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Chhatrapati Shahu’s Crusade against Untouchability
chhatrapati shahuji


B. D. Khane

 [Shahu was born in 1874 as Yeshwantrao ghatge, elder son to Appasaheb Ghatge. he was adopted by Anandibai, widow of Maharaja Shivaji IV of Kolhapur in 1884. In 1891 Shahu married Lakshmibai Khanvikar who gave birth to four children. Shahu took responsibility of the State in 1894 and died on May 6, 1922]

chhatrapati shahuji

The Depressed Classes of India in general and of Maharashtra in particular owe a deep debt of gratitude to the late Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj for the work he did for them. Not only did he fight fiercely on their behalf to free them from the yokes of slavery, ignorance and poverty to which they were subjected to for thousands of years by the higher Hindu castes, but he also laid the foundation on which their future leader Dr. Ambedkar could stand and carry on the unfinished task with undaunted courage. The pioneering reforms that he introduced and implemented for the upliftment of untouchables, fifty years before, have all now found a place in the constitution of free India. During his administration from 1894 to 1922, he introduced reforms for the welfare of his subjects, but one task, to which he especially devoted his energies was the removal of the social inequalities and disabilities imposed upon the untouchables who formed one-fifth of the country’s total population. Right from the beginning his realisation, appears to be, that there was a necessity of setting on the right track the whole social machine, which, for ages, had strayed along lines harmful to national growth. To do this, he had to embark on a strenuous campaign against the evils, the traditional hierarchy of castes.

According to Prof. A.B. Latthe:

 “Among the varied and beneficent activities of His Highness the place of honour must unquestionable, be given to his stupendous ameliorative work for the Depressed or “Untouchable” Classes in the Deccan and more particularly in his own territory, and that for two reasons. In the first place, it was one of the most effective and far-reaching of the social activities of his life. and secondly, the removal of the inhuman and disgraceful ban of untouchability, pronounced against millions of human beings by the Hindu community, is the acid test of patriotism which very few people in India are still prepared to stand. the work which his Highness accomplished in this respect was, and even now is, one which required the highest moral courage on the part of the reformer and His Highness proved to the hilt that he possessed that courage to a very high degree indeed.”

 The Condition of Untouchables

The untouchables in India stand in a position, which has nothing parallel or analogous to it in the history of mankind. Slavery is the worst form of injustice which humanity all the world over has known. but the implications, of untouchability to which we in India have condemned a large section of our own fellowmen, are in some respects worse than the worst form of slavery. Untouchables live or are made to live outside the village in an out of the way corner, which is the dirtiest and filthiest part of the village. They are not to come within the limits of the temple of the gods, which are common gods of all the Hindu Community. They are not to enjoy the benefits of the public rest-houses. They may die of thirst but they cannot touch the tank or pond of the village. Even for service of the lowest kind, they are not to enter the Hindu household. Their very touch is a sin to be avoided at all costs, to be expiated by washing your body and the clothes covering it. Their chief duty is with the dead beasts of the villages, to bear the carcasses of animals out of the village, feed themselves on the rotten flesh of dead animals and at the best, work in their primitive ways on the skins of those animals.

Dr. Ghurye relates the miserable conditions in which the low castes had to subsist in the following words:

 “Certain low castes are looked down upon as so unclean that they may not enter the courtyard of the great temples. These castes are compelled to live by themselves on the outskirts of villages. Theoretically the touch of a member of any caste lower than one’s own defiles a person of the higher caste, but in actual practice this rule is not strictly observed. In the Maratha country the shadow of an untouchable is sufficient, if it falls on a member of higher caste, to pollute him. In the Maratha country it is only the impure castes that are segregated and made to live on the outskirts of villages.’

 Under the Peshwas a greater distinction was made in the punishment on account of the caste of the criminal than of the nature of crime itself. Hard labour and death were punishments mostly visited on criminals of the lower castes. During the career of Sawai Madhavrao, the Peshwa Government had decreed that the Mahars being atishudras ‘beyond shudras’, could not have their marriage rites conducted by the regular Brahmin priests. they were asked to content themselves with the services of their castemen-priests, the Medhe-Mahars.

The British brought with them a culture with no castes and a literature full of thoughts on individual liberty. with the introduction of English education some educated Indians began to think in terms of introspection. Movements of a more militant nature against caste were not slow to arise. In 1873, Jotiba Phule of comparatively little education started an association of members called the Sartasgidgaj Samaj with the purpose of asserting the worth of man irrespective of caste. Dr. Ghurye evaluates the work initiated by Jotiba Phuley and Shahu Maharaja in following words:

 “Phuley’s was a revolt against caste in so far as caste denied ordinary human rights to all the members of Hindu Society, and not merely a non-Brahmin movement to cast off the domination of the Brahmins. The movement did not receive any support from the Brahmins in general. Only stray individuals like Ranade showed sympathy with it. Even among the non-Brahmins the progress of Phuley’s ideas was slow. It was Shahu Maharaja of Kolhapur who infused new life into the agitation so much so that Montague and Chelmsford, in their Indian Political Reforms had to grant the demands.”

 The untouchables in India remained under the thralldom of caste since the time immemorial. Jotiba Phuley probably was the first in India to carry on a forceful crusade against the practice of untouchability in modern time. Jotiba can, therefore, be rightly regarded as a pioneer of anti-untouchability movement in India in general and in Maharashtra in particular. The movement started by Mahatma Phuley was further carried on by Chhatrapati Shahu with full strength, vigour and earnestness. Hence Shahu earned the position of an apostle of the coming movement of the untouchables after him.

Census Report of 1901

The Census Report of Kolhapur of 1901 gives a very vivid and graphic description of the untouchables throwing much light on their miserable conditions. It appears from the report that the untouchables numbered 1,03,889 in the year 1901 in Kolhapur and in S.M.C. the Mahars, Mangs, Chambhars and Dhors were enumerated as untouchables in the report. The report says,

 “The first are very useful village servants. the carcasses of cattle are their special perquisites and in these days hides, bones and horns are valuable, their incomes have increased. The Mangs are also useful to the village community, they are professional rope- makers. all of these are supposed to be unclean and no Hindu will touch them. The penalty for an accidental or willful touch is a bath with all the clothes worn at the time of the contamination. In Ratnagiri and other Konkan Districts, the treatment, which these despised classes receive is very harsh and unreasonable. So unreasonable is the conduct of the high caste Hindus in respect of the low castes, that they will not even touch any of them however good he may be. The material prosperity of the low castes is of the lowest.

 Notification of 26th July, 1902.

When Shahu Chhatrapati took the administration in his hand in 1894, the majority of State officers were Brahmins. Other backward classes remained aloof from education and consequently from State services. Thus, from the beginning Shahu realised the necessity of setting on right track the whole social machine which for ages had strayed along lines harmful to national growth. To do this, he had to embark on a strenuous campaign against the evils of the traditional hierarchy of castes. he set about his work systematically. His first step, to this effect, was the reservation of 50 per cent of posts for backward classes. In the year 1902, His Highness was invited to England to attend the coronation of His Majesty King Edward VII. During this sojourn in England, he issued an order from England, to the effect, that 50 per cent posts of the State services should be reserved for the Backward class candidates. This was indeed a landmark in his careers as a social reformer. the original order dated 26th July, 1902 stated,

 “Endeavours have been made in recent years in the Kolhapur state to foster and encourage the education of all classes of the subjects, so far, but His Highness regrets to have to record that those endeavours have not in the case of the more backward classes met with the success that was hoped for. His Highness, has had the matter under very careful consideration, has come to the conclusion that this want of success is due to the fact that the rewards for the higher education are not sufficiently widely distributed. To remedy this to a certain extent and to establish within the State an incentive to the backward classes of His Highness’s subjects to study up to a higher standard his Highness has decided that it is desirable to reserve for those classes a larger share of employment in the State services than has hitherto been the case.”

 He immediately ordered:

 “From the date of this order 50 per cent vacancies that may occur shall be filled by recruits from among the backward classes. In all offices in which the proportion of officers of the backward classes at present is less than 50 per cent, the next appointment shall be given to a member of those classes. A Quarterly return of all appointments made after the issue of this order shall be submitted by all Heads of Departments. For the purpose of these orders the backward classes shall be understood to mean all castes other than Brahmins, Prabhu, Shenave, Parsees and other advanced classes.

 His formula appears to be that the reservation of post would encourage the backward classes for education and their education would fetch them the offices.

 Society for the Promotion of Education amongst the Untouchables

The problems of untouchables were very dear to the heart of maharaja. In the month of February 1908, he founded an education society with the object of spreading education among the untouchable classes of the Kolhapur State. Rao Bahadur Sabnis was the President and Shri G. K. Kadam and A.B. Olkar, B.A. were its Secretaries. they had, at that time secured an annual subscription of Rs. 300 and the Society expected a substantial help from His Highness Shahu Chhatrapati. Major Wodehouse then Political Agent, also took a deep interest in the Society and became a first class member of it.

The immediate object of the Society was to help some of the promising boys of those classes to complete their secondary and higher education in the local Rajaram High School and College. They founded a special class to coach up some boys in their vernacular studies. Students were attending the class. One of the secondary objects of the Society was to raise them to the higher level of social life. Special prizes were awarded to clean boys in the coaching class and four such scholarships had been awarded to pupils of the untouchable classes at Kolhapur.

Again, a course of lectures had been arranged by this Society to foster a desire for education among these classes and small but numerous prized were proposed to be awarded to deserving students belonging to these classes, studying in the primary schools in the State. The Administrative Report of 1907-08 states:

 “His Highness is a great believer in the policy of levelling up and his steady efforts, to lift up the educationally backward classes by giving them a helping hand, have so far been successful. The founding of the above institute has given an impetus to the education of the comparatively illiterate communities and the Maharaja has been further encouraging them by offering them suitable appointments in the State.”

Miss Violet Clarke and Shahu Chhatrapati

Maharaja had regard and respect for all those who, like him, supported the cause of the underdogs. Miss Clarke, the daughter of George Clarke, the Governor of Bombay, was such a one, who had sympathy for untouchables. She had rendered great service for the emancipation of the depressed classes in Bombay Presidency. Shahu’s mission was the same. Shahu had great regard for Miss Clarke. She was arranging a concert and collecting money for her mission. Maharaja came in active contact with her when she visited Kolhapur with her father in March 1908, to attend the marriage of Maharaja’s daughter. The correspondence between the Maharaja and Miss Clarke throws some light on her effort to aid the depressed classes. She wrote the following letter to Maharaja on 14th August, 1908.

 “I am getting up a concert in aid of the depressed classes (Hindu). I want to get some of the representative big names to put on the list of Patrons. My father and the Maharaja Gaikwar have consented to be patrons and I should be so pleased if you would let me add your name also? This may encourage some of the Indians to come to the concert.”

 As an ardent supporter of the cause Shahu reciprocated it in his following letter dated 12th September 1908:

“My dear Miss Clarke,

 I enclose herewith cheque, Rs. 200, on the Bombay Bank in aid of the concert for the depressed classes which you have kindly organised. I hope it may prove a perfect success as the cause deserves. I am sure the poor helpless people will keenly appreciate your kindness and ever remain grateful to you. the committee here also very much appreciates the movement.”

Unfortunately, for the depressed classes, Miss Clarke did not live long. She died in 1908 leaving her mission incomplete.

Miss Violet Clarke Depressed Boys’ Hostel (1908)

Shahu remembered her gratefully as the supporter of the cause for which he was agitating. A hostel for boys from depressed classes was opened in 1908 and it was named Miss Clarke Hostel with the permission of Sir George Clarke. Maharaja granted a well ventilated building, with a large compound useful as a playground near the Mahar Talav, with a monthly permanent grant of Rs.25 for scholarship etc, for boarding. There were six students residing in the hostel of whom only two were boarders in 1908-09. In response to the urge of the Society, all boys of the depressed classes learning in the Rajaram High School were exempted from paying their fees from 1908 onwards. The number of students residing in this Hostel in 1911-12 was 16, and Maharaja increased the annual grant by Rs. 25 in the year. The number of students in the Hostel, when Shahu died in 1922, was 22. The income and expenditure of this institution in 1921-22 came to Rs. 1,001 and Rs. 721 respectively. Formerly there were separate schools for the low caste pupils in the State. When Shahu assumed power in 1894, the number of these schools was five and the number of students was 168.

It is interesting to note how the number of these separate schools and the number of students studying therein went on gradually increasing year by year. In 1896-97, the number of special schools for low castes was six i.e. one more than that in the preceding year. The number of students rose from 163 to 196. During this year a Mahar School at Atla was opened. This way both the number of schools and the number of students went on increasing year by year. In 1907-08, the number of special schools for low castes went up to 16 and the number of students increased to 118 of whom 40 were girls. In the next two years the number of the schools and the students rose to 22 and 694 respectively. The Administrative Report of the year 1912-13, throws much light on the policy adopted by Maharaja to spread education among the low castes. The Report says.

 “His highness is very anxious to spread education among the lowest castes and to raise and elevate them. The success in this direction is still moderate and the reason is obvious to all who know the condition of these classes. The number of separate schools for antyaja children increased from 24 to 27 with 636 boys learning in them. The total number of boys studying in all these vernacular and other schools increased from 810 to 850.”

 The State Report of the year 1913-14 appropriately remarks:

 “It is worth nothing that the special concession given to these classes by His Highness and the strenuous efforts of the local ‘Society for the spread of education among the untouchables’ has helped greatly the progress of literacy among them. This wise and liberal policy of the Kolhapur Durbar is also acting as a powerful solvent on the prejudices of the advanced classes, who are now coming forward, though not in great numbers to extend their hand of sympathy to their most ill-used brethren.”

 The year 1919 was a landmark in the Shahu’s anti-untouchability movement. He, by his order, closed all the separate schools meant for the low castes and threw all public schools open for the untouchables. The order that he issued on 30th September, 1919 states:

 “From the ensuing Dasara of this year 1919, all the separate schools for untouchables in the Karveer State (excluding Jahagiri) should be closed forever and any boy from this community should be admitted in the Government School like other boys from higher community. As the practice of untouchability is not to be observed in schools, all boys from all castes and religions should s it and learn together.”

 In the year 1919 there were 16 schools maintained specially for the benefit of the student of the depressed classes and Shahu closed all these forever. He threw all general schools open to the untouchable students. This proved to be one of the most effective steps of Shahu in removing the civil disabilities hitherto imposed on the untouchables in the schools. He was keen on extending all facilities for education of the lower classes. By order of 1911 he exempted them completely from the school fees. He granted in 1919, 10 scholarships of Rs. 8 each per month for B.C. students who were admitted to the Talathi Class. To encourage untouchables to education he also deposited promissory notes of Rs. 10,000 in the State Treasury in memory of late Shri Shivaji Maharaja. And the interest on this amount would come to Rs. 500 and from this interest 8 scholarships of rupees five each per month were started for untouchable boys.

[An excerpt from the book ‘Chhatrapati Shahu’s Crusade Against Untouchability’ by B. D. Khane; published by Critial Quest]



Transcribed by Surekha Bedide.



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