The Non-Brahmin movement developed in the early part of the 20th century by mobilizing the Shudra middle castes, as well as, to some extent, amongst the Untouchable castes against Brahminical feudal domination and exploitation. They concentrated, primarily, on various aspects of caste oppression — superstition, caste-feudal privileges and rights, hereditary nature of posts, etc. The movement used the racial theory of the origin of caste to explain caste oppression, by interpreting Brahmins as Aryan invaders who conquered the Dravidian race. The conservative trend within the movement tended to restrict itself to opposing the monopoly of Brahmins in the field of education and government employment, in the legislatures and the struggle to get representation in the legislatures and control on District Boards. The Justice Party, Non-Brahmin Party, the Unionist Party (Punjab) marked this trend. The Triveni Sangh in Bihar also restricted itself to the three main middle castes, the Yadavs, the Kurmis, and the Koeris. This trend was not sympathetic to the oppression and needs of the lowest castes.
The radical sections of the Non-Brahmin movement were more broad-based, more thorough in their anti-caste stand, rejecting the whole caste system with its hierarchy and oppression. They took up the questions of the peasantry and of the middle castes as well. The leadership of the Non-Brahmin movement aroused the democratic consciousness of the oppressed masses and prepared the ground for their mobilization into the anti-imperialist movement. But the classes in the leadership, having gained their demands for representation and a share in the decision-making, gave up their anti-caste programme. These movements placed political power in the hands of the upper sections of the Non-Brahmin castes, the smaller landlords and big tenants, when the land reforms were implemented by the Nehru government in the 1950s. Hence these sections emerged in the post-1947 period as the main oppressors of the poor and landless peasants, most of whom are from the lowest castes. The Marathas in Maharashtra, Reddys and Kammas in Andhra Pradesh, the Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka, Patels (Patidars) in Gujarat and the Yadavs and the Jats in Bihar and Haryana, respectively. The class interests of the leadership of these movements prevented them from taking up a thorough anti-caste programme which should have included the land question from the viewpoint of the lowest castes, the poor and the landless, and thus they consolidated their own position but betrayed the interests of the middle and the poor peasants of their castes. The Non-Brahmin movement was strongest in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, and threw up important leaders like Periyar and Jyotiba Phule.
Non-Brahmin Movement in Maharasthra
The movement began with the founding of the Satyashodak Samaj (SS) in Pune. The rise of the SS took place in the context of a rise of Brahminical Hindu revivalism in western India in the 1870s, with its base in Pune, which put the upper caste reformers on the defensive. After working as a social reformer for almost 20 years, Jyotiba Phule founded the SS in 1873 in Pune. The main task of the SS was to make the Non-Brahmins conscious of their exploitation by the Brahmins. Phule himself belonged to the Mali (gardener) caste, a caste involved in the cultivation of vegetables, and their trade in the vicinity of Pune. His family was middle-class and he was educated in a mission school. The SS did not restrict its activities to any particular caste and worked among the various Non-Brahmin (NB) castes in the rural areas of Thane, Pune and, later, in other districts in Bombay Province and Berar. They also worked among the workers in the textile mills of Bombay. The songs, booklets and plays written by Phule used a popular hard hitting style and language to expose the various ways in which the Brahmins duped the people, especially, the peasants. The SS interpreted the racial theory of the origin of caste in the context of popular tradition — the Aryan invaders had enslaved the local peasantry, the rule of Baliraja, the peasant king was defeated — showing the links of the SS with the democratic sentiments of the peasantry.
In Phule’s time, the SS campaigned for social reform — they rejected their own feudal-style marriages and adopted the SS marriages which were based on principles of equality, mutual respect and loyalty between husband and wife. The SS reform campaign in Phule’s time led to a strike by barbers who decided not to tonsure widows leading to tensions in the village. Phule ran a paper called Din Bandhu (Friend of the Oppressed). His main supporters were Telugu contractors and workers in the textile mills. The first reformist organization among the textile workers of Bombay, the Millhands Association, was formed in 1890 by N.M. Lokhande under Phule’s guidance. This association represented the grievances of the mill workers till it was pushed aside by the militant trade unions that emerged among the workers in the aftermath of the First World War. Phule promoted modern agriculture among the peasantry and personally bought land to experiment and set an example before them. He was influenced by the democratic American writings of Tom Paine and the principles of liberty and equality. He wrongly believed that British rule had destroyed the rule of Brahmins and brought modern education to all castes, and hence, was a supporter of the colonial rule in the country.
The Non-Brahmin Movement after Phule: After Phule’s death, the activists of the SS continued to work. The fact that units of the SS were formed in villages not only in the districts like Ahmednagar, Satara, Kolhapur but also in the Berar region in Amravati shows that the growing peasant consciousness was being mobilized through the SS in the beginning of the 20th century. Their propaganda struck a chord among the peasantry. Campaigns against social problems like drinking and against untouchability were taken up. The SS also took up the problems of the peasants, promoting cooperatives among them. The contradictions in the rural areas were expressed by the SS as a conflict between the Shetji/Bhatji and the Bahujan Samaj(moneylender/priest and the masses). The SS functioned systematically, holding annual conferences after 1910, and bringing out a magazine. SS tamashas (the drama) toured the villages, singing songs and putting up performances to spread their message. The basic content of the activities was anti-feudal. The propaganda of an SS tamasha led to a spontaneous revolt of the peasants against Brahmin landlords in 1919 in Satara. The peasants were demanding a reduction in the rent. They broke idols and abused the gods and the wives of the Brahmins. This revolt was not supported by the landlord sections of the NBs in the rural areas. Nonetheless, SS activity continued and SS activists were involved in peasant agitations in other districts in the 1920s. The SS attacked the feudal authority in rural areas and aroused the democratic consciousness of the peasants. The SS campaigns led to the exodus of Brahmin landlords from the villages in western Maharashtra. It laid the ground for the militant anti-imperialist struggles led by the peasantry in the region in the 1940s, like the Patri-Sarkar movement in Satara, when a parallel authority was setup against the British.
The interests of the feudal and rich peasant sections of the NBs could not be satisfied within the SS, nor could they support the populist and militant propaganda. In 1915, the Non-Brahmin Party was formed in order to contest District Board elections and enter the legislature. This trend was closely allied with the colonial government and the textile mill owners in Bombay, and was strongly anti-Tilak and anti-Congress. The NB party was very active in Pune in the 1920s in a long drawn and bitter battle with the Congress extremists like Tilak and his supporters. Another conservative trend, associated with the NB party was the group led by Shahu Maharaj, the ruler of the Kolhapur principality. The Maharaj supported education for the lower castes, setting up hostels for them. But the main thrust of his activities was gaining Kshatriya status and forming a priesthood parallel to Brahmins. He was attracted to the Arya Samaj later.
While Phule, and the later SS activity, supported colonial rule, their main activity was arousing mass consciousness about social and cultural oppression. However, the NB Party was collaborationist from the beginning and failed to express the mass sentiment aroused to direct anti-imperialist consciousness. Hence, a large section of the NB Party joined the Congress in the 1930s, while a much smaller group led by Javalkar joined the CPI. The dominant section of the NB movement consolidated the interests of the narrow sections of the Non-Brahmins, the landlords, and developed a hegemonic Maratha consciousness within the Congress. They betrayed the interests of the other middle and lower castes and the anti-caste tasks. They suppressed the entire Satyashodhak tradition. This tradition was kept alive by middle peasant based parties that emerged in the region in the 1940s, like the Peasants’ and Workers Party and the Lal Nishan Party as well as the Dalit movement.
The SS movement was the main movement in the early part of this century in Maharashtra, through which the anti-feudal, anti-caste sentiments of the peasant masses of the middle castes were expressed. It dealt a blow to Brahminical hegemony and feudal relations in the countryside. But since the leadership of the movement restricted their attack to caste ideology and failed to put forward a programme to break the foundations of the caste system, in the concentration of land, the main means of production, they could only reform the caste system and feudalism and not break it. Hence they were unable to fulfill the interests of the lower castes.
The Non Brahmin Movement in Tamil Nadu
The concentration of religious and economic power in the hands of the Brahmin castes in the erstwhile Madras presidency, the concentration of Brahmins in the modern fields — education and bureaucracy in the province — the emergence of petty-bourgeois and nascent bourgeois classes among the lower classes, including an educated intelligentsia, led to the emergence of the NB movement in Tamil Nadu. While the first stirrings of the movement began by the mid-19th century itself, a movement against the domination of the higher castes started by the end of the century and gained organized expression by the 1920s.
The fact that the Brahmins, as the largest section of the intelligentsia, were the first to become active in the leadership of the Congress, and in the Home Rule League that was founded by Annie Besant and Capt. Olcott, added to the separation between the NB movement and the anti-imperialist movement from the its early days. It led to the view being put forward that unless caste differences were eliminated India’s political development would not be possible.
The social reform movement in the form of the Madras Hindu Social Reform Association (1892) — which was active in promoting the education of women, reform of marriage, abolition of untouchability — involved a wide cross-section of the intelligentsia. The violent conflicts between the low caste toddy tapper Nadars, after they had risen economically through trade, and the feudal Marwaris, in the vicinity of Sivakasi in 1899, after the unsuccessful attempt of the town Nadars to enter a temple, reveals that with social differentiation the lower castes were astir for their democratic rights, against traditional inequalities and hierarchy. This movement led, on the one hand, to the formation of the Justice Party which primarily sought and obtained representation in the legislatures through communal electorates and used patronage for gaining posts in the bureaucracy. It was strongly pro-British. On the other hand, the much more mass based and radical Self-Respect Movement, led by E.V. Ramaswami, EVR or ‘Periyar,’ did not restrict itself to promoting the interests of the NBs in the administration, but went further and launched an all round attack on the caste system and Brahminical Hinduism. While Periyar often used the platform of the Justice Party, yet his movement was mass based and iconoclastic. The Justice Party was led by, and clearly represented the interests of, big landlords and merchants from among the upper castes among the Non-Brahmins only. Periyar’s movement was based on wider support of the rising working class, the middle class and the traders, especially, in the urban centres like Erode, Madurai, Coimbatore, Salem, Tiruchirapalli, Tuticorin and other towns. At its peak, the Self-Respect Movement took up the activities of propagating against moneylenders’ exploitation and the problems of the peasantry.
The Justice Party was formed in 1917 in response to the political reforms being proposed by the British government. It campaigned in India and in England for separate representation to the Non-Brahmins in Madras Presidency. It won the elections in 1920 and formed the provincial ministry in Madras Presidency. In 1923, its base had eroded but it managed to continue in the government, but in 1926, it lost badly to the Swarajists. The Justice Party, in office, showed itself against the interests of the Untouchables and working class. Hence its base was easily eroded.
While the Justice Party took a strong pro-British stand, anti-colonial intellectuals among the Non-Brahmins, many of whom were active within the Congress, for instance, Kesava Pillai, EVR, Dr. Varadharajalu, formed the Madras Presidency Association in 1917 to press for full communal representation for the NBs.
E.V. Ramaswamy formed the Self-Respect Movement — Suyamaraiyathai Iyakkam — after he walked out of the Congress in 1925 for their unwillingness to support separate representation for the NBs. The conservative, pro-feudal, pro-Varna positions of the Congress leadership had led to tensions within the Congress between Brahmins and NBs. EVR’s movement was concentrated in the Tamil areas of the Presidency. It was oriented towards the oppressed castes, including the Untouchables, and took active steps to involve women and the youth. They ran a magazine called Kudi Arasu. Militant attacks, with an atheistic approach, were launched by the Self-Respect Movement, not only on Brahmins, but also on the religion itself, on superstition, caste divisions and caste privileges. EVR wanted to arouse the self-respect and feeling of equality among the lower castes. They upheld the pride in Tamil language and opposed the use of Sanskrit. They propagated a ban on the use of Brahmin priests for marriages and popularized Self-Respect marriages; they opposed the use of the Thali, called for the abolition of caste names, and ridiculed the epics like The Ramayana. EVR’s style was direct, propagandist and very popular. By struggling for the equality of all castes and breaking the hold of religion, the movement paved the way for a materialist analysis.
In the 1930s the Self-Respect Movement, under the influence of Communists in Tamil Nadu, and the influence of Periyar’s trip to the USSR, supported socialism. Communists like Singaravellu propagated materialist philosophy and socialism through the magazine. During that period, two trends were active within the Self-Respect Movement, one which preferred to restrict itself to social reform, and the other, which wanted to take up anti-capitalist propaganda and activity. The Self-Respect socialists began organizing on problems of the peasantry along with their regular conferences. Under the influence of the CPI leaders, the Self-Respect socialists (samadharma group) merged into the Congress Socialist Party in November 1936.
Periyar faced repression from the British Government for his attack on the NB Government, and for ‘promoting Soviet Bolshevism.’ Consequently, Periyar retracted. The Self-Respect movement could not sustain its social radicalism consistently and was unable to give expression to the sentiments of the masses demanding a full attack on feudal land relations. Periyar then entered the Justice Party and in 1942 formed the Dravida Iyakkam (DK). They supported the efforts of the British in the war. In 1947, during the transfer of power, Periyar called for August 15 to be observed as a ‘day of mourning,’ demanding freedom from the Brahmin Raj that had been inaugurated. Differences within his organization on this call, as well as on Periyar’s organizational methods and morality, led to a split with C. Annadorai forming the DMK. During Congress rule under Rajagopalachari, the DK launched strong agitations against the decision to impose Hindi. The anti-Hindi agitations took place in 1948 and in 1952, and again in 1965, thus giving expression to the Tamil nationality sentiments against the domination of the all India comprador bourgeoisie. These agitations were violently suppressed. The DK also continued its anti-caste propaganda, breaking the images of Lord Ganesh, calling for a boycott of temples, burning thousands of copies of the Constitution in 1957 for maintaining the caste system. The NB movement continued in the 1950s as a cultural expression of the oppressed castes and the Tamil nationality. Periyar supported the Congress when a Nadar, Kamaraj, became the Chief Minister. Later he supported the DMK Government.
The DMK and the AAIDMK, the parties formed from within Tamil Nadu, represented the interests of the regional comprador sections with whom the Self-Respect Movement had compromised. It also compromised with Brahminism and with the policies of the all India comprador bourgeoisie. While initially, in the 1950s, they gave expression to the Tamil nationalist sentiments, and propagated against casteism, ever since they achieved power at the state level they consolidated the class interests of the landlord sections of the middle castes and the regional comprador bourgeoisie. Hence these parties have not been sympathetic to the demands of the lowest castes and have been equal to the Congress in the suppression of the militant and revolutionary agitations of the lowest sections of society. In order to further their class interests they have come to an agreement with the all India comprador bourgeoisie and sacrificed the interests of the Tamil nationality as well. Thus, a section has even supported the repression of the struggle of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Dalit Movement During The Colonial Period
Due to the betrayal of their interests by the Non-Brahmin movement and the limitations of the upper caste reformers, the castes most oppressed by the caste system, the Dalits, developed their own movement, especially in South India, from the early part of the 20th century. The Dalits, calling themselves as Panchamas, changed their names to Adi-Dravidas, Adi-Andhras, Adi-Karnatakas, to show that they were the original inhabitants of their respective regions and started organizing separate conferences. The Chamars in Punjab broke away from the Arya Samaj and its ‘shuddhi’ (purification) programme and its defence of the Vedas and began the Adi-Dharma movement. They invoked the name of Sant Ravidas, the Bhakti movement saint. Initially, these associations emphasized education and Sanskritization. But soon there was a shift from the imitation of the upper castes to an assertion of social equality, the demand for political representation and an end to specific forms of caste oppression. A successful movement was led by the Ezhava community of traditional toddy tappers in Kerala, under the leadership of Shri Narayan Guru. He founded the Sri Narayana Guru Dharmsa Paripalana Yogam in 1902-03 with the help of the first Ezhava graduate Dr Palpu. Initially, they tried to demand a higher status, and emphasized the need to take to education. They tried to enter the temples and the Vaikom Satyagraha in 1924 was the effort of the Ezhavas along with progressive sections of the people in Kerala. The strongest and longest lasting separate movement of the Dalits emerged under Dr Ambedkar’s leadership in Maharashtra. While Ambedkar broke with the upper caste reformers and the NB party, he took his inspiration from the SS movement and Jyotiba Phule.
The Marathi speaking districts of Bombay Province and the Central Provinces and Berar were the first areas in India where a full-fledged independent movement of Dalits emerged in the 1920s. The movement was based on the majority Untouchable community in Maharashtra, the Mahars. Dr Ambedkar emerged within this movement, and shaped it with the strength of his personality and activity.
The Dalit movement emerged in the background of changes wrought by the imperial policies of the British. The Mahars, general village menials, migrated to urban areas in much larger numbers than other Untouchable castes due to their lack of a fixed traditional occupation that tied them to the village economy. The economic insecurities of the landless, economic distress, combined with new economic opportunities in textile mills, ports, defence works and railways, the army and petty trade, led the Mahars to gain employment in these areas. The class differentiation within the community took place rapidly, and a small but influential petty-bourgeois, and even usurious, capitalist class developed within the community. A sizeable section became part of the working class.
Social and educational reform activities among Mahars began at the turn of the century. But in the 1920s mass mobilization began in the community on the question of civic and social rights. This was preceded by a spate of magazines brought out by leaders like Ambedkar, Kisan Faguji Bansod and others. The dominant sections of the NB party were hostile to the demands of the Mahars. Within the working class, especially in the Bombay region too, in the textile mills, the homogenization of the working class could not take place, partly because of the caste prejudices among caste Hindu workers and the conscious efforts of the mill owners, including Indian capitalists, to keep the workers divided. The uneven development of the various communities forming part of the working class hampered a unified class consciousness from developing. This problem is evident in other states too, for instance, the struggle of the B & C Mills in Madras was hampered by the division between the caste Hindu and Adi-Dravid workers. Hence the Dalits, especially the Mahar workers in the Bombay working class, remained outside the active trade union struggles till the mid-30s, and they were under the influence of their community leaders. In Nagpur, where caste discrimination was not too sharp, and the Mahars constituted almost 25 percent of the mill-workers, their integration was greater. Hence the Dalit movement developed independently, led by the petty-bourgeoisie with the support of the poor peasant and working class masses of the community.
Ambedkar was a pioneer of the movement of scheduled castes for equality and against untouchability in the country. Ambedkar, the son of a Subhedar-major in the British Army, was the first graduate in his community. With financial help provided by the Maharaja of Baroda, he went for further studies to the United States of America, completed his doctorate and returned to India in 1916. He took up employment with the Baroda Maharaja but having faced caste discrimination he resigned and came to Bombay to teach in a college. He began participating in the reform activities of the community and also started a paper. He countered upper caste reformers and wanted the Dalits to create their own leadership and develop their self respect. He went to England again to do his post doctoral work at the London School of Economics and came back in 1923 with a thesis and a law degree. He was the first Dalit to have gained a doctorate abroad.
In the second half of the 1920s Ambedkar was active in a series of struggles launched to assert the civic and religious equality of the Dalits. The Mahad Satyagraha, organized by Ambedkar with the support of younger and more militant sections of the NB party and other progressives, galvanized the Dalits in Maharashtra and proved important in creating mass awareness in the community. After a government resolution was passed opening public places to members of all castes, the Dalits attempted to use the public tank in Mahad, a town in Konkan. This was resisted by the upper caste sections controlling the Municipality. Subsequently, a massive conference was organized in Mahad in December 1927. Although the upper castes in the Municipality were able to obtain a stay order from the court preventing the Dalits from collectively using the tank, yet, the mobilization, the burning of the Manusmriti and the propaganda created a stir. In 1928 and 1930 two temple entry programs were taken up. The Nasik Satyagraha was a protracted struggle that lasted five years. Both were unsuccessful. Through these experiences, Ambedkar was disillusioned with attempts to reform the Hindu community and turned to seeking political rights and safeguards for Dalits as a means for achieving equality.
In the 1920s the NB movement responded to the constitutional reforms proposed by the colonial government by trying to get separate electorates for the Non-Brahmins. Ambedkar was among the first Untouchable caste leaders to recognize the importance of political rights and political power, but, along with the dominant trend in the nationalist and NB movement, he envisaged this completely within the context of political institutions created by the imperialist government. Hence, from 1928, he demanded separate electorates for the Dalit castes. In 1928 he appeared before the Simon Commission. In 1930 and 1931 he went to England to represent the Dalits in the Round Table Conferences (RTC), the forums created by the British imperialist Government to plan constitutional reforms. The RTC marked a significant turn in the relation between Ambedkar and the Congress. While the Congress boycotted the RTC, Gandhi attended the second RTC and claimed to speak for the whole of India. While refusing Ambedkar’s claims to speak for the Untouchables, he claimed that he alone represented the entire Hindu community, including the Untouchables. The British granted separate electorates to the Depressed Classes and Gandhi and the Congress strongly opposed this decision. The British played their devious game of divide and rule, of gaining the support of the Untouchable castes, and, at the same time, encouraging the contradiction between the Dalit movement and the Congress. Gandhi sat on his well publicized hunger strike against separate electorates in Yerawada jail in September 1932. The Poona Pact was a compromise between Ambedkar and Gandhi. Separate electorates were withdrawn and joint electorates, with reserved seats, were agreed upon. This entire conflict, while on the one hand, created a wide awareness about casteism in Indian society, also divided the Dalit masses, just awakening to a democratic political consciousness, between allegiance to the anti-imperialist movement and that to the Dalit movement.
The1930s were the period of mass movements of the peasants and the workers. Ambedkar was the first important Dalit leader to come out in support of Swaraj. He launched the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which fought the 1937 elections and won 14 seats in the Bombay Provincial Assembly. In this period, the Dalit movement in the province moved closer to the wider class struggle going on, as is evident from the joint workers’ strikes and the anti-feudal struggles supported by the ILP. The pro-landlord, pro-capitalist orientation of the Congress was thoroughly exposed in the two years that the Congress ministry held power in the province from 1937; cooperation between the socialists, the communists and the ILP in this period continued.
Dalit Upsurge in Other States
It is in this phase that in other parts of the country, the militant sections of the lower castes in the NB movement joined the Communist movement. The Ezhava community in Kerala, after their experience in the Vaikom Satyagraha, became more militant and joined the newly formed Communist Party in the state in large numbers. The more militant sections of the Self-Respect Movement too had close connections with the Communists and under their guidance entered the Congress Socialist Party in 1936. In coastal Andhra the peasant organization led by N.G. Ranga had mobilized the cultivating castes within the peasant movement in the 1920s itself. This became increasingly more radical under the influence of communist activists. In the early 1930s Ranga had formed the Harijan Seva Dal and several social reformers were associated with it. Although separate Adi-Andhra Conferences were organized under the leadership of Kusum Dharmanna, B.S. Venkatrao and others, it was the communists who mobilized the masses of Dalits in organizations of agricultural labourers which took up the basic questions of the Dalit masses, their oppression under the vetti system and the distribution of wastelands. In the late 1930s one section of the Dalit leadership started becoming pro-Muslim under the Nizam’s patronage, while another section drew close to the Congress through Gandhi’s Harijan Sewak Sangh activity. In the widespread democratic awakening, the Dalit masses spontaneously participated in the anti-feudal and anti-imperialist struggles raging at that time.
Transfer of Power and War
With the declaration of World War II the political situation underwent changes. Ambedkar supported the allies unconditionally in the war. In 1941, he was invited to join the National Defence Council, and he became Labour Minister in the Viceroy’s Cabinet in 1942. As Labour Minister, Ambedkarinitiated the setting up of formal institutions for consultations between the management and the labour representatives, and for the settlement of labour disputes. He introduced some legislation for improving the conditions of labour, but, in the main, his activity was centred on helping the war effort by ensuring increasing labour productivity. The dominant concern of the Dalit movement led by Ambedkar was to obtain representation for the Dalit castes (DC) at all levels of the administration. In this period he succeeded in getting 8.33 percent reservation for the DCs in government posts, and scholarships for technical education for the DCs abroad. During the later part of the war, and immediately after, it became clear that the actual and serious negotiation for the transfer of power had begun, and the comprador bourgeoisie had tightened its control over the Congress leadership, the British imperialists had been negotiating only with the Muslim League and the Congress. All other forces and political parties had been sidelined altogether. Ambedkar had dissolved the ILP in 1942 and formed the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF) in order to be able to represent the Dalits in the constitutional set-up that was being negotiated.
Inspite of their efforts in 1946, the Dalits got no guarantees from the British imperialists. The Congress had succeeded in bringing a section of the Dalit leadership under its influence, due to which Ambedkar and the SCF faced a setback.
In the period between 1946 and 1950, in the context of the transfer of power, Ambedkar decided on a strategy of co-operating with the Congress in order to ensure safeguards for the Dalits in the new constitutional set-up. He was appointed as the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee by the Congress, and later as Law Minister in Nehru’s cabinet. The Nehru Government kept Ambedkar out of the opposition and utilized his skills to get a Constitution drafted that suited the interests of the new ruling classes. Though Ambedkar himself did not take the full credit for the Constitution and recognized the contradictions facing the Dalits, his experience in Nehru’s cabinet was bitter. When Nehru, in league with reactionary, feudal forces within the Congress, went against his own promise of passing the Hindu Code Bill, Ambedkar resigned from the cabinet in protest in 1951.
Meanwhile, in this period, the Dalit movement in Maharashtra and other states remained confused and divided. While the Dalit masses participated in the various revolts of the peasants that developed all over the country, the petty-bourgeois sections all over the country, with little organizational connection with the masses, were divided between the SCF and support to various political forces of the bourgeois and feudal classes like Congress and the Muslim League. For instance, in Telengana, while the Dalit masses were active in the heroic people’s struggle for power, the SCF had no organizational connection with the rural masses, while another section of the Dalit leadership, such as Shyam Sunder and Venkatrao, allied with the Nizam.
In Maharashtra the Dalit movement revived in the 1950s when Ambedkar and the SCF cooperated with the Socialists and the CPI in the demand for a unified Maharashtra state. In 1956 Ambedkar dissolved the SCF and formed the Republican Party of India (RPI). During this period the RPI, along with CPI, took up several rural struggles for the distribution of government lands to the landless.
At the same time, Ambedkar concentrated his attention on setting up colleges in Aurangabad and Bombay and in 1956 he implemented his long standing resolve to leave Hinduism and converted to Buddhism.
V. Changes In the Post-Colonial Period
In the post-colonial period, caste configurations have undergone considerable changes. They are a result of the partial implementation of the Zamindari Abolition Acts in some states and the penetration of capitalist relations and the blows delivered by the people’s struggles.
The most significant changes have been in the countryside. The close correspondence between caste and class no longer exists in most parts of the country. The old upper caste zamindars and other big feudal landlords have, to some extent, been weakened and feudal authority is, to a large extent, asserted by smaller landlords, the former big tenants of the zamindars and the large peasant proprietors. While the position of the upper castes has weakened the most, the new landlords are from the middle castes. The middle castes are, today, significantly divided along class lines. The landlords and the rich peasants are a small group from the traditionally cultivating castes, and these castes are also found in large numbers among the middle and poor peasants and even among the landless. The lower sections of the middle castes, that is, the artisan castes, are primarily middle, poor or landless peasants and some are continuing their traditional occupations. Therefore, today, the main exploiting class in the rural areas consists of the earlier upper caste elements, i.e., the Brahmins, the Rajputs, the Bhumihars, together with the upper stratum of the middle castes, such as, the Patidars, the Marathas, the Jats, the Yadavs, the Vellars, the Lingayats, the Reddys, the Kammas, the Nairs, etc. The middle peasants, comprising about 25 percent of the rural households, largely, come from the major cultivating castes and from other lower castes, as well as a small section of the Dalits. This section has contradictions with upper sections of the rural elite, but due to the caste relations and low class consciousness in areas of low class struggle they are tailing behind the elite landlord sections of the other castes.
The poor and the landless, who consist of 60 percent of the rural households, have the greatest number of caste divisions, including a large number of small artisan and service jatis, and even Muslims. This class consists also of a large number of households from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Of the rural agricultural labour families, 37 percent are Scheduled Castes and 10 percent are Scheduled Tribes, while the remaining half are drawn from the cultivating castes and other lower castes. Hence, caste divisions among the exploited are the greatest. The caste-class relationship in the present period is indeed complex.
With the growth of the state capitalist sector of industrial production and the government bureaucracy, caste discrimination has reproduced itself in this sector with some modifications. In the highest rungs of management in industrial enterprises and the bureaucracy, the upper castes are dominant. Dalits, on the other hand, are accommodated in Class IV positions as sweepers, peons and other menial jobs. In working class jobs, Dalits are mainly employed in the relatively, unskilled, low paid and insecure work, as contract labour and in the small scale industry.
In the state and central administration, due to the pressure of movements, a certain percentage of reserved posts, especially in the clerical category, as well as in the lower managerial category, are being filled, yet, the social distance between those from the SCs and those from other backgrounds remain. Although it is no longer manifest in the overt practice of untouchability, yet, it prevails in the form of discriminatory attitude and deep-seated prejudices. The most lucrative professions, too, remain a monopoly of the highest castes.
The linguistic reorganization of the states helped the small upper sections of the middle castes to gain power at the regional level, especially, in western and south India. But in the north Indian States, the upper castes remained in control of the state machinery and the government.
The economic crisis of the 1980s led to an intensification of contradictions in the country, including, an intensification of the contradiction of the regional comprador bourgeoisie and the landlord sections with the dominant power. With the growth of pro-capitalist landlord/rich peasant forces in several states, due to policies like the Green Revolution and the industrialization of specific regions, their demand for a share of the state’s resources has grown. The all India comprador bourgeoisie, unwilling to share resources, attempted to further centralize the state. The political instability in the late 1960s and early 70s led to the assertion of various landlord/pro-capitalist landlord sections that were denied a share in the political power in the north Indian states. The formation of the various non-Congress governments, like that of the BKD, led by Charan Singh in UP, who represented the Jat landlord sections from western UP, was one such attempt, but this assertion could not be consolidated.
The pro-capitalist-landlord sections and the trading elite among the middle castes reasserted themselves in co-operation with the regional comprador bourgeoisie through the Janata Party in 1977. But this coalition of various classes could not last due to the pulls in different directions. In the 1980s the Congress (I) came back to power, representing the interests of the all India comprador bourgeoisie and centralized resources. The pro-capitalist landlord sections came together on an even wider basis in UP and Bihar, once again, in a coalition of classes, to form the Janata Dal, which came to power at Delhi in 1989. To stabilize their social base, and to get a share of the State’s resources through control of the higher rungs of the administration, they demanded reservations in Government jobs and higher professional education for the OBCs. The appointment of various Commissions at the state level, and that of the Mandal Commission in 1977, was a part of this process. The implementation of the Mandal Commission report, dealing with posts in the Central Government Services, was an attempt by the rural elite from the middle castes to guarantee their share in the State resources and stabilize their hold over their class brethren from the poorer classes.
Hence the intensification of the political and economic crisis of the present semi-feudal, semi-colonial system has intensified the contradictions in the realm of the caste system and this has manifested itself in: a) the pogroms against Dalits, especially, in rural areas, and b) the demand for reservations for the OBCs and violent agitations against the reservation policy.
Attack on Dalits
The mass killings of Dalits began with the Kilvenmani massacre of Dalit agricultural labourers in Thanjavur district in 1971. It was a reprisal for their attempt to strike in support of their demand for higher wages. This was soon followed by similar massacres in various parts of the country, especially, from the late 70s onwards, for instance, in Bihar (Belchi, Farasbigha, etc.), Marathawada in Maharashtra and Andhra (Chundur, Karamchedu, etc.). These killings, and the countless attacks in every state, are attempts by the landlord sections to crush the growing assertion of poor Dalits against their caste based exploitation and their caste based position in the village. While the caste/class relation in the context of the labourers is clear and related — the poor are Dalits the aggressors in many of the cases have been exploiter members of the middle castes. They have taken place in areas where the class struggle is sharp but a united front of the exploited classes could not be forged, or in areas where the class struggle is less sharp and the Dalits have, in isolation, asserted their demand for equality. These brutal killings and attacks are a reflection of the intensified contradictions crying out for a revolutionary solution. They have also catalyzed the resurgence of the Dalit movement in the country.
The reservation policy, granting the reservation of a certain percentage of jobs in the administration and seats in educational institutions for professional courses for SCs and STs, began in the post 1947 period, although it was introduced for the Scheduled Castes in 1943. But this policy was implemented in a half hearted manner at the all India level till the mid-1960s. With the upper sections of the NB castes gaining power in the southern states, and the pressure of the strong NB movement, a large proportion of the seats in professional institutions and government jobs were reserved for various NB (OBC) castes as well. This policy was implemented for the OBCs in the northern States since 1980.
In a backward country like India, with uneven development and industrial and bank capital concentrated in the hands of a small elite coming from the trading upper castes or non-Hindu communities like the Parsis, where recruitment is based more often on kin-caste considerations, the government sector has become the primary means of employment for the less privileged sections. For the emerging educated youth among the Dalits and other lower castes, aspiring for petty-bourgeois status, this is the main source of white-collar employment. At the same time, the economic crisis engendered by the imperialist stranglehold over our economy has meant economic stagnation with limited and distorted development. The government sector is unable to satisfy the demands of the educated unemployed whose numbers grow by leaps and bounds. The scramble for jobs has made reserved seats prized among the Dalits, and they arouse the hatred of the middle classes among the higher castes. The upper caste bureaucrats and ruling elite have attempted to scuttle the implementation of reservations in every way and deny the Dalits even what is their right under the law. Hence reservations have generated a great deal of the tension within the urban petty-bourgeoisie of the upper castes and the Dalits. What is basically a non-antagonistic contradiction among the people has taken an antagonistic form, leading to agitations, riots and attacks on Dalits as a whole.
There are severe limitations to the reservation policy from the perspective of Dalit liberation. The reservation policy has been used by the ruling classes to stabilize a petty-bourgeois class among the Dalits and also create a small, but influential, elite amongst them. This policy has fostered dependence on the state and created an illusion that the Dalit castes can gain equality within this exploitative system, something impossible without smashing this semi-feudal, semi-colonial economy, the foundation of the caste system. The class of government employees created by this policy is denied political rights and this has hampered the petty-bourgeoisie from participating in militant mass struggles and this class has sought to restrict their agitations within constitutionally recognized channels and through the politics of lobbying and patronage. Reservation is a reformist policy which provides relief but not liberation. Though these limitations of the reservation policy need to be exposed, yet, at the same time, we must understand that, for the SCs, reservations have provided white collar employment and has been the main avenue to enter the higher professions which are still the monopoly of the higher castes.
Reservations for SCs and STs, as well as for the OBCs, have led to violent agitations against them. These agitations have been backed by the main ruling class parties, the Congress and the BJP.
As long as the reservations for the SCs and the STs were implemented marginally, opposition to them did not take an agitational form. But in the mid-70s, under the pressure of mass revolts of the Dalits and tribals, the ruling classes started implementing the reservation policy to some extent in most sectors. A violent agitation began in Gujarat in 1981, led, initially, by medical college students against reservations. Bitterly false but provocative arguments that reservations lead to inefficiency, etc., were put forward to get the support of the urban petty-bourgeoisie from the upper castes. The upper castes were reacting against a threat to their monopoly over the lucrative professions and the government bureaucracy. The agitation in Gujarat spread from the cities to the villages. The landed Patels used the anti-Dalit atmosphere created by the agitation to attack their Dalit labourers, who had begun to oppose their unchecked exploitation, and browbeat them into submission. The anti-reservation agitation in Gujarat was supported by the students and youth from the upper castes aspiring for professional education in other states as well. The ruling classes gave publicity to their agitations and an anti-Dalit atmosphere was generated all over the country.
By the 1980s the middle castes — the OBCs — too, began to demand reservations. In 1977, when the Janata Party state government in Bihar, under Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur, implemented reservations for the OBCs in the State administration and professional colleges, it led to a violent agitation by the ‘forwards’ — the upper castes — against the ‘backwards,’ the middle and lower castes. The agitators forced the state government to modify the policy and introduce reservations for the Economically Backwards as well (EBC).
The commission, under the Chairmanship of B P Mandal, appointed by the Janata Party government in 1977, was also under the pressure of the growing assertion of the landlord and rich peasant sections among the middle castes in north India. The Commission recommended reservations for the OBCs. The Congress (I) government shelved this report. The all India comprador bourgeoisie led Congress government, with its reduced support from the agrarian elite in the northern belt, was interested, primarily, in the centralization of the State. In the 1990s the Janata Dal Government implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations of reservations for the OBCs in the Central goverrnment administrative machinery and in the institutions of higher education. From the 1980s, sections of the OBC had been pressing for the implementation of reservations, though it had not taken the form of a mass agitation.
The middle castes, whether of landlord or ordinary peasant backgrounds and artisan castes, have been even more backward than the educated sections among the Dalits. They are trapped in the semi-feudal agrarian economy of their traditional occupations and way of life. The emerging educated sections among them are the social base for the demand for reservations for the OBCs. But the OBCs are much more class divided than the Dalits. Upper sections of the OBC castes have tried hard to be included in the OBC lists in the different states.
In an attempt to check the BJP’s efforts to dislodge it, the Janata Dal government announced the implementation of reservations for the OBCs. But this was widely opposed by the upper castes in the form of anti-reservation agitations. The extent of the upper castes’ control over the government bureaucracy and prestigious professions can be seen from their violence and aggressiveness against the implementation of the Mandal Commission. The comprador bureaucrat bourgeoisie and its media gave wide publicity to this agitation which was restricted to elite institutions. The techniques they used, like self-immolation, to show their opposition also gave their agitation more publicity. The upper caste sections of the bureaucracy also supported this agitation. The agitating students were from the ABVP and NSUI, although both the Congress and the BJP opportunistically remained silent during the agitation.
While recognizing that implementation of reservation policy for OBCs, will, in spite of income limits, favour the landlord / elite sections of the OBC castes, and, in that, only a few castes may gain; yet, the fact is that most of the OBCs are poor and landless peasants or those eking out a bare subsistence in their traditional occupation. Reservations will provide only a very small section among them a secure middle class existence, for the majority, the agrarian order has to be overturned in order to give security and a better life. But the middle castes have hardly been represented in the administration and they have a right to their share in this sector.
The extent of caste prejudice and caste feelings that are nurtured and bred among the so-called modern sections of the upper castes has been revealed by the vehemence of the anti-reservation agitations. There is a need to oppose the anti-reservation agitations for what they are — an attempt by the reactionary sections of the uppermost castes to maintain their monopoly over the State’s resources and prestigious lucrative professions with their vicious elitist caste biases. It is nothing but an indirect attempt to perpetuate the caste system by keeping the Dalits and the lower sections of the OBCs as menials and labourers to be exploited at will.