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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2730

The Beautiful Tree: A metaphor for a malaise

By Prof. P. Radhakrishnan

Dharampal believed in the Ramrajya myth of pre-British Indian society as a land of milk and honey. His passion for this was kindled by Gandhi’s political panegyric.

In his Chatham House speech in 1931 Gandhi decried the decay of indigenous Indian education: `The British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished.’

I have shown in my works that the institution of indigenous Indian education evolved and worked on the principle of social closure as revealed by, among other things, its discriminatory dimensions, and that Gandhi’s metaphor of a beautiful tree to describe it and the subsequent efforts to vindicate it were seriously misplaced.

Gandhi’s beautiful tree could have been beautiful only to those ensconced at the top of the hierarchy-infested Indian society who alone could have reaped its fruits. But, even to them, the beauty of the tree had begun to fade down soon after the alien tree began to bear fruits; in as much as it was they who first abandoned the former and clambered up the latter.

Gandhi, however, stolidly refused to acknowledge these facts.

What he eulogised as the beautiful tree was largely a making of Brahminic Hindu culture, and so any British attempt to uproot it, would have, in effect, meant assaulting this tenacious culture. If this were to happen, it would not have taken them long to bury deep the corpse of Manu without allowing it to stink for so long.

On January 8, I got an email from a US-based Indian foundation: `With the recent death of Mr. Dharampal, the author of The Beautiful Tree, claims of the glory of pre-British Indian education are being widely distributed on the Web. I would appreciate very much if you could send me a copy of your review of The Beautiful Tree.’

Gandhi was immediately challenged by Sir Philip Hartog, a founder of the School of Oriental and African Studies, a former vice-chancellor of Dacca University, chairman of the auxiliary committee of the Indian Statutory Commission, and of several educational committees on India set up by the British between 1918 and 1930. Despite his best efforts Gandhi was not able to face this challenge successfully.

It was as though to fill this void that Dharampal conjured up his beautiful tree, in 1983, with about 84 pages of text and 354 pages of documents reproduced from various sources. In it his main arguments were that even in the early 19th century Indian schooling was more extensive than what was prevalent in England; the content of the curriculum was not very dissimilar in nature to what was taught in England; and the duration of study was more prolonged.

Whether the indicators used by him were really sufficient to make a meaningful comparison of the indigenous education with the `progressive’ system that had evolved in England, who benefited from that education, and what was its social relevance were of no concern to him. Though within the Sudra Varna the lower strata of Sudras – castes like Nadars in Tamil Nadu and Izhavas in Kerala - were treated as polluting and thus formed the upper strata of the Untouchables; those beyond the Sudra Varna were not treated as part of the society then and to a large extent are not treated so even now.

For defending the indefensible Dharampal countered the fact that any education of any sort in India was until recently mostly limited to the upper strata of society, especially the twice-born. He did this mainly by using the data obtained from the survey of indigenous education in Madras Presidency, conducted during 1822-26, at the instance of the Presidency Governor, Sir Thomas Munro.

According to these data, available for all but one of the 21 Presidency districts, of the total male school-students (the proportion of female students was negligible), the percentage from the Brahmin caste was only 19, from the Chettis/Rajahs (Kshatriyas?) only less than one, from the Vaishyas only nine, from the Sudras as high as 50, from `other castes’ 5, and from the Muslims 7.

In the absence of other details these figures gave the impression that the upper strata of society, especially the Brahmins did not dominate the education system. But the information collected by the district collectors had a number of weaknesses (as Dharampal himself admitted). Apart from being incomplete and incoherent, in the data a large number of agricultural castes such as the Vellalars, Mudaliyars and Kammas, belonging to the upper strata of society and clearly upper caste non-Brahmins were subsumed under the Varna-based British category of `Soodras’.

The number of students from different castes was not related to the population of the respective castes. It was only by doing this one could have got some idea of the extent to which each group had access to any education in relation to others. It was also very important in view of the fact that the twice-born together with the high-castes subsumed under the Sudra category formed only a small proportion of the total Presidency population. For instance, even in 1871 (the first decennial census), the Brahmins formed only 3.7 percent of the Hindu population, the Kshatriyas only 0.5 percent, and the Vaishyas only 2.4 percent. So, the population of these groups must have been much less in 1820s.

What is more, the data available on home education were for only one of the 21 districts, namely Madras. These data, however, showed that the number taught at home was about five times greater than in schools, and that of the total number of male-students taught at home the percentage of students from the Brahmins was as high as 29, from the Vaishyas 23, from the Sudras, the largest Varna category, only 20, from `other castes’ 13, and from the Muslims 6. In any case, the dominance of the upper strata of society, especially the Brahmins, came out more clearly from the data on higher learning presented in the book, which showed that virtually all the students of higher learning were Brahmins.

Dharampal’s claim that in the pre-British `Indian social balance’ traditionally, persons from all sections of society received an optimum schooling which among others, had enabled them to participate openly and appropriately in the social and cultural life of their locality, was again misleading. His notion of society was probably like Plato’s. Plato’s universe (read society) was limited to a few square miles of Athens, and to about one-third of its population who alone were freemen or citizens, while the remaining 250,000 were slaves who were not treated as part of society.

So, Dharampal’s `all sections of society’ necessarily excluded large sections of the human population. Even within his limited notion of society schooling might have meant mostly caste-based occupational reproduction – schooling in which as Franco Bernier a French physician in the Mughal court in the mid-17th century observed the embroiderer's son was brought up only as an embroiderer, the goldsmith's son became only a goldsmith, and the physician's son grew up only as a physician.

My review, `Blighted roots’, in the Sunday edition of the Indian Express of February 26, 1984, clearly showed how Dharampal’s book betrayed a fervour of what Louis Dumont termed 'Brahmanic patriotism' .

Since the 1870s the British administration made special provisions for the education (and employment) of the Muslims, and the Depressed Classes (later classified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes), and devised an administrative category of `backward classes’ for providing educational concessions to the children of the groups included in this category.

As part of the government’s continuing efforts for introducing primary education among Panchamas (Pariahs and kindred castes) in 1915 the question of starting morning or evening classes for them in Hindu schools, was examined and found unfeasible for reasons such as villagers' objection to the proposal, caste prejudices, parents of caste pupils withdrawing their children from schools if the buildings, furniture, and apparatus were to be used by Panchamas, objection of landlords in the case of rented buildings to the use by Panchamas.

Following representations on the exclusion of Panchamas and other Depressed Classes from schools attended by caste Hindus in different parts of Madras Presidency, in 1918 the government asked local bodies and the DPI to investigate and report on the matter. The replies received disclosed that Panchamas and allied castes were totally excluded from all but 609 of a total of 8157 schools under public management in the Presidency. Foremost among the reasons reported for such exclusion were caste prejudices of higher castes resulting in the withdrawal of their children or in the threats to do so on admission of Panchamas.

If pre-British Indian society was as wicked as the British saw it, which it tried to change without much success, characterizing it as Ramrajya should be seen as part of a larger insidious agenda of reintroducing that unjust social order of aristocracy and social rank, privileged high castes and despised low castes, Brahminic priesthood and intellectual hegemony and so on, from the thralldom of which social reformers like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, and Sree Narayana Guru tried to liberate India’s unwashed millions (the lower Sudras and untouchables and not the present political category of OBCs).

Dharampal, 84, died on October 24, 2006, at Sevagram (Gandhi’s ashram).

I had on several occasions run into Dharampal. To be fair to a dead man, despite his Ramrajya project, I found him amiable and equanimous in striking contrast to his overbearing hacks and march-past foot-soldiers like the Alvareses, Bajajs, Govindacharyas, Gurumurthys, and the RSS field-marshal K.S. Sudarshan. His death has given them yet another occasion for their macabre celebration. That celebration continues in different ways even now and will be on a larger scale during the next Lok Sabha elections in which the BJP has a lot to gain.

- Asian Tribune -

Prof. P. Radhakrishnan
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