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Between Tradition and Modernity


Susan Visvanathan

SERVING THE NATION: CULTURES OF SERVICE, ASSOCIATION AND CITIZENSHIP
By Carey Anthony Watt
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2005, pp. 255, price not stated.

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 9 September 2005

This is an excellent work, though it carries the tense newness of  a recently submitted doctoral thesis. In itself that is a sturdy thing, a scholarly tension which assures us of shelf life, beyond the fad of bestsellers. However, those not having a specialized interest in the area of voluntary groups and 1910, might find it tough going. As someone who has specialized in the relationship between tradition and modernity as an anthropological and historical entity, I would argue that this bridge building is integral for our analyses of the modern nation state. But the individual practitioners of each discipline often draw sharp boundaries, and imply that interdisciplinarity is an untidy thing. Yet, anyone who wants to study the RSS today, or activist groups in secular or religious manifestation will find this book the subtext of that iceberg.   C.A Watt brings to our notice four insititutions, the Servants of the People Society, the Theosophical Society, the Indian Scouts, and the Arya Samaj. It is a concern with sewa that links them. Watt shows the influence of the West, and the assimilation of secular categories as well as the implicit tensions between Hindus and Muslims.   This book attempts to understand the sociology of work and education in terms of concepts of fraternity. Thus, men’s organization and their echoes in akhadas and scout programmes are to be found. (Annie Beasant is the only woman I remember in the book, women otherwise appearing only in order to contribute donations.) I remember reading Mulgaonkar’s work A Bend in the Ganges  two decades ago and being stunned by the way in which the national movement was being framed in terms of questions of courage and physical strength. Then there is of course,  the historian Mukul Kesavan’s wonderful novel, Looking Through Glass which again looks at friendship and virility as  two symbols by which we may understand Hindu-Muslim relations. Watt is handling the technical debates on association and service between 1900 and 1920, and he does it with skill and commitment. He writes,   Consideration of intermediate-level social service and voluntary associations adds an important perspective to the ‘communalism’ debate. It highlights the importance of an institutional social structure that lay between individuals and communities on the one hand, and the state on the other. It also shifts the focus away from elite political activity towards samaj or society. Perhaps more controversially, it de-emphasizes the role ...


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