Despite widespread condemnation, caste continues to be a factor everywhere in India today, in our quotidian lives. Even our choices of abuse are casteist and we think it is harmless or innocuous as we have modernised as a society. Caste continues to persist through the lived experiences of people.
On 26 January this year, I chose to celebrate my Republic Day by engaging with BR Ambedkar’s ideas again after watching the parade on television. Engaging Ambedkar made me nostalgic and conscious of my duties as a citizen of India and prompted me to pen this article, given that opposing the government is today viewed as opposing the very idea of India.
I think that by writing this article, I am perhaps doing my duty as a conscientious citizen of my motherland.
In the words of Richard Devetak, being critical is not new, for it is a “philosophical disposition that questions modern social and political life.” The idea of critiquing a prevalent idea is not new, for it reveals the obvious forms of injustice prevalent in society. It problematises injustice, which is seen as natural, and seeks to dismantle entrenched forms of social life that constrain human freedom.
For me, that one big idea involves the five-letter word — caste. In India, BR Ambedkar did exactly that by critiquing the system, and through his oeuvres, he attempted to build a democratic society by calling for the annihilation of caste. This was in direct contrast to Mahatma Gandhi who was a tacit endorser of the caste system. This was the major takeaway for me from my afternoon reading session on India’s Republic Day.
The hallmark of Ambedkar’s views lay in their uniformity and consistency, as opposed to Mahatma Gandhi who was always a man of contradictions. Gandhi had once openly backed the caste system. He mentioned that Hindu society had been able to stand because it was based on the caste system and the seeds of swaraj stood on the caste system. Caste had a political basis.
While Gandhi did make amends and reports suggest that he saw that caste-based discrimination was a by-product of the caste system akin to an ugly weed that was an outgrowth of a crop, he did not necessitate the action that could truly reform society, as Gandhi viewed caste through the political lens. In short, Gandhian critique of caste despite actions was at best ephemeral.
This led Ambedkar to argue later that “India had only politically reformed in 1947” and true reform would occur only when political reform accompanied social reform. Ambedkar went on to describe Indian society as “a gradation of castes forming an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt — a system which gives no scope for the growth of the sentiments of equality and fraternity so essential for a democratic form of government.”Thus, he had vociferously condemned the prevalence of caste-based discrimination in India.
In fact, Ambedkar’s work is full of illustrations where he questions the discriminatory nature of the caste system in India, and fights for not just the rights of the Dalits but also women. A good example of the same is the Hindu Code Bill, 1955, which was diluted by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru because of pressure from right-wing groups who felt that this bill posed an imminent threat because women would gain access to property and have the hitherto unacceptable right to divorce. Ambedkar resigned from his post as law minister of the country.
He was a man of principles and really wanted to bring about valuable social change and was opposed to change merely at the level of rhetoric. Kancha Illaiah says that Ambedkar was keen to reform Hinduism because he believed that if a religion that is in majority has a weak and communitarian outlook, the future of India was bleak.
Ambedkar critiqued high-caste Hindus and this antagonised them to a great extent, leading to a massive movement by the latter to counter the Ambedkarities. The Hindu Sangathan — an offshoot of entities like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, for instance — attempted to integrate the Untouchables into Hindu society so that they could dissuade the Untouchables from conversion. It was, however, due to Ambedkar’s consistent efforts that the Untouchables got the right to enter temples, got full access to roads and schools, and could drink water from the nearby village well.
Interestingly, despite this widespread condemnation, caste continues to be a factor everywhere in India today, in our quotidian lives. Even our choices of abuse are casteist and we think it is harmless or innocuous as we have modernised as a society. Caste continues to persist through the lived experiences of people. This phenomenological understanding of the problem is essential to combat the evil of caste-based discrimination in India.
We believe that we are educated and have a mind of our own. We think that we have done our bit by reserving a section of seats for minorities in educational institutions — providing them jobs and perhaps ‘allowing’ them to interact with us. But caste is not only a factor in Indian politics; it is omnipresent and we have forgotten that.
In reality, caste-based discrimination is a by-product of our upbringing and we choose to ignore this fact because choosing to acknowledge this fact will be problematic for us. Caste-based discrimination exists in the garb of bourgeois morality. Machiavelli was right when he suggested most succinctly that effective morality did not exist where there is no effective authority. Morality was thus a product of power.
The consolidation of the caste system in India en cachette curtly explains this phenomenon. Caste-based discrimination enables us to feel powerful and important — we feel it is our right to ‘lord over’ people. The higher castes, therefore, as Ambedkar points out in his seminal work want to keep the lower castes down. These ideas are all-pervasive and we are inherently taught to despise ‘the other’ — people who are not like ‘us’.
Hence, this “us versus them” differentiation/dichotomy exists at various levels in society — not just in the realm of religion, but percolates across different socio-cultural contexts in India. ‘Caste’ is just one of the variants/constructs of this societal differentiation. Thus, the upper caste Hindus employ a coercive strategy to stigmatise the ‘threatening others’ (in this context, people of the apparently ‘lower castes’, to maintain their stringent hold on Hindu society more rigidly).
Sitting and reading Ambedkar today can help us comprehend and reflect on his ideas. He propagated a critical bent of mind where emancipation was important. It can be suggested that the prevalent norms in society are not immutable and change is possible if we, the citizens of India, choose to follow our Constitution and thereby understand Ambedkar and his views.
Interestingly, that is what our leadership has done so far — it has constructed knowledge to suit its interests so that it can use us citizens as pawns, since knowledge is not constituted objectively and always serves a purpose. It continues to divide us as a society — over dinner table conversations and otherwise.
However, Ambedkar deconstructs the existing knowledge and attempts to unite us as he comes alive whenever we flip through the pages of Annihilation of Caste or any of his other celebrated works.
Anuttama Banerji is a political analyst based in New Delhi, India. She graduated in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2018. Her work has been published by leading publications like The Diplomat, 9DashLine, The Print, The Interpreter and South Asian Voices, among others.