During the inaugural ceremony of the newly established Banaras Hindu University in 1916, Gandhi associated cleanliness and a well-ordered mind to independence. Moreover, he took unapologetic pride in the ancient heritage and culture of India and Hinduism, calling upon his followers to do the same. He considered such national pride an essential element in the process of nation-building.
Gandhi’s vision for a new India included the cultural and religious symbols of ancient Bharat. He exhorted his followers to ‘own’ their past and to take pride in it. And to the soon-to-be Father of the Nation, cleanliness and orderliness were synonymous with holistic national development and wellbeing. Sanitation in the physical world was, to him, almost a metaphor for sanitizing the regressive mindsets that clung to social ills such as casteism and elitism.
The Role of Cleanliness and Sanitation
Gandhi believed that cleanliness was second only to Godliness, and that the foundations of the new India should be built and reinforced from the nation’s heartland, the countryside. However, in the years and decades that followed the independence of India, the temples of modernity often overshadowed Gandhi’s more idyllic and grassroots oriented view of the world. New symbols – mammoth Central institutions that barely resonated with the everyday realities of the common people – dominated the national discourse of new India.
In an article published in 1931 in Young India, Gandhi said that a country that does not develop its own industries and handicrafts but rather lives ‘parasitically’ by importing all the products that it needs, would always remain materially and intellectually poverty-stricken.
Today’s India is largely dependent on imports for many of the services and products that it uses, particularly when it comes to the various types of manufactured goods. The days when we were a self-sufficient nation, capable of producing almost everything that we used, are long gone.
Ironically, the past few years seem to have brought about a remarkable reawakening of that long-forgotten Swadeshi spirit that dominated pre-independence India. Today, in the 21st century, we are once again trying to redefine who we are as a people, what we identify with, and what that might mean for the nation as a whole.
The Dawn of a New Era
In 2014, the first NDA government came to power in Delhi, helmed by Narendra Modi, a renowned politician from Gandhi’s Gujarat. Soon after gaining the prime ministership, Modi launched himself headfirst into a mission aimed at reviving India’s lost cultural pride and rebranding it for the 21st century world.
The first NDA government launched a campaign to rebrand khadi as a symbol of the freedom movement as well as that of rural India. Ayurveda, yoga, Sanskrit – all of these elements of India’s cultural heritage have seen a great resurgence under the Modi government. Heads of state have been given copies of the Hindu epics as gifts and the leaders of socially marginalized communities have been honored in traditional ceremonies.
All of these activities have played a role in enhancing the importance and significance of our ancient culture in the eyes of the Indian youth. One of Modi’s pet projects was the redevelopment of Varanasi, a pilgrimage destination for Hindus and one of the oldest cities in the world. In March 2019, the foundations for this project were laid. Once completed, this would be the first major redevelopment project in Varanasi since 1780.
This project would cost around ₹700 crore, with another ₹40,000 crore having been set aside for the goal of transforming Kashi into a modern Smart City. If this dream of the prime minister is realized, then Kashi would one day become one of the most important tourist destinations of India, showcasing the country’s ancient culture and heritage for both international and domestic tourists. Thus, this ambitious project could, in the future, prove to be the much-needed connection between traditional and modern India.
Swachh Bharat: Rebranding Old Ideas for a New World
Linking cleanliness with Godliness, as Gandhi once did, the Modi government launched the Swachh Bharat mission soon after coming to power. Instilling in the national consciousness a culture of tidy and clean surroundings free of garbage, which would help uplift the mental, physical, and spiritual health of Indians, has always been a major goal of the prime minister.
After all, one of the biggest failures of traditional India – as Gandhi had said – was its inability to create an effective public hygiene and health routine that could stand the test of time. The Mahatma had also felt that encouraging each person to take charge of their own sanitation needs would help reduce oppression of the marginalized sections of society, who had traditionally been forced to bear the burden of all the sanitation work required by society.
By positioning sanitation and cleanliness as an important element of national development, the Modi government has ensured a widening of the public perspective on hygiene and its relation to health and wellbeing. According to many experts, Modi has had more success in changing the mindsets of common Indians regarding sanitation than most politicians before him. Raising social awareness about health and cleanliness across the nation has been one of the major successes of this government.
Regaining Pride in Our Ancient Heritage
The Make in India campaign is another example of the prime minister successfully adding a modern twist on a traditional Gandhian motif, namely the idea of ‘Swadeshi’. Through this campaign, the government has tried to reduce the nation’s dependency on goods manufactured in foreign countries, thus generating work and increasing export income at the same time (and through the same campaign).
All of these initiatives have helped Modi rebrand the teachings of the Mahatma to suit the needs of 21st century India. Many pundits believe that the NDA government’s policies have fueled in India a ‘silent revolution’, bringing about a rejuvenation of the idea of ‘Bharat’. Young Indians today, from all walks of life, feel inspired to reclaim their ancient heritage with a sense of pride, something that Mahatma Gandhi had worked for all his life.
This, after all, is what real freedom is about. Independence from the mental thralldom that caused Indians to undervalue their culture and heritage in their own eyes.