Category Archives: Routes

The Ideology of Male Indispensability: Upper Caste Experiments with Patriarchy

by Chittibabu Padavala

We men are the least qualified to speak about an issue like this. It’s time for us to listen. It must be so, even if women are just screaming and not ‘making sense’ TO US.The barbarity, inhumanity, cruelty and maleness at its usual worst has been rightly and powerfully denounced by more than one woman and including some of the distinguished Indian English writers and shown it all for what it is in the context of the violations of women participating in a New Year Party. If a situation is such in which some people from the perpetrator category (men) tell the protagonists of the victim category (activists/advocates/supporters of women’s rights) how best they can protect themselves from our atrocities, we Marxists say, we have reached the point of thinking and acting in terms of “Patriarchy”, “structures”, “systems”, “reproduction” etc. or at least be attending to them. But that is not all.

The attempted orchestration of Nirbhaya II in Bangalore seems to have turned into another “Kiss of Love” disaster or worse. It is only a matter of time that this Bangalore botch-up almost certainly will bring the worst backlash.Well, Nirbhaya movement came in the wake of a genuinely widespread outrage and the simmering new political shift, soon to take power in elections, was part of it. An atrocity of that kind is one of the very few issues that unite all sections of always fragmented Indian society in condemning them. Additionally, the victim was murdered after being tortured. She must have fought to her death rather than succumb to the demands of her torturers/abusers/murderers, an inference that is most appealing to the prevailing sentiments of Hindusphere.

Even governments, while worrying about damage to their reputation with electoral consequences, tend to do as much as they could, even while lacking the means and mentalities required for the task at their disposal, at least until the political and community connections, corruption, bribes etc. come in at the trial phase.Even Kiss of Love, for all its downright fakery and a breathtaking dishonesty, was planned by people with a sense of organisation/mobilisation and successfully managed to mobilise people in impressive numbers in more than one part of the country, even if in relatively free spaces. It had something positive and affirmative to practice and to display, however wrongly their slogans or targets are chosen.

The attempted Nirbhaya II in Bangalore in the wake of mass molestation during the usual New Year parties has none of those strengths. To begin with, it is not even definitive that such a mass atrocity actually took place.This false and farcical Nirbhaya II only has the strength of justice, power of an undeniable point, only in abstract unmoored in the events it invokes, even if it is unappealing to most people in society. It then failed to move masses and probably succeed only in bringing the most disgusting forms of backlash, far faster than if this Media-NGO cultural coup did not botch it all up.It is not difficult to discern the characteristic manipulations of all upper caste Hindu rebellions and because they are oozing out of everything they are doing and saying. Ersatz yet fluent passions is a constant in their campaigns. Things have not changed with the upper caste elite campaigns in their basic contours from the time they invented anti-Reservation mass mobilisation in the late 80s Gujarat. The meritorious each time ‘originally’ re-invent the basic model in each new case.


Police trying to disperse the crowd during New year celebrations in Bengaluru city in India. Photo Courtesy : AFP

When Hindu Nazist cadre set out to do the same, or better, to do the real one, on a larger scale, more blatantly, on cameras, in the name of protecting great Hindu culture and morals and punishing the immoral and degenerate Western culture, none of these gender warriors would be so aggressive and radical in their denunciations of patriarchy and hounding of the government.Though not many seem to give sufficient weightage to it, these days whenever Congress (or similar non-ideological party) is in government, the Hindu Left, Liberals and indignant educated/enlightened citizens suddenly become uncompromising revolutionaries and come up with the most pickiest of oppositional stances.If BJP or CPM is in power, they would not even think of doing so. Because Congress can’t unleash its ideologically-hardened and incited crowds, doesn’t go to extreme and obsessive lengths to impose its interpretation of things, like CPM and BJP governments do, typically with the help of their respective cadre. Additionally, governments headed by these two ideological parties counter attack their opponents. Moreover, these two parties employ their own mass media or use their people in the media to undo one-way attacks these coup-hatchers can afford only during Congress (or the similar party’s) rule. So these Left/Liberal/Citizen types don’t plan media coups of Bangalore kind when the government is known to counter-attack or aggressively defend itself.

Then what is wrong with such selective seizing upon of the opportunities? Isn’t it that social movements and campaigns, particularly the un-armed or non-violent ones, can only operate when the government at least has some pretense of respect for the opposition and public opinion, civil society etc? Isn’t it that our criterion cannot be objectively what is the worst injustice to fight rather than what is showing the most promise and potential to move people and mobilise them, involving thus mobilised people to understand and take up the related and larger issues? All of that is true. Only trouble is that the people who pull the coups should show some awareness of it. It seems, in Bangalore botch-up, they don’t.One woman witness, very articulate, North-Indian sounding, was repeating in a TV call in that “they were outsiders”, even without the prompt from the anchor or anything to warrant it. By outsiders, she might have meant not the kind of people who live in posh localities, or maybe they are from Karnataka but outside Bangalore city. The Right to City effortlessly transforms itself into an Exclusive Right to City in moments like this.


A CCTV video grab of the molestation event at Kammanahalli near Bengaluru in India.

Interestingly, the assertions assume the form of unimpeachable principles of individual autonomy, individual rights, choice, inviolability of person, ‘right to Night’ and right to public space for women without the alienating gazes and intrusions, freedom of movement and fun-making and all such un-qualifiable matters of rights. Of course, all of them are true and some of those who dub the whole Bangalore events in these terms are honest or honestly mean them. Such matters of right do not depend on any qualities of those who are entitled to them nor could they be made subject to any qualifications and conditions.But there is an unacknowledged undercurrent Hindu principle, drawn straight from the Code of Manu and other sacred Hindu texts. To put it simply, the idea that freedoms and rights, even the basic and fundamental ones, can be privileges, exceptions, special provisions for some people in some places.Since Nehruvian modernizing and “secular” arrangements, these upper caste elites until yesterday availed these freedoms AS privileges, they constructed narratives of modernity and attributed it to modernity alone and told themselves and even others that they were good enough to be modernizing, thus having them all. Thus invisibilised Manu, at least for themselves, allows them to define their privileges as a defense of freedom, of modernity and individual autonomy.

In this convenient Hindu UC imagination, the people with enough power to off set exaggerated and partial stories through the presence and influence in mass media, NGOs and other opinion-making mechanisms, the assertion of elite power to limit the right to city and send clear message to certain skin-colours, body types, looks, sartorial, class and caste markers to erect a vague class wall, marking a boundary, issue a threat by arm-twisting a eager-to-please government in power appears an appropriate and even workable strategy.To complicate the matter, if the upper caste gender warriors have English Media in their hands, the police and citizens have cc cameras. At least certain claims can be verified. So far, the surfaced definitive evidence points to only one instance of an atrocity of a lone woman in a bylane and not to a mass molestation in the places where it was claimed to have taken place.Understandably, there are more advocates than the witnesses.Anyone living in the real world and not in the hyper-privileged protected places all their lives, even in their vacations, knows that mass molestations are a regular and constant in all places where crowds form and on the move from festivals to recreational events to patriotic gatherings to partying events.Such systematic and long-standing problem can be addressed with a little bit of patient ground work with a small team and a camera for a couple of days, if these warriors are patient and responsible enough to do some leg work, rather than in excessively believing in their own verbal power to bring fundamental changes, though limited only for themselves.

This is also a city with the highest concentration of NGOs in the country, probably in the world, if one is not completely caught up in their own Brahmanical confidence in effecting changes without getting out of their desks, they could have partnered with some of these to do the necessary homework. It is clear that these Hindu elite gender warriors thought of giving it a try in what they perceive as the methods of Hindu Nazists: rumour-mongering, spreading panics to move crowds to frenzied action, after all, our goals are incomparably honourable than theirs, they might have told themselves.Hindu Nazists, alas, before spreading lies and rumours to move people to extraordinary actions, do patient organization building, grooming contacts and all such stuff. They are less of idealists than the Hindu Left/Liberal/Moderns. They are into the business of really changing the world, not just trying to construct a cultural SEZ(Special Economic Zone) for a section of society. If imitating the Hindu Nazist methods is bad enough, failing even to do so is worse. The worst is when Hindu Nazist crowds indulge in much bigger atrocities, openly announced and openly perpetrated, with full impunity.

Bangalore has some of those very few pockets in the country where modernizing, educated, professional women can take refuse from their suffocating patriarchal families and hassling neighbourhoods, with relatively low or infrequent levels of interference.Like elsewhere in such spaces, they provide some absolutely common-sounding but rare freedoms for Indian women, where they can just walk into a bar and have some fun or be on her own without accompanying males to protect them or preying or annoying men hovering over them. Such spaces everywhere allow for mostly upper caste/rich/middle/upwardly mobile women students or professionals the uncertain breathing spaces without having to go through the almost impossible fight to win their minimal freedoms within the family – thus either losing more freedoms or losing the securities of family structures.This model of having only benefits of patriarchy while escaping its daily cruelties and absurdities is coming to an end. Sadly for Hindu UC elite educated professional women, this end is coming when patriarchy is no more a matter within and of the family, kin and neighbourhood but aggressively promoted and worsened by the Hindu Nazist state and its trained paramilitary cadres and their incited mobs.These women will en mass be forced back into the most rigid of the family-kinship traps or no less oppressive friendships, live-ins, co-residential arrangements to stay away from the families. Now the forced choice or no choice is threateningly simple: you either reject patriarchy fully or succumb to it fully.

Though it escapes the campaigners of “notallmen” or not-all-Bangalore types who understood that the campaign got screwed by the campaigners themselves but can’t bear to face or tell the truth honestly, by 70s itself it was feminist and women rights common sense that male power is a ‘system’ and those bad men who oppress women force them into the embrace or the protection of ‘good’ men. In this mutually reinforcing relationship or division of labor among men, very often the same men play protectors to ‘their’ women while persecuting other women to push them back to ‘their’ good men. The bottom line is male indispensability.The time-tested method of upper-castes, of foregrounding “their” women (subjectively experienced among the upper caste elites themselves, of course, as women taking charge of thing even in matters public) whenever they want to assert themselves but their men lack the appeal or acceptance is also gone. Hindu Nazist specialty is precisely to attack the privileged upper caste women first to subdue and limit them back to their families and one of the successful things they invented is to tap and provide a channel for the anti-elite, anti-modern feelings and prejudices of their foot soldiers.

Chittibabu is a Dalit Marxist scholar based in Goettingen, Germany.  For more on Dalit Marxism and updates please see this Facebook Page.


Edinburgh to celebrate Festival of Indian Films and Documentaries

The first Edinburgh Festival of Indian Films & Documentaries (EFIFD) sweeps across Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh from Wednesday 7th to Sunday 11th September 2016.Hosted by the Consulate General of India (Edinburgh), in association with the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University, the five-day film festival features over 30 films and documentaries from the Indian sub-continent and is being showcased across four landmark city venues. According to Festival Director, Piyush Roy, “The film festival brings to Scotland for the first time, an eclectic cinematic selection from over five decades of Indian moviemaking, featuring a vibrant mix of themes ranging from histories and human drama, faiths and philosophies, music, magic, fine arts, popular culture, politics and personal stories.”

Complementing the screenings will be Q&A sessions with participating filmmakers, seminars and panel discussions with academic experts on cinema and South Asia, exhibitions and exciting live music performances of popular and classical Indian music. Among the guests are classical musician Marianne Svašek performing a Dhrupad recital, filmmaker Nila Madhab Panda (one of the youngest recipients of India’s civilian honour, the Padma Shri award) discussing his documentary God’s Own People (also making its UK premiere at EFIFD 2016) and Swaryatra, Edinburgh’s leading Indian film music group presenting a loving live tribute to its popular musical history. God’s Own People is an intimate document of human faith narrated as an epic cinematic story, exploring the bonds between the devotees and the divine through millennium old rituals at the largest pilgrim gathering of 21st century that happened in the Eastern Coastal Indian town of Puri in July 2015. Excited about the first ever Scottish debut of an Odia language film, Mr. Panda said, “I am very pleased to have our film God’s Own People being showcased at the Edinburgh Festival of Indian films and documentaries. It is a moment of pride to have it as the festival’s opening film.”

venue-1-indian-new-wave-cinema-film-guildThe festival’s highlight is the participation, and a retrospective of some classic Indian arthouse films featuring legendary Indian actor, Om Puri, in the lead.Om Puri’s contributions and influence extend far beyond India, where Ardh Satya (Half Truths) remains to date, the biggest art house cinema blockbuster in Indian film history. He is equally known for his work in English films (East is East, West is West, My Son The Fanatic, Gandhi, Wolf, Charlie Wilson’s War, 100 Foot Long Journey), and has received an OBE for his contribution to British cinema. One meaningful aim of the festival is to celebrate and enhance the cultural connection between India and Scotland, and the UK. Om Puri’s presence will be a fantastic way to honour this connection – his retrospective will include the Bollywood Curry Western, China Gate, the critically acclaimed contemporary Basu Bhattacharya classic, Aastha: In the Prison of Spring, Ardh Satya and the rarely available early Indian New Wave cinema classic, Susman (Essence), personally sourced by Om Puri from its director, Shyam Benegal.

venue-2-scottish-premieresFinally, making their UK premieres at EFIFD 2016 are three exciting new features from three regional Indian language cinema industries in tandem with the festival’s focus on highlighting the other movie making industries in India, beyond Bollywood. These are:

– Nachom-ia Kumpasar: A Konkani love story set in the 1960s, directed by Bardroy Barretto, this UK premiere at EFIFD celebrates Goa’s unique musical legacy shaped by Portuguese influences.

– Shaheb Bibi Golaam: A riveting new age Bengali drama set in Kolkata featuring a contract killer, a housewife and a taxi driver in an unusual game of chance and revenge by critic turned filmmaker Pratim D. Gupta.

– Ekk Albela: Set in the Hindi film industry’s golden era of the 1940s and 50s, this acclaimed Marathi biopic by Shekhar Sartandel (featuring Vidya Balan) profiles its first male action hero and dancing star, Bhagwan Dada.


The 2016 Edinburgh Festival of Indian Films & Documentaries will be a week of memorable movie memories with some of the most sterling films from Planet Earth’s most prolific cinema industry.

The festival’s event listings, film trailers and links for ticket purchases can be found at the official EFIFD Facebook page:

Follow EFIFD on Twitter:

EFIFD 2016 Trailer:

This post was written by Piyush Roy.

Piyush is a PhD candidate in South Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is a film studies scholar and has won the Best Film Critic (Special Mention) Award at the 60th Indian National Film Awards in 2013. 

Göttingen stands up for annihilation of caste

A huge mobilization of Dalits (former Untouchables) rages in the state of Gujarat, India whereby recently Dalits had to face caste violence. A few weeks ago members of the Dalit community in the city of Una, who were removing carcasses, were brutally attacked by the “cow vigilantes”. Dalits have been historically forced into removing carcasses and human excreta. These occupations, which were sanctioned by Brahmanical caste system, are practiced even today in large parts of the country. In one of the biggest and most inspiring anti-caste mass mobilizations of Dalits in Gujarat have challenged the present Hindu-nationalist government head on. Gujarat is the same state, which had witnessed mass-murder of more than 2000 Muslims a decade ago.

Untouchable communities (aka Dalits and Schedule Castes) in Gujarat have come together and have decided to end this degrading form of religiously sanctioned labour of removing dead animals manually. This is in addition to clearing excreta, which is another form of forced labour. Dalit communities and their organisations not merely stand against such demeaning labour but also demand reparation in the form of land, education, and jobs as alternative opportunities. They not just stand against the present day Hindu fascist government but also resist its vigilantism of beef-eating communities.

This militant vegetarianism and ‘cow vigilantism’, which are products of caste-extremism, needs to be condemned by people all across the world. This needs attention particularly, because the government instead of protecting its own people is fuelling the casteist persecution of the beef-eating communities. Killing people for their choice of food, such as beef, is against humanity. Needless to say, neither the state nor the vigilantes would ever succeed against the cultural rights, such as, the beef eating food habits of the people. However, considering the increasing brutalities on those who struggle against casteism, the global solidarity with the oppressed people of India is the need of the hour.It is the moral responsibility of the entire world to stand in solidarity with those who are engaged in struggles against the Brahmanical caste system and religiously sanctioned menial labour practices as well as food fascism.

Demonstration Against Caste Violence In India

In an effort to support and showcase solidarity with the Dalits in Gujarat India, on 9th August 2016 a demonstration was organised in the city Göttingen, Germany. To the best of our knowledge, it is for the first time that such a demonstration on the issue of caste-based atrocities has been organised in Germany. This is despite the fact that several universities and institutes in Germany have been conducting research on India for over a century. The event in Göttingen was meant to sensitise the people in Germany about the violent persecution of Dalits by those upholding the Brahmanical caste system. Most importantly, we wanted to stand in solidarity with the Dalits who are struggling against the caste system in Gujarat in particular and India in general.


Research scholars, faculty, students  and non-teaching staff of University of Gottingen standing up for caste annihilation.

The Dalits of Gujarat have renewed the anti-caste movement in the most inspiring way. They have pledged to give up the humiliating labour of skinning the dead animals and disposing of the dead carcasses and have instead demanded agricultural land from state. They have not only challenged the Brahmanical caste order but they are the one of the most powerful force resisting Hindutva fascist forces in contemporary India. They have also brought together other marginalised groups such as Muslims who have been the victims of communal violence. The struggling Dalits certainly deserve and require all the solidarity and support from international community.


Students, research fellows and non teaching staff of University of Göttingen at a protest demonstration held in Göttingen, Germany, condemning the caste violence against Dalits in India.

The demonstration was organised by research fellows and students based at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS), University of Göttingen: Sumeet Mhaskar, Gajendran Ayyathurai, Dickens Leonard M and Chittibabu Padavala. Students, research fellows and non-teaching staff from CeMIS, Max Planck Insitute and Goethe Institute partiiapted in the demonstration. The demonstration was concluded with a speech by Gajendran Ayyathurai, and Naima Tiné and Karl Müller-Bahlke read out the statement condemning caste based atrocities in India. The copies of the statement in German and English language were distributed during demonstration.

This blogpost was jointly written by Sumeet Mhaskar, Gajendran Ayyathurai, Chittibabu Padavala and Dickens Leonard.

Sumeet Mhaskar is Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS), University of Göttingen. Gajendran Ayyathurai is Research Fellow at the CeMIS, Chittibabu Padavala and Dickens Leonard are visiting PhD fellows at CeMIS. 


Dr.B.R.Ambedkar Lecture at University of Edinburgh

In this brilliant Dr.Ambedkar lecture delivered by Prof. David Mosse, Professor of Social Anthropology and Head of the Department of Anthropology and  Sociology, through two distinct cases one in India and the other in offshore explicates how debate and policy on caste is warped by issues of religion and nationalism. Prof. Mosse has more than thirty years of experience in south Asian studies and it was indeed a great privilege for the Centre for South Asian Studies to host him to deliver the Dr.B.R.Ambedkar lecture. is happy to podcast the Dr.Ambedkar Lecture.

Please click the file below to listen to Prof. Mosse’s Ambedkar lecture.

The abstract of the lecture is given below.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar provided a remarkably clear-thinking basis for social policy and law in India in relation to caste inequality and discrimination. However, the course he charted towards justice and common humanity in the age of equality and rationalism was frequently challenged by crosswinds of religion and nationalism. Opening with two distinct instances, this lecture shows how debate and policy on caste continues to be warped by issues of religion and nationalism.

The first case is that of the status of non-Hindu (Christian and Muslim Dalits) and the denial to them of state provisions and protections as Scheduled Castes (historical victims of oppression and untouchability). The second case is the resistance to the implementation of legislation outlawing caste-based discrimination in the UK by Hindu organisations. Here an interlinked perspective (in part Gandhian) regards caste within India as bound up with Hinduism and the nation, and public debate on caste outside India as a (missionary-colonialist) attack on Hindus and Indian national culture.

An elite internalising of caste to Hinduism or silencing caste in the name of religion and nation may illustrate a postcolonial predicament, but it also sets the freedoms of caste against the Dalit freedom from discrimination, and profoundly misconstrues the experience and perspective of Dalits themselves. The final part of the lecture will explore the latter with the case of Dalit Christians in south India whose overt struggle against the public humiliations of caste have limited success against caste when reworked as structural exclusion and blocked aspirations in the liberalised Indian economy; and among whom there is now a quite pervasive aspiration for casteless humanity — captured so eloquently in Dr Ambedkar’s vision of the recovery of common humanity and a society free from social barriers.

Towards ex-brahminization: The Everyday Life of The Brahmin Male



Gajendran Ayyathurai*

What happens to a human when she is called a broken person, an oppressed person, an ex-untouchable, a lower-caste person and so on has remained an under-examined, even un-examined, theme in psychological, sociological, anthropological, linguistic, literary, and historical studies. Given the entrenchment of privileged caste groups in Indian and Western academy (as well as in Indian public life), centering or re-centering the humanity of those oppressed by caste in universal categories and identities is safely far away in theory and practice. Be that as it may. The purpose of this article, however, is to reverse the gaze on brahmins. By doing so we, the anticaste people of the world, could help those who claim birth as brahmins to begin the process of becoming “ex-brahmins”.

But first, why should there be ex-brahminization of those people who think that they are naturally born with a brahmin identity in Indian society? Because, as a self-ordained minority (making up less than five percent of the population?), brahmins have lived and thrived through hegemony and violence against their fellow humans. Indeed, their spurious religio-cultural, economic, and historical claims in particular have only glorified their self-ghettoization.

Consider what a tuft on a brahmin male head, sacred thread on a brahmin male body, ash and vermillion lines and dots on a half-naked brahmin male body and typical brahmin dress do to a brahmin body. They give brahmins the power to assume a sense of religious power, and thereby to inferiorize others in order to secure a variety of benefits. For brahmin males, to speak of “human beings” refers only to brahmin males; brahmin women and girls are not their equals, neither in ritual nor in everyday life.[1] But the brahmins have paid so dearly for insulating themselves against nature. That is, they have lost humanism and love, since such values are incompatible with anyone who would self-identify himself as a brahmin male with all the aforesaid embellishments.

The sociological, cultural, political, and historical explanations clearly demonstrate that brahmins have remained possibly one of the most exclusionary groups in human history. Barrington Moore was right in comparing brahmins and Jews in his illuminating historical sociology of them, Moral purity and persecution in human history. But he was wrong in considering Jews as more orthodox and exclusionary than brahmins. For, while it is disputable that the roots of racism could be traced to Jews, it is evident that brahmins are the fountain head of casteism and inventors of gruesome violence, such as untouchability.[2] The irony is that after the arrival of Buddhism, Islamic and European empires, a republican constitution, and anticaste movements and policies in India, the brahmins have made the bodily exclusion of their own women, and of non-brahmins, as their virtue, instead of seeing it as a self-dehumanizing shame and tragedy. Unveiling the assumptions of brahminical virtuosity as antihuman will hopefully set off brahmin males to ex-brahminizing their community.

How does one identify him or herself as a brahmin? Brahminical religio-cultural inventions have been historically self-proclaimed, as the exclusive domain of brahmin, as naturally given, and so prohibiting the other. Today, for instance, this brahmin/othering process begins even from the mundane context of a brahmin introducing him or herself by their surname, be it Sharma, Trivedi, Chatterjee, Iyer or so on. Such surnames audaciously assume a putative historical and cultural superiority over non-brahmin, and guarantee the instant camaraderie with another brahmin which is brutally denied to a non-brahmin.[3] Needless to say, historicizing a brahmin name such as Iyer could suggest that we are in a murky field of brahmin male inventions, which are basically attempts to shut the doors on others, as Ambedkar’s metaphor vividly demonstrates in his work, Caste in India. Aside from the surname, many more bodily doors are shut against those who are excluded, the other.

When one begins to identify one’s body in caste terms, as a brahmin male does, what flows thereafter are the divisions, such as body and mind, not just within oneself but also between people. Self-ghettoization is therefore set in motion from one’s body to imaginations and practices of space and time leading to what Alain Badiou has called “collection of ghettoes” in another context.[4] Language, for instance, is an amazing human invention to communicate with and between one another, rather than to hold as the exclusive creation of one’s own god and to deny it to one’s own women and others. This is what brahmin males have done. From the sage Manu’s path-breaking insistence that brahmin males have to pour hot oil or molten lead in to brahmin women’s and lower castes’ ears if they listen to Sanskrit, to brahmin males’ exclusive power to be the priests in temples today, now across the world, the brahmin males have made a killing out of the sacred linguistic connections they make for themselves. That is, they have policed Sanskrit as sacred, but meant only for them, as the only source of other languages and human wisdom in India, as the only ancient language with modern ideas of genetics, and as the only language to be researched at IITs and IIMs. It does not matter whether the 2011 Indian


A sacred thread  wearing ceremony of brahmins taking place. Image Courtesy :

census found only around fourteen thousand Sanskrit speakers among India’s one and a quarter billion people. The brahmin male language needs local and global endorsement. Sadly, the global academy has sanctified such spurious claims of brahminical obscurantism through its own power to canonize what P J Marshal has called “caste segregation” in the last two hundred and fifty years.[5]

Self-denial of speaking to fellow humans, let alone inviting them for a dialogue, is ominous enough to spur other dangerous brahminical exclusions. No wonder then, the brahmins are also known for their politics of food. Consider the irony of brahmin male food categories such as vegetarian, pure-vegetarian, prasadam (sacred food) and so on in order to ridicule and reject the food humanity eats across the world as non-vegetarian. When a male identifies himself as a brahmin and sells food, it is automatically celebrated as the best, the most wholesome. Even if it is unpalatable, even if the brahmin who prepares and serves the food is nauseatingly dirty and lacks the basic culinary skills that thrive among those they have oppressed, such as untouchables. Arguably the vegetarian vigilantism of brahmins in modern times is intertwined with their ascendance through and collusion with colonialism since the late nineteenth century, particularly in two ways. Firstly, brahmins begin to displace caste-dormant or caste-free relations among urban people into caste-manifest relations with their migration to urban places, as they did in the villages they owned prior to colonialism; and secondly, in using their caste-based ritual power and colonialism-based material power, brahmins have begun to monopolize the hotel industry for instance, sidelining mixed and cosmopolitan cuisines and customers in urban centers such as Madras.[6] Ironically, the non-brahmin privileged caste males in the Tamil speaking regions who attempted to usurp the ritual and material power from the Sanskritic-brahmins in late colonialism also mimicked the brahmin males with their own pretentions of ritual and culinary purity, as is evident from the Tamil purist movement and its doyens such as Vedachalam Pillai (who was also known for his vanity as Maraimalai Adikal).[7]

Once basic human elements, such as language and food, are religiously rarified and ritually excluded in order to favor brahmin males, then sexual and “spatial segregation” are inevitable consequences.[8] Imagine a brahmin woman ever becoming a temple priestess. One cannot. This is not because brahminical gods, such as Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva denied brahmin women their right to religious, secular, and material parity with brahmin males. Rather, brahmin males have policed their own women, mutilated their bodies, and sanctified their power over them through their religious scriptures and interpretations, as did Manu, for instance. Pratiloma, that is, the prevention of a privileged caste woman from having sexual relations with or marrying anyone “below” her caste status is not her own decision. Rather, women’s deciding about their own desires is the privileged males’ paranoia. Nevertheless, brahmin women have always had sexual and marital partners from other caste groups, and vice versa, even when they were “widowed” and prevented from re-marriage by brahmin males’ violence. This is confirmed by Pudiyamaadu editor Swapneswari Ambal’s critical analysis of brahmin males widowing (their forced rules/restrictions) brahmin girls and women, who in any case became pregnant and indulged in infanticide in the early twentieth century.[9]

Have these caste-based sexual and spatial segregations changed today? Considering the spectacle of information technology, IITians soaring in Silicon Valley and to Mars, special economic zones, and the emergence of gated communities, a handy answer is that things have turned upside down. India: the casteless democracy has finally arrived. And so India is now free of brahmin power and violence against their other: i.e. their own women and other caste groups. However, a quick survey of temples mushrooming in India and among the Indian diaspora in the West (one count says there are now seven hundred temples in the US) confirm that brahminism is alive and well, and that mutations of brahmin-male conceptions are countering the traditional and modern challenges thrown against them. No wonder Obama carries a hanuman in his pocket as an amulet and celebrated Diwali in the White House with a brahmin male solemnizing the occasion.[10]

While this age-old temple-based casteism is reproduced through brahmin male ritual and material power, our understanding of sexual and marital relations between brahmin women and Dalit men, and vice versa, for instance, remains understudied. A pedestrian observation could, however, point out that such unions, which break down caste boundaries, are few and far between. Whereas the sexual and marital relations between brahmins and whites are on the rise, true to what Iyothee Thass observed a century ago, brahmin males more than welcome their daughters cohabitating with white-men (married or not), while they brutally prevent their daughters marrying from people they oppress as untouchables.[11] In other words, brahmin male power survives only because of the psychological damage they cause their daughters and sons through casteism and sexism early in life, thus preventing them from becoming humans.

When children are raised at home with symbols and practices of caste-based religiosity and exclusion, brahmin male owned or brahmin male employed educational institutions do nothing to reverse the antihuman self-destruction of their children. Instead, brahmin children are trained to be hate-mongering segregationists. Harvard anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian’s incisive exposure of Madras IIT, where the student festival is still called Shaastra—shamelessly echoing Manudharmashastra— confirms this.[12] Unequivocally stating that Madras IIT is a den of casteism, she clearly traces how brahmin children arriving at Madras IIT understand themselves as the engineers of the future India, having already been trained in social-Darwinism in the brahmin-owned and controlled middle and high schools in Chennai. Ironically, such brahminical enclaves have always thrived in Chennai city, despite the Dravidian parties’ decades’ long gimmicks against caste.

It is clear brahminization of merit and brahmins’ prosperity through casteism is complete, both locally and globally. In fact, one could say that globalization has become a euphemism for the predominance of brahmins. A sugar coated global brahminism shining and exclaimed as incredible is in-built in anti-democratic principles. It is even a threat to humanity, since the seeds of casteism have been sown across the world in a variety of ways. For instance, people like B K S Iyengar, flaunting his brahmin male surname, could spread his yoga in the US and Europe, conveniently connecting brahminical, mythical, and material aspects in which brahmin male power and its exclusionary interpretations of the human body and mind remain unchallenged, locally and globally. Never mind the multi-billion dollar industry that Iyengar has left behind by patronizing brahmins and recruiting white Americans and Europeans.

Therefore emancipation of those oppressed by casteism could only be possible at the death of the brahminism (re)created by brahmin males, and those who emulate them. This is what the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle students in IIT Madras, through their successful agitation against brahmin-male dominated IIT administration banning of their organization, emphasized when they quoted Ambedkar in their pamphlet, saying “Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors and it must die for caste to vanish”.[13] Otherwise, the brahmin-Dalit bhai bhai bonhomie offered by brahmin males and their associations are meant to re-ghettoize the Dalits, just as brahmin males have ghettoized themselves.[14]

Considering the predominance of brahmins in India today, in the global economy and the academy, and the inevitability of casteism spreading across the world through the agency of brahmins, the question before us, anticaste people, remains: Is there a scope for brahmins becoming ex-brahmins? One cannot escape the depressing situation we now find ourselves in.


IIT Madras, a premier institute of higher education which is overwhelmingly dominated by brahmins.

However, there are some ways to end the exclusionary and oxymoronic brand of brahminical cosmopolitanism. Anticaste solidarities and movements among the oppressed—not just political parties—are naturally the time tested ways to resist casteism/brahminism. The deep anticaste politics and history of the subalternized in India are a testament to this observation—even though Western and local historians and comparatists have chosen not only not to heed, but have indeed silenced such a past, as G. Aloysius’ Nationalism without a Nation in India confirms.

Needless to say, for a collective transformation, the onus is also on the brahmins themselves to embrace self-emancipatory casteless sociality, and reject entrenched caste-based self-ghettoization. Brahmin women, considering the grave gender oppression inflicted by their own males, have the potential to breach caste by establishing anticaste solidarities with other oppressed people, such as those who have been discriminated as untouchables, for instance. Indeed, the religious, ritualistic, sexual, and material oppression achieved through brahminical governmentality of women’s and untouchable bodies could only be decimated through sexual and material transgressions between the oppressed. This is also actually not new. Iyothee Thass and Swapneswari Ambal appealed for such unions a century ago. Sadly, this has not happened to the extent one may have expected, with privileged caste women daring to break free from the casteism of their men has been met with even more violence, such as honor killing.[15] Nonetheless today the developments of new communication technologies and social media, as well as transportation, have enabled more anticaste unions and movements.

However, a predetermining requirement in such unions is the pledge against caste and the commitment to breach the segregation of bodies, space, and time among the privileged groups, because it is the predicament of the privileged to shed caste and self-emancipate, to become the ex-privileged. Once a brahmin woman breaches caste through living-in or marital relations with a male from a community which has been persecuted as untouchable, the emancipation is mutual. For neither the man nor the woman retains any purchase in their persecuted past. A privileged woman needs to be inspired by people like Padita Ramabai, even as she has to overcome the caste-based dilemmas which the pioneering feminist could not.[16]

The people who break free from brahminical untouchability also need to reinforce their movements and politics by rejecting invocations of sectarian categories, and rather embrace universalizing new identities in which they remain locally grounded and globally interconnected. Iyothee Thass’ total rejection of condescending and discriminating epithets such as Paraiyars/Pariah, Panchamas, Depressed Classes, and so on, and embracing the category The Tamilian (as he named the weekly journal he published from 1907 to 1914) confirms this. In fact, Thass and the anticate movement he built in the Tamil speaking regions are a testament to a history of universalization against marginalization by caste that the people who are prone to oppressions of various kinds in the present cannot afford to overlook.

A critical understanding of the social-Darwinist tendencies of brahmins’ everyday life is the first step in opening up the possibilities for brahmins to become ex-brahmins. For only by becoming ex-brahmins could they too embrace universal humanism and love, something they have denied themselves so long.


[1] By quoting Caroline Osella and Filippo Osella’s observation that “Brahmanhood is synonymous with maleness”, Ute Hüsken rightly takes a step further to conclude that “(f)or the Brahmanic Sanskrit texts it goes without saying that being human is identical with being male.” See Ute Hüsken, “Denial as silencing: On women’s ritual agency in a South Indian Brahmin tradition”, Journal of Ritual Studies, Volume 27, Number 1, 2013, pp. 21-34.

[2] Patrick Ollivelle’s detailed translation of the ancient Manudharmashastra confirms it is a violent text intending to establish brahmin male power over their own women, and those the male brahmins have deemed as untouchables. See Patrick Ollivelle, Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-Dharmashastra, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005.

[3] This applies to all caste groups which self-capitalize on caste-based names.

[4] (last retrieved on 29 April 2016)

[5] P. J. Marshal, The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970, p. 24.

[6] Caste in the hotel industry, particularly the sociological history of brahmins’ “pure-vegetarian” brand remains an underexamined theme.

[7] See Vaithees, N. Ravi, Religion, Caste, Nation in South India: Maraimalai Adikal, the Neo-Saivite Movement, and Tamil Nationalism, 1876-1950, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014.

[8] Fuller and Narasimhan, “The agraharam: The transformation of social space and Brahman status in Tamilnadu during the colonial and postcolonial periods”, in Ritual, Caste, and Religion in Colonial South India, (Eds) Michael Bergunder, Heiko Frese, and Ulrike Shr̹öder, Franckese Stiftungen zu Halle, Halle, 2010, pp. 219-237.

[9] Pandit Iyothee Thass, (Ed) The Tamilian, 14 August 1907.

[10] For details, see the racist website: . For Obama’s Diwali celebration at the White House with a brahmin male solemnizing see here: (last retrieved on 25 April 2016)

[11] Pandit Iyothee Thass, (Ed) The Tamilian, 16 December 1908.

[12] Ajantha Subramanian “Making merit: The Indian Institutes of Technology and the social life of caste”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 2015; 57 (2):291–322.

[13] See here: (last retrieved on 26 April 2016)

[14] Likewise, Dalit political parties surrendering their anticaste and de-brahminizing agenda in order to recruit brahmins as brahmins will only guarantee the continuity of untouchablilty.

[15] For similar views on non-brahmin privileged males’ honor killing women who have decided to break free from their privaliged caste see T. Dharmaraj: (last retrieved on 25 April 2016)

[16] See Pundita Ramabai Sarasvati, The High-Caste Hindu Woman, Hyperion Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1976 [1888]), pp. 60 and 63.

This article was written by Gajendran Ayyathurai.

*Dr.Gajendran Ayyathurai is Research Fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies
Indian Religions at  Göttingen University, Germany. 




Like all Hindus, somewhere deep down inside me I had assumed that Harijans (Dalits), Gandhi’s supposed “children of God,” relegated to the fringes of society, were part of the Hindu community, part of “us.”

Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence [12]

The partition of British India in 1947 was accompanied by the mass murder of Hindus by Muslims, and Muslims by Hindus. It is estimated that up to a million people were killed (B. Metcalf and Metcalf 2006, 221), often by hand and at close quarters. While collecting oral histories of this vast human tragedy, historian Urvashi Butalia was astonished by evidence of Dalits who remained calm amid the violence around them. They knew no one would touch them, one Dalit woman recalls, because the conflict was between Hindus and Muslims and they belonged to neither group. Her father nevertheless urged her to stay indoors for fear that the Hindus might mistake his daughter for a Muslim (Butalia 2000, 235). Dalits displaced by the violence had no place to go, Butalia later reveals. For “in a war that was basically centered around Hindu and Muslim identities,” she explains, no one set up “camps to help [Dalits] tide over the difficult time. No recourse to government—all too preoccupied at the moment with looking after the interests of Muslims and Hindus, no help from political leaders whose priorities were different at the time” (2000, 238). Could untouchables not have gained admission to Hindu relief camps? At a time when Dalits were excluded from schools for Hindu children—because they were regarded as polluting—and were confined to separate quarters in government prisons for the same reason, this most likely would not have been possible. Even in 2004, in the wake of a devastating tsunami, Dalits were excluded from relief camps that sheltered caste Hindus (Human Rights Watch 2005, 25–29; Anand and Thangarasu 2006; Gill 2007).

Butalia is not the only late twentieth-century scholar surprised to discover that “Hindu” and “untouchable” are understood as contrasting categories by ordinary people, even in the present day. Mary Searle-Chatterjee recalls, “I could hardly believe the evidence of my ears” when she first noticed sweepers in Benares, among whom she was conducting ethnographic research in 1971, refer to “the Hindus” as other to themselves (2008, 189). These were not politicized Dalits who actively rejected the Hindu label in favor of Ambedkarite Buddhism, she explains. “This was the usage of ordinary, nonpoliticized sweepers” (2008, 189). They were not using the term in a segmentary sense, in which “the Hindus” means caste people in contrast to “Harijans,” and that encompasses both caste people and Dalits in contrast to Muslims. While “segmentary [terms] may be more or less inclusive,” Searle-Chatterjee explains, “in the case of the ‘low’ caste reference to Hindus as people other than themselves, something more is involved. Even when Muslims were present, sweepers did not shift to referring to themselves as ‘Hindus’ ” (2008, 189).

Butalia’s and Searle-Chatterjee’s sense of surprise is itself unsurprising. As historical anthropologist Joel Lee explains, it reflects the hegemony of the contemporary assumption

that “sweepers” and other Dalits, insofar as they are not formal converts to Buddhism, Islam or Christianity, belong in a taxonomical sense to the Hindu community and should therefore see themselves as Hindus. This assumption follows logically from the most basic lessons that students across the globe learn about Indian society; to be educated in the world today, whether in Tokyo or Chicago or Johannesburg or Delhi, is to know that Hindu society has or had a caste system that classed some people “untouchable,” that therefore “untouchables” belong to Hindu society, that therefore “untouchables” are Hindus . . . This constitutes commonsense among the educated in urban India and in the academy as well. (2015, 82)

Today this common sense is backed by the force of law. Dalits who do not specifically proclaim themselves Christian or Muslim are legally categorized as Hindu by default. Exceptions like those discovered by Searle-Chatterjee and Butalia were still common in the late twentieth century (e.g., Lynch 1969, 162–63).[13] But in many urban settings at least—including my own field site—Dalits now accept the government’s new, more inclusive definition of Hindu as including people like themselves (Roberts 2015a).

nate Roberts

Cover image of Nathaniel Roberts authored book, To Be Cared For : The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging brought out by University of California Press. Image Courtesy : UC Press.

It was not always so. Before the twentieth century Dalits were not regarded as Hindu by others, nor did they regard themselves as such. It is conceivable that exceptions may yet be found, but in the absence of clear documentary evidence it is an anachronism to label pre-twentieth-century Dalits Hindu (Searle-Chatterjee 2008, 187; Frykenberg 1997). The only significant context in which “untouchable” castes were treated as Hindu before the twentieth century was the decennial census of the colonial state, which categorized all Indians by caste and religion and which assigned those who did not proclaim themselves Muslim, Christian, or members of another recognized religion to the category “Hindu” by default. In so doing, the colonizer rejected native precedent. Census taking and other enumerative technologies were well established in India’s precolonial states and like later colonial censuses categorized subjects by caste and religion (Guha 2013; Roberts 2015b). But these precolonial censuses did not recognize untouchable castes as Hindu. As Norbert Peabody has shown in an important paper on precolonial census taking, even as late as 1835 the Hindu kingdom of Marwar conceived the primary division among its subjects as lying, not between Hindus and Muslims, but between the so-called “clean” castes, which included both Muslims and Hindus jātis, and the impure servile castes, namely Dalits, who were understood as distinct from both (2001, 834–36). Unpublished research by Divya Cherian on the same kingdom in the late eighteenth century paints a similar picture. Official guidelines on religious duties and prohibitions in that state “categorically divided its subjects into two types: Hindus (hinduvan) and untouchables (achhep). The latter category consisted of leatherworking castes, nomadic pastoral groups, Muslims (turak), and the sanitation labor castes (halalkhor). Not only were the sweepers not Hindu, they were the antipode of the Hindu: the order made clear that what actions the state required of its Hindu subjects were precisely those that it forbade its untouchable subjects” (quoted in Lee 2015, 120).

Cherian’s findings differ from Peabody’s only insofar as the records she unearthed categorize Muslims together with untouchables. Rupa Viswanath’s research in the Madras Presidency similarly finds that the term Hindu referred, until the early twentieth century, exclusively to those jātis eligible to live in the ūr and expressly excluded those confined to the cēri, the Dalit ghetto (2014c; see also Ebeling 2010). [14] Indeed, the association of Hindu with respectable caste status was so well established in nineteenth-century Madras that Christians and Muslims belonging to the so-called clean castes were sometimes referred to in native discourse as “Hindu Christians” and “Hindu Muhommedans,” to distinguish them from coreligionists of untouchable origin, known as “Pariah Christians” and “Pariah Mohammedans” (Rupa Viswanath, personal communication). And even as late as 1916, Gyan Pandey records that in Chhattisgarh, “to call a man a Hindu convey[ed] primarily that he [was] not a Chamar,” that is, not a Dalit (1993, 246).

British census officials departed from existing usage. Colonial observers had long stereotyped Indian subjects as divided into two distinct and antagonistic religious “communities,” Hindu and Muslim. The latter were portrayed as following the religion of “foreign” invaders who had ruled much of the Indian subcontinent since 1206, the former as followers of India’s original religion. By playing up alleged conflict between the two, colonizers justified their own rule as bringing peace to the land and as protecting India’s disenfranchised Hindu masses (T. Metcalf 2007, 132–48). Reversing precolonial precedent, the colonial census simply lumped untouchables together with Hindus. This policy met with frequent objections by native census takers, typically high-caste Hindus, who persistently refused to record Dalits as Hindu (Lee 2015, 110; Mendelsohn and Vicziany 2000, 27–28; Juergensmeyer 1988, 72, cited in Searle-Chatterjee 2008, 191).

Hindu census takers were not alone in rejecting untouchables. Dalits were also banned from Hindu temples; access to sacred Hindu texts was forbidden to them; Hindu priests refused them. A distinctly anthropological argument could nevertheless be made for classifying untouchables as objectively Hindu, irrespective of how they classified themselves or were classified by others, on the basis of three criteria: morphological similarities between their cults and those of popular (non-Brahminical) Hinduism, Dalits’ limited participation in village religious festivals, and the fact that Dalits serve Hindus by removing ritually impure substances for them. But it is unclear why forced ritual service to a cult implies membership in it, and by the criterion of participation many Indian Muslims and Christians are also “Hindu,” and vice versa (Roberts 2015a, 242–44). As for morphological similarities at the level of practice, these are common also between popular Hinduism and Islam in India, which is why Peter van der Veer, an anthropologist who has studied these extensively, argues that the only valid criteria for group membership are self-definition and acceptance by others. Morphological comparisons at the level of doctrine are reviewed by Viswanath (2012a), who argues they do not establish common religious identity. But the classification of Dalits as Hindu for census-taking purposes was never purported to rest on objective criteria. Dalits were recorded as Hindu by state fiat. It is thus not surprising that Hindu census takers would refuse to comply with this order, only to have their surveys later “corrected” by higher-ups.

Joel Lee’s ethnographic study of the 2011 Census describes a fascinating historical reversal: the Brahmin census taker he accompanied on rounds recorded untouchables as Hindu even when they themselves told him they were not (Lee 2015, 3–10). What had changed? Since the late nineteenth century Muslims and a Hindu missionary organization known as the Arya Samaj had been competing for converts in the United Provinces and the Punjab. The Aryas focused on converting Christians, Muslims, and wayward Hindus but at this time still regarded untouchables as beyond the pale, and the one or two attempts by renegade Samajists to convert untouchables were met with a strong backlash within the organization (Jones 1976; Adcock 2007). This began to change when the Morley-Minto reforms were announced in 1909. The franchise was extended, and representation of different communities became tied to demographics. What had been a struggle for cultural preeminence became a competition for sheer numbers (Tejani 2008, 141–43). The inclusion of untouchables within Hinduism merely for purposes of census taking suddenly had very real political implications, and Muslims began to argue that Hindus’ numbers were artificially inflated by the inclusion of untouchables (Mendelsohn and Vicziany 2000, 28; Rao 2009, 131; Sartori 2003). And all over India untouchables themselves demanded to be recognized as a separate element distinct from both groups (Sartori 2003, 272–73; D. Sen 2012; Irschick 1969, 71–72; Viswanath 2014b).

Fairness and accuracy required that the controversial policy of listing untouchables as Hindu be revisited. Census Commissioner E. A. Gait argued in 1910 that Hinduism should be conceived broadly and not be limited to those holding specific beliefs or practices. “A man may believe in the whole Hindu Pantheon, or for that matter, in no god at all—he may sacrifice or abstain from sacrifices—may eat fish and flesh, or abstain from doing so,” and still be legitimately called a Hindu, Gait argued (quoted in Mukerji 1911, v). But he observed that it was “absurd to enter without comment as Hindus persons . . . who are not regarded [as such] by others, and do not profess themselves to be Hindus,” as previous censuses had done (quoted in Mukerji 1911, v).

The possibility of losing a large portion of their official numbers sharpened the minds of high-caste Hindu leaders, who began at this point to vociferously claim Dalits as fellow Hindus and to accuse the colonial state of conspiring to undermine Hinduism by divide-and-rule tactics. It is true that the British would later seek to capitalize on the refusal by Dalits to recognize the leadership of the high-caste Hindu-led Congress Party (Prashad 1996). But “divide and rule” implies a prior unity, and in the case of Dalits and Hindus the evidence for any such unity is lacking. Interestingly, evidence for precisely the opposite—a lack of both common identity and regular social relations between caste Hindus and Dalits—can be found in the urtext of the argument that the British were subjecting Hindus to divide-and-rule by separating out untouchables. This was a pamphlet entitled A Dying Race, originally published in serial form by the Hindu strategist U. N. Mukerji in 1909. Even as the author accuses Gait’s memo of attempting to create a divi¬sion between Hindus and untouchables, he elsewhere notes,

It will puzzle most Hindus if they are asked as to the inner life of these “low castes.” Respectable people scarcely trouble themselves about such things. There is a sort of a “Ghetto” . . . attached to nearly every village, far away, of course, from where the respectable classes live. Nobody belonging to the “high castes” ever thinks of visiting these quarters. Everything about the . . . people of that class is pollution—their touch is pollution, their presence is pollution, water touched by them is polluted, their very shadow carries infection. These people do a certain sort of work and, when their services are needed, are tolerated to that extent, but they are the “itars”—“the oth-ers”—quite apart from respectable people. At other times there is hardly any contact. (Mukerji [1909] 1929, 43)

Mukerji’s admission that for Hindus untouchables were outsiders, and that Hindus wanted nothing to do with them, is not presented as an original observation. That Hindus regarded untouchables as beyond the pale was common knowledge; Mukerji’s express purpose was to persuade them to reverse course and enlist untouchables as fellow Hindus. Nationalist scholars have nevertheless treated as an established fact the accusation that Gait set out deliberately to create a division where none had existed. Historian Pradip Kumar Datta calls Gait’s memo a “blatant act of social engineering. . . . designed to encourage the detachment of low castes from the ‘Hindu’ category” and to provoke “low-caste resentment” (1999, 24, my emphasis). Datta offers no evidence for this startling claim, apart from a quote from Mukerji insisting that it is so, an instance of circular reasoning on Datta’s part that usefully illustrates the common ground between the secular liberal and Hindu nationalist on the untouchable question.

Mukerji’s pamphlet was reprinted countless times, and its arguments are repeated by Hindu nationalists to the present day (Bhatt 2001, 62–68). Its core message was that Hinduism was in a demographic struggle with Islam, a struggle in which Hindus were literally in danger of becoming biologically extinct. It also provided the strategic blueprint that would become a central feature of Hindu nationalism from that day onward—namely, that the very survival of Hinduism in the face of a putative Muslim threat (and later a Christian one) depended on its ability to incorporate Dalits and tribals within its fold. The necessity of integrating untouchables within Hinduism would become a key plank in the program of Hindu sangaṭhan (consolidation/organization).

By far the most important proponent of untouchable integration was Swami Shraddhanand, an Arya Samaj leader whose mission to the untouchables was inspired by a personal meeting with U. N. Mukerji in 1912 (Datta 1999, 22). Mukerji’s enduring influence is evident in the title of Shraddhanand’s 1924 tract, Hindu Sangathan: Saviour of the Dying Race, a text that reproduces and expands upon Mukerji’s core argument. A “constant refrain” of the swami’s writings and speeches on the untouchable question, as Joel Lee’s study of Shraddhanand’s corpus reveals, was the worrying prospect of Dalits emerging as an autonomous political force in the Indian landscape (Lee 2015, 141). Perhaps equally alarming to Shraddhanand was the threat of Dalits converting to Christianity or Islam. Thus the swami openly warns that Dalits who convert to Islam “will become equal to Hindus. . . . They will not depend on Hindus, but will be able to stand on their own legs”; those who convert to Christianity will “dream of entering its halls of governance” (quoted in Lee 2015, 140, 142). The key to preventing this, according to Shraddhanand, was eliminating the divisive practice of untouchability from the collective Hindu body. As Lee observes, “Shraddhanand insisted that the danger . . . of [Dalit] autonomy from the Hindus could only be defused if Hindus radically curtailed the regime of disabilities they imposed on untouchables. Further, he maintained that [checking] this autonomy, [by] bringing the untouchables to accept Hindu leadership, equated with the neutralization of the Muslim and Christian threat, and was an essential, sine qua non . . . for the manufacture of a Hindu nation” (Lee 2015, 143). For Shraddhanand the Hinduization of untouchables was not merely a Hindu communal cause but a national one. In his writings the good of the Hindu community was indistinguishable from India’s struggle for national independence: “The uplift of the untouchables and their assimilation in the Hindu polity is the very plinth on which alone the edifice of free India can be constructed” (quoted in Lee 2015, 143). As we will see, the mission of ending untouchability would play an identical role for Gandhi. For Gandhi, too, it was essential to the strength of both Hinduism and the nation—even to the extent that the good of the one was often presented as indistinguishable from the good of the other.

The imperative of Hinduizing the untouchable was eventually endorsed, in theory if not always in practice, by Hindu organizations across northern India and from Bengal to Bombay (Prashad 1996). The major bases of support for this movement were in towns and cities, among modernizing Hindu organizations like the Arya Samaj (Jones 1976; Adcock 2014), and among politically minded Hindu reformers keen on establishing India as a Hindu nation (Bayly 1998). But it was by no means universally accepted. Orthodox Hindus remained deeply opposed, wanting nothing to do with those they regarded as untouchable. Opposition was also widespread among rural Hindu elites (Jones 1976). And in South India, where Muslims were not perceived as a threat, programs for Hinduizing the Dalit found few takers.

Nate Roberts Navayana

The Indian edition of Nathaniel Roberts authored book, To Be Cared For : The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging, published by Navayana Publishing House.

The Congress Party passed its first resolution condemning the practice of ritual untouchability, seen by advocates of Hindu sangathan as the principal barrier to Dalits’ inclusion within the Hindu fold, only in 1917. But it took no concrete steps on this matter until the 1930s (Prashad 1996, 553). As early as 1920, M. K. Gandhi, the party’s paramount leader, proclaimed the eradication of untouchability as essential to swaraj, and in 1921 announced he had in fact opposed untouchability since childhood (Zelliot 2010, 153). Gandhi did not act on this conviction until the 1930s, however, despite urgings by Shraddhanand to join him (Lee 2015, 145), and despite multiple opportunities to lend support to autonomous Dalit struggles, including invitations from Dalit activists, which he repeatedly declined (Ambedkar 1946, 251–59). According to J. T. F. Jordens, Shraddhanand’s sole supporter of any note within Congress until the 1920s was G. D. Birla, one of India’s leading industrialists, whose vast wealth bankrolled Shraddhanand’s operation (1981, 165, cited in Lee 2015, 143–44; Renold 1994).

As for Dalits themselves, some reacted with enthusiasm to the prospect of Hinduization (shuddhi), which by the second decade of the century many embraced as an opportunity for social advancement. And just as it was Dalits who first approached Christian missionaries, and not the reverse, with demands to be converted (Viswanath 2014b; Webster 2009), so too did they begin to approach the Arya Samaj (Rawat 2011; Adcock 2014, 48–50; Lee 2015). But finding the promise of full inclusion as equals illusory, Dalits began to turn away from shuddhi by the 1920s (Lee 2015, esp. 150–53) and, simultaneously, to assert their independence from the Congress Party (Prashad 1996, 552).


The idea that religions divide naturally into converting and nonconverting, and that the latter are inherently tolerant and the former conflict prone, derives from a taxonomic distinction developed in nineteenth-century Europe (Adcock 2014, 61–70). . . .


[12] Butalia (2000, quoted in Lee 2015, 81). I thank Joel Lee for directing my attention to the writings of Butalia and Searle-Chatterjee and for providing the analysis of them (Lee 2015, 81–82) that the next three paragraphs repeat and expand upon.

[13] This contrastive usage remained commonplace in confidential Government of Tamil Nadu reports on anti-Dalit atrocities as late as the 1970s. Caste folk responsible for these attacks are referred to in these reports simply as “the Hindus” in contradistinction to their victims, who are distinguished as “the Harijans” (Rupa Viswanath, personal communication, September 2015).

[14] The idea that untouchables were always regarded as beyond the pale of Hinduism has been challenged by Arvind Sharma (2015). Sharma argues that the common understanding of untouchables as being outside the fourfold varna system is wrong. According to him untouchables should instead be thought of as a special subcategory within the shudra varna, a category he terms the excluded shudra. If untouchables were formerly included within the varna system, the argument seems to go, then by definition they must have been Hindu. But Sharma has previously argued that varna was a classificatory system that extended to the entire world, and therefore that all the world’s people were originally regarded as being within it (1992, 179). If consistently followed, the logic of Sharma’s argument would compel us to accept not only that untouchables were originally Hindus but that Chinese, Greeks, and Persians were too. Apart from this implausible implication, Sharma’s claim that untouchables were regarded as Hindus in ancient times rests on a faulty methodology. Rarified theoretical texts accessible to only a tiny cohort of Brahmin intellectuals provide no direct window into ancient social reality and tell us nothing about how ordinary people classified themselves and others.


Adcock, Catherine S. 2007. “Religious Freedom and Political Culture: The Arya Samaj in Colonial North India.” PhD diss., University of Chicago.

————— . 2014. The Limits of Tolerance: Indian Secularism and the Politics of Religious Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ambedkar, B. R. 1946. What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. 2nd ed. Bombay: Thacker.

Anand, S., and R. Thangarasu. 2006. “The Smell of Dead Bodies.” Outlook, January 9.

Bayly, Susan. 1998. “Hindu Modernisers and the ‘Public’ Arena: Indigenous Critiques of Caste in Colonial India.” In Swami Vivekananda and the Modernization of Hinduism, edited by William Radice, 93–137. Chennai: Oxford University Press.

Bhatt, Chetan. 2001. Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths. Oxford: Berg.

Butalia, Urvasi. 2000. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Durham: Duke University Press.

Datta, Pradip Kumar. 1999. Carving Blocs : Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth-Century Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ebeling, Sascha. 2010. “Another Tomorrow for Nantaṉār: The Continuation and Re–invention of a Medieval South-Indian Untouchable Saint.” In Geschichten und Geschichte: Historiographie und Hagiographie in der Asiatischen Religionsge-schichte, edited by Peter Schalk, Max Deeg, Oliver Frieberger, and Christoph Kleine, 433–516. Uppsala: Uppsala University Press.

Frykenberg, Robert. 1997. “The Emergence of Modern ‘Hinduism’ as a Concept and as an Institution: A Reappraisal with Special Reference to South India.” In Hinduism Reconsidered, rev. ed., edited by Günther D. Sontheimer and Hermann Kulke, 82–107. New Delhi: Manohar.

Gill, Timothy. 2007. “Making Things Worse: How ‘Caste-Blindness’ in Indian Post-tsunami Recovery Has Exacerbated Vulnerability and Exclusion.” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Guha, Sumit. 2013. Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present. Leiden: Brill.

Human Rights Watch. 2005. “After the Deluge: India’s Reconstruction Following the 2004 Tsunami” Human Rights Watch 17(3C): 1–49.

Irschick, Eugene F. 1969. Politics and Social Conflict in South India: The Non-Brahman Movement and Tamil Separatism, 1916–1929. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jones, Kenneth. 1976. Arya Dharm: Hindu Consciousness in 19th–Century Punjab. Delhi: Manohar.

Jordens, J. T. F. 1981. Swāmī Shraddhānanda, His Life and Causes. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Lee, Joel. 2015. Recognition and Its Shadows: Dalits and the Politics of Religion in India. PhD diss., Columbia University.

Lynch, Owen M. 1969. The Politics of Untouchability. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mendelsohn, Oliver, and Marika Vicziany. 2000. The Untouchables. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

Metcalf, Barbara D., and Thomas R. Metcalf. 2006. A Concise History of Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Metcalf, Thomas R. 2007. Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mukerji, Upendra Nath. [1909] 1929. A Dying Race. Calcutta: Bhaskar Mukerjee.

—————. 1911. Hinduism and the Coming Census : Christianity and Hinduism. Calcutta: Srikali Ghosh Cotton Press.

Pandey, Gyanendra. 1993. “Which of Us Are Hindus?” In Hindus and Others: The Question of Hindu Identity in India Today, edited by Gyanendra Pandey, 238–72. New Delhi: Viking.

Peabody, Norbert. 2001. “Cents, Sense, Census: Human Inventories in Late Precolonial and Early Colonial India.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (3): 819–50.

Prashad, Vijay. 1996. “The Untouchable Question.” Economic and Political Weekly 39 (9): 551–69.

Rao, Anupama. 2009. The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rawat, Ramnarayan S. 2011. Reconsidering Untouchability: Chamars and Dalit His¬tory in North India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Renold, Leah. 1994. “Gandhi: Patron Saint of the Industrialist.” Sagar: South Asia Graduate Research Journal 1 (1): 16–38.

Roberts, Nathaniel. 2015a. “From Village to City: Hinduism and the ‘Hindu Caste System.’ ” In Handbook of Religion in the Asian City, edited by Peter van der Veer, 237–53. Berkeley: University of California Press.

—————. 2015b. “Setting Caste Back on Its Feet.” Anthropology of This Century, no. 13, May.

Sartori, Andrew. 2003. “ ‘Culture’ in Bengal, 1870s to 1920s: The Historical Genesis of an Ambivalent Concept.” PhD diss., University of Chicago.

Searle-Chatterjee, Mary. 2008. “Attributing and Rejecting the Label ‘Hindu’ in North India.” In Religion, Language and Power, edited by Mary Searle-Chatterjee and Nile Green, 186–201. New York: Routledge.

Sen, Dwaipayan. 2012. “ ‘No Matter How, Jogendranath Had to Be Defeated’: The Scheduled Castes Federation and the Making of Partition in Bengal, 1945–1947.” Indian Economic and Social History Review 49 (3): 321–64.

Sharma, Arvind. 1992. “Ancient Hinduism as a Missionary Religion.” Numen 39 (2): 175.

——-. 2015.  Review of The Pariah Problem, by Rupa Viswanath. International Journal of Dharma Studies 3 (1): 8.

Tejani, Shabnum. 2008. Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History, 1890–1950. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Viswanath, Rupa. 2012a. “Dalits/Ex-Untouchables.” In Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism, vol. 4, edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Angelika Malinar, Helene Basu, and Vasudha Narayanan, 779–87. Leiden: Brill.

—————. 2014b. The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion and the Social in Modern India. New York: Columbia University Press.

—————. 2014c. “Rethinking Caste and Class: ‘Labour,’ the ‘Depressed Classes,’ and the Politics of Distinctions, Madras, 1918–1924.” International Review of Social History 59 (1): 1–37.

Webster, John C. B. 2009. The Dalit Christians: A History. 4th, rev. and enl. ed. New Delhi: ISPCK.

Zelliot, Eleanor. 2010. “Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Study in Leadership.” In From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays in the Ambedkar Movement, 3rd ed., 150–83. Delhi: Manohar.

This book excerpt was provided by Nathaniel Roberts, from his  book To Be Cared For : The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging published by University of California Press, Berkeley, 2016. pp. 124-31.

Nathaniel Roberts is Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Germany. 

Subaltern Symbolism: The Cartoon Furore in Context



Reams of newsprint, hours of air-time and extensive analysis were devoted to the ‘cartoon controversy’ in 2012. It has been covered from so many angles already that it may seem presumptuous to revisit the subject once again, but much of the earlier material was written in the heat of the moment, before the full facts were known or without placing the furore in a wider context. The row erupted over the use of an old caricature in a National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbook. The image depicted Ambedkar – whip in hand – sat astride a snail representing the Constitution of India, whilst Nehru stands behind them with a raised whip. Dalit activists interpreted this as Nehru whipping or belittling Ambedkar, and launched protests across the country demanding its removal. Thirumavalavan was an MP at the time and brought Parliament to standstill with an impassioned condemnation, whilst disgruntled Dalit activists in Mumbai ransacked the office of Suhas Palshikar – one of the leading academics on the NCERT board.

Ambedkar NCERT

A 1949 cartoon drawn by Shankar Pillai on Dr. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru which was reproduced in a school text book. The cartoon was removed after widespread protests stating that it was insulting Ambedkar.

The earliest indications I had of the brewing storm came from the facebook pages of Dalit activists. In these intimations there was no sense that the NCERT textbooks had already been in circulation for a considerable time or that the cartoon was a historical one that had been published while Ambedkar was still alive. These pages, rather, expressed outraged disbelief that a national icon could be so denigrated and ridiculed in a government text-book. There was a sense that Ambedkar’s caste was not incidental to his continued marginalisation. ‘What do they hope to achieve’ and ‘who are they trying to provoke’ were questions raised in these posts.

Whilst no-one would wish to condone or justify some of the intemperate language used in this issue or (especially) the actions of the hoodlums who attacked Palsihkar’s office, wishing these away or describing them as ‘emotional outbursts’ does little to help understand why they occurred. Many commentators (see Teltumbde 2012) have rightly noted that Ambedkar himself urged his followers not to deify him or regard him as a prophet, but other than indicating the writers’ complacent sense of being better Ambedkarites than the protestors, this does not get us very far. It is only by placing this episode within a wider socio-political context that we can comprehend the rage demonstrated in its wake.

The first point to note is that symbols are vitally important and to dismiss concerns around them as tokenism or ‘symbolic politics’ does a disservice to their significance (Rao 2009). Symbols are central to how we understand and frame the world around us. The nations we live in and communities we belong too are all founded on and sustained through symbols of various forms. Especially in contexts of high poverty and illiteracy symbolic means have extensive political purchase and reach. In this context, as anthropologist Nicolas Jaoul (2009) argues, Ambedkar as a symbol of the Dalit struggle has profound political implications and has helped to promote ideals of and aspirations towards citizenship amongst the most marginalised. Dalit struggles to insert ‘their’ iconic symbol into public spaces, he notes, are ‘the focal point for renewed aspirations towards democracy’ and important assertions of Dalit’s acceptance within wider society.

hugo dr-ambedkar-dalit

Dalit Sangarsh Samiti’s mural paintings and signboards carrying images of Dr.Ambedkar in Karnataka. Image Courtesy : David Titheridge.

As early as the 1950s, research in Uttar Pradesh found that Scheduled Castes perceived the Constitution ‘gifted to them by Ambedkar’ as a counter to the Hindu caste laws and codes (Mahar-Moller 1958). Despite his own cautions against deification, it is easy to find those who see Ambedkar as a Godlike figure. Insults to or desecration of Ambedkar statues, thus, routinely result in protest as they are interpreted as a symbolic exclusion of Dalits from the body politic (Rao 2009). It is against this background that the emotive force of the cartoon row begins to make sense.

The issue is not, however, simply confined to statues and symbols. The insertion of Ambedkar statues into the mainstream stands as a proxy for the inclusion of Dalit concerns and issues and highlights the continued marginalisation of such voices in national spaces and narratives. Aditya Nigam (2006) demonstrates how historians have adopted a modernist nationalist portrayal of caste as a discredited relic of tradition, and the silencing of caste also permeates social scientific analysis. A high-profile book by leading academics, for instance, can speak of ‘India’s national culture’ with barely a mention of caste. Various visionaries, from Gandhi to Azad, are excerpted, but there is no room for the insights of lower caste and untouchable leaders like Phule, Periyar or Ambedkar (Sen 2003). From this perspective, Dalit leaders feel the perceived demeaning of Ambedkar as a double insult: ‘not only do our heroes not feature prominently, but when they do they are ridiculed’. This was the sentiment best expressed by Thirumavalavan’s tub-thumping performance in parliament.

Whilst we might wish that Dalit politicians would follow Ambedkar’s example of carefully thought-through and considered action, therefore, it would be unfair to cast their actions in the same mould as other recent attempts at political censorship and curricula interference. Dalit politics is still seeking recognition and acceptance into the mainstream rather than writing official versions of events that others are expected to follow. The danger that this could leach into authoritarian tendencies is evident in Dalit leader Athavale’s refusal to condemn the vandalism of his party cadres, but Dalits remain, for the most part, lions rather than hunters when it comes to the narration of history.

With their commitment to more diverse histories and voices and their attempt to be more creative in their pedagogy, the NCERT text-books are assuredly a step in the right direction, but when the figure of Ambedkar is made to bear the weight of Dalit aspirations and expectations alone, his symbolic value is increased. We need to read his transformation into a sacrosanct prophet-like figure in this light. When school texts and histories routinely chart the histories of the suppressed, those figures may carry less symbolic and emotional weight. Until that time, we may bemoan the sensitivity of the marginalised from our positions of comfort, but we should also seek to place them in context.


Jaoul, N. 2006. ‘Learning the Use of Symbolic Means’, Contributions to Indian
Sociology 40(2): pp175-207.

Mahar-Moller, P. 1958. ‘Changing caste ideology in a north Indian village’, Journal of Social Issues 14(4): pp51-65.

Nigam, A 2006. The Insurrection of Little Selves. New Delhi: OUP.

Rao, A. 2009. The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India. Ranikhet: Permanent Black.

Sen, G 2003. ‘Preface: National culture and cultural nationalism’ in Sen, G (ed.): India: A National Culture? New Delhi: Sage. No Page Numbers.

Teltumbde, A. 2012a. ‘Bathani Tola and the Cartoon Controversy’, Economic and
Political Weekly 47(22): pp10-11.

This article was written by Hugo Gorringe.

Dr. Hugo Gorringe is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. He is also the author of Untouchable Citizens : Dalit Movements and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu. 

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. 

A Tribute to Babasaheb Ambedkar





you left this world
before I came

you hang as a memory now
on our rusty mud wall

a beaming portrait
inside a humble glass

my mother cleans it gently
with the end of her wrinkled sari
when our roof leaks on a rainy night

she wipes those tears,
becoming your fingers

I write on a tiny sheet,
“why is he weeping,ma?”,

Placing it on her lips,
I kneel to caress her hair.

She just kisses my cheeks
and leaves in a haste

Her breath feels
Like a drop of tear
She doesn’t want me to hear

My father, whispers,
On sulky nights,
“look, at those sober eyes,
That’s where we painted our past”

He, then, gazes at the farthest point
In that folded sky

“ Baba fought against gods,

Gods whose letters
Became molten lead
When it reached our ears

their water
turned into a flaming bird
bursting into temples
we cannot enter
when it touched our lips

their clothes
burnt themselves
when it covered our bodies

their streets
were laden with thorns
that pierced only our soles

we were naked beings,
bleeding from all our pores

those wounds
that wore off our dignity

we were epilogues
torn off from their stories

we were bodies
that belonged only in their borders

baba burnt those books
and wrote a new tale,
still unfinished,
all his life,
where untouched pages
were filled with languages
that spanned a nation

an untouchable nation
spawned from a million borders

he looked
into the eyes of their shivering temple-tops,
and screamed,
that a god who cannot touch us
doesn’t deserve us

we all walked behind him
like colours that follow a rainbow
as he closed their window
that seeks our worship ”

he would then go to sleep
nursed by the verses
hanging softly in his heart


No other figure in Modern Indian history attracts such veneration like that of B.R.Ambedkar. He braved great odds  and fought for the emancipation of millions of people enslaved by caste system. Image Courtesy : Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images


the lowest on our ladder
still spend their lives,suffocated,
inside the shameless sewers

even our own
have flushed their fates
to the corners of our conscience

our slippers still can’t sink
in their streets
our lips still can’t sip
from their cups

they walk on the carpets
of our corpses
to burn your statue
in the cauldron of caste

severed heads of lovers
rest on the lips of railway tracks
women hang from branches
in the shadows of a sombre night

the Hindu rule you feared
during your time
has now dawned in our realm

those scheming saints
now weave an umbrella
into whose shade they pull us
shrieking into our ears
through their holy shells
that we all are ‘Hindus’

us, baba, the very people they spit at, even in their dreams

they usher us into a ghar
that nourished on our grief
where silhouettes of our sorrow
still wail in their garba-grihas

this ghar
where we were the steps
of spiritual stairs
they never stopped climbing
: crushed beneath their feet
we pleaded for our breaths

all this,
while they shower
trishuls of tragedy
onto the skulls of the ‘other’

the other who sells fruits
beside our cobbler stands

the other who drives the flies
away from the meat we skin

the other whose God
tended to our millennial scars,
with a tint, and a moment, of dignity

with grief,
I whisper to you,
this dewy night,
that some of us
have tainted our foreheads
with the tilaks they threw at us

scribble with your worn-out pen
on this moth-eaten cloud
hiding the moon in half
those words you want to scream
at these souls who betrayed you

they shall read it soon,
one night,
when those saffron tongues
shall vomit them
into the abyss
near the horizon of hatred


rss-21 ambedkar

HEIGHT OF APPROPRIATION : Portraits of RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar and Dr.B.R.Ambedkar being carried out during an RSS rally. Ambedkar was a trenchant critic of Hindutva throughout his life. Image Courtesy : Indian Express Archives


the priests
who flayed our skins
and severed our tongues
now, light the lanterns near your feet,

come back, baba,
like the fiery breeze
that swallows their flames

they bow
in their ironed suits
before your statues
they paint with their saffron stink

come back, baba,
like a tender downpour
washing off the stains
disguised as garlands on your coat
and heal the wounds
that sprout with their prayers

they trap you in the temples
you sought to wreck

they praise you in the words
you strove to burn

come back, baba, come back

if only to nurse my mother’s fingers’
that wilt every time you weep.


All the poems were penned by Abul Kalam Azad.

Abul Kalam Azad is a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Chennai. He can be contacted at

Featured Image Courtesy : Economic Times.

Ballads, Statues and Symbols : Microhistories of Anti-Caste Protests



Key feature of Dalit histories are the numerous struggles and sacrifices of martyrs who were either subsumed under larger identities or denied place in the annals of history. This is an attempt to recover those histories. 

This article begins by explaining three different incidents that happened at three different places at different temporal periods. However they all carry an analogous character as they speak about microhistories of caste protests. As these narratives are built more directly on the ‘little facts’ of the sources it can be termed as microhistory. In line with Siegfried Kracauer’s notion that microhistory gives a more real history (Kracauer 1971: 115), these following narratives carry minutiae on real life. The central element of these microhistories in context is the hero who emerges out of nowhere and as stated by Jacques Revel “the best works of microhistory describe the hero in a multiplicity of contexts,” (Revel 1995: 807). And the following narratives bring that hero in a multiplicity of contexts.

On August 11, 1928 a gang of armed men enter the cheri(Spatial location outside of proper village) of a village called Angambakkam near Kancheepuram district, Madras Presidency(now Tamil Nadu). The gang numbering around 70 men go on a rampage attacking the Dalits and their houses in the colony. Unanticipated of such attacks the Dalits run helter-skelter. After the attacks the gang torches the houses of Dalits and moves forward approaching towards the house of Kuppusamy. The gang tried to break the front door of his house, Kuppusamy who was returning to his village came to know about the attacks against the Dalits in the colony and also found out that his house is also under attack. He rushed towards his home to find out the fate of his family, when he entered his house the gang armed with weapons laid siege to his house. He locked from inside and to chase them away and protect his life, he took his gun and fired shots towards the roof. The gang then took haystack and tried to set his house on fire.

Unable to escape from the dangerous situation he started firing shots towards the gang and in total he fired 21 shots in which fifteen members were injured and nine members were heavily injured and five died. When all this rioting was over it was almost 6 a.m. in the morning. After sending telegrams to the Police Commissioner and District Collector of Madras Presidency, police came to the spot and Kuppusamy handed over his rifle to them. The police arrested him and seven Dalits in connection with the murders.The major reason behind the plan to attack Angambakkam Kuppusamy was nothing but caste-hatred. Kuppusamy, a Dalit joined the British Indian Army as a Havildar and came back to his native village and was involved in activities attempting to uplift the Dalits. People who return to their villages after serving in the army were involved in replicating the discipline that they learned from their military life among the villagers as a way of life based on the notions of self-respect. Immauel Sekaran was one such activist.

The oppressed classes who were working through various forms towards their emancipation utilized the spaces that modernity had carved out. In that sense Kuppusamy founded an educational society in the village and established learning centres for the uplift of the villagers. Kuppusamy who was influenced by Pandit Iyothee Thass’s Buddhism had already embraced it and through his connections with the Buddist Society was involved in collecting funds and had constructed buildings for schools bought educational tools and provided salaries to the teachers. He established contacts with the British civil servants and through Cooperative Societies got assistance for the agricultural wage labourers and also helped them acquire the wastelands to engage in agriculture. The Dalits who were caught in the quagmire of poverty and bonded labour due to debts and agricultural loans were trying to break their shackles through these efforts.

This economic independence and its subsequent result of self-respect in everyday lives became a challenge for the existing traditional caste norms. So the members of castes like Mudaliar and Vanniyar and others who were the traditional landholders in these areas came together planning to attack the Dalits and Kuppusamy who was instrumental in the uplift of the Dalits. The above said incident was what happened when they decided to carry out an attack. It was an incident of violence orchestrated by caste Hindu groups who had strength of 150 families against the 60 families of Dalits who were living in the colony.

Following the arrest of Kuppusamy, eighteen members from the dominant castes were arrested. The Court while sentencing others under various sections of the criminal law ruled life imprisonment for Kuppusamy for his involvement in five murders. The Dalits were unable to take the sentence, during this time Dalit politics was highly conscientised in and around Madras and this case was highly influential. Prominent Dalit personalities of the time and people got themselves involved in the legal proceedings of the case with great interest. The Kolar Gold Field based journal Tamilan provided the space for Kuppusamy’s arguments and published all the details of the case till the very end and took it among the readers. First a forum called ‘Angambakkam Grief Compensation Forum’ was established under the leadership of V.P.S.Mani with an idea to go for an appeal in the higher court. In relation to that, a lengthy appeal was made through the Tamilan journal on March 20 1929. Prominent members of the Depressed Classes, G.Appadurai, M.C.Rajah, Swami Sahajananda and V.I.Muniaswami Pillai evinced interest in this legal battle and also contributed funds.

The case was shifted from Saidapet Court to the Madras High Court and whenever the case came for hearing it saw a good turnout of people assemble at the court complex. Handbills were distributed at times carrying details of how the case is proceeding. Advocate V.L.Ethiraj argued efficiently for Kuppusamy and on May 29, 1923 following the final hearing Kuppusamy was acquitted from all charges in the case. His acquittal was hailed as a victory of the Dalits. A short book carrying the details of the funds collected and spent on behalf of the ‘Angambakkam Grief Compensation Forum’ for Kuppusamy’s case was released on July 12, 1929. Moreover in the same year, a ballad titled Angambakkam Sriman Ebaiyan Kuppusamiyarukku Jaathi Hindukalal Nerndha Aabathin Tharkappu Sindhu ( A Self-Defense Ballad protecting Angambakkam Sriman Ebaiyan Kuppusamy from the dangers posed by caste Hindus to his life) created by J.I. Paul Vannam was sung in Chennai and on the trains from Chennai to Bangalore to collect funds for the case.

Stalin Sindhu Paul

A ballad of self-defense sung in honour of local hero Kuppusamiyar who fought against caste atrocities.

The ballad printed in the name of Tuticorin Adi Dravida Union apart from a few handbills remains as a major source of evidence about this case. Stuart Blackburn in his study on the ballads of the Tamil-speaking people finds himself in an cultural domain where there exists an alternative hero, another type of hero, who he terms as “local hero,” who differs from the courtly model precisely because he represents a different social class and Kuppusamy can be hailed as a local hero who fits the cultural framework posited by Blackburn.


Vanjinagaram is a nondescript village situated on the Madurai to Tiruchi highway near Thumbaipatti the village of former Madras Presidency(now Tamil Nadu) home minister and Congress leader Kakkan. After you enter the Dalit section of the village and walk a few paces ahead a cement plinth of 3ft height carries a painted image of a man and below his image it is engraved Kandan (03.09.1959 – 08.10.1987). There exists a practice that all the auspicious events of the villagers in this area are marked by worship to the built structure and even festivals too. This practice reminds us of an extension of the ancient hero stone worship practiced among Tamils. Heroes who lay their lives fighting for the community to save them from enemies or fighting a beast were remembered through erection of hero stones where their images are also carved. If so then what was Kandan’s struggle and loss?

Caste oppression that is prevalent in the Melur region of Madurai is comparatively harsh and rigid than other parts of the region. The caste system practiced here is regional in nature, Ambedkar himself has written about the caste practices (Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches (in Tamil) Volume-9). Seeing the level of caste discrimination prevalent Gandhi’s Harijan Seva Sangam also functioned from the region, in 1992 two Dalits Ammasi and Velu of Chennagarampatti and in 1997 Murugesan and 6 others of Melavalavu were hacked to death and these two villages also comes under this region. In most of the villages in this region there was a system called Kudikallar where the member of the intermediate caste Kallars can possess ownership to a Dalit family to work either in their house or their lands. The Kallar family then becomes the patron for the respective Dalit family and the latter’s everyday life revolves around them. If anyone in the village has a complaint over the Dalit member they would directly approach the Kudikallar and this form of social contract was in place. So the Dalits in the region were unable to unshackle themselves from this oppressive system and gain mobility or access towards education or remove themselves from doing menial jobs. Even basic civil rights were denied to them.

Kandan routes

Villagers posing in front of a concrete plinth carrying the mural of Kandan who was brutally murdered for defying caste norms.

Given these social realities in place, Kandan who had a basic education to the level of eighth standard joined his brother Subbaiah at a stone quarry in Kidaripatti village and was involved in stone cutting work. The Dalits who work, as daily wage labourers in these quarries never rose up to the stage of owning a quarry. Following the death of Kandan’s brother Murugan in an accident the family received an amount of Rs. 1.75 lakh(1,900 GBP) as compensation. Keeping their four year experience in the quarry and this amount of 1.75 lakh rupees the brothers gained sub-contract for a quarry. This was the first time a Dalit had got a sub-contract to a quarry in this region. When they started their quarry business they were able to hire Dalits for quarry work and also were able to procure tools and machines for stone quarrying on their own. This effort by the Dalit brothers threw up questions of caste restrictions in place and there is no need to explicate how much frustrated and angered was the caste Hindus about this initiative. Moreover Kandan was centrally involved in sending numerous petitions to the Government to intervene and prevent the various practices of untouchability, prominent among them were restrictions to have footwear on and to draw water from public wells. The persistent efforts of petitioning made the district administration to convene a peace committee to discuss these issues of untouchability.

During the peace committee meetings the Dalit youth not only claimed for equal civil rights but also rights over common property resources. However, the administration prioritized civil rights issues and efforts were taken to address the restrictions on wearing footwear. The Dalits continuously attempted to draw water from the public well; Kandan’s family spearheaded these efforts. After a few years a decision was made by the villagers to build a temple. Meanwhile the tender to re-auction a quarry went to a caste Hindu, he also demanded that the stones that were cut earlier prior to his re-auction should be given to him, however Kandan’s side refused to do so. During this time the Dalits through relentless struggles were questioning their oppression and were utilizing the various opportunities available to gain upward mobility and were moving towards a life of self-respect. This angered the caste Hindus further as their hold over the Dalits was losing grip.

Meanwhile funds were collected to murder Kandan, and he had just escaped a murder attempt during the Jallikattu (Bull baiting) event. Kandan who had gone out to a nearby village following his marriage engagement to send some message was brutally murdered with 27 cuts by sickles and machetes on his body and his body was found on a hillock. Most of his body parts were found to be mutilated, Dalit leaders L.Elayaperumal and Vai. Balasundaram helped Kandan’s family to their extent with legal measures. To remember the struggles carried out by Kandan for gaining civil rights for Dalits the villagers memorialized him by erecting a plinth carrying his image in his honour.


At the entrance of the bus stand in Cuddalore district’s Kattumannargudi there is a bust, one might not have encountered that bust anywhere in Tamil Nadu as it does not carry any traces of identity of a familiar figure from the state. The name board below the bust says that he is Reddiyur Pandian, beyond that not only his name but why he has been memorialized in the form of a bust is something even the politically conscious few could reason. Known as Pandian, he is a Dalit who fought against the prevailing practice of imposing menial jobs on Dalits and died during the protest on August, 15, 1985.

reddiyur Pandian routes

Bust of Reddiyur Pandian who died in police firing following a protest by Dalits who registered their dissent against the imposition of menial work to them.

Our caste system, which is based on birth, apportioned occupational categories and spatial locations for different castes and maintains the system. Denying occupational mobility for castes and their right to choose work, the system discriminates people by assigning jobs according to their particular location within the caste system thus maintaining a rigid hierarchy from top to bottom of the social ladder. The castes lower down the order were assigned to do menial jobs mostly unhygienic in nature and service oriented. So to move away against the assigned occupational order towards caste-neutral jobs or to gain education formed the basis of anti-caste efforts. As the possibility towards such mobility was found only in modernity, the Dalit stalwarts were practicing and propagating a modernist reformative discourse. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the struggles against the ‘imposition of menial work’ happened at different regions both on a small scale and large level. These protests, which have a century long history, were not archived and recorded properly. However, Kattumannargudi has recorded it by erecting a symbol in the form of a bust to recall and reimagine those struggles.

Today’s Cuddalore district included old South Arcot district provides us a lot of references on various forms of protests between 1946 and 2000 against the beating of parai drum which is made out of cow hide and is also used mostly during funeral processions. Likewise refusing to remove the carcass of dead cattle and to dig graves for the dead caste Hindus were resisted by Dalits through various forms of protests in the Northern districts of Tamil Nadu. Most of these protests happened at the regional level and it never gained emphasis as a state level protest or a slogan and it did not receive such attention also. These protests were also spontaneous and were not led by any prominent leader.

The veteran Congress leader L.Elayaperumal in the year 1962 passed a resolution in Kattumannargudi circle that no one from the region should engage in parai drumming and especially not for members of other castes. It is how Elayaperumal had created awareness about restraining from doing menial work in this area. And in the year 1985 August 15 there was a fire-walking ceremony in the local village temple. The local Dalits had refused to beat the parai drum for the festival so the caste Hindus had hired drummers from outside the district. However, the Dalits of the village refused to the beating of parai drums in total during the festival. So there was uneasy calm in the village and police force was deployed in the region. Dalits from 16 villages approached towards the temple, police prevented them and resorted to lathicharge and threw teargas shells. Finally the police opened firing in which ten Dalits were grievously injured and one Dalit youth Pandian was killed. There was no damage either to the police or to the caste Hindus. The death of Pandian intensified the struggles and this resulted in almost a complete abolishment of beating of the parai drum in the region.

People memorialized the sacrifice of Pandiyan in different ways; a flagpole was erected in honour of his martyrdom at Poovizhundhanallur, which is on the southern side of Northern River the same place where he was shot dead and a bust and flagpole was also erected at Kattumannargudi. A ballad lyric was penned imagining how Pandian’s mother Chinnaponnu would sing grieving the loss of his son, the lyric was penned by Veerananallur Murugandam and was sung on stages during village festivals, also sung as a dirge and also as a folk song during the transplanting at farms in villages. This is how the subaltern people keep Pandian’s memory alive. The bust was designed without the help of a photographic image, as they could not find one, talking about how it was done one of my interlocutors said, “ We see this image as our own visual depiction of Pandian’s struggles and sacrifice rather than an authentic portrayal of his real looks.”

Generally when we speak about Dalit struggles like most cases they become individual-centred based on either their ideologies or their actions. When we talk about ‘martyrs’ or ‘revolutionaries’ it is larger idioms that come to our minds. In many cases a small level of sacrifice and struggle too gets blown out of proportion with the idea to symbolize or create a leader out of the figure. Though there is no need to conceptualise these struggles avoiding the individuals and their contributions but we have to see that it is the traditional ‘hero in history’ figure which figments our imagination. People who are oppressed by caste somewhere in their lives are resisting either directly or indirectly the caste system or the disgrace it brings to them. Given this condition it leads to a position where an individual has to remain either as opposing caste and the disgrace it brings or to accept it and live. The person who opposes it could be someone who is not even prepared how to handle it or does not have even thought about it. But he has to face the problems that arise out of such system. The three cases explained above indicate us that the activists did not possess any strong ideological foundations or had a history of affiliation towards any movement. Vanjinagaram Kandan had no political background and was just an admirer of MG Ramachandran (the Matinee idol who later entered politics to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu). Reddiyur Pandian who had lost his father was working as a daily wage labourer and there were no records or evidences, which indicate his political activities. Though Elayaperumal’s intervention had created awareness among Dalits in Cuddalore to restrain from involving in menial work but there is no record to show what sort of influence it had on Pandian’s perceptions about caste. But his involvement in the struggles indicate that he carried a sense of indignation against caste, this provides us an idea that to be an anti-caste person there is no need for large ideological underpinnings but the fact that the lived experience as a member of oppressed caste was enough.

Starting from villages to towns to cities, caste discrimination is abounded and the experiences one gains out of these struggles are enormous. A lot of such struggles never gain the attention of media and many were hidden without attaching any news-value to such and remain as local histories. The political parties or the government also failed to recognize such struggles and experiences to promote social justice. Going beyond all this these struggles do not form part of “histories” in the broader categorical sense.

How caste functions in accordance to regional and local conditions the struggles to resist such existing conditions also get shaped accordingly. These histories of resistance in each region can be compiled based on its local significance. The three struggles discussed above happened during different time periods, at different places, carrying different experiences. These struggles are neglected not only by historians but also by political parties, but the people of the locality remember them in ways known to them and it is how we can see that these struggles were kept alive through ballads, statue and hero stone. We can also see that the support for these acts of memorialization from social movements is also provisional. In this essay struggles of a particular sect among the Dalits were only discussed, if an effort is undertaken to collect all the local and regional records of such histories of struggles we can compile a volume on local histories of anti-caste struggles.


Blackburn, Stuart. “The Folk Hero and Class Interests in Tamil Heroic Ballads.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1 (1978), pp. 131-149.

Ponnoviyam, Anbu. 2009. Urimaikkaga Poaritta Uthamar Angambakkam Kuppusamiyar. Chennai: Siddartha Pathippagam.

Poovizhiyan. 2007. Reddiyur Pandian Parai Ethirppu Varalaru. Seerkazhi.

Prabhakaran, V, Pulavar. 2008. Iyothee Thassa Pandithar Idhazh Pani. Chennai: Thirivalluvar Aiyvu Noolagam.

Rajangam, Stalin. 2008. Vanjinagaram Kandan. Alanganallur, Madurai: Vanangamudi Pathippagam.

Szijártó István.2002. ‘Four Arguments for Microhistory’ Rethinking  History : the Journal of Theory and Practice. 6:2 , pp. 209–215.

This article was originally written in Tamil by Stalin Rajangam and translated by Karthikeyan Damodaran.

Stalin Rajangam is a Dalit intellectual and a Tamil writer  based in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He is a prolific writer on Dalit issues, films and politics. He can be contacted at

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.

Images courtesy : Stalin Rajangam.

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