This paper analyses the meaning of three different engagements with charitable and philanthropic activity in India between c. 1820 and 1960: it looks at the East India Company's movement into philanthropic activities in the decades after 1820; then it explores the significance of philanthropy, social service and social work carried out by Indian organizations in a period of growing nationalism between roughly 1890 and 1947; and thirdly, the paper considers the approach taken toward philanthropy and social work by the newly independent Indian state in the 1950s.
The essay shows some surprising continuities over this 140-year period, as well as some important differences. In each of the three cases listed above, philanthropic and charitable initiatives were linked to issues of moral authority and political legitimacy. In most societies, and certainly in India, ‘giving’ resources or services as charity or relief, without expectations of personal reward, can enhance the giver's social or political status. Charitable and philanthropic actions can even support claims or aspirations to political leadership and authority. Indeed, historically there have often been expectations that kings and other wealthy or prominent individuals ‘give’ to their communities. Rulers, in a sense, were responsible for the redistribution of wealth. It is not surprising, then, that in two periods when new states were being built, the Company state in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and the independent nation-state of India under Jawaharlal Nehru's leadership in the late 1940s and 1950s, embryonic governments took deliberate steps to involve themselves in charity, philanthropy or social work.