Besides the military assaults that eventually repress Kanthapura’s dissent, the colonial system’s primary means of oppressing Indians is economic: it makes them work while Europeans profit, deprives them of their land through unfair property agreements, and forces indentured servants into lifelong slavery by saddling them with increasing levels of debt. Moorthy’s Gandhism is primarily focused on redressing this systematic economic exploitation. Because Gandhi recognizes that depriving the British Empire of its profits is the best way to grind the colonial system to a halt, the fight for self-rule and economic independence are intertwined. However, Gandhi’s system ultimately does little to help the villagers economically and actually ends up forcing them into a different kind of thankless labor. Rao’s novel demonstrates the fundamentally economic motivations behind colonialism and shows how refusing to participate in an exploitative system can be more radical—and more dangerous—than challenging it directly. Yet he also illustrates how independence does not end economic exploitation, but rather simply changes the identity of the oppressor: Indians themselves switch to a system of capitalist relations that perpetuates the inequalities of colonialism. While national independence is clearly an important goal for Rao, he sees that that land and labor are both more fundamental and more enduring forms of oppression.
In this book, labor nearly always takes place within exploitative relations, usually with Europeans at the top and consistently with landless Indian workers at the bottom. At the beginning of the book, Kanthapura is a largely agricultural society, although labor is divided based on caste and there is already growing inequality due to Bhatta and Patel Rangè Gowda’s property rights over much of the village’s land—indeed, everyone seems to owe these two men money, and they use this debt to maintain political control over the village. The Skeffington Estate also reflects this strategy of using economic incentives to gain political control and in turn secure continuing profits from laborers who have no choice but to work: the coolies (indentured workers) enter the plantation owing an inflated debt for their transport there, make very low wages, and are strongly pressured by their bosses to spend anything they make on improving their living conditions at the plantation or getting drunk at the toddy stand. The result is a cycle of increasing debt that never gets repaid, no matter how long the coolies work at the plantation, and increasing profits for the plantation owners. And the colonial government is designed to protect those wealthy owners—for instance, after the coolie Seetharam refuses to let the new Sahib (plantation boss) rape his daughter, the Crown orders the Sahib to pay restitution but never enforces the order, so he never pays.
Gandhi recognized that Europeans and wealthy Indians carefully design the economic opportunities they offer to the poor with the intention of keeping them poor and therefore in need of further wages. Therefore, Gandhism resists colonialism by cutting off the empire’s profits rather than through violence. As Moorthy explains it, his movement’s central goal is to stop the country’s dependence on foreign goods (particularly cloth). While, initially, foreign traders might appear to offer better rates and opportunities, Moorthy thinks that, over the long term, they will use this trust to get Indians in debt. He gives the example of someone who sells all their rice because the foreign traders offer such high prices, but then is left with nothing to eat. The Gandhians deliberately weave their own cloth, refuse to buy foreign goods, and picket the toddy stands at the Skeffington Estate because they see an inherent danger in economic dependence on the British. But their refusal to participate in the exploitative economic system is so threatening to the British that the government equivocates violations of formal property laws with physical violence: before the soldiers open fire on the Gandhians, they warn the demonstrators not to “march this side of the fields” because the British own them—they contend that the violation of economic property rights justifies physical violence. But a peasant protests that “it’s we who have put the plough to the earth and fed her with water”—he sees that British ownership guarantees continued fruitless labor by Indians.
However, the Gandhian movement does not truly address the problems of exploitative labor and economic inequality. In some ways, it actually reinforces them. After joining the Congress, the villagers start to spend hours spinning wool and weaving cloth every day. Although Gandhi considers this a means of spiritual purification and the fruits of the villagers’ labor ultimately go to the independence struggle, they are nevertheless forced to work simply in order to pay their dues to the Congress of All India. Just like the colonial system, Gandhism’s promise of free equipment is too good to be true, so people accept it, but in the long term they end up forced to work and give up their labor’s fruits. There is no clear evidence that the villagers gain anything but new clothes from Gandhi’s system—the fact that Bhatta manages to raise interest on the Gandhians suggests that they still depended on him for their subsistence needs. The second stated goal behind Gandhism is the desire to “give work to the workless, and work to the lazy,” which assumes that there is something desirable or noble about work in the first place. Achakka realizes this during the resistance campaign when she says, “brothels are picketed and toddy booths and opium booths and courts are set up and men tried and condemned, and money set in circulation, the money of the Mahatma, and the salt of the sea sold, and the money sent to whom? To the Congress.” When Moorthy meets the coolie Betel Lakshamma outside the Skeffington Estate, she asks him to “free us from the Revenue Collector,” for he professes to be “against all tyrants,” but he dodges the question and insists that he will write the Congress for answers.
Ultimately, Moorthy comes to recognize that the Gandhian proposal offers no cure for economic inequality in the long run, since it sustains unequal relations of production among Indians themselves, like the ones between landowners and peasants in Kanthapura. Producing their own cloth and refusing English goods did not allow the villagers to avoid their debts or rise socioeconomically. This is why, in the book’s closing pages, Moorthy switches his allegiance to join Jawaharlal Nehru’s fight for the equal distribution of land, which would allow self-reliance for individuals rather than simply self-rule for an internally unequal India. Ultimately, Rao’s vision of equality begins to seem less about the democratic vision of politics to which Moorthy recruits the villagers during the novel than about giving people the means to subsist self-sufficiently, without needing to participate in capitalist economic relations that tend toward exploitation.
Labor, Exploitation, and Economic Independence ThemeTracker
Labor, Exploitation, and Economic Independence Quotes in Kanthapura
“Free spinning-wheels in the name of the Mahatma!”
“May I ask one thing, Moorthy? How much has one to pay?”
“Nothing, sister. I tell you the Congress gives it free.”
“And why should the Congress give it free?”
“Because millions and millions of yards of foreign cloth come to this country, and everything foreign makes us poor and pollutes us. To wear cloth spun and woven with your own God-given hands is sacred, says the Mahatma. And it gives work to the workless, and work to the lazy. And if you don’t need the cloth, sister—well, you can say, ‘Give it away to the poor,’ and we will give it to the poor. Our country is being bled to death by foreigners. We have to protect our mother.”
And they all rose up like one rock and fell on the ground saying, “You are a dispenser of good, O Maharaja, we are the lickers of your feet…”
[Pariah Siddayya] tells you about the dasara havu that is so clever that he got into the Sahib’s drawer and lay there curled up, and how, the other day, when the sahib goes to the bathroom, a lamp in his hand, and opens the drawer to take out some soap, what does he see but our Maharaja, nice and clean and shining with his eyes glittering in the lamplight, and the Sahib, he closes the drawer as calmly as a prince; but by the time he is back with his pistol, our Maharaja has given him the slip. And the Sahib opens towel after towel to greet the Maharaja, but the Maharaja has gone on his nuptial ceremony and he will never be found.
“Brothers, in the name of the Mahatma, let there be peace and love and order. As long as there is a God in Heaven and purity in our hearts evil cannot touch us. We hide nothing. We hurt none. And if these gentlemen want to arrest us, let them. Give yourself up to them. That is the true spirit of the Satyagrahi.”
He’ll never come again, He’ll never come again,
He’ll never come again, Moorthappa.
The God of death has sent for him,
Buffalo and rope and all,
They stole him from us, they lassoed him at night,
He’s gone, He’s gone, He’s gone, Moorthappa.
It is the way of the masters that is wrong. And I have come to realize bit by bit, and bit by bit, when I was in prison, that as long as there will be iron gates and barbed wires round the Skeffington Coffee Estate, and city cars that can roll up the Bebbur Mound, and gas-lights and coolie cars, there will always be pariahs and poverty.