Dalits and Indigenous System of Education

Dharampal (The Beautiful Tree) has effectively debunked the myth that Dalits had no place in the indigenous system of education. Sir Thomas Munro, Governor of Madras, ordered a mammoth survey in June 1822, whereby the district collectors furnished the caste-wise division of students in four categories, viz., Brahmins, Vysyas (Vaishyas), Shoodras (Shudras) and other castes (broadly the modern scheduled castes).

While the percentages of the different castes varied in each district, the results were revealing to the extent that they showed an impressive presence of the so-called lower castes in the school system. Thus, in Vizagapatam, Brahmins and Vaishyas together accounted for 47% of the students, Shudras comprised 21% and the other castes (scheduled) were 20%; the remaining 12% were Muslims.

In Tinnevelly, Brahmins were 21.8% of the total number of students, Shudras were 31.2% and other castes 38.4% (by no means a low figure). In South Arcot, Shudras and other castes together comprised more than 84% of the students.

In the realm of higher education as well, there were regional variations. Brahmins appear to have dominated in the Andhra and Tamil Nadu regions, but in the Malabar area, theology and law were Brahmin preserves, but astronomy and medicine were dominated by Shudras and other castes. Thus, of a total of 808 students in astronomy, only 78 were Brahmins, while 195 were Shudras and 510 belonged to the other castes (scheduled).

In Medicine, out of a total of 194 students, only 31 were Brahmins, 59 were Shudras and 100 belonged to the other castes. Even subjects like Metaphysics and Ethics that we generally associate with Brahmin supremacy, were dominated by the other castes (62) as opposed to merely 56 Brahmin students. It bears mentioning that this higher education was in the form of private tuition (or education at home), and to that extent also reflects the near equal economic power of the concerned groups.

As a concerned reader informed me, the ‘Survey of Indigenous Education in the Province of Bombay (1820-1830)’ showed that Brahmins were only 30% of the total students there. What is more, when William Adam surveyed Bengal and Bihar, he found that Brahmins and Kayasthas together comprised less than 40% of the total students, and that forty castes like Tanti, Teli, Napit, Sadgop, Tamli etc. were well represented in the student body.

The Adam report mentions that in Burdwan district, while native schools had 674 students from the lowest thirty castes, the 13 missionary schools in the district together had only 86 students from those castes.

Coming to teachers, Kayasthas triumphed with about 50% of the jobs and there were only six Chandal teachers; but Rajputs, Kshatriyas and Chattris (Khatris) together had only five teachers. Even Dalit intellectuals have questioned what the British meant when they spoke of ‘education’ and ‘learning’.

Dr. D.R. Nagaraj, a leading Dalit leader of Karnataka, wrote that it was the British, particularly Lord Wellesley, who declared the Vedantic Hinduism of the Brahmins of Benares and Navadweep as “the standard Hindu Dharma,” because they realized that the vitality of the Hindu dharma of the lower castes was a threat to the empire.

Fort William College, founded by Wellesley in 1800, played a major role in investing Vedantic learning with a prominence it probably hadn’t had for centuries.

In the process, the cultural heritage of the lower castes was successfully marginalized, and this remains an enduring legacy of colonialism. Examining Dharampal’s “Indian science and technology in the eighteenth century,” Nagaraj observed that most of the native skills and technologies that perished as a result of British policies were those of the Dalit and artisan castes.

This effectively debunks the fiction of Hindu-hating secularists that the so-called lower castes made no contribution to Bharat’s cultural heritage and needed deliverance from wily Brahmins.

Indeed, given the desperate manner in which the British vilified the Brahmin, it is worth examining what so annoyed them. As early as 1871-72, Sir John Campbell objected to Brahmins facilitating upward mobility: “…the Brahmans are always ready to receive all who will submit to them… The process of manufacturing Rajputs from ambitious aborigines (tribals) goes on before our eyes.”

Sir Alfred Lyall (1796 -1865) was unhappy and he wrote: “…more persons in Bharat become every year Brahmanists than all the converts to all the other religions in Bharat put together…these teachers address themselves to every one without distinction of caste or of creed; they preach to low-caste men and to the aboriginal tribes… in fact, they succeed largely in those ranks of the population which would lean towards Christianity and Mohammedanism if they were not drawn into Brahmanism…”

So much for the British public denunciation of the exclusion practiced by Brahmins!

Dharampal (- 2006) was a Gandhian in ceaseless search of truth like his preceptor Gandhi himself. He has demolished the myth that Bharat was backward educationally or economically when the British entered.

Citing the Christian missionary William Adam’s report on indigenous education in Bengal and Bihar in 1835 and 1838, Dharampal established that at that time there were 100,000 schools in Bengal, one school for about 500 boys; that the indigenous medical system that included inoculation against smallpox. He also proved by reference to other materials that Adam’s record was ‘no legend’.

He relied on Sir Thomas Munroe’s report to the Governor at about the same time to prove similar statistics about schools in Madras. He also found that the education system in Punjab during the Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule was equally extensive. He estimated that the literacy rate in Bharat before the British was higher than that in England.

Citing British public records he established, on the contrary, that ‘British had no tradition of education or scholarship or philosophy from 16th to early 18th century, despite Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton, Newton, etc’. Till then education and scholarship in the UK was limited to select elite.

He cited Alexander Walker’s Note on Bharatiya education to assert that it was the monitorial system of education borrowed from Bharat that helped Britain to improve, in later years, school attendance which was just 40,000, yes just that, in 1792. He then compared the educated people’s levels in Bharat and England around 1800. The population of Madras Presidency then was 125 lakhs and that of England in 1811 was 95 lakhs.

Dharampal found that during 1822-25 the number of those in ordinary schools in Madras Presidency was around 1.5 lakhs and this was after great decay under a century of British intervention.

As against this, the number attending schools in England was half – yes just half – of Madras Presidency, namely a mere 75,000. And here to with more than half of it attending only Sunday schools for 2-3 hours. Dharampal also established that in Britain ‘elementary system of education at people’s level remained unknown commodity’ till about 1800.

Again he exploded the popularly held belief that most of those attending schools must have belonged to the upper castes particularly Brahmins and, again with reference to the British records, proved that the truth was the other way round. During 1822-25 the share of the Brahmin students in the indigenous schools in Tamil-speaking areas accounted for 13 percent in South Arcot to some 23 percent in Madras while the backward castes accounted for 70 percent in Salem and Tirunelveli and 84 percent in South Arcot.

The situation was almost similar in Malayalam, Oriya and Kannada-speaking areas, with the backward castes dominating the schools in absolute numbers. Only in the Telugu-speaking areas the share of the Brahmins was higher and varied from 24 to 46 percent.

Dharampal’s work proved Mahatma Gandhi’s statement at Chatham House in London on October 20, 1931, that “Bharat today is more illiterate than it was fifty or hundred years ago” completely right.

(This article has been compiled from the tweet thread of @Hiranyareta )

(Featured image for representational purpose only.)


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