Arundhati Roy is right: We need Ambedkar now

Last Updated: Tue, Apr 15, 2014 10:40 hrs

Title: Annihilation of Caste (The annotated critical edition)

Author: B R Ambedkar

Publisher: Navayana

For millions of year, the primary function of the human brain has been survival; its only mantra – truth is survival and survival the only truth. Life was black or white and people - good or evil. 11,000 years ago, human life took its most dramatic turn ever when a secure collective called ‘society’ was formed. This led to ‘civilization’.

With our physical existence no longer under constant threat, our brains took upon itself the task of preserving ‘ideas’ and ‘notions’ that by virtue of our accidental birth in a certain setting, we took for granted.

A Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian thus not only started defending his religion, but also began defending the many hierarchies inside it. A Sunni ‘defended’ himself against a Shia, Catholics ‘took up arms’ against Protestants and the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya, took to subjugating the Sudras.

The brain, called upon the full power of the intellectual mind, to not only justify what it loved, but to vilify the ‘other’ in the name of survival.  
Hindus in Gujarat look at Muslims as villains, Muslims in Pakistan target minority Hindus and Christians, and Brahmins for at least 5000 years, have been brutalizing Dalits for the slightest transgressions.

Scholars have dedicated their lives to dividing people by their skin-colour, religion, race, gender, creed and caste, its nuances being turned into a fine art. Nowhere is this exemplified better than in the most ancient of religions Hinduism, whose proof of sophistication is best visible in the myriad ways it discriminates against its weakest members, the Dalits.

Throughout history, subjugation has met with resistance (ironically, all religions were born as resistance to prevalent subjugation). This resistance has led to counter-resistance with the brightest among the dominating class, defending suppression in the most ‘passionate’ ways.  
One of the best examples of this oppression/resistance/defense-of-oppression cycle is found in the intellectual and moral boxing match between two giants of the last century – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aka ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar aka ‘Doctor’ B R Ambedkar, i.e. the fight between the saint and the doctor, rather the doctor and the saint because it was the doctor who threw the first punch against the Goliath of Hinduism and Gandhi promptly emerged to face him as the Goliath’s defender.

The best and most judicious elaboration of this fight, can be found in publishing house Navayana’s edition of Dr. B R Ambedkar’s masterpiece of logic and erudition, ‘Annihilation of Caste’ (AoC).

First, a little back story.

In 1936, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (forum for the destruction of caste), an Arya Samaj spinoff reformist group from Lahore, invited Dr. B R Ambedkar to deliver their annual lecture. They asked for an advanced copy of his speech but were so shocked by what they read that they asked him to makes changes. Ambedkar declined and eventually they cancelled the program.

Ambedkar self-published the speech, to which Mahatma Gandhi responded. Both Ambedkar and Sant Ram of Jat Pat Todak Mandal responded to Gandhi’s response.
In a revised edition, Ambedkar included all these reactions to create the final copy of AoC which has been kept in circulation for nearly 80 years by fans, mostly Dalit writers, scholars and reformists.

Today, the book is also available on the net (

However, publisher Navayana’s edition is different from most previous publications or the many versions available online, in two important ways: a book-length essay by Arundhati Roy euphemistically and sarcastically titled ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ and publisher S Anand’s meticulously detailed annotation of Ambedkar’s text.

Ambedkar is one of the few writers in the history of humanity with such clarity of vision that he cuts through all fluff and rhetoric to come brutally straight to the point. Hence, the most obvious question that comes to mind is this: does Ambedkar need any introduction or annotation?
The answer, in an ideal world, would have been in the negative.

For in such a world, the atrocities committed upon the Dalits, would at least have found similar footing in popular culture and discourse, as the suffering inflicted on African-Americans. Sadly, the Hindus, unlike Americans, still live in denial of the unimaginable horrors that have not only been perpetrated in the name of caste for 5000 years, but show little sign of abetment even today.

No one symbolizes this living-in-denial better than India’s father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi.

Consider some of Mahatma Gandhi’s views on caste: “I believe that if Hindu society has been able to stand, it is because it is founded on the caste system.... A community which can create the caste system must be said to possess unique power of organization.... To destroy the caste system and adopt the Western European social system means that Hindus must give up the principle of hereditary occupation which is the soul of the caste system....To change it is to create disorder.... It will be a chaos if every day a Brahmin is to be changed into a Shudra and a Shudra is to be changed into a Brahmin. The caste system is a natural order of society.... I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system.”

How do you reconcile a man thought to have fought tremendous injustice with the weapon of truth and non-violence, being unable to see the most basic level of untruth? Or is Gandhi another case where survival instinct makes him blind to the most obvious truths?

Ambedkar, obviously, had just the opposite view of Gandhi. In Annihilation of Caste he writes:

 “A Hindu does treat all those who are not of his caste as though they were aliens, who could be discriminated against with impunity and against whom any fraud or trick may be practiced without shame. This is to say that there can be a better or a worse Hindu. But a good Hindu there cannot be. This is so not because there is anything wrong with his personal character. In fact, what is wrong is the entire basis of his relationship to his fellows? The best of men cannot be moral if the basis of relationship between them and their fellows is fundamentally a wrong relationship. To a slave, his master may be abettor or worse. But there cannot be a good master. A good man cannot be a master, and a master cannot be a good man.”

Gandhi responded thus:

“Caste has nothing to do with religion. It is a custom whose origins I do not know, and do not need to know for the satisfaction of my spiritual hunger… Varna and ashrama are institutions which have nothing to do with castes. The law of varna teaches us that we have each one of us to earn our bread by following the ancestral calling. It defines not our rights but our duties.”

Ambedkar, provided with a once in a lifetime opportunity on a platter, responded with raw, yet polite, sarcasm:

“Does the Mahatma practice what he preaches? One does not like to make personal reference in an argument which is general in its application. But when one preaches a doctrine and holds it as a dogma, there is a curiosity to know how far he practices what he preaches.... The Mahatma is a Bania by birth. His ancestors had abandoned trading in favor of ministership which is a calling of the Brahmins. In his own life, before he became a mahatma, when occasion came for him to choose his career he preferred law to scales. On abandoning law he became half saint and half politician. He has never touched trading which is his ancestral calling.”

The book is filled with such logical denouncements of most things that are wrong in Hinduism. Though Ambedkar tries, he cannot contain the acerbic nature of his reactions to things in the Hindu way of life, which he had observed, and suffered.  

This obviously brings us, the urban reader, to wonder at the source of Ambedkar’s vicious reaction to a man the world called ‘Mahatma’ – the great soul.
Also, is Ambedkar going overboard in his criticism of a religion that has produced not a handful of reformers, but an entire army of them who have consistently tried to clean and reform it?

The answer to these vital questions is provided by Arundhati Roy’s essay and S Anand’s annotation. Consider Roy’s words:
“It [AoC] is not an argument directed at Hindu fundamentalists or extremists, but at those who considered themselves moderate, those whom Ambedkar called “the best of Hindus”… Ambedkar’s point is that to believe in the Hindu shastras and to simultaneously think of oneself as liberal or moderate is a contradiction in terms.”

Arundhati’s notes to her own works become a chilling reminder of the state of affairs today in the world. Consider page 145 where she quotes figures from a study done in Gujarat.

Why Gujarat is studied, and quoted by Roy, is because the state claims itself, under its extreme Right-Wing Chief Minister Narendra Modi, to be more developed than the rest of the country.

Whereas this rhetoric is easily debatable and in the most parts, statistically put down, what is without doubt is that Gujarat is the epicenter of the resurgence of Hindutva, a rabid version of Hinduism that harks back to the ‘glory days’ of Hinduism before the arrival of Muslims. This statistic provides a wakeup call.

“In 98.4 per cent of villages surveyed [in Gujarat], inter-caste marriage was prohibited; in 97.6 per cent of villages, Dalits were forbidden to touch water pots or utensils that belong to non-Dalits; in 98.1 per cent villages, a Dalit could not rent a house in a non-Dalit area; in 97.2 percent of villages, Dalit religious leaders were not allowed to celebrate a religious ceremony in a non-Dalit area; in 67 per cent of villages, Dalit panchayat members are either not offered tea or were served in separate cups called ‘Dalit’ cups.”

The Modi-wave, created after spending thousands of crores on PR and Advertising by Narendra Modi, claims that he is slated to be the next Prime Minister of India. Many Hindus not only believe it, but want it. They are done with Hinduism and want its militant version, Hindutva to rule life in India.
If Gujarat, which Modi has ruled with an iron fist for 12 years, is any indication, a major upheaval, a dastardly and despicable regression of Hinduism, especially in casteist lines, awaits India.

What Arundhati does is first give a historical perspective to both the history of Dalits, as also Mahatma’s views on caste with an eye to Ambedkar’s objection to it?

Her essay is not only a generalization but a meticulous layering and rereading of the issues involved, and she attempts a larger canvas – considering that she has a view of what would have been the future for Ambedkar.

While Ambedkar warns about the disparity between our social and political life where ‘in politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality’, Roy – having seen the extent of this ‘inequality’, is much more acerbic in her reaction to the status-quo even calling Gandhi ‘the Saint of the Status Quo’. She even puts a corporate spin (not the first one to do so) to it when she points out that all the large businesses and media houses are owned by the upper castes.  

Arundhati traces the power behind Ambedkar’s punches and also the reasons for Gandhi’s submission and failure. Reading both Roy’s part and Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, you realize that the contest between Gandhi and Ambedkar was an unbalanced one.

Ambedkar clearly was the intellectual and moral giant among the two. It’s no surprise, that as you read above, Ambedkar’s left-hook delivers a knockout punch to the most formidable fighter against injustice – M K Gandhi.

Gandhi may have been successful in many other categories, but when it comes to the question of caste, he is such a miserable failure that it puts his other successes under the scanner of doubt.

Gandhi, as quoted extensively by both Roy and Ambedkar, says that a society should be judged by its best men and not its worst. He does not realize that like a chain, a society is often as good as its weakest link and that an accurate measure can be found by taking an average of its most strongly held beliefs.
And if you judge Hindu society, in aspects such as women and caste, it does not emerge as a particularly just or accommodating religion.

Obviously, its proponents would disagree. But the proof of the pie, as the cliche goes, has to lie in the eating. And no one has eaten the full pie of Hinduism, than its lowest castes. And what they have experienced, what they have written, has the power to send a shiver down every spine.

The best and most erudite of the lot is Dr  B R Ambedkar.

Annihilation of Caste is a record of the corruption in India. The ugliest form of corruption is not economic corruption, but moral, social, political and intellectual corruption, something that the Hindus have practiced with vigour evidenced from the plight of Dalits in India.

Morally corrupt people, who have made hypocrisy and double standards as sanctioned by their scriptures they religiously follow, their value in life, can hardly be expected to be free from other forms of corruption. The root of almost all corruption thus lies in the moral corruption of the citizens of the nation. Till the corruption of caste is not removed from India, corruption can never truly be removed from our midst.  

S Anand approaches AoC like one would the words of a messiah (while also criticizing him, like with his views on Adavasis). His zeal is infectious and his annotations have the effect of lighting up the entire universe of caste-based atrocities so that no miniscule injustice, especially those during Ambedkar’s time (thus also explaining his ferocity), can escape exposure.

Take for instance, the annotations on page 247 where he describes how different sub-castes of Brahmins fought against each other for supremacy. It makes for a sickening read because if you thought that caste wars were only between different castes, you would be surprised to find how deep the rabbit hole goes and who it has sucked in.

If Annihilation of Caste was a sword to cut the caste system, Arundhati Roy and S Anand not only sharpen this sword but also add an entire arsenal of weaponry to fight the system that is at the root of all corruption in India.  

The greatest act against oppression, slavery and crushing injustice has been going on in India, where the Dalits, oppressed for many a millennia, have been rising against the tenants of a religion that crushes them. Nearly two and a half millennia after the first recorded version of this war (the birth and spread of Buddhism as a response to the extreme corruption of Hinduism – read Ashoka the Great written by a Dutch school teacher Wytze Keuning as a reaction to the rise of Fascism in Europe during World War II to get a microscopic preview of caste) against injustice, it continues. It is a war that demands soldiers armed with logic and passion for justice and fairness.

The question that Ambedkar seems to be asking in Annihilation of Caste, and this is a question put directly to Hindus is, are you up for it?  
Some will say situation has improved from the times of Ambedkar. This is true. And this is false as well. The truth of the statement depends on the angle you observe it with. Individually you will look at it and say that you don’t discriminate anymore, like your parents used to and so it is better. That is because education has liberated you. But has it liberated your ideas of what caste is.  

What is the Khairlanji case? What are the Khap panchayats? What are honour killings that Indians have exported abroad and that you hear of even in the UK, Canada and US? Why has the UK government been vying for years to pass an anti-caste legislation and why have the upper caste Hindus there been trying to scuttle it?
The reason is clear… you may take a man out of the country that practices caste, but you can never take caste out of him. Indians, wherever they have settled, have taken the poison of casteism with them and they practice it with greater rigor than they do in India.

Far from being over, casteism has given rise to newer walls all around us. We have developed better ways of distinction and discrimination. A new caste structure that hasn’t necessarily replaced the old, but has surprisingly coexisted.

Like Roy says, “Democracy hasn’t eradicated caste. It has entrenched and modernized it. This is why it’s time to read Ambedkar.”

Caste impacts not just India, but the world. According to the scriptures and the words of the Prophet Mohammad, Islam is not supposed to have castes. That again is in spirit for Islam in India has bred a fine net where people are sieved according to their castes (Ambedkar even horribly notes how he has been discriminated against by Muslims for him being a Hindu untouchable, leading him to write that “a person who is Untouchable to a Hindu, is also Untouchable to a Mohammedan.”).

And that has far reaching global implications. General Zia Ul Haq, being a Muslim who migrated from India to Pakistan during Partition, was considered lower than the sons of the soil. Such Muslims continue to be called ‘Muhajir’. Though this is not exactly a caste, and religiously speaking Islam is not supposed to have castes, the social implication is of lower caste people.

The one way, lower caste people in the Indian subcontinent can earn a little in the way of respect from their upper caste elite, is to be much more fundamentalist in the practice of religion than the upper castes.

General Zia Ul Haq, did just that. He Islamized a country, which till then was more or less secular. He was a man of development and the nation prospered economically under his rule and corruption, that had reached gangrene proportion in the country, was curbed.

However, the radicalization of the country has had global repercussions and the country became the hotbed of terrorism in the name of Islam and religious fundamentalism that has pushed the country into the dumps from which it is now struggling to recover.

Narendra Modi is India’s Zia Ul Haq. A lower caste Shudra man, he found respect in the militant brand of Hinduism. The more militant he became, the more respect he got from the upper class Hindus.

And like Zia, he has given shelter to the militant faction in his religion, that is becoming more and more acceptable to even the educated class right now.
Question is: what will Hindutva do to Dalits in the nation? Gujarat is perhaps the most anti-Dalit state in the country with not just violence but organized riots targeting Dalits having been recorded since independence.

In 1981, 12 Dalits were killed and hundreds injured across Gujarat and in 1985 where anti-Dalit rioting continued for four months, nearly 200 Dalits were killed.

Zia denied Pakistan its tryst with Destiny. Modi is ensuring that he steals India’s tryst with destiny. The “veritable chamber of horrors” that is Hinduism according to an untouchable is finally producing the monsters whose actions will have far reaching consequences on the politics of the world.

When across the world there was no safeguard or equal rights given to everyone, India under the guidance of Ambedkar assured equal rights to all, at least on paper, and in spirit. In his final speech at the Constituent Assembly he said,

“On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”   
The urgency proclaimed by the current hour is that it is already too late. When the world and its citizens work towards going from darkness towards light, from injustice to justice, India is already decades, if not centuries behind.

When the Hindu code bill was being considered in the parliament in the 1950s, Hindu fanatics sent telegrams and letters in thousands, stating that giving equal rights to women, will destroy Hinduism.

Hindu fanatics and even moderate reformers like Mahatma Gandhi have been voicing a similar opinion - that destroying caste will destroy Hinduism. But just like giving equal rights to Women has actually strengthened Hinduism, what will embolden it further, what will give it the moral advantage over everything else, is the annihilation of caste.  

The time to read Dr. B R Ambedkar was 5,000 years before he wrote it. The time to read him is today and in the future as long as injustice in any form survives.

May a thousand different interpretations, may a million different commentary on ‘Annihilation of Caste’ emerge.

If there is one thing that will lead to the annihilation of caste, it is this.

Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.

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