Towards a Casteless Society: Ambedkar’ Mixed Legacy

Of the four must-read books written by Indians, Hind Swaraj by Gandhi (1909), Nationalism by Tagore (1917), The Discovery of India by Nehru (1946), and Annihilation of Caste by BR Ambedkar (1936), the last book is most iconoclastic, as it makes a powerful case as to why the caste system needs to be annihilated if our society is to renew itself on a more humane footing. Ambedkar’s personal experience as a Dalit, experiencing the full blast of caste discrimination, tempered by his scholarly temperament & voracious reading Annihilation of Caste is both timely & timeless. In his youth, he had burned a copy of the Laws of Manu, the legendary Brahminic lawgiver whose decree was said to have created the caste order. It was, however, the Gandhian view of caste that he principally targeted. While Gandhi thought of Hinduism reforming itself by making individuals of different castes eat and live together, Ambedkar had no time for temporizing. He argued that caste was so central to the theological world of Hinduism, it could only be abolished by a frontal attack that questioned the legitimacy of scriptures & Sastras that sanctified them.

He rubbished the argument that caste had a basis in the functional division of labor. Though he considered Jyotirao Phule, the great social reformer, as his intellectual guru, he did not see caste as based on racial difference, the way it was perceived by Phule, based on the Aryan Brahmin invasion of Dravida lands. To Ambedkar, the caste system was an offshoot of the exclusionary social and kinship rules of the Brahmins, and it spread because the groups down the order aped the Brahmins’ precepts. The sociologist MN Srinivas called such aping, Brahminization, which offers an opportunity to people in the lower caste order to have vertical mobility. The caste system could operate largely by voluntary submission based on what Ambedkar brilliantly described as ‘an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt. ‘ 

There was yet another issue he had a sharp difference of opinion with Gandhi, untouchability. To Gandhi, the stain of untouchability could be removed by altering personal attitudes, and by requiring everyone in Sabarmati Ashram to clean toilets. But Ambedkar bridled at the notion that untouchability was an excrescence on a caste system that was on the whole functional. He considered Gandhi a caste orthodox in a democratic reformer’s clothing. He ensured that Article 17 is incorporated into the Constitution which abolishes untouchability and its practice in any form.

Annihilation of Caste makes three important recommendations viz one standard book of Hindu religion acceptable to all Hindus, a Civil Code which enables marriage of any partner of choice, and doing away with the hereditary priesthood. He was critical of the Bhakti movement saints who did nothing to attack the pernicious ideology underlying the caste system. Ambedkar was keen to set up a social order based on liberty, equality, and fraternity. He advocated inter-caste marriage and freedom from the thralldom of Shastras, based on reason & not the atrocious tradition of caste. He resigned on 27th September 1951 from Nehru’s cabinet as the law minister as the Hindu Code Bill was not passed, which would have given rights to women like inheritance of property and freedom to divorce. He said while parting; ‘To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex untouched and go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and build a palace on a dung heap.’

In his final year, he created another political party, the Republican Party, and converted to Buddhism with his followers, in a last bid to conceive of individuals unconnected from caste. Ambedkar in closing debates of the Constituent Assembly in December 1949: How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? He recognized the importance of fraternity, the ability to treat each other with dignity as fundamental to the creation of a political community. He ensured that fraternity is an inalienable ingredient in the Preamble to the Constitution and reminded his fellow Indians that, ‘equality and liberty will be no deeper than the coat of paint’.

While Ambedkar strongly pitched for a casteless society, he also ensured that there are provisions for reservations in public employment and admission to public institutions for SC & ST. These are termed as positive discrimination so that the historic injustice meted out to this disadvantaged class of population is redressed. These provisions were intended to be temporary but are being perpetuated by every governing class, given their potential to garner votes.  Reservation based on caste was further extended to the OBC after the Mondal agitation in 1990. The Upper Caste who are economically weak also gets reservations (10%) since 2019.  As of now, 60% of public employment stands reserved for SC, ST, OBC & EWS, giving a body blow to merit and open competition. In the USA where 12.2% of the population are blacks & underprivileged compared to the Whites, they do not practice reservation but have a slew of affirmative action like providing concessional education loans, etc. Ambedkar has been the unconscious hand of history to perpetuate caste and not merit for education & employment

Ambedkar was firmly opposed to Panchayats as third-tier democracy which was strongly advocated by Gandhi as he firmly believed that Indians majorly live in their villages and grassroots democracy would help to ameliorate their socio-economic disadvantages. Ambedkar believed that Panchayats would further entrench the interests of the upper caste politically, who would in turn overlook the interests of the Dalits. The introduction of the Panchayat Raj system in 1992 through a constitutional amendment has belied the apprehension of Ambedkar.  With all its warts & moles, grass root democracy has not been purloined by the upper caste but has given a voice to women, who constitute as high as 50% in such Panchayats in states like Odisha. Ambedkar had a dim view of democracy in India when he observed: Democracy in India is only a top dressing on Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic. As India turns 75 as a free country, India’s record as a democracy, barring the emergency years (1975-77) is robust.    Despite Ambedkar ‘s best intentions to improve the socio-economic condition of his community members, caste-based reservation for education & employment has left behind a troubled legacy for Indian citizens as a whole, putting caste ahead of merit.   

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