MEHRU JAFFER | 11 JULY, 2019
Seva Dal, Dead and Gone, Shows Faint Signs of Life
Jeans instead of khadi
Like Sleeping Beauty, the Seva Dal has at last woken up after being in the wilderness for nearly a 100 years. The organisation was once the strength of the Congress Party and backbone of a nationwide social movement. Its membership ran into millions of volunteers spread across the country who were committed to a united India, and worked towards a strong and just society.
Almost forgotten for a century, the Seva Dal was in the forefront of the country’s fight for freedom against the British. The discipline practiced by Seva Dal volunteers and their mandatory physical training had inspired the birth of the Rashritya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925.
“There are 650,000 villages in India and I would like to see the presence of active Seva Dal units in each one of them,” said Lalji Desai, recently appointed chief organiser of the Seva Dal. Desai is in Lucknow these days to meet as many people as possible. He will tour Uttar Pradesh extensively to engage people in making the Seva Dal relevant to present times.
Being the largest populated state, Desai has divided Uttar Pradesh into four zones and each zone will have its own Seva Dal office.
Desai is in the midst of recruiting like minded people interested in physical fitness, but who are also smart and witty. Members of the youth wing of the Seva Dal have switched to wearing royal blue jeans and a white T-shirt instead of traditional attire and Nehru cap.
In the past it was enough for volunteers to participate in physical training and to be aware of their social responsibility. The Seva Dal volunteers were famous for the discipline they had practiced and were trusted defenders of core Congress Party ideas of an inclusive society where citizens were encouraged to cultivate empathy towards fellow citizens.
Today the hunt is for recruits who believe in all of the above but who are also technology savvy. The one point agenda of Desai is to revive the Seva Dal and to make the organisation strong enough to counter the divisive and hate politics of the day.
In the past, the Seva Dal was groomed as an organised, but peaceful militia to help the Congress Party oppose colonial rule.
Now the Seva Dal needs training to combat lies spread by fake news on social media. It has to equip itself to stand up to the divide and rule politics of the day that encourages violence in public places.
Desai is for a door to door campaign to get people interested in participating in Seva Dal’s leadership camps. He invites volunteers to share literature that unites Indians. He wants to brainstorm with people who will come up with innovative ways to heal farmer’s distress and a host of other problems faced by ordinary citizens.
Founded in 1923, the Seva Dal was a powerful mass movement of the Congress Party that was feared by the British. After independence, the Congress Party and its political shenanigans over shadowed the grassroots activities of the Seva Dal. As politics became more personality oriented, morals, principles, values and the contribution of ordinary citizens to society were forgotten.
Only Congressmen in Delhi remained in the limelight. Only Congressmen with power and position mattered but who had no time for ordinary members of the organisation anymore. All the foot soldiers eventually dispersed and have been made irrelevant by the Congress Party leadership within the last few decades.
It was after 35 years, and on the eve of the last general elections that Congress leaders realised that they had chopped off their limbs with their own hands.
Last year around this time, talks began to revive the Seva Dal. However, all the last minute crash courses in leadership training and recruiting of new members could not help the Congress Party win elections.
Only a few weeks before the elections held in April and May this year, did Rahul Gandhi, then president of the Congress Party met with members of the national unit of the Seva Dal for the first time in his life. He had apologised at that meeting for having allowed the Seva Dal to wither away.
The Seva Dal workers helped to frame a fabulous manifesto for the Congress Party. Much midnight oil was spent on translating the manifesto into several regional languages. Along with booklets tracing the role of the Congress Party in the freedom struggle and portraits of its leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Bhagat Singh, the information was widely distributed.
But all this good work came a tad too late in the day. In the absence of a vibrant oppositon, the voters were easily seduced by promises by right wing politicians of a better life in the future.
It is interesting that the seed of both the Seva Dal and the RSS were sown around the same time. In the early 1920s jailed freedom fighters were released by the British if they agreed to give an apology in writing. Dr. NS Hardikar and his companions from the Rashtra Seva Mandal were jailed after the flag satyagraha in 1921. However they refused to give an apology in writing to the jail authorities. This act of defiance had impressed Congress Party leaders who asked Hardikar to train Congress workers in jail.
After his release, Hardikar met Nehru in Allahabad. It was decided that freedom fighters were needed on the ground and taught the art of combat. But the foot soldiers were also given lessons in knowing when to take a moral stand in politics. The Seva Dal volunteers learnt to never give up on a search for truth, and to practice non-violence in personal life, and in politics. A close companion of Hardikar at this time was Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. The two were class mates and on the same side of politics. Eventually Hardikar gravitated towards the politics of Gandhi while Hedgewar, a member of the Hindu Mahasabha went to work for a Hindu rashtra.
The RSS was founded two years after the Seva Dal. The Seva Dal was way ahead of the RSS in its fight against the colonialists.
The idea for a grassroots people’s organisation was first proposed at the Congress convention in 1923. A year later at the Belgaum Congress session, Seva Dal volunteers were responsible for sanitation and security and had disposed off baskets full of human waste, impressing Gandhi with their selfless services.
In more recent times the Seva Dal had provided security to Indira Gandhi when she lost the elections in 1977 and protected Rajiv Gandhi when he was no longer in power. However the Delhi centered Congress leadership is responsibe for excluding the participation of people from party politics. The result is that over time the bridge between the party and the people collapsed.
Once upon a time its moral authority was such that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi had merged his Lal Kurti movement, also known as Khudai Khidmatgar with the Seva Dal.
Then it was not possible to become a Congress Party member without a mandatory training with the Seva Dal. Today money is the backbone of politics. Money that should be used to eradicate poverty in the country. Can the Seva Dal ressurect itself and rescue the country out of present day practices of falshood, hate and violent extremism, is the question?
It is a herculean task says Desai, but not impossible.
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