Elevation of the Depressed Classes

Elevation of the depressed classes*
(By Mr. V. R. Shinde, B.A.)
Although the elevation off the so-called last-born classed in India is one of the avowed items of the Social Reform propaganda and the problem receives an honourable mention on the radical platforms — at times even stirring harangues, yet in the name of Truth it must be confessed that it is one which has so long received the least or no real effort. Even the sincerest Social Reformer has not yet done more than bestow a few precious tears of sympathy on these forlorn human communities. The Christian Missionaries — God bless them — have done and are doing a stupendous and noble work in this respect. The British Government, for reasons best known to themselves, have till now stolidly adhered to their once settled attitude of easy neutrality or benign passivity which alas, of late is degenerating into less commendable forms. Apart from these two foreign sources of salvation for these unfortunate classes, I know only two native agencies struggling for their good. If there is any one individual who has done most for these people it is, in my opinion.

Nearly two years ago, when I visited Baroda and paid my respects the Maharaja, His Highness desired me to inspect specially the low caste day-schools in the City. I readily visited four boys' schools and one girls' school. I was thoroughly satisfied with the work of the schools so far as it went. I dare say in no other city of equal size and population, in this presidency or in this country for that matter, are there so many day-schools so well attended and so well supported. But here too and more than any where else, I witnessed the limitations of doing good to these people. No sooner the pupils finished their Marathi fifth and English second or third standard they would quietly cease to attend the school, since apparently they had no prospects for their hard earned acquirements, unless they could be admitted into the body of Hindu Society and offered equal chance of employments which was impossible. Unlimited philanthropy in this respect was incompatible with strict Hinduism and thus with all the unbounded charity and royal power of   His Highness the schools could not rise above the mere primary standards. I actually saw some Mahar youths that had passed their sixth Marathi standard loafing about in the streets for want of suitable employments. If the new-fangled blessings of education had done any change in these lads, it was that they had cultivated a distaste for their old unenviable work and had preferred a temporary though honourable idleness. In a place like Bombay the situation might be different, but there it is simply pathetic; and as His highness condescended to ask my opinion I had to observe that unless some prospects were opened for such boys not only the growth but even the continuance of the schools would be a matter of doubt. A few months after, I read in the papers of the generous offer by his Highness of handsome scholarships for the low-caste boys in the higher standards as well as in the colleges. The next agency that is making for the amelioration of these classes, although in a very humble way is
(*Subodhpatrika, 17. 24 and 31 December 1905.)

Of the seven night schools conducted by the Bombay Samaj two are mainly for the depressed classes. A generous donor has offered to help them to open two more. The limitations that are hampering the progress of the good work in Baroda are no longer obstacles in the way of the Samaj, but their finances of course are not as unlimited. In this respect the names of Mr. S. Y. Javere and Mr. B. R. Kale, b.a .ll.b. of the Satara Prarthana Samaj are worthy of special mention. They not only tried hard and got the local Municipality to open a day-school for the low caste boys but are conducting under the auspices of the local Samaj a night- school for the adult working people of the same classes, and are also actually elevating to the membership of the Samaj fit persons from among these out-castes, thus finally restoring them to their rightful place from which they were mysteriously dislodged in the loom of the dark ages. In Poona, by the sturdy efforts by the late Mr. Jotiba Fule, two day-schools were started for the low caste boys which have since been owned by the Municipality. The Poona Prarthana Samaj has since last April started two night-schools one of which is for the low castes. The Ahmednagar Prarthana Samaj too about the same time has opened a night-school for the low castes and another for other working people.

Such are the very weak and incomplete efforts by the so-called higher classes for the raising of the depressed ones. With all their deliberations and emotions, the actual efforts put forth are egregiously disproportionate to the real vastness of the work. The resources, the energy and the dogged faith of the Christian missionaries alone has had any perceptible results in this field. Nor even the direct achievements of the Christian missions, however mighty they be in themselves, are ever in their distant possibility likely to completely counteract this time old process of depression of such a large portion of humanity. But, be it confessed by all sensible people, the indirect effects of the missionary work can be detected in the faint spirit of self-help that is now gradually emerging out of the long death­like torpor of these down-trodden races. Of the so-called last-born classes the Mahars seem to be an intelligent and honest race. They populate mostly on the Central Maharashtra between Ahmednagar and Nagpur. The work of the Christian mission again is concentrated in this part. Ahmednagar might be considered as their head quarters. Nearly one-fifth of the population of that city is Christians and no doubt nine-tenths of these converts originally came from the depressed classes in the district. Yet there are vast numbers of these classes still holding out bravely against the irresistible allurements of the missionaries, calmly bearing the innumerable insults of the earth below and the adversities of the heavens above. A Mahar teacher in the night-school of Ahmadnagar Prarthana Samaj told us that a big Mahomedan official once asked him wonderingly why it was that his caste people were so foolish to refuse to embrace Christianity which ever so much would better their condition. On my asking what reply he made, he said, "Sir, if I follow after the neighboring ramoshi you will see me bedecked with gold and gems." The man's logic might be far from perfect, but nothing can be more perfect than his loyalty to his lot, his self-respect and self-dependence. This same man takes a leading part in the Social Reform Association of his community recently formed in Ahmednagar. Although Hinduism does not at all deserve the sturdy loyalty of these people, yet the material betterment of their so many brothers, who are now converts to Christianity but were only a while ago their very kith and kin cannot but react on these non-converts and incite them to self-help which is after all the only efficient means of the salvation of a people. Consequently, in several places there are very encouraging instances of effort being made by the depressed classes for this self-elevation.
The Mohapa Low-Caste Association, is I think the first of the reform movements amongst these people inspired with the spirit of self-help. The society according to the information received from the Secretary was started about two years ago in the village of Mohapa, near Nagpore, at the initiative of a Maratha gentleman, and is since silently doing the work of self-improvement by means of lectures and discussions as well as fortnightly meetings for the purpose of religious reading and singing. At present it consists of about 25 avowed members, is propagating its cause by distributing broadcast the printed copies of its object and rules, sending appeals to the several centres of that community in the province. Personal and social morality individual and domestic cleanliness, forbearance from drink and flesh of dead animals and from such other practices that are repulsive to the higher castes, attendance at the religious meetings, interdining among the sub-castes are among the several injunctions. The Secretary, Mr. Kisan Fagu, is a Marathi educated hard-working young man and he also works as a voluntary missionary of the society. Having entered into correspondence with the Postal Mission of the Bombay Prarthana Samaj, he was deputed by the society to attend the last Anniversary of the Samaj with a view to study that movement and was very favourably impressed on the occasion. The hopeful spirit of self-help is steadily spread among these people. I witnessed similar movement on a larger scale in Ahmednagar.

The Somawanshiya Hitachintak Mandali was first started at the village Bhingar in the vicinity of Ahmednagar, on the 10th June last. While on mission tour in that city, I had the pleasure of being invited to address the second monthly meeting of the Association. The meeting assembled in a humble yet neat-looking courtyard in the outskirts of the village at about mid-night; for that was the only suitable time as almost all the members had to work hard till late in the evening for an honest livelihood. And yet to my great astonishment I was ushered into a very orderly and attentive audience of about two hundred souls, including some women, not one of whom betrayed any sign or complaint against the age-long depression they had been victims to. Before I began my address on the message of Brahmoism to the depressed ones, I was requested to read out and explain to the audience the printed rules and appeal of the Mohapa Association. Throughout the occasion I felt a weird never-to-be-forgotten interest for the unaided, unnoticed and altogether pathetic aspirations of this struggling fraternity.

In my last visit to the Association a month ago, I marked a rapid and distinct progress. The monthly meetings had been changed into fortnightly ones and instead of confining them to one place were held in turns in the different quarters so as to comprise the whole neighborhoods. Among other rules that had been unanimously framed before and were then read out to the meeting, one that specially touched me was a strict injunction that a member should never indulge in the censure of or useless complaints against the treatment by the higher castes. There was also a rule as to sending children to school as far as possible. The local Municipality had been repeatedly applied to for a special school for the neighborhoods and they hoped to get one soon. A small library and reading room for the Association was proposed. This time I had the pleasure of addressing at this late hour about 300 people including about 70 women. I cannot help mentioning here two very hopeful features of this reform movement, viz., the old and very orthodox- looking section of the community has seen heartily co-operating with the new fashioned younger generation, that betrayed in their dress and manners the unmistakable marks of contact with the Christian missionaries, Anglo Indian masters, as well as of the scanty modern education that had fallen to their share. Secondly, the movement was gaining strength by being successfully connected with old religious association as far as it is consistent with new aspirations. I counted myself seven grey haired sires of the Mahar community who were patels in the neighboring villages and were devout Warkaris of Pandharpur, as enthusiastically partaking in the Bhajan as in the organization and administration of the Association. I could not help feeling the force of contrast of these features to those in the familiar movement of the so-called higher castes. There is another similar Association of Mahars in the city of Nagar itself. The next midnight, I had to address another meeting of about 200 people organized by this Association. The movement is spreading to Poona and Satara. What a field for the Social Reformer and the Brahmo missionary!

Thus I have tried to review briefly from what little I know, the result of both philanthropy and self-help in this great work of elevation of the depressed classes. If each of these will operate in conscious or unconscious isolation from the other, as it has been the case so long, both will perhaps cease to work out of mere exhaustion. It is for the Social Reform Association and the Prarthana Samaj to devise means to bring both these new forces into a happy and efficient co-operation. These movements of self-help, with all their promise, are yet very new. It is very likely that they may flag away when the flush of novelty wears down. And then it would be too late for any Association or Samaj to enter on the field.