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How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 2: Arya Samaj picks up Hindu nationalism after Brahmo Samaj fails to unite local communities

Editor's note: This is the second reported piece in an 18-part series on the contemporary history of Hindutva in coastal Karnataka. The series features interviews, videos, archival material and oral histories gathered over a period of four months. Read other articles of the series here


The story of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in South Kanara is incomplete without a flashback. Frank F Colon's A Caste in a Changing World, a book which explores the lives of Saraswat Brahmans in South Kanara, serves as an excellent source of one such story.

The author alludes to it in this section:

"The period (late eighteenth and early nineteenth century) was marked among the Saraswats by a reaffirmation of ancestral dharma, but it was also a time of confrontation with new knowledge and values. Foreign missionaries offered increasingly valuable English education to those anxious to advance in government service, but at the price of exposure to another religion. The threat of religious conversion put Saraswat families on the defensive, and ultimately pushed them into Kanara's first organized political mobilization-a campaign for the establishment of a government school at Mangalore."

What does this have to do with the RSS? Or Hindu nationalism? Colon's reference to "confrontation" is illustrated in the 19th century story to which he refers; it speaks of the "great moral conflict that lay before the pioneers of the 'Hindu Nationalism' project in South Kanara — the Saraswat Brahmins".

We'll split this flashback into two phases.

Phase 1: Flop

It is wrong to solely credit Maharashtrian Brahmins for the emergence of RSS in Coastal Karnataka — this was a natural tendency, given how the dominant creation story of the RSS is linked to the organisation's roots in Nagpur. It is, however, equally true that Brahmins local to coastal Karnataka had a significant role in the emergence of Hindu nationalism.

This community, comprising Chitrapur Saaswat Brahmins (Bhanaps) and Gaud Saraswat Brahmins — is one of the few meat-eating Brahmin groupings in the country and the region's largest priestly sect. They first attempted to mobilise as a political Hindu bloc in 1870, 70 years before the RSS set up its first shakha in Mangaluru, and this had nothing to do with Hindu nationalist ideology. It was a reaction to the conversion of their ilk to Christianity.

The Charter Act of 1813 passed by the British parliament granted Christian missionaries permission to enter India to teach English and preach Christianity. Within two decades, the German Basel Mission set up its first base at Mission Street near the old port in Mangaluru.

Up until then, Christianity in the city meant Catholicism. The Konkani-speaking Catholic migrants had, by then, created a clearly defined space for themselves, with the help of the British. Colon writes:

District's Christian population manifested little interest in proselytising. Indeed, in many ways, it appeared to be but another caste in the complex layering of the district's society. The German and Swiss evangelicals represented a different approach.

This approach was one that threatened the status quo in a way the Catholic Church before it never conceived. The motto of the Basel Mission was:

"Let the image or the shadow of caste never seen in the Christian church.."

 How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 2: Arya Samaj picks up Hindu nationalism after Brahmo Samaj fails to unite local communities

After a Brahmin converted to Christianity, Brahmins came together to fund the first government English medium school in Mangalore, taking on Basel Mission's School.
Illustration by: Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar

Not only did they offer education to all, but they also promised economic development. In 1836, they set up a Kannada-medium school that admitted students across castes and religions. The German missionaries followed this up with the establishment of the first English school of South Kanara on Market Road in 1838. The interlocking clay tiles that are today found in different parts of the world (they're called 'Mangalore tiles') were invented at the Basel Mission Tile Works at Morgansgate in 1857. This was the first such factory and in a few decades, there were close to 25 operating from South Kanara.

The lowered castes perceived in their messaging and activities the inherent potential for liberation from Brahmin control in Madras Presidency.

The missionaries' efforts bore fruit in the conversions of several low-caste agriculturalists and a few members of the ritually still lower Billava caste of toddy-tappers.

The literal meaning of the word 'Billava' is archer. The revered Tuluva warriors Koti and Chennaya, belong to the Billava community. Billavas are numerically the largest Tulu speaking group in South Kanara. They were the first lowered caste group to take to education in South Kanara, in spite of protests against their entry. Less than two decades after the first generation of Billavas were educated in the Basel Mission School, they started entering the service of the East India Company as bureaucrats. They started to share office spaces with Brahmins who considered them untouchables.

In 1851, the Brahmins, who were the largest group in government service, petitioned the district judge in Mangaluru against the employment of Billavas as trainees in the East India Company. The petition stated, "In the course of time Billavas would become the heads of the offices and Brahmins would be compelled to obey their orders, the orders of people that they could scarcely look at without being polluted."

This resentment towards their education-enabled success turned the Billavas more militant and they gravitated towards Christianity. The period between 1869 and 1875 saw many lowered castes, the largest of them being the Billavas converting en masse into the Basel Mission's order. This exodus came to be known later as the Basel Mission's 'Tulu movement'.

While the conversion of these communities attracted little attention from the dominant Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, it was the only conversion of their own men which pushed them to come together.

In 1862, a riot almost broke out when Ganesh Rao, the son of a tehsildar, a powerful Gaud Saraswat Brahmins bureaucrat converted to the Protestant faith. The Saraswat Brahmins complained to the colonial administration that the Germans were interfering with their faith in the name of western education. This is when they came together to lobby for an English medium school. They sought English education as it was crucial to accessing government service but not at the cost of their men being converted or polluted.

It was during this time that Ullal Raghunathaya, a Gaud Saraswat Brahmins modernist, sent a telegram to Keshub Chandra Sen, a prominent member of the Brahmo Samaj based in Calcutta. Brahmo Samaj is a Hindu reformist organisation founded in 1828 by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a Hindu reformer, in Calcutta. Raghunathaya's telegram to Sen sought the establishment of Brahmo Samaj in Mangalore.

Raghunathaya was an alumnus of the Basel Mission School and was among the first few generations of Brahmins from whom Christian converts emerged. He was himself swayed by the influence of Christianity when he accidentally discovered the writings of Ram Mohan Roy at the Mission Library in Balmatta.

From the accounts of the time, Raghunathaya was a man genuinely interested in reforming caste relations among Hindus. He partnered with his Billava classmate N Arasappa to extend an invitation to the Brahmo Samaj. At the instance of Raghunathaya, Arasappa organised a large delegation of Billavas to welcome the three Brahmo Samajists who arrived in the city in 1870.

But the reformists' plan crumbled soon after their guests arrived. The Billavas became instantly suspicious because of the "western clothes" worn by the Brahmo Samajists, and the fact that they spoke English. The Bengali Hindu evangelists were confused for Christian missionaries, who were already facing stiff opposition and their message was lost in translation. Of those who turned up, only 19 remained to become the first members of the Brahmo Samaj which was started at Arasappa's house.

This small group too disintegrated after the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins who had followed Raghunathaya into the Samaj refused to accept the leadership of the 'untouchable' Arasappa. They formed a parallel organisation called the Prarthana Samaj for their Brahmin brethren. They also rallied the community to excommunicate Raghunathaya for staying back in the organisation started by his Billava friend.

When Arasappa died in 1876, his unit of the Brahmo Samaj fizzled out. Soon after, the breakaway Brahmins renamed Prarthana Samaj as the Brahmo Samaj of Mangalore. Raghunathaya tamely joined the new organisation in exchange for his reacceptance as a Brahmin.

After this, the Brahmo Samaj of Mangalore made its primary objective to oppose missionaries, particularly the German Protestants. This period also saw the mobilisation of Brahmin women by the Samaj against 'religious enemies'. In an article in a local journal called The West Coast Express, the Brahmo Samaj warned people from sending their children to Mission Schools. They accused these schools of turning youth away from their roots.

The British government eventually did set up the first government English medium school in the city, co-financed by Saraswat Brahmins who after this, took to funding educational institutions across the region. To this day, this tradition continues with Hindu ideologues continuing to start their own schools where they combine modern education with Vedic ethos.

The history of the Samaj in Mangaluru goes against the grain of any of its foundational tenets, as established by Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore. The SBs wanted to protect their caste supremacy in the face of western modernity and Christian liberation theology; these were transforming centuries-old social relations. This is the moral conflict which ultimately stalled them from truly practising the Brahmo Doctrine which laid out what it took to defeat this modernist wave: Hindu reform, the abolition of untouchability and equity between castes.

Phase II: Lesson learnt

The next organisation to take root in the coast was the Arya Samaj. As opposed to the Brahmo Samaj which was largely just Saraswat Brahmins, Arya Samaj was a broader coalition of Brahmin castes such as Kotas, Havyaks and Shivalli Madhwas. It was formed under the leadership of Mangaluru-based advocate KR Karanth — the brother of noted writer Shivaram Karanth — along with Dr K Shyama Rao, K Rama Rao and M Ananthakrishna Rao in 1918.

The Arya Samaj's activities complemented those of the Brahmo Samaj. Their founder Dayanand Saraswati had devised a purification ceremony through which Muslims and Christians could be reconverted to Hinduism.

Dayanand Saraswati had also argued that Aryas formed 'Bharat' and were spiritually, socially and culturally superior. He preached to his followers that rather than reform, a revival was in order to restore 'Bharat' to its erstwhile glory. The Arya Samajists blamed recent events like foreign invasions, by British or Muslim forces, and colonialism, for the degradation of 'Bharat'.

Most important, the Arya Samaj avoided making the same mistake that led to the initial chaos in the Brahmo Samaj. They formed a social alliance with the Moghaveera fishing community. They had on their side Mohanappa Thingalaya, a formidable Moghaveera leader who had formed Gnanodhay Samaj, which was focussed on the uplift of fisherfolk through spirituality, education and nationalism. He rallied the community against alcoholism and superstitions, as per Samajist principles. The links between GSBs and Moghaveeras within the larger Hindu nationalist formation proved to be crucial in the decades to come.

Even as the Arya Samaj attempted to deepen its roots in Coastal Karnataka, a new set of political events were unfolding in the rest of British ruled India. The ruling class Hindus and Muslims were growing increasingly hostile towards each other in their scramble for the scraps of political power that the colonial administration tossed at the 'natives' through the Minto-Morley reforms of 1909. The years leading to these reforms were marked by riots breaking out over cow slaughter in the Punjab, the Arya Samaj's stronghold.

These conflicts not only led to the eventual Hindu-Muslim partition but also had a profound impact on the Hindu organisations active in Coastal Karnataka. The period saw the emergence of a new outfit, the All India Hindu Mahasabha and helped shape the anti-Muslim narrative that is today a defining feature of the Hindutva movement in the region.

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Updated Date: Apr 07, 2019 14:26:18 IST