Negative Aspects of Reform Movements

The reform movements of the early 19th-century suffered from many weaknesses and limitations.

  • The reform movements could not give rise to a mass consciousness. The modern ideals preached by the reformers could not percolate down to the masses. At the most, these movements were individual or organizational efforts and their impact remained restricted to educated elite only.
  • The movements were basically urban phenomena - their base remained in the urban areas and the activities of the reformers too were confined to it. The reformist spirit appealed only to a small elite group. They could produce little impact on the rural folk.
    • In Bengal, the reform movement involved only a small number of Western-educated elite who were known by the general term "Bhadralok" or the gentlefolk. These were the "new men" who had made money as junior partners of the English officers and free merchants, consolidated their position as small landholders under Permanent Settlement and later took advantage of English education to fill in the various new professions and subordinate administrative positions.
    • Socially, they were mostly Hindus, and though caste was not a major criterion for membership, most of them belonged to the three higher castes, Brahman, Kayastha, and Baidya. The Brahmo movement was almost exclusively patronized by these three groups.
    • The language of the reform, pioneered by Rammohun Roy, was highly Sanskritised which remained incomprehensible to the uneducated peasants and artisans.
    • Similarly in western India, the members of the Prarthana Samaj were the English educated Chitpavan and Saraswat Brahmans, some Gujarati merchants and a few members of the Parsi community.
    • In Madras Presidency, English education made much slower progress and caste domination of the Brahmans remained unshaken for quite a long time. Hence the reform ideas took longer to appear in this region.
    • The general high caste character of the reform movements of the early nineteenth century explains to a large extent the relative silence on the caste question.
  • The success of the reformers was not spectacular in concrete terms. They could not make much dent in all that was perverted, corrupt, and irrational in the society. Many of the traditional and irrational ethos continued.
    • Caste distinctions remained strong and many religious and social practices which were considered to be inhuman and backward did not die away. Child-marriage and enforced widowhood remained as pressing problems of the day.
  • Though the reformers tried to use vernaculars to a certain extent to spread their reform message, their reach was limited. Given the widespread illiteracy in rural areas and because of the absence of a modern and diversified communications network, the reform ideas could not reach to the rural audience.
  • Though the early reformers fought against the indignities faced by women, they did not try to create an equal space for women, along with men, in all the spheres of public life. Most of the efforts for women's emancipation were led by men, barring a few exceptions such as Savitri Phule.

The reform movements in the latter half of the 19th century tried to overcome some of the above limitations but they too suffered from many weaknesses and negatives:

  • Some of the reform movements were associated with religious revivalism. This led to the growth of orthodoxy and fundamentalism in religion. It had also strengthened the association of religion with politics which had many negative implications in the subsequent period.
    • Arya Samaj movement in North India, with its emphasis on the revival of Vedic Hindu religion, started a reconversion drive known as the Shuddhi movement to convert those sections of lower castes who had taken up other religions such as Christianity, Islam etc., back to Hinduism. It also started a cow protection movement. This resulted in tensions among Hindus, Muslims, and Christian Missionaries. The activities of Arya Samaj were responsible for the formation of conservation political groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha which played an important role in the growth of communal tensions of the early 20th century.
    • The Aligarh Movement under the leadership of Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan initially focussed upon the spread of English education among the Muslims. Later on, the movement began to preach loyalty among the Muslims towards the British Crown and refrained them from participating in the national movement along with the Indian National Congress. Similarly, Mohammad Iqbal who was a famous poet and a moderate-liberal initially turned into a reactionary and preached communal ideology. This was responsible for the formation of Muslim League and subsequently, this gave rise to the two-nation theory leading to the Partition.
    • Many lower caste movements such as the Satya Shodhak Samaj under Jyotiba Phule, Aruvippuram temple entry movement, and SNDP movement under Sri Narayana Guru laid the foundations for backward class movement of pre and post-independence India. However, these movements had a negative fall out too. They ensured that caste remained an important aspect of the society as well as in the political discourse, preventing the dilution of caste ideology.

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