Advancing Community Organizing Practice: Mediratta and Smith

contents | intro | background | three profiles | lessons | implications | refs/notes/apps

4. Lessons from Grassroots Organizing in India

We set out to understand how Indian groups are addressing critical questions of organizing strategy and approach that community organizing groups are grappling with today in the U.S. Specifically, we focused on three questions about organizing: 1) how organizations build a strong membership base; 2) what role values, ideology and culture play in their work; and 3) how groups leverage their limited resources to build broader social movements.

During our research, we began to see how intimately connected these elements of organizing are. The ways in which organizations deal with these elements are not easily broken down into discrete strategies and approaches. Rather, they are integrated into a broader, more holistic approach with several key elements which are connected and overlapping. For example, articulating and disseminating new ideological and cultural frameworks are central strategies through which Indian groups build strong membership bases and create broader movements. These frameworks are not just mobilization tools; they are dynamic processes of "searching, debating, coming to grips with their own identities, their own history, and from this basis working out in a collective process their relations to one another…and to strategies for change."(24) These elements do not stand alone as particular strategies, but together form a general approach to creating change.

Our three original questions led us to focus on four related and connected elements of organizing in India which we found to be potentially relevant to organizing in the U.S.: the use of ideology, the articulation of a collective identity, the use of a joint strategy of struggle and development, and a focus on movement building.


Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) has said, "We don't just want a bigger slice of the pie, we want a say in what kind of pie it is." Her words reflect a broad consensus among Indian organizers that their work is about changing society, not just demanding a greater share of the goods it produces. Each of the organizations we visited has a clearly articulated ideology that guides its work. They believe that if you are fighting to change society, you must have a clear idea of what you are fighting for. For Indian groups, ideology plays a crucial role in clarifying the broader goals of struggle and giving organizations direction and purpose.

Some organizations use the term ideology to refer specifically to their organizational values. Others use ideology more broadly to include: 1) their values; 2) their vision of the new society for which they are fighting; and 3) their method of bringing about social, economic and political change.

Narender Bedi of the Young India Project (YIP) sees ideology as the key to strengthening his organization. YIP recently began a campaign to significantly increase its membership. "The way we grow stronger is by spreading our ideology so that potential members really understand what we're about," Bedi says. "We need more ideological members who care about the broader vision and goals of the organization. They will fight for the organization and stay with us over the long term. Benefit members, who join only for concrete benefits like new homes, will leave soon after they get what they want."

YIP and its member unions base their work on a modified form of Marxism - they value economic equality and are fighting for a classless society. In their region of Andhra Pradesh, they've done a class analysis based on land ownership that identifies three classes that own surplus land and three that do not own adequate land. They also see age, disability and gender discrimination as widespread and oppressive forces. YIP organizes landless agricultural laborers, women, the disabled, and youth to challenge the class basis of society through direct action, mass-based organizing. Member unions use this ideological framework in developing leaders, selecting issues, and planning specific campaigns and broader strategic approaches.

YIP and many other groups blend pre-existing ideological frameworks (such as those developed by Mahatma Gandhi, Karl Marx, and Dalit leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar) with their own values and societal analysis to construct a guiding ideology for the organization. At its best, this combination allows them to build on the analyses and traditions of previous social movements while developing new approaches that are relevant today.

Collective Identity

Several groups we visited deliberately promote a new form of collective identity among members to build unity and strength. This identity both builds on and contributes to the organization's values and vision of change. SEWA, for example, brings together women workers from a wide range of trades, castes, languages, neighborhoods, and cultural traditions under a common collective identity. These women do different kinds of work and live in different circumstances, yet as poor women in the informal sector they face common problems such as economic vulnerability and gender oppression. Beyond organizing to address these common concerns, SEWA works to develop a broader vision, purpose, and identity that connects women to each other and to the organization. This enables members to support each other even when their specific problems are different.

Building this new, collective identity is one of the most powerful aspects of SEWA's approach. SEWA members share a view of themselves as "sister workers" - as self-employed women fighting for better working conditions and for a different and more equitable society. Their shared identity builds on an explicit gender and class analysis. It also draws on a clearly articulated set of organizational values and vision, and a deep sense of regional pride.

Cultural traditions also help to reinforce this identity. Members wear khadi (homespun cotton) to convey the organization's values of simplicity, self-reliance and anti-materialism. Khadi was popularized during the Indian independence movement by Gandhi, but is worn by few Indians today. Almost all SEWA members, however, wear khadi. One SEWA organizer observed that older members quickly correct new members who wear fancy silk or synthetic fabrics. "At SEWA we wear khadi," they say. "We believe in simplicity and equality; we're fighting for a world that has these values."

All of these factors - shared values and cultural traditions, shared gender, class and regional identities - create a powerful bond between SEWA members that cuts across the many differences that have traditionally divided and stratified Indian society. This identity is consciously used to bring people together based on these shared values and vision, and also on the acceptance and embracing of differences. The resulting collective identity is broad, but not in a vague "we are the world" style which would rob it of its specificity and power. The values on which SEWA's collective identity is based include a rejection of casteism, religious hatred, and ethnic chauvinism, and thereby include a demand for diversity and inclusiveness. This collective identity creates a sense of belonging and meaning that changes the relationship of members to the organization. Their identity as SEWA members makes them different from others, and becomes an important part of who they are. This has a profound impact on SEWA as an organization, on how its members relate to it, and on what it can accomplish.

Struggle and development

A number of Indian organizing groups blend struggle and development in their work. This focus on development comes from the Gandhian concept of the constructive program. In contemporary India, the goal of constructive program is not to replace government delivery of services, nor to create isolated utopian communes, but to create positive models of what the group is struggling for and to illustrate in concrete and positive ways the kind of world members want to see. According to SEWA, development goes together with struggle, and neither strategy should stand alone.

In the SEWA model, organizing is essential to expose and confront exploitation, build power, courage and leadership among members, and win concrete benefits for workers. SEWA members are involved in workplace struggles to confront injustice at all levels of the system - in dealing with employers and abusive policemen, government agencies and the courts, and ultimately policies and laws. But as poor women, members often have limited bargaining strength with employers or government officials, and as the main wage earners for their families they often find it difficult to sustain protests over time. Struggle efforts often fail to generate resources or develop new models of how society should function. Direct confrontation alone will not create more work in an economic system based on exploitation of the poorest and weakest sectors of society.

Development efforts, according to SEWA, are important for creating constructive alternatives to existing systems. For SEWA, development means creating new economic structures that increase members' control over the means of their production. Development work can build self-sufficiency by helping women access credit, build their financial assets and expand their collective economic power. Development efforts are also more likely to build a sustainable organizational base, as they do not suffer the rise and fall that struggle efforts experience as issues come and go.

SEWA's co-operative strategy emerged in urban areas from organizing quilt makers and in rural areas from organizing agricultural laborers. In both cases it grew out of organizing struggles and the realization that unless there were alternative sources of work and employment members would never increase their bargaining power. Cooperatives were developed to increase women's independence and control over their lives, while also creating institutions that model SEWA's values and vision for society.

Development efforts without struggle, however, can become narrow in their outlook and support the status quo rather than questioning it.(25) When used together, struggle and development strategies enable the organization to both challenge the status quo and to build positive alternatives. Ela Bhatt explains: "All members of society must have the capacity for struggle when the needs arise, and must be involved in on-going development work for sustenance. From struggle efforts we understand the nature of exploitation and from development efforts we build our own alternatives."(26)

Movement Building

Many Indian organizations aim to build power for their constituencies in a framework that is significantly broader than the "organization-building" framework common in the U.S.. They see limits to what formal organizations can achieve, and consciously work to initiate social movements with the strength and momentum to shake the foundations of the status quo. These movements are broad-based efforts to change society, and as such are deeply ideological in nature.

These movement-building efforts take several different forms. Some groups work to form broad coalitions whose impact will be greater than the sum of their parts. Others, like the Dalit Panthers of India, start from scratch and work to build loose networks of grassroots activists whose work can spread unconstrained by funders or formal organizational structures.

The history of REDS illustrates yet another approach to movement building. It has built an organization similar to many U.S. groups, but it consciously works to spread its influence beyond the boundaries of its formal structure to ensure that the organizing will grow into a broader movement. While DJS committees run campaigns on local issues as many U.S. groups do, they also work to develop a common ideology and collective identity among their members. Both are crucial to the REDS / DJS strategy of developing a message that's so compelling that Dalits in other communities who hear of it will form their own local DJS committees. In this way, the organization's vision will spread beyond its formal limits to foster a broader movement with its own momentum. Indeed, villages without any prior contact with REDS staff or DJS leaders are now asking to be recognized as local DJS units.

New cultural symbols also help to reinforce and spread the organization's message. Many DJS members wear only blue and black clothes to signify a shared sense of Dalit identity, and some take "Dalit" as a surname. All members greet each other with a raised fist and the words "Jai Bhim" (meaning "victory to Ambedkar," a reference to the Dalit leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar). This greeting is becoming widespread among Dalits throughout south India.

Throughout their history, REDS and DJS have evaluated and altered their work to facilitate movement building, even when these shifts have meant radical organizational changes. REDS began by building a class based organization of the rural poor, but shifted to a caste-based approach because it saw caste as a more oppressive force in their community. It soon shifted direction again to incorporate ideology, culture and identity in its organizing in order to deepen members' connection to the organization. It later split into two organizations - REDS and DJS - so that DJS could grow more fluidly into a broad movement without the restrictions imposed on REDS through its status as a formal NGO registered with the Indian government. These major shifts are a concrete result of REDS's focus on building a broader movement for change among Dalits in Tumkur District and throughout South India.

contents | intro | background | three profiles | lessons | implications | refs/notes/apps