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One of the most important effects of British rule in India was to provide an environment in which nationalism could develop. The foundation of schools and colleges, the recruitment of Indians into the lower ranks of the civil services, the provision of a communications network which allowed educated Indians from all parts of India to meet, and the establishment of printing presses by which Western ideas of equality and freedom were disseminated — all these helped to make Indians more aware of their political and social rights. But an awareness of those rights developed at different rates and in different ways in various parts of the country. Much of what we now consider to be political consciousness in India originated in areas where there were concentrations of institutions and individuals which provided the facilities and direction for the creation of modern educated elite.


Bengal, especially, came under Western influence at an early period in the British conquest; Madras and Bombay, in southern and western India respectively, lagged behind. The cultural and nationalist awakening in Bengal, therefore, occurred long before that in Bombay and Madras. Madras, in fact, of all the areas originally conquered by the British, was the last to develop nationalist and political fervor. This is not to say that Madras was immune to the effects of British rule or missionary educational enterprise. But the cultural ‘renaissance’ in Madras occurred later and had, in many ways, a different quality from that which occurred in Bengal.[1]

From an early period of the British connection with this southernmost part of India, Madras was considered to be an administrative and cultural backwater, far removed from the headquarters of the East India Company in Bengal and later from the Government of India at Calcutta and afterwards Delhi. Almost from the beginning, therefore, Madras politicians and civil servants learned to depend on their own resources, and this implied a certain limitation of their political and administrative horizons. At the same time there arose in Madras presidency, and particularly in the city of Madras, a small but influential group of men who maintained all-India perspectives and tried to connect Madras public life with that of Bengal, Bombay, and the rest of British India. It was from this group that the founders of the Indian National Congress came, and it was they who sought to counteract the feeling that Madras was gravely imposed upon by the rest of India.[2]


In the years between 1916 and 1929 nationalist politicians—largely Brahmans, the highest caste in the south Indian social hierarchy — were challenged by a group of non-Brahmans who had recently begun to take an active part in the politics of Madras.[3] Non-Brahmans in this period argued that Madras interests, especially those of the ‘backward’ non-Brahmans, were but poorly served. The conflict that developed between the Brahmans and the non-Brahmans in south India at this time was the articulation of a pre-existing social rivalry.


In a society that was largely ordered by religious beliefs and traditional customs the Brahman was recognized as the regulator of religious life and social interaction. Brahmans also had the almost exclusive right to study the sacerdotal language, Sanskrit, and the religious works written in Sanskrit. As priests, Brahmans were mediators in the religious life of south Indian Hindus. Non-Brahman caste Hindus held a position immediately beneath the Brahmans in the caste system, and were dependent upon them in certain religious ceremonies. Non-Brahmans were also the predominant landholding groups in the area. Although the three constituent units of south Indian society — the Brahmans, the non-Brahmans, and the untouchables—lived their lives largely independent of one another, particularly in the villages, between the Brahman and the non-Brahman there was a measure of mutual dependence and competition.[4]


Another element that reinforced the polarity between Brahmans and non-Brahmans was the belief, widely held at the turn of the century that Brahmans were racially different from non-Brahmans. In the nineteenth century a number of European and Indian scholars who had begun to study the origins of Tamil, the language spoken in the far southeastern portion of Madras province, posited the idea that non-Brahmans were Dravidians and the original civilizers of the region, and that the Brahmans were the “Aryan invaders” from the north. These scholars believed that the Dravidians had been conquered and their institutions supplanted by an imposed Sanskritic ‘Aryan religion’ and a caste system, by which non-Brahmans had for centuries been kept in an inferior position. Linguistically, also, there was a strong tradition for a division between Brahmans and non-Brahmans, especially in the Tamil area. The Brahmans were the guardians of ‘northern Sanskrit’; the non-Brahmans, or so they themselves believed, were the creators of ‘southern Tamil’ and Tamil culture. Thus there were linguistic and cultural as well as social differences between the two groups.[5]


In the urban, public life of south India the division between the relative positions of these two groups at the beginning of the twentieth century was strikingly apparent. Brahmans, as priests, had a long tradition of learning and quickly took advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the British presence in India. In the natural course, many Brahmans were recruited into the government services. The British administration, fearing nepotism and loss of power, sought to control the Brahman preponderance in government service. Non-Brahmans, envious of the Brahmans, made full use of the British predilections. They argued that most non-Brahmans in Madras were backward educationally and were therefore precluded from prestigeful government employment.


Newspapers in English and in the south Indian vernaculars advertised non-Brahman demands for more government jobs and popularized the myth of Dravidian cultural origin and decline. A political party was organized to legislate for non-Brahman interests in the Madras Legislative Council. But the preoccupation with local and specialized problems cut non-Brahmans off from the Indian nationalist movement. Reflecting many of the attitudes of the British bureaucracy in Madras, non-Brahmans complained that south India's interests were not being attended to by the central government. One of the interesting consequences of this attitude in the years 1916-1929 was the growth of cultural and political separatism, stimulated by the central government's financial demands on Madras, by ‘Brahman Aryan’ dominance in the social and educational systems, and by Gandhi's individual faith, involving as the non-Brahmans saw it a belief in the ‘Aryan’ caste structure. All these combined to inspire a strong separatist demand for the creation of a south Indian state in which the ‘original south Indians’ would hold the power.[6]


In analyzing the growth of separatist feeling in south India we have concentrated on the particular elements that are relevant to a discussion of the development of Dravidianist sentiment. We have used what occurred in Andhra or the Telugu-speaking area, which extends up the east coast from Madras city, only to illustrate the claims of non-Brahmans for a separate cultural identity. But we have not included a narrative of all the political activity in south India between 1916 and 1929. Therefore, we have deliberately excluded a great deal of material concerning the growth of the Congress in the Tamil region and more especially in the Telugu region. Our central aim has been to delineate the manner in which south Indian non-Brahmans came to power. As a ‘backward’ group they employed all the mechanisms common to such groups in India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They challenged the prevailing elite group; they demanded a position of importance and special treatment by the government; they created a myth of their own origins; and finally they decided on a drive for separatism.[7]  The non-Brahman movement in south India is important because it illustrates this kind of development extraordinarily well. Moreover, it is illustrative of the way in which such movements, seldom dealt with by nationalist historians, collaborated with the British and at critical points in their career received valuable assistance from them. What is also important in this movement is its relevance to an analysis of the process by which political integration takes place in modern India. Many scholars of modern India have decried the development of regionalist movements and the overemphasis on caste as destructive of national life and inimical to India's progress as a unified nation. Movements undertaken by the non-Brahmans, they suggest, intensify loyalties which prevent the development of bonds that would surmount caste and linguistic lines. Others have said that the effect of the non-Brahman movement—and of other movements like it—has been not only to poison the springs of unified action but also, through its attempt to prevent Brahmans from entering the educational institutions of the area and the government services, to produce great intellectual and professional wastage which modern India can ill afford. There is little question but that attempts by ‘backward’ groups such as the non-Brahmans to displace the Brahman elite have produced considerable hardship and hatred and a dissipation of professional skills. But it can also be said that any attempt to modernize an underdeveloped country and to create an educated and politically aware electorate is bound to create movements of this kind. Furthermore, the friction that existed between Brahman and non-Brahman in the 1920's is a typical by-product of the demand for more political, economic, and educational privilege by any ‘backward’ group. The passing of the old order and the establishment of a modern society are bound to undermine relations based on ascription and the position in society which those ascriptive rights imply. The development of the non-Brahman movement was one of the ways in which this transformation manifested itself in modern India.[8]


Claims for a separate political entity have also been a common feature of India's recent past. These claims, like the social conflict with which we are concerned in this study are also an ingredient in the creation of a unified Indian nation out of a mass of diverse linguistic, racial, and cultural groups. Tamil separatism has attracted considerable attention from social scientists because its articulation has been characterized by a militancy born of particularly strong feelings of cultural and social uniqueness. This feeling of uniqueness has been effectively exploited by a well-organized political party, the D.M.K. The separatism represented by the aspirations of many non-Brahmans is extreme, but it does not differ in kind from the separatist ideals of other movements that have developed elsewhere in the subcontinent. Like the social conflict between the Brahmans and the non-Brahmans, the Tamil separatist movement would appear to be an articulation by emerging elites of demands and aspirations which is not in itself a potent threat to the unity or security of the nation. In this analysis we have made an attempt to understand those aspirations and some of the ways in which they have been satisfied.[9]


At the beginning of the twentieth century, Madras presidency was one of the most extensive of all the British territories in India. It stretched from the tip of the Indian peninsula, Cape Comorin, halfway up the east coast to Bengal. A part of it lay on the Indian Ocean, touching Bombay presidency to the north, and another segment extended westward from the Bay of Bengal, bordering on both Bombay presidency and the native state of Hyderabad. Lady Pentland, whose husband was governor of Madras from 1912 to 1918, described the extent of the presidency as ‘bigger than any other Indian province except Burma, and nearly five times bigger than Scotland, with a population nearly ten times bigger, speaking seven principal languages’. And yet, she continued, “it has a special Madrasi clannishness, perhaps as a recompense for its isolation at an extremity, like Scotland”.[10]


The sense of isolation that many Englishmen felt in Madras was due partly to its remoteness from the center of government in Calcutta (or, after 1911, Delhi). But in other ways Madras was cut off from the rest of India. Most north Indians spoke one of several Indo-Aryan languages that had many affinities to Sanskrit. By contrast, the majority of the inhabitants of Madras presidency spoke one of five Dravidian languages, the most important of which were Tamil and Telugu. Telugu was spoken in all the northern districts of the province as well as in the area known as Rayalseema, to the north and west of Madras city; the Tamil—Telugu dividing line lay just north of the city of Madras. In 1911 Tamil was the mother tongue of seventeen million people in the southeastern part of the province, but in the Tamil areas there were also considerable numbers of Telugu-speakers, mainly as a result of southerly migrations in the fifteenth century and later during the hegemony of the Vijayanagar kingdom. In lesser numbers, the three other Dravidian languages of Madras were Kannada, Malayalam, and Tulu. The Kannada area lay close to the eastern side of the native state of Mysore. Malayalam was limited to the Malabar district on the west coast. The Tulu area, even smaller, was also on the west coast. In addition, two Indo-Aryan languages, Oriya and Hindustani, were spoken by certain small elements of the population.[11]


Aside from its physical and linguistic separateness, the Madras land settlement system at the time of its implementation was also unique in British Indian practice. During the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth, when revenue settlements were being made in Bengal and in the northern districts of what later became Madras presidency, an attempt was made to hand over the ownership of the land to a number of large landholders, or zamindars. They were given, control of the land in Bengal and in large areas of the districts to the north of Madras city, commonly referred to as the Northern Circars. Because many of the zamindars were unable to pay the required rent on their holdings, considerable numbers of these settlements failed. The government then took over the holdings to auction them off again.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, 29 percent of the area of Madras presidency, however, was zamindari. The characteristic system of the presidency, however, was to settle much of the remaining areas directly with the peasants. Called ryotwari (after ryot or peasant), this system not only differentiated Madras presidency from Bengal but along with zamindari tenure was the other major land tenure system used in British India. In the southern Tamil districts and in the poor region of Rayalseema or the Madras Deccan land settlements were sometimes made with important peasants or mirasdars who held the right to the perquisites of a village official or held the land in common. Although mirasdars are still found in many Telugu and Tamil villages today, by the middle of the nineteenth century the ryotwari land system had superseded the mirasdar system in all but a few villages.[12]


All three elements — geographical remoteness and the feeling of isolation, the language difference, and the existence of the ryotwari settlement—contributed to the development of what could be called the ‘Madras style’ of administration. In many ways, the elements that composed this style were subjective, and had much to do with the special way in which British administrators in Madras envisioned their work. For one thing, the districts of Madras were larger than those of any other province and the Madras members of the Indian Civil Service (I.C.S.) thought themselves overworked. Furthermore, the Madras I.C.S. members insisted that the languages of the presidency were more difficult than Hindustani. Since they were apt to be transferred from one language area of Madras to another, they were obliged to spend much time in studying languages. The ryotwari settlement also meant that the District Officer in Madras typically considered himself very knowledgeable about peasant affairs. Finally, many Madras civilians believed that it was impossible for a member of the British bureaucracy from Madras to rise to the top of the administrative ladder in the central government. Many Madras politicians and bureaucrats in the decade following the First World War shared the belief that the political and administrative institutions and traditions of Madras were not understood by the central government, and this had much to do with their feeling of separateness.[13]


Above and beyond all these points of difference between south India and north India was a peculiarly social one: the extraordinarily high position of the Brahmans in the social hierarchy, particularly in the Tamil and Malayalam areas. This was not a new phenomenon. For nearly one hundred fifty years, from the early 1700's to the mid-nineteenth century, the Madras bureaucracy, especially in the districts, was dominated by Desastha Brahmans, originally from Maharashtra in western India.  After the 1850's the Telugu and particularly the Tamil Brahmans, who together comprised only 3.2 percent of the total population, enhanced their position in the social system by gradually filling the great majority of administrative and educational positions then open to Indians. These Tamil and Telugu Brahmans had for centuries been respected as the guardians of Sanskritic learning and religion. Since only a few non-Brahman groups in the Telugu districts, such as the Velamas, were permitted to study Sanskrit, the Brahmans exercised almost complete control over the body of Hindu religious works written in Sanskrit. One of the great centers of Brahmanical learning was Tanjore, in the heart of the Tamil country. The author of the Tanjore Gazetteer (1906) described the position of the Brahmans there in these. terms: ‘Brahmans versed in the sacred law are numerous in Tanjore; Vedic sacrifices are performed on the banks of its streams; Vedic chanting is performed in a manner rarely rivalled; philosophical treatises are published in Sanskrit verse; and religious associations exist, the privilege of initiation into which is eagerly sought for and the rules of which are earnestly followed even to the extent of relinquishing the world’.  A knowledge of Sanskrit and access to Hindu scriptures also made Tamil and Telugu Brahmans indispensable as priests at family and domestic occasions such as weddings.


In both the Tamil and the Telugu areas, Brahmans were traditionally divided into two classes. One group had the role of “teaching the Vedas, performing and superintending sacrifice, and preserving the moral principles of the people”. The other group traditionally advised Hindu kings in matters of justice and administration; they were called ‘Secular’, as opposed to the ‘Vaidic Brahmans’.  Tamil Brahmans were classed into two categories. The Sri Vaishnava Brahmans, or Iyengars, of the Tamil country were devotees of Vishnu. The great majority of the other Tamil Brahman group, the Smarthas or Iyers, were Shaivites, devotees of Shiva.[14]


The second major division in south Indian society was the non-Brahmans, a group of castes, mostly peasants, who ranked below the Brahmans in social status but above the untouchables. The most important of these cultivating castes was the Tamil Vellalas.[15]  Not only did they form an important part of the rural population but also they were employed in government service, particularly as village revenue collectors (karnams) and in trade and commerce.  In some districts, such as Tanjore and Tinnevelly, Vellalas were often very orthodox in their religious practice, sometimes even more so than the Brahmans. The Vellalas were for the most part concentrated in the inland areas west of the city of Madras, particularly the districts of Coimbatore, Salem, and North Arcot; there were also large numbers further south in Tinnevelly district. One description of the Vellalas' position in Coimbatore characterized them as truly the backbone of the district; it is these who by their industry and frugality create and develop wealth, support the administration, and find the money for imperial and district demands; as their own proverb says, ‘The Vellalar's goad is the ruler's sceptre’.  Because the Vellalas were so widely diffused throughout the Tamil area, they could not protect themselves against ‘invasions’ of sub caste groups (jatis) who called themselves Vellalas but whose origin was among groups considerably inferior to the Vellalas in social position.[16]


Another important non-Brahman group, roughly equal in status to the Tamil Vellalas and the Telugu Reddis, Kammas, and Velamas, was the Malayalam-speaking Nairs, who came from Malabar district and from the native states of Cochin and Travancore. They had a strong tradition of education and professional training, even for women, and were second only to the Tamil and Telugu Brahmans in the administrative and educational system of Madras presidency. These non-Brahman Hindu castes along with the minority Brahmans and certain other minor groups comprised approximately four-fifths of the total population of Madras. The remainders were the outcastes or untouchables. Though separated from Brahmans and non-Brahman caste Hindus in religious and social terms as well as by segregation in village dwelling patterns, they played an essential role in the life of rural Madras. In traditional society they were invariably scavengers, and they participated in certain caste Hindu social and religious observances. Here again there was a linguistic division: the most important Tamil untouchables were Paraiyans, Pulaiyans, and Pallans; the two great Telugu outcaste groups were the Malas and the Madigas.  By the last decade of the nineteenth century, largely owing to the work of missionaries and the government, outcaste groups, particularly in the Tamil area, were becoming aware of their political and social rights and were beginning to realize the inequality of their economic as well as ritual status.[17]


During the second decade of the twentieth century, three other groups outside the orbit of south Indian Hindu society, and numerically small, gradually assumed an important part in the social and political life of Madras presidency. One of them, the Saurashtras (originally from Saurashtra in western India) was a group of weavers known in Madura, the city in which they were concentrated, as Patnulkarans or ‘silk-thread people’.  They spoke a dialect of Gujarati called Patnuli or Khatri. Saurashtras often claimed Brahman status but neither the census enumerators nor the Tamil Brahmans ever conceded this position.  The second groups, the Indian Christians were largely converts from untouchables in the Telugu area.  In the Tamil districts, they also were converts from untouchables, but some were former toddy-tappers (extractors of the juice of certain palm trees for fermentation) called Nadars, and some were Vellalas. On the whole, their position in society was much higher than that of their Telugu counterparts.  The third groups, the south Indian Muslims, were largely urban, concentrated in Madras city as well as in North Arcot district. Many Muslims owned important industrial properties and were beginning to take a significant part in the politics of the area.


In certain parts of the province, particularly the Tamil districts, this broad division of society into three large groups - Brahmans, non-Brahmans, and untouchables - was reinforced by two other elements. One of these was the existence of a series of Brahman and non-Brahman villages, a vestige of the time when medieval south Indian kings made grants of land to groups of Brahmans. The social division and tension which the proximity of these villages to one another could produce is illustrated by the remarks of an English observer in the last years of the eighteenth century concerning the area that later became Tinnevelly district.[18]


The difference [between non-Brahman and Brahman villages] is characterized by nothing more, than that the influence of Brahmins and their property predominates in the agrahara vaidiky; the former rarely allowing soodras [non-Brahmans] to intermix in their villages, for fear their importance and estimation as a community of Brahmins, may be diminished by a connection with such inferior parties; and on the other hand, the soodras as carefully and jealously avoiding the admission of Brahmins, however small, as their property would draw to them too much consideration, usurp all authority, and invade their rights.  Many Brahman villages existed in the Tamil country, but probably the most famous was Kallidaikurchi, in Tinnevelly district, which proved to be a point of considerable friction between Brahmans and non-Brahmans in the decade following the First World War.[19]


Another element that worked to transform long-standing caste rivalries into political conflict in the twentieth century centered on the question of whether or not the non-Brahmans could be classified as Sudras. In the traditional Varna hierarchy, Sudras were the fourth and last, and hence were not dvijas or twice-born. Though the term Sudra was generally applied to numerous non-Brahman caste Hindu groups such as the Vellalas, Kammas, and Reddis, many British administrators and some missionaries found this usage as it denoted Tamil non-Brahmans both offensive and inapplicable.


At the start of the twentieth century, the great landholding caste groups in Madras were the Vellalas in the Tamil areas, the Balija Naidus in both the Telugu and Tamil districts, and the Kammas and Reddis in the Telugu country. Both Tamil and Telugu Brahmans also had sizable landholdings, however. No complete statistics of landholdings by caste are available for the early years of the twentieth century in Madras presidency, but of a total Tamil Brahman work force of 35,450 males in 1911, some 11,155 derived incomes from land.  The large landowners, particularly the zamindars, and the main peasant groups were all non-Brahman caste Hindus. Census figures on factory ownership in 1911 indicate that here, too, non-Brahmans—mainly Balija Naidus, Vellalas, Kapus, Nattukottai Chettis, and Komatis — were far ahead of the Brahmans. It is in the distribution of occupations demanding literate skills, and particularly government jobs, that the relative positions of Brahmans and non-Brahmans can be seen most clearly. In 1921, banks and other money establishments employed Telugu and Tamil Brahmans, Komatis (Telugu Vaisyas), and Vellalas; these four groups held almost two-thirds of the available positions. In public administration there was a marked preponderance of Tamil Brahmans, with Vellalas and Telugu Brahmans occupying second place, followed by Nairs and Balija Naidus. In positions concerned with law, instruction, and letters, the pattern was similar.[20]


In government service, figures compiled by the Madras government in 1912 (Table 1) illustrate the consistently strong domination of the Brahmans in many upper levels of government service. The distribution of appointments among Deputy Collectors, Sub-Judges, and District Munsifs (all high positions so far as Indian employment was concerned) show that Brahmans in 1912 held 55, 82.3, and 72.6 percent of the posts then available to Indians. By contrast, non-Brahman Hindus (probably Vellalas, Balija Naidus, Nairs, and a sprinkling of Kammas and Reddis) held only 21.5, 16.7, and 19.5 percent of the total appointments. The Indian Christians and Muslims were well behind.[21]


An analysis of the caste distribution among those employed in the upper levels of the Revenue and Judicial departments of the Madras government reaffirms these proportions. Brahmans again held an important leadership (the ranks of Tahsildar and Deputy Tahsildar, with 349 posts compared to 134 held by non-Brahman Hindus. Among the English Head Clerks, Sheristadars of District Courts, and Sheristadars of Sub-Courts, Brahmans held 44 posts as against 16 held by non-Brahman Hindus. The total average appointments in the Revenue and Judicial departments in 1917 held by non-Brahman Hindus, Indian Christians, and Muslims was 33.3 percent.[22]


The position of the Tamil Brahmans in administrative and professional life was unquestionably due to their unusually high literacy rate, in both Tamil and English. Telugu Brahmans, also, were highly literate but no non-Brahman could even approach them. According to the 1921 Census, Tamil Brahmans had a male literacy rate of 71.5 percent: The strange phenomenon of falling literacy rates among Telugu and Tamil Brahmans between 1901 and 1921 was explained in the 1921 Census as the result of a ‘number of persons of other less educated castes being returned as Brahmans; hence the number of Brahmans has been unduly swollen and the number of illiterates has increased out of all proportion to the literate’. Given the rising literacy rates among all other caste groups, this drop is most curious; but the important point is the relative position of the Tamil Brahmans as compared with Balijas, Chettis, Nairs, Vellalas, and Indian Christians.[23]


Knowledge of English was essential for employment in government service, as well as in teaching and politics. In these areas, the Tamil Brahmans led all the other caste groups. In 1921, 28.2 percent of all Tamil Brahman males were literate in English; for Telugu Brahman males the figure was 17.3 percent. By 1921, six of the non-Brahman groups—Nairs, Chettis, Vellalas, Balija Naidus, Indian Christians, and Nadars—had achieved fairly high literacy rates. But they could not compete with the Tamil and Telugu Brahmans so far as English was concerned. Two Telugu non-Brahman caste groups, the Kammas and the Reddis, who also had relatively high male literacy rates by 1921 (13.6 and 10.2 percent, respectively), had an English literacy among males of less than one percent.[24]

The steep rise in literacy—in English, Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam—among the important non-Brahman caste Hindus between 1901 and 1921 suggests a central reason for their entrance into Madras politics during this period. Vellalas, Chettis, Nadars, and Nairs were all caste groups moving upward in the public life of Madras. There is also little doubt but that by the middle of the second decade, non-Brahmans, seeing that their literacy rate was rising and that the potential for advancement existed, were beginning to resent the almost exclusive control of government jobs and political life by Brahmans. Furthermore, province-wide communications among non-Brahmans through caste associations permitted the quick transmission of the news of success in high school and college examinations. Both educational advance and a consciousness of this advance were essential ingredients in the growth of non-Brahman political awareness.[25]


Brahman traditions for literacy and education can be seen most fully from an analysis of the students attending the constituent colleges of the University of Madras. Between 1870 and 1918, some 67 to 71 percent of the students enrolled and of those granted Bachelor of Arts degrees by the university were Brahmans. During the same period the number of non-Brahman Hindus awarded B.A.s averaged between 18 and 22 percent of the totals; Indian Christians (in the decade 1901-1911) accounted for 5.3 percent of the B.A.s granted. The Brahmans also led in graduate work. For example, of the 3,651 candidates for the Bachelor of Laws degree, the basic qualification for entry into the legal profession, if not the political world, 2,686 were Brahmans and 752 were non-Brahman Hindus. The proportion was similar for the Licentiate of Teaching degree: 1,094 Brahmans, 163 non-Brahman Hindus, and 207 Indian Christians out of a total of 1,498 degrees granted. Only in the Licentiate of Medical Science were the Brahman candidates exceeded in number by non-Brahman Hindus.[26]


From a very early period of British contact with south India, the Brahmans were suspect as the repository of religious and social power and literate skill. As priests at the head of the social order, the Brahmans were independent of the British. As the possessors of learning, they were more and more indispensable in the government bureaucracy. But their very usefulness and skill aroused mistrust, because they were increasingly in command of large areas of the British administration and therefore in a position to suit their own, rather than British, ends.'` Thus, long before the start of the non-Brahman movement in the twentieth century, British officials in Madras were more or less fearful of the educated Brahman, in whom they saw a potential threat to British supremacy in India. The Collector of Tanjore in 1879 commented frankly on this attitude toward the Brahmans, whom of all Indians in Madras he knew were “unquestionably the foremost, as being the most intellectual”. The Brahmin intellect (like that of all Orientals) is acute, but I do not see any reason — in the past or present — to believe it is of a high order. They are quibblers with words, not scientific men; their powers of observation are very small, they have hardly any originality, and can see nothing but what immediately concerns them ... But unfortunately, the Brahmin officials of the present day, with whom a foreigner must come into contact, are very inferior to the old-fashioned Brahmins. Their acuteness, however, in appropriating European Shibboleths has raised them into a position like what Mrs. Mill occupied in J. S. Mill's thoughts.    Though all his friends knew that she was not the wonderful woman he made her out to be. It will soon be seen that the so-called educated classes are doing and can do, nothing for progress; they are already the commonest weight in native society. There is no class that is so hostile to the English. It is one great misfortune of our administration that we should have already made such men our masters to a great extent, and that we are going to go to a still farther extent in the same course.[27]


In their hostility toward educated Brahmans, the British I.C.S. officers often mirrored the sentiments of newly organized untouchable groups and spokesmen for the non-Brahman caste Hindus in the presidency. As one non-Brahman writing under the pseudonym “Fair Play” declared, though the British were called the rulers of India, in reality “the Brahman rules it”.  Many non Brahman caste Hindus as well as untouchables sharply criticized the Indian National Congress for being only the representative of Brahman interests 90 This coincidence of opinion between the two opposite extremes of the politically aware non-Brahmans and untouchables on the one hand and the British I.C.S. members on the other was to have important political ramifications between 1916 and 1929.[28]


Most political activity in Madras presidency was concentrated in the city of Madras, which, as the center of administrative and educational affairs, quite naturally drew many persons from all over the presidency who wanted professional training or an outlet for their skills and aspirations. But the city of Madras was largely a Tamil city. Telugus from the districts in the Northern Circars looked to various district towns — Guntur, Masulipatam, Rajahmundry, or Cocanada — for the clubs, newspapers, municipal and educational institutions that could answer their literate and professional needs. For educated Telugus, Madras was a hostile city in which Telugu interests were not looked on kindly”. This is not to say that Madras city did not contain many Telugus. The great Andhra social reformer, K. Viresalingam, moved to Madras because he felt that it was only there that he could have his books published with sufficient elegance.  As can be seen from the Mother-tongue Distribution Map, there were large numbers of Telugus in the Tamil area, and many of them found their way to the Tamil cities of Coimbatore, Madura, Vellore, and Salem. Even before the nineteenth century, numerous Telugu businessmen, mostly Komatis and Berl Chettis, had settled in Madras city, and it was because of them that some of the initial support for the non-Brahman movement came from Telugus resident in Madras city. But Telugus in Madras city often had more to do with the politics of the Tamil districts than with those of Andhra.[29]


It was the Tamils, however, who tended to monopolize the educational facilities and the administrative and political opportunities in Madras. Tamils came from all the Tamil-speaking districts to participate in the public life of the city, for Madras was in many ways a focus for political, social, and journalistic activity, which in the Telugu area was more diffused as the home of Madras University and of many important colleges oriented to the needs of Tamils, and to some extent to those of Marathi speakers from Tanjore and Malayalam-speaking Nairs from Malabar district on the west coast, Madras was the great educational center of south India. It was in Madras that the secretariat of the government was located, and also the High Court with its many auxiliary institutions connected with the legal profession.


Another influence that tended to unite educated elements in Madras presidency against the government was that of the Swadeshi and Terrorist movements. Following the example of nationalist leaders in Bombay and Bengal, a group in Madras, headed by V. O. Chidambaram Pillai, a Vellala formed the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, with offices at Tuticorin, a port city at the southeast tip of the province. As a Swadeshi, that is, an Indian enterprise, the new company was a deliberate competitor to the British-owned shipping company that had until then monopolized the Ceylon—south India run. Concomitant with the Swadeshi movement was terrorist activity, of the sort that had previously occurred in Bombay, the Punjab, and Bengal. The number of persons involved in terrorist activity in Madras was relatively small, but they worked with the Swadeshi group and were considered responsible for the murder of a district magistrate, Mr. Ashe, who was involved in the harassment of the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company by its British competitor. Little other violence occurred, however, and the government quickly apprehended those engaged in terrorism, or forced them to flee British India. Several who escaped, including the Tamil poet C. Subramania Bharati, found asylum in the French enclave of Pondicherry, just south of the city of Madras.[30]


One important aspect of political life in Madras presidency was the evolution of social reform activity and its effect on political controversy. In Andhra the extraordinary efforts of the Telugu Brahman Viresalingam had gradually accustomed the Telugus to the importance of social reform, but in the Tamil districts there were no champions of social reform of equal status in society. Much of the social reform activity in Madras city and the Tamil districts was led by Marathi-speaking Brahmans such as K. Srinivasa Rao and R. Raghunath Rao, who seldom had the total support of Tamil Brahmans. At the same time, many attempts at Hindu revivalism were made in Madras city. With the formation of the Hindu Sabha and many other revivalist organizations, the efforts of the social reformers were largely quashed. Both social reform and revivalist activity in the Tamil districts assisted in raising non-Brahman caste Hindus to an increased awareness of their social and political position, for both movements sought to define ‘Aryanism’ or ‘Brahmanism’. To non-Brahmans this discussion only suggested the division between the ‘Aryan Brahman’ and the ‘non-Brahman Dravidian’.[31]


In politics, in religion, in government employment, and in education, the division between Brahman and non-Brahman was quite apparent by the first decade of the twentieth century. Edwin Montagu, later to become Secretary of State for India, commented on this when he visited Madras in February, 1913, shortly after the Royal Commission on Public Services held its hearing there concerning the relative strength of Indians in government positions. In his diary he wrote: One has here as elsewhere among the majority of the educated Indians, a desire for more power. Not I think for more democracy; for, however horrible it may be for an Englishman of my way of thinking to learn, the clever Indian wants executive power and executive opportunity, but he is not a democrat. If he does not believe in caste, he believes in wealth and division, so acute in Northern India, between the Hindu and Mohammedan, is replaced in Southern India by the vital, almost insurmountable, gulf between Brahmin and non-Brahmin. The drive for political power, for administrative position, and for economic security had by 1913 produced a serious breach in relations between Brahmans and non-Brahmans.[32]


This breach was greatly exaggerated by Mrs. Annie Besant 40 in the five years following her rise to political prominence in 1914. By then, Mrs. Besant had been in India twenty years. As president of the Theosophical Society since 1907, she had lectured throughout India, often on the glories of the Indian past and on Hinduism. Her revivalist spirit was condemned by the Madras Social Reform Association, which published the Indian Social Reformer, for engendering in the minds of Indians a false sense of pride in their social and political institutions and hence precluding progress in the matter of social and political reform. When she became a champion of Home Rule for India, her Theosophical bias, with its emphasis on the great Brahmanical past of India, quickly brought her into opposition with non-Brahmans and aroused serious social conflict and political dispute.


Mrs. Annie Wood Besant (1847-1933) was born in London of an Irish mother and an Irish-English father. After an unfortunate marriage to an Anglican minister, she became interested in atheism, and in 1874 she joined the National Secular Society. For many years she worked with Charles Bradlaugh, lecturing, writing tracts and articles, championing birth control and women's rights, then socialism (in 1885 she joined the Fabian Society). In 1889, running as a Freethinker, she was elected to the London School Board. That same year she was converted to Theosophy. As a dose friend of Mme Helena Blavatsky (d. 1891), she was instrumental in drawing the London lodge of the Theosophical Society into the field of social reform, but during the '90's her principal interest was occultism. See the two-volume biography by Arthur H. Nethercot: The First Five Lives of Annie-Besant and The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (Chicago, 1960, 1963). Like many other political leaders in India in the years between the death of the great Indian politician Gopal Krishna Gokhale in 1915 and Gandhi's rise to power in 1920, Mrs. Besant was faced with the dual problem of expressing her own political feelings and of finding a constituency that would listen to her. Her career did not lack its comic moments, and her personality was such that she provoked both profound distrust and extreme devotion. She clashed with the British authorities in Madras, and created a legend for herself by her stubborn resistance to that government. Her most important contribution was that she brought into the open hopes and grievances that were already apparent in the political and social life of the presidency. The Home Rule League which she founded cannot be said to have caused communal discord, but there is no doubt that on some occasions it helped to catalyze it.[33]



Mrs. Besant thrived on activity, and in the years between 1893 and 1907 she was often out of India, pursuing her investigations into the occult, lecturing for the Theosophical Society, or attending meetings. When she was in India, she was occasionally at Adyar, near Madras, where the headquarters of the society were located, but more often in Benares, where, in 1898, she founded the Central Hindu College. She still had an interest in social reform, particularly education for women. For active politics, she appeared to have no inclination whatever. Indeed, she resented the way in which political agitation disrupted life at the college: “If we are to allow every different part of India”, she wrote in 1905, “to send orders to our boys to take part in political demonstrations ... all discipline would vanish”.[34]


In 1907, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott, founder-president of the Theosophical Society, died, designating Mrs. Besant as his successor, and she was elected with no real trouble. For the next five or six years after she became president and moved to Adyar she was preoccupied with the society and with Theosophical matters in general. But in the late summer and autumn of 1913 she gave a series of eight lectures in Madras which together marked the first step toward a full-scale involvement in Indian politics. These lectures (later published under the title Wake Up, India) were on the general subjects of India's past and future, including caste, social reform, education for women, and industrial growth. As lectures, they are of no great consequence; they represent no very profound or original understanding of India's problems, and they are in some ways little more than Mrs. Besant's reactions to certain topics then in vogue. But they are interesting as examples of her ideas about India.[35]


She urged Indians to study their own past, where they would find heroes and heroic deeds: “If you know your past you will be proud of being Indians. A nation which gave to humanity not only religion and philosophy, not only literature and drama, but the most splendid warriors, the most deathless loyalty, the most sublime patriotism, that nation can never fade from the page of history except by the treachery of the children of her own womb”. In her lecture on caste, given on November 16, she suggested that the caste concept had originated among an Aryan minority which “was in danger of being swamped by the vast majority of mixed population around them”. These Aryans were, she said, light-skinned, whereas the aborigines were dark and “passed into the ranks of the Sudras”. The restrictions imposed by the caste system remained with India, she said, mainly because of indifference and thoughtlessness. It is evident from these lectures that Mrs. Besant was sensitive to the difficulties and limitations imposed by the caste system, though reluctant to go as far as to urge the Indian people to break the sanctions that caste imposed. These were attitudes that laid her open to the charge of hypocrisy; some said that her preaching was inspired not by any genuine interest in Indian social reform but by a desire to maintain the status quo of the caste hierarchy.  Like many political and social reformers in India before her, Mrs. Besant saw in Indian village institutions such as panchayats a system of indigenous local government which had given Indians many centuries of training in the art of self-government.5 Nor were her ideas on education and economics any more original; for the most part they followed those propounded by Dadabhai Naoroji and other Moderates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But these lectures brought Mrs. Besant out of her Theosophical shell, and signaled a new militancy.[36]


In the spring of 1914 Mrs. Besant again went to England. She gave a speech at Queen's Hall on the subject of India's political needs, and she wrote several letters to newspapers pleading for ‘justice for India’.  Her letter to The Times, for instance (May 29, 1914), was a concise but impassioned appeal to sensitive Englishmen to grant the educated Indian at least a hearing. ‘Is he never to be free among free men’? she asked. “Is he never to be estimated by his character, his brain, and his heart, but always by the colour of his skin”? To her way of thinking, India was already politically aware, and she insisted that India's response would depend entirely upon the kind of treatment that England gave her. “Free”, wrote Mrs. Besant, “... [India] will be the buttress of the Empire; subject, she will be a perpetual menace to its stability”. She also stressed, as she did in her Queen's Hall speech, the need for a continuing connection between India and Great Britain, and emphasized that political activity in India should be confined to constitutional agitation. The Bombay Chronicle, later to become important in the struggle for Indian independence, noted Mrs. Besant's debut into Indian politics: It is not impossible that the entrance of Mrs. Besant into the field of political agitation may prove to be one of the most important events of recent years. For many years she has preached Swadeshi as she has understood it. But when, some ten years ago, the Indian advancement movement began to develop in ways which revealed a growing national consciousness, Mrs. Besant came to rank in the main as an opponent, an apologist of official-ism, and particularly an enemy of those forms of nationalism which had captured the enthusiasm of Indian youth.


Mrs. Besant's new stand had already found a medium of expression—the Madras weekly Commonweal, which she established following her successful lecture series. In the first issue, of January 2, 1914, she explained why she was entering the publishing field: “The futile efforts made by a small knot of people, using the Hindu as their organ, to drive me out of the public work in India to which I have devoted my life, money and work since 1893, have led to the intensification of that work in Madras, and to my greatly increased popularity in South India, where I have hitherto been less known than in the North”. Commonweal printed articles on political and religious topics by persons in English and Indian public life. On her return from England in late June, 1914, Mrs. Besant acquired an English-language daily, the old Madras Standard, and renamed it New India. The first issue appeared on July 14. As Mrs. Besant wrote in a New India editorial in 1916 (June 8), her purpose in buying the paper was “to press forward the preparation for the coming changes in India, and to claim steadily India's place in the Empire”. To facilitate the change in India's status, she advocated two changes in Indian politics. First of all, she wanted the extremists to join the Indian National Congress. This was achieved in December, 1915, partly because of her efforts, partly because of the deaths of the two great political leaders, G. K. Gokhale and Pherozeshah Mehta, and partly because of B. G. Tilak's change of heart.  Second — and it was in this sphere that her presence was felt most strongly—she wanted to popularize the doctrine of self-government.  In order to implement this second aim, Mrs. Besant began her work for Home Rule.[37]


Mrs. Besant's capacity and desire to organize a Home Rule League were, of course, hampered by her position as a newcomer to the Indian political world, who had only joined the Congress in 1914. It was true that she had had many contacts with politics and politicians in England before her conversion to the doctrines of Madame Blavatsky, but in India her Theosophical associations often made her appear suspect and even ludicrous. The court cases in which she was involved in 1912 and 1913 revealed many unsavory aspects of Theosophy and brought her notoriety but little popularity. Her circle of Indian friends was confined for the most part to Theosophists, many of whom were Tamil Smartha Brahmans, and these associations made her even less attractive to many politicians. Furthermore, her inability to read or speak any Indian language (except for a little Sanskrit) inevitably limited her understanding of Indian institutions and literature. Her notions on the glories of the Indian heritage were partly derivative, partly colored by her Theosophical views on the place of Indian philosophy in a scheme of absolute morality.  For her, India was bound by important religious and cultural characteristics; the religious and caste orientations of Indians, she maintained, were so similar that, in fact, India was a single homogenous unit. And influencing all these attitudes was her own vision of what she believed to be her role in the struggle for self-rule. She had few connections with politicians outside Madras, or with all-India politics, and many political figures, including Gokhale, were frankly skeptical of her trying to meddle in affairs she knew little about. Her stands on swadeshi and political agitation in the preceding decade had alienated her from many persons in the national movement. In addition to all this, despite her belief in full and free public discussion, she tended herself to be autocratic in her dealings with other politicians; thus she had more than a few personal enemies.


Yet Mrs. Besant knew that she possessed special qualities - including that of oratory—not the least being the fact that as an Englishwoman articulating Indian political demands she was certain to command some attention. The way in which she put these qualities to use was sometimes rather baffling to her Indian contemporaries—and certainly not always to their liking. From the first, the English population in Madras, mostly businessmen and their wives, and the Government of Madras were openly hostile. The government's opposition was due partly to the war, which had dislocated administrative machinery in Madras and elsewhere. It had also brought into operation emergency measures which could be used to muzzle opposition. Mrs. Besant's success in flaunting these emergency regulations accounted for her great popularity among many educated Indians. Instead of silencing her, the government strictures lent to her words and actions a note of even greater authority and daring in Indian eyes.


Irritation at Mrs. Besant's methods and aims was not confined to isolated individuals but found expression among groups which, even before Mrs. Besant had made her appearance on the south Indian political stage, had a measure of organizational coherence. One of these groups, led predominantly by Telugu Brahmans from Andhra, feared that in the reallocation of political authority accompanying the introduction of Home Rule the rights and the interests of the Telugus would not find their proper place. The Andhra group, which had first organized at Bapatla, in Guntur district, in May, 1913, aimed to establish a separate Telugu unit or ‘circle’ of Congress so as to give the Telugus freedom of action and reduce the influence of the Tamils in Andhra affairs. Beyond that, it hoped in time to use the new Telugu Congress as a means of achieving a separate Telugu province, with a university for Telugus. The pressure of the group on the Congress party, including publication of a pamphlet on the subject, was successful, and on April 8, 1917, Congress granted permission for the establishment of a Telugu unit. The authors of the pamphlet, Konda Venkatappayya and Pattabhi Sittaramayya, stated Andhra's case clearly: “The clear sketch [stretch] of continuous territory, a common  language and literature, common traditions of heroes and poets, warriors and kings, and deep down a strong similarity of temper and character—these language-bound communities are to be outlined each into a single race and accorded all those accessories of communal and political institutions which illustrate and feed that unity”.[38]


Inadvertently, however, Mrs. Besant's stand on a homogeneous versus a linguistically divided India helped to intensify certain already existing trends in Andhra. Telugu had been used to some extent in political meetings since the 1870's; from the start of the Andhra movement in 1913; political meetings in the Telugu districts were conducted exclusively in Telugu, thus effectively barring non-Telugu speakers from participating. Mrs. Besant's known associations with Tamil politicians hardly gave her ready introduction to Telugu politics, since Tamils not only were unwelcome but also were incapable of interfering. Still another factor that accompanied the mobilization of opinion for an Andhra province was the development of an articulate Telugu press. Apart from the Telugu papers begun in the 1880's and several important literary journals, the most important innovation in Telugu political publishing was the founding of the Andhra Patrika in Bombay in 1908; in 1914 it was moved to Madras. Other Telugu papers such as the Deshabhimani, published in Guntur, and the Krishna Patrika, published in Masulipatam, helped to spread the views of the Telugu leaders, who complained of the anti-Telugu bias of the English-language Hindu.[39]


The validity of an appeal to former greatness and cultural distinctiveness on the part of the Andhras implied the possibility of other language groups claiming the same regional or linguistic uniqueness and political cohesion. It was a claim that was bound to arise, since, as Pattabhi Sittaramayya wrote in 1913, “the day is not far off when the Indians themselves will be responsibly associated with the full work of administration. If Home Rule were granted, what parts would the Telugus and the Tamilians play in the future administration of Madras presidency? This question, and many others raised by the Home Rule agitation, had implications not only for linguistic groups but also for caste groups which, not for the first time, sought a more substantial place in the political, educational, and administrative framework of the presidency”.


Another prominent south Indian, C. Sankaran Nair, also deplored the deep fissures in south Indian society. In one lecture in 1909 he declared that India was beginning to realize that nationalism was “an impossible drain so long as the caste system stands in the way”.  The Brahmans, he said, were responsible for the caste system and maintained it rigidly in order to prevent the lower castes from rising in status. Any Brahman who entered public life brought with him ‘his Brahmana ideas, his philosophy after death, and Maya, which were out of place there’. As a result of Brahman dominance, other classes were becoming unfit to accept political responsibility. The extent to which the Brahmans controlled the administrative framework of the presidency was clearly proved by the hearings of the Royal Commission on Public Services in Madras in 1913. The evidence presented to the Commission by the Madras government and by witnesses on the recruitment, salary, and position of non-Europeans in the Provincial and Indian Civil Services demonstrated conclusively the disproportionately large number of posts in the Madras government services held by Brahmans. As we have seen, the English were themselves wary of the Brahmans, though dependent upon them, and thought they were in many ways opposed to Western ideals. At the hearings, it emerged that at least some non-Brahmans were of the same opinion.[40]


One Indian Christian, A. M. Kumaraswami Tampoe, a member of the I.C.S., made the following statement to the Commission: The caste which is most averse to breaking through the trammels of the present social system in India is naturally the one on which the system has conferred the greatest privileges. The Brahman has been for thousands of years the custodian and object of all intellectual culture, and the other castes have in consequence been placed in a very disadvantageous position intellectually. But the very social conditions which give the Brahman this advantage have pari passu handicapped him in his ability and desire to absorb democratic ideas on social matters. He is far less able than we are to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered by institutions which are purely European, and which are in consequence inconsistent with the fundamental principles of caste. Tampoe, later to become a member of the non-Brahman Justice Party, went on to suggest that Brahman efficiency should be sacrificed for the sake of a more general recruitment policy so that a large number of non-Brahmans could find a place in government service.


Tampoe's evidence as well as that of other witnesses who supported his contentions appeared daily in the Madras papers and aroused considerable interest.  In August, 1913, the Malayali carried an editorial condemning the dominance of the Brahmans in political life and urging non-Brahmans to organize an opposition. Specifically, the editorial objected to the appointment of L. A. Govindaraghava Iyer, a Tamil Smartha Brahman (a good friend of Mrs. Besant's and later a member of the Home Rule League) as chairman of the reception committee of the forthcoming Madras session of the Indian National Congress. Govindaraghava Iyer's choice of five Brahmans and five non-Brahmans for his committee was, the Malayali said, the kind of sectarian selection that was unrepresentative of the people of India generally. The non-Brahmans, like the Muslims, should “form their own organizations for representations of their own interests as against those of any particular caste or class. The Muhammadans have lost nothing through their separatist activities”.[41]


Fear of a Brahman take-over of political power, should Mrs. Besant succeed in her Home Rule endeavors, set off a series of reactions which culminated in the formation of a non-Brahman party to challenge her moves. Here again, as in the case of the Andhra movement, Mrs. Besant exacerbated sensibilities and tendencies that had existed long before she turned to politics. Her inability to contend with this opposition—whether from the Telugus or from the non-Brahmans - resulted from her misunderstandings about the structure of south Indian society. She was in part a victim of the personal associations she had built in her Theosophical work. Her associates were almost all Brahmans, and many of the assumptions that she articulated about Indian culture were based on the Puranas, Manu, and the epics—work whose value many educated non-Brahmans were already questioning, since they suspected them to be the work of Brahmans.[42]


By 1916, signs of non-Brahman distrust of Brahman intentions in south Indian politics were beginning to appear in numerous letters to the daily press. Some of the distrust was perhaps exaggerated, some was based on personal grievances. One writer from South Arcot district, for instance, argued that “the Brahmin vs. non-Brahmin hatred is found supreme in every Taluk”.  Another non-Brahman described an experience in Madura where he and some Brahmans were to celebrate the granting of an honorary Rao Bahadur to a friend by having a festive meal, and found to their surprise that the club to which they went had placed the Brahmans and non-Brahmans at separate tables one hundred yards apart. “If,” he asked, “so little sympathy and fellowship is shown by Brahmanas to non-Brahmans, who form the bulk of the population, and if those qualities carry with them a “certain amount of contempt, how can the Brahmanas, who are responsible for the clamour for Home Rule and self-Government, be expected to sympathise with their despised compatriots and legislate in their favour”.[43]


More practically, there were several moves to organize non-Brahmans in the city of Madras. C. Natesa Mudaliar, a Vellala medical student who was secretary of the Madras Dravidian Association (an organization dating from 1912), began gathering funds for the establishment of a hostel in Madras city for “non Brahmana youths who desire to receive their education from the schools and colleges of this City”. Many non-Brahmans eager to enhance the position of their caste groups in the educational hierarchy of the presidency had long felt the need of some sort of hostel which could mitigate the effects of the “bad company, evil surroundings and lack of efficient supervision” that had resulted in so many academic failures among non-Brahman boys. The establishment of the Dravidian Association hostel, in June, 1916, was the first practical step of a small but important group of non-Brahmans in Madras to organize themselves.[44]


Until then, the Dravidian Association, with few funds and little influence, had limited its activities to the publishing of two books: Sir C. Sarikaran Nair, the first volume of a projected series on “Dravidian Worthies”, and Non-Brahmin Letters, both of which appeared in 1915. The books were published by one of Mrs. Besant's chief opponents, C. Karunakaran Menon, formerly on the staff of the Hindu and now editor of the Indian Patriot. Karunakaran Menon was unhappy over the decline in circulation of his paper owing to the popularity of Mrs. Besant's New India, and he thought she was causing much discontent and division in the Congress, where her demands produced in her followers a “remarkable intellectual prostration”. Mrs. Besant was incapable of seeing that her position in politics was “quite different from her position in the Theosophical Society”, he said: “She has absolutely no claim upon us; she has no right to expect us to follow her. She came into our politics only yesterday. The editor of the Indian Patriot has been in public life for nearly thirty years ... She is after all an Irish woman whom nobody beyond her Theosophical Society is bound to revere; and her claim to lead the whole of India setting aside all old leaders and public workers is most preposterous”.[45]


Non-Brahmin Letters, “the more important of the two Dravidian Association publications, is a series of twenty-one letters concerning the position, and the desires, of certain non-Brahman caste groups in Madras presidency—many of which were to become the principal aims of the non-Brahman movement. The letters are addressed to “Dear Govindarajulu” and “Dear Rama swami” from “Reddy Naidu”, and “Mudaliar” (that is, from a Kapu, a Balija, and a Vellala), and are intended to reflect the heart-searchings of these caste groups about their lowly position in public affairs. They emphasize that non-Brahmans are disunited and jealous of one another, that they are unwilling to take advantage of education but instead remain attached to their traditional occupations as businessmen or dubashes (translators or clerks). Non-Brahmans are badly treated by non-Brahman employers and Brahman fellow-workers alike, but they themselves are to blame for not aspiring to influential positions in the government service. Unlike the Brahmans, who act in concert and realize the importance of education, non-Brahmans, mesmerized by the strictures of Manu, are the victims of their own sense of inferiority. If they are ever to become important in the public life of Madras presidency, they must organize a movement to unite the Dravidians and must establish a “national” college employing the Dravidian vernaculars.[46]


Following the publication of Non-Brahmin Letters, successful attempts were made by Natesa Mudaliar, the secretary of the Madras Dravidian Association, to reconcile two non-Brahman leaders who were both important figures in Madras city affairs, Dr. T. M. Nair and P. Tyagaraja Chetti, a Telugu Beri Chetti. These two men were at odds over a municipal problem of sewage disposal in the north Madras suburb of Tondiarpet, where Tyagaraja Chetti lived.  Natesa Mudaliar prevailed upon them to forget their petty differences and help him form a non-Brahman party. After Dr. Nair suffered two election defeats in the summer of 1916 at the hands of Brahmans, he decided to cooperate with Natesa Mudaliar.


Finally, on November 20, 1916, some thirty or so non-Brahman leaders, including Dr. Nair and Tyagaraja Chetti; met at the Victoria Public Hall in Madras city. This meeting can be considered the real beginning of a non-Brahman party, although the decision that night was simply to form a joint stock company, to be called the South Indian People's Association, Ltd., for the purpose of publishing English, Telugu, and Tamil newspapers to voice non-Brahman grievances”. At first, the new party had little organizational cohesion or direction, but as Dr. Nair pointed out a few days after the initial meeting, non-Brahmans had never before united for corporate action. Only by working together would they ever take their ‘proper place’ in the government of the country. He urged a policy of nonviolence, with leadership in the hands of the landed aristocracy.[47]


On December 20, in both the Hindu and in Mrs. Besant's New India, the group made its public announcement, in the form of a ‘Non-Brahmin Manifesto’.  In addition to the joint stock company, there was now an organization called the South Indian Liberal Federation (S.I.L.F.), whose purpose was to promote the political interests of non-Brahman caste Hindus. The tone of the manifesto was more militant than previous statements, in direct opposition to Home Rule agitation. ‘The time has come’, the manifesto began, ‘when an attempt should be made to define the attitude of the several important non-Brahmin Indian communities in this Presidency toward what is called “the Indian Home Rule Movement’, for clearly, if no one disagreed, it would be assumed that all of India was in favor of Home Rule’. But non-Brahmans could never support any measure that, ‘in operation, is designed, or tends completely, to undermine the influence and authority of the British Rulers, who alone in the present circumstances of India are able to hold the scales even between creed and class and to develop that sense of unity and national solidarity without which India will continue to be a congeries of mutually exclusive and warring groups without a common purpose and a common patriotism’. The manifesto went on to say that, though the Brahmans had given Home Rule agitation an apparent unanimity, they in truth represented only a small minority, which had everything to gain by Home Rule since it held nearly all the available government posts open to Indians and had a majority of the seats in the Madras Legislative Council.


Some non-Brahman groups, the manifesto noted, such as the Chettis, Komatis, Mudaliars (Vellalas), and Naidus (Balijas), ‘have been making rapid progress’. But these groups had so far been ‘groping helplessly’ in the background, ‘because of the subtle and manifold ways in which political power and official influence are often exercised by the Brahmin caste’ The Indian National Congress, though it spoke for the whole of India, in fact represented only the views of the Brahman minority. Therefore non-Brahmans must organize if they were to have any influence when postwar reforms were put into effect.[48]


The day after the manifesto appeared, New India, true to Mrs. Besant's ideas, objected that the statement showed distrust in the ultimate objective of independence. As long as India gained Home Rule, it said, it mattered little whether Brahmans or non-Brahmans, Hindus or Muslims were most powerful, for, after all, ‘we are all children of one Mother’. Mrs. Besant's blindness to the possibility of sectional claims in the event of self-rule prevented her from realizing that by this time the question of who would hold the reins of power, Brahmans or non-Brahmans, was developing into an issue of major importance in Madras politics.


It was also evident that Mrs. Besant now had some opponents who would combine their energies against her. Tyagaraja Chetti was the editor of the recently founded English-language weekly, the Non-Brahman. Dr. Nair, though primarily a physician, had for some years edited a medical journal called Antiseptic; but he did not limit his writing to medical subjects.  One article, in fact, brought him into protracted conflict with Mrs. Besant. It was called ‘Psychopathia sexualis in a Mahatma’ and concerned the sexual practices of Charles W. Leadbeater with his disciples (chela was the T.S. term) in the Theosophical Society. Leadbeater, a former minister and a Theosophist since Mrs. Besant's London days, had resigned from the society in 1906 after charges were brought against him by the parents of a young American boy who accompanied him on one of his tours of the United States. Two years later he was reinstated, however, around 1909, after certain intensive occult experiments, he and Mrs. Besant brought forward a young Brahman boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti as the Vehicle for the next Messiah. Dr. Nair's article was picked up and elaborated upon in the Hindu. To make matters worse, the father of Krishnamurti brought suit against Mrs. Besant and the society for the recovery of his children. The sensational case was transferred to the High Court in Madras in 1913. Then Mrs. Besant brought suit against Dr. Nair and his publisher for defamation”. The court ruled in the defendants' favor, but Dr. Nair, from his Antiseptic article on, never lost an opportunity to embarrass Mrs. Besant, whom he characterized as a “woman of deep penetration, quick conception, and easy delivery”.


Mrs. Besant's leadership of the Home Rule movement was a particularly good target, and after Karunakaran Menon declined the editorship of a new English-language newspaper for the S.I.L.F. Dr. Nair decided to take on the job himself. The first issue of the daily, called Justice, was issued on February 26, 1917. A second daily, the Dravidan, printed in Tamil, was also begun in mid-1917, edited by N. Bhaktavatsalam Pillai. For Telugu readers, the South Indian People's Association acquired a well-established Telugu paper (founded in 1885), the Andhra Prakasika. Its editor was A. C. Parthasarathi Naidu. Funds for the support of the newspapers and for the activities of the S.I.L.F. were collected among the landed interests of the presidency, and within a year of its establishment the Justice Party, as the S.I.L.F. came to be known after the name of its English-language newspaper, was backed by at least Rs. 100,000.[49]


Mrs. Besant was now being attacked almost daily by three Justice Party papers. The Dravidan printed headlines like ‘Home Rule Is Brahmana's Rule’. Pamphlets appeared questioning her integrity and that of her Brahman colleagues. One pamphlet mocked her attempts at social reform by remarking that she refused to introduce interdining in the organizations she sponsored because she regarded the Sudras as mere ‘younger brothers’. And her Brahman friends, the pamphlet said, were unwilling to give up the ‘selfish advantages of caste’. In fact, the interests of Brahmans and non-Brahmans could never be the same, it declared: “It is a misrepresentation to say that Brahmins belong to the same Indian nation as the non-Brahmins while the English are aliens ... Indian Brahmins are more alien to us than Englishmen”. The Non-Brahman accused Mrs. Besant of having herself fomented the non-Brahman movement by identifying herself with Brahmans and by “attacking us incessantly”. 64 In a series of articles published in Justice and later printed as a book, Dr. Nair contended that Mrs. Besant's program suited the Brahmans well: they would reap the rewards of an agitation carried on by a “white woman particularly immune from the risks of Government action”, 56 and in fact they were using the Home Rule movement to further their own ends and ensure the continuation of their power under a new constitution. The non-Brahmans, who had no chance of gaining prestige and position under the Brahmans, were against Home Rule, Dr. Nair said, “because we are not ready for it”.[50]


Along with the journalistic barrage, the Justice Party began holding conferences to set up branches throughout the presidency. The first and one of the most important of these conferences was organized in Coimbatore by two party members, T.A. Ramalingam Chettiar and S.A. Somasundaram Pillai, a Vellala. Plans were announced months in advance: by intent, the conference was scheduled for the same days as a previously announced Congress conference to be held in Coimbatore on August 19 and 20, 1917. Then Ramalingam Chettiar, who was also a member of the Congress, astonished everyone by asking that his name be stricken from the Congress reception committee and demanding also that all persons attending the Congress conference be asked to sign a statement affirming that the aim of the Congress would be to attain self-government only by gradual steps and further agreeing that all representative bodies in the future should contain the proper proportion of “all communities and interests”. Many Congress members in Coimbatore refused to sign, and the division in the ranks was complicated by “organizational confusion which resulted in a series of noisy meetings”. At last, out of all the confusion, some agreement was reached: the Congress conference would proceed as scheduled, and Mrs. Besant, still interned in an Ootcamund bungalow, would be asked to preside.  Against this background of “intense activity” both the Congress and Justice party conferences met in Coimbatore.[51]


In London, on the same day, August 20, 1917, Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, made an announcement in the House of Commons which was to harden and exaggerate the differences in Madras presidency politics: “The policy of His Majesty’s Government”, he said, “with which the Government of India are in complete accord, is that of the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration, and the general development of self-government institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire”. 59 Discussion about the political future of India had been underway in Madras for at least five years; the lines of conflict were already drawn, and the hostilities had already broken out. Montagu's announcement, long expected but delayed by events, did not begin political and communal tension in Madras presidency but rather intensified it, and gave a new urgency to the demands that were being drawn up. The most important question was that of political enfranchisement and the amount of responsibility that would be granted the Indians. Some hoped for a direct transfer of power; others, perhaps more realistic, expected much more limited reforms, based on the principle of representation by “interest”, given currency by the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909. But all groups in Madras at least agreed that only by making themselves heard would they obtain a share in the responsibilities to which Montagu referred.[52]


From Mrs. Besant's social reform lectures in late 1913 until Montagu's announcement in Parliament in 1917, Madras had been the center of Home Rule agitation. A few of Mrs. Besant's experiments, like the Madras Parliament, seem naive, but her triumphs were many, and if she had enemies she also had followers, many of whom learned a lesson from her anti-government stand. If Mrs. Besant had been politically astute, she would have realized that her enemies were soon to be more powerful than her friends; but she was not alone in her blindness. The Tamil Brahmans had for so long been powerful in Madras that it was hard to believe that the disorganized masses of non-Brahman caste Hindus would ever pull together and achieve, as they finally did, a reserved place in the 1920 Legislative Council in Madras.




[1]        C.J. Baker, The Politics of South India, 1920-1937, New Delhi, Macmillan, 1976, pp. 140-70.

[2]       Eugene, F. Irschik, Politics and Social Conflict in South India, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969, pp. 25-50.

[3]       M.R. Barnett, The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India, New Jersey, 1976,   pp.7-8.

[4]       E.F. Irschik, Op.Cit., pp. 145-50.

[5]       Robert L. Hard Grave, The Nadars of Tamilnad: The Political Culture of a Community in Change, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1969, p. 46.

[6]       Robert L. Hard Grave, Op.Cit., p. 71.

[7]        Andhra Patrika, January, 29, 1913, p. 29.

[8]       Robert L. Hard Grave, Op.Cit., p. 62.

[9]       D.A. Washbrook, The Emergence of Provincial Politics: The Madras Presidency 1870-1920, New Delhi, Vikas Publishing House, 1977, pp. 50-60.

[10]      Robert L. Hard Grave, Op.Cit., pp. 60-70

[11]      See E.F. Irschik, Op.Cit., pp. 130-40.

[12]      Andhra Patrika, September, 5, 1917, pp. 27-28.


[13]      C.J. Baker, Op.Cit., pp. 210-30.  Also see B. Kesavanarayana, ‘Political and Social Factors in Andhra: 1900-1956’, Vijayawada, Navodaya Publishers, 1976, pp.298-300.

[14]       Eugene F. Irschick, Op.Cit., p. 32.

[15]      Robert L. Hard Grave, Essays in the Political Sociology of South India, Delhi, Usha Publications, 1979, pp. 12-13.

[16]      Eugene F. Irschick, Op.Cit., pp. 30-40.

[17]      Ibid., C.J. Baker, Op.Cit., p. 214.

[18]      Eugene F. Irschick, Ibid., pp. 42-43.

[19]       C.J. Baker, Op.Cit., p. 47.

[20]      Census Report, 1911, Madras, Vol. I.

[21]      Census Report, 1921, Madras, Vol. II.

[22]      C.J. Baker, Op.Cit., p. 47.

[23]      Census of India, 1921, Madras, Vol. XIII, Part-II.

[24]      C.J. Baker, Op.Cit., p. 61.

[25]      A.P. Patro, “The Justice Movement in India”, The Asiatic Review, Vol. 28, No. 93, 1932, pp. 28-31.

[26]      Ibid., p-61 and Census of India, 1911, Madras, Vol. X.

[27]       C.J. Baker, Op.Cit., p. 63.

[28]      Eugene F. Irschick, Op.Cit., p. 17.

[29]       Eugene F. Irschick, Ibid., p. 92.

[30]      Eugene F. Irschick, Ibid., p. 83.

[31]      C.J. Baker, Op.Cit., pp. 65-70.

[32]      Eugene F. Irschick, Op.Cit., p. 158.

[33]       C.J. Baker and D.A. Washbrook, Op.Cit., p. 74.

[34]      Ibid., p. 75.

[35]      Annie Besant, The Birth of New India, Theosophical Publishing House, 1917,  pp.270-89.

[36]       C.J. Baker and D.A. Washbrook, Op.Cit., p. 76.

[37]     Ibid., pp. 75-82.and Krishnapatrika, June,3,1914,pp4-5

[38]       C.J. Baker, Op.Cit., pp. 60-70.  Also see Konda Venkatappaiah, Sweeyacharitra (Autobiogrpahy), Hyderabad, 1966, pp. 70-80.

[39]      C.J. Baker, Op.Cit., pp. 63-64.

[40]      Ibid., pp. 67-68.  Also see Eugene F. Irschick, Op.Cit., p. 175.

[41]       E. Thurston, Op.Cit., Vol. V, p. 103.

[42]      Ibid., Vol. V, pp. 105-10 and R.L. Hard Grave, Essays in the Political Sociology of South India, Op.Cit., pp. 14-15.

[43]      E. Thurston, Op.Cit., Vol. V, pp. 104-05.

[44]      Ibid.

[45]      Ibid., Vol. V, p. 93 and B. Kesavanarayana, Op.Cit., p. 299.

[46]      Ibid., p. 106.  See for more details G.V. Subba Rao, Life and Times of K.V. Reddy Naidu, Rajahmundry, Addepally & Co., 1957, p. 48.

[47]      G.V. Subba Rao, Op.Cit., p. 30; B. Kesavanarayana, Op.Cit., p. 298; R.L. Hard Grave, Essays in the Political Sociology of South India., p. 30.

[48]      A. Kaleshwara Rao, Naajeevitakatha – Navyandhramu (Autobiography), (Telugu), Vijayawada, Adarsha Grantha Mandali, 1950, pp. 231-32.

[49]       R.L. Hard Grave, Op.Cit., p. 30;  G.V. Subba Rao, Op.Cit., pp. 30-31;  Also see, Krishna Patrika, February, 28, 1917, pp. 7-9.

[50]      G.V. Subba Rao, Op.Cit., p. 30;  R.L. Hard Grave, Essays in Political Sociology of  South India., pp. 14-15;  Eugene F. Irschick, Op.Cit., pp. 17-20.

[51]      KrishnaPatrika, July, 20, 1917, pp. 6-7.

[52]      Krishna Patrika, August, 21, 1917, pp. 8-10;  Also see Eugene F. Irschick, Op.Cit., p. 60 and C. J. Baker, Op.Cit., pp. 155-60.