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Putting the Last First: Gandhi and Communication for Social Change by Arvind Singhal

A British reporter once mockingly asked Mahatma Gandhi: “Why are your train journeys in India in the third class? Surely, you could afford first-class?”

Gandhi’s polite response: “I travel third class because there is no fourth class.”

For Gandhi, the “last” was necessarily “first.” In fact, his yardstick for undertaking any communicative and social action depended on answering the following question: Will my actions help alleviate in any way the suffering of the poorest-of-the-poor, the downtrodden, the most vulnerable and the most marginalised? If the answer was affirmative, one moved forward. If negative, the idea was shelved. Not surprisingly, his life’s work centred on fighting colonialism as well as caste, gender and socio-economic inequalities.

Gandhi’s concern for focusing on the “last” was greatly sharpened when, in 1904, as a practicing attorney in South Africa, he encountered John Ruskin’s1860 essay titled Unto This Last. Ruskin challenged the commonly accepted laissez-faire tenets of classical economics, arguing for a more ethical and humane basis for political, economic and social action. Gandhi was so taken by Ruskin’s ideas, which challenged what was then conventional wisdom, that he translated Unto This Last into Gujarati, his native language, in 1908 titling it Sarvodaya, meaning “Well Being of All." Gandhi’s goal was the wellbeing of people who were poor and marginalised.

An analysis of Gandhi’s mass campaigns against British colonial rule shows his overriding focus on addressing the conditions of the poorest-of-the-poor. Let’s take the case of India’s textile industry. Until the late 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution began to gather momentum in England, cloth production was India’s premier industry. It was a major employer and revenue generator. However, the policies of the British East India Trading Company (and later the British colonial administration) systematically destroyed the Indian spinning and cotton dying businesses, moving cloth manufacturing to mills in England. The result was massive unemployment and poverty in India, and a ruralisation of India as clothing workers were forced to move back to villages.

In response to oppressive British colonial practices, Gandhi made hand-spun, hand-woven cloth (khadi) the centrepiece of his program for Indian independence. He spun his own yarn on a charkha (spinning wheel) each day, and urged poor people, the unemployed and people from all walks of life to do the same. Khadi was a quintessential communication message, a daily statement made by (not necessarily worn by) all Indians and cutting across caste, religious, region and class differences. Its mass appeal—especially for the poor, rural and marginalised people in India—was swadeshi, the production of, and pride in, indigenous products that signified self-reliance. The Indian National Congress, at Gandhi's urging, voted to require its officers and staff to spin and wear khadi and to boycott foreign cloth. The spinning wheel became the symbol of the National Congress and was placed in the centre of the party's flag.

Gandhi’s famous Salt March of 1930, which covered 241 miles in 24 days, was a protest of British taxation on salt. It was also couched as a protest of 350 million poor Indians. Gandhi argued that, much like water and air, salt was a naturally available commodity essential for survival. Everyone needed salt and, if anything, poor people —who toiled in the fields under the hot sun—needed salt more than the rich. Gandhi framed British tax laws on salt as especially unjust and unfair for the poorest-of-the-poor. It was thus an appropriate symbol for organising the disenfranchised masses against oppressive British colonial policies. Salt, much like khadi, was a quintessential communicative symbol of mass protest, a protest that Gandhi labelled as one of “right against might.”

For Gandhi, focusing on the “last” was an exercise in both politics and spirituality. The two arenas were inseparable. Means and ends were intertwined.

Gandhi emphasized: “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.” He also said, “There is no path to truth. Truth is the path.” Not surprisingly, he coined new terms to communicate his deep politically and spiritually motivated concerns for the “last.” He labelled poor people as daridranarayan (poor but godly) and the untouchables as harijans (children of God). The message was quintessential Gandhi: “The last was always first.”

“How many children do you have, Mrs. Gandhi?” a reporter once asked Kasturba, Gandhi’s wife.

“I have four,” she said. Then, pointing to her husband, she said: “But he, Bapu (Father] has 400 million.”

Note: This essay draws on the author’s writings on Gandhi, especially in M. J. Papa, A. Singhal, and W.H. Papa (2006), Organizing for Social Change, Sage Publications (Thousand Oaks, Calif.; London, Singapore, and New Delhi). For more on Gandhi and CFSC, see S.S. Bean “Gandhi and Khadi, the Fabric of Indian Independence,” in A.B. Weaver and J. Schneider (Eds.), Cloth of Human Experience (pp. 355-376). Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Professor Singhal’s email is His Web site is:

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