A Mission for the Depressed Classes : A Plea

(By Mr. V. R. Shinde, B.A.)
I do not wish to go into the historical origin of the Depressed Classes in India; nor should I relate, even if I could, the sad tale of their sufferings which is as old as Hinduism itself. It is again hardly needful to say that the term Depressed Classes does not include the comparatively blessed human beings, herds of whom are still defiantly standing outside the pale of civilization in India and are partaking with beasts and birds in the romance of the natural life. The Depressed Classes of India are unique on the face of the earth and in the history of humanity. They have their distinct place and function in the body politic of civilized India though the most unenviable one. By a strange sociological action they have been riveted at the outer gate of civilization from which they can neither proceed in or recede away. In Sociology, it is said, the unfit races become extinct as the unfit species in Biology. But these ill-fated people in India seem to be deprived of the very freedom of extinction; for they have been granted from days of the old legislators and builders of the Hindu Society a place at the very bottom of the hierarchical structure of castes and thereby a sort of fitness enough to live and propagate, with their own rights to the situation on which no one will trespass. Tradition tells us "In the time of Sidh Raj (1094-1143) the king ordered that a Dhed named mayo should be beheaded in the Sahashra-Ling tank, at Patan in order that it might hold water." This tradition aptly illustrates the great sacrifice of the whole of this unlucky race so that the great tank-of- thousand-signs of caste may hold water in India. The least effort to breathe a life of freedom in these slaves of ages need to raise them from their prostrate condition, is likely to shake the whole structure above them. No wonder then such a risk has never been even entertained till now.
(*Indian Social Reformer, 1906, also published in form of a booklet, in August 1906)

A Brahmo friend in South Canara, who is trying hard to befriend these people, wrote to me a few months back, "Panchamas of this place are a miserable class. They are as a class day labourers taking as a rule one meal a day and relieving their hunger at midday by drinking toddy. They own no lands and are mere tenants-at-will under unsympathetic higher-caste landlords. "This friend has been maintaining for some years past a school for the children of these people at a heavy cost; but whatever education he may give to these children of misfortune, he is not likely to wash away the stain of low caste from their faces and the greatest difficulty he feels in his work is to find for his pupils even the humblest opening in life out of their degraded situation. He therefore writes in utter despair “all my attempts to get even a single youth appointed as a peon have failed. Even the European officials do not like to incur the displeasure of their native subordinates. Once a sympathetic District Judge passed an order on a Pancham candidate's application for a peon's post that the first vacancy occurring in the department should be given to him. A vacancy did occur but the peons in the department about a hundred in number, made it a common cause to oppose the poor Pancham youth, went in a body to the Judge's bungalow and prostrated themselves before his honor, begging that they should not be disgraced by admitting into their ranks such an untouchable creature. “Such is the deliberate depression these people are undergoing from times unknown, and without the slightest sign of revolt.

Yet this evil, however acute in its incidence and long standing in its history might not claim the serious attention of a practical patriot who is bent upon the advancement of the country at large, if the victims were a few individuals or groups of individuals in this or that corner of this great country. But the Census Reports* have long revealed beyond doubt the appallingly vast numbers of these classes in every part of India. Estimating roughly the total population of India to be 300 millions there are more than 45 millions of these belonging to the Depressed Classes. In every seven Indians therefore, including coolies as well as kings, there is one wretched untouchable creature that hardly dares come within speaking distance except to do the meanest service to the rest.
Table (For PDF Click here)

No other caste in the country even approaches in number the total of these miserable out-castes. A clear seventh of this great section of humanity in the world is thus arbitrarily condemned as unfit to take part in any decent and clean service of mankind. Apart from the sin and shame of the situation, what an economical blunder perpetrated through ages down! Foreign invasions, political revolutions, religious reforms and social evolutions have rolled over this great continent and yet on this day of the 20th century not one of these 45 millions of untouchables can be openly touched without “pollution”!!
We thus see the profound depth of this national evil and this national sin, and also its extent both in history and in the country at present.
While thinking on this subject one should never forget to do honor to the Christian Missions in this country by expressing one's genuine thanks for what they have done for these people. Christianity, inspite of its superannuated dogmas and the occasional defects in the spirit and method of its propagation is yet far more a living religion and a giver of the bread of life, than any other. If we take for example the district of Ahmadnagar, we see its marvelous results. Nearly one fifth of the population of the District town of Ahmadnagar are Christians, and more than 90 per cent of these converts must have come from the Depressed Classes in the district to claim the educational facilities and enjoy the blessings of civilized life in the city. This elevation of these people it must be admitted is not an unmixed blessing, for it introduces into the body politic an alien element disturbing the growing unity of the Nation, although the higher caste Hindus have none but themselves to thank for this disturbing element. The Christian Missions however are under the inevitable disadvantage of being foreign : and even these people lowest as they are in the scale of the Hindu Society show a remarkable reluctance to accept the betterment at this cost, unless under a dire stress of material want.

Also affords special encouragement for the education of the Depressed Classes. But the educational system whether under the control of the Government of the Municipalities is after all an inadequate means for the actual elevation of these people, in as much as such a system is in its very nature bound to be purely mechanical and impersonal. In the report of the Director of Public Instruction of Bombay for the year 1904-05 there is a candid confession, “The Inspector while pointing out that considerable progress has been made in providing for the education of these special castes, points out that too often little care is taken, especially by Municipal Boards, to see that the teachers of schools are competent. With the opening of a free school, the Board feel that their duty has been done, but in time and with the encouragement of Scholarships the castes may provide their own masters which will be a great gain to the communities." But to do all this efficiently, is required a personality behind the machinery, full of initiative purpose, benevolent enterprise and wakeful supervision, or in a word, of missionary fire — which is naturally out of question in the case of a merely official agency. No wonder then that we find so meagre a result in proportion to the power and resources of these agencies and that there is yet hardly one boy attending school in every hundred of the depressed population in the Bombay Presidency. "In the Census Report of 1901 a list is given of 31 castes which are regarded as unclean. The total number of persons belonging to them is not shown but the largest group consisting of Dheds, Mahars and Holias contains about 11/3 million persons." The total number of pupils of these castes in the Presidency attending school in 1905 was 15,058.

Table 2 (For PDF Click Here) 
The situation is now clear before us. More than forty-five millions i.e., more than 1/3th of the population of this vast country is depressed beyond any immediate hope! Not only the habitual material poverty but the moral degradation and above all the incubus of social disabilities make these people on the whole worse than the worst section of the civilized humanity in any part of the globe. Who fill up the gangs of dacoits in the ever recurring Indian famines? Who supply the cheap market of prostitution in large cities and especially near great military stations? Some slums in the western countries may equal these people in this material and moral wretchedness but who will equal them in their inexorable social disabilities? In spite of the power and benevolence of Christianity and the British Government, only 183 pupils are attending the secondary schools out of 11/3 Million in the Presidency and not a single soul has yet passed that stage of education to the higher one. But the real painfulness of the problem does not lie in the paucity of pupils of this community but in the iron bar of caste which shuts even these few from all fair opportunities in life, so long as they care to remain Hindus! It seems therefore at first sight a hopeless task! These people might be left to their own fate and any new attempt appears to be out of question! But it was not my object to drive one to this dreary conclusion. On the other hand the situation before us will, I trust, inspire all living sons of India to a new attempt.

What is wanted therefore is not merely a machinery of education however grand, but a real mission i.e., an organization in which the personal element presides over and energizes the mechanism; and secondly, which is still more essential, a mission which is not exotic but indigenous or in other words a mission which is bent upon working an evolution but not a revolution, as Christian Missions are, in the religion, traditions, and social life of these people. In this respect I may appropriately allude to the most satisfactory result of the four Olcott Pancham Free Schools in Madras, started about ten years ago by Col. Olcott, the President Founder of the Theosophical Society and having at present on their rolls a total of 629 boys. The Lady Superintendent in her last year's reports says, "In the detailed statistical report for the school year of 1905 the total per cent of passes in the Government examination for the Lower Primary Department of our four schools collectively was shown to be 95 per cent or 20 per cent above the average of all the schools in the Presidency." What personal effort can do is still more clearly seen when one reads in the Lady Superintendent's reports. "! personally took the responsibility of sending two little girls who had completed the fourth standard to a Government School teaching the higher grades. They have both just completed the First Form with great credit to themselves. The parents of one of these girls were making arrangements for her marriage last year. Now after the experience of this year, the girl refuses to marry just yet (she is only thirteen) and is eagerly anxious to continue her education." Here is a mission working on evolutionary and not revolutionary lines.

The question may be asked if what is being done in Madras for the Punchamas may not be as well attempted in Bombay for the Mahars and others. Here, let us confine our attention to the situation in our own presidency.* The operations may possibly be best begun from the capital city. The city of Bombay in my humble opinion is the fittest centre for such work. Here there is the Prarthana Samaj already doing whatever is in its power by way of night schools for these people. There is also another active body of liberal principles viz. the Presidency Social Reform Association, which will do well to co-operate with the Samaj in this matter. In a paper read before this Association and published in the Indian Social Reformer of 10 December 1905,1 described the work of some Associations among the Depressed Classes themselves inspired with the most hopeful and healthy spirit of self-help.

With some personal experience among the Depressed Classes of this city, I have every hope that with a little encouragement from the higher castes a similar association may be started here. A secondary day school with a small free boarding house for the mofussil low caste students, will serve as a good nucleus of a regular mission for these classes. The teachers of this school may be so selected and trained that they would also do the pastoral work among the homes of these people. And what are only school premises on week-days may be turned on Sundays into a place of morning worship of the most simple unsectarian character in which the pupils and the people in the neighborhood may take part, and of evening lectures on moral and other subjects of general interest: on public holidays the same premises may be utilized as a centre for the meetings of the Association of the depressed communities in the neighborhood, who will be constantly encouraged by the school authorities towards efforts of self-improvement. Further particulars of the mission-work need not be detailed here, for it will develop only after an actual beginning is made. The Prarthana Samaj of Bombay is the only Liberal Religious body in this Province that can if it will undertake this noble mission and carry it to its ultimate consummation viz. restoring at least such of these depressed souls, as are capable, to their rightful though long-withheld place in a renovated Hindu Society. But the Prarthana Samaj being an extremely small body is unable to bear the tremendous financial burden of such a mission. It is therefore the duty of every philanthropically and patriotically disposed Indian to render all possible help to the Samaj so that it may undertake the much needed enterprise. Even a mere man of business in this great industrial and commercial city of Bombay, will realize his own duty as well as interest from an economical point of view of this problem of elevation of the depressed who constitute no less than nearly one tenth of the whole population, and a considerably larger portion of the labouring population of this city. An intelligent if not a charitable glance at the following figures will reveal to him the piteous and pathetic state of circumstances which suffer such large number of human beings in the city to remain age after age in a condition materially so degraded and socially so disabled.
Table (For Pdf click here)
The City of Bombay

Mahars: 40,647;   Mochis: 12,622;    Chamars: 5,950;
Dheds:    6,149;   Mangs:   2,499;     Bhangis: 4,932;
Dhor:         818;   Other low castes:    9,397.

The total population of the city – 9,82,00
The total numbers of the Depressed ..... 83,014
The total number of pupils of the Depressed Classes attending schools in the city - 300 nearly.

The total number of schools - 4

कबीर सोई पीर है, जो जाने पर पीर।
जो पर पीर न जानई, सो काफिर बे पीर।।
He alone is good, who understands the distress of others: he who does not understand the distress of others is void both of faith and goodness!