My father was a Hindu, a Brahmo. I never met him until I was an adult. I grew up with my mother, in a Syrian Christian family in Ayemenem, a small village in communist-ruled Kerala. And yet all around me were the fissures and cracks of caste. Ayemenem had its own separate “Parayan” church where “Parayan” priests preached to an “untouchable” congregation. Caste was implied in peoples’ names, in the way people referred to each other, in the work they did, in the clothes they wore, in the marriages that were arranged, in the language we spoke. Even so, I never encountered the notion of caste in a single school textbook. Reading Ambedkar alerted me to a gaping hole in our pedagogical universe. Reading him also made it clear why that hole exists and why it will continue to exist until Indian society undergoes radical, revolutionary change.
Revolutions can, and often have, begun with reading.
Ambedkar was a prolific writer. Unfortunately his work, unlike the writings of Gandhi, Nehru or Vivekananda, does not shine out at you from the shelves of libraries and bookshops.
Of his many volumes, Annihilation of Caste is his most radical text. It is not an argument directed at Hindu fundamentalists or extremists, but at those who consider themselves moderate, those whom Ambedkar called “the best of Hindus”—and some academics call “left-wing Hindus.”1 Ambedkar’s point is that to believe in the Hindu shastras and to simultaneously think of oneself as liberal or moderate is a contradiction in terms.
When the text of Annihilation of Caste was published, the man who is often called the “greatest of Hindus”—Mahatma Gandhi—responded to Ambedkar’s provocation. Their debate was not a new one. Both men were their generation’s emissaries of a profound social, political and philosophical conflict that had begun long ago and has still by no means ended.
Ambedkar, the untouchable, was heir to an anticaste intellectual tradition that goes back to 200–100 BCE. The practice of caste, which is believed to have its genesis in the Purusha Sukta hymn2 in the Rig Veda (1200–900 BCE), faced its first challenge only a thousand years later, when the Buddhists broke with caste by creating sanghas that admitted everybody, regardless of which caste they belonged to. Yet caste endured and evolved. In the mid-twelfth century, the Veerashaivas led by Basava challenged caste in South India, and were crushed. From the fourteenth century onwards, the beloved Bhakti poet-saints—Cokhamela, Ravidas, Kabir, Tukaram, Mira, Janabai—became, and remain, the poets of the anticaste tradition. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came Jotirao Phule and his Satyashodhak Samaj in western India; Pandita Ramabai, perhaps India’s first feminist, a Marathi Brahmin who rejected Hinduism and converted to Christianity (and challenged that, too); Swami Achutanand Harihar, who led the Adi Hindu movement, started the Bharatiya Achhut Mahasabha (Parliament of Indian Untouchables), and edited Achhut, the first Dalit journal; Ayyankali and Sree Narayana Guru, who shook up the old order in Malabar and Travancore; and the iconoclast Iyothee Thass and his Sakya Buddhists, who ridiculed Brahmin supremacy in the Tamil world. Among Ambedkar’s contemporaries in the anticaste tradition were E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, known as “Periyar” in the Madras Presidency; Jogendranath Mandal of Bengal; and Babu Mangoo Ram, who founded the Ad Dharm movement in the Punjab that rejected both Sikhism and Hinduism. These were Ambedkar’s people.
Gandhi, a Vaishya, born into a Gujarati Bania family, was the latest in a long tradition of privileged-caste Hindu reformers and their organisations: Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who founded the Brahmo Samaj in 1828; Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who founded the Arya Samaj in 1875; Swami Vivekananda, who established the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897; and a host of other, more contemporary reformist organisations.3
Putting the Ambedkar–Gandhi debate into context for those unfamiliar with its history and its protagonists will require detours into their very different political trajectories. For this was by no means just a theoretical debate between two men who held different opinions. Each represented very separate interest groups, and their battle unfolded in the heart of India’s national movement. What they said and did continues to have an immense bearing on contemporary politics. Their differences were (and remain) irreconcilable. Both are deeply loved and often deified by their followers. It pleases neither constituency to have the other’s story told, though the two are inextricably linked. Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most formidable adversary. He challenged him not just politically or intellectually, but also morally. To have excised Ambedkar from Gandhi’s story, which is the story we all grew up on, is a travesty. Equally, to ignore Gandhi while writing about Ambedkar is to do Ambedkar a disservice, because Gandhi loomed over Ambedkar’s world in myriad and un-wonderful ways.
Notwithstanding the name-calling, the fact is that neither Ambedkar nor Gandhi allows us to pin easy labels on them that say “pro-imperialist” or “anti-imperialist.” Their conflict complicates and perhaps enriches our understanding of imperialism as well as the struggle against it.
History has been kind to Gandhi. He was deified by millions of people in his own lifetime. His godliness has become a universal and, it seems, eternal phenomenon. It’s not just that the metaphor has outstripped the man. It has entirely reinvented him (which is why a critique of Gandhi need not automatically be taken to be a critique of all Gandhians). Gandhi has become all things to all people: Obama loves him and so does the Occupy movement. Anarchists love him and so does the establishment. Narendra Modi loves him and so does Rahul Gandhi. The poor love him and so do the rich.
He is the Saint of the Status Quo.
Gandhi’s life and his writing—48,000 pages bound into 98 volumes of collected works—have been disaggregated and carried off, event by event, sentence by sentence, until no coherent narrative remains, if indeed there ever was one. The trouble is that Gandhi actually said everything and its opposite. To cherry pickers, he offers such a bewildering variety of cherries that you have to wonder if there was something the matter with the tree.
For example, there’s his well-known description of an Arcadian paradise in “The Pyramid vs. the Oceanic Circle,” written in 1946:
It’s true that these statements were made 25 years apart. Does that mean that Gandhi reformed, that he changed his views on caste? He did, at a glacial pace. From believing in the caste system in all its minutiae, he moved to saying that the four thousand separate castes should “fuse” themselves into the four varnas (what Ambedkar called the “parent” of the caste system). Towards the end of Gandhi’s life (when his views were just views and did not run the risk of translating into political action), he said that he no longer objected to inter-dining and intermarriage between castes. Sometimes he said that though he believed in the varna system, a person’s varna ought to be decided by their worth and not their birth (which was also the Arya Samaj position). Ambedkar pointed out the absurdity of this idea: “How are you going to compel people who have achieved a higher status based on their birth, without reference to their worth, to vacate that status? How are you going to compel people to recognise the status due to a man in accordance to his worth who is occupying a lower status based on his birth?”9 He went on to ask what would happen to women—whether their status would be decided upon their own worth or their husbands’ worth.
Notwithstanding stories and anecdotes from Gandhi’s followers about Gandhi’s love for untouchables and the inter-caste weddings he attended, in the 98 volumes of his writing, Gandhi never decisively and categorically renounced his belief in chaturvarna, the system of four varnas. Though he was given to apologising and agonising publicly and privately over things like occasional lapses in his control over his sexual desire,10 he never agonised over the extremely damaging things he had said and done on caste.
Still, why not eschew the negative and concentrate instead on what was good about Gandhi, use it to bring out the best in people? It is a valid question, and one that those who have built shrines to Gandhi have probably answered for themselves. After all, it is possible to admire the work of great composers, writers, architects, sportspersons and musicians whose views are inimical to our own. The difference is that Gandhi was not a composer or writer or musician or sportsman. He offered himself to us as a visionary, a mystic, a moralist, a great humanitarian, the man who brought down a mighty empire armed only with Truth and Righteousness. How do we reconcile the idea of the non-violent Gandhi, the Gandhi who spoke truth to power, Gandhi the nemesis of injustice, the gentle Gandhi, the androgynous Gandhi, Gandhi the mother, the Gandhi who (allegedly) feminised politics and created space for women to enter the political arena, the eco-Gandhi, the Gandhi of the ready wit and some great one-liners—how do we reconcile all this with Gandhi’s views (and deeds) on caste? What do we do with this structure of moral righteousness that rests so comfortably on a foundation of utterly brutal, institutionalised injustice? Is it enough to say Gandhi was complicated, and let it go at that? There is no doubt that Gandhi was an extraordinary and fascinating man, but during India’s struggle for freedom, did he really speak truth to power? Did he really ally himself with the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable of his people?
“It is foolish to take solace in the fact that because the Congress is fighting for the freedom of India, it is, therefore, fighting for the freedom of the people of India and of the lowest of the low,” Ambedkar said. “The question whether the Congress is fighting for freedom has very little importance as compared to the question for whose freedom is the Congress fighting.”11
In 1931, when Ambedkar met Gandhi for the first time, Gandhi questioned him about his sharp criticism of the Congress (which, it was assumed, was tantamount to criticising the struggle for the homeland). “Gandhiji, I have no Homeland,” was Ambedkar’s famous reply. “No Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land.”12
History has been unkind to Ambedkar. First it contained him, and then it glorified him. It has made him India’s Leader of the Untouchables, the king of the ghetto. It has hidden away his writings. It has stripped away the radical intellect and the searing insolence.
All the same, Ambedkar’s followers have kept his legacy alive in creative ways. One of those ways is to turn him into a million mass-produced statues. The Ambedkar statue is a radical and animate object.13 It has been sent forth into the world to claim the space—both physical and virtual, public and private—that is the Dalit’s due. Dalits have used Ambedkar’s statue to assert their civil rights—to claim land that is owed them, water that is theirs, commons they are denied access to. The Ambedkar statue that is planted on the commons and rallied around always holds a book in its hand. Significantly, that book is not Annihilation of Caste with its liberating, revolutionary rage. It is a copy of the Indian Constitution that Ambedkar played a vital role in conceptualising—the document that now, for better or for worse, governs the life of every single Indian citizen.
Using the Constitution as a subversive object is one thing. Being limited by it is quite another. Ambedkar’s circumstances forced him to be a revolutionary and to simultaneously put his foot in the door of the establishment whenever he got a chance to. His genius lay in his ability to use both these aspects of himself nimbly, and to great effect. Viewed through the prism of the present, however, it has meant that he left behind a dual and sometimes confusing legacy: Ambedkar the radical, and Ambedkar the father of the Indian Constitution. Constitutionalism can come in the way of revolution. And the Dalit revolution has not happened yet. We still await it. Before that there cannot be any other, not in India.
This is not to suggest that writing a constitution cannot be a radical act. It can be, it could have been, and Ambedkar tried his best to make it one. However, by his own admission, he did not entirely succeed.
As India hurtled towards independence, both Ambedkar and Gandhi were seriously concerned about the fate of minorities, particularly Muslims and untouchables, but they responded to the approaching birth of the new nation in very different ways. Gandhi distanced himself more and more from the business of nation building. For him, the Congress party’s work was done. He wanted the party dissolved. He believed (quite rightly) that the state represented violence in a concentrated and organised form, that because it was not a human entity, because it was soulless, it owed its very existence to violence.14 In Gandhi’s understanding, swaraj, or self-rule, lived in the moral heart of his people, though he made it clear that by “his people” he did not mean the majority community alone:
Ambedkar’s main concern was to privilege and legalise “constitutional morality” over the traditional, social morality of the caste system. Speaking in the Constituent Assembly on 4 November 1948, he said, “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”16
Ambedkar was seriously disappointed with the final draft of the constitution. Still, he did succeed in putting in place certain rights and safeguards that would, as far as the subordinated castes were concerned, make it a document that was more enlightened than the society it was drafted for. (For others, however, like India’s adivasis, the constitution turned out to be just an extension of colonial practice.) Ambedkar thought of the constitution as a work in progress. Like Thomas Jefferson, he believed that unless every generation had the right to create a new constitution for itself, the earth would belong to “the dead and not the living.”17 (The trouble is that the living are not necessarily more progressive or enlightened than the dead. There are a number of forces today, political as well as commercial, that are lobbying to rewrite the constitution in utterly regressive ways.)
Though Ambedkar was a lawyer, he had no illusions about law-making. As law minister in post-independence India, he worked for months on a draft of the Hindu Code Bill. He believed that the caste system advanced itself by controlling women, and one of his major concerns was to make Hindu personal law more equitable for women.18 The bill he proposed sanctioned divorce and expanded the property rights of widows and daughters. The Constituent Assembly dragged its feet over it for four years (from 1947 to 1951) and then blocked it.19 The president, Rajendra Prasad, threatened to stall the bill’s passage into law. Hindu sadhus laid siege to Parliament. Industrialists and zamindars warned they would withdraw their support in the coming elections.20 Eventually Ambedkar resigned as law minister. In his resignation speech he said: “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society, and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”21
More than anything else, what Ambedkar brought to a complicated, multifaceted political struggle, with more than its fair share of sectarianism, obscurantism and skulduggery, was intelligence.
Conversion was by no means new. Seeking to escape the stigma of caste, untouchable and other degraded labouring castes had begun to convert to other religions centuries ago. Millions had converted to Islam during the years of Muslim rule. Later, millions more had taken to Sikhism and Christianity. (Sadly, caste prejudice in the subcontinent trumps religious belief. Though their scriptures do not sanction it, elite Indian Muslims, Sikhs and Christians all practise caste discrimination.24 Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal all have their own communities of untouchable sweepers. So does Kashmir.)
The mass conversion of oppressed-caste Hindus, particularly to Islam, continues to sit uncomfortably with Hindu supremacist history writing, which dwells on a golden age of Hinduism that was brought to naught by the cruelty and vandalism of Muslim rule.25 Vandalism and cruelty there certainly was. Yet it meant different things to different people. Here is Jotirao Phule (1827–1890), the earliest of the modern anticaste intellectuals, on the subject of Muslim rule and of the so-called golden age of the Arya Bhats (Brahmins):
Under the new dispensation, demography became vitally important. The empirical taxonomy of the British census had solidified and freeze-dried the rigid but not entirely inflexible hierarchy of caste, adding its own prejudices and value judgements to the mix, classifying entire communities as “criminals” and “warriors” and so on. The untouchable castes were entered under the accounting head “Hindu.” (In 1930, according to Ambedkar, the untouchables numbered about 44.5 million.27 The population of African Americans in the United States around the same time was 8.8 million.) The large-scale exodus of untouchables from the Hindu fold would have been catastrophic for the “Hindu” majority. In pre-partition, undivided Punjab, for example, between 1881 and 1941, the Hindu population dropped from 43.8 percent to 29.1 percent, due largely to the conversion of the subordinated castes to Islam, Sikhism and Christianity.28
Hindu reformers hurried to stem this migration. The Arya Samaj, founded in 1875 by Dayananda Saraswati (born Mool Shankar, a Gujarati Brahmin from Kathiawar), was one of the earliest. It preached against the practice of untouchability and banned idol worship. Dayananda Saraswati initiated the Shuddhi programme in 1877, to “purify the impure,” and, in the early nineteenth century, his disciples took this up on a mass scale in North India.
In 1899, Swami Vivekananda of the Ramakrishna Math—the man who became famous in 1893 when he addressed the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in his sadhu’s robes—said, “Every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less, but an enemy the more.”29 A raft of new reformist outfits appeared in Punjab, committed to saving Hinduism by winning the hearts and minds of untouchables: the Shradhananda Dalituddhar Sabha, the All-India Achhutodhar Committee, the Punjab Achhut Udhar Mandal and the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal which was part of the Arya Samaj.30
The reformers’ use of the words “Hindu” and “Hinduism” was new. Until then, they had been used by the British as well as the Mughals, but it was not the way people who were described as Hindus chose to describe themselves. Until the panic over demography began, they had always foregrounded their jati, their caste identity. “The first and foremost thing that must be recognised is that Hindu society is a myth. The name Hindu itself is a foreign name,” said Ambedkar.
The issue of demography was addressed openly, and head-on. “In this country, the government is based on numbers,” wrote the editor of Pratap, a Kanpur newspaper, on 10 January 1921.
The anxiety over demography made for turbulent politics. There were other lethal games afoot. The British government had given itself the right to rule India by imperial fiat and had consolidated its power by working closely with the Indian elite, taking care never to upset the status quo.38 It had drained the wealth of a once-wealthy subcontinent—or, shall we say, drained the wealth of the elite in a once-wealthy subcontinent. It had caused famines in which millions had died while the British government exported food to England.39 None of that stopped it from also lighting sly fires that ignited caste and communal tension. In 1905, it partitioned Bengal along communal lines. In 1909, it passed the Morley-Minto reforms, granting Muslims a separate electorate in the central and provincial legislative councils. It began to question the moral and political legitimacy of anybody who opposed it. How could a people who practised something as primitive as untouchability talk of self-rule? How could the Congress party, run by elite, privileged-caste Hindus, claim to represent the Muslims? Or the untouchables? Coming from the British government, it was surely wicked, but even wicked questions need answers.
The person who stepped into the widening breach was perhaps the most consummate politician the modern world has ever known—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. If the British had their imperial mandate to raise them above the fray, Gandhi had his mahatmahood.
Ordinary politicians oscillate from political expediency to political expediency. A mahatma can grow from truth to truth.
How did Gandhi come to be called a mahatma? Did he begin with the compassion and egalitarian instincts of a saint? Did they come to him along the way?
In his recent biography of Gandhi, the historian Ramachandra Guha argues that it was the two decades he spent working in South Africa that made Gandhi a mahatma.42 His canonisation—the first time he was publicly called Mahatma—was in 1915, soon after he returned from South Africa to begin work in India, at a meeting in Gondal, close to his hometown, Porbandar, in Gujarat.43 At the time, few in India knew more than some very sketchy, rather inaccurate accounts of the struggles he had been engaged in. These need to be examined in some detail because whether or not they made him a mahatma, they certainly shaped and defined his views on caste, race and imperialism. His views on race presaged his views on caste. What happened in South Africa continues to have serious implications for the Indian community there. Fortunately, we have the Mahatma’s own words (and inconsistencies) to give us the detail and texture of those years.44 To generations who have been raised on a diet of Gandhi hagiographies (including myself), to learn of what happened in South Africa is not just disturbing, it is almost stupefying.
One of the earliest political victories for the NIC came in 1895 with a “solution” to what was known as the Durban Post Office problem. The post office had only two entrances: one for blacks and one for whites. Gandhi petitioned the authorities and had a third entrance opened so that Indians did not need to use the same entrance as the “Kaffirs.”46 In an open letter to the Natal Legislative Assembly dated 19 December 1894, he says that both the English and the Indians “spring from common stock, called the Indo-Aryan,” and cites Max Müller, Arthur Schopenhauer and William Jones to buttress his argument. He complains that the “Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”47
As spokesman for the Indian community, Gandhi was always careful to distinguish—and distance—passenger Indians from indentured workers:
Gandhi soon became the most prominent spokesperson for the cause of the passenger Indians. In 1896, he travelled to India where he addressed packed—and increasingly indignant—meetings about the racism that Indians were being subjected to in South Africa. At the time, the White regime was getting increasingly anxious about the rapidly expanding Indian population. For them Gandhi was the leader of the “coolies”—their name for all Indians.50 In a perverse sense, their racism was inclusive; it didn’t notice the distinctions that Gandhi went to such great lengths to make.
When Gandhi returned to Durban, the news of his campaign had preceded him. His ship was met by thousands of hostile white demonstrators, who refused to let it dock. It took several days of negotiations before Gandhi was allowed to disembark. On his way home, on 12 January 1897, he was attacked and beaten. He bore the attack with fortitude and dignity.51 Two days later, in an interview to The Natal Advertiser, Gandhi once again distanced himself from the “coolies”:
In 1901, with the Boer War now behind him, Gandhi spoke of how the objectives of the Natal Indian Congress were to achieve a better understanding between the English and the Indians. He said he was looking forward to an “Imperial Brotherhood,” towards which “everyone who was the friend of the Empire should aim.”57
This was not to be. The Boers managed to out-manoeuvre and out-brotherhood Gandhi. In 1902, they signed the Treaty of Vereeniging with the British. According to the treaty, the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State became colonies of the British Empire under the sovereignty of the British Crown. In return, the British government agreed to give the colonies self-rule. The Boers became the British government’s brutal lieutenants. Jan Smuts, once a dreaded Boer “terrorist,” switched sides and eventually led the British Army of South Africa in the First World War. The white folks made peace. They divided the diamonds, the gold and the land between themselves. Blacks, Indians and “coloureds” were left out of the equation.
Gandhi was not deterred. A few years after the South African War, he once again volunteered for active service.
In 1906, the Zulu chief Bambatha kaMancinza led his people in an uprising against the British government’s newly imposed one-pound poll tax. The Zulus and the British were old enemies and had fought each other before. In 1879, the Zulus had routed the British Army when it attacked the Zulu kingdom, a victory that put the Zulu on the world map. Over the years, because they could not match the firepower of British troops, they were conquered and driven off their land. Still, they refused to work on the white man’s farms; which is why indentured labour was shipped in from India. Time and again, the Zulus had risen up. During the Bambatha Rebellion, the rebels, armed only with spears and cowhide shields, fought British troops equipped with modern artillery.
As the news of the rebellion came in, Gandhi published a series of letters in Indian Opinion, a newspaper, published in four languages, he had started in 1903. (One of its chief benefactors was Sir Ratanji Jamsetji Tata of the Tata industrial empire.) In a letter dated 18 November 1905, Gandhi said:
Gandhi, on his part, never regretted the role he played in the White Man’s War and in the Bambatha uprising. He just reimagined it. Years later, in 1928, in Satyagraha in South Africa,61 the memoirs he wrote in Yerawada Central Jail, both stories had, shall we say, evolved. By then the chessmen on the board had moved around. Gandhi had turned against the British. In his new account, the truth about the stretcher-bearer corps in the Bambatha Rebellion had grown into another “truth”:
Twenty years later, in 1928, the truth about all this had transmogrified into another story altogether. Responding to a proposal for segregated education for Indians and Africans in South Africa, Gandhi wrote:
Gandhi was an educated, well-travelled man. He would have been aware of the winds that were blowing in other parts of the world. His disgraceful words about Africans were written around the same time W.E.B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk: “One ever feels this two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”73
Gandhi’s attempts to collaborate with a colonial regime were taking place at the same time that the anarchist Emma Goldman was saying:
How can a system of such immutable hierarchy be maintained if not by the threat of egregious, ubiquitous violence? How do landlords force labourers, generation after generation, to toil night and day on subsistence wages? Why would an untouchable labourer, who is not allowed to even dream of being a landowner one day, put his or her life at the landlord’s disposal, to plough the land, to sow seed and harvest the crop, if it were not out of sheer terror of the punishment that awaits the wayward? (Farmers, unlike industrialists, cannot afford strikes. Seed must be sown when it must be sown, the crop must be harvested when it must be harvested. The farmworker must be terrorised into abject submission, into being available when he must be available.) How were African slaves forced to work on American cotton fields? By being flogged, by being lynched, and if that did not work, by being hung from a tree for others to see and be afraid. Why are the murders of insubordinate Dalits even today never simply murders but ritual slaughter? Why are they always paraded naked, raped, dismembered and burnt alive? Ambedkar tried to provide an answer:
In order to detach caste from the political economy, from conditions of enslavement in which most Dalits lived and worked, in order to elide the questions of entitlement, land reforms and the redistribution of wealth, Hindu reformers cleverly narrowed the question of caste to the issue of untouchability. They framed it as an erroneous religious and cultural practice that needed to be reformed.
Gandhi narrowed it even further to the issue of “Bhangis,” or scavengers, as Gandhi liked to call them—a mostly urban and therefore somewhat politicised community. From his childhood, he resurrected the memory of Uka, the boy scavenger who used to service the household’s lavatory. Gandhi often spoke of how his family’s treatment of Uka had always troubled him.80 Rural untouchables—ploughmen, potters, tanners and their families—lived in scattered, small communities, in hutments on the edges of villages (beyond polluting distance). Urban untouchables—Bhangis, Chuhras and Mehtars—lived together in numbers and actually formed a political constituency. In order to discourage them from converting to Christianity, Lala Mulk Raj Bhalla, a Hindu reformer of the Punjabi Khatri caste, re-baptised them in 1910, and they came to collectively be called Balmikis. Gandhi seized upon the Balmikis and made them his show window for untouchability. Upon them he performed his missionary acts of goodness and charity. He preached to them how to love and hold onto their heritage, and how to never aspire towards anything more than the joys of their hereditary occupation. All through his life, Gandhi wrote a great deal about the importance of “scavenging” as a religious duty. It did not seem to matter that people in the rest of the world were dealing with their shit without making such a fuss about it.
Delivering the presidential address at the Kathiawar Political Conference in Bhavnagar on 8 January 1925, Gandhi said:
Around this time, Ambedkar started his first journal, Mook Nayak (Leader of the Voiceless). Tilak’s newspaper, Kesari, refused to carry even a paid advertisement announcing the publication of Mook Nayak.85 The editor of Mook Nayak was P.N. Bhatkar, the first Mahar to matriculate and go to college.86 Ambedkar wrote the first 13 editorials himself. In the first one, he described Hindu society in a chilling metaphor—as a multi-storeyed tower with no staircase and no entrance. Everybody had to die in the storey they were born in.
Let us concede—but never accept—that Annihilation of Caste is indeed a piece of utopian thinking. If it is, then let us concede and accept how reduced, how depleted and how pitiable we would be as a people if even this—this rage, this audacious denunciation—did not exist in our midst. Ambedkar’s anger gives us all a little shelter, a little dignity.
The utopianism that Ambedkar is charged with was very much part of the tradition of the anticaste movement. The poetry of the Bhakti movement is replete with it. Unlike the nostalgia-ridden, mythical village republics in Gandhi’s “Ram Rajya,” the subaltern Bhakti sants sang of towns.88 They sang of towns in timeless places, where untouchables would be liberated from ubiquitous fear, from unimaginable indignity and endless toil on other peoples’ land. For the fifteenth-century poet Ravidas (also known as Raidas, Ruhidas or Rohidas), that place was Be-gham-pura, the City without Sorrow, the city without segregation, where people were free to go wherever they wanted:
Neither anxiety nor fear, taxes nor capital
No menace, no terror, no humiliation…
Says Raidas the emancipated Chamar:
One who shares with me that city is my friend.89
Ambedkar’s utopia was a pretty hardnosed one. It was, so to speak, the City of Justice—worldly justice. He imagined an enlightened India, Prabuddha Bharat, that fused the best ideas of the European Enlightenment with Buddhist thought. (Prabuddha Bharat was the name he gave to the last of the four newspapers he edited in his lifetime.)
Gandhi called modern cities an “excrescence” that “served at the present moment the evil purpose of draining the life-blood of the villages.”90 To Ambedkar, and to most Dalits, Gandhi’s ideal village was, understandably, “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism.”91 If Gandhi’s radical critique of Western modernity came from a nostalgic evocation of a uniquely Indian pastoral bliss, Ambedkar’s critique of that nostalgia came from an embrace of pragmatic Western liberalism and its definitions of progress and happiness (which, at this moment, is experiencing a crisis from which it may not recover).
The impetus towards justice turned Ambedkar’s gaze away from the village towards the city, towards urbanism, modernism and industrialisation—big cities, big dams, big irrigation projects. Ironically, this is the very model of “development” that hundreds of thousands of people today associate with injustice, a model that lays the environment to waste and involves the forcible displacement of millions of people from their villages and homes by mines, dams and other major infrastructural projects. Meanwhile, Gandhi—whose mythical village is so blind to appalling, inherent injustice—has, as ironically, become the talisman of these struggles for justice.
While Gandhi promoted his village republic, his pragmatism (or what some might call his duality) allowed him to support and be supported by big industry and big dams as well.92 His chief sponsor from the year he came back from South Africa to the end of his days, was the textile magnate and newspaper baron G.D. Birla.
The rival utopias of Gandhi and Ambedkar represented the classic battle between tradition and modernity. If utopias can be said to be “‘right” or “wrong,” then both were right, and both were also grievously wrong. Gandhi was prescient enough to recognise the seed of cataclysm that was implanted in the project of Western modernity:
Ambedkar’s and Gandhi’s very different utopias ought not to be appraised or assessed by the end product alone—the village or the city. Equally important is the impetus behind those utopias. For Ambedkarites to call mass struggles against contemporary models of development ‘eco-romantic’ and for Gandhians to hold Gandhi out as a symbol of justice and moral virtue are shallow interpretations of the very different passions that drove the two men.
The towns the Bhakti poet-saints dreamed of—Beghampura, Pandharpur, Premnagar—had one thing in common. They all existed in a time and space that was liberated from the bonds of Brahminism. Brahminism was the term that the anticaste movement preferred over “Hinduism.” By Brahminism, they didn’t mean Brahmins as a caste or a community. They meant the domino effect, what Ambedkar called the “infection of imitation,” that the caste that first “enclosed” itself—the Brahmins—set off.
The “infection of imitation,” like the half-life of a radioactive atom, decays exponentially as it moves down the caste ladder, but never quite disappears. It has created what Ambedkar describes as a system of “graded inequality” in which “there is no such class as a completely unprivileged class except the one which is at the base of the social pyramid. The privileges of the rest are graded. Even the low is privileged as compared with lower. Each class being privileged, every class is interested in maintaining the system.”94
The exponential decay of the radioactive atom of caste means that Brahminism is practised not just by the Brahmin against the Kshatriya or the Vaishya against the Shudra, or the Shudra against the Untouchable, but also by the Untouchable against the Unapproachable, the Unapproachable against the Unseeable. It means there is a quotient of Brahminism in everybody, regardless of which caste they belong to. It is the ultimate means of control in which the concept of pollution and purity and the perpetration of social as well as physical violence—an inevitable part of administering an oppressive hierarchy—is not just outsourced, but implanted in everybody’s imagination, including those at the bottom of the hierarchy. It’s like an elaborate enforcement network in which everybody polices everybody else. The Unapproachable polices the Unseeable; the Malas resent the Madigas; the Madigas turn upon the Dakkalis, who sit on the Rellis; the Vanniyars quarrel with the Paraiyars, who in turn could beat up the Arundhatiyars.
Brahminism makes it impossible to draw a clear line between victims and oppressors, even though the hierarchy of caste makes it more than clear that there are victims and oppressors. (The line between Touchables and Untouchables, for example, is dead clear.) Brahminism precludes the possibility of social or political solidarity across caste lines. As an administrative system, it is pure genius. “A single spark can light a prairie fire” was Mao Zedong’s famous message to his guerrilla army. Perhaps. But Brahminism has given us in India a labyrinth instead of a prairie. And the poor little single spark wanders, lost in a warren of firewalls. Brahminism, Ambedkar said, “is the very negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.”95
“Some closed the door,” he wrote, “others found it closed against them.”96■
From Annihilation of Caste (1936)
Reason and morality are the two most powerful weapons in the armoury of a reformer. To deprive him 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? The wall built around caste is impregnable, and the material of which it is built contains none of the combustible stuff of reason and morality. Add to this the fact that inside this wall stands the army of Brahmins who form the intellectual class, Brahmins who are the natural leaders of the Hindus, Brahmins who are there not as mere mercenary soldiers but as an army fighting for its homeland, and you will get an idea why I think that the breaking up of caste among the Hindus is well-nigh impossible. At any rate, it would take ages before a breach is made.
But whether the doing of the deed takes time or whether it can be done quickly, you must not forget that if you wish to bring about a breach in the system, then you have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the shastras, which deny any part to reason; to the Vedas and shastras, which deny any part to morality. You must destroy the religion of the shrutis and the smritis. Nothing else will avail. This is my considered view of the matter.
Some may not understand what I mean by destruction of religion, some may find the idea revolting to them, and some may find it revolutionary. Let me therefore explain my position. I do not know whether you draw a distinction between principles and rules. But I do. Not only do I make a distinction, but I say that this distinction is real and important. Rules are practical; they are habitual ways of doing things according to prescription. But principles are intellectual; they are useful methods of judging things. Rules seek to tell an agent just what course of action to pursue. Principles do not prescribe a specific course of action. Rules, like cooking recipes, do tell just what to do and how to do it. A principle, such as that of justice, supplies a main heading by reference to which he is to consider the bearings of his desires and purposes; it guides him in his thinking by suggesting to him the important consideration which he should bear in mind.
This difference between rules and principles makes the acts done in pursuit of them different in quality and in content.97 Doing what is said to be good by virtue of a rule and doing good in the light of a principle are two different things. The principle may be wrong, but the act is conscious and responsible. The rule may be right, but the act is mechanical. A religious act may not be a correct act, but must at least be a responsible act. To permit of this responsibility, religion must mainly be a matter of principles only. It cannot be a matter of rules. The moment it degenerates into rules it ceases to be religion, as it kills the responsibility which is the essence of a truly religious act.
What is this Hindu religion? Is it a set of principles, or is it a code of rules? Now 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 the 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. That for a Hindu dharma means commands and prohibitions is clear from the way the word dharma is used in the Vedas and the smritis and understood by the commentators. The word dharma as used in the Vedas in most cases means religious ordinances or rites. Even Jaimini in his Purva Mimamsa98 defines dharma as “a desirable goal or result that is indicated by injunctive (Vedic) passages”.
To put it in plain language, what the Hindus call religion is really law, or at best legalised class-ethics. Frankly, I refuse to call this code of ordinances as religion. 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 (for the conscientious, at any rate) 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.
But the worst evil of this code of ordinances is that the laws it contains must be the same yesterday, today and forever. They are iniquitous in that they are not the same for one class as for another. But this iniquity is made perpetual in that they are prescribed to be the same for all generations. The objectionable part of such a scheme is not that they are made by certain persons called prophets or law-givers. The objectionable part is that this code has been invested with the character of finality and fixity. Happiness notoriously varies with the conditions and circumstances of a person, as well as with the conditions of different people and epochs. That being the case, how can humanity endure this code of eternal laws, without being cramped and without being crippled?
I have, therefore, no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed, and I say there is nothing irreligious in working for the destruction of such a religion. Indeed I hold that it is your bounden duty to tear off the mask, to remove the misrepresentation that is caused by misnaming this law as religion. This is an essential step for you. Once you clear the minds of the people of this misconception and enable them to realise that what they are told is religion is not religion, but that it is really law, you will be in a position to urge its amendment or abolition.
So long as people look upon it as religion they will not be ready for a change, because the idea of religion is generally speaking not associated with the idea of change. But the idea of law is associated with the idea of change, and when people come to know that what is called religion is really law, old and archaic, they will be ready for a change, for people know and accept that law can be changed.
2. The dam is nearly half-finished and its progress cannot be permanently stopped. There seems to me to be no ideal behind the movement.
3. The leader of the movement is not a believer out and out in non-violence. This defect is fatal to success.
Seventy-five years later, in 2000, the Supreme Court of India used very similar logic in its infamous judgement on the World Bank-funded Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river, when it ruled against tens of thousands of local people protesting their displacement, and ordered the construction of the dam to continue.
97 Once again, Ambedkar seems to be alluding to his mentor Dewey (1922, 239), who writes: “As habits set in grooves dominate activity and swerve it from conditions instead of increasing its adaptability, so principles treated as fixed rules instead of as helpful methods take men away from experience. The more complicated the situation, and the less we really know about it, the more insistent is the orthodox type of moral theory upon the prior existence of some fixed and universal principle or law which is to be directly applied and followed.” There is a certain tension here between Dewey’s words—who seems critical of rigid application of principles—and those of Ambedkar, who advocates sound principles as the only possible foundation for morality.
98 Jaimini’s Purva Mimamsa Sutras, dated sometime between the second century BCE and second century CE, is the first text in the Mimamsa school of philosophy, a school of exegesis concerned with the understanding of Vedic ritual injunctions. (Orthodox Hinduism has six schools of philosophy: Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta.) The PMS consists of a systematically ordered collection of approximately 2,745 short statements, also referred to individually as sutra. Ambedkar here is referring to sutra 1.1.2. For an account of the various explanations which have been offered for the terms ‘Purva Mimamsa’ and ‘Uttara Mimamsa’, see Asko Parpola (1981). For a full translation with commentary, see Ganganatha Jha (1942); see also James Benson (2010) and Francis Clooney, S.J. (1990).