Caste in two minds

Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste and its contemporary relevance

Rajen Harshé | May 7, 2018


#Rohith Vemula   #Annihilation of Caste   #BR Ambedkar  


Dr BR Ambedkar has been one of those rare thinkers, social revolutionaries and outstanding scholars who have earned unparalleled posthumous recognition. With each passing year, more and more social thinkers and political parties are competing to appropriate the iconic figure of Ambedkar. Although he had a much larger world view, Ambedkar’s undelivered lecture to the ‘Jat-Pat Todak Mandal’ of Lahore that he published with the title ‘Annihilation of Caste’ in 1936 still has contemporary relevance. The bourgeoning inter-caste tensions coupled with atrocities on dalits as exemplified by the events such as the death of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad and cow vigilantes’ assaults on dalits in Una, Gujarat, in the past few years only offer a grim reminder of the modus operandi the caste system.

As dynamic social groups, the castes symbolise collective identities that are constantly being socially constructed. In a stratified and hierarchical social structure, a caste can be divisive as well as uniting force. For instance, if atrocities on dalits underscore caste fault-lines, they also unite dalit resistance movements symbolising assertion of dalit identity. While collectively giving expression to their accumulated anger on April 2, 2018 in northern states, the dalits wanted to stick on to stringent legal measures to safeguard their interests against all forms of discrimination and atrocities.

Moreover, caste identities built around birth, sameness and continuities are being used for political and social mobilisation to garner and strengthen vote banks in modern electoral democracy of India. As a corollary, caste as a unit can be deployed to process demands. It has been also used as a criterion for admission in public educational institutions and appointments in government jobs. So far, the scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST) and the other backward classes (OBC) have gained from reservation/affirmative action in governmental institutions. Unsurprisingly, the politics of reservation has also inspired strident middle castes such as Marathas (Maharashtra), Patidars (Gujarat) and Jats (Haryana) to plunge into agitations to obtain the status of backward castes.  In the midst of such live and complex social processes how can Ambedkar’s ideas expressed in ‘Annihilation of Caste’ be understood in his as well as contemporary times?

In his times, Ambedkar had refused to flow with the then dominant tide represented by leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and later even Gandhi who emphasised the need of political revolution by giving clear precedence to ‘political’ over ‘social’ revolution. Due to sheer dominance of the political current, the ‘Social Conference‘, a group that was supposed to back social reform/revolution, was virtually dismantled. Ambedkar was aware of reformers like MG Ranade (1842-1901) and GG Agarkar (1856-1895). Even though Agarkar had campaigned against the unjust practice of untouchability, the earlier reformers primarily fought within a Hindu family structure to abolish child marriages or stood for widow remarriages. Socially, such reforms were incapable of subverting the structures of caste dominance that characterised Hinduism/India. 

From his ideas expressed in Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar emerges as a staunch champion of social revolution. He illustrates the efficacy of his position by arguing that there was social and religious revolution led by the Buddha before political revolution took place in ancient India under Chandragupta Maurya (321-298 BCE). Similarly, political revolution and the advent of Shivaji (1630-1680) in Maharashtra were preceded by religious and social revolution under Varkari Sampradaya that stood for social equality. The Varkaris have been led by prominent saints such as Dnyaneshwar (1275-1296) and later by Shivaji’s contemporary Saint Tukaram (1608-1650) till the contemporary times. In substance, Ambedkar moved with a firm conviction that without social and religious revolution, the political revolution is likely to be ineffective.

Social revolution for Ambedkar entailed annihilation of the monstrous caste system that had practically worked as the cornerstone of society in India. As a rigid system the caste did not permit readjustment of occupations and thereby stunted the growth of people from lower castes, especially downtrodden untouchable/dalit communities who were outcastes. To Ambedkar caste appeared like a multi-storied building without entrance and exit. It was also spoiled by the poison of Brahminism which was an organising principle of a multi-layered pyramidal caste system. The caste system promoted social hierarchies as well as patriarchy.

Ambedkar asserted that the word ‘Hindu’ was given by Mahomedans to identify ‘natives’ and that there was no Hindu society but amorphous mass of people, divided into social castes, almost functioning like warring groups. Caste was also incompatible with conversion as it would be difficult to accommodate a convert within a caste system. Unfortunately, the caste system lacked capacity to appreciate merit as any learned person could not be appreciated without being labelled a Brahmin.

Ambedkar in spite of his faith in the ideals of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ was not attracted to socialists and communists. The latter gave priority to economic revolution through class struggles and perceived that if economic equality is attained the social problems could automatically be resolved. However, Ambedkar believed that perceiving the division of society merely into classes can be devoid of any social depth. In a caste-divided society there can be division of labourers into castes. He felt that understanding of Marx would not help India to negotiate with the artful ways in which social and religious rights were/are unevenly distributed among castes under Hinduism.

Being conscious of the power of religion over society, Ambedkar argued that “Religion compels the Hindus to treat isolation and segregation of castes as virtue.” He pleaded for delegitimising and discarding the Shastras that legitimise social inequalities. Besides, during his student days in Columbia University at New York (1913-16), Ambedkar was influenced by American feminist anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) and her programme of Direct Action that stood for free society through action.

Ambedkar himself resolved to Direct Action when he launched his famous Mahad or Chavdar Tale Satyagraha on March 20, 1927 where untouchables went, defying the upper castes, to drink water in public tank. In his lifetime he took umpteen measures to voice grievances of the voiceless such as editing newspapers like ‘Mook Nayak’ (Mute Hero) and ‘Bahishkrit Bharat’ (Ostracized India) in Marathi and playing a crucial role as chairman of the drafting committee of the constitution of the Republic of India.

One major insight from his work is still haunting contemporary India. Ambedkar conceived caste as a notion and a state of mind. Evidently, the destruction of caste does not mean destruction of physical barrier. It means notional change or change in mind-set that has to rock the entire society. This is a herculean task! Further, at the policy level, irrespective of provisions like reservation, the status of overwhelming majority of dalits has improved only marginally. The manner in which the reservation policy as a tool of social engineering has been pursued is found unsatisfactory by a variety of caste groups including economically deprived upper castes. Since merit is considered relative and product of socio-political circumstances it has become a contestable term and is often pitted against social justice in current social discourses. In the process, striking a fair balance between the so-called merit and requirements of social justice continues to pose stiff challenges to notions of governance. If politicians are inclined to yield to pressures of the mounting demands for reservation from new caste groups, the caste groups excluded from reservation are keen to seek judicial intervention to block such moves.

Over the years, accentuation of inter-caste tensions has become a sensitive issue. Unfortunately, a large number of castes, including upper castes, suffer from a sense of discrimination. Pitting one caste against another caste and thereby triggering politics of hate also symbolise limits of dialogue between caste groups. Any form of social revolution/reform under the circumstances is tantamount to inviting violent social tensions. It is relatively easy for citizens to oppose the government of the day but to stand up against society and its discriminatory malpractices is extremely difficult. Ambedkar withstood that challenge all his life by making efforts to destroy the caste system. In addition to enacting stringent legal measures, a nauseating caste system can be destroyed only through persuasion, constant dialogue and love.

In spite of Ambedkar’s insightful analysis and penetrating attack, the caste system appears stubborn, invincible and even immortal. In fact, populist politicians are making a meal of caste polarisation and thriving on politics of hatred. Calculations in caste arithmetic, especially during the election seasons, shape fortunes of political parties and aggravate caste animosities. Besides, if inter-caste dinners are not backed by inter-caste reconciliation, and even marriages, within civil society they can appear like gimmicks. Meeting the challenges of new social tensions resulting from inter-mingling/marriages among diverse caste groups will continue to be a difficult task. Strangely, willingness to annihilate the caste system in theory and a determination to reinforce it in practice, for expedient reasons, in new forms, seem to go hand in hand in our times.

Harshé is president of GB Pant Institute of Social Science, Allahabad, and former vice chancellor of the Central University of Allahabad.

(The column appears in the May 15, 2018 issue)

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