Oppression, “Progressive” Law and Labour in India: The 1918 Report on Agricultural Labourers by Madras Presidency’s Collector J. Gray




What follows is an excerpt from a book whose main argument is that the way Dalit oppression was first defined by the colonial state, as well as by caste people and missionaries, effectively made successful solutions to that problem impossible.[1] The way policies were formulated between about 1890 and 1925, it argues, still affects the lives and labour of Dalits in Tamil Nadu, and likely elsewhere where similar legislation was enacted. The colonial period records are also instructive because they illustrate the specific means used by state officials to deny of the gravity of the problem, which included attempts by both landlords and the state to obscure the fact that although slavery had long been legally abolished in Tamil Nadu, many Dalits were held in labour relationships which were permanent and unfree. The excerpt describes how a report on Panchamas (as Dalits were then known) that the government commissioned the missionary Adam Andrew to write in 1916 revealed disturbing facts of widespread, and at the time illegal, subjugation.

These results then prompted a more thorough official inquiry in 1918 conducted by the Collector J. Gray; it is the first government survey report based on comparatively extensive fieldwork in Dalit communities across four different districts. What the report reveals is that ubiquitous but unlawful means of dominating Dalits by caste elites were papered over by officials, both Indian and British, who were afraid of antagonizing them for fear of what this would do to their essential relationships with their highest taxpayers. Arguably the single most important means of accomplishing this was through the framing of “liberal” laws and regulations—for instance the abolition of slavery—followed by the systematic refusal to enforce them. Dalits were forced to live out their lives in what I call legal and regulatory “blackout zones;” the laws that existed simply were not applied when these laws would favour Dalit interests. Importantly, this was not a question of mistakes or accidents or oversight. It was carried out in full knowledge of the state. I call this collusion between the state and landed elites the caste-state nexus. It will no doubt be plain to students of contemporary India that the arguments that elites made against policies that could have lasting structural benefits are remarkably similar to those put forward today by dominant castes.

Rupa Pariah Problem

The cover image of the book The Pariah Problem : Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India, published by Columbia University Press. Image Courtesy : Columbia University Press.

Unfreedom after Legal Abolition

“…A detailed confidential document on Panchamas appeared in 1916 and was the first of its kind in several respects.[2] It was the first to provide ethnographic observations on those who where then called Panchamas, and on the conditions of their lives and labor, with specific studies conducted in sixteen villages. Also striking about this report is that it was written not by a state official, but by a missionary, the Rev. Adam Andrew of the Free Church of Scotland. This was in part because only missionaries possessed intimate knowledge about Dalits. Unlike state officials, who would receive information almost entirely from caste people who put themselves forward as representatives of a village, missionaries actually entered Madras’s ceris and spent considerable time—often decades—in them. Officials were well aware missionaries possessed an expertise no official could match.Andrew’s report described Panchamas in villages in the Chingleput District and included a descriptive overview and detailed statistical appendices based on his own empirical investigations, as well as data collected by a team of local people he had assembled for this purpose, and summations of lengthy interviews with Panchamas of all sixteen villages. Andrew began by noting that the condition of Panchamas had hardly progressed in the preceding quarter of a century (since the publication of the well-known Tremenheere report [3] ) and that on the basis of his personal experience, he was certain that the situation was likely to be the same across the Presidency.[4] He was political enough to describe the government as sympathetic to the issue, citing the concessions they had made in response to Tremenheere’s report regarding education and the provision of bought-in lands.[5] But he declared these measures to have had virtually no effect.

Caste Hindus continued to despise Panchamas, the report explained, adding that the wages paid to Panchamas were “in harmony with the spirit that relegates them to that position.”[6] Indeed, however bleak their condition in the 1880s and 1890s, the plight of the Panchamas was in some respects “even worse at the present time through the rise in prices.”[7] By comparing the prices of food grains in each village to the wages earned by laborers, Andrew revealed that the majority of Panchamas would not have been able to eat more than one meal per day. Andrew knew how the government would be likely to respond: they would say that slavery was illegal, and that therefore Panchamas could go wherever they wanted by emigrating. In fact of course many Dalits did do this, but it took extraordinary courage: Andrew pointed out the extreme difficulty of taking such a step into the unknown, which would require a destitute man to abandon everything he knew as well as his wife and children[8].

Andrew’s report vividly describes some of the tactics landlords used to keep Dalit labourers under their thumb. Among these perhaps the single most important was the threat of eviction, since landlords claimed to own Dalit housesites (although this was technically illegal, since all residential land in ceris was supposed to be owned by the state). Such threats had been a feature of the Panchama’s subordination throughout the period [of the book’s study] and also served as stark evidence of the nature of the state’s operation, in as much as laws claiming government ownership over house sites were most often and quite purposefully not followed, allowing landlords to assume ownership in practice. In other words, historians and social scientists need to pay attention to the systematic (and not just accidental) disregard for particular laws and regulations that characterise modern bureaucratic regime. Power is exercised not only by positively exerting authority over the population, but by carefully choosing when and how to leave society alone.

Andrew pointed out that the Land Act of 1908 had explicitly restated that ownership of village communal land, puramboke, by mirasidars and other categories of landlord was illegal. Yet despite this restatement, in a recent case with which Andrew was familiar, Panchamas who refused to work for a particular landlord were taken to court in order to effect an eviction. Although in this particular instance the case was thrown out, Andrew’s point was that the 1908 Act was hardly known in rural Madras, least of all by Panchamas, and the mere threat of eviction could be used to ensure the Panchama’s subjection. Andrew also reported that Panchama house sites were often sold, as they had been in this case, along with plots of agricultural land, a practice that was understood to mean the transfer of those Panchamas to the new landowner as well. This practice had been described by a collector named C. M. Mullaly some forty years earlier as a vestige of “slavery” and “a disgrace on the administration.”[9] Andrew, however, was more tactful, terming the arrangement “practical serfdom.”[10] The point, again, is that the existence of particular laws and regulations tells us little about how states and elites exert domination: rather we must be attentive to how and when regulations are selectively ignored.

The official notes on Andrew’s report were drawn up by a relatively low-ranking officer of the Revenue Department, the deputy registrar. The notes began with a historical overview of government responses to the conditions of Panchamas, itself heavily slanted to reports that provide an inaccurately rosy picture of Panchama servitude. The deputy registrar quoted at length, for example, from a deputy collector of Tanjore, a Brahmin by the name of Krishnaswami Ayyar, who in 1885 claimed that:

“in the good old times the panniyals (hired labourers) were actual slaves and the porakudies (tenants) more obedient to the mirasidars. But … the mirasidars are now-a-days more annoyed by porakudies and panniyals than the latter by the former…” [11]

Ayyar was invoking a favourite myth of elite landlords in colonial Madras, an alleged golden age when pannaiyals unquestioningly obeyed their masters. While Indian landowning elites at this time routinely described a better past when their workers are supposed to have been more obedient, and blamed “outside influences” for upsetting labour relations, there remains no historical evidence whatsoever of any time when this was indeed the case. What we find instead is that whenever Dalits had opportunities to escape their villages or their bondage, they took them with unwavering swiftness.

…When A. G. Cardew, a senior British official, reviewed these remarks, he vehemently disagreed with the deputy registrar, pointing to Andrew’s long experience, as well as to his own firsthand observations of caste employers’ treatment of Panchamas. Yet more commonly, official resistance to such messages remained strong. For the colonial state, however much it is renowned for its sympathy towards Dalits, especially in comparison to native elites, was in fact highly dependent on landlords for taxes, its main source of revenue, and therefore very reluctant to go against their wishes. So, H. A. Stuart, another board member, insisted, “I am not much impressed by the individual cases of hardship which Mr. Andrew has brought to light. . . . Evidence of this kind really proves too much, for if it were true, the labourer could not live.”[12] The very fact that Dalit labourers were alive proved, for this official, that they were given enough to eat!

“Panchamas Are Just the Poor”

Stuart did, however, suggest that an enquiry be made regarding the conditions of Panchama laborers, at which time wages could also be verified. Stuart confidently predicted that such a report would show that Andrew had grossly underestimated wages. Equally distrustful of Andrew’s conclusions, but not willing even to allow a follow-up inquiry, a member of the governor’s executive council, P. S. Sivaswami Ayyar expressed concern thus:

The relations between Pariah labourers and their employers are generally smooth and harmonious, and the appointment of a commission [of inquiry] is, I am afraid, only too likely to cause great friction between the classes by creating undue expectations in the minds of one class and undue apprehension in the minds of the other. . . . A low standard of living and . . . insanitary conditions of life are not confined to the Pariah labourer. . . . It would be a great mistake to treat the problem . . . as confined to the Pariah community alone [13].

Again, the elite landowning classes insisted relations between Dalit labourers and their employers were “harmonious” and would stay that way if left alone. It was Sivaswami Ayyar’s contention, furthermore, that the Pariah’s impoverishment was not connected to his status as Pariah; poverty, rather, was the lot of all the “labouring classes” of India. This was also a common and well-worn, but completely unsubstantiated argument. Dalits, this argument went, were indeed poor, but it was not because they were Dalits—it was just unfortunately the case that some were poor and others rich. So the government ought not studying only Dalits. (In short, this is an older variant of the common but spurious anti-reservations argument one hears from elites today, who will insist that because there can be poor Brahmins and Vellalas, reservation targets the wrong subpopulation). In this vein, Sivaswami Ayyar declared that he would support an enquiry into the condition of those he termed “laboring classes” but not into the Pariah’s condition alone. And in accordance with Sivaswami Ayyar’s arguments, an officer was assigned to collect information not only on Panchamas but on those labeled “poor persons” as well.

The officer appointed to conduct the new inquiry, J. Gray, had been described to the public only as an officer evaluating the method of collecting statistics of agricultural wages. Yet as revenue officials anxiously noted in their discussion, the idea that Gray was assigned to enquire into the economic conditions of Panchamas had already been leaked to the native presses and became the cause of some uproar among landed elites… Gray was required to report on laborers’ wages, but he was also asked to make enquiries regarding three issues that Andrew’s report had identified as critical in the assessment of Panchamas’ welfare: (1) the extent to which laborers’ freedom was curtailed by the system of debt bondage or “man-mortgages” (al-adaimanam); (2) whether landlords routinely used the threat of eviction from house sites to exact labor at low wages; and (3) the frequency with which laborers sought alternative employment in India or abroad. In addition, wage data on the poor as a whole was to be collected, in order to assuage the members of government who had insisted that there should not be a study solely addressing Panchamas.

Despite resistance to collecting information on the true conditions of Dalits, Gray managed to unearth some scathing facts. For instance, in evaluating the process by which the state had collected the wage data he was expected to analyze, Gray identified major flaws in official methodology—and all of these flaws happened to skew the data in the same direction, mistakenly suggesting wages were higher than they actually were. Gray’s corrections showed that the labour regime was far more exacting than what had widely been officially assumed. “Inexperienced Revenue Inspectors,” Gray explained, were ignorant “of the village customs which govern the relationship of landholders and their labourers and farm servants” and as a consequence, treated the laborer as an individual.[14] In fact, wages and payments were often shared by families. This meant, for example, that as many as eight persons might have to survive on one male laborer’s wages.[15] Gray therefore concluded that “the method or scheme of the census [of agricultural wages] is … so inadequate that the final statistics are of very little real value as an index of the economic condition of the labouring classes.”[16] More damning still was the fact that in some villages the measure used to pay laborers’ grain wages was “slightly less than the measure used for all other purposes.”[17] In other words, although the measure had the same name, the one used for disbursing wages in kind held less grain than that by which grain was traded, and thus Dalit labourers’ wages were significantly less than had been reported. Although “every ryot and labourer in those villages was well aware of this long-standing custom,” many “Revenue Inspectors . . . were quite ignorant of [it.]” [18][19].

Gray then moved from agricultural wages to the specific consideration of the lot of Panchama agricultural laborers in four districts known for very poor labor conditions, namely Chingleput, Tanjore, South Arcot, and Malabar. He first observed that “the majority of field labourers whether daily coolies or farm servants, are Panchamas,” straightaway casting doubt on elite Indian and British official opinion that Panchamas represented only one group of laborers among others.[20] (In fact, overwhelming archival evidence shows that the difference between Panchamas and others was not limited to the fact that the former represented the majority of laborers: non-Panchamas were treated differently by landlords, were not subject to the same forms of discipline, were not prevented from owning land, and so on.) In Chingleput District, Gray deemed the condition of paṭiyāḷs (permanently tied servants) particularly unfavorable. Indian landlords and officials had for a long time claimed they were better off than daily wage earners because they were supposed to be employed even in slack seasons. But in fact such employment was far from regular. What Gray found therefore showed that the assumption about the increased security and prosperity of tied labourers was a complete fabrication that was based entirely on hearsay and that had, until this point, remained entirely untested.

In Gray’s estimation, it was what he called “debt” that spelled the ruin of the paṭiyāḷ. But this was debt of a very peculiar kind. Although most employers stated that their paṭiyāḷs could leave them at the end of a year of service if they chose to, simply by repaying the “advance” in full, it was clear to Gray that paṭiyāḷs could almost never manage to amass the necessary amount. Furthermore, it is quite likely that those mirasidars interviewed by Gray only stated the possibility of ending the service contract because they were aware that bondage was illegal. At any rate, in a small but significant number of villages in which Gray conducted interviews (ten out of eighty-eight), mirasidars stated quite plainly that “the padiyals are bound for life and can never leave their [i.e., the mirasidars’] service without permission even if they repay all advances”![21] In other words, the term debt for this relation is highly misleading, because this was a form of “debt” for which the “lender” would never accept payment. Indeed, as Gray found, “In many villages the patiyal is still referred to as an ‘Adimaial’ [‘slave’], while the cloth given to him at Pongal [a harvest festival] is generally known as ‘Sirai Panam’ [‘slave money’].”[22] At the time of Gray’s writing, slavery was supposed to have been abolished in British India for close to three-quarters of a century!

Mirasidars Versus the South Indian Oppressed Classes Union

…The outcome of Gray’s report was a suggestion by the government that Dalits be granted ownership over their house sites, and that this would be implemented first in Tanjore. Mirasidars in that district protested vociferously, sending petition after petition to the government. But so too did a group of Dalit activists in Negapatam calling themselves the South Indian Oppressed Classes Union (SIOCU). The few issues of their magazine, Valikattuvone (The Leader) that have survived reveal that they were following the situation in Tanjore with close attention. We also know that following a mass meeting of the mirasidars of Tanjore to protest the government’s plans, the SIOCU organized its own meeting to counter the mirasidars’ claims. The speeches made at the meeting have not survived, and all that remains in the pages of Valikattuvone is brief but bracing commentary on both the specific issue of housesites, and an analysis of caste domination.

Routes Valikattuvone

Valikattuvone the magazine run by the South India Oppressed Classes Union. Image Courtesy : Rupa Viswanath.


For instance, in an explanation of how the Union acquired its name, the editor, S. A. S. Tangamuttu noted:

It may be remarked that this Union has been curiously named as “The Oppressed Classes Union.” The names suggested by the Originators, viz., “The South India Panchama Union” and “The South India Depressed Classes Mission” were not welcome to the members as they said that they were not depressed but oppressed by other people even in trifling matters such as the wearing of shoes and holding of umbrellas… The landlords . . . oppress them in exacting more work than is conscientiously fixed for coolies in factories and mills. . . . Hence the name . . . is given to suit the desire of the majority of the Depressed Classes.[23]

Tangamuttu impugned the description of Panchamas as depressed, which allowed others to depict Panchamas’ poverty as a natural fact, simply another instance of the universal existence of economic stratification. Tangamuttu well understood his audience, since mirasidar petitions at the time frequently sought the sympathy of the state for their practices of domination by asserting that there was a “certain class of people” everywhere with whom the “better sort” do not associate. In contrast, Tangamuttu described Panchamas’ condition as one of oppression, in which the active efforts of mirasidars produced and maintained a very particular form of degradation and even extended the realm of their tyranny to matters of shoes and umbrellas. In so doing he highlighted the irreducibly relational quality of caste oppression: oppressed classes can exist only by virtue of those who so oppress them. This analysis underlies Tangamuttu’s scathing and ironic depiction of the Tanjore mirasidars. Commenting on a heated debate about the house site issue in the Madras Legislative Council, Tangamuttu wrote,

The maxim, “Grow crops, and eat what you have ploughed” [uḻutuṇ payiṟcey] is only being followed properly in zillahs [districts] other than this one. . . . [Tanjore mirasidars] have taken up high posts [in government administration]. They appear to believe that the noble work of agriculture is something to be despised, and have entrusted their wet and dry lands, which could earn them thousands of rupees, to the ignorant, uncultured Panchaman. Then with the very meager income they receive from their lands they lie on their sofas, becoming even lazier than the Panchama![24]

While mirasidars claimed they were struggling against high revenue demands and bad agricultural seasons and were now afraid the house site scheme would increase laborers’ wages, Tangamuttu maintained that their lack of greater profit sprang from an insufficient industriousness. This was the very charge everyone, from missionaries to landholders, leveled against Panchamas—hence Tangamuttu’s arch reference to the “lazy Panchaman.” The accusation that mirasidars were thereby not showing the respect due to agriculture is a stinging one in Tamil country, where cultivation of the soil is widely exalted as the most virtuous profession and cultivators as the most ennobled class. While some “high” castes styled themselves cultivators and “breakers of the soil” par excellence (most famously, Tamil Vellalars), the lofty title was never granted to Panchamas. In depicting Panchamas as the true tillers of the soil, Tangamuttu exposed dominant caste ideology in Tamil country as a fraud and a sham. Tangamuttu argued that mirasidars were not producing their due for the state and that what they did glean from their lands was wholly the work of those he sarcastically dubbed, channeling the disparagement of landlords, “ignorant, uncultured Panchamas.” It was not Panchamas who were thriftless, that is, but mirasidars. And it was Panchamas who the state should value as revenue-producers…

Seventy-three years after slavery was officially abolished in British India, Dalit laborers continued to be held in de facto unfreedom by landed castes, with the explicit knowledge of the colonial state—which, it should be clarified, cannot be understood as composed only of British officials but in fact included Indian landed interests at every level. This becomes visible when we recognize the systematic discrepancy between laws and regulations on one hand, and the ways that they are implemented on the other. Dalits’| existence as the very backbone of the agrarian economy, in the Presidency which, for much of the colonial period, was the cash cow of India, was moreover, studiously ignored, despite the vocal opposition of Tangamuttu and others Dalit leaders like him.

While slavery was allowed to go on virtually unchanged, its legal abolition functioned as an alibi, and was widely touted as evidence of the progressivism of the state. We see many similar kinds of “protections” for Dalits today facing the same fate. Given the continued collusion between the state and high-caste elites from the earliest emergence of modern bureaucracy in the colonial period, it is hardly surprising that untouchability is rampant over half a century after its legal abolition in independent India in 1955. Dalit citizens are consigned to live in zones where the laws do not apply, in spaces of “blackout.” By the end of the 1910s such criticisms animated the fiery rhetoric of the earliest generation of Dalit politicians in Madras’ Legislative Council—before, that is, their autonomous struggles were dispersed, but never entirely swept away, by the overwhelming tides of Dravidianism.


[1] Excerpt taken from The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion and the Social in Modern India, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), chs. 7 and 8, pp. 168-216.

[2] The report and copious notes on it are filed in GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, TNSA.

[3] For discussion and Tamil translation of J. H. A. Tremenheere’s “Note on the Pariahs of Chingleput Report, see V. Alex, ed. and trans, Panchami Land Rights: Note on the Pariahs of Chingleput, (Madurai, India: Ezhuthu, 2009.)

[4] This was likely, because missionaries such as Andrew were frequent participants in conferences at which notes were exchanged on the management of Panchamas. Andrew was also an active member of the South Indian Missionary Association, giving him access to firsthand accounts of work among Panchamas conducted by missionaries stationed in Madras, Mysore, and Travancore.

[5] Bought-in lands were those on which revenue payment had been defaulted and which then did not fetch even a minimal price at auction: these were therefore the least desirable lands, mostly unfit for cultivation. Chapter one of the book discusses the minimal response of the government to J. H. A. Tremenheere’s “Report on the Pariahs of Chingleput,” and Adam Andrew’s “The Madras Government and the Pariahs” (Harvest Field, July 1893–December 1894, 207–16, 241–54) presents a sharply critical take on the same.

[6] GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, p. 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The accuracy of Andrew’s assessment is supported by the official report on emigration by A. K. G. Ahmad Tambi Marakkayar and J. Marjoribanks, which describes in harrowing detail the high rates of severe illness, suicide driven by loneliness, and homesickness that awaited those brave enough to attempt emigration. See GOH 281 Mis., November 3, 1916.

[9] BPR 2258 Mis., April 11, 1889, TNSA.

[10] GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, p. 4.

[11] Notes to GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, p. 6, citing GOR 1195, October 29, 1885, p. 7.

[12] Notes to GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, TNSA, p. 19, para. 4.

[13] Notes to GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, TNSA, p. 20.

[14] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 21.

[15] GOR 875 Confidential, April 19, 1916, TNSA, pp. 3-4.

[16] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 15.

[17] Unfortunately, Gray does not tell us exactly the proportional difference. BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 21.

[18] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 21.

[19] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 30.

[20] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 24.

[21] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 28; emphasis mine. Chapter one book discusses how to understand the “man-mortgage” and other forms of “debt” which were transacted between master and agrarian servant in colonial Madras.

[22] BPS 106, May 29, 1918, cited in GOR 2941, August 12, 1918, TNSA, p. 30.

[23] Valikattuvön, January 1918, pp. 2-3; emphasis mine.

[24] Valikättuvön, March 1918, p. 64.


This article was written by Rupa Viswanath.

Rupa Viswanath is Professor of Indian Religions at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the University of Göttingen, Germany. 


One comment

  • Excellent piece, it should be translated into Tamil. thanks to Rupa. i appreciate Karthi’s effort in coordinating Dalit history month at Scotland.


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