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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 17, April 18, 2015

Ambedkar and the Annihilation of Caste

Friday 17 April 2015

by Sukumaran C. V.

“There is no code of laws more infamous regarding social rights than the Laws of Manu. Any instance from anywhere of social injustice must pale before it. Why have the masses of people tolerated the social evils to which they have been subjected? There have been social revolutions in other countries of the world. Why have there not been social revolutions in India is a question which has incessantly troubled me. There is only one answer and it is that the lower classes of Hindus have been completely disabled for direct action on account of this wretched system of Chaturvarnya.”
—B.R. Ambedkar

A pril 14, 2015 is the 125th birthday of Ambedkar, the man who was the greatest crusader against the inhuman caste system of India, the man who sincerely wished to annihilate the monster called caste. I have often felt that, in the history of the whole humankind, the two most draconian human ‘inventions’ are the slavery that was prevalent in the US and the caste system of India. As slavery was abolished and it doesn’t exist now, the caste system of India is the only draconian human invention that exists today.

It was while I was in the 9th standard I happened to know about Ambedkar. The Malayalam Supplementary Reader for class 9 had a short biography of Ambedkar and the portion which described that the people who belong to Ambedkar’s caste have had to wear a small pot around their neck to spit in order not to defile the path they walk on by spitting on the path really disturbed me. And when I hear that even today there are people in our country who are not allowed to drink tea in glasses and tea shops reserve coconut shells for them, I am not only disturbed but also ashamed! P. Sainath writes in his Everybody Loves a Good Drought: “Ramnad (Tamil Nadu): Even the Pallans and the Parayans, the other harijan groups here, practice untouchability towards Chakkiliyans. The Chakkiliyans cannot even get the barbers among the harijan groups to cut their hair. ...Caste oppression here has been so bad that even in the recent past the mere sight of a clean-shaven, decently dressed Chakkiliyan was cause enough to spark a riot. The upper castes forced harijans to dress according to their status—meaning poorly.”

In his Annihilation of Caste which was published in 1936, Ambedkar said: “...turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster.” (Annihilation of Caste, Chapter III)

Still, nearly 80 years later, we have not been able to kill the monster and the monster continues to kill and maim and insult the people. Even in Kerala, the most ‘educated’ and most ‘progressive’ State, people subscribe to caste prejudices and bias. The ‘forward’ class colleagues of a government department head, the day after his retirement, applied cow-dung water inside his cabin and on the chair he used to sit to ‘purify’ them as he belonged to a Scheduled Caste! It happened in Kerala four years ago. Mentally it happens every day. The ‘forward’ caste people who are down in the official hierarchy of the government civil service machinery, are irritated when their superior belongs to the SC/ST category. Even OBCs join hands with the ‘forward’ class in sharing this prejudice.

One of my Dalit friends recently told me that he didn’t vote for the Dalit candidate who was fielded by the Left in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The Dalit candidate, who won, is a highly qualified one and the constituency in which he was fielded was one that was reserved for the SCs. My friend’s question is: Why does even the Left field well-qualified SC candidates in the reserved seats? Why can’t even the so-called progressive parties field educated and qualified SC/STs in the general seats and make them win?

The irony is that even those who are supposed to fight the monster called caste don’t want to kill it. The question Ambedkar asked 80 years ago—‘Can you have economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order?’—is still relevant, but conveniently forgotten by every political party.

In the following words of Ambedkar, we can see the reason why secular democracy failed in this country and religious fundamentalism of the RSS and BJP thrives: “Why do millionaires in India obey penniless Sadhus and Fakirs? Why do millions of paupers in India sell their trifling trinkets which constitute their only wealth and go to Benares and Mecca? That religion is the source of power is illustrated by the history of India where the priest holds a sway over the common man often greater than the magistrate and where everything, even such things as strikes and elections, so easily take a religious turn and can so easily be given a religious twist.” (Annihilation of Caste, Chapter III)

The struggle against caste has not advanced even an inch from where Ambedkar had left it. After Ambedkar nobody is as serious and dedicated as he has been in annihilating the caste system, the most draconian social set-up in the world. Therefore caste and caste bias still thrive in our country and the humans and humanity fail.

And the most pathetic development in our country today is the competition between the Congress, which has never tried to annihilate the caste system, and the BJP, which doesn’t even dare to question the caste system, to ‘own’ Ambedkar on the occasion of his 124th birth anniversary! Both the BJP and Congress should do justice to Ambedkar’s legacy if they can assimilate his spirit against the caste system which still drags India back as far as social progress and equality are concerned. How can the Congress ‘own’ Ambedkar who said that ‘every Congressman who repeats the dogma of Mill that one country is not fit to rule another country must admit that one class is not fit to rule another class’? (Annihilation of Caste, Chapter II)

And how can the BJP ‘own’ Ambedkar who said that ‘the Hindus criticise the Mohammadans for having spread their religion by the use of their sword. ...But really speaking who is better and more worthy of our respect—the Mohammadans and Christians who attempted to thrust down the throats of unwilling persons what they regarded as necessary for their salvation or the Hindu who would not spread the light, who would endeavour to keep others in darkness? I have no hesitation in saying that if the Mohammedan has been cruel, the Hindu has been mean and meanness is worse than cruelty.’ (Annihilation of Caste, Chapter IX)

 Both the BJP and Congress don’t want Ambedkar who fought the most draconian system in the world—the caste system. Both want Ambedkar as a bait to garner Dalit votes. They want to ‘own’ the form of Ambedkar sans the spirit. They know full well that the spirit of Ambedkar will annihilate the very base and foundation of such parties—religion and caste.

 As Ambedkar says, ‘...Hindu Society is a myth. The name Hindu is itself a foreign name. It was given by the Mohammedans to the natives for the purpose of distinguishing themselves. It doesn’t occur in any Sanskrit work prior to the Mohammedan invasion. ...Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. ... Castes don’t even form a federation. A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot.’ (Annihilation of Caste, Chapter VI) The BJP used this ‘feeling of affiliation’ in the Gujarat riots, in the Muzafarnagar riots and in almost all communal riots. People who are in the bottom of the caste hierarchy are turned against the Muslims and both caste oppression and religious fundamentalism, which don’t allow the people to annihilate castes and religions, thrive oppressing the very people who help religious fundamentalism to grow and rule the country. (Minority fundamentalism, the other side of the same coin, and the so-called ‘secular’ politics of the Congress and other parties for whom secularism has always been a meaningless word only to catch the votes of the minorities, provided sufficient fuel for the majority funda-mentalism to spread over the country and swallow the entire nation.)

Caste oppression in India is as bad as the European slave trade and the slavery prevalent in the United States. We can only read with horror the details about the slave trade of the people who were ‘burdened’ with the duty of ‘civilising’ the world. Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States:

“The conditions of capture and sale were crushing affirmations to the black African of his helplessness in the face of superior force. The marches to the coast, sometimes for 1000 miles, with people shackled around the neck, under whip and gun, were death marches, in which two of every five blacks died. On the coast they were kept in cages until they were picked and sold. ...Then they were packed aboard the slave ships, in spaces not much bigger than coffins, chained together in the dark, wet slime of the ship’s bottom, choking in the stench of their own excrement....The height, sometimes, between decks was only eighteen inches; so that the unfortunate human beings could not turn around, or even on their sides, the elevation being less than the breadth of their shoulders; and here they are usually chained to the decks by the neck and legs.”

This cruelty and meanness towards humans by humans was abolished, but in India the oppression and discrimination in the name of caste still continue. When will we, Indians, be free from the oppressive and denigrating caste system which applies cow-dung water to ‘purify’ the official seat of an educated human being on account of his ‘lower’ caste origin? Will Ambedkar’s 200th birth anniversary see an India in which caste is totally annihilated?

A former student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, the author now works as a clerk in the Kerala State Government service and is based in Palakkad, (Kerala). He can be contacted by e-mail: lscvsuku@gmail.com