Why I Prefer ‘Public Service’ To ‘Activism’ – OpEd


“A person who labours for the general good of all serves society and is worthy of his hire. Therefore, such bread-labour is not different from social service. What the vast mass of mankind does for self or at best for family, a social servant does for general good.” – M. K. Gandhi

I am a wee-bit tired of activists as I am of discussion related to activism. The reason is neither strange nor inexplicable. I am not one of those people who think that activists should live a life of poverty and degradation and should complain of neither. I don’t think that activists should get married to the underprivileged just to prove a point. You marry because you like someone. My married friends will gladly attest to the fact that there is no point to prove in a marriage, I mean, in any marriage. It doesn’t bother me when I see activists living in style. What bothers me is the fact that most activists are not clear in their minds what they are fighting against and the kind of introspection and giving of oneself that such a fight demands. 

If one’s activism is about creating a just and egalitarian world, it goes without saying that one loses a lot of one’s privileges as a consequence. In my experience as teacher at a university I keep encountering student and teacher activists as if they are members of a full-time program where finally you get a degree in activism in addition to the other lesser degree for which you entered the university in the first place. Activism becomes a euphemism for intellectual laziness of the worst kind where you do not have to enter into a dialogue with people who disagree with you. Teachers, who think that activism is why universities exist – I wonder why they are attached to their salaries, easy lifestyle and rarely or almost never contemplate on exiting their comfort zones.  

There is a need for change in terminology; I am beginning to see the meaning of an older term “public service” used by none other than Gandhi himself to indicate a life given for the welfare of the masses. Public service shares something in common with social service, the difference being that in the case of the latter, it is an unequivocal dedication to social welfare as opposed to the former which involves causes that require popular participation or public involvement. Social service is apolitical to a large extent as opposed to public service which is political by definition. In one of the short pieces “About “Indian Opinion,”” Gandhi says, “our aim is to earn our bread through public service. Service is the principal object. Earning a livelihood takes the second place.” Gandhi substantiates his point: “You must bear in mind that you have the right to earn as much as you like but not the right to spend as much as you like. Anything that remains after the needs of a decent living are satisfied belongs to the community.” 

You can have a “decent living” but, public service is where you give a greater part of your time, money, talent and best efforts to assist people in improving their day-to-day lives without expectation. Through your work and your life, you convince people that they don’t have to lose faith in themselves. Teaching skills to children of the working classes, spending time with the old, helping the poor find ways of being self-reliant, creating awareness on health-related issues, visiting the sick and reducing one’s wants to the minimum so that there is enough to share with another person – all this counts for public service. People take you seriously only when they know you mean well and your actions are proof of it. I am yet to meet somebody who could tell me that their lives benefited because of activist x or y though it is plausible that I have not met enough. 

In my view, every activist should bear a certificate signed by a member of the downtrodden groups explaining how so-and-so’s activism has translated into something useful to the victims of class society. We have no right to treat the poor as children who should “tenderly be led by the nose as asses are” (Othello). The poor have a heart and mind of their own. We need to accept and respect the fact that the poor are not looking for spokespersons for their condition, which they are already aware of because they are living it. They are looking for people who could at least in a minimal way make a difference to their lives.

Activism ends up being too much about the cause with not enough being said about the credentials of the person. Public service is a reflection on the person and what he or she is doing at the ground level. If the devil is in the detail so is the angel. How one conducts oneself in the smallest of things will throw light on what that person is all about. Gandhi says that we must “earn our bread through public service.” It only means that whatever work one does becomes a means to do something for the people. One could be a teacher, doctor, engineer, clerk, mechanic or mason. The goal is simple: one doesn’t only make one’s livelihood; one uses one’s work as a way to serve the poor masses. 

In India, some of the worst people I ever met in my life are employees working for the state which includes the banks as well. A combination of corruption and Iago-like sadism in one and the same person who is a familiar figure in government-run institutions would have overwhelmed Franz Kafka who wrote extensively about the cold, impersonal bureaucratic machine called the modern state. If there is at least one person for every government office who actually subscribed to the Gandhian view that he or she needs to do something for the people and would act like a true public servant, it would make an enormous difference to the entire system. The idea of turning organizations and institutions for actually doing public service can be applied globally with incredibly positive results. 

I would like to mention a couple of instances where Gandhi praises someone who dedicated his life to the cause of public service. One is Mr. Hajee Habib, who Gandhi says, has never given “a thought to his own interests.” Gandhi adds, “White officers found it difficult to enter into argument with him. We hope that Mr. Hajee Habib will render the same service in Durban that he did in the Transvaal, and take full part in public activities.” Another person he mentions in a longer article is more of an obituary on Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. This is where Gandhi needs to be admired. He can see what is good about a person in the enemy camp. It is such a rare quality in the modern world where politicians and political leaders are more like medieval chieftains, only less civilized, and always ready to hurl abuse without respect for the human dignity of the other person. This also applies to so-called intellectuals of both the right and the left who are keener on attacking their opponents than explaining an issue.

Gandhi says, “Sir Henry was a man of kind nature and noble mind. His sympathies were not confined to his own people. Wherever he saw oppression, his heart brimmed over with sympathy [for the victims].” This article is written in Gujarati and is addressed to Indians; Gandhi wants them to know that there is something we could learn from the likes of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. He concludes the article saying, “When India comes to have hundreds of men like Sir Henry, she will gain her freedom in no time. It will then matter little which flag flies over the palace.” If I had to choose between the crooks that have been running India for the past fifty odd years since the death of Jawaharlal Nehru and a decent man like Henry Campbell-Bannerman, any day I would prefer the latter even if he happens to be a white Englishman. Goodness has no national borders and it does not matter as Gandhi says, “which flag flies over the palace.” 

Men and women with an evolved moral instinct no matter where they are from should be occupying positions of power because they will do what they can to alleviate the sufferings of the masses. Those who have done nothing for the masses have through money and muscle power managed to seize social and political institutions while those who are opposed to the former and who call themselves activists have failed to find roots in the lives of the masses. You need to have a record of public service before you can claim to represent the poor. In the absence of years of self-sacrifice and tasting the bitter bread of struggle with the downtrodden, one cannot claim to be an activist or anything close to that. 

Gandhi gives a description of what public service is all about by talking of the god-king Shri Ramachandra. “Everyone, whether Hindu, Muslim or Parsi, should be proud of belonging to a country which produced a man like Shri Ramachandra. To the extent that he was a great Indian, he should be honoured by every Indian. For the Hindus, he is a god. If India again produced a Ramachandra, a Sita, a Lakshmana and a Bharata, she would attain prosperity in no time. It should be remembered, of course, that before Ramachandra qualified for public service, he suffered exile in the forest for 12 years.” That period of “exile” is symbolic for anyone who wishes to embark on proving that they really care for the poor. Not only do they have to live the simplest possible life for an individual, but also must selflessly commit themselves for the larger good. As Gandhi says, “The object of our public life is to serve the visible God, that is, the poor.”

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is an independent scholar from Hyderabad, India.

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