The impact of Western ideas was felt much earlier in Bengal than in Western India which was brought under effective British control as late as 1818. Bal Shastri Jambekar was one of the first reformers in Bombay.
He attacked Brahmanical orthodoxy and tried to reform popular Hinduism. In 1832, he started a weekly, the Darpan, with the objective of “chasing away the mists of error and ignorance which clouded men’s minds, and shedding over them the light of knowledge, in which the people of Europe have advanced so far before the other nations of the world”.
In 1849, the Paramahansa Mandali was founded in Maharashtra. Its founders believed in one God and were primarily interested in breaking caste rules. At its meetings, members took food cooked by low-caste people.
They also believed in permitting widow remarriage and in the education of women. Branches of the Mandali were formed in Poona, Satara and other towns of Maharashtra.
Referring to the Mandali’s influence on young people, R.G. Bhandarkar, the famous historian, later recalled: “When we went for long walks in the evening, we talked about the evils of caste distinctions, how much damage was done by this division between high and low, and how true progress for this country could never be achieved without removing these distinctions.”
In 1848, several educated young men formed the Students’ Literary and Scientific Society, which had two branches, the Gujarati and the Marathi Dnyan Prasarak Mandalis. The Society organised lectures on popular science and social questions. One of the aims of the society was to start schools for the education of women.
In 1851, Jotiba Phule and his wife started a girl’s school at Poona and soon many other schools came up. Among the active promoters of these schools were Jagannath Shankar Seth and Bhau Daji. Phule was also a pioneer of the widow remarriage movement in Maharashtra. Vishnu Shastri Pundit founded the Widow Remarriage Association in the 1850s.
Another prominent worker in this field was Karsondas Mulji who started the Satya Prafyish in Gujarati in 1852 to advocate widow remarriage.
An outstanding champion of new learning and social reform in Maharashtra was Gopal Hari Deshmukh, who became famous by the pen-name of ‘Lokahitawadi’. He advocated the reorganisation of Indian society on rational principles and modern humanistic and secular values.
Jotiba Phule, born in a low-caste Mali family, was also acutely aware of the socially degraded position of non-Brahmins and untouchables in Maharashtra. All his life he carried on a campaign against upper caste domination and brahmanical supremacy.
Dadabhai Naoroji was another leading social reformer of Bombay. He was one of the founders of an association to reform the Zoroastrian religion and the Parsi Law Association which agitated for the grant of legal status to women and for uniform laws of inheritance and marriage for the Parsis.
From the very beginning, it was, in the main, through the Indian language press and literature that the reformers carried on their struggle.
To enable Indian languages to play this role successfully, they undertook such humdrum tasks as the preparation of language primers, etc.
For example, both Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Rabindranath Tagore wrote Bengali primers which are being used till this day. In fact, the spread of modern and reformist ideas among the mass of people occurred primarily through Indian languages.
We should also remember that the significance of the nineteenth century reformers lay not in their numbers but in the fact that they were the trend setters it was their thought and activity that were to have decisive impact on the making of a new India.