Why discuss Aarakshan with an immoral upper class?
The upper caste are opposed to the idea of reservation. But it is worth recalling that in the late 19th century, Tamil Brahmins pleaded with the British to introduce a Third Class for their children who were not able to cross the minimum pass percentage of 45 percent.
By Chandra Bhan Prasad
Is it worth discussing the issues raised by the film Aarakshan when the social class, which is opposed to the idea of reservation, is morally bankrupt?
To understand where I am coming from, let’s go to a report of the Indian Universities Commission of 1902.
“We were told that at Calcutta about 1,400 more candidates would have failed had the standards in English been 40 percent of the marks instead of 33 percent”, says the commission’s report.
The commission was analysing the matriculation examination results of 1901. It was worried about the low percentage of students who passed. According to the report, a total of 21,750 students from all over British India had appeared in the 1901 matriculation exams but only 7,953 managed to pass – a success ratio of just 36 percent.
The report also tells us how the pass percentage was brought down from 40 percent to 33 percent.
After Lord Macaulay’s British system of education came into being in 1854, British officials were faced with a unique problem: in order to keep the education system going, they had to constantly bring down the pass percentage. When the new education system first came into being, there were only two classes — First Class with 60 percent, and Second Class with 45 percent.
Something similar had happened in Madras presidency. Immediately after the new system came into being in 1854, the Madras Presidency College was established. A building was erected, and professors were imported from Britain. But, few students reached college level.
The Tamil Brahmins of that time prayed before the Governor General that a Third Class be introduced as their children were not able to cross the minimum pass percentage of 45 percent. Realising the enormity of the problem, a Third Class was introduced and the pass percentage was brought down from 45 percent to 33 percent.
It is also pertinent to point out that the student body comprised mainly of Dwijas – Brahmins and Kayasthas in particular. In the indigenous system of education, the untouchables - then called the Depressed Classes - didn’t exist.
In the first quarter of the 19th Century, British officials undertook an extensive survey of the indigenous system of education to find out how many students there were from the Depressed Classes. This is what they found.
“Sir Thomas Munro, the then Governor of Madras, in his survey of 1822, stated that there was no student from the Depressed Classes," says a report on the indigenous system of education. The report adds: “Mount Stuart Elphinstone, the then Governor of Bombay, had carried out a similar exercise in Bombay presidency in 1824. He too stated that there was no student belonging to the Depressed Classes in his presidency."
The reason why the above instances are being cited is to showcase how the upper caste students performed, and what kind of demands their parents made before the British authorities. This document shows the examination results of Calcutta University for 20 years (1901-1920). The present author has similar documents for all the seven universities of that time. The documents show that the first and second generation Dwija students were an army of Third Classers.
It makes good sense to know that only 156 years ago, upper caste parents fought a brilliant battle and won Third Class for their brilliants kids. Only 92 years ago, upper caste students were an army of Third Classers.
Thankfully, Dalit parents never demanded a Fourth Class for their children, and they didn’t pray before upper caste administrators to bring down the minimum pass percentage to 16.8 percent. They just asked for Aarakshan.
Ironically, while British officials encouraged Indians — mainly upper castes then — to join the new system of education, the brown men chased Dalits out of school. Consider a few examples:
A study on the “Progress of Education in India” between 1897-98 and 1901-02 by R Nathan (published by the superintendent of the Government Printing Press, Calcutta, 1904) mentions upper caste attacks on Dalits trying to get a schooling. The study noted: “In former days, this difficulty was acutely felt, and, as the government insisted on the principle that its educational institutions were intended for all classes, schools were on some occasions closed, and disturbances were even excited, in consequence of the admission of low-caste boys into state schools.”-
“The opposition of the higher castes to the admission of Harijan (untouchable) boys to a public school was often so strong that, even with the best will in the world, the department (government) could do very little in the matter. Not infrequently, the caste Hindus opposed indirectly, and under social and economic threats, compelled the Harijan parents to withdraw their children from schools. In some cases, even the use of violence was reported,” note Sayed Nurullah and JP Naik’s book on Education in India.
Unable to tackle the situation — of Dalits being denied entry into schools — the British government finally took the view that it was not worth it. “We are fully alive to the fact that no principle, however sound, can be forced upon an unwilling society in defiance of their social and religious sentiments,” the Hunter Commission on Indian education noted in 1884.
What is the point of discussing Aarakshan with the upper class which has morally fallen and has no sense of shame or guilt?
Chandra Bhan Prasad is a Dalit intellectual and author. He describes himself as a self-taught anthropologist and social psychologist. For more on him, visit his website.
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