Contributions of the Congress to Social Reforms
Apart from bringing the colonial rule to an end, one of the main aims of the freedom movement was to obliterate social inequality and social evils. Right from its formation in 1885, the top leadership of the Congress Party started and supported various social-reform movements and this responsibility as a mission was carried forward generation after generation. The Congress Party has shown a tremendous commitment for maintaining social harmony, providing equal opportunity to every citizen and bringing dalits, the downtrodden and the exploited into the mainstream. This commitment proved not only a milestone but has been established also as a social value in Indian society. Today, Indian politics is passing
through a transitional phase. Other political parties who oppose the Congress are trying to usurp the credit of the policies and politics of the Congress that proved instrumental in bringing about social changes and eradicating social inequalities. These political parties usually talk about dalits and the downtrodden merely as a fashion whereas their real aim to fulfil their political dreams. But the truth is that the Congress Party’s real aim from its inception till today is to establish a strong democracy and to provide equal opportunity to every citizen. The contribution of the Congress Party with regard to bringing the marginalised into the mainstream is exceptional. Right from its formation, the Congress Party has tried to eradicate the contradictions within Indian society. As a result, Indian democracy and its tolerant approach and mutual disposition are admired all over the world. Indian history tells us that caste-system came into existence in Indian society about 2500 years ago. It is interesting to note that not only among Hindus, it is prevalent among Muslims, Sikhs and Christians as well. Unfortunately, it was never strongly and forcefully tried to eliminate these inhuman practices like caste-system and untouchability. But during the last decades of the 19th century, the national movement and the Congress Party initiated decisive efforts to obliterate these inhuman practices. Big changes especially in the field of economy were taking place. Immense employment opportunities were being generated in sectors like agriculture, factories, mandis, government-services, contract labour system. It led to a change in the status of the downtrodden. The top leaders of the Congress Party not only supported the social movements being carried on by Jyotiba Phule in Maharashtra and Narayan Guru in Kerala but they themselves also relentlessly tried to eliminate these social evils.
Our freedom movement under the leadership of Indian National Congress was itself very much inclined towards social reforms in terms of contemporary parameters. It was pro-poor as is evident by the criticism of the foreign rule by Dada Bhai Naouroji who said that the root cause of poverty of the large section of Indian society is the colonial rule. This was further invigorated by the advent of Gandhiji and the rise of socialistic ideology. This movement was committed to end the foreign rule first and then to eradicate poverty. The leaders of the Congress Party were of the opinion that without eradicating
poverty, social evils can’t be wiped out. Poverty is the root of social inequality and untouchability.
In the decade of 1920, Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Subash Chandra Bose tried to give the freedom movement a socialistic ideological inclination and a dream of establishing Indian society on socialistic pattern was encouraged which attracted a large section of nationalist-workers and intellectuals immensely. Before 1947, Pandit Nehru underlined the fact that Indian National Congress has not accepted socialism as its ideal but it has been accepted that the society based on equality should be established in which every citizen should have equal opportunity and a standard life-style so that availability of equal opportunity can be put forward as a truth.
Indian National Congress showed its commitment towards social, economic and political changes. It went into constant churning and taking shape of an organisation which seeks fundamental changes based on social and economic equality of the highest level and social justice. The top leadership of the Congress Party accepted such programmes which can be termed as strong reformist. For example, primary education, low tax rates on the poor and lowincome
groups, lower taxes on salt and land, safeguarding the rights of share-croppers, abolishing zamindari system, waiving off agricultural loans and provision of new loan at lower rate for farmers, right to making organisations for farmers, minimum wages and less working hours for labourers, improvement in law and order situation etc. Indian National Congress passed a resolution in its Karachi session in 1931 that clearly expressed its motive of social reform. It was said that “To obliterate the exploitation of crores of the poor that were on the verge of dying of hunger, it is necessary to include economic freedom under the political one.” Mahatma Gandhi was also a supporter of economic reforms who already vehemently supported political and social reforms. After 1920, he included problems of untouchables, dalits and the poor with the freedom movement and succeeded in organising strong protests like Vaicom (1924-25) and Guruvappyur (1931-32).
Gandhiji tried to make aware the upper classes with the seriousness of injustice of untouchability so that they could feel the intensity of their wrongdoings. He protested against the conspiracy of the Britishers to show untouchables and the downtrodden distinct from the Hindus. The national movement was committed to social equality and egalitarian society and it protested against every form of inequality whether it was based on aste, sex or exploitation. It either made alliances or made them merged those organisations which were carrying on movements for the social liberation of women and lower classes. Lakhs of women joined the national movement leaving behind household chores. In its agenda, from social upliftment of women to their education, employment and equal political rights were included. After 1920, it gave untouchability a topmost priority keeping in mind the larger perspective of caste based inequality and exploitation. Indian National Congress gave this ideology such a direction that no one protested the proposal of reservation for SCs and STs in the Constituent Assembly. Likewise, the Hindu Code Bill was passed without much protests because the national movement had already secured the rights of social liberation for women.
The top leaders of the Congress Party are rightly called the builders of Indian democracy since they provided a balanced direction to the national movement; nurtured the proposition of social invigoration and a definite view for all the sections of society. The founders of Indian democracy were not limited merely to the national unification and political stability.
Indian society had to pass through a long phase of social changes. It was expressed in the Directives of the State Policy under article 36 of the constitution, “State in order to augment welfare of the people shall try to achieve and safeguard by effective means such a social arrangement in which economic and political justice can be availed by the national life from every institution.” It was expressed as a socialistic pattern of society and was accepted officially in Awadi session of the Congress. Later, its ideals were made part and parcel of the second and third Five-Year plans. As a result, during the tenure of Pandit Nehru, various steps were taken which people perceive as the beginning of a welfare state.
Some important steps were taken in the context of making Indian democracy as a welfare state. For example, land reforms, planned economic development and rapid growth in public-sector. Additionally, labour-laws were implemented under which provisions were made for collective agreements, to form trade unions, to go on strikes, security of employment and health and accident insurance etc. Efforts were taken for the equitable distribution of property. For this, high rate of income tax and excise were implemented. Initiatives were taken for the overall development of education, health and other public
Under the leadership of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the top leaders of the Congress Party were eager to such social changes which may liberate the weaker and the downtrodden sections of the society. The Congress Party identified Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar who had already become a prominent leader of dalits and engaged him for the development of the country. Dr. Ambedkar was given the responsibility of constitutional and legal aspects. Despite differences with him before the independence, the Congress Party appointed him as the president of the Draft Committee. He was later appointed as the law minister in Nehru’s cabinet.
The Congress party also identified Babu Jagjivan Ram due to his astute political acumen, he was dear to stalwarts like Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru and Smt. Indira Gandhi. Right from 1937 he played a dominant role in Indian National Congress. During the pre independence period when the Congress government was formed in 1937, Babuji was appointed as the Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Education and Development Right from 1937 Babu Jagjivan Ram held important offices at the state level in the Congress Party.
After Independence Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru made him the axis of the party and indispensible for the party affairs as well as government of the country. He remained a member of the Union cabinet for nearly 31 years. He was honoured to be the youngest minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s interim government, the first cabinet of India as a labour minister and also member of constituent assembly of India, where he enshrined in the constitution. In fact, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and the top leaders of the Congress Party were of the opinion that we are not merely trying for the political and economic revolution but also for After independence, under the leadership of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the top leaders of the Congress Party took important steps to eradicate caste injustice and inequality. The constitution gave equal rights to every citizen without any consideration of religion, caste, sex, language, class etc. Scheduled tribes residing across the country were also included in it. Article 17 of the constitution clearly explains, “Untouchability has been abolished and there is a legal ban on its practice in any form whatsoever. In the eyes of the law, any practice of untouchability will be a punishable offence.” In 1955, parliament passed the Untouchability (offence) act which explains that there was provision for punishment, cancellation of licence and closure of public assistance for such offences. The citizen right preservation (amendment) act was passed in 1976. More provisions dealing with more stringent punishments, special courts and officers and legal-aid for social revolution. Indian people can schemes like dairy, poultry and goat rearing, abolition of child labour were
some of the programmes which proved decisive for social changes.
One of the most influential Congress leaders and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi started a programme in 1970’ under which land rights were given to the rural poor. It proved an important scheme for upliftment of the poor and dalits because influential upper caste people used to dispossess them from their land. Right to vote was granted to every citizen and it made the weakest and the most influential on the same footing. Where there was land distribution, the curse of the landless was wiped out. The Congress Party also discouraged professions based on castes. Efforts of the Congress
governments and top leaders of the party made untouchability disappear in urban areas whereas it nosedived in rural areas. Untouchability diminished significantly in more developed areas where employment opportunities were created for the weaker sections. When the owners need labour, they may ruin themselves if they consider the caste as basis of their selection for workers. We can hardly find a trace of caste-based discrimination in offices and factories. The Congress governments felicitated the access of weaker sections to education, employment and other economic and social opportunities and thus succeeded in bringing out the important changes in the form of empowerment of the poor and the downtrodden. It made the have-nots, the exploited, dalits and the tribes aware of their rights.
The Congress governments and top leaders of the party have always kept policies like economic growth, employment generation, employment guarantee schemes that tend to eradicate poverty by increasing the income of the poor in their prioritylist. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi all have strongly supported eradication of poverty and education to all. They all are of the opinion that education is a means
of social change. So they all have paid special attention to primary and secondary education. Attempts were made to link education with the poor. Due to illiteracy, the poor and the weaker sections were unable to understand the importance of population control. When the Congress leaders gave special importance to women education, decrease in birthrate was observed and it ultimately benefitted the poor.
The study of social reforms in modern India reveals that all the policies meant for the welfare of the poor and the downtrodden were primarily formulated by the Congress governments. Those all were the initiatives of the Congress governments. These initiatives and policies were guided by pure devotion and certainly not driven by a sense of using them as a vote-bank after polarising the poor and dalits. The Congress governments and top leaders of the party provided space and platform to the leaders of the poor and the downtrodden so that social changes could smoothly take place without any
sort of acrimony among stakeholders. No class of society could think that their interests were being sacrificed for the benefits of others. It is important to note here that the core issue of non-Congress Dalit politics is to gain power by caste-polarisation. In order to bring dalits into the mainstream of the society, the Congress Party gave the responsibility of preparing the draft of the constitution to great Dalit leader Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and the party leaders provided him all sort of assistance. After the death of Dr. Ambedkar in 1957, Republican Party was formed.
It contested Bombay Vidhan Sabha elections and succeeded in winning some seats. But soon, the Party broke into many factions. Most of them either joined the Congress or became its alliance partners. Y.V. Chavan provided them due respect and space in the party.
In the seventh decade, a new initiative under the banner of Dalit Panther was taking shape in Maharashtra. Dalit Panther at first made literature its base and in 1972, it established itself as a political party. After that the party took inspiration solely from Ambedkar’s ideology. Students and the youth in urban areas were the party’s strongholds. They talked about the revolution but they lacked any solid strategy like the Congress. In the 80’s serious differences cropped up on major issues like viewpoint regarding non-Dalit poor and non-Buddhists dalits, culture versus economy, Raja Dhale versus Namdeo Dhashal. These differences led to the breaking into many groups and most of them joined the Congress like that of Republican Party.
In the last decades of the 20th century, BSP and other Dalit parties were constituted in north and eastern India who do politics in the name of dalits. But the real aim of these parties is to attain power in the name of dalits. Once they come into power they forget about the welfare of dalits and the poor. Instead, they begin to serve the interests of their own people. The poor of this country are observing all these political games and that’s why majority of them vote for the Congress Party despite the politics of so called Dalit parties. This is the simple and straightforward truth due to which most of the Dalit leaders are inclines towards Smt. Sonia Gandhi and Sh. Rahul Gandhi. Dalit leaders and ideologues have found that the welfare and upliftment of Dalit lie only in the hands of the Congress Party.