Swadeshi in Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking is a moral value and a practice in socio-economics and intrinsically linked to svarāj (self-rule), satyāgraha (truth-force), ahimsa (non-injury), and sarvodaya (welfare for all). 

The British Government in India stood for the capitalists and big business in Britain, and this determined the commercial, industrial and financial policies, such as paying for British war efforts and dispersing her debts. So big Indian industry was not fostered, and instead, exploited India’s immense resources and labor markets.

Gandhi sensed that by patronizing indigenous industry, big and small, work could be made available to the unemployed masses, and thereby they would not be ruthlessly exploited. What was foremost on his mind was the stark poverty of the masses. Gandhi advocated the revival of cottage industry such as khadi, which became the symbol both of the rejection of foreign-manufactured goods and the embracing of indigenous industry in microscale forms, symbolized by the charkha.

In the 1930s, 73% of the population were dependent upon agriculture; other than being engaged in harnessing raw material for the factory mills in England; industrialization could not reach nor benefit the masses. There could be no svarāj unless a way was found to ameliorate the hardship and horrors of the masses. Gandhi’s vision was that of a free India where a mobilized peasantry in the rural area would resist the spread of industrial capitalism and, instead, were empowered toward their own means of production. 

The second divide was internal, namely, the growing urban-rural divide. Urban industrial schemes used the villagers for their cheap labor and raw material. Furthermore, the introduction of urban values, economy, and way of life in the villages led to the destruction of traditional forms of sustenance, way of life, and the values that go with it. Gandhi was keen to free the village economy these yokes. So the idea of progress and reform had to be circumscribed within the context of the rural environment and rural needs, not wants.   

Swadeshi became popular in India after the Partition of Bengal. As Sushila Nayar notes, ‘Gandhiji made a distinction between “political swadeshi” and “genuine Swadeshi”. Political Swadeshi meant an artificial barrier on the flow of goods from one place to another and imposed by political division of the world. It could not contribute to world peace.

Gandhiji felt the need for “genuine Swadeshi” – which meant denying ‘to ourselves the enjoyment of goods not manufactured with our approval and within our knowledge’. Only thus would human beings become fully sensitive to the social repercussions of their transactions, and pave the way for world peace. Gandhi’s appointed economist, the Columbia University-trained J C Kumarappa, called this the ‘economics of peace’ and led the All-India Village Industries Association established by the National Congress in 1934.

C F Andrews with Mahatma Gandhi and Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan, 1925. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The concept of swadeshi coupled with svarāj had a universal appeal outside India.

In the southern parts of America where the descendants of the slaves were searching for a scheme that would empower their industriousness in agriculture and crafting of small goods,  Booker T. Washington, a black social reformer, set up the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in regional Alabama; he learned from Gandhi’s emissary, C F Andrews, how the rural and unemployed work towards self-sustainability in Gandhi’s ashrams. Tuskegee deployed a similar scheme to cultivate skills such as carpentry, printing, brick making, agri-and-pharma culture, soil care, waste management, and home economics. This was an experiment in self-sustainability that drew wide attention across America; two American Presidents visited Tuskegee and helped raise endowments.

In more recent times, African nations such as Botswana and Swaziland have adopted the Swadeshi model.

While I was a Fulbright Scholar in India, I came to realize the realities and hardships of the rural workers who migrate to urban areas for work. They face many challenges, not least in the areas of food security, poverty, literacy, sanitation, health, and immune deficiencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted a large number of precarious and vulnerable families.  Many slum families have lost their livelihoods. Some are gradually trying to recover, and many are forced to sell vegetables or other eatables or take up whatever short-term daily wage labor they are able to garner; while others have returned to native villages and may return when the livelihood prospects improve.

Families who possess food grain storage are able to cope better; however, most have exhausted their grain reserves. Families without grain storage suffer badly during the lockdowns and depend on a supply of free food items from Government or civil society sources. These families run a high risk of facing food insecurity, undernutrition, and non-immunity against the rapid spread of COVID-19 in regional areas. 

It is obvious that tradition meets with difficulties when it attempts to negotiate the demands of a democratic, open, and pluralistic modernist society. A holistic and de-hierarchized model of life and the world, where duties, roles, and functions are stressed within an overarching order of right, is a better model when social and moral ideals –  such as freedom, justice, and equality –  are relativized to this larger order.

As Gandhi stressed, ‘Economics is untrue which disregards moral values. This extension of the law of nonviolence in the domain of economics means nothing less than the introduction of moral values. I use the adjective moral as synonymous with spiritual.’ 

In the Gandhian model of economics:  exploitation is replaced by service; acquisitiveness by renunciation or minimalism; global by the local; and centralization by self-regulation. ‘The economic system, politically nonviolent and democratic, should be cooperative and constructive instead of [being] exclusive, competitive, and militant.’  Gandhi eschewed reliance on luxurious and superfluous goods and the entertainment fetishism that provides no moral or intellectual succor and does not help with the development of character.  This does not preclude public utilities on larger-scale plans nor centralized and capital-intensive public services for other needs, provided there is a measure of balance with small-scale, labor-intensive, decentralized, and village- or community-based service portals that provide for the diverse needs of human beings and animals in a protected ecological environment. 

There have been a few bold thinkers who have delved into moral and legal texts in order to distill ideas into what the Kolkata-based theorist S. K. Chakraborty has dubbed “Spiri-nomics” (shorthand for “spirituality” + “economics”). This is a timely scheme, making an impact on India’s management and business arenas. 

Milton Singer offered valuable insight. In looking for new spiritual incentives to help modernize India’s economy, he commented: In their indigenous ‘materialism,’ as well as in their philosophy of renunciation, interpreted by Gandhi as a discipline of action in the service of others, may reside the psychological and moral motive forces needed for a democratic and nonviolent industrial development of India. Gandhi sought to lay the basis for redistribution of wealth that would be consistent with a sacrificial moral order (ṛta/dharma) of the cosmos.

Where to with ātmanirbhar bhārat abhiyān? 

Today, India as a hub of outsourcing for foreign corporations holds some promises, but there are also issues. The new Indian entrepreneurship might not augur well for swadeshi; perhaps it may when redirected by the dynamic spirit of atmanirbhar abhiyān. But if the Gandhian principles and experience of Swadeshi are not followed it may end up rehearsing the old pattern of dominance in the race towards globalization, both economic and political.

Even as India’s global outreach brings its GDP growth rate close to 6.0 percent, there is a lack of adequate infrastructure for proper redistribution and utilization of state funds toward microsocial programs and empowerment for the precariously disadvantaged. The bureaucracy given to excessive red tape and middle-management, impacts on helpless farmers (who have been taking themselves to suicide), also on women farmers, or the powerless vegetable vendor in the local market. As the Berkeley economist, Pranab Bardhan, points out, this is India’s postcolonial tragedy, in contrast to China’s much better-organized infrastructure and distribution systems. 

Dr. Purushottama Bilimoria is a Research Fellow with the Center for Dharma Studies, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley; a visiting professor of the University of California; and a Principal Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is co-Editor-in-Chief of ​Journal of Dharma Studies.