Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s political treatise ‘Annihilation of Caste’ remains to be his most radical and controversial work, utopian in character and revolutionary in nature which has led Anand Teltumbde to write that “what the Communist Manifesto is to the capitalist world, Annihilation of Caste is to India”. In his work while Ambedkar deeply criticizes the social foundations of Hindu society built upon a system of economic exploitation and socio-political inequality masquerading as divine providence, he also critiques the social reform and the socialist movements for failing to address the issue of caste. The essay is thus an attempt at not only a reinterpretation of Indian history (and religion) but also a plea towards the then existing socio-political movements towards self inquiry. In retrospect Ambedkar’s work represents, first, the unfinished project of renaissance in India, and second, the need for the Dalit assertion within the working class movement.
Written first as a speech prepared for addressing a conference organized by the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, a social reformist organization, in 1936, it was later published in the succeeding year following the conference being cancelled and his speech undelivered. The reason for cancelling the conference was due to objections raised by some of the members of the Mandal on the contents of Ambedkar’s speech which many saw as being too severe on the Hindu religion which could invoke the sentiments of Hindus present. When asked whether he could put off using terms including the ‘vedas’ (he was highly critical of the same) Ambedkar replied against any degree of censorship which ultimately made the Mandal to cancel it. This contradictory stand by an organization claiming to be a social reformist one points to the limits and lack of ideological convictions of the social reform movement in India.
From the middle of the nineteenth century along with Britain’s tightening grip on the political administration also saw in India a social, cultural and intellectual regeneration which sought to define and create a new culture distinctively Indian and modern. However unlike the renaissance that happened in Europe, the historical progression through which it reached its state of modernity, what happened in India followed a completely different trajectory. The emerging new Indian intelligentsia, middle class and upper caste, tried to disseminate a new culture that would imbibe both western ideals of modernity and Indian cultural traditions. This was however a relationship of conflict and domination. The prevailing caste inequalities and religious differences in India demanded a social reorganization in order to arrive at modernity while the social pressure of ‘traditions’ meant a preservation of the social order. The social reform movement that took precedence over renaissance therefore on the one hand tried to resolve social issues within particular communities which were explicitly upper castes and formulated the idea of an Indian past that was against the colonial discourse of the orient as an intellectually and culturally inferior civilization.
“The caste system is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers”.
The dichotomy that was created between ‘tradition’ or ‘past’ and modernity was problematic and alluded to the colonial mentality of the upper class Indian intelligentsia. The reinterpretation of the ‘tradition’ as against western cultural dominance meant an uncritical acceptance of its ideological foundations. The reformist movements circumscribed themselves to caste and religious concerns alone while maintaining an ambivalent approach to both colonial and feudal political dominance. In return the Nationalist movement separated itself from the social reform movement and hence also was indifferent to the political demands of the communities. The social reform movement having circumscribed itself to social changes within particular communities or caste could not radically alter or challenge the very structure of pertaining inequalities, the caste system. Ambedkar criticizes the separation of social reform movement with the political movement as a contradiction in achieving their aim. He argues citing historical truth that no society can bring about a political revolution without at first bringing about a social revolution.
Ambedkar severely and justly accuses the Arya Samaj for what he argues to be their vacant and elitist intellectual radicalism which is not only impractical but also reactionary. Ambedkar objects to the Arya Samajists insistence on labeling the four varnas by their caste names (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras) even when they advocate for reorganizing society and individuals not on the basis of birth but on merit. The continuation of old labels (for same occupation but to various persons) not only shows a reverence to the same but is also impractical as a person born a Brahmin would object to be called a Shudra because of his profession. Ambedkar writes that a rigid Brahminical ideology does not allow for freedom or upward mobility to the ‘lower castes’. While Ambedkar writes about ‘imitating’ the Brahmans in order to better themselves the ‘untouchables’ receive harsh punishments it is needless to say that he is not suggesting co-opting oneself into or accepting brahmanical ideology but merely trying to access knowledge that is rejected to them. In a society that has still not achieved enlightenment or rationality where the human intellect has not emerged from its “self incurred immaturity” it is naïve to assume with political freedom individuals will be free to assert themselves in public spaces where deliberation and discussion is possible on a sophisticated realm. This republican notion of the Arya Samaj falls to its abstract bhadralok elitism.
Ambedkar in the essay also criticizes the socialist movement for being too short sighted to see caste and being reductionists in believing that caste is but a superstructure that shall wither away once economic freedom is achieved in class struggle. The limitations of the socialist movement, he says, in India is its blind adherence to Eurocentric theory without trying to first understand and then adapt it for Indian social context. He writes, “The caste system is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers”. It is interesting to note that Ambedkar constantly combines caste with class while refusing to see the working class as a casteless homogenous entity with only one demand. He stresses again on the division and as a consequence on the weakening of the working class because of its internal divisions based on caste lines. Anand Teltumbde in his essay ‘Ambedkar and Communists’ writes, “communists refused to see him as an ally. His movement was seen as dividing their proletariat. This is the attitude that precipitated in Dange’s vile call to the voters to waste their votes but not to caste it in favour of Ambedkar in the 1952 elections. As a result, he was defeated.” It was only years later that the Communist Party officially identified and declared caste to be class in India, defeating which is prerequisite to bringing the economic and political change.
Critiquing the Vedas and analyzing the Hindu religion Ambedkar writes that caste hierarchy is inevitable to the very foundations of Hinduism. “What is called religion by the Hindus is nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibitions.” While attacking Hinduism Ambedkar praises other religions such as Christianity and Islam for not creating such inhumane social system of castes within its people. Suggesting intermarriages as one possible solution to the problem of caste Ambedkar also suggests the need to attack the very core of Hinduism (something which even the social reformers refuse) like Buddhism which emerged as a reaction to the existent caste based social inequalities. This would be, he says, the truly revolutionary thing to do. Ambedkar’s refusal to be identified as a Hindu and his denouncement of the religion is a symbolic protest against this dehumanizing system of a religion.
Today at a time when historical figures from Shivaji to Vivekananda to even Ambedkar is being appropriated by the very political forces against whose ideology they stood, a rereading of Ambedkar becomes a necessity. Challenging the Brahmanical hegemony over the socio economic and political realities in society requires a combined assertion of the dalit and working class movements that do not fall prey to the identity politics or electoral power games. “Never was a man treated as a mind”, Rohith Vemula’s words strikes at the very consciousness of a degenerating society. His words reverberates the Kantian notion of the rational man, the enlightened society, the unachieved social utopia of Indian society, the one Ambedkar only dreams about. The struggle must be on.