Earlier this month, a leaked report of the Intelligence Bureau charged that a group of non-governmental organisations were holding up India’s economic development. I have since read the report, and can confirm that it is somewhat alarmist — not to say paranoid.
As an editorial in Hindustan Times noted, “The IB report will create an atmosphere of distrust and prejudice about NGOs at a time when India needs all the help it can get in the social sector.” Since “many NGOs have done signal service for the disadvantaged in areas where the government has either been unable or unwilling to engage”, the paper asked the government to see NGOs not as “adversarial”, but as “complementary” to their own efforts.
Coincidentally, at the time the IB report was leaked I was looking through old issues of Gandhi’s newspaper, Harijan. I came across a fascinating article that spoke directly to the debate generated by the report. Published in Harijan on February 1, 1948, it carried the title, “His Majesty’s Opposition”.
The article was written by the economist JC Kumarappa. Kumarappa was very close to the Mahatma, part of his inner circle from 1929 onwards. He went to jail several times, but his most important contributions were outside politics. He promoted water conservation, organic agriculture and decentralised forest management, and also worked actively to revive village industries.
After Independence, many Congressmen joined the government. However, Kumarappa refused to become a minister or even an MP. For he saw a crucial role for social activists in India’s new and evolving democracy. Their job was to keep the politicians on their toes. “As the waters of a river are kept in their course by its banks,” wrote Kumarappa, “so also the government of a country has to be directed by forces which lie outside the official sector of the Government”.
Before Independence, the Congress had been strongly challenged by the Muslim League. However, with Partition, the ruling party no longer faced much opposition. The Congress dominated the Constituent Assembly, and seemed set to dominate a future Parliament as well. Kumarappa worried that this might make it complacent, even arrogant, which is why he argued for a greater role for constructive workers.
Kumarappa told his fellow samaj sewaks that “what we should aim at is not to replace the ministers, but to hold up models that they should follow. The constructive workers should direct them into proper channels by the beacon light of their example”. A well-organised group of social workers would, argued Kumarappa, provide a “directive force” to the government. As he wrote: “Their service to the people will be their sanction and the merit of their work will be their charter. The ministers will draw their inspiration from such a body which will advise and guide the [central and state] Governments.”
In older democracies such as the United Kingdom, there existed a robust Opposition in Parliament itself. But in India, with a single party so dominant, this political check did not exist. Therefore, wrote Kumarappa, “the body of constructive workers will form the bulwark of safety for the people against exploitation”. By its scrutiny and its example it could keep the government honest, forcing it to provide “the needed emphasis to the affairs of the people and ensure their welfare, bringing in Swaraj to the masses”.
Kumarappa’s article was carried in Harijan, with a short postscript by Gandhi himself, which read: “This is very attractive. But it has to be confessed that we have not the requisite number of selfless workers capable of giving a good account of themselves.” New Delhi, 24-1-48 M. K. G.’
Five days later, possibly with Kumarappa’s article in mind, Gandhi suggested that the Congress itself disband and reconstitute itself as a body of constructive workers named the Lok Sevak Sangh, with units in different parts of India. The next day, before the idea could be debated or taken forward, Gandhi was assassinated.
Sixty-six years later, it may be time to look at Kumarappa’s ideas afresh. Once more, a single party is dominant in New Delhi, facing a splintered and ineffective Opposition. In 1947-48, as Gandhi noted, India had few selfless workers capable of giving a good account of themselves. Now, however, we have a vigorous and well-populated civil society sector. Some people in this sector are undoubtedly charlatans. However, there are hundreds of groups doing excellent work in education, health, rural development, road safety, environmental conservation, and other areas of critical importance to our lives.
Parliament will, of course, retain its dominant place in Indian politics. One hopes that the parties in Opposition provide constructive criticism of government policies. But civil society must be alert as well. While focusing on their spheres of work, social activists must provide a beacon light for ministers and civil servants. And they must continually assess government programmes in terms of what they contribute to the welfare of the people.
There is one civil society group that is already playing an important role in the new dispensation. This is the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. As members of the RSS, many ministers in the Union Cabinet “will draw their inspiration from such a body”. What I have in mind, however, are individuals and groups who have no partiality for a particular political party, still less a particular political (or religious) ideology. It is only truly independent social activists who can help provide — in Kumarappa’s words — “the bulwark of safety for the people against exploitation”.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at Ram_Guha
The views expressed by the author are personal