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Works Reviewed: B.R. Ambedkar. Annihilation of Caste. New York: Verso, 2014.

“Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most formidable adversary. He challenged him not just politically or intellectually, but also morally. To have excised Ambedkar from Gandhi’s story, which is the story we all grew up on, is a travesty. Equally, to ignore Gandhi while writing about Ambedkar is to do Ambedkar a disservice, because Gandhi loomed over Ambedkar’s world in myriad and un-wonderful ways.” -Arundhati Roy.

In the popular consciousness of the Western world the story of India’s independence is a classic underdog story focused centrally on a single protagonist; Mohandas K. Gandhi. The pacifist Gandhi, with his indefatigable ascetic activism looms as a larger than life presence. He is more than a simple leader of a nationalist movement, he has become a spiritual hero on the world stage. Politics, social justice, and spirituality seem to cohere in Gandhi to such an extent that the political and social dynamics of post-colonial India are overwhelmed; they must live  in his shadow, even as Gandhi proves the ideal icon for marketing India’s spiritual  traditions to the West. His moral discipline place him beyond the ken of mortal politics. As a result of this lionization Western perception of India’s independence are severely clouded by the blind-spot of hero-worship.

An article in the July 2015 issue of National Geographic illustrates this blind-spot quite well. Tom O’Neill, following “In the Footsteps of Gandhi’, purports to assess the Mahatma’s legacy in  modern India. O’Neill himself has nothing but praise for the saintly man describing him as an indomitable figure who “forced his countrymen to question their deepest prejudices about caste and religion and violence.” Waxing romantic the author describes himself sitting under the trees where Gandhi had spoken and telling the villagers he was meeting Gandhi: “They’d smile and hurry away convinced a madman had come to town.” The bustling and spiritually deficient denizens of modern India are held up to the idyllic, robust spiritual guru of their recent past. O’Neill’s tone is not one of contempt, rather it is lightly patronizing. The enlightened Western journalist is able to consume the spiritual commodity that is Gandhi in a way that he is inaccessible to many Indians.

This kind of idyllic narrative serves a number of political purposes. In this case it shields the political and social dynamics of contemporary India by fixing a romantic and somewhat abstract spiritual icon as the absolute spiritual and moral guide of that country. Gandhi is described as the hero who stood up to British  imperialism and Hindu caste-society. He is a figure with followers and enemies, but no comrades, no colleagues. It is a very minimalist drama that fails to capture the real social and religious antagonisms of India, not only in the present, but during the first days of independence. The most glaring omission of this vignette can perhaps be summed up under the name B.R. Ambedkar.

The republication, by Verso, of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, along with extensive annotations, a lengthy introduction by the activist and novelist Arundhati Roy, and Gandhi’s response to Ambedkar offers a perfect opportunity to reassess the legacy of Indian independence and those who helped shape it. This work looks deep into a muted side of Indian history, a part of that world that has been actively silenced and whose political agency has been and continues to be denied. The hard question of whether India’s Dalit population can actually depend on Gandhi’s legacy is confronted head-on. Perhaps the Mahatma never spoke for them, after all. This, in turn, confronts the Western ideals of political and moral greatness. Is it the benevolent and pastoral leader, who graciously extends his hands to the lower classes, while preserving the best of traditional culture and religion? Or should we relinquish this inspirational dream in favour of a more difficult and conflict-ridden one which strives towards the political determination of the oppressed?

Ambedkar was India’s first Minister of Law after Independence in 1947. Born into the Untouchable, or Dalit, caste of Hindu society Ambedkar eventually converted to Buddhism. He found the caste system to be absolutely unbearable and opposed to the principles of justice and reason, and could not disassociate the caste system from the religious traditions out of which it arose. Ambedkar fought vigorously for the right to self-representation of India’s Dalit population. Profoundly aware of the social stigma, often manifesting as outright physical violence, which daily attended the Dalit population, Ambedkar knew that simply granting a right to vote to all Indians could not possibly result in actual social equality. Ambedkar  therefore proposed a double electorate in which Dalit’s would choose their own representatives. He also proposed that for a ten-year period the Dalits would be granted a second vote to have a say in which candidates were elected among caste Hindus. The idea behind this second electorate was to ensure that those representatives who were least inimical to Dalit interests would be elected to the legislative assembly. The Communal Award of 1932 awarded this double-vote to the Dalits for a twenty-year period, despite Gandhi’s protestations. It was in response to this defeat that Gandhi deployed his greatest and most effective weapon: the fast unto death. It was in response to this fast that Ambedkar, in a move he would later regret, rescinded the political gains he had made.

Gandhi’s main concern was the unity of the Hindu religious community: “For me the question of these classes is predominantly moral and religious. The political aspect, important though it is, dwindles into insignificance compared to the moral and religious issue.” In her introductory essay, The Doctor and the Saint, Roy describes Gandhi as a great admirer of the caste system. It represented, for him, the genius of Indian society. That being said, Gandhi certainly objected, to varying degrees throughout his life, to hierarchy between the castes. He believed that the Untouchables, the outcasts of Hindu society could be brought into the varna system. Ambedkar’s response was that the “outcaste is a byproduct of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system.” (26) The contrast between the two could not be more clear, Gandhi’s statement all but completely disavows the social and political dimensions of moral and religious life, where for Ambedkar the social aspect is absolutely central to morality and to religion. His rejection of the caste and varna systems are based on the deeply felt experience that Hindu society is incoherent. Roy relates Ambedkar’s assessment of Hindu society with chilling aplomb: “To the Untouchables,” Ambedkar said, with the sort of nerve that present-day intellectuals in India find hard to summon, “Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors.”(20)

The Doctor and the Saint.

Roy’s essay, really a short book in itself, is not for those short on nerve, or for those who prefer political expediency to the difficulties of truth-telling. It is a hard book to read, it is brutal and heart-wrenching. Roy faces head-on the chamber of horrors that Indian society continues to be for its most marginalized and despised peoples. It is a story of murder, rape, of people being stripped and paraded naked, and literally forced to eat shit. To face these horrors, and not be driven to despair or callousness, requires a greater moral imagination than the one which simply encourages individuals to “be the change they want to see.” Roy confronts not only the conflicts within Indian society, but also the indifference, ignorance, and hypocrisy of the West. She begins her essay:

If you have heard of Malala Yousef but not of Surekha Bhotmange, then do read Ambedkar.

Malala Was only fifteen but had already committed several crimes. She was a girl, she lived in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, she was a BBC blogger, she was in a New York Times video, and she went to school…

Surekha Bhotmange was forty years old and had committed several crimes too. She was a woman- an ‘Untouchable’ Dalit woman – who lived in India, and she wasn’t dirt poor. She was more educated than her husband, so she functioned as the head of her family. Dr. Ambedkar was her hero. (17-18)

Surekha, like Ambedkar, was a convert to Buddhism. She had purchased a plot of land in the village of Khairlanji. She was refused connections to electricity and water. Eventually Surekha was gang-raped and murdered. Indian media reported the murder as a “morality” murder, and India’s legal system took no notice of the crime until they were forced to by mass protests of Dalit organizations. Even then caste prejudice was not taken into account as a motivating factor, and the judge dismissed the evidence that Surekha and her daughter had been raped. Writing of the world response to this crime Roy acerbically observes:

Surekha Bhotmange and her children lived in a market-friendly democracy. So there were no “I am Surekha” petitions from the United Nations to the Indian government, nor any fiats or messages of outrage from heads of state. Which was just as well, because we don’t want daisy-cutters dropped on us just because we practice caste. (20)

Roy’s unflinching presentation of the social ills of caste society do not stop at India’s borders. She describes, among other instances, how caste-Hindus lobbies in the UK have sabotaged the efforts of Dalit-led organizations to have caste discrimination recognized as a form of racial discrimination. “Democracy” writes Roy, “has not eradicated caste. It has entrenched and modernised it. This is why it’s time to read Ambedkar.” (37).

Annihilation of Caste.

Time to read Ambedkar, because Ambedkar was keenly aware of the social dimensions of democracy and the need for social and religious reform to accompany political reform. Without real transformation at the level of social relationships and religious and moral perspectives the political hand-off of power could only entrench the social deformation and injustice of Indian society. Ambedkar’s undelivered speech, Annihilation of Caste, begins by describing the Social Conference which began as the social reform side of the National Congress party, but eventually split into a separate party, and was met at first with indifference and then outright hostility by the politicians of the National Congress. Ambedkar quotes one of the founders of the National Congress, W.C. Bonnerjee: “I for one have no patience with those who say we shall not be fit for political reform until we reform our social system.”(213) Ambedkar takes up the challenge by drawing on the experience of the Untouchables as the weak point in the social organization of Indian society. The fact that a population of the society are routinely and ritually treated as subhuman, who were not allowed even to walk on the same ground, was evidence enough that Hindu society was an incoherent mess, incapable of any  unified experience of equality and fraternity upon which to base a national politics.

Ambedkar goes on to defend his thesis, that religious and social reform must accompany political reform with numerous examples from history. His analysis is broad-ranging and his politics are thoughtful and nuanced. He is critical not only of the nationalist politicians who ignore the question of economic reform, he is equally critical of a narrow focus on economy that does not grapple with the question of social reform and the question of caste. If a socialist revolution does not take account of caste before the revolution, he writes, it will have to account for it after.

This is only another way of saying that, turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster. (233)

Annihilation of Caste was a speech prepared for a group of moderate Hindu reformers. It has, therefore, some very practical advice on how to go about the abolition of caste. After subjecting caste to a rigorous examination in terms of its origins, its effect on the economy, and on the social unity and ethics of Hindu society, Ambedkar turns to the question of how to defeat caste prejudice. Chief among the strategies advocated, though not employed were inter-dining between castes and inter-marriage. Ambedkar addresses the strengths and limitations of these strategies and this leads him to question the underlying religious values which serve as obstacles to pursuing these strategies. Inter-dining and intermarriage are viewed as objectionable, he argues, and the cause for social reform is unpopular because “inter-dining and intermarriage are repugnant to the beliefs and dogmas which the Hindus regard as sacred.”(121) The notion of caste comes from a deeply religious perspective, and it would persist, argued Ambedkar, as long as Hindu society continued to observe the authority of the shastras which taught them the religion of caste. Ambedkar therefore urged the would-be social reformers to be religious reformers as well, and not to shy away from confronting the deeply held religious values of their countrymen:

You must take the stand that Buddha took. You must take the stand which Guru Nanak took. You must not only discard the shastras, you must deny their authority, as did Buddha and Nanak. You must have courage to tell the Hindus that what is wrong with them is their religion – the religion which has produced in them this notion of the sacredness of caste. Will you show that courage?

Difficult words, particularly in an age of religious pluralism and political timidity. Gandhi took great offense at them, and his response to Ambedkar’s article is published in this edition of Annihilation of Caste. What emerges from this response is a Gandhi who is unwilling to face the gravity of the social ills of caste, and who looks to the Hindu religion to provide “warmth … to compensate for the shameful persecutions to which the vast majority of Harijans are exposed.” (324) Gandhi’s protestations are feeble, they do not do justice to the strength of the argument which Ambedkar poses. Gandhi, threatened by the argument, emerges as a defender of tradition and religious values over and above the dignity and self-determination of human beings. Ambedkar’s religious reform, Gandhi fears, would destroy Hindu society.

For Ambedkar, however, there is no such thing. Hindu society, because it is a caste society, is already divided and devours itself and is therefore a completely vulnerable and defenseless society. He preaches and predicts, therefore, not the end of Hinduism but that through a relentless self-purging it might rid itself of the social and religious deformities which plague it:

In my opinion it is only when Hindu society becomes a casteless society that it can hope to have strength enough to defend itself. Without such internal strength, swaraj (self-rule) for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery.(317

Annihilation of Caste is an important, profound, and disturbing text. It is, in a sense, understandable that the moderate Hindu reformers cancelled Ambedkar’s speaking engagement and the speech was not delivered as intended. It is also understandable that Gandhi reacted with such vehemence, a challenge to religion, to dearly held tenets of faith and forms of social organization is never looked upon kindly. It is regrettable, however, that such a powerful voice for social transformation has been subject to such censure and silence for so long. Regrettable, too, that dreamy-eyed Western journalists prefer to pine after the legacy of commodified spiritual gurus, rather than facing the harsh realities of social evils and contradictions. Ambedkar’s rebuttal to Gandhi’s indictment of Annihilation of Caste provides fair warning to those who seek refuge in an idyllic and imagined past, just as much as to those who despair or accommodate themselves to the corruption of the present:

The Hindus, in the words of Matthew Arnold, are `wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. What are they to do? The Mahatma to whom they appeal for guidance does not believe in thinking, and can therefore give no guidance which can be said to stand the test of experience. The intellectual classes to whome the masses look for guidance are either too dishonest or too indifferent to educate them in the right direction. We are indeed witnesses to a great tragedy. In the face of this tragedy all one can do is to lament and say – such are they leaders, O Hindus. (356)

The pain in Ambedkar’s voice carries itself, through the written text, and into the eyes and ears of his contemporary readers. Democracy has not abolished caste, has not abolished ethnic and religious violence. The commodification of India’s spiritual traditions for Western consumption has not alleviated the suffering of India’s Dalit population. Streams of books about mindfulness, consciousness, and spirituality have not provided us with the moral fibre to face up to the horrors and brutalities entrenched within our own social systems. This is why it is time to read Ambedkar.