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Gandhi’s Swadeshi & A Dream of Self-Sufficiency

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.

The Magnes Collection Documents Jewish Art & Life From India

(Featured Image: Amulet for the protection of pregnant women and newborn children. Collected in Kochi, Kerala, India. Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Spanish, Hebrew square script)
Hanukkah, celebrated by the Jewish community, resonates very closely with Diwali, the Festival of Lights celebrated by Indics around the world. Triumph over darkness & pursuit of knowledge over ignorance. Hanukkah observance is starting today, December 10th, and will continue for 9 nights. 
At India Currents, we celebrate diversity and inclusion, we’re marking the occasion with a piece on Jewish history from India. Jewish people in India and how their objects traveled around the world chronicle a sense of solidarity between India and Israel. We see it manifesting in friendship between the diaspora in California! We’ve come a long way. Scroll to the bottom to see the video of the Commonwealth SF event on this topic moderated by IC Ambassador, Somanjana Chatterjee.

Since becoming part of the University of California, Berkeley, in 2010, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life has embarked in a multi-year project aimed at unveiling its extensive holdings that document the history of the Jewish community in Kerala, South India, one of the oldest in the world. The collection includes over 1500 items, which are being catalogued, digitally photographed, and displayed in rotating exhibitions.  

Thanks to a dynamic collecting campaign initiated in 1967 by the late Seymour Fromer (1922-2009), in conjunction with Rabbi Bernard Kimmel (1922-1991) and scores of volunteers, The Magnes became one of the world’s most extensive repositories of materials about the Jews of Southern India, taking on an important role in the preservation of their culture alongside the historic Jewish sites in the State of Kerala, as well as national and private collections in Israel, where most of the Kerala Jews settled after the founding of the State in 1948. 

These efforts are by no means the only connection between Kerala and Berkeley. David Mandelbaum (1911-1987), Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley (1946-1978), visited Kerala in 1937 and published a seminal scholarly article about its Jewish community two years later. Walter Fischel (1902-1973), Professor of Semitic Languages and Literature at UC Berkeley (1945-1970) and an authority on the history and culture of the Jewish communities in India, was the only North American scholar invited by the State of Kerala to take part in the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the Paradesi synagogue in 1968. 

Torah Ark of the Tekkumbhagam synagogue (Mattancherry)
Kochi, Kerala, India, 17th-18th centuries

The complete collection housed at The Magnes includes hundreds of ritual objects, textiles, photographs, archival documents, books, manuscripts, liturgical texts, illustrated ketubbot (Jewish marriage contracts), and amulets in Hebrew, Aramaic, Malayalam, Judeo-Spanish, and English. These materials constitute an invaluable source of information on the Kerala Jewish community and its deep connections with India’s society and cultures while also reflecting the global Jewish Diaspora across India, the Middle East, and Europe. Among its most notable items are the Torah Ark from the Tekkumbhagam synagogue in Mattancherry, Kochi, an extremely rare amulet on parchment designed to protect newborn children as well as women in childbirth, and the diaries of Abraham Barak Salem (1882–1967), a lawyer and politician active in the causes of Indian independence and Zionism, and one of the most prominent Cochin Jews of the twentieth century, which provide a vivid account of Jewish life in Kochi throughout the 20th century. 

This project builds on years of curatorial work devoted to assessing and documenting the holdings of The Magnes, in collaboration with experts in Israel and the US. Its aim is to place these important holdings of The Magnes on the global map that historically connects Kerala, Israel, and Berkeley, inaugurating new season of research engagement with the scholarly community at UC Berkeley and beyond, and highlighting an important intersection between Jewish and Asian Studies.


Dr. Francesco Spagnolo is an Associate Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley and the Curator, of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.