back to issue

EDUCATING ACTIVISTS: Development and Gender in the Making of Modern Gandhians by Rebecca M. Klenk. Lexington Books, Plymouth, UK, 2010.

IN The Gospel of Selfless Action or The Gita According to Gandhi (1946/2009), Gandhi claimed a priority for his interpretation of the Gita by virtue of the fact that he had endeavoured to enforce its meaning in his own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years.1 This is a distinction, Gandhi asserted, that could not be claimed by most other authors who had rendered the Gita. Even in his other writings, Gandhi relentlessly emphasized the centrality of embodied practice – of non-violence, non-possession, and so on – rather than cognitive knowledge for being a true satyagrahi. If we take Gandhi’s insistence seriously, then an important way to engage Gandhi is on the terrain of embodied practice, and not just rational argumentation.

Anthropologists and sociologists should be particularly sensitive to such an approach in the light of the works of Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, who made practice central to their theories. Yet, even as there has been a resurgence of scholarly attention to Gandhi both in India and the West, works that are premised on Gandhian praxis have been comparatively far-flung and few. This is not to suggest that renderings of Gandhi not backed by Gandhian praxis are somehow wrong, incomplete, or misplaced; they have their legitimate place, just as Gandhi conceded other renderings of Gita had and have their place. This is only to observe that apart from occasional books like Rajni Bakshi’s Bapu Kuti or Geoffrey Ostergaard and Melville Currel’s The Gentle Anarchists, as such we know far from enough about what capacities for creative action (what Bourdieu called ‘generative capacities’) and schemes of perception are engendered by following Gandhi in everyday life.

Educating Activists is a welcome contribution in this regard. It focuses on the Kasturba Mahila Utthan Mandal, popularly known as the Lakshmi Ashram, an ashram for women that Catherine Mary Heillemann aka Sarala Devi, a relatively lesser known English disciple of Gandhi, set up in 1946 in the present state of Uttarakhand. In a region which denied education to girls around the time of Independence, Lakshmi Ashram’s guiding purpose was to reinvent womanhood, by training women graduates in samaj seva (social work) and by imbibing in them a self-confidence and self-reliance in the service of gram swaraj or village self-reliance.

This book is based on an ethnography conducted with two generations of graduates of the ashram, some of whom went on to become notable activists in Bhoodan, Chipko, and other major movements like those against big dams, logging, liquor shops, caste discrimination in the region and around the country. Through the ethnography, this book explores how ashram graduates have experimented with and renegotiated Gandhian concepts of seva, sarvodaya, and nai talim (translated by Gandhi as ‘basic education’) over the last six decades in response to changes in the wider Indian and global society, and more crucially, in the context of the discourse of development. Indeed, the central question animating this book is how have these women related with, understood and responded to development in the practice of their everyday lives.

This is yet another reason to commend this book. Development, both as a set of institutions and practices and as a telos, has taken a sound beating in humanities and some areas of social sciences, notably anthropology, particularly in the western academy. The paradigmatic works remain those of James Ferguson and Arturo Escobar. James Ferguson has glossed development as an ‘anti-politics machine’ that turns political questions into questions of techno-management, while Escobar, also drawing on Michel Foucault, has highlighted the functioning of development as discourse in constructing the Third World as an object in need of Northern intervention. In India, activist scholars like Claude Alvarez, Vandana Shiva, as also those like Ashis Nandy, have decried the development project for the violence it unleashes on disadvantaged groups and the environment. What these critical and undoubtedly valuable perspectives on development miss is the way people across strata of society have over time made development their own, imbuing it with diverse aspirations for their futures.

In this backdrop, Educating Activists offers a rare look into the process by which people articulate their own vision of development. To do this, the book chooses to focus on somewhat unlikely subjects: graduates of an ashram founded on the principles of Gandhi. Gandhi, had he lived, would probably have dismissed most versions of development and its core focus on purchasing power and standard of living. This makes the book’s exploration of how ashram graduates envisioned development and practised it in their everyday lives particularly interesting. Thus, the second chapter, which sets the tone for the rest of the book, is titled ‘Who is the developed woman?’ and involves groups of rural women, ashram women, and women activists voicing what development means for them. The fascinating set of ideas that emerge through this exercise include not only those concerned with the capacity to secure a livelihood, but also those concerned with health, education, environment, children, and marital relations. This confused, nearly all encompassing list of meanings associated with development is a far cry from both the development of the World Bank and the development of post-structural critics.

The graduates of the ashram have a complex relationship with what they call sahi vikas, or true development, and this is richly brought out by this book’s exploration of three critical realms in which ashram graduates stood apart from other rural women of their time and place – marriage, self-fashioning, and the different registers of work, notably seva. These were the realms where ashram graduates experienced a heightened sense of contradiction between their own desires and what society expected of them, and by focusing on the way different graduates negotiated these moments of tension, the book throws graduates’ agency in sharp relief. Further, by tracing graduates’ trajectories in these realms across two generations, the book presents not just a picture of what it meant to be a samaj sevika, but also how that meaning has changed from the heady days of Independence to the post-liberalization period.

For instance, there has been at least one significant change in ashram policies, since Sarala Devi relinquished the position of secretary, in line with Gandhi’s suggestion to step down after two decades. The students began to study government curriculum along with nai talim. This in part contributed to an important generational shift in the ashram. The shadow of Gandhi did not loom as large on second generation graduates as it did on the first generation. This was evident in multiple ways, for instance, second generation graduates were less wary of developmentalism than the first. Similarly, the second generation was more open to salaried employment than the first. Nevertheless, the commitment to seva, to taking their own decisions and to fashion themselves on their own terms remained as strong. What that meant changed. The startling consistency in women emerging as agents from the ashram was perhaps linked to niyam, the regimen of the ashram, which most graduates seemed to have continued practising even after leaving the ashram.

All graduates observed niyam as students of the ashram. It involved activities like work in the fields, work with animals, cooking, cleaning, studying, bhajan singing, along with Hindi, Maths, and other subjects initially taught by Sarala Devi. For the first generation, the ashram not only refused the government curriculum, it also refused its pedagogy and opted for practice based pedagogy where all lessons were, to the extent possible, blended into the practical. Even once government curriculum was adopted in the ashram, it was fitted within the pedagogy of niyam. It is this unheroic, pedestrian regime that all graduates identify as the source of what they call an ‘inner strength’, which allows them to take their own decisions, resist the pressure of kin and family, and even risk their lives for the sake of their activism. This is a powerful reminder of what anthropologists of education like Jean Lave have argued, which Gandhi did too, namely that learning or self-transformation happens through embodied practice, rather than through cognitive assimilation of abstract concepts from the blackboard or textbooks.

This book bears eloquent testimony to this idea as it tracks the inspiring projects of self and community transformation undertaken by ashram graduates. There are moving tales of courage reported in this book. Sushila Behn, an old-time graduate of the ashram, recounts how she averted what was certain to be a bloody feud between two caste groups in rural Bihar of the 1970s by intervening between them with her body in ‘a horrible form’, without a care for her own life (p. 2). There are other accounts of how in a region where women were married off by their parents without seeking their consent, ashram graduates decided to delay or put marriage entirely off. Those who did get married (the ashram never discouraged marriage, it remained neutral to it), negotiated their roles as wives and did not abandon their work or their education. In at least one case, an ashram woman walked out of an abusive marriage. In many ways, ashram graduates greatly exceeded the mandate that Gandhi envisaged for women, at times even ignoring him entirely as they fashioned their own ideas of their selves and their seva.

This collection of life histories forms the core primary material at the heart of this book. The methodological choice of using life histories is consistent with the book’s intent to explore graduates’ accounts of what development has meant in their lives in their own terms. However, first person histories are not without their well-known pitfalls – namely the all too human tendency to elide over inconvenient details, to fit one’s narration into time worn genres and to offer to the listener what one believes she wants to hear. These concerns are somewhat allayed by the fact that the author spent over two years getting to know her informants and it is difficult to mask discordant facts over an extended period. Nevertheless, it is curious that for a book that calls itself ethnographic, participant observation is conspicuous by its absence. Participant observation, particularly of the niyam, would have been a valuable source of reflection and insight into the experience and structure of ‘inner strength’ that all graduates reported having found. Also, it could have sparked a fruitful discussion into the transformative impact of education and activism on the training of subjectivity, desire, and perceptions of needs. It is hard to entirely let go of the impression that a key opportunity was lost by not ethnographically examining the practice that unites self-fashioning and seva under the sign of sahi vikas.

The book could also have benefited from a deeper engagement with the anthropological and philosophical literature on education, especially as it relates to politics and activism. The book cites the work of Dorothy Holland and Jean Lave. But it does not develop the implications of Jean Lave’s and the ‘communities of practice’ school’s key insight, one which resonates with Gandhian praxis, that with disciplined practice it is possible to fashion the self and the world without the necessity of state or institutional mediation. This is an urgent lesson in a country where classroom education, which typically involves mere cognitive exposure to abstract concepts, has become hegemonic. This book reminds us that unless education is grounded in practice, it does not train subjectivities.

This is important for another reason as well. In Ajay Skaria’s reading of Gandhi’s ashram,2 the everyday is the only site where a politics of ahimsa or neighbourliness can contend with, and potentially re-channelize the pervasive capillaries of modern power. A lot of activism today, as in Gandhi’s time, is too fixated on the state to recognize that the power that activism seeks to interrupt or bend is itself not localized in the state. In other words, the power that shapes desire and subjectivity is itself not primarily located in the state and therefore, the capacity of the state to alter subjectivities is limited, even as it retains the capacity to coerce certain behaviours. The example of Lakshmi Ashram suggests that politics can intervene at the level of consciousness without the mediation of the state. Even if one has no particular sympathies for Gandhi or Lakshmi Ashram, this is a valuable lesson, one which the book could have fleshed out more than it does.

Despite these limitations, Educating Activists remains a well-researched and elegantly written work of scholarship. It is particularly deft at conveying the voices of the ashram graduates without dominating them. In some of her recent writings, Gayatri Spivak has defined education as the ‘uncoercive rearrangement of desire.’ We are grateful to this book for demonstrating a powerful way in which ordinary, little-known women have found the strength to rearrange their desires and generate their own meanings of their lives and their work.

Aniket Aga


1. Mahadev Desai, The Gospel of Selfless Action or The Gita According to Gandhi. 13th reprint. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1946/2009, p. 127.

2. Ajay Skaria, ‘Gandhi’s Politics: Liberalism and the Question of the Ashram’, South Atlantic Quarterly 101(4), 2002, pp. 955-986.


SHADOW SPACES: Suicides and Predicament of Rural India by A.R. Vasavi. Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2012.

Between 1997 and 2006, an average of seventeen thousand, three hundred and sixty six agriculturists committed suicide every year. By the end of 2008, one lakh, ninety nine thousand, one hundred and thirty two agriculturists had committed suicide.

National Crimes Record Bureau, Government of India, 2008

THESE numbers have only grown since. And yet, despite the valiant labours of journalists like P. Sainath of The Hindu, the distress of farmers has failed to move national conscience. We spend countless hours in Parliament and TV studios discussing the 2G spectrum scam, devote considerable space in newspapers commenting on trivia, but this unfolding tragedy escapes our ruling classes.

Initially, the figures were dismissed as false, the reports alarmist. Then, when the scale of the problem could no longer be brushed aside, the effort was to individualize the problem as affecting specific farmers, growing specific crops, in specific regions. There was talk of increased indebtedness and the overall lack of development in agriculture resulting in episodic debt waiver, increased subsidies to farmers and schemes of employment guarantee for those in need. What much of this discourse missed, and what A.R. Vasavi details in this depressing and captivating monograph is that ‘Neither purely economic analyses nor primarily psychological arguments are adequate to understanding the duration and spread of such a form of self-destruction, especially among a people who have historically long suffered and weathered much privation and distress without resorting to such acts of desperation.’

Agrarian distress – crop failure, famine, and so on – is a regular feature of farm life. In the past, this might have led to an abandonment of agriculture, migration or desertion of villages, sometimes even revolts. But suicide, particularly by large groups of farmers, was rare. The fact that this is happening in a period of economic boom, and amidst expectations that growing urban prosperity would spread to the villages, should force us to look more deeply at the state of rural distress. Equally, it is important to realize that the very nature of suicides has changed – from individualized acts in the privacy of homes or the field to cases where entire families have taken their lives. Groups of agriculturists are threatening or attempting suicide in public, often signalling their intention to do so and indicating reasons behind the step. In a manner of speaking, farmer suicides have become significant political acts, signalling ‘not merely their own degraded conditions but also the general deterioration of rural India, the state of deceleration of agriculture and the agriculturists’ eroded sense of agency and the loss of significance of life itself.’

‘The suicides by agriculturists,’ Vasavi writes, ‘must not be seen only as markers of a "crisis", a passing or a temporary phenomenon in a nation undergoing rapid transformation.’ After all, it is not for the first time in history that occupations or regions have experienced terminal decline. But communities and peoples move on to other areas, other occupations, reinvent themselves. ‘Instead, what the suicides indicate is the production of desperate conditions in agrarian India which have resulted from the complexity of rural society in general, in agriculture as an economy in particular, and are abetted by a larger political economy of uncaring.’

It is worth noting that a majority of the victims are small and marginal cultivators. Most affected regions are ecologically fragile and with low development indices; experience a high degree of infusion of capital and commercial enterprises in the rural belt; have focused on shifting from low value foodgrains to high value non-foodgrain crops; have a higher than national average use of commercial inputs. In short, are firmly embedded in high risk, high return agriculture. Much of this has been encouraged by our agricultural policies with an emphasis on bringing newer farmers, crops and regions into the market nexus. This did work, to a degree, in the green revolution. But many of the farmers who adopted the new strategy were better-off, with more land, access to credit and other inputs, and better evolved social networks, none of which applies to the same degree to the marginal farmers whose risk taking ability is suspect.

Unfortunately, our agrarian policies based on a combination of technology, credit and markets, but neglecting institutional reforms, fail to address the vulnerability of marginal cultivators. They also sidestep questions of regional and ecological specificity. Thus, even those with a low risk taking ability are persuaded to try out new crops and new technologies as their only route out of relative poverty, often financed through debt. While it sometimes succeeds, this more high risk model leaves them helpless in the event of failure, the causes of which may be exogenous – climate change, shifts in market prices, new diseases and so on. Trapped in debt, and with nowhere to turn, the choice may be suicide.

As Vasavi points out, ‘The suicides highlight the ways in which multiple features of the economy, society and ecology have combined to make livelihoods untenable for a large number of people and for some, the most marginal and vulnerable, to consider such a life as not worth living. Far from being only a crisis of transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture or signalling the pathetic psychological state of agriculturists, the suicides encapsulate the multiple tensions which mark the biography of the nation in its neoliberal phase – in the privileging of the urban over the rural; the promotion of the market and individual over the collective; the erosion of long-evolved and locally embedded knowledge; and in the spread of multiple new risks that compound entrenched disadvantages.’

Can something be done? Vasavi is not very hopeful. Loan waivers, making available inputs and credit at subsidized rates, improving procurement and marketing of farm produce – and all these have been attempted every time the crisis assumes alarming proportions – will no doubt improve conditions for some. But unless the underlying conditions causing rural distress change, somewhat unlikely in a policy frame privileging the urban and industrial, the marginals will continue to be dispensable. Vasavi quotes Eric Hobsbawn, who noted the ‘passing of the peasants’ as the most significant change of the 20th century. In India, she fears, this will be played out fully in the 21st century with the ‘death of its myriad forms of agriculture.’ ‘Embedded in an unsustainable model of production, in which the significant symbols and meanings of agriculture and land are fast altering, and in which the state remains a duplicitous actor, the mass of rural subjects, marginalized and overlooked, will probably provide the labour on which the nation will march towards its urban shift and for which agriculturists will be largely unremunerated and unremembered.’

Reminiscent of John Berger’s classic, Pig Earth?

Harsh Sethi