The Pariah Problem

Rupa Viswanath’s The Pariah Problem traces the time during which the problem of the Pariah came to the fore. It starts of in the late nineteenth century and continues till the second decade of the 20th century when the problem transformed through various stages.
The Panchama or the fifth varna were people who lived outside the chathur varna caste system.
They were subjected to inhuman life conditions , living a life of slaves in the feudal agricultural life of India. There were strict strictures which controlled their lives, they were considered untouchable and usage of public resources like streets, water resources and gazing land etc was barred to the people of Panchama caste. The Panchama were tied to the landlords and held no property and were completely dependent on the landlord (Mirasdars) for sustenance. Mostly entire family of Panchamas worked for the Landlords and lived in Ceri(low lying areas which were isolated typically owned by the Mirasdar), they faced constant threat of eviction by the Mirasdars. This is akin to the slave system prevalent in the West which was abolished in the British colonies in the 19th century. So the official introduction to the Pariah problem started with the colonial officials denying the existence of a slave system comparable with that of the West. It was considered to be a gentle servitude with mutual beneficial relationship between the landlord and the Panchama. Hence forth cannot be compared with that of the Western Slave system. This initial reluctance to accept the problem as existing stems forth from two key aspects,

1. The state (represented by the British) had a nexus with the high caste landlords because of the state dependence on them with respect to the revenues. The British in comparison with other rulers
levied heavy taxes on agriculture, hence the underlying system was beneficial to the British.

2. The British administration for its day to day execution of administrative procedures were dependent on the high caste Hindus hence there was a tacit understanding of how the country side works in the Indian Feudal context. The term the author uses to rightly point out the relation is “Caste-State” Nexus.

Land was the major tool in feudal hegomany and access to it was highly guarded. Hence there were rules which effectively prevented the Panchamas to acquire land. Although their capability to accumulate surplus was limited, there were rules like the Darkhast rule which effectively prevented the purchase of land by the Panchama. The rule gives first option to the Mirasdar in buying Poramboke land and the Mirasdar’s effectively kept buying land back to prevent Panchamas buying land. In this way the Mirasdar could control the labor and use it to his benefit which is a classic feature of any feudal serfdom.

Missionary and Religious Neutrality.
Unlike most commonly believed the missionaries were highly reluctant in the conversion and working in behalf of the Panchamas. Part of the reason was the Protestant Missionaries wanted to first convert the high caste hindus which they thought will create a domino effect and result in the conversion of the majority of Hindus. And also they were highly uncomfortable with using the realm of material in conversion as they thought that was undermining the spiritual plane. And in most cases it was the Panchamas who approached the Missionaries in issues which they needed help. In this way the Panchamas were able to open a channel to the state with the help of the Missionary bypassing the high caste Hindus. The missionary after the initial reluctance took up the cause of the Panchamas, and the first they tried was acquiring land for the Panchamas and settling them in the form of a cooperative society. The missionary will manage the estate and will also forward loans to the Panchamas already converted to the Christian Faith. In a way the missionary also doubted the Panchamas capability to manage the farm land independently. This was faced with considerable opposition in the country side. The high caste Hindu Mirasdars were genuinely worried with loosing control over the labor and the granting of land was criticized as stepping out of the Religious Neutrality the Queen had promised after the revolt of 1857. This was a very small initiative taken by the missionary and the resultant opposition effectively stalled initiatives for another decade when ideas of what considered Public welfare changed.

The New-Liberal Wave :
In the beginning of the 19th central there was a wave of new liberal wave in Britain which championed for state intervention in public welfare to counter the negative impacts of market economy. This transformed in the Indian context as Panchama welfare. One of the initiatives to give housing sites to Panchamas in the South Presidency. There were varied but strong opposition to the initiative of the government. One of the thing was outright rejection of the argument that the Panchams faced hardship in the current setup and rather it was argued it was a mutual beneficial setup and the government should not interfere with the existing setup. Even a liberal newspaper such as The Hindu argued that interfering with the labor economy will destroy Indian agriculture.
There was also argument that these are done at the behest of the Missionary and the Panchamas are content with the current scheme of things. But in contrast the Panchamas were highly interested in the government scheme and were eager to get house sites to get out of the Mirasdar claims. Violence was let loose on Panchams in various places and innumerable hardships were put on the scheme implementation.

Shifting it to the Social:
The final stage in the Panchama problem was when they started asserting the rights which are granted to any individual belonging to the British empire like access to public roads and wells etc.
This was possible after Dalits were choosen as representative to voice the concerns of Dalits in legislative council. One of the first Dalit representative choosen was M.C Rajah, he spoke in multiple occasions in the legislative council on the everyday hardships faced by Dalits in living their life. In one such incident M.C Rajah brings up the issue of two Panchama men who were forced to get down from a public bus. Although the members were unanimous in condemning it they felt nothing could be done in the realm of the political and work should be done in the social. M.C Raja’s plea to punish such acts were turned down and even his plea to cancel the license of the transport company in this issue was turned down. This reluctance of the state in implementing the laws and shifting the ground of the problem to the “Social” from that of the political was the final stages of the Pariah problem.
Rupa concludes that the various problems we see in the handling of the Pariah in still seen even in the present.


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