Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste: Still Relevant
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, popularly known as Babasaheb is the father of the Indian Constitution. He was a revolutionary and yet ironically drafted one of the finest Constitutions which rules our lives as Indians. With the emergence of Dalit activism, Ambedkar became a central figure through his political philosophy that was directed against the Hindu religion. He helped the cause of the oppressed but in the mainstream got sidelined as the leader of the underprivileged. This is a tragedy for a person of his stature whose works are not limited to caste struggles but on economics and beyond. To understand Ambedkar, we must also be cautious that his methods to achieve the means are open to criticism but the way he diagnosed India's social problems is what makes him stand out.
Brief: The Annihilation of Caste
The Annihilation of Caste (AoC) is a critique on (pre-Independence era) Hindus who were liberal and reform-oriented but continued their beliefs in Shastras. Mahatma Gandhi's views also resonated to this school of thought and he was defensive of the Shastras. Ambedkar called it a contradiction on the part of the Hindus to seek reform yet belief in the Shastras and cited Shastra sources constituted the genesis of the caste system. This eventually led to a dialogue between Gandhi and Ambedkar.
Understanding Ambedkar's position
Ambedkar in AoC cited that political revolutions have always been preceded by social and religious revolutions. In England Puritanism led to the establishment of political liberty. Even in India, the political revolution led by Chandragupta was preceded by religious and social revolution of Buddha. It was the same for the Sikhs whose political revolution was preceded by the religious and social revolution led by Guru Nanak. This was his criticism about India's Freedom movement that it lacked a social transformation and that independence or Swaraj would not be absolute and for everyone because “the question whether the Congress is fighting for freedom has very little importance as compared to the question for whose freedom is the Congress fighting.” He was of the opinion that mere freedom from British rule would not solve the intrinsic problems present in the country such as of inequality and caste oppression. Gandhi questioned him about his sharp criticism of the Congress and “Gandhiji, I have no Homeland,” was Ambedkar’s famous reply. “No Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land.”
Internalising the Annihilation of Caste
Ambedkar’s work is revolutionary because it fostered the fight of the under-privileged. An underrated aspect of Ambedkar's understanding of caste and the need for the reformation of the Indian society is that it is even applicable to the 21st century urban Indian conundrum. The contradiction which the moderate Hindu faced then is now being faced by a bigger population, the so-called moderate progressive Indian who professes Hinduism. This person too is sandwiched under modern values and traditional ideals in political, economic, social and cultural sphere.
We have a young working population slowly migrating into heavily urbanized metros and getting accustomed to the corporate life. Many of them believe in modern values as a way of life and yet still cannot be too open about themselves. For instance, many couples including Assamese are scared to inform their parents that they are living together although it has become legally valid. Live-in relation signifies sex for pleasure instead for procreation and this idea makes it heavily unpopular among the majority. If the basis of a relationship starts with a lie to their parents, doesn't it call for contradiction?
Ambedkar debunks the common perception among the Hindus that their religion is not a missionary religion. There is a common belief especially among the caste-Hindus in northeast India that Christian missionaries have manipulated and converted tribal people into their fold. This is somewhat true in certain cases but through Ambedkar we understand it is because Hindus became indifferent to civilizing them. This attitude grew more as caste system evolved greater and more complex. He cites reasons as to why the Hindus have been indifferent to savage tribes and the aboriginals by not converting them to their fold unlike the Christian missionaries. It was because "civilising the Aborigines means adopting them as your own." This contact will violate the efforts to preserve his caste. To find a place for the convert in the society was the central concern and caste was inconsistent to conversion.
The current Indian society also faces similar besides newer challenges of accommodation; for example, normalizing homosexuality in the family fold. The Supreme Court has decriminalized homosexuality by diluting Sec 377. Yet the members of the LGBTQ community face a tough situation when it comes to disclosing their sexual preferences to the society or their families. Can we expect a homosexual guy to be a part of the Assamese society without facing any difficulty? Or are we under the delusion that homosexuality doesn't exist in Assam?
Lastly, another theme is of blind beliefs and mechanical actions. To correlate we need to understand Ambedkar's sharp distinction between rules and principles in AoC. Doing what is said to be good by virtue of a rule and doing good in the light of a principle are two different things. To simplify, rules are like cooking recipes. They tell just what to do and it is a mechanical act whereas principles guide a person in his thinking. Ambedkar said that what the Hindus called religion has actually transcended into the doctrine of law and one should be in a position to urge for its amendment or abolition. He advocated for a religion based on principles.
Ever since the advent of liberalisation, the competitiveness in terms of jobs and education is getting tougher day in and out. From a tender age, kids are indoctrinated that to be successful is the only way to be a happy human being. Internalising the rule-principle analogy, career choices have become norms rather than on interests and principles. Parents are stringent with their kids to select a line of work during school days and if you are unsure about what to pursue you are looked down upon. This is a privileged example, there are other instances where the diasporic Assamese metropolitan, who claim themselves to be tolerant come back home and conform to the status quo and do not dare even to question anything. They accept norms merely as a mark of respect for the elders because an ideal son or daughter is supposed to be non-confrontational. They might be open to the idea of clubbing during weekends but will agree to marry a girl/boy only when there are no “Fault in our stars,” read Kushti (Horoscope). For them, religion remains no longer a spiritual experience but a mechanical one. The ceremonies associated with marriage are merely symbolic because they are off little relevance between the couples. Rules have overtaken principles.
Facing the challenge
Carrying forward the notion - social reform precedes political, we must see material success as a political reform and understand mental stability as a social reform. The mental stability can only be achieved when we start confronting the contradictions. It can be in any form - starting from wanting to marry someone outside the caste, religion; coming out about your sexuality or as simple as wanting to do a job which you find interesting and are passionate about. We must address each of them to the specific authorities and the biggest authority of them is our mindset. We cannot claim ourselves to have freedom and liberty and suffer contractions in everyday life.
Religion risks becoming a secondary subject like Moral Science which is not practiced in real life and is studied just to get passing marks. This was never the purpose and the original position of religion. Also, we must understand Ambedkar was never anti-religion. All he wanted was abolition of unwarranted things and even asked the Hindus to safeguard their religion through reformation. The society risks facing a growing generation of disillusioned young men and women whose way of life clash with the prevailing notions of religious conventions. Among them, some will conform in a mechanical way, some will remain indifferent and some will cease to be believers. But, will there be anyone left to defend and question?
In today's busy world not everybody has the social consciousness or the will and time to be a reformer. Should we just give up? There is a saying: if everyone plants a sapling, the Earth will get better and greener. For us, all we have to do is face and confront our family and make them understand our principles. This is easier said than done and at times we will have to face the music. In the words of Ambedkar, do we have what it takes to completely discard authority, overhaul the old order and start a new lease of life? Or will it be just the occasional social media posts, intellectual wishful chit-chatting in coffee houses and western consumerism which will suffice our morality as being progressive?
(The author is a former sub-editor of Business Standard, a poet and freelance writer)