Print edition : December 17, 2021

JUNE 1970: A.N. Sattanathan handing over the report of the First Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission to Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi. Photo: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Statue of Bishop Robert Caldwell at the Marina Beach in Chennai. He equated the word Dravidian with the race. Photo: The Hindu photo archives

J.A. Ambasankar (far right), Chairman of the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission, which was set up in December 1982, briefing Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran about the Commission’s findings. Photo: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Paattali Makkal Katchi cadres, led by the party’s youth wing leader Anbumani Ramadoss, stage a demonstration in Chennai on December 1, 2020, to press for 20 per cent reservation for Vanniyars in government jobs and higher education. Photo: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Members of the Vishwakarma community during a demonstration in Tuticorin on September 2, 2010, demanding inclusion in the Most Backward Classes. Photo: The Hindu photo archives

The reservation policy of the colonial state helped only the upper strata of non-Brahmins in Tamil Nadu. Their dominance in the organs of the state and municipal government and in educational institutions and government services has continued after Independence.

IN the heroic age of Tamilagam, until the third century A.D.1, Brahmins, like any other social group, were living in Mullai and Marutham tracts. The cluster of Brahmin households were known as parppana-ceri. Although we can see the beginning of caste system within the social milieu of Brahmin households, the larger part of the Tamil society remained casteless. With state formation and the emergence of ruling houses such as Pallavas, Pandyas, Cheras and Cholas, since the sixth century A.D., there was a wave of migration of Brahmins from northern India. As a quid pro quo for the conferment of the status of Kshatriyas on Vellalas, who were until then treated on a par with Vaishyas, the Vellala rulers gifted prime land in major river valley tracts to Brahmins. This was followed by proliferation of “brahmedeya” villages in the fertile regions. The new irrigation technology that the Brahmins brought with them facilitated the production of agrarian surplus, which was appropriated by the state and the Brahmins. In the newly created agrarian settlements, a caste-based social order emerged in which Brahminism became a dominant ideology.2

The rigid caste system that had taken root in Tamil soil found its articulation in left-hand (Idangai) and right-hand (Valangai) conflict, the division of which was rooted in clash of interests between land-owning communities (right hand) and merchant and artisanal classes (left hand). The factions sustained because of the opposition of the right hand group to the left-hand caste people using certain privileges they claimed as theirs. The point of dispute was over the right to use flags in the temple car or to have trumpet blowing in front of a procession or to ride through the streets in a palanquin or on horseback during marriage celebrations. Brahmins, who mediated in such contests, though looked neutral outwardly, clandestinely supported the cause of the left-hand caste groups.3

As the French Missionary Abbe Dubois remarked in the beginning of 19th century, “better educated, more cunning, more keen-witted, with greater talent for intrigue than other Hindus, Brahmins had become indispensable not only to all the Hindu princes, but Mussulman princes too.... they have also been clever enough to work their way into favour with the British and occupy the highest and most lucrative posts in the different administrative boards and Government offices as well as in the judicial courts of the various districts.”4 The arrival of European missionaries and their sustained campaigns against the hierarchical and exploitative Hindu caste system and the pursuit of the path of sanskritisation by lower castes in order to overcome their degraded social position and attain a higher caste status inventing myths and legends, made the right-hand and left-hand factions irrelevant.

Entry of ‘Dravidian’

Robert Caldwell, the first Anglo-Anglican Bishop of Tirunelveli, was in southern Tamil Nadu in the high noon of the British rule. His approach was not only evangelical but imperialistic as well. Like any other evangelist, he adopted the “Brahmin-tyrant model” to further the evangelical and imperial interests of Great Britain. Significantly, Caldwell was then theorising when racial ideas were becoming prominent in Western political discourse of the 19th century. Until then the word “Dravidian” had been used more as linguistic and geographical expression. Caldwell equated it with the race. His postulation of a racial dichotomy between Brahmins and non-Brahmins and his view that Tamil belonged to the Dravidian family of languages suited the developing political processes in “Dravidian land” (Tamil Nadu). Tamil scholars could deploy his writings to promote Tamil linguistic and cultural revivalism against Sanskritic revivalism. It was because of Caldwell’s virulent anti-Brahmanism, that Brahmins became increasingly identified as outsiders to Tamil culture and civilisation. He was responsible for the exclusion of Brahmins from the core features of the linguistically based Tamil nationalism.5

Caste-based census

When the Western educated nationalists, mostly Brahmins, agitated for Indianisation of the imperial services in the latter half of the 19th century, the government of British India began to point out the deplorable state of Muslim education in India. Later, when upper-caste non-Brahmin groups expressed their resentment against Brahmin preponderance in educational institutions and government service and demanded aproportional share in education and employment, the government ordered decennial census in which caste was made the basic unit for population count. The outcome of this was a proliferation of caste associations to contest their assigned position in the officially acknowledged social hierarchy. In 1818, the government complicated the situation by ordering preparation of statistics showing the number of officials of various castes in state services.

Also read: The case for caste census

It was found that Brahmins, who constituted 3.5 per cent of the population, held 42.2 per cent of the posts that offered a monthly salary of more than Rs.10, while non-Brahmins, who constituted 87.9 per cent of the population, were in 36.5 per cent of the posts. In jobs with a monthly salary of less than Rs.10, non-Brahmins accounted for 55.4 per cent of the employees, while the percentage of Brahmins in such jobs worked out to 19, with Brahmins entrenched in high-income brackets.6

The imperial government shed crocodile tears that “the classes that were taking advantage of schools, public and private throughout the country are the well-to-do... and not the masses of the labouring population”. But it refused to entertain the pleas of deserving social groups for educational concessions.

Demand for fee concession

In Madras, when the notification of 1884 was issued to lower the fees for pupils of “aborigines and low castes”, Saliyar and Kaikolar communities, the two weaving groups that felt the impact of British colonialism more acutely than any other class, demanded fee concession in 1888, The government of Madras turned down the demand as impracticable. Despite repeated representations for about two decades, right from the Director of Public Instruction down to inspecting officers all in one voice refused to include the artisan castes in the list on the grounds that artisans as a class were neither poor nor educationally backward.7 The Visvakarma community (constituting goldsmith, brass smith, carpenter, stone mason and blacksmith, also known as Kammalars) likewise attempted to seek inclusion in the list of Scheduled Castes (S.Cs). Thereupon, representatives of this community suggested that the caste group could be at least grouped with certain other backward Hindu communities. But their demand was not conceded until the end of colonial rule.8

The British refused to intervene in matters of “untouchable caste groups” by citing certain beliefs and customs in the country. In Bombay, not only Governor Mountstuart Elphinstone but even his successor, Sir George Clark, was unsympathetic to the cause of Dalits. The latter even as late as 1911 stated that “the British rule cannot remove or abolish the social disabilities in the face of notions of physical repugnance and personal contamination arising from association with Depressed Classes, which were inherited dislikes or antagonisms”.9 Backward communities such as Vanniyars and Yadavas pleaded for proportional representation but the government was not willing to accommodate the lower strata of society. Even as late as August 1917, a conference of collectors, held to consider the question of appointing to public services members of communities considered backward and unrepresented, decided that while it was desirable to have all communities participating in the services, it was not possible to allot appointments in fixed proportions to various communities. The only concession shown was that the special examinations conducted for jobs were made easy and the minimum qualification required for appointment to such jobs was lowered.10

Those involved in Justice Party politics were drawn mostly from the upper strata of non-Brahmin castes such as Mudaliars, Chettiars and Vellalars among Tamils, Rajus, Reddys and Naidus (Kammas) among Telugus and Nairs among Malayalis. In Tamil districts, large non-Brahmin castes such as Vanniyars, Nadars and Thevars were hardly represented in the Justice Party. The Justice Party was dominated by urban, Western-educated, land-owning and professional class people. So, the Communal G.O. of 1922 was helpful only to the upper crust of the non-Brahmin groups.

Also read: Reservation as a political imperative

There were several attempts to create a political group vis-a-vis the Justice Party to claim Backward Class status for the lower strata of society. For instance, on March 21, 1932, several members of the Madras Legislative Council met to form an association called the Backward Classes League. Prominent members of the League included M.A. Manickavelu Naicker, P.K. Ramachandra Padayachi, Subedar Major Nanjappah (from the Vanniarkula Kshatriyar community), and H.B. Ari Gowder (a member of the tribal Badaga community in Nilgiri hills). Manickavelu Naicker, a lawyer by profession, particularly demanded that the government divide the Hindu population into forward (Brahmins and non-Brahmins) and backward (classes other than the Depressed Classes), and provide reservation only for the backward classes.11

Reservation policy of the colonial state

The Backward Classes League led by C. Basudev, a labour leader and a member of the Legislative Council, met A.Y.G. Campbell, the Revenue Member of the Madras Executive Council who was in charge of the operation of the Communal Quota System in government service recruitment, and pleaded for a separate quota for “backward Hindus”, claiming that the existing communal quota benefitted only the upper strata among non-Brahmins. Campbell concurred with them saying that a substantial section of the backward community cannot, in the existing circumstances, get its fair share in the administration of the country and that as a consequence it was liable to face “oppression”. G.T.H. Bracken, who was Chief Secretary, however, held the contrary view that once a new quota for the Backward Classes was established, the better educated and wealthier among them would monopolise it. Moreover, satisfying one claim would provoke others to stake their claim and this would “further complicate administrative arrangements”.12

Thus, the reservation policy of the colonial state helped only the upper strata of non-Brahmins, who in course of time were found entrenched in various positions of administrative services. The Justice Party’s non-Brahmin movement only helped reduce the presence of Brahmins in public life. In 1937, there were 37 Brahmins in the 215-member Legislative Assembly, constituting 17.2 per cent of the representatives. By 1952, the percentage of Brahmins in the Assembly dropped to 5, and after the creation of Andhra in 1953 by separating the Telugu-speaking northern parts of Madras State, the number was only one.13

After Independence, following pressure from many caste outfits, including the Backward Classes League, the government revised the Communal G.O. in November 1947. In a unit of 14 appointments, the revised G.O. allocated six (42.9 per cent) to forward non-Brahmin Hindus, two (14.3 per cent) each to backward Hindus, Brahmins, and S.C.s, and one (7.1 per cent) each to Anglo-Indians/Christians, and Muslims.14 Thereafter the movement for Backward Classes reservation became defunct for two decades, as the active Vanniyar leaders chose to merge their parties with the Congress.

Commission reports

The dominance of non-Brahmin upper-caste people in the organs of the state and municipal government and in educational institutions and government services continued. The A.N. Sattanathan Commission, set up in 1969 by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government found that “nearly 70 per cent of the population of the cultivating castes, i.e., Padayachi, Kallar and Maravar and a large percentage of the Valiyans, Ambalakarans and Boyas; more than half the Kaikola population; and the numerous smaller castes, including barbers and washermen, living in conditions of abject squalor and under conditions hardly distinguishable from those prevailing amongst the Scheduled Castes before Independence.”15

The Ambasankar Commission, set up on the direction of the Supreme Court during the rule of M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu, found that in professional colleges, particularly in medical colleges, only 10.4 per cent of the students belonging to the Backward Classes had secured admission on the basis of merit. The remaining 89.6 per cent could get admission to medical colleges because of the reservation rule.16 However, regrettably, as the Commission recorded, about 144 castes listed in the Backward Classes went unrepresented in the medical college selection lists in the three years from 1980-81 to 1982-83. This means only 77 castes could access to medical education.17

Also read: Vanniyar reservation in Tamil Nadu: problems ahead

The Commission report showed that of the total number of Backward Classes students admitted to professional courses, more than three-fourths were from a small number of the Backward Classes (34 out of 222) accounting for only about two-fifths of the total Backward Classes population in the State. Of the total number of Backward Classes scholarships, the total amount of these scholarships and candidates of all grades selected by the Public Service Commission, about two-thirds again went to this relatively small number of Backward Classes. Even within this small number, just about one-third of the total Backward Classes population had cornered as much as two–thirds of the admissions to professional courses and more than half of the scholarships, and candidates selected by the Public Service Commission.18

The Commission observed that only a few caste groups were grabbing the opportunities provided in the reservation rules and that those who had benefited little from reservation should be targeted for improvement. In this context, it recommended separate reservation for the deserving communities that had not benefited from the reservation policy Meanwhile, the Vanniyar movement, which lay dormant for about two decades, re-emerged militantly under the dynamic leadership of Dr S. Ramadoss. As the Vanniyar agitation turned violent, the Congress government at the Centre, since the State was under President’s Rule, tried to sort out the issue. But the DMK, on assuming office after winning the 1989 Assembly election, ordered compartmental reservation in February 1989. Of the overall 50 per cent reservation for 201 Backward Classes communities accounting for an estimated 67 per cent of the State's population, it set apart 20 per cent for 39 communities listed as the most backward within the Backward Classes list and 68 communities listed as de-notified tribes, together accounting for about 36 per cent of the Backward Classes population. The Vanniyar Sangam’s last struggle ended with this.19

The Supreme Court questioned the reservation rule followed in Tamil Nadu in its judgment in 1992 (Indira Sauhney vs Union of India, popularly known as the Mandal Commission case) ruled that the aggregate of reservation could not exceed 50 per cent. Meanwhile, J. Jayalalithaa became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. In order to outwit her political rival and DMK chief M. Karunanidhi, she passed the Tamil Nadu Act of 1994 to provide 69 per cent reservation (30 per cent for Backward Classes, 20 per cent for the Most Backward Castes, 18 per cent for S.Cs and 1 per cent for Scheduled Tribes). Therefore, when there was a nation-wide anti-reservation protest in 2006, Tamil Nadu stayed calm.20

M.S. Janardhanan, a retired High Court judge who was the one-man Commission set up by the DMK government in 2006, recommended 3.5 per cent special reservation for Muslims within the Backward Classes quota. Karunanidhi, in response to a plea by the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, issued an ordinance first and later the legislature passed an Act (Act of 2007). A similar demand was made for Arunthathiyar community by the Aadhi Thamizhar Peravai led by Athiyaman. This was supported by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). This demand was also referred to the Janardhanan Commission, which recommended 3.5 per cent reservation for Arunthathiyar and other related sub-groups such as Madharis and Chakkiliyars within the 18 per cent quota for the S.Cs. The DMK government acted on the recommendation and conceded the demand of the Arunthathiyars.21 Although Jayalalithaa called it a political fraud initially, she later supported it. Dr Krishnaswamy’s Puthiya Tamilagam went to court against the decision. Although the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi chief Thol. Tirumavalavan supported the government’s move, his party ideologue D. Ravikumar demanded 19 per cent reservation for S.Cs.22 The Backward Classes Commission of Tamil Nadu, in its report submitted to the government on July 8, 2011, recommended in favour of the government’s resolve to retain 69 per cent reservation in the State and categorically stated that exclusion of the creamy layer was not warranted, as the ‘Lakshman rekha’ has not been crossed.”23

K.A. Manikumar is former professor of history, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli.


1. There was a Kalabra interregnum for two centuries during which it is believed that Brahmins suffered much. Read Rajan Gurukkal, The Cultural History of Kerala for further details.

2. Gurukkal, Rajan. The Cultural History of Kerala.

3. Dirks, Nicholas (2013): Castes of Mind, New Delhi: Permanent Black, impression, pp.77-78.

4. Dubois Abbe J.A. (2001): Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, pp. 289-291.

5.Helman-Rajanayagam, Dagmar (2003): “Is there a Tamil Race?” in Peter Robb (ed.), The Concept of Race in South Asia, London: Oxford University Press, p.135.

6. G.O. nos. 386 & 387, Education Department, July 27, 1887, quoted in Saraswati, op.cit., p. 304.

7. Radhakrishnan, P. “Backward Classes in Tamil Nadu, 1872-1988”, pp. 2-3.

8. Beteille, Andre. “Caste and Political Group Formation in Tamilnad”, pp.3 90-91.

9. Indian Review (Reprint) October 1911, p.156.

10. G.O. no. 952, Home (Miscellaneous) Department, April 1920.

11. Irschick, Eugene F. (1986): Tamil Revivalism in the 1930s, pp.75-76.

12. Read Andrew Muldoon, Empire, Politics and the Creation of the 1935 Act: Last Act of the Raj.

13. Irschick, Eugene F. (1986): Tamil Revivalism in the 1930s, p.37.

14. G.O. no. 3437, Public Department, November 21, 1947.

15. The Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission, 1971, pp. 50-51.

16. The Tamil Nadu Second Backward Classes Commission, 1985, p. 69, p.108, p.118 & p.138.

17. Ibid., p.139.

18. Radhakrishnan, P. “Ambasankar Commission and Backward Classes”,

p. 1268.

19. Tamil Nadu Second Backward Classes Commission, 1985, pp. 378-79.

20. Times of India, July 22, 1994.

21. Times of India, July 28, 2010; Indian Express, July 16, 2013.

22. Viswanathan, S. (2009): Frontline, Vol. 26, no. 01, January 16.

23. Asian Tribune, Vol.12, no. 695.

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