The argument was about a longstanding inequity of Hindu society: untouchability. The Indian interlocutor, Mylai Chinna Thambi Rajah, better known as MC Rajah, was himself an untouchable and the first-ever legislator in British India from those who were officially labelled the Depressed Classes. Given that upper castes had no role in his elevation to the Madras Legislative Council, Rajah had little reason to tip-toe around untouchability. He lost no time in proposing a resolution on untouchability, probably inspired by the precedent that had been set by Maneckji Dadabhoy in 1916 in the Central legislature.

Rajah initiated the debate on the heels of his nomination to the Madras Legislative Council, which had been reconstituted on 5 August 1919. His main respondent in that chamber was the governor of the Madras Presidency, Lord Willingdon, the very dignitary who had nominated him. Willingdon responded in his exofficio capacity as the president of the Madras Legislative Council. Before the 1919 Montagu–Chelmsford reforms, the governor of the province, who was its executive head, was also the presiding officer of its legislature. The principle of “separation of powers” was as yet at a rudimentary stage in India.

The very idea of a debate in a legislature between an untouchable, the lowest of the low among natives, and a colonial ruler, the head of a large province, was hitherto inconceivable. If this still happened, it was because of a promise that had been made three years earlier in the Imperial Legislative Council, persuading Maneckji Dadabhoy to withdraw his resolution. Among all the British provinces, the follow-up to that promise – to undertake measures ameliorating the condition of the Depressed Classes – was most perceptible in the Madras Presidency.

The highlight of these measures was Rajah’s nomination. At the time, conferring on an untouchable the honour of serving as a lawmaker was a revolutionary move. Caste Hindus, accustomed to treating untouchables as less than human, were not exempt from addressing him with the honorific “the Honourable Mr Rajah”.

When Willingdon made this civilisational breakthrough, it went beyond the object of the Madras-based Justice Party, which had been founded in 1916 for “securing to the Non-Brahmins adequate representation” in the legislatures and other public bodies. Focused as they were on countering Brahmin hegemony, non-Brahmins were yet to recognise that, in their own category, untouchables were the most deserving of special care.

Willingdon was ahead of the Indian National Congress too as it had been reluctant to place the issue of untouchability on the agenda of its negotiations with the government. It had taken a position on untouchables only once, at its 1917 annual session in Calcutta. And even that 1917 resolution was addressed not to the government, but to “the people of India”, casting on them the onus of ‘removing all disabilities imposed by custom upon the Depressed Classes’.

The Madras governor’s radical step might have been inspired by the buzz around the Montagu–Chelmsford reforms, which the British Parliament was in the process of enacting as the Government of India Act, 1919. One of the big leaps it made, while providing greater representation to Indians, was the introduction of statutory quotas for untouchables and other marginalised sections in provincial legislatures. Willingdon’s nomination of Rajah in 1919 anticipated this constitutional reform that would manifest two years later, with the launch of the enlarged Legislative Councils.

Besides being a leading member at the time of the Justice Party, Rajah was a Paraiyan, a member of the untouchable community that the British were most familiar with as it was concentrated in districts close to the Madras city. So much so that this Tamil-speaking community had by then entered the English lexicon: pariah, an outcast...

In his opening remarks on the denial of access to space as a facet of untouchability, Rajah’s ire was directed at not just caste Hindus but also Willingdon. This was because in the run-up to the discussion in the Council, Willingdon had aired misgivings about Rajah’s resolution at a public meeting. His misgivings evidently arose from file notings on the subject, particularly an adverse note by Charles Todhunter, the home member in his Executive Council. “Caste cannot be abolished in a day and any attempt to go too far in advance of public opinion,” Todhunter had cautioned, “may well do more harm than good.”

Rajah said it was “very unfortunate” that Willingdon should have referred to his resolution in terms that had been construed as “unsympathetic” and “indications of Government’s sense of its own helplessness”. As a result, “I am left to argue before a Government which has made up its mind before it has heard me speak on this Resolution.” Likewise, referring to caste Hindu councillors, Rajah added that it was his lot “to plead before opponents and critics who would only be too glad to take the cue on this matter from Your Excellency’s words.” ...

Accusing the government of abandoning the lower castes to the tender mercies of the upper castes, Rajah thundered: “Are our rights to be sacrificed simply because a silly people priding themselves on their imaginary religious superiority are to be humoured and their so-called religious scruples which are really the fetters with which they seek to enslave others to be left undisturbed? Is caste arrogance not only to have its way but also to receive Government recognition?”

Todhunter, unsurprisingly, was among those who publicly urged Rajah to withdraw his resolution. Tracing the evolution of the Hindu social-reform movement in Madras over twenty-five years, Todhunter said that there was a common thread running through all the changes – the insistence of caste Hindus “that they do not want Government help and that the reform is one that must come from within the community”.

Willingdon’s advance comments on Rajah’s resolution had reaffirmed, in Todhunter’s interpretation, that “we all want to see India [as] a nation, and the first step in national efficiency is the fusion of the classes and the removal of the distinction between touchables and untouchables”. But the question was, he added rhetorically, “can Government really do any good towards this end?”

His own answer was that the government had no role unless it was a colonial enactment that was found to be discriminatory. By way of an example, Todhunter cited a bill that had been passed the previous day by the same Legislative Council, to remove a form of punishment that discriminated against the lower castes. Conceding that “if there are any statutory disabilities, they should be removed”, Todhunter said, “The only thing I can think of is the punishment in the stocks which we have just abolished.”

Todhunter was followed by BV Narasimha Ayyar, who had, picking up the baton from [Kesava] Pillai, forced the government to repeal the punishment of lower castes by confinement in the stocks. He was, however, sceptical about Rajah’s demand because he believed that caste restrictions in public spaces did not affect untouchables alone: “The restrictions exist between caste Hindus themselves.”

A choultry built for the benefit of one caste was, he argued, unlikely to be open to those from other castes. So “the effect of removing the restrictions” in the manner proposed by Rajah “means that wells and choultries will be used by the Panchamas only”. Warning against the perils of unintended consequences, Ayyar asked, “Is it our object to penalise all those people who have got this prejudice unfortunately and is that feasible or reasonable?”

Having anticipated such reservations from caste Hindus, Lord Willingdon weighed in, this time formally, on Rajah’s resolution. Pointing out that “there is such a thing in this country as custom and caste”, he said that “until those two things are diminished, it is quite impossible for my Honourable friend to get the equality which I think his community should get at the earliest opportunity”. Willingdon was signalling that he was on the side of untouchables even as he pleaded helplessness in the face of caste Hindu intransigence.

It was in this spirit that he made a qualified admission of the colonial regime’s duty towards untouchables. ‘We will do everything in our power to see that equality is brought about.’ In the same breath, he entered a caveat, saying that ‘we are not going to interfere with anything that tends in any way to any interference with the religious scruples of any community’.

The colonial administrator was aggrieved that Rajah did not appreciate the fine line he was treading to uplift untouchables without hurting Hindu sentiment. “I am pained that my Honourable friend in his opening speech rather suggested all the time that Government were a wicked body; they were not paying attention to his community; they were even antagonistic.” Alluding to the irony of his own nominee from the untouchable community making such allegations, Willingdon said, “I would ask him whether his presence here is not evidence of a contrary feeling on the part of Government. It is a little hard that he should have taken up this attitude in regard to this Government.”

Further, he said that unless Rajah’s compatriots appreciated “the desirability of India becoming a nation and of every community being on equal terms, it is extremely difficult for Government to do anything of a serious nature.” Willingdon doubted whether even the resolution that had just been adopted on representation for untouchables in local bodies was feasible.

To elucidate, he referred to two councillors, T Desikachari and N Subba Rao, who had participated in the debate on access and were also presidents of District Boards. On the one hand, he said charitably, “I am perfectly sure that they are absolutely sincere and they have done a great deal for the benefit of this particular community.” On the other, he pointed out: “But have they done the most important thing? Have they got a member of the Depressed Classes into the District Board?”

Revelling in the moral authority he had acquired by nominating an untouchable to a high forum, Willingdon lectured caste Hindu councillors. “Those are the sort of things which I wish Honourable Members to do. Let them not make any speeches, but let them show that they are anxious about this particular matter; but far more if they will show by action that they are anxious, then we shall get on very much faster.”

The irony of a colonial ruler berating the Indian elite for being trapped in prejudice was not lost on Rajah. But deferring to Willingdon’s assurance that the government would do “everything in their power to further the community in future”, Rajah withdrew his resolution. It stood little chance of being adopted anyway, as almost all the councillors who participated in the debate, whether Indian or British, indicated that their sympathy would not translate into votes.

Excerpted with permission from Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India, Manoj Mitta, Context/Westland.