Kumarappa Life and Works

Early years and Youth:  Kumarappa was born on 4 January 1892 in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu and baptized Joseph Chelladurai Cornelius. Cornelius was the English name taken up by his paternal grandfather, an Anglican clergyman, and which was also used by his father, who was an officer in the Public Works Department of the Government of Madras. His mother, Mrs. Esther Rajanayagam, who had a strong influence on him, hailed from the well known family of poet Vedanayagam Sastriar. She was a devout Christian woman who tried to practise the Christian tenet of “love thy neighbour” all her life and motivated her son to do the same. All the ten children in the family, of which Joseph was the ninth, were given an English medium education. Joseph attended an Anglo-Indian college in Madras, and as he himself expressed later, it drilled into him the ideas of the trusteeship of the British government, its well-meaning bureaucracy and its god-sent mission.

“Many of us who aped the Anglo-Indians isolated ourselves from the rest of our neighbours, who were Hindus and Muslims. We aped the British in their language, customs and shared their religion. We entered into the life of our countrymen but little. Besides, my whole childhood background was practically all city bred. We hardly had any knowledge of our countryside. With this foundation we built up a culture of higher education in Europe.” (Economics as a Way of Life, Kumarappa Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library).

Joseph qualified himself as an incorporated accountant in London and started practising there in 1918-19 in a British firm. His official duties brought him in close touch with large-scale industries and factories. During the WW-I many of the industries were switched to war work under the Ministry of Munitions. Auditors were in demand and this gave Cornelius first-hand experience of the financial organisation of large-scale and centralized industries. On the basis of this experience he was able to argue later that big industries are not really efficient, but displace costs from owners to the public—the taxpayers.

At this point of time in his life Kumarappa was fully focussed on making his career and the question of violence versus non-violence simply did not arise. War was taken for granted as a necessary part of a well-ordered society. He was becoming thoroughly British in his ways and his mother intervened at this point to make him return to India. Kumarappa then set himself up in Bombay, first working for a British firm of auditors, and then in 1924 separating himself and establishing his own auditing firm.

U.S. Sojourn:  In 1927 Kumarappa visited the USA, where his eldest brother resided. There he first took a degree in Business Administration from Syracuse University and then joined Columbia University to study Public Finance. During this time he was invited to give talks on India by church and other organisations. One of these was on “Why then is India poor?” It was here that he began to acquaint himself seriously with nationalist thought, particularly also with the writings of Tagore and Gandhi.

Among his teachers at Columbia University were the economists, E.R.A. Seligman and H.J. Davenport.2 Kumarappa had wanted to write his Master’s thesis on Bombay Municipal Finance, but was persuaded by Seligman, who knew about his talk on poverty in India, to write on Public Finance in India and her poverty. Seligman himself had studied the French colonial fiscal system and had concluded that in most cases the “sums raised in the colonies are in fact spent for purposes which redound to the interests of the colonies themselves.”3 Joseph attended lectures by Seligman on ‘Public Finance’ and ‘History of Economics.’ With Davenport he took a course on ‘Economic Theory,’ where the students had to study his work “The Economics of Enterprise,” which followed the school of thought that no considerations other than profits should weigh in economics. Kumarappa could not agree with this point of view, and in the course of arguments with his professor he developed his ideas about the moral, social and spiritual base of material production.

“From this time onwards I was pretty clear in my mind that man is not merely a wealth producing agent, but essentially a member of a society with considerable responsibilities to all those around him. Perhaps this swung me over to the other end, in which material production was only a minor item in the life of man. From this aspect I look upon Dr. Davenport as a great contributor to my way of thinking, as he drove me from complacently being a party to capitalistic and imperialistic organisations to thinking out the position and, taking nothing for granted, to reform my own economics. From that time onwards my yardstick became definite, and I measured whatever I came across from the new considerations that I had learned...I lost interest in making money and wrote some essays, which brought me to the notice of Gandhiji, into whose snares I got caught later.” (Economics as a way of Life, op.cit.)      

The Nationalist Movement:  In 1929 Joseph Chelladurai returned to Bombay and restarted his auditing work. He also began to look around for a publisher for his thesis on Public Finance that dealt with British exploitation of India through its taxation policy, which was broadly on the same lines as nationalist writers like Dadabhoi Naoroji, R.C. Dutt, K.T. Shah and many British critics of imperialist drain from India. Gandhiji’s intense interest in such a work was conveyed to him, and a meeting was arranged at Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad. At this meeting Gandhi told him that he would like to publish this work in a series in the weekly journal Young India, and invited him to be a regular contributor to this magazine. He also requested him to undertake a rural survey in Gujarat.

Joseph Cornelius discontinued with his commercial work in Bombay and joined the Gujarat Vidyapith as a salaried professor. This was a national university founded by Gandhiji along with others. Students and teachers of this university were part of his team, which conducted a survey of Matar Taluka in Kheda district of Gujarat. While he was engaged in this survey Gandhiji started on the Dandi March as the first stage of his Salt Satyagraha. As both he and his secretary, Mahadev Desai, got arrested, the Navajivan Trust, which carried out all publishing activities on behalf of Gandhi, invited Joseph to edit Young India in their absence. This became his regular responsibility whenever Gandhi and Desai were not available.

Joining the Ashram, coming under the influence of Gandhian ideology, and carrying out nationalist propaganda brought about changes in Joseph’s way of life. He indianised himself thoroughly: he began to wear Khadi, eat only vegetarian food, adopted Indian manners of greeting, sitting and eating, and also reverted back to the family name of Kumarappa in place of Cornelius. He did not marry and remained a Brahmachari dedicated to the service of the people leading a very simple life.

Kumarappa’s articles began to appear regularly in Young India and many of them were taken up by other newspapers and weekly journals, which made him known amongst nationalist circles. He began to be invited to address public meetings in various parts of the country. In the course of such travels and as a result of his study of Matar taluka he became well aware of the problems facing the Indian countryside under colonial rule and began to think about the economic reconstruction and revitalisation of India’s villages. He had arguments with Gandhi regarding what he felt was his overemphasis on Khadi to the neglect of the need of resuscitating the other village industries for rural reconstruction. Tagore too had criticized Gandhi on this count. For this strong conviction he was chosen by Gandhi to organise the All-India Village Industries Association when it was formed in 1934.

In early 1931, Kumarappa was sentenced to jail for the first time for his seditious articles in Young India. Though the sentence was for one and half years of rigorous imprisonment he was released in about a month due to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. At the Karachi Congress of the same year he was appointed convenor of a select committee to go into the details of the financial obligations between Great Britain and India up to that time. Within two months the committee prepared a two volume report. Gandhi referred to it at the RTC in August that year and on its basis asked for an impartial enquiry into the subject as many of the financial claims on India certainly did not belong to her.

During Gandhiji’s absence because of his participation in the RTC Kumarappa took over the editorship of Young India as usual, and his critical writings again landed him in jail for 2½ years. On release, he was immediately sent to Bihar as Financial Adviser to the Treasurer to help out in the relief work for the earthquake that had taken place there in the beginning of 1934. His conscientious auditing of accounts, which helped in a fair disbursal of relief funds, earned him a lot of praise. He was relieved from this work when the A.I.V.I.A. was formed at the end of the year in Maganvadi at Wardha.

The Village Industries Movement:  The A.I.V.I.A. was formed at a time when socialists had formed a group in the Congress and communists had become active in the trade unions and amongst the peasantry. Gandhi wanted to indicate a developmental path for India that would be different from both capitalism and socialism, as exemplified in the Soviet Union. He resigned from the Congress, with which he now had strong ideological-political differences, though making himself available for advice and guidance, whenever required, and hoping to influence its policies from outside with his own strong mass base and through his writings in Harijan, founded in 1933. He started the Gram Udyog Sangh with the aim of reviving and revitalising other village-based industries apart from cloth production as an important component of the whole programme of village rejuvenation, which he wanted to be the cornerstone of the Indian economy and polity. In this aim, Kumarappa was one with him.

The A.I.V.I.A. undertook research, production, training, propaganda and publication. A village industries laboratory and museum were established at Maganvadi. In the Museum, known as Magan Sangrahlaya, apart from exhibits from various parts of the country and abroad each industry is shown as it is practised from raw materials to finished goods. Some of the industries are shown in their actual working in the Industries Court—Udyog Bhavan. Scientists like J.C. Bose, P.C. Ray and C.V. Raman were among the advisory board members of the A.I.V.I.A. Every year students from various parts of India came to be trained in various village industries. Gram Udyog Sangh workers, and especially Kumarappa, went again and again to various parts of the country to help local people survey and develop suitable village industries. A monthly journal called Gram Udyog Patrika was started in English and Hindi to expound the economics of village industries and to publish reports of ongoing work and research. GUP has many reports by Kumarappa on village industries from the various parts of India that he visited, like Kashmir and Punjab.

As a result of this work of innumerable constructive workers in addition to Kumarappa’s yeoman efforts, a new school of  economics came to be expounded as an alternative not only to a feudal or capitalist economy, but also to the then existing model of socialism as embodied in the USSR. It was given the name “Villagism” by Bharatan Kumarappa, Joseph’s youngest brother, who had joined him at Maganvadi and worked as Assistant secretary of the A.I.V.I.A. When the first Congress governments were set up in various provinces in 1937 many of these ministries took up the task of promoting village industries as part of the nationalist movement for independence. The A.I.V.I.A. held several meetings in this connection and Kumarappa was called to survey conditions in some of the provinces and draw up reports with concrete suggestions for the development of village industries there. Important and voluminous reports were written under his supervision on the village industries of the Central Provinces and of the N.W.F.P. in 1939 and 1940.

The Village Industries movement, as pioneered by Kumarappa, became the embodiment of the economics of decentralization, self-sufficiency and lasting peace. In order to implement such a Swadeshi-based economic programme4 in the country Gandhi conceived of Basic Education and Nai Talim with the help of eminent educationists as Zakir Hussain. Kumarappa was also invited to join as member of a Committee on Nai Talim at the end of 1938, and he made definitive theoretical and practical contributions to the concepts of New Education based on handicrafts and agriculture. Many of his writings such as “Economy of Permanence” and “Philosophy of Work” deal with this all-important subject of education for a new village-based economy.    

The Village Industries movement faced strong opposition from the British government and from the larger industrial units. Kumarappa also had his doubts about Congress policy regarding big industries and their relationship to cottage industries. Village reorganisation and reconstruction on the basis of Khadi and other village industries was part of the constructive programme of the Congress. The 1931 Karachi Congress had passed a resolution with regard to the future Swaraj government that the “State shall own or control key industries, services, mineral resources, railways, waterways, shipping and other means of public transport.” His own understanding was that when industries are planned functionally certain functions will call for mass production and these should be performed co-operatively or under the Department of Industries. They should not be left to private enterprise. But Congress ministers were seen inaugurating and blessing textile, paper and sugar mills, and this was perceived by the masses as a support for private enterprises and large-scale industries. In a correspondence with the Congress President on this question, Kumarappa says: “If this interpretation is correct, then at least a list should be given of such industries where Congress can tolerate large-scale industries under private enterprise...My own submission is wherever there is a conflict between cottage industries and large-scale private enterprise the latter have to go overboard.”5

The reply of the Congress President to this query was ambiguous and did not unequivocally take up the case of Khadi and Gram Udyog as advocated by Kumarappa. This had also been his experience with the National Planning Committee that he joined as Chairman of a sub-committee on Agriculture and Village Industries. Subhas Chandra Bose, a known advocate of big industry (and of militant methods of attaining independence) had convened this Committee and many of its members were industrialists, economists, scientists and business magnates. Within three months Kumarappa resigned from this Committee due to his irreconcilable differences on the matter of the desirable industrialisation pattern of India and his inability to influence the Committee members to follow his line of thinking.

Kumarappa’s tours in the N.W.F.P., Afghanistan and the Central Provinces with the hard work involved in carrying out the surveys were a strain on his health and he developed high blood pressure, which became a serious problem for the rest of his life. The almost solitary confinement in Jabalpur Jail during the Quit India movement also told upon his health. This time he was sentenced to 3 terms of 2½ years hard labour. After spending two years in jail and completing two books his health began to break down and deteriorated to such an extent that he was released on the recommendation of civil surgeons, who had been asked to examine him. On gaining freedom, however, he recuperated quickly.

In 1946, when an interim government was formed prior to transfer of power, Kumarappa was offered a ministership by Sardar Patel, but he refused. Earlier too he had refused membership of the Congress Working Committee because he felt that his work in the A.I.V.I.A. was more important and that he could serve the masses better through this work. He would prefer to try and influence the government in the desired direction from outside rather than become part of it. With this aim he formulated an elaborate scheme for rural uplift, which met with Gandhi’s full approval. These recommendations were discussed at length and unanimously accepted at the 1946 Ministerial Conference in Poona the same year.     

The Post-‘Independence’ Period: The transfer of power that took place in August 1947 was considered as having only ushered in political Swaraj by Gandhi and Kumarappa. In the Gram Udyog Patrika of October 1947, Kumarappa remarked:

“Gandhiji is being hailed as the ‘Father of Independence’ throughout the land. What is the Independence we see around us? Freedom to kill each other? It is a blasphemy to call a divided country, where communal riots abound, a child of the apostle of non-violence. No government in our country has accepted Gandhiji’s ideals for the country. Indeed, Gandhi is either the father of a monster or a father without a child. There will be time enough to convey fatherhood on him when the country wholeheartedly adopts his programme based on the welfare of the masses.”6

For Gandhi, August 1947 had in no sense been a time of rejoicing. His dream of a united India where all communities were to get equal opportunities—political, social, economic, religious, cultural and educational—was yet to be realised. A caste- and classless society starting from the villages had now to be struggled for under conditions of the absence of an alien power. For tackling this task he wanted the Congress to dissolve itself as a political party concerned with government and transform itself into a service organisation called Lok Sevak Sangh, shifting its focus from urban to rural areas to do away once and for all the exploitation of villagers by townspeople. He said “Today, the villages are dung heaps. Tomorrow they will be little tiny gardens of Eden where dwell highly intelligent folk whom no one can deceive or exploit...The villagers should develop such a high degree of skill that articles prepared by them should command a ready market outside. When our villages are fully developed, there will be no dearth in them of men with a high degree of skill and artistic talent. There will be village poets, village artists, village architects, linguists and research workers. In short, there will be nothing in life worth having which will not be had in the villages.” 7

In this transition period, village panchayats were to be formed on the basis of adult suffrage. Each village would constitute one vote for electing the district administration, which in its turn would elect the provincial administrations, and these in turn would elect the President as head of the executive.8 In the polity evolved in this manner the Constitution would be formed from the bottom up and would not be an imported structure imposed from the top. In other words, Indian democracy would function without competitive parties—it would be a partyless democracy.9

Kumarappa agreed with Gandhi about the need for merging all the autonomous organisations he had created for constructive work under one Board of Management. These were in the various spheres of spinning and weaving, other village industries, agriculture, education, Harijan and Adivasi service, health, women’s uplift and cow protection. These organisations had come up at different points of time and there was a lack of much needed co-ordination in their functioning. For example, they would not as a matter of principle use each others’ products: the Go Seva Sangh would go in for bulk purchase of mill-pressed oil cake and would not opt for bullock ghani pressed cake; mill-made cloth or footwear from the hide of slaughtered animals would be worn by the members of these associations and so on.

For Gandhi, the aim of the rural reconstruction organisations was not just a reformist one of providing relief to the poverty-stricken people or of providing employment to those unemployed. They had a revolutionary aim of moral, social and spiritual transformation to usher in a non-violent non-exploitative social order, in which individual growth was truly at the centre and the villages were no longer exploited by towns. Not much progress had taken place from this point of view under British rule and he concurred with Kumarappa’s view that integration of the various Sanghs and co-ordination of their activities would help in advancing the cause of non-violence and peace. Only such united organisations speaking in one voice would be able to demonstrate to the government the type of programmes that needed to be followed. Kumarappa was asked to convene a meeting for this purpose on 3 Feb. 1948 in Sevagram. But Gandhiji was assassinated on 30th January. The meeting was therefore postponed and subsequently held between 13-15 March.

At this meeting, also attended by some Congress leaders, the heads of the various associations could not come to any agreement regarding integration. Finally, some of the constructive organisations merged to form the Akhil Bharat Sarva Seva Sangh.10 Shri Shankarrao Dev got appointed as Secretary. He could not take the organisation forward on a revolutionary footing as required by the circumstances then. North Indian chauvinism also prevailed by making Hindi the only accepted language of this all-India organisation. Due to the lack of emergence of any all-India leadership that would continue the struggle for the revolutionisation of society the organisations set up by Gandhi struck out on a reformist path and allowed themselves to come under the tutelage of the Nehru government. The wings of the A.I.V.I.A. and the A.I.S.A. were clipped through their take-over by the government under the All-India Khadi and Village Industries Commission, which itself came under the Ministry of Industries.11

The wholesale transformation of the Congress into a pro-imperialist party of the big bourgeoisie and landlords pitted against the interests of the vast masses of workers and peasants began during this period. This change manifested itself in things big and small, and Kumarappa was indefatigable in his critique of the anti-people government policies, and particularly of the man at the helm, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Considering the violence unleashed by the government against the people in its bid for forcible integration of the country and the increasing corruption amongst Congress politicians, Kumarappa was constrained to refer to Nehru as the Chiang Kai-shek of India. In his view, there was no question of constructive workers wholeheartedly cooperating with such a Congress-led government, which in a very short time had erected a steel purdah between itself and the people, rather than dedicating itself to their welfare and overcoming all the constraints in their progress. Native rural and urban and imperialist interests were increasingly allowed to dominate at the cost of India’s villages and its people.

Kumarappa had served on the Economic Programme Committee appointed in November 1947 by the A.I.C.C. and chaired by Nehru to indicate the broad guidelines for the economy. Its report was submitted in January 1948 and presented a diluted version of Gandhi’s and Kumarappa’s views on a largely decentralized and village industries based economy. This report was later in the year adopted by the government as its Industrial Policy Statement. Subsequently, the downslide away from Gandhian economic philosophy was rapid.12

In February 1948, the Congress appointed an Agrarian Reforms Committee, which was headed by Kumarappa. Its report submitted in July 1949 recommended land reforms, no private ownership of land and many other radical measures for restructuring land relations and land use. The recommendations of this Committee were pigeon-holed by the government, and Kumarappa went about setting up Pannai Ashram in Seldoh village near Wardha with the idea of undertaking a model implementation of the recommendations made in the Report. In this he was joined by Mira Behn and some other Sarvodaya workers.

On the request of the government Kumarappa helped in setting up the Gandhi Memorial Fund in Delhi. Initially, he rejected the idea of a Fund and expressed the opinion that a true memorial to Gandhiji would be one that would gather the thousands of young men being misguided into the path of violence and direct them into ways that would bring peace and harmony to India and the world. To start off this process of collecting at least one lakh souls he demanded the resignations of Nehru, Patel and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who should concentrate on collecting these souls from colleges and universities. This idea like others were rejected by the persons concerned and Kumarappa after a while left the work of the Memorial Fund to J.B. Kripalani.13

There was no immediate programme to be financed by the huge fund that was collected and a large part of it went into security investments. Big industrialists and financiers became its trustees and the government pay scales and allowances attracted educated youth as its employees. In a letter to Kripalani in 1951, Kumarappa mentioned the fact that the fund had become only a cheap source of finance to the Government of India and was not at all being used to increase the number of constructive workers. Instead of being located at Delhi, it should have been located in some important centre of constructive work, he opined.14

During this period Kumarappa also made many trips abroad, to Europe, the Soviet Union, China and Japan, and wrote about the political and economic policies being followed in these countries. He participated in the conferences of the International Peace Movement and elaborated on the Gandhian concepts of peace and non-violence. In 1952, he founded along with Gora (Goparaju Ramachandra Rao), an atheist rural social worker from Andhra Pradesh, an organisation, Arthik Samata Mandal (Society for Economic Equality), which was in favour of redistribution of land by means of non-violent pressure on the landlords by the landless, and of Swadeshi as an economic policy. In addition, it propagated Gramraj, the concept of partyless democracy, the idea that local village councils could and should work without political parties and organised ‘Food for All’ campaigns.

Last Phase:  By 1955 Kumarappa’s health was in so poor a condition that he had to give up his work at Pannai Ashram. He now set up his residence in Gandhi Niketan Ashram in T. Kallupatti near Madurai and started a training institute in village crafts there. He also continued to write on various national issues, particularly on the Community Development Programme of the government being undertaken with American aid and expertise, and on the Bhoodan movement initiated by Shri Vinoba Bhave. He took a dim view of both as not helping to really solve the agrarian issues of the country.

Ever since his work on the Agrarian Reforms Committee Kumarappa had begun to focus more on agrarian issues and in his village visits paid special attention to the needs of landless agricultural labour. For the preparation of this report he had travelled all over India, including to his home State of Tamil Nadu. The struggles between landowners and landless workers was acute here as in many other parts of India. He worked closely with the Tamil Nadu Constructive Workers’ Sangham, who called him to their camps to train village youth for constructive village work. His message to them that land, like air and water, should be common property of the people and that only those who work on the land should own it was considered to be communistic propaganda by the landowners and they complained to the government about this. The hostility towards him from these sections was very strong and there was a rumour that the government was thinking of putting a ban on his activities. Kumarappa’s sharp criticisms of the Nehru government had made him into a potential candidate for imprisonment in ‘free and independent’ India, and this was indeed suggested by some Congress politicians. Wisely, the Congress government refrained from this provocation, but by not erecting a memorial for him and by ignoring his contributions in all its publications it effectively buried him, just as they had buried Gandhi deep in the earth and not in their hearts!

In the last years of his life, coping with multiple health problems, he also had to bear the passing away of two of his brothers, one of them, Bharatan, who had worked with him at Maganvadi. The fourth of January 1960 was celebrated as his 68th birthday in Madras while quite ill. On the 26th he had a partial stroke but was recovering. He was invited for a public meeting on the evening of 30th January, the day of Gandhi’s martyrdom. But he replied that in the 12 years since Gandhi’s departure there had not been even an inch of progress in the country along Gandhian lines, so “How do we deserve praying for him on that day?” This thought, that we have not proved ourselves worthy disciples of the 20th century apostle of peace, seems to have weighed him down so much on that day that he passed away on the night of 30th January.   

Today, the conditions in the country are such that the following words of Gandhi come to mind:

“The contrast between the palaces of New Delhi and the miserable hovels of the poor, labouring class cannot last one day in a free India in which the poor will enjoy the same power as the richest in the land. A violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give and sharing them for the common good.”

The hour to establish a non-violent democracy of the Indian peoples, which, as Kumarappa called it, a government of the villagers, by the villagers and for the villagers, has been long due and needs all our efforts to make it a reality.