The second half of the 19th century was an era of social revolt. The educated middle- class Nayars directed their tirade against the Brahmins not only for their social dominance but also for their intervention in the farmer’s family life.
When the Marriage Commission visited Malabar in 1891 several educated Nayars gave evidence before it against the existing type of marriage alliances. Brahmin landlords even threatened their Nayar tenants with melcharths and evictions if they opposed the system of marriage. Undaunted they fought through press and literary works.
O. Chandu Menon’s sensational novel, Indulekha is a classic example of this literary revolt against Brahmin influence and indolence. Malayali Memorial, a monster petition signed by 10038 non-Brahmin-Hindus, Christians and Muslims of Travancore and submitted to the Maharaja in 1891, was an epoch-making revolt against the political domination of Brahmins in that country.
Social protests of lower caste Hindus and Christian-converts also rent the latter half of the 19th century in South India. The unprivileged classes as a whole, under the influence of Christian missionaries and liberal western ideas, started agitating for securing the simple civil rights which civilized governments permitted their citizens to enjoy.
Thus the Shanar revolts of 1829 and 1859 were against the oppressive law that prevented these lower caste Shanar women wearing upper cloth to cover their bosoms. When they started wearing these cloths, the caste Hindus violently reacted and armed clashes occurred in several parts of South Travancore. Lord Harris, Governor of Madras (now Chennai), intervened and finally the Maharaja had to concede the right to the lower classes through a proclamation.
Ezhavas under the leadership of Dr. P. Palpu staged a constitutional agitation for the removal of their social disabilities by submitting a Petition of Rights in 1896 known as the Ezhava Memorial signed by 13176 Ezhavas who were a class of people engaged in agriculture, toddy-tapping, coir making and other productive occupations. But on account of their caste inferiority they were treated as a sort of serf-class denying them the fundamental rights like right to employment in public service, right to way, right to education etc.
Their protests were feeble in the 19th century but became vociferous and a compelling force in the early decades of the 20th century under the leadership of the great spiritual leader, Sree Narayana Guru and the great poet Kumaran Asan. Similarly Ayyar Kali, the leader of the Pulaya community, create a stir in the social life of Travancore by organizing this numerically strong but intellectually, socially, and economically the lowest in the estimation of others, into a potent force.
He even advocated non-co-operation with the upper castes that refused to concede their primary demands for the right to walk along public roads, to wear ornaments of their choice, not to be kicked and beaten etc. All castes and communities started organizations of their own for the reforms and uplift of their members. The upsurge of lower classes in Kerala was spontaneous and from within, generated by their own leaders.
But strangely in other parts of South India we find the advocates of change and uplift of the backward classes emerged not from the concerned caste groups, but from the top drawer’s classes of the society, namely the Brahmins who were, by and large, liberal- minded social and political propagandists. The Hindu, the Brahmin newspaper, took the lead in producing a new awareness of the need for the material and spiritual well-being of the Pariah classes. The Indian members of the Madras Legislative Council mostly Brahmins, also championed the cause of the Harijans, their economic emancipation and educational progress.
They exhorted their own caste-men to shed their caste prejudice in order to help their co-religionists to come up by preventing their exodus from the Hindu fold. G.A. Natesan, a Brahmin leader in Madras (now Chennai) city did commendable work in this direction.
As early as 1890 the Pariah Mahajana Sabha petitioned the Government for agrarian concessions and in 1898 made a specific request for lowering in the case of Pariahs the standard of qualifying test prescribed for admission to subordinate medical service. It also represented against educational disabilities of its members. Panchamas of South Canara also started agitating for educational facilities during the time of World War I.
The question of the lower castes of Madras (Chennai) assumed new significance with the initiation of the Justice movement against Home Rule and the Brahmin predominance; a social movement thus turned into a political movement. Lower- caste groups everywhere in South India looked to the British Government for protection against encroachment of their rights by caste Hindus who swelled the ranks of nationalists.
They suspected high caste nationalists who displayed “a peculiar lack of response to the democratic ideas: A tract against Home Rule said, If today the direct rule of Englishmen ceased in our land, in a few years the nightmare of our past would settle down again and Providence will have to select a new instrument, a new race of conquerors, for our redemption….. Let all low caste Indians clearly realise that Home Rule now means High Caste rule which spells eternal servitude for the masses of the people in this country. “
Here also the significant point is that the leaders of this non-Brahmin movement were, by and large, members of privileged classes, and not untouchables. It was the Raja of Panagal who presented an address on behalf of the Madras Dravidian Association to Montagu and Chelmsford when they visited Madras (now Chennai) in August 1917 pointing out the educational disabilities of the lower castes and need for the continuance of the British rule to protect them against suppression by upper castes.”
The social, political and administrative situation in Madras (Chennai) was pithily described by Montagu: “I leave Madras (Chennai) with a very heavy heart. It seems to me hopeless. Here, if anywhere, officials administer and do not govern; here, if anywhere, they refuse to explain themselves and hold themselves aloof here they have caused their own situation.
Madras (Chennai) is not the same place that it was five years ago. Brahmins and non-Brahmins, English and Indian-all have been set at loggerheads.” This hopelessness of the situation was not a special mark of the post World War I period in Madras (Chennai); it was, in fact, the culmination of a social problem that was developing through centuries not only in Madras (Chennai) but in the whole of South India. What seemed almost insoluble in 1917 and in earlier centuries found its solution only when India became free.