The words ‘Caste’ and ‘Class’ in Pre-Constitution India

Madras Province

In the Madras Provincial and Subordinate Service Rules, 1942, framed by the Governor of Madras under Section 241(2)(b) read with 255 and 275 of the Government of India Act. 1935, the expression “backward classes” was defined in Clause 3(A) of Rule 2.

(The provinces of Madras at that time covered not only the present State of Tamil Nadu but also a major portion of the present State of Andhra Pradesh and parts of present States of Kerala and Karnataka.) The definition read as follows:

3(A).”Backward classes” means the communities mentioned in Schedule III of this part.

Schedule III bore the heading “backward classes”. It was a collection of castes and tribes under the sub-heading “race, tribe or caste.” The backward classes in the Schedule not only included the backward castes and tribes in Hindu religion but also certain sections of Muslims in the nature of castes.

For example, item (23) in Schedule III referred to ‘Dudekula’ who, as is well known, is a socially disadvantaged section of Muslims – in effect, a caste – pursuing the occupation of ginning and cleaning of cotton and preparing pillows and mattresses.

In this connection, reference may be had to Chapter III – ‘History of the Backward Classes Movement in Tamil Nadu’ – of the Report of the Tamil Nadu Second Backward Classes Commission (1985), which inter alia refers to formation of ‘The Madras Provincial Backward Classes League, an association representing the various backward Hindu communities’ in 1934 and its demand for separate representation for them in services.

State of Mysore

The former State of Mysore was one of the earliest States, where certain provisions were made in favour of Backward Classes. The opinion of E.S. Venkataramiah, J. in Vasant Kumar[1], (at pages 442-443) traces briefly the history of reservations in the State of Mysore from 1918-21 upto the re-organisation of State. The learned Judge points out how the expression ‘backward classes’ and ‘backward communities’ were used interchangeably. All the castes/communities’ except Brahmins in the State were notified as backward communities/castes. As far back as 1921, preferential recruitment was provided in favour of “backward communities”, in Government services.

Bombay Province

In Bombay province, the Government of Bombay, Finance Department Resolution No. 2610 dated 5.2.1925 defined “Backward Classes” as all except Brahmins, Prabhus, Marwaris, Parsis, Banyas and Christians. Certain reservations in Government service were provided for these classes. In 1930, the State Committee noticed the over-lapping meanings attached to the expressions “depressed classes” and “backward classes” and recommended that “Depressed Classes” should be used in the sense of untouchables, a usage which “will coincide with existing common practice.”

They proposed that the wider group should be called “Backward Classes”, which should be subdivided into Depressed Classes (i.e., untouchables); Aboriginals and Hill Tribes; Other Backward Classes (including wandering tribes). They opined that the groups then currently called Backward Classes should be renamed “intermediate classes”. In addition to 36 Depressed classes (approximate 1921 population 1.475 millions) and 24 Aboriginal and Hill Tribes (approximate 1921 population 1.323 millions), they listed 95 Other Backward Classes (approximate 1921 population 1.041 millions)”.

Princely State of Travancore

In the former princely State of Travancore, the expression used was “Communities”, as would be evident from the Proceedings of the Government of His Highness the Maharaja of Travancore, contained in Order R. Dis. N. 893/general dated Trivandrum, 25th June, 1935. It refers to earlier orders on the subject as well. What is significant is that the expression “communities” was used as taking in Muslims and certain sections of Christians as well; it was not understood as confined to castes in Hindu social system alone. The operative portion of the order reads as follows:

….Accordingly, Government have decided that all communities whose population is approximately 2 per cent of the total population of the State or about one lakh, be recognised as separate communities for the purpose of recruitment to the public service. The only exception from the above rule will be the Brahmin community who, though forming only 1.8 per cent of the total population, will be dealt with as a separate community. On the above basis the classification of communities will be as follows:-


1. Brahmin. 2. Nayar. 3. Other Caste Hindu. 4. Kummula. 5. Nudar. 6. Ezlmva. 7. Cheramar (Pulaya) 8. Other Hindu.



1. Jacobite. 2. Marthomite. 3. Syriac Catholic. 4. Latin Catholic. 5. South India United Church. 6. Other Christian

United Province

In the then United Provinces, the term “Backward Classes” was understood as covering both the untouchable classes as well other “Hindu Backward” classes.

Marc Galanter says:

The United Provinces Hindu Backward Classes League (founded in 1929) submitted a memorandum which suggested that the term “Depressed” carried a connotation “of untouchability, in the sense of causing pollution by touch as in the case of Madras and Bombay” and that many communities were reluctant to identify themselves as depressed. The League suggested the term “‘Hindu’ Backward'” as a more suitable nomenclature.

The list of 115 castes submitted included all candidates from the untouchable category as well as a stratum above. “All of the listed communities belong to non-Dwijas or degenerate or Sudra classes of the Hindus.” They were described as low socially, educationally and economically and were said to number over 60% of the population.

The expression “depressed and other backward classes” occurs in the Objectives Resolution of the Constituent Assembly moved by Jawaharlal Nehru on December 13, 1946.

Dr. Ambedkar’s Lecture on Caste

We may also refer to a speech delivered by Dr. Ambedkar on May 9, 1916 at the Columbia university of New York, U.S.A. on the subject “castes in India: their mechanism, genesis and development” (the speech was published in Indian Antiquary-May 1917-Vol.XLI), which shows that as early as 1916, “class” and “caste” were used inter-changeably. In the course of the speech, he said:

….society is always composed of classes. It may be an exaggeration to assert the theory of class-conflict, but the existence of definite classes in a society is a fact. Their basis may differ. They may be economic or intellectual or social, but an individual in a society is always a member of a class. This is a universal fact and early Hindu society could not have been an exception to this rule, and, as a matter of fact, we know it was not. If we bear this generalization in mind, our study of the genesis of caste would be very much facilitated, for we have only to determine what was the class that first made itself into a caste, for class and caste, so to say, are next door neighbours, and it is only a span that separates the two. A Caste is an Enclosed Class.

A little later he stated:

We shall be well advised to recall at the outset that the Hindu society, in common with other societies, was composed of classes and the earliest known are the (1) Brahmins or the priestly class; (2) the Kshatriya, or the military class; (3) the Vaishya, or the merchant class and (4) the Shudra or the artisan and menial class. Particular attention has to be paid to the fact that this was essentially a class system, in which individuals, when qualified, could change their class, and therefore classes did change their personnel.

At some time in the history of the Hindus, the priestly class socially detached itself from the rest of the body of people and through a closed-door policy became a caste by itself. The other classes being subject to the law of social division of labour underwent differentiation, some into large, others into very minute groups.

In Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol. 16, the following statement occurs under the heading “Slavery, Serfdom and Forced labour” under the sub-heading “servitude in Ancient India and China.” – “castes in India.”

More abundant than slavery were serfdom. Within the rigid classification of social classes in ancient India, the Sudra caste was obliged to serve the Ksatriya, or warrior caste, the Brahmins, or priests, and the Vaisyas, or farmers, cattle raisers and merchants. There is an unbreakable barrier, however, separating these castes from the inferior Sudra caste, the descendants of the primitive indigenous people who lived in serfdom.

In those times it was not a person’s economic wealth that gave him his social rank but rather his social and racial level; and thus one of the Manu’s laws says” Although able, a Sudra must not acquire excess riches, since when a Sudra acquires a fortune, he vexes the Brahmans with his insolence.” The barrier separating the servile castes took on extreme cruelty in some laws:

The legal condition of the Sudra left him only death as a means of improving his condition.

In Legal Thesaurus (Regular Edition) the following meanings are given to the word “class”:

Assortment, bracket, branch, brand, breed, caste, category, classification, classes, denomination, designation, division…; gradation, grade, group, grouping hierarchy…. sect, social rank, social status….

The following meanings are given to the word “caste” in Webster’s English Dictionary:

(1) a race, stock, or breed of men or animals

(2): one of the hereditary classes into which the society of India is divided in accordance with a system fundamental to Hinduism, reaching back into distant antiquity, and dictating to every orthodox Hindu the rules and restrictions of all social intercourse and of which each has a name of its own and special customs that restrict that occupation of its members and their intercourse with the members of the other classes

(3)(a): a division or class of society comprised of persons within a separate and exclusive order based variously upon differences of wealth, inherited rank or privilege, profession, occupation… (b) the position conferred by caste standing.

(4) a system of social stratification more rigid than a class and characterized by hereditary status, endogamy and social barriers rigidly sanctioned by custom law or religion. All the above material does go to show that in pre-Independence India, the expressions ‘class’ and ‘caste’ were used interchangeably and that caste was understood as an enclosed class.


Indira Sawhney v. Union of India (1992)

[1] K.C. Vasant Kumar and Anr. v. State of Karnataka [1985]