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Caste away

Caste away
What has been often apologetically dismissed as Ambedkar’s utopia – his ‘impracticable, unfeasible dream’ of caste-less society – his ‘anti-Hindu’ manifesto, has come back to rock the liberal boat. Annihilation of Caste, self-published first by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar in 1936 after a group of anti-caste radicals in Jat-Pat Torak Mandal of Lahore refused to allow him to deliver the annual lecture organised by them, has, ever since, divided opinions like no other. An apt description by S Anand of Navayana, the Delhi-based publishing house for Dalit literature and criticism which has brought out a new annotated edition, says that the book-length essay has the unique distinction of being one of the most read and most unread political works at once to emerge from/in India. Originally written for a ‘privileged caste’ audience, the founders and sympathisers of the pre-Independence anti-caste brigade, Ambedkar’s treatise was, and continues to, both garner and alienate critical attention, confusing scholars and general readers alike.

 What began as an undelivered speech, Annihilation of Caste, undoubtedly the very prolific Ambedkar’s one of the more radical works, has flummoxed many. In his own words, ‘The path of social reform, like the path of heaven (at any rate, in India) is strewn with many difficulties. The critics fall into two distinct classes. One class consists of political reformers, and the other of the socialists.’ Evidently, Ambedkar saw that socialism, without adapting it to the minutely divided Indian context, is no panacea for the many Dalits (a term that means ‘broken people’ in Marathi), since the high-caste Hindu reformers have practically no understanding of the outcastes, indeed those not in the hallowed inner circles of the four varnas dreamt up by an ancient man called Manu. Ambedkar understood that without vehemently denouncing Hinduism en bloc, which allows such divisions to continue to exist and indeed finds theological/textual/ritualistic reasons to validate the caste system, the ‘social evil’ cannot just be wished away.

‘The caste system is not just division of labour. It is also division of labourers.’ Ambedkar exposed the class struggle behind the caste struggle, an exposition that embarrassed the Hindu top brass of Indian National Congress, chiefly Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Mahatma, who cleaned toilets with the ‘Untouchables’ and lived with them, calling them ‘Harijans’ (god’s own people), shied away from Ambedkar’s stated recrimination of Hindu religion as the crux of the problem. Gandhi’s symbolic attack on Hinduism’s overt and covert practices, his message of peace, nevertheless, had no intention to rock the system, change its corrupt, essentially exploitative, fundamentals. For the Mahatma and his followers within the INC, Ambedkar’s anti-Hinduism was almost equivalent to anti-nationalism, therefore meriting total disregard, politically and intellectually, from the crème de la crème of Indian freedom struggle.

Inasmuch as the situation hasn’t changed much after six decades of independence, the new edition of the essay is a much-needed insertion in the contemporary discourse on caste, class and religion in India. It is in this light that Arundhati Roy, India’s dissenter-in-chief, has penned a brilliant introductory essay, giving Ambedkar’s lecture the delivery that it has been looking for. ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, Roy’s preface, analyses the Gandhi versus Ambedkar debate on caste with a pitiless clarity, and describes the work as a ‘breach of peace’. Insofar as ‘peace’ is what Gandhi had attempted to buy with his gestures of love and magnanimity towards the Harijans, Roy’s metaphor is not just accurate, it, in itself, is an intervention.

While some Dalit writers and critics have lampooned Roy for ‘popularising’ the discourse, on which, it is evident, some of them have ‘authorship’ bordering on intellectual patenting, Anand has resolutely maintained that their aim was to politicise and reinsert the essay into wider public sphere. They have clearly succeeded in doing that. In fact, Roy draws parallels between Ambedkar and Karna, the mythological character in Mahabharata who was brought up as a ‘lowly charioteer’ but was as valiant a warrior as Arjun, thereby highlighting the predication of the caste system on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate.

Roy laments that unlike Malala Yousufzai, who has a Talibanised regime to battle, Dalit victims in India, have, unfortunately, a modern liberal democracy to fight against. This greatly diminishes the legitimacy of their constant struggle against entrenched prejudices that range from systematic discrimination to outright violence, deprivation to murder. Roy shows how capitalism, which has replaced socialism in the post-liberalised India, has failed to address the biases that exist not because of poverty, but in spite of it, and in spite of liberal education that money can buy. Even though there are Dalit capitalists, the top ten billionaires from India, who control the markets, are non-Dalits.

Given that a market messiah, who has the unique pedigree of being an OBC, is now being seen as the strong solution that India needs to be ferried through the choppy waters of 21st century political economy, there is no better time as now to re-engage with Ambedkar’s priceless polemics. That the eugenics behind caste cannot be brushed away with a healthy dose of marketmania is, however, something that can only be comprehended in a counterintuitive manner. Annihilation of Caste is that counter-intuition.
Angshukanta Chakraborty

Angshukanta Chakraborty

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