In the summer of that year, a procession of 6,000 peasants living in the town of Atpadi, in present-day Maharashtra, began marching the 160km to Aundh, the capital of their microscopic princely state. Intelligence officers working for the ruler of Aundh, Raja Bhawanrao Pant Pratinidhi, sent alarming reports of an angry crowd, led by fiery leaders, shouting revolutionary slogans. These spies were entirely right to be alarmed. The procession accounted for more than 10% of the entire population of Atpadi taluka. Two days later, and with no sign of enthusiasm abating, the procession was camped just 5km outside the gates of Aundh. Writing about the events some five decades later, the late Apa Sahib Pant, son and heir of the raja of Aundh, recalled the state of alarm in the palace. The prince prayed to the royal family’s deity, Jagadamba. “Oh goddess," he thought, “can this be the end of Aundh, and Baba’s dreams of a model state?"
As the procession camped for the night, the ministers, advisers and the prince himself were running helter skelter at the palace preparing for the inevitable showdown. The protesters were expected to arrive at the palace and demand an audience with the raja the next day. Yet no one at the palace, it appeared, had sought to consult with the raja. A meeting of high-ranking officials was called hastily in a palace called the “Rangachi Kholi". This was where the raja liked to paint. Almost every day, up to 2 hours at a time, Bhawanrao would paint scenes from the Ramayan, Mahabharat, or the life of Shivaji, whom he adored.
Much to the astonishment of his ministers, the king appeared unperturbed about the revolution that seemed to have gathered at his doorstep. After listening to his advisers, he turned to his son. Apa Pant, later to become a stellar diplomat in the service of the Republic of India, suggested a gentle response. Let us offer them a lunch of dal and rice, the prince claims to have said, and then let us ask these citizens of Aundh what they are protesting about. “Let it be so," said the king.
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The next day, placated by a warm welcome and lunch, the protesters sat down to talk. A variety of leaders spoke to and for the crowds, and, as the day passed, the audience swelled as villagers began to pour in from surrounding hamlets, most not even part of Aundh’s jurisdiction. Two issues appeared paramount: lower taxation and better administration. The government of Aundh agreed to review taxation rates. And two Congress leaders—Shankarrao Deo and B.V. Shikhare—were appointed to review the state of administration in Aundh and suggest reforms.
But the events of that summer led to something much more than just two promises of reform and a free lunch. They began to make the ruling disposition of Aundh think. How did things get to this point? What if, next time, rice and dal didn’t placate a crowd of thousands? What if, next time, as one minister had feared, the crowd burnt down the palace? Something had to be done. The people needed a better deal.
And thus it came to pass that some six months later, on 23 November 1938, on the 70th birthday of the raja, Aundh did something unprecedented, perhaps, in the history of kingship in India. That morning, Bhawanrao Pant Pratinidhi, the ruler of Aundh, relinquished his throne. The government of Aundh had passed on to his people. “My children," the raja declared, were now capable of managing their own affairs. He would now just watch and guide them.
There was just one problem. How would Aundh actually manage its own affairs? The leaders of Aundh turned to the one man they knew could help: Mahatma Gandhi.
To understand the “Aundh experiment", as the 10-year-long implementation of a Gandhian constitution in Aundh is known, and to fully appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of that remarkable project, one must first get to grips with three stories: that of Aundh itself, the story of its ruler, and the story of Maurice Frydman, a Polish Jew.
Aundh was one of several princely states that were formed following the collapse of the Maratha kingdom in 1818. Due to a combination of historical factors, Aundh in 1938 was a small patchwork quilt of a state, comprising 72 villages scattered across what are today the districts of Satara and Sangli in Maharashtra and Bijapur in Karnataka. All of Aundh accounted for an area of just over 500 sq. miles, broken up into pieces (for a sense of scale, compare that to Mysore’s 30,000 sq. miles).
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Despite his diminutive domain, however, the raja of Aundh was something of a celebrity. And that was because by the 1930s he had become synonymous with the Surya Namaskar. Bhawanrao was a fanatic of the mystical exercise. Exactly at 7.10 each morning, in every school in Aundh, children of every religious denomination would assemble and perform the exercise, complete with Sanskrit mantras. In 1923, the raja wrote a book in Marathi on the exercise. Then, some years later, during a tour of Europe, the raja carried with him a 16mm film of the exercises, enthusiastically putting up shows for anyone interested in his daily regimen. Coverage in the British press made him something of a local celebrity. And then he wrote a book titled The Ten Point Way To Health in 1938, which became a British best-seller. The book, which features photographs of the Surya Namaskar being demonstrated by none other than the prince himself, is still available online.
Raja Bhawanrao, then, hardly appears to be the type of despot who would have opposed any attempt to transform his little kingdom into a constitutional republic of sorts. Indeed, as historian and Gandhian Indira Rothermund describes in one of the few standalone books on the subject, The Aundh Experiment, the raja had already started delegating powers to his people in various forms from 1917. That was the year in which Aundh established representative bodies at the state and village levels. Iterations and refinements followed.
But to motivate the raja, his prince, and their advisers to take the ultimate plunge, and delegate all power to the people, took the involvement of the type of personality that today seems peculiar, but was quite common in those waning years of the empire in India. Without Maurice Frydman, Apa Pant writes, Aundh would have always remained a small, drought-prone state, perennially in debt to bankers.
Born into crushing poverty in the Polish city of Kraków, Frydman possessed a precocious capacity for languages. By the time he was a teenager, Frydman could speak Russian, Polish, French, English and Hebrew. Educated as an electrical engineer, Frydman was appointed, several jobs later, as the managing director of a factory in Paris. Spotted by the prime minister of Mysore during a state visit to France, Frydman needed little persuasion to move to Bangalore where, two years later, he not only set up the Government Electrical Factory, but also transformed into a disciple of Shri Ramana Maharishi, taking the name Bharatananda.
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Apa Pant met Frydman during a trip to Bengaluru and struck up a friendship that would last for decades. Frydman, Pant recalled, was buzzing with ideas to integrate Western notions of revolution and democracy with ideas and plans for the improvement of the Indian village. Eventually, in March 1938, Frydman moved to Aundh, and, in return for food and a roof over his head, began to work to improve the lives of the people of Aundh.
In November 1938, when the raja relinquished his throne, it was Frydman who had drawn up the declaration. And the next month, as Apa Pant sat in a “1929 Ford ‘A’ model, complete with rattling mudguards and a leaking, boiling radiator", bouncing over the rutted road to Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram, Frydman was at his side again.
Gandhi told the prince he would be happy to help, on three conditions. First, the prince must live and work in Aundh for 10 years and not rush off to live in some big city. Second, the prince was to wear cloth spun in Aundh, consume only what the commoners of Aundh could afford, and spend no more than Rs50 a month on himself. And third, the prince was to live in a hut like the poorest citizen of Aundh.
Shaken, but meek, the prince agreed. And then Gandhi began to outline his vision of a government. Apa Pant quotes Gandhi:
“In my dreams of a model state, power will not be concentrated in a few hands. Centralized power has always created great problems for society. A centralized government becomes expensive, unwieldy, inefficient, corrupt, often ruthless, and is always heartless. All centralized governments attract power-seekers who capture power, and then maintain it by force."
Instead, Gandhi wanted a system of government that was built from the village panchayat upwards. Throughout December 1938, the delegation from Aundh and Gandhi worked on a draft “Swaraj Constitution".
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Two things stand out from both Pant’s recollections of those meetings and Rothermund’s later analysis. First is Gandhi’s persistence that all aspects of government must arise from the grass roots. Thus each village was to elect a panchayat of five. The five would either unanimously agree on a president, or directly conduct elections to elect one. The village panchayat presidents formed a taluk, which chose its own president. The four taluks thus formed would each send three members to the legislative assembly of Aundh. One of them would then become prime minister. In Gandhi’s vision then, the prime minister of Aundh was, by definition, a member of a village panchayat. Power trickled up, and not down.
The second, perhaps more striking, thing about Gandhi’s constitution for Aundh was his insistence that only literate citizens vote. This caused great consternation in the prince and others. After all, Aundh had less than 10% literacy in 1938. No problem, said Gandhi, teach everybody in time for your first election.
And thus it was that on 21 January 1939, Aundh passed legislation affirming the new Swaraj Constitution. A constitution that was dictated to a surprising extent by Mahatma Gandhi. It was an event that sent shockwaves through India, the empire and the wider world. Contrary to all impressions of the “despot from the Orient", here was an Indian raja handing over power to a new state with a new constitution. And that too a constitution crafted by that greatest of all Indian rebels: Gandhi. Indeed, both the raja and his son spent substantial time in this period fending off British suspicions and displeasure.
From the perspective of the broader Indian politics of the time, there is an element of self-preservation in the Aundh experiment. Buffeted between the twin forces of British intervention and an exploding nationalist movement, Aundh found a third path in its transformation into a constitutional democratic state.
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Did the Aundh experiment work? Reading both Pant’s memoirs and Rothermund’s analysis, this is actually difficult to say. In some areas, such as education, state finances and social cohesion, there is no doubt that the Swaraj Constitution improved the lives of people. The number of schools, the number of teachers and state spending on education grew rapidly in the years following 1938. The state was even able to handle a devastating famine in 1942 without falling apart. But eventually, the small state’s vulnerability to broader economic forces—for instance, it had no means of dealing with food prices; most of it was imported—and the turbulence of Indian politics, were insurmountable problems. Regardless, Aundh soldiered along till 1948, when it eventually folded into the Indian union, along with most other princely states.
On every anniversary of Gandhi’s death, one is tempted to ask what would have happened to India had Gandhi not been subject to the assassin’s gun. Would his undeniable influence have swayed members of the constituent assembly? Would India have a constitution that was spiritually, if not materially, wary of excessive centralization and less dismissive of local government and grass-roots democracy? And would Gandhi have insisted on votes only for the literate, in seemingly blatant violation of the egalitarianism he espoused in all his work and writings?
One good place to look for an answer, perhaps, is in the small town of Aundh in Maharashtra.
Sources for these events are hard to come by. Rothermund herself depends considerably on Apa Pant’s volumes of memoirs, especially his An Unusual Raja: Mahatma Gandhi And The Aundh Experiment, published in 1989.