Untouchability and The Raj: Analysing Ambedkar's “The Untouchables and The Pax Britannica”

Diya Ghosh

All About Ambedkar: A Journal on Theory and Praxis, Volume 1, Number 1, April-June 2020

The manuscript “The Untouchables and The Pax Britannica”, written by Dr. B.R Ambedkar, consisting of 123 typed pages, was prepared during his stay in London for the Round Table Conference that was going to be held there, as recorded by his Marathi biographer Mr. C. B. Khairmode. It was presented as a case of neglect of the Depressed Classes by the British Government as they did not admit them as members of the Armed Forces. The first page of the manuscript is reportedly missing. This manuscript was published by the Educational Department of the Maharashtra Government in 1949. It’s second edition was published by the Dr Ambedkar Foundation in January, 2014. The current edition, on which this assessment is based was published in August 2019.

Dr. Ambedkar begins by saying that the primary reason for the arrival of the Europeans (i.e., the English, the French, the Dutch, and the Portuguese) to India, and in a way even the discovery of the American continent was one and the same. But this venture of Columbus was not a sudden one. It was the first of many explorations to find a sea route to India and was given an impetus by Prince Henry of Portugal (1418-1460) who helped in every possible way. It was nothing less than a race between the Europeans to reach India first. The Portuguese arrived first, followed by the English and the Dutch, and finally, the French. But why did they make this dangerous venture? The answer is spices of India and those of the Middle East – chillies, cloves, nutmegs, etc.

(In Pic: Dr Ambedkar in Viceroy's Executive Council, the Government of British India. Photo from Ambedkar House London. Courtesy: Bhushavali)

Even though it sounds strange, spices, like cardamom, ginger, and mace did play a very important role in this expansion of Europe. This raises the question of why spices were so necessary to the Europeans. One answer is taste. “The monotonous diet, the coarse food, the unskillful cookery of medieval Europe had all their deficiencies covered by a charitable mantle of Oriental seasoning.” For the poor, it was more of a necessity than taste. When food was scarce and productivity very low, nothing could be thrown away or wasted. Spices were the best preservatives. It was because of these reasons that spices were in such great demand in mediaeval Europe.

Before the Europeans discovered a sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope, there were three other well-established land routes reach the subcontinent: The Northern, Middle and Southern routes. The Northern route lay between the Far East and the West, extending from the inland provinces of China westward across the great desert of Gobi, south of the Celestial mountains to Lake Lop then passing through a series of ancient cities, Khotan, Yarkand, Kashgar, Samaro, Bokhar, till it finally reached the region of the Caspian Sea. The Middle route lay via Mesopotamia and Syria to the Levant. The Southern route lay through the Red Sea via which the products were brought to Egypt from whence they passed Europe through the mouths of the Nile.

The land routes were devious and dangerous and transportation was expensive. Robbers plundered them and Governments taxed them beyond measure. The Middle route was blocked twice. The Southern route was equally unsafe due to the storms in the Pacific, threats of piracy and port dues. Then why was there a necessity for a sea route? The answer is the Turkish and Mongol upheaval further in Asia which had overthrown the Saracenic culture and ruined trade with Europe. Thus, it was these twin causes that ultimately led to the conquest of India.

But what did the British do for the Indians, or to be precise, what did they do for the Untouchables? Dr. Ambedkar has tried to answer this question in terms of the Armed Forces, Education and Social Reform. Ambedkar began with the army adding that the conquest of India was an extraordinary event for two reasons. The territorial conquest of India by the British had begun with the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and ended with the Battle of Koregaon in 1818 when the British defeated the Maratha Empire and established the rule of the Queen in India. It was at at the time that the Napoleonic Wars in Europe were taking place in which Britain led the European nations which had formed to crush Napoleon and the French Revolution. Therefore, the British could not spare anything for the East India Company. Instead, they actually borrowed men and other resources from them.

Thomas Babington Macaulay explains that it was the racial superiority of the British that enabled them to conquer India. This might have satisfied their ego of but Professor Seeley counters Macaulay’s point by stating that it had always been the Indian sepoys instead of the Europeans who had fought on the company’s side and that if one assumed that the English were outnumbered by the same sepoys with regard to their efficiency and numbers, then the theory of racial theory would be crushed. But who were these Indians who fought this battle to conquer India? The answer is the Untouchables.

It was largely the Dusads who fought for Robert Clive in Plassey and the Mahars in Koregaon, both of the communities being the Untouchables. But why did they choose to fight against their own country? History has shown us that the oppressed classes often support a new invader in the hope of liberation. It was again them who helped the British during the Sepoy Mutiny. But what did the British do for them in return? Ambedkar reveals that ironically, the British imposed a ban on the recruitment of Untouchables in the Indian Army in 1890. Army recruitment was based on two principles, old and new. The old one admitted any worthy candidate regardless of class or caste. But the new principle admitted people from only one stratum of society.

According to the new principle, people were divided into two classes – martial and non-martial. How could the Untouchables, who had formed the backbone and mainstay of the British-Indian Army for a hundred and fifty years, be suddenly considered non-martial? Not always were they considered to be unfit for war is obvious from the fact that during the Great War, one full battalion was collectively called the hundred and eleven Mahars. Thus, Ambedkar argues that the only reason for the expulsion of the Untouchables from the Army is their status of untouchability.

Gradually, as the upper castes began joining the Indian Army, the British, who had always supported convenience over justice, withdrew support from the Untouchables. Deprived of the opportunity to take up other jobs, the Untouchables had considered joining the Armed Forces to be their hereditary profession, which gave them the chance to earn some respect in the eyes of society. This act of expulsion was a terrible setback from which they never recovered. Furthermore, even the Civil Services always admitted only highly educated individuals and it is no secret that the Untouchables have always been the most deprived amongst all.

Even if they did manage to get educated, the British usually left the case of handling vacancies to the Heads of Departments who were usually upper-caste Hindus, most of them too prejudiced to appoint an Untouchable instead of so-called worthy members of their own family. In addition to this, the British gave them no preference, as they had given to the Mohammedans. Not a single candidate from the untouchable communities had ever been nominated, even though there had been a few who had satisfactorily passed the test. There were two professions which the Untouchables were particularly suited to in that period. One was the Police Service while the other included menial services in government offices. The Police Service, however, was closed for them.

On December 17, 1925, a proposal to remove all restrictions to the entry of Untouchables to the Police Service was put forward. Ambedkar refers to one of the remarks the Member of Government, in charge of the Department, as he speaks on behalf of the Government, who states that he would surely oppose to anyone in force from the so-called criminal tribe or lower-caste, like a chamar, thus pointing towards the hostile and extremely discriminative attitude of those in superior administrative positions. As to the menial services, they were closed to them too as was the Police Service. As a part of his duty, a constable had to arrest a person as and when required, which needed the former to enter the house of the convicted in order to execute a search warrant. However, this would pose serious problems if the person to be arrested was an upper-caste Hindu and the constable an Untouchable? Furthermore, similar issues came up when an Untouchable had to stand in long queues while using a community the water-taps. What if his neighbour in the same queue was an upper-caste Hindu? A peon in office would have to serve the Head of the Department along with his household. He would have to make coffee for the boss and his wife at the same time and shop for their domestic needs as well. However, the Head would have to let the peon go in case he turned out to be an Untouchable. Thus, they were equally deprived of his right to serve. These are the considerations which barred the members of the entry of these communities into the Police Service as much as they affected them in securing jobs in menial services.

Next, beginning on a different note, Ambedkar discusses the education under the British rule in the Presidency of Bombay might have begun with the formation of the Bombay Educational Society in 1815. Native boys were encouraged to join schools under the Society in Surat and Thana. However, the funds became insufficient to support the construction of schools for the poor or lower-caste people. Before 1855, under the Peshwas, the Depressed Classes were completely out of the scope of education and did not find a place in any kind of state education. It was only when this regressive law was removed that the Depressed Classes could heave a sigh of relief, who felt that only the British would look after their interests because of their initial help in conquering India. They failed to realise that it would be a long time before the British would start encouraging education for the natives.

The Board of Education, in accordance with the Lordships predecessor of the Council, had decided that the process should be reversed. So far, the education benefits were enjoyed only by the upper classes and even though they are the most highly educated of classes, and the board had realised that it was equally important to educate the masses. But funds were not adequate to do so. Records show that the Brahmins had been a highly influential class throughout and had always been in control of the people who were appointed in the major positions in the administration. Considering the fact that the Shudras were are at the bottom of the caste system, it is no surprise that they barely received any education.

From 1854 to 1882, school and college records revealed that among the Hindus, Brahmins had the highest rates of enrolment. The only ones who could help the Untouchables in this context were the Christian missionaries. But the Government was pledged to religious neutrality and hence could not give any pecuniary grant to any of the missionary schools. With regard to this situation, the Government adopted two measures: (i) construction and development of Government schools for low-caste boys, and (ii) extension of special encouragement to missionary bodies to undertake their education by relaxing the rules of grants-in-aid.

The year of 1923 was yet another landmark in the history of Indian education system because it marked the transfer of the matters of primary education from the Provincial Government to the local bodies. Nevertheless, the records hardly showed any appreciable results. Given their social status, the Untouchables couldn’t have much access to education. In contrast, the Mohammedans have made massive strides in education, outweighing by far the Depressed Classes and coming up to the level of the Brahmins, which was revealed by the fact that in every district, a Mohammedan had been appointed either as the Deputy or Assistant Deputy Inspector. Thus, there were no districts where the staffs were out of touch with the Mohammedan population.

In Bombay, Karachi, and Junagadh, special efforts were made to establish high schools with low tuition fees for Muslim children. Special scholarships were also arranged for them. In addition to this, the Hunter Commission provided the following benefits for them: 1) special encouragement of Mohammedan education, 2) encouragement for Higher English education for them, 3) establishment of graduate cholarships for them 4) reservation of a certain proportion of free studentship scheme exclusively, and 5) appointment of Mohammedan Inspecting Officers for inspecting schools. A similar scheme could have worked for the Depressed Classes as well, but the Commission declared that no boy would be denied admission on the basis of his caste identity and that the schools for the low classes would surely be established in places where there were sufficient students belonging to their section. This proposal did not work well because the members of the Depressed Classes were not clustered in sufficient numbers in any particular region.

However, the first piece of Social Regulation which was contained in Bengal Regulation XXI, attempted to better the lives of these communities by preventing the Brahmins in Benaras from establishing Koorhas, wounding or killing their female relatives or children or sitting for dhurnas. It was observed that the Brahmins, in their defiance of the Government, lacerated or threatened to lacerate the bodies of those belonging to lower castes, and even constructed a circular structure called a koorh, where they could place old women and ‘sacrifice’ her by lighting the pile of wood and other combustible substances around her. The Brahmins would also sit for dhurna, outside a person's door with poison and threaten to swallow it if someone interrupted them. Nevertheless, the regulation ordered that if a Brahmin established a koorh, a notice would be sent initially stating that he would not be persecuted if he chose to demolish it, while also calling for an inspection of the dispute that had caused him to take such a step. However, as per the dictates of the Nizamut Adalat, if the Brahmin persisted, he would be taxed an amount equal to his annual income, while being proven an accomplice, he would be fined one-fifth of his annual income. Failure to pay so would result in a forceful acquisition of his lands by the government. It stated further that if a Brahmin put a woman to death against her will, or threatens to do so, the court would punish the offender accordingly.

On a side note, it is important to check if the British did anything for the Untouchables in terms of social reform. Caste and untouchability, among others, have been the two great social evils in India throughout history. Caste has always disabled a large chunk of the Hindu society while untouchability has always suppressed this section population by depriving them of basic civil rights, like getting admission in schools, having access to water from public wells and public conveyance, and enter into the public service sector. But even such massive and glaring problems faced by the communities affected by these factors couldn’t stop the British from turning a blind eye to them.

Ambedkar argues that even a short Enactment along the lines of Caste Disabilities Removal Act would have been sufficient. But the Untouchables were first only mentioned in as late as 1916 by a Parsi gentleman, Sir Manecji Dadabhoy, who moved the following resolution in the Central Legislature stating that measures must be devised with the aid of a small representative committee for the cause of the very crucial moral, material or educational condition of the so-called Depressed Classes. However, this induced no sympathy, and in turn, angered the Hindu members. One of them even declared that even though he may support the resolution, what was said about the Hindus and their activities are wrong.

The second time the Untouchables were mentioned was in 1918 by Mr. Bijpat, who, while speaking on behalf of the Government of India, had said that the government must ensure that special facilities would be provided to the Untouchables along with the other members of the Depressed Classes and that the social service sector as well that of the Police should be opened to them. But once again, nothing happened in turn.

One must ask why the British left the Untouchables without any care or attention. Ambedkar writes that the explanation for such criminal neglect was given by Sir Reginald Craddock who argued that with regard to the Untouchables of India, the actual issue had always been the habits and deep-rooted prejudices that inform them, and not merely the government’s lack of efforts to recognize them. He asserted that unless this was resolved, there would still be thousands of Mahar boys, left uneducated and receive only a meagre amount their masters’ attention, and that changes in people’s attitude towards these matters would take time.

To elaborate further, Ambedkar sheds light on how the British neglected the Untouchables, believing that as a government, they were not responsible to look after the well-being of these communities whose sufferings were believed to be something beyond its help, declaring that dealing with the evil of untouchability was not truly their task as the practice did not originate from them. In fact, the government unabashedly responded to the case of a petition submitted by a Mahar boy who was denied admission to school because of his caste, by stating that even though the boy deserved justice, the government was obliged to not interfere with the prejudices continuing for ages, for the sake of one or few individuals, which according to the British would do more harm than good in the cause of education.

Thus, Ambedkar accuses the British of handling untouchability irresponsibly and without the slightest amount of care, and asserts that the Empire did not use their power for the cause of the Untouchables initially because it felt that there was nothing wrong in the Hindu social systems, and later because it was overcome by the fear of losing control over the majority hurting the religious sentiments of which would cause heavy damage to the British Raj. Although the British did declare the practice of Untouchability a penal offence and gave them equality in the eyes of the law in writing, there colonial conquest of India hardly changed the fate of the Untouchables, neither in education nor in the service sector. The only achievement there has been for them and that is attaining equality in terms of the law. For the Untouchables, who had been deprived of all the rights to live as dignified and healthy individuals, this has been a big gain.

Work Cited

Ambedkar, B.R. "The Untouchables and The Pax Britannica". Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.12, edited by Vasant Moon, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp.75-147.

Author Information

Diya Ghosh studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests include Romanticism and the Victorian Age.

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