Servants of India
Nearly a hundred years since its beginning, the society that Gopal Krishna Gokhale founded remains true to its raison d'ętre, says Rasika Dhavse.
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October 2002: June 12, 1905. The city of Pune was waking up to a summer morn. One man could be seen walking up the hill behind the well-known Fergusson College. He went right to the top, and there, he took an oath of serving the nation. The man was Gopal Krishna Gokhale and he pledged to carry out his service in a religious spirit and to promote, by all constitutional means, the national interest of the Indian people. He then asked his three friends - Natesh Appaji Dravid, Gopal Krishna Deodhar and Anant Vinayak Patwardhan - to take a similar oath. Thus was born the Servants of India Society, with Gokhale as its founder and the other three as its life members.

The founding of this brotherhood was the outcome of Gokhale's convictions that if the masses were to be liberated to function as active members of free India, they must have a band of selfless and intelligent workers who would dedicate their lives to the service of the nation. These workers must take the vow of renunciation, give up all ideas of selfishness, pride, fame and be one with their work and duty.

The members of the Servants of India Society were trained to be nationalistic missionaries, and Gokhale inculcated in them virtues of fearlessness, truth, courage and firmness. His insistence was on spiritualising public life, and he honed his band of workers accordingly. With such noble ideals and discipline in its framework, the Society could create a distinguished and unparalleled record of work that furthered the cause of the nation's welfare, and Gokhale's dream of national service was realised.

Gokhale (1866-1915), whom Mahatma Gandhi considered his political guru, was one of the most outstanding leaders of the Indian National Movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Writing about Gokhale, Gandhiji says that he was "pure as crystal, gentle as a lamb, brave as a lion, and chivalrous to a fault. …He was and remains for me the most perfect man on the political field." (Gokhale - My Political Guru, by M.K. Gandhi) Along with Gandhiji, he was also the mentor of other national leaders of the time like Motilal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, V. Krishnaswami Iyer and inspired many young politicians including M.A. Jinnah.

Gokhale's beginnings were humble. He was born in a poor Maharashtrian family of Kolhapur in 1866. After completing his education in Kolhapur and Mumbai, he joined the Deccan Education Society in Pune, formed by patriotic Indians for the purpose of educating young people. The members of this society accepted a meagre salary and either taught or collected money for the society in a dedicated spirit.

Gokhale became a teacher in the Fergusson College run by this society and taught English and Mathematics. He did splendid work there for 20 years and rose to be its principal. At that time there was another great leader in Pune. His name was Mahadev Govind Ranade. He was a judge, scholar and social reformer and Gokhale regarded him as his philosopher and guide. He worked with him in the Sarvajanik Sabha, and edited its quarterly journal that addressed public questions of the day in a frank and fearless manner.

Gokhale was slowly becoming a public figure. He first attended a session of the Indian National Congress in 1889. He came in contact and worked with stalwarts like Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozshah Mehta, William Wedderburn and Allan Octavian Hume - the founding fathers of the INC. In 1905, he had the distinction of becoming its youngest ever President at the age of 39. In 1901, he was also elected as one of the four Indian members of the Imperial Legislative Council and continued as such till his death. He visited England a number of times to educate British public opinion on the question of Indian constitutional reforms.

In 1902, Gokhale left his service at Fergusson College. The farewell speech he delivered at that time is a landmark one, for it was then that he declared that he was entering public life, even though he knew it was a difficult path. Three years down the line, the Servants of India Society saw the light of day.

Since the beginning, its workers have been content in whatever monetary remuneration can be accorded to them. Notwithstanding that, they have pledged their entire lives and efforts towards nation-building activities such as education, social welfare, upliftment of the downtrodden, betterment of the under-privileged sections of society. Their activities have not been restricted to economic or political spheres only, but have addressed a wide range of social issues too.

The traditions and legacy of the Servants of India Society have been carried forward to this day. Though the number of workers it attracts has dwindled over the years, given the selfless nature of services expected, it is still active in a number of areas.

Says a member, who works in the financial section of the society, "Of course, these days the society cannot attract many youngsters. With escalating costs and the current lifestyle, it cannot be expected that they will serve for a very meagre remuneration. But yes, despite all these constraints, we do have a considerable force with us." Adds his colleague, "I believe that there will always be some section of society that wishes to serve, rather than merely work. These people have some burning desire from within, and such people come to us today. On being introduced to Gokhale's ideas, they get further inspired to work for the society."

The society functions out of its headquarters in Pune and various branch offices in Allahabad, Bazpur and Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, Cuttack, Rayagada, Chowdwar and Narsannapeta in Orissa, Chennai and Nirgaeimund in Tamil Nadu, Mannathipoli in Kerala, and Mumbai, Nagpur, Shendurjana Bazar and Karjat in Maharashtra. In the educational field, the society maintains institutions from 'Balwadis' (play schools and creches) to colleges in the above-mentioned Indian states except Maharashtra. Most of these institutions are situated in interior regions and are aimed primarily at the tribal population and other backward classes. Complimentary to this, it also manages hostels with free boarding, lodging and other facilities. Shorthand and typewriting schools, tailoring classes, adult education centres also form part of its educational agenda.

In the area of health care, the society conducts nutrition programmes, offers maternity assistance and guidance as well as maintains leprosy centres. In times of extreme natural calamities like the Latur earthquake and Orissa floods, the society has conducted relief camps on site. Its members have founded other social organisations such as the Indian Council of World Affairs (New Delhi), Social Service League (Mumbai), Seva Samiti (Allahabad), and Seva Sadan (Pune).

The Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics exists in its premises in Pune. Established on June 6, 1930, this is one of the oldest research and training institute in Economics in the country. Since May 1993, it started functioning as a "Deemed to be University." During the academic year 2000-2001, the institute completed 12 research projects and 48 research papers were published by members in a cross-section of journals. Seventy-five students were enrolled in the master's programme, while 20 were working on their doctoral projects.

The institute maintains a specialised library in social sciences, probably the largest of its kind in India. It shares this library with the Servants of India Society, and boasts of a collection of 2, 54, 097 volumes and 468 journals.

Through its various activities, the society has remained true to its raison d'ętre. Its members have indeed lived up to the founder's last words uttered on his death-bed. Gokhale had said, "Don't waste your time in writing a biography or setting up a statue, but pour your whole soul into the service of India. Then only shall you be counted among her true and faithful servants."

Rasika Dhavse
October 2002

Rasika Dhavse is a Pune-based freelance writer. The Servants of India Society may be contacted at 846, Shivajinagar, Pune - 411004. Tel: +91-(0)20-5654210.