GS Mains History Q&A: 10

Q.10 ​The socio-religious reform movements of the 19th century did not fundamentally challenge the caste and gender hierarchies of the Indian Society. Evaluate.


The social reform movements of 19th century can be broadly categorised as those which frontally challenged the prevalent caste and gender hierarchies on one hand, like the Young Bengal group of Henry Vivian Derozio and the Brahmo Samaj under Keshab Chandra Sen which actively promoted inter-caste marriages, widow remarriage etc. and on the other hand, those which had a more reformist orientation such as the Atmiya Sabha established by Ram Mohan Roy in 1815 (which later developed into Brahmo samaj in 1828) and Prarthna Samaj founded in Bombay in 1867. 

While the confrontationist approach of the former failed to produce any lasting impact upon the society by virtue of its upper caste, English speaking character which intended to define itself as separate from Hindus and thus failed to establish any substantial connect with the masses, the latter were trying to rediscover reason and science within their own civilization and reposition the modernization project within the space defined by Indian tradition. While the Vedas were used to legitimise their attack on idolatry, polytheism, to abolish sati, child marriage, promote inter caste marriage and widow remarriage, they principally employed the legislative route to prohibit such acts.

However, these reforms remained on paper in most cases. Moreover many movements ended up becoming more revivalist than reformist in character- for example, Arya Samaj criticised untouchability but justified the four fold Varnashram system and became preoccupied with Shuddhi movements and cow protection agendas. The real substantial battles on caste related issues were actually fought after the arrival of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Periyar in the first half of the 20th century on the Indian political scene. 

The challenge to gender hierarchies turned out to be even weaker on the ground, visible in the fact that though the early reformers like Vidya Sagar, Bethune etc. emphasized upon women education, however till 1882, female education progressed very little (98% of women in school going age group remained uneducated). Even the educated middle class women who gained from the action of reformists failed to challenge the stranglehold of patriarchy as the motive behind educating them was never their emancipation, rather it was supposed to help them become better wives, better mothers etc. With a few honourable exceptions like Pandit Ramabai, women remained passive recipients of male patronage and never became involved in these reformist projects. Thus ironically, though the reformist projects were a step in the right direction questioning gender related issues with the ideals of equality and rationality, yet the whole discourse of women rights took place under the umbrella of patriarchal ideology which restricted women to the domestic sphere.

One thought on “GS Mains History Q&A: 10”

Leave a Reply