Depressed Class Missions, Non Brahmanical Movements And Justice Party

Depressed Classes Mission, Non-Brahmin movement and Justice Party


One, of the earliest lower caste movements, which became the torch bearer for the future caste movements, was founded in Maharashtra in the 1870s by Jyotibha Phule, who with his books Gulamgiri (1872) and Sarvajanik Satyadharma Pustak and his organisation Satya Shodhak Samaj, proclaimed the need “to save the lower castes from the hypocritical Brahmins and their opportunistic scriptures”. His main work was to rouse the masses and lead them to an organized resistance against the unreasonable claims of the priestly class. He made no distinction between non-Brahmins and untouchables. Dr. B R Ambedkar was also influenced with this movement and Jyotiba Phule.


Movement/ Organisation





Satya Shodhak Samaj



Jyotiba Phule

Opposed to untouchability, Priestly of Brahmin domination, belief in social equality and uplift of the lower castes by educating them.

Aravippuram Movement


Aravippuram, Kerala

Shri Narayan Guru (1856-1928)

Opposed to religious disabilities against lower castes, believed in social equality, attacked Brahmin dominations and worked for the uplift of lower castes by educating them. Demanded free entry of the people of lower Castes to the temples.

Shri Narayan Dharma Paripalana Yogam or S.N.D.P Movement



Shir Narayan Guru, Dr. Palpu and Kumaran Asan

In 1920, T.K. Madhavan launched the temple entry movement.

The Depressed Class Mission Society



V.R. Shinde

Launched by the Prarthana Samaj as an Independent association to organise education facilities for lower castes.

Bahujan Samaj


Satara, Maharashtra

Mukund Rao Patil

Opposed to the exploitation of the lower castes by the upper caste Brahmins, landlords, merchants and money-lenders.

Justice (Party) Movement


Madras, Tamil Nadu

C.N. Mudaliyar

T.M. Nair and P. Tyagaraja Chetti

A movement of the intermediate castes. Opposed to Brahmin predominance in education, service and politics.

Depressed Classes Welfare institute (Bahiskirt Hitkarini Sabha)



Dr.B.R. Ambedkar

To propagate the gospel of social equality among caste Hindus and untouchables. Demanded constitutional safeguards for the de-pressed classes.

Self-Respect Movement



(Tamil Nadu)

E.V. Ramaswami Naicker ‘Periyar’

Anti-Brahmin and Hindu orthhodoxy radical movement, which advocated wedding without priests, forcible temple entry, total defiance of Hindu social laws and also theism at times.

Harijan Sevak Sangh



Mahatma Gandhi

An all-India organisation for the removal of untouchability and all social discrimination against untouchables and other lower castes. To provide medical, educational and technical facilities to untouchables.



Shri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDPY) Movement

The untouchable Ezhavas or Iravas of Kerala clustered around the religious leader Shri Narayana Guru (1855-1928), who formed the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDPY) in 1902-3. It organized some temple entry rights movements.


Adi Movements

From the 1920s there was a rise of dalit movements in various parts of the country. The Montagu Chelmsford reforms and massive economic and political upheavals of the post-World War I period, provided the background for most of their organisations. Their common theme was adi, or a definition of themselves as the original inhabitants of the country, a claim that their own inherent traditions were those of equality and unity, and a total rejection of castes as the imposition of the conquering Aryans who used this to subjugate and divide the natives. Of these, the most important were the Adi Dravida movement in Tamil Nadu; the Adi Andhra movement in Andhra, Adi Karnataka movement; the organization of Purayas and Cherumans in Kerala; and the Adi Hindu movement, mainly centered around Kanpur in UP.

In Punjab, the Adi Dharma movement claimed that untouchables formed a distinct religious community like Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs and that this had existed even before the arrival of the Hindus. Later on this movement was absorbed into Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation, which by the 1940s was providing an all-India umbrella to such dalit movements.

Congress and the Harijan Movement

Congress did not have social reforms in its agenda in the beginning. However, when in 1918 the first Depressed Class Conference was organized in Bombay, and the Dalits and non-Brahmins made proposals for separate electorates, the Congress reversed its policy.

First All India Depressed Classes Conference

All-India Depressed Classes Conference was held in March 1918, which was attended by prominent political leaders, issued an All-India Anti-Untouchability Manifesto to the effect that it would not observe untouchability in its everyday affairs.

Entry of Gandhiji in politics ushered a new era in history of lower caste movements consciousness. In 1921, Congress appealed to the Hindus to “bring about removal of untouchability and to help the improvement of the submerged classes“. In 1922, it appointed a committee “to formulate a scheme embodying practical measures to be adopted for bettering the condition untouchables”. In 1923, it again passed a resolution requesting the All-India Hindu Mahasabha also to take up this matter and make efforts to remove this evil from the Hindu community. In 1928 the Indian National Social Conference also gave a call for removing this “great obstacle to unification of Hindu society”. In 1931, the Karachi Congress Session propounded a programme of fundamental rights which called for equal access for all to public employment etc., regardless of caste, and equal rights to the use of public roads, wells, schools and other facilities.

During the second half of 1932, while Gandhiji was in jail and was thinking of shifting to constructive work, Ramsay Macdonald’s Communal Award with its creation of separate electorates for untouchables, helped to focus his attention primarily on “Harijan” welfare. Gandhiji began a fast unto death on the separate electorate issue on September 20, 1932 and was able to secure an agreement between the caste Hindus and untouchables’ leaders through the Poona Pact signed on September 24, 1932. The pact retained the Hindu joint electorate with reserved seats for untouchables, who were given greater representation than awarded by Macdonald.

he very next day (September 25, 1932) a Conference of the Hindus at Bombay passed a resolution “that henceforth, amongst Hindus, no one shall be regarded as an untouchable by reason of his birth and that those who have been so regarded hitherto will have the same right as other Hindus in regard to the use of public wells, public schools, public roads, and all other public institutions. It shall be the duty of all Hindu leaders to secure, by every legitimate and peaceful means, the removal of all disabilities upon the so-called untouchable classes, including the bar in respect of admission to temples.” This resolution was followed by feverish activity on the part of the Hindus to throw open temples to the untouchables. Ranga Iyer introduced a Bill in the Central Legislature on the subject of temple entry. Similar Bills were also introduced in the Madras and Bombay Legislatures.  Baroda and Travancore States proclaimed temple entry in 1933 and 1936 respectively.

Harijan uplift now became Gandhiji’s principal concern. He started an All-India Anti-Untouchability League or Harijan Sevak Sangh in September 1932 for improving the lot of the untouchables and for providing medical education and technical facilities to the Harijans. In 1933, he founded the weekly Harijan. Every week the Harijan published a long list of temples, wells and schools thrown open to the untouchables, and reported other humanitarian and constructive work. Gandhiji also went on a 12,500 miles “Harijan Tour” between 1933 and August 1934.

Depressed Classes Movement of B R Ambedkar

The most important challenge to Gandhiji’s Harijan Welfare Programme as also to the Communists came from Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who belonged to the untouchable Mahar caste. His programmes were intended to integrate untouchables into Indian society in modem, not traditional ways, and based on education and exercise of legal and political rights, as well as refusal to perform the demeaning traditional caste duties. His movement provided an all-India organisation for the rejection of all forms of feudal bondage imposed upon the Dalits, and ranged from mass campaigns, to a demand for separate electorates, the burning of the Manusmriti, the breaking of caste restrictions like use of temples and wearing of prohibited colour like red.  This programme came in conflict with both the Congress and the radicals and tended to verge almost on loyalist and separatist lines. A major untouchability movement was launched by Ambedkar in the 1920s in Maharashtra, which continues in various forms till today and has acquired an all-India character. In 1924 Dr. Ambedkar founded the Depressed Classes Institute (Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha) in Bombay. Three years later (1927), he started a Marathi fortnightly, Bahishkrit Bharat, and the same year established the Samaj Samta Sangh to propagate the gospel of social equality between caste Hindus and untouchables.  Ambedkar also organised the Independent Labour Party on secular lines for protecting the interest of the labouring classes. In December 1927 he led the Mahad Satyagraha to establish the rights of untouchables to draw water from public wells and tanks. He also organised temple entry movements like the Parvati temple satyagraha of 1928 and the Kalasam temple satyagraha of 1930-35.  There were similar satyagrahas in Kerala, such as the Vaikom emple road satyagraha of 1924-25 and the Guruvayoor satyagraha of 1930-32.

Before the Round Table Conference of 1930-31 Ambedkar emerged as the major leader of the de-pressed classes.  He took a separatist stand and demanded constitutional safeguards for the depressed classes. The untouchables demanded separate electorates in the 1930s, which led to a conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhiji, with the former feeling cheated by the Poona Pact. In 1942 Ambedkar founded the Scheduled Caste Federation. The Federation fought for the reserved seats in the 1946 elections but lost heavily to ‘Congress Harijans’ in the strongly nationalist and caste-Hindu dominated constituencies.  The Scheduled Caste Federation then launched satyagrahas in Bombay, Poona, Lucknow, Kanpur and Wardha, demanding that the Congress make known its proposals to Dalits. Ambedkar had concluded the in 1930s that the only way of improving the status of the untouchables was to renounce the Hindu religion, and gave the slogan “You have nothing to lose except your religion.” In the 1950s, he embraced Buddhism.

Self-Respect Movement

The anti-Brahmin crusade got a further impetus when E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly known as Periyar, joined the anti-Brahmin movement. Naicker, who actively participated in the Non-Cooperation movement, broke with the Congress in 1924 to develop an anti-Brahmin, anti-caste populist and radical alternative to Justice elitism. He had been with the Congress and had even served a term as the President of the Tamilnadu Congress, before he quit the party in 1924 following differences over the issue of social justice and representation of non-Brahmins. After leaving the Congress, Periyar launched the Self-Respect Movement (1925) aimed at awakening non-Brahmins. His journal Kudi Arasu and his movement progressed from advocating wedding without Brahmin priests, forcible temple entry, the burning of Manusmriti to outright atheism at times. In fact he tried to provide an umbrella movement to all non-Brahmins of South India, particularly of Tamilnadu.

When the mantle of Justice Party leadership fell on Periyar after 1937, he considered moving away from electoral politics and confining the role of the non-Brahmin movement to a reformist one. Accordingly, at the Salem conference in 1944, the Justice Party was renamed Dravidar Kazhagam. Along with the renaming came a redefinition of its course of action.

This was when Periyar came up with the concept of Dravida Nadu, a land for Dravidians on the lines of a separate state for the Muslim League. By this time Periyar had also popularised the theory of Aryan invasion of the Dravidian land, in which the Brahmins were equated with the subjugating Aryans and the non-Brahmins with subjugated Dravidians, thus adding a virulent note to the anti-Brahmin movement.

It is probably the Dravida Nadu theory that confined this potent movement to the boundaries of present-day Tamil Nadu. The Madras Presidency of the time also included large chunks of what are now parts of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka, and it is doubtful if the people of these regions would have bought this theory. Periyar had lent a cutting edge to anti-Brahmin tirades by targeting Hindu religion and its practices, decrying the gods of the Hindu pantheon as figments of imagination created by the invading Aryans to keep the Dravidians subjugated. He propounded his theory of rationalism, which denied the existence of god (that is, Hindu gods). It was basically because of the agitation by the Dravida Kazhagam that the first amendment to the Constitution was made to incorporate a provision granting concessions to the socially and economically backward.  But it was not long before differences crept in over the question whether the Dravida Kazhagam should remain only a social movement. When Periyar’s marriage to Maniammai, a woman much younger to him, sparked it controversy, some leading lights of the DK led by C.N. Annadurai walked out and formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in  1949, and three years later DMK decided to enter electoral politics.

Justice Party Movement

The birth of the Dravidian movement, the oldest and most enduring anti-British movement in the country, can be traced to November 20, 1916, when a group of leading non-Brahmin citizens of Madras such as Dr. T.M. Nair, Sir Pitti Theagaraja Chettiar and the Raja of Panagal came together to form the South Indian Liberal Federation (SILF), which was also known as Justice Party.  Their joint declaration, which came to be called the Non-Brahmin Manifesto, demanded the representation of non-Brahmins in government jobs. This was the first cohesive demand for reservation raised in India.

SILF soon launched a newspaper called Justice. When elections were held in 1920 for the Madras Legislative Council under the Government of India Act 1919, SILF was generally referred to by the public as the Justice Party.  The party won that election as the Indian National Congress boycotted it. To a great extent the Justice Party and its popularity was a reaction to the domination of the Congress in the then Madras Presidency by Brahmins and other upper castes. This was used by the British rulers as a platform against the Congress, which was attracting more and more educated Brahmins and upper castes.

Early history (1916–1920)

During 1916–20, the Justice party struggled against the Egmore and Mylapore factions to convince the British government and public to support communal representation for non-Brahmins in the presidency. Rajagopalachari’s followers advocated non-cooperation with the British.

Conflict with Home Rule Movement

In 1916, Annie Besant, the leader of the Theosophical Society became involved in the Indian Independence Movement and founded the Home Rule League. She based her activities in Madras and many of her political associates were Tamil Brahmins. She viewed India as a single homogeneous entity bound by similar religious, philosophical, cultural characteristics and an Indian caste system. Many of the ideas she articulated about Indian culture were based on puranas, manusmriti and vedas, whose values were questioned by educated non Brahmins.

Besant’s association with Brahmins and her vision of a homogeneous India based on Brahminical values brought her into direct conflict with Justice. The December 1916 “Non-Brahmin Manifesto” voiced its opposition to the Home Rule Movement. The manifesto was criticised by the Home rule periodical New India. Justice opposed the Home Rule Movement and the party newspapers derisively nicknamed Besant as the “Irish Brahmini”. Dravidan, the Tamil language mouthpiece of the party, ran headlines such as Home rule is Brahmin’s rule. All three of the party’s newspapers ran articles and opinions pieces critical of the home rule movement and the league on a daily basis. Some of these Justice articles were later published in book form as The Evolution of Annie Besant. Nair described the home rule movement as an agitation carried on “by a white woman particularly immune from the risks of government action” whose rewards would be reaped by the Brahmins.

Demand for communal representation

On 20 August 1917, Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, proposed political reforms to increase representation of Indians in the government and to develop self-governing institutions. This announcement increased the division among the non-Brahmin political leaders of the Presidency. Justice organised a series of conferences in late August to support its claims. Theagaraya Chetty, cabled Montagu asking for communal representation in the provincial legislature for non-Brahmins. He demanded a system similar to the one granted to Muslims by the Minto-Morley reforms of 1909—separate electorates and reserved seats. The non-Brahmin members from Congress formed the Madras Presidency Association (MPA) to compete with Justice. Periyar E. V.Ramaswamy,T A V NathanKalyanasundaram MudaliarP. Varadarajulu Naidu and Kesava Pillai were among the non-Brahmin leaders involved in creating MPA. MPA was supported by the Brahmin nationalist newspaper The Hindu. Justice denounced MPA as a Brahmin creation intended to weaken their cause. On 14 December 1917, Montagu arrived at Madras to listen to comments on the proposed reforms. O. Kandaswami Chetty (Justice) and Kesava Pillai (MPA) and 2 other non-Brahmin delegations presented to Montagu. Justice and MPA both requested communal reservation for Balija NaidusPillais and Mudaliars (Vellalas), Chettis and the Panchamas—along with four Brahmin groups. Pillai convinced the Madras Province Congress Committee to support the MPA/Justice position. British authorities, including Governor Baron Pentland and the Madras Mail supported communal representation. But Montagu was not inclined to extend communal representation to subgroups. The Montagu-Chelmsford Report on Indian Constitutional Reforms, issued on 2 July 1918, denied the request.

At a meeting held in Thanjavur, the party dispatched T. M. Nair to London to lobby for extending communal representation. Dr. Nair arrived in June 1918 and worked into December, attended various meetings, addressed Members of Parliament (MPs), and wrote articles and pamphlets. However, the party refused to cooperate with the Southborogh committee that was appointed to draw up the franchise framework for the proposed reforms, because Brahmins V. S. Srinivasa Sastri and Surendranath Banerjee were committee members. Justice secured the support of many Indian and non–Indian members of Indian Civil Service for communal representation.

The Joint Select Committee held hearings during 1919–20 to finalise the Government of India Bill, which would implement the reforms. A Justice delegation composed of Arcot Ramasamy Mudaliar, Kurma Venkata Reddi Naidu, Koka Appa Rao Naidu and L. K. Tulasiram, attended the hearings. Ramarayaningar also represented the All India Landholder association and the Madras Zamindar association. Reddi Naidu, Mudaliar and Ramarayaningar toured major cities, addressed meetings, met with MPs, and wrote letters to the local newspapers to advance their position. Nair died on 17 July 1919 before he could appear. After Nair’s death, Reddi Naidu became the spokesman. He testified on 22 August. The deputation won the backing of both Liberal and Labour members. The Committee’s report, issued on 17 November 1919, recommended communal representation in the Madras Presidency. The number of reserved seats was to be decided by the local parties and the Madras Government. After prolonged negotiations between Justice, Congress, MPA and the British Government, a compromise (called “Meston‘s Award”) was reached in March 1920. 28 (3 urban and 25 rural) of the 63 general seats in plural member constituencies were reserved for non-Brahmins.

Opposition to non-cooperation movement

Unsatisfied with the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms and the Rowlatt Act (March 1919), Mahatma Gandhi launched his non-cooperation movement in 1919. He called for a boycott of the legislatures, courts, schools and social functions. Non-cooperation did not appeal to Justice, which sought to leverage continued British presence by participating in the new political system. Justice considered Gandhi to be an anarchist threatening social order. The party newspapers JusticeDravidan and Andhra Prakasika persistently attacked non-cooperation.

This stance isolated the party—most political and social organisations supported the movement. Justice party’s believed that he associated mostly with Brahmins, though he was not a Brahmin himself. It also favored industrialisation. When Gandhi visited Madras in April 1921, he spoke about the virtues of Brahmanism and Brahmin contributions to Indian culture.

Kandaswamy Chetty sent a letter to the editor of Gandhi’s journal Young India, advising him to stay away from Brahmin/non-Brahmin issues. Gandhi responded by highlighting his appreciation of Brahmin contribution to Hinduism. The party’s relentless campaign against Gandhi, supported by the Madras Mail made him less popular and effective in South India, particularly in southern Tamil districts. Even when Gandhi suspended the movement after the Chauri Chaura incident, party newspapers expressed suspicion of him. The party softened on Gandhi only after his arrest, expressing appreciation for his “moral worth and intellectual capacity.

In office

The Government of India Act 1919 implemented the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, instituting a Diarchy in Madras Presidency. The diarchial period extended from 1920 to 1937, encompassing five elections. Justice party was in power for 13 of 17 years, save for an interlude during 1926–30.


During the non-cooperation campaign, the Indian National Congress boycotted the November 1920 elections. Justice won 63 of the 98 seats. A. Subbarayalu Reddiar became the first Chief Minister, soon resigning due to declining health. Ramarayaningar (Raja of Panagal), the Minister of Local Self-Government and Public Health replaced him. The party was far from happy with the diarchial system. 

Internal dissent emerged and the party split in late 1923, when C. R. Reddy resigned and formed a splinter group and allied with Swarajists who were in opposition. The party won the second council elections in 1923 (though with a reduced majority). On the first day (27 November 1923) of the new session, a no-confidence motion was defeated 65–44 and Ramarayaningar remained in power until November 1926. The party lost in 1926 to Swaraj. The Swaraj party refused to form the government, leading the Governor to set up an independent government under P. Subbarayan.


After four years in opposition, Justice returned to power. Chief Minister B. Munuswamy Naidu‘s tenure was beset with controversies. The Great Depression was at its height and the economy was crumbling. Floods inundated the southern districts. The government increased the land tax to compensate for the fall in revenues. The Zamindars (landowners) faction was disgruntled because two prominent landlords—the Raja of Bobbili and the Kumara Raja of Venkatagiri— were excluded from the cabinet. In 1930, P. T. Rajan and Naidu have differences over the presidency and Naidu did not hold the annual party confederation for three years. Under M. A. Muthiah Chettiar, the Zamindars organised a rebel “ginger group” in November 1930. In the twelfth annual confederation of the party held on 10–11 October 1932, the rebel group deposed Naidu and replaced him with the Raja of Bobbili. Fearing that the Bobbili faction would move a no-confidence motion against him in the council, Naidu resigned in November 1932 and the Rao became Chief Minister. After his removal from power, Munuswamy Naidu formed a separate party with his supporters. It was called Justice Democratic Party and had the support of 20 opposition members in the legislative council. His supporters rejoined the Justice party after his death in 1935. During this time, party Leader L. Sriramulu Naidu served as Mayor of Madras.


Increasing nationalist feelings and factional infighting caused the party to shrink steadily from the early 1930s. Many leaders left to join Congress. Rao as inaccessible to his own party members and tried to curtail the powers of district leaders who had been instrumental in the party’s previous successes. The party was seen as collaborators, supporting the British government’s harsh measures. Its economic policies were also very unpopular. Its refusal to decrease land taxation in non-Zamindari areas by 12.5% provoked peasant protests led by Congress. Rao, a Zamindar, cracked down on protests, fueling popular rage. The party lost the 1934 elections, but managed to retain power as a minority government because Swaraj (the political arm of the Congress) refused to participate.

In its last years in power, the party’s decline continued. The Justice ministers drew a large monthly salary (Rs.4,333.60, compared to the Rs.2,250 in the Central Provinces) at the height of the Great Depression which was sharply criticised by the Madras press including Madras Mail, a traditional backer of the party, attacked its ineptitude and patronage.

Lord Erskine, the governor of Madras, reported in February 1937 to then Secretary of State Zetland that among the peasants, “every sin of omission or commission of the past fifteen years is put down to them [Bobbili’s administration]”. Faced with a resurgent Congress, the party was trounced in the 1937 council and assembly elections. After 1937 it ceased to be a political power.

Justice’s final defeat has been ascribed variously to its collaboration with the British Government; the elitist nature of the Justice party members, loss of scheduled caste and Muslim support and flight of the social radicals to the Self-Respect Movement or in sum,”…internal dissension, ineffective organisation, inertia and lack of proper leadership”.


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