‘Time is Out of Joint’ : Caste and Democracy in Colonial Tamil Nadu



Self-government and democracy become real not when a Constitution based on adult suffrage comes into existence but when the governing class loses its power to capture the power to govern.                                                                                                 – B.R.Ambedkar

The thrust on the caste question enunciated by the uprising of Dalits in India in the post-Mandal and post-Ambedkar centenary celebrations of the 1990s has given a renewed context not only for the Dalits but also for everyone to rethink our understanding of democracy. While talking of the decisive role of caste in Colonial rule, we also need to see how it determined even the policies of rival colonial powers. Scholars who worked on the operations of rival colonial powers focus generally on the difference between the British and the French colonial policies. They have pointed out the violent nature of the British administration and the policy of appropriation adopted by the French government. Such a view is shared even among those nationalists like Aurobindo, poet Bharathi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The recorded history of the British India and the French occupied territories – that includes Pondicherry, Mahe, Karaikal, Yanam and Chandranagur –may clearly show this difference.

Colonial Powers and the Caste Question

The rise of the caste question offers a totally different perspective of the colonial powers. Notwithstanding the differences in the handling of the caste question, the rival colonial powers seem to have understood the fact that caste is part of the national question in India. This is very clear in the East India Company’s system of trade with the natives. The foreign traders were expected to have their dealings only through the ‘qaspa’, the entrepot of the trading communities. The Marikayars (Tamil-speaking Muslims), Chettis and Pillais were the major trading communities in South India, whereas Marwaris and Multanis in Rajastan, Banias in Gujarat and Bengal were the major traders in North India. While the British disturbed this ‘caste-based trades’, the French never tried to interrupt the ‘qaspa’ system. In fact the Governor of French Pondicherry, Duplex, besides building houses for the Mudaliars, the weaving community, supplied tax-free yarn, cotton for two years when they threaten to leave the territory. So the fact that the participants of the early uprising against the British India were mostly from traditional trading communities is not just a coincidence. This may help us understand that silence about French colonialism in India is not due to the ‘policy of assimilation’ but due to our failure to understand colonial powers’ handling of the caste question.

Contrary to such a history of colonial powers, the underprivileged communities both in the British India and in the French-occupied territories give us a totally different vision of colonialism. They usually looked at the colonial powers – both in British India and in the French India – as a boon. Sources concerning their activities are readily available for those interested in reexamining their own assumptions of nationalism vis-a-vis colonialism. The archival sources regarding the activities of the untouchables in the two territories seem to alter our perceptions of colonialism and democracy.

This article tries to reflect upon such sources concerning the Depressed Class in colonial Tamil Nadu in order to move beyond our conception of political democracy and get an understanding of social democracy insisted by Dr.Ambedkar. It also tries to argue that social democracy remains only a critical reading of the principle of political democracy and does not stand in opposition to political democracy. The history of the Depressed Class in colonial Tamil Nadu and their continuous criticism of the activities of the National Congress provide us such a nuanced understanding of colonialism and democracy on the one hand and enable a re-reading of the Orientalists like J. S. Mill on the other. This may even complicate, the article tries to suggest, the discourses of postcolonialism.

Paari Chezhian Ad Conference jpg

A copy of the invitation letter of the twenty first Adi Dravida Reformist Conference held at North Arcot district in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Image Courtesy Paari Chezhian’s Facebook.


Culture of Petitioneering 

It is in this backdrop that we must look at the various Depressed Class conferences and Adi-Dravida Conferences conducted between 1891 and 1926. The conduct of the conferences in the late 19th and the beginning of 20th century was a significant shift from the culture of giving petitions to the colonial government that existed earlier. This is very clear in the references made in the conference resolutions to the petitions and may help us identify the culture of petitioneering. A close reading will show that the petitions do not remain pleas to the government as they hinted at the power of the colonial authority and its responsibility over its subjects. The petition submitted in December 1779 states:

… to whom can your petitioners repose and implore for success but to God and to your Honor &c., as absolute and patron of the place, convinced and not doubting in the least that your Honor &c., are far superior in humane dispositions for aiding, relieving the poor and oppressed .…(Public Consultation Vol cxxii: 31 Dec.1779)

By way of attributing ‘Godly’ power to the colonial authority, the petitioners seem to suggest that authority – whether Godly or of Governmental – means ‘responsibility’. The same tone could be found in the petition submitted in 1810:

At the government of major General Meadows, Major Mall the Chief Engineer at that time have continued to take your petitioners addressed to Maquis Cornwalis and Major General Meadows their grievances after perusing your petitioners case, those noble gentlemen have passed a minute on the government records expressing that during the flag of the Hon’ble Company your petitioners shall not be troubled hereafter – your petitioners can live in quietness without paying any tax. (in T.P.Kamalanathan:4)

The colonial response to these petitions, conference resolutions and their memorandums show the organized movement of the Depressed Class during the 19th century. Besides raising voice for their safeguards, the untouchables played a significant role in making a section of colonial officers to raise ethical issues regarding colonialism. In his “Note on Pariahs of Chingleput” (1892), the district collector Tremenheere says:

It is sometimes asked why the State should do anything for the lower castes; why they, should not be left alone to find their own level. The answer is that the policy of the State in the past has do grade them, and the State must retrieve its mistakes. We have permitted ancient privileges to survive until they have become anachronisms, and we have created now privileges. These at least can be confined to their minimum range of harm; and the classes who have been kept back in the race of life can be given a new start (45).

The reference to ‘ancient privileges’ shows that he is not just criticizing the colonial government but hints at the alliance between colonialism and brahminism. This is clear when he says: “The concessions asked for the Pariahs alone (e.g.in the proposed Settlements) are not very great when it is remembered that until so late as the Settlement of 1875, special advantages in the tenure of land were being conceded to the Brahmans (45)”.

Boundaries of Nationalism and postcolonial Debate

It is within this century-old organized struggle that we must place the activities of the untouchables in the 20th century and their ‘seemingly pro-colonial’ standpoints. The Farewell address presented to Lord Willingdon in 1924 notes: “….that the British government should on no account sacrifice the interests of the Depressed and Minority Communities, out of deference to the wishes and sentiments of a majority community; that the British character of administration through the agency of the British people must be maintained at any cost” (Quoted in M.C.Rajah:79). These details, placed in their culture proper, will demand that any discussion of democracy in the Indian context must go beyond a critique of a government (colonial or native government) and take into account the operations of power vis-à-vis caste.

Sources concerning the activities of the Depressed Class suggest that during the turn of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century, the tension between the nationalists and the Depressed class was so strong that they challenged each other’s activities. Knowledge of this tension may help us situate the petitions of the untouchables and Tremenheere’s report in a renewed context. Pointing out the colonial government’s acceptance of the system of Mirasidars, which does not allow pariahs to own land, and the caste Hindus’ prejudice against them, which led to the oppression of untouchables, he suggested major reforms in the fields of land and education. It is apt here to quote at length the reasons that he gave for establishing special schools:

1) That the Mirasidars and other masters of the Pariahs get their face against this education.
2) That the parents of the caste pupils object to their children frequenting schools where Pariahs are admitted.
3) That the schoolmasters share this prejudice, making the Pariah children sit outside school, and teaching them from a distance.
4) That the children have to tend cattle or otherwise work during the day.
5) That they are often too poor to pay fees or buy books.
6) That there are no trained Pariah masters (for no Result Grants are given unless masters have passed the Primary Examination): Even untrained masters can hardly be obtained.
7) That even if masters could be obtained, they could not keep themselves on the Result Grants, though these are 50 percent higher for Pariahs.

The remedies I propose are:

a) To increase the number of special Pariah day and night schools so that every large Paracheri (Spatially demarcated zones of untouchable habitations)have one;
b) To attract Pariahs by scholarships into the Normal schools;
c) To abandon the Result Grant System and pay salaries in these special schools;
d) That Provincial administration, which alone can stand the financial strain, and which can maintain a sympathetic policy in favor of the low-castes much more consistently than the Local Boards, should assume the control of the special Pariah schools. The measures which I recommend in connection with the land question would ensure an ample supply of funds. (32)

Contrary to this report that shows concern for the untouchables, missionaries like Annie Beasant shared the views of caste Hindus and insisted that untouchables should not be mixed with ‘high caste’ children in schools:

The children of the depressed classes need, first of all, to be taught cleanliness, outside decency of behavior, and the earliest rudiments of education, religion and morality. Their bodies, at present, are ill-odorous and foul, with the liquor and strong-smelling foods out of which for generations they have been built up; it will need some generations of purer food and living to make their bodies fit to sit in the close neighbourhood of a school-room with children who have received bodies from an ancestry trained in habits of exquisite personal cleanliness, and fed on pure food-stuffs. (46-47)

It is ironic that while the colonial official could ignore the prejudices of caste, the missionary, who is expected to have concerns for the natives, shares the caste prejudice. Annie Beasant was one of those missionaries, who were manipulated by the nationalists and the Brahmins. The 19th century Buddhist, Pundit Iyothee Thass said that the so-called Brahmins manipulated a section of missionaries, “gave them certain palm-leaf manuscripts, encouraged them to translate the materials into English and constructed a ‘hindu philosophy’ ” (70).

paari chezhian routes

Tamil Buddhist Intellectual, Pundit C.Iyothee Thass.

In addition, the Brahmins and the caste Hindus also campaigned against those colonial administrators who (like Tremenheere) tried to ameliorate the condition of the Depressed Classes. This is very clear in the report published in the nationalist paper Swadesamitran on 17th July 1897 against the appointment of Tremenheere as the District Collector in Madras Presidency and urged the government to send him to Northern states. Challenging this report, Parayan on 24th July 1897 cited the welfare measures taken up by Tremenheere and made the colonial government appoint him as the collector of Chingleput.

Since there are differences even among the colonial officials and among the missionaries, the binary native vs colonial (constructed in the nationalist debate and in the postcolonial discourse) seems too limiting for an understanding of colonialism and democracy in the Indian context. This becomes apparent in the demand for simultaneous examinations for civil services in India and London, campaigned under the headship of Dadabai Naoroji and in the reports on the famous dandi march led by Gandhi. When Gandhi conducted the famous dandi march demanding abolition of salt tax, the untouchables headed by Rettaimalai Srinivasan (who was the close associate of Dr.Ambedkar and accompanied him in the Round Table conference) demanded for the imposition of salt tax. They suggested that the tax might be used for the welfare measures for the untouchables.

The fourth resolution passed at the First Congress Maha Jana Sabha (1885) demanded that the civil service examination may be conducted both in London and in India to enable Indian natives to appear for the examination and join administrative services under colonial rule (Subramani Bharathi:11). Continuous campaign for this demand was taken up by Dadabai Naoroji. In the magazine Parayan Rettaimalai Srinivasan launched a counter campaign demanding that the examination should not be conducted in India. Exposed to these activities of the Depressed class, wide range of scholars including missionaries, magistrates, even some of the nationalists, and non-brahmin ideologues, continuously wrote in the Indian Review between 1900 to 1909, suggesting that the caste question is a national question in India.

Paradox of Authority and Responsibility

This renewed understanding of caste within the colonial context may help us view the colonial government as just ‘another authority’ that assumes ‘responsibility’ over its subjects. It was this ‘responsibility’ that was suggested in the petitions of the untouchables during the 18th and 19th century. This authority/responsibility nexus sometimes became a source of power in the colonial/missionary gestures of compassion and emancipation. The postcolonial discourse chooses to focus only the authoritarian power assumed within colonialism and ignored this aspect of ‘responsibility’. It was with this understanding that Dr.Ambedkar criticized the nationalist claims of swaraj and questioned the activities of the Indian National congress:

Philosophically it may be possible to consider a nation as a unit but sociologically it cannot be regarded as consisting of many classes and …. it is foolish to take solace in the fact that because the Congress is fighting for the freedom of India, it is, therefore, fighting for the freedom of the people of India and of the lowest of the low. (132)

This argument of Ambedkar and the activities of the Depressed Class may force anyone to regard the untouchables as having a pro-colonial attitude. That was how it was described by the nationalists during their struggle for political freedom of India in the early decades of the 20th century. Such a pro-colonial nature of the archival sources poses serious challenges to those of us who want to talk both of colonialism as well as issues concerning Dalits. Dr.Ambedkar takes into account these intricacies involved in the perception of colonial government and refutes the nationalists’ charge in his chapter, “Are Untouchables Tools of the British?” He criticised Congress’ view that “freedom of India from British Imperialism to be the be- all and end-all of Indian nationalism”, and clarified the matter thus:

The British government admits India’s right to freedom, even to independence, if Indians so desire…. There can be no greater proof of this new angle of vision than the Cripps proposals. The condition precedent laid down by the British Government for India’s freedom is that Indians must produce a constitution, which has the concurrence of the important elements in the national life of the country. Such is the stage we have reached. The Untouchables cannot therefore understand why the Congress, instead of trying to achieve agreement among Indians, should keep on talking in terms of a “Fight for Freedom” and maligning the Untouchables in not joining in it(177).

So the real issue, according to Dr.Ambedkar, is not colonialism but “what one regards as proximate and what as ultimate. Others regard the question of constitutional safeguards as ultimate. I regard as proximate (181)”. Refusing to believe that the constitutional safeguards as ultimate, Dr.Ambedkar seems to hint at the limited scope of the political democracy envisaged by the Congress.

Ambedkar’s Reading of Colonial Democracy

Here one faces another question: How did Dr.Ambedkar manage to arrive at this vision of social democracy? While arguing that Dr.Ambedkar’s social identity (as a member of untouchable community and the difficulties he faced in his personal life) leads to this alternative vision of democracy, we should also remember that there were untouchable leaders even within the Congress who never questioned Gandhi and his praise of the varna system. This may prove that our focus on the personal/social identity of Dr.Ambedkar would fail to recognize his philosophical-political vision.

Let us not forget that Dr.Ambedkar was exposed to a wide range of European intellectuals, political philosophers like John Stuart Mill and classical thinkers like Theocritus. He was also very clear about the importance of reading these intellectuals without subscribing to the colonial vision and to an anti-colonial sentiment. Mira Nanda has pointed out the influence of John Dewey on Dr.Ambedkar and suggested the possibility of tracing the impact of various Victorian intellectuals on him. Only then we will be able to understand that Dr.Ambedkar’s vision of social democracy remains part of the political democracy that he was vehemently criticizing. While those who follow the vision of political democracy could easily criticize J.S. Mill’s Orientalist views on Eastern culture and regard him as racist, Dr.Ambedkar helps us re-read J.S.Mill’s views on Representative Government, according to which both the governing class and the governed are responsible for establishing democracy.Challenging the strict binary of autocratic and democratic forms of government, J.S.Mill said that order and progress are two fundamental principles of any form of government. Besides pointing at their inter-dependency, he said that the government alone could not be held responsible for maintaining these principles (of order and progress) and made civil society accountable:

The first element of good government, therefore, being the virtue and intelligence of the human beings composing the community, the most important point of excellence which any form of government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves. The first question in respect to any political institutions is how far they tend to foster in the members of the community the various desirable qualities, moral and intellectual, or rather (following Bentham’s more complete classification) moral, intellectual, and active. The government which does this best has every likelihood of being the best in all other respects, since it is on these qualities, so far as they exist in the people, that all possibility of goodness in the practical operations of the government depends.

Dr.Ambedkar is interested not just in Mill’s views on government but in the social vision inherent in his discussion of political democracy. This may help us understand that Dr.Ambedkar’s vision of social democracy does not stand in opposition to political democracy but suggests the need to rethink the political concepts like ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Democracy’ through a critical reading of existing forms of political democracy. It was this vision of authority/responsibility nexus that later got translated as rights/duties in his Constitutional writings. Such a reading of the archival material concerning Dalits, moving beyond the confines of Dalit history, may help us broaden our understanding of colonialism and democracy. It will also demand us to challenge the comfortable binaries within which we invoke discourses/counter-discourses of nationalism in the present context.


Ambedkar.B.R., ‘What Gandhi and Congress Have Done to the Untouchables,’ B.R.Ambedkar:Writings and Speeches. Education Department: Govt.of Maharashtra, 1990.

Beasant, Annie. “On Untouchables”, The Indian Review, February, 1909, Reprinted in The Depressed Class, Government Archives, Egmore, 1913.

Bharathi, Subramania. Bharatha Jana Sabha (Congress Jana Sabha’s Caritiram). 2nd edition. Sivaganga: Bharathi Mandalam, 1985.

Iyothee Thass, “Vesha Brahmana Vivaram”, Iyothee Thasar Cinthanaikal, Palayamkottai:Folklore Research Centre, 1999.

Kamalanathan,T.P. Comp. Scheduled Caste’s Struggle for Emancipation in South India. Tirupattur: The South India Sakkiya Buddhist Association, 1985.

Mill, J.S., Principles of Representative Government.1861. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press. 1977.

Nanda, Meera. Prophets Facing Backward : Post Modernism Science and Hindu Nationalism, Delhi:Permanent Black, 2004.

Parayan. From Native News Paper Reports submitted to British, Tamil Nadu State Archives, Chennai.

Public Consultation Vol cxxii: 31 Dec.1779, Government Archives, Egmore

Rajah,M.C. The Oppressed Hindus. Madras: Huxley press, 1925.

Rettaimalai Srinivasan. ‘Jiviya Saritha Surukkam,’ Dalit, May-July 2002, 43-62.

Swadesamitran. From Native News Paper Reports submitted to British, Tamil Nadu State Archives, Chennai.

Tremenheere.H.H., “Note on Pariahs of Chingleput” submitted to the British, 1892.


This article was written by R.Azhagarasan.

Dr.R.Azhagarasan is Associate Professor at the Department of English, University of Madras. His specialisation includes Cultural Studies, Translation and Postcolonial Studies. He is the co-editor of The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing and translator of D.Ravikumar’s Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics. He can be contacted at razhagu@gmail.com

Images Courtesy : Paari Chezhian Facebook.


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