Rediscovering India by Dharampal

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Misconception Sudras

Friends this chapter tells you about the actual status of the Sudras & below varnas meaning they were peasants, artisans, employed by the textile industry, astrologers and the primary steps initiated by the British political system like centralization etc.

For the past century, or more, and perhaps from the beginning of British indological scholarship, it has generally been assumed, naturally on the analogy of pre-1800 European development that except for the Brahmins and the twice born and those belonging to the Muslim aristocracy, the rest of the Indian population i.e. some 80 to 85 per cent of it was more or less in some state of serfdom, lived at the sufferance of those termed as the “brahmanical” or “feudal” orders, and were immersed in darkness and ignorance. Here, it may be mentioned that for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century British orator and writer, darkness and ignorance had wholly different meanings and to the majority of them, these terms conveyed not any ignorance of arts and crafts or technology, or aesthetics but rather the absence of the knowledge of Christianity and its scriptural heritage. According to such usage, it is not only the Hindu who fell into these categories of the morally depraved but also the ancient Greeks-men like Horner, Socrates and Plato-and the Romans before Rome embraced Christianity?

But if India was not immersed in darkness and ignorance and if it was not primarily organized on principles and precepts laid down in the Manu Samhita or some other dharma sastras the question arises as to how it actually did function and what the social and economic roles were of its predominant non-elitist population. That its peasants, its artisans, those engaged in the manufacture of iron and steel, or in the various processes of its flourishing indigenous textile industry, or its surgeons and medical men, even many of its astronomers and astrologers belonged to this predominant section i.e. Sudras is unquestionable.

Further, that in most areas the predominant proportion of those receiving non-sanskritic education came from this 80 per cent (in the Tamil areas as many as 75 to 80 per cent of the total in educational institutions) is also confirmed by early nineteenth century data. Further, according to an 1820 survey of the customs of castes in areas of the Bombay Presidency the prevailing view according to British researches then was that the sastras themselves recognized the primacy of caste customs and these were to be considered as the final authority. Similar information may emerge about other areas if sufficient investigation in depth were undertaken into the contemporary records pertaining to them. Such an investigation may also disclose that the majority of the Hindu kings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in most parts of India were not from amongst the twice-born but from amongst the groups which were not included in the twice-born categories.

The above is not to say that the Brahmins of the seventeenth and eighteenth century did not occupy a higher place in society, or that they did not have a sense of exclusiveness, and that they were not treated with much deference. Further, it is not as if differences of wealth and status did not exist. There were men of considerable wealth especially in the great cities, as there were also great many people who, while ordinarily well fed, more or less had few possessions. However, the food and clothing of the great and the ordinary people on ordinary occasions did not seem to have been very dissimilar. According to an early seventeenth century European traveler, a man who was by no means an admirer of India, and fact was used by W.H. Moreland to prove the poverty of Indian life them, even the emperor (Jahangir) like the peasants, laborers, etc., used to eat foods like khichri.

According to a late eighteenth century reputed British officer, the only way the great men at Hyderabad could be distinguished from their servants was that the clothes of the former were clean and washed while those of the latter less washed. In fact one constant grievance which the British had against the Hindu rulers was that they lived rather simple lives and most of their revenue went towards the support and maintenance of temples, chatrams, agraharams, and a whole variety of other institutions shaped and constituted to serve what was considered primary according to generally accepted Indian priorities.

As regards income differentials, according to 1799 British calculations, the total emoluments of the highest officers of Tipoo Sultan, that is the Governor of Chittradurg, were around Rs. 90 per month while the lowest wages in the area at this time were around Rs. 3 to Rs. 4 per month. According to data collected in 1818 in Rajasthan the total personal allowance of the Maharaja of Udaipur at that time was, and had been for the previous 50 years, Rs. 1,000 per month. But to make the Maharaja subservient to British purposes one of the steps, which the British took, was to increase this allowance to Rs. 1,000 per day. Earlier on, in 1799, Governor General Wellesley had taken a somewhat similar step when he had increased the allowances of Tipoo’s sons to five times of what they received from Tipoo himself. 

From the time the Europeans began to be politically dominant in India, i.e., from around 1750 in southern India, and from 1757 onwards in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa the society of India began to undergo a sea change. It is not that such changes were specially contrived by Europe and in the case of India by the British, for the areas which fell at their feet. In a broader sense what they did in these areas was largely a repetition of what they did in Europe, or Britain itself. The same pattern of hierarchy, the same division of society into high and low orders, the same theorizations – like that of Adam Smith that: “In Great Britain the wages of labour seem, in the present times, to be evidently more than what is precisely necessary to enable the laborer to bring up a family…. There are many plain symptoms that the wages of laborer nowhere in this country are regulated by this lowest rate which is consistent with common humanity” which prevailed in the homelands of the conquerors, were applied to the subjugated areas. The only difference was that the primary purpose of the new conquests and subjugation was the exportation of wealth from the subjugated areas to the conquerors homelands. If such exportation were possible through the extraction of the maximum surplus value from the labor of the conquered, the conquered were tolerated to exist, multiply and produce the maximum possible. But if such extraction for historical or other reasons was not practicable, the conquered were in time eliminated and their lands colonized by people of European stock, as did happen in the Americas and Australia.

In India as the extraction of the maximum surplus became practicable, and could because of climatic factors only be achieved from the toil of the conquered, the deliberate elimination of people was not generally resorted to except here and there. But if people died-as they did in Bengal in 1769 to the extent of one-third of its population, and every few years after that in substantial proportions in large parts of India – as a result of fiscal and economic policies, that did not make much difference either.

IMP - Some of the primary steps which the new political system initiated were in the sphere of (i) revenue enhancement and centralization, (ii) attempts at breaking the sense of community (geographical, or based on occupation or kinship) amongst the people of India and reducing them to an atomized individual condition, (iii) reducing their needs and consumption to the minimum especially through higher taxation and lowering of wage rates, and (iv) an imposition of newer concepts of property rights and laws and to back such imposition to discover or invent suitable precedents in Indian history and scriptures so that the impositions appeared less alien and seemingly derived from the people’s own history and past social practice.

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