Ambedkar: The Intellectual Who Transformed India Through A Sharp Critique On Caste Structures

It is ironic to write about the architect of the Indian Constitution, B R Ambedkar when one of the members of his family, Anand Teltumbde has surrendered over his alleged involvement in the Bhim Koregaon violence in 2018, Maharashtra. The discussion on that case is beyond the scope of this paper, but the relevance of Dr Ambedkar in contemporary times is unprecedented.

Today, when the extreme right is attempting to make Ambedkar their own, the minorities have failed to adopt his views or rather have failed to make a sustainable change. The Anti-CAA protests, the terror of cow vigilantes, rise in atrocities against minorities, rise in hate speech, etc. have brought back Ambedkar’s ideas into the battlefield of contemporary debate.

Who are the five activists arrested for alleged in Bhima Koregaon
Bhima Koregaon

Born in Mhow, Central province, in Mahar (Dalit) caste, as the fourteenth and the last kid to a former military official, was Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Ambedkar completed his schooling at Elphinston High School, later joining Elphinston College. Furthermore, the generous Maharaja of Baroda sent him to the United States– Columbia University– for his masters, later PhD. He later got himself enrolled in Gray’s Inn and pursued his doctoral from the London School of Economics.

Just to mention, he was the first person from Mahar caste to be allowed to set foot into a school, least to say a college. On his return to India, Ambedkar was appointed as the military secretary to the Maharaja, the job which he left due to constant disgust and humiliation because of his caste. Humiliation was not just part of life for the untouchables, instead, it was life itself. Overcoming all the struggles, Ambedkar became one of India’s most revered political reformers. Some of the anecdotes which present Babasaheb’s unapologetic views on various discriminatory pillars of the Indian Society or, in particular, Hindu Society are the basis of this paper.

Let’s reflect. No one can argue against the discrimination lower caste people face(d) in this country. Yet, in contemporary times, some studies show how upper-caste individuals are either oblivious to their caste identity or believe that caste discrimination doesn’t exist anymore, which in itself is ludicrous. Recalling one of Ambedkar’s anecdotes, he mentions how he was aware that he can’t sit in the front row even if he scores good marks, as the sitting arrangement wasn’t determined by merit, but by caste. He recalls how he used to choose the corner seat regardless. Dhananjay Keer’s biography on Ambedkar recalls the inhuman treatment of lower caste people, in particular Ambedkar’s, in various social institutions.

Ambedkar: The ‘Force’ That Wanted To Annihilate Caste

‘Annihilation of Caste’, is an eighty-year-old text written by Dr. Ambedkar, like a speech to be delivered at Lahore in 1936. Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (a forum for the break-up of caste), a subsidiary of the Arya Samaj, invited Ambedkar to deliver the presidential address to an audience of privileged-caste Hindus. The organizers asked for the text of the speech so that it can be printed and distributed in the audience. Ambedkar submitted the presidential address, and after reading the speech, the organizers wrote to Ambedkar:

“Those of us who would like to see the conference terminate without any untoward incident would prefer that at least the word ‘Veda’ be left out for the time being. I leave this to your good sense. I hope, however, in your concluding paragraphs you will make it clear that the views expressed in the address are your own and that the responsibility does not lie on the Mandal.”

Ambedkar refused to alter his speech, and so the event was cancelled. Ambedkar, in his undelivered speech, was set to question the very basis of Hinduism by posing daunting remarks on Shastras and Vedas. The incident presents Ambedkar’s belief and determination about his line of questioning. Also, if we analyze, Ambedkar’s arguments were questioning the fundamentals or root of the problem.

He, through the speech, attempted to make people realize the inhuman nature of the society which was based on the biased understanding of some ancient old scriptures and texts. Something similar was done by Raja Ram Mohan Roy for his case against the Sati practice, and Jyotirao Phule, against the caste system.

In the book Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and Risk of Democracy, the author– Aishwary Kumar– talks about a ‘force’ which would be essential to drive the society towards equality. He mentions how inequality is ‘fundamentally Indian, and tragically global’. In my opinion, if discrimination is the norm of modern society then, probably affirmative action is the way forward. Let us accept the fact that, discrimination is not due to reservation, instead it is the other way around.

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “my life is my message”, and the statement fits fairly well with his arch-rival: Dr Ambedkar. As Arundhati Roy, an acclaimed writer, mentions, how the politics of these two individuals were starkly different, and yet Dr Ambedkar never failed to challenge the Saint politically, more importantly, morally.

Gandhi And Ambedkar: The Infamous Rivalry

Ambedkar unapologetically wrote against the caste system which a lot of his contemporaries didn’t take well. One of them being, as Arundhati Roy calls him, ‘Greatest of all Hindus’: Mahatma Gandhi. This difference of opinion led to an infamous rivalry between the two political intellectuals.

Ambedkar’s view on the caste system, or as a whole about the Hindu society, can be articulated through an impactful metaphor which he used in his initial editorial for Mooknayak. He explains Hindu society as a ‘multi-storeyed tower with no staircase and no entrance. Everybody had to die in the story they were born in.’

Whereas, Gandhi believed in the evil of untouchability and was a supporter of the Varna system. He thought the system brings stability to society. Also, he said something on the lines of, how when one part of our body isn’t working promptly we don’t discard the entire body instead, we attempt to cure that part or discard it.

In 1931, Gandhi modified his views and said, “I have frequently said that I do not believe in caste in the modern sense. It is an excrescence and a handicap on progress. Assumption of superiority by any person over any other is a sin against God and man. Thus caste, in so far as it connotes distinctions in status, is an evil.” On the flip side, Gandhi’s critics questioned his apprehensive attempt to abolish the practice of untouchability, as well as the caste. Some historians like Ramchandra Guha, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, and Rajmohan Gandhi dismiss the claims that Mahatma Gandhi was ever a pro-caste individual.

Ambedkar, throughout his life, has been very critical of Gandhi. Probably, this did impact the popularity of the doctor among the untouchables, but he still didn’t back down. He disapproved of the usage of ‘Harijan’ as a term to describe the lower caste or untouchables. Not only this, but Ambedkar has also openly questioned Congress and their strategies for the freedom of the lowest in society. He said,

“..it is foolish to take solace in the fact that because the Congress is fighting for the freedom of India, it is, therefore, fighting for the freedom of the people of India and the lowest of the low; 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.”

In 1931, when Gandhiji questioned Ambedkar about his sharp criticism of Congress and what they were fighting for, he responded, “Gandhiji, I have no homeland,”. In his famous reply, Ambedkar added, “No untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land.”

Dr Ambedkar famously said in 1932, “There have been many Mahatmas in India whose sole object was to remove untouchability, elevate and absorb the depressed classes, but every one of them has failed ….. Mahatmas have come and … gone but untouchables have remained as untouchables.” Dr Ambedkar believed that the status of the lower caste individuals can be improved through imperialism. Hence, on many occasions, Ambedkar sided with the British government. 

Ambedkar’s Strong Stand Against The Hindu Code Bill

Ambedkar served as the law minister for four years, in which he drafted the constitution.

In 1951, Ambedkar resigned as the law minister in the Nehru or congress government cabinet. He served as the law minister for four years, in which he drafted the constitution, and played a crucial part in including certain empowering policies or laws for the minorities. Ambedkar wasn’t satisfied with the final draft of the constitution. As it is well known, he disagreed with the existence of article 370.

Also, the specific law which led to the resignation of the doctor was Hindu Code Bill. Ambedkar’s disdain for Hinduism was public knowledge. He also saw the gendered discrimination in the Hindu teachings or laws. The Hindu Code Bill had provisions for women’s property rights, monogamy, and divorce, etc. The historian and writer, Rajmohan Gandhi notes the influence of right-wing Hindus on the Congress party, which went against the bill. The historian also believes that Nehru too was influenced by them, and hence, the bill was in the parliament for almost four years. 

In his famous resignation speech, Ambedkar explained the reasons for his departure. He stated four reasons, and one of them was the Hindu Code Bill. In the speech, he takes on the prime minister for not supporting the bill. More importantly, he was an advocate of equality, he made an important point of redundancy of policies when they are not for social welfare. He says, 

 “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society, and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”

Hindu code bill was later passed in the parliament with a lot of criticism from the Hindu Right, as the bill questioned the patriarchal nature of the Hindu society. Some people questioned the religious nature of the bill as it only applied to Hindu women. Even with its criticism, the bill started a debate on women’s rights.

Hence, it influenced acts like Sati Prevention Act, 1987, Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, the Family Courts Act, 1984, Protection of Human Right Act, 1993, The Maternity Benefit Act 1961, Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, The National Commission for Women Act, 1990, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, to cite a few.

Ambedkar: “Brahmanism Is The Negation Of The Spirit Of Liberty, Equality And Fraternity”

Anand Teltumbde, in his book, the ‘Republic of Caste’ writes about Ambedkar’s ‘ultimate abhorrence’ for Hinduism. India’s right has time and again attempted to portray the doctor as opposing Muslims, and sometimes even communists. This understanding of Ambedkar is skewed, and least to say, inappropriate. Ambedkar time and again has pointed to the flaws in Hinduism, in his words, ‘gospel of inequality’.

The foundation text of Hinduism known as Manusmriti–known to have laid the foundation for Hindu laws during British rule– has always been a topic of controversy as it validates the Varna system and justifies the discriminatory treatment of depressed classes and women. On 25th December 1927, Ambedkar publicly burned the Manusmiriti expressing his condemnation of the text. The day came to be known as ‘Manusmriti Dahan divas’. And yet, in another conference, on 13th October 1935, Ambedkar expressed his misfortune to be born a Hindu.

Because we have the misfortune of calling ourselves Hindus, we are treated thus. If we were members of another faith none would treat us so. Choose any religion which gives you equality of status and treatment. We shall repair our mistake now. I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable.”

Dr Ambedkar with women from different sections of society.

Ambedkar in his various speeches made a point, how it is redundant to explain to people the obscure nature of the Shastras or Vedas. With that, he didn’t mean that the verses in texts were obscure, instead, he pointed to the obnoxious nature of human interpretation.

Also, Ambedkar emphasized on the stand which Buddha and Guru Nanak took, by discarding the authority of the sacred texts. He said, “You must have the 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?”

His disdain comes out when he questions the pluralist but hierarchical nature of Hinduism. He made an argument around the lines that, Hinduism has been able to absorb religions, like Buddhism, Jainism, and to some extent Sikhism, but it has completely failed in blurring the lines between the untouchables and touchable.

He also says, Hinduism should be called with its proper name, ‘Brahminism’. Ambedkar, in 1935, said, “I was born a Hindu, I had no choice. But I will not die a Hindu because I do have a choice.” Two months before he died, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism with his followers, making his words immortal.

To conclude, Ambedkar has always been part of the school and curriculum as an intellectual who transformed India. His ideas and his speeches are far better than we know, and their relevance is yet prominent. The liberal nature of his ideas can be stated through one of his speeches, where he says, about the Indian Constitution, “I shall be the first person to burn it out”. Later explaining, if the constitution isn’t fulfilling the duties it was meant to, instead is in the hands of ‘devils’, it should be burned, and I would be the first person to do it.

The nature of inequality remains very prejudiced. And so does the manner in which Ambedkar is taught us in classes. Even if we imagine a world where Ambedkar’s speeches are read out loud, and taught, the Brahmanical nature of the society is hard to alter. Lately, Ambedkar has become the symbol of protests, and the relevance of Ambedkar is emerging in the fabric of ‘modern’ India. He believed Brahminism, another name for Hinduism, “is the very negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”

References

Guha, Ramachandra. Makers Of Modern India. The Belknap Press Of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Keer, Dhananjay. Dr. Ambedkar. 2nd ed., Popular Prakashan Private Limited, 1962.

Kumar, Aishwary. Radical Equality. 1st ed., Stanford University Press, 2015.

Roy, Arundhati. “Arundhati Roy On The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate And The Battle Against Caste”. Caravan magazine.In, 2020, https://caravanmagazine.in/essay/doctor-and-saint.

Ambedkar, B R, and Vasant Moon. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings, and Speeches: Vol. 6. Bombay: Education Dept., Govt. of Maharashtra, 1989. Print.

Gandhi, Mahatma, 1869-1948. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 20002001.

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