British Policy Regarding the Untouchable Castes

A.M. Dyakov

Editor’s Introduction

A.M. Dyakov, was a senior Soviet academician who wrote extensively on India and the colonial question during the 1940s and 1950s. He wrote on the impact of colonialism on the economy and polity of countries like India and the strands of anti imperialist movements. He by and large argued that some forms of weak capitalism developed in the colonies while pre-colonial forms of exploitation and oppression continued to be strong. He was of the opinion that the capitalist led national movements were not strong enough to fight simultaneously the imperialists and their feudal allies, and argued that the broadening of the national movements to include peasants and workers struggles was essential for successful national liberation. At the same time he pointed out the pitfalls of ignoring the interests of the oppressed people by the leadership of the national movements as this enabled the imperialists to drive a wedge into the national movements by appearing as the saviours of the oppressed.

Dyakov wrote the book, “National Question and British Imperialism in India” in 1948, just after Indian independence. The book contains an interesting chapter on the caste question in India and the role of dalit politics in the national movement. He effectively draws attention to the failure of the Congress in addressing the dalit question and also to that of the dalit leadership to address issues relating to the bread and butter issues of the dalits, namely land and agricultural wages. Dyakov seems to take the position that due to the insensitivity of the nationalist leadership towards the caste question and especially untouchability the British were able to win over and use the nascent dalit leadership to weaken the national movement.

The first part of the chapter deals with the nature of the caste system and especially untouchability. While this is a largely insightful account, Dyakov seems to miss two important features of the caste system – its hierarchical nature in terms of social status and the fact that it built cohesive communities of each caste pitting it against castes higher and lower to it. This ensured that the lower castes were available for the service of the upper castes and facilitated extraction of surplus labour through non-economic forms. In other words it was not only hierarchical but also exploitative in nature. The exploitation consisted not only in access to labour but also in denial of social dignity, prestige, access to higher forms of religion and education to the lower castes. The resilience of the caste system, even after colonialism dealta serious blow to hereditary professions which to Dyakov was the caste system s material basis, can be explained only if we understand the two above-mentioned aspects.

Caste identities and hierarchies could thus serve both the colonial commercialisation and also the post colonial agrarian capitalism and even industries in making available very cheap and docile labour and also in segmenting labour on the basis of caste. It is a well known fact about the Indian labour force that by and large skilled machine operators come from the upper castes while unskilled manual workers come largely from lower castes and that caste hierarchies persist within the boundaries of factories too. Thus caste does not remain as a dying remnant of pre-modern times but is revitalised in modern dependent capitalist conditions. This has meant the critical weakness of Indian capitalism in not being able to create a free labour market and also a relatively standardised social reproduction of labour which is essential for developing a home market for its products. (Caste segmentation has also meant segmentation of life styles and standards of living, where a large section of labour force lives on the threshold of mere physical survival).

After this excursus into the nature of caste system and Indian capitalism we can return to Dyakov’s main argument regarding dalit politics and colonialism.

Colonialism had a complex encounter with the caste system. Some strands found in it an ideal model of hierarchical society in which each strata was content with its lot. However, many sections of colonial officials also found it obnoxious and inconsistent with democratic traditions which gave dignity to labour in Europe. The official policy too was complex. On the one hand given the reliance of British rule on the zamindars and upper caste elements, there was a deep concern not to intervene in traditions and customs. This became a rigid policy especially after 1857, when the landholding castes who felt threatened by the British, led a massive revolt. At the same time the British also sought to establish a civil rule of law which assumed the equality of all persons. The colonial law courts tried to strike a complex balance between conserving and respecting traditions and customs (which were highly iniquitous) and at the same time refusing to enforce caste based rules. This they specially tried in areas like education, where Indian tradition did not allow access to education to dalits or girls of even upper castes and also in opening up professions for all castes.

An interesting example of this complex engagement can be seen in the way they resolved disputes that arose when the government schools admitted dalit students. In many parts of the country the upper castes revolted against this and threatened to withdraw their children from the schools if they had to study with dalit children. In several cases the dalit parents went to the courts demanding admission as per the rules. The administration struck a via media by admitting dalit students but at the same time affirming their low status by making them sit outside the class rooms in the verandas etc.

Ambedkar and most other dalit intellectuals were products of this complex engagement of colonialism with the caste system. They acquired modern education and all the more deeply resented the indignities showered on them despite even after being educated and economically prosperous. When they attended the sessions of Indian National Congress they experienced at first hand the upper caste nature of the leadership and its deep commitment to caste based behaviour. (For example most Brahmin delegates especially from the south refused to interdine and insisted on eating food prepared only by Brahmins). Even a radical upper caste woman like Pandita Rama Bai who had converted to Christianity insisted on having a Brahmin to cook her food. It was Gandhi who brought the question of untouchability into sharp focus in Congress politics and he too compromised his position by defending ‘varnasharama dharma' as he understood it.

There can be no doubt that untouchability and the status of minorities constituted two major weak points of the Congress led Indian national movement and the British used this to weaken the anti colonial movement. However, we need to be clear that at least in the case of the nascent dalit movement, it was very much a part of the anti imperialist movement even if it used British assistance to assert its presence in a movement overwhelmingly led by upper castes. To realise its goals it had to be more consistently democratic and go beyond the limits set either by the British or the Congress nationalists.

The strength and the weakness of the dalit movement lay in its refusal to make the caste question subservient to the national or class questions. Strength, as it enabled it to assert the uniqueness of caste oppression and weakness because it could only weakly ally with nationalist or working class movements which had broader programmes of social transformation.

Leaders like Ambedkar were convinced that mere access to resources like land will not help to counter the effect of caste system which had a stranglehold in the villages. Instead he wanted dalits to take up professions which were linked to modern western culture, adopt modern western mores to question caste based behaviour patterns. As a matter of fact he advocated the model of ‘westernisation’ in contrast the model of ‘sanskritisation’ (adoption of upper caste modes of behaviour like vegetarianism) which was the traditional method of social mobility for lower castes and tribes in the Brahmanical framework. The struggle of the dalits was not for economic resources but for social dignity which eluded them even if they acquired land. Social dignity could be had only through the path of adoption of western model of democracy and individualism. Thus in his scheme of things dalits had to acquire modern education, shift to cities and take up jobs which gave them both access to power and social dignity. The Indian dalit movement looked to Buddhism as its inspiration within the Indian tradition and to ideals of equality, democracy and freedom as advocated by radical bourgeois thinkers like Tom Paine. The Congress, led by upper caste elements, while showing lip service to notions of modern democracy, was active in building a revivalist programme of restoring the Hindu past, a programme that was not to inspire confidence in either dalits or minorities.

Thus, Dyakov’s formulation – “The problem of the untouchables – is mostly a class problem, the problem of the agricultural proletariat and semi-proletariat” needs to be qualified. It is indeed true that dalits have been in the main landless agricultural workers and the struggle for minimum wages and civic amenities and social securities have to be an essential part of their struggle. However, denial of social status and dignity, besides exclusion from culture and resources implies that the resolution of the dalit problem did not lie merely in addressing the ‘class issues’ of rural proletariat like wages. In fact we know today from experience that even left wing trade unions practice discrimination against dalit workers and it has been a very difficult task to bring dalit and non dalit workers under one banner.

Ambedkar’s decision to disengage himself from the Congress or the Communists and negotiate independently with the British needs to be seen in this light and not as being ‘won over' by the British administration. In the 1930s and 1940s it was fairly clear that British rule in India will come to an end and the real issue now was the position of different segments of Indian society in the future ‘free' India. Will dalits have a distinct space for themselves or get subsumed and further marginalised was the issue before leaders like Ambedkar. His struggle was compromised by the fact that dalits lived under harsh conditions under the severe control of upper caste landlords and could not emerge as an independent force unlike the Muslims or urban workers or even adivasis. Hence the failure to compete with the Congress in getting the votes of dalits.

We also have the advantage of hindsight today – we know the stellar role played by Ambedkar in ensuring that the Indian Constitution not only paid lip service to principles of democracy and equality and freedom, but also ensured that it facilitated intervention by the state in favour of the least privileged and the oppressed. This secured a foothold for all oppressed sections of the Indian population within the ‘Nationalist Consensus'.

C.N. Subramaniam

British Policy Regarding the Untouchable Castes

The caste system is one of the oldest remnants of pre-capitalist India. The caste system continues to have a very significant impact on the general population of India. It even shows some signs of vitality, and until recently formed new castes.1

In this paper we do not set ourselves the task of a complete description of the caste system of India or the consideration of its origins. These are issues that require a special study. Our task in this case is limited to only one question, namely, the consideration of the British ruling circles trying to use some features of the caste system to split the national liberation movement.

First, we will give a brief background of the caste system in India.

Most of the Indian and British bourgeois authors believe that the main features of the caste are as follows:

  1.  Heredity. Everyone is born a member of the Hindu caste where his parents belong, and cannot change the caste.
  2.  Endogamy. Marriages are made only within the caste community.
  3.  Restrictions on communication with members of other castes (prohibition of eating out of their hands or even touching them).

Caste structure is very heterogeneous. The old division into four varnas (castes) Brahmin (Brahmin-caste priests), Kshatriya (warrior caste), Vaishya (class of free farmers and merchants) and Shudra (artisan class and lower strata of farmers) do not exist in its original form. Of the four castes, as they were called in classical Indian literature, only the Varna of Brahmins retained its significance and is spread all over India, however, its unity is very conditional, because it is divided into many endogamous groups. Some military castes, such as the Rajputs or Marathi, also claim the title, they are considered Kshatriyas. Vaishya include a number of trading castes. As for the Shudra, the majority of India’s caste-related crafts, as well as castes dealing in agriculture, are considered as originating from this varna, though these assumptions are not historically justified.

Most of the Indian and British bourgeois writers classify castes in India in a following way:

  1.  castes of a class origin,
  2.  castes of a professional origin,
  3.  castes of a tribal origin.

These are the main groups of castes. Furthermore, even minor groups listed: a) the sectarian castes; b) the Muslim castes; c) the castes, made up of various groups excluded from other castes. The total number of castes in India cannot be determined accurately. Almost all sources provide a list of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes together. Interestingly, in the modern Indian languages the ??term for caste is used quite often both to a tribe and even a nation.

Thus, in Punjab and Hindustan caste is usually denoted by the word “zat”. This word is of an Arabic origin and is colloquially pronounced as “Jat” or “Jati”, but in the Hindi language the word “Jati” has also the meaning – nation, people.

The Arabic word “Qaumi”, used in Urdu and Hindi, with reference to the “nation”, “people”, is often applied to the tribe and caste. This confusion is not accidental, it is a reflection of the complex binding of ethnic and social groups of various origin and limitations that exist in modern India.

Among the castes of a class origin, of course, we find the caste of Brahmins.

The largest number of all castes in India is one of the professional. However, it would be wrong to think that people belonging to the same profession refer to the same caste across the space of India. On the contrary, almost every nation of India has its own castes, and in any case, except for the

Brahmins, there is no other caste, which one can come across both in the North and in the South of India, and the Brahmins of the North do not send their daughters to marry the Brahmins of the South.

Castes in India are divided according to ancient traditions into two major groups – the twice-born (dvijat) and not the twice-born. The former include the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, and now all castes, claiming to be descended from them; the second group includes all castes that are considered as branches of the Sudra caste, i.e., the vast majority of all castes. The untouchables (achhut) constitute the lower link of the latter group. This group consists of a large number of castes, whose profession is considered impure and defiling for a man by the Hindus. The Hindus in general consider every craft work to be lower than the agricultural one. This feature is typical of ancient social formations in other countries as well.

Karl Marx wrote: “The ancient people unanimously worshiped agriculture as the only proper thing for a free man, as a school for a Soldier”.2 In India, this view has not been overcome yet. Even now, if members of one of the high landowning castes of the North-West, namely the Jat caste, are forced to leave their villages on seasonal work, they are looking for a job of a soldier, a policeman or a security guard. If poverty makes them work, say, as a weaver or a mechanic, then they will try to make this fact unknown to the caste fellows in their native village. On the contrary, if a member of the artisan castes is engaged in agriculture, it is not considered a violation of the caste customs.

The preference given to agriculture is explained by the fact that in the rural Indian community artisans were dependent on the commune of farmers.

A number of professions, namely, sweeping streets, leather tanning, laundry, barber’s profession are considered unclean and dealing with these cases people do not have to touch the members of the higher castes. The degree of “untouchability” is very different in different parts of India, but the especially strict prohibition of contact is observed in the southern part of the country with the Dravidians.

The Brahmins consider members of those castes as untouchables, who:

  1.  have an unclean profession;
  2.  keep pigs and eat pork or beef;
  3.  the nomadic tribes, if they have not switched to a settled pattern of life.3

But there are castes, whose reason for the untouchability is not clear.

The number of untouchables is great. The number of castes exceeds 300, and the number of members according to some sources is 30 millions, according to other sources is at least 60 millions. According to the census of 1941, their number was determined as 48 millions. However, we must note that the very concept of “untouchable” is very relative, because only the Brahmins consider desecration for themselves any touch of a representative of any other caste, while other upper castes only strictly observe restrictions on the acceptance of food. Furthermore, for the untouchables themselves many castes remain untouchables. For example, for the most important caste of the untouchable castes of Northern India – Chamara (tanners) the caste of Dhobi (washermen) remains in turn an untouchable one. On the contrary, some of the very low castes are not considered untouchable for many of the higher castes. Therefore, presently other terms are used to refer to the lower castes, they are usually even less successful and even simply wrong, namely, the “depressed classes”, “scheduled castes”. In the Congress materials according to the Gandhi initiative the untouchables became known recently as Harijans, which means “God’s people”. The largest of the lower castes are the castes of Chamar, Dhobi. Chuhra – in the north of India; Mahar – in Maharashtra; parayan (pariah), cheruma – in the south India.

Often these untouchables are called outcaste Hindus as opposed to caste Hindus, members of the higher castes. However, this division of the Hindus on caste and outcaste has no foundation. It is more correctly to speak of the Indians of higher and lower castes, for among the untouchables caste division and caste practices are observed as strictly as among the upper castes. Therefore the entry of any caste into untouchables is always heading to some arbitrary extent.

The proposition is also untrue that there are castes only among Hindus and Indian Muslims, Sikhs and Indian Christians do not have any caste division. The vast majority of Muslims in India – are Hindus converted to Islam. By adopting a new religion they have not fundamentally changed, however, their way of life, and a number of castes in Northern India are wholly or partially Muslim. Thus, according to the 1901 census, there were 133 castes that wholly or partially adopted Islam in India. And there are also untouchables among these Muslim castes. In North India there are many Muslims among the castes of Chamar, Chur, Dhobi, etc. There are many Muslims among the Rajputs and Muslims constitute almost a majority among the Jats. There are also special Muslim castes: Miras, Kassab (butchers), etc. Many Muslim class or tribal groups in India have also become castes, for example, Biloch (Baloch), Iraqi,

Pathans (Afghans).

The Sikhs and South Indian (Malabar) Christians are even more likely to be retained with the castes.

Some castes, especially the artisans still have got their caste councils – panchayats so far. The panchayat does not cover the whole caste, but only the group of members of the caste living in a particular village or district, called biradari – brotherhood, ilaka – district, ghoule – a circle, etc. Usually all adult members of the fraternity participate in the panchayat activities. Sometimes it consists of a narrower circle of people. Sometimes there is a kind of a presidium in the head of a panchayat, and all the work is done by an official, usually referred to as sarpanch (the head of the fives), Badshah (king), pardhan (chairman), etc. This official has a permanent deputy. Both of these individuals are selected either for life, or their position is inherited.

Such organisations are usually constant in professional castes and trading castes. The panchayats are the organisations that have functions of both mutual aid and the judiciary on issues related to the violation of caste customs. They can exclude from the caste, and impose various penalties and fines.

In addition to these panchayats there are caste unions of a wider scope the objective of which is not primarily the resolution of the inside caste issues, but the struggle for the rights and privileges of the members of this caste in the society and cultural work within the caste, raising the material standard of its members. Such unions “Sabhas” exist both within the higher and lower castes. For example: Gaur Brahmin Mahasabha (grand alliance of Brahmins, of the Gaur caste) Kshatriya Mahasabha (grand alliance of Kshatriyas) Vaishya Mahasabha (grand alliance of Vaishyas); Jat Sabha enjoys a great influence among the Jats of Rajputana, and various unions of kayasthas (Kayasthas Sabha) in Bengal.

The destruction of handicrafts in India and the development of a large-scale capitalist industry struck a serious blow to the caste system and primarily destroyed its basis – the traditional profession. In the village most of the members of the artisan castes had to move to farming and currently constitutes the lowest stratum of the tenants and the majority of the farm laborers. Thus, according to the 1931 Census, only 4.8% of the members of the Chamar caste were engaged in the traditional profession. However, the change of the profession did not alter the social position of these castes. Their members are still treated as untouchables and the lowest.

The old caste traditions are still alive. In many villages and towns of Southern India members of the lower castes are prohibited even to walk on certain roads and streets, to share common wells, etc. They live in specific neighbourhoods or parts of the village.

In the city in large enterprises caste practices are less strictly enforced and, besides, people come from different places and work side by side, often without even knowing the origin of their partner or associate.

However, remnants of the caste system are still very strong in India and the position of the untouchables remains very hard and humiliating. The overwhelming majority of employees in the state apparatus are recruited from the higher castes, they also occupy the vast majority of seats in the elected bodies. This position, of course, stems out from the lack of democracy in India. The position of a small group of intellectuals from among the untouchables is not much different from that of the Negro intellectuals in America. Over 200 years of the British rule the social position of the untouchables has not changed for the better, and their economic situation has deteriorated sharply due to the devastation of rural crafts and their displacement by the large-scale industry.

The British rulers of India considered caste system beneficial to themselves. Abbot Dubois – a missionary of the XVIII century and Sydney Lowe an English lawyer of the XX century – both considered caste a very useful institution for England. Caste predetermines profession for each person, under the caste system the lower does not seek to overthrow the higher and each is “satisfied with his lot.” British ruling circles believed that the caste system provided stagnation of a society, and it was beneficial to them. So in their legislation they kept the prohibition for the untouchables to visit Hindu temples, took into account caste affiliation when recruiting the government apparatus, not allowing the untouchables to senior positions, etc.

Only during the period of preparation of the reform in 1935 the British ruling circles suddenly turned their attention “to the untouchables”.

At the Round Table Conferences of 1930-1932 the representatives of the untouchables led by Dr. Ambedkar participated as delegates. “The Community Law” published in 1932 provided a special curia -for the “depressed classes” (untouchables), and total of 78 seats were reserved for them in the provincial legislatures.

However, the British authorities have managed to win over only a small group of intellectuals of the untouchables, led by Dr. Ambedkar.

Bhimarao Ramji Ambedkar was born in 1893. He comes from the Mahar caste. Ambedkar studied law as a holder of the fellowship of the Gaekwar (prince) of Baroda in America, Germany and England. Severe moral position of Indian intellectuals from the untouchables pushed Ambedkar on the way of organizing the untouchables to fight against the caste system and the upper-caste Hindus. He started playing as a defender of the untouchables, appealing to public opinion not so much in India, as in England and America. At the same time he began to organize the untouchables into unions and created in Bombay Province his own party called the Independent Labour Party, and later the All-India Depressed Classes Conference, better known under the name of Ambedkar’s party. The British circles tried to exploit the movement led by Ambedkar. In 1936 before the elections to the provincial legislative assemblies Ambedkar led a campaign for the adoption of a new religion among the untouchables. But the campaign was not successful. Meanwhile, the government’s decision to allocate lower castes into a special election curia caused a great disturbance in the Congress circles. Gandhi, who was at the time in prison went on a hunger strike. The requirement for the allocation of the untouchables in a special curia did not meet enough support among the untouchables. As a result of the protest campaign raised by the Congress under the leadership of Gandhi, in 1934 in Pune an agreement was reached between Gandhi and the leaders of the untouchables according to which the untouchables were not distinguished as a particular curia, but 148 seats were reserved for them in the provincial legislatures. Deputies from the untouchables had to be nominated in the following way: first candidates are nominated from among the untouchable voters and then they are voted by a general curia, where voters of all castes participate in the vote. The candidate who receives the most votes is elected. Ambedkar signed the pact.

The election of 1937 showed that the National Congress had much more influence among the untouchables than Ambedkar’s party. For 148 seats provided for the untouchables only 13 members of Ambedkar’s party in Bombay Province, and 53 so-called independents in Bengal were elected. In other provinces almost all the deputies of the lower castes were either the members of the National Congress, or its sympathizers.

This failure of the British government to tear the untouchables from the all-Indian national liberation movement, however, did not discourage either Ambedkar or the British government.

Attempts to win over the untouchables continued. In all the speeches and declarations the British Government had consistently tried to oppose the untouchables to the “caste Hindus” and especially to the National Congress.

In 1942 in order to win over the untouchables the British government included Ambedkar in the structure of the Executive Council under the Viceroy giving him the post of councillor (Minister) for labour.

However, the government’s attempts were in vain. In the elections of 1945 the majority of the elected untouchables belonged to the National Congress. Ambedkar, however, was elected from Bombay province, but in other provinces his supporters could not provide a serious impact on the outcome of the elections. The British ruling circles were forced to admit the failure of their bet on Ambedkar’s group and in 1946 nominated Congress member Jagjivan Ram as a representative of the untouchables to the provisional government led by Nehru.

What was the reason for the failure of this attempt of the British ruling circles? First of all it lies in the fact that the social position of the untouchables did not allow the British ruling circles to get them on their side by making some small political concessions.

The number of the untouchables is large enough to consider the problem of untouchability one of the most important issues of public life in India. Democratization of its political system cannot be complete without the elimination of untouchability. It is important that the British ruling circles set their task not to eliminate the untouchability by raising the economic well-being of the untouchables, giving them political rights and raising their cultural level, but sought to turn the untouchables in a cohesive political group to oppose the All-Indian national liberation movement.

The political programme of Dr. Ambedkar’s party was formulated in the resolutions adopted by the All India Conference of the Depressed Classes, which took place in Nagpur in July 1942.

The political demands of the conference are summarized to the following points:

  1.  The recognition that the untouchables are a separate group from the Hindus and constitute an important element of the national life of India.
  2.  The new Constitution should be provided with the following guarantees of the rights of the untouchables:
  3.  Allocation of a special fund for the development of primary, secondary and higher education the untouchables in the budget;
  4.  representation of the untouchables in the executive branch both in the centre and locally in proportion to their numbers;
  5.  Representation of the untouchables according to their size in the whole state apparatus, especially in the police, judicial and tax bodies;
  6.  Guaranteed representation of the untouchables in the legislature in proportion to their numbers;
  7.  Creation of a special electoral constituencies for the untouchables;
  8. Representation of the untouchables in all public services, committees, etc., both in the centre and in the localities.4

Three points are characteristic of these requirements of Ambedkar’s party:

  1.  The requirement for the creation of special electoral constituencies for the untouchables.
  2.  The emphasis on the reserved representation of the untouchables in all power bodies.
  3.  Lack of demand for the expansion of voting rights for the untouchables.

Economic requirements of this conference were summarized, in fact, to one requirement – the creation of special settlements of the untouchables on public lands and on lands purchased by the owners at the expense of the state. In the creation of these settlements Ambedkar saw a panacea for all economic ills.5 The resolution did not mention debt elimination of the untouchables, the minimum wage and protection of the interests of labourers.

As we have mentioned above, the programme turned out to be unattractive to the masses of the untouchables. Dr. Ambedkar’s claim to represent all the untouchables of India was even less justified than Jinnah’s claim to represent all the Muslims.

The vast majority of the untouchables are agricultural workers, labourers living on occasional earnings or they are in a position of semi-slaves of the upper layer of the village.

Munisvami Pillay, former Minister of the Congress Government of Madras, a representative of the untouchables, characterized their situation in the south of India in the following way: “The majority of “scheduled castes “- are landless labourers. Their situation is no better than that of slaves. In this regard I would like to point to the committee6 practices that exist in the province.

Agricultural workers pledge their labour in to landowners on a system known in Tamil as “Muri Chitu” and in the districts of Andhra – “Casi Gallu.” In Tamilnadu districts this system is also called “Pannial pathiram” or “Admai Sasanam”. The worst side of the system is that the employee enslaves not only himself, but also his children. I believe that this practice should be destroyed”.7

In addition, almost all over India members of the lower castes are forced to perform a variety of duties of employment, and in the principalities – serfdom. In the United Provinces, Punjab and in other places this forced labour is called “begar”. Sukhlal – the President of the Punjab Association of the depressed classes, Mohan Lal – the general secretary of the association – complained to Sapru Committee of ill-treatment of the harijans in Karnal and other districts of Punjab, dominated by landlordism. The untouchable girls were sent to perform begar. The untouchables were not allowed to use common wells and prohibited the purchase of land.8

Until recently almost in all provinces of India children of the untouchables were not allowed in common schools and separate schools were built for them, the number of which was extremely insufficient, in addition, economic benefits were not provided, without which their children could not learn. It is clear that the untouchables are not primarily interested in the question of who will represent them in the legislature, but the question of land, of the protection of their economic rights as farm workers, of banning all kinds of forced labour and of the elimination of all forms of the covered up slavery, of raising their cultural level. The untouchables are not interested in the fact that their special position as the untouchables was fixed, but in the fact that this situation was completely eliminated, while the British government, on the contrary, sought to increase their isolation, and all its economic and cultural activities pursued this goal.

The British imperialism could not win over the untouchables because it was necessary to abandon the policy of support of landlordism, the support of Indian princes, and British imperialism could not afford it, as it could weaken its position. Untouchability is one of the most disgusting remnants of the Middle Ages in India, but it is impossible to be eliminated without eliminating other vestiges of feudalism.

The British ruling circles trying to portray themselves as defenders of the “depressed classes” did not think to provide voting rights for the majority of the untouchables. On the contrary, only a very small part of them, proportionally smaller than that of the upper caste Hindus, not to mention the Muslims, were granted the right to vote. In Madras Province the proportion of the harijans to the upper castes Hindus is 1: 4, and among voters in different districts – is 1:15 on average.

The problem of the untouchables – is mostly a class problem, the problem of the agricultural proletariat and semi-proletariat. It is not a “communal problem”, and the method that gave a big win in the Hindu- Muslim question to the British ruling circles did not bring and could not bring the desired results on the use of the untouchables.

The National Congress did not have a special programme on the untouchables. In a resolution adopted in Karachi in 1931, it is said:

  1. All citizens are equal under the law, regardless of religion, caste, creed or sex.
  2.  No restrictions are imposed on a citizen by reason of his or her religion, caste, creed, or sex with regard to public service, public or honorary position and performance of any profession or vocation.
  3.  All citizens have same rights and obligations in respect of wells, ponds, roads, schools and places of public recreation, supported by the state or by local funds, or dedicated by individuals to public use. “

The election manifesto of the Congress (1936) states: “The emphasis that the Congress makes on the elimination of untouchability and building social and economic level of the harijans and backward classes is well known. The Congress believes that they should be equal citizens with equal rights in all civil cases. “

Representing the Indian bourgeoisie, the National Congress did not essentially struggle for the advancement of the untouchables, as their oppressed position is profitable to Indian capitalists: the untouchables deliver the cheapest labour to them.

After the partition of India both the Constituent Assembly of the Indian Union and the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan included the articles in the constitution prohibiting the restriction of the rights of the untouchables and granting them the same rights as other citizens. However, this equation of the untouchables in rights under the law does not mean elimination of the untouchability in practice, and only People’s Democracy will release the untouchables from their oppressed status.

A.M. Dyakov, Natsional’niy voprosi Angliiskiy imperializm v Indii, State Publishing House for Political Literature, 1948, Pacific Ocean Institute, Academy of Sciences, pp. 280-293.

Translated from the Russian by Dr. Elena Lavrina


1 Blunt, The Caste System of Northern India, Madras, 1931, p. 161.

2 Karl Marks, Forms of Pre-Capitalist Production (in Russian), Gospolizdat, Moscow, 1940, p. 12.

3 Blunt, op. cit., p. 101-102

4 Ambedkar, Untouchables and the Indian Constitution, New York, 1943.

5 Ibid., pp. 3-4.

6 Sapru Committee report, p. 277.

7 Ibidem.

8 Ibid., p. 232

Click here to return to the September 2013 index.