Depressed Caste Movements in British India

One, of the earliest lower caste movements, which became the torch bearer for the future caste movements, was founded in Maharashtra in the 1870s by Jyotiba Phule, who with his books Gulamgiri (1872) and Sarvajanik Satyadharma Pustak and his organisation Satya Shodhak Samaj, proclaimed the need “to save the lower castes from the hypocritical Brahmins and their opportunistic scriptures”. His main work was to rouse the masses and lead them to an organized resistance against the unreasonable claims of the priestly class. He made no distinction between non-Brahmins and untouchables. Dr. B R Ambedkar was also influenced with this movement and Jyotiba Phule. Important notes about other movements are as follows:

Shri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDPY) Movement

The untouchable Ezhavas or Iravas of Kerala clustered around the religious leader Shri Narayana Guru (1855-1928), who formed the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDPY) in 1902-3. It organized some temple entry rights movements.

Adi Movements

From the 1920s there was a rise of dalit movements in various parts of the country. The Montagu Chelmsford reforms and massive economic and political upheavals of the post-World War I period, provided the background for most of their organisations. Their common theme was adi, or a definition of themselves as the original inhabitants of the country, a claim that their own inherent traditions were those of equality and unity, and a total rejection of castes as the imposition of the conquering Aryans who used this to subjugate and divide the natives. Of these, the most important were the Adi Dravida movement in Tamil Nadu; the Adi Andhra movement in Andhra, Adi Karnataka movement; the organization of Purayas and Cherumans in Kerala; and the Adi Hindu movement, mainly centred around Kanpur in U.P.

In Punjab, the Adi Dharma movement claimed that untouchables formed a distinct religious community like Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs and that this had existed even before the arrival of the Hindus. Later on this movement was absorbed into Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation, which by the 1940s was providing an all-India umbrella to such dalits movements.

Congress and the Harijan Movement

Congress did not have social reforms in its agenda in the beginning. However, when in 1918 the first Depressed Classes Conference was organized in Bombay, and the Dalits and non-Brahmins made proposals for separate electorates, the Congress reversed its policy.

First All India Depressed Classes Conference

All-India Depressed Classes Conference was held in March 1918, which was attended by prominent political leaders, issued an All-India Anti-Untouchability Manifesto to the effect that it would not observe untouchability in its everyday affairs.

Entry of Gandhiji in politics ushered a new era in history of lower caste movements consciousness. In 1921, Congress appealed to the Hindus to “bring about removal of untouchability and to help the improvement of the submerged classes“. In 1922, it appointed a committee “to formulate a scheme embodying practical measures to be adopted for bettering the condition untouchables”. In 1923, it again passed a resolution requesting the All-India Hindu Mahasabha also to take up this matter and make efforts to remove this evil from the Hindu community. In 1928 the Indian National Social Conference also gave a call for removing this “great obstacle to unification of Hindu society”. In 1931, the Karachi Congress Session propounded a programme of fundamental rights which called for equal access for all to public employment etc., regardless of caste, and equal rights to the use of public roads, wells, schools and other facilities.

During the second half of 1932, while Gandhiji was in jail and was thinking of shifting to constructive work, Ramsay Macdonald’s Communal Award with its creation of separate electorates for untouchables, helped to focus his attention primarily on “Harijan” welfare. Gandhiji began a fast unto death on the separate electorate issue on September 20, 1932 and was able to secure an agreement between the caste Hindus and untouchables’ leaders through the Poona Pact signed on September 24, 1932. The pact retained the Hindu joint electorate with reserved seats for untouchables, who were given greater representation than awarded by Macdonald.

The very next day (September 25, 1932) a Conference of the Hindus at Bombay passed a resolution “that henceforth, amongst Hindus, no one shall be regarded as an untouchable by reason of his birth and that those who have been so regarded hitherto will have the same right as other Hindus in regard to the use of public wells, public schools, public roads, and all other public institutions. It shall be the duty of all Hindu leaders to secure, by every legitimate and peaceful means, the removal of all disabilities upon the so-called untouchable classes, including the bar in respect of admission to temples.” This resolution was followed by feverish activity on the part of the Hindus to throw open temples to the untouchables. Ranga Iyer introduced a Bill in the Central Legislature on the subject of temple entry. Similar Bills were also introduced in the Madras and Bombay Legislatures.  Baroda and Travancore States proclaimed temple entry in 1933 and 1936 respectively.

Harijan uplift now became Gandhiji’s principal concern. He started an All-India Anti-Untouchahility League or Harijan Sevak Sangh in September 1932 for improving the lot of the untouchables and for providing medical education and technical facilities to the Harijans. In 1933, he founded the weekly Harijan. Every week the Harijan published a long list of temples, wells and schools thrown open to the untouchables, and reported other humanitarian and constructive work. Gandhiji also went on a 12,500 miles “Harijan Tour” between 1933 and August 1934.

Depressed Classes Movement of B R Ambedkar

The most important challenge to Gandhiji’s Harijan Welfare Programme as also to the Communists came from Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who belonged to the untouchable Mahar caste. His programmes were intended to integrate untouchables into Indian society in modem, not traditional ways, and based on education and exercise of legal and political rights, as well as refusal to perform the demeaning traditional caste duties. His movement provided an all-India organisation for the rejection of all forms of feudal bondage imposed upon the Dalits, and ranged from mass campaigns, to a demand for separate electorates, the burning of the Manusmriti, the breaking of caste restrictions like use of temples and wearing of prohibited colour like red.  This programme came in conflict with both the Congress and the radicals and tended to verge almost on loyalist and separatist lines.  A major untouchability movement was launched by Ambedkar in the 1920s in Maharashtra, which continues in various forms till today and has acquired an all-India character. In 1924 Dr. Ambedkar founded the Depressed Classes Institute (Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha) in Bombay. Three years later (1927), he started a Marathi fortnightly, Bahishkrit Bharat, and the same year established the Samaj Samta Sangh to propagate the gospel of social equality between caste Hindus and untouchables.  Ambedkar also organised the Independent Labour Party on secular lines for protecting the interest of the labouring classes.  In December 1927 he led the Mahad Satyagraha to establish the rights of untouchables to draw water from public wells and tanks. He also organised temple entry movements like the Parvati temple satyagraha of 1928 and the Kalasam temple satyagraha of 1930-35.  There were similar satyagrahas in Kerala, such as the Vaikom temple road satyagraha of 1924-25 and the Guruvayoor satyagraha of 1930-32.

Before the Round Table Conference of 1930-31 Ambedkar emerged as the major leader of the de-pressed classes.  He took a separatist stand and demanded constitutional safeguards for the depressed classes. The untouchables demanded separate electorates in the 1930s, which led to a conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhiji, with the former feeling cheated by the Poona Pact. In 1942 Ambedkar founded the Scheduled Caste Federation. The Federation fought for the reserved seats in the 1946 elections but lost heavily to ‘Congress Harijans’ in the strongly nationalist and caste-Hindu dominated constituencies.  The Scheduled Caste Federation then launched satyagrahas in Bombay, Poona, Lucknow, Kanpur and Wardha, demanding that the Congress make known its proposals to Dalits.

Ambedkar had concluded the in 1930s that the only way of improving the status of the untouchables was to renounce the Hindu religion, and gave the slogan “You have nothing to lose except your reli-gion.” In the 1950s he embraced Buddhism.

Other Movements

Justice Party Movement

The birth of the Dravidian movement, the oldest and most enduring anti-British movement in the country, can be traced to November 20, 1916, when a group of leading non-Brahmin citizens of Madras such as Dr. T.M. Nair, Sir Pitti Theagaraja Chettiar and the Raja of Panagal came together to form the South Indian Liberal Federation (SILF), which was also known as Justice Party.  Their joint declaration, which came to be called the Non-Brahmin Manifesto, demanded the representation of non-Brahmins in government jobs. This was the first cohesive demand for reservation raised in India.

SILF soon launched a newspaper called Justice. When elections were held in 1920 for the Madras Legislative Council under the Government of India Act 1919, SILF was generally referred to by the public as the Justice Party.  The party won that election as the Indian National Congress boycotted it.

To a great extent the Justice Party and its popularity was a reaction to the domination of the Congress in the then Madras Presidency by Brahmins and other upper castes. This was used by the British rulers as a platform against the Congress, which was attracting more and more educated Brahmins and upper castes.

The Justice Party was responsible for many changes, including the passing of a Government Order in 1930 providing for reservations for various groups, including non-Brahmin Hindus.

Self-Respect Movement

The anti-Brahmin crusade got a further impetus when E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly known as Periyar, joined the anti-Brahmin movement. Naicker, who actively participated in the Non-Cooperation movement, broke with the Congress in 1924 to develop an anti-Brahmin, anti-caste populist and radical alternative to Justice elitism. He had been with the Congress and had even served a term as the President of the Tamilnadu Congress, before he quit the party in 1924 following differences over the issue of social justice and representation of non-Brahmins. After leaving the Congress, Periyar launched the Self-Respect Movement (1925) aimed at awakening non-Brahmins. His journal Kudi Arasu and his movement progressed from advocating weddings without Brahmin priests, forcible temple entry, the burning of Manusmriti to outright atheism at times. In fact he tried to provide an umbrella movement to all non-Brahmins of South India, particularly of Tamilnadu.

When the mantle of Justice Party leadership fell on Periyar after 1937, he considered moving away from electoral politics and confining the role of the non-Brahm in movement to a reformist one. Accordingly, at the Salem conference in 1944, the Justice Party was renamed Dravidar Kazhagam. Along with the renaming came a redefinition of its course of action.

This was when Periyar came up with the concept of Dravida Nadu, a land for Dravidians on the lines of a separate state for the Muslim League. By this time Periyar had also popularised the theory of Aryan invasion of the Dravidian land, in which the Brahmins were equated with the subjugating Aryans and the non-Brahmins with subjugated Dravidians, thus adding a virulent note to the anti-Brahmin movement.

It is probably the Dravida Nadu theory that confined this potent movement to the boundaries of present-day Tamil Nadu. The Madras Presidency of the time also included large chunks of what are now parts of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka, and it is doubtful if the people of these regions would have bought this theory.

Periyar had lent a cutting edge to anti-Brahmin tirades by targeting Hindu religion and its practices, decrying the gods of the Hindu pantheon as figments of imagination created by the invading Aryans to keep the Dravidians subjugated. He propounded his theory of rationalism, which denied the existence of god (that is, Hindu gods). It was basically because of the agitation by the Dravida Kazhagam that the first amendment to the Constitution was made to incorporate a provision granting concessions to the socially and economically backward.  But it was not long before differences crept in over the question whether the Dravida Kazhagam should remain only a social movement. When Periyar’s marriage to Maniammai, a woman much younger to him, sparked it controversy, some leading lights of the DK led by C.N. Annadurai walked out and formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in  1949, and three years later DMK decided to enter electoral politics.

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