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Casteism and Government Schools: Behind the veils of the Dravidian Delusion

When the Government became an Indian nationalist one, control of education was given to Christian missionaries. Many schools in the Madras Presidency had been established by Christian denominations on land grants provided by the colonial British Government.

In an earlier part in the series, we looked at EV Ramasamy’s subversion and destruction of the nationalist Cheranmadevi Gurukulam. We will now look at yet another sordid episode in their history. This one is from the 1950s. Whenever the Dravidian movement, especially the DMK is challenged on account of corruption or their support for divisive Breaking India Forces or their Hinduphobia, an immediate shield they use is that of their position as defenders of lower castes against caste-based occupation and discrimination in education.

One of the historical episodes they quote is that of Rajaji’s ‘Kula Kalvi Thittam’ – a policy of making children learn hereditary trades and thereby perpetuate caste-based discrimination and how the DMK leaders thwarted it.

Let us lift another veil of the Dravidian delusion and study what really happened. Apart from other references, Dravida Mayai part 1 and 2 by Subbu have been relied upon for the information.

Literacy rates and educational attainment

In 1931, the literacy rate among women in the Madras Presidency was only 2.5%. By 1951 it had improved to 10%. The overall literacy rate was 11% in 1931 and had risen to 20% by 1951.

In 1939, considering the poor capacity of the Government school system and the need to somehow get children into school, Rajaji, then Chief Minister of Madras Presidency, introduced a scheme by which girl students of classes III to V would have to only spend three days per week in school instead of five. Girls from Depressed Classes – today’s Scheduled Castes – would have this dispensation for as long as they were able to attend school, since the literacy rates among women from these sections was practically nil. This was hoped to reduce drop out rates and reduce the strain on the school system. Experiments had also been made in introducing shifts in school.

In 1952, when a Congress Government led by Rajaji took charge of Madras Presidency, the enrolment rate was increasing and was at 47% in 1951. However, the Government school system was overwhelmed, since there were only 38,000 schools for a population of roughly 30 million, with close to 10 million children. Of these, 4,000 schools had only one teacher. 15,000 or more elementary schools had only four teachers or less.

Drop-out rates were at unacceptable levels. Of 1.22 million students that had enrolled in Class I in 1946, only 37% had reached Class V in 1951.

The modified education scheme

The Government in 1953 proposed a modified education scheme. The salient features of this proposal were

  • Take the 5-hour school day and modify it to two shifts of 3 hours each
  • Students would need to attend school in only one of two shifts, effectively making school attendance limited to 3 hours in a day.
  • Teachers would have to teach an additional hour, for which they would be given an additional allowance of Rs 10.
  • Boys would have to spend the remaining hours of the day learning any craft or trade. They could apprentice themselves with any tradesman, including their own fathers. If they had no one to apprentice with, they could help in fields or in construction sites.
  • If they did not wish to apprentice themselves, it was also left to their parents’ discretion.
  • Girls could utilize this time in helping with household chores or in the fields.

The intent behind this was:

  • Reduce the strain on the school system
  • Improve dropout rates. Since children were dropping out to help in trade, the fields or the household, a reduced academic load would enable them to continue with their formal studies.
  • Help children learn a useful trade and become self-reliant.


The Opposition DMK held that this was a flawed plan on these grounds:

  • This would place an additional burden on the teachers
  • The hours out of school would be frittered away without teacher supervision
  • The introduction of vocational training would perpetuate caste stereotypes and tie children to professions held by their parents.

While the first objection was fatuous, what really carried the argument was the accusation of caste bias. That Rajaji was a Brahmin helped in bolstering the argument and raising fears of a Brahmin bogeyman.

The leaders of the DMK were jailed for communal disharmony. In the meantime, the Tamizharasu Kazhagam, led by Ma Po SIvagnanam, a leader of MBC in North Tamil Nadu, announced support for this new policy. One of his meetings in Mayavaram was set upon by DMK’s cadre and a bleeding Ma Po Si had to be hospitalized.

These disturbances were a catalyst for Kamaraj, Rajaji’s rival in the Madras Presidency Congress to raise a banner of revolt. 49 Congress legislators, led by Dr Varadarajulu Naidu, a close confidant of EV Ramasamy, who was then in the Congress, sent a memorandum to Nehru objecting to this proposal. Rajaji offered to resign, on condition that the scheme not be withdrawn. 

This compromise was not accepted and he had to resign anyway. Kamaraj became the Chief Minister and Rajaji never held any post thereafter.

In one sense, this was a case of things coming full circle. Rajaji had revolted against Satyamurti, the Madras Presidency Congress Committee leader from 1936-1939 and Mayor of Madras for a term, on charges of casteism in the 1930s. Kamaraj, Satyamurti’s protégé, removed Rajaji as CM using the same charge of casteism.

Parulekar Committee

The proposal was referred to a Committee of educational experts led by Parulekar, Director IIT Bombay. After studying the proposal, the Committee reported that the charges of casteism were unfounded and there would be the possibility of improving primary educational attainment at lower marginal costs.

It also found the proposal in keeping with educational goals in other developing countries, which would help students attain basic proficiency in the three Rs and also learn skills for earning a living. 

The Committee also expressed that the scheme would improve the relationship between the village school and the local community.

Kamaraj Proposal

However, Kamaraj was in no mood to accept this finding. Instead, the Government of Madras Presidency set goals of opening one school for each hamlet of 300 people and abolished school fees.

12000 new schools were either opened or brought under Government aid.

To make this possible, one of the techniques was to fund teacher salaries as aid to private schools. The cost of teacher salaries having been met, private schools would charge very low sums of money, in some cases, providing education for the first 3 classes for free. The costs of maintaining the schools may be met by charging nominal fees from senior students and renovations could be met through philanthropic donations.

This scheme worked well for the first decade. Literacy levels rose from 20% in 1951 to 36% in 1961, especially that of girls doubled from 10 to 20%. However, the economic stagnation and strife of the 60s and 70s did not allow investment at the same pace. Literacy levels rose to 45% in 1971 and 54% in 1981. Literacy rate for girls rose to 30% in 1971 and 40% in 1981.

One wonders if Rajaji’s proposal would have made literacy and basic education levels decoupled from economic growth and ensured a higher literacy rate in 1981. A literacy rate of 70% for girls in 1981 would have seen the demographic transition happen earlier in Tamil Nadu as well as helped the State industrialize at a faster pace during the stagnant 90s.

Another unintended effect of Kamaraj’s solution was the rise and dominance of Christian schools in Tamil Nadu.

A clear trend emerges – the Dravidian leaders did not let the control of education slip out of colonial hands. We saw how they stymied the rise of the nationalist Cheranmadevi Gurukulam.

When the Government became an Indian nationalist one, control of education was given to Christian missionaries. Many schools in the Madras Presidency had been established by Christian denominations on land grants provided by the colonial British Government. Their commercial properties could defray the expense of maintenance of schools, while teacher salaries would be met from Government funds. This gave the Christian schools a clear competitive advantage compared to other schools that were run as individual institutions. Even until the mid-sixties, the Christian schools were administered by European missionaries, who were placed in the senior management positions of schools run by various denominations and dioceses.

How did the Dravidian movement work to isolate the Tamil people from the rest of the country through linguistic divisions? We will see that in the next part of this series, where we analyse the anti-Hindi agitations.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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