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Updated: March 29, 2010 11:03 IST

Remembering a champion of empowerment

P. Rajan Guruvanshi
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NARAYANA GURU: Sandwiched between the caste Hindu rulers and the tactful missionaries, the Guru sought to reach the unreached.
The Hindu NARAYANA GURU: Sandwiched between the caste Hindu rulers and the tactful missionaries, the Guru sought to reach the unreached.

The empowerment of the less privileged is today a national priority, across political parties and governments. In this context, a look at how Sree Narayana Guru addressed issues of socio-economic and cultural reforms for the less the privileged in Kerala a century and a half ago will be relevant.

His empowerment programmes covered a sizeable deprived population in the Travancore, Kochi and Malabar provinces. His target groups were unorganised, mostly illiterate and without access rights to public places such as roads, markets, courts, temples, schools and even hospitals. In order to impose their supremacy, caste Hindus and rulers insisted that these sections follow separate dress and hair codes. Their status was that of slaves and bonded labourers. They were traded like commodities by landlords, even by governments and kings. When the British consolidated their power in India, the new rulers remained silent spectators of the social injustice. The marginalisation of the weaker sections enabled Christian missionaries to go ahead with mass conversions.

Sandwiched between the caste Hindu rulers and the tactful missionaries, the Guru sought to reach the unreached. It was a big task, for which he got no support from the ruling class. And, he had zero resources. He could, however, successfully address the subject without hurting the feelings of the rulers. He neither expected nor asked for help. He was confident in the strength of the poor. He awakened the hidden strength in them.

Following his own strategy, he could win the people’s faith and formulate a series of projects and programmes for them. He could also successfully implement them with the help of their leaders, although they had had no earlier experience in such tasks. He focussed on organisation, education, thrift, savings, investments, venture capital, trade and commerce, skill development and institution-building. He minimised wasteful expenditure on family and social functions, improved personal and neighbourhood hygiene, addressed issues of personal health care, and introduced good practices in family and in society.

He implemented these programmes successfully more than a century ago when there was poor access to transport, communication and resources, and no organisational support. The only driving force was the spirit to perform and cross hurdles. Yet the process of change resulted in a new confidence among the target group. They organised themselves, raised resources and volunteered their services for the reform process. The whole process survived for a couple of decades and slowly lost its spirit, yet left behind admirable and visible changes.

A comparison between what happened in terms of social changes then and what is happening now will throw light on the missing links in our current project formulation and delivery mechanism. India is an independent and growing nation. But it has a sizeable number of illiterate and poor people. Its poverty alleviation programmes are the largest of their kind with social instruments like Self Help Groups. Yet we continue to be less than efficient in eradicating poverty and empowering the less privileged.

We should then find the missing links. If it was possible for a social reformer more than a century ago, with an unfavourable support system, why are we failing to achieve our objectives as a mighty nation? Introspection and learning from our own success models should help. During the Guru Jayanti celebrations, those who hold in high regard such leaders and acknowledge their achievements, should address the subject and institutionalise the process.

Different forums can address this subject. A suitable mindset needs to be created first. Following social science research methodology, similar success stories in their respective contexts can be studied and documented. With the required changes, these tools can be further sharpened for need-based project formulation and implementation in local areas. Such methodology will be indigenous and therefore will have obvious advantages. It will reflect local aspirations and will therefore ensure peoples’ participation. In the process, we should find out any missing links. It may be the much required energy, or some other factor. We should find out.

When the success stories are available right here, why are we shy to acknowledge our own strengths? We do not need new ideologies and strategies to remove poverty from our land. We should rather perfect our skills and export them to remove poverty from the face of the earth. Local change agents can address the subject. This is possible only when we find value in our own skills and resources and start taking pride in them. In the process we could enrich our culture and emerge as winners in terms of social reforms.

From the Prime Minister to the anganwadi teacher, an added spirit to find values in our own strength is the need. If Mahatma Gandhi could ignite it for freedom and the Guru could generate zeal for the deprived in Kerala, why cannot this mighty nation fulfil its national priorities? We should pool our energies and enable others to optimise performance. That will bring forth the awaited glow, and our villages and towns will blossom with life.

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