The main objective of the movement in western India was removal or eradication of social discrimination prevalent against the various lower caste groups.
Thinkers like Vishnubawa Brahmachari, Jyotiba Phule, Ranade and many others played a crucial role in the development of this social awareness.
The most important thinkers who initiated an intellectual revolt against the social discrimination were Bal Shastri Jambhakar (1812-1846), Dadoba Pandurang Tarkhadkar (1814-1882), and Bhaskar Pandurang Tarkhadkar (1816-1847), Gopal Hari Deshmukh popularly known as Lokhitwadi (1823-1882) and Vishnu Bhikaji Gokhale (1825-1873) popularly known as Vishnubawa Brahmachari. Of the above intellectuals, Jambhakar was the pioneer of the intellectual revolt with his writings and Dadoba gave to them an organizational shape by founding the Paramhansa Sabha in 1840.
Bhaskar Pandurang was the first militant nationalist critic of the colonial rule of the British and by his eight long letters published in Bombay Gazette in 1841, exposed the colonial exploitation. By writing Shatapatru or 100 letters in the Prabhakar, a Marathi weekly between 1848 and 1856, Lokhitavadi broadened the scope of the intellectual revolt.
Lokhitavadi also criticized casteism and emphasized the aspects of oneness of humanity. A Brahmin by birth he employed a Muslim cook and ate the food cooked by him. The Paramahansa Sabha is a secret society whose objective was the demolition of all caste distinctions. In the latter half of the 19th century, the most notable intellectuals who spearheaded social reform movement were Pandit Vishnu Parasuram Shastri (1827-1876), Jyotiba Phule (1827-1890), R.G. Bhandarkar (1837-1925), Narayan Mahadev Paramanand (1838-1893) M.G. Ranade (1842-1901), Vishunasastri Chiplankar (1850-1882), K.T. Telang (1850-1893) Ganesh Vasudev Joshi (1851-1911), Narayan Ganesh Chandravarkar (1855-1923) and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar (1856-1895). Vishnu Parasuram Shastri Pandit advocated widow remarriages and also took active part in the women’s emancipation movements.
In 1865, he started Vidhava Vivaha Uttejaka Mandal and married a widow in 1875. He started the first school for untouchables in 1854 and in 1851 he with his wife started a girl’s school at Poona. ‘Maharshi’ Bhandarkar performed the widow remarriage of his daughter in 1891 and advocated vigorously the Hindu Muslim unity Mahadev Govind Ranade reorganized Paramhansa Sabha in 1867 as Prarthana Samaj.
It preached monotheism and denounced priestly domination and caste distinction. Chiplankar started Nibandhamala in 1874; a monthly Marathi magazine devoted to the cause of social reform. K.T. Telang was responsible for the introduction of compulsory primary education in Bombay. He was a brilliant academician who critically examined the economic policy of the British government. Chandravarkar also devoted his time for the propagation of Prarthana Samaj.
Agarkar, another intellectual of commitment was an iconoclast of eminence and proved himself to be an uncompromising rationalist. Sumit Sarkar points out: “The anti-Brahmin toxin was first sounded in Maharashtra in the 1870s by Jyotiba Phule with his book, Ghulamgiri (1872) and his organization, the Satyasodhak Samaj (1873) which strongly pleaded for saving the lower castes from the hypocritical Brahmins and their opportunistic scriptures.” Tamil Nadu was another area where we notice the anti-Brahmin movement being very strong. It is visible as a movement also in British administered Andhra. Satyasodhak Samaj launched direct attacks on the upper caste moneylenders and landlords and also challenged the ritual status of the Brahmins.
Phule asserted that every individual irrespective of his birth in a caste and has his own individuality and identity. He wanted to uplift the people of the lower castes by encouraging them to be educated and started schools for girls and boys in 1848; and started a special school for untouchables in 1851.
It is because of his constant efforts alone that the non-Brahmans secured special representation under Montague Chelmsford reforms. While the above were well-known reformers of Maharashtra, Naoroji Fudonzi, Dadabhai Naoroji and S.S. Bangalore are the well-known reformers of the city of Bombay. In 1851, they started a religious organization called the Rehnumai Maza Dayasan Sabha, which focused on the aspects of modernization of the Parsi religion and its social customs. This organization worked for the emancipation of women by spreading educational opportunities and by demanding uniform laws of inheritance and marriage for the Parsi community.
In South India, the leader of the social reform movement, in the second half of the 19th century was Kandukuri Veeresalinagam Pantulu (1848-1919). Born in a poor family, and working as a teacher, he devoted his entire life and earnings for the emancipation of women by propagating widow remarriage and spread of education among women. His newspapers and books made him a father figure of social reform movements of the Andhra.
In other parts of South India, we witness movements for social elevation of castes and opportunities for social mobility as is the case of Kongu Vellala Samsthan of the Gounder caste of Tamil Nadu, the Vokkaliga and Lingayat associations of Karnataka and the SNDP Yogam of the Iravas of Kerala.