The Village and the Nation

(March 8, 1908, On Nationalism, pp. 274-276)

WE WROTE yesterday of the necessity of going back to the land if the Bengali Hindu is to keep his place in the country and escape the fate of those who divorce themselves from the root of life, the soil. But there is another aspect of the question which is also of immense importance. The old organisation of the Indian village was self-sufficient, self-centred, autonomous and exclusive. These little units of life existed to themselves, each a miniature world of its own petty interests and activities; like a system of planets united to each other indeed by an unconscious force but each absorbed in its own life and careless of the other. It was a life beautifully simple, healthy, rounded and perfect, a delight to the poet and the lover of humanity. If perfect simplicity of life, freedom from economic evils, from moral degradation, from the strife, faction and fury of town populations, from revolution and turmoil, from vice and crime on a large scale are the objects of social organisation, then the village communities of India were ideal forms of social organisation. Many look back to them with regret and even British administrators who were instrumental in destroying them have wished that they could be revived. So valuable indeed were the elements of social welfare which they secured to the nation, that they have persisted through all changes and revolutions as they were thousands of years ago when the Aryans first occupied the land. Nor can it be denied that they have kept the nation alive. Whatever social evils or political diseases might corrupt the body politic, these little cells of national life supplied a constant source of soundness and purity which helped to prevent final disintegration. But if we owe national permanence to these village organisations, it cannot be denied that they have stood in the way of national unity.

Wherever a nation has been formed, in the modern sense, it has been at the expense of smaller units. The whole history of national growth is the record of a long struggle to establish a central unity by subduing the tendency of smaller units to live to themselves. The ancient polity of Greece was the self realisation of the city as an unit sufficient to itself while the deme or village was obliged to sacrifice its separate existence to the greater unity of the city-state. Because the Greeks could not find it in their hearts to break the beautiful and perfect mould of their self-sufficient city life, they could never weld themselves into a nation. So again it was not till the Romans had subdued the tendency of the Italian cities to live to themselves, that the first European nation was created. In mediaeval times the city-state tried to reassert itself in the Municipalities of France and Germany and municipal freedom had to be blotted out by an absolute monarchy before national unity was realised. Whenever a smaller or different unity, whether it be that of the province, the church or feudal fief, tends to live for itself, it is an obstacle to national unity and has to be either broken up or subordinated if the nation is to fulfil its unity. Ancient India could not build itself into a single united nation, not because of caste or social differences as the European writers assert, caste and class have existed in nations which achieved a faultless national unity, but because the old polity of the Hindus allowed the village to live to itself, the clan to live to itself, the province or smaller race-unit to live to itself. The village, sufficient to itself, took no interest in the great wars and revolutions which affected only the ruling clans of the kingdom including it in its territorial jurisdiction. The Kshatriya clans fought and married and made peace among themselves, and were the only political units out of which a nation might have been built. But the clan too was so attached to its separate existence that it was not till the clans were destroyed on the battlefield of Kurukshetra that larger national units could be built out of their ruins. Small kingdoms took their place based on provincial or racial divisions and until the inrush of foreign peoples an attempt was in progress to build them into one nation by the superimposition of a single imperial authority. Many causes prevented the success of the attempt, and the provincial unit has always remained the highest expression of the nation-building tendencies in India. One cause perhaps more than any other contributed to the failure of the centripetal tendency to attain self-fulfilment, and that was the persistence of the village community which prevented the people, the real nation, from taking any part in the great struggles out of which a nation should have emerged. In other countries the people had to take part in the triumphs, disasters and failures of their rulers either as citizens or at least as soldiers, but in India they were left to their little isolated republics with no farther interest than the payment of a settled tax in return for protection by the supreme power. This was the true cause of the failure of India to achieve a distinct organised and self-conscious Nationality. It is worthy of notice that the Indian race in which the national idea attained its most conscious expression and most nearly attained realisation, was the Maratha people who drew their strength from the village democracies and, brought them to interest themselves in the struggle for national independence. If the Marathas had been able to rise above the idea of provincial or racial separateness, they would have established a permanent empire and neither of the Wellesleys could have broken their power by diplomacy or in the field. The British, historians have told us, conquered India in a fit of absence of mind. In a fit of absence of mind also they destroyed the separate life of our village communities, and, by thus removing the greatest obstacle in the way of national development, prepared the irresistible movement towards national unity which now fills them with dismay. The provinces have been brought together, the village has been destroyed. It only remains for the people to fulfil their destiny. We are now turning our eyes again to the village under the stress of an instinct of self-preservation and part of our programme is to re-create village organisation. In doing so we must always remember that the village can be so organised as to prove a serious obstacle to national cohesion. One or two of our leading publicists have sometimes expressed themselves as if our salvation lay in the village and not in the larger organisation of the nation. Swaraj has been sometimes interpreted as a return to the old conditions of self-sufficient village life leaving the imperial authority to itself, to tax and pass laws as it pleased ignored because it is too strong to be destroyed. Even those who see the futility of ignoring Government which seeks to destroy every centre of strength, however minute, except itself, sometimes insist on the village as the secret of our life and ask us to give up our ambitious strivings after national Swaraj and realise it first in the village. Such counsel is dangerous, even if it were possible to follow it. Nothing should be allowed to distract us from the mighty ideal of Swaraj, National and Pan-Indian. This is no alien or exotic ideal, it is merely the conscious attempt to fulfil the great centripetal tendency which has pervaded the grandiose millenniums of her history, to complete the work which Srikrishna began, which Chandragupta and Asoka and the Gupta Kings continued, which Akbar almost brought to realisation, for which Shivaji was born and Bajirao fought and planned. The organisation of our villages is an indispensable work to which we must immediately set our hands, but we must be careful so to organise them as to make them feel that they are imperfect parts of a single national unity, and dependent at every turn on the co-operation first of the district, secondly of the province, and finally of the nation. The day of the independent village or group of villages has gone and must not be revived; the nation demands its hour of fulfilment and seeks to gather the village life of its rural population into a mighty, single and compact democratic nationality. We must make the nation what the village community was of old, self-sufficient, self-centred, autonomous and exclusive the ideal of national Swaraj.