India lives in its village. It was Mahatma Gandhi who popularised this image of India. Most of his contemporaries agreed with him.

Even BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru, who disagreed with Gandhi on the social composition of the village and the path that India ought to choose for its economic development, accepted nearly completely the underlying demographic claim made in this statement. This was despite the fact that a great many Indians had, in fact, lived in urban settlements, almost forever.

At the time of India’s Independence, urban Indians made for nearly 15% (approximately 300 million) of the population. However, in popular nationalist common-sense, city dwellers did not represent the “real” India. For Gandhi, urban residents were not only a demographic minority but were also “inauthentic” Indians. Villages were where the soul of India lived.

Gandhi also went much further than this. He also founded his theory of India’s colonisation and its freedom around the idea of a village. Cities, for him, accompanied western civilisational influence and thus was a symbol and signifier of colonisation, both of mind and space. In his view, therefore, cities symbolised moral corruption. India’s true independence could only be through the recovery of its “lost” self, the village.

Gandhi was obviously being...

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