Madhusudan Das, Mahatma Gandhi and Manual Working Class

Gandhism and Leninism surely intersect at interesting crossroads. And they could be more pivotal than merely interesting. At the macro level they intersect at their common abhorrence towards militarism. At the micro level, they are one with the advocacy for community cooperatives. At both stages though, interests are similar: promote peace, for it is at this situation alone that cooperatives can exist. In every conceivable way, Gandhism and Leninism stressed on peace and cooperation because of their stress on workers’ welfare.

The question which naturally arises then is, if Gandhi believed in social emancipation of working class who worked in cooperatives. The answer is clearly yes, but the methods he would have employed would be different, some of the arguments follow. But I feel, relating Gandhi to working class struggle is as moot a question as relating need of violence to further state’s interest in Stalinist Russia.

I have always believed that Gandhi and Stalin (or you may say Lenin) both used the long-term goals of revolution as primary objective and immediate concerns as secondary. Gandhi’s call for tolerance in face of brutal murders of thousands of Indians was as stoically violent, as was the communist path to emancipation of working class in face of gory class wars.

How then were the goals in liberating Indian masses and emancipating Russian working class similar? The answer is, by the yardstick of labor. By the recognition of working tools. This is where the weapons of the masses come to focus. And Gandhi intersects with the Left.

Gandhian philosophy: From Hindu-centric to Workers-centric:

The critical question here, then is not to the extent that Gandhi respected working peoples’ tools, but how did he acquire this knowledge of need. Whereas Gandhi’s relation with the Left could be an inferred one, in oblivion to his own knowledge (although he has admired Lenin several times in his life and he had only great words to describe the revolutionary), his understanding of working peoples’ aspirations to self assertions is clearly an acquired knowledge.

The educated and well-off Gandhi upon his entry into India saw things similar to South Africa in terms of racism, but not in terms of economic class of peoples. This is important to understand because in South Africa, Gandhi stood for the interests of Indian trading class, not the most poorest economic class (who incidentally were the Blacks of Africa, not so much the browns of India). The only way he could get away with that slant of social justice was to claim to his nationalistic role, and his subsequent inevitable arrival in India to pursue that cause to his death.

What then, led to the transformation in Gandhi from being a Hindu nationalist, to craft a radical talisman; his core belief that he had to work for the ‘poorest of the poor’? What led to his famous declaration that every step that we make must be made towards welfare of only the Poorest of the Poor (the proletariat)? Obviously, his exposure to Gujarat did not do Gandhi any enlightenment. His association with industrialists and trading class of India (just like in South Africa) would have again led him astray into supporting the Indian bourgeois cause of petitioning in the Indian National Congress than walking across all villages to mobilize the greatest mass movement in the world history. What brought him the change, the new worldview?
It was Orissa, a state of India, that continues to be the poorest and most underdeveloped state of the vast country. And the chief architect of Orissa’s struggle for independence, Utkal Gaurav Madhusudan Das, whose birth anniversary was celebrated last week.

Teachings of Madhusudan Das:
Gandhi came to learn from Madhusudan Das that two things afflicted India the most: poverty and superstitions. Basically, the lack of class consciousness and adoption of religious practices. (Interestingly, those days, these two were also the primary motivations for the Bolsheviks to cause revolution in Russia.)

And the real life enactor of those struggles in India was Madhusudan Das. Gandhi knew of two postulates: that India was not poor historically, and its Gods were not discriminatory historically either. The ancient rich state of Orissa, and the most universally worshipped Lord Jagannath were the biggest riddles for Gandhi to solve. And in doing so, Gandhi would change his entire course of action, from representing the Congress (his initial interests in presiding it) to representing the people (his growing attachment to causes of peoples in daily lives). Gandhi wanted an end to religious chauvinism, to Hindu supremacists, to Brahminical casteists and to economic exploitators. For him, the role model was an Oriya of great eminence, Madhusudan Das.

Talking of how he started his struggle for freedom of his self and others, Gandhi pointed at both Jagannath culture and Orissan poverty as the eye-opening experiences. He said, “You know that in the whole of our country the land of Orissa is the dearest to me. As soon as I returned to India I began to hear of Orissa’s poverty and famine. We raised an amount and sent over Thakkar Bapa in the capacity of a servant of this afflicted province and organized famine relief.”

Those were the days when Orissa was really afflicted. Her Lord Jagannath was hijacked by the conquerors of the land who spoke different languages, pretended to be representative of Orissan people and instead forced opium addiction on the poor peasants, and the non-Oriya traders used their lobby to force brahminical supremacy over a large indigenous population of Orissa that were either highlanders or just forest dwellers. In a way, the poverty of mineral rich Orissa was brought on it by the ruling classes of adjoining states who also blackmailed some native Kings into forcing cultural seclusion (attempts to make Hindi a state language in Sambalpur, Bangali as language in rest of the state etc), religious dogmatism (project the Lord Jagannath from a universal goddess of peasant class, a black god representing the working class aspirations and the most secular one, for some of whose greatest followers came from religion of Islam too—the most famous being Bhakta Salabega, to a male god who banned entry of non-hindus and the oppressed), and enforced poverty (the spread of opium—literally in Orissa to keep it economically weak).

Few Oriya leaders who were educated and exposed to international working class movements took up the challenge to fight these three pronged reactionary overbearings of language-religion-economics issue. The primary of them was Utkal Gaurav Madhusudan Das, who went on to inspire Gandhi to lead national struggle against religious dogmatism.

Gandhi’s struggle against the Hindu Conservatives & Reformists:
Gandhi said he could not give up his struggles against the Sanatanists (the hindu practitioners). Indeed, he went on to say, “I also realized that if I could serve Orissa somewhat I would by so doing serve India. Thus Orissa became for me a place of pilgrimage—not because the temple of Lord Jagannath was there—for it was not open to me, as it was not open to the Harijans—but because I thought of a novel way of touring the country for the sacred mission of the abolition of untouchability. I had heard that the so-called sanatanists were enraged at my mission of removing untouchability and would even try to frustrate it with violence. If they were really so minded, I said to myself, I should make their work easy by discarding the railway train and motor-car and trekking through the country. Moreover, people don’t go on a pilgrimage in cars and trains.

And if there was trouble in Puri because of the anger of the sanatanists, we could not flee from their wrath. It does not behove a satyagrahi to run away. We must face it. I could not do all this in a car or a railway train, and so I decided to perform the rest of the Harijan pilgrimage on foot. The temple of Lord Jagannath has the reputation of being the most famous in India, for there all human distinctions are supposed to vanish, and all sorts of people, Brahmin and pariah, brush shoulders with one another vying for the darshan of the Lord and even eat His prasad out of one another’s hands. But evidently it had outlived that reputation and the description had become a fiction, for the priests would not admit Harijans, but throw them out of the doors of the Lord of the World. I said to myself that so long as these distinctions of high and low endured before the very eyes of the Lord of the World, that Lord was not my Lord, that He was the Lord of the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas who exploited his name and kept Harijans out, but certainly not the Lord of the World. My ambition of restoring its old reputation to the temple is yet unfulfilled, and you have to help me in fulfilling it. So long as the doors of the Jagannath temple are closed to the Harijans, they are closed to me as well.”

This struggle of Gandhi against the Sanatan Dharmi or the Hindus, was inspired by Madhusudan Das of Orissa, who had himself, out of sheer disgust at Hindu supremacists had adopted Christianity, even if just to demonstrate that untouchability was not going to be practiced by him at any level and nor be tolerated.

Madhubabu’s progressive roots:
If Gandhi learnt the lessons in racism at South Africa, he learnt the ways to deal with it, from Madhubabu (fondly so called). Madhubabu had set before Gandhi an example, which the latter would continuously refer to, while defining essence of what a human being should aspire for. Madhubabu, despite his high qualifications as a lawyer, not only opened a tannery in Cuttack, Orissa, but also worked there himself. He invested his own money, worked by his own hands and exemplified at least few core virtues that were to guide Gandhian philosophy in future: self-reliance, non-discrimination (since until then, only the “untouchables” were relegated the work of tanning), and relentless perseverance.

Gandhi was so moved by this living example that he wrote to industrialist GD Birla on September 27, 1925 (during his first series of struggles itself), to lend a helping hand to Madhubabu in his loss-making venture.
“Shri Madhusudan Das owns a tannery at Cuttack which he has developed into a limited company. I feel like acquiring a majority of its shares…. The tannery’s liabilities amount to Rs. 1,20,000. It is necessary to rescue it from this dead weight. The tannery uses only the hides of dead animals….; I would also like you to undertake its management. If that is not practicable, I shall find someone else who can manage it. The tannery has a few acres of land which I have seen myself. Shri Madhusudan Das has spent a considerable amount on it out of his own pocket.”

Gandhi acknowledged that there was a need for the country to be sensitized in the direction of thought that was pursued by Madhubabu. Indeed, he thought Madhusudan Das was showing light in the direction of future that India must strive towards: use of hands and feet to abolish class society (yet another Marxist principle) and establish an industrial climate based on vocation (a Soviet measure during that period). In “Navajivan” of September 23, 1928, Gandhi wrote an editorial, “This country needs an industrial climate. In the education of this country, the vocational aspect should constitute its dominant part. When this takes place, the students who will go on learning a craft will support their schools through it. Shri Madhusudan Das had conceived such a plan with regard to his tannery in Cuttack. The plan was a fine one. But it did not materialize as the prevailing atmosphere in the country provided no encouragement to vocational training or a tannery. Why should not carpentry be an indispensable part of our higher education? Education without a knowledge of weaving would be comparable to the solar system without the sun. Where such trades are being properly learnt, the students should be able to meet the expenses of their own schools. For this scheme to succeed, the students should have physical strength, will-power and a favorable atmosphere created by the teachers. If a weaver could become a Kabir, why cannot other weavers become, if not Kabirs, at any rate, Gidwanis, Kripalanis or Kalelkars? If a cobbler could become a Shakespeare, why cannot other cobblers become, if not great poets, at any rate, experts in the fields of chemistry, economics and such other subjects?”

Not just blatant untochability, but also the reformist Hindu argument (some quote Swami Vivekananda to substantiate it) that caste division is a necessity to maintain division of labor was completely quashed by Madhusudan Das in his own trade and by Gandhi in his following Madhubabu’s examples.

Need for Public Sector:
Madhusudan Das was not only the greatest fighter against caste and class society, he also enlightened Gandhi about the need to preserve the ethnic living arts of the peoples by welcoming industrialization on national terms (public sector industries). In the editorial on “Swedeshi vs Foreign” in Navajivan on June 19, 1927, Gandhi paid glowing tribute to Madhubabu for his works in words and deeds: “Raw materials worth crores of rupees are produced in this country and, thanks to our ignorance, lethargy and lack of invention, exported to foreign countries; the result is, as Shri Madhusudan Das has pointed out, that we remain ignorant like animals, our hands do not get the training which they ought to and our intellects do not develop as they should. As a consequence, living art has disappeared from our land and we are content to imitate the West. As long as we cannot make the machines required for utilizing the hide of dead cattle, worth nine crores, available in our country, I would be ready to import them from any part of the world and would still believe that I was scrupulously keeping of the world and would still believe that I scrupulously keeping the vow of swadeshi. I would believe that I would be only discrediting that vow by refusing, out of obstinacy, to import those machines. Similarly our country produces a great many things with medicinal properties, and those come back to us in the form of a variety of drugs or other articles. It is our duty to import any machines, and obtain any help, which will enable us to utilize these things in our own country. Swadeshi is an eternal religious duty. The manner of following it may, and ought to, change from age to age. The principle of swadeshi is the soul and khadi is its body in this age and in this country.”

Talking of “Deadly march of Civilization”, Gandhi said in Young India dated May 10, 1928, that “Under the guise of the civilizing influence of commerce the innocent people of Burma are being impoverished and reduced to the condition of cattle. As Sjt. Madhusudan Das has pointed out, people who merely work with cattle and forget the cunning of the hand by giving up handicrafts are impoverished not only in body but also in mind.

Tolstoy and Madhusudan Das:
In support of workers’ unique contributions, and the needs for intellectuals to stand in solidarity and their participation in workers’ movements, Gandhi compared Madhusudan Das to Lev Tolstoy: “The late Madhusudan Das was a lawyer, but he was convinced that without the use of our hands and feet our brain would be atrophied, and even if it worked it would be the home of Satan. Tolstoy had taught the same lesson through many of his tales.” (Speech at a Marwari Shiksha Mandal on October 22, 1937)

Even as the British were busy creating the class society of high-paying bureaucrats and “lowly” peasants, Gandhi remained unruffled because he always had Madhubabu as the example to follow. At Birbol, in a village industries exhibition on March 25, 1938, Gandhi stressed again, “Man differs from the beast in several ways. As the late Madhusudan Das used to say, one of the distinctions is the differing anatomy of both. Man has feet and hands with fingers that he can use intelligently and artistically. If man therefore depended wholly and solely on agriculture, he would not be using the fingers that God has specially endowed him with. We will be worthy of being called human beings if we utilize our fingers. Moreover, mere agriculture cannot support us, unless it is supplemented by the work of the hands and the fingers.”

Khadi and genesis of the Mahatma:
Likewise, Gandhi’s core realization for stress on Khadi as a village industry came from Madhubabu’s legacy that he left behind. In a speech at a public meeting in Nagpur, Gandhi said on March 1, 1935, “It was during my walk in Orissa, in the course of my Harijan tour, that it was clearly brought home to me that the village industries must be revived if khadi is to be universal.
I could not have realized this in any tour by rail or car. As the late Madhusudan Das had said, our villagers were fast being reduced to the state of the brutes with whom they worked and lived as a result of the forced idleness in which they passed their days. If they continued in that state, not even independence would improve the state of India. I, therefore, decided that I must, even in the evening of my life, make a heroic effort to end this idleness, this inertia.
……..We have to employ all these crores of human machines that are idle, we have to make them intelligent machines, and unless cities decide to depend for the necessaries of life and for most of their other needs on the villages, this can never happen. We are guilty of a grievous wrong against the villagers, and the only way in which we can expiate it is by encouraging them to revive their lost industries and arts by assuring them of a ready market.”

Similarly at another public speech at Ramgarh on March 14, 1940, Gandhi said, “The true Indian civilization is in the Indian villages. The modern city civilization you find in Europe and America, and in a handful of our cities which are copies of the Western cities and which were built for the foreigner, and by him. But they cannot last. It is only the handicraft civilization that will endure and stand the test of time. But it can do so only if we can correlate the intellect with the hand. The late Madhusudan Das used to say that our peasants and workers had, by reason of working with bullocks, become like bullocks; and he was right. We have to lift them from the estate of the brute to the estate of man, and that we can do only by correlating the intellect with the hand. Not until they learn to work intelligently and make something new every day, not until they are taught to know the joy of work, can we raise them from their low estate.”

Workers’ tools of freedom:
Workers’ self-reliance, their pride in their own hands and feet, their resistance to superstitious deviance, their need for correlation of intellect with the hand—Gandhi followed Madhu Sudan Das in his footsteps throughout in the struggle for peoples’ freedom.

The tools of the oppressed, according to Madhubabu were their own hands and feet. The tools of the oppressors were the opiums—religious and otherwise. Gandhi understood these basic tenets of human service from his great teacher-Madhusudan Das.

Today, in an increasingly sophisticated machinery world, as we inch more toward monopolistic corporate societies, lessons of Madhusudan Das should not be lost on us. And the dignity of each work, as Madhubabu used to preach and practice, should remain a hallmark in our collective thinking. For, only when we have learnt to appreciate the workers, can we distinguish the seeds of exploitations. Only when we acknowledge the contributions of the working class of the entire world, can we differentiate the ruling class of the unipolar world. Only by realizing that the part-time workers are exploited in the name of non-exemptness, in the name of disguised employment, in the name of unauthorized working permits etc, can we acknowledge that without these so-called low class workers, we would not even exist today as a human race. Workers deserve the rights they demand, in every parts of the world, and we must acknowledge that they deserve equal pay for equal works, no matter the nature of the work, as long as the hours are the same. For a change, like Madhubabu, we must prepare ourselves to undertake any kinds of works, just to be in solidarity with the working class interests, without any discriminations!


Author: Saswat Pattanayak

Journalist, Generalist, Atheist, Poet, Lover, Photographer, Communist, Third wave Feminist, LGBT ally, Black power comrade, Peacenik, Anti-capitalist, Critical media theorist, Radical film critic, Academic non-elite…

2 thoughts on “Madhusudan Das, Mahatma Gandhi and Manual Working Class

  1. “Madhubabu had set before Gandhi an example, which the latter would continuously refer to, while defining essence of what a human being should aspire for.” -absorbing, to say the least… and the aspiration continues…

  2. Even though Madhubabu is the founder of Orissa, there is not much resources on him on the net. thank u for this post. I always thought Gokhle was spiritual guru of Gandhiji, thanks to orissa govt which doesnt even recognise madhubabu’s contributions. if madhubabu talked about promoting oriya, you should see where we are now with naveen as a cm who has no knowledge of oriya…..
    “alo sakhi, apana mahata aape rakhi”…kahaku aau kahiba?

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