A Hundred Years of Dravidian Movement

Prof. S.F.N. Chelliah

Close on the heels of the jubilant celebrations of the One hundred years of the Dravidian Movement, we are happy to juxtapose certain excerpts from the ‘A Hundred Years of The Hindu’. It is a pleasant surprise to go through the dissections made in this book of the caste traditions in India. Reference to the comments of Tolstoy on the caste practices in India is something rare and very interesting. To the text now:
‘The Hindu’ in 1893 held strong views on the caste system and anticipted Mahatma Gandhi by espousing the cause of the Pariahs (untouchables who were called Harijans after Gandhiji took up their cause.) ‘The Hindu’ despaired of the Pariahs ever being able to improve their lot and supported the suggestion that they be handed over to the Christian Missionaries since they could never hope to better their condition if they continued to remain in Hinduism. ‘The Hindu’ noted that by far the greater portion of the work of the missionaries had been always directed towards the moral and material improvement of the conditions of the lower orders. “The degraded condition of the Pariah”, it said, “and other kindred classes is notorious and the peculiarities of the Hindu social system are such that from this system no hope whatever of their amelioration can be entertained. For thousands of years the Pariahs and others have been in their present condition and Hindus have not shown the faintest indication of their being conscious of the condition of these classes. It is assumed that the miserable lot of the Pariah is as natural to him as is to the Brahmin his privileged and comparatively happy lot. There are not, of course, people wanting among us, even among educated Hindus, who argue that in as much as in every community in the world there are some low and some others high, there is nothing particularly discreditable to the Hindu community in the existence of a neglected and degraded class like the Pariahs. The argument will be perfectly sound if the distinction between the Pariah and the Brahmins were nothing more than the distinction between the high and low in Western countries. But there is absolutely no analogy in this respect between the two social systems. The social system of the West recognises no such standard of social position as birth. A cobbler’s son, by his attainments, moral character and wealth, can ascend to a social position as honoured and honourable as that of the Prince of Wales himself. But let the Pariah get up all the Vedas by heart, let him be ever so well behaved and wealthy, he cannot claim equality with the vilest Brahmin, the notorious expert at forgery, or the inveterate drinker in the name of civilisation. This is the peculiar evil of the Hindu caste system. The abolition of caste, indeed, will not abolish inequality of social position, but it will or ought to introduce a less objectionable and decidedly a healthier standard of social respectability than the accident of birth, namely, the standard of character and character alone. This standard, our caste system does not recognise and the Hindu nation having been familiar with this system during thousands of years has lost all consciousness of evil and when the action of the missionaries rouses the Hindus to a sense of its discreditable treatment of the lower castes, a feeble attempt is made at explanation and justification and patriotism takes shelter in far-fetched and imaginary analogies”.
* * *
Sri C.Sankaran Nair provoked a controversy in December, 1904, when he said in a speech that India “will never and ought not to be called into the councils of the Empire until we show we have fully and frankly accepted those principles of equality and brotherhood upon which the British Government is based. Those principles are utterly repugnant to the caste system as understood and practised among us.” Sankaran Nair was criticised for saying this by a reader of ‘The Hindu’ who called himself ‘plainspeaker.’
The Tamil poet Subramania Bharati came to Sankaran Nair’s rescue with a letter in which he said: “What the eminent social reformer means to say is simply this. There can be no political emancipation without the feeling of nationality. There can be no feeling of nationality where the caste system is prevalent or rather say (as some hypercritical men want us to believe that the caste system is prevalent in all human communities) where the Jati system is prevalent, the wonderful system which makes a Pariah philanthropist inferior to a Brahmin go-between. Is it doubted in any quarter that in England a cobbler boy with necessary merit finds the path clear to the Premiership? And is it not treason in India to believe that a Sudra (not to speak of a Panchama) with an unparalleled knowledge of Sanskrit scripture and with exceptional goodness and piety can ever aspire to the seer of Sringeri? Why will people be so wilfully blind? Why do they refuse to find any difference between a mountain and a molehill? Where is Great Britain and alas! where is India? The National Congress, I readily concede, has some of India’s best sons in its ranks and its aspirations are of the worthiest. But does anybody seriously believe that a man who in his stony heart condemns a babe widow to perpetual misery might be worthy to be placed at the help of a rising people? Impossible.” (Bharati, who signed himself as a member of the Madras Social Reform Association, added : “Without social reform, our political reform is a dream, a myth, for social slaves can never really understand political liberty. And until and unless our social conferences prove a success our National Congress is nothing but glare and dust.”)
Leo Tolstoy had something to say of the Indian caste system in a letter to the Madras Journal ‘Arya’ in September, 1901 which ‘The Hindu’ reproduced and commented upon in its editioial columns. Tolstoy who wrote on the duty of all civilised Indians said, “I quite agree with you that your nation cannot accept the solution of the social problems which is proposed by Europe and which is no solution at all. A society or community kept together by force is not only in a provisory state but is a very dangerous one. The bonds that keep together such society are always in danger of being broken and the society itself is liable to experience the greatest evils. In such a position are the European states. The only solution of the social problem for reasonable beings endowed with the capacity of love is the abolition of violence and the organisation of society based on love, mutual and reasonable principles, voluntarily accepted by all. Such a state can be attained only by the development of true religion. By the words ‘True Religion’ I mean the fundamental principles of all religions which are the consciousness of the divine essence of the human soul and respect for its manifestation – human life. Your religion is very old and very profound in its metaphysical definition of the relation of men to the spiritual all – to the atman; but I think it was maimed in its moral, i.e., practical application to life by the existence of caste.
This practical application to life, so far as I know, has been made only by Jainism, Buddhism and some of your sects such as Kabir Panchis, in which the fundamental principle is the sacredness of life and consequently the prohibition to take the life of any living being especially of men. All the evils that you experience – the famine and what is still more important the deprivement of your people by factory life – will last as long as your people consent to kill their fellowmen and to be soldiers (sepoys). Parasites feed only on unclean bodies. Your people must be morally clean. I think the duty of all civilised Indians is

1. to try to destroy all old superstitions which hide from the masses the principle of true religion, i.e., consciousness of the divine essence of human soul and respect for the life of every human being without any exception and
2. to spread them as far as possible. I think these principles are virtually if not actually contained in your ancient and profound religion and need only to be developed and cleared from the evil that covers them. I think only such a mode of action can liberate the Indians from all the evils which now beset them and will be the most efficacious means to attain the goal which you are now looking for.

‘The Hindu’ commenting said: “These words deserve our best consideration, coming as they do from one whose sincerity and earnestness, whose genuine love and sympathy for his fellowmen, whose ascetic life and great personal example have already made him a stupendous force in Europe.
* * *
The closing period of 1916 saw the emergence of the Non-Brahmins Movement in Madras Presidency under the leadership of P.Thyagaraya Chetty, Dr.T.M.Nair and others. The movement blossomed into the JusticeParty in later days and its members briefly occupied positions of power and influence encouraged by the British Government at home and in India.
The first communication about the starting of the movement was sent to ‘The Hindu’ by its sponsors in the form of a manifesto and it was published in full but the paper was critical of the document. “It is with much pain and surprise that we have perused this document.” ‘The Hindu’ wrote, “It gives a manifestly distorted and unfair representation of many of the matters to which it makes reference. It can serve no good purpose but it is bound to create bad blood between persons belonging to the same great Indian community who have been living hitherto in perfect harmony and to whom good sense should suggest that there is nothing more suicidal at this moment and perilous to the national cause than to create causes for mutual discord and to play into the hands of the enemies of the national progress. We do not wish to open our correspondence columns to a discussion of this subject as it cannot but lead to an acrimonious controversy and as it would indirectly promote the insidious objects of some of those who are engineering the movement.”
‘The Hindu’ on December 22, 1916, published a communication from Rao Bahadur P.Kesava Pillai of Gooty repudiating the manifesto issued on behalf of the Non-Brahmin movement… and said: “Mr.Kesava Pillai has behind him a record of public and patriotic work which is possessed by few and his repudiation of the sentiments contained in the manifesto is especially noteworthy and deserves public attention.”
The Hindu made it clear it was in sympathy with certain aspects of the Non-Brahmin movement such as the desire to advance socially, educationally and economically. What it opposed was the anti-nationalist character it had assumed. The paper wrote on September 10, 1947 : “There are certain aspects of the Non-Brahmin movement which all who favour the advancement of the country will most heartily support. They are in the direction of social and educational progress and in securing a sufficient representation of their separate interests in any scheme of political reform. We regret to have to say that the movement was made from its start to assume a sinister aspect and to adopt an attitude of active antagonism to the Brahmin community, to the nationalist movement in the country and to the aims and objects of the Congress.”
We have already noted the cable sent to the Secretary of State for India by Mr. Thyagaraya Chetty, one of the sponsors of the Non-Brahmin movement, opposing Home Rule and supporting the stand taken by the Madras Mail and the European community in regard to Mrs. Besant’s movement.
Dr.T.M.Nair, another leading light of the movement, in a lecture in Madras opposed the grant of Home Rule at the present moment and said the demand had been made only by Mrs. Besant in 1915. The Hindu controverted this view and said the demand to Home Rule or Swaraj, or self-government had been made by the Congress long ago and quoted passages from Dadhabhai Naoroji’s address at the Calcutta session of the Congress in 1906 to prove this point. Dr. Nair’s statement led to a controversy and many letters appear in ‘The Hindu’ on the subject.
That Dr.Nair was already in official favour and would not do anything to blast his political prospects was clear when he was nominated to the Madras City council although he was defeated in the election to that body from the Triplicane division. While recognising that Dr.Nair’s nomination can be sustained on the principle on which the power to make it depended. “Much as we would like Dr.Nair to employ his talents as a member of the Corporation, it is to be regretted that he should have availed himself of the back door of nomination instead of the open door of election. His defeat at Triplicane has not barred all chances of his entering the Corporation by means of election. There are vacancies to be filled up by election on the 10th instant in no less than five wards including the one in which Dr.Nair is a resident voter.”
When Lord Chelmsford succeeded Lord Hardings as Viceroy in 1916 ‘The Hindu’ was not very enthusiastic for as it remarked Lord Chelmsford was ‘an unknown quantity.’ But the paper misjudged the man. Lord Chelmsford went down in history as the joint author of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms which introduced a measure of autonomy in the provinces.
In a memorandum to the Viceroy in October, 1916, nineteen elected non-official members of the Imperial Council, who included M.A.Jinnah, V.S.Srinivasa Sastri, Bhupendranath Basu, Tej Bahadur Sapru, and Madan Mohan Malaviya pointed out that “The position of Indians in India is practically this that they have no part or share in the direction of Government of the country and are placed under the very great and galling disabilities from which the other members of the British Empire are exempted and which have reduced them to a state of utter helplessness . . . In the crisis we are not going through the Indian people have sunk domestic differences between themselves and the Government and have faithfully and loyally stood by the Empire . . . India does not claim any reward for her loyalty but she has a right to expect that the want of confidence on the part of the Government to which she not unnaturally ascribes her present state, should now be a thing of the past and that she should no longer occupy a position of subordination but one of comradeship.” The memorandum demanded that
1. half of the membership to Executive Councils should be Indian and the European element should be nominated from the ranks of men trained and educated in the public life of England;
2. all legislative councils should have a substantial majority of elected members;
3. the budget should be passed in the shape of money bill and India should have fiscal autonomy;
4. the Imperial Legislative Council should have power to legislate on all matters and to discuss and pass resolutions relating to all matters of Indian administration and the provincial councils should have similar powers with regard to provincial administration;
5. the Council of the Secretary of State should be abolished;
6. in any scheme of Imperial Federation India should be given through her chosen representatives a place similar to that of the self-governing dominions;
7. the provincial governments should be made autonomous;
8. a full measure of local self-government should be immediately granted;
9. the right to carry arms should be granted.

Courtesy: Modern Rationalist