‘Shudra’ is not a terminology of Dalit-OBC castes

Returning to the Shudra identity would be tantamount to becoming part of the religious order of the Savarnas, when the entire struggle of the thinkers and reformers of the Dalit-OBC castes has been focused on breaking free from the Varna system and its nomenclature, writes Suresh Kumar

Should the identity of the backward classes have a new name?

Why are the ‘backward classes’ backward? The terms ‘backward classes’ and ‘OBC’ indicate the present situation of these castes that make up the overwhelming majority of this nation but they don’t tell the history of how this came to be. Perhaps, the word ‘Shudra’ does. The authors of the brahmanical scriptures coined this word and showed these industrious people their place in society. The word encapsulated the authors’ contempt for both these people and their way of life – industry and artisanship, both of which propel a society and a nation forward – and sanctioned their subjugation and exploitation. But would they want to be known by a name their oppressors gave them just so that they could be enslaved from generation to generation? Wouldn’t they prefer a name of their choosing – like the former Untouchables chose the word ‘Dalit’ for themselves? We invite you to participate in this discourse and send in your articles to editor@forwardpress.in Following Kancha Ilaiah, who flagged off the discourse, and Kanwal Bharti, young critic Suresh Kumar pitches in:  

The Dalits and the other backward classes are moving towards building their distinct identities – other than the ones given to them by the Hindu religion and its scriptures, in which their authors, the Brahmins, have referred to them as Atishudras and Shudras, respectively. The endeavour to treat Dalits and the Backwards as out of the Hindu pale is not new.

Swami Achhootanand Harihar (1879-1933), a great thinker and theorist extraordinaire, did not accept the brahmanical terms like “Shudra”, “Atishudra”, “Ashprishya” and “Achhoot”. His stand was that the identity of the Dalit-OBC castes should be based on their Adi Dharmi-Adi Hindu identity, that is on their status as the original inhabitants of this land. While establishing the Adi Hindu Sabha, he declared, “Brothers! We are the ancient inhabitants of this land – the Adi Hindus. The Dwij Aryans are foreigners. They have condemned us to a low status, to untouchability and slavery. Let us break free from the illusions propagated by them, let us stand on our own feet and claim all the rights due to us as Indian nationals.”

In 1921-22, when the non-cooperation movement was at its peak, Swami Achhootanand, under the aegis of Adi Hindu movement, launched a campaign to secure the rights of Bahujans as citizens and their identity. When Swami Achhootanand’s movement began the exercise of carving out for the Dalit and OBCs an identity separate from the Hindus, the Hindu reformers and writers opened a front against him. Interestingly, Ram Narayan “Yadvendu” also disagreed with Swami Achhootanand’s endeavour. He wrote a critical piece in a magazine called Madhuri in 1930. Yadvendu termed Swami Achhootanand’s movement as “weird” and ruinous for the Hindus: “About two years ago, almost all the newspapers of India had criticized a rather weird movement. But the criticism did not slacken the pace of the ‘movement’. The reason may have been that the criticism was not adequate or Hindu society thought that it was an act of trespass that should be left to its fate. Well, the name of this weird movement is ‘Adi Hindu’ and its progenitor is ‘Swami Achhootanand’. Their ‘belief’ is that the modern Dalit castes of India are the original inhabitants of this land, that the Aryans, who came from foreign lands, attacked these castes and enslaved them. Now, the British Raj has given them an opportunity to settle their scores with these deceitful and devious Hindus (Aryans). Here, it must be remembered that their belief rests on the baseless, misleading and imaginary theory of an Aryan-versus-non-Aryan war, floated by some Western historians.” Ram Narayan ‘Yadvendu’ opposed Swami Achhootanand identifying the Shudras as Adi Dharmis. He said that Achhootanand considered not only Dalit castes as ‘Adi Hindus’ but also Jatavs, Yadavs, Ahirs and Nais. He appealed to the people of the Dalit and the backward castes to never fall into the trap of Swami Achhootanand. Yadvendu writes, “We want to put an end to this illogical and bizarre theory and appeal to Jatavs, Yadavs and Ahirs and especially the castes called Dalit, to keep away from this devilish idea and stick to their religion – the Vedic Hindu religion. We cannot resist the temptation of drawing the attention of the leaders and the promoters of Hinduism. It is their duty to keep this ‘public property’ – the Dalit castes – protected.” Thus, instead of trying to understand the problems of the Untouchables and the Backwards, Ram Narayan ‘Yadvendu’ defended Hindutva and tried to prove that Swami Achhootanand was a destroyer of the Hindu religion and its Vedas and other scriptures.

Hindi writers and editors were afraid of Swami Achhootanand. They feared that if 60 million Untouchables and 90 million Shudras (Census 1921) left the Hindu religion, it would become very difficult for the upper-caste Hindus to attain “Swarajya” (self-rule). Swami Achhootanand stuck to his stand that the Dalits and the Shudras were not part of the Hindu religion. He would say that they were Adi Dharmis and the original inhabitants of India. Hindu reformers and writers launched a tirade against him in their publications – so much so that Lala Lajpat Rai not only flayed the Adi Hindu movement but termed it as a fraud. Vidyalankar Kanhaiyalal Mishra “Prabhakar” strongly condemned the Adi Hindu movement in an article he wrote for the Brahmin Varchasva. Mishra wrote that the movement of the Untouchables was “ruinous” for the Hindu religion and argued that unless Swami Achhootanand’s movement was killed, the Untouchables would mount a fierce rebellion. Comparing the Ad Hindu movement to other ‘movements’, he wrote, “What is good about these movements is that those people want to remain Hindus. They only want to become higher Hindus. But for the past some time, a new movement has been initiated. This movement is much more ferocious and ruinous than the others and unless it is suppressed at the earliest, it would trigger such a revolution in the Hindu race that we would not be able to quell even if we wanted to. The inauspicious name of this movement is – Adi Hindu Andolan. The leaders of this movement are provoking the poor and Uneducated Untouchables through their speeches. They argue that only those who are today identified as Untouchables (and Shudras) populated ancient India, hence they were the original inhabitants of India and original Hindus; in the olden times, they were well placed and used to rule the country; later, the Aryans arrived in India from Iran and other nations and conquered the Hindus and reduced them to serfdom; as a consequence of the atrocities committed by the Aryans, some of these serfs came to be treated as ‘untouchables’. Thus, a mischievous attempt is being made to sow the seeds of hatred and hostility in the hearts of the Untouchables and to cut them off from the Hindu race.” Hindus like Vidyalankar Kanhaiyalal Mishra “Prabhakar” did not want the Untouchables to unite against the Hindus who believed that they were superior, and demanded their rights. Interestingly, Ramrakh Singh Sehgal, a revolutionary editor of the 20th century, also stiffly opposed the Adi Hindu movement of Swami Achhootanand. Sehgal was the editor and founder of Chand, a popular magazine of the renaissance period. He wrote an editorial titled “Adi Hindu Andolan” in the February 1928 issue of his magazine condemning the movement. 

However, Swami Achhootanand remained undeterred in the face of the organized opposition of the Hindu reformers and writers. He continued with his campaign to free the Untouchables and Shudras from the shackles of the Hindu religion and its nomenclature. Speaking in Amravati on 28 April 1933, Swami Achhootanand said, “The fact is that we are not Shudras, Atishudras, Antyay, Asprishya, Achhoot and so on. We are the original Indian Hindus, the original nation … They have been and are exploiting us by giving us the status of Shudras and slaves. No leader could have laid down such cruel and merciless rules for the members of their own race, as has been done for the Shudras in brahmanical Smritis.” Swami Achhootanand’s movement was both socio-religious and political. It was a movement of the Untouchables during the colonial era that not only played a key role in weakening the foundations of institutional Hinduism but also tried to bring the Bahujans out of it. The Bahujans refused to accept neither the term “Shudra”, foisted on them by the Varna system, nor the term “Achhoot” in usage in the Middle and Modern Ages. Rather, in British India, they tried to give themselves a new identity, outside of Hindu nomenclature, as the original Hindus and the original nation. 

Swami Achhootanand, Santaram BA and Dr Dharamveer

Now, let’s explore the attitude of the Savarnas towards the Shudras in colonial India. Did it change if the Shudras became highly educated? Memoirs of Shudras in the third decade of the 20th century show that education made no difference – that the educated were still treated as Shudras and untouchables. Santram BA, the great social reformer and writer of the 20th century, wrote an article titled “Shudra Ke Aansoo” based on an interview with a highly educated principal of a college who hailed from a backward caste. Introducing the principal, the article goes, “This gentleman has a degree in literature from University of London and is the vice-principal of a government college. He is very cultured and a virtuous family man. His food habits and lifestyle are European. At his home, his children speak in English.” Sharing his experience of caste discrimination, this highly educated principal says, “The slavery of the British does not trouble me as much as the excesses of the Hindus, even though I am described as a Hindu. I experience the slavery of the British once a year or so but I have to face insults at the hands of the Hindus of the higher Varnas every minute.” Then, elaborating on the dangerous mindset of the dwijs, he says, “The Brahmins, the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas have made life very difficult for the people called Shudras. No Shudra can live with self-respect in the Hindu fold. To begin with, all the Hindu teachers in schools are dwijs. They are miffed whenever the child of a Nai, Kumhar, Teli, Kurmi or of any other Shudra caste is admitted to a school. They are resentful that Nais and Kahars, their slaves, have begun studying. They discourage these children by humiliating them. These murderers say, ‘O’ Nau. You fool! Go and shave others. You can never learn. Why are you here! O’ Kahar. Go and wash utensils. Studying is the work of Brahmins. What will you do by studying?’ Then, if the child makes even a small mistake, they reprimand him harshly using casteist slurs. This crushes the souls of the little children. What gets imprinted permanently on their immature minds is that the god has created them as lowly beings and as slaves of the dwijs. If a Brahmin-Kshatriya boy makes the same mistake, these wicked people never tell him to go and beg on the streets or sell grams in the market or that they don’t belong there. If, fortunately, some Shudra child turns out to be intelligent and performs better in an examination than the self-appointed custodians of knowledge and wisdom, they will still rain barbs. What if he has topped in the examination? All said and done, he is Nai.” About the wounds caused by the dwijs on the Shudras, the principal says, “You may not know but the stigma of birth into a low caste stays with you all your life. Of every ten public meetings held in the city in which I live, the chair is offered to me in six owing to my qualifications and my position. But in Hindu social events, my status does not allow me to sit even at the feet of my Brahmin peon. To avoid such humiliation, I have cut myself off from society. I cannot work in north India – the place of my birth. You may have heard the name Dr Sir Brajendranath Seal. He was a great scholar of Western philosophy. He was the vice-chancellor of Mysore University and drew a salary of around Rs 2,500. Unfortunately, he was a Nai by birth. His son is also in the Indian Education Service and is the vice-chancellor of a government college in the Bombay state. He took over from me in Dharwad. The Bengali Hindus of the higher varnas taunt him saying that his being part of the Indian Education Service doesn’t make a difference. After all, he is a Nai. This hurt him so deeply that he decided to quit the Hindu community. He took eight months’ leave, went to Europe and married a French woman. His children know nothing about caste. Now, Hindustani is not spoken at all in his home and no Hindu can dare ask him whether he is a Nai or belongs to some other caste. He believes that he has thus freed his next generation from the slavery under the dwijs and they will not have to hang their hands in shame on hearing the name of their caste.” 

Then, the principal talks about the casteist mentality of Hindu reformers. “At present, Malviya ji is considered the top leader of the Hindus. I was a professor at a college in Madras. Malviya ji had come there to solicit donations for the Hindu University and to publicize Hindu Sabha. He came to my residence to meet me. I thanked him profusely. I wanted to request him to stay with me but regrettably, I didn’t get the approval to do so. Just then my wife appeared and greeted Pandit ji. Malviya ji praised her a lot and said that she was the Laxmi of the household and an ideal Aryan woman. He also said that he was very happy to meet us. Then, I requested him to stay back for the meal. But Malviya ji declined my request. He said that he only ate food that is either cooked by him or by someone of his own caste. He didn’t eat food cooked by a person of another caste. I asked him the reason for this. Malviya ji said it was nothing but personal hygiene. I then asked him whether he meant to say that my highly educated was less concerned about hygiene than his rustic cooks? Malviya ji said that I should not get angry. ‘Very well, I said, ‘if you do not eat food cooked by others, so be it but prove to me that as you say publicly that you truly believe that all Hindus are your brothers. Why don’t you bring a young girl from your family and I will arrange a groom for her of the same status, but of my caste. Let them get married. If you are not ready for this, then your claim that all Hindus are brothers is nothing but a sham.’ Malviya ji said, ‘You are insulting me. Insulting a guest in this way goes against the Aryan civilization.’ I said I was not insulting him – ‘In fact, you have insulted me by branding me as low and dirty.’” The principal said that the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas have been accorded respect and status in Brahmanism because they play a key role in maintaining the hegemony of Brahmanism. In the third decade of the 20th century, the Shudras were perturbed that the dwijs considered them worse than animals. They were insulted at every step. Hence the principal believed that the Shudras wouldn’t get respect and status until they, too, like the Untouchables, didn’t part ways with the dwijs. 

In 1932, the Kahar Sudharak Sabha, Jabalpur, forwarded a resolution to the British government saying that they should be given representation separately from the Hindus. Their resolution was published by Santram BA in the June 1932 issue of Yugantar as an editorial comment. The Kahar Sabha sought separate representation for the Kahars in government jobs and also demanded that no person from another caste should be allowed to lead them. The resolution went like this: “The higher Varnas are the cause of great distress to us in our daily lives. We served them but in return, they have made us their slaves and degraded us. Thus, we have been reduced to dumb and helpless animals. We don’t have the voice to express our pain before the rulers. We find that even 150 years after the establishment of British rule in India, the three higher Varnas are dominating the councils and the government and semi-government positions of responsibility. Even in schools and colleges, they are the teachers and the professors. They hate Dalit and low-caste children. Thus, our progress towards being able to enjoy human rights in every aspect of our lives is being hindered. We can get an opportunity to rise only if the government is kind enough to free the government bodies from the Hindu mindset of birth-based division of high and low and give representation to all the Hindu Varnas in proportion to their population. Therefore, we pray that our caste be given separate representation and that no person of a caste be made representative of another caste. At the end, we thank the British government under whose rule we got an opportunity to acquire an education and express our opinion. We were completely deprived of this right when the upper-class Hindus were ruling the country. This is the situation even today in most Hindu states.”

In December 1934, the All India Backward and Depressed Classes (AIBDC) decided to hold its convention at Jabalpur. This information was published in the September 1934 issue of Yugantar as an editorial comment. The communiqué issued by the AIBDC said, “Until 15,000 years ago, we, the original inhabitants, were the rulers of this country. But the Aryans vanquished us through deceit and by entrapping us in the steel frame of the Varna system. As a punishment, we were branded as Shudras and were condemned to hard labour for eternity by reducing us to slaves. They labelled themselves as dwijs and divided themselves into three groups – Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. They also barred us from acquiring education and wealth through their penal code.” The communiqué described the dwijs as the destroyer of the literature and culture of the Shudras. The AIBDC was a joint platform of the Dalits and the OBCs. The Sabha said that six crore dwijs treated 16 crore Dalits and OBCs like animals. At the end, the communiqué appealed to the Dalit and OBC castes to take part in the convention in large numbers and protect their rights. 

In the 1990s, as part of an identity discourse, a comprehensive discussion began on the issue of taking the Dalit and OBC castes out of the Hindu fold. Brilliant Dalit thinker Dr Dharamveer (9 December 1950 – 9 March 2017) linked the Dalit and OBC castes with the religious philosophy of Aajivak Makhali Gosal. He unequivocally stated that the Aajivak is the basic identity of the Dalits and Shudras. Dr Dharamveer wrote, “As the Aajivaks had forgotten their religion, philosophy and society, their opponents have given them strange new names. Today, they are called Dalits in the field of literature. Until the struggle for political freedom from the British, they were called the Untouchables – a term that has now been banned by law. They were also addressed as Harijans. But that term has also been banned. The Constitution divides them into Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs.” According to Dr Dharamveer, the philosopher Makhali Gosal, like Mahavir Jain and Gautam Buddha, had also founded a religion, which was called Aajivak. But its opponents did everything to destroy its philosophy. Since Aajivak Makhali Gosal came from the Kumhar community, his religion and philosophy was never respected by the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. He writes, “Makhali Gosal was from the Kumhar caste and a slave. Bijak was also a slave. The Nand clan was branded as Shudra. The Maurya clan was also not of Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Raidas was from the Chamar caste and Kabir from the Julaha caste. Thus, this religion, which prescribed a new social order, was the religion of the slaves, the Untouchables, Dalits and Backwards. Consequently, the Aajivak religion is still fighting to purge slavery from the religious and social order. This is not a small battle. In a sense it is being defeated because the struggle continues. But it has also been victorious because in terms of the law, discrimination, slavery and the system of high and low has ended. Then, far from being defeated, its victory will be conclusive the day when peace based on equality is established in society. So, just because it represents the weaker sections of society, let us not say that the Aajivak religion has lost. Rather, let us say that the struggle for victory continues to this day.” Dr Dharamveer emphasizes the use of the word “Aajivak” for the Dalits and other backward castes to free them from the Hindu religion and its nomenclature. He says, “Aajivak society is a complete society. It is not part, or any particular part, of a complete society. It is not a part of the social order of the Brahmins, Buddhists or Jains. Thus, in that sense, it is comparable to any social system of the world. It is not a slave or untouchable to any community. It has its own saints, its own kings, its own traders, its own farmers, its own artisans and its own labourers. It is not Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra of the well-known Varna system because it does not believe in Varnas. To the Aajivaks, the words Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra sound alien and have a foreign origin.”

Thus, we can see that the exercise to break free from the confines of Hindu religion continued from the first to the last decades of the 20th century. But never did the reformers of the Dalit-OBC castes hark back to the brahmanical term ‘Shudra’. That is because this word does not belong to them and it is not their identifier. I believe that the endeavour to return to the ‘Shudra’ identity and its advocacy is nothing but intellectual stupidity. Returning to the Shudra identity would be tantamount to becoming part of the religious order of the Savarnas, when the entire struggle of the thinkers and reformers of the Dalit-OBC castes has been focused on breaking free from the Varna system and its nomenclature. 

Correction (11.05 AM, 23 June 2021): We had mistakenly used a photo of Dr Dharamvir Bharati (poet), which has now been replaced with a photo of Dr Dharamveer (critic). 

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)  


Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

Forward Thinking: Editorials, Essays, Etc (2009-16)

About The Author

Reply