by Bhalchandra Mungekar
B.R. Ambedkar’s passion for the abolition of untouchability and the eradication of caste is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago.
THE Jat Pat Todak Mandal, a social reformist organisation of Lahore, had, in 1936, invited Dr B.R. Ambedkar to deliver the presidential address of its annual conference on the topic of the caste system in India. Ambedkar sent the manuscript of his speech titled The Annihilation of Caste. However, the organising committee found some of his views, particularly his critique of the Vedas and his inclination to leave the Hindu fold, unacceptable.
It, therefore, suggested to Ambedkar that he delete these views, to which he replied that “he would not change a comma”. The speech thus remained undelivered. Ambedkar subsequently published it in May 1936.
Among the numerous writings and speeches of Ambedkar that run into thousands of pages, The Annihilation of Caste is indeed his magnum opus. Judged by any criterion such as content, logic, argument, language, diction, exposition, urge and, above all, the force, it is a manifesto of social emancipation, and occupies a place similar to what The Communist Manifesto once did in the world communist movement.
Since the book is polemical in nature, Ambedkar did not elaborate much on the agonies, indignities, humiliation and overall sufferings of the Sudras, and particularly the untouchables. He only gave illustrations of how they were deprived of education and freedom of occupation and were subjected to stigmatised manual labour, all resulting in their virtual economic slavery, how they were segregated and deprived of basic rights such as drinking water even from public wells, and above all how they were made victims of social persecutions.
But, according to Ambedkar, worse and unparalleled, the Hindu Dharmashastras gave legitimacy to the doctrine of Chaturvanya and the caste system. The infamous Manusmriti dehumanised the Sudras and untouchables, ruled the Hindu psyche for centuries and created the greatest obstacle to any serious attempt at eradicating the caste system. This made Ambedkar publically burn the Manusmriti on the occasion of his historical Mahad Satyagraha in 1927 for establishing the right of untouchables to drink the water of the Chawdar tank in Mahad town in Maharashtra.
In The Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar, probably for the first time, raised many profound questions with respect to caste. First, he rejected the defence of caste on the basis of division of labour and argued that it was not merely a division of labour but a division of labourers. The former was voluntary and depended upon one’s choice and aptitude and, therefore, rewarded efficiency. The latter was involuntary, forced, killed initiative and resulted in job aversion and inefficiency. He argued that caste could not be defended on the basis of purity of blood, though pollution is a hallmark of the caste system.
He quoted from D.R. Bhandarkar’s paper “Foreign Elements in the Hindu Population” that “there is hardly any class or caste in India which has not a foreign strain in it, (and that) there is an admixture of alien blood not only among the warrior classes – the Rajputs and the Marathas – but also among the Brahmins who are under the happy delusion that they are free from all foreign elements.” Ambedkar thus argued that caste had no scientific basis. He painfully maintained that Hindu society was a collection of castes, fixed in watertight compartments with graded hierarchy that made an associated corporate life virtually impossible.
But most importantly, according to Ambedkar, caste destroyed the concept of ethics and morality. To quote him: “The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s public is his caste. His responsibility is to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound.”
Ambedkar ultimately suggested that inter-caste marriage is the only remedy to destroy caste. In The Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar’s critique of the Hindu social order was so strong that Mahatma Gandhi, in Harijan, described Ambedkar as a “challenge to Hinduism”. Ambedkar replied to Gandhi in his usual uncompromising manner.
Ambedkar did not spare the socialists or the communists either. He vehemently attacked the communists for their doctrinaire approach to caste in treating it as the superstructure and argued that unless they dealt with caste as a basic structural problem, no worthwhile social change, let alone a socialist revolution, was possible.
From the beginning Ambedkar was convinced that political empowerment was key to the socio-economic development of the untouchables. Therefore, he vehemently demanded a separate electorate for untouchables in the Second Round Table Conference in 1932.
When the British conceded his demand, Gandhi started his historic fast unto death in the Yerawada jail. Pressure from all corners mounted on Ambedkar to forgo the demand for a separate electorate as the Mahatma’s life was at stake. Reluctantly Ambedkar agreed to the formula of a Joint Electorate with reserved seats in legislatures for untouchables.
What is the situation today with respect to Ambedkar’s mission of annihilation of caste and, in view of that, the relevance of his manifesto of social emancipation?
First, the state’s reservation policy for the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) has made a positive impact on their socio-economic condition. Though the gap between them and the rest of society persists, and they lag behind the others with respect to many indicators of development, the overall situation has improved. A small strata in all areas of national importance – education, professions, governance, politics, art, literature and so on – has emerged in these communities. This upward occupational mobility has been accompanied by some social prestige, which was unthinkable earlier. The spread of literacy and higher and professional education, the pace of urbanisation, the development of means of communication and transport, and so on have been instrumental in loosening somewhat the rigidity and hangover of the caste system, particularly in the urban areas.
Second, and contrary to this positive development, caste has come to be used blatantly and indiscriminately for political ends. This has sharpened caste and sub-caste identities and resulted in caste alliances of different types in different regions for the sole purpose of wielding political power.
Thus, while the dominant castes, either in numerical strength or in terms of economic clout, struggle to retain their monopoly over power, the marginal castes, operating on the periphery of the power structure, have aroused their caste consciousness for political mobilisation.
Third, since caste is considered a potent instrument for socio-economic and political empowerment, caste and sub-caste organisations have proliferated. There is growing demand by some castes, keeping their caste arrogance intact, to get included in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, and by some OBCs to be considered as S.Ts (for instance, Jats in Haryana and Rajasthan). This is indeed a trend in reverse. Fourth, the entire trade union movement ignored issues relating to caste owing to total apathy and lack of concern or because of the fear of a rift in the rank and file over the contentious issue of reservation. As a result, there is a growing tendency on the part of the S.Cs and S.Ts in several organisations to form their own associations to fight for their demands.
Fifth, Ambedkar suggested inter-caste marriage as the remedy to destroy caste. Today, marriages are preferred not only within castes, but also within sub-castes. In Haryana and Rajasthan, for instance, the khap (caste council) gives orders to kill young lovers for marrying outside their caste. Such inhuman killings are glorified as honour killings.
Lastly, atrocities on the S.Cs and S.Ts continue unabated in different parts of the country. They are on two counts: first, owing to the practice of untouchability, resulting in the violation of human and civil rights of these groups, particularly in the rural areas; second, for economic and political reasons. Thus, according to the National Crime Records Bureau of the Union Home Ministry, between 2001 and 2005, the total number of crimes against the S.Cs alone were 1,56, 274, of which 3,406 were of murder and 6,163 were of rape.
Various legislative measures such as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, have proved to be virtually worthless because of the lack of political will to implement them.
Ambedkar thought the abolition of untouchability and the eradication of caste would make India an emotionally strong and unified country. His thought and passion are as relevant today as they were 75 years ago.
Dr Bhalchandra Mungekar is a former member of the Planning Commission and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mumbai.
[ Courtesy: Frontline, July 16-29, 2011 ]