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Advent of Gandhi and Mass Mobilisation – The Non-Brahmin Movement

The Non-Brahmin Movement

The hierarchical Indian society and the contradictions within, found expression in the formation of caste associations and movements to question the dominance of higher castes. The higher castes also were controlling the factors of production and thus the middle and lower castes were dependent on them for livelihood. Liberalism and humanism which influenced and accompanied the socio-religious reform movements of the nineteenth century had affected the society and stirred it. The symptoms of their awakening were already visible in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The Namasudra movement in the Bengal and eastern India, the Adidharma movement in North Western India, the Satyashodhak movement in Western India and the Dravidian movements in South India had emerged and raised their voice by the turn of the century. They were all led by non Brahmin leaders who questioned the supremacy of the Brahmins and other ‘superior’ castes.

It first manifested itself, through Jyoti Rao Phule’s book of 1872 titled Gulamgiri. His organization, Satyashodak Samaj, underscored the necessity to relieve the lower castes from the tyranny of Brahminism and the exploitative scriptures. The colonial administrators and the educational institutions that were established indirectly facilitated their origin. Added to the growing influence of Brahmin – upper caste men in the colonial times in whatever opportunity was open to natives, the colonial government published census reports once a decade. These reports classified castes on the basis of ‘social precedence as recognized by native public opinion’. The censuses were a source of conflict between castes. There were claims and counterclaims as the leaders of caste organizations fought for pre-eminence and many started new caste associations. These attempts were further helped by the emerging political scenario.

Leading members of castes realized that it was important to mobilise their castes in struggles for social recognition. More than the recognition, many of them their caste brethren and helped their educated youth in getting jobs. In the meantime, introduction of electoral politics from the 1880s gave a fillip to such organisations. The outcome of all this was the expression of socio-economic tensions through caste consciousness and caste solidarity.

Two trends emerged out of the non-Brahmin movements. One was what is called the process of ‘Sanskritisatian’ of the ‘lower’ castes and the second was a radical pro-poor and progressive peasant–labour movements. While the northern and eastern caste movements by and large were Sanskritic, the western and southern movements split and absorbed by the rising nationalist and Dravidian–Left movements. However all these movements were critical of what they called as ‘Brahmin domination’ and attacked their ‘monopoly’, and pleaded with the government through their associations for justice. In Bombay and Madras presidencies clear-cut Brahmin monopoly in the government services and general cultural arena led to non-Brahmin politics.

The pattern of the movement in south was a little different. The Brahmin monopoly was quite formidable as with only 3.2% of the population they had 72% of all graduates. They came to be challenged by educated and trading community members of the non-Brahmin castes. They were elitist in the beginning and their challenge was articulated by the Non-Brahmin Manifesto issued at the end of 1916. They asserted that they formed the ‘bulk of the tax payers, including a large majority of the zamindars, landlords and agriculturists’, yet they received no benefits from the state.

The colonial government made use of the genuine grievances of the non-Brahmins to divide and rule India. This was true with the Brahmanetara Parishat, and Justice Party

Of Bombay and Madras presidencies respectively at least till 1930. Both the regions had some socially radical possibilities as could be seen in the emergence of a radical Dalit-Bahujan movement under the leadership of Dr Ambedkar and the Self-Respect Movement under the leadership of Periyar Ramaswamy.

The nationalists were unable to understand the liberal democratic content in the awakening among the lower strata of Indian society. While a section of the nationalists simply ignored the stirrings, a majority of them and particularly the so-called extremists–radicals were opposed to the movements. A few of them were even hostile and labelled them as stooges of British, anti-national etc. The early leaders of the non-Brahmin movement were in fact using the same tactics as the early nationalist leaders in dealing with the colonial government.

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