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For Followers Of Dharma

Was Indian Society Always As DIVIDED As It Is Today
By Sanjeev Nayyar, March 2016 [[email protected]]

Chapter :

Every  time an unfortunate incident, like the suicide of Dalit scholar  Rohith Vemula occurs, Indians are reminded about the millennia-old  discrimination against Dalits. Agitations across the country, be it  by the Kappus, Jats, Gujjars, or Patels, make it appear that the  society is divided and the country is on the brink of collapse.

The  questions that arise are:
1. Could a civilisation with such divisions have survived 5,000 years?

2. Were backward classes always deprived of education?

3. Were caste equations always as bad as they are today?

This  article gives the percentage of shudra students in schools and  explains how they became an impoverished community.

A  noted Gandhian, Dharampal studied the state of education around 1820.  He visited British and Indian archives and wrote "The Beautiful  Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the 18th century". The book  reproduces reports of numerous surveys undertaken by the British  (between 1800-1830) in Bengal, Punjab and Madras presidencies. It  gives you the state of education in India around 1800, caste  composition and subjects taught in schools.

Note  that education was carried out through pathshalas, gurukulas and  madrasas since the institution of school is largely a modern  construct.

For  these surveys, the British asked its collectors to prepare  district-wise data on the number of schools and type of education.

"The  actual situation, which is revealed, was different, if not quite  contrary, for at least amongst the Hindoos, in the districts of the  Madras Presidency (and dramatically so in the Tamil-speaking areas)  as well as the two districts of Bihar. It was the groups termed  Soodras, and the castes considered below them who predominated in the  thousands of the then still-existing schools in practically each of  the areas," Dharampal says in his book.

Table 1 shows there  11,575 schools with 1,57,195 students.

Madras Presidency* 1822-25 (Collectors Reports) Table 1
Details of Schools (pg  25)


Speaking              Language

Nos of              Schools

Students in              Schools

Population              (1823 estim)

1. Oriya




2. Telegu




3. Kannada




4. Malayalam




5. Tamil








*Madras Presidency  consisted of areas that fall in modern day Tamil Nadu, undivided  Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Kerala and Karnataka.

For caste wise break up  see Table 2.

Caste division of Male students (Table  2 pg 27)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Speaking              Language

Brahmins,              Chettris





Total              Students

1. Oriya







2. Telegu.







3. Kannada




























% of total







*"It may be fairly  assumed that the term 'other castes' used in the Madras Presidency  survey included those who today are categorised amongst the scheduled  casts and many of whom were better known as 'Panchamas' some 70-80  years ago."

How  and why do the backward classes find themselves in the situation they  are today?

Before  British rule, traditionally, education institutions were funded by  revenue contributions made by the community and state. About  one-third of the total revenue (from agriculture and sea ports) was  assigned for social and cultural infrastructure (including  education).

This  system stayed mainly intact through all previous political turmoils.  The British, however, increased the quantum of land revenue and  adversely changed the terms of payment for the community. They  centralised collection of revenue, leaving hardly any revenue to pay  for social and cultural infrastructure.

Further,  the means of the manufacturing classes (small-scale enterprises or  SMEs in today's parlance) were greatly diminished by the introduction  of European goods. Craftsmen, especially those engaged in the making  of cloth, manufacture, mining of metals and construction work, were  reduced to a state of homelessness.

Sapped  of funds, education institutions and manufacturing classes became  history, leading to grave consequences.

First,  it had a seriously harmful effect on literacy and knowledge amongst  the Indian people.

Two,  it destroyed the social balance in India in which, traditionally,  people from all sections of the society appear to have been able to  receive fairly competent schooling.

Three,  this destruction, along with economic plunder, led to great  deterioration in the status, socio-economic conditions and personal  dignity of those now known as the scheduled castes; and to a lesser  degree, the vast peasant majority encompassed by the term "backward  castes".

It  appears that the "backward" status they are struggling  against is some ancient phenomenon. In reality, however, their  cultural and economic backwardness (as distinct from their  ritualistic status on specific occasions) arose post 1800. What  backward caste movements are attempting to achieve is a reversal of  the effects of the British policy, and restoration of the position,  status, and rights of these peoples to those that existed prior to  1800.

An  article titled "The Decline of Mass Education in India" by  DR Gupta in Young India in December 8, 1920 tells why the divide between the rich and poor  increased. "Rules were made to restrict the diffusion of  education generally and among the poorer boys. Fees were raised to a  degree, which the poor could not afford," the article said.

The  British strategy was to cause friction between various sections of  the society and weaken it. Making a community feel discriminated  against made the task of conversion easier.

Incidentally,  the nomenclature used to describe the backward classes keeps  changing. In the 1890s they were called the depressed classes. In the  early 1930's, Mahatma Gandhi named them "harijans". The  Government of India Act, 1935 introduced the term "scheduled  caste" while "scheduled tribe" came into being after  the Constitution was adopted.

The  word "Dalit" has come into prominence since the 1990s.  There are national commissions for the scheduled castes and backward  classes but nowhere is the word Dalit used. Constitutionally  speaking, can the communities covered by the term Dalit be defined?

Many  consider caste to be the bane of Indian society and is responsible  for the backwardness of Dalits. Note what Dharampal wrote in  "Rediscovering India":

"For  the British, as perhaps for some others before them, caste has been a  great obstacle, in fact, an unmitigated evil not because the British  believed in casteless-ness or subscribed to a non-hierarchical system  but because it stood in the way of their breaking Indian society,  hindered the process of atomisation, and made the task of conquest  and governance more difficult."

Swami  Vivekananda said: "Caste is an imperfect institution, no doubt.  But if it had not been for caste, you would have had no Sanskrit  books to study. This caste made walls, around which all sorts of  invasions rolled and surged but found it impossible to break  through."

Noted  author Gurcharan  Das said: If you  institute economic reforms in a society where people know how to  conserve capital... If you have communities whose DNA is that... it  is a genetic advantage."

By  independence, the divisions created by the British had got ingrained  in our psyche. Instead of special schemes for the uplift of  economically weaker sections, the government had reservations for the  scheduled castes and tribes.

On  reservation for the backward classes, senior journalist Raj  Chengappa wrote, "The  government refused to accept the recommendations of the First  Backward Class Commission with Nehru coming out strongly against any  move to divide the nation on the basis of caste. The Second Backward  Class Commission formed in 1979 and headed by BP Mandal was again  hampered by a lack of figures. The Mandal Commission bolstered its  deductions with extensive field surveys apart from getting the census  department to make extrapolations based on the 1931 census. It  recommended a reservation of 27 per cent for OBCs to all government  services as well as technical and professional institutions both at  the Centre and state levels. It was former prime minister VP Singh,  who during his tenure in 1990, announced that the government would  implement the Mandal Commission recommendations in toto".

Since  then, the OBCs have been further divided into most backward castes  (MBCs) and extremely backward castes (EBCs). Muslims  and Christian are included in OBC list too.

Next,  the UPA government introduced 27 per cent reservations for OBCs in  institutes of higher education. Since this does not apply to  minorities, scheduled castes/scheduled tribes/OBCs do not have quotas  in aided or unaided minority institutions.

The  UPA wanted to divide the Hindu society into "forwards" and  "backwards", hoping it would form a coalition of backwards  and Muslims. This would have further weakened the Indian  civilisation, made the society unstable and easier for missionaries  to convert the backwards.

Today,  there is a race to be declared a scheduled caste/scheduled tribe, or  OBC. It has led to peculiar situations.

For  instance, Manipur consists of scheduled tribes (Christians) and  Meitis (Hindus). The Christians do not pay income tax because they  continue to be considered as scheduled tribes, while the Meitis pay  income tax.

Many  relatively well-off communities managed to get themselves the  schedule tribe tag, for example, Meenas in Rajasthan, Halba Koshtis  in Maharashtra and most tribes in the Northeast, which were the  ruling tribes in the past and today, are well-educated and  Westernised.

Jats  are a backward community in Rajasthan but have been the ruling  community in Punjab and Haryana till recently.

Reservations  have made people aware of and narrowly identified by their castes,  rather than focusing on social and economic integration.

The  British must be laughing at how protective Indians are of colonial  concepts like caste (it is of Spanish origin, though, and fails to  capture the meaning of the Indian term jati or community), secularism  and minorities.

If  only we lived by and were governed by the Indian thought!

1. The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the 18th century.
2. Jati  as social horsepower.
3. How  UPA communalised India's education system

First published Click here to view

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