Mr. Abhinav Kumar
Hindu society is like a multi-storeyed tower with no staircase and no entrance. Everybody dies in the storey in which they are born.
- B. R. Ambedkar
This chilling analogy reflects but a sliver of the foreboding with which Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, one of India’s most prolific visionaries, viewed Hindu society. Such a morbid description may disturb many, for whom Hinduism represents much that is benign – tolerance, ahimsa, spirituality, yoga and so on. What, then, compelled Dr. Ambedkar, himself born Hindu, to describe Hinduism as a “veritable chamber of horrors”? The answer, very simply, is caste: the vicious system that has torn our society asunder for centuries.
Annihilation of Caste is the title of a speech prepared by Dr. Ambedkar for the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, an organisation of caste-Hindu social reformers. However, they found its radical contents “unbearable,” and asked him to alter the speech to protect Hindu sentiments. Unsurprisingly, his refusal to compromise his principles and convictions was emphatic, and the speech remained undelivered. Fortuitously, Dr. Ambedkar felt compelled to publish it himself, and today, it is undoubtedly his magnum opus, with immense scholarly value. However, it is also far more: an ideal, representing the extraordinary vision of an extraordinary man. In the liberating, revolutionary rage and incisive analysis that inform the text, we can locate Dr. Ambedkar’s breadth as an intellectual and reformer, and his vision for a casteless, egalitarian and democratic society. Against the backdrop of continuing caste atrocities, this essay is a humble attempt to discuss Dr. Ambedkar’s resonant exhortation to abolish caste. However, I aim to take this essay beyond the scope of mere academic engagement. In my opinion, the gravest injustice that we can do Dr. Ambedkar is to reduce caste – so long as it persists – to a theoretical debate. A real engagement with Dr. Ambedkar demands a thorough understanding of caste, a recognition that its poison continues to hinder national progress, and subsequently, a sincere and concerted effort to annihilate it. Therefore, the present essay seeks not only to discuss Dr. Ambedkar’s views, but also to lend them contemporary relevance, so that we may fulfil his most cherished endeavour: the annihilation of caste.
II. Caste: A Grim Introduction
Believed to originate from the Purush Sukta hymn of the Rig Veda, the caste system is a hereditary division of society into a graded hierarchy of Brahmin (priest), Kshatriya (warrior), Vaishya (trader), Shudra (servant) and Ati-Shudra (Untouchable). Though it was merely meant to establish an efficient division of labour, caste in reality is an “enclosed class”, 1 a crippling segregation of men into high and low. Consequent to traditional caste roles, Brahmins acquired knowledge; Kshatriyas, arms and Vaishyas, wealth. Deprived of all three, Shudras were condemned to eternal servitude, and to endure physical violence and economic exploitation at the hands of the upper castes.
The essence of caste is a notional belief that its hierarchy is divinely ordained, and is the sole determinant of the social, political and economic entitlements of different caste groups in descending order. In other words, caste is rooted in the stigma of superiority and inferiority, giving rise to the belief that certain castes – particularly the Brahmins – are “pure” and venerable, while others are “polluted,” or even Untouchable. To quote Dr. Ambedkar, the caste system can be defined as an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt. 2 Within its framework, each caste accepts its inferiority to some and asserts its superiority over others, in both violent and subtle ways.
II. Understanding the True Nature of Caste
Caste is undoubtedly India’s most complex, and therefore most misunderstood problem. Indeed, Dr. Ambedkar dedicated much of his work to a profound analysis of its injustices, for he realized that society can only move towards the abolition of caste upon seeing it as the monster it really is.
i) A Problem of Epic Proportions
The tenacity of caste is rooted in the failure of Hindu society to recognize it not only as a problem, but one of epic proportions. A major reason for this is the erroneous belief that political or economic reform in isolation can alleviate the evils of caste. Dr. Ambedkar, however, asserted that social reform is the only foundation upon which the edifice of progress can be built. He explained that social reform in India had historically been nominal, for it had focussed solely on the internal reform of the Hindu family. Such a narrow agenda had unsurprisingly failed to appeal to the downtrodden masses, and had been overwhelmed by demands for political reform. Dr. Ambedkar firmly believed that without real social reform – that is, social reorganisation and the abolition of caste – demanding political reform was shallow and self-defeating. This was an unpopular view in pre-independence India, but he defended it superbly. Highlighting numerous instances of the inhuman practice of Untouchability and other caste atrocities, he asked of caste-Hindus an unanswerable question: could they really claim political power despite condoning such brutal, institutionalized injustice? Further highlighting the primacy of social reform, he drew extensively from history to emphasize that any form of political organization has been compelled, without exception, to accommodate social realities. Living in a country whose Constitution has enshrined special provisions for socially weaker sections since its inception, we can hardly disagree.
Dr. Ambedkar further dismissed the socialist ideology, according to which economic reform is the only key to progress. Indeed, at a doctrinal level, to pursue economic goals alone is to perilously ignore other, equally compelling forces, such as religion. However, Dr. Ambedkar’s practical challenge to socialism is particularly interesting, for it directly challenges Karl Marx. The proletariat revolution desired by socialism necessarily assumes proletariat unity, but how would such unity arise if entrenched social differences such as caste divide the proletariat themselves? The caste system thus robs the poor of the tools for their own emancipation, by depriving them of not only the means, but the very desire to unite and rebel. Therefore, caste effectively renders the socialist revolution unattainable.
Today, as caste atrocities persist despite nearly seven decades of political emancipation and economic development, Dr. Ambedkar’s call for real social reform remains bitterly relevant. Contemporary products of the violent and iniquitous caste system – such as the recent caste-motivated mutilations in Badaun, 3 and the ubiquitous poverty and social disparity – hinder India’s claims to superpowerdom. Reverberations of ancient caste discrimination can be felt in every sphere of life: Brahmins dominate not only priesthood, but also the plum jobs of the country; the Indian corporate world is Vaishya-dominated. And despite the reservation policy, the only government department in which Dalits are robustly represented is that of sweepers. 4
Another problematic aspect of caste today is the dangerous tendency to dismiss it as a rural issue. Caste exists as much in rural ignorance as it does in urban enlightenment, though in different ways. In India’s villages, caste continues to govern community life, as seen in the frequent punishment of dissenters through symbolic violence. By contrast, caste has largely receded from public life in India’s sprawling metropolises. Yet, urban India’s caste identity inevitably emerges – albeit behind closed doors – during religious ceremonies such as marriage, or in the vote-bank politics that play out during elections. 5 We may justify such acts as harmless capitulation to family or community wishes and seek to defend ourselves as otherwise liberal and progressive. However, Dr. Ambedkar’s point was that to believe – however inconsequentially – in a system as brutally oppressive as caste and yet think of oneself as progressive is a contradiction in terms. It is through such seemingly harmless acts that tenacious caste prejudices are continuously transmitted between generations.
Any argument, therefore, that caste is a problem of the past, is either a conscious understatement, or comes from a place of such rarefied privilege or indifference, that caste realities have not been stumbled upon. 6 Suffice to say, there remains an urgent need to annihilate caste. In order to do so, we must first dispel various notions related to it and understand its true nature.
ii) Popular Misconceptions about Caste
Contrary to its popular justification, caste is not just a division of labour, but of labourers, 7 into a static hierarchy wherein birth – not natural aptitude – determines one’s occupation. By leaving no room for personal inclinations or industrial exigencies, caste has a stifling effect on the industrial proclivities of a people, and consequently on the industrial development of a nation. Further, even within the assigned occupation, each caste will show diminished productivity, because forcibly keeping men engaged in work for which they lack both skill and passion will necessarily arouse in them aversion for their tasks. Therefore, as an economic organization, caste is both thoroughly inefficient, and indisputably counter-productive.
Further, Dr. Ambedkar was thoroughly contemptuous in his dismissal of any scientific justification for caste. He asserted that caste is unrelated to racial purity, for it created endogamous groups long after racial intermingling. Moreover, it cannot have a eugenic basis, since it principally proscribes social interaction between castes, in terms of intermarriage and interdining, which is unrelated to genetic quality. That caste maintains purity of blood is refuted by the fact that caste injunctions against intermarriage operate even between sub-castes which, by nomenclature itself, imply membership of the same caste. Far from having a scientific basis, therefore, caste is merely an artificial division of the same people, established by the powerful to subjugate the powerless.
iii) Caste: the Anti-thesis of Social Solidarity
By its very nature, caste creates closed groups that perceive their interests as distinct from, and competing with those of others. Consequently, it breeds isolationism and suspicion between castes (and even sub-castes), and entrenches a pervasive anti-social spirit. For, what trust or fellow-feeling can emerge across castes when the caste itself is the be-all and end-all of community life? Moreover, as Dr. Ambedkar explained, if Hindus lack humanitarian concern – such as in the upliftment of adivasis – this restrictive social perspective is to blame, for it has rendered them completely indifferent to any cause beyond the scope of their caste-brethren. What sense of charity can be expected in a system where each group is accustomed to eying outsiders with hostility and contempt? In sum, the institutionalization of caste has stifled any effective social cohesion, and has prevented the formation of a true Hindu community with its own collective consciousness and humanitarian sentiment.
Further, caste is inherently violent, for the maintenance of its oppressive hierarchy necessarily demands violence, whether direct physical violence – such as the horrific honour killings of Haryana’s khaps – or the equally devastating violence of social boycott and Untouchability. Here, we must caution against another gross underestimation of caste. For many, particularly among the urban elite, the problems of caste ended with the abolition of its only evil – Untouchability. However, we must recognize that despite its cruelty, Untouchability was merely the ritualistic end of caste. Its real violence lay in the upper castes’ malevolent denial of entitlement – to land, wealth, knowledge and equal opportunity – to the lower castes in order to keep them subdued. This inherent violence has been particularly effective at killing all prospects of reform: for the threats of physical injury, or worse, excommunication – which each caste can impose upon its dissenters as a matter of right – serve to extinguish the spirit of reform in the most courageous of men.
Understood thus, it is evident that the oppressive caste system is the inevitable outcome of any system of social classification that empowers some at the cost of others. This proposition was the basis of Dr. Ambedkar’s rejection of Chaturvarnya, a model of caste reform propounded by the Arya Samaj. Chaturvarnya sought to revive the ancient varna system by reorganizing Hindu society into four classes, eponymous with and performing the same duties as the four castes, but based on merit, not birth. Practically, Dr. Ambedkar opined that Chaturvarnya was impossible, as the privileged castes would militate against worth replacing birth as the determinant of social status. Further, he asserted that Chaturvarnya’s retention of caste labels would effectively also retain caste prejudices, in both sentiment and practice. At a doctrinal level, championing freedom of choice and equal opportunity, Dr. Ambedkar emphatically rejected Chaturvarnya, as he believed that any static classification of men was a detrimental confinement of the multifarious human personality and the limitless human potential. Further, he argued that Chaturvarnya was a fatally flawed system of guardianship whereby Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas would monopolize the essential needs of every person – knowledge, means of defence and wealth – while Shudras would be their helpless “wards”, condemned to eternal dependence and servitude. Moreover, in failing to provide safeguards against the misdeeds of any particular class, Chaturvarnya revealed a naive faith in the inherent nobility of men. History is replete with instances of the empowered – the educated, the armed, the wealthy – abusing their power to subjugate the powerless. Had not the well-meaning varna system originally degraded into caste because the other varnas had conspired to subdue the Shudras and keep them weak and helpless? A model such as Chaturvarnya, therefore, is destined to degrade into the caste system. The only solution, therefore, is to destroy the very notion of caste, and replace it with both equality and equal opportunity for all.
III. The means to annihilate caste
If caste is indefensible, what has sustained it through the ages? The answer, no doubt, is its religious consecration. In popular perception, to shed caste and still call oneself Hindu is a gross perversion of Hinduism. Consequently, Dr. Ambedkar opined that the only comprehensive solution to the problem of caste was to destroy the moral authority of the Shastras, the religious texts responsible for entrenching its divinity in people’s minds. He asserted that as long as caste was believed to have divine sanction, caste atrocities would merely be the logical consequence of Hindu religious beliefs. By stating the problem in this manner, he also effectively explained the failure of two alternative models of caste reform. The model that blamed caste-Hindus for their acts was futile, for it expected change from a people driven by the conviction that their acts, no matter how irrational or inhuman, had divine sanction and could therefore never be wrong. Secondly, the reformers who preached that the correct interpretation of the Shastras did not sanction the ill-effects of caste were dismissed by Dr. Ambedkar as “seeking refuge in quibbles”. Indeed, what matters is not scholarly interpretation, but what the masses have understood to be correct, and the latter unfortunately, has produced the pernicious caste system.
Dr. Ambedkar’s final solution was comprehensively thought out, because internal reform of the caste system is impossible. He proved, through an insightful analysis, that caste was designed to resist reform. First, its graded hierarchy renders it impervious to reform, for in the dismantling of caste, certain groups have more to lose than others. Naturally, the Brahmins, despite forming the sole intellectual class of Hindus, have been its most earnest defenders. Unlike the West, whose intellectual classes have sparked revolutions for the common benefit, India’s Brahmins have the woeful distinction of being remarkably selfish. If the intellectual class, which holds the community in its grip, is itself vehemently opposed to caste reform, the chances of success therein are negligible. 8 Secondly, as unearthed by Dr. Ambedkar through a profound analysis, Hindu scriptures reveal a decisively anti-reform attitude, since they zealously condemn the application of reason, rationality and ethics in Hindu life. Consequently, the good Hindu is he who successfully ignores appeals to conscience and maintains an unshakable faith in Shastric directions, irrespective of their consequences. Finally, caste ensures its own survival through the system of prayaschitta. As Dr. Ambedkar notes, the only time a Hindu is forced to doubt the merits of caste is when its outdated injunctions (such as the prohibition against foreign travel) clash with modern exigencies. However, such reflective thought is stymied by the easy prospect of a ritualistic prayaschitta, or penance, through which he can retain caste. Why introspect and rise against the system when it welcomes you back to your place of privilege despite your fallibility? For these reasons, the caste system is beyond reform, and shall remain so until its religious basis is comprehensively destroyed.
IV. The Annihilation of Caste is not the Destruction of Hinduism
Through Annihilation of Caste, Dr. Ambedkar was seen to be preaching the destruction of not merely caste, but of Hinduism itself, eliciting a famous description as a “challenge to Hinduism.” 9 I, however, beg to differ, and submit that to view Dr. Ambedkar as anti-Hindu is to misunderstand his true message. He asserted that all religions contain certain true principles, which are distinct from their archaic, oppressive and man-made rules that, in the garb of religion, privilege some at the cost of the rest. In this context, he held that the caste system, which the masses understood as religion, was merely a mechanical set of rules – commands and injunctions – forming a body of law. As long as it was equated with religion, caste would resist change. Understood as law, however, people would recognize that it desperately requires reform, akin to any other outdated law. Therefore, there is nothing irreligious in the destruction of such law, which, masquerading as religion, has killed reason and morality, freedom and spontaneity.10 Understood thus, Dr. Ambedkar’s message was that the true principles of Hinduism – such as tolerance, love and ahimsa – exist independently of the oppressive rules of caste evolved within it, and these principles would survive and proliferate despite, and indeed because of the disavowal of caste. This deep understanding allowed him to confidently assert that one could shed caste and yet remain Hindu, by retaining and practising the true principles of Hinduism.
Caste governed Dr. Ambedkar’s life. We must not allow it to govern ours.
Annihilation of Caste is a gateway to Dr. Ambedkar’s vision for social transformation. In simple terms, he sought a casteless society, absent any governing hierarchy or entrenched system of discrimination. However, his struggle against caste represents his larger desire to transform the moral basis of society. Caste governed Dr. Ambedkar’s life because social morality, represented by the malicious caste system, was the governing principle of society. Therefore, he sought to destroy this vicious social morality, and establish constitutional morality – based on the democratic triad of liberty, equality and fraternity – as the fundamental basis of society. This endeavour is the golden thread running through the Constitution that he bequeathed to India. He firmly believed that democracy must not only operate as a system of government, but must translate into a higher ideal – an all-pervasive way of life. It is to this ideal that we, as a nation, must aspire.
Dr. Ambedkar’s larger exhortation to each of us was to shed our entrenched prejudices, to embrace our fellow man in the spirit of equality and fraternity, and to come together to shape a truly democratic society. In this respect, India has attempted to phase out caste through legislative instruments aimed at uplifting the weaker sections and assimilating them into the mainstream. Despite the decisive progress of the lower castes on the strength of this model, the spectre of caste continues to haunt India and cloud the minds of Indians. Therefore, the real annihilation of caste, as Dr. Ambedkar asserted, must take place in the mind.
To this end, we must each contribute to the abolition of caste. First and foremost, we must banish the notion of caste and its prejudices from our thoughts and actions. At the same time, however, we must not trivialize caste as a social evil, for its poison persists in society even today. Therefore, at the very minimum, we must prevent caste discrimination in our immediate vicinity, and observe the true spirit of equality in social intercourse. Finally, we must pass on the same spirit of equality to the next generation, so that it can sustain the campaign to destroy caste, and hopefully succeed sooner than later.
In essence, we must each carry a bit of Dr. Ambedkar in ourselves. We must annihilate caste.
1. B. R. Ambedkar, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, Paragraph 31, available at: <http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/txt_ambedkar_castes.html> (accessed June 22, 2014).
2. Bhagwan Das, ed., Thus Spoke Ambedkar, Vol. 1: A Stake in the Nation (New Delhi: Navayana Publishers, 2010).
3. Pritha Chatterjee, Caste Adds Another Layer to the Double Rape, Murder in Badaun, available at: <http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/caste-adds-another-layer-to-the-double-rape-murder-in-badaun/> (accessed June 22, 2014).
4. Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint, in Annihilation of Caste: the Annotated Critical Edition (New Delhi: Navayana Publishers, 2014), Pages 30-35 [hereinafter, “Arundhati Roy”].
5. See generally, Devika Mittal, Caste Rules, Whether You Like It or Not, available at <http://www.countercurrents.org/ mittal190114.htm> (accessed 22 June 2014); see also Lavanya Sankaran, Caste Is Not Past, available at <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/opinion/sunday/caste-is-not-past.html> (accessed 22 June 2014).
6. Arundhati Roy, 23.
7. B. R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, Paragraph 4.1, 3rd Edition, 1944. [hereinafter, “AoC 1944”].
8. AoC 1944, Paragraph 21.15.
9. Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Ambedkar’s Indictment (I), Paragraph 4, published by Dr. Ambedkar as A Vindication of Caste by Mahatma Gandhi in AoC 1944.
10. AoC 1944, Paragraph 23.6.