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Dr. Ambedkar and the Question of Caste Identity
spva sairam

Dr. SPVA Sairam

In India, caste is the major form of identity that dictates every walk of life, from womb to tomb. This article aims to deal with the question of caste identity of Scheduled Castes through the lens of Dr. Ambedkar.

Broadly speaking, there are two aspects to this question of Caste Identity. Firstly, how do the privileged castes view the Scheduled Castes? Secondly, how should the Scheduled castes view themselves?


To take up the first question, no matter how meritorious a Scheduled caste person is, he or she will ALWAYS be viewed as an untouchable. I will take the example of Dr. Ambedkar to substantiate my point, because if the greatest man is viewed with hatred in the belly by the caste society, how would the normal powerless people be treated with respect and dignity?

As is known, there is no one who could come closer to Babasaheb when it comes to his intellectual acumen and the contributions that he has made for the emancipation of every section of society, but still, he has been viewed only as an untouchable by caste society, sometimes only as a leader of one caste. 

Speaking about the same in 1939 to the students of Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, he noted: 

“Fortunately for me I am not one of your national leaders. The utmost rank to which I have risen is that of a leader of the Untouchables. I find even that rank has been denied to me. Thakkar Bapa…very recently said that I was only the leader of the Mahars. He would not even allow me the leadership of the Untouchables of the Bombay Presidency… when I see what disasters your national leaders have brought upon this country I feel relieved to know that I am not included in that august crowd”.[1]

Despite bestowing praises to him for his role in the making of the Constitution, there were ample instances in the Constituent Assembly where attempts were made to denigrate Dr. Ambedkar as Modern Manu. To pick one such mad and inane comment from some Sardar. S. Man: “If I have not accepted Manu’s religion, then let me assure the House that Punjab is not going to accept Ambedkarian religion henceforward…Let me give credit to Manu that at least he was original in many respects, but my modern Manu—oh, what a fall has he had ! He is neither original nor progressive” [2]

I need not to remember how caste society perceives Dr. Ambedkar even today, it is just enough to say there are some states where his statues are caged to prevent them from getting vandalized!

This proves beyond doubt that no matter how great the scheduled castes are- educationally or morally – their social status would always remain inferior. On the contrary, the social status of Caste Hindus remains always superior irrespective of their economic or educational attainments.

Commenting about the same thing, Babasaheb noted:

This established order is a hereditary order both in status as well as in function. Once a Touchable, always a Touchable. Once an Untouchable, always an Untouchable. Once a Brahmin, always a Brahmin. Once a sweeper, always a sweeper. Under it, those who are born high, remain high; those who are born low, remain low. In other words, the established order is based on an inexorable law of karma or destiny which is fixed once for all and can never be changed. This destiny has no relation to the merits of the individuals living under it. An Untouchable, however superior he may be mentally and morally, is below a Touchable in rank, no matter how inferior he may be mentally or morally. A Touchable however poor he may be, must always take rank above an Untouchable, however rich he may be” [3]

On one occasion in Rajya Sabha, he conveyed the same thing while referring to K. N. Katju, he spoke:

“The fact is that he [Katju] is a Kashmiri Pandit. Even if he takes to the profession of a Bhangi he will still remain a Kashmiri Pandit. He may never suffer. All people may respect him for his ancestry, for his noble birth, for his learning. What about us who have been tyrannized for the last 2,000 years?” [4] 

It is very important to realize that untouchability and the inferior social status is an imposition, as Babasaheb said:

“This separateness, their segregation is not the result of their wish. The case of the Untouchables is that of compulsory segregation. Untouchability is an infliction and not a choice.”


From the above analysis, it is clear that Untouchability is imposed on Scheduled castes, naturally it follows that even their group [caste] identity is an imposition. The pressing question is, can the Scheduled castes discard this imposed caste identity in its entirety?

As I explain in the following pages the Scheduled castes can discard this imposed identity in almost all the cases, but there is only one context where they cannot discard it. It is very essential to understand why it is possible to discard the imposed caste identity in almost all cases and why it is not so in only one context.

Let me substantiate my point by sharing instances where Babasaheb justified the usage of the word Untouchable and instances where he rejected it.

        A] Instances where Babasaheb justified using the word Untouchable:

In my opinion, Babasaheb justified using the word Untouchable or caste names [Mahar, Madiga, Mala, Chamar etc.] only in one context, namely to convey the horrible social conditions in which people are condemned to live. For instance, describing about himself Babasaheb once wrote:

That I should be wanting in respect and reverence for the sacred literature of the Hindus should not surprise anyone if it is borne in mind that I am a non-Brahmin, not even a non-Brahmin but an Untouchable” [6] 

In this case, when Babasaheb called himself as an Untouchable, he was commenting on his inferior social status and the way he is “treated” [social condition] with animosity by the caste society. 

Every one born in this subcontinent has a caste. It is an indelible stamp. Owing to this imposed caste identity, when Scheduled castes are subjected to gruesome atrocities, why is it wrong to use the word Untouchable or caste names to refer to the horrible and inferior social status in which they are condemned to live?

After all, it is better that the wrong should be called by its known name

This is precisely why Dr. Ambedkar has preferred the word Untouchables to Scheduled Castes to narrate their woeful tales to the world in his books like What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables [1945]. Dr. Ambedkar could have very well used the word Scheduled castes [which has already been recognised legally] instead of Untouchables in the aforementioned book, but he didn’t use it. We need to understand this aspect.

Similarly, when Gandhi named Untouchables as “Harijans” to conceal their brutal social condition, Dr. Ambedkar denounced him in scathing terms:

“The Untouchables simply detest the name Harijan. Various grounds of objection are urged against the name…the Untouchables say that they prefer to be called Untouchables. They argue that it is better that the wrong should be called by its known name. It is better for the patient to know what he is suffering from. It is better for the wrong doer that the wrong is there still to be redressed. Any concealment will give a false sense of both as to existing facts” [7] 

This also explains Dr. Ambedkar’s usage of the phrase “Untouchable Christians”. On a superficial examination, the phrase may sound paradoxical. Some people may say, Christianity has no caste system, therefore it is wrong to associate words like Untouchable to Christians, but Babasaheb was justified to use it to denote the inferior social status of the converts. To quote his profound words:

“The fact remains that Christianity has not succeeded in dissolving the feeling of caste from among the converts to Christianity. The distinction between touchables and untouchables may be confined to a corner. The Church School may be open to all. Still there is no gainsaying the fact that caste governs the life of the Christians as much as it does the life of the Hindus. There are Brahmin Christians and Non-Brahmin Christians. Among Non-Brahmin Christians there are Maratha Christians, Mahar Christians, Mang Christians and Bhangi Christians. Similarly in the South there are Pariah Christians, Mala Christians and Madiga Christians. They would not intermarry, they would not inter-dine. They are as much caste ridden as the Hindus are” [8]

In short, the point that I want to convey – with a tad of repetition -from above quotations is that it is justified to use the word Untouchable or Dalit or any caste names to convey the inferior social status and horrible social reality in which one is condemned to live

It is also essential to remember that the need to use the word Untouchable/Dalit or caste names even in this single context disappears when caste society gets cured of its mental disease. Therefore, everything depends on caste society and its will to get cured of the mental disease.

                           B] Instances where Babasaheb rejected the word Untouchable:

From the above analysis, it is clear that Dr. Ambedkar justified using the word Untouchable or caste names only in one context –to convey horrible social reality. In rest of the cases, he rejected the word with powerful force. For instance, he wrote: 

To be called an Untouchable is enough of a misfortune. But to require an Untouchable to proclaim by his own mouth his shame that he is an Untouchable is a cruelty to which in my opinion there is no parallel” [9]

This denunciation of the word Untouchable from Babasaheb emanates from the tenet of self-respect. The basic argument is that privileged castes might view you as sub-human and treat you as an Untouchable with inferior social status but you SHOULD NOT view yourself as inferior because every human personality is sacred. 

Dr. Ambedkar explained about Human sacred personality by quoting Jacques Martin:

“What do we mean precisely when we speak of the human person? When we say that a man is a person, we do not mean merely that he is an individual, in the sense that an atom, a blade of grass, a fly, or an elephant is an individual. Man is an individual who holds himself in hand by his intelligence and his will; he exists not merely in a physical fashion. He has spiritual super-existence through knowledge and love, so that he is, in a way, a universe in himself, a microcosmos, in which the great universe in its entirety can be encompassed through knowledge. By love he can give himself completely to beings who are to him, as it were, other selves. For this relation no equivalent can be found in the physical world…The notion of Human sacred personality involves that of totality and independence, no matter how poor and crushed a person may be, he is a whole, and as a person subsistent in an independent manner. To say that a man is a person is to say that in the depth of his being he is more whole than a part and more independent than servile. It is to say that he is a minute fragment of matter that is at the same time a universe” [10]

Then Dr. Ambedkar proceeded to explain why he denounces the word Untouchable, he wrote:

“The oft-quoted answer given by Shakespeare to the question what is in a name hardly shows sufficient understanding of the problem of a name. A rose called by another name would smell as sweet would be true if names served no purpose and if people instead of depending upon names took the trouble of examining each case and formed their opinions and attitudes about it on the basis of their examination. Unfortunately, names serve a very important purpose. They play a great part in social economy. Names are symbols. Each name represents association of certain ideas and notions about a certain object. It is a label. From the label people know what it is. It saves them the trouble of examining each case individually and determine for themselves whether the ideas and notions commonly associated with the object are true. People in society have to deal with so many objects that it would be impossible for them to examine each case. They must go by the name that is why all advertisers are keen in finding a good name…

The name ‘Untouchable’ is a bad name. It repels, forbids, and stinks. The social attitude of the Hindu towards the Untouchable is determined by the very name ‘Untouchable’. There is a fixed attitude towards ‘Untouchables’ which is determined by the stink which is embedded in the name ‘Untouchable’. People have no mind to go into the individual merits of each Untouchable no matter how meritorious he is. All untouchables realize this. There is a general attempt to call themselves by some name other than the ‘Untouchables’. The Chamars call themselves Ravidas or Jatavas. The Doms call themselves Shilpakars. The Pariahs call themselves Adi-Dravidas, the Madigas call themselves Arundhatiyas, the Mahars call themselves Chokhamela or Somavamshi and the Bhangis call themselves Balmikis. All of them, if away from their localities, would call themselves Christians. The Untouchables know that if they call themselves Untouchables they will at once draw the Hindu out and expose themselves to his wrath and his prejudice. That is why they give themselves other names which may be likened to the process of undergoing protective discolouration” [11] 

Dr. Ambedkar was a firm believer that after converting to Buddhism people should follow a new nomenclature to identify themselves. He says:

“Two things are clear. One is that the low status of the Untouchables is bound upon with a stinking name. Unless the name is changed there is no possibility of a rise in their social status. The other is that a change of name within Hinduism will not do. The Hindu will not fail to penetrate through such a name and make the Untouchable and confer himself as an Untouchable. The name matters and matters a great deal. For, the name can make a revolution in the status of the Untouchables. But the name must be the name of a community outside Hinduism and beyond its power of spoliation and degradation. Such a name can be the property of the Untouchable only if they undergo religious conversion. A conversion by change of name within Hinduism is a clandestine conversion which can be of no avail” 

There are a few people who take an extraordinary degree of pride in their caste names, they ought to read this potent tirade of Dr. Ambedkar who spoke:

 “Caste discrimination is the gutter of dirty water flowing towards us from above [Touchables]… though the original responsibility of the caste distinction is on Hindu society, for us, to forget our responsibility would be suicidal…If every caste sticks to its own caste for its pride, if Mahars remain Mahar and Mangs remain Mang, we would not be able to eliminate the injustice against us. What is there so great about the names Mahar & Mang, that you should feel proud of it? What bright history comes in front of your eyes by uttering these names, so that you should strive for preserving old traditions? All society is considering these names contemptible. Today you have no value even equal to that of garbage in the rubbish junk. So you must not have any pride for these names” [12] 

It is astounding that caste is unwarrantedly imposed even on those aspects of life where the question of caste is irrelevant. Take human expertise. As noted by the great thinker Stephen Jay Gould: 

“Expertise is a democratic human property, respecting only the requisite mental skills and emotional toughness, and bearing no intrinsic correlation to class, profession or any other fortuity of social circumstance” [13]

In this context, observe how caste is unwarrantedly imposed in the matters of expertise. For instance, extraordinary thinkers and filmmakers like Pa Ranjith, Nagraj Manjule and Mari Selvaraj who deal with ideas of human freedom and dignity are labelled with an unmitigated caste anxiety as Dalit directors or filmmakers! 

When people who come from marginalised communities pen writings that resonate the ideals of equality and liberation, they are labelled as Dalit thinkers, Dalit intellectuals, Dali poets and so on! [14] Take any recent books dealing with Anthology of Indian literature, you would find some chapter labelled exclusively as Dalit literature. The same is the case with the anthology of feminism. Here we find something called as Dalit feminism –which is nothing but the theorization of the so-called upper caste women [15]. 

Why should ideas expressing human freedom, dignity and liberation must be labelled on the lines of caste?

Dr. Ambedkar the visionary has anticipated all this utter nonsense long ago, he wrote:

 “There is another form of discrimination which, though subtle, is nonetheless real. Under it a systematic attempt will be made to lower the dignity and status of a meritorious Untouchable. A Hindu leader would be described merely as a great Indian leader. No one would describe him as the leader of Kashmiri Brahmin even though he be one. If a leader who happens to be an Untouchable is to be referred to he will be described as so and so, the leader of the Untouchables. A Hindu doctor would be described as a great Indian doctor. No one would describe him as an Iyengar even though he be one. If a doctor happens to be an Untouchable doctor, he would be referred to as so and so, the Untouchable doctor. A Hindu singer would be described as a great Indian singer. If the same person happens to be an Untouchable he would be described as an Untouchable singer. A Hindu wrestler would be described as a great Indian Gymnast. If he happens to be an Untouchable he would be described as an Untouchable gymnast. This type of discrimination has its origin in the Hindu view that the Untouchables are an inferior people and however qualified, their great men are only great among the Untouchables…They can never be greater nor even equal to the great men among the Hindus. This type of discrimination, though social in character, is no less galling than economic discrimination [16] 

When one examines the current lamentable state of affairs in the light of the aforementioned words of Babasaheb, it is extraordinary to realize that what has been presented to us as some assertion or liberation with usage of phrases like Dalit intellectual, Dalit poet etc. turns out to cases of active dehumanization and discrimination that rests on the belief “that the Untouchables are an inferior people and however qualified, their great men are only great among the Untouchables”. 

If this is not enough, there are a few who embark on a journey to compartmentalize emotions on the lines of caste.  Every thinking person agrees that emotions are universal and that they are present not only among humans but also in all animals. In this context, what does Dalit love mean? How can an emotion and feeling that transcends all boundaries be compartmentalized on the lines of caste? Not only that, we are witnessing a steady influx of cranky phrases in the market like Dalit comedy, Dalit food, Dalit Buddhist marriage and so on. What’s next? A Dalit astronomer landing on a Dalit mars? Why should an identity be commodified to this great extent? Do these people care to give even a cursory look at the writings of Dr.Ambedkar? Is there any method to madness?


In other words, to use words like Untouchable/Dalit or caste names to convey horrible social condition and inferior social status is justified, because “it is better that the wrong should be called by its known name” [an affliction must be effectively articulated to redress injustice]. But apart from this single context, why should anyone use the word Untouchable/Dalit or caste names? This necessary distinction has been remarkably explained by Gorati Venkanna when he said:

I’m a Dalit [referring to social status] There is no doubt in it. But, I’m not a Dalit poet. My poetry is not only a reflection of my caste identity but also of many other complex things unrelated to my caste”

When the identity of caste is imposed unwarrantedly, every individual has the right to resist and discard it, and we must echo the spirit of Babasaheb who -when denigrated as Modern Manu- riposted with a resounding voice: “I am not a modern Manu!” [17]

Dr. Spva Sairam is a Dentist by profession.


1] Federation Vs Freedom, from page 303 [Volume 1 of BAWS]

2] Volume 14[2], from page 1079

3] Outside the fold, from page 25, Volume 5

4] Volume 15, from page 857 [In this context of their permanent superior social status, it is hilarious when a few privileged castes feel they can annihilate caste by not mentioning caste in their certificates. Truly their merit is phenomenal]

5] Untouchability –its source, Volume 5

6] Preface to Who Were Shudras, Volume 7. Also see Resignation letter in Volume 14[2]

7] Gandhi and his Fast, Volume 5

8] The condition of the convert, Volume 5

Note: I am not suggesting that scheduled castes must always use the word Untouchables or caste names to convey their inferior status. Some may prefer using Scheduled castes, some may not and those who don’t prefer it must not be criticized for using caste names. They are justified to use it in this case.

9] Civilization or Felony, Volume 5

10] Two essentials fundamental to free social order, from page 95, Volume 3

11] Away from the Hindus, Volume 5

12] Speech delivered at Matang conference of Karkam on 31st Dec 1937 –Janata [8.1.38]

13] The Structure of Evolutionary theory by Stephen Jay Gould

14] For the elaborate dealing of the theme, see Gaurav’s brilliant article

15]  and 

16] Problem of Discrimination, Volume 5

17] Volume 14[2], from page 1079


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