Trigger warning: caste discrimination and atrocities, sexual abuse
“Let that religion, where only one person is privileged and the rest are deprived, perish from the earth and let it never enter our minds to be proud of such a religion.”
—Muktabai Salve, 1855
A 14-year-old student at Jotiba and Savitri Phule School in Poona
“The first and foremost thing that must be recognized is that Hindu society is a myth.”
When the Hindu reformist group, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (Forum for Break-up of Caste) of Lahore, which had invited Ambedkar to deliver its annual lecture in 1936, asked for and received the text of Ambedkar’s speech in advance, it found the contents “unbearable”. The Mandal realized that Ambedkar intended to use its platform not merely to criticize the practice of caste, but to denounce Hinduism itself, and withdrew its invitation. This speech was his famous Annihilation of Caste.
In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar argues that there exists nothing like a Hindu society. The name Hindu itself was given to it by the Mahomedans to the natives of the land so that they can distinguish themselves from them. In any of the Sanskrit work prior to the Mahomedan invasion, they are no mentions of the term ‘Hindu’ or a Hindu society as such and Ambedkar explains that this is primarily because the ‘Hindus’ had no conception of a society amongst themselves. Hindu society as such is only a collection of castes where each caste is conscious of its existence and “its survival is the be-all and end-all of its existence.” Ambedkar states facts when he says that the castes did not even form a federation, it has no feeling that it is connected to the other caste (except in cases of exploitation and subjugation).
What is necessary, for a society to be constituted, is the fact that beings of that society are part of the common shared activities of the group. It should happen to arise the same emotions in one man as the other and a feeling of ‘one-ness’ is established. When one becomes a partner in some shared activity “he feels its success as his success, its failure as his failure, is the real thing that binds men and makes a society of them.” The caste system has prevented this shared common activity. It has segregated and separated individuals into different air tight containers and thus by preventing common activity, it has prevented Hindus from becoming a unified society.
Moreover, in a Hindu ‘society’, one caste denounces and subjugates the other. One caste dictates its origin to be pure and noble and denounces the other’s to be impure. Inherently in the Hindu caste system there exists an anti-social spirit where one caste has its own interests which they fulfill and maintain at the cost of the other caste. Ambedkar argues, that the Hindus, far from being a society, are as a matter of fact, a collection of warring groups fighting to protect their own selfish interests. “The Brahmin’s primary concern is to protect ‘his interests’ against those of the non-Brahmins; and the non-Brahmins’ primary concern is to protect their interests against those of the Brahmins. The Hindus, therefore, are not merely an assortment of castes, but are so many warring groups, each living for itself and for its selfish ideal.”
Furthermore, he argues that the Hindus are not sitting calmly in their air tight compartments and fending for themselves. Their survival is essentially based on subjugating the other castes. The have deliberately and actively prevented the lower castes from rising to the cultural and social level of the higher castes. Ambedkar gives two prominent examples from Maharashtra for this argument of his: –
- The Sonars: they were following methods of Brahmins while folding their dhotis and using the word ‘namaskar’ for salutation. Under the authority of the Peshwas, the Brahmins successfully put down this attempt on the part of the Sonars to adopt the ways of the Brahmins. They even got the president of the councils of the East India Company’s settlement in Bombay to issue a prohibitory order against the Sonars residing in Bombay.
- The Pathare Prabhus: this community had widow remarriage as their custom but in the bid to follow the brahmins, they dropped the practice. The community was divided into two camps, one for and the other against the innovation. The Peshwas took the side of those in favour of widow remarriage, and thus virtually prohibited the Pathare Prabhus from following the ways of the Brahmins.
Like this, Ambedkar opines that the caste system, foundational to the ‘Hindu society’ has destroyed and killed the pubic spirit. “A Hindu’s public is his caste”. His responsibility and his loyalty lie to his caste only and virtue and morality, all has become caste ridden. For example, rape is immoral. But when the panchayat orders one to rape the women who chose to marry outside her caste, this immoral act becomes that act of purity, of punishment. There is no sympathy for the deserving in this society, sympathy starts and ends within one’s caste like the recent incident where COVID-19 vaccines camp was set exclusively for Brahmins in Bengaluru. Higher castes have subjugated the lower castes to such an extent that they have been rendered disabled for direct action. There have been revolutions in every part of the world against social discrimination of such kind but why that has not been able to occur in India is because the wretched caste system has snatched both education and weapons from lower castes. They had no bayonets, and therefore everyone who chose, could and did sit upon them. “On account of the caste system, they could receive no education. They could not think out or know the way to their salvation”.
“There cannot be a more degrading system of social organization than the caste system. It is the system which deadens, paralyses, and cripples the people, from helpful activity. This is no exaggeration”.
Many people believe that caste does not present any problem at all for the Hindus to consider. Such a category of people also includes those who say that caste is a mere division of labour and helps the ‘Hindu society’ to function and maintain itself. What these people forget, as Ambedkar reminds them, is that caste is not a division of labour, it is a division of labourers. And not an ordinary division of labourer but a vertical one where one form of labour is regarded more than the other. Such labour and the occupation that comes with it is also not based on merit but on the caste that one is born in. There is no freedom to move from one occupation to another in this so-called division of labour and with it comes attached the subjugation based on those occupations.
Hindus take comfort in the fact that they have survived after repeated invasions and take that as a sign for their fitness to survive. This view is expressed by Professor S. Radhakrishnan in his book Hindu View of Life: – “Though peoples of different races and cultures have been pouring into India from the dawn of history, Hinduism has been able to maintain its supremacy and even the proselytizing creeds backed by political power have not been able to coerce the large majority of Hindus to their views. The Hindu culture possesses some vitality which seems to be denied to some other more forceful currents. It is no more necessary to dissect Hinduism than to open a tree to see whether the sap still runs”.
To this proposition, Ambedkar possess a very significant question. It is true that the Hindu religion has been in existence since centuries and has been able to survive. But what is of utmost importance is to see what kind of survival is it leading. Survival can be of various types. Thriving in multi-rise apartments is survival. Eating rats as food is survival. Cleaning human excreta is survival. “It is useless for a Hindu to take comfort in the fact that he and his people have survived. What he must consider is, what is the quality of their survival.” Ambedkar establishes in his speech that to be proud of the Hindu religion for merely surviving without offering any worth or dignity to the oppressed fold of its community is worthless.
Many of us agree today, that the evil caste system should cease to exist. That our society craves reform. Then the question that appears foremost is—how? How to abolish the caste system?
People have adopted many reforms. Among them are the inter-caste dining and marriage to remove caste from the social fabric of the Hindu society. And though there is strong support from Ambedkar for inter-caste marriages, he argues that it is not the solution. Inter-caste marriage develops relations of love and affection which surpasses caste but this practice is not very common in our society. Even today, only 5% Indians are marrying in different caste than theirs according to a 2016 report from the National Council of Applied Economic Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank.
Ambedkar asks the Jat Pat Todak Mandal in Annihilation of Caste that why it is that the case for inter-caste dinning and marriage is not strong? Why a huge majority of Hindus just can’t agree for inter caste marriages? Ambedkar has the answer to this—the Hindu religion.
He says that caste is evil and leads to inhumanity but it should be recognized that Hindus recognize caste not because they want to be wrong headed or because they are inhuman, they do so primarily because they are deeply religious. A person cannot be held liable for following caste and the caste system since it is something that their religion mandates them to follow and which the shastras gives authority to. Furthermore, he says that criticizing people for following caste or applauding them when occasional inter-caste dinning and marriage occurs is not the solution to the problem. “The real remedy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the shastras”.
People can’t be blamed for believing in what they have told and indoctrinated to be sacred. When the Vedas, shastras propagate hatred and a large majority of Indian follow these shastras because they believe it to have divine origin, people will follow these rules considering them to be their dharma. Didn’t Ram beheaded Shambuka because he tried to meditate like a Brahmin and the murder was justified because it was dharma? So now, when higher caste murders the lower castes for keeping moustaches, what is the root cause?
Ambedkar argues that it is not important how if we read with different interpretation or with different grammar, the shastras will benefit all, what is important is how these shastras are understood by the majority and how they are being implemented in the society. Ambedkar calls for action, he says that one should not only discard the shastras but also deny their authority as did Buddha and Guru Nanak.
“You must take the stand that Buddha took. You must take the stand which 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?”
Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar, (The Doctor and the Saint, an introduction by Arundhati Roy)
 Derived from Sindhu, the native name for the Indus River, the term Hind was first used in Persian. The word ‘Hindu’, derived thus, did not indicate a religious group but was used as a geographical demarcator for the inhabitants of the land near and east of the Indus.
This article has been written by Manvi, IInd Year