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Concept of 'Seva' and the 'Sevak' in the Freedom Movement

The notion of seva may traditionally have been associated with a normally menial, demeaning or polluting act of service. This article, however, seeks to develop this concept further to describe a node of political discourse and practice in the freedom struggle. It traces the idea of service as propagated during various stages of the freedom struggle: Seva and how it was defined by the social reform movements of the 19th century; the Servants of India Society and their notion of seva; in Vivekananda's teachings; the early 20th century use of the term; as later enunciated by Gandhi in his early ideas of constructive work; the concept as it developed in interaction with Christian missionaries; the sevak's view of the tribal; Ambedkar's contestation of the term and his Constructive Programme and finally, the Nehruvian take on service. In each instance, the concept of seva was defined and sought to represent an interest group or community's position as the politics of the freedom struggle unfolded.

Concept of ‘Seva’ and the ‘Sevak’ in the Freedom Movement

The notion of seva may traditionally have been associated with a normally menial, demeaning or polluting act of service. This article, however, seeks to develop this concept further to describe a node of political discourse and practice in the freedom struggle. It traces the idea of service as propagated during various stages of the freedom struggle: Seva and how it was defined by the social reform movements of the 19th century; the Servants of India Society and their notion of seva; in Vivekananda’s teachings; the early 20th century use of the term; as later enunciated by Gandhi in his early ideas of constructive work; the concept as it developed in interaction with Christian missionaries; the sevak’s view of the tribal; Ambedkar’s contestation of the term and his Constructive Programme and finally, the Nehruvian take on service. In each instance, the concept of seva was defined and sought to represent an interest group or community’s position as the politics of the freedom struggle unfolded.


his essay develops the concept of seva to describe a node of political discourse and practice in the freedom struggle. It is argued that seva served to consolidate Congress, caste-Hindu hegemony during the growth phase of the freedom movement. It is suggested that it was structural to the reform of Hindu practice through which the ontic disposition of the enterprising capitalist becomes a possibility without the prerequisite of a revolutionary transformation. In what follows we try to explore the historical elaboration of this concept of seva roughly during the period 1900-1950.

Common Sense Notion of Seva Today

Seva is usually represented as pressing another’s feet or legs to relieve suffering. This leitmotif in upper-caste narratives of seva will tell us what this term connotes today, and form a point of departure for the historical investigation.

Slapstick humour in north Indian life accompanies the request for an exceptional favour with a pantomime of pressing legs, saying ‘Mai teri seva karunga.’1 When the grandparents come to perform seva for the newborn, the normally polluting task of cleaning the child becomes sacred because he is an incarnation of Ram Lalla or even Krishna. In another usage, kar-seva refers to the manual work of (re)-building a religious shrine to which the devout contribute, suffering no loss of caste status despite “helping-build” being a low caste profession. In Sikhism, the act of contrition performed by one who has offended the faith, seva, refers to cleaning the shoes of the devout at the entrance to the gurdwara for a specified period.2 A free flowing discussion about seva evoked mythical south Indian narratives involving touching the feet of another.3 In Maharashtrian legend, a lowercaste boy, Pundalik, massaging the legs of his ageing parents, is called by his companion Krishna to play. Pundalik asks him to wait while he performs his primary task, and tosses him a brick to stand on. This avatar of Krishna on a brick, Purandhara Vittal, is a symbol of the cultural recognition that seva as the duty to ones parents and the infirm comes before response to god. In the Alwar tradition of Tamil Nadu, an untouchable devotee prays outside the temple until god tells the priests to bring him in. One of the priests hoists the devotee on his back, holds his legs with his hands, and brings him into the sanctum sanctorum. This devotee becomes “Thirupanalwar”.

Thus, in brahmanical and upper-caste legend today, the term seva denotes what is called service in English, but comes to mind in connection with a normally menial, demeaning or polluting act of service which carries no taint in special contexts: in the family, in reparation for wrongs, for community repair, as ethical obligation, establishing the priority of duty, as recognition by god and as the sanctification of an untouchable. This contemporary, 21st century connotation gives us a fuzzy, but adequate, horizon against which to develop concept of seva in our historical study.

Idea of Service in the Social Reform Agenda

A substantial part of Charles Heimsath’s study of social reform focuses on the debate between the Indian National Congress and the Social Conference in Maharashtra during the 1890s.4 In these debates, Tilak and his Congress colleagues argued that the reform agenda was a colonial ruse diffusing the focus of political struggle. Their opponents, led by Ranade argued the primacy of social reform. By the turn of the 20th century, R G Bhandarkar, Narendra Nath Sen and Viresalingam Pantulu, were calling for widespread social reform in debates across the different presidencies.

Controversies forced the social reform movement to settle for local initiatives, while the political agenda took the national stage. In local initiatives, Christian work among untouchable and tribal communities provided the model for the formation of missions to uplift the “backward classes”.5 In this context, around 1900, the notion of service takes on a shade of meaning beyond the then current meaning of steady employment, and begins to connote uplift of the depressed classes, through educational, cultural, and sometimes religious, work.

In national politics (as different from local reform), the new meaning taken on by the term “servant” informs Gokhale’s Servants of India Society (SIS) formed in 1905. The SIS was conceived as an elite band of political volunteers committed to full time, unpaid political work. Aspiring servants of the SIS were to be university “graduates of distinction and high calibre”, who then spent the next five years “studying and travelling, and working under trusted leaders, but never making themselves responsible for either a speech or a newspaper article or for any public action”. Entering probation the volunteers had to take seven vows: to the service of the country; to seek no personal advantage; to regard all Indians as brothers regardless of caste and creed and work for their advancement; to remain content with the society’s economic provision and never engage in paid work; to lead a pure personal life; to engage in no personal quarrel with any one; and to remain faithful to the objectives of the SIS.6

The constitution of the SIS, calling for a missionary attitude and the spiritualisation of public work, asserted the influence of liberal ideas among all, and remarked on its goal thus,

The Servants of India Society has been established to meet in some measure these requirements of the situation. Its members frankly accept the British connection as ordained, in the inscrutable dispensation of Providence, for India’s good. Self-government on the lines of English colonies is their goal...7

What did a Servant of India look like? Amritlal V Thakkar was born second of six sons in an educated family of the lohana community in Kathiawar.8 His father, Vithaldas, a businessman, was known to have organised famine relief kitchens in Kathiawar for about 400-500 of his own caste members, and fed a troop of 50-60 beggars at his doorstep. Amritlal served briefly in the railways, and then went to Uganda. He came back, and after some other small jobs, joined the Bombay Municipal Corporation. Here he met bhangis and mahars and seems to have worked for their uplift. He joined the Depressed Classes Mission around 1906, fell under the influence of members of the SIS and later joined them. We get a sense of Thakkar’s character from a letter he wrote in 1914 to his brothers explaining his decision.

Dear Brothers, Bombay, January 25, 1914

It pains me to write this letter and I believe it will pain you all very deeply to read its contents. I wish someone else would have communicated this to you. But after all, it falls to my lot to perform this sad duty. I have resigned my service from the Bombay Municipality and shall be relieved from my duties on the February 2 and shall immediately join the Servants of India Society. I have consulted no one in this matter, and have acted entirely according to the dictates of my own conscience... In the course of my service I have formed strong ties of affection with my subordinates, and not only that, but I have also learned to love the very roads in my charge, inanimate as they are. It pains me more to part from my servants and roads than it does to part from my kith and kin, and as a brother-officer told me yesterday, I feel as if I have sinned against my hundreds of subordinates and thousands of coolies. I feel as if I am deserting these people who have ever showered affection on me and have blessed me from the bottom of their hearts... Moreover I am fully convinced that India wants whole-time and devoted workers, and not part time or spare-time workers, and unless these are secured, no real progress can be made. There is plenty of money for real workers. Mr. Gokhale can command thousands and lakhs of rupees, but he cannot secure devoted workers... My struggle is now over. All parting in life is sad, but I leave you for a noble cause, and hope to go with your blessings.9

Amritlal’s uses the words “service”, “servant”, “work” and “worker” in many different and overlapping senses in the letter, but the new idea is taking shape, and in the next few decades, the SIS work he refers to here when he uses the term “worker” is recognised as “service”.10 His moral sense of duty drives him to seek out and work for the depressed classes. On the other hand, Amritlal harbours an egocentrism which sees the roads, servants, subordinates and coolies as focused, and totally dependent, on him for their well-being. This sensibility and subjectivity are the symptoms of a new model of an elite in emergence, and points to the consolidation of a specific social structure.

Thakkar excelled at relief in distress. In 1926, under the aegis of the SIS, he started the Bhil Seva Mandal and also became the president of the Antyaja Seva Mandal. (Clearly by this time the term seva is beginning to be used.) His work with the Harijan Sevak Sangh and the Bhil Seva Mandal will be touched on later.

Let us conclude this section with a review of the “servant”: One, the Servant of India towered above the people served, as their ascetic leader and exemplar. Two, the servant of the SIS was not a simple embodiment of the elite leadership, but a conceptualisation of an elite vanguard as a structural solution to what had begun to be perceived as the problem of India’s backwardness. Three, since most of those who qualified, or thought in these terms, were upper-caste this vanguard elite was implicitly upper-caste in structure. Four, insofar as its liberal and secular imagination eschewed reference to religion except in terms of reproof, it did not touch the feelings of the society it worked in.11 This does not imply that the only way to appeal to popular feeling was to endorse religion; serious engagement with every-day religion was necessary for a political venture like the SIS to succeed in a large scale.

Karma Yoga and the Ascetic Activist

Roots of seva appear in the work of Swami Vivekananda. Heimsath has described Vivekananda’s castigation of the arrogance of social reformers after his return from the US in 1897, their posturing for western eyes, their failure to change society, and their petty politics which innervated reform.12 Both the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, which were started by him, eschewed social reform since proper nourishment with education and food would weed out evil.

On the other hand, Vivekananda poured scorn on Hinduism’s philosophy of “don’t touchism” and exhorted the Hindus to change their ways if they have to survive the transformations sweeping society. The solution of the caste question was not

degrading those who are already high up, is not running amuck,through food and drink, is not jumping out of our own limits inorder to have more enjoyment, but it comes from every one ofus fulfilling the dictates of our Vedantic religion, by our attainingspirituality, and by becoming the ideal brahmana.13

The brahmans must work hard to raise the Indian people and teach them what they know. They should open the treasury of virtue and distribute its values in the world.

Heimsath reads Vivekananda’s revivalism as a critical moment in the progress to universal nationhood, which would occur through reform of the social structure, and amelioration of the depressed classes. Thus, in Heimsath’s narrative, between the desire to break the stifling barriers of tradition on the part of the revivalists and the resentment felt by the social reformers against the perpetual humiliation by the west, a common language emerged, providing the national movement with a sweep and perspective that would emancipate and modernise India. The suppressed narrative is that the fire of revival would be extinguished by the overall progress of the modernised nation. Such a partial, though sympathetic, reading of Vivekananda’s project would not do justice to the complexity of the change wrought by his discourses on the structure of brahmanical Hindu thought. This reductive reading of the advent of modernity, without an understanding of the change in the conceptual structure of Hinduism and its interplay with that modernity, pits one against another in a seemingly timeless opposition: secular modernity and an outdated tradition.14 A more detailed look at Vivekananda’s perspective on the crisis of Hindu society would be useful and also serve as a background for the following discussion of Gandhi’s work on seva.

Vivekananda’s Karma Yoga is the primary text that yields this understanding.15 Karma Yoga’s lesson is that, for most people, i e, ‘grihastis’ or householders, duty to the community is the only practical route to salvation. While withdrawal from the world (sanyas) is certainly a greater good, it is far easier preached than practised. The performance of duty in utter selflessness brings freedom in its wake; not “political” freedom, but mukti or moksha, i e, freedom from the eternal cycle of rebirth. For Vivekananda, karma yoga does not imply belief in a specific religion; it only insists that unselfishness is the supreme good. The karma yogi finds his own path to selflessness. However, the karma yogi’s work has no absolute value, because the world in its eternal flux remains the same. Inequalities remain, and are the driving forces of progress. The sum total of happiness, like energy, is unchanging – it is only redistributed by human action. True and total change occurs only when the millennium (yuga) comes to an end. Thus acts of duty, rather than have an effect on the world, actually only elevate the grihasti and bring him closer to freedom from rebirth.

Vivekananda’s exhortations regarding the need for a new ethical conduct were, it seems certain, based on a creative reinterpretation of tradition. Karma Yoga (unlike the Gita or the Vedas16) prescribed an open ended moral injunction which was to be installed in the hearts of caste Hindus grihastis who in Vivekananda’s time formed the bulk of the middle-class society. In Karma Yoga, varnashrama dharma weakens its link with varna, i e, what may be called the “synchronic” caste order of society, and strengthens its link with ashrama, or the orthogonal “diachronic” order of the stages of life, by its reference to the grihasta in the series brahmacharya, grihasta, vanaprastha and bhiksha. The grihasta has to think his ethical response to Hinduism’s crisis and look outwards, seeking the meaning of his life in his duty to society. Dharma is then reconfigured as an internal, autonomous, creative response of the modern householder – duty is left to his ethical imagination with only broad limits placed on its innovativeness. Vivekananda’s karma yoga shifts the emphasis of dharma and appropriates the western concept of moral autonomy.17 It cuts the householder free from subjection to the external Vedic dharma (and that of the Gita as well) and subjectivates him to an internal decision on conduct. This involves a clear rejection of a constant in the debates of the Vedanta through its millennial history: i e, obedience of the injunction to work within the specifications and boundaries of ones own varna.

It is quite beyond our abilities to establish through primary references the genealogy of this kind of move from subjection to subjectivation; however, given the historical imagination of India and Hinduism within which Vivekananda thought his solution, it is almost certain that this specific historical structure of subjectivation was quite unique, if not unprecedented.18 One marker we can offer in this connection is the systematic difference in emphasis between Vivekananda’s turning outwards to the world, and his preceptor – the bhakta par excellence – Ramakrishna’s withdrawal from it.19, 20

On the other hand, the Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, who followed the lived principles of the Buddha, were expected to gift everything, including their very lives to the bahujana, or the multitudes of people in misery, without reference to caste.21 Kancha Ilaiah in his study of Buddhism as political philosophy has drawn attention to the fact that the Buddha’s asceticism was structurally different from the tapasya (penance) of the brahmanical sages, and that the former did not appeal to god.22

In the “modern” world, the transition between Vithaldas Thakkar and his son Amritlal shows a change in the practical structure of duty, similar to the one taught by Vivekananda. While Vithaldas performed the externally mandated caste duty of feeding beggars and his own caste brethren during a famine, Amritlal sought to look outwards and found his duty and meaning in life in an autonomous response to the general condition of the Hindu outcaste. Whether Amritlal followed Vivekananda or not, the ethical action reflects a parallel change in his conduct. As we shall see, Amritlal preserved a deeply Hindu sensibility in social service, which contrasts with the social reform sensibility of the 1890s.

At the same time, it must be noted that Thakkar’s act exceeds Vivekananda’s exhortations in one respect. While karma yoga stressed ‘grihasta’ as the site of activism, Thakkar cut off family and resigned from government service to do service to the depressed classes and to the nation. This step beyond karma yoga pushes the transformation of the ethical personality into one which may be described as the ascetic activist. Such an activist plunges into the world and breaks with brahmanical orthodoxy regarding purity and pollution. This ascetic activism has a distant precedent in the model of the Bodhisattva of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, which is however unacknowledged in the subjective understanding of the activist.

At this point, we would like to draw attention to Rudolph and Rudolph’s argument in The Modernity of Tradition about Gandhi’s ‘This-Worldly Asceticism and Political Modernisation’,23 applying Weber’s thesis of the Protestant ethic directly to the understanding of asceticism in terms of petty accountancy and frugality. We feel this does not explain some crucial hegemonic aspects of the function of ascetic activism, which we explore in the last section of this essay.

Concept of Seva, Swaraj and Constructive Activity

The secular use of the term seva gains currency starting around 1908 when “Seva Sadan”, was established for ladies in Bombay.24 G K Devadhar and Ramabai Ranade started the Seva Sadan for widows in Poona in 1909 and branches were formed through out Bombay Province and in Madras city.25 Another reference is the draft constitution of the Sabarmati Ashram (dated before May 20, 1915), which had three names suggested for the ashram: “Satyagrahashram?; Deshsevashram?; Sevamandir?”26 There was a Marathi monthly called the Bharat Sevak in which Gandhi contributed an article titled ‘The Hindu Caste System’ in 1915.27 By this time the Servants of India Society was also being called Hind Sevak Samaj.28 There are references during this period to a Gujarati book Striyo ane Samaj Seva with Gandhi’s foreword.29 These few references to the use of the term show that its origin in 20th century usage is not Gandhian.

The Gandhi correspondence of the 1920s has the word seva usually in reference to organisations, like Seva Sadan, Bhil Seva Mandal, Gandhi Seva Sangh, etc. Gandhi preferred to use the word “service” to describe activity, and another significant term was “constructive” used as an adjective describing work, activity or programme. Mark Thomson, in his study Gandhi’s ashrams,30 notes the importance of constructive work in his ashrams at Sabarmati and at Segaon. We get a sense of the relationship between “constructive” work and seva by mapping the use of the adjective “constructive” in Gandhi’s correspondence around the halted Bardoli civil disobedience movement in 1922: constructive work connotes:31

  • (i) a preparation for civil disobedience; (ii) something which purifies the heart of the political worker; (ii) non-violence – the constructive programme is a form of organised non-violent war to oppose the colonial state’s organised violent peace; (iv) the religious side of the political – the two could not be divorced in the mind of the average Indian, many Muslims and Hindus joined the political struggle because they saw it in religious terms;
  • (v) it was anti-communal, and promoted harmony between Hindu and Muslim; (vi) it was anti-untouchability and worked for the uplift of the depressed classes; and (vii) the economic side of the political – khadi and the spinning wheel were symbols of an ethical commitment to economic freedom from imported cloth and the growth of indigenous village industry.
  • For Gandhi, constructive work founded the active “non-violent blows” of civil disobedience, strengthening the community and weakening the state. It was an essential element of satyagraha seen as a complex of ethical political action. Thus the constructive work of community repair had to prepare the ground for swaraj, and help Congress deepen its reach, moving beyond superficial parliamentary reform to a genuine representation sought by all the people of the nation. The several ways in which the term constructive work was used suggest that it also carried the connotation of the term seva used in the common sense context described at the beginning of this chapter: “community repair, ethical obligation, the priority of duty, recognition by god and the sanctification of an untouchable”.

    Thomson has argued that the village service experiments both at Sabarmati and at Sevagram were failures because of several reasons including participant opportunism, Gandhi’s cripplingly massive charismatic appeal, lack of interest among the villagers themselves, entrenched caste culture in the village, and lack of organised effort on the part of the ashram.32 If we avoid the trap of judging the success of the seva experiments by their own standards of achievement and look instead at what occurred in and around the seva activity we will begin to understand how the concept of seva functioned in the politics of hegemony in the freedom struggle.

    Christianity and Gandhian Seva

    Not all Christians supported Gandhi, not even all missionaries,33 but there were many Christian admirers who drew energy from his thought and helped the nationalist cause. Before examining briefly the work of three Gandhian Christians, C F Andrews, Jack Winslow and Verrier Elwin, we will look at Gandhi’s debt to Christian thought.

    Gandhi had often acknowledged the deeply emotional effect of the Sermon on the Mount in which the believer is asked to offer the other cheek when struck.34 At the same time, he was antagonistic to the Christian missionaries who sought to convert the Hindu, especially when they criticised Hinduism. In general he felt that Christianity had no right to convert even one who sought conversion.35

    Gandhi found love at the source of all religions including Hinduism, expressing itself in service to the oppressed. Love was the root of ahimsa which in turn was the kernel of the concept of satyagraha. Though he drew on the Christian ethic of loving ones neighbour, he did not see it as a commandment in the sense of the Old Testament. This neighbourly love was not also a channel for god’s unconditional love (Agape) in the inexplicable incarnation of Christ among the sinners. Nor was there the Augustinian synthesis of love (Caritas) as the human bid to ascend to god’s level.36 The crucifixion was the way of all human effort to form the community of man.

    Gandhi spun together belief in varnashrama dharma, ascetic activism and committing ones life to society and the well-being of all, neighbourly love in the Christian sense, guilt, self-sacrifice and mental self-flagellation, and last but not least, bhakti expressed in bhajans sung with his followers. However illogical this synthesis may seem, it answered an emotional need in caste-Hindus defending feverishly a lived culture against colonial reason’s assault on self-respect. The difference between seva and the philosophy of the Servants of India Society discussed earlier is evident in the way in which the concept of seva engaged vitally with religion.

    How did Christianity look at Gandhi? We have some evidence from the written views of three different missionaries.

    C F Andrews belonged to an Anglo-Catholic family.37 Cambridge led to Andrews becoming a missionary priest with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) and to his first job at St Stephens, Delhi a decade before he met Gandhi. He started out supporting the idea that Christian missions and colonialism were India’s blessings, but slowly saw that the cohabitation of race and Christianity was the most sinful and retrograde association that could befall the latter. Early on, he was involved in an initiative to found an Indian organisation to spread Christianity, called the National Missionary Society or the Bharatiya Christya Sevak Samaj. Through meetings with Tagore and with Mahatma Munshi Ram, and confronted by a series of crises in his theological understanding, he came to believe that Semitic and Hindu religions had common roots.38 In Gandhi, Andrews found a brother-teacher who met his emotional and intellectual demands. Recognised by the colonial rulers as belonging to an English voice which was loved and trusted by Indians, and which could not be ignored due to its sheer honesty, Andrews’ writings and interventions provided a powerful hegemonic link between the Indian freedom movement and Christian thought across the world.

    Jack Winslow, another missionary from the Church of England coming to India in 1914, later described mission work39 and his gradual understanding of the problems which ailed the Christian mission in India. While it was true that the number of Christians in India was growing exponentially, there was a dearth of contact and fellowship with the Indians at the practical level. Everything in the mission was European, strange and bewildering to the Indian, from the knife and fork used to eat, to the psalms sung to Anglican chants. Drawing inspiration from Shantiniketan, and the Sabarmati Ashram, Winslow decided to start a Christa Seva Sangh, in Ahmednagar.40 The inmates lived simply, wore khaddar cassock-like garments, sported a saffron girdle, ate, sat and slept on the floor. As the Sangh’s understanding of the caste hierarchy deepened, it focused on the untouchables, and Winslow records one success in generating a “mass movement” towards Christ in which the untouchables of the village of Karanji, near Ahmednagar destroyed their Hindu idols at dawn and en masse converted to Christianity.41 The local caste-Hindu population, far from resenting the conversion, actually lauded the missionaries’ good work, in contrast to Gandhi’s anti-missionary position.

    Verrier Elwin was an ordained priest who joined the Christa Seva Sangh in reparation for the evils of colonialism, fell under Gandhi’s influence, left the Sangh to become a lay “philanthropologist” among the gonds and later started the Gond Seva Mandal at Karanjia in the Central Provinces.42

    These attempts to return Christianity to its “true vocation” were an outcome of a significant British consciousness of the moral untenability of colonial rule. From the reception of Andrews’ work, as of Elwin’s and Winslow’s to lessening degrees, it is clear that this critical anti-colonial thought, far from representing the views of a minority of private individuals, was a schism that agonised the colonial rulers themselves. The official discussion that always emerged around the pronouncements of these seditious defenders of the faith were cracks in the colonial façade, exposed by the hegemonic force developed between seva and some expressions of missionary Christianity.

    The modern globalising mission of Christianity should be understood as a precedent to economic globalisation by two full centuries. If Winslow’s statistics are right, this process increased the number of Christians from around three million at the turn of the 19th century, to about nearly 10 million a 150 years later.43 The missionary pastors who faced, convinced and converted strange flocks in the forsaken districts of India to belief in the grace of god, and taught the immediate meaning of Christ’s incarnation for them, were the first to apply a universal yardstick to measure the untouchable in India.

    I have argued elsewhere that an operational framework of alien sovereignty based on a concept of racial superiority had retarded the growth of colonial rule in India. Colonialism could not fully develop a governmental rationality based on a normative concept of welfare.44The Evangelical movement of the early 19th century foundered on the wave of the post-mutiny racism in the thought of the colonial rulers. By the turn of the 20th century however, missionary pastors of some persuasions began to re-exert a critical force on this fundamental weakness of colonial rule.

    The critique of the cohabitation between the Christian mission and colonial racism, as exemplified in the radicalism of C F Andrews and Verrier Elwin, was an important and influential reinforcement of an elite nationalism’s claims to the care of its own flock. This critical pastorate was the western precursor of the Gandhian sevak, even though the former and its essential religious concerns would be disavowed in the process of national appropriation.

    Sevak and Tribal

    Gandhi’s disapproval of the missionary, his appropriation of the pastoral effort for Hinduism, the nature of the sevak’s work, and the character of the cultural assault on the life of the bhils of western India, all come through in one of his notes on the subject.

    Shri Amritlal proposes once again to hold a fair for the Bhils on the forthcoming Rama-navami day. On that occasion a temple to Ramachandra is to be declared open, that is, there will be “prana-pratishta”45 into the idol of Rama. Why may we not call it prana-pratishta into the Bhils? Shri Amritlal has shown us our duty towards them. We hardly ever accept them as human beings. The government has also classified them as a scheduled tribe. Thus neither society nor the government takes interest in them. These so-called uncivilised communities are bound to attract the attention of the missionaries, for it is the latter’s duty to get recruits for the Christian army. I do not regard such proselytisation as a real service to dharma. But how can we blame the missionaries, if the Hindus take no interest in the Bhils? For to them any one who is brought into the Christian fold, no matter how, has become a Christian, has entered a new life and become civilised. If as a result of such conversion, the converts rise spiritually and morally, I personally would have nothing to say against their conversion. But I do not think that this is what happens. I, therefore, say that the prana-pratishta into the idol in this temple will in fact be pranapratishta into the Bhils themselves, for I suppose that they will from that time onwards understand the holy power of the name Rama, will feel god’s presence and resolve to give up eating meat and drinking and be filled with new life. The building of the temple, however, is but the beginning of our service to them, not its end. There are many things we can do to serve them; but workers are few, and that is our misfortune. 46

    Gandhi’s stream of consciousness Sanskritisation proposed for the bhils, and his rock-like faith in his own interpretation of the relative values of bhil and Hindu cultures, lays bare the force relations between the caste-Hindu centre and the tribal periphery. This is in stark opposition to Verrier Elwin’s valorisation of tribal life in The Baiga, which, we have argued elsewhere, opens a genuine possibility of thinking critically about modernity and its discontents.47 It is also quite in contradiction to the colonial administration’s trepidation in handling insurgent tribals. His cultural confidence presumes that the tribal is incapable of resisting the actions taken on his behalf, and marks the sevak’s position of superiority in the seva encounter with the tribal. This superior position in the configuration of the sevak is a defining feature of the way in which the concept of seva appears when examined at the political level. The rest of this paper looks at the political significance of the concept of seva in the period under study.

    Harijan Sevak Sangh

    Seva finds its fullest expression in the formation of the All India Anti Untouchability League, founded on October 26, 1932 by caste Hindus under the chairmanship of Madan Mohan Malaviya; G D Birla became the president and A V Thakkar the secretary.48 The name was later converted to “The Servants of the Untouchables Society”. C Rajagopalachari objected to the phrase “servants of untouchables”, arguing that service to untouchables would freeze them as a category, and that service was not really the issue – doing away with the evil of untouchability was.49 Rajaji’s objection led to its Hindi name, Harijan Sevak Sangh (HSS) being adopted. The penumbra of the term “seva” beyond the English term “service”, in the sense of social reconstruction, shows itself in the way in which Rajaji’s intervention led to the use of the term “sevak” in the name of the organisation.

    The HSS was started with the objective of eliminating untouchability by mobilising opinion, organising social movements that throw open temples to untouchable devotees, and addressing other social disabilities like drawing water from wells. This religious organisation was designed to begin the constructive work of bringing harijans into the Hindu fold. Gandhi wanted to ensure that the untouchable vote was not separated from the mainstream Hindu one.

    The logic of Harijan Seva was based on Gandhi’s thesis that Hindu “chaturvarna” died a corrupt death. The systematisation of untouchability, having no sanction, had led to a dominant hierarchy among the originally equitable varnas. Duty had succumbed to privilege, kingship and priesthood had become coveted objectives, and the trust reposed in these positions by the community squandered. With the loss of the sense of duty, the essence of varna was lost and all had become sudras, hence their caste duty had become service to repair the community (prescribed for the sudras by antiquity) by reestablishing the social equitability of varna. Thus, harijan seva became the key instrument of reparation and repentance for the sins of Hindu history.

    Given the fragmentation of modern society, missionary zeal was called for. This is where the sevak came on the stage. The sevak was expected to be a pure socio-religious activist who did not participate in civil disobedience. His “tapasya” consisted in immersion in the social life against the current of Hindu practice, rather than in a withdrawal into the woods, or in a fervent appeal to god. His asceticism consisted in steadfastness, frugality, fearlessness, loving opposition to the caste Hindu forces, and forbearance for the impatience of the untouchables. The Harijan Sevak was to be an exemplar and a pastoral figure at the same time. He not only fashioned religious reform at the local level by leading the unfortunate flock, he led society by example, and Gandhi himself was without doubt, “First Sevak.”

    The journals Harijan and Harijan Sevak, more importantly the former, were the instruments which were used to project the image of these exemplars in the national imagination, firing the modest middle classes with a missionary zeal.

    The act of service-expiation, was the duty, and in reality ultimately the privilege, of the upper caste. The untouchable had no right to do what he thought was right for himself; he had to submit to the painfully masochistic ministrations of the sevak. That the project failed on the ground is fairly obvious from even a superficial reading of the situation, but seva’s success lay in the way it was mobilised and functioned in the Congress discourse of nationalism, the mutations it underwent and the links it established with other, often opposed, modern ways of thinking the nation. The difficulty it faced with both Sanatanist versions of Hinduism (expressed most clearly by Madan Mohan Malaviya), and that of the depressed classes (expressed by Ambedkar) points to the work that this concept of seva had to perform in order to mature, as a product of strife and disagreement, into a hegemonic couple of consensus and coercion. This operational concept of seva was an integral elaboration of the thought of an upper-caste as it learnt to become an elite overcoming the challenges to its hegemony from different directions.

    Ambedkar’s Critique

    It is quite evident that Ambedkar was unhappy with being coopted into the HSS in the first flush of enthusiasm generated by the Poona Pact.50 He made suggestions in a letter written to A V Thakkar, released simultaneously for publication.51 Given his political sensitivity52 and the connotations of such a move in the politics of the freedom movement,53 the simultaneous publication of the letter was clearly intended to create conditions in which he could resign from the membership of the HSS in a manner which was accountable to the public.

    Ambedkar’s critique differentiated two approaches to seva: One, the implicit Gandhian one, which assumes that the untouchable and member of the depressed classes in general suffers because he has been vicious or sinful. Proceeding from this framework, seva attempted to foster personal virtue by education, gymnasium, cooperation, libraries, etc, to make the fallen individual a better moral being. Two, Ambedkar’s own approach which, starting from the assumption that it is an unfavourable social environment which results in a person’s suffering, led to programmes of action which would uplift the class as a whole. Starting off from this difference, Ambedkar proposed three steps:

    (i) A rural campaign to secure civic rights; (ii) An urban movement for economic equality in industry; (iii) A programme of social intercourse which would lessen the “nausea” felt by the one in the company of the other. These steps, he felt sure, would entail nothing less than a civil war driven by the resentment of the upper castes, in which the sevak should be prepared to fight alongside the untouchable. Gentle reasoning about the folly of false tradition was doomed to fail. Shocking the upper castes into thinking about their practices was the only way to bring about change. Finally, he insisted that the sevak’s single point agenda be service, first and last, in the manner in which he envisaged it. He concluded that the best sevaks could be easily found among the untouchables themselves, who had suffered under the oppressive system.

    There was no written response from the HSS, or from Thakkar. The HSS programme followed methods exactly opposite to those Ambedkar recommended: the soft approach of convincing people; moral uplift of the untouchables through cleanliness and vegetarianism; employment of only caste Hindu sevaks. The Gandhian agenda brooked no interference or reinterpretation! Ambedkar resigned.

    In order to understand the need for such a complex political response to the HSS we need to look at the political context in which it was formed as a specific instrument. Ambedkar had contested Congress representation at the Second Round Table Conference on the grounds that that caste-Hindu body had no thought for the well-being of the untouchables. Since the HSS was started precisely to institute caste-Hindu care for the untouchables, the challenge of seva could not be turned down lightly. Ambedkar was bound by the implicit terms of his representation of the depressed classes to play by the rules of seva. While his dilemma demonstrates the hegemonic force exerted by the concept of seva in the politics of the freedom movement, his imagination of harijan seva opens out for us the possibility of another, counterhegemonic, relationship between sevak and beneficiary – one in which comradery and mutual respect in battle replace the pity and condescension of the Gandhian model of pacifist service. However, the limits of the contest within the domain of seva indicates to us that it was not possible to conceive of a politics outside that domain in any useful manner.

    If the Gandhian concept of constructive action and seva were a form of non-violent war against the violent peace instituted by colonial rule, its Janus face was precisely a violent peace on the side which confronted the untouchable.54 Hinduism had to change itself in order to gain sovereignty in the post-colonial era and no challenge could be tolerated. This sovereignty had to find legitimacy in a manner which simultaneously delegitimised colonial rule. It was to be an internal sovereignty which met the structural requirements of a modern democratic nation, and not the alien supremacy of the hitherto omnipotent colonial ruler. The basis for that legitimacy was the claim to be equal to the task of taking care of the people regardless of caste or creed – seva served as that nascent working logic of welfare as the freedom struggle approached its zenith. No wonder then that in this context, against the peace of an ascendant and metamorphic Hinduism, Ambedkar’s “liberal” discourse unmasks the visage of nothing short of civil war.

    Tribal versus Untouchable: Who Is More Marginal?

    In May 1945, Ambedkar delivered a talk to the annual session of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation in Bombay, titled ‘Communal Deadlock and the Way to Solve It’.55 In the preamble, Ambedkar stated that he was responding to the pressure of public opinion that the untouchables were only capable of selfish actions. The talk was intended as a demonstration that they were capable of thinking on a broader scale. Ambedkar analysed and proposed a structure of parliamentary representation which would be acceptable to all parties. The primary problem Ambedkar was trying to tackle was the Muslim League’s fear of majoritarian Hinduism which led to the former’s espousal of a separate Pakistan. He understood that the Hindu majority in India was, due to its caste-Hindu essence, a despotic majority which would never flow freely across different sections in society according to the demands of the issue at hand. This understanding was based on his experience and analysis of the depressed classes plight in the Hindu grip. He framed his solution between two extremes. On the one hand, there was the danger of a breakdown of the Constitution and of the failure of law and order, if the Constitution did not truly represent the communities party to it. On the other, majority rule had to be preserved and limited so that the Hindus would not be able to enforce their will against the interests of any one of the other minority parties through an overwhelming coalition. To this end, Ambedkar felt that the aboriginal tribes “have not yet developed any political sense to make the best use of their political opportunities and they may easily become mere instruments in the hands of either a majority or a minority and thereby disturb the balance without doing any good to themselves”. He recommended that a statutory commission administer the agency areas in which the aboriginal tribes lived, compelling the governments of the parent provinces to contribute to their upkeep. This was quite close to Elwin’s proposal of a zoo for the Baiga.56

    In a newspaper response to Ambedkar’s speech, Amritlal Thakkar responded characteristically with feigned surprise “this doughty champion of the oppressed, depressed and exploited should have so completely ignored the aboriginal tribes who are worse off than the harijans.”57Thakkar argued that if Ambedkar’s principles of weightage based on social and educational status were applied, the aboriginal tribes might even qualify for an absolute majority. In the bitter exchange that followed, Thakkar argued that Ambedkar’s proposal was nothing short of a refusal of the right to vote to the aboriginal tribes, and that his excessive favoritism for the harijan resulted in a complete denial of justice to the Aborigines.

    Ambedkar’s response had two remarkable aspects to it. First, he had, he said, never tried to champion the oppressed of the earth, and addressing the problems of the untouchables was more than enough for him. The echo of his recommendation for Harijan Sevaks with a single point agenda is sharp and clear in this description of his own practice. Second, he reiterated that the untouchable was socially worse off than the tribal, erroneously finding support for his own perspective in Thakkar’s argument that the aboriginal would require absolute majority because of his status of extreme deprivation in the caste-Hindu hierarchy! This ambiguity which arises between Thakkar and Ambedkar is a symptom of a rapidly changing historical process within which the tribal was being reconfigured as the hapless being at the margins of the caste hierarchy.58 This reconfiguration is accompanied by a transformation of the idea of the tribal from a feral insurgent to a poor, miserable wretch in need of charity and aid. In Ambedkar’s partisan perspective the tribal was politically uneducated and educationally backward, but his social status was better than that of the untouchable. Thakkar on the other hand championed the aboriginal’s marginal status and had little time for the subtleties of poll politics; the right to vote was supreme, and the need to provide the aboriginals the right to vote was symbolically primary. Thus, in this minor confrontation in the broad battle for the political hegemony, positioning the aboriginal at the extreme of the caste hierarchy helped the caste-Hindu check the threat of untouchable politics to that hegemony. This threat was precisely the offer of a counter-hegemonic move made by Ambedkar to rope in the Muslim League’s support for a representative structure designed to check Hindu dominance. The caste-Hindu defence was activated by, (i) using the aboriginal to establish that the untouchable was not the one subjected to the greatest exploitation or oppression; and (ii) pointing to untouchable politics’ inability to think of the welfare of a national community in a larger perspective – especially in the context of an attempt by Ambedkar to show precisely that larger commitment.

    At another level, Ambedkar’s talk and the ensuing debate with Thakkar present us a view of the fuzzy and undecidable historical link between the statistics of representative democracy and that of governmental welfare in the specific context of the Indian freedom movement. The statistics of the census and of the castes and tribes series were originally used by the British to decide on a strategy to engineer civil societal legislative representation in proportion to caste groups in the Morley Minto reforms. In Ambedkar’s thought, this statistics becomes an instrument embattled in the theorising of the post-colonial nation state, the structures of its constituent assembly and its legislature.59 The “sub-normality” of the aboriginals’ political understanding in Ambedkar’s perspective disqualifies them from an active role in democratic legislation. This same statistical disqualification of the tribals as a group makes them a population fit for a welfare initiative. In a similar fashion, the statistical understanding of the tribals and the depressed classes as a significant minority underlies the Gandhian mobilisation of seva as an ethico-political instrument in the caste-Hindu quest for political centrality. The similarity of the positions between Ambedkar and the Gandhian initiative insofar as the tribal is concerned shows that both their thought processes are bound by the emerging governmental modes of modern Indian politics. This archaeological similarity underlies the profound differences in their political projects.

    What remains then is understanding the historical process by which the link between seva and welfare are established.

    Constructive Programme, the State and Welfare

    Luxury is indeed possible in the future – innocent and exquisite; luxury for all and by the help of all; but luxury at present can only be enjoyed by the ignorant; the cruellest man living could not sit at his feast unless he sat blindfold. Raise the veil boldly; face the light; and if as yet, the light of the eye can only be through tears, and the light of the body through sackcloth, go thou forth weeping, bearing precious seed, until the time come, and the kingdom, when Christ’s gift of bread and bequest of peace shall be Unto this last as unto thee; and when, for earth’s severed multitudes of the wicked and the weary, there shall be holier reconciliation than that of the narrow home, and calm economy, where the Wicked cease – not from trouble, but from troubling

    – and the Weary are at rest.

    – John Ruskin, Unto This Last60

    Gandhi translated Unto This Last into Gujarati and titled it Sarvodaya around 1908. He was so transformed by the book that he started the Phoenix settlement on the outskirts of Durban.61 The concept of Sarvodaya matured as a foundational component of his political utopias and communes starting with Hind Swaraj and practised at Sabarmati and Sevagram. A theory of ethical value annulling the opposition between the employer and employee revived an “ancient” trusteeship that violated. This was to be achieved through seva without a revolutionary uprising. Christian Socialism was transformed into “Ramarajya” where each respected the other’s station and practised his own responsibility to society.

    Ruskin criticised James Mill’s concept of an amoral market “value” of a commodity at the heart of the discipline of political economy. Instead he proposed an ethical valorisation of the producer and consumer.62 Thus, if utilitarian philosophy led to a colonial sovereignty maintained by an external elite and reinforced by the notion of racial superiority, Ruskin’s alternative was based on constructive contribution to social well-being. For this to make sense in the Indian context, the alien superior animating colonial rule had to be replaced by a trustee nurturing society from within. Trusteeship went beyond the paternalism of home and domestic economy to “earth’s severed multitudes of wicked and weary”, i e, to a population of the wretched. Such a transformation, proving ultimately impossible for the colonial ruler, was a feast on the “pure milk of the Ruskinian word” for Gandhi.63

    The concept of constructive work in its early phases was nonsystematic and practical in its emphasis. Gandhi’s reformulation in 1941, called the “Constructive Programme”, gave firm shape to the constructive social system by describing the margins to be repaired (17 of them): Communal amity, elimination of untouchability, prohibition of liquor, promotion of khadi, village industries, village sanitation, new or basic education, adult education, emancipation of women, general education in health and hygiene, the promotion of regional languages, the adoption of Hindustani as the national language, the struggle for economic equality across society, the welfare of the kisans, urban labour, the amelioration of living conditions of the adivasis, the care of lepers and the nurture of students. This apparent caricature of categorisation has in fact a quiet logic to its structure. The centre around which the defined groups, habits, failings and afflictions fall cripplingly short, is the caste-Hindu, sober, adult, healthy man, who takes stage as the norm of Indian society. This evaluative core of a norm of what constituted a full bodied Indian citizen provides the implicit structure of a democratic sovereign body to rule post-colonial India.

    Gandhi had often asserted that emancipated national life would make the state unnecessary; when national life was ideally self-regulated, representative institutions were not required for government.64 Gandhi’s imagination of the ideal society in which the state withers unheeded, shows how the oppressive colonial state would in fact be transformed into one based on governmentality as described by Foucault in his essay of that name.65 Foucault has argued that the governmentalisation of the state is the phenomenon by which the state, hitherto simply sovereign, is invested with the drive to govern, such that the problems of governmental rationality and techniques of government have become the only spaces of contestation.66 In the Indian context, the practical struggle for a free nation is accompanied by precisely a discourse of that contestation: what is the shape, purview and competence of the state in 20th century India? When seen from the perspective of governmental rationality, the resolution of the national struggle, rather than signal an incomplete transformation to a bourgeois society on a broader Marxian horizon,67 actually signals a complete transformation and resolution of the governmental aporias of the colonial state, if not according to the norms of western politics, at least according to the principles of a modified notion of welfare. This transformation occurs in opposition to the colonial state, in the resistance of a “native” society whose cultural activism combats the crippling mental grip of the British ruler in order to fashion public debate, conviction, objectives and initiatives against the state. This transformation entails the evolution of an ethical stance, and a fashioning of the normative sevak in imagination and in reality. Thus, Nehru, usually committed to the priority of political action over social service in the running debate within the Congress, deploys the notion of service in the discourse of a new nationalism thus

    It is curious how one cannot resist the tendency to give an anthromorphic form to a country…India becomes Bharat Mata, Mother India, a beautiful lady, very old but ever youthful in appearance, sad eyed and forlorn, cruelly treated by aliens and outsiders, and calling upon her children to protect her... Does the beautiful lady of our imaginations represent the bare bodied and bent workers in the fields and factories? Or the small group who have from ages past crushed the masses and exploited them, imposed cruel customs on them and made many of them even untouchable? And yet despite…sdifferent classes and their mutual conflicts there was a common bond which united them in India, and one is amazed at its persistence and tenacity and enduring vitality…There was an active sustaining principle, for it resisted successfully powerful outside influences and absorbed internal forces that rose to combat it…Right through history the old Indian ideal did not glorify political and military triumph, and it looked down upon money and the professional money making class. Honour and wealth did not go together, and honour was meant to go, at least in theory, to the men who served the community with little in the shape of financial reward. The old culture managed to live through many a fierce storm and tempest, but though it kept its outer form, it lost its real content. To-day it is fighting silently and desperately against a new and all-powerful opponent – the bania civilisation of the capitalist west.

    It will succumb to this newcomer, for the west brings science, and science brings food for the hungry millions. But the west also brings an antidote to the evils of this cut-throat civilisation – the principles of socialism, of cooperation and service to the community for the common good. This is not so unlike the old brahman ideal of service, but it means the brahmanisation (not in the religious sense, of course) of all classes and groups and the abolition of class distinctions. It may be that when India puts on her new garment, as she must, for the old is torn and tattered, she will have to cut it in this fashion, so as to make it conform both to present conditions and her old thought. The idea she adopts must become racy to her soil.68

    Normative Intervention in Statistics

    In a previous essay69 we had discussed the shape and evolution of the practical use of statistics in the colonial state. We had argued there that the nature of the statistical effort begins to change during late colonial rule with the progress of the national struggle. In Risley’s work, statistics was an instrument designed to ensure an allocation of political representation among communities in order to structure native society under colonial rule according to racial parameters. This emphasis on the structure of native society undergoes a complex set of changes, through which the statistical question begins to is address, not so much to a race or race-fraction which demands representation, but to the welfare needs of the marginalised communities who are now unambiguously characterised as “poor, miserable, hungry millions”, i e, as a population. The statistical project thus begins to have a normative content, asking questions of deprivation of social status and economic well-being according to the norms of citizenship. One of the expressions of this change is visible in Gandhi’s note to Harijan Sevaks citing and annotating a wellwisher’s advice which goes as follows (the first paragraph that follows is the citation, and the second is Gandhi’s own writing):

    The statement of things done, of progress, from week to week, seems to be very valuable. I wish it could be expanded, and not give only the skeleton… I have wondered if the new Society will undertake any local surveys and publish the results. I should like to read paragraphs like this: “In… taluka according to a survey made by a member of the Society during the last fortnight, 25 village wells were being used by all castes without discrimination. Twelve of these have been opened to the untouchables since last September. But there are still 18 village wells from which the untouchables are excluded. The figures for temples are…and so on.” …Everyone wants deeds. Words may follow to explain deeds sometimes. The more reports one can have on the work done…the more useful the Harijan will become. There should be no difficulty in producing the surveys such as has been suggested by the correspondent. We have nothing to conceal.70

    This trend to use statistics to describe the degree of progress towards a full and functional norm becomes more pronounced in the nationalist phase of colonial rule when the representative mechanisms come in place after the Government of India Act of 1935.

    Hegemony and Seva

    It is time to bring together the concept of seva shaped in this essay. We have looked at the idea of service in the social reform movement, the Servants of India Society and the early life of A V Thakkar, Vivekananda’s teachings, a somewhat contemporary understanding of early Hindu thought on grihasta, karma and seva, the early 20th century use of the term, Gandhi’s early ideas of constructive work, the Christian interaction, the sevak’s view of the tribal, the Harijan Sevak Sangh, the contestation with Ambedkar and the Constructive Programme, and finally the Nehruvian take on service. We have also looked at one instance in which the concept of seva made links with the governmental programme of welfare. The political context of each instance described above ensures that the individual positions that we have discussed were not trivial or idiosyncratic. The need to represent an interest group or community’s position would express itself in carefully strategised statements, extensions of argument, assertion of positions and creative flights of imagination, all geared in different ways to the political demands placed on the individual actors. Thus these voices represent not individuals, but singular structures of group and community engagements in the politics of the freedom struggle. It is the importance of these voices in the given community or group situation which raise them as worthy of our historiographic attention.

    While each of the mobilisations bear some sort of family resemblance to the others, there is no clearly defined essence in any one name or the act it describes. Rather, all these initiatives may be seen to construct historically a quite discrete discursive formation about normative politics, opening out on to other supporting networks of discourse around satyagraha and swaraj. It is thus “a part-whole”. We have appropriated the word “seva” from the writings of the freedom movement, to name a concept describing this part-whole of the discourse of the freedom struggle. In what follows, we will look at seva as a theoretical construct in its relation to the hegemonic process during this phase of the freedom struggle.71

    Antonio Gramsci has suggested that several levels of practicalpolitical analysis and reflection need to be isolated within the hegemonic process.72 Speaking of the level of political activity/ analysis in which a particular group develops its own consciousness as a universal expansion, Gramsci describes it as “bringing about not only a unison of economic and political aims, but also intellectual and moral unity, posing all the questions around which the struggle rages not on a corporate but on a “universal” plane, and thus creating the hegemony of a fundamental social group over a series of subordinate groups”.73 In this context, Gramsci takes into “account the fact that international relations intertwine with these internal relations of nation states, creating new, original and historically concrete combinations. (Religion, for example, has always been a source of such national and international ideological-political combination, and so too have other international organisations…)”74 We can see here an immediate model for seva, which is so deeply intertwined with Christian missionary discourse and practice. Seva is the process by which one group finds a universal meaning, thus marginalising all the other groups in the solution to its fundamental problem. The universal called seva cuts so deeply into the Indian political consciousness that even an opponent of the group (Ambedkar) is coerced to acknowledge its significance. In short it would be possible to argue that seva serves as the practical form of hegemony in one strand of the freedom struggle.

    Our study of seva allows us to make several observations that throw light on the hegemonic process under study, and in addition, explore possible refinements to the theory of hegemony. These remain unsystematic at this stage of our inquiry.

    First, missionary activity is a productive international relation in the national struggle in two ways: (i) in small but effective support by specific individuals for the anti-colonial, anti-racist struggle; (ii) in the much wider diffusion/transformation of the form of the pastor in that of the sevak who would follow the method of shepherding the flock according to new conditions.

    Second, all these processes occur across a fairly wide spectrum of urban society, well exceeding the boundaries established by the fledgling “bourgeoisie”, and was described for example by Gandhi, as caste-Hindu, middle class.

    Third, the western discourse on ancient India becomes a source of material and of models for the new national consciousness. If the colonial rulers sought to follow a utilitarian historiography of the irretrievable corruption of Hindu rule, the nationalists followed the cues of the Indologists to revise Indian history and anthropology, so that it was possible to see continuity with a past that was a golden age. This was the basis of a reformation of Hindu society and of the shaping of the nationalist consciousness in terms which resonated with the new theory. In the process, modern Hindu thought jettisoned all reference to the western sources from which it borrowed its genealogy. Thus, this change went well beyond the bounds of Gramsci’s perception of the international relation negotiated through religion. Hindu thought was redefined from within.

    Finally, the discourse of seva, while acting alongside other discourses and practices to expropriate the colonial ruler, performed another crucial function. It achieved the reform of Hinduism by transforming the caste structure so that purity and pollution were no longer the determinants of the hierarchy in the new national culture. Untouchability would be a sin, a crime, an atrocity which had to be condemned in the name of the new Hindu ethic. Clearly, Sanatanists and their legatees would contest this transformation for decades. However, seva opened out the communicative link between the caste-Hindu and the lower castes by fashioning anew the ethics of Hinduism, orienting it to service, reconstruction and reparation. This communicative link was the first path through which activities which were otherwise prohibited for a given caste, became permissible and were ethically valued by the community. The anchor was the model of the sevak, whose universalising perspective and ethic facilitated more or less complete political control of the social transaction made possible with the lower castes. Again, this upper hand would in actual history be subject to the vagaries of changing political strengths and equations vis-à-vis the depressed classes and the Sanatanists.75 Even so, the change in subjectivity brought about by the model of the sevak cannot be overestimated. In order that a saving become an investment;76in order that the state bureaucrat (statistically most likely to have been caste-Hindu if not a brahmin) become a state capitalist;77 or even an investment banker assessing the promise presented by loan seekers; in order that a Marwadi merchant may become a capitalist who may even set up a slaughterfactory to export beef;78 or an engineer from a brahmin family become a venture capitalist in leather technology seeking to employ leather working communities as labour; the closed, selfcrippling experience of upper-caste laws of pollution and purity had to be broken. The challenge to the community structure had, for sure, begun to occur from the beginnings of British rule. However, seva theoretically attacked what were increasingly experienced as autistic caste-Hindu laws from within the community in an ontological satisfactory manner for emergent nationalist thought and experience. In addition, seva’s ascetic activism opened the way for the broader and more detailed articulation of an expansive capitalist consciousness in a manner which did not need to break radically with the caste-Hindu community structure. The hegemonic formation meant that the way in which nationalist thought emerged took one shape rather than another, with different effects: the terms of coercive engagement, the hierarchical ordering, and the nationalist movement itself acquired a characteristic profile. Our contemporary hegemonic formation and its historical actions arise from this. On the other hand, the seva perspective and its genealogical relation to a Christian socialist ethics continue to inhere in the somewhat authoritarian character of much left liberal thought in India today.

    All these details have a bearing on some questions which establish our specific context in Marxian thought: How does the nationalist consciousness take root in the colonially educated mind? What was the intellectual and social base for the development of nationalist thought?79 How did its programmes become self-evident universal truths, if not dominant, at least as points of hegemonic articulation with different subordinate groups? What are the cultural changes which permit, facilitate and encourage the formation of a consciousness which is willing to take a risk in the bourgeois style? The point at issue here is not simply whether the bourgeoisie effected a passive revolution of a progressive or retrogressive nature in the negotiations of the freedom movement, but rather this: if a social group were to take advantage of the passive revolution and engender something akin to “a bourgeois class” over the next half century, what were the historical processes that grounded and provided the social, cultural and intellectual bases for such a development? How did an autochthonous ideology and ethic of capitalism evolve as organic elements in the new national consciousness?

    The representation of the sevak as the acting subject who will bring into being the new India throws light on a particular domain of theoretical investigation which bridges the Weberian concept of a protestant ethic engendering the spirit of capitalism on the one hand, and the Gramscian concept of hegemony and passive revolution on the other.80 Thus, it is not only the Weberian “spirit” or “ethic” of capitalism which is at stake in the subjectivity of the sevak. It is rather the reconfiguration of social relationships to facilitate a smooth transition to a capitalist structure without requiring the slaughter of the caste-Hindu “aristocracy” in the manner of the French Revolution. The passivepacific revolution, it seems, becomes feasible because seva facilitates the reconstruction of Hindu ethics while preserving caste Hindu dominance. On the other hand, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony barely hints at the concept of subjectivity – there is no full-fledged articulation of this construct in his work. This lack of a theory of subjectivity, which is exploited by Althusser in his work on ideology and the ideological state apparatus, leads to a different problem in our context. Our problem is not one of ideology, but one of precisely the culture, i e, the organised growth, of the different dimensions of affect, intellect, ethics and ontology that energise the performance of the bourgeois subject. In our history, the bourgeois class, or fundamental social group, is not a pre-existing entity which strategises and negotiates a hegemonic position with respect to the old aristocracy, either feudal or otherwise. Rather, the socially dominant urban and rural upper castes, who are intimately linked with the structure of agrarian dominance in the period, shape themselves into a hegemonic leader. Thus, to the extent that the bourgeois class is hypostatised in Gramsci’s otherwise supple theorisation, even the theory of hegemony has to be looked at anew, keeping in view the fact that in the very process of hegemonisation, a new “proto-bourgeois” subject comes into existence. My modification and use of Foucault’s concepts of governmentality and pastoral power has provided some tools to initiate a theoretical description in this essay, as follows: First, the concept of the seva permitted us to understand and represent the several dimensions of the transformation effected in social relations that bring about the birth of a new bourgeois culture, and also permitted us to understand in a strategically useful manner, the unique birthmarks of that culture in its colonial genealogy. Second, the concept of the sevak is an empirically useful tool which permitted us to focus sharply on historically recorded transactions so that the different registers of the process of hegemonic engagement became available for investigation and critique, not in the vast, generalised sweep of Gramscian theory, but at the level of recorded accounts.




    [This is an independent essay written in the context of a PhD dissertationtitled ‘Seva, Amelioration, Welfare: The Nationalist Passion to Develop theTribal’, in the programme conducted by the Centre for Economic and SocialStudies, in affiliation with the B R Ambedkar Open University, Hyderabad.This work has benefited from a presentation made to the Anveshi LawCommittee in the year 2004.]

    1 “I will perform seva for you”.

    2 I am indebted for these examples to a personal discussion with PatriciaUberoi. Also see picture of Uma Bharati in The Hindu, December 21, 2004 for seva as repentance.

    3 I am indebted in a different way to Choodamani Raghavan for theseexamples. Her responses were about memories that evoked the term sevafor her, rather than instances where the word itself was used in the givennarrative.

    4 See Charles Heimsath, Indian Nationalism and Social Reform, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1964. While we draw on Heimsath’ssocial history in this and the next section, our history of the conceptof seva has an aim which differs from the former in seeking to isolatesome generalisable lessons for our time. However, we do not developseva into a practical political concept for use as Joan Bondurant developssatyagraha in Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy ofConflict, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1964. This historyof the concept of seva is an attempt to understand its function in itstime and it’s ambiguous legacy for us today. The different ways of lookingat the history of a concept providing direction for our exercise arise inthree authors: Reinhart Kosselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985; MichelFoucault’s entire oeuvre around the problematisation of concepts; GillesDeleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? Columbia UniversityPress, New York, 1993.

    5 Shinde’s Depressed Classes Mission ran over 30 institutions. The AryaSamaj, the Dev Samaj, the Theosophical Society, Sikh Associations andsome enlightened maharajas followed. Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj wasformed in 1873.

    6 V S S Sastri, Life of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bangalore Printing and

    Publishing Company, Bangalore, 1937.7 G K Gokhale, Speeches, 2nd ed, Madras, 1916. 8 T N Jagadisan and Shyamlal, Thakkar Bapa: Eightieth Birthday

    Commemoration Volume, Diocesan Press, Madras, 1949. The pagenumbers in citations to this work are not mentioned here because of their idiosyncratic structure: each essay begins afresh at page 1 and makesthe pagination meaningless.

    9 Jagadisan and Shyamlal.10 See Jagadisan’s biography of Thakkar in ibid. 11 See Heimsath, p 242. However, Thakkar is a notable exception to this

    disregard for religion.12 Swami Vivekananda, From Colombo to Almora (Seventeen Lectures),p 133. Cited in Heimsath, p 332.

    13 Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda:Mayawati Memorial Edition, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1962. (Henceforth CSV) Vol III, pp 196-97. Cited in Swami Pavitrananda (ed),Swami Vivekananda: Caste Culture and Socialism: A Compilation ofHis Thoughts on the Subject, Almora Advaita Ashrama, 1947, p 22.

    14 See Lloyd I Rudolph and Susan H Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition:Political Development in India, Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1967, fora broad argument about the modernity of tradition from a politicaldevelopment perspective.

    15 Swami Vivekananda, The Ideal of Karma Yoga in CSV, Vol I, pp 108-18.

    16 See Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol I, Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi, 1975, 1922), p 29 ff for a description of karmaas minutely specified sacrificial duty in the Vedas. Dasgupta, Vol 2, pp437-552 describes karma yoga in Gita as the performance of caste-duty.

    17 See Jerome Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy, CambridgeUniversity Press, Cambridge, 1998, especially the chapters on Kant .

    18 It would be too far afield to demonstrate the manner in which we draw here on Paul Veyne’s notion of the constitutive imagination of an epoch; see hisDid the Greeks Believe in their Myths: An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, trans Paula Wissing, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1988.

    19 See Partha Chatterjee, ‘The Nationalist Elite’ in The Nation and Its Fragments, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1993 for a reading ofRamakrishna’s philosophy.

    20 See Dasgupta’s, (op cit, Vol 4), discussion of the concept of Bhakti,pp 346-58. Bhaj = service + kti = love. It is also clear that since Vallabha(1481-1533), what may be called the Bhakti tradition replaces dharmaand jnana with the supremacy of love of god and seva to him, as thepath of jivan mukti. However, the notion of seva, either in service togod, or in service to the preceptor (guru-seva) and the desire to do goodto others (daya), which gained currency after the 9th century AD, differedfrom the 20th century one.

    21 See Dasgupta, op cit, Vol 1, p 136, and in general his section on BuddhistPhilosophy. Also see ibid. Vol 2, pp 493-514 for a discussion of thedifference between Buddhist ethics and that of the Gita.

    22 See Kancha Ilaiah, God as Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challengeto Brahminism, Samya Publications, Calcutta, 2001, p 57 ff.

    23 See Rudolph and Rudolph, op cit, pp 216-40.

    24 See The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Compact Disc, NationalBook Trust, Delhi, 2000, Vol 10, p 114, fn 2. These volumes willhenceforth be referred to as CWMGCD.

    25 See Heimsath, p 238.

    26 See CWMGCD, Vol 14, p 453.

    27 See CWMGCD, Vol 15, p 258, fn 1.

    28 See ibid, p 454.

    29 See ibid, p 302.

    30 See Mark Thomson, Gandhi and His Ashrams, Popular Prakashan,Bombay, 1993, chapter 4, ‘The Village of Service: India in a Village’.

    31 See several references across CWMGCD, Vol 26.

    32 See Chapter IV, op cit.

    33 See CWMGCD, Vol 26, pp 77-78 for an example of a missionary’sdisapproval for Gandhi’s methods and objectives.

    34 He found a parallel in the poet Shamal Bhatt’s didactic stanzas on themoral life.

    35 See discussion with C F Andrews on conversion in ibid, p 31.

    36 See Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros: The History of the Christian Ideaof Love, Part II, Vol 2, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,London, 1939.

    37 See Hugh Tinker, The Ordeal of Love: CF Andrews and India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1979, p 24.

    38 See Tinker, p 88.

    39 See Jack Winslow, The Eyelids of Dawn, Hodder and Stoughton, London,1954.

    40 In 1922, it shifted to Poona in 1927.

    41 Winslow, p 83 ff.

    42 Elwin’s work and the questions which arise out of it has been discussedin another essay. Winslow’s book Eyelids does not mention the CSS’ most famous priest – Elwin! See my ‘Native Noses and Nationalist Zoos:Debates in Colonial and Early Nationalist Anthropologies of Castes andTribes’, EPW, forthcoming for a more detailed discussion of Elwin.

    43 See Winslow, p 87.

    44 See my ‘Native Noses...’ for a comprehensive analytical statement ofthis argument.

    45 Invocation of life (italics in the original). Gandhi is referring to AmritlalThakkar.

    46 CWMGCD, Vol 30, p 311 ff.

    47 See my ‘Native Noses and Nationalist Zoos…’

    48 See CWMGCD, Vol 58, p 427 fn 2.

    49 See ibid, pp 58, 155, 473 for the discussion regarding the name. Gandhi’sletter to Birla (p 58) suggests a name which is slightly modified, in that“Sevak” replaces “Seva” in the final version.

    50 See CWMGCD, Vol 57, p 444.

    51 See Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Vol 9, Vasant Moon (ed), Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay,1991, p 134.

    52 On another occasion, Ambedkar expressed extreme caution about writingsomething which would offend the Muslim political sentiment. See hisconversation with Gandhi in CWMGCD, Vol 57, p 443.

    53 Gandhi too published differences of opinion even when friends (suchas V S S Sastri) expressed them in private communication.

    54 Here I would like to acknowledge M S S Pandian, ‘One Step OutsideModernity: Caste, Identity Politics and Public Sphere’, EPW, May 4,2002, pp 1735-41. He argues, “… the very domain of sovereignty thatnationalism carves out in the face of colonial domination is simultaneouslya domain of enforcing domination over the subaltern social groups suchas lower castes, women and marginal linguistic regions, by the nationalelite”, p 1737.

    55 B R Ambedkar, ‘Communal Deadlock and the Way to Solve It’ inWritings and Speeches, Vol I, Education Department, Government ofMaharashtra, 1989.

    56 See ‘Native Noses…’.

    57 Letter to The Times of India dated May 12, 1945, issue dated May 17,1945. Reprinted in A V Thakkar, Aboriginals’ Cry in the Wilderness:Controversy between Dr Ambedkar and A V Thakkar, A V Thakkar, Bombay, 1945, p 2.

    58 This broad argument is the subject of my dissertation (in progress) titled Seva, Amelioration, Welfare: The Nationalist Passion to Develop the Tribal.

    59 See my ‘Native Noses and Nationalist Zoos…’ for a more explicitdescription of the relationship between the census and the Morley MintoReforms of 1909.

    60 John Ruskin, Unto this Last/Political Economy of Art/ Essays on PoliticalEconomy, J M Dent and Sons, London, 1968, p 193.

    61 M K Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, CWMGCD, Vol 44, pp 313-14.

    62 See Ruskin, in chapter ‘Ad Valorem’.

    63 Eric Stokes describes Bentinck’s dinner with Bentham as a feast on “the pure milk of the Benthamite word”. See English Utilitarians and India, p 51. See ‘Native Noses…’ for a description of British rule’s difficultyin evolving a governmental rationality in its relationship with its colony.

    64 M K Gandhi, ‘Power not an End’, Young India, July 2, 1931. Microfilm,Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

    65 See Michel Foucault, ‘Governmentality’ in Graham Burchell, ColinGordon and Peter Miller (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.

    66 See ibid, p 103.

    67 We have in mind here work such as Bipan Chandra, India’s Strugglefor Independence 1857-1947, Penguin, New Delhi, 1988; also SumitSarkar, Modern India 1885-1947, Macmillan, Madras, 1983.

    68 See Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1998, 1936, pp 431-32.

    69 See ‘Native Noses…’

    70 See Harijan, dated April 1, 1933, reproduced in CWMGCD, Vol 60,p 222. The indented part of the citation is attributed “presumably” toHorace Alexander in a footnote.

    71 This section is partially a response to G P Deshpande’s critique of mypresentation of the debate between Thakkar and Ambedkar over theHarijan Sevak Sangh, in a workshop on Art and Activism organised atthe Maharaja Sayaji Rao University, Baroda in January 2004.

    72 Interested readers may look at the broader range of his models in DavidForgacs (ed), A Gramsci Reader, Lawrence and Wisehart, London, 1988, particularly the section titled ‘Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc’.

    73 Ibid, p 205.

    74 Ibid, p 206.

    75 It is important to note here that this essay at describing the hegemonyof the caste Hindu middle classes is incomplete in a serious way. Fora more comprehensive account it would be necessary to work out adescription of how the hegemonic link was forged and operated withthe “peasant” or “kisan”, i e, the agricultural castes, but that is out ofthe scope of this body of work.

    76 See Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Private Investment in India, Orient Longman,Hyderabad, 1972, pp 199-216 for an argument about the availabilityof savings for the purposes of investment with the bania castes at thecusp of the freedom movement.

    77 See W A Lewis, ‘Economic Development with Unlimited Suppliesof Labour’, The Manchester School, (1954), for an allusion to statecapitalists in India; Charles Bettelheim’s seminal work on state capitalism in India is difficult to get hold of in English; For a more recentposition evaluating critically Bettelheim’s work, See PareshChattopadhyay, The Marxian Concept of Capital and the SovietExperience, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1994; See also PranabBardhan, The Political Economy of Development in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1984, especially the chapter titled ‘The Stateas an Autonomous Actor’.

    78 The ‘Al Kabeer’ slaughterhouse near Hyderabad is a case in point.

    79 While our question is related to the one posed in Ashish Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1983, we do not seek an answer in a psychologicalunderstanding of the colonial subject.

    80 I would like to acknowledge a personal discussion with Madhava Prasadwhich has served as an impetus for this concluding paragraph thatdelineates my theoretical agenda more clearly.

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