The Challenge of Gramdan

by Manmohan Choudhuri

Logo of Vinoba Bhave’s Sarva Seva Sangh; courtesy

The quantitative achievements of the Gramdan Movement have been impressive in the last three years. At the moment we have nearly eighty thousand Gramdans, eleven districts (with populations ranging from four hundred thousand to four million) in which at least eighty-five per cent of the villages have opted for Gramdan, and six states in which the supporters of the movement have taken a pledge to achieve Gramdan in all their districts and thus have what has commonly come to be known as Gift of the State (Rajyadan), and this during 1959, the centenary year of Gandhi’s birth. [See Glossary at the end of the article for definitions of Gramdan, Sarvodaya, et al.]

This achievement also reflects a qualitative change in the movement. It is no longer limited to a handful of full-time Sarvodaya workers. At any moment one will find thousands of peasants and labourers belonging to these Gramdan villages, including teachers, petty tradesmen, Panchayatraj representatives, students and even government servants engaged in the task of carrying the message of Gramdan to ever new areas. The involvement of the Gramdan villagers has been greatest in the states where there has been a sizeable number of Gramdans for some years, like Tamilnad and Orissa. In these states many Gramdan villages have taken their place in the front ranks of the leadership. Activists belonging to the different political parties have been drawn to the movement and are enthusiastically participating in it in those states in which the movement is in full swing, such as Bihar and Utter Pradesh.

In its early stages most of the protagonists of the movement thought in terms of small pockets of Gramdans where the Sarvodayist would try out their ideas on social and economic reconstruction. They thought of taking up compact areas and accepting responsibility for the reconstruction work in them. Vinoba Bhave, of course, did not think in these terms. But most others did and, therefore, there was reluctance to having more Gramdans than the small band of Sarvodaya workers could personally manage. “We must not bite off more than we can chew.” Now the vast spread of the movement has swamped this paternalistic attitude, and we have been forced to recognise that the task of reconstruction cannot be fulfilled by the Sarvodaya workers alone but will have to be carried out essentially by the people. So now we are thinking and planning more in terms of “helping the people to help themselves.”

The most significant thing has been the opening up of the political perspective. The Sarvodaya movement has scrupulously avoided all meddling in power politics and has not aligned itself with any political party. But it has all along evinced a deep concern in issues that have been political in the broader sense, and in this sense it has never been non-political. As is well known, it has fairly well defined views on the shape of a political system that will be conducive to the emergence of a truly democratic, egalitarian and peaceful social order. It has emphasised participatory democracy and popular initiative, has considered decentralisation of political power and economy as essential and has considered the party system an anachronism in the modern context. Vinoba christened this approach the People’s Polity (Lokaneeti), in contradistinction to Polity of the Prince (Rajaneeti) the current Indian term for politics, describing accurately the origin of politics in the princely Indian states into which India was divided.

The small community, as exemplified by a Gramdan village, has been envisaged as forming the basic unit, but so long as there were only relatively few Gramdans (even five thousand constitute less than one per cent of the five hundred and eighty thousand villages in India), the possibility of Gramdans operating as a lever to transform the larger reality had only been a theoretical and distant possibility. With ten thousand or more Gramdans in Bihar alone, nearly a sixth of the total number of villages in that state, and the demonstrated capability of the movement to spread fast and wide, Vinoba gave the call for Bihar-dan, i.e., having the vast majority of the villages in Bihar in Gramdan. He set October 2, 1968 as the date to achieve this, with the expressed purpose of attainting the target well before the General Election in 1972, so that there may be time enough to educate and organise the villages.

Vinoba has let it be known in unambiguous terms that the people must at that time be able to nominate and elect their own representatives without allowing themselves to be manipulated by political parties. This has fitted into the mood of all thinking people in most of the country who have become disenchanted with the Congress party rule and in the last couple of years have lost whatever hope they had of a real opposition party. Vinoba wants to have at least one state, Bihar, in which the people could demonstrate their initiative and strength in 1972, that is, a whole state because that is the basic political unit in India. This added perspective has given new impetus to the movement as mentioned earlier, and now there arc six other states, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Tamilnadu (Madras), where the supporters of the movement have taken the pledge of organising the state along Gramdan principles. This could not be achieved in Bihar by the target date. The number of Gramdans there has crossed the thirty-five thousand mark, 50 per cent of the total number of villages in the state, and plans are for an all out drive after the mid-term election in February and to finish the job by mid-April.

The coming mid-term election is too near for any effective impact on it by the Gramdan adherents. This opportunity is being utilised in Bihar and the other states to carry out an extensive education of the voters in their rights and duties. The call to the people is to elect representatives not by their party labels, or by professions but by their known virtues and performances. The emphasis is on choosing persons who stand up for the poor, have joined Gramdan, are supporters of prohibition and have a high level of personal and political integrity. The people are also asked to ensure that this new unity of the villages is not disrupted by the activities of the political parties. One step suggested to this end is not to allow party canvassers to approach people separately but to convene public meetings on behalf of the people where the party candidates can speak from the same platform. This suggestion has been tried out at many places and has proved effective, and at the moment it is being put into practice on a wider scale in Bihar.

This new emergence of a political purpose is fraught with grave dangers for the movement. Politics may overshadow the other more fundamental aspects of it. Sarvodayites may be tempted to aim at seats of power. The Sarva Seva Sangh has been alive to these dangers and has spelt out clear guidelines for the Sarvodaya activities. Their main role is to orient and activate the people, never to manipulate them. No primary member of the Sarva Seva Sangh, (Lokasevak) may stand for election himself or canvas for any candidate. The idea is to set a new process in motion by activating the communities to deliberate political issues and take decisions, not by replacing manipulation at the hands of “bad” politicians with manipulation by “good” Sarvodayists.

The whole business is a terrific challenge. It is no easy task to rouse millions of people from the stupor and apathy of generations and lead them to meaningful action. This presupposes that Gramdan becomes a living reality in these thousands of villages; the village council (Gramsabha) does function as the focus of community decision and action, a minimum of a twentieth part of the land is shared with the landless and the common fund starts to build up. But we are a long way from the day when there was a handful of Gramdans and we could think of one experienced worker taking responsibility for a small group of villages. So we have begun efforts to create new cadres out of the Gramdan people themselves. The idea is to have a small group of volunteers in each village spearheading all activities. The Shanti Sena—The Peace Army—provides the matrix for such an organization and is to be known as the Gram Shanti Sena or the Village Peace Army. Some of us have visualised this as a nonviolent guerilla army of millions of villagers who will leave their ploughs and hoes to serve the cause when the need arises. We have already a glimpse of this in the thousands of villagers who are contributing their time and energy to the furtherance of the movement. Recruitment and training will have to be done on a vast scale. A beginning has been made in some states with promising results.

Supposing the communities do put their own representative in power, they will be able to function in a way radically different from those who have preceded them only if they have a widespread organisation of the Shanti Sena that can handle local conflicts nonviolently, so that an increasing importance and influence of the police and armed forces can be counteracted. They will also need to have a firm hold over the economy of their respective villages and regions to be able to face successfully a showdown with the vested interests that are in control of the Indian economy today.

Here village and small-scale industries are destined to play a decisive role. Effective promotion of these through the people’s own organisations is not only necessary to add to the wealth of the villages by putting to use the vast reservoir of unused manpower in India but also as a base from which they can launch a fight against the vested interests.

Thus, economic reconstruction is one of the major tasks. Experienced Sarvodaya workers have devoted their attention to several fair-sized pockets, and some worthwhile results have been obtained. But, as has been pointed out earlier, this approach now fails to answer the need, and fresh approaches have to be tried out. In some states a beginning has been made, by organising block level Gramdan associations (Sanghs) to take the responsibility for this work. Each of these associations comprises about a hundred villages. These have been quite useful in mobilising local leadership and initiative. There have been many exciting instances of popular initiative and collective action, but the main stumbling block is a lack of perspective and skills. Here also the need is for training and orientation programmes at different levels on an adequate scale. A beginning has been made with institutes for training in agriculture, spinning, and village industries with the liberal help of the All-India Khadi and Village Industries Commission and our friends of the War on Want and Oxfam. We have not yet touched education for children. Experiments carried out by Annasaheb Sahasrabudhe in the Wardha district confirm our belief that once the villagers begin taking initiative for the social and economic development of their villages and come to grips with their problems and needs they will begin to perceive the need for far-reaching reforms in the current sterile system of education.

The greatest asset in this adventure with tremendous implications is the spirit of the people. The movement proceeds from faith in the people, and experience sustains this faith. Though the movement has spread on a vast scale, persons new to the movement with only a rudimentary understanding of the Sarvodaya ideology carry the message to new villages. Yet it can be safely asserted that this has not resulted in a dilution of the basic message. There may be cases of false promises or baseless assurances here and there, but people on the whole sign the pledge with a fair understanding of the grave commitments they are undertaking thereby. They have generally readily agreed to share their land and complete the legal formalities, and only a very small number have reneged. Their good faith is demonstrated by the fact that in hundreds of villages where land distribution has taken place the villagers have readily agreed to part with a tenth or more of their land, whereas a twentieth would have fulfilled the letter of the pledge.

The vision of freedom for the masses in the villages (Gramswaraj ) has brought us beyond the point of no return. We can no longer go back to the quiet old days when we could think and act in a small way. Now the Sarvodaya ideal as embodied in Gramdan has to go forward and conquer the whole of India or perish. The other day Vinoba said teasingly, to a group of Khadi and village industries workers: “Be prepared to take up some other occupations in two or three years time if our attempts fail due to any reason.” But as Vinoba points out, God comes to the help of those who make an auspicious resolve, and make it collectively knowing that it is beyond their known strength. And again, as he remarked the other day, the taking of the Gramdan pledge in seven states is an event of the greatest significance comparable to the taking of the pledge of Independence. And so the handful of Sarvodaya workers, thousands of their supporters and millions of Gramdan villagers brace themselves to meet the challenges that face them.

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


Bhoodan was a voluntary donation by landowners of a portion of their land to the indigenous poor, who could not become self-sufficient on their own small plots. This Land Gift Movement was started by Vinoba Bhave in 1951, and marks a significant application of Gandhi’s Constructive Programme to wealth distribution. Most often title of the donated land parcel was turned over to the local village council for management.
Gramdan was the extension of the land grant concept to villages, which would make a declaration that they agreed to the principles of Bhoodan outlined by Bhave. As noted in the article above there was an attempt to extend the concept to Indian districts and states.
Sarva Seva Sangh was the organization or movement whose members attempted to carry out the principles of Sarvodaya, and acted as a nonviolent, voluntary welfare group.
Sarvodaya means “self-determination”, or “uplift”. Gandhi coined the term in 1908 as the title for his Gujarat translation of Ruskin’s Unto this Last. Later nonviolent leaders such as Vinoba Bhave used it to denote the social nonviolent movement itself, and saw it as an extension of Gandhi’s constructive program, and the most important use of the philosophy of nonviolence in India.
Shanti Sena means literally “peace army”, and has been variously referred to as the Nonviolent Peaceforce, or the World Peace Brigade. Gandhi coined the term near the end of his life, as he was trying to rally a voluntary nonviolent peacekeeping force to halt and prevent communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, especially in northern India.

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: Manmohan Choudhuri was chairman of the Sarva Seva Sangh when this article was written. It is taken from a WRI brochure, printed for members, Gramdan: The Land Revolution in India, published in London on 15 July 1969. With thanks to WRI/London and especially to their director Christine Schweitzer for permission, and for their generous cooperation with our WRI Project.

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

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