The most gruesome news report I read in 2016 was about the killing of a Dalit man. When I saw the title of the news report – Dalit killed allegedly for making flour mill “impure” (The Hindu, 7
October 2016) – I was dumbfounded. The report further says: “A 35-year-old Dalit was killed allegedly by a caste Hindu for entering a flour mill in Uttarakhand’s Karadiya village and “rendering it impure”. When Sohan Ram (35) from Bhenta village went to Kundan Singh Bhandari’s flour mill in Karadiya to have some wheat ground, Lalit Karnatak, a government school teacher, allegedly hurled caste-based abuses at him and then slit his throat with a sickle, Bageshwar Superintendent of Police Sukhbir Singh told The Hindu. Sohan died on the spot, he said.
I was reminded of this heinous crime when I heard the news of the killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas, in the US, by the racist Adam Purinton, in February 2017. The XIII section of Ambedkar’s undelivered speech Annihilation of Caste concludes with the following question: “Haven’t Hindus committed treason against their country in the interest of their caste?” A human being was killed in the name of caste impurity in the year in which we celebrated the 70th Independence Day! What do you call this other than treason committed in the name of caste? As long as we are unable to stop caste atrocities against our own people, we can’t say that we are an independent nation and we can’t boast of nationalism and patriotism. The most terrible aspect of this cold-blooded killing is that the culprit is a government school teacher. Are such people fit to be teachers? As long as there are governments that appoint such people as school teachers, as long as the children are “taught” by “teachers” like him, can we annihilate caste?
In the US, racially motivated murders like that of Kuchibhotla have been committed ever since the nation was born. In June 2011, a group of white teenagers savagely beat up a middle-aged African American man and then they ran him over with a pick-up truck and killed him.
The US and India are alike as far as racist and casteist atrocities are concerned. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was published in 1852. The following passage is from the novel: “It was only yesterday,” said George, “as I was busy loading stones into a cart, that young Master stood there slashing his whip so near the horse that the creature was frightened. I asked him to stop, as pleasant as I could, – he just kept right on. I begged him again and then he turned on me and began striking me. I held his hand and then he screamed and kicked and ran to his father, and told him that I was fighting him. He came in a rage and said he would teach me who was my master; and he tied me to a tree and cut switches for young master, and told him that he might whip me till he was tired; – and he did do it!”
Atrocities in the name of caste in India have been no different. Even though, every atrocity committed against the “lower castes” can be considered treason, atrocities against the marginalized continue unabated in India and those who commit treason are dubbed patriots and nationalists.
The race to co-opt Ambedkar
Without addressing the grave existential problems of the marginalized sections, both the Right and the Left are competing with each other to appropriate Ambedkar today as the increasing political awareness of the Dalits undermines their strong hold on the people and thus their monopoly over power. The Right and the Left are vying with each other to express their love for Ambedkar not because they love or share his vision of an emancipated India, but because the soil under their feet is eroding fast. As long as annihilating caste is not a priority of the Right and as long as the Indian Left fails to understand the real Ambedkar, he will remain just a bait to garner Dalit votes.
The Left tries to make Ambedkar a “true” Leftist without responding to his critique of their views. He says in his speech Annihilation of Caste: “Let me now turn to the Socialists. Can the Socialists ignore the problem arising out of the social order? The Socialists of India following their fellows in Europe are seeking to apply the economic interpretation of history to the facts of India. They propound that man is an economic creature, that his activities and aspirations are bound by economic facts, that property is the only source of power. They, therefore, preach that political and social reforms are but gigantic illusions and that economic reform must have precedence over every other kind of reform … One may contend that economic motive is not the only motive by which man is actuated. That economic power is the only kind of power no student of human society can accept … What I like to ask the socialists is this: Can you have economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order? Can it be said that the proletariat of India, poor as it is, recognize no distinctions except that of the rich and the poor? Can it be said that the poor in India recognize no such distinctions of caste or creed, high or low? If the fact is that they do, what unity of front can be expected from such a proletariat in its action against the rich? How can there be a revolution if the proletariat cannot present a united front?”
And the Left tries to appropriate Rohith Vemula too. He wrote in his suicide note that “I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster.” The greatest tragedy of human beings is to live in a sociopolitical atmosphere that makes them feel a growing gap between the soul and the body and are forced to consider themselves monsters. This happens only in India and the reason is the life-negating grip of the monster called caste in our social and personal relations. The Indian Left, which is decimated by its own adherence to dogmas and Stalinist autocratic tendencies, wants the support of the Dalits to survive today, just as the Indian Right wants them on their side to sustain their political power over the nation. There stops their interest in the affairs of Dalits.
No place for sentimentality
The most salient feature of Ambedkar’s war against the monster called caste is his unbiased approach, which even the die-hard Ambedkarites don’t possess today. In a paper titled Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, presented at the Columbia University, New York, on 9 May 1916, Ambedkar said that “we must however guard against approaching the subject with a bias. Sentiment must be outlawed and things should be judged from an objective standpoint.”
The Indian political parties, including the Ambedkarites should learn to avoid personal acrimony in the fight against caste oppression and privileges. Ambedkar himself was the best example of fighting the monster without holding any grudge against the so-called privileged castes. In the paper referred above, Ambedkar says: “Caste existed long before Manu. He was an upholder of it and therefore philosophized about it, but certainly he did not and could not ordain the present order of Hindu Society. His work ended with the codification of existing caste rules and the preaching of Caste Dharma. The spread and growth of Caste system is too gigantic a task to be achieved by the power or cunning of an individual or a class. Similar in argument is the theory that the Brahmins created the Caste. After what I have said regarding Manu, I need hardly say anything more, except to point out that it is incorrect in thought and malicious in intent. The Brahmins may have been guilty of many things, and I dare say they were, but the imposing of caste system on the non-Brahmin population was beyond their mettle.”
When we discuss practical ways to annihilate caste, we have to delve deep into the vicious grip of caste in the collective psyche of our society, and formulate ways to loosen the grip – even from our sub-conscious minds. The other day, one of my Dalit friends told me about an incident that shows the devastative influence of caste hierarchy in the minds of the people. An upper-caste lady loved and married a Dalit man and now they have two grown-up daughters. Recently, the lady called my friend and wanted him to help her to change the caste of her daughters in their school certificates from that of her husband’s to hers, because they wouldn’t have good offers of marriage alliances if they are shown as belonging to the Dalit caste shown in their certificates! Why does this lady, who has been living with her husband, a Dalit, for nearly twenty years can’t discard her caste superiority complex? Why can’t even intermarriages fail to fight and defeat the caste monster?
To understand the reason, we have to understand the “notional change” Ambedkar refers to in his Annihilation of Caste. In section XX of the speech he says: “You are right in holding that Caste will cease to be an operative force only when inter-dining and inter-marriages have become matters of common course. You have located the disease. But is your prescription the right prescription for the disease? Ask yourselves this question: Why is it that a large majority of Hindus do not inter-dine and do not inter-marry? Why is it that your cause is not popular? There can be only one answer to this question and it is that inter-dining and inter-marriage are repugnant to the beliefs and dogmas which the Hindus regard as sacred. Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. 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. Caste may be bad. Caste may lead to conduct so gross as to be called man’s inhumanity to man. All the same, it must be recognised that the Hindus observe Caste not because they are inhuman or wrong headed. They observe Caste because they are deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing Caste. In my view, what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of Caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy, you must grapple with, is not the people who observe Caste, but the Shastras which teach them this religion of Caste.”
Notion of sacredness of caste
Quite often we hear the arguments that religious texts are wrongly interpreted by fanatics or terrorists, or the proponents of Caste and the practices like polygamy and triple talaq. But the problem is not with the interpretations but with the scriptures themselves, because religious texts can be interpreted as the interpreters like them to be interpreted. Therefore as Ambedkar unequivocally says, “It is no use seeking refuge in quibbles. It is no use telling people that the Shastras do not say what they are believed to say, grammatically read or logically interpreted. What matters is how the Shastras have been understood by the people. You must take the stand that Buddha took. You must take the stand that Guru Nanak took. You must not only discard the Shastras, you must deny their authority, as did Buddha and Nanak. You must have courage to tell the Hindus, that what is wrong with them is their religion—the religion which has produced in them this notion of the sacredness of Caste. Will you show that courage?”
This question is posed to us, who still believe in our religion(s), who belong to the Right and the Left and to the Dalit organizations. We don’t show that courage Ambedkar refers to. That is why the monster called Caste continues to kill people in this country. That is why Rohith Vemula felt that his birth was his fatal accident and had to write thus: “I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature … It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt … Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. My birth is my fatal accident …”
In our country, it has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt. If we want to love without getting hurt, we have to have the courage to annihilate caste and religion(s). Ambedkar, the greatest Indian crusader against Caste and religion(s), asks us: “Will you show that courage?” Our political parties with their divisive acts and we the people with our petty mindedness continue to tell him that we won’t.
In Kerala, where there is widespread Left presence and influence, you come across narratives that glorify the acts of communist leaders from upper-caste families who lived in the homes of the Dalits while they were underground, eluding the police. When you read such narratives you feel that their living in the Dalit families was the generosity or magnanimity shown by them towards the Dalits! Many a Dalit was tortured by the police and many of them sacrificed everything for the Left movement – even protecting the leaders while risking their own safety – but we never find narratives glorifying them! There has not been even a single upper-caste “communist” leader in Kerala who has married someone from a Dalit family, even if they had spent months and years among Dalits! The point is that even when they were living in Dalit homes and among Dalits, both the Dalits and the upper caste “leaders”, kept with them the “cultural etching” that told them that they belonged to different castes, instead of consciously destroying that notion that divides human beings. In the narratives of freedom struggle or “communist” awakening, the participation of the Dalits is thus sidelined and the participation of the privileged class is glorified.
India is said to be the largest democracy in the world, but we have no public space where the people can interact in a secular democratic ambience, forgetting their religious, caste and gender identities or stigmas. Even in Kerala, the most “progressive” of all Indian states, Dalits are flocked together in Dalit colonies, each and every caste has their own spaces, but the people as a whole have no space! You can’t see even a single Dalit home in the middle-class or upper-class and posh areas. It means that our democracy practices a kind of unseen and unwritten untouchability.
My 9-year-old daughter was studying in the government upper primary school that I had also attended. But one day, when I was accompanying her to the school, I was flabbergasted to hear her ask a question. “Father,” she asked quite seriously, “why are you sending me to the school where only the poor and the SC children go?”
I was really shocked to hear from my child the expression of such a notion that segregates people according to their financial status and caste. When I told her that her school is not one where there are only poor children, she retorted: “People who don’t have enough money send their children to this school.” And she continued: “Let me switch schools.”
“Dear child,” I tried to convince her, “it is the school in which I studied. It is better to study with the poor children than with the rich. And it is wrong to see people as poor or rich in relation to the money they possess.”
I asked her the precise reason for her desire to change schools. The answer really shocked me. “Yesterday,” she answered, “The teacher asked the students who belong to SCs to stand up. All my friends stood up, so I too stood up with them. But the teacher told me to sit down.”
“OK, what is the problem with that?” I asked.
Then came the angry reply: “I don’t want to study in a school where only SC students study.”
What infuriated me was the insensitivity of the teachers who still use such uncivilized methods in classrooms. If they want to know the number and names of the SC students to distribute a grant or something else meant for the SC students, they can simply go through their records available with the school. But they resort to this insensitive practice, which makes caste consciousness stronger not only in the less privileged children but in those who belong to the so-called upper castes. It is against the basic tenets of democracy. The most important fact is that in the government-owned schools in Kerala, majority of the students are from the less privileged sections of the population. All others send their children to the unaided schools that belong to their own caste or religion! Neither the right-wing nor the left-wing that rules the state alternately for five years tries to curb this most dangerous business in the education sector that has been damaging the very renaissance ethos of Kerala.
In my childhood, the children who belonged to the upper class, the middle class and the lower class – everybody – studied in the government schools. Now the government schools are facing the threat of being “shut down” but the so-called progressive state doesn’t have the courage to stop the private education business that segregates children along caste and religious lines.
As Ambedkar says, “democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoined communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.” Indian democracy lacks this respect and reverence towards fellowmen. And our schools and school teachers miserably fail to inculcate this respect and reverence towards fellow human beings.
To be such a real democracy, India has to be remoulded structurally. Till then we can boast of the largest democracy and continue the structural violence inherent in our tradition and culture against the less privileged—the “lower castes”, Dalits, Adivasis and women.
“How are you going to break up Caste if people are not free to consider whether it accords with morality?” asks Ambedkar in the Annihilation of Caste. “The wall built around Caste is impregnable and the material, of which it is built, contains none of the combustible stuff of reason or morality … 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 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.”
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