They introduced a system of education which did not demand of the learners any change of caste or religion. The policy of comparative non-interference followed by the British made the lower castes revolt against the Brahmin spremacy.
Growth of modern industrial organisation and the rapid spread of urbanisation further altered the social situation. This situation made it inevitable for people of different castes, classes and religions to live in close congregations in cities. With this background the changes in the caste system during the British rule can be studied in two stages: (A) Pre-Industrial British Period 1757-1918 A.D., and (B) Pre-Independent Industrial Period – 1918-1947 A.D.
(A) Pre-Industrial British Period (1757 to 1918 A.D.]
The East India Company of the British obtained from the Moghal rulers some commercial privileges in the beginning of the 17th century. It tightened its political hold over the whole of India within 7 to 8 decades. The appointment of Warren Hastings in 1774 as the first Governor General of India marked the beginning of the British Age in India.
1. Declining Hold of the Caste Panchayats:
After consolidating their power the British introduced throughout India uniform legal, legislative and judicial systems. The British transferred the judicial powers of the caste councils to the civil and criminal courts which affected the authority which the Panchayats had held over the members.
Questions of assault, adultery, rape and the like were taken before the British Courts for decision. In civil matters such as marriage, divorce, caste-based occupational disputes, disputes between husband and wife, parents and children etc., the intention of the British was to be guided by the caste- customs. But in actual practice various decisions of the High Court’s virtually set aside the authority of the caste.
2. Influence of Social Legislation on Caste:
Some of the legislations which the British introduced shook the integrity of the caste system. Specific mention can be made of a few of the legislations such as the following:
(i) The Caste Disabilities Removal Act of1850 [which served to remove some of the disabilities associated with caste including the practice of untouchability], (ii) The Special Marriage Act of 1872 [which legalised intercaste and inter-religious marriages],
(ii) The Hindu Widows Remarriage Act of1856 [which gave legal permission for widows to remarry].
These and many other socio-legal measures of the British government gave a severe blow to the integrity of the caste system. But as Prof Ghurye has pointed out, all these measures were taken by the British Government purely for administrative convenience and it had no desire to reduce the rigidity of caste.
3. Impact of Social Reform Movements:
Some of the social reform movements launched by social reformers during the British rule also attacked the caste system and its inequalities.
(i) The Brahma Samaj founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1820 and developed by Devendranath Tagore and Keshav Chandra Sen condemned the barriers of caste, divisions, idol worship, human and animal scarifies. It advocated universal brotherhood of men.
(ii) The Prarthana Samaj launched by Justice Ranade devoted its attention to social reforms such as interdining, intercaste marriage, remarriage of widows, etc.
(iii) The Arya Samaj founded by Swami Dayanand saraswathi in 1875 repudiated the caste restrictions, protested against prohibition of sea-voyages and insisted that even the shudras could study the Vedas. It tried to remodel the Hindu society on the basis of the Vedic ideals. It functioned as a militant force to protect the Hindu society from the “onslaughts of Western rationalisation”. It started the “Shuddhi” (purification) movement to re-Hinduise the converts, the fallen, the outcastes and other externals.
(iv) The Ramakrishna Mission started by Swami Vivekananda, a great disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, in 1897 represents the synthesis of the ancient or oriental and the modern or western culture.
Vivekananda, who had imbibed in himself Raja Ram’s rationalism and Dayananda Saraswathi’s spirituality, was pragmatic in his approach. He condemned caste inequalities, exploitation of lower castes and women. He stressed on education, self-reliance and freedom of women. He even predicted that the Shudras [“Shramiks” or “labourers”] would dominate in the years to come.
(v) Other reform Movements: Other social movements such as – (i) Jyotirao Phooley’s (1873) “Satyashodak Samaj” ; (ii) Annie Besant’s “Theosophical society”-, (iii) Maharishi Arvind Ghosh’s “Divine Life Society” — also served to loosen the hold of caste restrictions.
What is to be noted is that these reform movements “did not succeed in removing the rigidity of the caste system in this period…” However, they could only affect some of the structural features of caste.
4. Spread of English Education and Influence of the Western Ideas:
Spread of English education exposed Indians for the first time to the Western World. The popular Western ideas and values such as – “liberty, equality and fraternity”, democracy, rationalism, individualism, women’s liberation, secularism, humanitarianism etc. made their inroads into India.
These ideas had deeply influenced the Western educated Indians. People who had hitherto been the targets of atrocities, deprivation, exploitation and humiliation could now voice their protest by asserting their rights. Increasing influence of science and technology added greater strength to the growing awareness of the masses.
Movements of a more militant nature against caste started with the founding of Satyashodhak Samaj in 1873 by Jyotirao Phooley of Poona, a man of Mali caste. The main purpose of this Samaj was to assert the worth of man irrespective of caste.
Through his writings and practices he led a revolt against the tyranny of the caste system and the hegemony of the Brahmins. He appealed to the non-Brahmin castes not to engage any Brahmin priest to conduct their marriage ritual. He tried to reduce the enormous ritual system into a simple procedure. He perceived the necessity of educating the lower-caste people. He could translate his vision into practice when he opened a primary school for the so called untouchables in Poona [the very centre of orthodoxy] as early as in 1851.
Phooley’s was not just a revolt against caste to cast off the domination of the Brahmins. In his writings he demanded representation for all classes of the Hindus in all the local bodies, the services and the institutions. Phooley’s struggles marked the beginning of the non-Brahmin movement.
(B) Pre-Independent Industrial Period [1919-1947]
The caste system underwent a few more significant changes when India stepped into the 20th century. The role of three factors in bringing about such changes is worth mentioning here.
1. Influence of Industrialisation:
Decline of Caste-Based Occupational System
The advent of Industrial Revolution also affected Indian socio-economic conditions. The British brought modern machineries and introduced factory system of production. New industries, occupations, employment opportunities, salary-based service system came to be established.
The growth of industries destroyed the old crafts and household industries and provided for countless ways earning livelihood. Introduction of railways, telegraph and laying of roads helped trade and commerce. People of all castes started making use of the new economic opportunities.
Industrialisation also resulted in occupational and geographic mobility. Movement of people from the compact ancestral village to the towns and cities started breaking down many of the caste norms. Crowded trains and buses could bring together lakhs of people of all castes and left little room for the niceties of ceremonial purity.
Taboos against some foods and accepting food and water from persons of other castes also started weakening. Hotel system of food and hostel system of residence served to bring together people of different castes.
The ”jajmanf’ system of economy which had made economic interdependence of different castes, started declining. It slowly gave place to the capitalist system of economy. These industrial and their concomitant developments made caste-members to come out of the hold of caste-based occupations and to resort to the new occupational avenues based purely on personal preferences and choices.
Influence of industrialisation was, no doubt, widespread. But its impact was not uniform and absolute on all the basic features of caste. For example, its impact on the endogamous nature of marriage and various marriage practices, rules and beliefs was almost negligible.
Rapid industrialisation never led to the automatic dissolution of the caste system and its progressive replacement by a class system as it was believed by some Western scholars. The economic aspects of caste underwent swift changes whereas its socio-cultural aspects never got changed with equal speed.
2. Impact of Urbanisation:
In order to reap the benefits of new educational and occupational opportunities people started moving towards towns and cities in large number. The necessities of city life relaxed the commensally taboos imposed by caste and lessened the dominance of Brahmins.
As Srinivas has pointed out, the non-brahmins refused to show the same respect to the Brahmins which they used to show earlier. The growth of city life with its migratory population brought about changes in the rigidity of the caste system. Kingsley Davis also “held that the anonymity, congestion, mobility, secularism and changeability of the city make the operation of caste virtually impossible”.
3. Influence of Freedom Movement and the Role of Gandhiji:
Indian freedom struggle also altered the character of caste to some extent. The freedom struggle organised by the Indian National Congress brought together people of different castes, classes, religions and regions under one banner.
The Congress led by Gandhiji launched a campaign against untouchability and roused the conscience of the people against its practice. Participation of the lower castes in the freedom struggle boosted their image.
At the far end of the British rule, though the traditional influence of caste started declining, its organisational strength was increasing. As Ghurye observed, “At about the end of the British rule in India, caste-society presented the spectacle of self-centered groups more or less in conflict with one another”.