Mohan Singh Mehta: An interview with Ajay Singh Mehta

As Seva Mandir marks its 50th anniversary, it seems appropriate to learn more about the visionary who founded the NGO.




We interviewed Ajay Singh Mehta, current President of Seva Mandir, in the room where for 17 years Mohan Singh Mehta lived and worked. It is a lovely room, lined with photographs of Bhai Sahib, as the founder came to be called, surrounded by colleagues. His single bed is a reminder that he lived simply and modestly in his office, here in the headquarters of one of the organizations he had founded.






The early years

Ajay explains that, as a boy, Mohan Singh Mehta was aware of the national political context, having seen reports in the newspapers of the nationalist movement and become familiar with the names of the leaders. The young Mohan went to school in Ajmer and then Agra, before studying in Allahabad. He was familiar with the Indian version of the scouting movement, started by the British army officer, Robert Baden-Powell, (and incidentally inspired initially by Baden-Powell’s early days as a young officer in India). Mohan Singh Mehta was drawn to the idea that the individual should be doing something for society, which was a dimension of scouting. He joined Seva Samiti, which had been set up by one of the national leaders of the time.

In time Bhai Sahib became editor of a national newspaper and he became convinced of the need for systematic change, not through political revolution, but rather by engaging with the community.

Having grown up in Udaipur, Bhai Sahib had experience of Rajasthan’s feudal system, with its conservative customs, not least purdah for women.  When his uncle called to say that Mohan Singh had been offered the post of private secretary to the crown prince, he was appalled and refused to become part of the court circle. His elder brother later took the post.

A few years later, he was told that he had been appointed Hakim (Collector) in Kumbhalgarh, an area administered by the ruler. Once again, Bhai Sahib’s instinct was to refuse. He had not applied for the job and didn’t want it. His father was upset and felt that his son could not refuse such an honour. Bhai Sahib insisted that he did not want to return to a feudal society and did not want to subject his wife to purdah. She, however, assured him that she would adjust to this new life and persuaded him that he owed it to his family to accept this post. So the couple moved back to Udaipur in 1923.


Time for reflection away from India

Bhai Sahib’s wife died in 1925 when he was only 30, and when their son, Jagat, was only three. This was a turning point in Bhai Sahib’s life and he decided to take time out to go and study in the UK. He took at PhD at the London School of Economics and became a Barrister. His ideas matured in England, and, having renewed his acquaintance with the man who had introduced him to the scouts in India, he once again became connected with the movement. He also scribbled down some ideas for a progressive school, which would later become Vidya Bhawan.

Bhahi Sahib was deeply impressed, on visits to the very poor East End of London, to see that many Indian Oxbridge graduates were working to alleviate the hardships of their fellow countrymen in that part of London. He felt that if such highly educated people could become engaged in social work in the UK then it should surely be possible in India.


The founding of Vidya Bhawan and laying the foundation for Seva Mandir

He returned to his homeland in 1928 and started a scout troop himself. He began to hold annual retreats for current and former scouts, and took them on mountain treks to talk about social issues. During these discussions, the idea of Vidya Bhawan became more concrete and the school was founded in 1931. In the same year the foundation stone of Seva Mandir was laid.

As a young revenue officer, Bhai Sahib had toured the rural areas and the state of the roads had often left him no option but to sleep out in the countryside. He saw the poverty of the country people at first hand, and, with his knowledge of feudal society, could see how few rights these rural poor had. Some feudal rulers might be benign, but these rural folk had no democratic rights, no claim to dignity, no entitlement. In the UK, he had seen, the poor were to a certain extent protected. There were independent courts, elected MPs. But here the country people had no such protection, no redress, but were at the mercy of the ruler of their area.

Hence the founding principle of Seva Mandir, that, in the attempt to eradicate poverty, the poor must be empowered to claim their rights and exercise their civic dignity. But Bhai Sahib became very involved in setting up Vidya Bhawan, so plans for Seva Mandir lay dormant a little longer.




A passion for education

In 1949 Mohan Singh Mehta was appointed Ambassador to the Netherlands, and later to Pakistan and then Switzerland. Back in India in 1958, he became President of the Adult Education Society of India. Education was his passion and he decided that his school would be a progressive institution. This would be his contribution to the national movement.

For Bhai Sahib, education was a continuous process, not one that stopped at 25. He felt that young people, indeed people of all ages, should constantly ask themselves, ‘How am I relevant to society?’

Bhai Sahib became Vice Chancellor of Rajasthan University in 1960, and was more and more successful in attracting talent to the institution, where he founded an Adult Education department, and was awarded the William Pearson Tolley Medal for Distinguished Leadership in Adult Education from Syracuse University in 1969.


Seva Mandir relies on volunteers from the start

In 1967 he left the University and returned to Udaiur. Seva Mandir began its existence in 1968-1969.  There was no money to set up the organization. All Bhai Sahib’s savings had gone on the construction of a building for the organization, so he had to call on volunteers to help with the actual work of the fledgling Seva Mandir. He had become involved with a local theatre group, and realized that this was a good place to find suitable young volunteers.

The first major grant for Seva Mandir was from an American woman, Welthy Fisher, so it began work in Adult Education in the villages.

Two things drove Mohan Singh Mehta: firstly, education – not just school, but the continuing need for adults to reflect on how to give back to society; and secondly, the need to find a way to construct a democratic society and the means by which each adult should seek to contribute to it.

Vidya Bhawan was all about good citizenship – it still is today. The school’s activities are designed to form good citizens. Bhai Sahib was convinced that the building of a democratic culture begins with activity. The two went together: adult education and constructive work. He felt that people should exercise their franchise, not simply in terms of a vote, but in terms of their involvement in deciding what should be done. In today’s parlance, perhaps, taking ownership of the development process.




Governance and constructive work

So Seva Mandir’s work focused on local needs: agriculture, drought relief and youth development, and it gradually managed to attract a series of grants.

A key characteristic of Bhai Sahib was his eclecticism.  He attracted a wide range of people to his circle – Gandhians, extreme leftists, business people. He did not discriminate between them, but he had certain principles on which he insisted: non-violence; the avoidance of financial waste; the need for all internal decisions to be democratic, with all staff being represented.

These have remained the fundamental principles of Seva Mandir down the years. As the NGO became involved in health, education, forests and so forth, it remained committed to creating a democratic culture in the villages in which it worked. Everything must be done for the common good.

To this day, when Seva Mandir begins working in a village, it insists that the villagers as a whole be involved in deciding what is best for the community. Individuals should be motivated to do their job, reminded of the need to do it, and honoured in so doing.


A non-political radical

Mohan Singh Mehta was a great radical of his time, but he rejected the political sphere, picking instead what he saw as a more promising strand, building on constructive work and development involving the people who were to benefit from it.

There is still a danger inherent in this strand, the risk that in these communities power so easily revolves around charismatic leaders. But the name by which Mohan Singh Mehta himself became known to those who worked with him shows his views on this: he preferred Bhai Sahib (literally Brother sir) to any title that separated him from those around him.

Seva Mandir continues to honour and to remember Bhai Sahib with affection and to follow the founding principles he set out for the fledgling organization.




Looking to the future

Seva Mandir, through its various constructive work programmes in forestry, healthcare, education and livelihood creation, has created the means to enable ordinary people in villages and small townships to come together across social distinctions of caste, class, religion and gender to work for the common good of their communities, and to exercise self-governance that is mindful of the needs of the most disadvantaged in their communities and of the environment. Perhaps more importantly, people are enabled to refuse to cooperate with arrangements that privatize resources which should remain common property, such as forests, pastures and water resources, and to resist wrongdoing and injustice in their contexts.   India is a vibrant democracy, but one that centralizes power in the state.  Looking to the future, Seva Mandir is well placed to create democratic practices that would temper the tendency towards centralizing power and approximate the founder’s dream of making ‘Udaipur district into a small but self-sufficient and autonomous republic’ within the constitution, a republic that would run on the lines of the ancient city states of Greece.

Strengthening grass-roots democracy while solving the basic problems which the poor face is an old concern of Seva Mandir.  Keeping alive this idea could be the leitmotif for its future.