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The Neglect of Ambedkar

Perennial Problem of Sociology in India

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee ( is a poet, writer, and political science scholar.

Indian sociologists and historians have retained a certain foundational bias and blindness regarding caste. M N Srinivas’s theory of “Sanskritisation” saw underprivileged castes as aspirational, seeking social mobility. Socio-economic changes were seen as destabilising caste relations and leading to their disappearance. The persistence of upper-caste hegemony, and the resistance to it from underprivileged sections, does not corroborate the thesis forwarded by Srinivas and other sociologists and historians. The neglect of B R Ambedkar has been part of a strange refusal to acknowledge the political in caste.  

The author thanks Aishwary Kumar and an anonymous referee of EPW for their encouraging remarks and precise suggestions.

The intellectual discourse in India has since long been sitting comfortably in its deliberate blindness towards certain proper names of suffering. The proper name of caste struggled to find place in the world of social science theory as upper-caste academicians did not care or pay attention to it. Both liberals and Marxists in India have been reluctant to expand the terminologies of their discourse to include caste as a political category deserving theoretical investigation. Caste was of course mentioned, but never in terms of a political hierarchy that thwarted social change. And Untouchability was addressed not in its radical (meaning, radically exploitative) specificity but as a feature within the caste problem. The left and liberal discourse that supported reservations did so through the Western narrative of positive discrimination, or affirmative action. It was welcomed within the narrative of special, legitimate rights. But this did not simultaneously translate into a political discourse of caste erasure, of challenging the ideological edifice of the caste system.  

The grounds were laid by a host of Indian political and social thinkers. In The Discovery of India (1964), Jawaharlal Nehru (1985: 85) speculated on the “fluid condition” of caste in its earlier stages, and “rigidity” coming in only later. According to Nehru (1985: 216), the institution of caste, “with all its evils … was infinitely better than slavery.” Unlike slave-labour in Greece, Nehru found “a measure of freedom” in the fixed occupational system of caste. This led, according to Nehru (1985: 216) “to a high degree of specialisation and skill in handicrafts and craftsmanship.”

We will see later how Ambedkar compares the historical status of slavery and caste to explain why caste has outlasted slavery. Did Nehru presume that fixity of (traditional) occupations serves specialisation and skill in craftsmanship than social flexibility? Material production can achieve a high degree of sophistication under a feudal (and casteist) economy. Marx acknowledged this aspect in Greek art. But that does not justify the coercive structure under which artisans and labourers perform their task. There is a circumstantial and not logical relationship between social structure and material (or artistic) production. The caste system hindered the spread of craftsmanship by limiting specialisation to graded privilege. Of course Nehru, like all progressive modernists, found the caste system “wholly incompatible, reactionary, restrictive, and barriers to progress,” and antithetical to political and economic democracy (Nehru 1985: 257).

But he shared the optimisms of modernity enough to conclude that caste would give way “to the conditions of modern life” (Nehru 1985: 27). The point to note here is how caste was understood as a system antithetical to the ways and demands of modernity. It is true that caste is against the spirit of equality and fraternity, and like feudalism, ill at ease with the values espoused by modernity. Except that caste turned out to be quite stubborn for modernity, and has persisted despite constitutional equality, social mobility and sharing public space.

Theorising Caste sans Politics

The theory of caste as taught till the 1990s, started with Luis Dumont and ended with M N Srinivas. Srinivas, in his sociological study of caste mobility offered a narrowly mapped theory of Sanskritisation about a pervasive social trend of Brahminism becoming an aspirational status among non-Brahmin castes. He was optimistic, as shown in his essay, “An Obituary on Caste as a System” (Srinivas 2003), that “technological and institutional changes, new ideas of democracy, equality and individual self-respect,” as much as “benefits conferred … by the policy of affirmative action” will erase caste in the future. This is starkly similar to the optimism shared by Nehru, D D Kosambi, and Irfan Habib among others that the demands of modern life and structures (new forms of production, passenger trains, factories and non-caste guilds among workers) will make caste disappear in India.

Srinivas mentioned the persistence of caste violence, particularly on Dalits in the villages, but merely put his faith on the state to “ensure the physical and psychological safety of the dalits.” There was no interest in the political assertion of victimised out/castes.

To take cognisance of this anti-political attitude in the intellectual discourse on caste, let us begin backwards, with Dumont. There are serious flaws in the way he situates caste and his interpretation (and assumption) of the nature of its history. But I would like to point out couple of significant observations Dumont makes about caste. Talking about the caste question, Dumont writes in his book, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (1970): “Segmentation is an aspect of structure as opposed to substance” (Dumont 1998: 24). He explains this striking conclusion, contrasting the caste system with the idea
of contradiction in Hegel’s dialectics. Dumont writes:

By the negation and the negation of the negation, a totality without precedent can be produced synthetically. In fact, in Hegel’s thought the deepest motive is to produce a differentiated totality from an undifferentiated substance, that is, a totality from a substance. (Dumont 1998: 243)

In simple terms, it is the movement of substance from being (something) to becoming (something else), through a process of contradiction. The totality is the synthesis of contradictory impulses/processes.

Dumont distinguishes this from caste: “In the hierarchical schema, on the contrary, the totality preexists and there is no substance.” The caste system permits no contradiction, only graded segregation, where there is no movement from being to becoming. Caste is fixed, unchangeable destiny. So there is no substance in caste. The Mexican poet-intellectual, Octavio Paz, reflecting on his reading of Dumont on caste, writes: “Castes cannot be described as substances; they are not classes, but a system of relations” (Paz 1990: 122). The lack of substance in caste was visible to a Mexican poet-critic, while it strangely eluded the insight of India’s celebrated sociologists.

Ambedkar writes in his undelivered masterpiece of 1936, The Annihilation of Caste, “Varna or Caste is a society … is based on a wrong relationship” (Ambedkar 1979: 89). Caste, then, is a “wrong” relationship, without substance. Soumyabrata Choudhury (2016), writing about Aishwary Kumar’s book, Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Risk of Democracy (2015), also marks “Ambedkar’s verdict in Annihilation of Caste that primarily caste is ‘wrong relation,’ not bad substance; wrong notion, not mere bad feeling.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:

The philosophical term “substance” corresponds to the Greek ousia, which means “being,” transmitted via the Latin substantia, which means “something that stands under or grounds things.”

Caste does not have any (philosophical) substance. It lacks ground. It is simply based on wrong notions, and by extension, wrong relation.

Srinivas, who did not engage with Ambedkar, was never illuminated by such a fundamental insight. In fact, Dumont bravely sticks his neck out and makes the scathing remark in his book, that “Brahmanical attitude has in India coloured the whole political tendency that is called liberal” (Dumont 1998: 222). In this regard, Dumont reserves his criticism for G S Ghurye. Calling Ghurye “scarcely more realistic than Gandhi,” Dumont (1998: 222) writes that Ghurye tried to substantiate the idea of caste in the form of a “collective individual.” Dumont’s conclusive remark on Ghurye is, “if Ghurye deplores caste ‘patriotism’, it is as much out of fondness for an idealised past as out of hostility towards caste” (Dumont 1998: 222). There is substance in Dumont’s accusation, against a man who tried to find substance in the origin of what has none.

To extend this moment on Dumont, he also gives evidence of his political leaning on the question of caste. He actually picks up the question of annihilation of caste in Homo Hierarchicus: saying, that “the road to their [caste] abolition is likely to lie in caste actions, and that only the content of a caste action indicates whether it militates for or against caste” (Dumont 1998: 223). Dumont finds a dual tendency in actions based on caste, one conservative, another liberating.

The liberating side of what Dumont calls caste action is something the left and the liberal scholars alike simply did not understand for decades. It can be contributed to no other plausible reason than reluctance to radically think on caste. The duality also immediately reminds us of Ambedkar who did not think Gandhi’s caste action would bring emancipation for the Untouchables or transform Hindu society. Even though prematurely lamenting the “failure” of Ambedkar’s movement, Dumont admirably conceded, “it is clear today, contrary to Gandhi’s opinion, that the Untouchables will not be finally emancipated save by themselves.”

Managerial or Emancipatory

Dipankar Gupta’s Interrogating Caste (2000) finds it appropriate to rake up the debate on caste between Dumont and Srinivas, leaving out Ambedkar. Gupta’s politics of omission may be traced to the way he uses Ambedkar in his essay, “Caste, Race, Politics.” Gupta makes an unsupported point that Ambedkar “anticipated the limitations of using caste as a perennial political resource and fought instead to extirpate this cultural blot from our society” (Gupta 2001). Where from does Gupta derive his conclusion about Ambedkar being unwilling to use caste as a “political resource”? The political is never “perennial.” Politics is contingent upon limits.

What sets those limits? Ambedkar knew well, it was power. In “A Warning to the Untouchables” he emphasised, apart from education the Untouchables must go for political power. There was, he wrote, “a real conflict of interests between the Hindus and the Untouchables and that while reason may mitigate the conflict it can never obviate the necessity of such a conflict” (Ambedkar 1989: 399). The problem of political power was to be understood beyond the calculations (and unsolvable limits) of rationality. Ambedkar places the problem of power to a zone of conflict that lies beyond the pragmatism of reason. He acknowledged, we were still faced with “the problem of how to make the use of power ethical,” yet he was clear the “Untouchable is … under an absolute necessity of acquiring political power as much as possible” (Ambedkar 1989: 399).

This necessity is deemed both historical and political. Ambedkar knew, “the Untouchable can never acquire too much political power” (Ambedkar 1989: 399). Ambedkar’s idea of the Untouchables never holding enough political power (including his concern about the working class among Untouchables, having an “inadequate ... power to strike”) is comparable to what Walter Benjamin described in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (Illuminations 1968), as “weak messianic power.” It is understood as “divine power” that resists (and challenges/contests) the “mythic” or “lawmaking” (and dominant) Brahminical power/violence in Hindu society (to borrow the terms from Benjamin (1978: 300). If Brahminical power/violence sets the boundaries of power (and law), the political (and ethical) task of Dalit power is to destroy that boundary. The ethics of divine Untouchable power, which is Ambedkar’s concern, is in a certain measure, echoes Benjamin’s description of such a power that is “lethal without spilling blood.” Ambedkar comes strikingly close to Benjamin’s description, where he says: 

My definition of democracy is a form and method of government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed. (Kumar 2015: 7)

The difference with Benjamin here is, Ambedkar poses the question (or possibility) of messianic politics within the idea of social and political democracy.

Dumont in his work on caste accurately defines it as an entity “unified from the outside” and “divided within.” The distinction from a class division gets clear when Dumont calls caste a “state of mind.” Caste is not an economic structure. Dumont seems to have borrowed Ambedkar’s definition from “The Annihilation of Caste,” where he writes: “Caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind. The destruction of caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change” (Ambedkar 1979: 68). Unlike class, caste is a notional hierarchy.

In Interrogating Caste, Gupta raises an unsubstantiated doubt over Dumont’s mentalist definition of caste:

The peculiarities of the Hindu mind are thus placed in the forefront, relegating the role of economic exploitation, classes and power in Indians society, to at best, a secondary position. (Gupta 2000: 185)

Gupta is concerned that such a view stalls the coming of a “progressive and egalitarian order” by emphasising the prior erasure of “caste sentiments” (Gupta 2000: 185). Gupta finds Dumont’s position “denies that traditional elements are malleable and often amenable to modernisation” (Gupta 2000: 185). Gupta’s argument is blissfully vague, grounding his critique on mere hope of the coming of a social order that would wash away the stains of caste from Hindu society. There is no pausing over the mentalist, or “notional,” aspect as a psycho-social element worthy of sociological investigation. One cannot simply call it progressive blindness, without raising the question regarding a certain measure of discomfort about probing the singularity of caste. The serious conceptual problem with Gupta’s view is his collapsing the singularity of caste into the universalist—and general—category of class.

One can also pose the question back to Gupta: What if the coming of a progressive and egalitarian order is hindered by the singular problem of caste hierarchy, which refuses to mend its ways despite the supposedly elevating promise of modernisation? How come modernisation itself is uncritically understood as a process of social liberation? Isn’t it time for postcolonial scholarship in the 21st century to get out of the defunct binaries of “traditional” and “modern”? To understand caste as a system of relations that develops newer forms of discrimination as Hindu society modernises itself will perhaps offer us better insights into the relationship between caste and modernity.

The modernist blindness that Gupta and others like him suffer from regarding caste is situated in their predominantly—and essentially—economic view of social progress. Gupta, in his essay, “Caste, Race, Politics,” thinks “caste mobility” is the social fact that will bring in Ambedkar’s dream of annihilation of caste. This is a liberal-left assumption that has a managerial social interest in the caste question, and absolutely none in the emancipatory politics of Ambedkar. Caste mobility is a matter of better formal status and economic prospects. It does not improve a person’s social status in the caste hierarchy. Social mobility is not social change. More importantly, to propose that caste mobility can fix the caste problem ignores Ambedkar’s political project of annihilating caste.

Identity and Representation

Gupta and others, who view caste from a predominantly economic perspective, miss the point that caste is not simply an urban prejudice that seeks to deny the underprivileged castes their due. No wonder Gupta and others find caste-based reservations a quick mechanism to equalise social hierarchy. They miss too late in the day—ignoring a wealth of material beginning with Ambedkar—that caste is a social phenomenon with a political content. Gupta is so tied down by Srinivas-style sociology on caste that he stays away from the political question. If caste—and its conjunctional counterpart, Untouchability—is a problem of social justice, or its lack thereof, can economic mobility remove an entrenched social hierarchy based on unnatural division? The politics of (caste) identity in India is primarily a problem not of identity (as the upper-caste academia and media often makes it out to be), but rather a problem of representation. Gupta and others need to find out how many candidates belonging to the underprivileged castes managed to find a place in the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s politburo or in the Congress Working Committee.

Democracy is representation. Professor of intellectual history and historical theory, F R Ankersmit (2002: 109), puts it in Political Representation: “Representation is making present (again) of what is absent.” What has been absent in Indian politics is enough representation of people belonging to underprivileged castes in the power-hierarchy of mainstream political parties. The absence clearly—logically—corresponds to social hierarchy. It mirrors intellectual hegemony of the privileged castes in politics rather than, or necessarily, in the economic hierarchy. The question of intellectual hegemony is laid aside while probing the caste question. Identity politics (which is the politics of representation against upper-caste hegemony) alone has responded to the absence of caste-representation in Indian politics. Identity politics is also what Anne Philips calls “the politics of presence.” In India’s case, it is not merely the diversity of political “interests” Philips speaks about in her book, The Politics of Presence, but of (re)presenting those historically neglected in the sharing and deliberation of political power (Philips 1995: 145). Identity politics brought the much neglected aspect of caste hegemony in mainstream Indian politics into focus. It contested the only identity in power—the Brahminical caste—and made the question (and category) of identity political.

I must however add that the politics of identity in India is not just about identity. It is about identity-in-relation. Caste identities are related to each other within the rules of internal differentiation and hierarchy. Identity politics is therefore not simply a politics of visibility, but also a dismantling of the Brahminical social order. If modernisation has made this assertion possible, it has also managed to challenge the universal (and general) principles of politics and progress. Identity politics is the politics of singularity in relation to the ideological structure of Hindu society. In “A Warning to the Untouchables,” Ambedkar wrote: “The Untouchable must remember that his political power, no matter how large, will be of no use if he depends for representation in the legislature on Hindus whose political life is rested in economic and social interests” (Ambedkar 1989: 399). Representation was, in Ambedkar’s understanding, a source of asserting democratic power. In order to become what Hindu society forbade them from, caste identities strove to become another, outside their habitual, enforced sphere of labour and profession, to claim the seat of power. The history of denials is today being written in reverse, through the galloping history of social justice.

Infirmities of ‘Sanskritisation’

Returning to his thesis on “Sanskritisation,” Srinivas, in his essay, “A Note on Sanskritisation and Westernisation” made an overarching point about other castes looking up to and imitating the Brahmins during British rule (Srinivas 1956: 483). Wonder if the Mahad Satyagraha of 20 March 1927 was a political act of imitation. Wonder what sort of “Sanskritisation” propelled Ambedkar to upturn the Brahminical law, and lead his people to drink water from the public tank. Srinivas is silent on political upheavals during British rule that challenge caste hierarchy (and his thesis). He has of course mostly limited himself to discussing social mores and habits of the West that influenced Hindus, and in particular, Brahmins. Wonder if that is a lacuna of his subject, or a lack of a more rigorous political examination of his social-anthropological approach. More curiously, Srinivas has this to say on the future of Untouchability in India:

The Constitution has abolished Untouchability and practical steps are being taken to implement the legal abolition. One naturally wonders what position Untouchables will have in the Hindu society of the future. (Srinivas 1956: 494)

Srinivas’s vision for the future of Untouchables has no place for their political assertion. Legal-constitutional safeguards on the one hand haven’t been enough to save Untouchables from social sanctions and stigma, and on the other, made them mere passive beneficiaries of the system.

It is instructive that Srinivas does not envision the active social and political transformation of Untouchables. He could not predict the Dalit movement. It is not that Srinivas is unaware of the question of political power. Only that he does not suspect the possibility of political assertion by the underprivileged castes, which resists and dismisses all forms of Sanskritisation. In his essay, “Future of Indian Caste” Srinivas does touch upon the question of “protest movements against caste,” but sees it merely in terms of fostering “mobility” or simply as a “struggle for power” (Srinivas 1979: 238). Srinivas does not touch upon the question of social justice, political consciousness and representation, and posing a challenge to the Brahminical order.

The lack of the political in Srinivas can be traced to his short description of the coming of Buddhism in India (in “An Obituary on Caste as a System”). He describes the origins of Buddhism and Jainism as “protest movements against not only the Brahmanical claims to superiority but also against the Brahmanical predilection to perform elaborate sacrifices involving the killing of animals” (Srinivas 2003: 458). Srinivas misses the key social aspect of Buddhism’s challenge to the Brahminical order: its critique of the caste order. Ambedkar traces the origins of Untouchability precisely around 400AD the period when Buddhism becomes the court religion of the Guptas. Srinivas quotes Dumont to point out that “Brahmins responded to the new challenge by hijacking ‘ahimsa’ abandoning animal sacrifice and declaring the cow ‘avadhya’ or unkillable” (Srinivas 2003: 458). Srinivas’s progressive sensibility makes him attest Buddhism’s critique of ritualistic Brahminism. But unlike Ambedkar, Srinivas does not take a step further to detect in this hijacking of cow worship and the ban on cow killing for sacrifice, the genesis of the most significant historical fact: Untouchability. It may appear ironic that a desperate moment of Brahminical “ahimsa” facilitated the birth of one of its most stringent and violent mode of segregation and humiliation. It is however no irony that the decision of purity that came from declaring the ban on cow sacrifice, killing and eating, in its moment of exception, created the corresponding norm—the “notion” of impurity, of the most bizarre taxonomy of groups designated Untouchables, because they ate beef.

Inadequacy of Marxists

D D Kosambi (contra Srinivas) comes closest to a certain political strand in Ambedkar, even though his accounts are solely focused on (and saturated by) material practices. Kosambi never comes close to discovering Ambedkar’s fundamental insight: that caste is a moral psychology of limit, not simply a wall of tangible (structural) obstructions.

Let me further my point by taking up Kosambi’s central view on caste, as well as Irfan Habib’s reading of caste, predominantly via Kosambi. In Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings (2002), we find Kosambi write,

Caste is class at a primitive level of production, a religious method of forming social consciousness in such a manner that the primary producer is deprived of his surplus with the minimum coercion. This is done with the adoption of local usages into religion and ritual, being thus the negation of history by giving fictitious sanction “from times immemorial” to any new development, the actual change being denied altogether. (Kosambi 2002: 59)

What is missing in this sociological narrative on the origin of the caste system is how it affects people and their social, moral and psychological—not economic—relations with each other. Caste boxes identities and creates notions around them, fixing their social status through religiously defined rules. Caste contributes not just to the denial of surplus in economic terms but a creation of a new (cultural and social) surplus of humiliation. Caste interrupts relations of production by introducing prejudice. It divides the Marxist idea of class, by what Ambedkar describes in “The Annihilation of Caste” by putting an “unnatural division of labourers into watertight compartments” (Ambedkar 1979: 47). Kosambi is right about caste being “the negation of history,” but he remains constrained by a predominantly economic understanding. It fails to explain the persistent notion of caste in modernity.

In Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (1995), historian Irfan Habib, adheres to Kosambi’s view of the social formation of caste as a “surplus” born of the progression of the labour process. Habib picks up the argument from Kosambi’s An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (first published in 1956), that “castes did not arise out of any internal division of the varnas in the original Vedic society, but from an external process altogether” (Habib 2002: 165). To separate varna from caste is to invent a spurious historical (and ideological) wedge between two different names of the same phenomenon: a system of classification that divides people by assigning them specific types of labour, marked by an internal hierarchy between the mental and the menial, or the intellectual and the physical, with Brahmins at the apex. Varna and caste are the products of the phenomenon Ambedkar calls “Brahminism,” a social ideology marked by hierarchal division based on scriptural sanction. To go back to Habib’s contention, what does he mean by “external process”? Habib quotes from Srinivas’ An Introduction, to explain the phrase: “The entire course of Indian history shows tribal elements being fused into a general society. This phenomenon ... lies at the very foundation of the most striking Indian social feature, namely, caste” (Habib 2002: 165). We learn that caste made its way into the varna system through “tribal elements.”

The idea of tribal influence is contrasted with a peculiar term used by Kosambi: “general society.” What is “general society,” and how is it distinguished from tribal society? From Habib’s account that draws from Kosambi, “general society” is to be understood as an advanced stage of social relations under an “emerging division of labour.” The term “general society” is rather sociologically vague and arbitrary, where its claim to superiority (vis-à-vis tribal society) has been made keeping in mind only a new relation of purely economic production.

It will be interesting, even fruitful, to contrast (and challenge) this term by Ambedkar’s distinction in The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables, between “Settled community” or “Settled tribe” and “Nomadic tribes” (or between “Settled society” and “Primitive society”) in the context of how the category of people Ambedkar calls “Broken Men” came to be Untouchables around 400AD primarily around the issue of beef eating, when Hindu society faced the challenge of Buddhism (Ambedkar 1990: 276). Ambedkar describes the “Broken Men” as people belonging to a “defeated tribe … broken into bits,” with nomadic features of “a floating population consisting of groups of Broken tribesmen roaming in all directions” (Ambedkar 1990: 275). In Hobbesian terms, what is “the war
of everyone against everyone” (Hobbes 2009: 72), in India’s historical context, is clearly the war of tribe against tribe. Ambedkar marks the territory of political conflict that ensues between the “settled” tribe or society or community, with the primitive nomads:

The problem that confronted the Settled community was that of its defence against the Nomadic tribes. The problem which confronted the Broken men was that of the protection and shelter. (Ambedkar 1990: 274)

Ambedkar’s “settled community” seems to correspond to Kosambi’s “general society,” though not quite. The idea of “general” tries to draw a distinction between tribal and non-tribal elements within what is considered early Hindu society. The distinction is premised primarily on the advancement in mode and relations of production. But in Ambedkar’s reading of Indian history, the strain of caste that plagues “general society” does not come from economic interest. According to Ambedkar (1990: 303–04), “Castes and sub-castes are social organisations which are superimposed over the tribal organisation.” He does not say caste is a product of “tribal elements” infused into a society with so-called “general” characteristics, but rather superimposed on it. Caste society prefigures the origin of Untouchability that Ambedkar dates around 400AD between the origin of caste as an integral offshoot of the varna system, and the transformation of the Broken Men into Untouchables, the chief social system or organisation of Hindu society was caste. If caste is the prime characteristic of “general society,” such a society loses any claim to generality. Casteism is the bane of “general society.”

Caste against Society

Ambedkar (1979: 50) refuses to consider Hindu society a society in the modern sense, claiming: “Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes.” For one, Ambedkar (1979: 50) argues, what prevents Hindus from having a society is, there is “no Hindu consciousness of kin,” merely consciousness of caste. Society is constituted, Ambedkar (1979: 51) argues, through “common activity,” and the caste system, “by preventing common activity … has prevented the Hindus from becoming a society.” Making a prescient observation that dents Srinivas’ major thesis on Sanskritisation, Ambedkar (1979: 51) emphasises, “similarity in habits and customs, beliefs and thoughts, is not enough to constitute men into society. Things may be passed physically from one to another like bricks.” Culture, Ambedkar reminds us, “spreads by diffusion” and mere similarities of habits and customs that were part of even primitive tribes, do not measure up to the modern definition of society. “Sanskritisation,” as a theory of imitation and aspiration, is about the passing of bricks, a superbly elementary analogy for a ritualistic act of mimicry that does not contribute to either equalisation or disappearance of caste. Equally damagingly, it does not help the Hindu claim to be a society. Taking the example of festivals, Ambedkar (1979: 51) makes the point that “parallel performances of similar festivals by the different castes have not bound them into one integral whole.” Hindu society, in Ambedkar’s brilliant reading, is merely performative, lacking “substance,” in reality and by definition.

Ambedkar’s originality lies in attributing to Indian society its radical specificity where the general assumptions of Marxist theory have to undergo sufficient, and even fundamental, alterations in order to explain the nature of historical progression in India’s context. This radical specificity is drawn from Ambedkar’s thesis on the caste system as unique to India and Hindu society, and what prevents this society from making any general claims about itself, including claims to morality. The idea that caste was ultimately a “notion” without substance, and yet outlasted the social upheavals of modernity, is Ambedkar’s unparalleled contribution to our understanding of one of the most challenging (and disturbing) features in world history. Ambedkar’s hypothesis on the origin of Untouchability is equally unique. As he explained in The Untouchables, his intellectual efforts were “not the same as writing history from texts which speak with certainty.” It required “reconstructing history where there are no texts, and if there are, they have no direct bearing on the question” (Ambedkar 1990: 244). So he had to “divine what the texts conceal or suggest.” This required a hazardous but fascinating navigation between the textual and the social. In this sense, Ambedkar appears more intuitive than Marx, unpacking the historical roots of social phenomena by drawing conclusions from a complex range of archival material that included sacred texts and travelogues (from the Dharma Sutras to chronicles by Chinese travellers). It induced Ambedkar to pay more attention to cultural specificity than give in to the lures of a universal narrative determined by the changing forms of economic production and class relations alone. 

Caste emerged from a complex set of reasons, where purity/pollution—which is Dumont’s sole binary of analysis and line of argument—is not enough explanation for something so complex. Who better than Ambedkar can put the gamut of reasons in a sentence: “There is segregation and isolation in birth, initiation, marriage, death and in dealing with the sacred and the strange” (Ambedkar 1990: 52). What connects the caste system to Untouchability is an integrated law of segregation whose roots lie in purity, endogamy, ritual and (sacred) territoriality. Caste maintained its strictures (and scriptures) along with changing modes of economic relations, showing a remarkable degree of adaptability. Ambedkar uses the term “strange,” among others, to specify the various terms of segregation and isolation. What is the “strange”?

To be sure, it is not a mystification of any sort. Being deeply sensitive about history’s losers and risk-takers, Ambedkar (1990: 52) showed a lot of interest in the fate of the stranger and his strange presence facing settler communities/tribes. Ambedkar (1990: 52) makes the contention in The Untouchables: “Contact with strange people was also regarded as a source of Untouchability by the Primitive Man.” He illustrates the point by providing an example of the Bathonga tribe in South Africa: “(I)t is believed that those who travel outside their own country are peculiarly open to danger from the influence of foreign spirits and in particular from demoniac possession” (Ambedkar 1990: 252). The fear and suspicion of members who stray beyond the territorial limits of familiarity, and enter enemy habitation, is probably as old as primitive societies. But their modern manifestation is equally real in nationally bound communities. Ambedkar (1990: 252) writes, “Strangers are tabu because, worshipping strange gods, they bring strange influence with them. They are, therefore, fumigated or purified in some other way.” The stranger who returns as polluted as the enemy, gains the status of a tabu. The other is tabu. Ambedkar’s keen insight into history goes beyond the constraints of class history, acknowledging the strange figure of the radically other, the stranger against whom all laws of segregation, all violence, is legitimately put into place. The other is not an identity but a lack of identity, and upon whom a “strange” identity, or the identity of strangeness, is thrust upon. The other is a challenge to reason, and to society’s territorial habits. The historical phenomenon of caste is the discriminatory management of otherness.

Specificity of Religious Sanction

Irfan Habib’s view is that “modern conditions have gravely shaken the economic basis of the caste system.” He offers examples of “workers of several castes come together on the factory bench,” industrial production destroying the crafts of artisanal castes and the “commercialisation of agriculture” converting large mass of peasants into landless labourers. These are not broad enough examples, or large enough samples that can facilitate conclusions on a phenomenon as ubiquitous as caste, and the extent of casteist determination in Hindu society. The most significant event since Habib’s views appeared on caste has been the political assertion of Dalits and Other Backward Classes as identities demanding representation. The backlash from privileged castes against reservations for the Other Backward Classes, implemented through the recommendations of Mandal Commission report of 1980, provided us with a political as much as historical reminder of the nausea that privileged castes still hold against others.

The strange institution of caste persists because it is an immutable social law and practice. Ambedkar writes in “Their wishes are Laws unto us,”

Custom is no small a thing as compared to Law. It is true that law is enforced by the state through its police power; custom, unless it is valid it is not. But in practice this difference is of no consequence. Custom is enforced by people far more effectively than law is by the state. This is because the compelling force of an organised people is far greater than the compelling force of the state. (Ambedkar 1989: 283)

Custom is the combined force of the power and law of the social whose violence exceeds, in Ambedkar’s view, the law of the state. It is in ample evidence in cases of everyday violence against Dalits. To take three telling instances: Shalubai Kasbe, a 44-year-old woman belonging to the Mang community, on whose official table a bust of Shivaji was installed, after being elected sarpanch of Wagholi village in Osmanabad district, Maharashtra in 2011. Surekha Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, from Khairlanji village, in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra, who was paraded naked, sexually assaulted and killed along with her daughter and two sons, on 29 September 2006, for lodging a police complaint against people belonging to the dominant Kunbi caste, over a land dispute. The flogging of seven members of a Dalit family on
11 July 2016, that took place in Una, Gujarat, for skinning a dead cow.

Gupta, in his essay, “Caste, Race, Politics,” is anxious to make a distinction between race and caste, but only to again make an unsupported point that Ambedkar did not support any politics based on a “radical advocacy” of “inverted racism” (Gupta 2001). Gupta (2001) thinks caste is “not as immutable a category as race is.” He hopes the Constitution will one day derecognise caste, as caste mobility, unlike race, will dissolve the problem altogether. It is true that race and caste are not equivalent categories or realities. Ambedkar also made a distinction between race and caste. But he made a provocative distinction between race and the radical exception within caste, Untouchability. Ambedkar noted that unlike slavery “that had no foundation in religion,” the notion of Untouchability is “primarily based in religion” (Ambedkar 1989: 89). He pointed out, even though “Roman law declared the slave was not a person,” the “religion of Rome refused to accept that principle” (Ambedkar 1989: 92). However, he wrote, since “Hindu Law did not regard the Untouchable a person, Hinduism refused to regard him as a human being fit for comradeship” (Ambedkar 1989: 92).

In Ambedkar’s opinion, this distinction explains “why slavery and serfdom have vanished and why Untouchability has not” (Ambedkar 1989: 89). Untouchability is the exception to the rule, or norm, of caste. By his distinction between slavery, which is based on race, and Untouchability, Ambedkar made the point that it is more difficult to eradicate religious law than state law. Ambedkar writes, “Caste system does not demarcate racial division. [The] Caste system is a social division of people of the same race” (Ambedkar 1979: 49). Having rejected racial parallels to caste distinction, Ambedkar would not have advocated any politics based on reverse-racism. But to conclude that the supposed mutability of caste will “dissolve” through constitutional changes is facile optimism.

Caste and Untouchability, as social practices, have religious sanction. The problem of caste is thus more complicated than race. Gupta’s anxiety of “inverted racism,” which he perhaps equates with inverted casteism, is a prejudiced—and privileged—notion against identity politics. Caste politics is an inversion of Brahminical politics, where the monopoly of representation is challenged. As a politics of identity, caste politics seeks to address the question of power. Gupta’s discomfort with the political assertion of caste comes from his fidelity to progressivist norms that understand politics in universalist terms alone. He overlooks the fact that privilege is contextual.


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Updated On : 6th May, 2019


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