideas and people are organized.” (26) He sees Gandhi’s project as “challenging an activist state, finding it pretentious in what it thinks it can accomplish and dangerous in the way it uses people to achieve its objectives” and maintains that what Gandhi wanted was “to promote a regime where significant economic, social, and political inequalities have been reduced and where all forms of power are dispersed.” (27) While Terchek is deeply insightful of Gandhi’s motives and goals, what is missing in his critique is a discussion of just how and how well Gandhi did promote this agenda throughout his career. This dissertation is no more than a first step in this vast and complex enterprise as I revisit the discursive archive of the constructive program and identify some of its major themes and initiatives.

Commenting upon Gandhi’s “non-political” agenda, Terchek sees Gandhi wanting “to confront not only the state but other locations of power that he finds hierarchical, asymmetrical, and dominating.” (28) He observes that “Gandhi invests individuals with extraordinary power…argu[ing] that what individuals accept or tolerate serves to perpetuate institutions and practices that would otherwise languish and disappear.” (29) Here, again, the precise what and how of these abstract characterizations of Gandhi’s project remain to be explained: what were the “nonpolitical” institutions and practices that Gandhi initiated and manipulated, and how did he activate them? These are considerations I do not take up in this dissertation except in the broadest outline and it would take further research into the specific elements of the constructive program and the trajectories of their prosecution to achieve an insightful understanding of their nature and significance.

Focusing on Gandhi’s efforts in connection with the constructive program, Terchek comments upon Gandhi’s radical re-conceptualization of political action and civic participation:

Gandhi… offers three new understandings of participation. One involves politicizing ordinary Indians and showing them how politics continually intrudes into their everyday lives. Second, Gandhi believes people act politically when they engage in service, such as working to eliminate untouchability and disease… Gandhi’s third form of participation concerns leaders who dedicate their lives to the wellbeing of their communities and express their politics through service. (30)

The best way to explore the above aspects of Gandhi’s project is to attend to the ways in which Gandhi “interrogates various forms of domination” through his satyagraha campaigns and his constructive program as he tries to “deprive them of their self-certainty as well as to enlarge discourse to include previously excluded voices.” (31)

Terchek makes a convincing case for shifting the focus of scholarly attention away from Gandhi’s ideology and philosophy and onto his rhetorical record and performance:

Gandhi’s focus on real people with real needs in concrete situations means that he seldom wanders into the realm of political perfectionism. Rather, he speaks to how the current institutional arrangements of society and the economy enlarge or diminish the ability of individuals to govern themselves… He wants people to judge the situation in which they live and challenge it when it seeks to deny them their autonomy. And he finds that any local situation is apt to carry the potential for domination and humiliation. (32)

The above observation makes a compelling argument in favor of reading the constructive program non-programmatically and in ways that go beyond summarizing its content, and to engage it instead as a body of discourse that exerted tremendous influence on the politics (rhetoric) of India’s independence movement and subsequent nationbuilding efforts.

Terchek points out an important feature of the constructive program when he observes that Gandhi’s “economic texts, as is the case with most of his other writings, are about struggle.” (33) He argues that Gandhi “is particularly concerned about the ways in which efforts to dominate continue to appear and reappear in any society [and he] sees people becoming complicit in the way power is employed.” (34) Terchek then poses a poignant question that would enrich the deliberations of historians and rhetoricians: “Should we expect Gandhi to offer more than struggle to live an autonomous life?” (35) I would argue that the constructive program should not be apprehended (as it mostly has been) as a blueprint for socioeconomic development or as a systematized exposition of Gandhi’s settled ideas on socioeconomic policy but, rather, as a body of contingent utterances in response to rhetorical exigencies and as a result of creative revisionings.

The constructive program would be more sensibly approached as a call to Indians to participate in an unending struggle to achieve basic material welfare, but also independence, freedom, self-determination, and dignity through individual and communal efforts in the hundreds of thousands of local communities across the subcontinent, in short, a manifesto rather than a treatise.

Finally, Terchek reminds us that:

Gandhi’s democracy is not primarily about a set of procedures or institutions but about sites of self-conscious action… he offers not another interest to pluralist politics but a different way of thinking and talking about politics and the state. (36)

The constructive program remains to be studied as just such a “site of self-conscious action” that seeks to replace preoccupation with the “procedures and institutions” of modernity with the task of evolving “a different way of thinking and talking about politics and the state” in an attempt to ameliorate the condition of the growing and worsening “remainders of modern politics.”

Joseph Alter argues that research into Gandhi’s life and politics has been fundamentally flawed because his “high ideals, and the academic as well as popular attention given to those ideals, have drawn attention away from a more fundamentally important level of action, experience, and social, political, and moral experimentation— his body.” (37) Thus, the researcher who seeks a deeper appreciation of Gandhi’s work and legacy must attend to the organic linkages that connect Gandhi’s philosophical pronouncements with his persuasive discourse and his “experiments” in individual and collective action. This approach is essential to understanding Gandhi’s movement and efforts as Gandhi eschewed “any level of analysis [and action] that only rationalized and did not also embody” that particular principle, relationship, or practice.  (38)

Commenting on the fortunes of the constructive program during and after Gandhi’s lifetime, Alter states:

[Gandhi] disciplined his own body and vocally advocated the discipline of all bodies, but he did not institutionalize the means by which disciplinary practices could become regimented. Nor did he define the critical links between body discipline and the apparatus of the state. Arguably, one could say that he was extremely successful on a personal and national level, but that on the middle ground of village India his ideal of swarajic self-government was not very successful. (39)

This critique of Gandhi’s project in terms of its effectiveness and ineffectiveness at different levels is similar to Judith Brown’s verdict about the nature and effectiveness of Gandhi’s leadership in the mass satvagraha campaigns of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

Gandhi is deemed to have been successful at the national level as he effected horizontal linkages between various all-India constituencies and leaders (however temporary and limited they may have been). He is also acknowledged as having been successful in his personal experiments in embodying a different kind of consciousness, identity, power, leadership, and agency and in ridding himself of several attachments and dependencies in his quest for autonomy and true freedom. He was successful enough to inspire thousands of people to attempt similar experiments within and outside the ashrams he set up). However, his attempts to promote a nationwide movement of revolutionary reform beginning with the individual within the local community—his attempts to link the individual to the nation via a series of spaces, agendas, programs, and practices—are alleged to have failed. While this thesis offers an intuitively plausible evaluation of Gandhi’s constructive program, it is not based on a suitably detailed and historically specific critique of the program and, as such, demands further historical and critical (rhetorical) attention.

It is obvious, from the above discussion, that most of the Gandhi studies that attend to rhetorical aspects of his project still concentrate on Gandhi’s ideological formulation and historical practice of satyagraha to the exclusion of, or with minimal attention to, the ostensibly “apolitical” dimension of his project—his constructive program. Even the few scholars who do pay attention to Gandhi’s “apolitical” enterprise represent his efforts as a series of “breathers” that were subordinate to and, unfortunately, often interfered with his supposedly “main” political ambition—ending British rule. This observation runs counter to Gandhi’s categorical and repeated declarations that his constructive program was, indeed, the primary vehicle to achieve true swaraj in India by regenerating the Indian citizen, revitalizing the local community and, thereby, radically reinventing the nation. In such a project, gaining political sovereignty could be only the first step in a more protracted trajectory of comprehensive and radical reform.

Moreover, the evaluation of Gandhi’s constructive program, whenever it is attempted, usually takes the form of an ideational analysis rather than an investigation of its presence and working as a historical discourse. Also, the few studies that recognize the crucial nature of Gandhi’s constructive program generally pay very little attention to its rhetoric, concentrating instead on its operational, ideological, and psychological aspects.

Another limitation of existing scholarly investigations into Gandhi’s constructive program is the almost exclusive attention to Gandhi’s pamphlet, Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place, published in 1941 and revised in 1945. This pamphlet was written to appease repeated demands by volunteer workers and members of the Indian National Congress (Congress) for a single coherent document outlining the various initiatives subsumed under the rubric of the constructive program. Gandhi continued to maintain, however, that the pamphlet was neither definitive nor exhaustive but merely indicative and heuristic. He wrote the pamphlet in the midst of the unrest that attended India’s unwilling induction into World War II, while he toured the country trying to channel that unrest into peaceable and positive action. As such, the pamphlet must be seen as a hastily written and highly compressed compilation—no more than a listing—of the basic elements of the constructive program that he had been promoting over the past four decades.

Despite Gandhi’s dismissal of public address and deliberative discourse as significant catalysts in national regeneration, David Lelyveld observes that:

The business of Gandhi, after all, was to mobilize a population to break with established authority, and that, in Bourdieu’s terms, was a matter of constructing a new language by means of ‘the labour of enunciation’, ‘the labour of dramatization.’ By performing such labours, Gandhi was harnessing far-flung points of discontent and rebelliousness in a vast land to constitute new categories and social spaces for the exercise of authority. (40)

This is a good characterization not only of satyagraha. the nonviolent confrontation of violence, injustice, coercion, and exploitation, but also of the constructive program, the reformulation of individual identities, social relationships, economic arrangements, and political engagement within local communities.

Lelyveld issues a clear call for a rhetorical approach to auditing Gandhi’s project and legacy:

It is remarkable that questions of language—speaking, listening, reading and writing—have hardly ever been taken up in any detail in all the vast literature on Gandhi. For such questions, the problem of what language to use on what occasions, who is authorized to speak, who is in a position to hear, were explicitly matters of long-standing concern in Gandhi’s life and thought and have had… a direct relevance to an evaluation of the significance of Gandhi in overturning British rule and in the creation of modern India. (41)

Such an investigation would not only expand and enrich Gandhi scholarship, but also the conversation about various aspects of rhetorical practice, theory, criticism, and pedagogy.

The Scope of this Study  

Manfred Steger observes that, “the scientifically-based discourse of national health” in colonial India served “as a means of colonial hegemony” and the transparent subjugation and appropriation of Indians and their bodies, but later it “emerged in the hands of Gandhi as a formidable threat to the empire” with his various recommendations for decolonizing the body by modifying diet, dress, medicine, and even sexuality. (42) Thus, Steger illustrates Gandhi’s ability to wrest a vital area of hegemonic domination away from the imperial power, fundamentally challenge (if not vanquish) it and open up a huge space of discourse and praxis to radical reinvention and popular participation.

Through his constructive program, Gandhi sought to reclaim several other spaces and discourses such as education, sanitation and hygiene, agricultural development, caste and communal relations, and women’s rights that had been discursive preserves of the imperial power and its indigenous collaborators. The constructive program should, therefore, be reconsidered as a broad political project in itself that had, as its central purpose, the decolonization and radical transformation of several areas of public and private life and the creation of new discourses and spaces. Such a vast investigation is clearly outside the scope of this study and I attempt mainly the recovery of a historical trajectory of the rhetorical record of the constructive program from the obscurity of Gandhi’s vast Collected Works.

Judith Brown emphasizes the opportunistic (although not random) and decidedly pragmatic and rhetorical (as opposed to ideological or systematic) nature o f Gandhi’s participation in the discourse and politics of the independence movement and the preparations for national reorientation after independence:

Gandhi’s school of politics was rough and ready because there was none to help him, and he was pushed into action by the pressures of the situation in which he found himself. The techniques he evolved were those of the pragmatist; in particular he was limited by the people he had to organize, the audience at which he aimed, and the nature of the issues at stake. (43)

Thus, without a set of a priori political goals and a master plan to accomplish them, Gandhi relied (arguably more strongly than party politicians and modern social reformers) on rhetorical tactics tailored to immediate and specific exigencies.

In the absence of an overarching political game plan and concrete stipulations as to how the game was to be played, Gandhi’s project seems to contain many discrete subprojects, discontinuities, and even apparent contradictions as specific issues and opportunities emerged, compelled attention, and were replaced by others throughout his career. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Gandhi scholars exploring his “nonpolitical” actions have focused on specific constituencies (such as untouchables (44), the Congress (45), extremist revolutionaries (46), and peasants (47); initiatives (such as his Ashrams (48) and Sarvodaya (49); crises, such as the World Wars and Partition (50); and tactics, such as Pacifism (51), Embodiment (52), and Clothing (53).

From the vast literary record he left behind (97 volumes of Collected Works to date), it is clear that Gandhi held that the emergence of a modern postcolonial state, cast essentially in the colonial mould, was as inevitable and imminent as the end of British rule. He was also aware that such a state could be expected to provide only an ameliorated version of “English rule without the Englishman” a prospect he found entirely unsatisfactory. From 1937 (when he resigned from the Congress) onwards, Gandhi became increasingly anxious to construct a political platform that would be in permanent opposition to modernity (particularly the modern nation-state and the global capitalist economy) and that would radically transform social, economic, and political life in local communities all over the subcontinent. Thus, while demanding formal political sovereignty for India alongside the modern nationalists, Gandhi was also tirelessly engaged in claiming physical and rhetorical spaces from indigenous powers and in prescribing forms of civic action that would engage common Indians. He wanted nothing less than to replace the modernist conceptions of the nation, the state, representative government, civil society, and the individual citizen with less violent, coercive, and exploitative alternatives.

Through satyagraha campaigns and the constructive program, Gandhi defined (and, then, redefined) the goals, agendas, participants, and methods of the Indian nationalist movement. He also managed to get various individuals and associations to attempt radical reforms in social and economic life at the local level all over India. Over its long course, Gandhi’s movement (and particularly the constructive program) evolved through the emergence of various initiatives and programs as he tried to mobilize and coordinate various publics, often entailing decisive shifts in purpose, agenda, agents, and agency.

Through the constructive program, Gandhi attempted to create a far-flung, loosely organized, nonviolent, and autonomous body of local leaders who would radically transform social relations, politics, and economic arrangements in local communities throughout India. These leaders would also comprise an informal but permanent political platform of devoted social workers perpetually positioned in opposition to the colonial state (and, eventually, the postcolonial state) as they sought to reclaim individual autonomy and communitarian self-determination. Gandhi initiated programs of cooperation that aimed to engage people across the myriad and often irreconcilable factions of the Indian population to identify common problems, needs, and aspirations, address inevitable conflicts of interest, and forge a transcendent citizenship that would subsume the narrower identities of religion, caste, and language. Finally, but perhaps primarily and most importantly, he promoted a regimen of personal discipline and responsible action that was expected to reorient the individual away from the dubious inducements of modern culture, global capitalism, and modern materialistic individualism and toward a more spiritualistic consciousness and a communitarian way of life that would be less consumerist and alienating. For Gandhi, such a transformation of millions of Indians would comprise the vital first step in the radical transformation of relationships, structures, and practices that would link individual, community, and nation together in the quest for a truer independence, self-determination, and self-reliance.

And so, in this study, as a first stage of a larger project extending far beyond, I trace those rhetorical acts whereby Gandhi attempted to forge horizontal and vertical links among various constituencies and publics; to transform the individual into a local and national citizen through direct participation; to generate and popularize the embodiment, ritual performance, and practical enactment of basic principles and values such as localism and nonviolence; to encourage direct political action among the masses (particularly the marginalized) through public service; to challenge various sources and forms of violence, coercion, and exploitation; and to critically examine and reform the individual, interpersonal and social relationships, and the more distant and formal structures, procedures, policies, and practices of the nation state, political economy, and civil society.

The first necessary step, then, is to restage the constructive program by reclaiming its rhetorical traces from the obscurity of the archive. The main contribution of this dissertation is my identification of the speeches, editorials, published correspondence, and recorded interviews in which Gandhi outlined, explained, or promoted the constructive program throughout his public career. These messages, dispersed throughout his 97 volumes of Collected Works, constitute a vast body of discourse. Like any discourse, the constructive program was composed and disseminated by multiple authors (not only by Gandhi but also by his close aides and many grassroots workers), addressed to multiple audiences (often simultaneously), occasioned by myriad exigencies and insights, and solicitous of various goals and purposes. As I piece together this discourse I have outlined the historical context that informed each of its texts, elucidated the often hybrid authorship of this discourse, suggested why it contained the utterances it did, identified the main audiences it was directed at and the reasons for their selection, and speculated about purposes and aims.

However, I have paid attention mainly to those messages that can be attributed solely to Gandhi’s authorship. The other creative collaborators in Gandhi’s movement also deserve inclusion in any comprehensive study of that movement, but such a consideration would need broader archival research and deeper rhetorical-historical analysis that lie far beyond the scope of this dissertation.

Another delimitation is the way I have “read” the discourse I have reconstructed. The archive I attend to is very vast and the historical and rhetorical dynamics of each of its texts extremely complex. As such, I have limited my attention to the major historical events that acted as exigencies for the more prominent meta-messages whereby Gandhi sought to elucidate and promote the constructive program as a platform of popular action for all Indians everywhere. Moreover, in reading these messages, I have paid attention to their more formal and substantive aspects such as immediate audiences and purposes and general themes and arguments rather than undertake a close reading or stylistic analysis of them.

Obviously, this study offers a very limited representation and critique of Gandhi’s constructive program. A more meticulous attention to this body of discourse would entail a closer reading of a larger sample of utterances. However, I retain a deep and abiding interest in Gandhi’s movement—particularly, in his constructive program— and have grown more mindful of the remarkable research opportunities that it affords for the rhetorical scholar. This interest will ensure that the various elements and aspects of the constructive program that I have paid only passing attention to or ignored entirely in this study will emerge as topics of future research.

An Outline of the Study  

I have followed a rather conventional design in formulating this study, modeling it upon the structure that most rhetorical critiques employ: a consideration of critical purpose and method as I reconsider the constructive program as a long-running and far-ranging body of discourse rather than as a single document, a description of the composite “text” of the constructive program, an analysis of several features of this text, a discussion of the understandings and insights that this analysis has afforded, and the heuristic value these insights might have for historians and rhetoricians.

In Chapter 2, “Reading the Constructive Program,” I posit that the proper text of the constructive program (considered as a body of discourse within Gandhi’s larger movement) comprises hundreds of speeches, editorials, letters, and interviews, spanning several decades and involving various audiences, exigencies, and purposes. In the next three sections, I acknowledge the hybrid, negotiated authorship of the utterances and argue that a close consideration of audiences and contexts are vital to any attempt to understand how the constructive program evolved as a discursive regime. I then outline the kind of “polysemic” reading of these texts that I undertake in this study and explain my attempts to conduct a broad rhetorical-historical outline of the constructive program.

Chapter 3, “The Constructive Program: A Work-in-Progress,” traces the evolution of Gandhi’s constructive program as a body of discourse emerging in tandem with his satyagraha campaigns that began in South Africa in the late nineteenth century and ended with his assassination in India in 1948. I divide the long trajectory of Gandhi’s career into a series of periods marked by his initiation of mass activist campaigns, stints of imprisonment, excursions into grassroots social service and experiments in rural development, frequent tours of various regions of the subcontinent, and occasional periods of withdrawal (for recuperation and reflection in his ashrams) from formal politics.

In Chapter 4, “The Constructive Program: Its Meaning and Place in Gandhi’s Project,” I locate the constructive program within Gandhi’s larger movement—not apart from and merely incidental to his satyagraha campaigns, but an integral dimension of his two-pronged movement in its own right. I discuss the meaning and significance of the constructive program within Gandhi’s larger movement. I explain how the discourse of the constructive program transformed existing social imaginaries while inventing new ones, expanded the repertoire of rhetorical action in the Indian nationalist movement, challenged the hegemony of the imperial power and modern nationalists simultaneously, set a new agenda for social, economic, and political reform, elicited participation of nationalist leaders and common Indians at various levels of lived experience, constructed publics and counter-publics around various issues and initiatives, and instituted a new paradigm of indigenous leadership and governance.

In Chapter 5, “Experiments in Truth and the Unending Dialogue,” I discuss how Gandhi’s efforts to promote the constructive program and the various initiatives that he started transformed Indian politics in the first half of the twentieth century by compelling radical reconsiderations of the fundamental elements of political (rhetorical) culture: nation, citizen, leadership, public sphere, and civic action. Gandhi revolutionized his nation by calling upon Indians to unite not on the conventional bases of cultural, political, or economic interests, but around a commitment to the values of truth, nonviolence, and justice. He urged Indians to enact a new empowered citizenship through the renunciation of modern individualism and materialism and improving public life in their local communities through participation in the various elements of the constructive program. Setting himself up as conscience-keeper, Gandhi unrelentingly prodded the westernized elite and members of all the nationalist parties aspiring to leadership to remedy their shortcomings, curtail their ambitions, identify with the dispossessed masses, and work untiringly to improve their lot. He strove, throughout his career, to reorient the consciousness and redirect the energies o f Indians so that the local community would become the optimal site where Indians could reclaim their autonomy and work to enhance their independence, self-determination, and self-reliance. Civic action had to be reconceived by replacing occasional participation in the empty rituals and ceremonies of representative democracy (such as elections) with strategic participation in satyagraha campaigns (nonviolent resistance to injustice and exploitation) and wholehearted immersion in one or more of the initiatives of the constructive program in the local community.

In the concluding chapter, I provide an overview of the contributions, limitations, and heuristic potential of this study. I acknowledge that this study has only attended to the first phase of a proper reclamation of the constructive program as a discourse of deep and lasting influence—the recovery of its utterances from the obscurity of the archive. I then outline some of the contributions this study might make to our understanding of rhetorical concepts such as identity, subjectivity, agency, leadership, and the metamorphosis of social movements and publics. I reiterate the delimitations of this study: the limited selection of rhetorical artifacts in terms of genre and authorship, rudimentary methods of analysis and critical interpretation, inattention to public reception of the constructive program and its continuance as a discursive regime after Gandhi’s death. I end the chapter with a discussion of some issues this study has inspired me to consider in the near future—body studies, performance studies, rhetorical style, civic education, subject-formation, agenda-setting, and agency.


(1) Sengupta, Somini. “Often Parched, India Struggles to Tap the Monsoon.” New York Times, October 1, 2006 (late ed), sec. 1: 1+.

(2) Parekh, Bhikhu. Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination. Delhi, India: Ajanta Books International, 1995 (1991, 1989); 207

(3) Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber. “Gandhi’s Lieutenants—Varieties of Followership.” The Meanings of Gandhi. (Ed. Paul F. Power) Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press, 1971; 41-58

(4) Embree, Ainslie T. “The Function of Gandhi in Indian Nationalism.” TheMeanings of Gandhi. (Ed. Paul F. Power) Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press, 1971; 59-76, 63

(5) Ibid. 68

(6) Brown, Judith M.. Gandhi’s Rise to Power: Indian Politics 1915-1922. London; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972; 16

(7) Aloysius, G. Nationalism without a Nation in India. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1997; 180

(8) Ibid. 180

(9) Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993 (1986); 110

(10) Ibid. 117

(11) Other scholars that seem to concur with Chatterjee’s critique, and that I have attended to in this study, include S.S. Gill, Dennis Dalton, B.R. Nanda, and Judith Brown.

(12) Gill, S.S. Gandhi: A Sublime Failure. New Delhi, India: Rupa & Co., 2001; 227

(13) Ibid. 227

(14) Dalton, Dennis. Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993; 47-8

(15) Ibid. 26-7

(16) Prabhu, Joseph. “Gandhi: Visionary for a Globalized World.” ReVision 24.1 (Fall 2001); 2-8

(17) Ibid. 2

(18) Ibid. 2

(19) Rudolph, Susanne and Lloyd. Gandhi: The Traditional Roots of Charisma, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983; 394

(20) Nanda, B.R. In Search of Gandhi: Essays and Reflections. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 2002; 7

(21) Ibid. 7

(22) Ibid. 8

(23) Ibid. 9

(24) Parekh, Bhikhu. Colonialism. Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi’s Political Discourse. Rev. ed. New Delhi, India; Thousand Oaks, CA; London: Sage Publications, 1999 (1989); 17

(25) Terchek, Ronald J. “Gandhian Autonomy in the Late Modern World.” Gandhi, Freedom and Self-Rule. (Ed. Anthony J. Parel). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000; 47-62

(26) Terchek, Ronald J. Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998; 139-40

(27) Ibid. 139-40

(28) Ibid. 142-3

(29) Ibid. 142-3

(30) Ibid. 162-3

(31) Ibid. 14

(32) Terchek. “Gandhian Autonomy”; 51

(33) Gandhi 128

(34) Terchek. Gandhi; 237

(35) Ibid. 237

(36) Ibid. 160

(37) Alter, Joseph S. Gandhi’s Body: Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000; ix

(38) Ibid. 27

(39) Ibid. 84

(40) Lelyveld, David. “Words as Deeds: Gandhi and Language.” Competing Nationalisms in South Asia: Essays for Asghar Ali Engineer. Ed. Paul R. Brass and Achin Vanaik. New Delhi, India: Orient Longman, 2002; 173-186

(41) Ibid. 174-5

(42) Steger, Manfred B. Gandhi’s Dilemma: Nonviolent Principles and Nationalist Power. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000; 133

(43) Brown, Judith. op. cit. 3

(44) Bakshi, Shri Ram. Gandhi and Status of Harijans. New Delhi, India: Deep & Deep Publications, 1987

(45) Malhotra, S.L. Ed. Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress: Studies in Gandhi’s Contribution to the Development of the Indian National Congress. Chandigarh: Publication Bureau, Punjab University, 1988

(46) Pramanik, Nimai. Gandhi and the Indian National Revolutionaries. Calcutta, India: Sribhumi Pub. Co., 1984

(47) Ahmad, Razi. Indian Peasant Movement and Mahatma Gandhi. Delhi, India: Shabd Prakashan,1987

(48) Thomson, Mark. Gandhi and his Ashrams. Bombay, India: Popular Prakashan, 1993

(49) Prasad, K.M., and Ramhee Singh. Eds. Sarvodava of Gandhi. New Delhi, India: Raj Hans Publications, 1984

(50) Chaudhri, Sandhya. Gandhi and the Partition of India. New Delhi, India: Sterling, 1984

(51) Clement, Catherine. Gandhi: The Power of Pacifism. (Trans. Ruth Sharman) New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996

(52) Alter, Joseph. op. cit.

(53) Bean, Susan S. “The Fabric of Independence: Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Fashion Evolution.” Parabola 19.3 (Fall 1994); 29-33

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This essay is the first chapter of Dr. Tellis’s unpublished PhD thesis, Mahatma Gandhi’s Constructive Programme: Building a New India, awarded by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2006.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Allwyn Tellis is currently lecturer in the Communication Program at Northwestern University in Qatar. He has a BA in history and sociology and an LLB (law) from the University of Bombay; an MS in corporate and professional communication from Radford University, Virginia; and a PhD in speech communication (rhetorical studies) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was a visiting instructor in the Rhetoric Department of Wabash College, Indiana from 2005-2006 and in the English Language Institute of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, from 2008-2009. He has taught courses in public speaking, composition, persuasion, argumentation, legal debate and rhetorical criticism and is a recognized communications specialist, particularly from a Gandhian perspective.  We are grateful to Dr. Tellis for permission to post his important work. A pdf of the complete (7.5MB) PhD thesis may be accessed at this link.

“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