Many social reformers also criticised caste inequalities and many of these reformers and members of reform associations were people of upper castes.
In secret meetings, these reformers used to violate caste taboos on food and touch, in an effort to get rid of the hold of caste prejudice in their lives.
Rammohun Roy translated an old Buddhist text that was critical of caste.
The Prarthana Samaj adhered to the tradition of Bhakti that believed in the spiritual equality of all castes. In Bombay, the Paramhans Mandali was founded in 1840 to work for the abolition of caste.
During the course of the 19th century, Christian missionaries began setting up schools for tribal groups and “lower”-caste children, helping them to make their way into the changing world.
The poor began leaving their villages to look for jobs that were opening up in the cities due to development. There was work in the factories that were coming up, and jobs in municipalities.
Some also went to work in plantations in Assam, Mauritius, Trinidad and Indonesia. Work in the new locations was often very hard, but the poor people from low caste took it as an opportunity to run away from the oppression of landlords.
There were other job opportunities like the army. A number of Mahar people, who were regarded as untouchable, found jobs in the Mahar Regiment.
The father of B.R. Ambedkar, the leader of the Dalit movement, taught at an army school.
By the second half of the 19th century, people from within the Non-Brahman castes began organising movements against caste discrimination and demanded social equality and justice.
The Satnami movement in Central India was founded by Ghasidas, he worked among the leatherworkers and organised a movement to improve their social status.
In eastern Bengal, Haridas Thakur’s Matua sect worked among Chandala cultivators. Haridas questionedBrahmanical texts that supported the caste system.
In Kerela, a guru from Ezhava caste, Shri Narayana Guru, proclaimed the ideals of unity for his people. He argued against treating people unequally on the basis of caste differences.
All these sects were founded by leaders who came from Non- Brahman castes and worked amongst them. They tried to change those habits and practices which provoked the contempt of dominant castes.
They tried to create a sense of self-esteemamong the subordinate castes.
Jyotirao Phule was one of the most vocal leaders to form lower caste. He was born in and studied in schools set up by Christian missionaries while growing up he developed his own ideas about the injustices of the caste society.
He attacked the Brahmans’ claim that they were superior to others since they were Aryans.
Phule argued that the Aryans were foreigners, who came from outside the subcontinent and defeated those who had lived here from before the coming of the Aryans.
Phule said the “upper” castes had no right to their land and power: in reality, the land belonged to indigenous people, the so-called low castes.
He proposed that Shudras (labouring castes) and Ati Shudras (untouchables) should uniteto challenge caste discrimination. The Satyashodhak Samaj, an association Phule founded, propagated caste equality.
In 1873, Phule wrote a book named Gulamgiri, meaning slavery.
Phule dedicated his book to all those Americans who had fought to free slaves, thus establishing a link between the conditions of the“lower” castes in India and the black slaves in America.
Phule extended his criticism of the caste system to argue against all forms of inequality like to women of upper caste.
This movement for caste reform was continued in the 20th century by other great Dalit leaders
like Dr B.R. Ambedkarin western India and E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker in the south.
B. R AMBEDKAR
Ambedkar was born into a Mahar family. As a child, he experienced what caste prejudice meant in
In school, he was forced to sit outside the classroom on the groundand was not allowed to drink water from taps that upper-caste children used.
After finishing school, he got a fellowship to go to the US for higher studies. On his return to India in 1919, he wrote extensively about “upper”-caste power in contemporary society.
In 1927, Ambedkar started a temple entry movement, in which his Mahar caste followers participated which offended the Brahaman priest.
Ambedkar led three such movements for temple entry between 1927 and 1935. His aim was to make everyone see the power of caste prejudices within society.
The Non- Brahman Movements
In the early 20th century, the non-Brahman movement started. The initiative came from those
non-Brahman castes that had acquired access to education, wealth and influence.
They argued that Brahmans were heirs of Aryan invaders from the north who had conquered southern lands from the original inhabitants of the region. They also challenged Brahmanical claims to power.
E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, or Periyar, belonged to a middle-class family and had been an ascetic in his early life and had studied Sanskrit scriptures carefully.
He became a member of the Congress and left it in disgust when he found that at a feast organised by nationalists, seating arrangements followed caste distinctions.
Convinced that untouchables had to fight for their dignity, Periyar founded the Self Respect Movement.
He argued that untouchables were the true upholders of an original Tamil and Dravidian culture which had been subjugated by Brahmans.
He felt that all religious authorities saw social divisions and inequality as God-given and thus untouchables had to free themselves, therefore, from all religions in order to achieve social equality.
Periyar was a strong critic of Hindu scriptureslike Codes of Manu, the ancient lawgiver, and the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana.
According to Periyar, these texts had been used to establish the authority of Brahmans over lower castes and the domination of men over women.
The orthodox Hindu society also reacted to these moments by founding Sanatan Dharma Sabhas and the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal in the north, and associations like the Brahman Sabha in Bengal.
The object of these associations was to uphold caste distinctions as a cornerstone of Hinduism, and show how this was sanctified by scriptures.