The country we now call ours did not identify itself as a nation before the coming of the British. Understanding Indians and their land was a job taken up by the British after they established their colony on “Hindustani” land and felt the need to make sense of the people and their customs. Through the process of fighting for independence was born a sense of togetherness. A number of individuals who took part in the struggle had different ‘ideas’ of what they thought India was; one such individual was B.R Ambedkar.
A jurist, politician and social reformer, Ambedkar was an important name during the mid 90s. As the nation’s first law minister, he is famous for being the “the architect of the Indian constitution” and for his efforts to remove caste and un-touchability in pre-independent India. He was also involved in numerous campaigns for India’s independence. Born into a Dalit family, Babasaheb faced varied forms of discrimination in his life. From being asked to sit outside classrooms to being humiliated in and denied a series of jobs, he had experienced what it was to be an untouchable. Even while teaching at Sydenham College in Mumbai, his colleagues refused to share the water jugs with him. Ambedkar went on to fight for the down-trodden castes through several ways – arguing for a separate electorate system, demanding reservations, publishing writings against the caste system, promoting education among the Dalits and establishing a handful of organizations with the aim of improving the status of the lower castes. He also interacted with a number of important leaders such as M.K Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru regarding issues concerning British-Indian relations. At the peak of his activism, he went on to accuse Hinduism of sustaining the harsh caste system. In 1927, during the Mahad Satyagraha, a movement led by Ambedkar concerning the rights of the untouchables to drinking water, he publicly tore a copy of the Manusmriti. Such comments and demonstrations were disapproved by Gandhi who felt that it would be the end of the Hindu religion if caste was totally exterminated. Gandhi was also against the separate electorate system demanded by Ambedkar for which he went on hunger strike. As an individual who worked and lived during the building of the India, whose actions had significant influence on the future of our country, whose constitution the state runs on, Ambedkar is an important figure even today. Moreover, no debate on caste and untouchability in today’s times can take place without a mention of Ambedkar.
Out of the numerous books he has written, Ambedkar’s most popular one remains Annihilation of Caste. Presenting the speech that he had written but never delivered, the book logically criticizes the Hindu caste system that he grew up with, witnessed at the time and what still prevails today. Instead of playing the empathy and injustice cards, the book challenges the defenses of the caste system such as division of labour, preservation of pure races and eugenics.
Ambedkar criticizes the claim that castes are a characteristic of a civilized society used to provide divisions of labour. He states that caste not only categorizes labour but the labourers as well, in levels of hierarchy, appointing both the professions and workers at different levels of status. This replaces the initial concern for an efficient workforce or economy, and instead, introduces concepts of superiority and suboordination.
Moreover, the occupations are ascribed and depend on the parents’ profession rather than aquired through aptitude or preferance. A desire to change one’s occupation has no scope since it is impossible to do so. The strict system has an economic down-side as well; the impenetrable caste groups prevent individuals from changing their profession if need be, to adapt to the many changes in the economy, thus resulting in an inability to earn a living. People are made to go starving rather than attempt to change their activities. Another point of critique regarding the rigidity of the caste system is the negative stigma attached to some jobs, proclaiming them to be lower and less worthy. This affects one’s sincerity towards their work and provokes feelings of aversion and dissatisfaction. It is hard for an industry and perhaps even an economy to function efficiently while having aloof worker-work relations.
As for preserving “purity”, Ambedkar comments that the caste system does not have the ability to separate races. He notes that castes were instituted much after different races mingled in blood and culture. Ethnologists assure that there are, and can never be any “pure” races because the exisiting races are blends of other races. This is easily verified by observing the lack of racial resemblence between a Tamilian Brahmin and a Punjabi Brahmin OR, the lack of racial difference between a Punjabi Dalit and a Punjabi Brahmin. Ambedkar also questions whether mixing of race is really a threat to society. Even if the system happens to be useful in dividing society into groups based on race, there is no logical reason behind wanting to prevent intermixing of races since we remain the same species regardless of who we marry or how we look like.
Eugenics, a set of practices that aim at ‘improving’ genetic quality, is another pretext for the caste system. Ambedkar has absolutely dismissed it and called it as non-scientific as can be. If castes are implemented for the purpose of eugenics, the same reason cannot be said for sub-castes since sub-castes are divisions of a caste itself. So, if sub-castes cannot be eugenic in origin then neither can caste. Moreover, prohibition of inter-caste dining and/or socializing can definitely not have a eugenic origin since there is no mixing of genes while eating or talking with someone.
Ambedkar further goes to say that it is nothing but a matter of arrogance and disdain on the part of the already higher social strata to enforce such a stringent system of division. Quoting Annihilation of Caste, “Hindus are a race of pygmies and dwarfs, stunted in stature and wanting in stamina. It is a nation nine-tenths of which is declared to be unfit for military service.” It is clear that caste has not been able to improve race.
Apart from criticizing the caste system, Ambedkar also comments on Hinduism. His speech, when sent to the organizers of an event by the Jat-Pat Todkal Mandal (an anti-caste organization that Ambedkar was then president of), was not received well. A number of members found the content unacceptable and contrary to the shastras and demanded that the speech be edited to which Ambedkar replied that he “would not alter a comma”.
In the speech, calling Hindu society a “myth”, Ambedkar claims that even the term ‘Hindu’ is foreign and used by the Muslims to differentiate themselves from the natives. A common name was never before necessary since they did not consider themselves as part of a community. He urges that we notice a lack of ‘conciousness of kind’ among the Hindus, instead of which they are solely concious of only their own caste. Hindus cannot form a nation or society because their identities are closely related to the caste that they are born into, rather than their persona as a Hindu. This could be because an individual’s everyday life and future is alarmingly influenced by the caste which s/he belongs to. All that one can and cannot do was decided by the caste of his/her parents. From attire to marriage, almost all parts of one’s culture was determined by his/her caste.
Ambedkar acknowledges differences in opinion as well. Some feel that despite the range of differences observed across various castes, there still exists a common set of thought, beliefs and habits which thereby unites them as a society. However, this view is dismissed by Ambedkar. He explains that it takes more than just commonalities to make up a society. Performing similar activities in a parallel manner without ever meeting the other is inadequate. Communication, interaction, shared emotions and participating in activities together are the main features of a society which the caste system clearly forbids.
Using these arguments, Ambedkar sees the urgency of the annihilation of caste.
First published by himself in the year 1936, Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste was targeted at the privileged-caste audience who remained oblivious to it. However, the book went on to be widely read by the Dalit population. The anti-Hindu content was disapproved by many and take matters to another level, Ambedkar went on to announce that he was abandoning the Hindu religion. “I was born a Hindi but will not die one.”
65 years after Article 17 of the constitution of India abolished the practice of un-touchability, our country does not have the privilege to boast its success.
A survey (2007-2010) carried out by a Dalit rights organization Navsarjan Trust in Gujarat showed that 98.4% of the villages surveyed restricted inter-caste marriage and were often countered with violence. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there has been a 44% increase in crimes against scheduled castest from the year 2010 to 2014. Another survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2006 on Delhi’s media show that 90% of print and 76% of television in English were managed by upper castes. The four leading English newspapers – Times group, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Hindu are owned by Vaishyas and Brahmins respectively. Regional political parties readily use caste alliances and identities for their own advantage, leading to further divides. Though the strings of the caste system have been loosened over the years owing to urbanisation and reservations, it is clear that caste-based discrimination still prevails. The India Human Development Survey (IHDS- 2) 2012 discovered that one in every four Indian practices untouchability in some form or the other. If we have reached Mars but still find it difficult to establish equality among our people, Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is as relevant as ever. The fourth edition has been edited and annoted by S.Anand and published in 2014 along with an introduction by Arundathi Roy’s The Docter and the Saint that allows the reader to have an overview of the caste-based scenario in the country.
Ambedkar’s idea of India focused on criticizing Hinduism as a religion and stating how impossible it would be for the population to be an effective society while the caste system prevailed. Quoting Annihilation of Caste, “Hindus realize that they are the sick men of India and that their sickness is causing danger to the health and happiness of other Indians.” Caste and its divisive characteristics prohibited communal unity or interaction which are essential for any nation and so as long as there was caste, there would never be solidarity among the citizens. Gandhi, in contrast, worried that India was turning away from religion and God which he found necessary in the existence of a strong nation. He also laid an emphasis on the idea of Hind Swaraj; an idea that saw India be independent and free from external influence. Savarkar, too, put Hinduism on a high pedestal, saying that all those who share the fatherland, language and lineage were Hindus. He stated that the nation is not a homogenous one but of two groups namely the Muslims and the Hindus. Nehru on the other hand cherished diversity and differences. He believed that though Indians had little in common, the concept of unity was consonant across all groups. He saw the need for a strong constitution, and addressed nationalism as a group of memories of past achievements and experiences. Four of the above men had four different ideas of India as a nation and this can be explained from their backgrounds as well as agendas. Ambedkar, a Dalit by birth and Buddhist by choice furiously attacked the caste system along with its Hindu base. Gandhi was strategic in nature when disapproving of a separate electorate or completely killing the caste system as a whole because he felt that he could not afford to anger majority of the Hindus in the country at a time where unity was the need of the hour. Savarkar’s “Hindutva” and desire to create a nation with a Hindu identity definitely has its roots in the Brahmin caste that he belonged to. Nehru’s ideas of secularism and unity in diversity were aiding his agenda of unification, independence and the birth of a new India.
As is evident even today, there continues to be an ongoing difference and variety of ideas amongst Indians about the present and future of the country. But that will always be the flaw and success of the great Indian democracy.
Guest post by Neelima Menon (Under-Grad at Azim Premji University)
[This Write-up is contributed to Lexpress as Guest post]