Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee
International Conference Souvenir
Vijayawada, February 3, 4, and 5, 1990
[OCR, Tim Sullivan; HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]

When the Caste Barriers Fall

Untouchability and caste system are the bane of India's progress. For thousands of years the Indian society, in particular the Hindu Society, has been vertically and horizontally divided and sub-divided in the name of caste, sub-caste and untouchability. The centuries old customs and traditions even vitiated the Christians and Muslims to some extent and they too follow the caste system in practice. Herold Issac's "India's Ex-untouchables" reveals how deep-rooted the caste system is.

Efforts of Social Reformers

History bears testimony to the fact that efforts were made by social reformers and enlightened individuals to oppose the caste system and the practice of untouchability as they considered it as a heinous crime against humanity. But the tentacles were too deep to be removed so easily. Kabir, debunked the evil system. Revolutions in Hindu religion tried to lessen the rigours of the caste system, but they were coopted into the system in the long run. In Andhra, Brahma Naidu organised Chapa Kudu, (inter-dining) breaking the caste barriers. Vemana and some other poets ridiculed the system. But the strangle-hold of tradition and religion did not give scope for change. In the 19th century some of the social reformers like Mahatma Phule, Ishwara Chandra, Vidya Sagar raised a banner of revolt against orthodoxy.

Mahatma Gandhi's Contribution

But it is the 20th century that witnessed tremendous change in breaking the caste-barriers and the movement for eradication of untouchability gained momentum. Mahatma Gandhi took up cudgels against the practice of untouchability and made it a part of his programme for the attainment of political independence. He named his Journal "Harijan" and started Harijan Sevak Sangh. He appealed to all, to strive for the eradication of untouchability. Gandhi moved step by step towards the abolition of caste at the fag end of his life.

Dr Ambedkar's Call

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar strove incessantly for the eradication of untouchability and the caste system. He clearly recognised that untouchability was part of the caste system and the latter was inter-twined with Hindu religion. Hence, at the fag end of his life he embraced Budhism and appealed to others to follow suit.

Gandhi and Gora

Mahatma Gandhi finally arrived at the conclusion that the abolition of untouchability is possible only when inter-marriages take place between the so-called untouchables and the so-called upper castes. He even publicly proclaimed that in his Sevagram Ashram he would celebrate only those marriages where one of the spouses came from the so-called untouchable community.

It was the work for the abolition of untouchability and caste system that was instrumental in bringing Gandhi and Gora closer. Gora's "An Atheist with Gandhi", (published by the official publishers of Gandhian literature, Navajivan, Ahmedabad) gives an account of the conversation between Gandhi and Gora on Atheism and the efforts for eradication of untouchability; Gora's eldest daughter Manorama was married to Arjuna Rao at Gandhi's Ashram, Sevagram to break the barriers of caste and untouchability. In 1948, as Gandhi was assassinated a few weeks before. Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister, congratulated the newly wed couple for their courage of conviction.

A decade later Lavanam's marriage with Hemalata was also celebrated at Sevagram Ashram upholding the same principle of social equality. Thus Gora bridged the gulf between precept and practice in his efforts for the eradication of untouchability and caste system. Gora acquired moral authority in his efforts for the eradication of untouchability and caste system by getting his children marry casteless and encouraged others to follow the example to strive for social change.

Gora's efforts for the eradication of untouchability attracted attention from far and wide. Prof. S. Chandra Sekhar in his foreword to "The Untouchables in contemporary India" stated that Gora is one of the undeservedly unrecognised saints of India (Ed: J. Michael Mahar, The University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, Arizona, USA.)

"The Harijan" (April 25, 1948) commenting on the marriage at Sevagram Ashram stated that "Shrimari and Prof. Rama Chandra Rao* and Shrimati Manorama (the bride) have set a very great example of concordance between theory and practice. I hope a time will soon come, when such marriages will be so frequent that they will not remain a subject of special notice. As it is, the marriage must be taken note of by all who believe in the principles of the Sarvodaya Semaj."

    * Ramachandra Rao was the given name before he changed it to GORA.

Gora's Programmes for Social Equality

Gora's social reform measures started with his advocacy for the widow remarriages and against the child marriages, He also championed the marriages of Devadasis for whom marriage was a taboo. He did celebrate some marriages of the Devadasis by breaking the caste and tradition barriers. He had to face the wrath of the orthodoxy.

Even before starting the Atheist Centre, for a decade Gora was very much involved in social reform activities, enthusing the youth to follow the unconventional path.

In the then tradition bound society he took up the bold step of organising inter-dining programmes, breaking the barriers of caste and religion. The caste system is so deep-rooted in the soil and the social atmosphere was so vitiated, people were not eating together, because of their observance of their caste norms. There was not only untouchability but also inter-untouchability and they were not eating together. Gora took up the programme of inter-dining to create an awareness about one humanity transcending caste and religion.

Inter-dining in Villages

After starting the Atheist Centre in 1940 Gora made it a point to insist on arranging his stay in untouchable localities, wherever he went to address meetings or to attend functions. It was a revolutionary step. Sometimes the presence of Gora in the village had electrifying effect and heated discussions took place for or against Gora's stay in the untouchables locality of the village. Gora always welcomed participation of local organisers of the meeting if they joined him in the inter-dining programme there.

As the caste taboos were strong, some of the organisers of the programme were threatened to be ex-communicated from their respective castes and were subjected to social boycott. In some families men were not allowed to enter into the houses again as they had participated in inter-dining programme.

Open Defiance of Caste Taboos

Gora always made it a principle to organise the inter-dining and other programmes for social equality in the glaring sun of opennes. He was firm on his principles and was uncompromising in his opposition to the practice of untouchability and caste system. But he was polite all he time. He made a distinction between the evil and the doers and the system and the individual. He was opposed to the system and not to the individuals. He was well aware of the frailties of the individuals and one step was enough for him. Step by step he made them proceed along with him towards the goal of social equality. He set the example before others and never blamed others for not following him or emulating his example. He followed a socio-psychological approach of persuasion and understanding. He preached and practised the democratic approach to problems. He maintained dignity of human relationship, and believed in the innate goodness of humans in spite of temporary set-backs, if any. He proceeded from what is to what ought to be. He was a practical idealist, firmly rooted in the soil but keeping his head and shoulders high, pointing out towards the higher goals.

Inter-dining programme has been one of the main planks of the activities of Atheist Centre. It was an acid test for the workers and the sympathisers.

Gora and Saraswati Gora, Lavanam and Hemalatha Lavanam and Mythri made it a principle that they would attend only those marriages where the wedding invitation clearly states that there would be an inter-dining programme after the marriage. Social change will come only when the taboos of caste, religion and untouchability are opposed openly and firmly. Some of the so-called progressive people also could not pass this acid test. They were not prepared to commit on the wedding card that they would organise an inter-dining on the occasion of the marriage. This shows how strong is the hold of the tradition.

Hundreds of Marriages Celebrated

Hundreds of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages have been celebrated in Andhra Pradesh because of the influence of Atheist Centre. Some of them were held at Atheist Centre. It was a beacon light for social equality.

Atheist Centre encourages inter-caste marriages, inter-religious marriages. It also encourages marriages between the scheduled [secluded? -- CW] tribes and the other sections of the society.

In order to break the caste-system and untouchability it is incumbent that there should be inter-caste and caste-less marriages. The hierarchy of the caste-system and the evil effects are so deep-rooted in psyche of the people that even inter-untouchability is a matter of grave concern. Different sections of so-called untouchables do not inter-marry. They do not even inter-dine. They do not take water from the same well. Hence the Atheist Centre made special efforts to educate them about the same and encourage mixed housing. It is very difficult to promote marriage between two sects among the so-called untouchables. However Atheist Centre could perform even such marriages.

Need of Voluntary Effort

Since the advent of independence of India in 1947 the law and the Constitution is in favour of the abolition of untouchability. Art. 17 of the Indian Constitution declares that untouchability has been abolished and its practice in any form is prohibited. But law alone cannot bring social change. It should be backed by the public opinion. The Untouchability Offences Act was passed in 1956, and later in 1976 it was renamed as Civil Rights Act. But the caste system and untouchability are deep-rooted, and it is possible to eradicate them only if we build best defences in the minds of the people. In this regard the voluntary efforts play a major role. The media also contributes its mite in creating public opinion in favour of social change. The chronic problem requires multi-dimensional and multi-faceted approach coupled with the example to accelerate the pace of the measures for the much needed social equality.

Atheist Centre contributed its mite in this regard. Gora's unflinching support for social reform through his personal example and incessant and uncompromising effort for the eradication of untouchability and caste system was helpful in further strengthening the ramparts we guard. The corrective effort of the government and the voluntary effort of the enlightened individuals helped in changing the attitudes of the people. For the last four decades the educational and employment opportunities for socially deprived sections of the people and the mobility of people in search of education, employment and business helped in loosening the caste bonds. The liberal and libertarian outlook among the young and the inroads of science and technology into rural India, forced people to come together The revolution in communications and the role of radio and T.V. also helped to broaden the mental horizons of the people. Urbanisation and industrialisation resulted more in forced change which necessitated living together in proximity of one another. But this forced change did not result in a mental revolution which would transform it into social change. Hence in India we find a verbal commitment to the eradication of untouchability and caste system, rather than a determined effort on the part of majority of the people.

Hence, it becomes all the more necessary to strive hard to fight the evils of caste system and to do away with the strangle-hold of untouchability.

Incentives for Social equality

In India caste bonds are loosened. But Casteism is increasing. The politicisation of caste and the vested and feudal interests are keeping casteism alive. Atheist Centre had clearly recognised that in order to eradicate untouchability caste system must go. Atheist Centre appeals to people to grow beyond caste and religion and think in terms of one humanity. The efforts of the Centre are geared in this direction through inter-dining, mixed-housing, inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, removal of caste and religion columns from the application forms of the government, secularisation of politics and new education system free from god and religion. The education system must inculcate new values in people and self-confidence in them as equal citizens irrespective of their erstwhile caste, religion, economic or social background. Like "One man one vote," "One person one value" is its motto. Atheist Centre aims at propagation of this value through precept and practice, persuasion and propagation.

Atheist Centre is heartened by the liberal outlook that pervades in society against the practice of untouchability and the caste system and welcomes the efforts of various State Governments and the Union Government to give encouragement and incentives to the inter-caste married people in the form of monetary help to the tune of Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000 and giving preference in government jobs. It also welcomes the change in the attitude of some police officers who are encouraging and giving protection to the couples who want to marry inter-caste. Some of the police stations became happy venues for inter-caste marriages.

The change in the attitude of government vindicates the stand taken by Atheist Centre for the last 50 years.

The politicisation of the caste system and utilisation of the differences of caste and untouchability for narrow partisan ends and selection of candidates in election by various political parties on the caste criteria have given a new lease of life to the dying caste system. The political parties should develop national outlook and should not fan communalism and casteism for their sectarian and immediate gains. But it is a matter of regret that the political parties are blindly following the game of power politics and sacrificing the interests of the nation.

Positive gains

In spite of the adverse trends and the difficulties faced by the protagonists of change, they are not disheartened. On the whole the efforts for the eradication of untouchability and caste system are having positive gains.

The Newspapers, Radio, T.V. and the text books speak for the necessity of social equality and for the eradication of untouchability. Even the Road Transport buses exhibit the signs that "untouchability is a crime against humanity". This trend shows the wider acceptance of the desirability of change.

To further the cause of the social reform the Andhra Pradesh government organised a Harijan Conference on a large scale in 1973 and the persons honoured on the occasion included Mr. and Mrs. Gora for their selfless service. A conference on eradication of untouchability was organised at Atheist Centre in March, 1984. Mr. Ram Lal, the then Governor of Andhra Pradesh while inaugurating the conference underlined the need for introducing suitable curricular changes at all levels of education to instill in the minds of the young that untouchability was an unmitigated social crime and that the caste system was irrelevant in the modern society.

Dr. Shankar Dayal Sarma, M.P. (presently Vice-President of India) who also spoke on the occasion said that even though many laws were passed for the upliftment of weaker sections, they could not be implemented in the absence of social awareness.

In order to propagate the idea of castelessness Andhra Pradesh Kula Nirmulana Sangham was organised and Mr. J. Veera Swamy, former Law secretary of Government of Andhra Pradesh, is its President, Mr. V. Nageswar Secretary. It promotes inter-caste marriage and encourages social reform.

Atheist Centre not only encourage inter-castes marriages and mixed housing but also registration of marriages under Special Marriage Act which would give equal status to the spouses. In the Special Marriage Act there is no reference to caste or religion of any person. It is truly secular and hence majority of marriages promoted by Atheist Centre are registered under Special Marriage Act.

The experience shows that the wind is blowing in fayour of castelessness and secularism. Even the rightist parties in India are not in a position to uphold the caste system or untouchablity and they too sympathise with the above cause and make public pronouncements in favour of it.

The overall situation is in favour of change in the social structure without reference to untouchability or caste system.

In this century a lot of change has come in this field and we are witness to an era of change and Atheist Centre has been playing its rightful role in accelarating the pace of change.

Inter-caste Marriage -- Tiruchi

A unique inter-Caste marriage between a Brahmin boy and a Harijan girl was solemnised here today.

The bridegroom was Mr. R. C. Sekhar, a medical practitioner of Tiruchi (son of late Dr. R. Sambasiva Iyer, Tiruchi) and the bride Miss Kanthamani, staff nurse in a government hospital in Thanjavur District.

Invitations to the marriage were issued by Mr. Gora, the well-known social reformer of Andhra. The near relatives of the bride and the bridegroom were present at the wedding.

The marriage was performed at a simple function held at Vasavi Mahal here. Mrs. Krishnammal Jagannathan (wife of Mr. S. Jagannathan, Sarvodaya Leader) presided.

Mr. Jayaprakash Narain Sarvodaya Leader, Mr. K. Kamaraj, former Congress President, Mr. K. A. P. Viswanatham and others blessed the couple, Mr. Gora welcomed the invitees.

Mrs. V. Veerammal presented a sum of Rs. 101 to Mr. Jayaprakrash Narain for Sarvodaya Movement on behalf of the bride's party.

All the distinguished leaders who blessed the couple were presented with vegetable garlands by Mr. Gora.

(Indian Express, Madurai, 21 August 1968.)