Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste
Author: Christophe Jaffrelot
Publisher: Permanent Black, Delhi, (2005)
Price: Rs250 [2009 edition]
There’s an idiom in Malayalam which may be translated as: Unable to swallow because it’s bitter and unable to spit out because it’s sweet. Dr B R Ambedkar was one such man in Indian history. Right from Gandhi through Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and Madan Mohan Malaviya down to Arun Shourie, quite many people had serious problems with Ambedkar. Shourie even went to the extent of writing a book, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar and the Facts which have been Erased (1997).
On the other hand, even right wing organizations and political parties such as RSS and BJP have tried to co-opt Ambedkar into the Hindu pantheon of great leaders. As Christophe Jaffrelot says in his book under review, “On the one hand it [BJP] praises Ambedkar, the symbol of the Dalit movement because it cannot alienate the lower castes... On the other hand, it tries hard, as exemplified by Arun Shourie’s writings, to tarnish Ambedkar’s reputation.”
Jaffrelot’s book is a well-researched and fairly objective study of Ambedkar’s contribution to the emancipation of the Untouchables in India.
Did Ambedkar really achieve anything significant for the Dalits? He never found “a clear-cut and definitive answer” to the question whether the Untouchables are ‘separate’ from the rest, or whether they can be integrated into Hindu society through alliances with other, higher, castes. He seriously considered the options of converting along with the Dalits to Christianity, Islam or Sikhism, before choosing Buddhism.
In his 1936 speech in Bombay, Ambedkar said that his aim was freedom for the Untouchables and not reformation of Hinduism. “If we can gain freedom by conversion, why should we shoulder the responsibility of the reform of Hindu religion? And why should we waste our energy, time, labour and money on that?”
Yet both before and after the delivery of that speech, Ambedkar tried to eradicate the caste system from Hinduism. He did not get the required support, however. Even Gandhi was opposed to Ambedkar’s views on caste system. The Mahatma even went on a fast when Ambedkar insisted on separate electorates for the Untouchables. Gandhi did not wish to upset the caste system merely because doing so would “create division among Hindus so much that it will lead to bloodshed.” [Ambedkar was the only Indian politician whom Gandhi contested by resorting to a fast, Jaffrelot reminds us.]
Ambedkar relented not because of Gandhi’s fast but because M C Rajah, another leader of the Untouchables, told him that Gandhi’s death would turn the whole “Hindu community and the whole civilised community” against the Untouchables who would then be kicked “downstairs further still.”
Later, while drafting the Constitution, Ambedkar tried to bring a Uniform Civil Code in the country instead of many religion-based systems. When some Muslim leaders expressed concerns about the fate of Sharia, Ambedkar asked “why religion should be given this vast, expansive jurisdiction, so as to cover the whole of life.” He asserted the Indians’ liberty “to reform our (religion-based) social system, which is so full of inequities, discriminations and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights.”
When Ambedkar tried to reform the Hindu laws, he faced stiff opposition from Rajendra Prasad, Patel, Congress President Pattabhi Sitaramayya and other eminent Congressmen. Only Nehru supported him. But when the Hindu Code Bill was finally presented on Sep 25, 1951, it was buried “without Nehru uttering a word of protest.” Ambedkar resigned from Nehru’s government two days after that.
Jaffrelot’s book is a very illuminating study of Ambedkar’s earnest attempts to emancipate the Untouchables. In the first chapter of the book the author gives us Ambedkar’s biography in brief but with a lot of insights into the background (historical, family as well as caste) that made Ambedkar what he was. Towards the end of the book there is also a brief critique of Shourie’s opinions.
The book is a scholarly work which is eminently readable and very enlightening.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to one of my students who brought the book from his home after the summer vacation thinking that I would enjoy reading it. I did enjoy reading it.