Congress Seva Dal Once Struck Fear Among the British; Now It's On Its Last Legs

The Seva Dal has been the Congress's grassroots organisation since the 1930s, but the party's failure to promote the Dal is costing it dearly in its battle against the BJP and RSS.

‘The year 1959. The Congress’s Nasik Convention. Then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is stopped at the gate by security personnel, Kamlakar Sharma. Nehru asks him, “Don’t you know me?”

He replies with humility, “You are the prime minister of the country. But you are not wearing the correct badge. You cannot enter without it.”

Nehru smiles and takes out the badge from his pocket. He is let in.’

The incident was recorded in Dal Samachar, the mouthpiece of the Seva Dal, a grassroots organisation of the Congress party. Deployed at the convention, Sharma was a Seva Dal leader then. Everyone at the convention panicked at his daring act. But it turned out to be a test, and he was rewarded for passing it by being promoted to chief organiser.

The true soldiers of the Congress

The Seva Dal is known for its military discipline and passion, which is reflected in its organisational fabric and method of operation. There was a time when Seva Dal training was mandatory to get Congress membership. Indira Gandhi made Rajiv Gandhi join the Congress via the Seva Dal too. From Nehru to Rahul, all Congress leaders referred to the Seva Dal members as the ‘true soldiers of Congress’.

Today, these Congress soldiers are disillusioned and distressed with their party’s miserable plight and the neglect they are facing. There is a lot to do but their hands are tied. The continuous growth of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded on similar lines, adds to their woes.

The RSS was founded two years after the Seva Dal. A member of the Seva Dal, Balram Singh, who joined the organisation in 1969 while he was a class eight student, says, “Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and Dr. Narayan Subbarao Hardikar were class fellows. Initially, they were politically active together. However, later Hardikar came under the influence of Gandhiji, while Hedgewar was aspiring for a Hindu rashtra.”

Hedgewar followed a different path and formed the Sangh. He was a member of the Hindu Mahasabha and as long as he lived, the Sangh functioned as the youth wing of the Mahasabha. The Seva Dal, on the other hand, moved ahead in the struggle against the British. It had several prominent leaders as members including Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Subhash Chandra Bose and Rajguru.

A threat to the British

Balram recalls that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Lal Kurti movement, also known as Khudai Khidmatgar, was merged with the Seva Dal. It’s easy to see how influential the Seva Dal was in the freedom struggle from the fact that it agreed to forego its independent status and become a part of the Congress in 1931. The step was taken at the behest of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who had told M.K. Gandhi that if the Seva Dal was not reigned in, it would engulf them all. A year later the British banned the Congress and the Seva Dal, and later only lifted the ban from the Congress.

The story of the Seva Dal and Sangh is like the tale of the hare and the tortoise. Post independence, the Seva Dal found itself aimless. The Congress turned a blind eye towards it and the organisation took a backseat. The Sangh, on the other hand, kept moving at a slow but steady pace, working towards its goal of achieving a Hindu rashtra.

At a time when the Congress seems to have been routed and a cadre-based party is felt to be the need of the hour to combat the Sangh’s rise, the Seva Dal’s history can offer some guidance.

Only ceremonial

Seva Dal’s chief organiser Mahendra Joshi says, “The Sangh is one organisation while the BJP is its parallel body, but for us the Congress is all. We can do nothing against its will. We are followers, they are masters.”

According to Balram, the Seva Dal has been turned into a ceremonial body by the Congress. They do little beyond wearing their uniforms and presenting themselves at party functions.

However, the members of Seva Dal remain just as passionate as they were back in 1923. Professor Vinod says, “If the Seva Dal is given a free hand, the situation will change within a year.” The Dal was a bridge between the Congress and the public. Even today most of its members hail from the middle class and feel its pulse. If favouritism in appointments ends and the Congress implements the suggestions of the Seva Dal, the organisation could be rejuvenated.

“If the party takes the Dal seriously, it can still make a difference,” adds Balram. “Our organisation is present in every block and village. All over the country, members are selflessly involved. Millions of people feel an emotional connection with it. They have not joined the organisation for the sake of power. But the Congress leaders sitting on top think that they are there only to serve.”

Balram used to manage the now defunct Dal Samachar. These days he is engaged in preserving documents related to the organisation and other research work.

How the Seva Dal was established

Referencing several books, Balram recalls how prior to 1923, leaders involved in the freedom struggle who found themselves jailed would be released after writing apology letters. During the flag satyagraha campaign in 1921, when Hardikar and his compatriots from the Rashtra Seva Mandal were jailed, they refused to write an apology, and so caught the attention of Congress party leaders. They believed that Congress workers needed similar training.

In Nagpur Central Jail, Hardikar decided to establish an organisation to train Congress workers, instil military discipline in them and evoke in them the passion to fight. After being released from prison, he went to Allahabad to meet Nehru and there they discussed the establishment of a combative organisation which would function on the principles of truth and non-violence.  In 1923, Sarojini Naidu proposed the formation of a Hindustani Seva Dal at a Congress convention. Nehru was appointed its first chairman and it later came to be known as the Seva Dal.

At the 1924 Belgaum Congress session, the Seva Dal was assigned the task of managing sanitation and security for the first time. Human waste was carried in buckets back then. All members of the Seva Dal, including Brahmins, picked up excreta at the convention. Gandhi was made president of the Congress at this conference. Complimenting Hardikar and his organisation for their hard work, he stated that the convention would not have been a success without them.

Whenever the Congress has faced trouble, Seva Dal soldiers have come to its rescue. After Operation Blue Star, says Balram, it was a challenge for the Congress to work in Punjab. But Seva Dal members worked in the face of guns and bullets. When Indira was thrown out of power in 1977 and her security cover was slashed, it was Dal members who took up the duty to protect her. Similarly, when Rajiv was out of power, the responsibility of ensuring his security fell on the Seva Dal.

But it has become a trend in the Congress to forget the Seva Dal once it comes to power. However, with the BJP and the Sangh, it is not so. Even when in power, the BJP looks back to its sister organisation by appointing its members to crucial posts. This has helped strengthen the organisation further.

Seva Dal as an alternative to Sangh

Balram claims that at a time like this, when the Congress is looking for direction, it must turn towards its grassroots organisation and try to restore the democratic process that has continuously been edged out since 1969. How would it matter if those who stayed in power for 60 years, remain powerless for another 60 or 70 months? If the Congress leadership wills it, together they can emerge as the alternative to the BJP-Sangh combine.

But Balram has little hope. He says as long as people from the Youth Congress and National Students’ Union of India dominate the party, nothing will be possible. Such people have ruled over the party since 1984-85 while the ‘true soldiers’ of the Congress have been strategically sidelined. This is why the Congress stands decimated today and the BJP can peddle the dream of a ‘Congress-free India’.

Mukesh Bhushan is a senior journalist.

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. 

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