Special Articles / Shankar Pathak / Social Work and Social Welfare
The long period of Mughal rule which is described as the golden era of medieval India came to an end in 1757 with the victory of the British army under Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey in Bengal. This event marks the beginning of colonial rule, though it took another sixty years before the process of conquest could reach a decisive phase following the defeat of the Peshwa army at Panipat in 1818. The colonial period represents an altogether new phase in the life of the country. There had been invaders and conquerors before, but they soon settled down as the natives of the country. The governments changed at the political centre of the time without disturbing the continuing features of society, especially in the countryside. The colonial rulers were different in this respect and with them came a variety of new social forces like religion, technology, education, a system of law and judicial administration, etc.
Contact with the new culture (which was linked to politically powerful rulers) initiated a series of wide-ranging changes in Indian society which began around the beginning of the nineteenth century, gradually gained momentum and culminated in the achievement of Independence by about the middle of the next century. While the colonial rule lasted for practically two centuries, it is the nineteenth century and the first three or four decades of the twentieth century which have been the favourite periods of study for scholars from India and abroad. Also, it has been studied by scholars from a variety of disciplines. In the process, there has been a fragmentary analysis of what in effect was an interlinked series of social changes. This brings to mind the parable of the six blind men and the elephant. Thus, for example, certain social movements have been labelled as religious reform movements by some, social reform movements by others and social changes associated with or part of national movement by yet another group of scholars.
An attempt is made here to study these social movements, which are more often described as social reform movements, in a wider holistic perspective by a social structural approach. In other words, these movements are studied by viewing them in their total social structural context. To borrow a phrase from Smelser, this is application of a fragment of social theory to a period in history. The period covered is a long one, from 1800 to 1947. Emphasis is given to the years 1815 to 1920. The social reform movements of this period can be divided into three phases: The first phase covers 1815 to 1860, during which the reform 'movements' originated as a response to or as a result of interaction of several social changes. This may be called as the individual reform phase.1 The second phase, which covers 1860 to 1920, may be described as the associational or organisational phase. The last phase which encompasses nearly a quarter century from 1918-1920 to 1947-48 may be designated as the independence movement or the Gandhian phase. This three-fold classification of the total period is based on a set of major criteria which are relevant for the study of the social reform movement. Each phase is characterised by significant political, economic and other social events.
It was during the first phase that the Christian missionaries began their attack on native religions as part of their proselytising work and along with it, or as part of it, initiated their social reform campaign and social service. The period also witnessed the birth of indigenous reform 'movements' in response to social changes. Politically it marked the second half (and the last part) of the East India Company's rule which ended with the 1857 mutiny. After a period of uncertainty and controversy, the modern system of education was also introduced. Another major feature was the changing nature of the economy from a subsistence agrarian economy to a partly commercial economy. While one or two factories were established toward the end of the period, the origin of agro-industrial economic enterprises began during the second phase and this became particularly pronounced during the seventies and eighties of the nineteenth century and during the first two decades of the twentieth century. As a consequence of this development, there was a considerable number of industrial workers to constitute a working class in some of the old and emerging urban centres. Politically, this period is notable for the end of the company rule and the beginning of direct Crown rule from England. While railways were symbolically introduced towards the end of the first phase, their real expansion took place during the second. This had far-reaching consequences for the society. The third phase is characterised by the beginning of a fairly strong organised trade union movement, and the emergence of Gandhi as a great political leader who changed the goal and nature of the national movement for independence. The period ends with the independence of the country in 1947 or the assassination of Gandhi in 1948.
There is plenty of published material which describes in detail the activities of prominent social reformers and the roles of various organisations devoted to social reform and social work during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition, there are also available the speeches and writings of prominent leaders of the various reformist organisations and movements. Literature pertaining to the nineteenth century Bengal renaissance is already so vast that it is difficult to keep pace with the latest research as well as study what has already been published. So it is unnecessary to cover the same ground here. What is pertinent from the perspective of social welfare today is to take a synoptic view of the events during this period in an analytical framework to bring out the purposes, ideologies, issues, instruments and achievements of social reform. Such an analysis will not only help us understand our past heritage, it will enable us to see the continuity or discontinuity between the past tradition and the present approach and models.
THE FIRST PHASE (1815-1860)
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Company administrators had reorganised the basis of Mughal revenue system by the Permanent Settlement, with serious consequences for the Bengal economy and the conditions of the peasantry. Out of four categories of rural population the group with the least contact with actual cultivation and little claim to proprietorship were conferred with ownership rights and recognised as zamindars.2 The zamindars were to pay a fixed amount of rent which was very high. This action of the Company dispossessed the actual owner-cultivators from any rights over their land, and left them as helpless victims of exploitation by the new zamindars and money-lenders from Calcutta and other big towns. Ruthless measures were taken by the new owners of the landed property in order to pay the very high rents fixed by the Company and to provide for their own luxurious living. On top of this the Company's officials plundered the countryside to enrich themselves, leaving the peasantry and the agricultural labourers in dire poverty.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Bengal was world famous for its fine muslins. Following the industrial revolution which coincided with the beginning of the colonial rule in Bengal, the artisans and weavers, who mainly resided in urban areas of Bengal, were exposed to unfair competition by the duty-free, machine produced textile goods. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, most of them were reduced to abject poverty and they were forced to migrate to the countryside to work as rural wage-labourers, which only added to the pressure on land and the poverty of the rural population.3
Not all sections of the Bengal population suffered under the new rulers. The aftermath of the industrial revolution in England had a spillover effect of limited European capitalist enterprises in agro-industries like coffee and tea plantations in the newly-acquired British colonial territories in the south and the east. The policy of free trade and liberal import of manufactured goods into the colony brought into existence new groups of urban middle class comprising of bankers and traders (the agency houses). In the first half of the nineteenth century, they were mostly Europeans. There were, however, a few Indians amongst them, either partners of European enterprises or owners of independent native enterprises. The developing mercantile economy in the urban areas also required accountants and clerks. These groups along with the lower level Indian officials of the Company, made up the new middle class.
For nearly fifty years after the Company assumed responsibility of revenue collection in Bengal, the country did not experience any positive impact of the new western culture. It only felt the negative consequences of the industrial revolution. The colonial rule still represented the degenerative aspects of its historical role rather than the regenerative role described by Marx. The social policy of the East India Company was a cautious, conservative policy of religious neutrality and laissez faire in social matters. The administrative machinery of the Company was utilised to protect religious and social practices, including those pertaining to marriage, inheritance and systems of education. In keeping with this approach, the Company had forbidden the setting up of Christian missions and religious activities by them in the colonial territory. But by the first decade of the century missions who were active in a variety of social, religious and educational matters, were permitted to be set up in and around Calcutta. It was the Christian missionaries who first brought the regenerative forces into action during this period, by their religious preaching and attacks on native religious practices such as idol-worship, caste-system, sati, etc. and by their educational activities, and social work. The introduction of the printing press, the launching of journals in English and Bengali, the translation of the Bible and other religious tracts into Bengali and later in other Indian languages, led to the beginning of a process of social change, which is frequently labelled as the renaissance and recently as modernisation. Without subscribing to the theory of modernisation, we shall use it as a nominal concept rather than as a grand theory of evolution.
It is in this social context that the earliest social reformers of the century emerged. Among them Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91) are the most prominent during the first phase. A brief biographical sketch of these two leaders and discussion of their activities of social reform and the reformist issues about which they were most concerned follows.
Rammohun Roy was born in a new zamindar family soon after a great famine in Bengal. His father was the manager of the estates of the Rani of Burdwan and he acquired enough property to become a minor zamindar himself. Rammohun Roy's parental family had a mixed Brahmanical tradition. His father was a vaishnava while his mother was a shakta. He had the traditional village education before he was sent out to Patna where he studied Arabic and Persian, and acquired good command of these languages as well as of Islamic theology and philosophy. Later he went to Benaras where he studied Sanskrit and Hindu religious literature. Apart from assisting his father in looking after the family property, he worked for about ten years as a revenue assistant (diwan) to Company officials. During this period he not only learned English and acquainted himself with western literature and philosophy, he also did some money-lending and speculation in Company shares. In recent years, however, there is a critical reassessment of his role and contribution to the modernisation of society in Bengal and India. While there has undoubtedly been some reaction to the earlier idolisation of Rammohun Roy, there is a more serious and sober reassessment of him in the social context of his time, especially in the context of the political and economic changes taking place in Bengal which is in tune with our approach.4 A similar reassessment of his role as a pioneer social reformer is necessary. This has been done to some extent by Heimsath,5 but there is need to go beyond.
The social and religious issues in which Rammohun Roy was interested and worked for during his active career in Calcutta from 1815-16 to 1830 were: introduction of modern western science and knowledge through English education; the removal of certain social disabilities, especially of women due to orthodox religious and caste practices; and the establishment of a reformed religious creed and an organisation to propagate it. Rammohun Roy invested most of his intellectual talents and personal efforts towards the abolition of sati. He was also for widow remarriage and female education though he contributed little to these. In concentrating on the improvement of the condition of women from respectable upper castes of Bengal, he set a model for the later generations of social reformers. There has been considerable curiosity and speculation among historians of this puzzling phenomenon and there have been several explanations. One interpretation by David Kopf is that Rammohun was deeply influenced by the Unitarians who worked to alleviate the sufferings of the industrial proletariat. So, living as he was in a society which had not undergone the process of industrial revolution, he chose the Bengali Hindu women as his 'proletariat'. According to this reasoning, Rammohun arrived at the conclusion 'that only by freeing women and by treating them as human beings would Indian society free itself from social stagnation'.6 Another novel explanation of the puzzle is provided by Nandy, a psychologist. He believes 'that no reform is entirely a public event. By its very nature, it is also a private statement. Rammohun Roy too made such a statement.' He further argues that Rammohun’s earliest interpersonal experiences and conflicts had convinced him that religion was the key to the process of social change in India'. Nandy's analysis is based on a convoluted psycho-cultural approach, which is difficult to summarise. He observes:
No wonder, Rammohun's first contribution to the nineteenth century model of reform was the awareness that his community's form of mother worship and correlated deeper concerns with mothering expressed, as he saw it, in "the peculiar mode of diet" that had become "the chief part of the theory and practice of Hinduism" constituted the crux of traditions in Bengal. In this he was a precursor of a second generation of reformers who were to make heterodoxy in food and in attitude to women the major symbols of defiance in nineteenth century Bengal, and conformity to commensal and other oral taboos the first criterion of orthodoxy.
...Both as a psychological defence and as an ideology, the cultural symbols of motherliness could not maintain their "working balance" with the nuclear phantasies in one who had faced so much maternal hostility and held in store such deep anger against her. The image of a powerful, irrascible celestial mother-who was propitiated only when the self- castrated son identified with his ineffective father was authentic, but had to be vehemently denied.
Invalidated by the new social process, the Hindu pantheon became for Roy a perversity, a source of magics which did not work. But, this rejection of maternal symbols was also bound to arouse moral anxiety. It, therefore, had to be counter-balanced by a spirited battle to protect women from men's aggression, by fighting for their rights in different sectors of life and, at a more trivial level, by being impersonally polite and courteous to all women.7
It is difficult to accept Nandy's explanation which smacks of psychologism-a criticism he anticipates. Even if his analysis is considered valid, it can only explain the role of reformers in Bengal, but not the role of other reformers in India for a period of nearly a century which witnessed major changes in many areas of Indian society. Heimsath frankly confessed that he had 'not discovered the certain causes for Roy's and later reformers' great interest in women'. Making a provocative point 'that many reformers worked for emancipation of women from higher castes, not those from low castes', he asks the question: 'Was this because the high caste Hindu (or aristocratic Muslim) women were more abused than those of lower status'?8 We shall come back to this point later when we review the entire social reform movement. At this stage, a brief comment may be made. Heimsath is not right in adding in parenthesis the 'aristocratic Muslim' women. Until recently, Muslim women, whether aristocratic or poor, have not been the major objects of social reform movements, with a few minor exceptions such as Badruddin Tyabji's work for the removal of the purdah system among the small sect of Bohra Muslims in Bombay. In that case, there was no distinction by way of the aristocracy and the commoner. What is more significant is not so much the preoccupation of Rammohun with the conditions of women as his proletariat, but his neglect of the real 'proletariat' of the time the pauperised artisans of Bengal, and the widely prevalent practice of slavery which was not only an ancient custom but also the result of extreme impoverishment of the peasantry.9
It is true that Rammohun was well aware of the miserable condition of the Bengal peasantry. He had watched their wretched conditions from close quarters during his period of service with the revenue officials of the Company. He also knew the real causes of this poverty-the Permanent Settlement of lands for the collection of revenues and the legal right of alienation of land for non-payment of the high rate of revenue fixed by the Company and the new zamindars. While he spoke of the pain caused to him by their miserable conditions, he did little to relieve their misery. His awareness remained intellectual; it was not a serious concern based on a troubled conscience. The practice of slavery was so widespread during his time that the sale of children was frequently reported in Calcutta newspapers.10 Neither the conditions of the slaves nor those of the unemployed artisans attracted Rammohun Roy's intellectual concern. leave alone his reforming zeal and action. Whether we look at his religious reform or social reform, it becomes obvious that the issues that interested him most were those which involved people of his own social background-the rich upper caste (bhadralok) men and women. The extreme poverty of the masses did not affect him as deeply as the conditions of the bhadralok men and especially women, who were only a small part of the society.
Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar is the second great reformer who carried forward the social reform work initiated by Rammohun Roy in Bengal. Though his life spans the first two phases of social reform, his most active and productive period was during the first phase. So he will be discussed as part of this phase. Vidyasagar, as he was popularly known (though this was an honorific title conferred on him by his alma mater for his brilliant all-round academic performance) came from a poor kulin Brahmin family of rural Bengal. His father was forced by family circumstances to migrate to Calcutta where he worked as a broker's assistant on a meagre salary. The first college of modern education was already in existence by thatd time in Calcutta. But in the prevailing atmosphere of uncertainty caused by a controversy over the medium of education between the Orientalists like Wilson, who advocated instruction in the vernacular language and the Anglicists like Duff, Macaulay and Rammohun Roy, his father decided to send him for higher studies to the Sanskrit College in Calcutta. It was much later, when he was appointed a teacher on the staff of the same college that Vidyasagar acquired proficiency in English through self-effort. Despite his own traditional form of higher education, Vidyasagar became an ardent advocate of English education like Rammohun Roy and for the same reasons. Women's education, widow remarriage and prohibition of polygamy among the kulin Brahmins were the other major social issues which engaged the energy and talents of Vidyasagar. In many respects he was different from his great predecessor Rammohun Roy; for instance his rural background, his poor economic circumstances, his indifference to religion and his 'head and heart approach' to social reform. In many other respects he followed the pattern set by Rammohun such as reliance on the legislative processes of social change, learned arguments based on the authority of traditional religious scriptures in favour of advocated reform measures like widow remarriage, economic self-reliance and highly individualist behaviour. Both Rarnmohun Roy and Vidyasagar rebelled against many traditional customs. Both of them were imbued with a spirit of scepticism and cultivated the highly developed faculty of rationalism. The issue on which Vidyasagar invested all his time, effort, and resources was the legislative action to permit widow remarriage. This was followed by personal encouragement and material support towards popularising the practice of widow remarriage.
The Widow Remarriage Act was passed in 1856 without much delay or debate by the Company government. This was partly because it was only a permissive legislation which did not compel any orthodox person to act against the custom and partly because of the more active interest in social reform of the high officials of the government with whom Vidyasagar had a good personal relationship. In 1858, at the height of his career as Principal of Sanskrit College and Assistant Inspector of Schools, Vidyasagar resigned from both the positions because of a serious difference on educational policy with his superior. While supporting himself from his Sanskrit press and book-selling, he devoted all his time to the cause of widow remarriage. He was very active for about a decade more before serious illness slowed down his work.
Like Rammohun Roy, Vidyasagar did not especially establish any organisation to carry out the work of social reform. But he made use of the existing religious and social organisations like the Brahmo Sabha which unofficially and indirectly supported the causes he worked for. He similarly utilised the organisational resources of the Tattwa Bodhini Sabha-a discussion club of the Hindu elites-and it's journal, the Tattwa Bodhini Patrika to which he contributed papers on social issues like widow remarriage and kulinism. He also made use of another Bengali journal Som Prokash and also a journal in English, Hindoo Patriot with which he was closely connected. Submitting petitions in favour of advocated reforms which was first started by missionaries and later adopted by Rammnohun and his opponents was a major instrument of influencing the government to enact the legislation for social reform. He was ably supported by his close friend Akshaya Kumar Dutta, a rationalist and an active member of the Brahmo Sabha. Dutta was the editor of the Tattwa Bodhini Patrika, while Vidyasagar was a member of the editorial board and secretary of the organisation-Tattwa Bodhini Sabha. Thus social reform while remaining a sphere of individual action by reformers, began to take practical shape as a programme to be pursued with some organisational support, though no organisation was established specially for the purpose.
Vidyasagar is described by his biographers as a practical man and a realist. Though not a radical, he was a man of principle who had the courage of conviction and a determination to practise what he professed. He was not only an ocean of learning (Vidyasagar) but also an ocean of compassion as described by Gandhi, Tagore and Michael Madhusudan Datta (the two Bengali poets described him as Dayar Sagar, Karunar Sagar). It was as part of his cautious realism that he tried not to offend the religious orthodoxy as far as possible. He was for 'reform from within' which later became part of the favoured approach to social reform by M.G. Ranade. This partly explains his non-involvement in any matters related exclusively to religious controversy and his reticence regarding his own religious convictions. While he was close to the Brahmo Sabha through many friends who actively supported his cause, he never became a member of the group. Some argue that he did not believe in religion, others take a different view. Perhaps as Ganguli says, he was an agnostic.11
Vidyasagar was successful in many aspects of his public work. Among these were the promotion of women's education, the establishment of the first college of English education run by Indians, the development of modern Bengali prose and the legalisation of widow remarriage. But failure lay in the fact that widow remarriage did not become very popular during his life- time, despite the fact that he ran into debt because of it and devoted the best years of his life to the cause. He was badly let down by some of the rich supporters and opportunist young men who first married widows for their money and later deserted them. He also did not succeed in getting the government to prohibit kulin polygamy. While he died a heart-broken, lonely man, his most favoured cause was soon to become a programme of social reform elsewhere in the country. Both his life and work is thus a link between the origin of indigenous reform and its later flowering into a countrywide movement, and between the individualist and the organisational phases of social reform. As already mentioned, the progressive Brahmo, A.K. Datta, played a significant role during this period through his journal and his contacts with other progressive Brahmo Sabha members. It was because of their pioneering efforts for social reform in its individualistic nature that much attention was devoted to them.
In western India, particularly in Bombay, social reform was slowly becoming a matter of public debate. As in Bengal, the early leaders came from within the ranks of the teachers and students of English schools and colleges. Elphinstone Institution (later became Elphinstone College) was founded in 1827. Wilson's English School was founded in 1835 and later came to be known as Wilson College. Both the earliest centres of modern education provided the leadership in this field. Bal Shastri Jambhekar, who was the first Indian professor at Elphinstone College and who also started the first weekly journal called the Bombay Durpan, influenced a generation of young graduates by his reformist ideas.
He condemned the evil customs of sati and female infanticide as well as trafficking in female children. Though he backed the legislation to abolish such cruel customs and forms of slavery, he believed that deep-rooted customs can be eradicated only through the influence of education and the force of example in high and influential quarters. He preferred to push through social reforms by searching for some sanction in the shastras so that they would be acceptable to the people.12
This, it may be recalled, was also the approach of Rammohun Roy and Vidyasagar. It was later described by M.G. Ranade as the method of interpretation. A contemporary of Jambhekar, one Soobajee Bapoo is said to have published a tract on widow remarriage without providing any support from the shastras for which he was criticised by Jambhekar.
Another prominent reformer of this period in western India was Gopal Hari Deshmukh, popularly known as 'Lokahitawadi' (well-wisher of the people). Under this pseudonym he wrote his famous 'Hundred Letters' in a journal and later edited a journal of that name. He was employed in the judicial service of the Bombay Government and was active in Bombay, Poona and Ahmedabad during his official posting in those cities. In his writings, he was strongly critical of orthodox customs among Brahmins, and advocated widow remarriage. He did not fail to note 'the growing unemployment and increasing poverty in his time'. He was pleading the cause of swadeshi by urging his countrymen to use only indigenous products, for the country according to him was becoming a country of beggars. He promoted modern education for the masses and played an active role in the establishment of dispensaries, maternity homes, orphanages, etc.13 In one case he was not able to live up to his convictions. He apologised for having taken tea with the Christian missionaries in Poona in order to appease his orthodox Brahmin critics. Another prominent social reformer who was active in Poona during this period is Jotirao Phule. He established schools for girls and lower castes. Like Vidyasagar's, his life also spans the first two phases of social reform, though his major programmes of social reform fall in the second phase.
THE SECOND PHASE (1860-1920)
The second phase is characterised by internal political stability and a policy of consolidation of territories already acquired by fair means or foul. In addition to the earlier territories of colonial India, two more were added by the end of the first phase. The native state of Oudh was taken over in 1845 and combined with the then North Western Province to create the new United Provinces. The whole of Punjab was brought under the direct rule of the British in 1855. This completed the major process of annexation of territories. The colonial administration now had total control over the whole of India, whether through direct rule of the British territories or indirect rule through the princes of the native states. There was also the minor process of the annexation of territories of some of the native states on the death of the ruler when he had no legal successor. Another major development which marked, politically, the end of the first phase and the beginning of the second was the 1857 revolt by the Indian soldiers. This led to the end of the century-old rule of the East India Company. It initiated the direct rule of the British Crown in 1858 formalising the process of incorporating India in the British empire. The inauguration of the imperial government which operated from London did not mean any significant dilution in the autocratic nature of the government and the administration because of the democratic parliamentary politics in the home country. It only meant change in the style of administration. But the very nature of the circumstance imposed certain checks on the apparent nature of absolute, despotic rule. It was a 'system of control by manipulation rather than by force, especially in the case of the princely states. Apart from this, there were large parts of India 'where autocracy was tempered by consent'. This was a necessity if an off-shore island in north- western Europe was to govern hundreds of millions in South Asia’.14 Among those groups who consented to the British rule were the Indians employed by the state and who were part of the new elite coming out of the schools and colleges providing modern western education; the traders, their employees and associates; and the traditional elite like the landed aristocracy and the native rulers who had wisely seen the writing on the wall.
By the middle of the century, the regenerative aspects of colonial rule were coming to the fore. This was not due to a concious effort on the part of the imperial government to bring about an improvement. It was the result of the dialectical process of colonial rule. While causing destruction of the traditional institutions in order to serve its imperial needs, it also set in motion a process of social, political and economic regeneration. Among the factors which led to this, mention must be made of the introduction of the railways during the early fifties, the expansion of modern education especially at the higher levels, which culminated in the establishment of three universities at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras; and the linking of Indian economy with the world market, mainly as a supplier of raw materials to meet the industrial needs of England. There was also a gradual expansion of industries, first by the Europeans and later by the Indians. Thus was set in motion a series of chain reactions such as urbanisation, increased mobility of the population due to vast improvement in transport and communications, migration of rural poor to the industrial cities in search of employment in factories and commercial undertakings, emergence of a sizeable force of working class and the beginning of the labour movement. There was also the increasing number of new elites who were from the upper castes of Indian society and who were in the vanguard of movements for social and political reform. Almost all these regenerative forces were introduced during the last decade of the first phase, but the impact was felt in a variety of fields only during the second phase.
During the first part of this phase (1860-80) there was considerable growth of internal and external trade, due to the expansion of railways, improvement in shipping, road transport and communications. This has often been described as a commercial revolution. It had two major consequences. With the growing of cash crops like cotton, tobacco, jute, sugar cane, etc. a significant commercialisation of agriculture took place. The export of agricultural products for an international market, mainly the imperial one exposed the home market to the fluctuations in the international market. This, for example, is evident in the cotton boom during the American Civil War and the subsequent depression after the war was over. There was a great increase and expansion of the trading centres in which flourished a mercantile class of agency houses, commission agents, bankers and a large number of small traders. There was also the growth of an administrative bureaucracy, and the emergence and growth of new professions like medicine, accountancy, teaching, journalism and law. Most people opted for law, and the lawyers were an influential group.
During the latter part of this phase there was also considerable growth of modern industries in cities like Calcutta, Bombay, Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Jamshedpur and Nagpur. A few industries, mainly textile, were also established in Madras, but it did not emerge as a major industrial city. Its importance was due more to its position as an administrative, educational and trade centre in the south. While Calcutta continued to be dominated by European enterprises, the Indian industrial enterprises playing a secondary role, the cities of Ahmedabad and Bombay emerged as strong bases of Indian industrial enterprises, especially in cotton textiles. Parsis and Gujaratis, along with a few Maharastrians dominated not only the economic but all aspects of public life in Bombay. Among the graduates of English educational institutions, however, Parsis and Maharastrian Brahmins were the largest groups. From among them emerged the new educated elites who were to play very important roles in the process of modernisation.
While Bombay was developing as a cosmopolitan city, the cities of Calcutta, Poona and Madras retained their special character as the nerve centres of the Bengali, Maharastrian and Tamil (as well as Telugu to some extent) regions. In all these cities the upper caste Hindus were prominent whether in trade, industry, commerce, government service or educational institutions. It was the bhadralok (Brahmin, Kayastha and Baidya castes) in Bengal, the Brahmins in Poona and Madras, and the Parsees, Gujarati Bhatias and Maharastrian Brahmins in Bombay, who were the main beneficiaries of the new socio-economic changes following the British rule. These were the groups who shaped the character of public activities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.15 Industrialisation, which received a major impetus during the First World War, created a new group which was to be the object of official commissions of enquiries and some philanthropists. This group (or class) was the industrial factory labourers who lived in overcrowded, insanitary housing colonies, without even the basic amenities of life. Many of them were separated from their families which were left behind in their native villages. They were ruthlessly exploited because of their poverty and backwardness. Men, women and children who worked for long hours at a stretch with little rest were employed on paltry wages. They were generally neglected by the new elite whose concern rarely extended beyond the welfare of men and especially women from upper castes.
During the second phase Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar continued to actively work for the causes which were dear to him. He also worked hard at organising famine relief during the 1870 famine in Bengal. Apart from sympathetic support from A.K. Dutta, he was receiving whole-hearted support from Keshub Chandra Sen and Sasipada Banerjee, both of whom were active reformist members of the Brahmo Samaj. Sen had taken over the leadership of the Brahmo Samaj from Devendra Nath Tagore in 1862. He was the first non-Brahmin to be the leader and to conduct prayers at the religious congregation of the Samaj. Apart from advocating women's education and widow remarriage, Sen played a very notable role in raising the age of marriage, especially among the members of the Brahmo Samaj. For this purpose he circulated in 1871 a questionnaire among European and Indian doctors to elicit their scientific views on a suitable age for the marriage of boys and girls. This was a technique the reformers had not tried before. It also served to provoke interest among the elite and create public opinion in favour of marriage reform. Based on the responses received from this opinion survey, Sen contributed to the drafting of a bill to legalise the marriages among the Samaj members. These couples were legally in an anomalous position. Being opposed to traditional religion and religious practices, they could not perform marriages according to the orthodox custom which was until then the only legally recognised procedure for Brahmin marriages. The bill specified that the marriageable age should be at least eighteen in the case of boys and fourteen in the case of girls. There was considerable opposition to this bill from the orthodox Brahmins. By his tireless efforts, Sen was able to persuade the government to pass the bill in 1872. It is said that Sen was personally in favour of a higher age (sixteen years) for girls, but agreed to provisions of the bill as a concession to public opinion. Ironically, he did not practise what he preached. His daughter was married to the Maharaja of Cooch-Bihar at the age of thirteen. This created a furore among the reformers, and greatly undermined the reputation and prestige of Sen, both as a leader of the Brahmo Samaj and of social reformers. He was removed by Devendra Nath Tagore from the leadership of the Samaj in 1866 due to serious differences between the two on religious matters. This led to the first split in the Brahmo Samaj. The Samaj split again in 1878 when Sen became a disciple of Ramakrishna.
Another notable reformer in Bengal was Sasipada Banerjee. Banerjee, like Vidyasagar, worked with sincerity and zeal for the cause of women's education and widow remarriage. In fact he himself married a widow when his first wife died. He arranged several marriages of widows, spending his own money to meet the expenses, and gave shelter to widows in his house. Banerjee was a pioneer in initiating welfare work for labourers. He organised night classes for them. While no other social reformers concerned themselves about the miserable living conditions of the industrial labourers, Banerjee came forward to improve their lot. Until recently, Banerjee did not receive much recognition for his pioneering work in labour welfare and for his courage of conviction, from historians and biographers who have been over-enthusiastic in praising the contribution of Rammohun Roy and other reformers in Bengal. Of late, however, he is getting his due share of praise as one of the fathers of the trade union movement in India.16 Even historians have begun to take note of him seriously.17
By about 1880, the tide of social reform had begun to ebb in Bengal. Most historians think that the reemergence of religious revivalism in a militant form combined with intensive political aspirations, were responsible for the decline of the social reform movement in Bengal. This was the period of great political activity which increasingly criticised the British rule. Some writers have described it as the beginning of aggressive Bengali nationalism. The fact that this was almost wholly confined to the Bengali Hindus who were the products of modern English education had its repercussions later on the social and political reform movement in India. Amir Ali, who was the first modern Muslim leader of Bengal and who became a judge of the Calcutta High Court and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who founded the modern reform movement among the Muslims in U.P. were greatly influenced by these developments in Bengal.
Jotirao Phule (1827-1890) a contemporary of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar was an active reformist in Poona. He was born in a poor family and belonged to the mali caste. He was lucky enough to get modern education at a missionary school in Poona. During his school days, he developed a friendship with three Brahmin boys which continued even during later years of his life. This fact is worth noting because of Jotirao's subsequent public activities which were critical of Brahmanism. In his writings he attacked Brahmanical tyranny in Maharashtra. It must also be mentioned that these Brahmin friends later stood by Jotirao in all his public activities.
Jotirao was very deeply influenced by western social thought. In particular he was influenced by Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man. As a result, he developed convictions about the equality, rights and freedom of man. These intellectual convictions were soon to be practised by Jotirao as a result of various circumstances which took place in his own life. An incident that occurred early in his life when he was participating in a marriage procession of one of his Brahmin friends, also sensitised him to the caste discrimination practised against the lower caste people in the Brahmin-dominated caste society. This aroused his anger which turned into a determination to work incessantly against Brahmanical tyranny, and for the welfare and uplift of the lower castes. Thus for the first time there emerged in India a major social reformer from amongst the lower castes.
During the formative years of his life ideas of social reform, in particular the idea of widow remarriage, were being spread in the Presidency of Bombay, and especially in Poona by the early social reformers like Gopal Hari Deshmukh and Vishnu Shastri Chiplunkar. Jotirao was already influenced by the idea of equality. He was also impressed by the growing awareness of the status of women who were subjected to a variety of injustices by society. Thus, he combined in his work the cause of the subjugated women and the lower caste people. Jotirao was the first reformer to establish a school for girls in 1848 in Poona. With limited resources and in the face of strong opposition by the orthodoxy he managed to run the school for a few months. But he was not even able to get a teacher for the school. So he had to teach his own wife and then enlist her services as a teacher in the school. This school had to close down within a few months due to lack of finance and personnel. However, Jotirao was able to restart the school after he received some help from his wellwishers in Poona. Subsequently, he founded two more schools for girls in 1851 and opened a school for the lowest castes in 1852. These schools were known as Low Caste Schools. Jotirao received full support from his Brahmin friends who by now were holding good positions in the government.
In addition to his work for the cause of female and low caste education, Jotirao also worked towards improving the condition of Maharashtrian peasants. Most of the peasants were indebted to moneylenders who usually happened to be Brahmins. So Jotirao agitated against the exploitation of the poor peasants by the moneylenders. For this purpose, he travelled a good deal in the interior of western Maharashtra. In view of the fact that the moneylenders and the rural rich were mostly Brahmins, Jotirao's campaign once again took on an anti-Brahmin character. (An unintended consequence perhaps of Jotirao's non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra was the later anti-Brahmin political movement in the same area.) Very soon he realised that it was essential to have an organisation to continue the work of social and economic uplift of the low caste people. With this in mind, he established the Satya Shodhak Samaj in 1868. The membership of the Samaj was not limited to the lower castes, though most of the members naturally belonged to them.
One of these earliest members of the Samaj and a close lieutenant of Jotirao was N.M. Lokhande, who was a pioneer of labour welfare work in Bombay. Lokhande also belonged to the mali caste and he worked as a storekeeper in a cotton mill in Bombay. This brought him face to face with the miserable condition of the textile mill labourers, and he resolved to work for their welfare. Through Lokhande, Jotirao also came in contact with the mill workers in Bombay, and he extended his support for them. Thus we notice that for the first time the welfare of the neglected poor sections of the society such as the low caste people and industrial labourers received the attention of social reformers who themselves came from within the ranks of these groups.
The social reformers of the nineteenth century were mostly men who were active in the causes fo women’s welfare such as abolition of sati, widow remarriage and education of women. Pandita Rama Bai (1840-1920) was the only woman social reformer.* She had gone through the bitter experience of a high-caste Hindu woman, including widowhood. She deserves a special mention in the history of social reform movement.
Rama Bai’s father, Anant Shastri Dongre, a chitpavan Brahmin from a village near Karkala in Karnataka, had a traditional education in Sanskrit and was a great scholar. He was at Poona during the last years of Peshwa rule, perhaps employed by the Peshwa. After the end of Peshwa rule he returned to his native village, with a conviction that women have a right to study Sanskrit and thus becomes a nonconformist, even considered as a rebel by the orthodox Brahmin community. He set up an ashram school for girls in a forest near by like the old Gurukul providing food, shelter and education to about 25 girls including some Sudra girls. He faced strong opposition and even the threat of excommunication, but managed to escape it, proving in a debate that his work was not against the shastras. Due to adverse economic circumstances including a major famine, he set out with his family - his wife, a son and a daughter Rama, a baby in arms barely a few months old, on a long tour of the country by foot, travelling first to Kashmir in the north and later to Calcutta in the east, but passed away on the way to Calcutta.
Rama Bai was taught Sanskrit by her mother Lakshmi Bai who in turn was taught by her husband Anant Shastri (She had helped him as a teacher in running the ashram school). The atmosphere in Calcutta was favourable due to the work by Brahmo Samaj led by Ram Mohun Roy, Dwijendranath Tagore and Keshab Chandra Sen. She received the support and help from K.C. Sen. She was awarded the titles of “Pandita” and “Saraswati”. But adversity strikes with the death of the mother and later her only brother. All alone at a young age of 22 years, she decided to marry a Bengali Sudra of her acquaintance, Bipin Chandra Medhavi, spurning the offer of marriage by a well placed Brahmin suiter from Bombay, who was a civil servant of the colonial government. Most unconventional in every respect, unmarried at the age of 22 years when traditionally the marriage was arranged around 10 years, choosing her bridegroom, not by the parents (who were not alive) and finally the most radical decision, marrying a Sudra from Bengal in preference to a Brahmin from Bombay. Her husband died within two years of the marriage and she had to look after herself and a young baby daughter. Adversity and loneliness follow her all through her life and she faced them with stoic courage, most unusual for a young Brahmin woman, who is traditionally expected to be in the care and protection of a man, first the father, later the husband and finally the son in old age.
Rama Bai decided to go to the western part of the country, Bombay and Poona. Finally she settled in Poona and later in Khedgaon a rural area nearby. She studied English by tuition with the help of a Christian missionary and gradually converted to Christianity. She travelled abroad crossing the sea (traditionally prohibited) first to England and later to U.S.A., where she travelled across the country with lecture tour, talking about the condition of high caste Hindu women.
Rama Bai was the only woman among the social reformers of the nineteenth century whose main concern was the improvement of the condition of the high-caste Hindu woman such as prohibition of sati, widow remarriage and providing education which was denied to them. Rama Bai herself had gone through the sufferings as a high-caste Hindu woman and later as a widow in a highly patriarchal society and based on her experience had written the book – ‘High-Caste Hindu Woman’. Because she converted to Christianity partly due to emotional need and perhaps also feeling disenchanted about reforming the Brahmanical upper-caste Hindu society, her influence as a reformer began to wane during the latter part of her life. Increasingly she devoted herself in providing shelter, education and arranging re-marriage of young high-caste widows in Poona and later in Khedgaon. In a major scholarly study in a feminist perspective, Chakravarti makes the following observation about the neglect of Rama Bai by the historians of the nineteenth century India.
“The social history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in India has dwelt at considerable length upon the socio-religious reform movements of the period. Descriptions and analyses of such movements have featured in all the standard text-books…………… Rama Bai, who spent the better part of her life working for women in general but more specifically on the most powerless section within upper-caste society- the widow -, gets only a passing reference in discussion on reform and no mention at all in any discussion on the ‘making of modern India’.
“Why has the life and work of Rama Bai and more importantly, her critique of society been marginalized from mainstream history which otherwise is more than generous to the great men (and occasionally women) school of history? Rama Bai had all the elements required for a ‘great’ character: She was articulate, learned, confident and forceful – a woman who got considerable media attention when she first burst upon the public arena in the 1870s. Men of the nineteenth century, both reformist and traditionalists who had been waxing eloquent on the ‘glorious’ position of women in ancient India, suddenly found an embodiment of such womanhood in the person of Rama Bai.
Rama Bai’s critique of Brahmanical patriarchy and her decisive break with its oppressive structure did not appeal to the nationalist historians for whom nationalism was synonymous with Hinduism. Rama Bai became at best an embarrassment and at worst a betrayer. Her marginalization then is not the mere consequence of gender bias in history, although that certainly accounts for a part of it. It is not merely an obscuring, an invisibilising, as is commonly the case with women, but a suppression”(Chakravarti 1998).
Keshub Chandra Sen was the first Brahmo Samaj missionary who travelled a great deal in various parts of the country spreading the religious message of the Samaj and establishing local branches. It was mainly due to his initiative that the Prarthana Samaj was established in Bombay in 1867. Before that, there was a secret religious reform group in Bombay known as the Paramahamsa Mandali which was against the caste system. Some of the founders of the Prarthana Samaj were members of this secret society which did not survive long. The Prarthana Samaj later extended its work to Poona and some other towns of the Bombay Presidency. Among the prominent members of the Samaj were men like M.G. Ranade, R.G. Bhandarkar, the wellknown oriental scholar and N.G. Chandavarkar who was a leading member of the Bombay Bar. Ranade held a variety of jobs in the Bombay government. He was a professor at Elphinstone College, Bombay and later served in the judicial department as a district judge. Towards the end of his career, he became a judge of the Bombay High Court in place of Justice K.T. Telang, who was the first Indian to hold the post. Ranade, Telang, Lokahitawadi Deshmukh, Agarkar, Chiplunkar, Bhandarkar, and D.K. Karve were the prominent leaders of social reform movement in the west, especially in Poona. Tilak and G.K. Gokhale also worked for some of the social reform causes, though these were secondary to their political interest. All these men were actively associated with a number of public associations and institutions in Poona. Most of them were educationists but they were also active as journalists, politicians and social reformers. They were all in favour of modern education, and with the exception of Tilak in the later years of his life, all of them were strong believers in the beneficial effects of the British rule which they felt was essential for social progress. Some of them were also associated or mainly concerned with the establishment of institutions for the welfare of women, especially widows.
D.K. Karve worked wholly for this cause after his retirement from Fergusson College in Poona. He established the second widows' home in Poona and gradually extended its activities to start a school and a college exclusively for women. This finally led to the establishment of the first women's university in India. Karve married a widow when his first wife died, unlike Ranade who in deference to the wishes of his old father married a twelve-year old girl. It may be mentioned here that while Bhandarkar put into practice his social reform convictions by educating his daughters, marrying his children at later ages than was customary and encouraging his widowed daughter to marry again, Telang failed to live up to his convictions. He married his daughters at a very young age, though he was a prominent advocate of prohibition of child marriage. Lokahitawadi, Ranade and Tilak also submitted meekly to orthodox pressures and performed the prayashchitta ceremony as a penance for the sin of taking tea with Christian missionaries.
With the exception of Bhandarkar, none of the Poona social reformers were against the caste system. They merely wanted to modify some of the socially restrictive caste practices. Apart from Shinde who later established the Depressed Classes League, none of them worked for the welfare of the down-trodden and the lower castes. Ranade and some of his friends who were members of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha took up famine relief work during the great Deccan famine in 1879-80. Also, through the Sarvajanik Sabha, Ranade took up the cause of the Deccan peasants who rioted in 1865 because of their poverty and exploitation by moneylenders during the agricultural depression after the end of the American Civil War.
While the ideas of social and religious reform spread from the Bengal Presidency to the Bombay Presidency, the Madras Presidency did not prove to be hospitable to social reform. Veereshalingam Pantulu in the 1870s had taken up the cause of widow remarriage in the Telugu speaking part of the Presidency and he had written extensively on the subject in Telugu. He had established a Social Reform Association in Rajamundry in 1878. It was the Prarthana Samaj approach of reforming the society from within which appealed to the newly educated group of Indians in the south. However, the impact was limited to minor religious reforms which were short-lived and did not lead to any major trend of social reform. T. Madhava Rao, a former Divan of Baroda and Raghunatha Rao, who later became the Secretary of the Indian Social Conference, gave only symbolic support to social reform by lending their names for some of the less radical reform causes, while opposing the more progressive and radical issues like the Age of Consent Bill. A group of young reformers formed the Madras Hindu Social Reform Association in 1892. This association did not make much headway. The group was associated with the Indian Social Reformer, a journal whose editor K. Natarajan was a radical among the reformers of his time. He later shifted the journal to Bombay, where the environment was more conducive to the ideas advocated by the journal. Even in later decades, the social reform movement in Madras 'stressed peripheral issues such as nautch-dancing, alcoholism and income distribution in the joint family. Social welfare work, along the lines laid down by the missionaries was always a more popular form of organised endeavour than social reform' .18
By the end of the nineteenth century, the social reform movement was on the decline in many parts of the country. In Bombay, and to an extent in Poona, it continued for some time more by expanding its base to include welfare programmes of less privileged groups like lower castes, tribal population, industrial workers etc. Jotirao Phule continued his religious and social reformism among the non-Brahmin castes. V. R. Shinde, the Prarthana Samaj missionary, initiated welfare work among the tribal people. Thakkar Bapa (A.V. Thakkar) of the Servants of India Society was also working among the tribals of Gujarat. N.M. Joshi and N.G. Chandavarkar had established the Bombay Social Service League which was organising night classes and recreational programmes among mill workers in Bombay. Similarly in Punjab the Arya Samaj had begun work for the education and social equality of the lower castes. It had already established orphanages and widow homes, and was very active in famine relief work, countering the proselytisation of the distressed population by the Christian missionaries. All these developments could not stem the incoming tide of political militancy and religious revivalism nor the gathering political storm in several parts of the country. Nor could they prevent the link up of social advancement with political aspirations of a variety of groups based on sectarian appeal and interest. The groups whose interests had been neglected by the social reformers until the 1880s and who were unable to benefit from the changes introduced by the colonial rule, especially in education and administration, began to feel an acute sense of deprivation and unfair discrimination. While political consciousness based on self-interest led to the development of nationalism and the demand for Home Rule (and later independence), it also gave rise to apprehensions among the socially backward sections and minority groups who wanted to protect their interests by appeal to segmental solidarity and social advancement. The anti-Brahmin movement in the Bombay Presidency which had its origin much earlier in the social reform work of Phule, the anti-Hindu character of the political movement of scheduled castes in Bombay under the leadership of B.R. Ambadkar, the Aligarh Muslim Movement led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in U.P. and the anti-Brahmin self- respect movement of E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker in Madras are manifestations of this process.
Another manifestation of the same process, but in a less politically militant form, is the mushroom growth of caste associations in different parts of the country. Among the more active and prominent of these was the Kayastha Caste Association of U.P. which at a later stage broadened its scope by including the Kayasthas of Bengal. The traditionally privileged upper castes took up the cause of the social and economic advancement of their castes by stressing the necessity of giving up restrictive caste practices and by popularising modern education among their caste members in a number of practical ways like founding schools, colleges and hostels for students. The under- privileged groups on the other hand stressed more and more the political dimensions of the same cause, such as the reservation of jobs in the government as a political demand, the opposition to forms of representative government and much later even independence.
When modern education was introduced during the first quarter of the nineteenth century in Bengal and subsequently in other British Indian provinces, the Muslim population in these provinces could not take advantage of it for a variety of reasons. This came in the way of their employment in the administration and also in choosing professions like law. The proportion of Muslim population varied from about 51 per cent in Punjab, and nearly 31 per cent in Bengal to 6 per cent in the Central Provinces and 2 per cent in Orissa. In Bengal, most of the Muslims were poor peasants, working as tenants on lands belonging to the Hindu landlords, or as poor artisans in rural and urban areas. There was only a small number of Muslim zamindars and professionals. Because of their poverty, most of the Muslims in Bengal could not study in the schools and colleges established by the Christian missionaries, and later by the government. In U.P. the situation was different. The Muslim population was only 12 per cent, but they were dominating the administration and many of them were also zamindars. It is partly the psychological barrier arising out of the loss of political power and social position which prevented many Muslims in U.P. from taking advantage of western education. There were other reasons as well such as the antagonistic attitude towards the new rulers fostered by the orthodox moulvies, and a feeling of apathy among a section of the upper class Muslims. In the meanwhile, the Hindus had raced ahead both in educating themselves and getting employment in the provincial governments. It was only natural that a feeling of discrimination and inferiority would develop, when leaders of the Muslim community compared their conditions with those of the Hindu population. As a result, some of the new elites among the Muslims began to take active interest in promoting western education among the Muslim population, and also in demanding a better share of the jobs in the government services.
Abdul Latif was one of the first Bengali Muslims to be proficient in English and he was a leading public servant. He organised the Mohammedan Literary and Scientific Society in Calcutta in 1863. The purpose of the society was primarily educational and social. The members met once a month at Latif's house and they held discussions and organised lectures for the benefit of their community. By 1865 the society had about 200 members and by 1877 the number rose to 500. Another Muslim leader of the minority Shia sect was Amir Ali, who became the first Muslim Judge of the High Court. He established the Central Mohammedan Association in 1878. Amir Ali and his group were progressives as compared to the group led by Latif. This Association also had as its main purpose the promotion of modern education through special educational schemes among Muslims. A few years before in 1870 Moulvi Karamat Ali had lectured to the members of the society led by Latif that the Muslims should refrain from waging war upon the British. He tried to remove the antagonistic feeling among the Muslim population towards the new rulers. Amir Ali believed that it was essential to secure government intervention for the advancement of Muslims. For this purpose, he wanted to develop a pressure group of Muslims. Its programme was to be based squarely upon the demand for preferential treatment. In a memorial submitted to the government in 1882, the Association made a demand for a proportion of jobs to be reserved for Muslims and for provision of the special educational requirements for the Muslim community.19 In addition, there were other demands which would secure for the Muslims protection from competition from the Hindus in recruitment to the government service through competitive examinations. Subsequently, Amir Ali tried to take upon the role of a spokesman for the entire Muslim community in India. For this purpose, he changed the name of the Association to the National Mohammedan Association and established about 50 branches by 1888.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was born in 1817 at Delhi in an upper- class Muslim family with a feudal noble background. He had a traditional education with subjects like Persian, Urdu and Logic. He was later employed in the judicial service of U.P. in 1838. During the 1857 rebellion Sir Syed sided with the British. After the rebellion was quelled, he tried to improve the relationship between the Muslim community and the colonial rulers. The British had begun to distrust the Muslims because of the role of some Muslim soldiers during the 1857 revolt. Sir Syed considered the improved relationship between the Muslims and the British rulers as essential for the promotion of the welfare of his community. After the tireless efforts in this direction by way of writings and propaganda he finally succeeded. Simultaneously he tried to change the attitude of the Muslim population towards the British by arguing that they were not the religious enemies of Muslims, and that mixing with them socially and cooperating with them politicially were not against Muslim beliefs.
Sir Syed came to believe that the Muslim population in U.P. would remain backward and lose the advantages that they were enjoying if they did not take to English education. For this purpose he considered it necessary to establish educational institutions which would be run by the Muslims themselves. Thus he founded in 1875 the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental School which later became a college in 1885 and finally came to be known as the Aligarh Muslim University in 1920. Sir Syed, despite his traditional education, was not orthodox in matters of religion. He did not accept many orthodox interpretations of Muslim religious tenets and tried to bring about religious reform based on reason. Somewhat similar to Rammohun Roy he argued that the quran was the basis of the Muslim religion and the priests had added many superstitious elements to it in the course of time. He wanted Islam to be based on a correct, rational interpretation of the quran. He rejected the traditions and customary practices. In this difficult task he faced strong opposition from the orthodox moulvies. Later, when he needed the financial support of his community to establish the Anglo-Mohammedan School in Aligarh, he retracted from his earlier position on religious issues as a concession to the orthodox Muslims. As a result he gained the support of the Muslim religious leaders and upper class for establishing the college. He in turn made it compulsory for Muslims to study Islamic theology at the college.
Like many social reformers before him, including Latif and Amir Ali among the Muslims, Sir Syed was an ardent supporter of the British rule in India and a great admirer of European culture. He favoured the idea of Muslims adopting the western manner of dress and habits of eating. While he was a liberal in many respects, he remained a conservative in regard to the social status of Muslim women. He was opposed to the abolition of purdah and strongly believed that the Muslim women should receive traditional education in their homes. It is surprising that Mujib should consider that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was in favour of improving the legal and religious status of Muslim women.20
As Mujib has pointed out, the contribution of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to the social advancement of the Muslims in India has been exaggerated. Much earlier than him, Muslim leaders like Latif and Amir Ali had been advocates of modern education and reformers like Moulvi Karamat Hussain at Lucknow and Sheikh Abdulla at Aligarh had made the promotion of women's education their life's ambition.21 But they concentrated on these issues and did not attack the institution of purdah, which was a concession to the conservative parents. Unlike the Hindus, no major social reformer came forward to take up the cause of Muslim women. Despite the scope for an improved status for women in Islam, such as right to divorce under certain conditions, reformers like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan were as traditional as the orthodox moulvies in opposing divorce for Muslim women. This tradition has continued until today so much so that any attempt to bring about changes in the Muslim personal law is strongly resisted not only by the ignorant and backward Muslim population and the orthodox religious leaders, but also by western educated Muslim elite.
While efforts of reformers like Amir Ali, Latif and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan contributed a great deal to popularising English education, especially among the Muslim males belonging to the upper class, they failed to give any attention to the condition of the majority of their community who were living in poverty. None of their demands, like reservation of jobs in government services, was in the interests of these masses. According to Mujib, western education was not even suited to the needs of the artisans, who were a significant number among the Muslims.22 For this reason some of them were not eager to receive a western education.
One of the by-products of the varied changes that had been taking place since the beginning of the nineteenth century was the formation of groups and associations on the basis of certain common interests, and the use of such informal and formal organisational structures as bases of public activities by the elite in cities like Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and Poona. These public institutions or associations became major vehicles for the process of modernisation. Their origin was in small discussion groups loosely linked to the new educational institutions like the Hindu College (now Presidency College) in Calcutta and Elphinstone College in Bombay (interestingly in many cases their names included the word 'scientific'). These societies, especially during the 1870s and 1880s in Aligarh, Bombay and Poona, were established on the initiative of the graduates of the higher educational institutions, but sometimes independent of any symbolic or formal link with them.
The debating club formed by the graduates of Hindu College in Calcutta, and the Students' Literary and Scientific Society of the Elphinstone College in Bombay are illustrations of the former type. The Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, the Bombay Association and the British India Association in Calcutta are examples of the latter type. The first associations, however, were established by the Europeans in Calcutta and Bombay to promote their commercial interests. A variant of such secondary associations in the religious sphere or in the religious and social reform spheres were the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, the Prarthana Samaj in Bombay and Poona, and the Arya Samaj in Punjab. While these organisations were active in religious and social reform drawing their support from the educated new middle class, during the latter half of nineteenth century, local associations were beginning to be established specifically for the promotion of social reform issues like widow remarriage. Some of them had branches in other cities and even in other provinces. The propensity to form associations for a public cause and the gradual establishment of such associations for a specific cause of social reform made it possible to start an all-India organisation. The Indian Social Conference which was founded in 1887 due to the efforts of B.M. Malabari and M.G. Ranade was really a loose combination of a variety of local and regional associations. Thus began an era of organisational public activity or 'associational politics' as described by a historian of the modern period.23
The new elite through their contact with Britain and its parliamentary politics had become familiar with the technique of submitting memorials or petitions to the government in order to impress upon them the need to act on a matter of public interest. To begin with, this was done on individual initiative and with the support of sympathetic, informal groups of supporters of the cause. Very soon, however, they recognised the need for an organisation for sustained activity which could also claim to be a 'representative' of the public or a section of it. As already mentioned, it was the European traders and industrialists who first formed associations to promote and defend their interests. The novelty and the usefulness of the organised public activity had an immediate appeal to the Indians in the urban centres. Thus we see a number of associations being established ranging from local to the regional, from sectional to the multi-sectional, and from those for a specific purpose to the multi-purpose variety. A large number of associations were founded during the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly during the last two decades of it. This is also true of the fields of social reform and social work.
The earliest social reform associations were established in Calcutta and Poona to promote the cause of widow remarriage. The Bombay Widow Remarriage Association was started by Vishnu Shastri Pandit, M.G. Ranade and others in 1866. The Bengal Hindu Widows Association was formed in 1869 by the efforts of Keshub Chandra Sen, the leader of the Brahmo Samaj. Later, similar associations were established in Poona, Dacca, Madras, Rajamundry, Bellary and other cities in different parts of India. The cause of widow remarriage became a touchstone to divide the orthodox and the reformers. There were other local issues too which engaged the attention of reformers. The Arya Samaj in the north, the Prarthana Samaj in the west (Bombay and Poona), the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal as well as in several parts of the country advocated socio-religious changes. Among these were the giving up of idol worship; the removal of caste distinction and caste prohibitions on inter-dining and social mixing between castes as well as between religious communities; the removal of restrictions on sea-voyage; and promotion of inter-caste marriages. These Samajes were also active in practical social work like founding orphanages, widow-homes, schools for girls and organising famine relief work, etc.
The Brahmo Samaj in Bengal became active in social reform only by the 1850s, and reached its peak during the 1860s and 1870s. The internal schism which led to its split twice during the latter half of the nineteenth century sapped its strength, and its followers gradually lost interest in social reform by the last two decades of the century. The support of the Prarthana Samaj to the cause of social reform was also indirect. It was not militant like the Arya Samaj and it was more cautious than the Brahmo Samaj. The Arya Samaj in Punjab and U.P. was the most active organisation whose practical work towards charity matched that of the Christian missionaries. By the close of the nineteenth century social reform became increasingly a secular activity, separated from religious reform work in most parts of the country, except in the areas where the Arya Samaj was active. The latter combined both types of work as part of its official programme. The emergence of revivalist religious leaders like Ramakrishna Paramahansa and his disciple Vivekananda who stressed the practical aspects of charity rather than social reform also contributed to the decline of social reform in Bengal and Madras.
THE THIRD PHASE (1920-1948)
The third phase of social reform begins approximately around 1918-20. This period is characterised by several new developments in political, economic and social reform. Before the First World War, the growth of Indian industries was limited to a few major cities of British India, like Calcutta, Bombay, Ahmedabad, etc. Most of the modern industries were owned by the Europeans. During the First World War the import of manufactured goods from the west was stopped and this provided a natural protection to the Indian industries from foreign competition. It led to a limited expansion of the industrial sector in the country. Due to a number of reasons, among which the political developments were prominent, the government decided to give up the policy of free trade which they had followed in economic matters, and initiated a policy of limited protection to the industries by levying tariffs on the import of manufactured goods. As a result of the new economic policy of the government, the nascent Indian capitalism received a fresh stimulus. This helped it to grow significantly in several areas. As a consequence of this industrial growth, there was a small increase in the number of industrial workers in the country which rose from approximately 0.4 per cent of the total labour force ill 1880 to 0.6 per cent in 1939. While in relative terms the increase in the number of industrial labourers was very small, the total number of workers was large enough to be reckoned as a major force, both politically and economically.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century a series of strikes took place in different parts of the country, as a protest against low wages and inhuman living and working conditions. Thus, the trade union movement was slowly emerging. In 1920 the first all-India trade union organisation was established in Bombay. With this development, the labour movement in the country entered a significant new phase. Among the early trade union leaders was N.M. Joshi of Bombay, who was also an active leader of the Bombay Social Service League. This was founded by Sir N.G. Chandawarkar who had succeeded M.G. Ranade as the Secretary of the Indian Social Conference. Under the auspices of the Bombay Social Service League both Chandawarkar and Joshi had already started certain welfare activities such as night classes, recreational programmes, mutual aid societies and reading rooms for the benefit of the industrial labourers. With the formation of the All India Trade Union Congress, N.M. Joshi devoted himself entirely to trade union activities.
During this period the Indian agriculturist suffered heavily. Except for a few years during and after the two world wars, the agricultural prices fell sharply, especially after the depression of 1929. As a consequence of this, the agriculturist ran into heavy debt in order to maintain himself and his family. In most cases the land was mortgaged to the moneylender and many agriculturists were even forced to sell their land to pay off the debt. The conditions of the agricultural labourers and the village artisans were naturally much worse than that of the agriculturist. The colonial government hardly did anything to protect the peasant from the clutches of the moneylender and from the prospect of semi-starvation. A few states like U.P., Punjab and Madras took some half-hearted measures for debt liquidation or reconciliation. Thus, there was widespread and acute poverty among the rural population which attracted the attention of Gandhi who had returned to India from South Africa in 1918.
Politically speaking the third phase is characterised by many historic developments. Soon after his return from South Africa, M.K. Gandhi had become very active in the political field. In 1920 he was elected President of the Indian National Congress which marked a turning point not only in the life of the Congress, but also in the political sphere of the country. With Gandhi as the unquestioned political leader and the Congress as a major political organisation, many new changes were introduced in the country. The Congress, which until then was restricted to a few western-educated elite members of the Indian middle class, was thrown open to include people from the other strata of society, such as the rural peasants and the urban industrial labourers. The social base of the Congress thus widened to make it a mass political organisation. It also changed the liberal constitutional reform type of political activity into an agitational, mass political movement. New techniques of political agitations were introduced by Gandhi such as fasting and individual and mass satyagraha.
Indian nationalism was slowly developing from the last two or three decades of the nineteenth century and spreading gradually in different parts of the country. Because of the spread of modern education and improvement of the means of communication, it now became a well established and powerful national political movement. Initially, the demand was for representation in the government within the political framework of a dominion status. A little later it culminated in the demand for complete independence of the country from foreign rule. The Indian National Congress under Gandhi's leadership symbolised this major turn of events. Gandhi also symbolised the integration of political reform with social reform and thus brought to a close the raging controversy between advocates of political reform like Tilak and the champion of social reform like Ranade. Gandhi argued that for the development of the country it was not only essential that it should be free from foreign rule, but it should also be free from a variety of social evils. He criticised the discrimination against untouchables whom he called Harijans (children of God). He also criticised the subjugation of women and fought for equality between men and women. Gandhi did not neglect the appalling poverty of the large masses of Indian population, especially in the countryside. The problem of poverty was described by him in a personified symbolic term as 'Daridra Narayana-God of and in, the poor and the down trodden'.24 Thus removal of poverty, eradication of untouchability, and rural development became part of the official programme of the Congress. Gandhi wove into the political struggle for independence these programmes of social reform. His own approach to the political and social advancement of the country was to work simultaneously in both these areas, by alternating a period of intensive political struggle by another period of intensive constructive activity. It may be pertinent here to consider Gandhi's views on the relationship between political and social reform. It is reported that he was asked by Montague why a social reformer like him took to political activities. Gandhi's reply is both revealing and significant. 'Politics is an extension of my social activity. I could not be leading a religious life, unless I identified myself with the whole of mankind, and that I could not do, unless I took part in politics. The whole gamut of man's activities today constitutes an indivisible whole.25 Later, in 1946 he said: 'I felt compelled to come into the political field, because I found that I could not do even social work without touching politics’.26 In these replies, we get the essence of Gandhi's approach to social reform and social work. They also reveal his integralist view of human life and his holistic approach to social reform.
During his early phase of work in India, Gandhi's reaction to some of the contemporary reform issues led to strong criticisms by the radical social reformers. His initial opposition to the idea of inter-caste marriages, his reluctance to make a frontal attack on the very basis of the caste-system, his acceptance of the varna scheme and his symbolic direct actions like temple entry, satyagraha on behalf of the untouchables were responsible for generating mistrust and antagonism between him and the social reformers. His critics found his attitude to social reform ambiguous and accused him of diluting the content of social reform.27 Gandhi later changed his stand on some of these issues like inter-caste marriages which brought him closer to his critics.
Gandhi was the last of the great social reformers this country has produced. In him we find an excellent synthesis of many strands of Indian heritage, and this is true of both his social philosophy and social action. Adherence to truth has been emphasised as an ideal since the Upanishadic times and ahimsa was advocated by Buddha and Mahavira, dharna was used as a weapon of protest in ancient times and there is a reference to it in the arthashastra. It was also used by the merchants during the Mughal rule as an instrument of protest against the oppression by local officials. Much before Gandhi, another great leader of social reform, M.G. Ranade, had also argued for a holistic approach to reform. He called it total reform. Swadeshi was a major issue during the anti-partition movement in Bengal in 1905. It was also advocated as a nationalist economic measure by Lokahitawadi Deshmukh, and G.V. Joshi who was the Secretary of Poona Sarvajanik Sabha. The genius of Gandhi lay in formulating a philosophy and designing a strategy of action which incorporated all these elements. A major weakness of this synthesis is its identification with the dominant religious-cultural tradition of Indian society, and Gandhi's inability to draw from the tradition and culture of the other major components of society.
Professional social workers discovered Gandhi much later when they felt a compelling need to find 'a local habitation and a name' for the transplanted model of social welfare. In their enthusiasm to find an indigenous base for the 'universal' model of social welfare, some of them have gone so far as to claim that 'Gandhi's contribution has been to prepare the groundwork for the establishment of the profession of social work in India'.28 This statement is befitting the enthusiasm of a new convert, but it is contrary to historical evidence. It is also not true that 'unlike his predecessors in the field of social reform, Gandhiji advanced a step further, by going into the area of welfare and establishing voluntary organisations'.29 Many of his predecessors had already done that. Jotirao Phule and Sasipada Banerjee were the earliest to go into welfare and set up voluntary organisations, and many other social reformers followed this tradition.
Gandhi's concept of social work, his priorities, his field of action and techniques differed significantly from those of the professional social workers. These may be briefly mentioned here. It was the rural society and its problems, especially rural poverty, which had high priority in Gandhi's scheme of social work.
Gandhi's philosophy as well as the plan of social work was grounded on a broad strategy of total social development resulting from a radical transformation from within in the case of the individual and of the community in which he lived. Social work was not to be directed merely to corrective or ameliorative activity, although this was important. It has to be geared to radical transformation, not merely to dealing with the consequences of an inequitable social order.30
In keeping with his approach to social work as a total process, his concept of a social worker was a Samagra Grama Sevak, who would be a resident social worker and who identified himself completely with the village he served and participated in all aspects of village life.31 This total approach to social work was not an individual problem-oriented, ameliorative action, but a community-oriented process of rural development. In line with his social philosophy, Gandhi did not devote much attention to the problems of urban society which according to him was basically a machine-dominated exploitative society. In contrast, the professional social work model was developed in the context of an urban society following the early phase of industrial revolution, and it was aimed at ameliorative action of dealing with individual poverty.
Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948. On that day he had finalised the draft of a constitution of a new organisation the Loka Sevak Sangh (Peoples Welfare Organisation) which was to be brought into existence after disbanding the Indian National Congress. It is interesting to speculate what he would have done if he had succeeded in this task and had lived on to guide the new organisation. Ganguli has aptly described this abrupt end to his plan for the future development of Indian society as Gandhi's unfinished revolution.32 Gandhi's martyrdom marks the end of a great era not only in social reform but in other fields as well.
A CENTURY OF SOCIAL REFORM - AN ASSESSMENT
What is the significance of the social reform movements? What caused them? And what has been their contribution? These are the questions which would be most interesting to consider at this stage. But lack of space does not permit a detailed discussion of these questions. So, we conclude this chapter with brief observations on them. For the sake of convenience, we shall confine these observations to the socio-religious reform movements which cover a century from 1815 to 1918-20, i.e., the first two phases of social reform.
According to B.N. Ganguli the significance of what was happening in Indian society lay 'in the fact that the economic and political transition had generated a social challenge to which an adequate response was inescapable'.33 He further states that the traditional elites were unable to make the appropriate response to the rapidly changing social structure, because 'a wide moral gulf divided them from the new rulers who realised the dangers of this rift. An educated middle class equipped with new western learning seemed to be an objective necessity.34 In other words, the political and economic changes which were the results of the colonisation of India required an adaptive response in the cultural sphere. The rigid caste rules based on the varna system, which restricted the individual's choice of occupation, his social mobility and his social (and even physical) contacts were creating hurdles in the emergence of a modern 'middle class' to serve the changing needs of the society. For this to happen, some of the caste rules had to be scrapped or at least relaxed. Also, if the emerging middle class was to serve its role of meeting the objective necessity as Ganguli calls it, it had to acquire the necessary qualities to play this role and modern education was essential for this purpose. So we find that the first recruits to this class beginning from Rammohun Roy, became initiators and leaders of a series of movements, variously labelled as religious, cultural and social reform movements. All of them were advocates of modern education and many of them played an active part in establishing educational institutions. They also urged their followers or members of their caste/religion to acquire knowledge of western science and English. In order to accomplish these objectives reformers had to attack some traditional values and social customs. This they did by resorting to the reinterpretation of the sources of these traditional values and customs. The sources of the new ideology were Christian ethics and western philosophy and literature. The main elements of this ideology were individualism, liberty and equality.
Almost all the reformers were theists in their religious conviction and many of them belonged to one or the other Samaj which was a reformist religious sect. 'It was religious fervour that saturated their social ethics. This was the well-spring of their humanitarian ideas and what may be called their moral intoxication.’35 The social reformers viewed inequality in its totality and as a structural problem. They however stressed social equality and equality of opportunity rather than economic equality. It is argued that they were influenced more by the earlier tracts by J.S. Mill On Liberty and Subjugation of Women than by his socialistic ideas on distribution of wealth and economic equality which were expressed in his later book, Principles of Political Economy. Ganguli's analysis of the ideology of the nineteenth century social reformers is illuminating in many respects. However, sometimes his interpretations tend to be less critical and more favorable to the reformers. For instance, Ganguli is not right as we have earlier seen when he states that the reformers practiced what they preached.36 We notice two distinct types in the reformist tradition: those showing rare courage and strong moral conviction and who practiced what they preached; and those who failed to do so when faced with strong opposition from relations and the orthodoxy. To the first category belong Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Sasipada Banerjee, Pandit Shivanatha Sastri in Bengal and R.K. Bhandarkar and D.K. Karve in Poona. Rammohun Roy who took a Brahmin cook with him when he sailed for England, K.C. Sen and K.T. Telang who married their daughters at an age lower than what they advocated, and M.G. Ranade who failed to marry a widow on the death of his first wife and instead married a young girl of tender age belong to the latter category.
Neither their religious fervour nor their moral intoxication inspired the reformers to take note of the widespread custom of slavery, leave alone campaign against its abolition. This does not support Ganguli's thesis that reformers were moved by the spirit of humanism and that they acted in favour of social equality. Slavery was legally abolished by the British government under pressure from Christian missionaries in India and their influential colleagues and political supporters in England. A variation of slavery-the bonded labour-continued to exist legally until it was abolished, during the Emergency in 1975.
Gunnar Myrdal has observed that there was in Sweden 'the opportunistic unawareness of poverty as a protective shield for the consciences of the better off as long as they had the power'.37 We cannot make a similar observation about the nineteenth century social reformers of India. They were certainly aware of the existence of poverty among the masses. Rammohun Roy wrote that he was pained by the wretched condition of the impoverished peasantry in Bengal. M.G. Ranade spoke of poverty as a very old inheritance. Dadabhai Nauroji took a leading role to make poverty a major national and political issue. He blamed the 'un-British rule' for its existence and propounded the famous Drain Theory of poverty. But none of them initiated any action either to alleviate the misery of the poor or argue against economic inequality, which was a central element in the total view of inequality as a structural problem, and which was the result of the old inheritance of structural inequality. While the reformers turned a blind eye to the misery of the pauperised artisans and peasantry, and to the suffering of the slaves, their hearts bled when they saw the suffering of widows, who were almost wholly from the upper castes to which they themselves belonged. Ganguli's analysis fails to explain this paradox.
We thus return to the puzzling phenomenon for which Hcimsath could not find a satisfactory explanation: the extreme preoccupation of the social reformers with upper caste women-their unequal status in society, and the problems associated with them such as sati, widow remarriage and child marriage, certain caste rules which prohibited sea voyage, social mixing with foreigners and people of lower castes and inter-caste marriage within the main caste group were also among their preoccupations. In our opinion an adequate answer is embedded in the explanation offered by Ganguli but not fully developed by him: the need for a middle class to meet the new needs of a society which was undergoing rapid political and economic changes.
Two factors were responsible for social reformers' preoccupation with the improvement of the conditions of women and the relaxation of caste taboos and rules. One factor is the individual psychological experience of most of the reform leaders, who were witness to the mute suffering of women in their own family or in the families of their relations and friends. Added to this was the 'moral intoxication' of these reformers who were deeply influenced by the new ethics of humanism and individual freedom. The reformers had no wide experience or close contact with poverty and its dehumanising consequences.38 At best it was a vague, intellectual concern based on an occassional glimpse of the suffering. This lacked the emotive power to generate social action.
The second factor is to be found in the structural basis of the social changes. The social changes following colonization opened up new avenues for the members of high caste groups who were not part of the traditional elite group. Knowledge of English and a suitable academic degree to be able to compete for prestigious or lucrative jobs in government and in the commercial-industrial sector of private enterprise became a matter of personal necessity. This also met the objective necessity of creating the middle class. This would not be possible if caste taboos prevented certain amount of social mixing with the members of the other castes and foreigners. Sea voyage was necessary to acquire the highest educational qualifications for practice in the legal, medical and teaching professions, and for recruitment to the prestigious and powerful Indian Civil Service for which examinations were held in England. The new ideologies of individual liberty, social equality and the rights of man provided the intellectual stimulation for concerted social action which gradually led to the emergence of social reform movements in the urban centres of commerce, government administration and education. As Ganguli has aptly remarked it was essentially the urban spirit which was behind reform activities.39 The improvement of the status of women and the granting of individual freedom for social mixing had the incidental advantage of being saved from social embarrassment, when the new indigenous elites met the ruling elites at social gatherings. The former could now be accompanied by their wives on these social occasions.
In the past two decades feminist historians have studied the main issues of social reform movement and have arrived at conclusions which are significantly different than those mentioned by earlier traditional historians. The lengthy quotation cited below provides a summary of the findings of the feminist scholars.
“Many feminist historians, especially writing in the last twenty years have attempted to present an alternate account of reforms and nationalism from a gender perspective. They have sought to produce a more complex and textured view of these processes. Many have contended, that apparently philanthropic concerns for women were motivated by more than abstract principles of humanitarianism”… simultaneously feminist scholars have recognized the potential and possibilities of these (reform) endeavours, and the pioneering role played by some great liberal reformist and nationalist individuals, who operated against various orthodoxies and conservatisms”… Reforms and nationalism did signal new opportunities for women, however limited they proved to be. There was a growing awareness of women’s roles and rights and their increasing articulation in the public-political sphere” (Gupta 2012)*.
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