What is Swaraj?
The concept of swaraj, or self-rule, was developed during the Indian freedom struggle. In his book Hind Swaraj (1909), Gandhi sought to clarify that the meaning behind swaraj was much more than simply "wanting [systems of] English rule without the Englishman; the tiger's nature but not the tiger." The crux of his argument centered on the belief that the socio-spiritual underpinnings of British political, economic, bureaucratic, legal, military, and educational institutions were inherently unjust, exploitative and alienating. As Pinto explicates, "The principal theme of Hind Swaraj is the moral inadequacy of western civilization, especially its industrialism, as the model for free India." Gandhi was particularly critical of the deeply embedded principles of 'might is right', 'greed is good' and 'survival of the fittest'.
On another level, the call for swaraj represents a genuine attempt to reclaim the 'self' - our self-respect, self-responsibility, and capacities for self-definition and self-realization - from narratives and institutions of dehumanization and domination. As Gandhi states, "It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves." The real goal of the freedom struggle was not only to secure political azadi (independence) from Britain, but rather to gain true swaraj (liberation, localization and self-rule).
"For Gandhi writing Hind Swaraj in 1909, to think about ‘swaraj’ meant not just to address the obvious historical circumstance of British colonial rule over India, but also to meditate upon the larger question of why the West – by which he meant capitalism, industrialism, imperialism and nationalism – had come to dominate the world."
Gandhi wanted all those who believed in swaraj: (1) to reject and wholly uproot the British raj (colonized rule and colonized mind) from within themselves and their communities; and, (2) to regenerate new reference points, systems, and structures that enable individual and collective self-development. This regeneration was to grow from the strengths, perspectives, wisdom and experiences of people living in village India, rather than from cities in Britain, America, and even in India for that matter. Understanding the expanded 'Self', and its relation to communities and nature, is critical to the project of attaining swaraj.
"Swaraj literally means self-rule. We can expand upon this to explore it more fully as awareness of the self, mastery of the self, expansion of the self, and harmony of the self. It is an invitation to a deeper consciousness about who we really are and why we have come to this earth."
~ Manish Jain
How is this relevant for us today? We feel that South Asia (along with the rest of the world) is experiencing a tremendous crisis, one overwhelming in its scale and pace of growth. While it is easy to get caught up in the symptoms of this crisis (the brutal violence, the enormous inequities, the extinction of cultures and languages, the degradation of the environment), it is equally, if not more, important to understand its roots. We must creatively analyze the content and the consequences of our current economic, political, social, and educational systems, without reverting to a romanticized past of so-called 'untouched', pure or pristine traditions. At the same time, we must be aware of the overwhelming global efforts to romanticize the modern, urban, white, patriarchal, technological way of life.
From these critical reflections and experiments, we must generate new spaces, tools, systems, and processes -- which can lead us out of the global self-destruction which engulfs us. Doing more of the same or spreading/scaling up more of the same is no longer good enough. As we step forward, we must also be willing to unlearn and re-negotiate our own identities, roles and conditioned frameworks, while asking ourselves whether we are either working on the roots of the problem or just contributing to making the crisis worse. Thus, today, we recognize the cosmovision of swaraj integral to three parallel prototype-reflection-reimagination agendas for the 21st century:
"Four major features, articulated in the form of contradictions, are critical to Hind Swaraj: (a) contradiction between competition and cooperation: competition is the engine of capitalism while cooperation is just reverse; (b) antithesis between nature and machinery; alienation of labour; moral aspect of production which is not possible in industrial capitalism; (c) consumerism/consumption vs. self-denial of ‘comfort’/ austerity and avoidance of self-indulgence (d) statism versus non-state agents (non-political process)."
~ Bidyut Chakrabarty