Remembering Swami Achutanand: The Pioneer of Dalit Identity and Consciousness in North India


Harshvardhan and Shivam Mogha

In the early 20th century, the trend of protest against caste-based discrimination found its profound expression in the works and activism of Swami Achutanand.

The Nirgun tradition of the Bhakti movement embodied in Kabir and Raidas has inspired Dalit communities since the 16th century to contest Brahmanical domination. Up until the first half of the 19th century, protest against caste was expressed primarily in religious idioms. With the spread of education and modern ideas of democracy and equality, the newly emerging Dalit intelligentsia amalgamated these new ideas with the idea of the Nirgun Bhakti tradition and launched not only a cultural but also political battle against caste-based discrimination.

In the early 20th century, this trend of protest found its profound expression in the works and activism of Swami Achutanand, who played an important role in the articulation of Dalit identity and consciousness in north India.

Swami Achutanand was born on May 6, 1879 in Umri village in Manipuri district of present-day Uttar Pradesh to Motiram and Ram Piari, a family belonging to Kabir Panthis. His birth name was Heera Lal.

Heera Lal lost his father at a young age, after which his uncle, Mathura Prasad, who was a subedar in the British-Indian army took upon himself to care for the troubled family. Prasad brought Heera Lal to Nasirabad where he was posted and got him admitted to the Sainik school. Young Heera Lal was very studious and soon he became proficient in Urdu, Hindi and English. Later, he also became proficient in Persian, Marathi, Sanskrit, Bangla and Gurumukhi.

During his stay at Nasirabad, Heera Lal got acquainted with the works and philosophy of Bhakti saints like Kabir, Raidas and Nanak. By the age of 14, Heera Lal began to accompany sadhus and mendicants of Nirgun Bhakti tradition on their tours to villages spreading the message of Kabir, Nanak and Raidas.

He spent some ten years travelling and acquainting himself with Sanskrit scriptures. Impressed by his knowledge, Swami Sachidanand gave him the name, Heera Lal sanyasi. During this period, Heera Lal got married to Durgabai, who belonged to Etawah district, and settled there; they had three daughters.

From Pandit Hariharanand to Swami Achutanand 

The colonial and Christian missionary critique of Hinduism in the 19th century had provoked a range of responses from Indian ‘upper caste’ intellectuals who initiated a series of socio-religious reform movements aimed at the amelioration of Indian society. One such movement was the Arya Samaj launched by Swami Dayanand Saraswati in 1875. By the end of the 19th century, Arya Samaj started shuddi (purification) campaigns to remove the practice of ‘untouchability’ in Hindu society which was later expanded to re-convert Muslim and Christians back to Hinduism.

The shuddi programme of Arya Samaj found an enthusiastic response from the ‘untouchable’ castes who were aspiring for upward cultural mobility in the late 19th and early 20th century. The British rule had opened up previously closed economic spheres for the marginalised castes as new industries were set up and growing urbanisation led to an increase in demand for many ancillary services in urban spaces. Sensing new opportunities, the ‘lower’ castes from villages migrated to urban spaces in search of new opportunities. This upward economic mobility led to a desire for upward cultural mobility which was met by the Arya Samaj.

During this period, several ‘lower’ castes also contested their categorisation as ‘untouchable’ and location at the lower hierarchy of caste structure. This move found its profound expression among the ‘Chamar’ caste, who were mostly agricultural labourers but colonial ethnography described and categorised them with leather work. The ‘Chamar’ community contested their identity and collectively launched a campaign demanding the label of Jatav and claimed Kshatriya status. This demand was supported by the Arya Samaj. The shuddi programme provided a legitimate opportunity for ‘Jatavs’ to remove the stigma of ‘untouchability’.

Heera Lal, too, was impressed by the radical promise of the Arya Samaj and joined the organisation in 1905 at the age of 27 at Ajmer. Impressed by his knowledge of scriptures, the Arya Samaj gave him the title of ‘pandit’ and rechristened him as Pandit Hariharanand.

Pandit Hariharanand actively participated in the shuddi campaigns of the Arya Samaj to convert Muslims and Christians. As part of Arya Samaj’s ‘anti-untouchability’ shuddi campaigns, Pandit Hariharanand travelled to different parts of north India and established schools.

At that time Arya Samaj was perceived as a radical organisation with radical ideas, particularly regarding its programme of ‘anti-untouchability’. It had to face opposition, sometimes even violence, from the conservative and orthodox sections of the Hindu society.

At that time, the Hindu society opposed the entry of ‘untouchables’ to the temple under the ‘Sanatani Hindu’ banner. It also opposed their access to public wells and spaces, and didn’t grant them the ‘sacred thread’ (janeu).

Pandit Hariharanand, too, had to face such violent opposition from the orthodox camp and worked diligently.

However, after spending seven years in the Arya Samaj, he decided to quit.

In this regard, Dr. Rajpal Singh in his biographical work on Swami Achutanand wrote about an incident that happened during the inauguration of a school in Sirsaganj (in present-day Firozabad district), which was established by Pandit Hariharanand.

When Pandit Hariharanand reached the school, he saw some children belonging to the ‘lower’ castes siting on the floor while the ‘upper castes’ children were sitting on benches. This scene deeply hurt Pandit Hariharanand and he decided to quit the Arya Samaj. After spending seven years in the Arya Samaj, Hariharanand saw through the limitations and politics of the organisation and decided to carve his own path.

After roving for almost five years throughout north India and meeting intellectuals and reformers from the Dalit community like Shree Devidas, Janki Das and Jagatram, he decided to launch the Adi-Hindu movement. Also, Heera Lal, who was rechristened as Pandit Hariharanand by the Arya Samaj, decided to change his name to Swami Achutanand.

The Adi-Hindu movement

After quitting the Arya Samaj, Swami Achutanand and his comrades launched vehement critique of the Arya Samaj and its ‘upper caste’ worldview. Though the Arya Samaj was against ‘untouchability,’ it was not against the caste system, and in fact, it upheld the hierarchical Varnashrama system. The ‘untouchables’ who were made part of the Hindu society through shuddi were accorded lower status; there emerged the new distinction between ‘high’ caste Hindu and ‘purified’ Hindu.

Even when the ‘untouchables’ were bestowed with scared thread, the rituals that were performed during the ceremony were of restricted nature. They were debarred from uttering ‘Om,’ which remained the monopoly of the ‘higher’ castes.

The ‘untouchable’ leaders associated with the Arya Samaj saw through the hypocrisy of the organisation. Criticising the Samaj, they said that it was merely an “army of the ‘high caste’ Hindus,” whose intentions were to rally the Hindu community against the Muslims and Christians. They also saw the Samaj’s attempt to uplift the ‘lower castes’ as a counter to the threat posed to the hegemony of the ‘upper castes’ by Muslims and Christians. The programmes of shuddi was identified as a “cunning ploy to perpetuate the hold of ‘upper castes’ over the untouchables.” Swami Achutanand said that the Arya Samaj aimed to “make all Hindus slaves of the Vedas and the Brahmins.”

Against this backdrop, the Swami asked his brethren to excavate the true history of their community in light of new scientific research. As part of this project, Swami Achutanand – based on his study of Brahmanical Sanskrit literature, historical research on the Harrapan valley civilisation and then current Aryan race theories – proposed that the mass of people who had been called ‘untouchables’ were the true inhabitants of the country who were subjected and pushed to the margins by the invading Aryans.

He further said that the mass of ‘untouchables’ who were kept out of the Brahmanical social order were the original Hindus or ‘Adi-Hindus’.

In matters of religion, he also said that the religion of the ‘untouchables’ was not Brahminism as they were excluded from reading Vedas and entering temples but sant-mat or Sufi-mat (the path of saints). He traced the history of this tradition from ancient to the medieval period. Quite interestingly, while explaining the true religion of the Adi-Hindus, Achutanand also referred to the Soviet Union. Explaining the historical continuity of the Adi-Hindu faith, he said: “Since time immemorial our mothers and sisters have been worshipping the mother earth by planting red flags. Even Soviet Russia adopted this red flag as a sign of their motherland.”

In order to propagate the Adi-Hindu religion, Achutanand established a range of institutions. He founded the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha in December 1923 in Etawah at a meeting that was attended by around 25,000 Dalit activists. The organisation drew support from several businessmen and activists based in cities like Delhi and Kanpur, and districts like Etawah, Moradabad and Etawah. The Mahasabha was essentially a cultural and political organisation which expressed its voice through the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha Press which was founded in the same year. The press played an important role in the dissemination of Adi-Hindu ideas and ideology among the masses as well as that of Nirgun Bhakti tradition through books, booklets and pamphlets.

Swami Achutanand also founded a fortnightly newspaper Adi-Hindu which ran from 1924 to 1934. He also established several schools, hostels and libraries for Dalit communities in several cities and towns.

The Adi-Hindu Mahasabha later transformed into ‘All India Adi-Hindu Mahasabha’ in 1928 and expanded its operation to other parts of British India like Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Nagpur etc. as well as to princely states like Bhopal, Jaipur, Alwar and Teri-Garhwal, among others. By 1930, the movement was able to establish 15 provincial branches in major cities and 208 district-level branches. It also published a journal titled Adi-Danka and established contacts with similar ‘Adi’ movements from different parts of India.

In 1928, an Adi-Hindu conference was held at Bombay (now Mumbai) which was also attended by Babasaheb Ambedkar. Though both these personalities were aware of each other’s initiatives and work, the Bombay conference was the place where they met for the first time and interacted personally.

Political activism of the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha

Apart from raising the consciousness of the ‘untouchables’ and empowering them educationally and economically, the Mahasabha campaigned to differentiate the ‘untouchables’ from the broader Hindu society by claiming a separate identity for them. The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 introduced the concept of communal representation in legislative elections on a religious basis.

With these reforms, the question of the numerical strength of religious communities became important as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs began targeting the ‘untouchables’ with the aim of converting them to their own faith in a bid to increase their respective numerical strength and consolidate political power. For the Adi-Hindu leaders who were already articulating a separate identity for themselves, the reforms of 1919 proved quite fruitful.

The Adi-Hindu Mahasabha, from 1920 onwards, began a movement for recognition of Adi-Hindu as a separate religious community and demanded representation, not only in legislative assembly, but on every level of administrative structure as well as in education and employment.

In the year 1926, Swami Achutanand formed the ‘Acchut Manch’, a political organisation specially dedicated to this cause. The newly formed political organisation demanded 18% reservation in all government bodies as well as in government employment. The organisation also demanded ‘purna swaraj’ in 1927, Dr. Rajpal Singh said.

Through repeated demonstrations, appeals and submission of a memorandum, the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha kept pushing their demand for reservation and a separate electorate.

In 1931, during the second-Round table conference, the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha in United Provinces and the Ad-Dharm movement in Punjab played a crucial role in recognition of B.R Ambedkar as the sole representative of ‘untouchables,’ who was challenged by Mahatma Gandhi. Both these organisations organised huge demonstrations, rallies and sent telegrams to the Round table conference, expressing their support for Ambedkar.

After the granting of a separate electorate to the ‘untouchable’ community by British Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald following the round table conference, Gandhi began his indefinite fast against the decision coercing Ambedkar to compromise on a separate electorate, which ended with the Poona Pact. Criticising this compromise, Swami Achutanand and the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha organised several demonstrations in the United Provinces with the demand of repealing the pact.

The impact of Adi-Hindu movement on Hindustan Republican Association

The region in which the Adi-Hindu movement took its root and the areas in which the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) operated overlapped to a great extent. Though there is no documented evidence of interpersonal interaction between the leaders of the Adi-Hindu movement and the HRA, there’s some evidence of the influence of the former over the latter, especially in the writings of Ramprasad Bismil as well as a host of other revolutionaries like Manmanthnath Gupt and Sachindranath Bakshi.

In his seminal work Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar argued for giving precedence to social reform over political reform as the only method and path for total reconstruction of Indian society. Swami Achutanand supported this argument. Bismil, too, made this argument in his autobiography where he asked, “What right has a country to be free were almost six million ‘human beings’ are considered untouchable?”

This question posed by Bismil in his autobiography shows the influence of the Adi-Hindu movement upon the revolutionaries of the HRA, who by 1925 had began to deliberate over the question of caste.

Swami Achutanand and the formation of ‘acchut’ identity

Swami Achutanand and the Adi-Hindu movement played a significant role in the development of Dalit consciousness among the ‘untouchables’ of North India. This movement not only countered the trend of Sanskritisation among the ‘untouchables’ pushed by the Arya Samaj and other caste Hindu social reform organisations, but also challenged and successfully resisted the ‘Harijan’ (meaning children of God) pushed by Gandhi and the Congress.

But what is more interesting is that the works of Swami Achutanand and the Adi-Hindu movement redefined the word “acchut”. Tracing the genealogy of the word ‘acchut’ in Dalit discourse of modern India, historian Ramnarayan Rawat says that the label of ‘acchut’ was probably the first radical category created by Dalit intellectuals for political mobilisation.

In the publications of the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha, the word ‘acchut’ was used to mean ‘pure and undefiled.’ Rawat emphasized that this meaning of ‘acchut’ was not constructed in relation to the pejorative meaning attached to the word used by Hindus to refer to the ‘untouchables.’

The Adi-Hindu Mahasabha derived this meaning from the existing Nirgun Bhakti protests tradition. Rawat said that the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha, through its literary and cultural activism, transformed the word ‘acchut’ from a general adjective to a marker of collective identity for the Dalit communities.

Swami Achutanand, a great institution builder, was probably the last in the line of Nirgun Bhakti saints like Kabir and Raidas, who used religion as a vehicle for social protest. In his 15 years of social activism, Swami Achutanand wrote a number of plays, poems and essays to raise the consciousness of the ‘untouchables’, and to challenge the Brahmanical discourses and the social reform movement of Hindus.

The Swami passed away on July 16, 1933 leaving behind him a legacy and an intellectual resource that continues to inform and inspire the Dalit community in their fight for social justice even today.

Courtesy The Wire

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