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Vandana Shiva on Gandhi for Today’s World

Some say terrorism makes Gandhi irrelevant. Vandana Shiva, farmer, seed saver, and global justice activist, says we need him more than ever.

Gandhi’s three pillars of freedom are now the keys to our survival.

Vandana Shiva is an internationally-renowned voice for sustainable development and social justice. She spoke in New Delhi with David Barsamian, founder of Alternative Radio, during his December 2008 trip to India and Pakistan. Here are her thoughts on why Gandhi’s philosophy is still relevant—even in a world where terrorism is on the rise.

Vandana Shiva addresses protesters at the mass civil disobedience at the coal-fired Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2009. Photo by Franziska Seel
Vandana Shiva addresses protesters at the mass civil disobedience at the coal-fired Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2009. Photo by Franziska Seel

David: In the wake of the attacks on Mumbai in late November 2008, there was a piece in the Sunday Express, “The Irony Gandhiism Presents in Today’s Terror-Infested India.” The writer said, “It’s time the government became doubly stern about its steps to combat terrorism. India may be the land of Mahatma Gandhi, but today’s situation warrants crude and cunning ways to counter extremism. That alone can ensure peace, harmony, and joy in the country.”

Vandana: Unfortunately, “crude” means of dealing with violence and terror just breed more violence and terror. As we saw after 9/11, the war on terror has created more terrorists. I think anyone who says that Gandhi is irrelevant in today’s world doesn’t understand either terrorism, its roots, or Gandhi. Suicide bombers don’t get created out of the blue; they are created as a result of decisions, systems, and processes.

It’s very much like weeds in a field. One way to control weeds is by spraying Round-Up, but then you get Round-Up-resistant weeds, which are even stronger than the original weeds. That’s what is happening with terrorism.

Or you can do mixed cultivation, where the partnership among the plants controls the weeds by managing the sun in the right way, the moisture in the right way. Organic weed control is totally successful without using violence. The same happens in terrorism. We need to build the levels and kinds of relationships that allow communities to feel as one.

If you want to go beyond the symptoms, and you want to get to the roots, then you have to understand the patterns. The patterns are telling us that every kind of diversity is a potential source of conflict. How come?

If we’re going to live in a world beyond the financial crisis, we’d better start making things for ourselves, growing our food, making our homes, creating our education and health systems.

First, globalization has robbed people of their resources. Land has been enclosed, land has been taken over. You suddenly see conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, again linked to the way resource changes are taking place. In Kenya, ethnic conflicts took place after the elections. Before that, land use had changed to grow flowers and fruits and vegetables for export to the European markets.

The second issue is shrinking livelihoods, because that’s what globalization does when combined with electoral privilege. There are few sources of livelihoods, and these will be allocated based on which party gets into power and is able to offer privileges to their particular caste, religion, or ethnicity. That’s where violence is growing—that’s where terror is growing. We have to start sharing the resources of this Earth in more equitable ways, using it in more sustainable ways, and, most importantly, maximizing livelihoods in the economy rather than maximizing profits and GNP.

David: Explain about the Gujjars in Rajasthan.

Vandana: The Gujjars are a pastoral tribe in Rajasthan. Over the last few years, as part of globalization, the pastures have been enclosed. This land makes up about 70 percent of Rajasthan, which is a desert state where only about 30 percent is used for agriculture. The Rajasthan government passed a law making the pastures available to grow jatropha, a biofuel crop used for cars. As a result, the pastoral economy has absolutely gone. The Gujjars have lost their livelihood base. They came out in a very, very strong way, and they blocked the rails and roads of India for about two months. Parts of the country could not function, and the government was brought to its knees. All they were seeking was a few jobs, because they’ve lost their livelihoods in grazing.

Many of India’s districts are in revolt. Some of them are very organized. One-third of India is now under Naxalite [Maoist] control. These are largely the tribal districts and the districts where the largest amount of mining and industry is taking away forests and land from the tribals. Under the 73rd and 74th amendments of our Constitution, the tribals have a right to decide what happens with their land and resources. In the 1990s, the communities would decide not to allow these factories and mines, but their decision was not obeyed. Under the Constitution their decision was higher than the decision of the prime minister of this country. So the Constitution was violated to impose on the communities the factories, plants, and mines. When the people realized democracy was not working, they took to the gun.

My hope is that the revolt will be based on Gandhian principles and will demonstrate how we can continue to be a society based on nonviolence.

David: In your publication “The Seed and the Spinning Wheel” you say, “Gandhi lives as a perennial source of inspiration and political innovation to defend our freedoms.” Talk about Gandhi and his influence on you.

Vandana: The Gandhian influence, of course, has been an influence for every Indian. My parents were very active in the freedom movement, so Gandhi was a background influence, but not an influence guiding everyday action. That really was propelled by my waking up to the fact that a new world trading system was being shaped.

As I sat through a conference on biotechnology in Geneva in 1987 listening to the corporate agenda, it became clear to me that it was an agenda of total control. The farmers would depend on these companies for their seed supply. They would have to pay royalties to corporations like Monsanto for every seed they plant, in every season. Human beings would have no choice but to eat the food they brought us, with no way to choose an alternative. We have to do something that prevents this totalitarian future from becoming inevitable.

We just have to start sharing the resources of this Earth in more equitable ways, using it in more sustainable ways, and, most importantly, maximizing livelihoods in the economy rather than maximizing profits and GNP.

I thought of Gandhi pulling out the spinning wheel at a time that spinning wheels weren’t being used anymore because the British textile industry had absolutely wiped out Indian spinning and weaving. And I thought, what is today’s spinning wheel? Today’s industry is biotechnology: it’s controlling all life on Earth. Seed, therefore, quite clearly, has to be today’s spinning wheel. So I started to save seed—in a way, spinning our freedom for today.

But there are other elements of Gandhi’s work/life concepts that have very much shaped the struggles that have defended the freedom of farmers and freedom of food in India. The idea of swaraj, for instance. Swa means self, raj means to rule. Gandhi meant that every Indian is a free citizen, self-organizing, self-governing with a full sense of responsibility that comes from being part of a community, part of a country, part of the planet.

That concept of self-organizing is what we have used to build huge movements. Our movement for seed sovereignty is based on the concept of bija swaraj. Bija is seed, swaraj is self-governance. We’ve had actions where we’ve told the government, we’ve told the WTO, we’ve told the corporations that pirate our seeds that they don’t decide what happens to our biodiversity. We decide, because we are self-governing communities.

We’ve done that with water. New Delhi’s water was being privatized through the World Bank to Suez, the world’s biggest water multinational. We used the concept of jal swaraj, water freedom, to mobilize a movement for water democracy, and we succeeded in stopping this privatization.

But I think the highest concept that Gandhi has left us is satyagraha, the fight for truth, which is translated into civil disobedience. In his writings he says very clearly, “As long as the assumption is there that unjust law must be obeyed, so long will slavery exist.” It is the highest moral duty for justice to have the courage to say no to unjust law. That’s what Martin Luther King did. That’s what Gandhi did.

So how did we get to a place where a total financial scam around housing has brought the entire world economy down? Something is seriously wrong, and the only way we can get out of it is swadeshi, swaraj, and satyagraha. These are the three pillars of survival and these are the three pillars of freedom.

Vandana Shiva. Photo by Ajay Tallam, wikipedia
Vandana Shiva
Photo by Ajay Tallam, wikipedia

David: What does swadeshi mean?

Vandana: Swadeshi means self-making. In the name of progress, in the name of development, we have been made to walk down the road of depending. Today all of America depends on something made in a factory somewhere in China. That kind of economy prevents everyone from making what they could make. And you lose quality, because self-making builds in caring. Self-making goes with wanting to put out the ultimate quality. Just as much as when you cook your own food, you will make sure you cook a good dish. Sacrifice quality, and cheap becomes the label for humanity’s existence.

If we’re going to live in a world beyond the financial crisis, we’d better start doing things for ourselves, making things for ourselves, growing our food, making our homes, creating our education and health systems. Putting pressure on the state is fine, but ultimately I believe we need to go beyond the centralized state and centralized corporate control. We need to go into decentralized communities that reclaim the capacity to make. And that is swadeshi.

David: A couple of other terms that are associated with Gandhi are ahimsa and sarvodaya. What are they?

Vandana: Ahimsa is probably the most powerful word in Gandhi’s philosophy and in the core of Indian civilization. Ahimsa means nonviolence in the deepest form: doing no harm to any species, doing no harm to anyone, and doing no harm in thought and action. Gandhi said what you must challenge is the violent act, not the person. Always have love for the other person, and through that, practice compassionate nonviolence.

Sarvodaya means lifting up everyone. Gandhi had many, many clashes with other leaders of the Congress Party who wanted an India that would look like the West. But Gandhi knew that an India that looks like the West is for a tiny percentage of India. An India that’s for all, that is for the rising of all, must be based on the indigenous traditions, the indigenous possibilities, and must be ecological by its very nature, because wasteful development would rob a large part of India.

David: Gandhi appears on rupee notes, something that might have embarrassed him. There is hardly a town or city in this country that doesn’t have a statue of the Mahatma. But in terms of his relevance, when you travel around and talk to people, is the Gandhian philosophy still living or is it more of a memory?

Vandana: Gandhi is very alive in this country. The superficial display of consumerism might make it look like something else has replaced the Gandhian ideal of equality, justice, and dignity in work. If you’re at the Hyderabad Airport, you would never imagine Gandhi is relevant today, because they think they’re Americans now, and they serve you a coffee for 250 rupees.

I was in Gulbarga with farmers talking about the way out of the agrarian crisis. And, of course, I was sharing with this group of 1,500 farmers how the farmer suicides that are an epidemic in this country are unnecessary.

The wonderful thing was that the organization that was hosting it is based on an ancient, 800-year-old tradition called the Basava tradition. Basava was a royal who gave up the palace and based his entire philosophy on two core concepts: the dignity of labor and sharing your wealth.

Again and again on that platform, Gandhi’s teachings and Basava’s teachings were matched together as one teaching—a teaching for a socialism that will always be relevant, as long as human society exists.

David: You hosted a conference at the India International Center in early December. I was interested in a couple of things you said about India having a “violent economy.” Then you added, “farmer suicides are like terror attacks.”

Vandana: I think what we are witnessing in India is really warfare against the poor. It’s warfare against the poor because people are literally dying. More than 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last decade of neoliberal agriculture policies—policies that tell you that agriculture is not about feeding people, agriculture is not about the livelihood of two-thirds of India’s population; agriculture is about producing cheap commodities for exports. And simultaneously, a total contradiction, that agriculture is about a consumer market for inputs. It’s an impossible equation, that you keep spending 10 times more for your seeds and your chemicals, and you keep getting less and less and less for what you produce. It does mean farmers will be wiped out. They get into debt and they’re committing suicide.

David: The cover of the latest issue of Bija says, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Did Gandhi say that?

Vandana: Yes, I think it’s so powerful. I believe that so many of us wait for that perfect moment for a system change, at a system level. Yes, systems are wrong, but systems change doesn’t happen at a system level; it happens by enough people making change that they want to see. And that’s why, when I started Navdanya [an organization working to rejuvenate indigenous knowledge and culture], I didn’t wait for government policies to change. And at every point that government is obstinate and pro-Monsanto, we just keep doing what we feel is the right thing.

I have just come back from Kerala, where I’ve been advising the government there. They have a very progressive chief minister, V. S. Achuthanandan. He believes in people’s rights and a communitarian society. I had proposed an idea last year that Kerala is so rich in food traditions, in health traditions, that we should do a festival of food. And they did. And we did seminars. And he and I were there to open the festival called Onam. It happened in one place. Now three other states want to do it. That’s how we make change.


David Barsamian’s interview with Vandana Shiva is part of The New Economy, the Summer 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, scholar, political activist, and feminist, and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel Prize. She is also director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in New Delhi. Author of many books, her latest are Earth Democracy and Soil Not Oil.


Since 1986, David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio has provided information, analysis, and views that are ignored or distorted in other media. This article comes from a longer interview, available at www.alternativeradio.org.


Interested?
Read an excerpt from Vandana Shiva’s latest book, Soil Not Oil.

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