Backward Caste/class movements emerged among depressed castes and deprived sections of society in different parts of India with the spread of the national movement.
The difference between the religious and the caste movement is that while the former attacked evils of Hinduism, the latter exhorted its followers to seek solutions to their problems within the framework of Hinduism, i.e., without rejecting their religion.
Social movements in India
The backward caste/class movements can be described as:
- Protests against discrimination of various kinds,
- To gain self-respect, honour and status,
- Status mobility movements,
- Caste unity movements and
- Caste welfare movements.
The status mobility movements can be further sub-classified as adaptive movements, movements oriented to cultural revolts, and counter-cultural movements. The backward castes suffered from relative deprivation in the fields of religion, education, economics and politics. They accepted their lot till certain external influences provided favourable conditions to create an awakening among them.
One such exposition was organising of programme by Christian Missionaries for the SCs who were then referred to as the ‘depressed classes’. Other condition was the national movement which provided an ideology of egalitarianism and supported social movements which revolted against discrimination of any kind.
Third condition was that of reform movements organised by the upper castes which initiated programmes of education and welfare for the backward or the depressed classes. These movements were against many orthodox Brahminical practices. Finally, the egalitarian system of law introduced by the British also provided an opportunity to the backward castes to protest against discrimination. The backward caste movements for higher status were based on three ideologies.
First, many castes clairtied a higher varna status, e.g., the Ahirs in North India, the Gopas in West Bengal, the Gaulis in Maharashtra, the Gollas in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and the Konars in Tamil Nadu claimed descent from the Yadu (Kshatriya) dynasty.
This also included adopting the lifestyle of higher castes in their regions, what M.N. Srinivas has described the process of sanskritisation. Imtiaz Ahmad (1971) has said that this process of mobility should be viewed as an initiative process or as protest- oriented movement or as counter-mobilisation. The upper class invariably opposed such attempts. Besides, the desire to claim high status prompted many backward castes to form associations so that by acting as pressure groups, they could collectively impress upon the census officers to describe them as castes with higher ritual status.
This mechanism of mobilising caste collectivities became significant by 1931. Other method was reinterpreting Hindu religion in search of self-determination, e.g., Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Movement among the Ezhavas (toddy tappers) of Kerala. Ezhavas of Kerala took an overt anti-Brahmin slant and resorted to mass mobilization and protest to acquire their rights. Second variety of protest ideology was the rejection of Brahminical Aryan religion and culture, e.g., Dravida Kazhagam Movement in Tamil Nadu.
Third ideology was abandoning Hinduism and embracing another religion, e.g., Mahars in Maharashtra. Nadars of Tamil Nadu used political process of influence to achieve high status, while Malis of Maharashtra used cultural revolt process.
According to Oommen, what is important to note is that:
- Ritually castes were not at the rock bottom,
- Economically they were well off by local standards,
- Their numerical strength was substantial, and
- They had the support of rulers in their regions, like Maharaja of Kolhapur in Maharashtra.
Occupational diversifications, exposure to education, urbanisation, outstanding and charismatic leadership were other factors which helped them in their mobility movements. Of course, many castes did not succeed in achieving higher status within the Hindu fold which prompted them to embrace Buddhism.
The counter-cultural movements referred to (a) developing a counterculture against caste Hindus, particularly Brahminical supremacy, but remaining within the Hindu fold. This process was adopted by Dravidian movement of Tamil Nadu, and (b) building a new parallel culture of their own rather than getting themselves absorbed in the ‘mainstream’ culture, or merely protesting against it. The Dalit Panther movement of Maharashtra exemplified this trend.
The Dravidian movement in the South developed in two phases: anti-Brahmin (caste) phase and anti-north (region) phase. In the first phase, the Dravidians identified Brahmins as aliens (Aryans) and intruders into Dravidnad.
They also ridiculed the Brahmin-created puranas and vamashram dharma as irrational. They created a counter-culture which was Dravidian in nature, by denouncing Brahminical practices of idol worship, child marriage and enforced widowhood. Gradually, this (Dravidian) movement shifted its goal from anti-Brahminism to North Indian domination with the goal of establishing a sovereign Dravidian State.
While the Dravidian movement was confined to Tamil Nadu, Dalit Panthers movement spread from urban Maharashtra to other states. Its main emphasis was on intellectual awakening and creating consciousness among the oppressed. The movement of Mahars in Maharashtra is also worth mentioning here. First, they used counter-cultural strategy of abandoning Hinduism altogether, but, later on, they adopted new political strategy for their uplift.
Though the movements of backward castes succeeded in achieving their goals only partially, yet they provided a model to higher castes of forming associations for their mobilisational activities. But the associations of forward castes were mainly reform-oriented, opposing child marriage, encouraging widow remarriage, women’s education, occupational diversification, education, and breaking social barriers between numerous castes.
Government’s policy of protective discrimination for the backward castes prompted them to fight for their interests and welfare by organising themselves politically instead of issuing census appeals, sanskritisation, cultural revolts, or the building of counter-cultures.
This political strategy aimed at getting themselves enlisted as SCs and OBCs, getting the time-period of reservation extended and insisting on faithful implementation of government policies and programmes. After the implementation of Mandal Commission’s recommendations in August 1990 and the establishment of the Minority Commissions in various states, large number of castes are trying for recognition as OBCs and getting the reserved quota (15% for SCs and 27% for OBCs) seats filled up fully in all A, B, C, and D categories of government jobs.