“I discerned social loyalty from Mr Ranga Rao. He is an inspiration and a guide for me. He is my teacher when it comes to the upliftment of the untouchables” – Mahatma Gandhi.
Mahatma Gandhi said these words while visiting Mangalore on 24th February 1935 and was referring to a truly extraordinary individual – Kudmul Ranga Rao, a pioneer of the Dalit reform movement in South India. Rao worked for Dalit reform at least three decades before Gandhi launched his campaign against untouchability in 1932. Born into a Saraswat Brahmin family, he was relentless in his work and is remembered with much respect and affection in Mangalore even today.
Rao was born on 29th June 1859, in Kudmul village in South Kanara, in what is now Kasaragod district in Kerala. He went to a local school and got a job as a teacher in Mangalore. Then, he cleared the pleadership examination and qualified as a pleader in the district court.
Socio-religious conditions in Mangalore were no different from those in other parts of India, where the caste system was being rigorously followed and enforced. The predicament of the lower castes was appalling and brutal. They were called ‘Panchamas;’ and the upper castes considered them beyond the pale of Hindu society. They had to sweat and toil to earn even a morsel of food or a yard of cloth. It was very rarely that a Dalit family could enjoy a full meal.
They were treated with indignity and sometimes with cruelty. They lived on open grounds in huts built of and covered with plaited coconut fronds. Their children were unkempt, unwashed and malnourished, and the question of sending them to school did not arise.
Around this time, the Brahmo Samaj reformist movement, which had been launched by Raja Rammohan Roy in Calcutta in 1828, was vigorously campaigned against regressive practices like untouchability, superstitions, poverty, child marriage and in favour of widows. Its ideals ignited the minds of educated youth like Kudmul Ranga Rao, who too were eager to initiate reforms.
Rao had asked Brahmo Samaj leaders in Calcutta to help him set up a Brahmo Samaj unit in Mangalore, along with his close associate Ullal Raghunathayya, in 1870. This ushered in reform in Mangalore. In addition, the organisation focused on reforming caste relations among Hindus.
By this time, Rao’s concern for the weaker sections and his legal profession had earned him the nickname ‘poor man’s lawyer’. Once, he had argued and won the case of a woman in distress who was victimized by an upper caste man, only to invite the ire of the upper castes. However, there was another incident, in 1887-88, that was a turning point in his life
Babu Bendur, a Dalit who had somehow managed to study up to the fourth standard, had been appointed as a clerk in the district court. These were times when it was impossible for someone from the oppressed classes to occupy such a position. Orthodox Hindus were up in arms and were able to convince the British colonial government to transfer the judge, an Englishman, who had made this appointment.
Considering the very real threat to Babu Bendur’s life, the judge revoked his appointment, after consulting Rao. But deeply pained by this incident, the judge requested Rao to take up the cause of Dalit education and empowerment. Rao thus gave up his legal career and started to work for Dalit emancipation and social reform, at the age of just 38.
But it was harder than he had imagined. Rao’s family was treated like outcasts and his daughters were taunted and jeered at wherever they went. Despite the psychological abuse and physical threats, Rao’s resolve never wavered.
Like most reformers of his time, Rao too firmly believed that education was the most effective instrument of social empowerment and change. As a first step in this direction, he founded the Depressed Classes Mission (DCM) in 1897 and opened schools for Dalit children. He called them the ‘Panchama Schools’. The first such school opened in 1892, in Urva-Chilimbi in Mangalore. It started in a thatched hut with a handful of children. The second school opened at Court Hills in Mangalore city. It had a vocational training institute at Shedigudde, also in the city.
Between 1892 and 1897, seven more Panchama schools were opened, including three more in Mangalore, two in Udupi and one each in the nearby towns of Mulki and Ullal. In addition, Rao opened a residential school for Dalit girls at Shedigudde in 1897.
The greatest challenge, though, was convincing parents in Dalit society to send their children to school. It is said that Rao ate with Dalit families and slept in their huts to win them over. He also freed many children who had been working as bonded labourers, only to show them the path to school.
Rao’s persistence paid off and he was delighted to see Dalit children finally turning up at his schools. He once said, “A Dalit boy who studies in my school should join public service and his car should move around on our village roads. When the dust that then rises touches my head, I shall consider my life worthwhile.” These words were later engraved on Rao’s memorial, at the Brahmo Samaj crematorium in Mangalore.
It may sound incredible but some of his initiatives in primary education were trend-setters. The mid-day meal scheme being implemented across the country benefits hundreds of thousands of children today but Rao had introduced a scheme just like this back in his time. He wanted to ensure that hunger did not keep children away from school and that children ate nutritious food. He also offered Dalit families cash initiatives to send their children to school, another initiative that was adopted by the Government of India in modern times.
However, running his schools was not easy, finance being the greatest concern. Rao went all out to raise funds and seek donations. He even walked the streets to collect grains, vegetables and other essential commodities so that he could feed the children in his schools.
It was due to Rao’s efforts, which included organising protests, that the Dalit community was able to secure reservations in the District Board and Mangalore Municipal Council way back in 1888. As a result, two Dalit youth – Angara Master and Govinda Master – were appointed as members of the District Board and the Municipal Council, respectively.
Eventually, Rao’s work drew attention at the national level. Eminent people like Rabindranath Tagore, Annie Besant, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and even Mahatma Gandhi appreciated and supported DCM’s initiatives at various stages. Another triumph was when American industrialist and founder of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, recognised Rao’s work and donated money towards his initiatives. Research scholar Denita Ushaprabha, faculty at Manipal University, mentions this in her research paper titled ‘Role of Kudmul Ranga Rao in empowering of Dalits in the undivided Dakshina Kannada District’. She did this research for the Centre for Rural Studies, Manipal University. It is published in Journal of Public Administration and Policy Research, May, 2013.
By 1923, Rao had become frail and he was not in the best of health. So he decided to hand over the reins of DCM to the Servants of India Society, which shared common objectives. He requested them to take over the institutions run by DCM. After independence, the Madras Government took it over in 1959. In recognition of his services, the British colonial government conferred upon Rao the title ‘Rao Bahadur’.
Through his life and work, Rao led by example. He was an ardent supporter of widow remarriage and inter-caste marriage, and set an example by getting his daughter Radhabai married to P Subbarayan in 1912. who was a non-Brahmin Mudaliyar.
Radhabai was clearly inspired by her father and shot into fame as a women’s right activist and social reformer. In 1923, she became the first woman to be elected to the Senate of Madras University. She along with Begum Shah Nawaz represented Indian women at the Round Table Conference in 1930, and in 1938 she was elected to the Council of States, the Upper House of the Imperial Legislature of British India.
By now, Radhabai’s father was deceased. In 1924, Rao had renounced worldly attachments through the Arya Samaj. He died on 30th January 1928. According to his will, members of the Dalit Toti community were pall bearers at his funeral and lit his pyre.
Rao’s legacy lives on in his home town, Mangalore. Dalit families in and around Mangalore consider him their saviour and the wide acceptance in this region is attributed to his efforts to get Dalit children educated and therefore assimilated into mainstream society.
Various Dalit organisations successfully campaigned for the naming of the Town Hall in Mangalore after Rao. A government-run girls’ student hostel bears his name and, both government and non-government organisations observe Rao’s birth anniversary. On that day, elected representatives, government officials and others pay tribute at his memorial located at the Brahmo Samaj crematorium, a fitting way to celebrate a life dedicated wholly to the service of society.
Dinesh Nayak is an independent journalist and author based in Hubballi, Karnataka.
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