There has been a race among the ruling class and especially among the ruling political class to project itself as true Ambedkarites or Ambedkar Bhakts, but will it dare to follow a single path shown by him….. Because, then there will not be a change in society but a change of society.
The April 14th of every year in India is a special day for the so-called “Untouchables of India”. It was on this day in 1891, that an intellectual, namely, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, was born in Mhow, in central India. This year will mark the 126th Birth Anniversary of this intellectual. Ambedkar was a trained economist, but in a real sense, he was a sociologist par excellence who had a deep understanding regarding the social structure of the Indian society. From 1920s onwards until his death, he made every attempt for the untouchables to get their socio-political rights. Finally, in order get a new socio-cultural identity he found solace in Buddhism along with millions of his followers.
Ambedkar would have been quite shocked, had he been alive today, on seeing the position of Dalits in contemporary Indian society. His people are being beaten up and killed for the same holy cow which for Ambedkar is no more than an animal. In his book “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India”, he gave detailed accounts of how it was the battle for supremacy between Brahmanism and Buddhism which resulted in the cow being made a holy animal. Further, the current regime’s project of glorifying the past would have made him very nervous because it will further degrade the position of Dalits in society, because all the past myths and religious texts repeat the same dogma of purity of upper castes and defend the inhuman Varna system in the name of karma and dharma. Ultimately, if this is not stopped quickly, it will lead to the acceptance of Dalits themselves as being impure. Internalization of notions of impurity is bound to happen if the past myths and religious texts are given importance.
A recent report in which a Dalit candidate of BJP is seen sitting on the floor and carrying his own steel glass while on a visit to an upper caste house shows this trend1. When asked about this, he defended the practice by saying that he is a son of a Valmiki and that he cannot break the tradition. How can a person defend his own degraded status? The answer is clear: the Hinduisation and Vedaisation which has started on the ground has convinced Dalits that they have been assigned such jobs by God himself and that it’s a division of work.
Ambedkar asked Dalits to leave the Hindu fold, but the ruling political and religious class are adamant to bring Dalits (those who left the Hindu religion) back into the same degraded system which made them “impure”, because if Dalits leave Hinduism then the so-called ‘purest of the pure’ will no longer enjoy such status. For Ambedkar, the real aim of religion is an individual’s welfare and progress, hence he followed Buddha’s path. For him, Hinduism is a disease and a strategy to keep people in mental slavery.
T H. Marshall’s celebrated work titled ‘Citizenship and Social Classes'”, divides citizenship into three parts: civil, political and social. If we apply Marshall’s theory then Dalits are still not citizens, as from a civic sense Dalits are still in need of liberty and the right to justice, from a social sense Dalits do not have the right to live a civilized life. Merely, the political right to vote and send a representative to legislature will not solve problems which a Dalit faces in his daily life. Humiliation in this casteist society has become a daily affair for the masses residing in the countryside.
Dalits are still struggling to get what Ambedkar called as “Real Rights”. While addressing a Mahar Conference in Bombay in 1936, he said “The law may guarantee various rights. But those alone can be called real rights, which are permitted to be exercised by you.” Dalits in contemporary India are afraid of society’s law, which is ready to punish them if they try to follow their own path. Atrocities, to be more specific, the nature of atrocities, committed against Dalits have remained the same and in some cases displayed a most inhuman face. For instance, most recently in 2016, a Dalit man was beheaded in Uttarakhand by an upper caste government school teacher for making a flour mill ‘impure’ by using it2. In a number of caste-related crimes, the culprits usually get bail or sometimes cases are not even registered under the SC/ST Act. This happens because one of the basic structures of society from where justice is delivered, the legal system, is heavily over-represented by the so-called ‘pure class’.
Caste in contemporary Indian society means “Assertion”. This assertion is practiced in two different ways, one practiced by the upper castes which is an assertion of identity and the other by the lower castes which is assertion for respect. Through cultural transmission, a notion of superiority is being developed among the upper caste by consistent flashing of history on how one’s caste was and is superior. Caste as an assertion of identity is practiced mainly as a tactic to maintain the notion of superiority and to maintain historic societal relations. On the other hand, caste as assertion of respect is practiced mainly to get equal opportunity in public resources and dignity in common day to day life.
The state has by and large failed to create a condition of social endosmosis and to destroy the evil customs of caste among various social groups simply because those who constitute the state, including the political and bureaucratic circle, believe in the historical greatness of India and its institutions. It enjoys privilege and high status because of such history and its institutions. Hence, maintaining the status quo was and is the best strategy.
The social and economic status of Dalits would have been better had any of the political leaders since independence read Ambedkar. The current political regime is showcasing Ambedkar as a Hindu leader in order to co-opt the Dalits into the Hindu fold. Even the Dalit politicians who claim to be true Ambedkarites have betrayed their people and Ambedkar. Those who claim to be Ambedkar’s followers and representatives of Dalits have been bought off by the ruling class or are being co-opted by the political class. For instance, a major political party of Maharashtra, RPI (A), which is the biggest faction of Republican Party of India, is now a coalition partner of the current regime.
The ultimate loser of the selfishness of the system are the large Dalit masses residing in the rural hinterlands. According to the SECC (2011) data, less than 5 per cent of Dalit rural households have a main earner who makes more than Rs. 10,000 per month and as many as 167,487 number of households reported that they have a member who is a manual scavenger. Similarly, the 70th round of Land and Livestock Holdings survey (L&LS), which took place in 2013, showed that landlessness among rural Dalits is highest in the country when compared with other social groups. At the all-India level, landlessness among rural Dalit households is 58.4% but the situation becomes grimmer when we see state wise data. For instance, in Haryana, Punjab, Bihar and in Gujarat landless among rural Dalit households are 92.1%, 86.6%, 86.0%, and 77% respectively.
According to the IHDS-II survey (2011-12), only 5% of India’s population had inter-caste marriages. Hence, the most important social institution through which one’s caste was maintained in ancient times is still prevalent in India, that is, Endogamy. Instead of discarding this social institution, the majority have wholeheartedly accepted it as God’s word without knowing that this institution was developed as a part of a tactic to control female sexuality and to maintain caste purity.
Such is the position of Dalits and the prevalence of Caste in India. In such a scenario, Ambedkar’s dream of caste-less India looks a distant dream.
Raju Chalwadi is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT-Madras. He also holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.