Why the Dalits thanked the British Government…

It is very important to study history from all angles, because what we constitute as the past or the truth, consists of multiple perspectives. With this in mind, one has to be open-minded when it comes to studying and understanding our history. When it comes to Indian history, there are multiple sides to it, and in this article, we are going to look into why the Dalits stood at the side of the British Government. It is important to understand what role conversion plays in our history, so that we can make amends to the mistakes committed in the past. If Hindus start to understand the history of our Dalit Movement, we will start empathising with them, then we can begin to make amends and finally abolish the anti-Hindu outfits that serve as an obstacle for Hindu unity.

How did the Depressed Classes or Dalit Movement begin? How did it develop? Is it possible to pinpoint stages of development in the movement?

The first stage in the Dalit Movement was mass conversion, especially to Christianity. This was the most significant step the Dalits took in the 19th century to improve their lot. This stage may be dated from the 1860’s or 1870’s through the 1930’s. The Dalits themselves took the initiative in conversion. Usually a depressed class community or a portion of it in a particular village decided to convert and then encouraged their friends and relatives in neighbouring villages to convert as well. This they did because they thought conversion would be good for their people. The primary motive in this attempt seems to have been social and psychological; a chance to move up by moving out of the caste system, a chance to acquire helpful friends outside the village, and a new sense of one’s own worth, dignity and self-respect which came with conversion.

What came of this attempt? The converts continued in the same village, under the same landlords doing many, but not all, of the things they did before conversion. A few children had the privilege of receiving education and left the village, as a mission employee afterwards. Conversion often raised the converts in the esteem of the landlords, but did not remove the problem of poverty. Thus, conversion to Christianity did not provide a total solution to the problems of the Dalits.

The second stage of the Dalit Movement began around 1900 and went up to 1955, characterised by caste Hindu efforts to improve the conditions of the Dalits. This was, at first, done as voluntary social service through organisations such as the Depressed Classes Mission (1906), Harijan Sevak Sangh (1932) and so on. Later it acquired a political dimension when Hindu reformers used the agency of Government, particularly after 1937, to pass laws and to finance and or administer programmes for the welfare of the Dalits. These attempts by the caste Hindu reformers seemed to have had three motives: humanitarian-nationalist; to prevent conversion; political.

The third stage of the Dalit Movement, which can be dated from the 1920’s to the present, is characterised by self-assertion and self-reliance on the part of the depressed classes themselves. This has taken a number of organisational forms such as All India Adi-Dravida Maha Jana Sabha, The All India Depressed Classes Conference, etc.

What was the role of the leaders of the Depressed Classes Movement?

While the Dalit Movement in Madras Presidency lacked resources, internal cohesion and leadership, yet some of the leaders who were nominated/elected to the Madras Legislative Council during the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s played a vital role in the legislative body.

Perunthalaivar M.C. Raja

M.C. Raja, a nominated Dalit Member in the Madras Legislative Council and later in the Central Assembly, pioneered the cause of the Dalits in the legislatures, and he was also the President of the All India Depressed Classes Conference. He raised innumerable questions which concerned the Dalits in the Madras Legislative Council. In 1919, M.C.Raja recommended in the Legislative Council that Panchamas (i.e. Dalits), should be admitted in all schools. In 1922, he proposed that scholarship amount given to the Dalits should be increased. He ran a hostel for the Dalit children at Madras. In the Legislature, Raja also recommended that candidates should be selected for appointment as constables and sub-inspectors from among the Dalits. In 1923, he demanded that 20 seats should be set apart to his community in the Madras Legislative Council and that they should be nominated by the Government, not by the ministers. He also introduced a bill for the abolition of untouchability in 1933.

Another leader who battled for the Dalits in the Legislature was R.Veerian. Veerian was a native of Coimbatore and a nominated member in the Madras Legislative Council, raised a number of pertinent questions concerning the interest of the Dalits. For instance, in 1925, he recommended that Dalits should be admitted in public management schools. Verian presided over the 8th Conference of the Depressed Classes Adi Dravidas. This conference requested the Government to make secondary education free as far as the depressed classes were concerned and to award scholarships to deserving Adi Dravida pupils without making age reservation.

The other Dalit leaders who took up the cause of that community inccluded: A.S.Sahajanandam, L.C.Guruswamy, R.T.Kesavelu, and M.C. Madurai Pillai. These leaders, it would not be incorrect to day, were to a great extent reflecting the aspirations of the Dalits or, at least, the educated members of that class. The role of the leaders in the legislature and outside at conferences suggest that during the period between 1919 to 1939, the Dalits were getting class-conscious and were attempting class organisation and endeavoured to establigh themselves as a social group with distinct political interests entitles to special consideration by the Government.

As to their ideology, one could say that they did not have a clear ideology, except that they wanted to better the condition of their fellowmen. They seem to have placed their major reliance upon the belief that the British Government would come to their aid. The first resolution, moved from the chair, in both the conferences referred to in this articles, was a vote of thanks to the British Government.

This kind of “homage” needs to be understood in the context of non-brahmin rule in Madras presidency to which the Dalits were not favourable. Home Rule meant, in that context, enslavement of the Dalits by the high caste non-brahmins. This political concern was expressed with a renewed vigour by 1930. When the prospect of further advancement towards self-Government was becoming clearer, the leaders of the Depressed Classes repeated in conferences that in the interest of the Dalits, the British Government should not part with power because Congress Raj meant (to them) crushing the Adi Dravidas.

Indian history has always bemused me

In Isaiah Berlin’s work called, “The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History”, he explains that Tolstoy was driven by a “desire to penetrate to first causes, to understand how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise.” If we know how the world really works, we know everything, but of course, it is not that simple. Tolstoy believed that the history does not reveal causes; it presents only a blank succession of unexplained events. This is why the Indian history bemuses me.

It is said that in any story there are many different ways of interpreting it. History is the same, in the sense that there are many perspectives to consider. Finding truth in history is about understanding that this truth is not absolute. In this sense, truth is based on perspective. The perspective of the person who captured it and the person interpreting it, and the perspective of the translators and editors and primary sources.

If you read the mainstream history textbooks, it will teach you about the Nationalist Movement and the freedom struggle in India. They also claim that the leader of the freedom struggle was Gandhi, and the perspective of the freedom struggle history is mainly offered to us from Gandhi’s point of view, with Gandhi being the central theme. The other important influential leaders would be the side characters.

Ramesh Chandra Majumdar was a historian and professor of Indian history, who is the author of the three volumes of the book “The History of the Freedom Movement in India.” When the Government of India set up an editorial Committee to author a history of the freedom struggle of India, he was its principal member. But following a conflict with the then Education Minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, on the Sepoy Mutiny, he left the government job and published his own book, “The Sepoy Mutiny & Revolt of 1857.” According to R.C.Majumdar, the origins of India’s freedom struggle lie in the English-educated Indian middle-class and the freedom struggle started with the Banga Bhanga movement (first partition of Bengal) in 1905. His perspective of the History of Indian freedom struggle will be different.

Similarly, when you read the works of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, especially “Volume 9 – What Congress and Gandhi Have Done To the Untouchables”, you will get another perspective of the Indian history pertaining to the freedom struggle. After reading this volume, I realised and gained greater appreciation about history and how different perspectives make us re-think about what constitutes truth, when it comes to humans and their ways of conducting themselves. Dr. Ambedkar had great concern about the status of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), if the British were to leave India after bestowing independent status to the Country. It was evident that he openly opposed Gandhi and the Congress on this point, because they did not worry about what will happen to the SC/ST people in terms of their livelihood, their rights to basic necessities and their dignity, after the British left.

Reading different perspectives of the history gives you more room for thought and reflection. Yet it may also confuse you, and make you wonder which version of it is the truth. There are historians who claim Tipu Sultan a nationalist hero and the Peshwas who sided with the British as the villains who led the way towards India becoming a British colony. And then there are historians who list the atrocities committed by Tipu Sultan against the Hindus and Christians (non-Muslims), and the Peshwas as brave warriors who fought against the barbaric Mughal ruler. Eminent historians like R.C. Majumdar go a step further and analyse history. He claims that India was not under colonial rule for two centuries, but it was under colonial rule even about four centuries prior to that, since the Mughal rule started. The war between the Peshwas and the Tipu Sultan simply led to the transfer of authority to rule India from the Mughals to the British.

Currently, I am reading R.C.Majumdar’s “History of the Freedom Movement in India.” It is an interesting read, because the author provides his perspective of the history very clearly, with a nationalist touch. My strongest recommendation for his works to all of you who wish to get a clear perspective of our Indian history.