Equality (Samya)


“Differences are a basic principle of the world. There is inequality in everything. There are real differences between people. Real differences are differences created by rules of nature. But just as there are real differences, there are artificial differences as well. Artificial differences are not created by rules of nature. The difference between brahmins and shudras is an artificial one. If you kill a brahmin, that is a serious crime. But if you kill a shudra, that is a light offence. Such norms are against the rules of nature … ”

This observation is from Equality (Samya), an essay by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1898), a 19th century writer born in Naihati, now a town in North Twenty Four Parganas district, West Bengal. His well-known novel Anandamath (1882), contains the nationalist verse ‘Vande Mataram’ (‘Glory to the Motherland’).

Samya was first published in Bengali in Banga Darshan, a periodical brought out by Chattopadhyay between 1872 and 1876. This version is an English translation by Professor Bibek Debroy, director of Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, New Delhi, and published in 2002 by Liberty Institute, New Delhi.

In this five-chapter essay, Bankimchandra studies Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of equality in the context of 19th century Bengal. Rousseau (1712-78) was a French philosopher, writer and political theorist. This text explores themes such as the zamindari system, lack of women’s education, and unequal property rights.

“The terrible inequalities of the caste system pushed India towards the path of deterioration,” writes Bankimchandra in Chapter 1. All human advancement is based on acquiring knowledge, he observes. “The shudra has no right to knowledge; the brahmin has this sole right. Most people in India are not brahmins. Therefore, most Indians remained ignorant.” He writes that Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Rousseau were proponents of equality.

Drawing on Rousseau and John Stuart Mill (an English philosopher born in 1806), Bankimchandra says in Chapter 2: “When the powerful began to deprive the weak of their rights, society began to be established. The deprivation obtained permanence through the institution of law. The first person who singled out a piece of land and said, ‘This is mine’, was the one who initiated society. ‘That fellow is a cheat. Don’t listen to him; the earth does not belong to an individual, the crop belongs to everyone’. Had someone uttered these words and got rid of that prospective landowner, he would have done the greatest service to humankind.”

Further, “It is possible that property does not belong to an individual, but belongs to the public at large. The earth that sustains all was not created for any one single individual. Nor was it created for ten or fifteen landowners. Therefore, everyone must have an equal right on land.”

In Chapter 3, Bankimchandra illustrates the experience of inequality through the fictional character Paran Mandal – a landless farmer who is thrust into debt at the hands of zamindars, clerks, moneylenders, courts and constables.

In Chapter 4, he draws on Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862, an English historian) in saying that society can only improve with the help of education, and “education requires the leisure of time.” The labourer class that performs physical labour has no time for leisure, and “Without leisure, there is no scope to discuss knowledge.” He writes of the “severe caste-based inequality” which came from the division of society into brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. “Inequality is a main reason for the deterioration in the lot of India’s subjects.”

And in Chapter 5, Bankimchandra writes of inequality between men and women. He explores the question of whether widows should remarry: “If a widower is allowed to have another wife after his former wife dies, by the principles of equality, a widow should have the right to another husband after her former husband dies.” A proponent of women’s education, Bankimchandra writes that if women are educated, they will be “able to overcome the constraint being restricted to within the confines of the household. Education will provide the skills for women to make a living.”

Focus by Aaliya Sayed.


Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (This is an English translation by Prof. Bibek Debroy, which was published by Liberty Institute, New Delhi, in 2002.)


Liberty Institute, New Delhi