Revisiting B. R. Ambedkar’s Views on Caste System and Untouchability

“It is not possible to break caste without annihilating the religious notions on which it, the caste system, is founded”.


BY HEIGRUJAM PREMKUMAR

The idea of founding of a socially and politically equal and just India would never be complete without B. R. Ambedkar, one of the most illustrious social and political thinkers, a leader and activist, and the Constitution-Maker of modern India.

dr-bhim-rao-ambedkar
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

It is said that the roots of Ambedkar’s philosophy were not in politics but in religion, particularly the Hindu religion which laid the foundation of caste system. His socio-political thought began with his criticism of Hindu religion because of its evil practices of caste system and seeking (or presenting) solutions for untouchables to free from this evil practice. Ambedkar himself was an untouchable and faced many humiliations as one. As such, the liberation of ‘depressed classes’, the awakening and organisation of untouchables, and safeguarding their rights and interests centred to his political and social ideas. The political and social thoughts of Ambedkar therefore are found in his fight to uplift the untouchables, the ‘depressed classes’. It is aptly described that the political philosophy of B. R. Ambedkar was often shaped by the politics of social reform and by India’s special brand of minority politics1.

Critique of Caste System

Caste not merely a division of labour but a division of labourers: The most evil practice in Hindu religion is the practice of casteism and the categorisation of certain sections of people as Untouchables. Ambedkar proved this. Many Hindus including Gandhi defended caste system on many grounds, the first being the division of labour as necessary for a civilized society. However, Ambedkar said that caste system as such is not merely division of labour, but it is also a division of labourers. Moreover, it is a hierarchy in which the divisions of labourers are graded one above the other.2

Caste system is unnatural: In such a system, the division of labour is not spontaneous; such a system is not based on individual choice. Individual sentiments and individual preferences have no place in it. It is based on the dogma of predestination. And, therefore, social mobility of occupation is prevented thereby making it impossible for a Hindu to gain his or her livelihood in changing circumstances. The system does not permit the readjustment of occupations among caste and this makes caste a direct cause of much of unemployment in the country.

As an economic organisation, Caste, contrasting the views of its Hindu defenders, is a harmful institution in as much as it involves the subordination of man’s natural powers and inclinations to the exigencies of social rules.3

Caste cannot preserve a non-existent ‘racial purity’: Some Hindus opine that the object of Caste was to preserve purity of blood. However, Ambedkar argues that such a ‘racial purity’ among Hindus is non-existent. Caste system came into being long after the different races of India had commingled in blood and culture. Caste system does not demarcate racial division. In contrast, Caste ‘is a social system which embodies the arrogance and selfishness of a perverse section of the Hindus who were superior enough in social status to set it in fashion and who had authority to force it on their inferiors.’4

Caste does not result in economic efficiency; caste does not and has not improved the race. The only thing that caste has done is that it has completely disorganised and demoralized the Hindus.

Hindu society is merely a collection of castes: Ambedkar says that the Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. In every Hindu, the only consciousness that exists is the consciousness of his caste. Each caste is conscious of its existence, each living for itself and for its selfish ideal. Caste is the real explanation as to why the Hindu has let the savage remain a savage in the midst of his civilization. Caste deprives Hindus of fellow-feeling.

Caste destroys public spirit, public opinion and public charity: The caste system prevents common activity and by preventing common activity it has prevented the Hindus from becoming a society with unified life and a consciousness of its own being.  It encourages hatred of one caste by another. As such, caste destroys public spirit, public opinion and public charity.

A Hindu’s public charity, his responsibility and his loyalty are restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden and morality has become caste-bound. A Hindu will follow a leader if he is a man of his caste. The capacity to appreciate merits in a man apart from his caste does not exist in a Hindu.

Caste prevents Hinduism from being a missionary religion: Caste has prevented the Hindus from expanding and from absorbing other religious communities. Caste again makes unity impossible among Hindus. One Hindu cannot regard another Hindu as his ‘Bhai’. So long as caste remains, there will be no unity and so long as there is no unity, the Hindu will remain meek and weak. According to Ambedkar,

caste among Hindus is fundamentally different from caste among non-Hindus. Caste among non-Hindus has no religious consecration; but among the Hindus most decidedly it has. Among the non-Hindus, caste is only a practice not a sacred institution. But religion compels the Hindus to treat isolation and segregation of caste as a virtue.

***

How to Reform the Caste System

b r ambedkar
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

Religion, social status, and property are all sources of power and authority in which one group has to control the liberty of others, so believed Ambedkar. In his opinion, if the source of power and domination is at any given time or in any given society social and religious, then social reform and religious reform must be accepted as the necessary sort of reforms. Because, the emancipation of mind and soul is the necessary preliminary for the political expansion of the people. Otherwise, no right, no liberty, no equality and no justice would prevail in a society where the mind of the people is darkened by religious dogmas. Political revolutions have always been preceded by social and religious revolutions. One cannot have political reform, one cannot have economic reform, unless one does not abolish caste system.

Ambedkar’s Views on Hindu Social Reformers Particularly Gandhi

According to Ambedkar, the path of social reform in India is strewn with many difficulties and has few friends and many critics.

Ambedkar argued that Hindu reformers are family reformers and never social reformers. The battle that was fought by Hindu reformers centred round the question of the reform of the family. It did not relate to the social reform in the sense of the break-up of the caste system. It was never put up in issue by the reformers.

Ambedkar vehemently criticises Gandhi on his anti-Untouchability campaign and gives many reasons on why they mean doom for Untouchables. Ambedkar says that Gandhi does not wish to antagonise the Hindus even if such antagonism was necessary to carry out his anti-Untouchability programme.

On the other hand, Gandhi does not want the untouchables to organize and be strong. For, he fears that they might thereby become independent of Hindus and weaken the ranks of Hindus. Gandhi’s whole programme for the removal of Untouchability is just words and there is no action behind it. In fact, when asked why he was not taking up any campaign for Satyagraha or start a fast against the practice of Untouchability, Gandhi’s reply is that Satyagraha has to be used only against foreigners. Gandhi was making nonsense of Satyagraha.

Ambedkar says that Gandhism is simply another form of Sanatanism which is the ancient name for militant orthodox Hinduism. Whatever is there in Gandhism is also found in orthodox Hinduism whether it is caste or acceptance of Shastras. Gandhi might not be in favour of caste system. But, he does not say that he is against the Varna system, which is simply a new name for the caste system and retains all the worst features of the caste system.

According to Ambedkar, unless Hindus change their social order they can achieve little by way of progress.

The Annihilation of Caste

In his work, ‘Annihilation of Caste’, Ambedkar declared:

“It is not possible to break caste without annihilating the religious notions on which it, the caste system, is founded”.

This is his basic idea on annihilation of caste. According to Ambedkar, there was no solution to Untouchability and casteism within the Hindu religious framework. Therefore, the only remedy to caste system or the only means to destroy casteism is the destruction of the religion of the Shrutis and the Smritis; nothing else will avail.

Abolition of Caste: Many supposed that the first step in the reform of caste was the abolition of sub-castes, and inter-caste dining. However, Ambedkar felt that these would do little in the reform of caste system. According to him, the real remedy is the inter-marriage.

“Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount the separatist feeling – the feeling of being aliens- created by caste will not vanish.”

Thus, the real remedy for breaking caste is inter-marriage.

On the other hand, caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wires which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion, a state of mind. The destruction of the caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier, it means a notional change. People are not wrong in observing caste; what is wrong is their religion which has inculcated this notion of caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy is not the people who observe caste, but the Shastras which teach them the religion of caste. Then, the real remedy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the Shastras.

Ambedkar pointed out that the caste system has no scientific origin. It has also no reason and morality, because the Vedas and the Shastras which founded caste deny any part to reason and morality. Therefore, religion of the Shrutis and Smritis which deny reason and morality in any form should be uprooted and destroyed in the way to social reform.

Caste and Hindu Religion: Caste is an essential feature if Hindu religion. According to Ambedkar, the Hindu religion, as contained in the Vedas and the Smritis, is nothing but a mass of sacrificial, social, political and sanitary rules and regulations, all mixed up. What is called religion by Hindus is nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibitions.  Religion in the sense of spiritual principles, truly universal, applicable to all races, to all countries, to all times, is not to be found in them; and if it is, it does not form the governing part of a Hindu’s life.

What the Hindus call religion is really Law, or at best legalized class-ethics. The first evil of such a code of ordinances, misrepresented to the people as religion, is that it tends to deprive moral life of freedom and spontaneity, and to reduce it to a more or less anxious and servile conformity to externally imposed rules. Under it, there is no loyalty to ideals; there is only conformity to commands. And the most objectionable part of such a scheme is that this code has been invested with the character of finality and fixity.

***

Search for a Solution

Ambedkar felt that Untouchables have to fight their own battle and if others are concerned about them then such a concern has to be expressed in helping them to fight rather than prescribing solutions to them. He gave many solutions- social and political- for the upliftment of Untouchables and to break free from the social chains of caste system. His first radical solution to it was the replacement of the existing religion’s system of practice.

In fact, Ambedkar was not always opposed to religion, rather he emphasised the importance of religion in society. He said that he was just opposing religion as rules, but not religion as principles. To replace the existing religious rule, a step toward the abolition of the caste system, Ambedkar wanted to bring a change in the practice of Hindu religion. He suggested the following in this regard:

  1. There should be only one standard book of Hindu religion, acceptable to all Hindus and recognized by all Hindus;
  2. Priesthood among Hindus should be abolished or at least cease to be hereditary;
  3. No person who does not hold a ‘sanad’ should be allowed to officiate as a priest;
  4. A priest should be subject to the disciplinary action by the state regarding his morals, beliefs and worship, and should be bound to the ordinary law of the land as in the case of other ordinary citizens.

In Ambedkar’s view, by the legalisation of priesthood it will certainly help to kill the Brahminism and will also help to kill caste. This will mean a complete change in the fundamental notions of life, a complete change in the values of life. It means a complete change in outlook and in attitude toward mankind and things. Therefore, it means a new life based on liberty, equality and fraternity which would ultimately lead to the disappearance of the caste system.

Of course, no Hindu would agree to this.

Besides this, Ambedkar also sought many political solutions for the upliftment of Untouchables. He knew the importance of the purposive action of the state in bringing a social reform in India. Therefore, as early as 1929, he sought for separate representation for ‘depressed classes’.

A strong central government with a clear concern for the welfare of all its people was central to Ambedkar’s views, and political representation was the key to legal reforms that would determine the duties of the government. Corollary with this was legal redress for those discriminated against. Moreover, Ambedkar, in a way could be considered a pioneer who introduced the concept of the reservation policy at all India level in early 1930s. Ambedkar also emphasised the importance of education for the Untouchables.

***

Assessment

The views of Ambedkar and his works, however, are not free from criticisms. Some notable ones are discussed below.

gandhi-ambedkar
Mahatma Gandhi (left) and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

First, Gandhi argues that Ambedkar pointed out only the limitations or problems of the Hindus and the Hindu religion and nothing was talked of the problems of lower castes and untouchables. Moreover, Gandhi says that Shastras do not support caste system. If Shastras support the existing untouchability, he should cease to call himself a Hindu. On the other hand, Verna and Ashrama are institutions which have nothing to do with caste. The law of Verna teaches us  that we have each one of us to earn our bread by following the ancestral calling; nothing more than that.

However, Ambedkar countered Gandhi’s arguments. According to Ambedkar, to preach that poverty is good for the Shudras and not for others, to preach that scavenging is good for the Untouchables and not for others, and to make them accept these onerous impositions as voluntary purposes of life, by appeal to their failings is an outrage and a cruel joke on the helpless classes which none but Gandhi can perpetuate with equanimity and impunity.

Second, Ambedkar’s view on legalisation of priesthood is seen by many as absurd. A well academician will never be better than a priest who has been taught religious teachings from his childhood. Morally, appearance for entrance for a religious post, or comparison of religion as profession like doctors, lawyers is seen completely unreasonable.

But, to this argument, it shout be noted: what Ambedkar emphasised was that priesthood should cease to be hereditary so that it could stop Brahminical domination. And, in no way it is unreasonable to select a priest by the consensus of the people based on the merit (this may not be academic merit only) of a person.

Further, one can hardly forget the important contributions Ambedkar made to the people of India generally and to the Untouchables in particular.

When narrating the achievements of B. R. Ambedkar for the Untouchables, his biographer Dhananjay Keer says that it was Ambedkar who, for the first time in the history of the past twenty-five hundred years, focussed the world’s attention on the civic, social and political rights and liberties of the Untouchables, made untouchability a burning topic of the day, raised it to an international importance, and give it a global publicity. His ceaseless hard struggle forced an opening for them, and inaugurated an era of light and liberty. He awakened in them a sense of human dignity, a feeling of self respect and a burning hatred of the practice of untouchability which was worse than slavery. His heroic struggle raised them to political equality with other communities in India.

Ambedkar’s contributions, however, encompass more than the winning of political representation of the minority classes, particularly the untouchables. Despite his keenness to remain a leader of untouchables, he made genuine effort to secularise Indian politics. He is one of the heroes of modern India whose stature has grown over the years. He was the Constitution-Maker of Modern India, and the champion of the minorities of all kinds.

Brushed in Western education, he was engaged in modern ideas of the West. At the same time, he was voicing against the domination of both the foreign rule as well as the Brahmins. He in a way represented an alternative political discourse of the ‘depressed classes’.

Ambedkar himself dreamt of an ideal society based on liberty, equality and fraternity. Such a society would have no discrimination of one by another. The development of such a notion lies in Ambedkar’s dissatisfaction with the Hindu social system based on caste. For Ambedkar, Caste is evil. One cannot build anything on the foundations of caste- no nation, no morality. Whatever is built on the foundations of caste will crack and never be a whole.  Ambedkar said that only when the Hindu society becomes a classless society, it can hope to have strength enough to defend itself. Without such internal strength, Ambedkar says, Swaraj for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery.


References

  1. Valerian Rodrigues, The Essential Writings of B. R. Ambedkar, 2002, pp. 1-43; 96-98; 99-105; 167-172; 263-358
  2. Ramachandra Guha, Makers of Modern India, 2010, pp. 204-227.
  3. Thomas Pantham and Kenneth Deutsch, Political Thought in Modern India, 1986, pp.161-175.
  4. Sukhadeo Thorat and Narender Kumar, B. R. Ambedkar: Perspectives on Social Enclusion and Inclusive Policies, 2008, pp. some parts of introduction.
  5. G. S. Lokhande, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, A study in Social Democracy, 1977, pp. some reference points only.

This article was written as part of my masters coursework.

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