On 14th of April, just a few days back we celebrated the birthday of Babasaheb Ambedkar. That was an occasion for all of us Indians to look back on his life and times. Ramachandra Guha, the contemporary historian had revisited the book Annihilation of Caste written by Ambedkar. The primary source for doing this exercise was to cull out important developments that had taken place in his life from books from various authors. Guha is the kind of writer with whom you may agree or disagree; but you cannot afford to ignore him. That is the kind of intellec- tual heft that he commands as a historian. He recently wrote an opinion piece ar- guing that “Ambedkar’s programme for transforming Hindu society is far more thoroughgoing than that advocated by the Gandhians”. In the introductory part of this article Guha argues that there are four books that every Indian must read. They are MK Gandhi’s “Hind Swaraj” (1909), Rabindranath Tagore’s “National- ism” (1917), BR Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste” (1936) and Jawaharlal Neh- ru’s “The Discovery of India” (1946). These, according to Guha, are timeless clas- sics. He claims that Ambedkar’s work is the most coherent in its organisation and presentation. Having read “Annihilation of Caste” a few springs back, I tend to agree that the book indeed is very well presented irrespective of whether you agree with him or not. The contents of this book was prepared as a speech to be deliv- ered to an audience in response to an invitation extended to him by an anti-caste Hindu reformation group called the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal at their annual confer- ence in 1936. When the text of the Speech was sent to the Mandal in advance by Ambedkar, the Mandal found its contents unbearable and asked Ambedkar to change the portions that they felt were offensive to Brahminical interests. Ambed- kar refused to do so. The rest, as they say, is history. “In his book Ambedkar writes with his characteristic eloquence on how and why the indignities of caste are in separable from Hinduism, the Brahmanical hegemony implicit within it and offers intermarriage as a possible solution to the insidiousness of caste hierarchy”.
When I saw Guha’s article I went back to my own review of this book in Good Reads where I had this to say about “Annihilation Caste” by Ambedkar: “In the book Ambedkar comes across not only as a champion of the Dalits but also as someone who is crying out for justice as a victim of the caste system. Ambedkar eloquently marshals unassailable arguments to lay out what disservice Hinduism has done to the untouchables. It is an extraordinarily brilliant thesis on the caste system so much so you would feel ashamed to be a Hindu (if you are one) by the time you finish reading the book. It was perhaps unfortunate that he had to share the stage and limelight with three other greats, viz., Gandhi, Nehru and Patel being born around the same time. Communications between Gandhi and Ambedkar are themselves an illuminating education. You find criticisms between the two being free and forthright yet civil in delivery, something modern-day politicians can learn from. A reader would truly enjoy the exchanges of correspondence between the two. Mark Antony said he did not come to praise Caesar; but to bury him. As it turns out, in his letters reproduced in the book, Gandhi praises Ambedkar only to bury him. This book is as much about Gandhi as it is about Ambedkar. My im- pression about Gandhi as a three-in-one avatar only got reinforced by the time I finished the book – a Hindu nationalist, a social reformer, and a shrewd politician. Even a book like this one criticising him is also a tribute to him. My takeaway. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar did not deserve what they got – excessive deification in the case of the former and extreme vilification in the case of the latter”.
Ramachandra Guha had this to say about Ambedkar’s book on caste. “Ambed- kar’s work focuses on that most characteristic – and most discriminatory – of In- dian institutions, the caste system, and explains why it needs to be annihilated if our society is to renew itself on a more humane footing. Nehru’s reflections on the deeply layered and inescapably plural evolution of Indian culture are a direct chal- lenge to the unifying, homogenising ideology of Hindutva that identifies national identity with one religion (and often one language) alone”. From among the four books Guha further says “Of these four works, Ambedkar’s is the most coherent in its organisation and presentation. Gandhi’s defence of non-violence and religious harmony is marred by an intemperate attack on doctors, lawyers, and modern ci- vilisation in general. Nehru’s book meanders and digresses, perhaps because it was written in prison, in part because the author‘s own mind tended to meander and digress. Tagore’s book is powerful in intent but occasionally (or perhaps more than occasionally) clumsy in expression, perhaps because he was not writing in his na- tive language, Bengali”. Guha further goes to say as to why Ambedkar’s book appealed to him. “Because of his scholarly training, he had – unlike Tagore, Gandhi, or Nehru – the analytical skills to synthesise his readings and his experiences into a cohesive and persuasive narrative. At the same time, unlike the jargon-prone ac- ademics of today, Ambedkar had the ability as well as the desire to communicate his arguments in everyday language. He was not writing for his fellow scholars, but for his fellow citizens”. In his article Guha also refers to the work of Hyderabad based Syed Sayeed who had critiqued the book by Ambedkar. According to Guha Sayeed’s commentary on Ambedkar is perhaps what the latter wanted to say in his book. This provides an altogether fresh and deeply illuminating perspective on what Ambedkar had wished to say.
Here I decided to read Sayeed’s critique on Annihilation of Caste. Sayeed pleads that what Ambedkar wanted to say must be read without the embellishments at- tributable to its author. Sayeed says: “There is also a peculiar phenomenon in rela- tion to great texts – such as literary classics, milestone writings that herald the beginning of a new intellectual era and works that have become all-too familiar because they have been so frequently cited. According to Sayeed “everybody seems to know about the text; some even seem to know the text itself and are vaguely aware of its contents, its central plot or message; and yet it is as if all of that has turned the text itself into an opaque, unsignifying object. The text itself means nothing anymore. The similarity here is to what happens when you recite some profound formula every day, the result of which is that, after some time, the for- mula’s meaning is no longer heard. It becomes pure sound. It becomes a mantra. It mutates from a text meant to be read and understood into a script for recitation. I venture to suggest that Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste has suffered a similar fate.” He adds further. “Not merely Dalit thinkers and professed Ambedkarites but every politically and socially aware person knows about this text, and of course they know what it is all about: they know Ambedkar said that caste should be an- nihilated; it is inescapable, it is in the title. But the extraordinary thing is that, when they say this, one gets the impression that the very phrase “annihilation of caste” no longer registers; its enormous implications are not even noticed; the sev- eral important points Ambedkar makes in this essay – each of which deserves se- rious reflection – seem to have coalesced in the vision of most readers into an amorphous and stubborn position against caste; Ambedkar’s nuanced stance, the moral basis of his arguments, the perspective from which he is speaking, are com- pletely lost sight of ”.
To conclude this piece without referring to Arundhati Roy whose book “The Doc- tor and the Saint” will be tantamount to injustice to her. Though I do not subscribe to her views on Gandhi, it is difficult for anyone to write her off. “Democracy hasn’t eradicated caste,” writes Arundhati Roy. “It has entrenched and modernised it.” To best understand caste today in India, Roy insists we must examine the influ- ence of Gandhi in shaping what India ultimately became: independent of British rule, globally powerful, and marked to this day by the caste system. “For more than half a century-throughout his adult life-[Gandhi’s] pronouncements on the inher- ent qualities of black Africans, untouchables and the labouring classes remained consistently insulting, “ writes Roy. “His refusal to allow working-class people and untouchables to create their own political organisations and elect their own repre- sentatives remained consistent too.” In “The Doctor and the Saint” Roy reveals some uncomfortable, even controversial, truths about the political thought and career of India’s most famous, and most revered figure. At the same time, Roy makes clear that what millions of Indians need is not merely formal democracy, but liberation from the oppression, shame, and poverty imposed on them by In- dia’s archaic caste system”. As always, Roy is rabid in her observations when it comes to any comment that glorifies someone that she loves to hate. She spares not even Gandhi. No surprise here. Let me leave it there.
Permit me to quote this much from the “Annihilation of Caste.” Ambedkar has this to tell those who wish to abolish caste. “Caste may be bad. Caste may lead to conduct so gross as to be called man’s inhumanity to man. All the same, it must be recognised that the Hindus observe caste not because they are inhuman or wrong-headed. They observe caste because they are deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing caste. In my view, what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy you must grapple with is not the people who observe caste, but the shastras which teach them this religion of caste. Criticising and ridiculing people for not inter-din- ing or intermarrying, or occasionally holding inter-caste dinners and celebrating inter-caste marriages, is a futile method of achieving the desired end. The real rem- edy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the shastras”.
From those times when Ambedkar made the above statements India and its soci- ety has now changed. The changes may not be as much as Ambedkar would have wanted. It has taken time to accept the fact that caste system is not only unfair but essentially brutal. The caste system had started as a mechanism to provide social order and stability to society with each caste having its well-defined roles which in turn had instilled a sense of discipline and order in society. Long before Frederick Taylor had evolved the theory of division of labour, in India each caste had been assigned a particular occupation. This in turn helped the growth of various indus- tries and trades. The caste system also helped in preserving and developing rich cultural heritage unique to each caste. The caste system has led to discrimination and oppression of certain castes, especially those at the lower end of the hierarchy. Dalits or untouchables, for example, have faced extreme discrimination and social exclusion for centuries. It has led to a lack of social mobility, where people born into a particular caste are forced to follow the occupation and lifestyle of their fore- fathers, regardless of their own interests or abilities. This has resulted in a lack of opportunities and social inequality. The caste system has led to the fragmentation of Indian society, with people identifying more with their own caste than with the larger society. This has resulted in the formation of various interest groups, which has led to social and political tensions. The country is paying a heavy price today for perpetrating the caste system.
Earlier it is done away with, better it is for the country.