Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is often thought of as a jurist, economist, and social reformer. It is certainly hard to find many figures who can be said to have had a comparable influence in modern Indian history. However, above all, Ambedkar was an arch-critic of the Hindu caste system and a leader in the fight for Dalit liberation. Modern India cannot be understood without an appreciation of Ambedkar’s life and work. Read on to find out more about Dr. Ambedkar and his call for the annihilation of caste.
The Hindu Caste System Explained
The word “caste” was applied to the Hindu system of social stratification by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Derived from the Latin castus, in Portuguese, casta means “lineage”, “pure”, or “chaste”.
For well over one thousand years, South Asia has been governed by caste relations — also known as the Jati system. Simply put, caste — or Jati — refers to a system of vocational guilds that over time, have become organized in relation to principles of purity and impurity.
Each Jati — of which there are literally thousands — has its own norms of conduct (rules around marriage, social interaction, permissible food, occupation, etc.), and from each Jati follows a series of sub-castes.
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The caste system as it actually works on the ground is called Jati. However, each Jati also fits into the overarching hierarchy of the four-fold Varna system. The authority of Varna is derived from its codification in the Vedic-Brahmin Manusmriti (Laws of Manu) — one of Hinduism’s most holy books.
The Varna system outlines four castes, or savarna: Brahmins (priests; intellectuals); Kshatriyas (warriors; administrators); Vaishyas (farmers; traders); and Shudras (workers; laborers). Outcastes from the Hindu fold are those who do not belong to any varna (avarna): the Adivasi tribes of the subcontinent, and the Untouchables or, Dalits (“depressed” or “broken” people) who are seen to pollute Hindu society. As the lowest of the low, Dalits are assigned the most “unclean” tasks; the removal of waste; tending of funeral pyres; butchery, etc.
Accordingly, the Hindu caste system has two main aspects. On the one hand, men, women, and children are divided up into separate communities. On the other hand, these communities are placed in graded order, one above the other in social rank according to their Varna.
Agitate, Educate, Organize
Born in 1891 to a Mahar family (an Untouchable caste), Ambedkar set out on a lifelong journey to agitate, educate, and organize against the injustice of the Hindu caste system.
Curiously, due to Ambedkar’s father being an officer in the British Army, he had been allowed to attend school. Nonetheless, despite this privilege, the actual experience served to acquaint the young Ambedkar with the viciousness of caste discrimination from an early age.
Throughout his school days, Ambedkar was segregated from the other children and forced to sit in a corner of the classroom by himself. If he was thirsty, he was forced to wait for the tap to be opened by a touchable person — lest he touch and pollute it. If such a person was unavailable, he would go without water.
Yet, despite considerable barriers, Ambedkar became the first from his community to complete high school education. He went on to gain a BA in Economics and Politics from Bombay University and later won a scholarship to study economics at Columbia University, New York City. He subsequently completed his doctoral studies at the London School of Economics.
After finishing his studies Ambedkar dedicated himself to the uplifting of the Dalit people for the rest of his life. Throughout the 1920s he led agitations, addressed conferences, and published in various journals. He founded the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha (Group for the Wellbeing of the Excluded) and called for the mobilization of all Dalits against caste inequality. The motto of his organization was: agitate, educate, organize.
In 1926, Ambedkar famously led a march to exercise the right of the Untouchables to draw water from the Chavdar water tank at Mahad. The march ended with Ambedkar taking a ceremonial drink from the tank. In response, local Hindus rioted, and the local Brahmin community enacted an elaborate ritual purification of the tank. Throughout his life, Ambedkar’s desire to organize the oppressed never waned.
The Annihilation of Caste
Dr. Ambedkars activism and his views on the Hindu caste system have been immortalized within his masterful critique, the Annihilation of Caste (1936). The Annihilation of Caste was first prepared by Ambedkar to be delivered as a speech to a society of Hindu reformers in Lahore. However, his critique of the Hindu caste system was considered so incendiary, that society rescinded his invitation to speak. Accordingly, Ambedkar self-published his speech as a book in May 1936.
Ambedkar’s speech opens with a volley of evidence on the daily tyranny practiced by Hindus against the Untouchables. Written approximately ten years before India would achieve its independence, the thrust of Ambedkar’s critique is that in its current state, Hindu society is unfit for political power.
To start with, Ambedkar points out that a significant proportion of the population — the Untouchables — are banned from using public schools, public wells, and public roads, eating certain foods, and dressing how they wish.
Economically, he claims that caste is a harmful institution. The subjects of the Hindu caste system are not allowed to choose their occupation freely, and by allowing no readjustment in occupation, caste becomes a direct cause of unemployment and underdevelopment.
In terms of politics, Ambedkar argues that caste disorganizes and demoralizes Hindu society. There is no Hindu consciousness for Ambedkar, only “a collection of castes, with their own anti-social caste interests”. Hindus, in this regard, are less a collection of castes as they are an assortment of warring factions — and no basis for a modern nation.
Accordingly, for Ambedkar, the annihilation of caste — and the destruction of belief in the sanctity of the sashtras (precepts and rules of the Hindu religion) — is an essential prerequisite if India is to become a modern, progressive, and moral nation.
Ambedkar and Gandhi
The Annihilation of Caste aside, the 1930s was a controversial decade for Ambedkar. He was attacked by nationalists as a traitor and found himself frequently at odds with the Indian National Congress — in particular, with Mahatma Gandhi himself.
Gandhi objected to the Annihilation of Caste. But moreover, he profoundly disagreed with Ambedkar’s position on the issue of separate electorates and reserved seats for the Untouchables. When Ambedkar’s desire for separate electorates was granted by then British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s Communal Award, Gandhi chose to fast until death
In the end, Ambedkar very reluctantly caved into the pressure and accepted Gandhi’s preferred choice of representation through joint electorates, and accordingly, Gandhi called off his fast. The result was the signing of the Poona Pact. Such was Gandhi’s popularity that Ambedkar faced an impossible choice. Nonetheless, he claimed to bitterly regret his decision for the rest of his life.
For Gandhi, the matter of a “separate electorate” was not political, but one of “pure religion.” The Untouchables according to Gandhi were “Harijans” (“Children of God”) and they were to be brought closer into the Hindu fold, as opposed to liberated from their chains.
Taken together, both Ambedkar and Gandhi looked toward a better future for the Untouchables. Where they differed, is that while Ambedkar believed in political power and self-determination, Gandhi advocated for the Hinduization of the Untouchables and respect for their position within Hindu society.
For Gandhi, the varna system was a just system of equal duties: the duties of a Brahmin and a Dalit carried “equal merit before God”. For Ambedkar, a dignified future lay in the annihilation of caste.
Ambedkar’s Legacy and the Hindu Caste System Today
Ambedkar played a pivotal role in the movement for Indian independence. After the fact, he headed the committee that drafted the Indian constitution and served as India’s first Minister of Law and Justice (1947-1951). Ambedkar was a member of Parliament from 1952 until his death in 1956.
Yet his bitterness toward the Hindu caste system and his position outside of it never diminished. Just a few months before his death, Ambedkar and approximately 500,000 of his followers converted to Buddhism in a mass public ceremony.
Ambedkar’s legacy has left a deep imprint on modern India. His initiatives, such as affirmative action policies and legal incentives for better treatment of “Scheduled Castes” (Dalits) remain intact. However, the interpretation of his legacy has been mixed.
On the one hand, legions of “Ambedkarites” remain faithful to Ambedkar’s critique. On the other hand, Hindu political parties — such as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — have worked to co-opt Ambedkar’s image, while erasing his foundational critique of the Hindu caste system from his legacy.
Today — over 75 years after India’s independence — the Hindu caste system remains firmly entrenched. Although the caste system was officially abolished in 1950, caste continues to organize the social life of modern India: the lowest strata of society are still forced to do the most dangerous, dirty, and menial jobs. Dalits are theoretically ensured certain rights and protections, but in reality, face daily social discrimination and caste-based violence.
Since the beginning of India’s democracy, caste has played a crucial role in politics. Major caste groups vie for political power, and caste is used as an instrument by politicians in need of votes. To be sure, Amberkarism is a living force in today’s modern India. Yet, as long as the Hindu caste system remains in place, the concept of the annihilation of caste will remain as relevant as ever.