Social Reforms in India

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Social Reforms in India

When the British took over the administration of this country, they brought the people into contact with a wholly new way of life – a way of life based on science and technology and on the principles of nationalism, democracy and free enterprise.

The Indian intelligentsia which had been brought upon Western education and had developed great admiration for the new rulers’ culture and way of life became highly critical of the caste-ridden, feudal and superstition-dominated society of its times and looked forward to the creation of a new society order, under the guidance of the British, which would represent a happy synthesis between the wisdom of the East and the West and would do away with the social evils which had crept into society and made it so vulnerable.

This striving for a new reformed society order which started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy is continuing to this day. Some people called this process merely a revival of the ancient ways; others described it as a revolution. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was a profoundly religious man, a great humanist and a remarkable scholar. He was deeply versed in oriental languages and philosophy and was a great scholar of accidental thought and culture. He founded the Brahmo movement based on faith in God and repudiation of idol worship and various rites and ceremonies; he pleaded for religious tolerance, condemned the cast system, favored widow remarriage and strongly urged the abolition of the pernicious practice of Sati. He was a great champion of Western education because, in his view, only through the assimilation of Western knowledge and Western social and political values could Indians combine their great intellectual and society heritage with modern cultural achievements.

The social reform movement initiated by men of the Renaissance wed its origin to two sources – the classes educated on Western lines and the orthodox religious and social reformers who were very proud of their ancient cultural and social heritage and who sought to purify it of whatever defects had crept into it as a result of the alien conquest or social degeneration through the centuries and to make the people strong and society healthy. Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj movement, was not only a great religious leader but also an ardent social reformer. He had deeply studied Vedic and Upanishadic teachings. He was convinced that ancient Hindu philosophy and social ethics and organization contained the essence of wisdom for all ages and that corruption in social and religious practices which had made Hindu society so superstitious and caste-ridden had to be eliminated and the old dynamism had to be restored if society was to be rejuvenated.

Some Indian social thinkers represent both modernity and tradition. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Radhakrishnan, two of our foremost thinkers, are both great admirers of ancient Indian thought and culture as well as great students of Western ideals. It is very difficult to disentangle Indian from Western sources in their thought and indicate precisely what is indigenous or foreign in any particular matter. Only the Left-wingers, particularly militant Socialists and Communists, are, generally speaking, influenced wholly by Western ideology.

Thus Indian religious and social reformers differ in respect of their sources of inspiration but they are all agreed on a programme of social reform. This is not surprising because the requirements of modernity have to be satisfied through a fresh interpretation of the tradition. It is a matter of opinion whether the modern version of the Hindu way of life is faithful to the ancient texts or is an imposition upon it. Untouchability is universally condemned. One reformer rejects it on the ground that it is incompatible with the ancient practice, another on the ground that it is undemocratic or inhuman. One reformer looks forward to the day when the Hindus will recapture the glory of the past and create a casteless society; another reformer believes that in a liberal democratic order where all citizens are assured of their fundamental rights untouchability will inevitably disappear; still another reformer thinks that untouchability will be abolished only through a Socialist revolution.

The requirements of modernity are not difficult to enumerate. Modernity assumes that the people should transcend local and parochial loyalties and develop an international or cosmopolitan outlook and that antiquated notions of national sovereignty and independence should be discarded and replaced by respect for the rule of law among nations. It also assumes that the people will make rational decisions and will be guided by rational considerations rather than by emotion, sentiment or prejudice. Ancient societies represented a closed system with everything defined by custom, birth, social status and rank. Modern societies are open and egalitarian and men form or join associations by choice. Traditional groups have generally a fatalistic attitude on life; their members are resigned to their lot, however unpleasant, whereas the modern man not only adapts himself to his environment suited to his needs. Older societies stressed the importance of corporate life and institutions. Men lived in communities and other groups and completely merged their personality in them, living as members of a joint family, of a caste or a guild, of a villager or a small town and following their ancestral occupations. In modern societies the stress is on developing man’s potentialities and individual freedom in a casteless and classless society. Traditional society was hierarchical and profound respect was inculcated for authority – for the authority of parents, village elders, and the head of the State. Modern society is egalitarian. It recognizes man’s fundamental rights in addition to his social responsibilities and duties. In ancient times society was dominated by its male members and by the aged. Women are now accepted as men’s equals and the youth is gaining in importance and power. Indian leaders are trying to preserve what is useful in ancient society and combine it with that is suited to current requirements.

The Indian Constitution represents a remarkable synthesis of old and new values. The inspiration is more Western than indigenous, but ancient Indian ideals are not neglected. Indian society, as envisaged in the Constitution, is to be nationally homogenous – a society in which there is to be no distinction or discrimination based on race, religion, caste, sex, place of birth or residence. Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. Indian society is also to be democratic with universal adult franchise and fundamental rights including freedom of speech and expression, the right to assemble peacefully, to form associations or unions, to move freely throughout the country, to acquire hold and dispose of property and to practice any profession or carry on  any occupation, trade or business. All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and to the right freely to profess, practice and propagate any religion. This right springs from the modern conception of the State as a secular association, but religious freedom is also an integral part of our cultural genius. All sections of the people residing in the country having a distinct language or culture of their own have the right to conserve the same. Indian society is to be multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-racial. No serious Indian thinker, Ancient or modern, has ever preached racial, religious or linguistic fanaticism.

Ancient Indian social and political thought has one thing in common with modern thought – the concept of the State was a welfare agency and of the decentralization of authority so that the people may participate through their leaders in the management of public affairs. The directive principles of State policy have a marked Socialistic and paternalistic bias. They envisage a social order which is broadly egalitarian, which protects the poorer sections of the community against exploitation  of any kind and assures them at least of the basic requirements of good life, which accords status of equality to women, which promises a uniform civil code and which ensures equal pay for men and women for equal work. Village panchayats played a very prominent part in ancient rural life. They gave the social and political system a distinctly democratic character. The Constitution lies down that the State shall take steps to organize village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government. Other useful features of ancient life now sought to be preserved include promotion of cottage industries on an individual or co-operative basis in rural areas, prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health and the prohibition of the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle. Indian society has, by and large, been of a puritanical character in the matter of food, drink and morality.

Post-independent India has witnessed a profound social change. The change which began with the advent of the British in India and the introduction of Western system of education has now been greatly accelerated. The British were reluctant to introduce major social changes in the country or to take steps to protect the poorer sections of the community for fear of offending the orthodox population and the affluent persons. It was, for example, inconceivable that the alien rulers would strike a blow at the feudal order and abolish landlordism and the princely order. These feudal elements were the main supporters of British imperialism. Again, though the British professed much sympathy for the scheduled castes, they were really interested in exploiting them for their own political ends and in using them for weakening the majority community as a punishment for its demand for freedom. With the achievement of independence, this obstacle to major socio-economic reforms disappeared, and the high expectations aroused among the people by it operated as a powerful pressure upon the Government to strive actively for a new socio-economic order based on individual freedom, social justice and equality of opportunity.

In this new social order there is to be no room for landlordism, princely order, monopolistic capitalism, class domination, sex inequality, exploitation of the weaker sections, degrading poverty, squalor and ignorance, prostitution, the drink evil, addition to injurious drugs and the slaughter of cows. This new order cannot be established so long as old superstitions persist, the fatalistic spirit is not abandoned, confidence in the ability of man to shape his own destiny is not created and the people are not psychologically prepared to break with the old traditions, customs and usages. The impatient idealist who wants to create a new heaven on earth overnight should not forget that traditional societies do not so readily respond to new challenges.

No change in the modern social scene is more noticeable than that in the status and position of women. In ancient India monogamous marriage was considered as ideal and women were held in great esteem but polygamy was also recognized as legitimate in the interests of the family. Marriages were considered compulsory for all, and they were indissoluble, divorce being regarded by some law-givers as permissible only under exceptional circumstances. Though instances were not lacking of women occupying positions of importance in public life and being well-versed in higher arts and philosophy, women were generally honoured primarily as mothers and wives whose function it was top perpetuate the race by producing a large number of children and to look after the comforts of the family. This position persisted down to recent times. Moreover child marriages became very common, widow remarriage virtually disappeared, the dowry system progressively more vicious, the original concept of women as partners in marriage gave place to that of utter subservience of women in a male-dominated society and the pernicious practice of sati and infanticide assumed serious proportions. All this now changed or is increasingly undergoing a change as a result of a number of factors. One factor is the realization that the earlier ideal of monogamous marriages has been lost sight of and ought to be restored. The introduction of Western education and the admiration for the Western ideal of emancipating women from man-made shackles have induced a new approach to the problem of women’s position in society. Mahatma Gandhi gave a great impetus to the movement for women’s emancipation by calling upon them to participate in the struggle for national independence when women emerged from the Purdah and stood shoulder to shoulder with their men folk cheerfully facing suffering and martyrdom, the male prejudices of the centuries melted away. The Constitution treated women as men’s equals in every way. It introduced universal adult franchise, giving women the right to vote – a remarkable political revolution by any standards, when we realize that even in the West women had to wage a long relentless fight for their political rights and it was not until the end of the last war that this fight came to a successful conclusion. The new ruling class committed to the ideal of social equality promised equal pay for equal work for both men and women and declared discrimination based on sex as constitutionally invalid.

Ideally, marriage should be a permanent and indissoluble union. It, as Dr. Radhakrishnan has said, not so much a concession to human weakness as a means of spiritual growth, as a means of the development of personality and continuance of the family. But we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that in some cases, on account of the incompatibility of temperaments or unforeseen developments, marriage becomes a mockery and a farce, and it is in everyone’s interests that it should be dissolved. The orthodox people wedded to the traditional concept of marriage as a sacred, permanent and indissoluble union argue that husband and wife should subordinate their personal inclinations to the higher ideals of the welfare of the family and society. But where circumstances favoring happy families are conspicuous by their absence the home degenerates into hell and the children brought up in it tend to become neurotic or abnormal. A revolutionary change has now been made in the law relating to the institution of marriage. Marriages have been made monogamous for Hindus and conditions have been laid down in which judicial separation or dissolution of the marriage can be asked for. The marriageable age for both boys and girls is markedly rising, particularly in towns, and child marriages are increasingly becoming a thing of the past except in very backward areas. While it cannot be said that the dowry system is weakening and while it cannot be denied that many girls either go without marriage because their parents cannot afford to give the dowry demanded or marry their second or third preference, the Government has taken a significant step in this matter. A law prohibiting dowry has been enacted. Women are now entitled to their husband’s property and to a share in the property including land of their parents. In the case of the educated classes more and more marriages are tending now to rest on free choice, at least, the wishes of the boy and the girl are considered when parents arrange marriages. Since independence, family planning has become fairly common; women are producing fewer children and the rate of deaths in child-birth has gone down. The improved status of women is, however, due not so much to the removal of disabilities from which they were previously suffering but to their education. Women’s education is spreading with remarkable speed. They are now entering many professions. They are working as doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, clerk, typists, librarians and sales representatives. They are now competing with boys in competitions for higher administrative and foreign services.

Under heavy pressure from political and economic forces, the joint Hindu family system is slowly disintegrating. The joint and undivided Hindu family was at one time the normal condition of Hindu society. Today, it is losing its attraction because some of its functions have been taken over by the State, while, with the growth of towns consequent upon industrialization, the joint family as a productive unit And as a distribution and consumption centre has ceased to count/ educated men and women servicing away from ancestral homes and making steady incomes set up independent homes of their own and look after their own children instead of leaving them to be brought up with their cousins in a joint family. The British legal system which we inherited from the alien rule has a strong individualistic bias. The modern youth is not prepared to render implicit obedience to the commands of the family patriarch. He seeks more independence for himself and his family and is resolved to keep the rewards of his industry and initiative to himself. The trend today is towards smaller families. The educated women are not ready to put up with the vagaries of the mother-in-law or to spend all her time in the kitchen or the nursery. She wants more independence, more leisure, more entertainment, and more cultural activities. Everywhere the old family system is crumbling. The joint undivided family is associated principally with agriculture and static society. The industrial society makes its functioning impossible. Not only the Hindu joint family system but even the single family system is facing a number of problems posed by modern civilisation. The educated earning wife is not the old type of wife – utterly servile, submissive, timid and obedient, looking to her husband as a lord and protector whose wishes are a law in themselves and must be unquestioningly carried out – but her husband’s partner, equal in status with equal voice in the management of the household and the upbringing of the children.

While Western liberal philosophy and Western science and technology have revolutionized Indian civilization and helped Indian society shed its old antiquated ways and become modern, the Western way of life has also in some ways caused disruption in society and contributed to the rise of a new class of persons who are Indians by birth but otherwise wholly foreign in everything – in dress, in living, in the craze for sensation and excitement, in the feverish pursuit of power and wealth, in irreverence and cynicism. The drink habit has not departed with the British but is everywhere increasing, despite the provision in the Constitution in favour of prohibition. India is known for its diversity of cultures, but no diversity is more striking than that in the social life of the masses and the rich educated persons. The educated youth suffers from a kind of cultural denudation. He knows precious little about his own culture. He has no use for authority and traditional discipline. He scoffs at spiritual values. Religion to him is a matter of superstition. He is restless, impatient of control, quick to take offence. Student indiscipline has assumed staggering proportions. A section of the educated young men has taken to violence as a means of social change under alien influence, posing a serious threat to law and order. Urbanization consequent upon industrialization has brought with it new ways of life as well as new evils – slums, prostitution, the drink evil, addition to drugs, juvenile delinquency and crime.

We have given ourselves a democratic constitution but the caste system still persists, still diving Hindu society, perpetuating caste distinctions, inflicting terrible sufferings upon the so-called touchable. The institution of cast, according to Dr. Radhakrishnan, ‘illustrates the spirit of comprehensive synthesis characteristic of the Hindu mind with its faith in the collaboration of races and the co-operation of cultures.” Whatever the justification for the institution of the caste originally, it has none today, particularly in the form in which it is observed. In the social classification based on heredity, the principle of equality is violated. Untouchability has been abolished by law but so deep-rooted and widespread is the evil that the protection of the law is of no avail. The caste is still a powerful factor in politics and votes are cast less on the merits of the candidates than on their caste and communal affiliations. Inter-caste marriages are more frequent than before, but they are exceptions rather than the rule. It has been said that the cast system will inevitably collapse as the people become more educated. There is some evidence to support this thesis. The caste system prevails in a more vicious form in the countryside. In the towns the evil has not assumed very wide dimensions, particularly in matters of inter-dining and even inter-marriage. Illiterate men and women who constitute the majority of the nation will not be easily persuaded to shed their prejudices and inhibitions.


There is no doubt that a tremendous social change has taken place during the quarter of the century since independence and that the traditional society which was slowly responding to the challenge of modernity is now undergoing a rapid change. The participation of the people living even in remote villages unaffected by modern civilisation in the political life of the nation has given them a new sense of power and aroused in them expectations which can be satisfied only if the existing social structure is radically modified. There is, however, a danger in over-drawing the picture of the social transformation that is taking place. The law can abolish socio-economic inequalities, but there may be a wide gap between what the law prohibits or permits and what obtains in reality. The law can abolish the dowry system by prohibiting asking for dowry, but if the practice is general and the conditions in the marriage market encourage it, the law is rendered helpless. He Government has enacted a large number of laws calculated to improve the status of women. An appreciable improvement in the social position of women will, however, depend upon the support which public opinion extends to reforms.  How many women can avail them of the benefit of a divorce law if divorce is frowned upon by society and a divorced woman has little chance of a second marriage? Can the law bring to the daughters a share in their parental property if parents and brothers are hostile to the idea? The law can permit a widow to remarry, but where virginity is prized most in marriages. Widow re-marriage is bound to remain unpopular. Untouchability is abolished by law and its observance is a cognizable offence but the prejudices of the centuries die very hard and the pollution barrier still persists, particularly in villages where the plight of the members of the scheduled castes is still most pitiable. The law is far ahead of public opinion in several respects with the result that the ugly reality is partly obscured from view and complacency is fostered. Even in cities and towns where the impact of new ideas is more marked, reforms are sometimes noticeable more on paper than in actual practice.

This country is committed to the establishment of a Socialist society – a society, in which there is no concentration of wealth, everyone, man or woman, is assured at least of the minimum conditions of good life and equality of opportunity is provided. The feudal element has now, more or less, been liquidated, and we can confidently look forward to its total disappearance in the near future. Many vital industries have been nationalized, a ceiling on land holdings has been imposed and a concerted attempt is being made to help the small-scale producer both in industry and agriculture. But economic growth is not accompanied by equitable distribution, and the country continues to be divided between the rich and the poor, between a vast majority of the poor and a small minority of the affluent – big industrialists and landlords, speculators, black-marketers, smugglers, big contractors and corrupt officials. It remains to be seen whether the Government’s commitment to Socialism will be fully honoured and an egalitarian society will be established. Rapid industrialization has made a deep impact upon the social structure. It has led to marked urbanization, conspicuous consumption by the wealthy, emphasizing the flaring contrast between the poor and the rich, the slum-dwellers and the occupants of vast palatial buildings, men and women of fashion with the tastes of the Western rich and destitute men and women begging for food and clad in tattered clothes. The modern city provides far more flaring contrasts of this type than ever before. The inflationary pressure on prices has hard hit the poor and middle classes, sharply reducing their consumption standards and eliminating all social virtues and graces which add to the charm of social life. The strain of the high cost of living is felt most by the middle classes. Industrialization and rationalization of agricultural production with the help of science and technology have given great encouragement to acquisitive propensities and insatiable thirst for more and more wealth.  The earlier society never subordinated spiritual values to the pursuit of wealth. Today money values are dominating all phases of social life. This is the root cause of corruption rampart everywhere. Ethical standards have gone down. Corruption has become so deep-rooted that nobody knows bow to stamp it out. Economic growth is, of course, a prime necessity, but is well to recognize that we are paying a very high price for it.

The glaring contrast between the ideals we have placed before ourselves and what we actually do is noticeable I all spheres of life. The Constitution embodies the ideal of a homogenous national society, and all political parties and social groups claim to be striving for the establishment of a united casteless, classless and secular society. Actually, we are still driven by class; cast and religious divisions and are dominated by regional and linguistic loyalties. We have not hitherto been able to introduce even a uniform civil code. So sharp are the divisions in our midst that not infrequently they burst out in violence and threaten social stability. One has only to recall the violence which accompanied the linguistic redistribution of States, which occasionally break out on communal issues and in which the revolutionaries indulge to further the ends of the proletarian revolution to realize that democracy in political, economic and social relations is far from being realized. The cast system is relaxing its grip but so slowly that, for all practical purposes, it may be said to be functioning as viciously as ever before. Caste loyalties still dominate our politics. This wide gap between our profession and performance is due to a number of factors. We are simultaneously seeking to promote a number of revolutions. We have given ourselves a most up-to-date democratic Constitution with universal adult franchise and fundamental rights of citizenships without undertaking a massive programme of educating the masters. We are seeking to achieve an industrial revolution in decades, while other countries took over a century to do so. We want to create a Socialist society simultaneously with operating parliamentary institutions and industrializing the country. The pace of social change has to be very swift. Our society hitherto living by tradition is not fully prepared for the pace of the change. The requisite social transformation might have been brought about if our leadership at all levels had been more dynamic. Social reforms might have been a success if the efforts of the administration had been effectively backed by voluntary social welfare bodies. Traditional social norms cannot be easily displaced. Orthodoxy offers stubborn resistance to change. This is not a counsel of despair but only a call for redoubling our efforts to achieve a new social equilibrium in which what is best in tradition values in preserved and combined with the ethics of social democracy.


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