TO an outsider, the Hindu caste system appears as a mind-boggling labyrinth of exclusions, injunctions, privileges and contracts. In many ways it is radically unknowable, a tight code that is somehow part of the implicit cultural common sense of every Hindu and yet impossible to convey in formal terms to one born outside its social world. This is not to say that academic or activist work on caste is lacking. Scholars have toiled over the social, cultural and political power of caste for decades, so much so that caste studies have themselves been characterized as favouring particular cultural features into ‘gate keeping’ concepts that order knowledge on the entirety of a place. And caste reform plays a large role in the agenda of many feminist and social activists.
Despite that, as the eminent sociologist Sharmila Rege points out in her edited volume, is the staggering absence of the work of the most prominent anti-caste theorist, B.R. Ambedkar. Academics as well as feminist/activists have failed in utilizing Ambedkar’s theorization as the lens by which to comprehend the durable mutability and resilience of inequality in ordering every aspect of the economic, social and intellectual life of modern India. Now, and thanks in no small measure to the spirited work of the anti-caste publishing house Navayana, we have original and accessible insights into the life and words of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The books under consideration here provide much needed information on Babasaheb’s work and legacy; they provide a wealth of social history, cultural analyses and primary source material. And they accomplish their task by reaching out to a dazzling range of fresh sources. Together, these authors and their texts re-centre the vital and growing necessity of Ambedkar’s work and with that, stand poised to disrupt the complacency of academia, feminism and India studies.
Eleanor Zelliot has of course been writing about Dalit politics and specifically B.R. Ambedkar for several decades now. In this, most recent publication,Ambedkar’s World: The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement, Professor Zelliot foregrounds social history to explore the factors in Mahar, Maharashtrian and Indian history which produced Dr. Ambedkar, and to discover the way in which he in turn changed the history of his caste while permanently redirecting the politics of modern India. By concentrating on the wider movement and not only the man, and by reaching to sources produced by those who shaped the movement itself, Zelliot reconstructs a rich, social and intellectual history of the larger part of the Indian twentieth century.
The book proffers social, economic and political context for each significant period of colonial and national history and then circles back to probe the specific strategies and insights of B.R. Ambedkar. The global economic changes wrought under European colonialism, the hereditary location of the Mahar caste (comprising 9% of Maharashtra), the worldwide spike and slump in cotton prices, the machinations of the British Army and its concomitant policies of crafting military ‘races’, the upsurge of mill-based labour and urbanization of the rural peasantry – all these and more form the background upon which Zelliot locates the history of the Mahar movement and Ambedkar’s significance.
Ambedkar himself inherited a rich anti-caste consciousness, although the few formal moves to petition the government until World War One had addressed the constitution of the armed forces and attempted to enter systems of governance by stressing a universal faith in democratic rights. Ambedkar himself burst on the political scene with his testimony before the Franchise Commission of 1919. Immediately he heralded a change in strategy and intended audience. Petitions to government for inclusion must, he recognized, change to a demand for representation. A national level leader from an early stage, Ambedkar was already looking to the possible future of electoral power. And he showcased his ‘ability to compete successfully in the world of the elite… [by stressing] that representative government would rectify social injustice’ (65). It is evident that Ambedkar’s genius lay in his ‘use of public platforms provided by successive waves of parliamentary reform’ such as the award of separate electorates for Muslims and the concomitant anxiety that it provoked for the budding Hindu nation (106).
Transforming the status quo through political representation was Ambedkar’s primary strategy. Simultaneously, he worked toward consciousness raising through newspapers, organizations and widening the access to education. Significantly, he rejected seeking affinity or inclusion within Hinduism in favour of modernization defined as aligning with the institutions and projects of democracy. By the mid-1930s, his signal contribution was to press the language of democratic equality upon the very same claims of upper caste Indian nationalists.
Ambedkar worked at twin levels: attracting the mass of people and dealing with government officials at the highest level. In comparison, he was not that motivated in constructing permanent organizations which would hold together a large group of people (185). While he did not outwardly reject the numerous satyagrahas launched by Untouchable communities to gain temple entry through the 1920s and ’30s, he was inclined instead to use these events as evidence that the ‘Untouchables were a separate entity from caste Hindus and should be so treated’ (68). As he rejected the notion of first inhabitants, his was ‘not a belief in a separate race or culture, but upon the removal, by special recognition, of disabilities incurred by legislation’ (70). Hence, despite his passionate enquiry into the cultural world view of the upper castes, in the final analysis it was not the elevation of bio-cultural difference but the reversal of systematic separation due to isolation that determined the agenda for change.
The distinction between Ambedkar’s personal experiences and those of the Nehru-Gandhi class is resounding. As a child he was made to sit separate from other children in school, fellow students refused to let him write on the blackboard because their lunch boxes were stored behind the slate, and he was not allowed to study Sanskrit as a subject at Elphinstone College. He alluded to these experiences openly and passionately, and reading about them in Zelliot’s account force questions on the difference between Gandhi’s experiences of racism in South Africa and Ambedkar’s everyday reality in India.
Gandhi, who breezily claimed to be ‘an untouchable by choice’ did not consider that Ambedkar was of the Untouchable caste, casually noted after the first Round Table Conference in London that he had thought Ambedkar was ‘some Brahman who took deep interest in Harijans and therefore talked intemperately’ (131). Correctly, therefore, Ambedkar noted that Gandhi ‘does not insist on the removal of untouchability as much as he insists on the propagation of khaddar or Hindu-Muslim unity… he should have made removal of untouchability a precondition for membership in Congress’ (77).
The second Round Table Conference saw the growing polarity between the two, with Ambedkar entirely convinced that separate electorates for Untouchables were the only possibility, similar to the position secured by the Muslim League. Ambedkar’s insight led to Gandhi’s legendary fast unto death, with Ambedkar being held responsible for Gandhi’s life by the latter’s family as well as by the wider political class. Simultaneously, the Hindu Mahasabha moved into the fray to support those untouchable castes that advocated instead for joint electorates with reserved seats. The political outcome of this clash aside, it is fitting, as Zelliot points out, that it was Gandhi’s threat to fast unto death that inadvertently cast Ambedkar as the most significant leader and spokesman of the Depressed Classes.
In 1935 Ambedkar declared that despite his misfortune at having being born a Hindu, he would not die a Hindu. The following two decades involve his passionate search for an alternative, and also an outpouring of a critique of the caste system. Publicly recording that there could be no reform within Hinduism for an Untouchable, he correctly identified Gandhi’s politics for seeking to fold untouchables into the caste of shudras (without considering whether shudras would accept them). Now building on a long and established history of conversion, Zelliot details how he turned toward locating the means for the most meaningful and systematic break from Hinduism. It was a political and spiritual decision with vast consequences.
Within a month of his statement, some eight hundred young men burnt the Manusmriti, and after this point no Mahar group attempted temple entry or ever introduced high-caste religious practices into their customs. Babasaheb’s actual conversion and the accompanying mass conversion came about some twenty years later in October 1956; Zelliot accounts for actual figures of participants to number between 3-5 lakh. Half a million people were in the audience.
The partition of the subcontinent meant the loss of separate electorates for Muslims and with that, an agenda item for Untouchables as well. In the context of postcolonial India, Ambedkar rapidly witnessed how reserved seats served to elect candidates with no interest in lower caste issues. Convinced now that he must work to broaden the base for dispossessed people, he founded the National Republican Party in 1955. Undoubtedly, partition was a setback for lower caste political efforts, as it was for all groups disadvantaged by Brahmanical hegemony. Ambedkar’s astute solution was to regroup along wider interests variously located under the overarching power of caste Hinduism. As he had noted, ‘The Hindu religion is like a tower with various castes as separate stories but no ladder between them’ (92). The Republican Party was one of the most permanent attempts to bridge this forced division and segregation between castes.
Ultimately, as Ambedkar recognized, there is no caste without Brahmanism and moreover, ‘the basis of caste is the endogamy of the Brahmans’ (68). This cogent insight perfectly captures the tenacious power of caste, and explains why it maintains its flexibility and essence across time and place. It was ‘Brahman endogamy [that] created castes in the other classes through mechanisms of imitation and excommunication’ (70). Reams of academic theorization cannot come close to this succinct explication of the central logic of caste, and activist work that strives to overcome social inequities must engage with the enduring power of this elastic, and repeated, twining of caste with sexual exclusivity.
These themes return as crystallized theory in what is perhaps the more innovative collection I have encountered in Indian history writing. Selected and introduced by Sharmila Rege, Against the Madness of Manu: B.R. Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy compiles a vast number of Ambedkar’s writings on gender and caste. Each of his lengthy expositions is accompanied by original contextual introductions as well as summaries by Rege, leaving the reader with the tools by which to link caste with gender and to reclaim Ambedkar’s work as ‘feminist classics’ on Brahmanical patriarchy.
The book is organized along three sections. The first section comprises an essay presented while he was a graduate student at Columbia University, on the links between caste and gender. Here is his first explication of caste as endogamy. Following up on his insight into the syncretic relationship between caste and gender, the next essay in the section radically revises the periodization of Indian history as enshrined by establishment and nationalist historians. The second section involves unpacking extracts that investigate the collective anxiety over the violation of endogamy and ‘unregulated womanhood’. Here Rege delves most forcefully into the defining feature of Brahmanical patriarchy: the graded character of gendered violence as a mode of organizing the caste system. The final section which proffers us with selections from the debate over the Hindu Code Bill and Ambedkar’s subsequent resignation reads this historic moment in fresh and innovative ways. Highlighting Ambedkar’s resolution to democratize the private sphere and the concerted opposition – largely expressed as dismissal – from the male caste elite, this section provides important insights into the working of Indian ‘democracy’ and the manner by which the power elite explicitly and implicitly serves to divide all other groups from each other.
As discussed by Zelliot, Ambedkar rejected the notion of separate races as an explanation for the tremendous violence and inequity that characterizes Indian national culture. Instead, he stressed cultural homogeneity as the defining feature. As Rege reminds us, Ambedkar maintained that caste is enclosed class, and that the Brahmans were the ones to enforce endogamy that then spread from higher to lower castes (94). It was through imitation of Brahmanical sexual codes and exclusion enacted by Brahmans that classes became castes. Contradictorily, this is why castes are regarded as born not made – even though the hegemonic power of Brahmanical endogamy is constantly making caste through sexuality. Brahmanical ideology both preserved and eulogized the very practices that degraded women, the question of containing the surplus woman answered through violence, degradation and yet, inclusion through ownership. Women were the gateways of the caste system, and this would endure even ‘if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem’ (79). Ambedkar’s invaluable insight is that caste is Brahmanization which is why ‘the status of a caste in Hindu society varies directly with the extent of the observance of the customs of Sati, enforced widowhood, and girl marriage’ (102-3).
Again deploying caste as the primary optic by which to view society, Rege discusses another of Ambedkar’s essays, this time on the periodization of history. Rejecting the hegemonic ruling class version that divided the past between ancient, Islamic and British, Ambedkar foregrounded the Brahmanical appropriation of the cultural symbolism of sexual difference as the driving force for history. Specifically, it is the power granted to Manu by the Brahmanical caste that determines the big picture, for ‘Manu wanted to stem the tide of women flowing in the direction of Buddhism’ (132). Hence, viewing the present as shaped by the historic conflict between the periods of Brahmanic, Buddhist and Hindu social power, his essay further reveals the extent to which he had been assiduously researching the long history of Buddhism from the perspective of caste and gender well before his public embrace in 1956.
Rege next turns to Ambedkar’s superb analysis of ‘The Madness of Manu’ – Manu’s exposition on permissible marital unions between sub-castes. Ambedkar first lists the complex covenant that governs who shall marry whom and with that suggests searing questions on the politics of the so-called private sphere. Manu’s list itself is mind-boggling, it raises wonder on how this schema becomes implicit knowledge for Hindus. That this seemingly impenetrable formula is known by millions as part of their cultural common sense reveals immediately the foundational role of Brahmanical endogamy in ordering, preserving and transmitting power through the politics of intimacy and marriage.
In another riddle, Ambedkar turns to emblematic Hindu texts to expose how it is sexual privilege that blatantly empowers the legendary political power of Ram and Krishna. The male access to female sexuality, the sanctioned punitive treatment of women, and most importantly, the gradations in violence and entitlement that can be meted out to women depending on their own social locations become strikingly evident. Politicizing and unpacking the implicit knowledge of this schemata is the task of the dedicated anti-caste intellectual and Rege’s sensitive understanding of Ambedkar’s labour on this matter echoes through the pages.
The final section documents Ambedkar’s attempts to frame the Hindu Code Bill. Characteristically he broaches unprecedented issues that cut to the heart of the caste contract: the abolition of birthright to property, property by survivorship, half share for daughters, abolition of caste in marriage and adoption. The principle of endogamy and the indissolubility of marriage for women are, as he had identified as a student, at the heart of the caste contract. It is further evident through his attempts to present the bill to Parliament and how Nehru and the Congress party successfully stalled it. They would not have wanted to alienate the propertied upper castes who formed the backbone of the new Hindu nation. Popular culture recorded the Hindu Code Bill as the ‘divorce bill’ that favoured over-educated women. The events reveal Ambedkar’s commitment to the democratic struggles for women’s rights against the Brahmanical patriarchy of the state. As he asks in the debate, ‘Are you going to have the law of the 90 per cent of the people as the general law of this country, or are you going to have the law of the 10 per cent of the people being imposed upon the 90 per cent?’ (219).
The deliberate derailment of the Hindu Caste Bill is detailed in this section, as is Ambedkar’s discussion on his final resignation from the cabinet. While there were a cluster of reasons for his resignation, including Nehru’s foreign policy, Rege particularly highlights his opposition to the treatment of the Scheduled Castes. As she points out, ‘We could therefore see the unsung death of the bill as a case of suspension of democratic social contract by the caste-mediated kinship contract’ (201).
Sharmila Rege’s reading is astute and passionate. As she points out, the staggering absence of Ambedkar’s works both in academia as well as in feminist conceptions of gender has continued through the decades. While an advanced postgraduate student might read Babasaheb’s writings, nowhere have we seen an attempt to deploy Ambedkar’s framing of the interdependence of caste with sexual difference as the lens by which to view social change itself. Instead, caste and gender are polarized and the theoretical originality and salience of Ambedkar’s insights are ignored. For instance, the bulk of gender studies on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the very years that influenced Ambedkar’s experiences and analysis – record Brahmanical caste consolidation as a story of gender struggle. As she says, ‘The dominant narrative of gender and modernity, that has concealed the complicity of Brahman women in class privilege and Brahmanical patriarchy, highlights privileged caste women’s struggle with tradition and their desire to be modern’ (26). In other words, histories of gender have flourished by obscuring how the modern companionate dyad was actually and always about reclaiming upper caste privilege; how education and ideas of companionate love rendered caste power as universal and prohibitive. Ambedkar’s reading of the reproductive and exclusionary nature of Brahmanical patriarchy helps us understand how, through the cooptation of the seeming split between tradition and modernity, caste is constantly being secularized (seemingly disconnected from formal religious rituals) and thus re-manufactured.
The surplus woman was produced through the practices of sati, the ban on widow remarriage and female infanticide. Ambedkar stressed how the requirement of the woman’s lifelong devotion to the sacrality of marriage supported the production of a patriarchal imbalance by which upper caste men were entitled to monogamous sexual relations while never suffering the same experience themselves. This is another example of the implicit knowledge that undergirds what Rege astutely terms as ‘graded violence’: the gradations in gender violence that unites the caste system through ‘ascending reverence and descending contempt’ (20).
Caste and gender are inextricable from one another; thus the ‘accepted meanings of violence, sexuality or labour in women’s studies’ must be re-examined. To this knot I would add the issue of knowledge for, as Ambedkar recognized, it was the prohibition of knowledge to the lower caste person (but not to the upper caste woman) that fomented the exclusionary and reproductive power of Brahmanism. There is no caste without Brahmanism, and the beating heart of Brahmanism lies in the way that the intimate realm is shot through with the strictures and prohibitions around maintaining sexual difference. It is with this that Rege takes us to a profound understanding of the political community itself, constituted not through liberal definitions of the public and private but rather through the necessarily enmeshed relations between the community, the household and the political realm.
And here Rege’s hallmark talent in reading popular cultural sources shines through. For many years she has been collecting and unpacking the vast outpouring of poems, songs, art work being produced amongst Ambedkarite communities, and bringing these materials to a wider world. She has showcased her students’ own innovative analyses through a series, Plundering Popular Culture, wherein the caste/gender analysis is used as an optic to comprehend the contemporary social fabric. By re-centring Dalit political critique as a theoretical lens, Rege has crafted a tremendous archive of popular art and poetry that always materialize the symbiotic relationship between caste and gender. Her work shines as a beacon upon our academic and activist projects.
The connection between the two texts runs far deeper than the obvious. Both authors approach a radically original set of sources for their work and as a result situate Ambedkar in a dynamic world of print, art and music. What they leave us with is a sense of the rich cultural milieu from which radical anti-caste theorizing springs. Ambedkar’s genius, as Zelliot reminds us, lay in his ability to speak simultaneously to the status quo as well as to his own community, to those (colonial or nationalist alike) invested in caste based power as well as to those truly aspiring for radical social change. The matter of Ambedkar’s audience is thus a deeply political one. By infusing their studies with new sources and by incorporating the words of new cultural producers, the books themselves realize the project of politicizing multiple audiences. The rigorous and energetic works, both published by Navayana, indicate the relevance of Ambedkar’s theorization on the politicization of the ‘upper’ castes, and provide an inexhaustible resource for the kind of work that we must undertake in the years ahead.
Associate Professor of History
Washington University in St. Louis