Editor’s noteThis post is about Dharampal, a thinker, historian and political philosopher from India who, unfortunately, has been forgotten in the mainstream discourse. He authored The Beautiful Tree (1983), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971) and Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971), among other seminal works, which have led to a radical reappraisal of conventional views of the cultural, scientific and technological achievements of Indian society at the eve of the British conquest.

By S Gurumurthy

“What is it that keeps the country down”, asked the speaker. A young man in the audience replied unhesitatingly: “Undoubtedly the institution of caste that kept the majority low castes and the society backward” and added “it continues”.

The speaker replied, “May be”. But, pausing for a moment, he added, “May not be”. Shocked, the young man angrily asked him to explain his “may-not-be” theory.

The speaker calmly mentioned just one fact that clinched the debate. He said, “Before the British rule in India, over two-thirds – yes, two-thirds – of the Indian kings belonged to what is today known as the Other Backward Castes (OBCs).

“It is the British,” he said, “who robbed the OBCs – the ruling class running all socio-economic institutions – of their power, wealth and status.” So it was not the upper caste which usurped the OBCs of their due position in the society?

The speaker’s assertion that it was not so was founded on his study – unbelievably painstaking study for years and decades in the archives in India, England and Germany. He could not be maligned as a ‘saffron’ ideologue and what he said could not be dismissed thus. He was Dharampal, a Gandhian in ceaseless search of truth like his preceptor Gandhi himself was, but a Gandhian with a difference. He ran no ashram on state aid to do ‘Gandhigiri’.

Admitting that “he and those like him do not know much about our own society”, the young man who questioned Dharampal – Banwari is his name – became his student. By meticulous research of the British sources over decades, Dharampal demolished the myth that India was backward educationally or economically when the British entered. Citing the Christian missionary William Adam’s report on indigenous education in Bengal and Bihar in 1835 and 1838, Dharampal established that at that time there were 100,000 schools in Bengal, one school for about 500 boys; that the indigenous medical system that included inoculation against small-pox.

He also proved by reference to other materials that Adam’s record was ‘no legend’. He relied on Sir Thomas Munroe’s report to the Governor at about the same time to prove similar statistics about schools in Madras. He also found that the education system in the Punjab during the Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule was equally extensive. He estimated that the literary rate in India before the British was higher than that in England.

Citing British public records he established, on the contrary, that ‘British had no tradition of education or scholarship or philosophy from 16th to early 18th century, despite Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton, Newton, etc’. Till then education and scholarship in the UK was limited to select elite. He cited Alexander Walker’s Note on Indian education to assert that it was the monitorial system of education borrowed from India that helped Britain to improve, in later years, school attendance which was just 40, 000, yes just that, in 1792. He then compared the educated people’s levels in India and England around 1800. The population of Madras Presidency then was 125 lakhs and that of England in 1811 was 95 lakhs. Dharampal found that during 1822-25 the number of those in ordinary schools in Madras Presidency was around 1.5 lakhs and this was after great decay under a century of British intervention.

As against this, the number attending schools in England was half – yes just half – of Madras Presidency’s, namely a mere 75,000. And here to with more than half of it attending only Sunday schools for 2-3 hours! Dharampal also established that in Britain ‘elementary system of education at people’s level remained unknown commodity’ till about 1800! Again he exploded the popularly held belief that most of those attending schools must have belonged to the upper castes particularly Brahmins and, again with reference to the British records, proved that the truth was the other way round.

During 1822-25 the share of the Brahmin students in the indigenous schools in Tamil-speaking areas accounted for 13 per cent in South Arcot to some 23 per cent in Madras while the backward castes accounted for 70 per cent in Salem and Tirunelveli and 84 per cent in South Arcot.

The situation was almost similar in Malayalam, Oriya and Kannada-speaking areas, with the backward castes dominating the schools in absolute numbers. Only in the Telugu-speaking areas the share of the Brahmins was higher and varied from 24 to 46 per cent. Dharampal’s work proved Mahatma Gandhi’s statement at Chatham House in London on October 20, 1931 that “India today is more illiterate than it was fifty or hundred years ago” completely right.

Not many know of Dharampal or of his work because they have still not heard of the Indian past he had discovered. After, long after, Dharampal had established that pre-British India was not backward a Harvard University Research in the year 2005 (India’s Deindustrialisation in the 18th and 19th Centuries by David Clingingsmith and Jeffrey G Williamson) among others affirmed that “while India produced about 25 percent of world industrial output in 1750, this figure had fallen to only 2 percent by 1900.” The Harvard University Economic Research also established that the Industrial employment in India also declined from about 30 to 8.5 per cent between 1809-13 and 1900, thus turning the Indian society backward.

 

Originally Published in the New Indian Express                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Thursday November 16 2006 09:31 IST                                                                                                                                                                                   


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