Ambedkar & The Annihilation of Caste
What will the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar mean to India and the world one hundred years from now? It is not uncommon or insignificant that extraordinary genius remains under-appreciated in its time, waiting in the wings as the lens of human consciousness develops the capacity to penetrate into its beckoning depths. Far ahead of its time, even in this day and age, Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste is one such exceptional tract of extraordinary human insight. Though currently undervalued, its universal frame suggests that it must eventually take its place as a guiding beacon of the Indian nation.
Like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, the legacy of M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar form an essential binary. One person paves the way for immidiate change, taking into consideration current sensibilities, while the other constructs the dreams of tomorrow–shattering every rotten, but dearly held sentiment that stands in the way. Today, we understand Gandhi and Ambedkar as polarities; in time perhaps we will see that they are two essential parts of the same puzzle of India.
One hundred years from now, with the distance of time, we might realize that Gandhi was but India’s pope. His complicit charisma threaded together an unlikely nation. Ambedkar is our revolutionist. He set the terms for our freedom and through his drafting of the Indian Constitution; he won a victory that Gandhi never could. Unlike Gandhi, he did not see the nation that would exist in the next year, the next decade or the next five decades. He imagined the contours of a nation that persisted beyond this century and into the next. He constructed the strong foundations necessary for such longevity. His commitment to fundamental human equality and social justice sealed the nation together in an unbreakable bond. Through his words, his deeds, and his greatest legacy to the people of the Indian nation: the Indian Constitution, he has left us the foundations for the construction of an eternal nation. He has set his legacy in the strongest of stone. How our current generation decides to engage with his legacy, will determine the fate of our own legacy, as well as the fate of our nation.
Beyond concerns of religious affiliation, the elegant gait of B.R. Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste serves as the most essential key to interpreting the Indian Constitution. In the text, his argumentation shines brightly. Ambedkar argues, “Reason and morality are the two most powerful weapons in the armory of a reformer. To deprive [a person] of the use of these weapons is to disable him for action. How are you going to break up Caste, if people are not free to consider whether it accords with reason? How are you going to break up Caste if people are not free to consider whether it accords with morality? This wall built around Caste is impregnable, and the material of which it is built contains none of the combustible stuff of reason and morality.” (22-25)
In his tract, Ambedkar makes an eloquent claim for the irrationality of the category of caste: “It must be a source of silent amusement to many Non-Hindus to find hundreds and thousands of Hindus breaking Caste on certain occasions, such as railway journeys and foreign travel, and yet endeavoring to maintain Caste for the rest of their lives.” (22-16) One could break caste and then recover in a manner in which one cannot recover from a knife wounding the skin. Caste is some miraculous mystical object that might form, unform and reform on the unique whims of a given community. It is not an egg that cannot be uncracked. It is an abstract concept, the psychological effect of subjugation. It is not a rational and scientific system of social organization. It is this point that Ambedkar belabors.
In this context of a thorough bifurcation of caste from faith, the essential question in The Annihilation of Caste relates to the relationship between social reform and political reform. Describing his contemporary environment, Ambedkar writes that platforms including the National Congress argued that political reform must precede social reform. In opposition, the Social Conference and the like insisted social change must precede political change. However, the cause of social reform quickly dissipated, as the majority of the Hindu community remained indifferent to the unjust social conditions within their midst and, instead, desperately focused on finding emancipation from British Rule.
Ambedkar firmly believed that the two concerns were inseparable: “they will find that in the making of a Constitution, they cannot ignore the problem arising out of the prevailing social order….the emancipation of the mind and the soul is a necessary preliminary for the political expansion of the people.” (2-20/22) He found fundamental contradiction in the argument for political reform that insisted on the delay of social reform. He argued “Every Congressman, who repeats the dogma of Mill that one country is not fit to rule another country, must admit that one class is not fit to rule another class. How is it then the ‘social reform party’ lost the battle?…That political reform cannot with impunity take precedence over social reform in the sense of the reconstruction of society, is a thesis which I am sure cannot be controverted.” (2-14/16) He affirms. “Political Constitution must take note of social organisation.” (2-18) Ambedkar continues by making a similar argument with regard to the precedence of social reform over economic reform. He asks, “Can you have economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order?” (3-8) For Ambedkar, the social order itself is the originary frame of all possible economic and political potentials. Without a genuine engagement in social change, political and economic change would forever remain superficial and, therefore, without substantive impact.
Ambedkar writes, “The question for him is whether he minds one class ill-treating and suppressing another class as a matter of system, as a matter of principle–and thus allowing tyranny and oppression to continue to divide one class from another.” His fundamental point is that classification and categorization of people is impossible and, therefore, all such attempts are arbitrary and irrational at best, tyrannical at worst. This fundamental notion is at the heart of the framing of India’s Constitution. It is the primary objective of the provisions against discrimination to reverse such arbitrary classifications, which Ambedkar understands as inevitable but not beyond correction. As Divakar echoes, we need to find mechanisms to check default discrimination. Ambedkar reveals one such mechanism in his treatment of equality, caste and discrimination in the Constitution.
In addition to arguing for fraternity and conceiving individual liberty as the foundation of reform and social progress, Ambedkar writes, “it can be urged that if it is good for the social body to get the most out of its members, it can get the most out of them only by making the m equal as far as possible at the very start of the race.” (14-7) Ambedkar writes, “Equality may be a fiction, but nonetheless one must accept its as the governing principle. A man’s power is dependent upon (1) physical heredity, (2) social inheritance or endowment in the form of parental care, education, accumulation of scientific knowledge, everything, which enables him to be more efficient than the savage; and finally (3) on his own efforts. In all these three respects, men are undoubtedly unequal. But the question is, shall we treat them as unequal because they are unequal? This is a question which the opponents of equality must answer.” (14-5)
Caste, he argues, is no more than “this anti-social spirit, this spirit of protecting its own interests.” (7-3) It is in this definition that the use of caste in the Constitution finds its meaning in the mind of the framer. There are just under 100 references to caste in the Indian Constitution. There are two ways in which the Constitution employs the term caste. Caste is employed in the phrase “Scheduled Caste,” most often in association with ‘Scheduled Tribes‘ and ‘weaker sections,‘ but also with the phrase ‘backward classes.‘ Caste is also used in the phrase outlawing “discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex” and variously, ‘class,’ ‘place of birth,’ ‘language,’‘descent,’ and ‘residence.’ Worthy of note is that the Constitution itself, provides no explicit definition of caste itself. Thus, we are left to understand caste in two ways. In this first sense, it is made up of various groups and tribes of populations. These are groups for whom certain political provisions of representation were made–given the lack of adequate representation in institutions of power under British administration (Scheduled caste, Scheduled Tribes). This group also includes those who suffered historical discrimination at the socio-economic level. Provisions are made for these groups to correct historical political and socio-economic inequalities, respectively. In the case of the former, caste is a corrective measure to reverse irregularities in the distribution of power that occurred in the course of British and Hindu rule. In the case of the latter, caste is a matter of historical subjugation. The former does not entail the latter–lack political representation does not always entail socio-economic discrimination. However, the latter will always entail the former–those who are victims of historical discrimination will remain wanting in political power. Thus, the two instantiations are not unrelated. In both cases, it functions, as Ambedkar succinctly describes, as an anti-social self-protecting spirit.
Further, in the grounds for discrimination that accompany caste, we find that each has a substantial history of discrimination on the sub-continent: Under the British, race was a legal ground for discrimination. Under caste-Hindu rule, caste was a ground for discrimination. Patriarchy allowed for discrimination on the grounds of sex through the course of many systems and rulers. Elite culture, the Zamindari system and various other economic institutions encouraged discrimination on the grounds of class and its associated category ‘residence.’ Under the Mughals, religion as well as place of birth were actively used as grounds for discrimination.
Notably, the Constitution does not equate these various grounds. It does not use the phrase ‘and the like,’ or ‘etc.’ The phrase ‘any of them,’ is deliberately employed. This phrase signals that there is no claim of parity between the various possible grounds for illegal discrimination. Rather, the use of the term caste in the Constitution suggests that the explicit motivation for all references derives from the intention to counter previous histories of discrimination. Considering that the first objective of the Constitution is to secure, in the first instance, justice and, in the third, equality, it seems necessary that the Constitution would make provisions to ensure the reversal of historic incidents of discrimination leading to inequality and injustice. The lack of such provisions would hamper the potential for liberty and fraternity (the two other objectives set out in the preamble). Thus, a study of the aims and ends of the Constitution demonstrate that one possible legal definition of caste is as a system of social organization that results in practices that have been outlawed variously, but in particular by Part III, Article 15, 16 and 17 of the Indian Constitution. Furthermore, it continues as a system of categorization that aims to reverse historic instances of discrimination. The limits of the Indian Constitution allow for no further exploitation of the term.
Article 366, clause 24 of the Indian Constitution defines “Scheduled Castes” as “such castes, races, or tribes or parts of or groups within such castes, races or tribes as are deemed under article 341 to be scheduled Castes for the purposes of this Constitution.” Clause 25 restates the same with regard to ‘tribe or tribal communities,’ and refers to article 342 of the Constitution. Article 341, defines Scheduled Castes as any “castes, races or tribes or parts of groups within castes races or tribes, which shall for the purposes of this Constitution be deemed” by the President after consultation with the Governor, to be Scheduled Castes in relation to the State.” Article 342, once again, makes a similar statement with regard to tribe. Thus, the definition of caste is not static. It is fluid. Caste will not mean the same thing 200 years from now that it means today. Rather, it is recognition of the ever-changing texture of discrimination on the Indian sub-continent. It is also a provision for a definition broad enough to ensure that no population will be trapped in poverty and servitude and thereby denied, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity because of this this anti-social spirit, this spirit of protecting its own interests, which Ambedkar recognizes in certain groups and social structures.
The intellectual foundations for this essential vision of India, promised by the Freedom Struggle and culminating in our most sacred public document, are laid out clearly by Ambedkar in The Annihilation of Caste. As veils of communalism, political agenda and economic profit increasingly cloak the commitment to this vision the discourse and debate on fundamental issues of nationhood remains splintered and deliberately imprecise. Still, when we revisit Ambedkar’s seminal tract, the vision and the promises of the Indian Constitution find new clarity. What is caste? It is “this anti-social spirit, this spirit of protecting its own interests.” What is India, it is a nation constructed on the promise of the annihilation of caste and all other forms of discrimination, in order “to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual.” In order to understand the full purport of these potent commitments one need look no further than The Annihilation of Caste.
By providing such a broad and adaptable definition for caste, as a spirit in human nature, Ambedkar seems to appreciate the constant flux that administers the affairs of the world. He recognizes that the fundamental nature of both the world and society is change. He recognized the need for a state to adapt to change in a manner that clears out the dead weight of past ignorances in order to frame better possibilities for the future. He understands, therefore, that the shape of discrimination will constantly be altered and, therefore, in the Constitution, he transform the category of caste and liberates it from its immediate location within the structures of religion and politics. Ambedkar’s deployment of the word ‘caste’ ensures that the Indian Constitution will be able to make provisions against all or at least more potential instances of discrimination to ensure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. For example, centuries from now, imagine that human beings are divided into two groups based on those who are enabled with computer chips and those who are not. If those who are chip-enabled attempt to dominate their non-enabled fellows, the category of caste will be able to counter any impact this discrimination might have on their constitutional rights. Through this new deployment of the term ‘caste,’ for the purposes of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar has legally annihilated caste as we knew it and re-caste the concept, so to speak, in a new form–as a sword for human upliftment.
However, Ambedkar understands that there are fundamental challenges to advancing social reform in India. “People will not join in a revolution for the equalizing of property unless they know after the revolution is achieved they will be treated equally, and that there will be no discrimination of caste and creed.” (10) This lack of unity means that a proletariate revolution is precluded in India. (Perhaps, this is the exact purpose of current social conditions.) The problem of social reform, therefore, Ambedkar argues, is fundamental to the very fabric of Indian society, and all else that follows. Gandhi argues that violence is not justified because human beings will never have enough ontological certainty to justify the physical harm of their fellow. Ambedkar argues that structures of inequality are not justified. There will never be a manner in which equality can be described accurately enough to warrant unequal treatment. Thus, any ‘system’ that is based on the organization of people into different groups will be inherently arbitrary and irrational and, therefore, inherently unjust. Ambedkar asks, “Interdependence of one class on another class is inevitable. Even dependence of one class upon another may sometimes become allowable. But why make one person depend upon another in the matter of his vital needs? Education everyone must have. Means of defense, everyone must have. These are the paramount requirements of every man for his self-preservation. How can the fact that his neighbor is educated and armed help a man who is uneducated and disarmed?” (17-3) Despite the many sophisticated legal provisions, this is a question that still remains unanswered in India, as Ambedkar’s eloquent and elegant transformation and annihilation of caste remains far beyond the grasp of the consciousness of a majority of citizens in power and close to power.