The turn of the twentieth century marked a critical watershed in the history of Indian public discourse about the ‘social question’. For the best part of the nineteenth century, the Indian intelligentsia had concentrated its energies on ‘social reform’, a term that denoted a desired transformation amongst highstatus castes and communities of cultural practices that were perceived as being both irrational and the root cause of India's decline as a civilization. The attention of social reformers had focused on ‘traditional’ indigenous customs such as prohibitions on female education, child marriage, polygyny, female infanticide, sati, purdah and the pitiable state of widows and devadasis, all of which were characterized as ‘perverted, twisted, distorted practices born of ignorance and fear and followed without recourse to common sense’. Social reformers were particularly concerned with the oppressed condition of women and viewed their emancipation ‘as the first step towards progress’. However, from the late 1890s onwards, members of the largely upper-caste Indian intelligentsia widened the debates on the ‘social question’ to include the condition of the lower orders of society. Thus, alongside the rhetoric and practice of ‘social reform’ there gradually emerged a new discourse of ‘social service’.
Those who took to ‘social service’ sought to ‘civilize’ the urban poor by eradicating ‘vices’ such as drunkenness, gambling and prostitution, and inculcating in them ‘enlightened’ values regarding sanitation and hygiene.