Depressed Classses Of Bengal

"Look London, See Paris"

A K Biswas

The Simon Commission, when visited Indian subcontinent for consulting as also assessing public opinion for adoption of future constitutional measures in the light of experiences of implementation of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, was greeted by political class with violent protests whereas the Depressed Classes presented their demands for proportionate share in the administration of the country. Their grievances were more pointedly directed against their own countrymen who were their bitterest enemies of their progress and upward mobility in life than the colonial authorities!

The Depressed Classes, euphemism for untouchables, opposed the efforts of a tiny political class who aggressively bargained to grab the entire political machinery by hoodwinking the countrymen feigning to be "the self-assumed heaven born leaders", a sarcastic reference to the bhadralok in their memorandum. Their blatant lie was opposed vociferously through numbers of memoranda submitted by Depressed Classes of India from various parts of the subcontinent.

In 1928 the All-Bengal Depressed Classes, submitted two memoranda—one by All-Bengal Namasudra Association and the other by All-Bengal Depressed Classes Association—to the Indian Statutory Commission with John Simon in chair. Realising that their hopes and aspirations along with their grievances being common and identical, the memorialists of both, therefore, resolved to agitate jointly before the Commission in support of their case. That was a big day in political history of Bengal that 58% of Bengali Hindus stood unitedly on the same platform to secure their causes.

All-Bengal Namasudra Association pleaded for representation of the depressed classes in judiciary on ground of public confidence in administration of justice. They submitted that "The courts and judiciary should be so constituted by legislation that there may be representatives of different communities on these in order that the people may have confidence in the administration of justice."

Demand for inclusive judiciary, therefore, is almost a century old, if not longer.

The afore-quoted submission of the Namasudra Association, representing over two million people of the province, left no room for doubt that administration of justice in Bengal suffered from serious deficiency of public confidence. Coming as it does from the Depressed Classes who formed 58% of the Bengali Hindus, they were undoubtedly victims of injustice.
This underlines that a vast section of Bengali population, over a long period of time, had entertained this perception regarding judicial dispensation in Bengal. The Bengal Depressed Classes Association stated in their memorandum also:

"The Depressed Classes form more than 58% per cent of the Hindu population of Bengal. According to last census their number is 11.5 million. The Namasudras are the most prominent class amongst them, numbering 2,007,259 in 1921. They have made vigorous, steady and successful fight for their self-elevation. Annual Conferences are held to right their wrongs and advance their rights. They are the second largest Hindu caste in Bengal, the Chasi Kaibartta (Mahishya) alone being more numerous."

To appreciate and understand demography of the bhadralok, it is better to state that it is a rigid club comprising Brahman who in 1921 were 13,09,539 souls; Baidya, 1,02,931 and Kayastha 12,97,736 aggregating at 27,10,206, i.e., 13% of Hindus, whereas 5.8% of the total population of Bengal. The census returned 4,66,95,536 souls in 1921. One will see, just a little later, that this minuscule segment had monopolised the whole administrative machinery in every branch of the Government of Bengal to the near total exclusion of others, i.e., the native population who were 94%. This created a serious unhealthy and unfortunate situation.

To remedy this deplorable situation in the administration of justice, the memorialists argued and demanded that "Appointments should be made from amongst the qualified candidates of the different communities in proportion to their numerical strength." The importance of the emphasis in the memorandum of the untouchable people on proportion to their numerical strength of different communities is of paramount significance.

Furthermore, the Namasudra Association incorporated in their demands something which was far ahead of time. No thought hitherto perhaps went into the political process for representation in judiciary in proportion to the people from all sections of the society. They urged the Statutory Commission that "At the first instance, candidates of the Depressed Classes and others, including Muhammadans, should only be appointed until and unless an equalization of these classes is secured to those who have already filled these services".

There is hardly any room to disbelieve that all those native people who with 6.8% souls held sway in the judiciary of Bengal had created so much bad blood which is why equalisation of these classes of the depressed classes and others including Muslims in judicial appointments was unavoidable to avoid the situation worsening further.

Their submission highlighting aspirations of the deprived classes was revolutionary, if not altogether unique, in a land so intensely and deeply vitiated by communal virus and unmitigated hatred. The memorialists, who were not professional political class, exhibited exceptional catholicity of thought, foresight and outlook by underlining inclusion all along with the Muslims in judiciary. Public, in general, was not only suspicious, but also lost confidence 'in the administration of justice.' This is a serious challenge as well as embarrassment for the Government to overcome and remedy. A sad and inexplicable, nay a catastrophic, situation had grown in Bengal. If a dog wags its tail, it is understandable, but if the tail wags the dog, the situation is simply ominous! Bengal presented an ominous case with disastrous consequences.

Total absence of Bengalis who were not bhadralok in any service arose out of a peculiar situation obtaining there. This warrants cursory probing into sordid history of education in the nineteenth century which is euphorically claimed as the renaissance, an era credited with great efflorescence and achievements in every branch of human life in Bengal! High-pitched claims notwithstanding, the masses irrespective of caste, creed or religion, remained beyond the frame of light and accomplishment. While analysing census returns of appointments in 1901, the authorities were struck by a noticeable feature that a very small share of high appointments which fell "to the Muhammadans and the practical monopoly of all such appointments held by Hindus by the members of the Brahman, Baidya and Kayasth castes." They also observed that "the Hindus are less than twice as numerous as the followers of the Prophet, but they hold nearly nine times the number of high appointments, viz., 1,235 compared with only 141. Again, of the total Hindu population, less than 1 in every 11 is a Brahman, Baidya or Kayasth, but these three castes between them hold 1,104 of the 1,235 appointments filled by Hindus. Their advantage is still more marked, if we consider only the highest appointments. The three High Court judgeships and the 22 posts in the Covenanted and Statutory Civil Service, which are held by Hindus, are all filled by members of these three castes." As regards their relative success, it was also observed, amongst themselves the Baidyas had by far the largest share of these appointments and the Brahmans the smallest. The Baidyas were outnumbered by the Brahmans and Kayasths in the ratios of 34 to 1 and 18 to 1, respectively; yet they could boast of 7 Covenanted and Statutory Civilians compared with only 2 who were Brahmans, and 13 who were Kayasths. "Of the Deputy and Sub-Deputy Magistrates, 70 are Baidyas, 128 Brahmans, and 144 Kayasths. The proportion of Baidyas is not so high amongst the Sub-judges and Munsifs, but even here, with 40 appointments, compared with 186 filled by Brahmans and 160 by Kayasths, they have far more than their fair numerical share".

The same authorities also noted that numerous castes went "entirely unrepresented in the higher grades of the Civil Service of the State, amongst whom, it will suffice to mention the Rajbansis and Namasudras with an aggregate strength of nearly 4 million, and the Kurmis and Bagdis, each numbering over a million".

Analysis as this by the colonial bureaucracy is viewed and condemned by intellectual and political classes as an effort to "divide and rule" without appreciating the inherent meaning thereof. The areas of deficiencies pinpointed in demographic studies help government to direct attention for redress and rectification by special attention, something people are averse to acknowledge. Post-independence censuses, noticeably, have almost done away with descriptive analysis that was previously followed. Indeed, Dr B R Ambedkar had observed most succinctly that the best social history of India was written in the census reports of British India. This cannot be challenged at all.

Absence of representation of the lower social orders and Muslims in Covenanted and Statutory Civil Service was due to an exclusive consequence of all-pervading illiteracy which vindicated what classical Greek philosopher Socrates had apprehended before Lord Christ: "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark, the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." Fear of darkness brought about what millions of Indians suffered at the hands of the upper caste Hindus in the main who surrendered the national interests at the altar of their gnawing selfishness and prejudice. They opposed education reaching far and wide among the masses and thereby their key for upward mobility was denied altogether.

Celebrated leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the prince of nationalism, though sad it may sound, blindly opposed education for masses. His naked hostility deserves specific focus to substantiate the claim:

"You take away a farmer's boy from the plough, the blacksmith's boy from the bellows and the cobbler's boy from his awl with the object of giving him education….and the boy learns to condemn the profession of his father, not to speak of the loss to which the latter is put by being deprived of the son's assistance at the old trade".

He was thereafter bluntly specific about the nature of education for them. "…the education befitting their rank and station in life should be provided to the peasant's children, while general education should be given to those who had a "natural inclination for it". Social cleavage and division were skilfully crafted thus by gifted men. That the editor of Kesari and Mahratta was irreconcilable to the idea of Kunbi children attaining light of education at all becomes glaringly clear when we hear him say that "the indiscriminate spread of education…was unsuited, useless and positively injurious to Kunbi children". Gandhiji opposed and ridiculed compulsory education for the peasantry in his Hind Swaraj (1909) or Indian Home Rule (1910). Bal Gangadhar Tilak was adamant to keep under thick blanket of ignorance over 98,10367 Indians who were Kunbi in various parts of India like, North West Provinces, Punjab, Hyderabad besides Bombay Presidency and Central Provinces and Berar. Add to the Kunbis, a vast illiterate population of Chamars numbering 1,16,55,117 spread over large parts to get some idea of the multitude without education.

Tilak was also uncompromising antagonist of social reforms and reformers. He was firm in favour of perpetuation of all vices in the Indian society which benefited a particular section infinitely and indefinitely.

Education for the untouchables and women, attacks against superstition and orthodoxy etc. invited his strongest ire. Activities of social reformers, who were his eyesore, came under his scathing attack. According to him, "Their work is that of destruction, their first and foremost attempt was to dispel through the land any reverence that might be felt for the Brahmins: their next sally was against the time-honoured institutions, customs and manners of the Brahmins and the Hindus generally. The late R B Deshmukh and the late Jotirao Fulley may be cited as instances of such reformers." Did extreme worries and anxieties for preservation and perpetuation of time-honoured institutions, customs and manners of the Brahmins and the Hindus generally make Tilak insensitive and blind even to realise and/or see the enormous benefits education was capable to bequeath to the society at large and progress and prosperity to entail? This was his failure to overcome his inherent inability and rise above the limitation. So, he advocated darkness for vast multitude of Indian at the lower rung of society than be an accessory of emancipation of millions.

This was/is the precise reason why a minuscule minority would be against social reforms and were advocates of continuance of anything old and ancient for eternity till it yield them benefits. And the benefit comes in tons for them.

Now one can understand the reason of Tilak's abhorrence against lower orders getting education at all. Gandhiji recommended in Hind Swaraj ancient system of education which Pathshala, Chatuspathi, Gurukul etc. imparted in the era he referred or preferred. He was indeed great that he did not shut the doors of education on Kunbi, Chamars, or untouchables.

Macaulay advocated Western education through the medium of English. Nowadays people often hear grisly accusation hurled against him as an imperialist. The English educated elites are pejoratively referred by the accusers as Macaulay-putra or Son of Macaulay. Why so? One finds an answer for the insinuation against them. According to Tilak, "English encouraged the people to defy the caste restrictions and the spread of English education among the natives will bring down their caste system". The potential danger from natives receiving "English education" lies in the destruction of caste system in India. And hence those who talk of undoing caste are enemies of those who like, love and favour caste. To appease them, English cannot be the medium of education of India.

Lord Macaulay, while drafting the famous Education Policy for India in 1834-35, had aimed at the first instance at the upper social order for instruction. According to him, "We aim at raising up an educated class who will hereafter…be the means of diffusing among their countrymen some portion of the knowledge we have imparted to them". Needless to stress, he grievously erred in deciphering the croocked and hostile character of the social aristocrats and supremacists towards the Indian layman. He wanted to replicate in India what Britain successfully experimented with filtration theory of education there. Homogeneous social structure was solely responsible for success of filtration theory of education in his country. Macaulay's misjudgement in framing his policy was destined to suffer a serious setback due to discriminatory heterodox social structure of India. "We mean these youths", he wrote, "to be conductors of knowledge to the people". His foot soldiers were the enemies of his policy to carry beyond themselves. The conductors of education and knowledge were plainly treacherous. They did not impart education they received to their less fortunate countrymen. The foot soldiers not only let Macaulay down but portrayed him in dark colours. This becomes clear if one hears what someone of the stature of Governor-General said long after Macaulay had sadly discovered.

Lord Richard Southwell Bourke, 6th Earl of Mayo (21 February 1822—8 February 1872) while, as the Governor-General of India, giving a new and dynamic direction to the education policy had observed, "I dislike this filtration theory, in Bengal we are educating in English a few hundred Babus at great expense to the State. Many of them are well able to pay for themselves, and have no other object in learning than to qualify for Government employ. In the meanwhile, we have done nothing towards extending knowledge to the million. The Babus will never do it. The more education you give them, the more they will keep to themselves, and make their increased knowledge a means of tyranny. If you wait till the bad English, which the 400 Babus learn in Calcutta, filters down into the 40,000,000 of Bengal, you will be ultimately a Silurian rock instead of a retired judge. Let the Babus learn English by all means. But let us also try to do something towards teaching the three R's to 'Rural Bengal".

The whole of educated bhadralok fraternity of Bengal not excluding Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, strongly disapproved the idea of educating 'rural Bengal' at all. This was the central feature of character and culture of the Babus of Bengal during the overrated and overhyped renaissance of nineteenth century. They turned English education into "a means of tyranny," capable of mass ruin by denial. Let us not talk in nebulous terms. The chronicler of British Empire in India, Sir William Hunter recorded thus to drive the point home, soon after Lord Mayo: "The upper classes are opposed to the lower orders being taught at all. The Brahmans and Kayasthas deem education to be strictly their inheritance". They raised invincible as also insurmountable wall against the untouchables to ensure perpetual illiteracy.

What a great role the great protagonists of nineteenth century Bengal assigned to education in the end! A knife saves life in the hands of a surgeon; a butcher kills his victim with the same weapon. Their early accomplishment in western education had invested with them insurmountable arrogance and blind superciliousness towards others in the neighbourhood, less poor and ignorant masses. They derided them as chotalok [as against bhadralok], bajelok [useless], even borbor [savage], etc. Naturally their monopoly in bureaucracy drove them by an evil spirit to control, regulate and dictate everything and everyone for their own benefit and wellbeing and to their own advantage. This ultimately ended in disaster which engulfed them and their poor and innocent victims of aggression! Long shadow of their greed to dominate ultimately brought partition of Bengal and a Homeland for Bengali Muslims. That is a different (hi)story.

Vol. 51, No.32, Feb 10 - 16, 2019