Shahu Chhatrapati- A Reformer par excellence | The Background

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

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Shahu Chhatrapati- A Reformer par excellence

In 1902, a 28 year old monarch of a princely state of India took a radical decision of 50% reservation of government posts for the backward classes

 Najib Anwar     

On 26 July 1902, Shahu Chhatrapati, aged 28, issued a historic document in the gazette of Kolhapur state. At that time, he was in England invited to attend the coronation of King Edward VII. He issued an order from there, to the effect, that 50 per cent government posts should be reserved for the Backward Class candidates. The notification was in English. After a couple of days, on returning, he issued the same notification in Marathi again.

History was made. For the first time a government issued a quota system in India. Almost 48 years later, the country adopted the Constitution, where B.R Ambedkar drafted the reservation policy. But Shahu Chhatrapati adopted it in the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, 26 July 1902 was the precursor to the reservation policy adopted in the Constitution.  It was, according to the Marathi historian Jaysingrao Pawar, “…the first manifesto of affirmative action in India.”

Shahu was born in 1874 as Yeshwantrao Ghatge. He came from an aristocratic family of Kagal in Kolhapur state and was the eldest son of Appasaheb Ghatge.  In 1884, he was adopted by Anandibai, widow of Maharaja Shivaji IV of Kolhapur. He married Lakshmibai Khanvilkar in 1891 and had four children. Shahu took responsibility of Kolhapur in 1894. During his rule from 1894 to 1922, the year he died, he introduced reforms for the welfare of the state of Kolhapur. But it was only one part of the story. Shahu took more radical path inasmuch as devoting his energies removing the social inequalities and disabilities imposed upon the untouchables who formed one-fifth of the country’s total population. He embarked on a strenuous campaign against the evils, the traditional hierarchy of castes.

The 1902 manifesto of reservation could be placed between two milestones. The first was in 1882 when Jotiba Phule in his address to the Hunter Commission demanded that the British purge the education system and public services of the near total dominance of Brahmins. Shahu was inspired by Phule and there was also a certain incidence of personal humiliation and he took the plunge in 1902, which was a revolutionary step, by all means. The second milestone came years later. It was 26 January 1950, when a Constitution was adopted. It was Dr Ambedkar, “a great reformer, emancipator, and legal genius” gave constitutional sanctity to the spirit of the 1902 notification.

The original order of 1902 stated:

Endevours have been made in recent years in the Kolhapur State to foster and encourage the education of all classes of the subjects, so far, but His Highness regrets to have to record that those endeavours have not in the case of the more backward classes met with the success that was hoped for. His Highness, has had the matter under very careful consideration, has come to the conclusion that this want of success is due to the fact that the rewards for the higher education are not sufficiently distributed. To remedy this to a certain extent and to establish within the State an incentive to the backward classes of His Highness has decided that it is desirable to reserve for those classes a larger share of employment in the State services than has hitherto been the case.

It further says:

His Highness is pleased to direct that from the date of this order 50 per cent of the vacancies that may occur shall be filled by recruits from among the backward classes. In all offices in which the proportion of officers of the backward classes at present is less than 50 per cent, the next appointment shall be given to a member of those classes. A Quarterly return of all appointments made after the issue of this order shall be submitted by all Head of Departments. For the purpose of these orders the backward classes shall be understood to mean all castes other than Brahmins, Prabhu, Shenavi, Parsees and other advanced classes. (Emphasis added)

Dr Ambedkar met Shahu in 1919 through Dattoba Power, a Chamar who was an associate of the Chhatrapati. In more than one occasion, Shahu had helped Ambedkar financially. Like Ambedkar, Shahu too travelled extensively through India and Europe and absorbed many things, which he tried to implement in Kolhapur. He was much ahead of his time. He consciously exposed himself to outside influences and especially the modern European ideals of democracy, fraternity and individual liberty. He interacted often with prominent rationalists and reformists like Mahadev Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar.

The astounding trajectory and range of the revolutionary and reformist laws/decrees/manifestos he issued prove the fact that he was indeed a social reformer. Some of these were- the Compulsory Primary Education Act of 1917, the Legal Sanction to Inter-caste and Inter-religion Marriage Act of 1919, the Law for Prevention of Cruelty against Women, 1919, and the Manifesto against Observance of Untouchability, 1919.

When he ascended the throne in 1894, Brahmins held 67 of the 71 posts (94.37%) in the administrative department of the princely state. In the ruler’s private administration, Brahmins held 46 of the 53 posts (87.79%). The remaining posts in both departments were occupied by non-Brahmins like British officers, Anglo-Indians, Parsis, and Prabhus (upper-caste Hindus). Chhatrapati called it the Brahmin bureaucracy. The untouchables were in miserable conditions. According to Census Report of Kolhapur of 1901 there were 1, 03, 889 untouchables. The Mahars, Mangs, Chambars and Dhors were classified as untouchables. He took various administrative measures to remove the bar of untouchability.

Shahu Chhatrapati implemented his reforms both in letter and spirit. After 1902, when he saw that the non-Brahmins did not have necessary educational qualifications to claim the reserved jobs, he started various programmes. It includes, free, universal and mandatory education. In 1919, he closed all the separate schools meant for the low castes and threw all public schools open for the untouchables. He is said to have built as many as 21 hostels in Kolhapur for various castes and communities, several of which survive and have contributed immensely to the cause of education among the backward classes.

He died in 1922. By that time, Shahu helped build 420 schools which admitted more than 22,000 students. When he took over the reins of the state, the Rajaram High School and College had only 7.6 % students from the non-Brahmin castes. By 1922, this figure was 37.7%. In the general administration, the percentage of employees from non-Brahmin castes went up from 5.63% to 62.11% in 1922. The backward classes accounted for 71.71% of the staff in the private administration, up from a mere 13.21% in 1894.


‘The Kolhapur State Gazette’ dated 26 July 1902.

After 1947, Kolhapur merged with the republic. But the spirit of ‘affirmative manifesto’ of 1902 finds its way in many reports and recommendations. The Mandal Commission report submitted in 1980 but accepted in 1990, the 1994 reservation policy based on the Mandal report that gave 27% quota to the OBCs who were estimated to account for 52% of India’s population, and the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution that gave 33% reservation to women in local bodies, has the definite imprint and spirit of the 1902 manifesto. It had a possible impact on Ambedkar when he drafted the Constitution.

All through his life Shahu Maharaj dedicated himself to uplift and upgrade the ‘down-trodden’ and ‘down-fallen’ castes. He prepared the way for the emergence of Dr Ambedkar. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Shahu Chhatrapati laid the foundation on which Dr Ambedkar strode and carried on the unfinished task with undaunted courage and zeal.

Cover Photo: A bust of Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj at the new Shahu palace in Kolhapur, Maharashtra

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