Nonviolence and Socio-Economic Revolution

by Thakurdas Bang

Peace News poster; courtesy

UNESCO’s famous opening sentence declares, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defence of peace must be constructed.” What shall be the nature of such a society or community where the defence of peace is firmly laid? Surely such a community would be homogenous and interpersonal. As Gandhi said, “We can realise truth and nonviolence only in the simplicity of village life . . . Man should rest content with what are his real needs . . . Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed. No one will be idle and no one will wallow in luxury. It will be a community in whose management all members freely and fearlessly participate. It must have a unity and a sense of purpose. Such a community will surely be based on social and economic equality.”

If we examine the condition of the recently liberated Asian and African nations and especially of India on the basis of these criteria, what do we find? Although political liberation has been secured, political power is still highly centralised and has not filtered down to towns and villages. The people still look to the government for everything. Everybody talks of rights, and few lay stress on duties. The blind copying of the Western democratic structure with its paraphernalia of political parties and decisions by majority has transformed every village and town into a warring camp. Villagers do not meet to discuss their problems and participative democracy is still a distant reality. Economic equality is a long way off and people are in acute poverty: large numbers of the unemployed live side by side with the rich steeped in their luxury. Chinese Communism is knocking at the door of India, yet the Indian rich evade taxation, and any legislation that might set limits on land. Nobody lays a stress on duty. Education in self-reliance and mutual cooperation is the crying need of the hour. How to bring about this psychological change leading to the corresponding institutional change?

Efforts have been made by Governments from time to time to build communities in villages based on cooperation and equality, and to support such efforts suitable legislation was passed. In India legislation for redistribution of land by taking lands exceeding a limit (called a ceiling) from landlords and distributing them to the landless has signally failed to achieve its objective in spite of the repeated exhortations of Nehru to the state governments. All this has resulted in distributing hardly half a million acres, whereas the expectation as well as the need is many times more. Why has the law failed? Is it not because attitudes towards property and power have not changed?

Another way known to history is violent revolution. Communists in Southern India and the Naxalite, Marxist guerrilla groups operating in large swathes of south and east India, have read the glowing accounts of the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949. What are the successes and failures of violent revolution? It uproots the old social order and destroys its foundation. So it is looked upon as a successful revolution. But beyond this it fails to build in any long-term way a society based upon its objectives. The French and the Russian Revolutions destroyed the old order. Well and good. But where is the new society that the revolutionaries dreamt of? So another French revolution, although unsuccessful, had to take place in 1968. Their slogans were power at the workplace, direct democracy in place of Government by deputies and decentralisation. The less said about the U.S.S.R. the better after the 1968 rape of Czechoslovakia. The Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung frankly declares that power resides or comes out of the barrels of a gun. And who holds the gun today? Certainly not the masses in China, but grand marshal of the army Lin Piao. No wonder Indian communists have not been able to distribute sizeable portions of land or transfer power to the people.

Why does a violent revolution misfire? Some order has to be created after a violent revolution and therefore, whoever captures the means of organised violence becomes the dictator in the name of the people. This has happened everywhere. It seems that this is the inner logic of violence and that power will never come to the masses as a result of a violent revolution. A revolution means a complete and fundamental change in the power structure and the property structure. In the U.S.S.R. and in China it is not the people who wield power or own factories. The State does so in the name of the people, but the State is controlled by the Communist Party, which is in turn controlled by the Politbureau, and that in its turn by a small group.

Here is the relevance of Gandhi. He did not take power into his hands, because he did not consider this kind of accumulation of power an instrument of revolution. From the very beginning he envisaged not a single but a double revolution. He wanted change in thought and attitude, as well as change in social structures. His technique of Satyagraha starts with change in the person and leads to change in the structure of society. Men initiate changes in their lives that reflect changed values in their relationships with others. Towards obstruction Gandhi turned his unfailing weapon of nonviolent non-cooperation. Before Gandhi, saints and apostles stressed change in the individual’s thoughts and personal behaviour. Marx and other revolutionaries went to the other extreme and stressed only outward structural change in the environment and not in man. Gandhi synthesised these approaches in his technique of nonviolent double revolution. No lasting change in attitudes results from force; for Gandhi, the change in structure results from basic changes in the personal lives of hundreds and thousands of people, and hence there is the least to fear from counterrevolution.

Gandhi, unfortunately, was not granted the time to lead India to social and economic revolution once independence was secured. It was left to Vinoba Bhave, a distinguished disciple of Gandhi and himself a genius, to extend the Gandhian method to socio-economic revolution. While walking in the countryside of Telangana in southern Inidia, where murders and arson by communists bent on redistributing land had become the order of the day, he stumbled on the idea of Bhoodan, or land-gift, which he later expanded into Gramdan, literally meaning “the gift of a village”. To whom is the gift given? To the village community itself, is Vinoba’s answer. Gramdan means a change in the thought-pattern and action-pattern of the villagers. Everyone thinks of the village and surrenders part of his property, income, physical and intellectual capacities to the village; the village, in turn, cares for the development of the individual. Essentially here the first stress is on duty. Duties individually and collectively performed prepare the ground for fundamental institutional change.

These are the four essential conditions of a gramdan village. First, the ownership of the means of production, starting with the land, is handed over to the village by an individual, who nevertheless retains ownership, use, and hereditary title. Second, as a token of the rights of the community and as a first step towards reducing inequality, at least five percent of the land is transferred to the village landless. Third, a village fund is created by transferring part (determined by the village from year to year) of the annual income of each resident of the village. This fund is used to develop agriculture, village industries, and welfare activities, top priority accorded to the poorest. Fourth, the village assembly, composed of all adults in the village (and not their representatives) prepare a plan of all-round development for the village; all participate in the plan’s preparation as well as in its implementation. All decisions are reached by a general consensus, not by majority, so as to avoid groupism and factionalism. As a corollary to these conditions, each village forms its own peace corps to act as a catalyst, to maintain peace and unity and promote progress. The State Governments pass legislation recognising village ownership and administration and legally placing all power with the people and not the deputies.

How is such a village the harbinger of a new way of life? Land is the single most important instrument of production in India, as half the national income is from land and eighty-two percent of the people live in villages. When land is voluntarily turned over to a village (and not nationalised — thereby saving land and villagers from the vagaries of State capitalism and bureaucracy) and a token five percent actually distributed (which means fifteen million acres in India — a sizeable figure) without resort to coercive legislation or a single shot being fired, it heralds a new era in the life of the village. The kingdom of heaven is brought on earth and its first law, i.e. the law of compassion, begins to operate. The property structure has completely changed in law and begins to change in fact. The power structure changes too as all power goes to the people. All this results from the voluntary decisions of the villagers and not from coercive, and impotent, legislation. A new consciousness emerges among the villagers, and a beginning is made at long last of classless and stateless society, namely Gandhi’s ideal village. An experiment begins in direct participative democracy. People begin to govern themselves.

How is poverty eradicated? Distributing five percent of the land is only a beginning. As the landed and landless sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the village assembly, they turn their attention first to the problems of poverty and unemployment. Force of circumstances will move the landed to transfer gradually more and more of their land to the landless, or invest in the work of the landless so these may increase their productivity until all reach a certain minimum level of income. Thus, Gramdan contains within itself the process of a permanent revolution. In the famous dictum of Vinoba, Gramdan means “unity and compassion”, unity in the village ownership of land and in consensus, and compassion in the five percent transfer of land. A beginning is made to resolve class conflict on a higher level by translating into action the essential unity of the human family. Every man and woman has a divine spark within; let us kindle it. Science is making continuous efforts to widen our intellectual horizon; if an expansion of heart does not occur commensurate with the growth of intellect, doomsday will be near. Gramdan applies itself to expanding our hearts.

Granted that participative democracy, without political parties, will function in a village, how is government by deputies to be carried on at higher levels? How to institute the principles of partyless democracy and decisions by consensus (and not by majority)? For this purpose, every village assembly will elect two to five people (according to population) by consensus. For example, if a legislative constituency consists of 100 villages, 200 to 500 elected from the villages will sit together in an electoral college. These will elect, by consensus or any other suitable method, one person to stand for general election as the representative of the village assemblies, as opposed to nominees of political parties in whose nomination the villagers qua villagers have no hand. If the spirit of Gramdan is firmly rooted in the body politic of the village, the chances are bright for the village candidates. If a majority of these village representatives reach the legislature, they will not work by majority but all (whether elected on village assemblies ticket or party ticket) will work by committee with the principle of consensus introduced. This theory of People’s Polity (Lokniti), as distinguished from Party Politics (Rajniti) is in its formative stage and is being gradually elaborated.

Vinoba’s exhortation that like water, air, sunshine, and space, land belongs to God and that therefore it should be owned and used by all is readily understood in India. Through persuasion and the building of public opinion the Bhoodan movement has collected over four million acres of land gifts, of which about one and a half million acres is already distributed among the landless. The partial success of this peaceful voluntary effort is all the more striking compared with the violent activities of Naxalites and communists who have not been able to distribute an acre of land or the efforts of government which has so far distributed only half a million acres.

Bhoodan has now developed into Gramdan. Over the past six years more than a hundred thousand villages have signed the gramdan pledge. Within a month or so the state of Bihar with a population of over fifty million scattered in seventy thousand villages will have agreed to gramdan. The gramdan movement is advancing in every state in India, and the time is not far off when the whole of rural India will ascend to this new form of village life. Full implementation of gramdan is expected in Bihar within two years.

This nonviolent conversion of villages is most thrilling. Many tough landlords and reactionary villages have fallen in before the ever-advancing tide of gramdan. The village of Saoli in Maharashtra is big and divided into several factions. After the village meeting where gramdan was explained and discussed, I approached the village leaders and the big landlords individually and asked them to show how gramdan would hurt their interests.

After some discussion one person signed the gramdan pledge; within two days most of the leaders signed; and within a week most of the villagers signed and the village was declared to be gramdan, the biggest gramdan village of the area. Sometimes party leaders and big landowners refuse to sign out of indifference or even sometimes hostility. In such cases we begin the signature campaign with the poor peasants and landless people, making sure to keep the door open for landlords and leaders by maintaining lines of communication. As many from the lower strata begin to sign, the hostility of the big and powerful changes to indifference, and indifference changes to mild curiosity. In the end these very people who were recalcitrant for so long call us and say: “When almost the whole village has concurred, how can we stand aside? What fool would live in water and be the enemy of sea creatures?”

Sometimes the experience is opposite: all the rich and the landholders or village leaders agree, but not the landless and the poor, who have grown so frustrated and fatalistic and hopeless that they look askance at any new proposals. It is with extreme difficulty that they are brought around. It is a sight to see how stiff opposition and miserliness turns to indifference and then to neutrality, finally to concurrence and then to generosity. Once convinced, the villagers who formerly ridiculed the idea of gramdan become its enthusiastic protagonists and walk tens of miles to convert other villages to the idea. A few simple words from such villagers, who first act and then preach, are more potent than long harangues of mere theorists of the cities.

Post-gramdan or development work has been undertaken in about two thousand villages in India. It is simply wonderful to see how villagers regularly assemble to discuss their problems or prepare development plans. As a result of this work, production of food grains has trebled and even quadrupled in many villages. Efforts are made to provide full employment for all able-bodied persons. In one place the creditors were persuaded to free the debtors by tearing up all the promissory notes. In another village three girls went to marry youths from other villages. They had assimilated the principles of a classless society and married without a dowry. Many villages distribute enough land (more than the promised five percent) to leave no one landless. Wells, irrigation channels, tanks are dug, and community assets created. Village disputes are generally settled in the village itself. Drunkenness and alcoholism is disappearing. Corruption of petty officials has become a thing of a bygone age. There is social equality and the Brahmins follow instructions from an “Untouchable” (Harijan) chairman of the village assembly. Many more illustrations could be cited to show that new life is bubbling in these villages because of gramdan. The centuries-old attitudes die hard, however, and so in some villages the landlords refused to part with land for the landless; in such instances Satyagraha was started and ended in a successful compromise. This does not mean that all problems of the villages are over or that poverty is removed; it means only that a new faith is generated in the villagers that in the near future poverty and unemployment will be banished from the villages and there will be social equality and contentment.

A question often asked is this: Why not make all the gramdan villages into model villages and then preach the gramdan message to other villages? In other words, why not first consolidate the gains and then undertake further extension? We are not concentrating on development in gramdan villages because society cannot change in bits and parts: there must be a mass movement, a mass revolution, a massive change in the minds of die people. This can happen only when the whole of rural India agrees to gramdan. Until the atmosphere is cleared of acquisitiveness (power and money for oneself) and the people agree to new values (power and property to all), the construction of a model village republic in a gramdan village is impossible. Moreover, by creating models we shall not be able to change the society fundamentally. There are a few brotherhoods and ideal colonies in West Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, which are excellent as far as they go, but which have little impact on their local communities or on national policies. What is needed is not models but social change, a social revolution to clear the debris of outmoded attitudes towards property and power. Once this primary task is accomplished and a base established, models can and should be created.

The gramdan idea may be able to ameliorate the ills of affluent societies as well as those of India and other developing Asian and African countries. The formulation of a detailed programme to meet specific needs is a task that should engage the western thinkers. Let it be remembered that the personality of the human being can flower only in small communities and in small manageable economic and social units. Without decentralisation of political and economic power, a nonviolent society cannot be built up; and thanks to new sources of power, decentralisation has now become possible.

Can we apply internationally the twin principles of gramdan, i.e. sharing and unity or consensus, and determine the relations between developed and developing nations? Today the global distribution of arable land, pastures, forests, and mineral resources are unequally divided: a third of the population (Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand) has half the arable land; the remaining two-thirds have the remaining half. As a consequence, per capita control over natural resources by the developed nations is double that of the developing nations. Similarly, the developed nations (with one-third global population) own 60% of the pastures and control 70% of the mineral resources. How can we have economic equality and contentment among nations? Mao Tse Tung says that these nations will never consent to redistribution of earth’s natural resources unless a war brings them to their heels.

As Vinoba may exclaim: Instead of fratricide, let the essentials of gramdan be extended to resolve international conflicts and remove the causes of future global wars. Let all nations by consensus decide that the ownership of God-given or natural (and not man-made) resources belong to the whole world, or to a suitable international body representing all. Let this be conceded in theory as a first step. Then let five percent of the net income of such resources be handed over to an international body for the development of poor nations. (The possession and use of these resources may remain with the present proprietors for the time being.) Let another two and a half percent of the net income of the developed nations go to the World Bank for the advance of the developing nations. Some such formula will have to be evolved and serious thought given this in the Gandhi Centenary year, 1969.

Thus a small experiment in nonviolent revolution is going on in the laboratory of India under the able guidance of Vinoba and Jayaprakash Narayan. It is yet in its infancy, and many things remain to be planned. For instance, we do not yet have a suitable programme for changing the property structure in towns and cities. The Sarvodaya movement is concentrating its tiny resources on the first phase of this revolution, securing the consent of the villagers in writing for gramdan. Once this is done the idea is likely to spread like wildfire. It is possible that the light will not be confined to India alone but will travel to distant lands in Asia and Africa whose problems are similar to India’s, e.g. huge populations; unfavourable land-individual ratio; primitive agriculture; undeveloped industries; colossal under-employment and unemployment; paucity of capital; and lack of integration among the nationals. China is showing one way to solve these problems and India another. Asia and Africa are watching both, unsure as yet which way to follow. The next five years are critical for the Sarvodaya movement. If it succeeds in the next few years, India will offer a solution for a nonviolent social and economic revolution and for creating a brotherhood. For, as the U.S. President Johnson once remarked, “The world has become a neighbourhood before it has become a brotherhood.” Gramdan is essentially an experiment in the brotherhood of man.

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 16: Folder 3, Subfolder 2.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This is the unpublished text of a speech Thakurdas Bang gave at the WRI 13th Triennial Conference, Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania; 25-31 August 1969.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thakurdas Bang (1917 – 2013) was an Indian philosopher and economist actively involved in the “Quit India” independence movement.  When the British imprisoned him in 1942 for his nonviolent protest activities, he taught economic theory to the other prisoners. When released he sought Gandhi’s advice about taking an advanced economics degree and Gandhi told him, “If you want to study economics, don’t go to the U. S.; go to the villages of India.” He was to follow Gandhi’s advice, later joining Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan and Gramdan movements, which he writes about above. Please note that we have also posted his son Dr. Abhay Bang’s article about being educated in a Gandhian school.

“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