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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > The Tamil Heritage > Culture of the Tamils > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Studies> First International Tamil Conference Seminar > Elite Formation in 19th Century South India - An Interpretative Analysis > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography
First International Tamil Conference - Seminar
It is distressing to realize how little we know about the development and the inner dynamics of the social system in any part of India. Admittedly Indian society is perhaps the most complex in existence. Yet, even after a century and a half of increasing attention, lamentable gaps in our understanding of its structure and functions remain before us. Even within the widest margins of error, we have only vague notions about the nature of the social changes which have actually occurred during the British period.
We cannot tell whether changes were progressive or retrogressive. Due to our ignorance of basic long-run processes in social behaviour, we cannot determine whether attempts at constructive planning and reform are efficacious, much less beneficent or detrimental. Absence of clues to causes behind current conditions leaves social and political engineers to grope in dark uncertainties and to puzzle over indiscernible consequences.
Neglect of the social history of India, especially of the period after 1800, is all the more remarkable since its proper understanding might have been so important to those in power, those who wished to control the direction of political developments, if not the destiny of peoples, within the subcontinent. Social forces are the burning fuels which push the pistons of political power. Such forces drive the wheels of that peculiar mechanical contrivance - the state. To rule men is to have authority. To control things is to have power. But both power and authority are hollow without the support of society. The measure of that support, however it might have been acquired, is the measure of power and authority. To discover the measure of burning heat - whether slowly or quickly burning, whether feeble or intense -behind the wheels of political control, we must learn more about changes in social force. We must know about elite* formation.
My purpose in this paper is to suggest a limited number of important factors and so to provoke at least some interpretation, if not reinterpretation, of the social history of South India. I am not attempting a thoroughly comprehensive and systematic analysis of the total process of elite formation in South India. Rather, I hope to indicate what might be considered as some of the more fruitful approaches to future research.
Part One: Traditional Processes
Our analysis of elite formation must begin with at least a look at the more significant notions about what traditional society in South India was like at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Society was not one but many. Formed by centuries of ceaseless contacts, collisions, and pressures between increasing numbers of groups, the old order consisted of innumerable societal bits and pieces. These bits and pieces coexisted in tight ompartments.Requirements of communal rituals and sanctions of family, caste, and village in what was basically an agrarian economy enforced social fission. The complexity of this honeycombing has remained an ever intriguing puzzle for scholars, one which serves as a conductor for continuing controversy.
Nevertheless some theories have emerged which give us meaningful patterns for our understanding of the relative importance of these bits and pieces, as they have developed in various parts of South India. First, we must know the structuring on these social fragments within a larger whole, or hierarchy, whether this is seen as one village, an area of villages, or as a wider region. Second, we must discover the progression, the direction of movement, of these fragments in relation to each other over periods of time. Patterns of structure and of process are, of course, inextricably inter-meshed. They cannot be fully comprehended without the cognisance of their being syndronic reflections of a larger human society, the whole of which they reflect as but dim and shadowy images.
In a recent paper on the integration of the agrarian order of South India before 1800, Burton Stein has provided us with a remarkable glimpse of continual and consistent social development.1 He designates what he calls "nuclear areas" of human settlement and land control during the Pallava-Chola period.2 These were ecologically self-sufficient systems, small regions of well-established, often highly organized villages dominated by Brahmans and Sat-Sudras, which represented the most advanced level of South Indian life.
Within each such area there was an original core, an agricultural elite of yeoman-warrior communities who came from what we now call the Sat-Sudra castes - namely Vellalars, Mudaliars, Kammas, Velamas, Telagas, Naidus, Nayyars, etc. (depending on the region). Each such elite formed the communal base of ruling classes from which were drawn members for a particular kind of territorial assembly, the chitrameliperiya-nadu. Such an assembly had control over dense clusters of agricultural villages having relatively high concentrations of people.
Within these same areas were two other kinds of villages, both influencing and being influenced, if not controlled by the periya-nadu assembly. First, there were the Brahman-controlled villages, called brahmadeyas or agraharams. These villages were privileged, tax-free sanctuaries for piety and learning. Perhaps originally tracts of land given as patronage to woo prestigious Brahmans into the area, they became centers of political as well as of religious power. Where the most prominent stood, there arose some of the great temples of South India, e.g. Tanjore, Kanchi, Tirupati, Madurai, etc. Second, there were the Banya-controlled villages, given over to members of the great trading associations and guilds of medieval South India, e.g. the Ayyavole of Karnataka and the Manigrammam of Tamilaham. These brought considerable wealth through industry and commerce insomuch that they could boast large bequests to temples. Thus while the Sat-Sudra warriors provided the agrarian base for subsistence and the swords for protection, the Brahmans provided for religious and cultural needs and the Banyas, for greater material welfare, if not for luxuries. Both Brahman and Banya castes could and did compete for administrative positions requiring skills of the pen.3
Surrounding these intensively developed but relatively small "nuclear areas" were extensive forests and jungles inhabited by primitive but predatory peoples. Stein indicates that, while jungle people were frequently employed as archers in the armies of the advanced settlements, there was a continual tension between the barbarian darkness of the forest and the cultural enlightenment of each settled region.
The inscriptions of the trading communities boast of military success in protecting caravans of asses and bullocks moving through the forbidding forests which separated the more densely settled "nuclear areas". Over the long run, while forest and settled peoples continually resisted the encroachments of each other, a gradual reduction of forest and an expansion of regularly cultivated land occurred. As forest lands were cleared and absorbed, jungle peoples came increasingly under the control of periyanadu villages and were absorbed as servile classes in the caste hierarchy.4 They became part of that mass of untouchables which comprises the lower half of South Indian society today (although remnants still survive in the jungles).
Thus one can say that the political system of early South India was anything but centralized and bureaucratic as so many historians would have us believe. Rather, one observes a multicentered and dispersed system. If seen on a spectrum of concentrated power, the great dynastic centers of Kanchi and Tanjore, ruled by the Pallava and Chola families. would be at one extreme and the isolated and primitive hamlets of highland and forest folk would be at the other. In Stein's words,
The 13th century brought shocks to this order. Pandyan warriors, with their Sinhalese cohorts, defeated Chola forces and made depredations on the settled areas of the deep south. Under hammer blows of Muslim incursions from North India, a recoiling of Hindu warrior peoples, a streaming of mostly Telugu refugees into the south, occurred in the 14th century. The energetic system of dynastic power which established its capital at Vijayanagara, south of the Tungabhadra, raised a rampart of the defence of Hindu civilization. The regime was essentially militaristic, and hence parasitic. The new elite forming its hard core was composed primarily of Reddi warriors and Niyogi administrators, with other small adjuncts when and where required.
After the battle of Talikota in 1565, this political system disintegrated. But it left a residue of Telugu enclaves and local elites sprinkled over much of South India. The Nayakas of Tanjore, Mysore, Madurai, and and Ramnad, the Poliyagars of Anantapur, Cuddapah, Bellary, and Salem, and the numerous petty Rajas and Chiefs of coastal principalities were the most conspicuous of these remnants. But of equal significance were the agraharamu, brahmadeya and mirasi holdings conferred upon Niyogi Brahmans.6 Also there were the villages given as fiefs (amaram) to Telugu fighting leaders (Reddis, Rajus, Kammas, etc.).
Stein believes that the former nuclear areas were distributed, either in whole or in parts, to Vijayanagara lords. At the same time, while the older trading associations and networks declined, local merchants arose - the most notable being the Telugu Komartis who, following the Telugu warriors, became strong in all the southern regions of the peninsula 7 What is significant is the fact that these localities lost much of their antonomy. They became part of the loose, pseudo-feudal network of the Vijayanagara polity. The integrity of the older order ceased and, to some degree, a process of socio-political integration and absorption occurred. This process was accompanied on the one hand by the expansion of Vijayanagara districts, or simas, into surrounding forest areas; and on the other, by the growth of urban centers of political rule, temple worship, pilgrimage, and commercial activity.8
Under the Bahmanis of the Deccan, but especially under the Sultans of Bijapur and Golkonda, further elements were superimposed upon the already existing structure of elites in South India. Muslim nobles filled the highest ranks. As a centralized governing elite they attracted the resourceful and adventurous from the wider Islamic world to give essential leadership at the top. Muslim soldiers in the ranks, however, were far too few to provide more than the hardest phalanxes of shock troops -- heavy cavalry and artillery. To make up for severe manpower defiencies, which crippled both the maintenance and expansion of their power, the Sultans turned increasingly to Marathas_ Desastha Brahmans became the elite cadre of fiscal and local administrators. The want of fighting men for the ranks was supplied by the hardy Maratha warriors, who served as light and irregular cavalry. As Muslim power spread southward in the 17th century, an intermediate blanket of Maratha administrators and bands of predatory Maratha horsemen became interposed between the Muslim rulers and the indigenous elites of South India which have previously been described.9
In a previous paper on traditional processes of power in South India. I have attempted to show the strength of disintegrative forces and of fragmentative tendencies in the history of peninsular India.10 In con tradistinction to Stein's theory, which postulates a long term trend toward social integration (a trend which has taken centuries and may take many more centuries), my theory may be described as one which postulates a tradition of ceaseless political disintegration. Both theories, grounded as they are in carefully collected data, are not necessarily antithetic or mutually exclusive.
The traditional processes of political disintegration and fragmentation, which I observed in my previous study, were primarily due to a chronic manpower shortage. In other words, the societal infra-structure had not attained that degree of density, that measure of social integration, which enabled it to support a wide reaching or lofty political edifice. I have attempted to show how, in one district of over a thousand villages. the traditions of local influence were disastrously corrosive upon any political superstructure, whether Chola, Vijayanagara, Muslim, or British. Village records show how generation after generation of local interests, arising from fundamental loyalty to family, caste and village, undermined the authority of any centralized agency.
The very fact that intermediary agents, to say nothing of those who possessed centralized power and who sought to enforce compliance in localities, were themselves members of numerically limited and locally restricted families, castes, and villages, meant that the manpower requirements of larger political systems were severely short. Family and caste coalitions were fragile at best and that tight cohesion necessary for efficient political action was intensely and invariably corruptible. Given the minutely segmented nature of the social order, how could it be otherwise? The dominant political tradition was one of constantly boiling and bubbling and simmering among tiny principalities. which only rarely and temporarily gathered or coalesced into systems of imperial dimension or grandeur. Such a tradition failed to contribute a very general or really acute consciousness of any great political institution, one with wide, over-reaching authority.
Villages traditionally constituted the basic units of social and political control. That they could be broken into smaller components or find nourishment by different forms of enterprise does not alter this fundamental fact. Indeed, it would be erroneous to suppose that all villages were alike. They manifested no flat uniformity in characteristics of economic or cultural achievement, nor even of demographic or social distribution. Some were large, very old, or very rich, powerful, and domineering. Others were so small, so newly born, or so pitifully subservient, hamlets so abjectly quarantined that they tottered on the brink of extinction. Conditions of ecology, such as geography, climate, market proximity, cultural or religious attraction, productivity and wealth, or other potentialities, made each village unique in strength and influence. Deltic and coastal villages depended upon maritime and inland trade, salt production, textile weaving, or fishing. Inland villages not only cultivated rice, millets, and garden crops nor simply herded cattle and sheep. They were also centres of metallurgy, stone cutting, diamondmining, overland traffic, criminal enterprise, and religious pilgrimage. Just as some villages were highly productive in material goods, so others were entirely parasitic and still others were devoted to learning, art, or some other negotiable service.
In every village system, each with its own unique individuality and peculiarity, members of extended families within one high caste or a coalition of two or three high castes, usually warriors and Brahmans, ruled over the destinies of other inhabitants within the village. Below the village rulers ranged members of the lower castes. Lower priestly, trading, artisan, and lesser cultivator castes ranked much higher than the cluster of castes which lay at the bottom of the social ladder. Lowest of the low were such outcaste groups as Madigas and Malas. Each of these groups cordially despised the other. Outside necessary economic and patrimonial relationships, castes shunned contact with each other. Rituals, marriage, eating, dress, conversation and other ingredients of social convention remained strictly circumscribed by family, gotram, sub-caste and caste rules.11
Villages or aggregates of villages provided the materials and human resources upon which all political systems depended. Village leaders held their privileged positions because, in each village, they monopolized the essential political functions of coercion and persuasion - because they wielded those sanctions symbolically represented as skills of sword and pen. Village leaders came from the highest castes, the warrior and clerical castes. There were many high castes in every region. Such elite castes were isolated from each other by the secret and sacred nature of their own hereditary skills and of separate godlings and rituals attached thereto. 12
It is not strange, therefore, that most village leaders saw the
advent of supreme (regal or imperial) government as a calamity.
Indeed, like any other natural calamity, it was to be met with
mingled consternation, stoicism, and fatalism. It sometimes happened
and it had to be endured. It was to be held in awe, but only in
proportion to its actual power to enforce its will and to extract
village resources. The terror of a more immediate and local power
was preferable to the terror of a remote and unknown power. A knack
for survival required skill in watching the winds of fortune. in
gauging currents of prestige, in discerning the auspicious, and in
propitiating the successful. 13 Obedience should go to
the strong. But at best, this was negative consensus, a kind of cold
loyalty resting upon the shifting sands of opinion. Upon such
foundations. large political structures could not stand, at least
not for long.
Part Two: Early Modern Processes
If traditional processes produced a far reaching and, as Stein suggests, an integrating social system founded on the ritual obligations of family, caste, and village and if Muslim rule produced an awareness of a larger community which was doctrinally distinct and exclusive - an awareness as poignant for Hindus as for Muslims - it was the impact of the West which provided the catalysts for political transformation.
The transition which took place after the rise of the Company Raj was not simply due to conquest and consolidation by a "foreign" power. What occurred was, to some degree, a painfully growing awareness and belief in the value of a larger political community. The Company Raj was a strange and unique Anglo-and-Indian amalgam. It was a precedent setting blend of traditional and modern elements. I say precedent setting, because, while it was foreshadowed in the operative principles of Akbar, the Company system was more vast and more enduring. (Although broken by Partition and the dissolution of the Indian Empire, it is still a continuing process.) The Company achieved a delicate balance between integrating and disintegrating forces - (e.g. the theories of Stein and myself alluded to above). It produced a common domain and commonwealth of myriad peoples. One might call it a syndicalistic accommodation between the dynamics of social pluralism and the expanding, coalescing forces of imperial power. It was the symbol of a new, syncretic, and selective fusing of indigenous and foreign elements. This was the process which underlay elite formation during the nineteenth century.
The name I have chosen as that which best describes the sociopolitical processes of elite formation set in motion by the Company is one which was its own, contemporary term. It was called "Indianization".14 One must recall that neither "India" nor "Indian" are terms which were common or accepted semantic coinage during the eighteenth century. One reads of Coromandel, of Bengal, of Malabar, of Deccan, and of Hindustan. These were regions, each inhabited by its own kinds of "Natives".
What occurred was a sequence of indigenous responses to Western impacts. This sequence was neither synchronous nor uniform. It was open ended and multi-dimensional. If a conceptual tool is required to describe the process, perhaps one might call it "differential penetra-tion". 15 In short, what began in Madras and Calcutta, was Anglo-Dravidian and Anglo-Bengali in character. The inter-reactions were distinctly coloured by this fact - and a cultural legacy remains to this day. Likewise, just as Mughals encountered increasing resistance in leaving the Hindustan plain and entering the Deccan and Bengal, so also the Company met with far from whole-hearted welcome in northern and western India.
The lapse-time of successive impacts and the cumulative Madrasi or Bengali nature of these impacts, when combined with the tenacity of old attitudes and of the length and strength and nature of exposure to new ideas and forces: these factors conditioned differential responses. In each area and with each class, differential penetration was a crucial factor in elite formation. Significantly, the Great Revolt of 1857 never threatened either Bengal proper or Madras, especially Madras - whatever one might say about its immediate and long-term psychological and political consequences.
Looking at the rise either of Mughal or of Company power from the village level, it would be a serious mistake to presume that village life was altogether placid and free from political involvement. Far from being the case, chronic conflicts with villages, between villages and above villages were linked together. Local systems of power continually embroiled themselves in efforts to enhance their positions - or to defend their places from encroachment. To some degree, every village was involved in at least one of many possible serried stratas of stronger, more extended governmental structures towering about it.
There were leaders in some villages - admittedly from only a very few villages - to whom the rise of a new power of regal or even of imperial dimensions was not a calamity. For the adventurous and ambitious members of such families, a great Lord meant great opportunity - the occasion for enhancing fortune and fame. The swords and pens of such persons sold for service. Even lives might be given in service.
It should be emphasized that adventurous souls were marginal - socially and politically. They were go-betweens. From their home villages, where their families ruled as Pedda Ryots if not also perhaps as Karnams or even as Saukars they forsook kith and kin and launched out into the cold world. Some rose to positions of importance and passed increased goods and domains over to their sons. Some died after vain attempts at success. Some returned to home villages, little the richer. In hitching their fortunes to the stars of strangers, some might give positive support and genuine respect, if not devotion to their masters. This they would do sometimes at grave risk. The nature of the attachment was personal rather than ideological. They were attracted by a Lord's character more than his cause. Such attachments were traditional in nature. By doing this, these persons became buffers between local leadership and powerful intruders. In their role as interpreters of high policy and as formulators of general local opinion, they in fact were the social cement essential to any political structure. They reconciled differing languages and culture, opposed customs and values. In their functions, they distinctly fitted the needs of a plural society.16
It was Akbar whose policy, energy, and magnetism demonstrated what might be done. He made himself the personal Lord of each important community of Hindustan in turn. Inspiring loyalty not only from his Mughals, nor even just from Muslims, he opened a road to honor and wealth for each important community. He made himself the respected Huzur of Mughal begs, of Persian emirs, of Rajput chiefs, of Punjabis, of Thakurs, of Brahmans, and of Kayasthas. In a symbolic way (at least), he adopted the values and customs of each. By his tolerance, he became the symbolic patron of each sect. Those very fragments of the social system which had been shifting sands undermining and toppling political structures, formed the foundation of his strength. He reached beyond the point of his sword and appealed to reason as a basis for consent. His regime based itself almost purely on political realities, something hitherto almost unheard of. Neither Aurangzeb nor Shivaji, nor their successors, who appealed to narrower communal prejudices, could match Akbar's achievement. 17
Significantly, the East India Company arose as a political force in the traditional Indian manner; moreover, it did so by emulating the Mughal system of Akbar. Far from the centers of Mughal and Maratha power, its advancement was based upon the hard realities of persuasion, skill, and energy. The Vijayanagara Nayaka at Chandragiri, needing something to offset his rapidly declining political fortune, invited the Company to set up a trading station nearby on the Coromandel Coast. The Company became a servant of a local "prince". It established partnerships with leaders in local villages. It attracted the notice and participation of Telugu Komartis, Chettiars, and Baligas, those who might help extend trade and produce textiles. It favoured all who would participate for mutual benefits, regardless of caste or sectarian considerations - whether Armenians, Portuguese, Muslims, or whatever. It employed members from local warrior castes, mostly Telugu Sat-Sudras, for the protection and policing of the rapidly growing city of Madras. These were the nucleus for their later Sepoy army. The Company carefully preserved its local reputation (ikbal) and earned a modest but respected place in the immediate locality. It avoided giving offence to the customs and beliefs of neighbouring small powers. It established a genuine partnership of local interests supported by local warrior and merchant castes. In this all parties had vested interests. All realistically appreciated their own limitations of power.18
After a century of profitable enterprise, this local partnership was forced to guard itself against ravaging Maratha and Mughal forces. Early skirmishes showed that this local partnership, by using modern technology and indigenous manpower, could successfully defend itself. Indeed, it quickly proved to be militarily and politically superior to any force of comparable size. A bright and shiny new Anglo-Indian sword was quickly fashioned.
In a traditional manner just as a village stalwart might offer himself and his brothers in service, this sword was offered in service to the great Mughal lords of the Carnatic and Deccan. Naturally these lords were expected to provide for the care and upkeep of their new servants -- or at least provide lands - jagirs and zamindaris - for such purposes. As with gifts to Troy from the Greeks, however, Company forces soon filled Mughal palaces. The former lords were obliged to bestow the blessings of legitimacy while they themselves retired, gracefully or ungracefully, to ceremonial and decorative positions (upon fixed pensions) within the new political system.19
Elite formation in South India during the 19th century must be seen as an accelerating process. This process involved the integrating and incorporating of more and more traditionally important communities within a single whole - within an emerging modern and relatively open "society". This society was composed of "new gentry". It comprised that shallow layer of "public" which was super-imposed on top of the old traditional and agrarian elites mentioned earlier. In order to better appreciate the nature of these "civic" minded groups who took interest in and voiced opinions on questions of public well being, one must first understand who they were and then how they came to be the "choice" ones of South Indian social polity.
The British were themselves the first elite. They were the "choice" ones of South India during the 19th century. They constituted the highest order of beings and they knew it.20
This being the case, several consequences followed. First, the British exacted the customary, propitiatory tokens of respect from older elite groups. But these tokens of respect were channelled into new courses by new principles. Sets of fiscal, legal, and ceremonial procedures were developed which not only legitimatized authority but regulated social change. Among these operative rules of social engineering were :
Next, acting as social magnets, they drew all kinds of elite groups towards themselves, or at least towards each other. Banyas and Muslims accompanied them into business. Brahmans joined them in administration and, eventually, in the professions. Village Ryots, the sturdy Sat-Sudras, fought alongside them from the gates of Arcot to the coasts of China. Outcastes, by tens of thousands, converted to Christianity, pursued education, and escaped the perpetual thraldom of bygone ages. All of these groups, as they came up, took on British characteristics in varying degrees. They set in motion a mild social revolution.
Finally, the pace of the social changes received much momentum from an altogether unprecedented and ever increasing economic prosperity.22 The British not only established peace and stability; they abolished ridiculously and ruinously restrictive inland tolls and tariffs and imposts. In the deltas of the Cauvery, Godavari, and Krishna Rivers, they built anicuts and either restored or extended great irrigation systems, turning deserts into gardens. They developed an all weather communication and transport system of posts, telegraph, roads, and rails. In short, they set in motion just those circumstances which can be con¬sidered as basic preconditions for social revolution - preconditions for stratial and spacial social mobility.
Bearing in mind the chronic and acute manpower shortages which had been the bane of pre-Company regimes, one observes that emerging elite groups under the Company Raj were pathetically minute. This is especially apparent when seen in proportion to the population of South India. Whether one looks at the European or the "Native" elements of the new gentry, both were, at least in the beginning, microscopic segments of the whole of the social order in South India. Dramatic and rapid as was the growth of this elite, we cannot lose sight of this fact.
In 1800, out of about 1300 non-military Britons in Madras Presidency, scarcely 200 persons were "of the better sort".23 These, together with a slightly larger number of covenanted civil servants and a com parable number of military officers, formed the uppermost strata of society. Roughly a third of these persons of gentility were in musfassal stations at any given time Most of those who were in the interior were Company officials-, but these were to be joined in subsequent decades, at first by a thin trickle of business people and missionaries who, after mid century, increased to such a degree that they outnumbered officials two to one. But since mufassal tenures were often very short and since superiors were invariably more permanently ensconced at the Presidency, it cannot be doubted that the focal point for European society was Madras City. Until 1855, the influence of this city over the British in South India was not seriously rivalled.24 Thereafter, such places as Bangalore and Ootacamund gained increasing prestige, especially for military officers.
My purpose here, however, is not to dwell in detail upon the intricacies of the society of "Sahibs" in South India, fascinating as this subject may be. (Much research has yet to be done; I refer the reader to my case study of mufassal life and to my work on Guntur District.) 25 My main concern in this paper is to show how various indigenous groups became related to, if not a part of, this growing social pool.
Four phases of indigenous elite formation may be tentatively sug¬gested as working models for further research. Each phase postulates the introduction of a new group or groups into discernible stratas of Anglo-Indian society; but none of these phases as far as I can tell, ever stopped. Rather, with each subsequent phase there was a complex overlapping of elements from previous phases in an ever broadening social pool.
First, there was what, for want of a better label, we may call the Banya-Dubashi phase .26 As a direct legacy of over a century of participation in a huge maritime trading enterprise, this inaugurated the hey day of that very small but effective group of multi-lingual confidential servants and commercial interpreters to British Company merchants. Even before the catamaran of a new Company junior, young and green from London, reached the Madras beach, he would be met by a winsome Banya. In the toils of such a "Dubash", he, his prospective fortune, and his future career might remain intertwined for many years thereafter.
The success of this Dubashi depended upon his ability to reconcile opposing interests, to resolve conflicts and dead-locks, to avoid stalemates, and ultimately to bring about compromise and to conclude bind ing agreements. As a mediator, he had to draw alien minds together.
As a middleman, he had to be a master in the arts of politics and the skills of the possible. His very duties made him a double-agent. In his essential, indeed crucial, role he often managed to profit handsomely. Perhaps the most famous of all Dubashis was the agent of Dupleix, Ananda Ranga Pillai. But his fame is due more to the circumstance of the discovery, preservation, and publications of his great Diary than necessarily to his being unique among Dubashis. Many Dubashis would have preferred secretive silence and anonymity. Perhaps more notorious were Avadhanum Paupiah and Atturi Venkatachallam of Masulipatam or Casee Chetty of Coimbatore. Among these Banya-Dubashis were certain Komartis, Chettiars, Pillais, and even certain Muslims, Parsis. Armenians, Portuguese and Eurasians. This growing commercial elite constituted one of the earliest pillars in the rising structure of Company power.
The second phase may be called the Desastha-Diwani phase.27
This stage of elite formation was also primarily traditional in its
origins, style, and orientation. although it produced some of the
earliest leaders of modernity and advocates of change in South
India. As the Company gradually moved away from its profit oriented
ledgers and commercial operations and entered upon its political
role, its British officers soon found that the intimate local
knowledge, extraordinary skills, and administrative experience of
these Maratha Brahmans was almost indispensible for government work.
The Desasthas became, in fact, the political dubashis or go-betweens
throughout South India during the first half of the nineteenth
century. So important had they become by mid century that H.
Ricketts, a Bengal civilian in charge of a Commission for
investigating all civil establishments in South India, asked: "Is
there anything about Madras Collectorates that makes them so
difficult that only a Maratha Brahmin can fathom it'?" The following
table reveals just how important were these Brahman Diwans within
the twenty districts of the Madras Presidency, as of January 22,
While Desasthas were strong in Company domains, fragmentary evidence leads me to think that they were equally strong in Mysore and Hyderabad districts, perhaps even more so.
The strength of the Maratha Brahmans is hardly surprising, considering their early advantages. But what is of interest is the way in which they gained and preserved their predominant position as servants of the Company. Both the Banyas and these Brahmans acquired a mastery of English language through their constant contact with Europeans. This knowledge of English became their private monopoly. They applied their traditional secret and sacred methods for perpetuating knowledge; and they sought benefits for members of their immediate families. (In this they were not so different from their British masters, especially those who sought to perpetuate the Scottish patronage of, for example, Henry Dundas.)
Perhaps no example would be more revealing than the career of the Desastha, Vennelacunty Soob Row. 29 Born in Ongole, Soob Row learned his English alphabet at the knee of his uncle who worked in the Accounts Department of the Masulipatam Huzur Cutcherry. At about ten years of age, his family sent him to serve as a Volunteer in the Vinukonda Taluk Office. Here he spent years copying on scraps of paper until his proficiency encouraged his immediate superior to permit him to make "fair copies" of returns, reports, and accounts. Eventually, as a teenager, his skill and speed brought him a monthly pay of one rupee. Gradually he was given more responsibility. He rose from rank to rank in many district offices of South India. His writing became known for its "copperplate" excellence. As he borrowed books from his superiors, his tongue gained fluency in English.
Ultimately, Soob Raw became Head English Translator in the Sudr Adalat (High Court) of Madras. This well remunerated post he held from 1817 until he retired in 1829. Elected Secretary of the Madras School Book Society, he wrote on the deficiencies of education within the Presidency. He declared that the local demand for teachers of English and for books in English was so insatiable that innumerable schools peddling every variety and quality of English could be found "in almost every street" of Madras City and in most district towns. The standard of English in the South might have been as high as in Bengal, but it was "much more common". Colloquial English "for polite discourse and social mixing" became a mark of social standing among emerging elite groups. 30
Much has been made of the supposedly arbitrary and rash decision of the Company to establish English education in its presidencies and to abolish earlier "official" languages (e.g. Persian in Court Procedure etc.). Arguments often fail to take educational and social realities in England as well as in India into account.
General education in England was not so markedly ahead of education in India as it is today. (In fact, remarkable parallels exist between England of that day and India today). What is not sufficiently realized. however, is the intensity of the clamouring for English education which persisted among rising elite groups, or "would-be" elite groups.'31 But by taking steps to establish English, the Company was merely responding to those who would not be denied - specially in Madras.
The next phase can conveniently be called that of the Competition Wallahs. Here I am not applying the term to Britons, as is usually the case. I am concerned with that series of profound changes, both in policies as well as in procedures, which radically altered and accelerated the style and pace of elite formation.
Several factors provoked these changes. First, numerous shocks and scandals within mufassal administration shook what had perhaps been an excessive confidence in Maratha Brahmans.32 The folly of being too dependent upon any one community, especially one as skilful and yet so secretive as the Desasthas, was recognized. According to rulings which came into effect in 1859. (1) no two members of' the same family could serve in the same office; and (2) no two members of the same caste would be permitted to hold the top positions in a Huzur Cutcherry Specifically, if a Desastha was Huzur Sheristadar, the Naib could not be a Desastha.33
Secondly, commencing in the 1860's, but particularly after the enactments of Charles Wood in 1854, the educational system within the Presidency began to turn out high school and university graduates at a rapidly increasing rate. Missionary schools had taken an early lead and, through the grant-in-aid policy, their expansion after 1860 was phenomenal.34
Thirdly, commencing in 1859, the merit system was applied for the admission of candidates to government service within the Presidency. Moreover, with the rapid multiplication of specialisation in various bran ches of government service, myriads of examinations became the principal device for personnel selection and promotion. Departments for health, education, famine relief, public works, postal service, statistics, religious institutions, revenue survey, police, and jails were among the host of new central offices which reflected the monolithic bureaucratization which was rising on the shores of the Coromandel.35
Finally, while the size and scope of governmental activity increased rapidly, there was an even more marked expansion of private and professional enterprise. No longer was it so easy to make a fortune as a government servant. The greater opportunities for advancement lay outside. Among the many fruitful fields, one of the most promising was in law.
Many amassed fortunes as Vakils. Others became Sudr Amins. Judges, and eventually, Justices in the High Court. Others, especially those from Tinnevelly, distinguished themselves by their financial and entrepreneurial acumen. The tantalizing story of the rise of these communities has yet to be told.
The final phase of elite formation can be designated that of the Non-Brahmans. This phase has perhaps been more pronounced in the twentieth century than ever before. But its roots are to be found in the policies of Wellesley and Munro, at the dawn of the nineteenth century.
The Zamindari Settlement of the Coromandel districts (i.e. the Northern Circars, Ramnad, Madura, and Tinnevelly) and Ryotwari Settlement of the inland districts preserved the position and status of the warrior castes in their medieval bases of power. In some cases, the most tradition and custom-bound of all the ancient elites, these were the last to move upward in strength. Secure in their agrarian strongholds, more than ordinary stimuli were necessary to move them. While investigations of this fascinating theme are far from complete, a good beginning is to be found in the recent work on the Non-Brahman Movement by Eugene Irschick (now at the University of California).36
In short, Madras Presidency, oldest of the Company presidencies in India, gained a reputation for corruptness and for being "different". This was a stigma which was never quite erased.
This despised "Cinderella of the East" was remote and isolated from the more dramatic tide of events flowing in the North. 37 She shifted for herself with little outside help or interference. As she expanded from a coastal enclave into a vast territory of 132,000 square miles, twenty huge districts stretching across the peninsula-- to say nothing of those subordinate princely states over which she exercised much day to day authority (e.g. Coorg, Cochin, Hyderabad, Mysore, Tanjore, and Travancore etc.) - she evolved her own Anglo-Indian social order. 38
The extent of indigenous participation in the conquest and dominion of the Company is often forgotten. Vennelacunty Soob Row was no freakish social aberration. Company records abound with the names of those who contributed to the integrating process. For every 18th century Nabob, whose ill-gained riches disturbed Parliamentary politics in England, there was an equally wealthy Dubashi. Many a Banya or Brahman who had helped to "shake the pagoda tree" retired quietly to his ancestral village. While he may have kept a palatial residence on the Adyar, more often than not he would have devoted himself to pilgrimages, to temple renovation, or to the erection of a memorial choultry or "traveller's bungalow". 39
A later day was to see the numbers of newly minted, middle class Babus far outnumber their English counterparts. Biographical sketches of some of the prominent of these new leaders were published by G. Paranaswaran Pillai in a work entitled Representative Indians (London: 1897). Such names as Sir Madava Rao, Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty, Pundi Runganade Mudaliar, C. V. Ranga Charlu, and Vembankam Ramiengar were among those who rose to distinction in the latter days of the Company.
Not until a later date did the Company have such a pool of reliable manpower in Bengal, a factor which alone can be counted as a factor which necessitated the Zamindar Settlement of Bengal. In any case, what had been a warmly corrupt partnership at the outset, progressed with the times in South India until gradually there emerged a cordial, if somewhat straight-laced and puritanical, indeed, a Victorian social amalgam.
Through traditionally oriented, personal relationships, many previously self-contained and semi-isolated elite communities drew into a steadily increasing connection with the new rulers of South India. Into the vortex of this accelerating, centripetal process, both at the Presidency and in the muufassal towns, went the still dominant Desastha (Maratha Brahman) administrators, many of the old Banya commercial houses, families of Muslim merchants, rising Tamil and Telugu and Malayali Brahman castes, and an array of other important communities.
In fact, the very elite groups, which previously had served many masters or, sometimes, tried to undermine all central authority, now contributed to the new order. This integrating whole, while anything but homogenous at lower levels of a still segmented and stratified social hierarchy - where traditionally disintegrative forces were still operative - was never¬theless becoming more and more of a monolithic polity. Moreover, in striving for places of honour, wealth, and distinction, leading communities became more and more like each other in their outer style of life.
An instance of this nature is shown by the large public meeting which was held in Pachaiyappa's Hall on 7th October 1846. On that occasion. the Hindu Community of Madras petitioned the Government for more and better English education freed from restraints of religious favouritism .42
The assembled society were joined and supported by a number of domiciled unofficial and official Englishmen. The most prominent of these were:
It was the memorial signed by members of the growing "public" of Madras, at this meeting, which reminded the Company:
At any given time a social and political order is in some stage of balance between its past and its future. Whatever its equilibrium, it holds elements of both persistence and change. Eighteenth century India may have witnessed. as Panikkar wrote, a breakdown in civilization "such as has but few parallels".47 Whether or not this was really the case, nineteenth century South India had a social structure which not only survived but appeared to grow stronger. It was a period altogether too brief to provide structural changes sufficient for a profound social revolution.
Nevertheless, the Company did set in motion a social and political integration which was unparalleled. The process of "social mobilization" (to use the coin of Karl Deutsch) was not reversed, or even slowed, by the reactions to the Mutiny. The manpower base of participation and positive loyalty to the imperial power was broadened beyond all precedent. Furthermore, the momentum of this unique blend of traditional and modern forces not only carried Anglo-Indian expansion to the natural boundaries of the sub-continent and, indeed, far beyond into lands surrounding the Indian Ocean (S.E. Asia and Africa). It also brought jarring cultural influences ever more deeply into the minds of more and more peoples within the subcontinent. Successive generations of British youths, themselves products of profound changes within their own society, came to India. There they jarred against sundry Indianized Europeans and Westernized Indians, to say nothing of their eventual if occasional contacts with partially touched or untouched village leaders. Conversely, successive generations of indigenous youths were drawn into the same rapidly accelerating social process - that is, if the rate is judged by previous rates of change. In the middle was a rapidly growing "Anglo-Indian" community, both European and Native.
Social response are a two-way process. Tiny segments, both of Indian and European society, became vehicles for interchange. Inner shocks and psychological tremors occurred on both sides. Souls emerged from such traumatic experiences lacerated and scarred. Choices exaggerated, even distorted, appreciations, selections, or rejections of elements from both traditions. Interactions on many emotional and intellectual planes brought changes to both sides and also persistence in each. Westerners became Indianized, and Indians. Westernized. In a changing world, both became modernized. But significantly, the pace of Sanskritization and Islamization, even of Christianization, also accelerated. The very forces which brought modernity also renewed consciousness and appreciation of traditions.
The dilemma of elite formation was that of pace. The process of "Indianizing" was inevitably an offence to the most persistent and hallowed traditions of each local elite - whether British; Banya, Chettiyar, Komarti etc.; Brahman Desastha, Ayyar, Iyengar, Niyogi etc.; or "Sat Sudra" Raju, Reddi, Kamma, Lingayat, Naidu, Nayyar, Vellalar, Vanya etc.
As movement became larger and more diverse and as momentum became more irresistible, inner flashes of panic and outer forms of resistence gained a kind of counter-momentum within each community. The few might reason it out and urge caution or corrective measures; but the majority in each community were subject to irrational tides of feeling. No nice solution for controlling the pace of changes and influences pre sented itself, if indeed a neat solution was possible. The Imperial Government could not stop the integrating, centralizing, rationalizing, and reforming necessities of keeping itself strong and viable. To stand still or to slip back might court disaster in local prestige and support. Indian go-betweens wanted a faster promotion and increased responsibility within the Company. But they also wanted to rediscover and rebuild and strengthen (if not modernize) important social and religious institutions; moreover, they were offended by radical reforms and by the critical attitudes of missionaries, while at the same time they recognized the need for radical reform and criticism.
Then there was the irony of social exclusion. The Western impulse to mix with equals dampened with time into a lofty untouchable withdrawal. Many a ruler lost contact with the ruled. The indigenous impulse to remain locked behind communal barriers gave way before the appeal of new principles, only to suffer frustration at rebuffs. In short. paradoxical problems of pace confounded the process of transition. The main currents may have been matched, but minor side currents of mismatched speed cause painful, recoiling whirlpools and undertows.
Next, it should be emphasized that, although checked and even reversed in certain social aspects, the interaction and transition did not stop. In fact, the painfully growing awareness and belief in the value of a larger political community gained speed after the Great Revolt of 1857. The tragic events of that year may have left many deep scars and may even have contributed psychologically if not socially to later political tragedy. But, whatever else may be drawn from that event. it hastened the process of Anglo-Indian amalgamation; or, in another word. it propelled Indianization. This in turn brought on regional and national consciousness. Significantly, it was dubashis and sepoys (as well as certain princes and seasoned British officers) who proved crucial in the outcome of the Mutiny and it was forward looking people from the same groups who pointed the direction of subsequent development and political modernization. The Revolt upset the well-founded and time-tested traditional notion that great political systems were essentially ephemeral and inevitably short-lived and passing. For many, this was a painful discovery.48
Finally, one is tempted to ask, "What happened when each new elite emerged or when an old elite lost its power?" What happened to the British, to the Eurasians, to the Muslims, to the Desasthas, and others? All of these once enjoyed immense social and political power.
At least outwardly, the structure of the social system seems to have been little altered, even though relative positions among the elite groups may have changed. At least half, if not more, of all peoples have been excluded from consideration because they ranked completely outside the pale of polite society.
Of the remainder, one can perhaps draw a line between that slender three to five percent. of the whole which are Brahmans from important Non-Brahman elites.
Due to remarkable industry, diligence, and adaptability - to say nothing of prestige - Brahmans still enjoy remarkable influence. High or "clean" Non-Brahman elites have also regained, if indeed one can say they ever lost, that degree of power which their numbers and wealth would almost inevitably bring. But they also have been and are fragmented by area and by sub-caste, even by family rivalries.
Influential Muslim and Christian groups can also, for this purpose, be counted among the ritually clean Non-Brahmans. The same may also be said for Eurasians and domiciled Europeans of influence. Thus, when one surveys the upper quarter to third of the social hierarchy, one can soon recognize most if not all of those former elites of certain families which have enjoyed and still enjoy a considerable prestige (high self-esteem notwithstanding). One can visualize a game of "musical chairs" being played on an upward moving escalator, with a few families from each rung of the social order as players. The continual upward mobility of a few from each upper caste and community also left a social residue of those who did not succeed or who were on their way down. Remnants of each of these former elite groups are to be found, some trying to hold onto the tattered remains of their former dignity and many living under conditions of poverty. Ironically, these "poor relations" have been among the most tenacious and jealous preservers of past traditions and of the social order.