Vinoba Bhave’s Gramdan Movement

by Siddharaj Dhadda

Vinoba Bhave on a Gramdan march; courtesy

Way back in 1951, the Telangana region, of what is now the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh, was seething with agrarian discontent. Vinoba [Bhave] started a walking tour of the area. Every day he went from one village to another, meeting people, talking to them and trying to understand their problems. On 18th April, three days after he had started from Hyderabad, Vinoba arrived in the village of Pochampally. As usual he went from house to house hearing the grievances of the people. Narrating their tales of woe, the poor, landless labourers asked him to give them some land so that they could eke out their existence. At the afternoon gathering, Vinoba pleaded for the landless and asked if some landowner would come forward with some land to be given to the poor. Moved by their plight, and the appeal of Vinoba, Ramachandra Reddy, a local landowner, immediately announced a gift of 100 acres of land.

As Vinoba said later, that night he was sleepless. He went over the day’s events again and again. He saw the message underlying it. Mal-distribution of land was, and continues to be, one of the major problems in almost all Asian countries. China had to use force to solve this problem. In Japan, General Douglas MacArthur intervened through legislation. Perhaps India could show a third way, the way of love, compassion, and nonviolence!

On the following morning Vinoba walked to the next village. The plight of the landless was the same there, and everywhere. He narrated the story of Reddy’s gift and repeated the appeal for land donation. And a donor readily came forward. This confirmed Vinoba in his conviction that with sincerity and effort economic and social injustices could be remedied through nonviolence. From that day forward Vinoba went about asking for land donations. Thus was born one of the largest movements of post-independent India, the Land Gift, or Bhoodan Movement. [See Glossary at the end for an explanation of Hindi terms.] Over 4 million acres of land throughout India was collected during the next decade through voluntary donations. Nearly 2 million of this has already been distributed to more than half a million landless families. The importance of this achievement will be apparent when it is remembered that all the various legislative measures adopted by the State Governments throughout India during the twenty years since independence in June 1947 have not been able to secure the transfer of even half as much land into the hands of the landless.

But providing land to the large body of the landless, important as it is, was only a part of the vast problem facing India. Life in her five hundred thousand and eighty thousand villages, which form the backbone of Indian society, was shattered and impoverished through decades of neglect and exploitation. Social and economic inequalities and injustices had cropped up and even been nurtured by the British raj. The task, therefore, was nothing short of reconstructing the whole social and economic fabric of the nation. More important still was the question of the means to achieve this end. The examples of China and Japan have been cited above. Leaving aside the use of violence, even legislation or Governmental action ultimately rests on the sanction of force. Moreover, violence does not rouse the people to action or liberate their energies, which are essential if social objectives are to be achieved through democratic means and if democracy itself is to be preserved. Vinoba visualised the movement in these terms. As he said:

“The discovery of a nonviolent technique for the solution of all our problems is my chief concern. The land problem is a basic problem not only for India but also for many Asian countries . . . Seeking a solution of the land problem is not my only objective. I am more concerned with the nonviolent technique that comes into play in this movement. I want the movement to be viewed from this angle and in this Spirit.” (Address to the All India Congress Committee at Brahmpur, 9. 5. 55)

Even while asking for land donations, Vinoba made it clear from the very beginning that his demand did not end there. It was only a means to make people realise that life is a co-operative venture and can be based only on mutual sharing, help and love, and not on conflict and competition. The beginning was made with land because it was easy to understand that land could not belong to the individual. It was a gift of nature and as such belonged to God or to the community as representing Him. It was expected to set the pattern for organising the entire life of the community.

Birth of Gramdan

Bhoodan, or the collection of land-gifts, was only the first step. As Vinoba himself said, “The first step in the movement was that no person should be left landless in the village. The last is that there should be no ‘land-owner’ in the village. All land should belong to the Community.” The very fact that the next move in this revolutionary process was taken by the rather unexpected and spontaneous action of the people themselves showed that the message had gone home. It was just over a year after Telangana. Vinoba was continuing his Bhoodan mission in the northern State of Uttar Pradesh. Wherever he went he was presented with gift-deeds of land for the landless. He had already collected a hundred thousand acres during the year. On May 23rd, Vinoba was passing near a village called Mangroth, when the villagers headed by the landlord, Dewan Shatrughan Singh, met him on the way and presented him with 101 acres of land on behalf of the village. While commending the villagers for their gift, Vinoba repeated a local saying that “all land belongs to Gopal (God).” These words seized the heart and the imagination of Shatrughan Singh. Returning to Mangroth, he called together the villagers and announced that he had decided to donate all his land to Vinoba. The total number of families in Mangroth was 105 out of which 65 owned land, and Shatrughan Singh owned most of it. The remaining 40 families were landless, and 64 out of the 65 families decided to follow the example of Singh. The following day they went to Vinoba at the next camp and presented the gift-deeds of all their lands to him.

Hitherto, Vinoba had been asking the owners to part only with a portion of their land for the sake of the landless. But, now he was confronted with a new situation. The residents of Mangroth had actually donated all their land and everybody was now on the same footing. The vision had come true. The village of Mangroth could now embark on a new life, which would transform the whole social and economic situation. Vinoba asked the people of Mangroth to redistribute the land on an equitable basis and form a Village Assembly (Gram Sabba) to conduct their affairs according to their collective will and judgement.

The way had opened for a reordering of rural society. Gift of Land for the Landless (Bhoodan) now blossomed into the donation of the entire land of the village (Gramdan), nothing short of the voluntary pooling and redistribution of land on an equitable basis.

Vinoba continued to ask for land donations but gradually the emphasis shifted to village donations, that is, to gramdan. The real breakthrough, however, came 3 years later in the State of Orissa. The first Gramdan was achieved there in January 1953. Two years later when Vinoba revisited Orisssa the number of Gramdan villages could still be counted on finger-tips, but when he left the State eight months later for Andhra Pradesh, the number had risen to more than eight hundred. Gramdan gained momentum in other states as well, notably in Bombay (since divided into Gujarat and Maharashtra), Madras, Bihar and Andhra. By the beginning of 1957, the total in all of India had reached 2200. Although in comparison to the total number of villages in India of 580,000, the figure was still very small, it was clear that Gramdan had come to stay. It proved that the first village of Mangroth was not an isolated phenomenon or a freak accident.

In fact, Gramdan had attracted widespread attention by now. Addressing the Development Commissioners’ Conference in April 1957, Prime Minister Nehru observed, “The Bhoodan movement has great significance for what it has achieved and for the new psychology it creates about land and private ownership of land.” In September of the same year a high-level conference was held at Yelwal, Myson State, with Vinoba attending, as well as the President and the Prime Minister of India, other important ministers of the Centre Government, State Chief Ministers and leaders of different political parties including the Congress, the Praja Socialist and the Communists. The participants unanimously agreed on a Statement welcoming the Gramdan Movement. They also agreed that this would lead to fuller development of cooperative life and effort in the villages and create the psychological climate for the solution of the land problem. The Conference took special note of the nonviolent techniques adopted and of the voluntary character of the movement.

However, progress was slow. Gramdan called for a far-reaching sacrifice on the part of the landowners. Attachment to land and property is one of the strong instincts of man. To part with even a small portion was not easy. To completely renounce ownership over land was very difficult. Vinoba realised this. He also knew that a revolution could not come through scattered acts of renunciation. It required mass action even if the program fell a little short of the ideal. Vinoba, therefore, modified the scheme of Gramdan to some extent.

Requirements of Gramdan

Gramdan as it has now evolved consists of the following four requirements:

(1) Private ownership of land is to cease and the title is to be vested in the village community as organised in the Village Assembly (Gram-Sabha).
(2) The landholder would continue to retain possession of the land, to cultivate it and to pass it on in inheritance, but will donate for the landless at least 5% of his holding, or such greater part thereof as decided unanimously by the Assembly. He would not sell or otherwise part with the land except with the permission of the Assembly, and within the village.
(3) A village fund would be constituted into which every family or person will make an annual contribution equivalent to c. 3% or such other part of his total produce or income as decided by the Assembly. Those having neither would contribute proportionate free labour for any work decided upon by the community.
(4) All adults living in the village will constitute the Assembly, which would manage the affairs of the village and would be responsible for the welfare of all. The Assembly will function not on the basis of majority decisions but on the principle of unanimity or consensus.

A village is declared as Gramdan when at least 75% of its residents signify their approval in writing to the above conditions, including a sufficient number of landowners so as to enable at least 51% of the total land belonging to resident owners to be covered under Gramdan.

It will be seen that in this latest scheme while the owner has not to part with all his land, the principle of renunciation of private ownership over land and sharing a portion with the landless has been maintained. Moreover, certain new conditions, like those of the Village Fund and the Village Assembly, have been introduced which complete the basic requirements for the organisation and unity of the village community and for its development. It now provides a comprehensive framework within which the Village Communities, reorganised on the basis of justice, equality, and unity, could function as effective and autonomous units of the Indian Republic.

Vinoba gave a call to the Sarvodaya workers in May 1965 to intensify the movement, and the progress since has been very rapid. The number of Gramdans throughout India is already nearing the one hundred thousand mark out of a total of five hundred eighty thousand villages. Bihar, where Vinoba himself has been concentrating and which has the benefit of the close guidance of Jayaprakash Narayan, is nearing the final stage i.e., when most of the villages in the state will have been brought under Gramdan. Many other states in India have already resolved and made plans to achieve similar results.

What has Gramdan achieved?

The question naturally arises as to what change Gramdan has brought about in those villages opting for it. It may be pointed out that the movement is not one of reform or material development of the villages, but seeks a revolutionary change in the whole outlook and values at present prevailing in society. The first task, therefore, is to create an atmosphere favourable to change. This can only be achieved by carrying the message of change to as many villages as possible, and getting acceptance for it. Formation of the Assembly and other steps towards organisation and development would be taken only after this first stage is completed. Our energies are mainly directed towards completing the progress of obtaining Gramdan, at least in some states if not in the whole of India. Only then could the movement have any impact on state policies.

All the same, many villages have registered striking changes both in material advancement and in the more important sphere of spirit, outlook, and mutual relationship. The Sarva Seva Sangh, the central organisation guiding and coordinating the movement, has carried out many studies, which provide an insight into the working of Gramdans. For example, in the Butlagundu area of the State of Madras (now Tamil Nadu), many village assemblies have been quite active for the last few years. The village of Kanavoipatti chose Gramdan in 1958, almost all the two hundred families participating, and their Assembly now meets once a month. It has organised many voluntary projects in the village such as building a primary school, a nursery school, a temple, quarters for the village worker, etc. It has also organised a milk cooperative, a general cooperative, and a women’s association. Another village in this area was populated with professional criminals! Since Gramdan, however, socio-economic change has taken place. In addition to starting a nursery, a village store, and women’s collective, this village has now organised a court where all disputes are settled. Two years ago during the days of food shortage when high prices prevailed, the villagers decided not to sell their produce outside but conserve it in the village. The community was thus saved from fluctuating prices and food shortages.

These and some other Gramdan villages have been helped in their development efforts by contributions from the War on Want fund. In another Gramdan village in Andhra, the village community started a housing programme giving priority to building houses for widows and the poor through voluntary labour. A Gramdan village in Bihar organised a spinning and weaving centre and has been producing all the cloth it needs for several years now, thus stopping a yearly drain of thousands of rupees from the village. A village in Rajasthan, which usually had a dozen cases pending before the Taluka Court, no longer takes a dispute outside the village. The village president has acquired a reputation for impartiality in settling disputes, and neighbouring villages request his services.

A correct assessment of the movement, however, should be made not so much on the basis of the achievements of certain villages but by its broad social objective. In a recent paper on trends and developments in Indian Society, Dr. D. R. Gadgil, the Deputy Chairman of the Indian Planning Commission, wrote:

“Only one experiment of nonviolent transformation and reorientation of economic order is under way. That is Vinoba’s Bhoodan-Gramdan movement. Undoubtedly, this is a novel experiment . . . If the modern means of production remain in private hands, they lead to a concentration of power; the rich become richer and the poor become poorer . . . On the other hand, if these pass primarily into the hands of the state, the demon of dictatorship raises its head. 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 has no doubt brought new hope into the countryside. The disillusionment of the people during the last twenty years with politicians and politics has provided a favourable atmosphere for the movement. The tasks ahead, however, are formidable. The fight is not only against generations of prejudice and stagnated outlook but also against self-interest and immediate profit. But for a movement, which is purely voluntary and has no official ties, the success, which it has achieved, is indeed noteworthy.

Now let me end this brief discussion with a quote of Vinoba’s that we might all take time to muse on:

“Sarvodaya does not mean good government or majority rule, it means freedom from government. It means decentralisation of power. We want to do away with government and politicians and replace it by a government of the people, based on love, compassion and equality. Decisions should be taken, not by a majority, but by unanimous consent; and they should be carried out by the united strength of the ordinary people of the village . . . There is a false notion abroad in the world that governments are saviours, and that without them we should be lost. People imagine that they cannot do without government. Now I can understand that people cannot do without agriculture, or industries; that they cannot do without love and religion. I can also understand that they cannot do without institutions like marriage and the family. But governments do not come into this category. The fact is that people do not really need a government at all. Governments grow up as a result of certain particular conditions in society. Men have not succeeded in creating a feeling of unity and avoiding divisions; we have not learned fully the art of working together without conflict; so we try to get things done by the power of the state or by punishment what can only be done by educating the community.”

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: Siddharaj Dhadda (1902-2000) was Industry & Commerce Minister of the Government of Rajasthan, and the Chairman of the Rajasthan Village Industries Board. In 1942 he pledged to Gandhi to devote the remaining years of his life to social activities faithful to Gandhi’s Constructive Programme. In his last years he was active in the campaign to secure free water rights for everyone. He is the author of The Gandhian Alternative, Rajghat (India): Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, 1997. 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