The Indian Constitution has at times been criticised for its stark departure from Gandhian principles. Mohandas Gandhi was an advocate of decentralised governance – a contrast to the top-down structure established by the Constitution.
The Indian Constitution has created an asymmetric federal system with a strong Centre but disempowered local governments. The political and administrative system has created barriers between the citizens and the state.
How did India’s Constitution come to have such un-Gandhian roots? What would a Gandhian constitution look like?
India’s Constitution – adopted in January 1948, two years after Gandhi’s assassination – was framed without his direct involvement. In November 1948, as the Constituent Assembly was finalising the Constitution, Arun Chandra Guha from Bengal voiced his dissatisfaction with the outcome. He contended that there was no trace of the Congress or a Gandhian outlook in the draft.
Gandhi had supported a pyramidal structure, with village panchayats at its base. But according to BR Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Constitution, villages were “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism” and the cause of India’s ruination. Asserting that a strong Centre was essential for India, Ambedkar argued for a firm Central government with robust limbs (states).
The ideological clashes between Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, about the kind of society they envisioned are relevant here. Letters they exchanged in October 1945 show Gandhi still supporting the system of village-centric society that he envisaged in his 1909 book Hind Swaraj and Nehru squarely rejecting it.
Gandhi insisted on the importance of rural life, advocating for people to live in villages, in huts rather than “palaces”. Nehru, on the other hand, regarded villages as intellectually and culturally backward, believing that progress could not be achieved in such an environment. He saw narrow-mindedness as breeding untruthfulness and violence.
Nehru also expressed scepticism about Gandhi’s views in Hind Swaraj, describing the book as completely unrealistic. He emphasised that the Congress had never considered, let alone adopted, the village-centric society extolled in the book.
These letters mark a decisive break between Gandhi and his political successor, Nehru, regarding their visions of independent India.
Gandhi realised that his message had failed and he distanced himself from the Congress and the Constitution. Writing in Harijan in July 1946, he said, “I do not know how many [Congressmen] swear by non-violence or charka, or, believing in decentralisation, regard the village as a nucleus.”
The scholar Granville Austin notes that the Constituent Assembly’s rejection of Gandhi’s diagnosis of societal problems, as well as their doubts about his proposed remedies, played a pivotal role in shaping the centralised Constitution that emerged.
The Assembly was concerned that indirect elections at the village level would primarily focus on local issues. This would enhance the power of traditional upper-caste or economically dominant majorities and perpetuate caste divisions.
Gandhian vision of self-governance
Gandhi’s idea of Gram swaraj outlined in Hind Swaraj and later writings envisaged self-governing and largely self-sufficient village republics. He conceptualised villages as “organically and non-hierarchically linked with the larger spatial bodies and enjoying the maximum freedom of deciding the affairs of the locality”, says scholar Shubhangi Rathi.
For Gandhi, the “concentration of either economic or political power would violate all the essential principles of participatory democracy”.
Gandhi’s ideas of decentralised governance had already been experimented with in the princely state of Aundh, Maharashtra, in 1939. The ruler, Bhawanrao Pant, had invited Gandhi to help formulate a constitution that would empower the people to govern themselves. The experiment showcased the positive impact of decentralised governance on education, finances, and social cohesion, but failed to be fiscally sustainable in the long run.
Building on the Gandhian ideas of Gram Swaraj, a follower of Gandhi named Shriman Narayan Agarwal wrote a book titled Gandhian Constitution of Free India with Gandhi’s endorsement in 1946. Agarwal envisioned a structure that is pyramidal, yet non-hierarchical and democratic at its core. It sought to build the nation from the grassroots, bringing the government closest to the people.
Agarwal – who later served as governor of Gujarat – explained how democracy was incompatible with various forms of violence, not just physical but also economic and social violence inflicted by systems like capitalism and communism. “The capitalist society is exploitation personified,” he wrote.
He cited Gandhi’s belief that violence could never be the answer to addressing these issues. For Gandhi, democracy meant that the weakest members of society should have the same opportunities as the strongest. Agarwal contended that capitalism represents exploitation in its essence and argued that true change requires a society to be founded on economic freedom and equality. He emphasised that economic equity is paramount: without it, genuine political democracy cannot exist.
One of Agarwal’s key propositions for achieving non-violent democracy was decentralisation. He aligned himself with Gandhi’s advocacy for self-sufficient and self-governing village communities as the way forward. Gandhi believed that village communes embody the ideal form of decentralisation and local self-government and that the future constitution should revolve around well-coordinated village communities that practiced positive, direct democracy.
Agarwal contended that village communes had existed in India since ancient times and had been the basic units of administration as early as the earliest Vedic age. He said that British rule had erased the system of village self-government, replacing it with a non-Indian model of local self-government.
The Gandhian constitution for free India
Agarwal’s proposed constitution contained a structure that includes fundamental rights similar to those found in modern constitutions – without many of the riders that the modern Indian Constitution has – such as freedom of speech, equality before the law and universal adult franchise.
It also incorporates socio-economic rights such as the right to basic education (what Gandhi referred to as “nai talim”), minimum wages, rest and medical freedom, which includes the right to refuse modern medical interventions like vaccinations. Surprisingly, it includes the right to bear arms.
Agarwal proposed a system of village panchayats that would have full autonomy in several areas, including education, health, economy, and administration. These village panchayats were also vested with judicial, financial and taxation powers. The panchayats would control village servants, the police and even deliver justice.
The proposal extends to taluk and district panchayats, which would operate in a pyramidal structure, performing higher-order functions such as maintaining secondary schools and larger hospitals. Representatives from district panchayats and municipal councils would send representatives to provincial and central governments, with only lower-level panchayat members and ward members being directly elected by the people.
Agarwal’s vision combined the advantages of both direct and indirect elections. While direct elections were employed at the village level, which enjoys maximum local autonomy, higher-level bodies rely on indirect elections. He believed this system would be practical, efficient and less susceptible to bribery and corruption, as representatives of the upper bodies would be accountable to the lower panchayats.
Missing equity and social justice
Agarwal’s vision was grounded in the belief that functional and territorial decentralisation would foster social harmony and spontaneous political engagement. However, his utopian view often overlooked critical realities. Agarwal failed to address economic and social exploitation within the village communes. He disregarded the hierarchical nature of village communities, characterised by caste and class divisions, and upper caste politics.
While he briefly acknowledged that the caste system was a hindrance to political democracy and social equity in villages, he failed to delve into its profound impact on power dynamics and exploitation. Agarwal paid little attention to issues such as gender inequality, women’s empowerment, and special provisions for women in the constitution.
Agarwal’s economic decentralisation primarily focused on Gandhian principles of “cottage industrialisation” with limited emphasis on large-scale industries. However, this perspective largely ignored urban governance and the role of city municipalities.
Agarwal’s preference for “open-air rural life” over congested cities did not consider the multifaceted nature of modern urban centres. Regarding urban governance, Agarwal briefly mentioned that ward panchayats and municipal councils would possess extensive executive and legislative powers, with their functions linked to district panchayats. He treated district panchayats and municipal councils as horizontal and interdependent entities with similar powers.
While the Gandhian vision of Gram Swaraj and Agwarwal’s Gandhian Constitution were not without flaws, India had to pay the price for totally neglecting them in the Constitution. Citizens are distanced from state affairs and victims of vested political decisions and bureaucratic apathy.
The average MP in India represents 2.5 million people. This is in contrast to countries like the UK, Germany and even China each have fewer than 500,000 people per member of parliament. This situation has widened the distance between the elected and the electors.
The concentration of excess power with Parliament and the state Assemblies has left the ordinary citizen at the mercy of their policies, even for basic things such as education, health, housing, local infrastructure, and development. A centralised administration and bureaucracy have erected barriers between citizens and the state.
Even the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, passed in 1992, which aimed to strengthen panchayats and municipalities, have done little to usher in Gandhi’s vision of decentralisation.
India has the largest number of elected representatives, numbering around 3.1 million, from over 260,000 panchayats and municipal bodies. But local governments are mere implementers of Central and state government programmes, with little discretionary power over funds, functions and functionaries.
Ambedkar thought of cities as the breaking points of caste. The idea of “Shehar Swaraj”, theorised by different leaders, refers to empowered urban local governments that largely govern themselves with little dependence on and interference from state and central governments.
India needs another moment, like 1992, for a devolution of powers to local bodies and to realise Gandhi’s “gram” as well as a “sheher swaraj”.
Shivakumar Jolad works as an Associate Professor of Public Policy and a member of the FLAME Center for Legislative Education and Research
The author greatly acknowledges the comments and suggestions of Mehr Kalra.