This is a republication of Dr Teltumbde’s address at an event by The Leaflet on Ambedkar Jayanti in 2019, which we had originally published on April 23, 2019, in which, taking stock of Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s anti-caste legacy, he called the anti-caste movement in India dead and reflected on the larger issues being faced by Dalits that are being ignored by the State.
AT the outset, I would like to thank Indira Jaising and the entire team of the Lawyers Collective and The Leaflet for having me here to speak on the eve of the 128th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar. I also congratulate The Leaflet team for its decision to launch a Marathi edition and wish it all the success under the stewardship of my friend Vira Sathidar. During the last five years, when we see the media, with an honourable exception of a few, completely capitulated to the ruling junta, the new genre of online media like The Leaflet have kept the fourth column of this limping democracy from crumbling. Most of them started in English by default but realised the need to go vernacular and I am happy that The Leaflet also decided to do so.
While many such remedial steps are going to help our democracy, I shudder to think whether they are not too late in the day. We are standing literally at a precipice where only a miracle could save us from an imminent fall into fascism of the worst kind. Yes, the Hindu Rashtra that India might become post-2019 election will be fascism of the worst kind, because none of its prototypes in Europe was endowed with the poisonous ideology called Brahminism that created the longest living man-made contrivance (system) in the world called caste.
As you see, the topic of my speech is ‘Contemporary Challenges before the Anti-Caste Movement’. It may amuse you if I say, I do not see any anti-caste movement around. All the movements – and I use the plural here – that swear by Babasaheb Ambedkar and hence appear as anti-caste actually use castes as their staple to thrive as do the ruling class parties. Castes constitute their main plank on which their social and political existence depends. While all social and political movements are completely mired in caste, even the cultural and religious movements, such as those engaged with Buddhism are also not rid of the caste idiom. They function in the same ways as the pre-conversion caste organisation did. Even the Bahujan, Buddha’s holy term, or worse, Dalit-Bahujan, are ridden with caste as they are primarily conceived on the basis of caste identity.
Ambedkar once said Brahmanism and Capitalism were the enemies of the Dalits (he saw them as working class). He also imagined a socialist future for the country as he believed without the structure of society being socialist liberty, equality and fraternity could not be accomplished. Today, Dalits are so disoriented from this legacy that they are seen supporting the Hindutva forces and also flaunting capitalism.
The anti-caste movement can only be spoken of in historical terms. It started with the advent of Brahminism, as the resistance from the Shramans, best represented by Buddhism and survived through the reforms of the previous century that ended with Babasaheb Ambedkar. The anti-caste movement necessarily faces the dialectics of assertion and negation of caste, which if not managed, may turn into its antithesis, the casteist movement. This is what has precisely happened to the Dalit movements. One thing which we forget to ask ourselves is whether the post-colonial state had anything to do with this as in appearance at least its beginning coincides with the end of the anti-caste movement.
As even a casual observer of the Indian scene might see, castes are most prominently used in two things: reservations and elections. And both these flow from the Constitution. As a matter of fact, reservations are not a creation of the Constitution but adoption of the policy that came through colonial times as a measure of countering caste prejudices in the society. It may be good to remember that primarily reservations were demanded by Babasaheb Ambedkar in political representation, which was conceded through the Communal Award of 1932.
The other reservations, viz., in public employment and educational institutions came through the Poona Pact that effectively annulled the concept of independent representation of the Dalits but brought in the commitment to uplift the Dalits educationally and economically. The latter was worked initially as the preferment policy but afterwards, when Ambedkar became a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, it was turned into a quota system in 1943. This system related only to the Untouchables and was instituted as an exceptional system for the exceptional people, which is what it should be, and was largely reconciled with as none had problem with its tacit rationale.
But while writing the Constitution, this rationale was totally deformed. While the existing reservation was adopted, it was extended to the Tribals, which did not have a specific criteria for identification, and further to the Backward Classes, which were not even known at that point in time. This innocuous policy shift, a great leap in social justice to most of our progressives, was a strategic masterstroke to preserve castes. In a backward country, backwardness, even if it is said to be educational and social backwardness, (after all, are they not correlated with economic backwardness?) could not be the basis of reservations. The extension of reservations to the Tribals, the problem of their identification apart, could be justified but then the existing schedule itself could have been extended to accommodate them. Thereby, it would have diluted the stigma of social inferiority associated with the schedule of the Untouchables (Scheduled Caste) because the Tribals did not have castes, and been a small step towards annihilation of caste. But it was not done.
What is missing in the resultant discourse of the so-called social justice movement is the discharge of the fundamental and universal obligation of the state to provide for the basic ingredients — free, universal, equal quality education; free basic healthcare and livelihood security in terms of land or jobs – to all people and only thereafter provide something additional by way of reservation to those people who suffered a historical lag. Today, when the public sector is experiencing decimation, the clamour for reservation is reaching its zenith. Reservations have become a weapon in the hands of the ruling classes to caste-ise society to the extent that India is more caste-ised today than it ever was before.
The election system, the first-past-the-post [FPTP] or winner-takes-it-all system, is the Westminster system, which was used for elections since their inceptions and was adopted by most British colonies when they became independent. This election system valorises a management strategy more than people’s will and is incapable of even ensuring the rule of the majority, leave aside representative government. Having fortified the survival of castes through reservations, and dynamics of religious communities through an intriguing version of secularism adopted in the Constitution, which we may not be able to discuss here, castes and communities are used as strategic levers in the FPTP elections. It is this system that has brought us the spectre of the demise of democracy and hopelessness.
Ambedkar saw Hinduism itself in two parts: one, the religion of principles contained in Upanishad, etc. and two, the religion of rules as contained in the Dharmshastras. It is the latter that he saw being the source for caste and therefore, proposed dynamiting them in order to annihilate caste. He however, thought that no Hindu would ever be ready to do that and hence he would rather renounce it and wished well to those who would like to try it from within. One need not accept his diagnosis and method of treatment but the goal of curing disease could not be disputed.
It is simplistic to blame the Hindutva forces for it. Because, howsoever, they tried to spread their communal venom to polarise people, their vote share has not even reached one-third, and still, they could imminently dismantle the façade of democracy. They could create a majoritarian discourse in this country of minorities and render the opposition helpless. Could we not realise the flaw of the system and think of adopting a Proportionate Representation [PR] system of election on which majority and better democracies in the world are based? The greatest advantage of the PR system is that it could be customisable and by using technology it could ensure representation of every individual in the lawmaking body.
These Constitutional shenanigans have certainly been a prominent reason why we do not see any anti-caste movements in the country.
Having hinted at this general debilitating development in the postcolonial times, I would now turn to enumerating the challenges the anti-caste movements face in the country. They obviously refer to the movements of the Dalits, the worst victims of caste.
The Dalit movement has a legacy of the Ambedkarite movement. How does it comprehend this legacy? A broad observation of the Ambedkarite movement may indicate that Babasaheb Ambedkar achieved all his success during the colonial period and experienced intense frustrations during the post-colonial period. It is during the colonial time that he could organise Dalits into a pan-Indian force, construct a powerful socio-religious counter to hegemonic Brahminism, fore-front the caste question in the political sphere, win Dalits political identity and safeguards in public policy. In the post-colonial period, although he is famed as the maker of the Constitution, he met with deceit and dejection by suffering successive electoral defeats, in realising the ineffectiveness of the Constitution, etc. Blinded by their devotion to Ambedkar, Dalits do not realise that it was a Gandhian strategy to induct Ambedkar into the Constituent Assembly and make him the chairman of the Drafting Committee such that the future Constitution would have an emotional buy-in from the lower strata of the society. It did not take more than two years for Ambedkar to disown the Constitution in the harshest possible words but the buy-in by the Dalits stands unshaken.
Babasaheb Ambedkar termed Brahminism and Capitalism as the two enemies of the Dalits. He specifically said that he did not identify Brahminism with Brahmins and that it pervaded all classes (i.e., castes). It follows that mere caste could not be the basis of identifying friends and foes.
The great accomplishment of Babasaheb Ambedkar in winning Dalits political reservation was made counterproductive in Poona Pact. Baring the initial euphoric reactions over the larger quantum of reserved seats in the Pact, he had realised the deceit and wanted these political reservations abolished. But the ruling classes would not let the goose that laid golden eggs for them die. It served them as a swan song of social justice. For the Dalits it was a veritable trap; a mechanism to keep them enslaved. The story of other reservations also may not be dissimilar. Although they worked far better in producing a Dalit middle class, their self-perpetuating features have begun to produce counterproductive results like Mala-Madiga syndrome.
In any case, the experience with the ‘Talented Tenth’ (all affirmative policies reflect this premise succinctly articulated by the great African American radical leader, W.E.B. DuBois) dictum proves beneficial to give an initial push, but if pushed further, it turns counterproductive. Should Dalits not attempt an objective cost-benefit analysis of reservations? They just see the benefits of them but even the cost of compromising the project of annihilation of caste might outweigh all its benefits. Ambedkar once said Brahmanism and capitalism were the enemies of the Dalits (he saw them as working class). He also imagined a socialist future for the country as he believed without the structure of society being socialist, liberty, equality and fraternity could not be accomplished. Today, Dalits are so disoriented from this legacy that they are seen supporting the Hindutva forces and also flaunting capitalism.
What is the ideology of such a movement? Babasaheb Ambedkar once said: “[M]y social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed by philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha.” It has been his fond phrase with which he defines, society and almost everything he held noble. It could provide the ideological anchor for the movement. Insofar as he claims he has taken it from the Buddha, it may not be wrong to take Buddhism as the ideology. But when it comes to Buddhism, there is no unanimity about any such ideological strand. There are multiple versions of Buddhism and varied understanding of their philosophies. Ambedkar projected Buddhism as a way of life compatible with modern science and not a religion. Beyond this, there are people who take Constitutionalism as the ideology as some leaders contended while breaking the newly born Republican Party of India.
There is another strand that might dispute it without necessarily disagreeing. It contends that the Dalit uplift should be the primary goal and whatever that serves it may be the ideology. It is something even Ambedkar appears to have tried in following pragmatism and Fabianism (the philosophies he imbibed from his Professor John Dewey).
These multiple strands do not necessarily cohere. Ideology provides an anchor to whatever practice one does and that is sadly missing in these movements.
Strategy constitutes an important domain for action. It demands clarity on vision, goal, the clear comprehension of the environment as well as our own strength and weakness; and tactical plan to achieve intermediate objectives that would lead to the goal.
The Dalit movement does not reflect clarity on any of these. Strategy is futuristic but much of the movement appears engaged with the past. If one takes stock of the literature or the entire creative production by the Dalits, an overwhelmingly large part of it would be seen dealing with the past, either discussing past oppression of the Dalits or the hagiographic account of Ambedkar’s struggle. A few tried engaging with their current status and ponder over what could be possibly done to ameliorate their state.
There is firstly no clear vision as to what future they want Dalits to have. I met people arguing that Ambedkar never proposed annihilation of caste as the goal. Well, Ambedkar has written a full-length text by that title to have a doubt about his intention! It is true that it leaves one with no clear statement about how to achieve it. In his diagnosis, he traced the roots of the caste system in Hinduism. He saw Hinduism itself in two parts: one, the religion of principles contained in Upanishad, etc. and two, the religion of rules as contained in the Dharma Shastras. It is the latter that he saw being the source for caste and therefore, proposed dynamiting them in order to annihilate caste. He, however, thought that no Hindu would ever be ready to do that and hence he would rather renounce it and wished well to those who would like to try it from within. One need not accept his diagnosis and method of treatment but the goal of curing disease could not be disputed.
If one derives vision from the practice of Dalits, it may appear as the uplift of caste, the primitive tribal instinct of any people. It may be assumed as a tactical goal and worked for. The other aspect of the strategy is to understand our situation and decide upon friends and foes. Dalits have little clarity beyond the OBCs [Other Backward Classes] being friends and Brahminical castes being foes, although this definition violently clashed with reality. This formulation popularised by Kanshiram and followed by others in the attempt of replicating his electoral success in Uttar Pradesh [UP] needs examination. As I explained in my book, ‘The Persistence of Caste’ and elsewhere in my writings, the success of the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) is largely due to the peculiar demography of Dalits in UP and hence even Kanshiram could not replicate its success in any other state, including Punjab, his own state and Maharashtra, which facilitated the germination of his ideas as well as his organisation.
In Ambedkar’s times Dalits represented a relatively homogenous mass and shared a similar sense of deprivation. Today they are divided by multiple class lines and do not have the same angst to share. It poses formidable challenge to bring together even all Ambedkarite Dalits on any issue except for the innocuous emotional ones as paying homage to Ambedkar.
Empirically, the castes that Dalits considered as friends have been the tormentors of Dalits; most atrocities being committed by them. And many people belonging to the Brahminical castes may even be their genuine friends. But under the influence of such identitarian formulation, Dalits fall prey to Narendra Modi’s lie that he is an OBC ignoring the glaring fact that he is the harbinger of the Brahminic Hindu Rashtra. I need to remind Babasaheb Ambedkar’s explanation when he termed Brahminism and Capitalism being two enemies of the Dalits. He specifically said that he did not identify Brahminism with Brahmins and that it pervaded all classes (i.e., castes). It follows that mere caste could not be the basis of identifying friends and foes.
The important aspect of the strategy is to understand our situation clearly. The Dalit movement does not reflect an iota of it. The ostrich-like orientation of Dalits prevented them from seeing the present. Many believe that Dalits have come of age looking at the upwardly mobile sections of Dalits in cities and their diaspora abroad. Indeed, there is a sizable Dalit diaspora that backs up that illusion. But they must realise that the progress of a community cannot be assessed with past parameters. It is the relative distance along with pertinent parameters between Dalits and non-Dalits across a time period that may be the measure to assess progress. In these terms, barring a few parameters, Dalits may not appear to have progressed.
The anti-caste movement necessarily poses an organisational challenge. Although the systemic notion of graded hierarchy as caste system was defined by Babasaheb Ambedkar is almost extinct, and today caste is expressed by the kink in the continuum, segregating Dalits and non-Dalits, there is a varying degree of experiential salience of caste among various people. Even Dalits who constitute the worst victims of it may not share the anti-caste sentiment of some Ambedkarites. Even Ambedkarite Dalits, as discussed before, do not share these sentiments equally. They spontaneously swell congregations year after year at the Ambedkar memorials in hundreds of thousands and create an illusion of organisation.
These congregations satiate their cultural hunger created after forsaking the Hindu religion. But not even a fraction of them turn up on any of their material issues including atrocities. In Ambedkar’s times, Dalits represented a relatively homogenous mass and shared a similar sense of deprivation. Today, they are divided by multiple class lines and do not have the same angst to share. It poses a formidable challenge to bring together even all Ambedkarite Dalits on any issue except for the innocuous emotional ones as paying homage to Ambedkar.
A majority of Dalits live precarious lives without any support system, or of even their collectives that existed earlier. It leaves little bandwidth for them for engaging with longer-standing issues. Following Babasaheb Ambedkar, they had taken to education and entered government jobs to constitute a tiny middle class.
This trend was, however, stopped by the neoliberal policies the government implemented since the mid-1980s. The privatisation drive under these policies led to a contraction of public sector jobs, made education unaffordable, and resultantly blocked the avenue of progress. The pervasive agrarian crisis unleashed by these policies made their lives miserable. But the others attacked them perceiving them relatively better off as could be seen in the rising incidence of atrocities.
These policies also catalysed the rise of the right-wing Hindutva forces, which revived the Brahminic ethos that was on the decline for over a century. These policies almost blocked the emancipatory prospects for Dalits.
Information and communication technologies have accelerated the pace of change in the world and Dalits, though blissfully unaware, could not be immune to this change. These technologies have created social media which is both a boon and bane. It is a boon insofar as it provides an easy communication channel which can greatly facilitate organisation. It is a bane otherwise. It easily fragments Dalits, reinforces individualistic tendencies, multiplies ignorance, reinforces prejudice, and dissuades physical activity.
Technologies have created social media which is both a boon and bane. It is a boon insofar as it provides an easy communication channel which can greatly facilitate organisation. It is a bane otherwise. It easily fragments Dalits, reinforces individualistic tendencies, multiplies ignorance, reinforces prejudice, and dissuades physical activity.
The advent of new technologies in the data analytics family such as Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, IoT, etc., is inaugurating a dangerous paradigm of extreme empiricism – enhancing manipulative power of the elite, perpetuating the status quo and smothering of all human values – which may be detrimental to the entire lower strata.
It may sound puerile to ask what ‘caste’ or ‘Dalit’ is. Can anti-caste movement be organised on the basis of caste? Can Dalits be its vanguard? These questions assume importance in the context of the caste-basis of organisations of Dalits and the increasing identity obsession among them. The basic characteristic of caste is hierarchy, which impels it to split like an amoeba. Babasaheb Ambedkar used a quasi-class identity of Dalit to organise all the untouchable castes but the mere usage of the caste idiom by him thwarted castes other than his own from coming to constitute a Dalit movement. As a matter of fact, even his own caste men did not stay together and sought their own sub-caste identities and split the movement.
Even when Ambedkar emerged as the pan-India leader, only the most populous Dalit castes in each province, such as the Mahars in Maharashtra followed him. The only lesson that this experience throws up is to shun the caste idiom and organise people along class basis. When I say such things, some Dalits jump on to typify me as Leftist or Marxist, notwithstanding my oft-repeated explanation that I never wanted to be typified by any such label. By calling others Leftist, they licence themselves to be on the side of the Rightist forces (and they are seen doing it) and by calling them Marxist, they merely display their ignorance of the basics of Marxism.
Another aspect of the anti-caste movement is to understand that it is the contemporary caste and not the classical caste that one opposes. Classical caste was a part of the system; contemporary caste is in a consciousness which is reinforced by the dynamics of the modern political economy of statecraft. It can only be opposed by the united organisation of all people who are exploited by this dynamic. Such an organisation can only be built on the basis of class. Unless Dalits shun their identity cocoons and join hands with other people like them, they cannot counter this exploitative dynamic.
As mentioned before, the Poona Pact of 1932 destroyed the prospects of independent Dalit politics. It became a mechanism of producing and reproducing chamchas (stooges) as Kashiram termed it. Ambedkar did not want these reservations to continue and wanted even to launch a movement against it but no Dalit thereafter ever raised a question against it. The Dalits who get elected on these reserved seats remain subservient to their benefactor ruling class party, directly or indirectly against Dalit interests.
Apart from these slaves, there are rent seeker Dalit leaders, heading numerous Dalit political outfits, in the name of RPI [Republican Party of India], Dalit Panthers or such other, which pose their independence only to be available to the highest bidder in election times.
The conversion to Buddhism by Babasaheb Ambedkar created a notion that it was the path of their emancipation. If one may venture to articulate its purpose, it was a cultural counterpoint which would make Dalits an enlightened (prabuddha) people. He imagined Dalits to be the harbinger of this enlightenment in making entire India Buddhist and thereby ridding it of caste. It was not meant to be enslaved by another set of mumbo-jumbo. It was for this reason that he tried to present Buddhism on a rational footing in his ‘The Buddha and His Dhamma’. This is the only plausible understanding of his conversion. Assuming castes were sourced from Hinduism, the lower caste people have been converting to other religions throughout history. They have converted to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism at a much much larger scale than what happened in their last conversion to Buddhism or launched their own sects such as Matua or Satnamis. But none of these could help them get rid of their caste bondage.
The only lesson that this experience throws up is to shun the caste idiom and organise people along class basis. When I say such things, some Dalits jump on to typify me as a Leftist or Marxist, notwithstanding my oft-repeated explanation that I do not want to be typified by any such label. By calling others Leftist they licence themselves to be on the side of the Rightist forces (and they are seen doing it) and by calling them Marxist, they merely display their ignorance of the basics of Marxism.
Lest it should sound utterly pessimistic, let me hasten to say that all these challenges, formidable as they seem, might, however, melt away if the Dalits decide to shun their identity obsession and reorient themselves to focus on the material issues of their lives. The world is changing with such a rapid pace that none of the past reference points may remain valid and people will have to locate their problems as well as methods to solve them almost on the fly. Even caste may not remain the same as it appears today and may have to be seen with its new salience in the algorithmic world of tomorrow.
For the Dalits, the only mantra is to learn to live in the present and have a strategic approach while confronting real problems. This slight change in their orientation will soon impel them to see light beyond the tunnel, beaconing them to forge a class unity with other people. It does not mean ignoring caste or the dangers of full-fledged Brahmanism that is threatening to re-establish its hegemony. Although at a huge cost, this monster will hopefully make all people realise their follies of staying put in their identity cocoons. Unless all of them come together, they may not be able to defeat the monstrous minority threatening to destroy the planet for their selfish end.