Shahuji Maharaj to Lord Sydenham in 1918: ‘Brahmins rule India’

On the 118th anniversary of the first order issued by a government in India to implement reservations in state services, we republish a letter the issuer of that order, Shahu of Kolhapur, wrote to Lord Sydenham, former governor of the Bombay Presidency, explaining why caste-based reservations were an absolute necessity

In this letter addressed to Lord Sydenham, former governor of the Bombay Presidency, in September 1918, Shahuji, the ruler of Kolhapur, makes a case for communal (caste) representation in the legislative councils, elected by separate electorates, and in the colonial state services. A year earlier on 20 August 1917, Edwin Montagu, the British secretary state for India, had informed Parliament in London of the government’s plans for “gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India …” Shahu was worried because the Brahmins had already taken over the bureaucracy in the Bombay Presidency, and the majority Marathas (meaning non-Brahmins in general) were at their mercy. That was on top of the inherited societal powers Brahmins enjoyed, using religious sanction to live off the hard-earned produce of the worker castes. As the ruler of Kolhapur, he himself had been surrounded by Brahmins in his government and was witness to how that impeded the dispensation of justice and denied the so-called lower castes sustenance and education. He had gone on to remedy the situation – 16 years before he wrote this letter, on 26 July 1902, he had announced 50 per cent reservations to the backward classes in Kolhapur state services. He defined the backward classes as “all classes other than Brahmins, Prabhu, Shenavi, Parsees and other advanced classes”.

Shahuji to Sydenham: ‘No remedy except communal representation’

September 1918

My Dear Lord Sydenham,
I have to thank Your Lordship for championing the cause of the dumb millions of India. Your close acquaintance with India and especially with Bombay, which is the political storm-centre of the country, has enabled Your Lordship to gauge the situation correctly and to see the fallacy of applying the Western principles of equality to the priest-ridden and caste-divided illiterate millions of India. The Deccan has been for centuries groaning under the tyranny of the Brahmin priest, who has seized supremacy in every way in religious as well as secular matters, politics, commerce, education, banking, etc and so on. The masses of the country are not, therefore, free agents and unless special precautions are taken to safeguard their interests they are sure to fall an easy prey to the tyranny of their Brahmin masters. Communal representation is the only way for safeguarding their interest in the Provincial and Imperial Councils. I may state some of the reasons why the Marathas are greatly in need of it:

FIRSTLY. Although the British are the rulers of the country, the real power rests with the Brahmin officers who pervade every rank of the service from the meanest clerk and the village accountant, the Kulkarni, to the highest offices and predominate even in the Councils. The other communities have to submit to this Brahmin bureaucracy and their tyranny is beyond description. The grievances of the non-Brahmin communities do not reach the British Officers and even when they go to them the Brahmin subordinate is a past master in the art of prejudicing his head against the complainant. Under such a bureaucratic rule of the Brahmins, the Marathas and other backward communities have no chance to send their representatives to the enlarged Councils. The non-Brahmins will have to vote in favour of Brahmin candidates whose caste-men know all the tricks of threatening, cajoling or inducing them. There is no remedy except communal representation, for a limited number of years at least. The elections for the Councils, Municipal and Local Boards are instances in point in which a Maratha very rarely succeeds.

SECONDLY. The Congress agitation forced Government to enlarge the Councils under Morley-Minto-Scheme. The Congress has up to this time devoted its energies to further the cause of the Brahmin bureaucracy and the British Government has also unwittingly played into their hands. The Congress has closed its eyes to the needs of, and done nothing for, the submerged classes, and the aims of their leaders are to strive to keep down the masses to perpetuate the bureaucratic rule of their community. Tilak’s organ, Kesari, is condemning free and compulsory primary education and the Maharaja of Darbhanga is opposing tooth and nail in the Council of Behar any scheme of popular education. This is one done with no other object but the preservation of the despotism of their community. And if, Government persists in refusing communal representation the result will be to flood the Councils with the Brahmins, whose ideal leaders are the two worthies who barefacedly oppose the interests of communities other than their own. This is sure to degrade the position of the non-Brahmins more and more. Communal representation is, therefore, necessary to counteract all such tendencies.

THIRDLY. It might be urged that Government will nominate members from the Maratha and other backward communities if they do not succeed in the general election. But I think that this expedient will not be very useful. Such a nominated member generally lacks the confidence which a successful fight at the poll gives. He is, moreover, most likely to play into the hands of those the poll gives. He is, moreover, most likely to play into the hands of the powerful priestly bureaucracy. He may not care for the interests of a community which does not elect him. Moreover, the very fact that he is a Government nominee takes away from him the value of advocacy, however disinterested it may be. The Brahmin bureaucrats are in the habit of accusing nominated members of being partisans and slaves of Government and thus try to lower such members in the popular esteem. An election through a limited communal electorate will create confidence in the Councillors who will be more and more self-reliant. And this the Brahmins do not want and hence their opposition to communal representation is due to this fear.

FOURTHLY. I may quote an instance to show how the Brahmin bureaucracy kills self-respect. One Mr Bagal, a Maratha LLB, was a Mamlatdar here and that time he was very enthusiastic in the cause of the masses and was against the Brahmin supremacy. But when he left service and commenced to practise at the courts, he found it expedient to change his angle of vision in order to curry favour with the Brahmin Judges and Magistrates and now he is noted Brahmanophil in public. He dare not give expression to his real feelings. Mr Latthe too, after commencing practice at the bar, has become altogether moderate in his attacks against the Brahmins. He was a zealous advocate of non-Brahmins.

Many a time I have found to my mortification and chagrin that orders against the interests of the Brahmin bureaucracy are intercepted or were so watered in the passage that they became useless. The reason was that the Brahmins were in possession of the records and they can quote precedents to support Brahmin claims and can suppress the precedents that will go against them.

Even high British officers and non-Brahmin States are powerless against the Brahmin bureaucracy. They dare not make any move lest the Brahmin press will raise a howl against them and they are afraid of the higher officers whose Brahmin assistants take precious care to have them prejudiced against innovation. This has come to such a pass that the British officer or State who dares to go against the Brahmins is looked upon as foolish or imprudent; for he forgets that he is standing on a very slippery ground. His Brahmin subordinates are to join with his enemies and bring him into trouble.

FIFTHLY. The principle that majorities have no need of separate representation does not hold good in a province where a selfish minority is likely to get the power, which is sure to be used to hold the majority in perpetual vassalage. The Maratha community is numerically very strong in the Central Division. But it is weak as the number of men of independent views is very small. It can of course boast of a very small number of legal practitioners. The few, that now practise, realise that the whole weight of the Brahmin bureaucracy will be thrown against them if they resist and therefore young men are unwilling to begin practice at the bar. There is not, nor will there be, in my lifetime at least, a single Maratha pleader in the whole of the Bombay Presidency. This shows the necessity of some special provision for the numerically strong Maratha community to secure an adequate representation of their grievances.

It is difficult to realise the tyranny to which the millions of Marathas are subjected. In the villages, as Your Lordship knows, the Kulkarni or the village accountant reigns supreme and none dare raise his voice against him. The village priest and the astrologer and their castemen are looked upon as Gods and the villagers have to feed them and pay them fees equally on joyful and sorrowful occasions. The secular and religious bondage is so very complete that the Maratha can hardly think for himself much less act for himself. But for the inborn loyalty of the Maratha, the wily Brahmin would have made a tool of him in his reasonable acts. It must be said to his credit that although the Maratha was never the recipient of any special favours at the hands of Government, he has ever remained loyal. To refuse communal representation to such a community who have been profusely shedding their blood on the fields of battle in the three continents in the cause of the empire is tantamount to consigning these faithful people to the tender mercies of their hitherto oppressors. The Councils will be flooded with Brahmins who will have a dominating voice in the affairs of the departments handed over to them. All these departments will be exploited to the advantage of the favoured community and to the prejudice of the real supporters of Government. The non-Brahmins will have ultimately to submit to Brahmin influences and sacrifice their loyalty. 

Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj and Lord Sydenham

I, for myself, have done my best to free completely my subjects from the tender mercies of the village Kulkarni, Bhat (ritual priest) and Joshi (hereditary village astrologer). The services of the first are commuted and are replaced by paid agency mainly recruited from non-Brahmin ranks who were specially trained for the work in anticipation of the change. By a proclamation the rayats are informed that they need not employ the village priest or the astrologer who will have no claims against them if they do not employ him. Thus liberty of conscience is given them. In the same way liberty of action is also given to them by abolishing the hereditary rights of the village artisans whose inefficient work was very dearly paid for, by a portion of the produce. 

I have also cancelled the rules that pressed very heavily against the Mahars and Mangs and Ramoshis who were described as the criminal tribes. The restriction upon their movements resulted in preventing them from taking to trade and forced some of their members to take to dishonesty and violence. By the way I may mention that the Boarding Institute for the untouchable classes named after your beloved lamented daughter is quite flourishing. I am sending a photo of the building from which Your Lordship will see that its inmates do not despise manual labour as they were apt to do when they took to books.

Very few can realise the influence of the Brahmin bureaucracy as your Lordship does. Being very strong in every branch of the service, high or low, it has its way and means to keep other communities down, who have to submit to their exactions and dare not raise a protest even when flagrant injustice is done to them. A merchant of Kolhapur was cheated by a Brahmin pleader. When asked to prosecute the latter, the former said that he had no chance of success as the judges were Brahmins, the Police were Brahmins, the clerks were Brahmins and that instead of getting any redress of injustice he would make himself a marked man and that he would have to bear the consequences of Brahmin revenge. Even when I asked him to prosecute the pleader he begged to be excused and refused to move in the matter. Similarly one Mr Gandale, a Brahmin, preached in public that it was good for the untouchable classes to remain so, because a new mixed caste is seen springing up as a result of illegitimate connections between the two castes of Brahmins and Marathas, as the two castes are touchables. I tried to bring Mr Gandale to court for making such defamatory statements but no one dare take up the prosecution. This fear of the Brahmin bureaucracy is not entertained by the merchants or such other people alone but it haunts even Princes. I crave your Lordship’s indulgence for a little piece of personal boasting. I am the only Prince who is openly fighting against the Brahmin bureaucracy although I do realise their power. They do not come forward themselves but they instigate the subjects against their Prince whose black side only the Brahmin bureaucracy exposes.

The best way to break down this citadel of Brahmin power is to grant communal representation, not only in the Councils but also in all branches of the service, high or low. Whenever a chance occurs, preference should be given to qualified non-Brahmins. It will not do to appoint a few non-Brahmins in important places. This remedy is worse than the disease. Such an office is between the anvil of his Brahmin staff and the hammer of the similar staff of the higher office. His staff forces him to take measures even against the interests of the masses and the poor fellow has to bear the responsibility. The remedy lies in granting proportionate communal representation in the subordinate and clerical staff also. Recruitment for the posts of the lowest clerks should be made from non-Brahmins and for this purpose a list of eligible candidates from those communities should be maintained, and appointments made from among them until the non-Brahmins get a percentage of posts in proportion to their numerical strength.

Shahu and Ambedkar at the conference of the Dakshin Maharashtra Bahiskrit Varg Parishad in Mangaon, Kolhapur, 1920

In the educational department also the Brahmin bureaucracy comes in. All the school-masters are Brahmins. The Brahmin bureaucracy here is not like the priestly bureaucracy. In priestly bureaucracy not only caste but learning is also necessary. A learned Brahmin becomes a priest. In the Brahmin bureaucracy it is the caste alone that is required. However low, wicked, unhealthy, immoral a man he may be, being a Brahmin, he is supposed to be higher than a Prince or a General or an Admiral or any learned man of another caste. The Brahmin bureaucracy for ages past had ordered that no non-Brahmin should be taught anything, even the three ‘R’s’ [reading, writing, arithmetic]. The consequence is almost all the colleges and high schools are for Brahmins though they are cosmopolitan. There are all Brahmins in them. Untouchables are not allowed to come in their precincts. Some other castes are allowed but their percentage is 1 to 100. Again I say there should be communal representation in service as there must be in councils at least for another 20 years. If no step is taken in that direction it will not be correct to say that the Princes rule India or I may even say that the British ruled India but on the contrary it will be right to say that Brahmins rule India. Communal representation is the only remedy.

If communal representation is not granted to the non-Brahmin communities in Maharashtra, all this trouble of Political Reform will end in strengthening the Brahmin bureaucracy at the expense of the really loyal and faithful subjects of the Government.

Also Read: Shahu: A crucial link between Phule and Ambedkar

The Shankaracharya of Kolhapur (Dr Kurtkoti) is a learned man, but I must say that at heart he is a Brahmin of Brahmins. The other day he presided at a meeting held to support the Durbar in their action of doing away with Kulkarni and the president refused to communicate to me the resolution passed at the meeting to request the Durbar to investigate the conduct of the Kulkarnis and to give relief to a certain extent to the people who had to suffer at their hands. He has now openly joined the extremist Congress. As a religious head he ought not to dabble in politics; but a Brahmin is very rapacious and wants to be supreme everywhere.

Even such an educated person like Mr Rajwade, who poses to be a great historian, is partial to his own caste and so envious towards other castes, that he has published some false and defamatory matter about the Chandrasenia Kayastha Prabhu caste and the Mohamedans. Of course they are going to take steps against Mr Rajwade but I only refer to the incident in order to show you the Brahmin character.

I should have very much liked to speak and discuss these matters personally with Your Lordship, but my only chance to do so seems to be if I am sent up by Government like the Maharaja of Patiala.

This letter has become very lengthy and I must now close, not, however, without making apologies to Your Lordship for its unusual length, for which my only excuse is the gravity and urgency of the situation and the momentous issue involved.

May I request Your Lordship kindly to convey my respectful remembrances to Lady Sydenham, and with warm regards.

Believe me,

Yours Sincerely,


PS: I hear that Sir John Hewett is coming over here in India. May I request Your Lordship kindly to send to me a note of introduction to him?

I herewith enclose a few copies of my letter so that you may please give one to Sir John Hewett and Sir Valentine Chirol and, if you think it unobjectionable, to Mr Montagu, with a request to all in my behalf to treat this as confidential as I do not want my name to come forward.

Your sincerely,

(This letter has been excerpted from ‘Chhatrapati Shahu: The Pillar of Social Democracy’, edited by P.B Salunkhe and published by the Education Department, Government of Maharashtra)

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