This paper is presented as part of the Working Papers series for COMM-ORG: The On-line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. Copyright is held by the author. To cite, use: [author] [date] [title], paper presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. 

Advancing Community Organizing Practice:

Lessons from Grassroots Organizations in India

Kavitha Mediratta and Clay Smith

August, 2001


About the Authors
1. Introduction
2. Background
        Community Organizing in the U.S.
        Community Organizing in India: Expanding the Dialogue
3. Grassroots Organizing in India - Three Profiles
        The Self Employed Women's Association
            The Organizing Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi
        The Rural Education and Development Society / the Dalit Jagruti Samiti
            The Organizing Legacy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
        The Young India Project
4. Lessons from Grassroots Organizing in India:
        Collective identity
        Struggle and Development
5. Implications for U.S. Organizing
        A: Glossary of key terms, concepts and people
        B: Gandhian Guidelines for Satyagraha
        C: Research Process
        D: Organizations and Individuals contacted and visited
        E: Peer Group members


We are grateful to the many individuals and organizations in India who hosted us and generously shared their time to help us understand their work. We are inspired by what we learned from them.

We are also thankful for the advice and guidance provided by our colleagues in New York City.

Lastly, we want to thank the Aspen Institute's Nonprofit Sector Research Fund for making this research possible.

About the Authors

This research project developed out of our work as organizers in New York City. Clay Smith is an organizer with the Stamford Organizing Project in Stamford, Connecticut, and previously worked as a school reform organizer for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition in New York City. Kavitha Mediratta is a senior project director at the Institute for Education and Social Policy of New York University. She has facilitated citywide coalitions of community groups working for policy reform and helped community groups develop school reform organizing strategies.

1. Introduction

In the small village of Somandepalli in South India last year, 400 landless families took over 1100 acres of a sisal plantation owned by a small group of rich landowners. The families were members of a union of agricultural laborers started by the Young India Project. They had led a long campaign to force the government to redistribute land according to little-used Indian land reform laws. The government finally agreed, but the courts intervened, returning the land to the plantation owners. The families seized the land in protest, and began collectively cultivating it to mark it as theirs. With a union of 173,000 members behind the laborers, neither the police nor the government dared challenge them.

The Young India Project is one of hundreds of innovative grassroots organizing formations fighting to bring about social, political, and economic change in India. These groups are working to build powerful movements of poor and disenfranchised communities that can change public and private sector policies and create a more equitable society. They follow organizing traditions laid down by Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and Karl Marx. Like their counterparts in the United States, they are struggling to develop new organizing strategies to challenge both age-old structures of inequality and more recent political, economic, and social changes.

In our visits to over twenty Indian organizing groups between October 1999 and October 2000, we examined how Indian organizations are addressing some of the critical questions that face U.S. organizations.(1) How do Indian groups build a strong membership base? What are the roles of values, ideology and culture in their organizing? How do the groups work to build broader movements to affect societal change? We believe that the wide-ranging work of grassroots Indian organizations is relevant to community and labor organizing groups in the United States, and hope an examination of their organizing strategies and underlying assumptions will help U.S. organizers think more openly and creatively about their own work.

This paper focuses on community organizing and community-oriented labor organizing. These forms of grassroots organizing are important strategies for building democratic participation and fighting for social justice in the United States. As governmental and corporate structures have become less open and accountable in the 1980s and 1990s, the need for a strong third sector to push for systemic change has become more evident and urgent.

It has become increasingly clear, however, that community organizing in the United States has had only mixed results. Organizing groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), for example, have won victories for their members and helped to increase political accountability on the local level. But their record has been less impressive in winning lasting systemic reforms that fundamentally shift the nature of participation and the balance of power in society.

In an effort to make community-based organizing a more effective means for achieving systemic change, organizers across the country are beginning to debate the basic premises and practice of their work. We attempt to bring an international perspective to this debate by studying community organizations in India, a country with a long and active tradition of community organizing.

This paper focuses on the organizing approach of three grassroots organizing formations in India: the Self Employed Women's Association, the Dalit Jagruti Samiti/Rural Education and Development Society, and the Young India Project and its member unions. These groups all place great emphasis on developing and nurturing a shared ideology and collective identity among their members. Some integrate struggle and development strategies in an effort to construct alternative forms of social, political and economic organization in their communities. They all focus explicitly on leveraging their local work to bring about broader social movements.

2. Background

Community Organizing in the United States

Community organizing in the U.S. grew out of the settlement house movement of the late 1800s and the labor organizing of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s. It developed in poor, urban communities as a strategy for building democratic citizen participation and achieving social change, and served as an alternative to traditional ward politics and workplace organizing. The goal was to mobilize residents of a neighborhood who held a common interest in addressing local problems such as access to housing, health care and education, and to collectively fight for and win positive changes.

Community organizing is rooted in the belief that those who benefit least from current social, economic, and political structures have the greatest potential to build long-term, successful movements to change those structures. Community organizing theory maintains that members of disenfranchised communities have the self-interest to build neighborhood-based organizations that can confront inequities that negatively affect neighborhood life. Community organizing groups differ from other neighborhood-based organizations, such as service providers and economic and housing development corporations, in that they bring people together to analyze local problems, develop solutions, and collectively pressure the public and private sectors to implement them. This work builds social networks between residents that directly benefit individuals in a variety of ways, and creates an avenue for ordinary people to influence public affairs. Organizing provides people with an opportunity to analyze and confront the inequities they face, and to create new paths to more equitable and just societal development.

While community organizing in the United States is varied and evolving, the most dominant organizing framework is based on five key assumptions. Community organizations:

Although not all groups operate on these principles, and many hold additional principles to be of central importance, these principles constitute the dominant shared framework on which national networks such as the IAF, ACORN, National Peoples Action, and the Center for Third World Organizing base their work.(2)

Over the past several decades, U.S. organizing groups have helped residents confront public and private sector policies and hold local politicians accountable for addressing neighborhood needs. For many of these groups, winning concrete victories on local, immediate issues is viewed as an important step towards building the organizational cohesion and strength that will allow the group to negotiate successfully for its constituency's needs. Strong organizations are seen as a necessary requisite to challenging the distribution of wealth and power in local communities and bringing about long-term systemic change.

In practice, however, few community organizing groups have developed the strength to change the balance of power in their communities. In New York City, where obvious inequities would be expected to create fertile ground for community organizing, many grassroots groups struggle year after year but have not succeeded in building large, powerful, democratic organizations. Even the most successful of these groups -- such as ACORN and IAF -- which are capable of mobilizing hundreds, even thousands, of their members, have not been able to sustain this participation over time. Nor have many succeeded in pushing beyond their immediate victories to connect their organizing to a broader vision of change.

While the limitations of current organizing frameworks have long been apparent, broad structural changes have recently compounded the challenges faced by community organizations. Recent macroeconomic and political changes have had a substantial effect on neighborhood life and public participation.(3) New social and economic policies are forcing more people to work with less financial rewards, economic security, and supports such as health services and daycare for their families. Corporate mergers and the globalization of capital have further concentrated power and wealth and moved decision-making farther from neighborhoods.

These changes, along with the limited success of existing community organizing models, have prompted organizers and researchers to re-think the underlying assumptions and premises that shape grassroots organizing. The National Organizers Alliance, for example, has engaged members in a rigorous debate of the merits and shortcomings of traditional organizing orthodoxy in an exercise called "The Sacred Cows of Organizing." Academics and practitioner/researchers have published several studies in the last decade that also offer a critical examination of community organizing.(4) Several common questions arise repeatedly in these discussions: Can community organizing groups achieve lasting social change without explicitly articulating an ideology and long-term vision? How important is culture and identity in building community and solidarity among members? Is it possible to work at the community level to fight macro level structural shifts? Can groups expand their work by combining local organizing with statewide, regional or national coalition-building efforts without sacrificing grassroots decision-making, participation and leadership?

Community Organizing in India

Grassroots organizing in India has a long and varied history. While India is a poor country compared to the U.S., the context in which Indian organizing groups operate has some important similarities to the U.S.. Both countries are large, diverse democracies that generally allow freedom of speech and assembly. Class stratifies both countries, and while race is a crucial force in shaping U.S. society, caste and religion play a similar role in India. The Indian groups in this study, like the majority of community organizing groups in the U.S., bring disenfranchised people together to fight for a more just society. These groups are working towards the same broad goals as their U.S. counterparts -- to build organizations of poor and disenfranchised people that have the power to advocate for their own interests. Their members are poor people, often with little faith in party politics, who are building independent organizations through which to assert their rights.

Community organizing groups in India fall into two broad categories: people's organizations with little structure or funding, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with more formal structure, funding and staff. NGOs have professional staff and are generally funded through foreign and Indian foundations or government programs. Most do development and service work, although some focus on organizing. In contrast, people's organizations and movements tend to be more informal in nature and to receive little if any foreign or government funding. They are generally membership-based, are struggle-oriented and have few or no paid staff. These groups cover a broad spectrum in terms of their memberships and issues. They include women's organizations working with poor women on workplace, community or domestic issues; alternative unions of agricultural workers working for land reform; Dalit organizations fighting caste oppression; people's organizations working on environmental and development issues; and Adivasi organizations fighting for self-determination.

The work of these groups has clear roots in grassroots efforts that began in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The work of Mahatma Gandhi in communities throughout India helped galvanize a long struggle that led to the country's independence. Organizing by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and others in the 1920's and 1930's launched a Dalit movement against caste discrimination that continues today. Marxist organizations initiated a great number of class-based struggles among industrial workers, landless agricultural laborers and peasant farmers across India. These organizing traditions have helped to build the vibrant third sector of grassroots organizations visible across India today.(5)

Political shifts in recent decades have also helped to define the organizing strategies and ideological perspective of these groups. Growing disillusionment with the state's failure to reduce poverty, and the introduction of Emergency in the mid 1970s (when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended democratic rule) sparked widespread grassroots protest activity and fueled the violent revolutionary struggles of Naxalite groups in rural India.(6) The unilateral suspension of political and civil rights during this period also helped bring together a number of organizing groups in a series of discussions in New Delhi.(7) Participants articulated a strategy for challenging the rise of anti-democratic political forces in India. One outcome of the discussions was a shift among participating organizations from organizing on issues to organizing to promote an ideological vision and worldview.

Like their U.S. counterparts, Indian groups face a rapidly changing economic and political environment. With the fall of the communist block in the late 1980s, India began to redefine its relationship with West, particularly with multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The introduction of economic liberalization policies in the early 1990s has dramatically increased Indian access to western consumer goods, images and values. For example, many more urban and rural families have televisions than a decade ago. This medium is powerful in promoting the values of capitalism and fundamentalism.

Along with these economic changes, India's political landscape is evolving in dramatic ways. Since the mid 1990's, Indian politics have been increasingly dominated by the conservative and Hindu fundamentalist ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The rise of Hindutva politics is constricting the public space for dissension, debate and social protest. Oppositional grassroots groups are increasingly coming under fire when they protest government positions and policy. Government harassment of groups most often takes the form of auditing organizations for allegedly failing to report funds received from foreign donors.(8)

Through all these changes, a powerful and dynamic grassroots organizing movement has survived and grown. There is a significant body of literature documenting the struggles of women, lower castes and other disenfranchised groups in India to challenge the social and economic conditions that constrain them and to work for broad, systemic reform.(9) Gail Omvedt, for example, documents the emergence of new social movements of the 1980s and early 1990s and examines the social, political and historical context out of which these movements arose. Omvedt's analysis shows how groups are weaving together class, culture, gender and caste analyses to construct new and dynamic ideologies to guide their organizing.

This emphasis on ideology is just one of the ways in which community organizing groups in India differ from their U.S. counterparts. Many Indian groups also utilize culture and religion in their organizing in ways that few U.S. groups do. These groups have developed strategies that enable them to pull together diverse constituencies to work in a unified manner. Such approaches may contribute to the considerable success Indian groups have had in building large and successful organizations.(10) For example, the Self-Employed Women's Association, a trade union of self-employed women based in the Ahmedabad, Gujarat, had over 200,000 dues paying members in 1999. The Dalit Samiti Jagruti, working with Dalits in the state of Karnataka, recently drew over 45,000 Dalits to a gathering to map out strategies for change. These groups have won significant policy changes and have also, in many cases, succeeded in changing the way in which society is structured.

Indian organizing groups, of course, have weaknesses and shortcomings just like any other organization. And their apparent successes may be due in part to factors outside of their control. The great social and economic hardships which many Indians face, for example, may lend a greater urgency to grassroots mobilization India. The goal of this research, however, is not to conduct an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Indian organizing groups. It is, rather, to examine some of India's most successful organizing formations in order to identify organizing approaches and strategies that are successful in India, and may be relevant to organizing in the U.S.

3. Grassroots Organizing in India - Three Profiles

During our field research in India, we visited 20 organizations and met with a number of researchers and individuals with extensive knowledge of organizing. Our analysis of organizing in India is based on the full range of these visits. This section focuses on three organizations with which we spent significant time, and which clearly exhibit some of the strategies we feel might suggest new ways of organizing to U.S. groups. They are:

As shown in the Table 1 and discussed in the following profiles, the groups are all people's organizations with some formal structure, or with some linkage to an NGO.(11) They span the range of non-violent, progressive organizing traditions in India, including Gandhian, Ambedkarite and Marxist. Together, they are diverse in terms of their geographic location, the issues driving their work, the constituencies they serve, the length of time they have been in existence, and their overall approach to change.

Table I and the following profiles provide a brief overview of each group's work. They are not meant to be comprehensive, but rather to introduce each group's approach to organizing.

Table I: Organizing Group Characteristics

Name SEWA DJS & REDS YIP & its unions
Location Ahmedabad, Gujarat Tumkur, Karnataka Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh
Core Constituency Self-employed women workers Dalits Landless agricultural workers


To increase economic autonomy and self reliance for members To overthrow the caste system and establish a new and egalitarian society To organize land-deficit classes to fight for land, higher income and a more egalitarian society.
Core issues Worker's rights; gender exploitation; community quality of life issues. Caste oppression;

land reform;

gender discrimination.

Improved government services, land reform, and improved working conditions


Founded by Ela Bhatt in 1974. Later broke away from the Textile Labor Association. Founded by MC Raj and Jyoti Raj in 1970s. The Dalit Jagruti Samiti was formed in 1995. Founded by Narendar and Sonja Bedi in 1970. YIP began organizing in 1980.
Key organizing influence and central ideas Gandhi:

- Spread values of self-reliance, simplicity, anti-materialism;

- Increase women's leadership

- Pursue social,

economic and political change through non-violent mass protest.


- Assert a new Dalit identity;

- Build pride and unity in Dalit culture;

- Gain political power for Dalits through electoral strategies


- Assert a new class identity;

- Support class

struggle to redistribute surplus wealth;

Membership and organizational structure Trade union with 210,000 members nationally. Members are organized into 33 trade committees. They elect representatives to a 400-member Trade Council and to a 25-member Executive Committee. Membership organization (DJS) with 15,000 members, working closely with NGO (REDS) which provides staffing, training, and resources. DJS is made up of over 400 village-level committees, which elect representatives to a central governing board. NGO (YIP) which created and provides ongoing support for six trade unions with a total membership of 173,000. Unions are based in 6000 village-level committees, which come together form local councils and then district-wide unions.

The Self-Employed Women's Association

Five leaders sat cross-legged on the floor in the downstairs meeting room, drinking milky sweet tea and reviewing the events of the week. Two days earlier, the Indian Government had agreed to support SEWA's fourteen year struggle for a pension and back pay for beedi workers, who make small, hand-rolled cigarettes (beedis) in their homes. The women were elated - they had organized marches, strikes and public meetings with beedi employers and government officials and these efforts had finally paid off. Their victory was enormous - it would potentially affect over 150,000 beedi workers in Gujarat state and pave the way for similar battles in other states.

Later that night, SEWA leaders went into their neighborhoods once again to meet with members and plan how they would hold beedi employers accountable. Even with government support, it would take continued struggle to force the employers to compensate workers. But right now, these five women were enjoying their victory. It was a sign, they said, of what could be achieved when self-employed women workers united. "Before we were alone," Vasanthiben said. "We were not able to speak for our rights. Now we are in the union, and we speak together. That is our strength."

SEWA is an organization of poor, self-employed women workers who live and work in Ahmedabad city (population 3.5 million) and surrounding rural areas in the state of Gujarat. SEWA grew out of the Textile Labor Association, India's largest and oldest union of textile workers, and formally registered in 1972 as a trade union of self-employed women workers. With over 200,000 members, SEWA is the largest union in Gujarat and the largest union of self-employed workers in the country.

SEWA's members are women who work outside of traditional employer-employee relationships. They work at home as weavers, potters, garment makers, incense rollers and beedi workers, or as hawkers or vendors carrying out trade in the streets and markets from their baskets or cartloads of wares, or selling and trading their labor as agricultural workers, head loaders, domestic workers and construction workers. These women face different problems than male workers. They are paid far less than men, and the income-generating labor they do in the home is rarely recognized as "work." Although women are often the primary earners in their families, many do not have control over how their earnings are spent. Such authority traditionally rests with the male members of their families. The vast majority of working women in India are self-employed workers. These women constitute almost half of the urban workforce, and yet they are rarely included in policy discussions about the workforce and worker rights. SEWA uses the term "self-employed" to give "positive status, dignity and recognition" to women who have often described negatively as unorganized, informal or peripheral.(12)

SEWA sees economic empowerment as key to women's ability to challenge social oppression and political marginalization. It works, therefore, to connect self-employed women to the mainstream economy. The organization's goals are to help members achieve full employment and self-reliance. For SEWA, full employment means that workers have sufficient income generating activities to achieve work security, income security, food security and social security (including at least health care, child care and shelter.) Self-reliance means that women are economically autonomous and have the right and power to participate in decisions that affect their lives. By helping women confront employers to demand higher wages, develop literacy and job skills to increase their earning potential, and accumulate savings in their own bank accounts, SEWA helps its members confront exploitation as workers while also challenging oppressive gender relationships in their homes.

SEWA is made up of local unions, active mainly in Ahmedabad city, and local cooperatives that operate throughout the state of Gujarat. Women pay an annual fee of 5 rupees (about 15 U.S. cents) to be members. SEWA's total membership in 1999 was 211,124, including members in Gujarat and in 10 other Indian states. These members are divided into the categories of home-based workers, hawkers and vendors, and manual laborers and service providers.

SEWA members participate in the organization through a multi-tier governance structure. Members are organized into 33 trade committees that meet monthly to discuss common problems and plan joint action within their trade. Every three years Trade Committees elect representatives to a 400-member Trade Council. Members of the Trade Council in turn elect leaders and organizers to the 25-member Executive Committee of SEWA, the organization's highest decision-making body. This Committee is made up of 25 trade leaders and four staff organizers, and is responsible for making the major political decisions of the organization and for assigning work to the paid staff. Members of the Executive Committee elect the union's President and General Secretary, generally from the trade with the largest membership.

The trade committees coordinate the organizing activities for their trade. Some trades run campaigns similar to those of traditional trade unions. For example, beedi workers, who roll small Indian cigarettes in their homes, are involved in long-standing campaigns to increase wages and win benefits such as pensions. Employers contract out the work to home-based workers largely so they can claim the workers are not actually employees. One of the workers' central fights, then, has been to gain recognition as employees and win the many benefits that come with this status. Vegetable vendors, another major SEWA constituency, have led major campaigns around the right to sell vegetables in street markets throughout the city. A major struggle took place at Manek Chowk, one of the city's main street markets where vending families have been selling vegetables for generations. The police often harassed the women, and forced them off the street unless they paid the officers. This led to a direct action campaign through which the women won vending licenses and reserved spots from which to sell their produce.

Although SEWA is a trade union, its approach has much in common with community organizing in the U.S. Organizers often work on community issues that arise in their neighborhoods, such as a lack of basic services like clean water and sanitation. These issues are identified through membership meetings, home visits, or in surveys conducted by SEWA organizers. The following example illustrates the way in which SEWA organizers move easily between workplace and community organizing.

During the weekly meeting of urban organizers, a new organizer raised an issue that had come up in her conversations with members. Some of the members lived in a settlement along the banks of the Sabarmati River. Recently, during her discussions with members about workplace issues, they had been telling her of the horrible conditions under which they lived - their housing was dangerous and they had no clean drinking water. The organizer asked her co-workers and supervisor for advice. How should she handle the situation? The others were unanimous in their recommendation. She should organize a meeting of the people who lived in this settlement (many, but not all of whom were workers and members of SEWA), help them identify the problems they faced, decide on their demands, and go after the responsible parties.

SEWA members take roles in the organization that are similar to the roles of leaders in many organizing groups in the U.S.. Members serve on SEWA's Executive Board and their concerns drive the organization's activities. Both members and staff lead organizing activities, and both speak for the organization in public meetings, press conferences, and negotiations with public officials.

A unique aspect of SEWA's work is its joint strategy of struggle and development in working for change. Through struggle, women build the collective strength needed to ensure that employers and government officials treat them fairly and equitably. Through development, they work to create alternative economic institutions, generate new employment opportunities, build and control their financial assets, and obtain vital social security benefits such as health care and child-care. In the U.S., struggle and development activities are often undertaken separately, and by different organizations. In contrast, SEWA believes that the full benefits of each approach can only be realized when they are undertaken jointly.(13)

Most of SEWA's development work is focused on starting cooperatives that are directed and managed by members. Over the past two decades, SEWA has helped women build over 84 cooperatives with a membership of 11,610. They undertake a wide range of activities including dairy farming, handicraft work, agriculture, trade and vending, construction and other labor, banking and others. Through these cooperatives women are freed from dependence on merchants and other intermediaries for materials and credit, and are able to learn new skills and obtain better equipment so that the goods they produce will be of the quality and quantity needed to compete in the marketplace.

Ideology and identity also play a central role in SEWA's organizing. The organization's ideology weaves together class and gender analysis with a set of values based on the philosophy and forms of protest formulated by Mahatma Gandhi during India's struggle for independence. Gandhian values that are integral to SEWA's work include truth (satya), non-violence (ahimsa), simplicity of thought and lifestyle, respect for all faiths (sarvadharma), removal of untouchability, uplift of women and the poor (sarvodaya), and local self-sufficiency (swadeshi).

SEWA reinforces these values in a number of ways. The organization has developed a series of training institutes to teach new members the history, goals, and values of the organization. In annual gatherings, members are encouraged to discuss and explore the significance and implications of these values as they set the organization's priorities for the coming year. The organization also uses ritual to focus staff and members on these values. A daily morning prayer service, for example, is held at the main SEWA office each morning. Staff spend half an hour together in a large, open room. They sit on the floor, sing songs and prayers relating to SEWA's purpose and values, and prepare themselves for the day's work that lies ahead. The importance of a simple lifestyle is another SEWA value that is enacted daily. Members and staff generally wear khadi (homespun cotton cloth that Gandhi popularized as a symbol of anti-colonialism and national self-reliance during the Independence struggle), and shun synthetic materials and fancy clothing. Since Ahmedabad was Gandhi's headquarters for many years and he grew up in another part of the state, this Gandhian focus also invokes a sense of regional pride.

Most importantly, though, these values are acted out day to day in the lives and work of SEWA members. The uplift of women and the poor is the clear goal of the daily struggles of the various trade committees as they fight to build power and improve working conditions. Gandhi urged all true satyagrahis (a term for those who fight for truth) to fight without fear. SEWA encourages the same courage in its members during the confrontations that mark its organizing. SEWA's commitment to women's leadership is clear: of some 200,000 SEWA members and staff, only about a dozen (all staff, mostly drivers) are men. The values of economic equality and self-reliance are played out not only through these struggles, but also through SEWA's focus on creating co-operatives. These new economic institutions provide benefits to their members and serve as a model for the kind of society SEWA wants to build. The swavakanbanam (self reliance) that SEWA is fighting for encompasses both economic self-reliance, and a more personal independence in terms of decision-making and autonomy within the family and society.(14)

SEWA has built an organization that is remarkably diverse in terms of religion and caste. This has not been easy, and has required purposeful work to overcome societal divisions. SEWA's success in this area is evident in its actions during several of Ahmedabad's periods of communal and caste violence. Because its members cut across many castes and religious communities in the city, SEWA has been able to mediate communal conflicts where even the government has failed.

SEWA members consistently identify values such as anti-communalism, anti-casteism, economic and social equality, and simplicity as a central part of SEWA, and of what it means to be a SEWA member. They see these values as markedly different from those of the mainstream world around them, and feel pride in being part of a group with a vision for a better world. This creates strong ties between members, and helps them identify with the organization.

Since SEWA began in 1974, it has grown to a membership of over 200,000, and has built effective alliances at the local, national and international level, while winning victories that have produced concrete improvements in members' lives. SEWA describes its approach as the confluence of three movements: labor, women's and cooperative. The evolving nature of the organization is impressive. "We did not begin with a pre-determined blueprint for structuring our work. Our vision and ideology have been the guide for constantly evolving our structure and processes in response to the needs of our members."(15)

The Organizing Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi

Mohandas K. Gandhi is well known for his role in India's struggle for independence from Britain. He developed the satyagraha (truth force) approach to change and transformed the elite-led struggle of the Indian National Congress into a mass movement against British rule. His strategies for bringing about social, political, and economic change have shaped the work of many activists and organizers throughout India.

Gandhi was born in Gujarat in 1896. He studied law in England, and worked as a lawyer in South Africa where he first developed the satyagraha approach to fight for the rights of Indians there. He returned to India in 1915 and led the struggle for self-rule until a Hindu extremist shot him in 1948, a year after India won independence from Britain.

Gandhi's principal goals for India were to win swaraj (self-rule) and sarvodaya (the uplift of all). Swaraj had two dimensions for Gandhi. As self-rule in a personal sense, it entailed rule of the self by the self, or the rule of the mind over its passions, especially greed and aggression. As home rule, it entailed rule of the nation by its people. Gandhi believed that the quality of home rule India achieved would be in proportion to quality of self-rule Indians achieved.(16) Sarvodaya in a general sense meant equality, and included the concepts that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all, that all work is of equal worth, and that manual labor is both dignified and important.(17)

In Gandhi's view, the struggle for these goals was obstructed by Indians' aspirations to live by the values of British civilization. For Gandhi, this was a civilization built on greed and devoid of morality. The first task for Indians was to rethink the dominant values. It is not enough to find fault with the imperialists, he argued, for India was "being afflicted by both the external virus of foreign rule and the internal virus of domestic corruption."(18) "If, through cowardice or fear of dishonor or death, we fail to realize or examine our shortcomings and fail to draw people's attention to them, we shall do no good to India's cause, notwithstanding the number of external remedies we may adopt, notwithstanding the Congress sessions (we may hold), not even by becoming extremists."(19) Indians, he felt, needed to clarify their own values and be clear about what kind of society they wanted to build.

Satyagraha, Gandhi's mass action technique, is based on truth and non-violence. Gandhi believed that the key to resolving a conflict situation was for the parties to arrive at a mutual understanding of the truth. The idea was not to force your opponent to do something against his/her will, but to convince him/her to embrace your perception of truth, and act according to it. A key aspect of satyagraha was non-violence. Gandhi argued that no one could know with certainty the absolute truth, and that without such certainty, we could not presume to punish our opponent by using violence. Self-suffering, another important element of satyagraha, guarantees the sincerity of the satyagrahi's own opinions, and restrains him or her from asserting ambiguous truths.

A satyagraha campaign always began with efforts to negotiate the conflict through existing channels. If these efforts were unproductive, the group of satyagrahis was prepared for direct action through intensive discussions and trainings. Next, a propaganda campaign was launched to educate the public through mass meetings and demonstrations. A final ultimatum was then issued to the opponent, explaining the action that would be taken if no agreement were reached. Next up to three types of direct action could be used to pressure the opponent. Picketing, dharna (sit down strike) and other forms of strike and economic boycott were the first line of action, followed by boycott of public institutions, and, eventually, running a parallel government. (See Appendix B for more detailed guidelines on the practice of Satyagraha.)

The constructive program was also a central aspect of Gandhi's approach. It involved actively working to build an economically self-sufficient and egalitarian society. Through this aspect of his work, Gandhi tried to construct positive models of how society should be structured. Small scale models of the new society he and his followers hoped to create were developed, often in ashrams. Gandhi's goals were expansive, however. He aspired to expand such models until they took over all of India, and the British system of governance was eradicated. His constructive program was based on the practices of communal (religious) unity, removal of untouchability, prohibition, khadi (and the swadeshi program of economic independence it entailed), education, sanitation, and economic equality. The "wholesome fulfillment (of this program) is complete independence," he wrote, and urged its implementation by all Indians.(20)

In his organizing, Gandhi used and transformed traditions and cultural symbols to take new meanings that would connect common people to a larger mass movement. For example, he used the image of a chakra, a spinning wheel used commonly in many villages, to symbolize the importance of manual labor, and to protest against the tyranny of modern 'machinery' and technology and the economic exploitation of the poor.

These basic principles shape the values and strategies of many grassroots organizing groups today. Some have started ashrams and service programs that follow Gandhi's concept of the constructive program. Many others have built membership-based, struggle-oriented organizations that use the satyagraha approach to non-violent direct action.

The Rural Education for Development Society and the Dalit Jagruti Samiti

In a remote village in South India, a group of Dalits from a local chapter of DJS entered a small restaurant. They spoke to the owner of the establishment, and demanded that he end his policy of serving caste Hindu and Dalit customers from two separate sets of glasses. This "two-glass" system is not uncommon in India - it is used prevent caste Hindus from being "polluted" by drinking from the same glass a Dalit has used. The practice is formally outlawed, as are all forms of untouchability. When the restaurant owner scoffed at the Dalits and told them to leave, they smashed all the glasses on his shelf, effectively ending the system.

The police came, and later the caste leaders of the village met to discuss this affront to their privilege. They called a social boycott on all Dalits in the village to punish them for their insolence. The boycott meant they would not be able to use water pumps or wells, latrines, or other public facilities in the village, nor purchase goods from stores or markets. Soon a large group of REDS and DJS leaders from other villages arrived to back up the Dalits from the local chapter. After a tense standoff the Dalit leaders and the caste leaders from the village negotiated a settlement. The illegal two-glass system was discontinued, and the boycott was withdrawn.

M.C. and Jyoti Raj founded the Rural Education for Development Society (REDS) in the 1970s as an NGO working with the rural poor in southern Karnataka state. They began with a development approach that involved digging wells and developing village infrastructure, but soon turned to organizing the rural. Using a class-based approach, they sought to bring together poor villagers to fight for better wages and improved living conditions. They organized local village committees throughout Tumkur District. As they worked, however, they saw caste hierarchies develop within their organization. This led them to analyze the dynamics of caste in the villages in which they worked, and they found that caste oppression was at the root of most fundamental local problems. In order to build a strong new identity for the poor, they decided to organize Dalits not just against their economic oppression but against their social oppression as well.

As the organization grew through the 1980s and 1990s, its status as a formally registered NGO began to emerge as an obstacle. Being registered with the government constrained REDS, and limited the extent of the political work it could undertake. In 1995, to address this issue, the membership of REDS split off to form a more independent non-registered peoples organization - Dalit Jagruti Samiti (DJS). REDS provides staffing, training, and other support to DJS. REDS also increased its support of broader efforts to mobilize Dalits in other parts of India. M.C. Raj and Jyoti Raj still direct REDS, and are acknowledged as its charismatic leaders. DJS is today made up of over 400 local village-level committees with a total membership of over 15,000. The local units elect representatives to six county level committees, which in turn elect representatives to sit on the DJS governing board.

REDS and DJS work on three main issues: untouchability and atrocities (violent attacks on Dalits), land reform, and gender discrimination. Untouchability campaigns attempt to end the segregated and oppressive treatment Dalits experience at the hands of caste Hindus. Campaigns against atrocities usually involve demanding the arrest of those who have led or been involved in assaults on Dalits, and the protection of Dalits. These incidents are used to move Dalits into action and to mobilize them to be active in the collective struggle for Dalit rights.

Land redistribution is a critical goal for the organization, as many Dalits are landless and have no option but to work as agricultural laborers for low wages. India has seldom-used laws that both limit the amount of land an individual can hold and call for the redistribution of surplus lands to those without any landholdings. Land reform campaigns aim to recover such surplus lands and ensure that they are reallocated to landless DJS members. DJS also runs campaigns against gender oppression, including violence against women. It nurtures the development of new women leaders within the organization, and reserves half of its leadership positions for women. REDS and DJS have also run members for elected office in the local level of government, the panchayat raj. Over 200 DJS members have been elected so far in villages across Tumkur district.

REDS and DJS work to build a powerful organization of Dalits in part by winning local victories on these issues. They focus greater attention, however, on developing and spreading a clear ideology, constructing a new and shared sense of Dalit identity, and supporting the expansion of DJS from an organization to a broader social movement. They believe a shared ideology creates and sustains the unity, direction, drive, and strength of the group. The development of such ideology involves looking back to old traditions, and pushing forward to create a vision of an alternative society.

The organization's ideology is known as Dalitism, which has its roots in the ideas and philosophy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and in what M.C. Raj sees as the basic traditional values of Dalit society. It is based on the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, with an emphasis on democracy and open communication. Ambedkar's action approach - to educate, agitate, and organize - is also part of this ideological framework. REDS and DJS believe this belief system is relevant not just for Dalits, but for all Indians. Dalitism, they argue, offers a new national ideology for India.

REDS and DJS also put forth an alternative cultural and political identity for Dalits in their work. They emphasize Dalit history, and urge people to embrace their age-old traditions, while adapting them for use in the present. One such tradition is drumming. Dalit drummers have traditionally performed only at the funerals of caste Hindus and at other caste celebrations. They were not paid for this work; it was considered their duty within the caste system. Dalit drummers now play at DJS events and demonstrations in order to celebrate and invigorate the work. Drumming has come to symbolize a new and assertive collective identity for Dalits, which weaves together the democratic values promoted by Ambedkar, a sense of pride in Dalit contributions to Indian society, and a bold vision of a new India and their place within it.

REDS and DJS believe identity and ideology are key to building a movement that can mobilize Dalits throughout India to fight against their oppression. These alternative frameworks can help unify Dalits and provide the strength, determination, and direction needed to win their struggle. REDS and DJS share this Dalit identity and ideology with new members through stories, songs and street theater in meetings and in formal training sessions. As the following example illustrates, however, the new identity and ideology are also integrated into demonstrations to send a clear message to caste Hindus that Dalits will no longer accept caste oppression.

The sixty Dalit families of Bychapura were tired of the caste oppression they faced daily in their interactions with the 400 caste Hindu residents of the village. As Dalits they had to do certain unpaid work for caste people - it was considered their duty. If an animal died in the caste village, Dalits had to remove the carcass. When a caste-Hindu died, they had to drum at the service. If the sewers were clogged, they had to clean them.

Several Dalits had recently attended the 45,000 strong meeting to inaugurate the beginning of a new era for Dalit liberation. They were energized and ready to organize, and had decided to establish a DJS unit in their village. That afternoon they held a ceremony to unveil their signboard, which proclaimed that DJS was active in their village. The day's program began with a procession led by four traditional drummers followed by two boys carrying a garlanded picture of Ambedkar. The group, which numbered close to 100, marched loudly out of the Dalit colony to the main intersection at the center of the village, and danced and marched on to the meeting grounds.

The program was delayed, as the power had been cut off, apparently by some of the village's caste Hindus. Electricity was needed to power lights, but more importantly to power the microphone hooked up to two loudspeakers hung high on an electrical pole. The group wanted to be sure the caste Hindus in the main village could hear every word that was said. The program started, and a group of people sang to the accompaniment of tambourines. They had composed the songs themselves - they were songs praising Ambedkar and describing the Dalit struggle. The DJS president spoke about the need to spread Ambedkar's values and ideas, and about the struggles in which DJS was involved. He stressed that it was important for every village to be part of DJS so they could effectively fight for their rights. Next M.C. Raj spoke at greater length. He spoke about the oppression of Dalits and how they needed to come together to struggle for the Dalitization of India. He told familiar stories from Hindu mythology, and pointed out how they sanctioned the oppression of Dalits. People in the audience, even the small children, listened intently, and at times whistled, clapped, and shouted their approval.

All religions had served to further the oppression of Dalits, Raj continued. They needed to return to their past - to worship their ancestors and mother earth. Caste people feared the dead, but Dalits didn't. They knew the spirits of their ancestors remained in the air to give them strength. People also needed to commit themselves to struggle. Youth, he said, should work for Dalit movements. They should marry later and give at least 5 years of their lives - from the ages of 20 to 25 - to work for Dalit movements. He showed a DJS membership card and said every family should have one. They all had to support the movement and fight for change. This is what Dr. Ambedkar wanted.

Black is beautiful, Raj said to cheers from the crowd. They should feel proud, and wear the Dalit colors of black and blue as he did. A new sign was hung in the center of the village, which stated that Bychapura was home to DJS. Even the presence of the signboard would help keep the caste people in line, Raj said, and would protect the village's Dalits. He raised a clenched fist in the air. "Jai Bhim!"(21)

The Organizing Legacy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

Bhim Rao Ambedkar was born in 1891 to an untouchable family. His father was a soldier in the British army in India, which gave him the opportunity to obtain an education that most Dalits of his time didn't have. He studied in India, England and the US, and was greatly influenced by American democratic theory. He was active in Indian politics at the same time as Gandhi, and is remembered by most Indians for his role in writing the Indian constitution.

Among Dalits, Ambedkar is viewed as a hero. Most Dalit organizations and houses have a photo or image of Ambedkar. In these images, he is generally depicted in western dress -- wearing a suit and tie, eyeglasses and holding a pen and notebook - that represents the kind of educated and defiant image he wanted for Dalits.

Ambedkar believed in democratic egalitarianism and spent his life fighting to increase the economic, social and political opportunity for Dalits. In contrast with Gandhi, who was his contemporary during the Indian independence movement, Ambedkar fought to end to Dalit oppression rather than to achieve a free India in which Dalits were still oppressed by caste-Hindus. His guiding principles include: (22)

1) Untouchables should revolt because they are slaves and slavery is inherently inhuman;

2) Only by acknowledging their slavery and by admitting their inferior position can untouchables unify and press for change. Only by governmental acknowledgement of their deprivation as a class and the correction of that injustice by special treatment on a caste basis could equality eventually be reached;

3) Only untouchables could understand their own condition and needs; hence only untouchables should lead untouchable movements;

4) Education and politics are the chief means to equality: education so that untouchables are able to participate in society equally; political agitation and participation so that untouchables can secure their rights and redress their economic and social grievances by law through the development of their own political parties;

5) Untouchables are totally Indian. No foreign ideology nor foreign religion could help them achieve their equality as Indians. India must be free before they are free, but their battle for freedom must never be subservient to other demands.

6) Only as some untouchables become elite can the whole group be raised. Only if ability and ambition enable some untouchables to be at the top of the pinnacle can the mass below realize its own potential.

Ambedkar spent the early part of his life fighting to abolish the caste system and the restrictions it imposed on Dalits. He organized non-violent mass actions in which Dalits demanded the right to join in religious festivals and enter temples which had traditionally been closed to them. He saw these as ways to mobilize Dalits into an organized constituency -- to make them aware of their oppressed position in society and lay the groundwork for building local organizations and leadership. His work to establish a sense of pride in Dalit culture led him to reject Hinduism and lead mass conversions of Dalits to Buddhism, claiming it was the original religion of the Dalit people.

In the political arena, Ambedkar fought to establish a representative governance structure in India through quotas to encourage Dalit participation in government and education. He also formed a political party that attempted to unify Dalits and other lower and middle caste Hindus behind an electoral strategy. Although this political party was ultimately unsuccessful, new parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party have emerged recently that are attempting to build a coalition of Dalits and other oppressed Indian around their shared experience of caste and class oppression.


The Young India Project

Islapuram is a village of stonecutters in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. In 1996, many of its low caste residents became locked in a tense conflict with upper caste villagers. For many years, these Scheduled Caste and Backward Caste villagers had very poor housing, and no decent road connecting their village to the main road several miles away, but finally they had begun fighting for improvements.

Two years earlier, these villagers, with backing from their local YIP union, had begun a campaign to get better housing. There was plenty of unused land around the village, but it was owned by a Hindu temple in the next village. The union members spoke to the temple about using the land, then went to the government to demand that the surplus land be given to them, complete with titles, so they could build new houses. The upper caste villagers strongly opposed this plan, as their children used this land to play cricket and other games. The union continued to build pressure on the government through a series of meetings, and finally the government bought the land from the temple and gave 70 families title to the land. They immediately constructed temporary houses on the land to mark it as theirs.

The first night the houses were complete, upper caste people burned them to the ground. The union members called the police, who arrived in the morning to make arrests. The upper caste residents wouldn't allow the police to enter the village, and a tense standoff ensued. Finally, the police threatened to open fire, and the upper caste villagers backed down. Arrests were made. Over the next several years, the local union pressured the government to build new houses for its members and to make other improvements in the village. Eventually 70 houses were built, and a new road and several water pumps were installed. Building on their victories, several members of the local union committee were elected to the Panchayat Raj.

The Young India Project (YIP) is an NGO that created and continues to support seven local unions of agricultural laborers in the state of Andhra Pradesh. YIP began its work in 1970 with a focus on traditional development projects such as digging wells. By 1980 its class-based analysis of the area's problems led it to begin organizing the rural poor to improve their economic and social situation and protect their rights. YIP organizes members of the "land-deficit" classes to fight for land, higher income, and a more egalitarian society. Many of its members are Dalits, but it uses the language of class, not caste, to mobilize people to fight for justice.

The organization has a membership of over 173,000 through its unions. The unions are legally independent, but were started by YIP and continue to work in close coordination with it. The unions are membership organizations, and YIP provides them with staffing, training, financial oversight, monitoring, and guidance with strategy. The primary objectives of these unions are to help members access anti-poverty programs and other government services; to protect their rights - especially for Dalit, Adivasi, and women members; and to contest Panchayat Raj elections and fight for the creation of pro-labor laws.

The unions are structured in four levels. At the most local level are the village committees, which number over 6000. Groups of approximately 30 villages come together to form a Mandal union, which works on issues common to these villages. There are 190 Mandal unions. The Mandal unions, in turn, are grouped into 6 District unions, which are formally registered as trade unions. Each level elects representatives to sit on decision-making committees at the next highest level. Along with five other district-wide unions, YIP has formed a statewide agricultural laborers union with a membership of nearly 400,000, called the Andhra Pradesh Vyvasaya Vrithidarula Union (APVVU).

Unlike trade unions in the West, YIP unions do not focus on demanding higher wages. Most landowners in the area are peasants with relatively small land holdings and few resources. They only hire agricultural laborers for four months of the year when there is enough rain for crops to grow, and cannot generally afford to pay high wages. YIP unions focus instead on holding the government accountable for meeting the needs of YIP members. Many poor families depend for their subsistence on government services, which are seldom provided with consistency or quality. The unions have fought successfully to obtain new housing, clean water, sanitation, schools, health clinics, small loans, and land re-distribution. These benefits are won through negotiation with local government officials, as well as through the use of direct action tactics such as sit down strikes, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and even forcibly occupying land.

YIP helps its member unions press local government officials for change, and looks to transform local power dynamics. One aspect of this involves running union members for elected office. In 1995, for example, 7000 YIP union members ran for office in local Panchayat Raj elections, and 6,100 were elected.

YIP bases its work on a Marxist analysis of society, and attempts to integrate social factors into this economic analysis. Identity in India has long been defined by people's place within the social system of caste. YIP's approach is to challenge these traditional identities and build a new collective identity that is centered on class. Narendar Bedi, founder of YIP, explains:

(W)hen we talk about rural poor unionizing we are not talking about unions of workers working in the same trade, we are talking about unionizing because of the same economic condition: poverty. The unions of rural poor are therefore different from trade unions. They must address themselves not only to the range of economic problems and economic needs, such as need for land, housing, drinking water and credit. They must also address the social problems caused by caste and religious differences, such as untouchability, caste inequalities, and religious intolerance.

YIP has worked to adapt a class-based analysis to local conditions. When YIP started its work, it held meetings with members to identify the causes of their economic and social oppression. This led to a class analysis that divided people into several land deficit classes and several land surplus classes. Land deficit classes include landless agricultural laborers, marginal and small peasants owning five acres of less of land, artisans and self-employed petty businesses such as tea shops, fruit and vegetable vendors who are working for themselves and earn less than 1000 rupees ($20) a month. In addition to caste, YIP has identified gender, disability and age discrimination as forms of oppression. Thus, while the organization draws upon Marxist theory, it is also grounded in the reality of members' lives.

Recently, YIP has focused on helping the district and mandal unions become more independent and self-sufficient. To do this, it is helping the organizers deepen the connection of existing members to the organization, while bringing in new members who understand YIP's vision and strategy for change. This is done largely by training organizers to communicate the organization's ideology effectively, Bedi says.

The mandal unions take up struggles on issues brought to their attention by the village committees, which are members of the union. The base of the mandal union is the village committee, for that is where the poor join the union. This committee therefore has to be constantly strengthened in ideology and in increasing its membership. This means that each and every member must understand the political philosophy of the union and what the struggles are they can undertake through the union. The members must not only think of the benefits they can get through the union, they must understand that the union is the only organization of the poor through which struggles can be undertaken against a system controlled by the ruling classes in which they have no power.(23)

YIP uses music and dance to draw people into the organization, but transforms these familiar forms of entertainment to expand people's thinking. Kollatum, for example, is a traditional dance; the songs which accompany it deal with religious themes that convey how people should live and relate to each other in society. Kollatum was first converted into a liberatory form of cultural expression by Gaddar, a leader of a revolutionary Marxist movement known broadly as the Naxalites. He put revolutionary lyrics to the music, and made it faster and more energetic. Instead of celebrating the virtues of Ram and Sita, an epic marriage in which Sita, the dutiful wife, serves Ram, her husband and lord, Gaddar talked about the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich. "Look at the big house of the richest man in the village," his lyrics said. "We built this house with our own hands and tools, its sits on land in our village. It belongs to us!"

Songs like this help people become more militant. Bedi explains, "People generally listen to their elders, who accept the status quo. These songs help to change their thought patterns. They are a good entry point for introducing revolutionary ideas. If we just talked to people about these issues in a meeting, the elders would sit in the back and say: it's always been like this, there's nothing we can do." The organization has a staff person in charge of developing ways to integrate culture into their work. Each mandal union has a cultural troupe with its own colors and uniforms.

Although organizing is YIP's primary focus, it has also worked with village committees and county unions to set up Women's Self Help Groups that help women build savings and access credit and provide a forum for women to express their concerns. In much of rural India, jobs are segregated by gender. In agriculture, for example, weeding is men's work while planting and spraying pesticides is women's work. Women are paid far less than men for their work even if it may require more physical labor and longer hours. In the home, women must often run the household with little assistance from their spouses, but they rarely have the authority to decide how family's resources are spent. YIP has also created self-help groups for people with disabilities and children. These groups provide services and help to raise members' concerns in the unions.

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.

5. Implications for community organizing in the U.S.

Efforts to build movements for social justice that help disenfranchised communities change social, political, and economic conditions and structures are increasingly important in the United States today. Low income people and people of color face political and economic systems that are less and less open to their input and participation. Community organizing has great promise for increasing participation and bringing about social change, but it will only succeed if organizers and members look critically at their practice, and explore ways to expand and improve it.

The organizing work of Indian groups suggests possibilities for expanding the practice of community organizing groups in the U.S. The work of YIP, SEWA, REDS/DJS, and other Indian organizations highlight the important and interconnected roles of ideology, collective identity, and movement building in organizing. Their work also suggests that organizing for change is integrally connected to developing alternative visions and models for how society might be structured and function.

Community organizing groups in the U.S. often focus on winning concrete local victories in order to build people's understanding of power and collective action. Many move on to undertake campaigns to win policy change, often with a continued focus on improving the concrete conditions under which their members live. Most groups, however, stop short of analyzing the underlying structural issues that cause these conditions and the broad changes that would be necessary to correct them, and thus, fail to develop a clear vision of the kind of world they are fighting for. Some organizations make a clear choice not to do this. They see broader questions of social, economic, and political structure as either irrelevant or out of their reach, and consider ideology an issue for academics or unproductive left activists with no organized base. Others do set out to challenge the broader structures of society. While a few have considerable success in articulating values and a vision for the future, some get stuck in the fight for concrete local victories as they struggle to build strong organizations that can challenge the local power structure. In general, with so much energy dedicated to winning a bigger slice of the pie, many groups fail to question what type of pie it is.

Most organizing groups in Indian consider ideology one of the most crucial building blocks of their organizations. Without an understanding of what kind of world they want to build, they believe it is impossible to undertake any serious effort to bring about change. Ideology is not a lofty or academic term, but a straightforward matter of values, goals, and approach. We find the YIP definition of ideology - basic values, a vision of what the world should be, and approach for moving in that direction - to be very relevant to organizing in the U.S. Developing a clear ideology by this definition could help some organizations to clarify their goals, be clearer in their direction and more strategic in choosing issues, and build an organization to which members could develop a deeper connection and commitment.

Although there are U.S. organizing groups that work from an identity-based perspective, efforts to build group identity are not common among most traditional U.S. organizing groups. Many U.S. groups believe identity-based organizing is inherently divisive, and would fracture rather than unite their communities. They rally people around broad identities - as being poor or being poor people of color. Many of the Indian groups we visited, however, have developed a collective identity that goes beyond the common experience of poverty or racial or ethnically based oppression. SEWA, for example, puts forth a compelling model for building a strong, unifying collective identity among an incredibly diverse membership. SEWA weaves together gender, class, occupation, values, vision and regional pride into a powerful new collective identity for its members. This identity celebrates difference and diversity, and makes them a central component of the value system that unifies its members. While they are extremely diverse in terms of caste, religion, and occupation, SEWA members are unified in terms of gender, class, values, vision, and approach to change. In today's Indian society, the members' acceptance of these differences is as unusual and important as their commitment to values of simplicity, equality, courage, and struggle. This collective identity is complex, but SEWA members clearly understand and embrace it. As a result, it has the power to create a sense of belonging, build ownership, and serve as rallying point for action. It gives people a framework for reaching across differences to work together for change, even in times of enormous social upheaval and conflict.

Efforts to integrate community organizing and development approaches in the U.S. have a history that is uneven at best. Development approaches, which are less politically controversial, easier to manage in a traditional "professional" manner without membership, and easier to fund, often push out and eventually replace organizing efforts. Service and community development approaches also have the potential to confuse the process of building a decision-making body of member-leaders. Many community organizers fear that their efforts to move people out of a service mentality in which they expect social workers and other "professionals" to solve their problems would be set back if their organizations offered services or development activities. For these reasons and others, many organizing groups in the U.S. are hesitant to combine organizing and development approaches.

In India struggle and development approaches are commonly used together. Development activities are related to ideology, in that many organizations use them to put forth alternative models of how they believe society should be structured. For U.S. organizations that want to challenge the existing social, economic, and political structures, such a dual approach may be worth considering. Efforts to develop models for combining development and organizing approaches that strengthen community organizing rather than weaken it are underway in several places around the country. Such experimentation could make an important contribution to the further development of community organizing.

In the U.S., traditional community organizing groups see their primary goal as building power for their organization. They focus on winning concrete victories that will both bring more people into their organizations and demonstrate their power. The development of the organization is seen as the primary means for bringing about change, so little effort is paid to building broader movements. Coalitions of similar groups are often developed in an effort to bring about broader changes. Even in these efforts, however, the focus on the growth of individual organizations often leads coalition members to make decisions based on their own best interests rather than those of the broader coalition. This organizational focus exists in many Indian groups as well, but a broader movement-building approach is also common. Such a focus, whether based on building coalitions or on spreading the influence and work of an organization beyond its formal boundaries, has contributed greatly to the success of Indian organizing, and helped in building a much stronger movement for social justice in India than the U.S.

In the U.S., ideology, collective identity, and movement building are seldom discussed by community organizers. Groups shy away from lengthy internal discussions that might divert them from taking action to confront the power dynamics in their communities. In contrast, the Indian organizations examined in this report believe that ideology and identity are central to building strong organizations that can leverage their organizing into broader social movements. Each organization has developed intensive training programs to teach members about the organization's history, and to provide a forum for members to help shape the organization's overall approach, values and vision. This work has helped build both strong local organizations and powerful broader movements. U.S. organizations that are looking to push the boundaries of their work and build strong movements have good reason to be interested in these approaches.

But how applicable are these approaches to organizing in the U.S.? Differences in the history and culture of the U.S. and India are great enough to make this a significant question. Collective thinking is common in India. This can be seen in its socialist-oriented past, as well as in the strength of family, caste, and regional identities. Ideology is also very important in India, which is a country with a wide diversity of political thought and a lively spirit of public ideological debate.

U.S. culture and society are markedly different. Individualism reigns in U.S. society today, as it has through most of the country's history. People's problems are seen as the result of their own action, not as the result of the structure of society. The American dream offers the promise that if an individual works hard, he or she will be rewarded. Collective approaches to problems are often looked on with skepticism, as are collective identities other than "American." Although class, race, gender, sexual orientation and other identities have risen to prominence from time to time, many Americans tend to avoid identifying collectively. U.S. society is also markedly non-ideological. For the most part, U.S. residents share a faith in the free market capitalist system, even if it has not delivered for them individually. Our only two major political parties put forth the same basic vision of how the political, economic, and social elements of our world should be structured. To the extent that most Americans share this set of beliefs about how society should function, we are an extremely non-ideological nation.

These factors make it difficult to integrate ideology, collective identity, and movement-building approaches into organizing in the U.S. They may also explain in part why such approaches have not often been used by U.S. groups. Yet, the current state of American society is what makes these approaches potentially powerful and timely. To develop broader movements for justice in the U.S., organizing groups must address the fundamental challenge of how to build larger and more unified membership bases with the power and vision to change the underlying structures of American society. Organizing approaches which include ideology, collective identity, joint strategies of struggle and development, and an explicit focus on building movements offer new and exciting possibilities for U.S. groups. While the work of these Indian groups offers no clear blueprints for organizing, we hope that their experiences will stimulate new thinking and experimentation by grassroots community organizations in the U.S.


Dalit Movements

Appavoo, James Theophilus (1986): Folklore for Change, Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, Madurai.

Aruldoss, Rev. Dr. T (1997): Why Dalit Theology, J&D Publications, Madurai.

Fernandes, Walter (1996): The Emerging Dalit Identity: The Re-Assertion of the Subalterns, Indian Social Institute, New Delhi.

Gopinath, M, ed.(1998): Nagaloka: The Fractured History and Forgotten Glory of the Bahujan Indians, Dalit Sahitya Sanghatane, Bangalore.

Guru, Gopal (1997): Dalit Cultural Movement and Dialectics of Dalit Politics in Maharashtra, Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, Mumbai.

____ (1993): The Emergence of Indigenous Peoples, Collection of papers presented at the First All India Conference of Indigenous Peoples of India, Indian Social Institute, Bangalore.

Ilaiah, Kancha (1996): Why I am not a Hindu, A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy, Samya, Calcutta.

Jyotiraj (1994): REDS, A Decade with People, Ambedkar Resource Center, Tumkur.

Massey, James (1999): Dalits In India, Religion as a source of bondage or liberation with special reference to Christians, Manohar Publishers, New Delhi.

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (1999): Black Paper: Broken Promises and Dalit Betrayed, Bangalore.

Nirmal, Arvind, ed. (1989): Towards A Common Dalit Ideology, Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, Chennai.

Omvedt, Gail (1995): Dalit Visions, Tracts for the Times, Vol.8, Orient Longman Limited, Hyderabad.

_____ (1994): Dalits and the Democratic Revolution, Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

Pendse, Sandeep (1994): At Cross-Roads, Dalit Movement Today, Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, Mumbai.

Power, Carla: "Caste Struggle," Newsweek, July 3, 2000: 18-21.

Prasad, D. Manohar Chandra (1999): Dalit Christian Struggle, A Retrospection, Rachana Publications, Bangalore.

Raj, MC (1998): From Periphery to Center, Analysis of the Paradigm of Globalization, Casteism, Dalitism, Ambedkar Resource Center, Tumkur.

_____ (2000), Ambedkar Era, Ambedkar Resource Center, Tumkur.

Zelliot, Eleanor (1992): From Untouchable to Dalit, Essays on the Ambedkar Movement, Manohar Publishers, New Delhi.

Environmental Movements

Bhatt, Anil (1989): Development and Social Justice, micro action by weaker sections, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

Cheria, Anita and K Narayan, Bijoy and Edwin (1997): A Search for Justice, A Citizens Report on the Adivasi Experience in South India, St. Pauls Publications, Bangalore.

Franke, Richard W. and Barbara H. Chasin (1989): Kerala, Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State, Institute for Food and Development Policy, CA.

Kothari, Ashish and Shekar Singh (1988): The Narmada Valley Project, A Critique, Kalpavriksh, New Delhi.

Mathew, Koshy (1988), Voice of the Storm, National Fishworkers Forum, Cochin.

Mittal, Anuradha and Peter Rosset: "Genetic Engineering and the Privatization of Seeds," Dollars and Sense, March/April 2001: 24-27.

National Fishworkers Forum (1997): Dossier, World Forum of Fish Harvesters & Fishworkers.

Roy, Arundhati (1999): The Cost of Living, Modern Library, New York.

Sangvai, Sanjay (2000): The River and Life, People's Struggle in the Narmada Valley, Earthcare Books, Mumbai and Calcutta.

Gandhian Organizing

Bakshi, Rajni, (1998): Bapu Kuti, Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi, Penquin, New Delhi.

Bondurant, Joan V. (1958): Conquest of Violence, The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Dalton, Dennis (1993): Mahatma Gandhi, Non Violent Power in Action, Columbia University Press, New York.

Gandhi, MK (1927): An Autobiography OR The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Mathur, Dr. J.S. (1977), Non Violence and Social Change, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad.

Narayan, Shriman (1969): The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, An Autobiography, Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Parel, Anthony (1997): Hind Swaraj, Foundation Books, New Delhi.

Randolph, Susanna Hoeber and Lloyd I. Rudolph (1967): Gandhi, The Traditional Roots of Charisma, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Marxism and Organizing

Chaudhary, Shalini (ND): "In the Path of Development," People's Action, New Delhi.

Datt, Ruddar, ed. (1997): Organizing the Unorganized Workers, Indian Society of Labour Economics, Delhi.

Singh, Prakash (1995): The Naxalite Movement In India, Rupa & Co, New Delhi.

Young India Project (1988): Papers On Development and Rural Poverty, Andhra Pradesh.

_____ (1988): Tryst with Destiny, Critical Essays on Government Development Policies and Anti-Poverty Programmes, Andhra Pradesh.

____ (2000): Annual Report, Andhra Pradesh.

Women's Movements

Carr, Marilyn, Chen, Martha and Renana Jhabvala (1996): Speaking Out: Women's Economic Empowerment in South Asia, Vistaar Publications, New Delhi.

Mukhopadhyay, Maitrayee (1984): Silver Shackles: Women and Development in India, Oxfam, Oxford.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2000): Women and Development, The Capabilities Approach, Kali for Women, New Delhi.

Rose, Kalima (1992): Where Women Are Leaders, Vistaar Publications, New Delhi.

SEWA (1988), Annual Report, Ahmedabad.

____ (1999), Annual Report, Ahmedabad.

Virmani, Shabnam, When Women Unite: The Story of an Uprising (NY: Media for International Development, 1996)

Critical analyses of Indian social movements

Bonner, Arthur (1990): Averting the Apocalypse, Social Movements in India, Duke University Press, North Carolina.

Chakraborty, Somen (1999): A Critique of Social Movements in India, Indian Social Institute, New Delhi.

Chaube, Shibani Kinkar and Bidyut Chakrabarty, eds. (1999): Social Movements in Contemporary India, KP Bagchi & Company, Calcutta.

Desrochers, John csc and Bastiaan Wielenga and Vibhuti Patel (1991): Social Movements, Towards a Perspective, Center for Social Action, Bangalore.

Omvedt, Gail (1993): Reinventing Revolution: New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., New York.

Oommen, TK (1990): Protest and Change, Studies in Social Movements, Sage, New Delhi.

Routledge, Paul (1993): Terrains of Resistance, Nonviolent Social Movements and the Contestation of Place in India Praeger Publishers, CT.

Shah, Ghanshyam (1990): Social Movements In India, A Review of the Literature, Sage: New Delhi.

Social Movements, "Caste and Gender," Vikalp Alternatives, Vol. VIII/No.: 1 & 2- 2000. Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, Mumbai

Wignaraja, Ponna, ed. (1993): New Social Movements in the South, Empowering the People, Sage Publications , New Delhi.

Cultural and societal analysis

Bharucha, Rustom (2000): Enigmas of Time: Reflections on Culture, History and Politics, Visthar, Bangalore.

Dietrich, Gabriele (1991): Culture, Religion and Development, Center for Social Action, Bangalore.

_____ and Bas Wielenga (1997): Towards Understanding Indian Society, Center for Social Analysis, Madurai.

Desrochers, John: Methods of Societal Analysis, Center for Social Action, Bangalore.

____ and George Joseph (1993): India Today, Center for Social Action, Bangalore.

Kappen, S. (1994): Tradition, Modernity, Counter Culture, Visthar, Bangalore.

Joseph, George (1998): Social Action Groups and their Activists, Center for Social Action, Bangalore.

Maliekal, John (1993): Indian Political Parties and their Ideologies, Center for Social Action, Bangalore.

Thapar, Romila (1999): Historical Interpretations and the Secularizing of Indian Society, Visthar, Bangalore.

Critical analyses of modern Indian politics and socioeconomic conditions

Iyer, Justice V.R. Krishna, Pandit, C.S., Kappen, S., and Hasan Mansur (1991): Challenges Facing Indian Democracy, Visthar, Bangalore.

Kothari, Rajni (1970): Politics in India, Orient Longman, Hyderabad

Kohli, Atul, ed. (1988): India's Democracy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.,

Kurien, CT (1994): Global Capitalism and the Indian Economy, Orient Longman, Hyderabad.

Narayan, Jayaprakash (1992): Total Revolution, Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, Varanasi

_____ (1977), Prison Diary, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai.

Nayar, Kuldip (1975): Writings on the Emergency in India.

UNDP (2000): Human Development Report 2000, Oxford.

Viswanath, Rosemary, ed (1998): Globalization: Marginalization of Dalits, Women and Tribals, Solidarity, Tumkur.

NGOs and Voluntary Organizations

Culshaw, Murray, compiled (1998): Profile 300: Selected Voluntary Organizations in India, First Ed., Center for Advancement of Philanthropy.

James, PJ (1995): Non-Governmental Voluntary Organizations, The True Mission, Mass Line Publications, Kerala

Community organizing in the U.S.

Alinsky, Saul (1989): Rules for Radicals, Vintage Books, New York.

Barber, Benjamin (1994): Strong Democracy, Participatory Politics for a New Age, University of California Press, CA.

Boyte, Harry C. and Frank Reissman (1986): The New Populism, The Politics of Empowerment, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

California Tomorrow (2001): "Community Organizing for School Reform Research Initiative: Site Reports from LA and the San Francisco Bay Area," Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York.

Delgado, Gary (1986): Organizing the Movement: the Roots and Growth of ACORN Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

_______(ND): Beyond the Politics of Place: New Directions in Community Organizing in the 1990s, Applied Research Center, Oakland.

Fellner, Kim (Spring 2000): ARK, National Organizers Alliance, Washington DC.

Fisher, Robert (1994): Let the People Decide, Neighborhood Organizing in America Twayne Publishers, NY.

Gaventa, John, Smith, Barbara Ellen, and Alex Willingham (1990): Communities in Economic Crises, Appalachia and the South, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Kling, Joseph M. and Prudence Posner, (1990): Dilemmas of Activism: Class, Community, and the Politics of Local Mobilization, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Mediratta, Kavitha (1995): Community-building Approaches, A survey of strategies and an agenda for future work, Rockefeller Foundation, NY.

Rooney, Jim (1995): Organizing the South Bronx, State University of New York Press, Albany.


1. We spent from two days to six weeks with each group interviewing staff and members, observing key meetings and public events, and reviewing documents. We also interviewed researchers and other observers of Indian social movements. See Appendix B for a full description of our research methodology.

2.. See, for example, Gary Delgado, Organizing the Movement: the Roots and Growth of ACORN (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Jim Rooney, Organizing the South Bronx (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995); and Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

3. Fisher, Robert, Let the People Decide, Neighborhood Organizing in America (NY: Twayne Publishers, 1994); Boyte, Harry C. and Frank Reissman, The New Populism, The Politics of Empowerment (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Barber, Benjamin, Strong Democracy, Participatory Politics for a New Age, (CA: University of California Press, 1984.); and Gaventa, John, Smith, Barbara Ellen, and Alex Willingham, Communities in Economic Crises, Appalachia and the South (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.)

4.Delgado, Gary, Beyond the Politics of Place: New Directions in Community Organizing in the 1990s (Oakland: Applied Research Center); Fisher, ibid.; Kling, Joseph M. and Prudence Posner, Dilemmas of Activism: Class, Community, and the Politics of Local Mobilization (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Mediratta, Kavitha, Community-building Approaches, A survey of strategies and an agenda for future work. (NY: Rockefeller Foundation, 1995).

5. Omvedt, Gail, Reinventing Revolution, New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India (NY: ME Sharp, 1993).

6. Singh, Prakash (1995): The Naxalite Movement in India, Rupa & Co., New Delhi. Also Kuldip Nayar (1975, Emergency in India. Also Narayan, Jayaprakash (1992), Total Revolution and (1977) Prison Diairies.

7. Interview with Dr. K. C. Abraham, SATHRI, Bangalore, July 2000.

8. This political context posed considerable challenges for data collection in this project. As one organizer explained, social justice organizing groups feared giving the impression of receiving foreign funding by taking our Caucasian researcher out to their local sites. Almost all of the groups we visited receive some financial and organizational support from foreign individuals and organizations, and thus were reluctant to expose themselves to potential harassment from local and central government officials.

9.  Oommen, TK, Protest and Change, Studies in Social Movements (New Delhi: Sage, 1990); Routledge, Paul, Terrains of Resistance, Nonviolent Social Movements and the Contestation of Place in India (CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993); and Wignaraja, Ponna, New Social Movements in the South, Empowering the People (New Delhi: Sage, 1993)

10. Shah, Ghanshyam, Social Movements In India, A Review of the Literature (New Delhi: Sage, 1990); Virmani, Shabnam, When Women Unite: The Story of an Uprising (NY: Media for International Development, 1996)

11. We selected these organizations because they are similar enough to community organizing groups in the US to allow for comparative analysis, but different enough that the comparison would generate new insights and strategies. A fuller description of the site selection process is included in Appendix C.

12. SEWA in 1988: 6

13.  SEWA in 1988: 14

14.SEWA in 1988: 3-4.

15. SEWA, Building Capacities for Leadership and Self Reliance, 2000: 2.

16.Parel: li-liii

17. Autobiography: X.

18.Parel: xxxv.

19.CW 8: 173, cited in Parel, xxxv

20.Gandhi, SW. vol. IV, p. 335

21.Jai Bhim is an expression developed by REDS that means 'Victory to Ambedkar.' It is now used widely as a greeting among Dalits in South India.

22. As cited in Zelliot, Eleanor (1992): From Untouchable to Dalit, Essays on the Ambedkar Movement, Manohar Publishers, New Delhi.

23. YIP: 7

24. Omvedt, Gail, Reinventing Revolution: 254

25.SEWA in 1988: 14

26. Ibid: 15

Appendix A: Glossary of Key Terms, Concepts and People

Adivasi - Indigenous or tribal people. They often live in sparsely settled rural areas, and have traditionally lived by hunting, gathering, and farming.

Ambedkar, Dr. B.R. - Leader of the Dalit movement against the Indian caste system during the early part of the 20th century. He wrote the Indian constitution and was instrumental in creating the Indian system of reservations (quotas) for Dalits and other marginalized groups in education, employment and government. He used direct, mass action and electoral organizing strategies to build Dalit movement.

Caste system - Social structure in India established in the Hindu religion. The caste system divides people into four broad castes based on birth and occupation. These are Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras, which are meant to correspond to the functions of intellectuals, warriors, merchants and laborers. Below these four castes are "untouchables" or Dalits who are supposed to do "unclean" work such as cleaning sewers, collecting garbage, and disposing of dead animals.

Dalit - Indians formerly known as "untouchables" in the Indian caste system. They have been called untouchables because caste Hindus have traditionally considered them so dirty that even touching one will pollute them. Many now call themselves Dalits, a more political term meaning downtrodden and oppressed people. Their goal is to build a positive sense of identity in their communities, and to eliminate caste oppression. Many Dalits have been influenced by the struggle of African Americans in the U.S.. The Dalit Panthers is one of the most well known Dalit groups.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. (Mahatma) - Leader in India's independence movement against England in the early part of the 20th century. He built a mass movement based in the organizing technique he called satyagraha, which emphasizes truth and non-violence.

Ideology - In a narrow sense, a set of values to guide one's work. In a broader sense, a belief system that articulates 1) an analysis of society, 2) guiding values and vision for a different society, and 3) a means and method for creating that society.

Non-government organization (NGO) - Community-based organizations that are formally registered with the government. They have professional staff and are funded through foreign and Indian foundations or government programs. Most NGOs are engaged in development and service activities, although some do organizing.

People's organizations and movements - Community-based organizations that are not registered with the government, are membership-based, and have a struggle orientation. Most have neither formal funding nor paid staff.

Untouchability - Set of social practices which separate Dalits from caste Hindus.

Appendix B: Gandhian Guidelines for Satyagraha

(From Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: the Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict.

Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1958, p. 38 - 41)

Satyagraha means firmness in truth, and is Gandhi's non-violent form of social and political action. A satyagrahi is a practitioner of satyagraha.

I. Fundamental rules:

  1. Maintain self-reliance at all times - don't count on outside aid.
  2. Maintain initiative in the hands of the Satyagrahis. "Through continuous assessment of the conflict situation satyagrahis should, by means of constructive program where possible, by positive resistance where indicated, or by tactics of persuasion and adjustment, press the movement forward."
  3. Clearly propagate the objectives, strategy, and tactics of the campaign. Educate the opponent, the public, and your own participants.
  4. Reduce demands to the minimum that is consistent with truth. Always assess and consider adjusting demands.
  5. Advance the movement progressively through steps and stages. Avoid a static condition, but launch direct action only when efforts to achieve an honorable settlement have been exhausted.
  6. Examine weaknesses within the group - especially regarding morale and discipline.
  7. Persistently search for avenues of cooperation with the adversary on honorable terms. Win over the opponent by helping him, thereby demonstrating sincerity to achieve an agreement with, rather than a triumph over, the adversary.
  8. Refuse to surrender essentials in negotiation. Make no compromise which affects basic principles or essential portions of valid objectives. Avoid bargaining or barter.
  9. Insist upon full agreement on fundamentals before accepting a settlement.

II. Code of Discipline (laid down by Gandhi as a code for volunteers in the 1930 movement)

  1. Harbor no anger but suffer the anger of the opponent. Refuse to return the assaults of the opponent.
  2. Do not submit to any order given in anger, even though severe punishment is threatened for disobeying.
  3. Refrain from insults and swearing.
  4. Protect opponents from insult or attack, even at the risk of life.
  5. Do not resist arrest nor the attachment of property, unless holding property as a trustee.
  6. Refuse to surrender any property held in trust at the risk of life.
  7. If taken prisoner, behave in an exemplary manner.
  8. As a member of a satyagraha unit, obey the orders of satyagraha leaders, and resign from the unit in the event of serious disagreement.
  9. Do not expect guarantees for maintenance of dependants.

III. Steps in a Satyagraha campaign

  1. Start with negotiation and arbitration. Make every effort to resolve conflict through existing channels
  2. Prepare the group for direct action by examining motives and initiating exercises in self-discipline. Launch full group discussions on the issues at stake, appropriate procedures to be undertaken, circumstances of the opponent, the climate of public opinion, etc. At times use purificatory fasting.
  3. Use agitation and undertake an active propaganda campaign together with demonstrations such as mass-meetings, parades, and slogan shouting.
  4. Issue an ultimatum which makes a final strong appeal to the opponent explaining what further steps will be taken if no agreement is reached. Its wording should offer the widest scope for agreement, allowing for face-saving by opponent, and should offer a constructive solution to problem.
  5. Undertake economic boycott and forms of strike, possibly including picketing, demonstrations, education of the public, dharna (sit-down strike), non-violent labor strike, and general strike.
  6. Use non-cooperation, possibly including non-payment of taxes, boycott of schools and other public institutions, etc.
  7. Undertake civil disobedience including contravention of laws that are central to the grievance or symbolic.
  8. Usurp the functions of government.
  9. Institute a parallel government

Appendix C: Research Process

Between October 1999 and October 2000, we visited a total of twenty organizing groups and support organizations. These visits ranged in duration from two days to six weeks. We also interviewed a number of academic and critical observers of Indian social movements.

We used a collaborative inquiry methodology in conducting visits and interviews to encourage ongoing dialogue between our research team and our organizer peers in the U.S. and India. This research methodology involved two main cycles of problem identification, data collection and analysis.

First, we convened a peer group of organizers in the U.S. to discuss and refine our assessment of the theoretical frameworks driving U.S. organizing work and the key challenges facing community organizing today. While in India, we reported to our peer groups, via email, on our preliminary observations, thoughts and questions regarding the work of Indian organizing groups. Upon returning to the U.S., we re-convened this group to present our findings and discuss their implications for organizing in the U.S.. (Peer group members are listed in Appendix E).

Second, where possible, we provided organizations with "snapshots" of their work for their review and comment to ensure the accuracy of our analysis and engage our Indian organizing colleagues in a discussion about effective organizing practice. This consisted largely of written reports documenting events or campaigns that drew upon our interviews with their leaders, staff and members, as well as on our observations of their meetings, training sessions and public actions. This sharing of observations was conducted more informally on shorter visits.

In addition, we interviewed outside observers and researchers to gather additional evidence of the effectiveness of these groups' work and to learn about external challenges facing the work of these groups. We also conducted an extensive literature review to understand the contextual factors that might contribute to differences in approach and practice between Indian and U.S. groups.

Site Selection

We selected Indian organizing groups that are similar enough to the U.S. groups and networks to allow for comparative analysis, but different enough so that the comparison generates new insights and strategies. This led us to focus largely on people's organizations that have some formal structure or are linked to NGOs. Our selection of groups were based on three sets of criteria:

Our focus was to work with groups whose members are poor, of lower castes and classes, or are discriminated against due to their gender, ethnicity, or other factors. As women comprise the majority of the members of the groups we have worked with in the U.S., we had an additional interest in examining the work of Indian groups whose members are mainly women. These considerations directed us to groups that work with a segment of the overall population that is demographically similar to the membership of U.S. organizing groups.

Sites were selected through a comprehensive and iterative process of identifying organizations and gathering information about their activities that would allow us to assess whether they were currently engaged in grassroots organizing campaigns. This process involved reviewing reports, research and other publications about grassroots activity across India and interviewing support organizations, academics and other critical observers of organizing to develop an initial list of over 100 organizations that might be appropriate for the study. We then wrote these groups to request information on their goals and activities. Using the information gathered in this initial survey, we identified a smaller subset of groups that were potential candidates. We visited each of these groups to discuss the research project and assess whether the group would interested in participating. We finalized the sites for this study based on information gathered in our preliminary visits.

The organizations discussed in this paper include:

A complete list of organizing groups and support organizations visited is provided in Appendix D.

Research Questions

Our initial research questions focused on a number of critical challenges facing organizing in the U.S., including: increasing participation and developing leadership; developing a values framework for organizing; and leveraging limited resources to maximize impact on public policy. This research agenda developed out of our work with community organizations, our dialogue with a range of U.S. community organizers and leaders about the critical challenges facing organizing practice today, and our preliminary research on community organizing in India. We later refined our initial questions to include "supporting organizing and building movements" in response to feedback from our peer group and our initial observations of organizing taking place in India.

Specifically, we examined:

  1. How do organizations build a strong membership base? How do they bring in new members? How are members involved in defining and carrying out the organizing work? How do these groups develop members as leaders? How has their participation changed the way members view their own roles in society and their ability to be effective actors in public life?
  3. What is the role of values, ideology and culture in organizing? Do individual groups operate within explicit value frameworks based in ideology, culture or religion? What roles do culture and religious tradition play in building group cohesion and defining organizing strategy? How are these frameworks developed, and do they increase cohesion among members? How are new members assisted in connecting specific local campaigns with longer-term vision and goals?
  5. How do groups leverage their limited resources to affect broader change, and contribute to building broader social movements? How do groups expand their reach beyond local, issue-based organizing to achieve system-wide policy reform? What approaches and tactics have they developed for leveraging their limited financial and human resources? What relationships do these groups have to political parties or individual elected officials, and to local or regional religious leaders? Do groups work within broader networks or coalitions? How do these networks emerge, and how is decision-making structured? What factors influence the effectiveness of these coalitions?

In addressing these questions, we also attempted to identify the contextual factors that contribute to differences in approach and practice between Indian and U.S. groups. We sought to understand how differences in the outcomes attained by Indian organizing groups might relate to differences in how they develop and use culture, ideology and value frameworks as organizing tools, and whether these differences might suggest new strategies for U.S. groups.

Data Analysis (and dissemination of findings)

Data analysis included a series of presentations and discussions with our organizer peer group and other organizing colleagues in New York City. These presentations and discussions provided the opportunity to test our hypotheses of organizing challenges faced by U.S. groups and fine-tune our analysis of relevant lessons from the work of Indian groups.

Appendix D: Organizations and individuals contacted and visited

1. Grassroots Organizations

Andhra Pradesh
Young India Project and its member unions
Andhra Pradesh Vyvasaya Vrithidarula Union
Self-Employed Women's Association
Narmada Bachao Andolan
Rural Education and Development Society/Dalit Jagruti Samiti
Womens Voice
Coorg Organization for Community Development
National Fishworkers Forum
Girni Kamgar Sangarsh Samiti
New Delhi
National Alliance of Peoples Movements
Tamil Nadu
Rural Education and Action for Development
Action for Community Organization, Rehabilitation and Development
Dalit Resource Center (Dalit Liberation Movement)
Institute for Social Education and Development
Tamil Nadu Agricultural Laborers Movement

2. Support Organizations and Individuals

Unnati (Organization for Development Education)
Campaign for Dalit Human Rights
Father Aloysius, Indian Social Institute
David Selvaraj, Visthar
Program for Community Organization
PK Das, architect
Nayan Momaya
New Delhi
Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA)
Tamil Nadu
Center for Social Analysis, Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary

3. Researchers and other observers of organizing

New Delhi
Ghanshyam Shah, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Smitu Kothari, Lokayan
Karen McGuinness
Karnataka (Bangalore)
Dr. K.C. Abraham, Southeast Asia Theological Research Institute (SATHRI)
Philip George, Partners for Justice Concerned
EP Menon
Tamil Nadu
Philip Joseph, Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary

Appendix E: Organizer Peer Group members

Joan Byron
Senior Architect
Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development
Mary Dailey
Executive Director
Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition
Munir Hakim
South Brooklyn Community Development Corporation
Lois Harr
Board Member
Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition
Greg Holt
Vice President
SEIU Local 1199
Helen Schaub 
Executive Director 
Mothers On the Move 
Eric Zachary 
Senior Project Director 
Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York University