The Gramdan Movement

by Devi Prasad

Cover of Gramdan brochure; courtesy WRI/London

Editor’s Preface: This article is the introduction to a special brochure published by WRI in 1969, Gramdan: The Land Revolution of India. We are posting under this date several essays from this publication. Although definitions of Gramdan and Bhoodan are given in some of the texts it might be handy to note here that Gramdan referred to a landowner’s donation of title of parcels of his land to the poor, while Bhoodan was communal or shared ownership by a village of donated land. Please also consult the Glossary at the end of each article. Further notes about authors, etc, are also found at the ends of articles. JG

The Gramdan Movement is not very well known outside India. There are people who have visited Gramdan areas, met some Sarvodaya workers and even worked in the Movement for sometime. Some of them have been impressed by the philosophy behind it and even consider it realistic but have been disappointed by the actual achievements of the Movement. Some think it to be purely Utopian. There are others who are moved by the humanitarian aspect, but who fail to grasp the political and social revolutionary elements. Very few people have yet been able to see Gramdan—the land revolution, as I would like to call it—in its totality, within the context of what is happening, and what is not happening, all over the world at the present time.

It is, however, not difficult to understand why there is this lack of understanding, even in India. Firstly, the information media are not interested in something, which happens gently. They must see flame and tanks before they are convinced something is happening. The same is unfortunately true about consumers of the media. They have got used to expecting “hot stuff” all the time. Secondly, man has lost faith in himself as an individual. Therefore, he fails to see revolution being carried out by people like himself, especially a revolution without bloodshed.

A third reason for the lack of information on Gramdan is that even in this early stage of development it has been seen by some expert observers as a movement destined to be the force responsible for changing the entire social and political structure of Indian society. The fact is that it is not a movement merely trying to change the ownership of land from one holder to the other, from the rich to the poor. The Establishment cannot afford to be interested in this gentle revolution because it knows that Gramdan is a movement endeavouring to lay the foundations of a new social order free from the frustrations and dehumanising processes so characteristic of our present industrial society. If it becomes a real force it will cut the roots of the present system, and the Establishment recognises in this eighteen-year-old movement a potential threat to its own existence.

Most of the great revolutions have failed miserably to eliminate the evils against which they were carried out. The “great societies” which have come into existence after these revolutions and which claim to be the spearheads of democracy, equality, freedom, socialism and similar values, having accumulated colossal amounts of wealth and instruments of both construction and destruction, lack the very values they purport to sustain. They treat their citizens as material for manipulation. They throw a great many of their citizens into ghettos and prisons for the crime of being black or of not agreeing with the policy of the regimes. The result is that they have become sick societies generating mistrust, fear, hatred and violence. The crucial point hangs on the question of “ends and means.” Can destructive means bring constructive ends? Experience gained up to now clearly shows that they cannot, because the end is pre-existent in the means. Violent and forcible means cannot build a peaceful and spontaneously creative society. The concept of Gramdan provides India with a new revolutionary means in which the end manifests itself at every step taken towards reaching it.

The doctrine of Gramdan consists of three elements: education, trusteeship, and Satyagraha.

Once it is realised that violent means cannot create the necessary climate for a change of attitude, education becomes the major instrument in the hands of the revolutionary. After he came out of prison in 1944, Gandhi declared that the most valuable contribution he had made was his new system of education, which he called Nai Talim, and which he visualised as the true means of transforming society.

The second principle is the hardest to understand, particularly for those who believe in equal distribution of wealth. If the principle of equal distribution has to be practised nonviolently, the idea of the wealthy being dispossessed of their wealth by physical force is out of the question. What then should be done to establish a classless society? Gandhi’s doctrine of trusteeship is a possible answer. As soon as the idea is adopted for practice, the gap between the wealthy and poor starts diminishing. At the same time, the foundation of those values is laid which are essential to the ultimate objective; a just equitable social order. “Trusteeship provides a means of transforming the present capitalistic order of society into an egalitarian one. It gives no quarter to capitalism but gives the present owning class a chance of reforming itself. It is based on the faith that human nature is never beyond redemption. It does not recognise any right of private ownership of property except in as much as it may be permitted by society for its own welfare. It does not exclude legislation of the ownership and use of wealth.” This statement I have taken from a document on trusteeship prepared by some of Gandhi’s colleagues and approved by him.

The third element of Gramdan is that of Satyagraha. Satyagraha ought to be understood as a whole programme. Gramdan itself is the positive side of Satyagraha. Building a society based on equal sharing cannot be anything else but Satyagraha for equal sharing is possible only through the insistence on the truth, or Satyagraha (holding to the truth). The other aspect of Satyagraha involves non-cooperation and civil disobedience, which will be the sanction of the village community. To quote Gandhi, “Real swaraj [self-rule] will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when abused. In other words, swaraj is to be obtained by educating the people to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.” At a time when the individual is being completely stripped of his role and power of influencing decisions and sharing responsibility, injecting the capacity and strength in the individual to “regulate and control authority” is most urgently needed.

Although the Gramdan Movement has not yet developed the third element, Satyagraha, it is evident that it will either do so or cease to be a revolutionary force. I like to think that this aspect will develop when Gramdan becomes a real challenge to authority and to the centralised forces. It hardly need be said that this gentle revolution will be worth its name only if it poses a real threat to the Establishment, a greater threat than that posed by violent revolutions. Gramdan must become a challenge to the powerful military-industrial complex, which is the dream of the Indian planners today.

An important point about the Gramdan Movement in its present stage is that the revolution is still theoretical. To claim that a revolution has taken place in Indian society and that 100,000 villages have transformed themselves into village republics would do more harm than good to the Movement. On the other hand, to minimise the political and social significance and its impact on people who have experienced growth and change in their environment, however small the impact may be, would only be turning a blind eye to what seems to be the last chance to save Indian society from social and moral disintegration.

It is certainly true that outside its circle few people talk about Gramdan and still fewer know anything of substance about it. Nonetheless, there is a greater truth, which is expressed in D. R. Gadgil’s words, “Only one experiment of nonviolent transformation and reorientation of the economic order is under way, that is Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan-Gramdan Movement. If a decentralised and broadly autonomous economic order can be evolved, it will take us safely through the horns of the dilemma of disparities versus dictatorship. This seems to be the broad conceptual background behind the Bhoodan-Gramdan Movement.”

The Gramdan Movement should be understood against the background of the destruction of human values by the rapid growth of technology and its threat to the future of mankind. In this small publication [the essays of which follow], we have tried to present the different aspects of the Movement. In this presentation of Gramdan’s ideological and historical background, its political objectives and techniques and a few examples of the human reconstruction of the villages, it is hoped that readers will find a balanced picture of what is intended by Vinoba and his many thousand companions engaged in this great experiment. If it proves of some value, we shall be gratified.

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


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

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: Devi Prasad (1921-2011) was a studio potter, peace activist and artist. In 1969, at the time that this article was written, he was acting director of WRI. As a child he was educated at Rabindranath Tagore’s school at Shantiniketam, and in 1944 Gandhi invited him to his ashram at Sevagram to teach pottery. Besides spinning cotton and weaving cloth (khadi), the most famous of Gandhi’s methods of self-sufficiency, Gandhi also valued and encouraged the learning of all the crafts, and insisted they be included in his education system. Our thanks to WRI, and especially Christine Schweitzer, for their 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