Home » Social Movements » Middle Class Movements

Middle Class Movements

The middle class is placed between labour and capital. It neither directly owns the means of production that pumps out the surplus generated by wage labour power nor does it by its own labour produce the surplus which has use and exchange value.

The middle class comprises mainly of petty bourgeoisie and the white collar workers. In terms of occupation, shopkeepers, salesmen, brokers, government and non government office workers, supervisors and professionals such as engineers, doctors etc constitute the middle class. Most of these occupations require at least some degree of formal education. The middle class is primarily a product of capitalist development and the expansion of the functions of the state in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Though the petty bourgeoisie and managers did exist in pre-capitalist society they constituted a tiny class. Industrial development and expansion of markets require not only a larger managerial class than earlier but also forced the state to shoulder the responsibilities of monitoring market competition and resolving the contradictions of capitalist development. This includes formation and implementation of welfare programmes to minimize tension in society. For carrying out these functions the state also requires a managerial class. Formal education contributes to the expansion of this class.

In India according to Ranjit Sahu (1986) the number of white-collar employees is larger than that of industrial workers. A large majority of the members of the middle class belong to upper and middle class.

While looking for the middle class movements in India, there is general absence of information on these movements. This is not because the middle class movements are few in number, nor because scholars have limited interest towards the middle class. They do take cognizance of the role of the middle class in various movements. But these movements are primarily analyzed in terms of the issues that they raise such as social reform movements, the nationalist movement, and human right movements and so on. These movements are called mass movements as the issues are not class specific not affecting mainly the middle class. The issues are posed as societal problems. The leaders of such movements who belong to the middle class mobilize other classes for support.

Colonial rule established and introduced a capitalist economy, a new administrative system and English education in the early 19th century. Consequently a tiny educated class emerged in urban areas. The members of this class were upper caste Hindus and Muslims. They not only raised questions but also revolted against certain customs and traditions of the Hindu social system. These individuals known as social reformers were all those who were advocates of alterations in social customs which would involve a break with traditionally accepted patterns; they were those who convinced themselves that altered ways of thinking and behaving were positive values, sought to convince others to modify or entirely transform their ways of life.

According to Heimsath, these reformers either revolted individually or formed associations. These associations were of three types –general associations; caste reform associations and religious reform bodies. The Indian National Social Conference was formed in 1887.Social reform associations came into existence at provincial and local level. Some of them were formed around one issue such as widow remarriage ,child marriage whereas others took up general issues related to social reform protesting against conservatism including protests against religious heads,superstitions,caste restrictions etc.Some reformers confined their activities to their castes. They formed caste associations and persuaded caste fellows to join for reformation of certain unacceptable practices.

The main thrust of the socio-religious reform movements was to revive or rejuvenate Hindu religion and society. This was basically to counter the impact of western culture and the efforts of Christian missionaries. According to A R Desai the traditional social structure and religion were not able to cope with the new economic structure which was based on individualism. The reformers were striving to extend the principle of individual liberty to the sphere of religion.

According to Anil Seal there were keen internal rivalries but these were between caste and caste community not between class and class. Moreover those groups which felt a similarity of interest were themselves more the product of bureaucratic initiative than of economic change. Since these groups can be largely identified with the men educated in western styles and since it was these men whose hopes and fears went into the building of the new associations that emerged as the Indian National Congress a conceptual system based on elites, rather than on classes would seem more promising.

These elites belonged to middle class. Granting that the initiative came from the bureaucracy, it was intended to bring about economic change in society in general and middle class in particular.

The middle class participated at various stages of India's freedom movement. The major events of their collective action were the partition of Bengal in 1906,the non cooperation campaign in the early 1920s,the anti-Simon agitation in the mid 1920s ,Civil Disobedience movements in the early 1930s and Quit India movement in 1942.Besides this there were a number of local- level campaigns organized and spontaneous against the British Raj. In his study on popular movements between 1945 and 1947 Sumit Sarkar argues that in this as well as in other periods of modern Indian history the decisions and actions of leaders British or Indian cannot really be understood without the counterpoint provided by pressures from below.

Social reform among the Muslims began with the Aligarh movement led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. The main thrust of the movement was to persuade the Muslim landed gentry to take an English education, it was feared that the Muslims would be unable to compete with the Hindus and would remain backward. The Khilafat movement (1919-1924) led by the Muslim intelligentsia and the Ullema mobilized a cross section of the Muslims. Their claim was that the Sultan of Turkey was the custodian and defender, the protector of the holy places. The movement was supported by the Muslim groups and the Indian National Congress.

At the end of the 19th century the educated Hindu Middle Class of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh launched a series of agitations for the removal of Urdu and for its replacement by Hindi in the Devnagri script. Muslim intellectuals also launched a counter agitation in defense of Urdu.

Post independence, the upper caste Hindu middle class launched struggles in Bihar and Gujarat against reservation for the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward castes. Upper caste government servants also launched agitation against the roster system which provided certain benefits to SC/ST employees. These agitations were primarily result of the conflict of economic interests between upper and deprived caste groups; middle class leaders of these agitations raised the issue of merit, secularism and effiency.While analyzing the 1981 anti-reservation agitation in Gujarat, I.PDesai argues that the economic structure was not able to provide employment opportunities for the lower strata of higher castes.

Some sections of the middle class –white collar government employees, school and university teachers etc launched movements on economic issues affecting them such as revision of pay scales, bonus, and job security. But in the course of the development of these movements these issues were side tracked and movements raised populist issues which appeal to various classes. They raised moral and cultural issues. For example the Bihar movement known as movement for social revolution in 1974 began with economic issues; it also raised issues of corruption, democratic rights and social reform.

The middle class of South India launched struggles during the 1950s and 1960s against the imposition of Hindi and for retention of English. For them it was a struggle against Hindu Imperialism. The middle class of linguistic groups such as Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu and Punjabi demanded formation of linguistic states in the 1950s.They launched agitations for these demands. For maintaining their cultural identity the middle class among the Tamils, the Punjabi, the Naga and the Mizos spearheaded agitation for the formation of separate states within or outside the Indian Union.

Regional or linguistic identities have been sharpened in India since independence and they have become a potential force consisting of the middle class which face competition from other classes of the society.

A small section of urban middle class intelligentsia has formed organizations at state and national levels for the protection of civil and democratic rights.They raise issues related to violation of civil and democratic rights of various strata of society including the oppressed classes.