By Mohammed Heemaz
Though great personalities like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, Aurobindo, and Gandhi made tremendous efforts to uplift the marginalized sections of society, their thoughts never challenged caste system. They tried to maintain the caste system, which was considered as an essential part for a proper functioning of the Indian society. It was Dr. B R Ambedkar who tried to understand the problems of the Dalits from a different perspective. He believed that any effort at social justice without annihilating the caste system is in vain. He wrote that a country pervaded with caste is a country of stagnation and underdevelopment. But was it easy to annihilate the caste system? Hindu scriptures, which mainly consist of the Vedas, Upanishads, Smritis, and Puranas, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, legitimized the caste system. For instance, the Chandogya Upanishad makes a comparison between the three upper castes and Chandala (outcaste): “…those who are of pleasant conduct here the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter a pleasant womb, either the womb of a Brahmin, or the womb of Kshatriya or the womb of a Vaishya. But those who are of stinking conduct here, the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter a stinking womb either the womb of a dog or the womb of a swine or the womb of an outcaste (Chandala).” In the Ramayana, only the three upper castes were allowed to perform Tapas. Once it happened that a Shudra performed Tapas in order to attain divinity. When Lord Rama heard this, he killed him. The Brahmins, who were entitled to learning, tried to suppress the downtrodden castes in order to maintain their superiority.
It is in this context of deeply entrenched caste system in Hindu scriptures, we must read Ambedkar’s assertion that social reformation is necessary prior to economic reformation. The power of the priestly class originates in their absolute dominance over religion and nonreligious matters. In fact, why do millionaires respect penniless Sadhus and Fakirs? Why do the poorest among the poor sell their valuable ornaments for pilgrimage to Benares or Mecca? As religion is the main source of power and it is controlled by the priests, they lord over all others who are inferior to them. As Gopal Guru writes on Ambedkar’s view of Hindu religion: “Hindu law is that law of the established order and was made by the touchables. The untouchables had nothing to do except to obey it and respect it. The untouchables have not rights against the touchables. For them there is no equal right, not justice which is due to them and nothing is allowed to them. Nothing is due to them except what the touchable are prepared to grant. The untouchables must not insist on rights. They should pray from mercy and favour and rest content with what is offered.”
Considering the power of the social over the economic, Ambedkar engaged in social reformation. He realised that caste is a powerful weapon that prevented all reforms and the key to the reformation was the destruction of the caste system. Since Hindu religion is deeply embedded in caste, it was not easy to overcome entrenched interests of the upper castes. First, it was important for him to define religion, which is often thought to be a belief in God. Ambedkar asks, “What advantage can there be in believing God?” Then, he goes on to answer: “Belief in God gave rise to the belief in the efficacy of worship and prayer, and the efficacy of worship and prayer gave rise to the office of the priest and the priest was the evil genius who created all superstitions and thereby destroyed the growth of right view.” In this explanation, Ambedkar didn’t try to explain anything about God. In his understanding, a true religion was “the upliftment of the individual. It should teach the virtues of fellow-feeling, equality, and liberty.” Ambedkar’s progressive view of religion was vehemently opposed, as expected, by the caste Hindus. However, Ambedkar continued to assert his opposition to caste in his speeches to the Hindu audience. When he realized that the Hindu society was averse to change, he decided to leave the fold of Hindu religion. As he said to an audience: “I’m sorry; I will not be with you. I have decided to change. This is not the place for giving reasons. But even when I am gone out of your fold, I will watch your movement with active sympathy, and you will have my assistance for what it may be worth.”
As a leader of the untouchables, Ambedkar was invited by the British for the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1932, which demanded a separate electorate for the untouchables. On 16 August, 1932, the British Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, agreed with Ambedkar and announced a Communal Award that would grant a separate electorate for them. This was strongly disagreed by Gandhi who protested by fasting, when he was imprisoned in Yerwada Central Jail of Poona. Facing a backlash from orthodox Hindus, who feared that the separate electorate would lead to a communal reprisal and genocide, Ambedkar had to give in to Gandhi’s demands. This agreement between Gandhi and Ambedkar later came to be known as the Poona Pact. On 29 August, 1947, Ambedkar was appointed as the chairman of the Drafting Committee for the Indian Constitution. He tried to provide protection and constitutional guarantees for the citizens of India, especially for the marginalized classes, by abolishing all types of discrimination. He also managed to win support for implementing a system of reservation in jobs and education for the vulnerable segments. After India became independent, Ambedkar was welcomed to serve as India’s first law minister by the new government. Granville Austin describes the drafted Indian constitution of Ambedkar as “first and foremost a social document […] The majority of India’s constitutional provisions are either directly arrived at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievements.”
The three main concepts that Ambedkar tried to include in the preamble of the constitution are Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, concepts which originated in the French Revolution of 1789. Ambedkar divided liberty into two main categories: Civil Liberty and Political Liberty. The former is the obligation of the government to protect Dalits from discriminations and violations. These liberties are formally guaranteed in the Indian Constitution but ignored in practice. The latter consists of rights of an individual for taking part in the law making process and sharing his/her views. Secondly, Ambedkar himself defines fraternity as “a sense of common brotherhood of all Indian, all Indians being one people. It is the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life.” When talking of equality, Ambedkar grasps that a man’s power is dependent on education, effort, parental care, etc. Based on these efforts and skills, a person should be valued and not on the basis of one’s hereditary class position. While speaking of political equality, he emphasized that the backward mass should get educated and become aware of their rights so that no one usurps their individual rights. In addition, Ambedkar spoke about economic equality with an emphasis on the quality of opportunity. Ambedkar firmly believed that law is a powerful weapon to fight against discrimination.
Mohammed Heemaz has completed his B.Sc in Psychology from the University of Madras. Apart from psychology, he is also interested in Ambedkar studies. He has taken part in various national and international conferences and has published in local and international magazines. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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