Whither Annihilation of Caste?

On one hand, Hindutva talks of Samajik Samrasta (social harmony), that all castes should have harmony amongst them. On the other, the Hindutva concept of 'Integral Humanism' emphasizes on different castes continuing their professions for smooth social functioning.
When on this 14th April anniversary of Dr. Bhimrao Babasaheb Ambedkar, we pay tribute to his yeoman services towards the cause of social justice and bringing to fore the values of democracy; we also need to think as to how his dream and vision of the annihilation of caste can be taken further. Where do we stand in this direction six decades after  Independence and after the formal implementation of the Constitution of India which gives us the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity?

Caste has been the major marker of Indian, particularly Hindu, society. While world over the serfs were under the bondage of feudal lords, we had religiously ordained the system of Varna-Jati (Caste).

Many theories of caste prevail, the racial theory, superior Aryans versus the natives, now stands debunked. The hypothesis of Morton Klass argues that it was a way of adjusting of tribal to the system of production, which generated surplus. This understanding points  towards the understanding that caste evolved with a particular system of production in India. Kosambi looks at the origin of caste as being due to the continuous process of fusing of tribal into general society.

The major contribution to the understanding of the genesis of caste comes from Ambedkar as per whom Caste-Varna came into being due to ideological-religious factors. According to him, the caste system came into being as the result of ideologies of Dharmshatras, which was part of Brahmanism.

 In the Indian society, the interesting point is that caste is prevalent not only amongst Hindus, it also prevails in other religious communities also to some extent. The difference being that amongst Hindus, the caste is prescribed in the holy books, while in other religious communities, it is a social phenomenon, like Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal amongst Muslims and different denominations amongst Christians and Sikhs.

The first challenge to caste system came from Lord Gautam Buddha, who talked of Samta, equality. This concept of Samta became very popular and was accepted by large numbers of people till Buddhism was attacked and wiped out from India in the eighth century by those who wanted to restore the Varna-Caste.

During the medieval period, the Bhakti saints in particular talked against and questioned the system of graded inequality, but their voice though a powerful articulation of the plight of the low castes, remained just an expression of pain and sorrow of the poor, and was strongly opposed by the dominant Brahmin clergy.
The rule of Muslim kings and the British did not change the social structure of the Subcontinent, though during the British rule due to the industrialization and introduction of modern education, the caste system started being questioned, opposed and socially challenged.

During the rule of Muslim kings, the social structure had remained intact. With the British rule the half way process of industrialization and modern education came in. At the same time the Caste-Varna continued on the side, though its legitimacy started being questioned in a more serious way. In the changed situation starting from Jotirao Phule, the movements for caste abolition found grounding in society, though they were not able to uproot the phenomenon in full measure as the feudal production system ran side by side with the process of modernization. The process of secularization, abolition of the hold of the landlord and the clergy, remained incomplete and so the process of caste transformation remained half way through.  

The struggle started by Ambedkar aimed for social justice, social equality and democratic values. He led the movements like Chavdar Talab, for the right to have access to public drinking water, Kalaram Mandir, right to enter temples and also the burning of Manusmriti, as symbolic of the rejection of the religiously ordained caste hierarchy. The resistance to this struggle led him to conclude that he had no option but to leave the Hindu fold, which is dominated by the Brahmanical values of Varna. The social political base of his movement was provided by the national movement which was aspiring for throwing away the British colonial power and also struggling for democratic values. But the national movement was not adequate to give him total social justice as this movement also had upper castes in good measure. So here we see the dilemma of Mahatma Gandhi versus Ambedkar. Gandhi was not able to go beyond the limits posed by the participation of all castes in the freedom movement. He kept talking of the Varna system in a more refined form while taking up cudgels against untouchability.

 Gandhi also opposed the separate electorate provided by the communal award of MacDonald in 1932. The Poona Pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar led to the reserved Constituency and the provisions of reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Ambedkar’s vision was that reservations and inter-caste marriages will be steps towards the annihilation of Caste. Today both these face serious obstacles on social ground. The rigidity of caste is increasing and inter-caste marriage is facing serious obstacles from conservative forces. While the freedom movement led by Gandhi was half way conceding to the needs of Dalits, the other ideology, the one of religious nationalism, was waiting in the wings with the concept of Hindu Rashtra, Hindu nation. Ambedkar did realize that acceptance of religious nationalism and formation of Pakistan on that ground will be a disaster for Dalits as it will pave the way for the Hindu Rashtra and the slavery of Dalits.

Today, while most of the commentators are attacking Gandhi, they need to focus more attention on the impact of the politics and ideology of Hindu religious nationalism, which is a major obstacle to caste abolition today.

The reservations for Dalits led to newer caste equations. On one hand, the rising middle class stood to oppose these reservations, tooth and nail. The anti-reservation violence has been witnessed in Gujarat in particular in 1980s. Also, since the overall development process is not accommodative of all, the inner competition for reservation has led to a strange situation where different communities are vying for status as a particular “reserved” category. The overall future for the youth is dismal and it gets reflected in the form of movements for particular castes getting recognized in this or that category.

The other major obstacle to caste transformation is the politics of Hindutva. On one hand it talks of Samajik Samrasta (social harmony), that all castes should have harmony amongst them. On the other, the Hindutva concept of ‘Integral Humanism’ emphasizes on different castes continuing their professions for smooth social functioning. The social engineering by religious political forces is coopting the low castes through various mechanisms, to the extent of using them as foot soldiers of their anti-minority violence. A section of Dalits also is influenced by the process of Sanskritization, aping the upper castes and imitating them for their future trajectory. As a logical corollary; the cultural mechanisms, the TV serials, the preaching’s of hoards of Godmen are promoting the values of Manusmiriti in a more sophisticated form.

At the same time a serious layer of progressive and dalit intellectuals are trying to restore the core values and principles of struggles against Caste-Varna. The situation today is very complex and caste as a social phenomenon is far from extinct.

Today’s political scenario is a conflict between the values of democracy on one hand, and the values of religious nationalism, the politics representing the defence of caste and gender hierarchy, on the other.

The process of social equality, caste annihilation and values of democracy need to be brought in through a fresh series of multilayered struggle for a truly democratic society. That alone will be a tribute to the life and work of the legend of this great visionary, Bhimrao Babsaheb Ambedkar. (Issues in Secular Politics)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 May 2013 on page no. 6

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