The emergence of backward castes/classes as political entities has occurred both in the colonial and postcolonial contexts. The colonial state often distributed patronage on the basis of caste. It made sense, therefore, for people to stay within their caste for social and political identity in institutional life. It also influenced similarly placed caste groups to unite themselves and to form what has been termed a ‘horizontal stretch’. Caste thus began to lose its ritual content and become more and more secularized for political mobilization.

Historical Background

  1. The term ‘Backward Classes’ has been in use in different parts of the country since the late 19th Century. It began to be used more widely in Madras presidency since1872, in the princely state of Mysore since 1918, and in Bombay presidency since1925. From the1920s a number of organizations united around the issue of caste sprang up in different parts of the country. These included the United Provinces Hindu Backward Classes League, All India Backward Classes Federation, and All India Backward Classes League. In 1954,88 organizations were counted working for the Backward Classes.
  2. The increasing visibility of both Dalits and other backward classes has led to a feeling among sections of the upper caste that they are being given special treatment The government, they feel does not pay any heed to them because they are numerically not significant enough. As sociologists we need to recognize that such a ‘feeling’ does exist and then we need to scrutinize to what extent such an impression is grounded on empirical facts. We also need to ask why earlier generations from the so called ‘upper castes” did not think of “caste” as a living reality of modern India.
  3. By and large, when compared to the situation prevailing before independence, the condition of all social groups, including the lowest caste and tribes, has improved today. But by how much has it improved? It is true that in the early part of the 21st century, the variety of occupations and professions among all caste groups is much wider than it was in the past However, this does not change the massive social reality that the overwhelming majority of those in the ‘highest’ or most preferred occupations are from the upper castes, while the vast majority of those in the menial and despised occupations belong to the lowest castes.

Backward class movements

Backward class movements emerged among depressed castes and deprived sections of society in different parts of India with the spread of the national movement The difference between the religious and the caste movement is that while the former attacked evils of Hinduism, the latter exhorted its followers to seek solutions to their problems within the framework of Hinduism, i.e., without rejecting their religion.

Nature of Backward Class Movement :

  1. Protests against discrimination of various kinds,
  2. To gain self-respect, honour and status,
  3. Status mobility movements,
  4. Caste unity movements, and
  5. Caste welfare movements.

The status mobility movements can be further sub-classified as :

  1. Adaptive movements,
  2. Movements oriented towords cultural revolts, and
  3. Counter-cultural movements.

The backward castes suffered from relative deprivation in the fields of religion, education, economics and politics. They accepted their lot till certain external influences provided favourable conditions to create an awakening among them.

Factors which Awaken Backward Class for Movements

  1. Organization of programme by Christian Missionaries for the SCs who then referred to as the ‘depressed classes’.
  2. Other condition was the national movement which provided an ideology of egalitarianism and supported social movements which revolved against discrimination of any kind.
  3. Third condition was that of reform movements organized by the upper castes which initiated programmes of education and welfare for the backward or the depressed classes. These movements were against many orthodox Brahminical practices.
  4. Finally the egalitarian system of law introduced by the British also provided an opportunity to the backward castes to protest against discrimination.
According to M.S.A. Rao the backward caste movements for higher status were based on three ideologies.
  1. First, many Gopas in West Bengal the Gaulis in Maharashtra, the Gollas in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and the Konars in Tamil Nadu claimed descent from the Kshatriya dynasty. This also included adopting the lifestyle of higher castes in their regions, what M.N.Srinivas has described the process of sanskritisation. Imtiaz Ahmad has stated that this process of mobility should be viewed as an initiative process or as protest oriented movement or as counter-mobilization. The upper class invariably opposed such attempts. Besides, the desire to claim high status prompted groups, they could collectively impress upon the census officers to describe them as castes with higher ritual status. This mechanism of mobilizing caste collectivities became significant by1931.Other method was reinterpreting Hindu religion in search of self-determination, e.g.,Sri Narayan Dharma Paripalana Movement among the Ezhavas (toddy tappers) of Kerala. Ezhavas of Kerala took an overt anti-Brahmin slant and resorted to mass mobilization and protest to acquire their right
  2. Second variety of protest ideology was the rejection of Brahminical Aryan religion and culture, e.g., Dravida Kazhagam Movements in Tamil Nadu.
  3. Third ideology was abandoning Hinduism and embracing another religion, e.g., Mahars in Maharashtra. Nadars of Tamil Nadu used political process of influence to achieve high status, while Malis of Maharashtra used cultural revolt process.

According to T.K. Oommen, factors which helped classes/castes in their mobility movements

  1. Ritually castes were not at the rock bottom,
  2. Economically they were well-off by local standards,
  3. Their numerical strength was substantial and they had the support of rulers in their regions, like Maharaja of Kolhapur in Maharashtra,
  4. Occupational diversifications,
  5. Exposure to education, urbanization,
  6. Outstanding and charismatic leadership.

Of course, many castes did not succeed in achieving higher status within the Hindu fold which prompted them to embrace Buddhism. Few castes achieved this remaining within Hindu fold through countercultural movements. The counter-cultural movements referred to

  1. Developing a counter-culture against caste Hindus, particularly Brahminical supremacy; but remaining within the Hindu fold This process was adopted by Dravidian movements of Tamil Nadu, and
  2. Building a new parallel culture of their own rather than getting themselves adsorbed in the ‘mainstream’ culture; or merely protesting against it The Dalit Panther movement of Maharashtra exemplified this trend.

The Dravidian movement in the South developed in two phases: anti-Brahmin (caste) phase and antinorth (region) phase. In the first phase, the Dravidians identified Brahmins as aliens (Aryans) and intruders into Dravidian. They also ridiculed the Brahmin-created puranas and varnashram dharma irrational They created a counter-culture which was Dravidian in nature, by denouncing Brahmanicial practices of idol worship, child marriage and enforced widowhood Gradually, this movement shifted its goal from anti-Brahminism to North Indian domination with the goal of establishing a sovereign Dravidian State.

While the Dravidian movement was confined to Tamil Nadu, Dalit Panthers movement spread from urban Maharashtra to other states. Its main emphasis was on intellectual awakening and creating consciousness among the oppressed The movement of Mahars in Maharashtra is also worth-mentioning here. First, they used countercultural strategy of abandoning Hinduism altogether, but, later on; they adopted new political strategy for their uplift.

Though the movements of backward castes succeeded in achieving their goals only partially, yet they provided a mobilization, a model to other castes of forming associations for their mobilization activities. But the associations of forward castes were mainly reform-oriented opposing child marriage, and encouraging widow remarriage, women s education, occupational diversification, education and breaking social barriers between numerous castes.

Present Situation : Government’s policy of protective discrimination for the Backward castes prompted them to fight for their interests and welfare by organizing themselves politically instead of issuing of census appeals, sanskritisation, cultural revolts or the building of counter-cultures. This political strategy aimed at getting them enlisted as SCs and OBCs getting the time-period of reservation extended and insisting on faithful implementation of government policies and programmes. After the implementation of Mandal Commission’s recommendations in August 1990 and the establishment of the Minority Commissions in various states, large number of castes are trying for recognition as OBCs and getting the reserved quota (15% for SCs and 27% for OBCs) seats.

Dalit movement

Broadly speaking, the untouchables of the Hindu caste system are officially known as the Scheduled Castes. The same category of castes is also called Harijan, the children of God, a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi in 1933. However, the word harijan has now acquired a negative meaning. The members of these castes prefer to be called dalit, the oppressed.

  1. We use the term dalit movements and social movements against untouchability led by Mahatma Gandhi. Other nationalist movements like peasant and reform movements, dalit movements also emerged during the pre-Independence period These movements have been examined keeping them under two broader categories, non-Brahman movements and dalit movements.
  2. While the anti-caste non-Brahman movements were strong in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, dalit movements were spread all over the country. The Adi Dharma movements in Punjab, the Satnami movement in Uttar Pradesh, Narayan Guru movements in Kerala and Adi-Dravida movements in Tamil Nadu have been some of the major Dalit movements. The larger anti-caste movements were led by prominent figures like Jyotiba Phule, Babasaheb Ambedkar and E.V. Ramaswami Periyar. They all attacked the system of exploitation at all levels.
  3. According to Ghanshyam Shah there has not been a single, unified Dalit movement in the country now or in the past. Different movements have highlighted different issues related to Dalits, around different ideologies. However, all of them assert a Dalit identity though the meaning may not be identical or precise for everyone. Notwithstanding differences in the nature of Dalit movements and the meaning of identity, there has been a common quest for equality, self-dignity and eradication of untouchability. This can be seen in the Satnami Movement of the Chamars in the Chhattisgarh plains in eastern MP, Adi Dharma Movement in Punjab, the Mahar Movement in Maharashtra, the socio-political mobilization among the Jatavas of Agra and the Anti Brahman Movement in south India.
  4. The dalit movement is necessarily linked with the name of Dr. Ambedkar. He was the historical leader and the founder of its ideology. Initially, the movement was confined to Maharashtra, but during 1930s and 1940s it spread to different parts of the country. Although the organizations, such as the Scheduled Caste Federation and its successor, the Republican Party, formed by Dr. Ambedkar, never attained all India status, but their ideas had an impact on various local level dalit movements in different parts of the country. The growth of these movements reflects the increasing self-consciousness of the group. Thus, dalits have emerged as a distinct political group. They are no longer politically dependent upon the upper castes. Eventually, they have made an impact on the structure of power in India.
  5. Another important trend in the dalit movement is manifested in the emergence of the Dalit Panther Movement which was launched by dalits of Maharashtra in the early 1970s. It was initially confined to the urban areas of Maharashtra but has subsequently spread to several other states. The Dalit Panthers denounced the dominant culture and attempt to articulate an alternative, cultural identity of the oppressed classes. To propagate their ideas they have been publishing poems, stories and plays, which are now popularly known as dalit literature and are used to challenge the intellectual tradition of the upper caste Hindus.
  6. The most vital consequence of these movements has been the consolidation of dalit identity. Then pressure created by the mobalization of the dalits has led to amelioration of their social conditions. Compared to their conditions a decade ago, their social and economic position has relatively improved. The emancipation of dalits is essentially linked with their freedom from the bondage to the existing economic systems. As the economic system is still monopolized by the upper castes, their position in the caste as well as class system continues to be at the lower end.

Social movements of Dalits show a particular character. The movements cannot be explained satisfactorily by reference to economic exploitations alone or political oppression, although these dimensions are important.

  1. This is a struggle for recognition as fellow human beings.
  2. It is a struggle for self-confidence and a space for self-determination.
  3. It is a struggle for abolition of stigmatization, that unsociability implied
  4. It has been called a struggle to be touched

The word Dalit is commonly used in Marathi, Hindi, Gujrarati and many other Indian languages, meaning the poor and oppressed persons. It was first used in the new context in Marathi by neo-Buddhist activists, the followers of Babasaheb Ambedkar in the early1970s. It refers to those who have been broken, ground down by those above them in a deliberate way. There is, in the word itself, inherent denial due to pollution, karma and justified caste hierarchy.

Dalit writers are insistent on using their own imageries and expressions rooted in their own experiences and perceptions. Many felt that the high flown social imageries of mainstream society would hide the truth rather than reveal it Dalit literature gives a call for social and cultural revolt While some emphasis the cultural struggle for dignity and identity others also bring in the structural features of society including the economic dimensions.

In the contemporary period the Dalit movement has unquestionably acquired a place in the public sphere that cannot be ignored. This has been accompanied by a growing body of Dalit literature. Dalit writers are insistent on using their own imageries and expressions rooted in their own experiences and perceptions. Many felt that the high flown social imageries of mainstream society would hide the truth rather than reveal it Dalit literature gives a call for social and cultural revolt While some emphasis the cultural struggle for dignity and identity others also bring in the structural features of society including the economic dimensions.

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Abhay Yadav

very helpful