The author acknowledges in his new book, Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times , that part of the pull to write a history of the region was the “South Indianness” of his mother, Lakshmi Devadas Gandhi. In his four-centuries-long story, from 1600 to modern times, he attempts to study “the people inhabiting this varying, intricate peninsula.” It is a story of four powerful cultures — Kannada, Malayali, Tamil and Telugu — and “yet more than that, for Kodagu, Konkani, Marathi, Oriya and Tulu cultures have also influenced it, as also other older and possibly more indigenous cultures.” Of the four principal cultures, which are “unsurprisingly competitive” and yet complementary, he finds the Tamil part the most Dravidian and possessing the oldest literature. An excerpt:
The 1911 census showed that Brahmins were slightly over 3 per cent of Madras Presidency’s population, and non-Brahmins 90 per cent. Yet in the ten years from 1901 to 1911, Madras University turned out 4,074 Brahmin graduates compared with only 1,035 non-Brahmin graduates. Numbers for other groups (revealing also how the Empire classified the population at this time) included ‘Indian Christian’, 306, ‘Mohammedan’, 69, and ‘European & Eurasian’, 225.
A little over 22 per cent of Tamil Brahmin males in the presidency were literate in English by 1911. The corresponding figure for Telugu Brahmins was 14.75, for Nairs in Malabar around 3, for Balija Naidus 2.6, and for Vellalas just over 2. Among Kammas, Nadars and Reddis, males literate in English were below half a per cent.
Many more had attained mother tongue literacy: 72 per cent of Tamil Brahmins, 68 per cent of Telugu Brahmins, 42 per cent of Nairs, 20 per cent of Indian Christians, and 18 per cent of Nadars.
The span from 1914 to 1918 — in Europe the World War I years — saw competition in Madras between nationalists and opponents of Brahmin domination. A small but significant advance for the latter was the opening in 1914 of ‘The Dravidian Home’ for non-Brahmin students. Financed by men like Panaganti Ramarayaningar (the Raja of Panagal), whose lands lay in the Telugu country to the north of Madras, this hostel was run by C. Natesa Mudaliar, a Vellala doctor in the city.
Demand for Home Rule
Leading the Madras nationalists was the Irishwoman Annie Besant (1847-1933), who had arrived in India in 1894 after tumultuous years in England where she announced that she was an atheist before embracing theosophy. Though also spending time in Varanasi, her political base was Madras, where in June 1914 she purchased a newspaper, renaming it New India .
Through the paper, she asked for Home Rule for India. That stand, plus Besant’s oft-expressed adoration for India’s scriptures, her impressive bearing, and her eloquence made her a force to reckon with. The British in Madras, official and civil, responded to Besant with dislike, and New India was frequently asked to furnish security, all of which added to her popularity.
On September 3, 1916, she launched the Home Rule League. District centres appeared, and one of Besant’s allies, the Congress leader P. Varadarajulu Naidu, an Ayurvedic doctor from a prominent Telugu-origin family near Salem, made speeches in Tamil about Home Rule. There was parallel activity on the other side. On November 20, 1916, around 30 or so eminent non-Brahmins met in Madras’s Victoria Public Hall to form the South Indian People’s Association (SIPA), a joint-stock company for publishing English, Telugu and Tamil newspapers which would voice non-Brahmin grievances.
A month later, on December 20, readers of The Hindu and of Besant’s New India were treated to SIPA’s ‘Non-Brahmin Manifesto’, which declared opposition to ‘the Indian Home Rule Movement’, portraying it as a Brahmin exercise for gaining control over Madras Presidency. It also announced the start of a new political party, the South Indian Liberal Federation (SILF).
Although the manifesto claimed to speak for all non-Brahmins, and its signatories included Telugu, Tamil, Malayali and Kannada names, SILF’s first aim was ‘not so much to attract a following as to influence the official policy of the British in Madras Presidency’. More places for non-Brahmins in government service and in colleges was the immediate goal.
SIPA’s daily newspaper in English, Justice, first came out on February 26, 1917. The Tamil daily Dravidan appeared in mid-1917. Published from 1885, the Telugu Andhra Prakasika was acquired.
Soon SILF became known as the Justice Party. Many of its members took the line that ‘Tamil’, ‘Dravidan’ or ‘Dravidian’, ‘non-Brahmin’ and ‘South Indian’ were synonymous terms, as were ‘Brahmin’, ‘Aryan’ and ‘North Indian’. Their wish was to ‘rouse all the non-Brahmanas to a recognition of their past glory with a view to put the haughty Brahmana who is the intruder from the North in his proper place’.
Although it attacked Brahmins, Aryans and the caste system, the Justice Party remained elitist. Moreover, its leaders quarrelled publicly, and the colonial establishment’s praise for the party became an embarrassment. Yet the future would identify SILF as the foundation for non-Brahmin political power in the South.
On August 20, 1917, Edwin Montagu, His Majesty’s Government’s Secretary for State in India, had announced in the House of Commons a new policy of ‘increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration’ and of developing ‘self-governing institutions’ towards the ‘progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire’.
The Montagu announcement triggered a range of claims. Pointing out that Muslims had received special treatment in 1909, the Justice Party said that non-Brahmins (comprising, it was asserted, 40 million of the presidency’s population of 41 million) should have something similar.
Excerpted with permission from Aleph