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By Namit Arora | Nov 2013 | Comments
(A shorter version of this essay was published under the title Caste Iron in The Caravan magazine, Nov 2013)
“Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path,” wrote Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, India’s foremost crusader for dignity and civil rights. That monster has always haunted Ambedkar’s legacy, polarising it along caste lines. On the one hand is his godlike presence in Dalit communities, who, out of affection and admiration, have built countless statues of him, usually dressed in a Western suit and tie, with a fat book under his arm, and in whose folk songs, poems, and calendar art he has long held pride of place. He is an inexhaustible source of inspirational quotations to them. They celebrate his birth anniversary late into the night with dhol and dance. On his death anniversary, 1.5 million assemble to pay their respects at his memorial in Mumbai. For generations, his bold, secular, and emancipatory ideas inspired many ‘lower caste’ activists and writers, many of whom recall their lives in “before-and-after Ambedkar” phases. When Omprakash Valmiki, the author of the memoir Joothan: A Dalit’s Life, first read about Ambedkar’s life and work, he “spent many days and nights in great turmoil.” He grew more restless; his “stone-like silence” began to melt, and “an anti-establishment consciousness became strong” in him. Ambedkar gave voice to his muteness, Valmiki wrote, and raised his moral outrage and self-confidence.
On the other hand, there remains a longstanding apathy for Ambedkar among caste Hindus. What respect he does get from India’s elites is usually limited to his role as the architect of the constitution—important, but arguably among the least revolutionary aspects of his legacy. The social scientist and educationist Narendra Jadhav, interviewed in the Times of India in early 2013, described Ambedkar as the “social conscience of modern India”, and lamented that he has been reduced to being “just a leader of Dalits and a legal luminary.” Indeed, even thoughtful, liberal elite Indians are commonly ignorant about Ambedkar’s life and social impact, both in his lifetime and in the decades since. As the scholar Sharmila Rege noted in Against the Madness of Manu: BR Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahminical Patriarchy, not only lay readers, but Indian post-graduates and academics in the social sciences, humanities, and women’s studies are also unlikely to have read him. Or as the writer Anoop Kumar said in 2015, “I have been in sociology seminars where caste was discussed but Ambedkar was not discussed. Some of us—we were very cruel to our teachers actually—we used to pop up this question about Ambedkar. Immediately, their facial expressions would change and we were looked down upon as if we were criminals.” What explains this severe disjunction in how Ambedkar is received in India?
India’s benighted historiography offers one explanation. In his provocative series of essays on modern Indian history, published as The Indian Ideology, the historian Perry Anderson deemed Ambedkar to be “intellectually head and shoulders above most of the Congress leaders”—a view that abounds among Dalit intellectuals, but not one you will find in the works of bestselling Indian historians and public intellectuals such as Ramachandra Guha, Sunil Khilnani, or Amartya Sen, who, despite polite words of respect for Ambedkar, remain trapped in a worldview shaped by caste privilege, and in whose books silences and evasions have often masqueraded as political moderation. While these scholars acknowledge aspects of Ambedkar’s value, they resist doing so at the expense of Gandhi and Nehru—a specious position given how much the two sides differed in their stance on matters of great significance to a liberal democracy, such as advancing equal opportunity, safeguarding minorities, and fighting systemic discrimination. Indeed, while Gandhi’s social reformism and Nehru’s secular rationalism are considered by many scholars as vital to India’s self-image, it is Ambedkar who, on both counts, demonstrated a deeper and more radical understanding of both in the Indian context.
While Ambedkar opposed British colonialism and its economic exploitation of India, he didn’t join the anti-colonial movement spearheaded by the Congress. ‘Ambedkar was for freedom,” writes scholar Braj Ranjan Mani, “but he held the view that as no country was good enough to rule over another, no caste or class was good enough to rule over another.” On the prospect of self-rule for his people, Ambedkar wrote, “It is only in a Swaraj constitution that we stand any chance of getting the political power in our own hands, without which we cannot bring salvation to our people … We are willing that it may happen, though the idea of Swaraj [also] recalls to the mind of many the tyrannies, oppressions and injustices practised upon us in the past.’
More than any other leader of the nationalist movement, which would come to define almost all of independent India’s heroes, Ambedkar understood that India’s deeply entrenched social inequities and caste loyalties were serious obstacles to democratic participation and a shared sense of citizenship and nationhood. Social tyranny in India, Ambedkar held, was far more vicious than political tyranny. “A reformer who defies society,” he wrote in The Annihilation of Caste, “is a much more courageous man than a politician who defies the government.” Forging a just and democratic society, in his view, not only required political reform that the nationalist elites emphasized but also extensive social reform—in short, not just political democracy but also social democracy. Without the latter, he feared, the caste elites—who had nothing but contempt for the “servile classes”—would simply replace the British and use the organs of state to extend their domination over others. Focusing on political democracy while doing little to achieve social democracy, as he would later say in a related context, was “to build a palace on a dung heap.”
None of Ambedkar’s contemporary reformers, not even his great rival, Gandhi, located the fundamental challenges of nation-building in the social realm so emphatically. Ambedkar had a singular sense of the urgency of emancipating the “depressed classes” through anti-discrimination laws and enabling equal access to public goods such as wells, schools, temples, village squares, transportation, and crematoriums. He spoke forcefully about the raw deal women got under the traditional laws of Brahminical patriarchy, and how caste amplified the oppression of women. He saw the necessity of advancing equality of opportunity through reservations—still a bitterly contested issue in modern India. In her classic biography, Ambedkar’s World, Eleanor Zelliot points out that Gandhi instinctively opposed the idea of reservations for the ‘untouchables’ in the legislature, until he was forced to compromise out of political expedience, while continuing his stubborn opposition to separate electorates at any cost, including his own life. It led Gandhi to begin a fast-unto-death until the Poona Pact of 1932.
Ambedkar had called Gandhi’s fast “a foul and filthy act … the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards (which had been awarded to them [by the British])”. Criticized for “putting the Mahatma’s life in danger”, Ambedkar had compromised from a growing fear of “terrorism by [Gandhi’s] followers against the depressed classes”, should something happen to him. Thereafter, the only Scheduled Caste nominees that would rise through the ranks of major political parties would be Uncle Toms—or chamchas (‘stooges’), as the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Kanshi Ram, memorably called them—who wouldn’t dare to confront caste Hindus in the party or the voting majority. But the Poona Pact, seen by Dalits as a blow to their struggle, is still routinely defended in history books. It often goes unsaid, especially in the works of mainstream Indian historians, that Jawaharlal Nehru was no better in this respect, claiming that in reservations for ‘untouchables’ lay “not only folly but disaster ... How are we going to build our public sector or indeed any sector with second rate people?” Notably, this crucial detail about Nehru finds no mention in both Khilnani’s The Idea of India and Guha’s India After Gandhi, both of which established something as close to hero worship of Nehru as is possible for historians to get away with.
Such feeble liberalism and stubborn prejudice common among his contemporaries, far from being allied with Ambedkar’s worldview, actively opposed it. But popular historians in the decades since independence focused almost entirely on a certain kind of nationalist politics, lionizing Gandhi and Nehru at the expense of other civil rights struggles and social reform movements (unless they were led by the ‘upper castes’—the Bengal renaissance comes to mind—whose protagonists, including Ram Mohan Roy, the Brahmo Samaj, and other “progressives” from the landowning bhadralok class, nevertheless stayed within the Brahminical fold, extolled the Vedic corpus and “the pure spirit of its dictates”, and attacked social ills that sometimes only afflicted upper-caste families, such as the practice of Sati and enforced widowhood, but never the caste system itself). Historians’ reflexive bias for nationalist politics only deepened, given how long the Congress, largely a party of upper-caste nationalists that led the anti-colonial struggle, has ruled in the decades after 1947. Indeed, from whose social perspective, if not of the elites who replaced the British, would it seem that no significant struggles were afoot besides anti-colonialism, no other heroes?
Ambedkar has become more visible than ever in the new millennium. A growing number of scholarly and popular books, websites, magazine articles, and popular film, theatre, and artwork testify to this, such as films by Jabbar Patel (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar), Nagraj Manjule (Fandry, Sairat), and Pa. Ranjith (Madras, Kabali), Arvind Gaur’s play Ambedkar Aur Gandhi, and Bhimayana, the critically acclaimed graphic novel by Subhash Vyam and Durgabai Vyam. Ambedkar even topped a poll ranking “the greatest Indians” conducted by Outlook magazine in 2012. Over the last few years, parks, freeways, townships, schools and universities across India—even a football stadium in Delhi—have come to bear his name, not to mention countless new statues.
Much of the explanation for this resurgence in parts of "mainstream" culture lies in the politicisation of the ‘lower castes’ in recent decades, and in the success at the polls of political parties focused on their issues, whose leaders—most notably Kanshiram and Mayawati, leaders of the Bahujan Samaj Party—have used Ambedkar as a symbol for asserting their pride in public parks and plazas in various towns and cities. That he is still seen as a leader of only the ‘lower castes’ is evident both in the motivations that underlie any desecration of the symbol, and in which communities do and do not take offense to such desecration—witness recent incidents as far apart as Gyanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Mandya in Karnataka, and Keezhakappu in Tamil Nadu.
Also driving Ambedkar’s visibility is a small class of educated and self-confident Dalit scholars, activists, and artists that has infiltrated the academy, civic institutions, media, and other elite cultural spaces, such as literary festivals, art galleries, and branded publishing. Popular thinkers and writers like Narendra Jadhav, Anand Teltumbde, Sharankumar Limbale, Meena Kandasamy, Kancha Ilaiah, and Chandra Bhan Prasad often invoke Ambedkar in their social analysis and creative work, even as they continue to goad Brahminical India towards a long overdue reckoning with its past. And finally, the diffusion of Western modernity through the many pathways of globalisation—including economic, cultural, and technological—has now produced a sliver of the caste elite whose embrace of an individualistic and egalitarian ethos causes them to sympathise more readily with Ambedkar’s struggle.
Ambedkar did not endear himself to caste Hindus in his lifetime. He berated upper-caste reformers for merely tinkering around the edges of the caste system. He wrote closely argued critiques of many Hindu scriptures and epics, evaluating them for their morality, including views on caste and gender. “I have read the Rigveda and the Atharvaveda many times,” he wrote. “But what is there in them about societal and human progress and ethical conduct that is persuasive, this I cannot understand.” Despite the fact that ‘all scholarship is confined to the Brahmins,’ he sharply asked, “Why have the Brahmins not produced a Voltaire?” In 1927, when he was thirty-six years old, he publicly burned a copy of Manusmriti. In 1935, he proclaimed: “I was born a Hindu; I had no choice. But I will not die a Hindu because I do have a choice.” He studied several world religions and in 1956, months before his death, led a mass conversion to Navayana Buddhism, which he claimed was better adapted than Hinduism for the modern age.
Ambedkar also understood that caste made patriarchy much worse, and rightly identified the causal connection between the practice of endogamy and women’s subordinate status, including stringent controls over their marriage and sexuality, especially for upper-caste women, leading to practices like child marriage, Sati, and the inferior status of widows and restrictions on their remarriage. He challenged the defenders of Brahminical patriarchy with the Hindu Code Bill, which sought to ban polygamy and advance the rights of women. The bill included the rights to divorce, maintenance, equal inheritance, removal of caste restrictions in marriage and adoption, and more—citing as justification not so much modern Western standards as the most liberal practices from the subcontinent’s own past, as well as examples cherry-picked from the Hindu scriptures he knew thoroughly (though upper-caste feminists, barring exceptions, have yet to acknowledge his place in the history of Indian feminism). Ambedkar held that “The relationship between husband and wife should be one of closest friends”, though as Omvedt has argued, Ambedkar might not have seen “very much farther than the ideal of a nuclear family typical of capitalist society, in which the woman provided support and help to the principal earner and worker, the man”.
Ambedkar’s radical ideas endeared him neither to the Indian right, nor the left. This was thrown into sharp relief in early 2013, when the Arvind Memorial Trust’s conference on caste and Marxism in Pune occasioned fierce, news-making debates between participants on the relationship of Ambedkarite thought with communism. The human rights activist Anand Teltumbde, reflecting on the conference, pointed out in an essay that Ambedkar had once tried “joining hands with the Communists but got a taste of their ‘Brahmanism’”. This caused a bitter rift with Ambedkar, to whom, writes the scholar Gail Omvedt, “eradicating caste was the precondition of a united working-class struggle.” Ambedkar held that the working class in India, riven by distinctions of caste and religion, was far from ready for the communist revolution, adding, “If Lenin had been born in India he would first eradicate casteism and untouchability from among workers”. His rift with the Communists never healed, which was unfortunate because Ambedkar sympathised with some of their ideas and, more generally, with democratic socialism—evident in his role as labour minister in the Viceroy’s Cabinet, where he developed policies on irrigation, power, and public works.
Ambedkar, however, was not doctrinaire about his socialist leanings—in the 1950s, for instance, he criticised Nehru’s foreign policy and advocated closer ties with the United States based on whether they could help “solve the problems of our own country”. He wanted the Indian state to remain central to people’s lives but didn’t want it to be ruled by dogma, including the Marxist-Socialist kind. Both nationalized and private enterprises had their place in economic development. Above all, he favored raising industrial production to reduce poverty, but held that any “preconceived pattern of industry cannot be the primary or paramount consideration … [as long as there is] no exploitation of the working classes.” Problem-solving, especially the problems of the poor and marginalized, mattered to him more than ideological commitments—a fitting tribute to his beloved mentor at Columbia, John Dewey, a noted philosopher of Pragmatism (a philosophical school whose approach to truth and reality has strong affinities with Buddhism). Indeed, it was pragmatism that led Ambedkar, over the course of his life, to shift his economic thinking away from Marxism to something closer to welfare capitalism.
Emerging as the de facto leader of the ‘untouchables’ in the early 1930s, Ambedkar founded political parties and periodicals to articulate their interests, astutely represented them at Round Table Conferences, and organized mass protests and rallies to agitate for basic civil rights. At a conference in 1942, he exhorted them with these words: “Educate, Agitate and Organize! Have faith in yourself. With justice on our side I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of the human personality.”
Ambedkar’s preferred mode of resistance—legal-democratic means, non-violence, and the shaming of opponents with principled argument—did not rule out collaboration with progressive caste Hindus. For instance, his Independent Labour Party, with its caste-sensitive socialist platform, included many Brahmins as well as Kayasthas, such as Anantrao Chitre and Surendranath Tipnis, who agitated alongside Dalits in their struggle for the right to public water tanks. GN Sahasrabudhe, a Brahmin, was appointed the editor of Janata, a weekly Ambedkar founded in 1930. He chose a Brahmin, Sharada Kabir, for his second wife, who became a companion and collaborator in many of his life projects.
Ambedkar continued to refine his anti-caste struggle even as Gandhi himself held out for a sanitised version of the existing caste system. Omvedt writes that Ambedkar’s public debates with Gandhi represented “not simply a confrontation of two idiosyncratic leaders but of two deeply divergent conceptions of the Indian nation itself.” Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that rather than see him as Dalit intellectuals do, defensive elites would, for generations, marginalise him as a partisan man of his people. It is hard to avoid concluding that upper castes and their intellectuals have not yet done the kind of soul-searching necessary to embrace his ideas, which require an interrogation of ingrained habits of mind, sense of identity, and reflexive pride in Hindu civilisation—hardly an easy task. In refusing to engage with him, they also limit their own intellectual emancipation.
In many ways, Ambedkar’s afterlife in India parallels that of Martin Luther King, Jr, in the United States. Like caste Hindus with Ambedkar, white Americans did not see King as their benefactor. This despite the fact that in confronting white supremacy and its physical and emotional violence, King also humanised white Americans. Yet, a whole lot of them saw King’s work as an intrusion into their way of life, even a violation of their individual liberty and rights. Though white Americans have come a long way since, even today the tenor and quality of King’s reception and emotional resonance vary sharply across racial lines; more extremely so does Ambedkar’s across caste lines.
Towards the end of his life, Ambedkar seems to have felt a sense of personal failure. His secretary, Nanak Chand Rattu, records him as saying, ‘I have not been able to fulfill my life’s mission. I wanted to see my people as a governing class, sharing political power in terms of equality with other communities. I am now almost crippled and prostrate with illness. Whatever I have been able to achieve is being enjoyed by the educated few, who with their deceitful performance, have proved to be a worthless lot, with no sympathy with their downtrodden brethren.’ Ambedkar lamented such failings among ‘his people’ and the selfishness of those vying to succeed him—human failings that have also plagued other communities and emancipatory movements.
His self-assessment now seems unduly harsh, more a sign of the exacting standards he had set for himself. As the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has written, Ambedkar’s “contribution to the making of modern India is possibly more substantial than that of any other leader of his generation.” Uniquely among leading national figures, Ambedkar not only overcame enormous personal odds (caste humiliation, poverty, the deaths of four of his five children), he also pioneered a critique of Indian society based on Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and fraternity—values that he situated in India’s own ancient traditions, most notably in Buddhism. He was more of a secular rationalist than even Nehru, with a far more sophisticated sense of history, economics, and philosophy. This aspect of Ambedkar—rooted in a worldly, inclusive, scrupulously reasoned, secular and radical egalitarianism, coupled with a bracing focus on equal dignity and social justice as foundations for civil rights—still hasn’t received its due in mainstream scholarship and opinion. Which other leader of the 20th century is as relevant to every dream of a just, modern, liberal, secular, humane, and democratic society in India today?
More writing by Namit Arora?
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