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Unit 3
Anti-Caste Movements: Jyotiba Phule – Narayana Guru-Ayyankali

Learning Outcomes

Upon the completion of this unit:

  • make the learner aware of the evils of caste discrimination that was prac-tised in Pre-Independent India
  • analyse how various anticaste struggles led to the emancipation of op-pressed sections
  • learn the contributions of anti caste reformers in the struggle against un-touchability and other such evils


Anticaste movements started in India around the mid-19th century. By the end of the 19th century it spread to different parts of the country. The general awakening spirit of social reforms that swept across the country reflected in anti caste movements too in the 19th century making it attain a strong base. Pioneers of the movement include formidable figures like Jyotibha Phule, Sree Naryanaguru, etc. They asserted the need for the lower castes to organise themselves and fight against evils like untouchability and the privileged sections who oppressed them. The movement was encouraged by the growth of western education, rise of modern political thoughts, oppressive British policies, technologies, like railways and the general national consciousness that was spreading across the country. We will look into how the anti-caste movements became a strong force in the 19th century and revolutionised the nation’s consciousness.

Key Words

Anti-caste, Jyotibha Phule, Savitribhai Phule, Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali

4.3.1 Jyotiba Phule

Jyotiba Govindrao Phule was born in 1827 in Maharashtra. He was a prominent social reformer and thinker of nineteenth century India. He led the movement against the prevailing caste-restrictions in India. He revolted against the domination of the Brahmins and struggled for the rights of peasants and other low-caste people. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule was also a pioneer for education of women in India and fought for the education of girls throughout his life. He is believed to be the first Hindu to start an orphanage for the unfortunate children.

He opened the first school for untouchables in 1852 in Poona. He launched the Satyashodak Samaj (Truth-Seekers Society) in 1870 to stir the non-Brahman masses to self-respect. Phule opposed child marriage and supported widow remarriage. Jyotiba and his wife Savitribai Phule devoted their lives for the uplift of the depressed classes and women. Jyotiba opened orphanages and homes for widows. His work, Gulamgiri (Slavery) is an important text that summarised many of his radical ideas.

4.3.2 Sree Narayana Guru

Sree Narayana Guru is a saint, prophet and social reformer from Kerala. His words and deeds ignited sparks of revolution that led to a remarkable cultural renaissance in the profligate society of Kerala. Born to poor parents in Kerala, Narayana Guru (1854–1928) evolved into a poet and scholar in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit. Disturbed by the terrible caste tyranny that the lower caste people suffered, he dedicated his whole life for the betterment of the oppressed. He set up the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, an organisation to work for the uplift of the “depressed classes”.

He established a grand temple at Aruvippuram and dedicated it to all. Thinkers and writers such as Kumaran Asan and Dr Palpu were influenced by his ideas and carried forward the movement.


Temple entry
Aruvippuram Movement was launched by Sree Narayana Guru in 1888. On that day, Sree Narayana Guru defied the religious restrictions traditionally placed on the Ezhava community, and consecrated an idol of Shiva at Aruvippuram. In 1925 Guru supported the famous Vaikom Satyagraha movement, which demanded entry for lower caste people in the Shiva temple at Vaikom and all temples in Kerala. He redeemed the downtrodden human from the curse of casteism. ‘Oneness of Humanity’ was his dream. His famous message “One Caste, One Religion and One God to Mankind”, was a clarion call to mankind to unite, instead of breaking down in the name of caste and religion. He believed that other than the freedom from the curse of untouchability, the downtrodden classes needed education and wealth. They needed opportunities to improve like others. Sri Narayana Guru articulated a doctrine aimed at improving the Ezhavas’ social position. He urged them to abandon the occupation of toddy-tapping and to abstain from liquor. He formed a programme of action known as the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam. The Yogam took up several issues, including the right of admission to public schools, recruitment to government employment, entry into temples, on roads and political representation. Guru did not approve of polygamy and polyandry. He discouraged some unnecessary traditions in the conduct of marriage.

He considered all religions to be a way for man’s goodness and welfare and thus are equal. He held that the essence of all religions is one and the same, and advocated the comparative study of all faiths.

Sree Narayana Guru had proficiency in Sanskrit, Malayalam and Tamil and had written hymns of prayer to different gods in all three languages and translations, philosophy and teachings. Some of the notable ones are “Atmopadesa Sathakam” and “Darsanamala” which give, in condensed ways, his moral and spiritual principles. Sree Narayana Guru has made a silent revolution, without any bloodshed or hatred, but with evoking respect and cooperation from all concerned.

4.3.3 Ayyankali

Ayyankali was born in 1863 at Venganoor in Thiruvananthapuram then part of the princely state of Travancore. He was one of seven children born to a Pulaya family, which is a Dalit/ untouchable caste mainly found in the regions of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. He was also illiterate, like all other Dalits of the time. The discrimination he faced as a child turned him into a leader of an anti-caste movement and who later fought for basic rights including access to public spaces and entry to schools. Ayyankali started his emancipatory mission by questioning a range of purity-birth based atrocities through a multi-layered resistance model in Travancore, a princely state that remained highly conservative in the hands of caste oligarchy. At a time when Dalits were restricted from walking on roads, Ayyankali passed through the public roads of Venganoor on a bullock cart, which was exclusive to the upper caste and were codified by caste-based rules known as jatimaryada, which governed all aspects of social behaviour. With the bullock cart, Ayyankali did a revolutionary act, challenging a set of caste codes concerning dress, ownership, mobility and visibility in the late 19th century. He effectively challenged caste-based restrictions in education, public space and social interactions regarding the late 19th century.

4.3.4 Social Reform Movements to Uplift Women and Backward Castes

The major effect of national awakening in the 19th century was seen in the field of social reform. The newly educated persons increasingly revolted against rigid social conventions and outdated customs. In the 20th century, and especially after 1919, the national movement became the main propagator of social reform.

Increasingly, the reformers took recourse to propaganda in the Indian language to reach the masses. They also used novels, dramas, poetry, short stories, the Press, and in the thirties, the cinema to spread their views. The social reform movements tried in the main to achieve two objectives: (1) emancipation of women and extension of equal rights to them and (2) removal of caste rigidities and in particular the abolition of untouchability. Movements to Uplift Women

Emancipation means being free from restraint, control, or the power of another. It is true that occasionally women of the character and personality of Razia Sultana, Chand Bibi, or Ahilyabai Holkar arose in India. But they were exceptions to the general pattern, and do not in any way change the picture. After the 1880s, when Dufferin hospitals (named after Lady Dufferin, the wife of the Viceroy) were started, efforts were made to make modern medicine and child delivery techniques available to Indian women.

Women played an active and important role in the struggle for freedom. They participated in large numbers in the agitation against the partition of Bengal and in the Home Rule movement. Sarojini Naidu, the famous poetess, became the president of the National Congress. Several women became ministers or parliamentary secretaries in the popular ministries of 1937. They started many organisations and institutions for this purpose, the most outstanding of them was the All India Women’s Conference founded in 1927.

The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 made the daughter an equal co-heir with the son. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 permitted the dissolution of marriage on specific grounds. Movements to Uplift Backward Caste

The caste system was another major target of attack for the social reform movement. The Hindus were at this time divided into numerous castes. The untouchables suffered from numerous and severe disabilities and restrictions. He could not enter the Hindu temples or study the shastras. In some parts of the country, particularly in the south, their very shadow was to be avoided. An untouchable’s dress, food, place of residence, all were carefully regulated. He could not draw water from wells and tanks used by the higher castes; he could do so only from wells and tanks specially reserved for the untouchables.

In modern India, it became a major obstacle to the growth of a united-nation-feeling and the spread of democracy. However, British rule had many elements which gradually undermined the caste system. The urbanisation and the introduction of modem industries, railways and buses made it difficult to prevent mass contact among persons of different castes, especially in the cities. Modern commerce and industry opened new fields of economic activity to all.

The growth of the national movement too played a significant role in weakening the caste system. Leaders like Gandhi kept the abolition of untouchability at the forefront of all public activities. In 1932, Gandhiji founded the All India Harijan Sangh for the purpose. His campaign for the “root and branch removal of untouchability” was based on the grounds of humanism and reason.

In Maharashtra, Jyotiba Phule led a lifelong movement against Brahmanical religious authority as part of his struggle against upper caste domination. B.R. Ambedkar, who belonged to one of the scheduled castes, devoted his entire life to fighting against caste tyranny, He organised the All India Scheduled Castes Federation for the purpose in 1942. Several other anti-caste leaders founded the All India Depressed Classes Association in 1930. In Kerala, Sree Narayana Guru organised a lifelong struggle against the caste system. The Indian Constitution, in 1950, provided the legal framework for the final abolition of untouchability.

4.3.5 The Impact of Socio-Religious Movements on Indians

There were positive and negative impacts of the socio-religious movements in India. The religious reform movements of modern times had an underlying unity. Most of them were based on the twin doctrines of Reason (Rationalism) and Humanism, though they also sometimes tended to appeal to faith and ancient authority to bolster their appeal.

They opposed the ritualistic, superstitious, irrational and obscurantist elements in Indian religion. Swami Vivekananda once said: “Is religion to justify itself by the discoveries of reason through which every science justifies itself?”. Justice Ranade came to the conclusion that society as a living organism is constantly changing and can never go back to the past.

The best of reformers argued that modern ideas and culture could be best imbibed by integrating them into Indian cultural streams. The religious reform movements helped many Indians to come to terms with the culture and lifestyle of the modern world. These movements led to the emergence of Indian nationalism and eventually the freedom struggle.

There are negative aspects of the socio-religious movements in India. Two of them are:

  • Firstly, many of them catered to the needs of a small percentage of the population-the urban middle and upper classes.
  • The second limitation, which later became a major negative factor, was the tendency to look back-wards, appeal to past greatness, and rely on scriptural authority. Appeals to past greatness created false pride and smugness, while the habit of finding a ‘Golden Age’ in the past acted as a check on the full acceptance of modern science and hampered the effort to improve the present.

The negative aspects of this phenomenon became apparent when it was found that, along with a rapid rise of national consciousness, communal consciousness had also begun to rise among the middle classes. Many other factors were certainly responsible for the birth of communalism in modern times; but undoubtedly, the nature of the religious reform movements also contributed to it.


  • Impact of anticaste movement
  • Jyotibha Phule and Savitribhai Phule’s efforts against caste oppression and spread of education
  • Sree Narayanaguru’s efforts against caste oppression in Kerala
  • Ayyankali’s movement for uplift of oppressed castes in Kerala
  • Reform movements to uplift women and backward castes
  • Impact of social reform movements on society

Objective type questions

  1. What was the organisation formed by Sree Narayanaguru?
  2. Who launched the ‘Aruvippuram movement’ in 1888?
  3. Who founded the Satyashodak Samaj?
  4. What is the most famous work of Jyotibha Phule?
  5. When was the All India Harijan Sangh founded?
  6. When was the ‘Hindu succession act’ passed?
  7. In which year was the ‘All India Women’s conference’ formed?
  8. In which princely state was Ayyankali born?

Answer to Objective type questions

  1. SNDP
  2. Sree Narayanaguru
  3. Jyotibha Phule
  4. Ghulamgiri
  5. 1932
  6. 1956
  7. 1927
  8. Travancore


  1. Examine the impact of the movements of Sree Narayanaguru and SNDP on Kerala society.
  2. Evaluate the contributions of Ayyankali as a social reformer in Kerala.
  3. Discuss the contributions of Jyotibha Phule in the education of oppressed castes.
  4. Evaluate the contributions of anticaste movement in the emergence of a progressive Indian society.

Suggested Reading

  1. Desai, A.R, Social Background of Indian Nationalism, Popular Prakashan, Mum-bai, 2005.
  2. Sarkar, Sumit, Modern India, 1885-1947, Delhi:Macmillian, 1985.
  3. Chand, Tara, History of Freedom movement in India. Publication Division, 1961.
  4. Desai, A.R, Peasant Struggles in India, Delhi: OUP, 1979.
  5. Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar, From Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Mod-ern India, Orient Blackswan, 2014.
  6. Chandra, Bipan, Communalism in Modern India, 2nd edition, Delhi:Vikas, 1987.
  7. Chandra, Bipin, Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, Delhi: Har-Anand, 2010.
  8. Chandra Bipan, India’s Struggle for Independence, Penguin Books, 1988.
  9. Dube, Ishita Banerjee, A History of Modern India, Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2015.