India’s caste system is amongst the world’s oldest forms of surviving social stratification. This system divides Hindus into a graded vertical and hierarchical structure. The Manusmriti, widely regarded to be the most important and authoritative book on Hindu law, which was written more than two thousand years ago, acknowledges and justifies the caste system. According to the Manusmriti, (1.31) “for the furtherance of the (good of the) world, he (Brahma) created Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra from his mouth, arms, thighs and legs respectively.” Manu writes that it was God who assigned specific professions to those who came out of his mouth, arms, thighs and feet. Within these four varnas, there are multiple castes within each varna, and there are further subdivisions among those castes (sub-caste). Outside of the Hindu caste system were the untouchables (avarnas) or Dalits.
In a society that is well structured and smoothly functioning within the machinery of such graded inequality, establishing equality without dismantling caste just becomes a fantasy. The Indian Constitution, since its inception, grants fundamental rights to every citizen and does not discriminate amongst its citizens on the basis of caste, sex, place of birth, language, religion. On the other hand, even today, the Hindu society is living in the ancient graded social structure which is based on inequality where every Hindu person’s social standing is not the same but determined by the caste in which they are born.
India is a caste society. Caste works both as a visible and an invisible force in every sphere of the society. This social stratification has given socio-economic privileges to few castes and preserved their hegemony over the other majority subordinate castes. Hindu society which comprises all these castes functions in this caste system. Modernity and globalisation may have compelled the society to leave behind some of its orthodoxy, but above all, caste has managed to adapt and transform itself to survive in the 21st century.
Annihilation of Caste
After more than 70 years of adopting the Constitution which abolishes untouchability and grants equal rights to every citizen of the country, equality in its true sense has not yet been established in our society. Caste has not only kept the society divided; it has also aggravated socio-economic inequality in the society. It is still the primary factor in preserving the established status-quo and determining socio-economic mobility of different sections of the society.
Therefore, merely granting political and legal rights to the citizens and mentioning “equality before law” in the law books of the country does not necessarily prove to be effective in achieving the goal. To establish equality, it is necessary to remove all the contradictions between the social and constitutional framework.
In 1936, BR Ambedkar was invited by the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal (Caste Destruction Society) to preside over their Lahore Conference. Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal was an offshoot of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reformist organisation dominated by upper castes. Annihilation of Caste - the speech prepared by BR Ambedkar for that occasion was never delivered. The Reception Committee cancelled the conference on the grounds that the views expressed in the speech would be unbearable to the conference. He later published it himself on 15 May, 1936. In that famous text, he discussed the genesis of caste, mechanism and its overall negative impact on society.
Also, he extensively discussed the various ways by which this structure of social stratification can be destroyed. The main argument in the speech is that caste has religious sanction, so the problem is with Hindu religion. The solution to this problem, as he points out, is to destroy the belief in the Shastras which teach Hindus this religion of caste. He says, “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?” (Ambedkar  BAWS 1: 69).
From this excerpt it is clear that to annihilate caste, the religious sanction of caste has to be destroyed. All the religious sources from which caste gets its authority must be discarded. But the question arises here, who will work for that? Whose responsibility is it to annihilate caste? The ones who created it? Or the ones who are suffering from it the most?
Who will annihilate caste?
Is there any remote chance of upper castes (especially Brahmins) shouldering the responsibility for annihilating caste? The reason for asking this is simple. Brahmins are the ones who created this graded system, gave religious authority to it and they are the primary enforcers and upholders of it. The caste hierarchy gives upper castes religious divinity, social privileges and cultural dominance over the society. It will be foolish to expect that they will act against their own interests and work to destroy the system that has always given immense power to them. Never in the history of this country, have we seen any upper caste reformist organisation that worked for the complete destruction of the caste system to establish equality.
Instead, upper caste reformers and their reformist organisations who have been willing to adopt modernity have not done anything to uproot the system which favours them and which is responsible for birth based inequality in society. It will be apt to call them caste reformers instead of social reformers because they primarily worked in the interest of their own castes and not the society.
Anti-caste ideology and anti-caste movement have always existed in our society throughout history. This ideological movement developed and spread across the country under various names and forms rather than as a single united front. And for very obvious reasons, those movements have emerged as a counter hegemonic, counter hierarchical force from the lower castes, the most adversely affected and exploited section of the society.
During the early stages of BR Ambedkar’s social life, he tirelessly worked for educating as well as bringing social reform in the Hindu society. He started newspapers like Mooknayak and Bahishkrut Bharat through which he not only addressed the Depressed Classes but also tried to establish a dialogue with other sections of the society to bring sensitivity and needed attention to the caste issue. He led some mass movements as well which were more reformist in nature like the temple entry movement and Mahad Satyagraha in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Through all this, he wanted to reform the society where people would give up on their orthodoxy, casteist mindset and work for developing inclusivity and fraternity in the society. But very soon, in a few years, he got frustrated by it. He was unhappy with the fact that this was not leading to any substantial change in the mindset of the Hindu people belonging to upper hierarchical castes. After that, he gave up on the reformist mass movements and focused more on the political solution of the problem.
In my view, by the mid-1930s, it was very clear to him that these superficial reformist movements would not be sufficient to destroy the root cause of inequality. He understood that achieving equality would need a complete reconstruction of the Hindu society.
It is unfair to only expect the so called lower castes to work for the annihilation of caste and do nothing as a society about it. The morally awakened society has to work together as a whole to discard the factors that are discriminatory and anti-social. We don’t see that happening here. It is important to remember that the above-mentioned undelivered speech, Annihilation of Caste, was written to address the upper castes Hindus from their own platform. BR Ambedkar was expecting them to act upon this for bringing about social reform ensuring equality in Hindu society. According to him, it is the upper caste Hindu’s duty to work towards making Hindu religion nondiscriminatory.
Has anything changed?
But even after 85 years of Annihilation of Caste, we see that neither caste has changed nor the caste Hindus. The caste Hindus of Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal were not ready to listen to BR Ambedkar then and the caste Hindus of today are not ready to listen to him now. Instead there is silence from caste Hindus in the matters of caste.
However, as citizens of a democratic republic, it is expected from the State to uphold constitutional morality - liberty, equality and fraternity. The State should do more than just assure equality in legal rights to its citizens. It should frame some plans and policies to also assure social equality to its citizens. Merely abolishing untouchability will not be enough on the part of the State. It should also be ready to take necessary steps required to abolish birth based inequality arising due to the caste system. But the State has not done anything very concrete with respect to this.
We must remember that while addressing Dalits, BR Ambedkar does not tell them to take down the religious sanctity of the texts that legitimises varnashrama dharma. Instead, in that same year in 1936 while addressing Dalits in Mumbai in his famous speech, ‘What Way Emancipation?’, he says, “No one should misunderstand the object of our movement as being Hindu social reform. The object of our movement is to achieve social freedom for the untouchables. It is equally true that this freedom cannot be secured without conversion.” (BAWS 17 part 3: 136). He did not make a hollow statement. Twenty years after, in 1956, he converted and embraced Buddhism in Nagpur.
As Ambedkar concluded back then, religious conversion of oppressed lower castes will always be a very effective method in the fight against caste to establish social equality. This method will not just enable the oppressed to escape the social subordinate status but will also be a powerful alternative to counter hegemonic castes. Today’s anti-caste movement needs to go back to the path that BR Ambedkar had laid out for the oppressed lower castes in the Hindu fold - opting out of a religion built upon birth based discrimination and choosing instead a religion that teaches them fraternity and love.
Prashant (he/him), works as a contractual employee in the Water & Sanitation Department in Yavatmal Zilla Parishad and moonlights as a 2nd year law student. He writes on social justice with an anti-caste perspective. He likes to sketch and try his hands at digital illustrations. Music, movies, Urdu poetry help him relax.
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