By Sahil Verma:
Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is known to be a messiah for ‘untouchables’ in India, besides writing the Indian Constitution. However, Ambedkar’s contribution to moulding the modern Indian society has also been immense.
To begin with, Ambedkar frequently thought of ways to eradicate the caste system. Because Ambedkar himself was a victim of ‘untouchability’, he wanted to get rid of caste hierarchies, completely. For his time, a thought such as this must have been revolutionary and path-breaking.
Moreover, he claimed that even Brahmins with good intentions could not help liberate the Dalits. Ambedkar’s experience with such people, which he outlines in his undelivered speech, “Annihilation of Caste“, led him to assert that Brahmins would not be able to go against the Vedas and would therefore advocate caste hierarchies in some way or the other. His observations and suggestions in “Annihilation of Caste” were politico-legal ones.
Ambedkar investigates caste from an anthropological point of view. He observes that the superimposition of endogamy over exogamy is the main cause of the formation of caste system. He states that sati pratha (tradition of widow-immolation), enforced widowhood and child marriages are all outcomes of endogamy.
He asserts that caste is not a ‘division of labour’. Rather, it is a ‘division of labourers’. He calls upon the Hindus to annihilate the caste system, and suggests the ideas of societal equality, liberty, fraternity, in its place.
Ambedkar was of the opinion that inter-caste marriage was best way to eliminate caste. However, he also acknowledged that Indian society was bound by the instructions in the Vedas, the Shastras and the Puranas. For this, Ambedkar stated that a society should exist on the basis of reason, and not according to cruel rituals, traditions and norms.
In India, the caste system was constitutionally abolished in 1950. However, it still continues to this day as a corruption of the original varna system. The varna system in ancient India focussed more on talent than heredity.
Under this system, an untested student would be sent to a gurukul to figure out his/her true ‘worth’ in society. Here, ‘worth’ was generally synonymous to the profession one would be assigned to – priest, doctor, scientist (brahmin), merchant (vaishya), warrior (kshatriya) or the ‘workman’ (shudra).
Apparently, the decisions were supposed to have been taken on the basis of years of observation by the teacher’s, and also on the basis of the performances of the students over the years. While not exactly foolproof, for a small, self-contained society, this system ensured that each person was ideally ‘assigned’ the ‘societal role’ which was most ‘appropriate’ to his/her talents.
Somewhere down the years, this system changed into one based on professional heredity. Thus, in many places in India, a doctor’s son is still expected to ‘grow up’ to be a doctor.
In ancient India, the caste system was a means to ‘lock down’ tribal customs and loyalties. Each caste had its own ‘sub-gods’ that they worshiped. They also possessed certain unique professional skills and their own subcultures.
Except for certain ’employment-related’ interactions, each caste was fairly independent. So despite the lop-sided rights attributed to each layer, the system was not overbearing enough to trigger revolts.
This was mainly due to the ignorance of the lower classes, regarding the existence of a social hierarchy. Usually, the people in such villages belonged to a common caste. They had their own wells and places of worship. The son typically learnt the task/skill from his father. The daughters were married off to others from similar castes in nearby villages.
In a way, the caste system in India can be compared to the social order of feudal Europe in the medieval times. There was the nobility, the clergy attached to the church, a community of craftsmen guilds, traders and finally, the peasantry.
The problem started with the simultaneous invasion of the Aryans and racism. According to the Aryan Invasion Theory, before the Aryans, India had a sizeable population of ‘dark-skinned’ people (the Dravidians). Gradually, these migrants evolved into self-sustaining agricultural communities possessing their own means and tools for survival.
The ‘fair-skinned’ Aryans, who entered India’s northern plains through the Khyber Pass, waged warfare against these communities and conquered them. As the invaders lacked knowledge about agricultural practices, they made full use of the conquered people to set up their own system.
More importantly, the Aryans ‘overwrote’ the existing social order and created the caste system (in the way we know it today) by placing themselves at the top of the social hierarchy.
“Three Dalit youths were allegedly paraded naked by a panchayat for stealing a grass cutting machine at Sonta village, Muzaffarnagar“.
“Two days before the last phase of Assembly elections in Bihar, three Dalits were killed and two others injured.”
“32 booked for killing, counter case against 27 Dalits.”
These are some newspaper reports which show that people from lower castes are still oppressed or even killed.
Today, the caste system still persists to an extent that inter-marriages between castes are still frowned upon.
However, if we are to get rid of this evil, we would do well to remember that the Indian Constitution has illegalised the practice of ‘untouchability’ or discrimination against lower classes along socio-economic lines. Moreover, we should not pay undue importance to assertions or implications of comparative or hierarchial professional lineage (like ‘I am the son of a doctor’).
Perceptions and tenets of caste system influence our daily activities, even today. For example, we often prefer the right hand over the left hand (which is considered to be ‘lowly’) to perform various activities. Similarly, many of us consider foot-wears to be ‘unclean’. Therefore, we should ‘cleanse’ ourselves after we remove our foot-wear.
Ambedkar had suggested some methods to eradicate the caste system in India. He basically made three recommendations to eliminate the caste system:
1. Brahmins must denounce the Shastras
2. Inter-dining between castes
3. Inter-caste marriage
The eradication of caste system in India is not as easy as it sounds. The caste system has become an inherent part of the lives and mentalities of many Indians.
Reforms like inter-caste marriages and community dining should be encouraged. Political processes must be free of corruption and nepotism. Infrastructure in deprived areas must be improved. Fast-track courts also have to be established to de-link cases of caste-based violence from the other cases of civil violence.
The author is a Master of Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.