Caste Movement during Colonial Period

Caste Movement during Colonial Period

This article deals with ‘ Caste Movement during Colonial Period – UPSC.’ This is part of our series on ‘Modern History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here

British Colonialism  and  Caste

  • There is a debate on  transformation of Indian society under the impact of colonialism and its administrative mechanisms.  Part of this debate is whether there was continuity of caste system and other pre-colonial social-structures including caste OR it was mere product of British imagination.
    • Louis Dumont ( French scholar and writer of a famous book on caste, Homo Hierarchicus) based on study of certain texts presented image of caste based on purity and pollution & hierarchy . These values, according to Dumont, separate Indians culturally from Western civilization, making India a land of static, unchangeable, ‘oriental’ Brahmanical values.
    • Nicholas Dirks and others have challenged this notion of caste. They opined that Brahmans and their texts were not so central to the social fabric of Indian life. Brahmans were merely ritual specialists, often subordinate to powerful ruling families. The caste-based Brahmanical model of traditional India was an invention of the British Orientalists and ethnographers, according to this view

Was it a British construct?

  • Starting from the Vedas and the Great Epics, from Manu and other dharamsastras, from puranas texts, from ritual practices, the penal system of Peshwa rulers who punished culprits according to caste-principles, to the denunciations of anti-Brahmanical ‘reformers’ of all ages; everything points towards the legacy of pre-colonial times. But at the same time , it is also true that there were many non-caste affiliations and identities too which determined position of any group . It was the colonial state and its administrators who made caste as a measure of all things and the most important emblem of traditions.
  • William Jones translated and published Manu Dharma Sastras or The Laws of Manu (1794).  It became the main authority in imagining of Indian tradition as based on varnasrama- dharma (social and religious code of conduct according to caste and stage of life). Scholars have questioned the attempt to codify Indian social relations according to this single, orthodox Brahmanical text.
  • The basic objective of the colonial state was to procure data about Indian social life so as to tax and police its subjects. From the early nineteenth century, the company officials turned increasingly to literate Brahmans or to scribal and commercial populations to obtain such information. Brahmans had an incentive to argue that India was a land of age-old Brahmanical values. They insisted that effective social-control and cohesion could be achieved only if hierarchical jati and varna principles were retained.
  • Hence, Caste was not a fabrication of British rulers designed to demean and subjugate Indians but at the same time it wasn’t the only characteristic to define Indian society, point which britishers missed .
  • However, this interpretation did serve the colonial interests as by condemning the ‘Brahmanical tyranny’ colonial administration could easily justify their codes to ‘civilize’ and ‘improve’ the ‘fallen people’.

Phase  1 of Caste Movement

  • The moderate leadership was elitist, middle class. They definitely couldn’t take up the cause of untouchables. The extremist leadership was lower middle class and rested heavily on the support of caste people. So they too couldn’t alienate them by taking up cause of untouchables.
  • The winds of change however couldn’t leave them isolated and in 1917, Indian National Congress (INC) passed a resolution condemning untouchability. But nothing concrete was done in this phase.

Factors Behind Mobilization of Lower Caste

  • New Sources of Status under British Empire : There was a growing realization of the significance of the new sources of status i.e. education, government jobs, political participation and an awareness that these new sources of status too had been monopolized by the brahmans. In this the British policies and Christian missionaries helped a lot. In fact for some time it was believed that one way of protest against the caste disabilities was to convert into christianity but it failed for obvious reasons. But as a result organized caste movements began to grow in many parts of the country –
    • Ezhavas and Pulayas in Kerala,
    • Chamars in Punjab, UP and Chattisgarh,
    • Nadars in TN,
    • Namasudras in Bengal.
  • Bhakti : Another important factor behind their mobilization was the spread of the message of bhakti. Thus following movements began to preach the message of Equality
    • Sri Narayan Dharma Paripalna Yogam (SNDPY) worked among the Ezhavas
    • Matua among the Namasudras
    • Adi Hindu movement among the chamars in UP.
  • Sanskritization : There ensued a process of Sanskritization among the lower classes where those with social mobility ambitions chose to follow the customs of higher caste hindus like sati, child marriage, women seclusion etc.
  • British Census :  Risley in 1901 Census  adopted a procedure to organize castes on basis of ‘social precedence’ . To the Indian public this appeared to be an official attempt to freeze the hierarchy, which had been constantly, though imperceptibly, changing over time. As a result of this, a number of caste associations emerged to contest their assigned position in the official hierarchy, each demanding a higher position and organizing their fellow caste members in the colonial public space.
  • Reaction to Hindu Revivalism : At the same time the increasing hindu revivalist tendencies also alarmed them because if for the Brahman Hindus, the ancient age was a golden age and the present was a dark age, for untouchables it was the opposite.

1 . Brahmo Samaj & Raja Rammohan Roy

  • Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) & Brahmo Samaj indirectly challenged the legitimacy of caste.
  • Brahmo Samaj (1828) saw itself as an advocate of a new, universal, casteless religion. Paradoxically, however, Brahmos themselves became an exclusive endogamous community within Hinduism.

2. MG Ranade & National Social Conference

  • M.G. Ranade founded a reformist organization, National Social Conference in 1887, aimed to persuade Indians to modernize their values & behavior. One of the chief aims of this was to campaign against the ‘evils’ of caste.
  • But they did not regard every aspect of caste as an ‘evil’, to be annihilated. Nevertheless, Conference adherents were expected to endorse so called upliftment for the untouchables 

3. Jyotirao Phule and Satyashodak Samaj in Maharastra

  • He wrote against Brahman privileges and domination in 1850s.
  • He directly attacked Brahmanism &  represented Brahmans as Aryan invaders who conquered local indigenous people by force and concealed their act of usurpation by inventing ‘caste system’.
  • In 1873, Phule established the Satyashodhak Samaj, an organization for challenging Brahmanic supremacy.
  • He turned the Orientalist theory of Aryanisation of India upside down.” The Brahmans, he argued, were the progeny of the alien Aryans, who had subjugated the natives of the land and therefore the balance now needed to be redressed and for achieving that social revolution, he sought to unite both the non-Brahman peasant castes as well as dalit groups in a common movement
  • But in the 1880s and 1890s, there were certain subtle shifts in the non-Brahman ideology, as Phule  focused more on mobilizing the Kunbi peasantry. There was now more emphasis on the unity of those who laboured on the land  and a contestation of the claim by the Brahman-dominated Poona Sarvajanik Sabha that they represented the peasantry. He appropriated Maratha identity to all the labourers of land and claimed that  Kshatriyas, who were the ancestors of the Marathas, lived harmoniously with sudras and asserted them in resisting Aryan assaults. But this emphasis on Kshtriyas led to diminution  of Interest in the mobilization of dalits.
  • While kshatriya identity was constructed to contest Brahmanical discourse that ascribed  to them inferior status, it also inculcated an exclusivist ethos that separated them from  Dalit Groups who were treated once a brother in arms.Ironically such indigenous construction of identity also impacted colonial stereotyping as dalit mahars and mangs were no longer treated as Martial races and disbanded from colonial service in 1892.
  • Satyasodhaks failed to evolve a unified and homogeneous sense of identity over a longer period. After 1919 Reforms,  there was a schism in the movement with the upper caste (but non brahman) elements breaking off to fight elections. In 1930s, it came close to Gandhian movement and merged into it and in this merger Kesavrao Jedhe played an important role.

4. Hindu Nationalists and Defense of Caste

  • Hindu nationalists  resisted modernization of Indian social order. Although they sometimes deplored certain features of caste such as untouchability, they insisted that caste in its true form was essential to spirit of Hinduism. It represented a legacy of higher moral values from the national past.
  • Vivekananda condemned the oppressive treatment of untouchables and other subordinate castes. Yet, he defended caste and varna hierarchy as a natural order and matter of national pride.

Phase 2 (1919- 1934)

  • It ignored the question till 1917  and then took it up only when dalit leaders had organised themselves and were about to steal the initia­tive  from the Congress. Brahman domination of the early Congress, were much to blame for this inaction.
  • By this phase, the character of Indian National Movement (INM) had changed. Masses were the key. Gandhi was a champion of lower classes as well. So he drew them in through constructive work. He also gave them the name Harijan and began to support the temple entry movements.
  • Lower Caste Groups in order to assert themselves tried to appropriate collectively some visible symbols like temple entry, sacred thread, rituals, community pujas etc hitherto reserved for the higher castes.
Temple Entry Such movements were particularly strong in Kerala ,the most important being Vaikkom Satyagraha in 1924-25 and the Guruvayur Satyagraha in 1931-33.
There was Mushiganj Kali Temple Satyagraha in Bengal in 1929
Kalaram satyagraha in Nasik in 1930-35.  

Local and national Congress leaders actively participated in a few and organized satyagrahas and eventually won them temple entries. These temple entry movements created the widest possible unity. People from highest castes to the lowest outcastes broke social customs and fought together. People and leaders from all over the country flocked in and fought. All the methods of Indian National Movement were used.  
Social Rights Apart from the religious rights, the lower castes also demanded social rights and when denied organized themselves.  

In state of Travancore,  Nadars were also not allowed to wear shoes, golden ornaments and carry umbrellas. Their women were not allowed to cover the upper parts of their bodies.  Under influence of Christian Missionaries, there was attempt by Nadar women  to cover their breasts like the higher caste women and this was violently resisted in 1859. This issue flared up again in 1905 between the Ezhavas and the Nairs in Quilon in 1905.  

In Bengal when the high caste Kayasthas refused to attend the funeral ceremony of Namasudras, they resorted to a boycott of working in their fields.  

In 1927  in Mahad, Ambedkar organized a satyagraha to demand water from the public tank.
  • Then came the political mobilization and this was led by Ambedkar.
    • In 1927 , he publicly burnt a Manu Smriti.
    • He voiced his views against performances of traditional labour services and ‘village duties’ by the mahars.
    • Initially , He also advocated forced temple-entry . He took lead in the Kalaram temple-entry campaign (1930) at Nasik and in the satyagraha for drawing of water by untouchables from the Mahad tank in Maharashtra.   But In 1934 , he wrote to the Temple Satyagrahis emphasizing the futility of temple movements and instead urging them to focus on political representation and education. If political gates are opened, temple gates would automatically open.
    • He believed that Dalit grievances could be redressed only by a complete overhaul of Hindu Society and not just by a reformist approach.
    • In 1936 he founded Independent Labor Party to mobilize the poor and the untouchables and in 1942 All India SC Conference at Nagpur with  claim that Dalits to be separate from Hindus.

1 . Gandhi vs Ambedkar on Caste

  • Gandhi distinguished between issue of untouchability and endogamy & dining restrictions. He wanted INM to focus on untouchability but not on endogamy &  dining restrictions because these were not disabilities imposed on Dalits and were practiced among Dalits and among caste people as well.
  • Ambedkar asserted that untouchability was an outcome of caste system, so caste system should be abolished (Annihilation of Caste ). Gandhi believed untouchability was a product of thinking of ‘high and low’ and had nothing to do with caste system so caste system needn’t be abolished.
  • Goal of Harijan Sevak Sangh (1932), established by Gandhi and his close associates, was to instill habits of cleaniness and social propriety in their untouchable beneficiaries and to wean them away from toddy-drinking, meateating and unseemly sexual indulgences. 
  Gandhi Ambedkar
What to do with Caste System Reform Annihilate
Reasons Reasons given in favour were that –
1. It leads to Division of Labour
2. Decentralisation
3. Job security
Reasons given to annihilate were –
1. It actually has led to Caste system became rigid
2. All the power usurped by Brahmins
3. For lower castes, only low grade jobs were available
Process Change of heart of Upper Caste by educating them (through papers like Harijan) and temple entry Make law to punish those who practice it
Educate the lower castes
Also started magazines like Bahishkrit Bharat
  • Campaign of Gandhi significantly undermined the moral  and religious basis of untouchability, but, as Bhikhu Parekh has argued,  it dignified the untouchables, but failed to empower them.

2. Communal Award of 1932

  • When the Communal Award, 1932 gave separate electorates to Dalits, Gandhi opposed the communal electorates for Dalits and demanded that increased number of seats be reserved for them but they should be elected by everyone. He undertook 2 major fasts to press for his demand on this issue. Ambedkar on the other hand supported the Award while MC Rajah opposed it since he favored a joint electorate.
  • After the Poona Pact ,there was a cooperation between Gandhi and Ambedkar for some time and it led to founding the Harijan Sevak Sangh but it failed to last for long.

But unlike Muslim breakaway politics, Dalit Self Assertion did not go very far and their politics was soon appropriated in the INM in 1940s

  • Ambedkar found in 1942 All India SC Conference at Nagpur with  claim that dalits are  separate from hindus. But still it couldn’t break away Dalits from INM fold.
  • One reason is that not many Dalits believed in his separatist politics and Gandhi had acquired immense popularity even among them. His constructive work programme naturally played a big role in allaying their concerns. This lack of mass support made his movement weak and he couldn’t play another Jinnah.
  • In 1946 elections , his party won only 2 out of 151 reserved seats and on this basis Cabinet Mission could safely conclude that Congress was a genuine representative of the Dalits. Even now a furious Ambedkar tried to prove his base by trying to initiate a mass satyagraha but failed to get much support. Then Congress absorbed him into the Constituent Assembly by offering nomination to Ambedkar for a seat in the Constituent Assembly and then by choosing him for the chairmanship of the constitution drafting committee.
  • Soon Ambedkar realised the futility of his association with the Congress, as its stalwarts refused to support him on the Hindu Code Bill. He resigned from the cabinet in 1951 and then on 15 October 1956, barely a month and a half before his death, he converted to Buddhism, along with three hundred and eighty thousand of his followers. This event is often celebrated as an ultimate public act of dissent against a Hinduism that was beyond reform

3. Madras Presidency Movements – Justice Party, MC Rajah and Periyar

  • Here it was associated with creating a distinct Dravidian Identity as well. By the late 19th century, Brahmans consisted of less than 3% of the population but monopolized over 45% of the government jobs. They showed a public disdain for Tamil and the Dravidian culture and ethnicity. This motivated the Velalas to mobilize to uphold the Dravidian entity and in this they were aided by the Christian Missionaries who emphasized on the antiquity of Tamil and the Dravidian Culture. They also argued that the status of shudra was an imposed one by the Northern Brahmans  and caste system too was not indigenous to Tamil land
  • In 1916, Justice Party was formed as a formal political party of non-Brahmans to demand for separate political representation of the non-Brahmans and it defied the NCM and participated in the elections of 1920. Naturally it won a big victory. But soon it became clear that it represented only the richer classes and thus its social base narrowed as the untouchables moved away under the leadership of MC Rajah. MC Rajah drew closer to Congress and even participated in CDM making it a resounding success in TN.
  • Soon another movement, the Self Respect movement by EV Ramaswamy Naicker Periyar developed which was very radical and championed the Dravidian entity and Tamil language. He had left Congress in 1925 accusing it to be a Brahman organization and then worked to mobilize the Dalits. He believed that self respect was needed before self rule. Associating Sanskrit and North India with Brahmans, he launched scathing attacks on both.
  • Periyar advocated outright atheism as the only true rational worldview. Periodically, the movement organized dramatic assaults on religions and priestly symbols like beating of priest and idols with shoes, and burned ‘sacred’ texts like Manusmriti. He turned Ramayna upside down and portrayed Ravana as the ideal South Indian king. He organized many programmes of temple entry .
  • Unlike other caste movements, non-Brahmin movements in Madras showed signs of REGIONAL SEPARATISM. This became evident when in 1937 C Rajgopalachari proposed the introduction of Hindi as compulsory language in Madras. There were huge demonstrations against this and Tamil language movement spread from elites to the masses . This political campaign slowly propelled into a demand for separate ‘Dravida Nad’ .  
  • In 1944, Justice Party of which Periyar was president changed it’s name to Dravida Kazhagam (DK) with it’s primary objective being separate non-Brahmin or Dravida Land

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