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.