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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 28

Amend Bhim Smriti to Annihilate Caste

by Kunal Ghosh

Monday 2 July 2007

On June 9 and 10, 2007, the Rajasthan Brahman Sabha held a meeting at Salasar, and resolved to launch a peaceful agitation to demand job reservation. (The Times of India, Lucknow, June 12, 2007, p. 7) This comes in the immediate aftermath of the violent agitation of the Gujjars, who had demanded a change in their status from OBC (Other Backward Caste) to Scheduled Tribe (ST). The Meenas of Rajasthan, who had been enjoying an ST status hitherto, opposed the Gujjar stir fearing competition in higher education and government jobs. The two groups had squared off and a few lives had been lost. The Gujjars had to withdraw the agitation after several inconclusive meetings with the government.

The Rajasthan Brahman Sabha meeting was attended by Congress MLA Bhanwar Lal Sharma and Forest Minister Laxmi Narayan Dave of the BJP. The meeting attracted Brahmin leaders from other States and political parties, the most notable being former Chhattisgarh Minister Satyanarayan Sharma. It should be noted that the Brahman Sabha’s reservation demand comes in the wake of the recent victory of the Dalit-Brahmin alliance that brought Mayawati to power in Uttar Pradesh and that reservation for any of the upper castes will have an effect of strengthening the caste system. It seems that India’s caste cauldron never ceases to simmer, throws up a kaleidoscopic variety of phenomena and often comes to boil.

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, born in an untouchable caste of Maharashtra, suffered humiliations since his childhood in the hands of upper-caste Hindus. His predecessor in social reform and role model, Jotiba Phule, was born in a touchable Shudra caste of the gardener or Mali. Even so he was denied the right to education by the upper castes of Pune and his father had to take him to Ahmadnagar to be taught by Christian missionaries. Phule remained loyal to Hinduism and tried to reform the Hindu society. He wrote a book called Gulamgiri and urged the Shudras to acquire self-respect and education. Ambedkar did the same for the untouchables and also wrote many books, famous among them being Who Are The Untouchables and Who Are The Shudras. In school he was barred from learning the Sanskrit language. He studied Law and Economics, taught himself Sanskrit and read all the Smritis, the scriptures of law. In his famous paper, ‘Castes in India, Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’, he says that caste is “an enclosed class and that it existed even before Manu”. Manu merely codified the caste rules in his Smriti. He did not create the caste system, the ancient Hindu society did. The cruelest of all the rules is that that denies education to the Shudra and preserves it only for the three upper castes, who are dwija, that is, twice born.

AMBEDKAR worked tirelessly to arouse his caste brethren and emancipate them socially and economically. Later he became the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly and incorporated reservation for the untouchables in higher education, jobs and parliamentary seats in the Indian Constitution. He also piloted the Hindu Code Bill and while doing so was instrumental in injecting modernity in Hindu laws. H. V. Kamath, himself a member of the Constituent Assembly and a Brahmin, said:

….my honorable friend Dr Ambedkar said the other day that there are perhaps 137 Smritis…. And now we have got the 138th Smriti….. I hope Dr. Ambedkar will pardon me if I refer to this (Hindu code bill) as the Bhim Smriti. (Ref: Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. II, Part II, dated February 24, 1949)

Ambedkar observes that his people, the untouchables, need rituals and priests, but as long as they employ Brahmin priests they would be held in a spell and cannot assert equality and self-respect; they need priests of their own castes. (This particular observation of his happens to be true for the touchable Shudras and even for the non-Brahmin upper castes like Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, albeit in a more subdued fashion, but they were not his concern.) Hence he converts himself and his followers to Buddhism. Ambedkar would demolish the caste system if he could and he wrote an essay called ‘Annihilation of Caste’. Mahatma Gandhi asked him for a message for the first issue of his journal, Harijan. Ambedkar’s message was:
The outcaste is a by-product of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system. Nothing can help to save Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle except the purging of the Hindu faith of this odious and vicious dogma. (Ref: Harijan, dated February 11, 1933)

Swami Vivekananda spoke to all sections of the Hindu society but his focus was on moving the upper strata to feel for the poor and down-trodden castes, and then to act in a spirit of service. He says (Ref: Complete Works, Vol. 3, pp. 297-298):

To the Braahmanas I appeal that they must work hard to raise the Indian people by teaching them what they know…It was not his (the Brahmin’s ) fault that he reached ahead of other castes…. But it is one thing to gain advantage and another thing to preserve it for evil use….So this accumulated culture of ages for which the Braahmana is the trustee, he must now give to the people at large….It was because he did not….for a thousand years we have been trodden under the heels of everyone who chose to come to India…. There is an old superstition that if the cobra that bites, sucks out his own poison, the man must survive. Well then, the Braahmana must suck out his own poison.

This is certainly a dose of strong medicine. To the lower castes he tells:
The only way to bring about the leveling of caste is to appropriate the culture, the education, which is the strength of the upper castes…..This Braahmana , the man of God, he who has known Brahman, the ideal man, the perfect man, must remain. We must be bold enough to speak of their defects, but at the same time we must give the credit due to them…. (Ref: Complete
Works, Vol. 3, pp. 291, 293)

Vivekananda has spoken and written much on the caste system. Any quotation may seem one-sided and lifted out of context. To get the complete flavour of such a great man’s outlook one would have to go to the Complete Works and no less. His greatest contribution is in pointing out a contradiction between the Advaita Vedanta philosophy and the caste system. He asks:
Who reduced the Bhangis and the Pariahs to the present degraded conditions? Heartlessness in our behaviour and at the same time preaching wonderful Advaitism (oneness of all)—is it not adding indult to
injury? (Ref: Complete Works, Vol. 6, pp. 115)

He gave the holy thread to some of his Shudra followers in one ceremony. This of course was a symbolic act. He gave the right to priesthood to all castes within the bounds of the monastic order and its educational institutions. He wrote in favour of inter-caste marriage. He forbid the monks of the Ramakrishna Order to take part in social reform, but made one exception. He left discreet instructions that they should encourage inter-caste marriage but in a most unobtrusive way. He seemed to say, ‘Reform society slowly and gradually to move relentlessly toward a casteless order.’ He predicted that all exclusive privileges (Visheshaadhikaar was his term) would and should vanish one day.

CASTE cannot be annihilated in a few generations. But there must be continuous reform and movement in the right direction. A century has passed since Vivekananda exhorted the upper castes to accept the outcaste and the deprived as their brothers, to serve them as Gods; Daridra Narayana was his term for the poor. The reservations initiated by Ambedkar are now more than a half century old. The saga of reservation has come full circle and now the Brahmins are agitating to demand reservation in jobs. They have forgotten that they still enjoy an exclusive reservation in the ‘Sacred Sector’ of the economy; all the temple jobs are theirs and there are millions of temples in India. All priestly jobs related to the life-cycle ceremonies, of birth, marriage and death, performed in family circles of all castes, are theirs. The Sacred Sector creates an enormous volume of employment exclusively for the Brahmins. Even the army is in its ambit. The army recruits priests of different religions. When it comes to Hindu priests, the Army lists the required qualifications in the advertisement and puts out a carefully worded rider in news dailies—“Persons belonging to traditional families will be given preference.” What they implement is not preference for one caste, the Brahmins, but exclusion of all other castes. This is a violation of the Indian Constitution which prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, and that too on the taxpayers’ account. According to noted sociologist Dr. M. N. Srinivas, the three main axes of power in the caste system are the ritual, the economic and the political ones and the possession of power in any one sphere usually leads to the acquisition of power in the other two. (Ref: Caste in Modern India and Other Essays, p. 44) Among the Hindus the Brahmins of modern India constitute the only caste that is empowered in all three main axes. Even then they are on the path to seek job reservation. This does not bode well for the Hindu society.

In the light of what has happened with the Indian polity in last 17 years since the Mandal Commission’s recommendations were imp-lemented and the latest round of events in Rajasthan involving Gujjars, Meenas and Brahmins, one is tempted to conclude that the time has come to take fresh steps in the direction of caste annihilation:

Step 1: Apart from being an ‘enclosed class’ , the caste is also an educational institution; A Barhai (carpenter), Lohaar (blacksmith) or a Brahmin boy learns the ancestral craft from his father. But now there are schools for all manners of crafts and skills, mostly run by the government. Many Brahmins attend ITIs (Indian Technical Institutes) to learn how to operate a Lathe machine or do blacksmithy, the traditional preserve of a Lohaar. Many Kshatriyas attend business schools and do well in trade, the traditional preserve of a Bania. Many from the Scheduled Castes attend service academies and become army and police officers, the traditional preserve of a Kshatriya. Now it is time for the government (and also private bodies) to open schools where all peoples, irrespective of caste, can learn the craft of a priest, learn how to recite mantras and perform rites and ceremonies.

Step 2: The defence forces should start recruiting priests who are formally qualified and certified by recognised priest-training schools. All major temples run by government controlled trusts should also do the same. There should be quotas for SCs and OBCs in these priestly jobs. I am tempted to say that there should be quotas for even non-Brahmin upper castes, such as Kshatriyas and Banias.

Step 3: Apart from the Sacred Sector, in all other sectors the government should look for an exit route from the scenario of job reservation in the long term and start scaling down reservation in the short term. The ‘creamy layer’ principle should be applied to all castes and tribes having quotas. It should be recalled that the founding fathers had intended the caste based reservations to stay only for a limited period.

Step 4: The Indian Constitution and the Hindu Code, that is, the Bhim Smriti, as named by Ambedkar’s colleague H.V. Kamath, should be amended to enshrine these principles that would open up the ‘Sacred Sector’ for all castes. Otherwise there would remain a danger that the society might slide back to olden ways. Amending the Bhim Smriti for the purpose of gradual dismantling of the caste system would be the most fitting tribute to Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

The author is a Professor, Aerospace Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

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