The Adi Movements
This piece was first published on 10th April 2015 on DHM’s Social Media handles and is now being republished on Medium.com
Today’s #dalithistory month post is on the Adi-movements of the 1920s and 30s. For Dalit history, ‘Adi’ ideologies are highly significant as they bear testament to some of our earliest assertion of equal rights, humanity and citizenship on level with other castes.
By the late 19th century, leaders like the social reformer Jyotirao Phule had created a powerful anti-caste space, upholding non-Brahmanical thought and presenting the dream of a new egalitarian value system on which to model society on. Soon after, the early 20th century saw several archaeological discoveries being made in Mohenjodaro and Harappa in the North, pointing to the existence of an unexpectedly ancient civilisation. These discoveries struck a profound chord with Dalits all over the subcontinent, who immediately began to identify as an indigenous population who were conquered and subsequently oppressed by an Aryan religion. Although the evidence for Aryan invasions or migrations remain contested, this interpretation was so compelling that such “Adi” (Ancient/Old/Original) movements sprung up all over the nation entirely independently of each other.
The names of these movements are telling — Ad-Dharm in Punjab, Adi-Hindu in U.P. and Hyderabad, Adi-Dravida, Adi-Andhra and Adi-Karnataka in South India — all indicating a common claim to nativity and original inhabitation.
The provocative effects of the Adi-movements are best illustrated by an early Maharashtrian pre-Ambedkar Dalit leader, Kisan Faguji Bansode, who warned his caste-Hindu friends in 1909, stating: “The Aryans — your ancestors — conquered us and gave us unbearable harassment. At that time, we were your conquest, you treated us worse than slaves and subjected us to any torture you wanted. But now we are no longer your subjects; we have no service relationship with you; we are not your slaves or serfs… We have had enough of the harassment and torture.”
In Andhra, the process was accelerated by the commercialised coastal areas that produced both a mobile Dalit agricultural class and a small educated section that produced leaders Bhagyareddy Varma and Arigyay Ramaswamy who managed to mobilise nearly a third of the Malas and Madigas of the Madras Presidency to state their identity in the official census of 1931 as Adi-Andhra.
In Tamil Nadu, some Dalits identified themselves as Adi-Dravida while Telugu and Kannada counterparts also identified as Adi-Hindu or Adi-Karnataka. In the north, in Uttar Pradesh, an untouchable ascetic, who radically called himself Acchutananda, began to organise an Adi-Hindu identity, arguing, “The Untouchables, are in fact Adi-Hindu, i.e. the original and autochthonous Nagas or Dasas of the north and the Dravidians of the south, the undisputed, heavenly owners of Bharat.”
In Punjab, Mangoo Ram Mugowalia, a Dalit who had left the Gaddar movement, unable to stand the casteism within it, began the Ad-Dharmi movement. By 1926, he had influenced a vast number of Dalits to boldly register themselves a separate “qaum” (religious group) in Hoshiarpur despite the threat of imminent violence. By the 1931 census, nearly 500,000 Dalits registered themselves as Ad-Dharmis all over Punjab.
To counter a growing ‘Adi’ consensus, oppressor caste leaders began actively renaming Dalits, ‘Panchama’ (the Fifth). Gandhi used it in his Young India for a long time. Many Dalits of the day firmly pushed back against the term insisting the idea of ‘Panchama’ was derogatory and only served to attenuate the age-long hyper-oppressive framework of caste society and solidify their position outside the caste order.