Birth of the Sangh : Gandhiji was then in Yervada Jail at Pune and began his perpetual fast unto death on the September 20, 1932. The fast aroused the conscience of the Indian people especially the caste Hindus against the evil practice of untouchability. It was as a result of this awakening that the Harijan Sevak Sangh was born. On the assurance by the caste Hindu leaders that they will protect the interests of the untouchables and on acceptance of the Poona Pact by the British Government. Gandhiji broke his fast on September 24, in the benign presence of the Poet Rabindranath Tagore.
A new names to Untouchables : The Pact gave a new name Harijan to those who had till then been known as untouchables or depressed classes. The name was chosen by Gandhiji. By this name Hari-jan, he christened the downtrodden class as the children of God since God is the friend of the friendless, help of the helpless and the protector of the weak.
Service as atonement : Gandhiji mandated that the Hindus belonging to the upper castes should devote themselves to the service of the Harijans to atone for the sins committed by their ancestors in perpetuating oppression and exploitation upon the untouchables from generation to generation. This was a novel approach unheard of in the history of social movement and brought into existence an organizational vehicle to translate the promise into practice. Harijan Sevak Sangh is the organization that was born in the sequence of such historical events. The Constitution of the sangh was prepared by Mahatma Gandhi himself.
Objective : The objective of Harijan Sevak Sangh was eradication, by truthful and nonviolent means, of untouchability in Hindu society with all its incidental evils and disabilities suffered by the so-called untouchables.
Harijan Tour : On November 7, 1933, Gandhiji began his countrywide tour for the cause of Harijan uplift, welfare and the removal of untoucabbility. The tour began at Sevagram Ashram, Wardha, which he had now made his headquarters and ended at Kashi, now Varanasi, Holiest Place for Hindus. During the nine month tour, Gandhiji covered more than 20,000 kilometers addressing meetings, collecting funds, visiting temples and Harijan colonies, guiding people engaged in the crusade against untouchability putting new hope in the Harijans and making the caste Hindus aware of their sins and therefore, conscious of their responsibility. The tour was thus historic in its effect in arousing the conscience of the people against untouchability.
Civic rights to Harijans : The Sangh has been instrumental in bestowing basic civic and human rights to the Harijans rights hitherto denied under the caste system by giving them free access to temples, public wells, dharmashalas, roads, schools, crematoriums, burning ghats and entry to places of entertainment, restaurants, and services like that of barbers, doctors, washerman and the like.
Headquarters : The 20-acre verdant green woodland known as Gandhi Ashram at Kingsway Camp in North Delhi is the Headquarters of Harijan Sevak Sangh since 1932. It is a sacred and historic place. Gandhiji had lived in this Campus for more than 180 days during his sojourn to Delhi in the 1930s and 1940s. Several important meetings of the Congress Working Committee were held here. All the then national leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Badshah Khan, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, C. Rajagopalachari, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, had visited Gandhiji here and stayed in this Campus, Kasturba, whenever she accompanied Gandhiji, had also stayed here.
The Campus has a number of buildings and structure with which the sacred memory of Gandhiji is directly associated. The prominent among them are :
There are also the statues of Bapu, Thakkar Bapa and Vinoba. Besides, there are also :-
Counseling and vocational training : The other areas of activities include Computer Coaching Centres, residential schools for tribal children, vocational training centres, family counseling centres etc.
Kasturba Balika Vidyalaya : In Delhi, the Sangh has another Campus at Ishwar Nagar in South Delhi where Sangh is running a Residential Higher Secondary School for Girls Kasturba Balika Vidyalaya named after Ba. Established on a piece of land and building donated to Gandhiji by a well-wisher, it was inaugurated in 1944 by C. Rajagopalachari. Now the School has a strength of 800 students, including 250 Harijan girls staying in the Hostel.
Elsewhere in the country, the Sangh runs 20-odd Ashram schools and hostels for Harijan children with grant-in-aid from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India. Until recently, H.S.S. had been running more than 300 Balwadis. It runs number of Creches in different states with financial assistance from the Central Social Welfare Board.
The State Branches also run a number of projects with funds received from the Central Government and their respective State Governments. In Madhya Pradesh, for example, we are running 51 Ashrams schools and hostels besides a dozen Anganwadis and Creches. In Tamil Nadu, 15 High School hostels and two middle schools, one primary school, two residential primary schools aided by the State Government are in operation besides two centrally aided residential schools. In Gujarat, there are 13 residential hostels and one High School aided by the State Government. In West Bengal an Ashram School, 25 creches, an Open Shelter for children in Need of Care & Protection, a Shelter for Urban Homeless, a computer education center, EDP training center for PMEGP, Food Processing and Computer Hardware are being run along with self help group formation and micro credit. Likewise, in Maharashtra and Kerala, too a number of Harijan hostels and schools are being run by the State Branches. Besides these state branches, other state branches also undertake similar socio-economic programmes.
Safai Vidyalaya : The Safai Vidyalaya at Ahmedabad is a unique institution started by the Sangh at Ahmedabad in 1964 to impart training to Safai workers in the use of modern technology, tools and instruments to improve the otherwise unhygienic conditions at their work place. The Vidyalaya has developed an intensive training programme based on scientific method of sanitation and environmental hygiene for senior officials and staff membrs of Municipalities, Zila Parishads, Gram Panchayats etc. The Institute also conducts training and orientation courses in low-cost sanitation, sponsored by UNICEF, WHO and the Government of India.
The beneficiaries of these programmes, running into many thousands, are all poor children, who would otherwise not have had access to education at all. They would have been condemned to a life of ignorance and virtual darkness. In the course of their stay with us, we try to inculcate values among these children, including the teachings of Gandhiji, and they come out with flying colours, sometimes even better than their privileged peers.
Several of them in later life have become civil servants, teachers, engineers, doctors, legislators and other professionals. For example, the former President of India, Sri K.R. Narayanan, was recipient of scholarship from Harijan Sevak Sangh and was an inmate of its Harijan Hostel in Trivandrum when he was a young student. Reminiscing this at a reception in his honour at Gandhi Ashram campus, Sri Narayanan said : I would not have become the President of India but for the munificence of Harijan Sevak Sangh.
Realizing that education is the key to empowerment and change, the Sangh was, at one stage, running as many as 1298 primary schools and hostels for Harijan children, besides several residential vocational training centres.
It is remarkable that, unlike violent social movements for fundamental changes anywhere else in the world affecting tens of millions of oppressed and suppressed untouchables, Gandhiji could achieve his goal, nonviolently, in a short span of just 17 years that too in his own life time. His entire programme of uplift of Harijan community, beginning with the founding of Harijan Sevak Sangh, bears the imprint of his innovative approach and ideology an experiment unique in the history of social transformation.