Brahm Samaj The Depressed Classes & Untouchability & V. R. Shinde's work


1. Introduction

The lofty ideal that inspired Rammohun Roy, the first and foremost thinker of modern India, in founding the Brahmo Samaj, was the great vision of a united, free, and theistic India. But while seeking his inspiration from the philosophical and religious works of ancient India, particularly the Vedanta, he was never obsessed by the Vedantic doctrines of Maya (illusion) and Karma (effect of deeds on future birth). Deeply versed in the ancient traditions, he rose above the prevailing pessimistic view of life, and deprecated the callousness with which social inequalities were viewed by his contemporaries. One of the pet sayings of Rammohun was, "Beradar (brother), Beradar (brother), the service of Man is the service of God." Almost echoing Jesus Christ, the great lover of humanity, he used to say, "If you cannot love and serve man, whom you see, how can you love and serve God, whom you do not see? As a consequence, all men who came under the influence of the Samaj took up social service as a part of their religious devotion. Every domain of social reform, whether it be the abolition of caste, or the uplift of the depressed classes, or the education and emancipation of women, or the discontinuance of child marriages, or the introduction of widow remarriages, came within the scope and formed a necessary part of the programme of the Brahmo Samaj.
Ever since its foundation, the Brahmo Samaj has kept before itself the ideal of brotherhood of man. The Brahmos are not satisfied with the mere removal of untouchability, nor even with the uplift of the backward classes, which is a much more important and arduous task;  but they have from the beginning directed their energy towards exterminating the root of the evil, viz. the caste system, which has brought about this unnatural degradation of a large number of people. Untouchability is more or less the manifestation of this greater evil, the caste notion, — the attitude of mind that looks upon. Man as not one but many, born high or low as the result of Karma in another life, and destined through life to remain as such. Setting its face against this inhuman mental attitude, the motto that the Brahmo Samaj has always followed is, Ek Dharma (one religion), Ek Jati (one caste) and Ek Bhagavan (one God). The traditional Hindu attitude towards the lower classes is well expressed by a Sanskrit verse, — Papayonayah striyo vaisya statha sudrah, — (these are of sinful origin, women, vaisyas and sudras). The great Keshub Chunder Sen, the third apostle of the Brahmo Samaj, while leading a choral procession through the streets of Calcutta in the year 1868, proclaimed in no uncertain voice the basic equality of man in a Bengali Hymn which is now regarded as the embodiment of an essential truth of the Brahmo belief :-
"Nara nari sadharaner saman adhikar,
Jar achhe Bhaktl pabe mukti, nahi jat-bichar."

(All men and women, without exception, have equal rights. One who has bhakti, i.e. devotion to God, will attain salvation. There is no distinction of caste.)

The hereditary caste System in India has been productive of many social evils. It has given undue pre-eminence to the priestly class, leading to all the evils of unrestrained sacerdotalism; it has degraded the lower ranks of society; it has divided and subdivided the Hindus of the country, till all feeling of the unity of race is almost dead.

We learn from Pandit Sivanath Sastri, the greatest leader and minister of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, that from an early period of the history of the Brahmo Church, i.e. from 1860, there have been vigorous efforts to break the tyranny of caste. From that time the younger generation of Brahmos under the leadership of Keshub Chunder Sen openly and scrupulously discarded everything associated with caste. The Brahmans among them abjured the caste notion by burning their sacred thread, others by contracting marriages with women of different castes. Not only were anuloma forms of inter-caste marriage (i.e. those in which the bride was of a lower caste) celebrated, but these early reformers did not hesitate to perform numerous pratiloma marriages (i.e. those in which the bridegroom was of a lower caste.) Some of these marriages were between parties that could not ordinarily even touch each other for fear of ceremonial pollution. Though bitterly persecuted, the Brahmo Samaj never abated its zeal in this direction in its history of a century. To the Brahmos, therefore, social equality is not merely a policy adopted under the stress of circumstances, but a creed, an essential part of their religious practice.

The Brahmo Samaj has been maligned by those whose vested interests have been subverted by its rigorous anti-caste propaganda. Sometimes, alas, it has been misunderstood even by those whose amelioration and uplift have been so much its concern. For untold generations our unfortunate countrymen of the backward classes have been so contemptuously treated by the upper classes, that when the work of social uplift was inaugurated amongst them by the sons and daughters of those who had hitherto kept them under their heel, they could not for a time appreciate their noble attempts, and looked upon them with suspicion.

On the other hand, some detractors of the Brahmo Samaj used to say that its work was confined among the educated classes only. For a time, indeed, Brahmos were repeatedly baffled in their efforts to reach the unenlightened masses. But during the three decades and more of the twentieth century, God has blessed their perseverance with an amount of success, for which they have ample reasons to be thankful. We propose to give our readers an account of both their unsuccessful and successful attempts.

As the sufferings of the depressed classes are most intense in Southern India, and as untouchability is prevalent there in its most severe form, we propose to deal first with Mr. V. R. Shinde's work in those parts.

Shree V. R. Shinde's Work
The Depressed Classes Mission Society of India

During the early years of the first decade of this century, the attention of Mr. V. R. Shinde, who was then a Missionary of the Bombay Prarthana Samaj, was drawn by certain efforts at advancement put forth by a few members of a depressed class, who had happened to come under his influence as a missionary. He then set himself to a special study of the problem of the uplift of such communities, and came to the conclusion that what was needed was not mere machinery of education, but an organisation in which the personal element would enliven the whole, and which would at once develop and reform the traditions and the religious and social life of those people.

In October 1906 the late Mr. D. G. Sukhadwala, Vice-President of the Bombay Prarthana Samaj, gave one thousand rupees as an initial contribution towards the funds of such a Mission, and forthwith Sir Narayan Chandavarkar, President of the Samaj, was invited to inaugurate the Mission by opening its first school at Parel on the 18th of that month.

In September, 1908, the Mission received from H. E. Sir George Clarke, then Governor of Bombay, Rs. 3467-13-6 as the proceeds of a concert given in aid of the Mission by Miss Clarke. In 1912 the Trustees ot the estates of the late Mr. N. M. Wadia gave an annual grant of Rs. 6000 for three years ending in December 1914, which enabled the Mission to develop its Free Boarding Institutions and Technical Schools. A princely gift in 1913 of Rs. 20,000 from H. H. Maharaja Sir Tukoji Rao Holkar of Indore resulted in a scheme of a Home at Poona.

The Society is now an independent body seeking to promote the interests of the Depressed classes in the whole of India as far as opportunity and finances allow.

The Society had, till 1924, several incorporated branches under it, and a large number of affiliated centres throughout the country, with over 70 educational institutions. The total annual expenditure of the Society was then considerably over Rs. 30,000. Besides the headquarters in the city of Bombay, there were the following incorporated branches :— Poona (Maharashtra Branch), Nagpur (Central Provinces Branch), Hubli (Karnatak Branch), Bangalore (Tamil Branch). Since then the Hubli Branch has been closed.

The largest Centre of the Mission is at Poona with the following institutions — (1) The Central Primary and English Boys’ School, (2) The Debate and Sports Club, (3) The Bhajan Samaj and Sunday Classes, (4) V. R. Shinde Free Reading Room, (5) Tailoring, Carpentry and Painting Classes, (6) Bhangi Hatti Feeder School, (7) The Students' Hostel, (8) The Ahalyashram Girls’ School, (9) The Ahalyashram Night School, (10) Dr. Khedkar Free Medical Dispensary, (11) The 9th Poona City Shahu B. S. Troop, (12) The Weekly Sangat Sabha.

Besides these institutions, the offices of the Deccan Adi-Hindu Social Club, The Adi Hindu newspaper, and the Anti-untouchability Conferences are located in the Ashram of the Mission.

The Report of the Poona Branch for the three years ending on 31st March 1926 had the following para about its origin :-

“Without initial funds, with scanty promises of pecuniary help, many of which were not fulfilled, but with strong faith that God would help, a Day School was opened in a rented upper story of a Marwari’s house, in the Centre Street of Poona Camp on 22nd June 1908. If we look back to the last seventy years we can find that in the early sixties of last century a band of men charitably disposed towards the Depressed classes, with the late Mr. Jotirao Phule, the founder of the Satya-Shodhak Samaj, and its most active members, had started a school for the Depressed classes of Poona. So far as we could find out after much careful investigation, it can be stated that this was perhaps the first school of its kind in India, the seed as it were, of our present Society. Out of the area of about 10 acres, now in our possession, 7 acres originally belonged to this School."

New Buildings opened in 1924 —The following new buildings were opened by His Excellency the Right Honourable Sir Leslie Wilson, Governor of Bombay, on the 28th October, 1924, the foundation having been laid in 1921 by H. H. Sir Shri Kantirava Narasimharaj Wadiar Bahadur, G.C.I.E., Yuvaraja of Mysore.
Table 1 (To see the table click here.)

The total Government grant received on account of these buildings was Rs. 87,118, the Mission having spent Rs. 25,197-8-0 from its own funds.

The Progress attained by the Depressed classes — The following is an extract from the Annual Report of the Poona Branch, submitted on the 5th September, 1921 by Rev. V. R. Shinde, the General Secretary, and adopted by the Committee — "Perhaps the Mission will reach a stage much sooner than supposed in these days of rapid development, when it may cease as a Mission, and continue as an Association of the Depressed classes for self-amelioration.”

It is a happy sign that the local Depressed classes workers, especially of the Adi-Hindu Mahar Community, are trying to help the Mission by their own humble personal services as well as resources.

The first D. C. M. Graduate — The first graduate of this Mission is Mr. Maruti Kalugi Jadhav, who passed his B. A. Examination with second class Honours in Sanskrit in 1925 through the New Poona College. Mr. Jadhav had been a Hostel student of the Mission at Bombay and Poona for a number of years. Side by side with his studies for the M.A. Examination, he took up part-time teaching work in the Poona Mission Central School on a very moderate salary.


Spiritual and Social Activities — Under the guidance of its president, Rev. V. R. Shinde, the Spiritual Work Committee of the Mission tries to serve the Depressed classes spiritually. Daily Prayers, Thursday Night Sangat Sabha, Gita classes, Sunday Divine Services, and Women's weekly meetings are regularly held. Anniversary Days of Buddhadeva, Raja Rammohun Ray, Mahatma Jotirao Phule, Akbar, Shivaji and Shahu Maharaj, Devi Ahalyabai, Sant Chokha Mela, Namdeo and others are observed.

All India Anti-untouchability Conferences

Since the very beginning of the Mission, along with its educational and other constructive work, the founder Mr. V. R. Shinde trained up a band of wholly devoted workers as well as part-time volunteers for the sacred cause of the removal of untouchability, and with their help organised a vigorous propaganda. He attended nearly every session of the Indian National Congress throughout India with a view to promoting the Anti-untouchability movement. The following are the sessions of the All India Anti-untouchability Conferences, which were organized by him with great success :—
Table 2 (To see the table click here.)

The following are the sessions of the Bombay Provincial Anti-untouchability Conferences which were organised by the Society :-

1912 Poona Dr. Sir R. G. Bhandarkar
1918 Bijapore Hon'ble Mr. B. S. Kamat
1919 Sholapur Hon'ble D. V. Belvi
1923 Poona Khan Bahadur D. B. Cooper
1926 Poona Mr. K.G. Bagade
1931 Ratnagiri Mr. vinayakrao savarkar, Bar at Law

All India Anti-untouchability League

Being encouraged with the success achieved in the experiment of the Anti-untouchability movement, Mr. Shinde was emboldened in founding the All India Anti-untouchability League in Poona, and for the first time in the history of the Indian Social Reform movement, the following resolution was passed unanimously in the All India Anti-untouchability Conference held in Bombay in 1918 under the Presidentship of H. H. Sir Shri Sayajirao Gaikwad, Maharaja of Baroda :-


“This Conference is of opinion that the condition of untouchability imposed upon the depressed classes in India ought forthwith to be abolished, and for this purpose calls upon influential and representative leaders of thought and action in every province to issue a manifesto abolishing such untouchability and enabling these classes to have free and unrestricted access to public institutions, such as schools, dispensaries, courts of justice, &c., conducted for the public benefit and at public expense, and also to public places such as wells, springs, reservoirs, municipal stand-pipes, burning and bathing ghats, places of amusement, business, and worship, &c. &c."

Proposed by Mr. M. R. Jayakar, Bar-at-Law, Bombay.
Seconded by Mr. Lakshmidas R. Tairsee of Bombay.
Supported by Pandit Balkrishna Sharma of Baroda and Prof. G. C. Bhate of Poona.

All India Anti-untouchability Manifesto With a view to giv'n9 practical effect to the above resolution, an All India Anti-untouchability Manifesto signed by thousands of influential people from all provinces of India was issued through the efforts of Mr. Shinde.

Congress and Untouchability

After strenuous endeavours for ten years, Mr. Shinde eventually succeeded in getting the Indian National Congress in its session a Calcutta in December 1917 under the sympathetic presidentship of Mrs. Beasant, to pass, for the first time, the following important resolution :-

"This Congress urges upon the people of India the necessity, justice, and righteousness of removing all disabilities imposed upon the Depressed dasses, the disabilities being of a most vexatious and oppressive character, subjecting these people to considerable hardship and inconvenience."
Proposed by Mr. G. A. Natesan of Madras.
Seconded by Mr. S. R. Bomanji of Calcutta.

Supported by Mr. S. K. Damle of Poona, and Mr. Rama Ayyar of Calicut.

Carried unanimously
Mr. Shinde further succeeded in drawing the attention of Mahatma Gandhi to this problem in the session of the Congress held at Nagpur in 1920, and in the very next session at Ahmedabad, Mahatmaji incorporated the issue of removing untouchability as an essential plank of the Congress propaganda.