Hind Swaraj Discourses and Study Camps: Story of Experiences

We have conducted more than a dozen three to five day discourse among variety of participants. It is an ongoing campaign. Whoever is interested or inspired is most welcome to contact Swaraj Peeth. Only a few random experiences are given here in brief.


“If I have to Choose…”

“If I have to make a choice today  between Dahammapad and Hind Swaraj, I will chose Hind Swaraj”, declared prof Samdhong Rinpoche, one of the most revered Budhhist lama and Kalon Tripa – Prime Minister – of  His Holiness Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government –in-Exile, staesman and philosopehr. He was speaking at the first Hind Swaraj study camp, November 22-24, 2001, in Dharamsala, to inaugurate the Centenary of Hind Swaraj  programmes by Swaraj Peeth Trust. It was a group of senior Tibetan activists and leaders organized by Friends of Tibet. For Prof. Rinpoche’s  to say such a thing has since then inspired many within the Tibetan movement, Gandhian movement and in scholarly and other circles here and abroad to study Hind Swaraj.

For a high Budhist lama of his stature, attainment and scholarship to make such a statement is though extra ordinary, it speaks of the centrality of Hind Swaraj in the vision of Tibetan freedom struggle. Tibetans are a struggling nation. The youth dream freedom.  It has been an important exercise among the activist leaders of the Tibetan movement to explore the real meaning of freedom in terms of Swaraj; ‘rangwang’ in Tibetan.

Frequent discourses and debates on Hind Swaraj among the Tibetan youth has not only generated deep commitment to this vision, today it is among the Tibetans that Hind Swaraj is alive as a nation’s guiding vision.  Hind Swaraj since then has become a regular feature among Tibetan leadership and activists. A revised Tibetan version of Hind Swaraj was released by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the occasion of the Hind Swaraj International Centenary Conference organized by Swaraj Peeth in November 2009.

Following this, FoT spread out to all the settlements of Tibetans all over India to organise Hind Swaraj camps and distributed hundreds of its copies. In one of the study camps, the participants, while reading and interpreting Hind Swaraj, replaced reference to ‘India’ with ‘Tibet’ and ‘British’ or ‘England’ with ‘People’s Republic of China (PRC)’.  With this change, they said the entire text of Hind Swaraj, except for the mention of certain historical events and names, exactly talks about  the Tibetan situation, Tibetan vision Tibetan path.


“Gandhiji  Wrote On Our Behalf”

I was facing an almost exclusively women’s group for the first time since we started Hind Swaraj study Camps. It was June 2002 at Kausani in Uttarakhand. We sat on the floor in rectangular fashion so that every one faced everyone and the speaker. I could see on their faces a certain passive reluctance. Lakshmi Ashram was established by Mahatma Gandhi’s English disciple Sarla bahen for promoting women’s education on Gandhian lines.

I introduced Hind Swaraj by exploring the meaning of the term ‘mukti’ or liberation. Uttarakhand being a land of Himalayas, the Ganges and high pilgrim places, has a  sacred self-image. When I explained how the Mahatma related ‘bhakti’ — devotion – with ‘mukti’— liberation — and  chose the path of national service, which,  he said “…was his training for the liberation of his soul from the bondage of the flesh,” participants had a lot to say how they understood ‘liberation’. Taking example of anti-liquor campaigns they analyzed it in its political, economic, social and moral dimensions. Spirituality is what makes individual and society moral. This brought us to the central theme of Hind Swaraj. What do we mean by ‘freedom’, ‘independence’ ‘sovereignty’, ‘autonomy’, ‘liberation’ and ‘swaraj’. Participation became spontaneous.

After the first session a middle aged lady, Vimla bahen, remarked that they “had expected a usual boring, repetitive, cliché-ridden  Gandhian discourse;  that is why they were very passive and reluctant. But it was just when, at the beginning, you asked us what we understood by ‘Swa’  – we thought this was different. “You spoke our language”.

As the post-lunch session started, they asked me if I can extend the sessions for one more day; four instead of three days!

It was educative to learn how close the meaning of the each line of Hind Swaraj’s was to them. They did not laugh at Gandhiji’s attack on railways, doctors and lawyers, much less on Parliament.  They could grasp the inner meaning of it all . Every one, like earlier groups, wanted Hind Swaraj discourse in their villages. Kavita  of Dhaniya said “It was not a religious language, nor a political, it was Mahatmaji’s language of our culture and our dharma…”  Gayatribahen  thought that “ the uniqueness of Gandhiji’s Hind

Swaraj was that it is not talking of any one aspect of life as separated from others.”  Parvati Keda wrote “There must be a continuous dialogue in our society on Hind Swaraj…Good thoughts came to my mind after reading it, because Gandhiji made nonviolence and power of Satyagraha the weapon of God containing trust and love…In order to better serve our society we must develop a better understanding of Gandhiji’s thought and Hind Swaraj…I will study this book again and again and promote its study”.

Throughout four-and-a-half days it was most enjoyable because of the lively, informal and spontaneous participation and discussions in which everyone would get involved. Chandra bahen remarked as she finished her part of the reading “If I knew writing, I would have written similarly. When we read other books we don’t feel that the author is writing on our behalf; but here, Gandhiji is writing on our behalf…”

One of the three male participants, Munna Joshi, working at Lakshmi Ashram read out a poem he composed during these days inspired by the experience ! Nima Vaishnav, the Director of the place, herself a student of Gandhian thought, later told me that even after three months their colleagues and students were talking about the Hind Swaraj study camp. It has created strong sense of sharing a common vision and purpose, which is so crucial for us. “It has infused new life in our work” she said.


“ We Don’t See Our Self-Image in Modern India”

They were  Kohl tribal in a four day study camp organized  by social worker Shri Shamshad khan in September of  Sept 2002 at village Sukada, Dist Mirzapur in eastern Uttar Pradesh and adjacent to Sonbhadra district known for Naxalism. Hind Swaraj was introduced in the first session in the light of the problem of justice and dignity that the tribal people face. A question was raised about what is it that can protect their rights and dignity. Corollary to that the question of comparative and seeming advantages of the violence as against nonviolence came up.  At the root of the issue of protection of dignity, as pointed out by “Pradhanji”, a semi-literate Muslim gentleman and Chief of the village Panchayat, was the question of their own self-identity as a peasant community. He was supported by the entire group of more than 60 men and women (about fifty men and ten women) in one voice. It set the tone for exploring the meaning of ‘Swa-raj’ with reference to meaning of essential identity; and the ones that we acquire. The discourse became easy and intense in the company of people who understood the meaning of moral self-identity. To the question “do you see your self-image in the image of modern India” the spontaneous answer was a “No”. This is what Hind Swaraj essentially explores through defining the meaning of civilization. Everyone was intensely riveted to the discussion on civilization as defined by Gandhiji in Hind Swaraj. That appealed to their moral, political, intellectual and spiritual understanding of self, duty or “dharma” and “swadharma” as the immutable Law of Being; society and harmonious co-living.

Next day a lady, about thirty, came over to the front row; and, before we began, she stood up to say that she wanted to say something. “I didn’t come yesterday. I work here with small hand operated tool and make jute ropes. I could not hold back as I was told you were speaking about our dignity, culture and honor. I want to sit in the front because I can’t write and take notes as many of you are doing. But I have powerful brain and I will register every word there.” The assembly welcomed her with a big clap. Pradhanji became so involved that on occasions he would respond quoting from Ramayana, Mahabharat and  Qurran. As a young man he always took part in Ramleela. Everyday the number of participants would swell as they would bring their neighbours and friends. Hind Swaraj  gave them insight into understanding the changes around them that they thought were sinful, unjust and immoral, but would not have courage to say so. “Gandhiji speaks for us” and also shows our weaknesses.  “The inward and the outward are not two separate struggles” said an elderly man.


Now we know Gandhi was our man; not Birla’s agent as we were taught”

In Simultala the study camp, 13-16 Sept 2003, was organized by Gram Bharti Ashram, one of the well known Sarvodaya rural institution in Bihar run by a very dedicated and powerful couple, Shri Shivanand Bhai and Sarala Bahen Jha. They have invested more than four decades in this area. For past couple of years the forest and the entire tribal area has come under the grip of Naxalism. In the midst of the forest about one hundred fifty representative of Gram Sabha (the Sarvodaya village councils) assembled for a two and a half day Hind Swaraj discourses. Within the period of past one and a half month at least three major incidents of violence, ambush and encounters had occured in  Simultala and the villages from where these one hundred fifty men and women came. About two months back, around hundred men and women alighted from a local train at Simultala station, walked up to the police station in the little bazaar of across the railway station, attacked it, set fire to it and disappeared in the jungle with some guns.

It was in the midst of this environment that we had gathered to talk about Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and nonviolence. On the very first morning when I had just began explaining what ‘Swa’ of the Swaraj means, Budhni Devi, a harijan lady who cleaned my room in the morning, sitting right in my front, very clean and alert, could not hold herself back. She got up and said “what you are talking is contained in my “Guru Mantra”. I cannot pass on this Guru Mantra to anyone else, but to you I will surely tell what it is!” This lady later told me how her Guru had taught her about what is the physical self, the body, and what is the mind and how we are all one; even the animals and vegitation” It was my turn here to learn what profound urge and understanding this lady had, though this was my most common experience throughout my communication with participants in all these Hind Swaraj discourses across various sections.

This was one of my most memorable camps. When, on the third day evening everyone had left, Shivanand Bhai told me that a small group of six naxalite leaders of the area had mingled incognito with the participants. At the end of the camp they came up to one of them and revealed their identity. They had something to tell. “We had never known that Gandhi was our man. We were only told that in order to look like one of us he put on  loin cloth and went bare bodied, drank goat milk; but he was Birla’s man. Now we know that he fought for our dignity and justice. We have not taken to guns because we like to kill people. We have taken to guns because we want to protect our honor and livelyhood. We realize that nonviolenc is superior to violence.”

All the participants had collectively expressed their view that Hind Swaraj needs to be taken to all villages in this area because it can really show us a path to deal with our problems of violence. The study of Hind Swaraj has given us an understanding of our reality and the methods of changing it so that we also don’t become like our exploiters and adversary. It is very clear how struggling against exploitation and injustice turns into fight against only the exploiter and not against exploitation as such.  Indradev Bhai explained  “Your talk is firmly established in every one’s heart and mind….. No one till now has talked to us in this language.  Our attention was fixed when you were explaining Swaraj and civilization.   There is so much power in Gandhiji’s words.  We want you to come to each of our villages… our boys and girls are turning to violence…We can see that Hind Swaraj has power to change this lure of violence.”

Representatives of 50 village councils took a decision to follow-up the teachings by standing against the evil of caste and religious discrimination.

These responses created a bond between me and the participants everywhere. For example, in a similar camp at village Karjain, in the Saharsa district of Bihar, a lady came up, held both my hands in her hands and asked if I would become her brother and would visit her village one day!  She had offered satyagraha against cow slaughter under the leadership of Sarla Bahen Jha, laid down before a truck carrying cows to the slaughter house and was, at one point, dragged by the truck.  In Karjain we started in a room of the school; next day we had to shift to the varandah as the attendance had risen from 30  odd to more than a hundred with about 50 women as some of the enrolled participants went back to their villages to have their friends and neighbours  the “opportunity to listen to something which was neither a political, nor religious or a spiritual discourse as they know; but it was all in one..” . Third day almost half of the Karjain was there and we were moved from verandah to the compound. My host Haribabu, who has been host to Vinobaji and Jai Prakashji during their movements, said, he had shelved Hind Swaraj long long back. He took it out again with a new meaning.


Swaraj Peeth invites you to join this most encouraging, revealing and meaningful journey for our self renewal.