Were Backward Classes always suppressed in India

Alabhai Devabhai peacefully makes leather footwear in village Khavda, Kutch, Gujarat

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 Nos of Schools Students in Schools Population(1823 estim)
1. Oriya 255 2,977 3,32,015
2. Telegu 3,454 38,801 10,94,460
3. Kannada 551 7,268 9,59,469
4. Malayalam 759 14,153 9,07,575
5. Tamil 6,556 93,996 66,22,474


11,575 1,57,195 99,09,993.

*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 Brahmins, Chettris Vysee


Others* Muslims

Total Students

1. Oriya 808 243 1001 886 27 2,965
2. Telegu. 14,014 7,676 10,076 4,755 1,639 38,160
3. Kannada 1,233 1,014 3,296 1,332 329 7,204
4.Malayalam 2,230 84 3,697 2,756 3,196 11,963
5.Tamil 11,926 4,442 57,873 13,196 5,453 92,890


30,211 13,459 75,943 22,925 10,644 1,53,182
% of total 20 9 50 15 6 100

*"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

Alabhai and his two brothers whom you see in picture belong to the Scheduled Caste community. I visited them in February 2018. They make leather footwear for a store in Bhuj and are not harassed by anyone because of what they do. In fact one of the brothers went on a government sponsored trip to Paris recently. Framed pic lying on the ground as you can see.  

Also read

1.  History of the word Dalit

2. Rethinking Caste: Why we cannot be so one-dimensional

3. Caste is a socio-political institution

4. Surveys conducted by the British around 1820 in Madras Presidency showed the maximum number of scholars to be Sudras

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