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The Dalit liberation Movement in Colonial Period

The Dalit liberation Movement in Colonial Period

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Gail Omvedt & Bharat Patankar

[First published in February 1979. This is the first part of a pathbreaking article on the Dalit movement in the mainstream media. It was pathbreaking because mainstream discourse had until then consistently denied or tried to studiously ignore the existence of the Dalit movement and its vital role in Indian politics before independence and later- Round Table India]

This paper attempts to survey the history of dalit struggles in relation to the national movement and the communist movement, and to bring to the fore the important role the dalit movement has played in the democratic movement of the country and is going to play in the new democratic struggles in the future.

Communists have to think seriously about the theoretical basis for an immediate practical solution to the problem of caste oppression. This issue is emerging on a national scale today and is taking new forms, where the masses of caste Hindu poor peasants and even agricultural labourers are participating in attacks on dalits under the leadership of rich farmers.

The problem is one of posing a real programme for agrarian revolution; for, what the rich fanners are proposing today (and what constitutes an important basis of their appeal to poor and middle peasants) is their own solution to the agrarian problem and unemployment — a capitalist solution of giving land to the (landed) tiller and employing the rest as agricultural labourers and in small industries.

A concrete alternative has, therefore, to be put forward — a programme which does more than simply ameliorate the condition of dalits as proletarianised agricultural labourers or give them ‘waste’ surplus land which keeps in view the specific nature of caste relations in the rural area and the need for building a revolutionary unity between dalits and caste Hindu toilers, between agricultural labourers and poor and middle peasants.


THIS article attempts to survey the history of dalit struggles in relation to the national movement and the communist movement, and to bring to the fore the important role the dalit movement has played in the democratic movement of the country and is going to play in the new democratic struggles in the future. Communists have therefore to think seriously about the theoretical basis lor an immediate practical solution to the problem of caste oppression. This issue is emerging on a national scale today and is taking new forms, in part heralded by Kanjhawala and Marathwada, where the masses of caste Hindu poor peasants and even agricultural labourers are participating in attacks on dalits under the leadership of kulaks. The problem is one of posing a real programme for agrarian revolution; for, what the kulaks are proposing today (and what constitutes an important basis of their appeal to poor and middle peasants) is their own solution to the agrarian problem and unemployment— a capitalist solution of giving land to the (landed) tiller and employing the rest as agricultural labourers and in small industries. A concrete alternative has therefore to be put forward — a programme which does more than simply ameliorate the condition of dalits as proletarianised agricultural labourers or give them ‘waste’ surplus land and which keeps in view the specific nature of caste relations in the rural area and the need for building a revolutionary unity between dalits and caste Hindu toilers, between agricultural labourers and poor and middle peasants.

We examine here the dalit movement before Independence, keeping those questions in mind. We attempt to analyse developments in India as a whole, but there is a bias towards Maharashtra partly because of our limitations and partly because the dalit movement under Ambedkar has been the most thoroughly documented.[1]

Dalits in Indian Caste Feudalism

A central feature of the relations of production in the Indian feudal system was that they did not simply bind peasants and other producers to land controlled by feudal lords and to the service of feudal lords. Rather, they bound all toilers to specifically defined occupations and duties according to the kinship group of their birth.

Thus, while in feudal societies in general peasants and artisans were such from birth and were considered by blood and birth to be capable only of performing manual work, in Indian feudalism a person born in (for example) a sutar family was held to the performance of specifically sutar work and was bound to marry only into another sutar family.

As a result, two hierarchies developed in the traditional feudal system. One was a hierarchy of groups defined in terms of their position in relation to the land — ranging from landlords to nominally independent peasants to tenant cultivators in varying stages of semi-serfdom to field servants in varying positions of semi-slavery. The other was a hierarchy of artisans and service workers — ranging from certain priests etc at the top and down the scale through goldsmiths, barbers, etc, down to weavers, washer men, leather workers and others at the bottom, and related to the controllers of the land through the jajmani or balutadari systems which defined their duties.

Overlaying this, was the ideology of caste based on notions of purity and pollution, hereditary transmission of qualities, and ultimately sanctioned by religious notions of service to and exchange with the gods. In terms of this ideology, the bottom level of artisan and service workers were seen as untouchable due to the polluting nature of their particular work, such as handling leather, removing dead cattle from village grounds, roles in death and funeral ceremonies, etc.

Thus the kinship groups which performed these tasks were defined as untouchable or impure castes and were generally forced to live in hutment settlements that were close to but officially outside the ‘village’ proper as seen by its other inhabitants. While all castes, except Brahmins, were polluting to those above them, the untouchable castes, in performing the essential tasks of removing the most polluting elements of the entire society, represented a kind of absolute impurity or pollution that was the polar opposite of the Brahmin’s absolute purity.

This however, is not sufficient to define the structural position of dalits (let alone explain it); and the problem with so many usual analyses of caste is that in limiting their approach to the issues of service work and caste ideology they not only fall into an essential idealism but fail to see the specific position of the various dalit castes. To do this we have to further examine the relations of production on the land.

Generally speaking, traditional Indian villages varied between two basic types. [3] In the peasant cultivator or ryotwari village, usually found in less fertile and hillier areas, the majority of the population were toiling peasants, usually of one caste, who handed over a share of the produce to representatives of the feudal State — deshmukhs, desais, desh-pandes, jagirdars, taluqdars, etc.

The State ‘administration’ was represented within these villages by officials, such as the headman (usually from the main peasant caste) and the accountant (a Brahmin) who had specific rights along with the right to hold rent-free land (watans or inams). This often allowed the officials to share in the feudal exploitation of the village. In addition, growing economic prospects in ryotwari areas made it possible for landlord estate to penetrate the villages further, as big families bought up watan rights as well as land. [4]

In the more fertile plains and river valley areas, landlord or zamindari villages were generally found. Such villages were controlled by a class of locally-based non-cultivating landlords, often derived from original conquerors of an area or from an earlier family group who had been given the village as a grant. These could be Brahmin or Rajput or high-caste non-Brahmins and they subordinated the existing peasants as tenant cultivators. Such a class of local lords generally acted as a ‘brotherhood’, controlling the village and the labour of tenants and agricultural workers collectively, and the village officials of the ryotwari village did not have much importance. [5]

However, in both cases, besides the peasant cultivators, tenants, landlords, and feudal lords, a class of untouchable field servants also developed from one of the untouchable service castes. This caste may have had its traditional artisan duty, such as shoe-making or weaving or carrying away dead cattle. These varied, but at the same time its balute or jajmani responsibilities almost always included performing general menial labour for the village headman and higher State officials (that is, they were the main group bound to feudal labour, or veth-begar as it was known in India).

Along with this, they performed field labour for the peasant cultivators and landlords and were often bound in a semi-slave status to particular families of cultivators or to the landlord brotherhood as a whole. The field servants were always drawn from one particular untouchable caste which was then the largest one in a particular region; such castes included the Mahars in Maharashtra, Malas and Madigas in Andhra, Holeyas in Karnataka, Pallars and Paraiyans in Tamil Nadu, Chamars in western north India, and so forth.

Thus, while Chambhars in Maharashtra and elsewhere in south India were only leather-workers, Chamars in north India were also and more importantly field servants — their structural position was similar to that of Mahars in Maharashtra, not to the Maharashtrian Chambhars.

These field servant castes were not considered by the general feudal ideology to have any rights at all to the land. Yet their own traditions often described them as ancient ‘sons of the soil’ subjugated by invaders, and very frequently their caste duties included a power of decision-making on boundary disputes that implied some sort of primordial connection with the land.

It was the castes of untouchable field servants who were and continue to be the most rebellious of all the untouchable castes. They have provided the basis for most of the militant dalit movements discussed here. In almost all village studies of the contemporary period, there is a report of some attempt by the local untouchable field servants to resist their oppression and reject their degraded position — though such attempts were often failures. In contrast, the other untouchable artisan castes were more traditional, more accepting of the hierarchical order and very often used by the village exploiting classes against the rebellious field servants. The reason is not simply the numerical significance of the untouchable field servants; it is also that their work on the land – even in a position that was often one of semi-slave bound labour- gave them a crucial role in agricultural production that put them in a position which gave them a consciousness to mount at least some rebellion. In contrast, the untouchable, merely artisan castes (rope makers, leather workers, weavers, washermen, sweepers) performed services that could be more easily dispensed with if the peasants and landlords so desired.

In other words, it is the traditional relationship to the land in the feudal system that explains such things as the long-standing differences between Mahars and Matangs or Chambhars in Maharashtra; it also explains why Buddhism and the Republican Party have found a base among Chamars in north India, but not among Chambhars in Maharashtra, why some groups and not others start calling themselves ‘Adi-Dravida’, etc. An understanding of ‘untouchability’ only in terms of servitude to the land without looking at caste, neglects the specificity of the Indian situation; on the other hand, an understanding of ‘untouchability’ that only looks at caste ideology and purity-pollution also fails to analyse the specific features of different groups and, in particular, the basis for the revolt of the exploited which has played the major role in transforming the system.

Finally, a crucial characteristic of Indian caste feudalism was the degree to which it institutionalized hierarchy and inequality among the exploited sections.

Within the system, broadly, the exploiting classes consisted of the feudal lords (representatives of the State and whatever local officials claimed the State’s share of the produce as well as rising feudal families who took advantage of watans etc to build private estates), village landlords where they existed, merchants, and priests. In varna terms, these were roughly the Brahmins, Kshatriyas (or Sat-Shudras in the south where no true Kshatriyas were thought to exist) and Vaisyas.

Utilizing the varna system, however, is a complicated matter since feudal lords and village landlords sometimes had a caste-kin relation with other groups of village cultivators. However, if people from ‘low’ — ie, peasant background rose to feudal status they generally claimed a Kshatriya status and sought to break off relations with their former, lower, kin.

The exploited classes included the independent or tenant peasant cultivators, the untouchable field servants, and the artisans and other service workers. Among these the peasant cultivators and most of the artisans were defined as Shudras in terms of the varna system, while the field servants and the lowest, or polluting artisan-service workers defined as impure or untouchable. It is the latter — untouchable service castes and untouchable field servants— that we define as dalits in this article. It should be noted that dalits, then, are not exactly equivalent to the category of ‘Scheduled Caste’ as defined by the government today. For one thing, Neo-Buddhists are still not counted as Scheduled Castes (whereas they are clearly dalits): on the other hand, it seems that in some areas the Scheduled Castes category includes lower level, semi-tribal groups (e.g. the Rajbanshis of Bengal) who were not dalits as defined here.[6]

It also has to be stressed that, while this traditional system of caste feudalism has left its stamp on the emerging rural class system of today, it is by no means equivalent to it. For instance, modern exploiting classes include rich peasants or kulak farmers who are often drawn from a stratum or section of the middle peasant (Shudra) castes who were among the traditionally exploited classes.

Similarly, the term ‘untouchable field servants’ has been deliberately used because they were not at all the same as the agricultural labourers of today. Modern ‘agricultural labourers’ include most of the dalits but also include proletarianised members of other untouchable castes (and on this basis radicalism among these castes may proceed fast in the contemporary period) and of some of the peasant cultivators. The dalits in this class are, in most cases, no longer the tradition bound field servants and contemporary contract labour or year-labour (sahlar) arrangements are not equivalent to the traditional bondage.

Colonial Rule and the Maintenance of Feudalism

The important question that emerges then is, what was the impact of British colonial rule on this system? Here it seems clear that, at least until the 1920s, when the struggle of the exploited classes began to make some impact, the main effect of the British Raj was to strengthen Indian caste feudalism.

First, the political alliance that British imperialism made with the rural landlords and feudal classes meant by and large a strengthening of their position. Even when new men and new groups gained control of the land (through buying up land or purchasing zamindari) as a result of commercialization, they maintained the traditional system of subordinating the exploited classes within the village.

Participation in the modern market economy was limited to rural landlords and merchants: tenants from middle peasant castes simply turned over a share of their produce while the dalit field labourers continued to toil as before. Frequently, their traditional servitude became mediated through a relationship of debt-bondage, but the debt did not operate through any modern ‘contract’ system and particular families of dalits were, as before, considered the traditional servants of particular families of landlords and peasant cultivators.

(To take one example, in Thanjavur, in spite of a century and a half of involvement in a commercial economy, it was only after Independence and the struggles of unionized dalit labourers that the traditional system of pannaiyal bondage came to an end and was replaced by wage-labour forms of exploitation).

Generally, the jajmani-balutedari systems continued to operate without much change up until Independence. British law helped to reinforce this system. For, though it formally discarded caste as a criterion for judgment in general criminal, civil, and commercial law, and formally gave the lowest castes equal access to the law, the policy of non-interference in ‘social and religious customs’ of the people — a policy stressed in the first statement of the Queen after India formally came under British rule in 1858—made this relatively meaningless.

Religious and ritual restrictions (e.g., the exclusion of lower castes from temples) were enforced by the courts, defilement of religious restrictions was treated as a criminal offence and so punished, and courts refused to take action against upper castes who acted on their own to ‘discipline’ – i.e., terrorize and punish – low castes who tried to rebel.

Thus, while formally dalits were supposed to have equal access to such public facilities as schools, wells, and roads, they almost always had no economic ability to take their case to court; if they did so, the court was generally not likely to direct effective police action to help them even if it decided in their favour; and if they rebelled on their own and the upper castes exerted social and economic boycott against them, the courts took no action to protect them.

Exclusion of low castes from temples and the rights of conservative caste elders to discipline rebellious upper-caste ‘reformers’ were generally upheld by the courts on the grounds that these were ‘private’ religious matters. Thus the position of non-interference taken by the British officials and the law amounted in practice to upholding caste hierarchy. [7]

Another major example of British working through the criterion of caste was that, when laws were passed in the Punjab to prevent alienation of land to ‘non-agriculturalists’, this category included not only merchants but also the dalit field labourers! Occasional judgments in support of untouchables were eclipsed by this general tendency, and it is clearly erroneous to see colonialism as imposing a “bourgeois legal system’ on India in terms of abstract enforcement of property rights in land.

What of the economic effects of colonial rule? It is often thought that colonialism had a ‘dissolving’ effect on the traditional village feudal order, that by opening up new avenues of employment and education to people of all castes it provided an opportunity for advance and for breaking traditional restrictions. In reality, the situation was much more complex, and the general effect was to maintain the feudal hierarchy.

It is well known by now that the new professions and occupations dependent on modern Western education were filled overwhelmingly by members of the – upper castes – Brahmins in particular but also (depending on the area) by Kayasthas, Parsis, and other groups. It is not so well known — because historians and social scientists have relatively neglected to study the working class — that the same systematic discrimination was true of new industrial jobs.

Recruitment to the new factories, plantations, and mines, did not take place as a result of a mass of ‘semi-proletarianised’ displaced and mobile village peasantry flooding into the cities and being randomly selected for employment. Rather, it was most often structured, through a system of labour contractors (jobbers, sardars, mistris, kanganis). These frequently controlled a gang of workers through debt bondage and recruited them in ways which were geared to the village feudal economy (i.e. they both depended on and reinforced village hierarchies).

Even where these did not exist, it was often the nature of caste feudalism that determined which groups could have access to certain jobs or which would be willing to take the most arduous employment. As a result, there was stratification among the working class along caste lines. The most exploited and lowest paid plantation labour was provided overwhelmingly by Adivasis (from Chhota Nagpur to the Assam tea plantations) and dalits (from the Tamil Nadu Kaveri delta to the tea, coffee, and rubber plantations of Sri Lanka, Malaysia and other parts of south India).

Dalits, particularly the field servant castes, such as the Mahars of Maharashtra, also provided labour for such dangerous and low-paid jobs as military service (where this was open to them), the mines, and unskilled labour (gang men) on the railways. In contrast, the more skilled positions in the new jute and textile factories were filled by middle-caste peasants and tenants (Marathas and Kunbis in the textile mills of Bombay, north Bihar peasants in Calcutta jute mills) as were more skilled positions and more organised positions (even coolies) on the railroads and elsewhere.

Thus from the very beginning, not only was the ‘educated elite’ composed of higher castes, but the emerging Indian working class was divided along caste lines. The old feudal order left its stamp on the emerging capitalist relations of production. In industry as well as agriculture, dalits came to occupy the lowest, most degraded and most low-paid positions in the working class. The fact that at least some jobs were available outside the village (particularly those on railways, military, etc) gave them a position from which to organize and fight, but the division of the working class posed tremendous problems about the form in which this fight would be carried on.

Finally, in the realm of ideology, on the one hand British rule confronted Indians with new ideas of science, equality, and freedom, while on the other it presented them with the sophisticated forms of modern racism which proliferated in Europe with the need to justify colonial rule over third world peoples.

In the ‘Aryan theory of race’, the upper castes (Brahmins, Ksatriyas and Vaishyas) were thought to be descendents of early Aryan invaders while dalits and adivasis were described as descendents of conquered non-Aryan peoples (Dravidians, Mongoloid, etc) and the middle-caste Shudras were considered to be of mixed race in the north and of Dravidian origin in the south.

With this went the idea of the cultural superiority of the Aryans and their dominant, if not exclusive, role in defining ‘Indian culture’. This theory, originated by Europeans and forming the basis of the way British writers of censuses, gazetteers, etc, understood caste, was picked up by the Indian educated elite who used it on the one hand to justify their own claim to equality with the British (as equally ‘Aryan’) and on the other to justify their class rights to exploit the ‘inferior’ lower castes. Thus, traditional, religious-based, notions of the hereditary distinctions between castes were strengthened, transformed, and were given the backing of ‘science’ in this modern form of racism.

It is thus not really surprising that it was Ambedkar, of all the delegates to the first Round Table Conference who most fiercely condemned the British government: “Our wrongs have remained as open sores and they have not been righted, although 150 years of British rule have rolled away. Of what good is such a government to anybody? It was a government which did realize that the capitalists were denying the workers a living wage and decent conditions of work and which did realize that the landlords were squeezing the masses dry, and yet it did not remove social evils that blighted the lives of the down-trodden classes in several years”.[8]

And as he told a dalit conference prior to this, “It is only in a Swaraj constitution that you stand any chance of getting political power in your hands without which you cannot bring salvation to our people”. Yet, for dalits more than for any other section of the Indian population, the issue of how the national movement was to be united with the anti-feudal movement and how thoroughly the anti-feudal movement itself would be carried through, was of life and death importance.

Anti-Feudal Tasks of the Indian Revolution

The specific characteristics of Indian caste feudalism and the way it was transformed and yet essentially maintained by British colonial rule defined the specific anti-feudal tasks of the Indian revolution. We will outline these here as the basis for evaluation and analysis of the movements that took place in twentieth century India.

(1) The most basic anti-feudal task, the land question, took on extremely complex features as a result of the Indian caste feudalism. Because of the way in which hierarchical relations were maintained within the village and among the exploited classes themselves, and because of the way in which productive work for the land was institutionalized through the jajmani/balutedari system, it was insufficient to look at the land question simply in terms of abolition of landlordism (zamindar, taluq-dari, khote, inamdari, or whatever).

Similarly, the slogan of ‘land to the tiller’ was abstract and insufficient in the Indian context — and even erroneous, if it was taken to imply that revolutionary land reform could be achieved through giving a cultivating tenant the right to the land. For the fact was that much of the land had two tillers — the cultivating middle-caste peasant, whether tenant or ryot, and the dalit field servant, whose connection to the land (if not recognized ‘right’ in it) was equally long-standing.

The very inequality among the exploited institutionalised through the feudal caste hierarchy meant that the need for creating unity in the context of resolving the land question was crucial. It is hard to see how this could be done without a specific programme of constituting poor peasant committee (including dalits as well as caste Hindu toilers) who would have the responsibility of seizing and distributing the village lands and instituting necessary programmes of co-operative and collective agriculture. Otherwise, ‘abolition of landlordism’, and even the most radical version of land ceilings’, would simply leave the land in the hands of middle caste peasants at the cost of fully proletarianising the dalit field labourers.

(2) Feudal forced labour in India took the specific form of veth-begar which was institutionalized, again, through the caste system, with various duties falling on specific artisan castes but the most arduous manual labour duties falling upon the dalits. Here, again, particular caste-defined responsibilities within the village were connected with the requirements of performing forced labour for higher level landlords and state officials. In practice, the full-fledged abolition of begar required the abolition of the jajmani/batutedari system.

(3) The creation of a new democratic culture is a crucial anti-feudal task which, in India, required a specific fight against the Brahmanic Hinduism which upheld caste feudalism and against the modern forms of racist ideology which served to back it up and an effort to create the unity of the exploited in the process of this fight.

(4) Finally, because of the way in which the new working class was formed from within the feudal system, it not only had to lead the central agrarian tasks of the fight against feudalism but also had to fight against the adapted feudal relationships within its own ranks—the caste division of labourers and the Brahmanic culture. 

Please read the next part of this article here.

[Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly, Annual Number, February 1979]