Volume 28 - Issue 15 :: Jul. 16-29, 2011
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
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 HINDU ARCHIVES
B.R. Ambedkar. He suggested inter-caste marriage as the remedy to destroy caste.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Dr Balachandra Mungekar is a former member of the Planning Commission
and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mumbai.
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