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Gandhi Jayanti: Two Occasions When Mahatma Gandhi Identified Himself as a ‘Farmer’

Born in a family of princely states’ high officials, Gandhi had no knowledge about farmers. His first brush with farming was in South Africa. While the rich ‘farmers’ were trying to benefit from several government schemes and/or getting exemptions, the London-educated barrister, Gandhi, wanted to associate himself with the real India — the country of villages and farmers.

Ayushi Raina
Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi Jayanti is celebrated every year on 2nd October to honor Mahatma Gandhi for his invaluable contributions to India's freedom struggle. But not many are aware of the connection that Mahatma Gandhi had with agriculture.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, like many rich and famous people in post-independence India, declared himself a farmer, albeit only on paper. While the rich 'farmers' tried to take advantage of various government schemes and/or gain exemptions, Gandhi, a London-educated barrister, wanted to connect himself with the real India — the country of villages and farmers. As farmers protest against the Narendra Modi government's farm laws in India, it's important to grasp Gandhi's perspective on farmers.

Gandhi had described himself as a farmer and weaver by occupation in a special court in Ahmedabad during the famous sedition trial of 1922. In November 1929, he issued the following declaration for the Navjivan Trust in Ahmedabad.

Gandhi's first foray into farming

Gandhi had nothing to do with farming until he moved to South Africa. He had no understanding of farming or farmers because he was born into a family of senior officials from princely states. His first foray into farming occurred in South Africa. In 1904 a vegetarian friend, Henry Polak, introduced Gandhi to John Ruskin's book Unto This Last. In the book, Gandhi saw "some of his innermost convictions mirrored." One of the most important lessons Gandhi gleaned from the book was that a life of labour. The life of a tiller of the soil and a craftsman is life worth living.”

Though Mahadev Desai's English translation does not include the word "farmer," Gandhi's original Gujarati text mentions the word khedut (a farmer) for the "tiller of the soil" – the same phrase he used decades later in the visitors' book at Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

His own farming experience began in 1904 at the Phoenix settlement, 21 miles from Johannesburg. It began as a community living experiment based on the teachings of Unto This Last and the idea of bread labour in mind. Mornings in Phoenix were often devoted to farm work as well as domestic responsibilities, and Gandhi would join others.

Gandhi’s association India with farmers

Hind Swaraj (1909) was Gandhi's first major work that fully articulated his worldview and critique of modern civilization. Gandhi (‘The Editor' in the book) informed ‘The Reader' in its original Gujarati writing: “In your perspective, India means a few princes. To me, it implies millions of farmers who rely on the survival of its princes and our own.” In the same response, he praised farmers for already practicing Satyagraha. “Farmers have never been and will never be conquered by the sword. They don't know how to handle a sword and aren't frightened of others using one.... Farmers and the general public have generally used Satyagraha in their own and the state's interests.

After returning to India and touring the country, Gandhi realised that "an Ashram without it (agriculture) is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark." (Navjivan, Ahmedabad, Ashram Observances in Action, page 91) Agricultural operations were initiated at the Satyagraha Ashram in Ahmedabad on the idea of Maganlal Gandhi, but Gandhi was "afraid that it might distract" their focus from other vital matters. With his reservations, he thought: "No farming, no Ashram: for it must cultivate its own vegetables and fruits as far as feasible."

Farmers should be the ‘Congress’

Before the Dandi March (1930), the majority of Gandhi's Satyagraha movements were directly devoted to farmer issues: Champaran, Kheda, Borsad, and Bardoli. However, he was opposed to mixing politics with farmer's issues. Noting the importance and sheer number of farmers in the country's working hands, Gandhi stated, "The Kisans should be the Congress." But they are not.  When they become aware of their nonviolent strength, no force on Earth can stand in their way.”

The Congress was the symbol of political representation back then. It should now include all political parties.

Gandhi, as someone who understood farmers' difficulties, was opposed to exploiting them for power politics. He said, "The key of success rests in an unwillingness to use the kisans for political reasons beyond their own personal and felt concerns," citing the success of his campaigns in Champaran, Kheda, Bardoli, and Borsad. He also cautioned against utilizing the name of the Congress for people who work for farmers but do not believe in nonviolence.

Gandhi's assumed identity as a farmer stayed intact till the end of his life. When he visited The Bhandarkar Oriental Institute of Research in Puna in September 1945, accompanied by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, he wrote “Khedut” (a farmer) in the visitor book column. 

Sardar Patel who was always more keen on his identity as a farmer than a barrister, definitely followed Gandhi's lead.

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