The scourge of caste

Arundhati Roy
February 17, 2015

“The Doctor and the Saint” is the name of the introduction that I wrote to one of modern India’s most classic texts, Annihilation of Caste, written  by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was one of the most fascinating modern  thinkers in India’s national movement, yet he is a person who has  somehow either been written out of the popular account, or has been  written in but not for the passions that guided him. He has been written  in as the leader of the untouchables, or the person who drove the  writing of the Indian constitution. Annihilation of Caste has  this dubious distinction of being an underground classic, in that you  can’t walk into a bookshop in India and ask for the writings of Ambedkar  in the way you can ask for the writings of Gandhi or Nehru. Ambedkar’s  people, the people who were once known as untouchables and who today  call themselves Dalits, Gandhi rechristened very patronizingly as harijan, which means “the children of god”. While Annihilation of Caste  was loved and passed around in the Dalit community, the privileged  castes for whom it was written remain quite blissfully ignorant.

Ambedkar wrote the text in 1936 when he was invited to speak in  Lahore by a privileged caste, Hindu reformist organization called the  Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, an organization that aimed for the breakup of  caste. The organization asked him to give them a text for the speech in  advance, which he did, and when they read it they dis-invited him  because they realized he was going to use this platform to call upon the  untouchable community, who at that point in time numbered about 45  million, to renounce Hinduism and to accept any other religion. Ambedkar  said Hinduism is a religion that institutionalizes, valorizes, and even  makes sacred the practice of caste. So he was dis-invited and he  published this text himself at his own expense. It is an exhilarating  text, a very erudite, scholarly text. He looks at the Hindu scripture  and talks about the untouchables not only intellectually but also  politically, discussing how the communist movement has also failed the  Dalit people. When the text was published in 1936, the man who the world  saw as the greatest Hindu in the world, Mahatma Gandhi, responded.  Gandhi said that Ambedkar’s criticisms should be taken very seriously,  but in his own response he himself did not take what Ambedkar said very  seriously. There was a very patronizing dismissal of what Ambedkar had  been grappling with in the text.

So when I began to think about writing an introduction to Annihilation of Caste,  I read back into this debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi on the issue  of caste. And I must say, I grew disturbed by the things that Gandhi was  saying about caste. If your one-stop shop for knowing anything about  the Indian national movement is Richard Attenborough’s film, you might  believe Gandhi was a great fighter against caste. But Ambedkar, who is  actually Gandhi’s greatest adversary, morally and ethically, doesn’t  even get a part in the film. And then you realize that in fact Gandhi  was a great defender of caste and he, like many privileged caste  reformers, was campaigning against not caste itself but the practice of  untouchability, which is the ritual and performative end of caste.

Ambedkar said caste is about entitlement: who has the land, who has  access to water, who has access to education. Caste has everything to do  with hierarchy and ancestral occupation. According to the sacred  texts—Varna, Ashram, Ghari—society is divided into four varnas. The  Brahmins were the priests, the Kshatriyas were the warriors, the  Vaishyas were the traders—the caste to which Gandhi and the current  Prime Minister Modi belong—and the Shudras were the service caste.  Outside these four castes are the outcastes, the Athi Shudras, and the  Dalits, who are themselves divided into untouchables, unapproachables,  unsee-ables and so on. This is the broad system that Ambedkar called the  mother of the caste system. Each of these is further divided into  Jatis. There are something like 4,000 endogamous jati, and now there is  no intermarrying between castes. Within jatis there is something called  the pothra, and you’re not allowed to marry within your pothra. All  marriages are policed with a great deal of violence and social pressure.  Last November there was a survey done in India where, even today, only  five percent of marriages that take place are inter-caste. Even among  the five percent that do marry, many are met with violence.

What Gandhi said was that he believed in caste. He believed in  hereditary occupation. But he believed that everybody should be treated  equally and loved by god. This was the essence of the debate. At the  turn of the century, when the idea of empire turned into the idea of the  nation-state, when it was no longer enough to ride a horse at the head  of your army and take power, when the politics of the nation was  followed by the debates on representation, it began to matter now who  was going to represent the Hindus, the Muslims, the Dalits. How is the  Congress party, which is clearly run by the upper caste Brahmins, saying  that it represents everybody? The mischief extended to the British  Empire, which gave itself the imperial mandate to represent everybody,  drained the wealth of a once wealthy population, and oversaw famines and  the deaths of millions of people. How can a society that practices  untouchability really say that it can govern itself?

When the anxiety about representation began, it was accompanied by an  anxiety about demography. Until then, for centuries, untouchable people  had been converting to Islam, to Christianity, to Sikhism to escape the  scourge of caste. But suddenly, these 44 million people became a  constituency and privileged caste reformers began to proselytize against  untouchability, hoping to keep them under the head of Hinduism. The  idea was not to question the caste system, but to bring them into the  big house and keep them in the servants’ quarters. So you had  organizations of reformers who actually proselytized quite rigorously  against untouchability. Gandhi was the legacy of that, whereas Ambedker  was the legacy of the genuinely anti-caste movement that believed in the  destruction of the whole idea of caste. It was a confrontation that  wasn’t new.

Ambedker had been born into an untouchable family, a caste that was  traditionally expected to carry a pot around their necks so that even  the spit would not pollute the floor. He was a brilliant student and  after receiving a scholarship and going to Colombia University to study,  he came back around the same time that Gandhi came back from South  Africa to India. When he recognised that the privileged caste was  manoeuvring to politically control the constituency of the untouchables,  he said, “No, we want to represent ourselves”. He started developing a  political and legal proposal for how untouchables should be given a  right to be a separate constituency. And actually, Gandhi’s manoeuvres  completely undermined that. By 1915, when Gandhi returned from South  Africa, he was already called a Mahatma. And while I was following this  debate, I began to think, who called him a Mahatma, and what had he done  in South Africa to be known as a Mahatma?

So I read back on what happened in South Africa, and I have to say  that it was so disturbing. Because I, as many others, had been brought  up on the stories we heard in school, the idea that Gandhi, at the age  of 24, went to South Africa as a legal advisor to a rich Muslim  businessmen and was thrown off the first-class railway compartment for  whites in Pietermaritzburg, and that’s where he had his political  awakening. Yet in fact, that was only half the story, because there were  two kinds of Indians in South Africa. There were the passenger Indians,  who were the privileged caste of wealthy businessmen who had come there  to trade. And there were the indentured workers who came from the  subordinate caste, who were, more or less, slave and bonded labour. They  were poorer Muslims and Hindus working on the sugar plantations. The  story was that Gandhi objected to the fact that privileged caste Hindus  were treated on the same level as what he called the Kafirs (those who  commit “blasphemy” in Islam). Gandhi said that Indians and the English  “come from a common stock” and are looking forward to an “Imperial  Brotherhood”. And then he starts the Indian National Congress in Durban,  wherein the membership fee was £3 in 1895. In 1906, eleven years later,  the Zulu Uprising happened because the British had raised a £1 poll tax  on the Zulus, so a membership of £3 was a very exclusive club. The  first victory was the solution to the problem of the Durban post office,  where they won the right to not have to enter the post office through  the same door as black folks. So Indians got a third entrance.

Then came the First World War where Gandhi wanted to bear arms but  was not given that duty. The First World War is known today as a white  men’s war, where the British first came up with the idea of  concentration camps and thousands of people died in those camps. And  then again during the Zulu Uprising, Gandhi collaborated with the  British. It went on in this way. Gandhi first came out as a political  warrior when the British passed the Asiatic Registration Bill, which  prevented businessmen from going to the Transvaal to compete with  British traders. This is when Gandhi began to develop the whole protocol  of Satyagraha and to recreate the rituals of poverty.

And it is interesting, because poverty is not about having no money.  Poverty is about having no power. And here Gandhi was accumulating  power, which is understandable against a political background, but it’s  nevertheless interesting. What was that power being used for? Not to  fight the injustice against the indentured, not to give the land that  you’ve stolen from the Zulus back to them, but to allow Indian traders  into the Transvaal. It’s only in 1913 that Gandhi actually comes out and  joins the coal workers and other strikers and he signs a deal with  General Jan Smuts. Part of that deal is that he had to leave South  Africa and go back to India. There was a lot of dispute about that  agreement because people said, “What gives you the right to represent us  and sign agreements on our behalf?” But Gandhi went back to India, and  on the way back he stopped by in England, where he was given Imperial  Britain’s highest civilian award for services to the Empire. But then he  comes back to India as a person who fought imperialism and racism and  begins this whole encounter with Ambedkar on caste.

And so by 1930, we all know about the Salt Satyagraha. Gandhi was a  brilliant politician, I have no doubts about that. The Salt Satyagraha  was one of the most brilliant pieces of political theatre we have seen,  when Gandhi led hundreds of thousands of Indians to the sea to break the  British salt tax. But many of us don’t know that three years before  that, in 1927, Ambedkar led what was known as the Satyagraha at Mahad,  where 10,000 Dalits (untouchables) marched through the town of Mahad to  drink water from the public tank. And they were of course beaten and  driven away by the privileged caste, who then purified the tanks by  pouring cow dung in them. And Gandhi actually didn’t support the Dalits  in the  Mahad Satyagraha. That same year, he advised the untouchables to  use “sweet persuasion” because these forms of protests, when it came to  them, would be a “devilish” force. So it is obvious that the conflict  between Ambedkar and Gandhi really complicates the national movement. It  complicates the ethics that we have been so quick to admire.

When Gandhi met Ambedkar in Mani Bhavan in 1931, he thought that  Ambedkar was a sort of self-hating Brahmin. Ambedkar was such a  knowledgeable and confident man, much younger than Gandhi, and Gandhi  questioned him. He said that Ambedkar’s very bitter criticism of the  Congress amounted to criticism of the homeland. Ambedkar looked at him  and said poignantly, “Gandhi, I have no homeland, because no untouchable  worth his name would be proud of this land”.

What Ambedkar was trying to do is put in place political and legal  safeguards so that when the British colonials left, they would not leave  the untouchable community at the mercy of those who believed that human  beings could be treated like that. Ambedkar’s story is fascinating  because he tried everything: mass mobilisation, legal means, and direct  participation. He developed this brilliant proposal at a roundtable  conference, where the Muslims, Sikhs, and untouchables were all given  separate electorates. Ambedkar proposed a double vote system, where he  said the subordinated classes should have a separate constituency where  they vote for their own leaders, and where they can also vote in the  main elections. But this would last only for ten years, until they  develop into a political constituency. So the idea was not to float away  from the mainstream. The idea was to allow it to develop into equal  citizenship. For Ambedkar, the basic right of equal citizenship was the  right to representation.

But Gandhi said defiantly, “I, in my own person, represent the  untouchables. If they’re given a separate constituency, I will protest  it with my life”. Gandhi wished to separate the castes in every  way—socially, in terms of education, in terms of access to water—but  when it came to giving them a separate electorate, he said, “I’d rather  die than grant this”. And then Gandhi went back to India and dropped in  on Mussolini on the way.

When the British actually announced the creation of a separate  electorate, Gandhi went on a fast to the death. Everybody rallied on  Gandhi’s side. Ambedkar was left knowing that if Gandhi died on his  fast, the untouchables would be lynched and attacked and so he did have  to succumb finally. And so what was agreed on, which is still the system  in place today, is that within the main group of candidates, a few  candidates are reserved for untouchables. Untouchables have a reserved  number of seats, but they have to be chosen by the privileged caste.  There’s the Uncle Tom situation that happened there.

Eventually, of course very disillusioned by this, Ambedkar wrote Annihilation of Caste  in 1936. That same year Gandhi wrote an extraordinary essay called “My  Ideal Bhangi”. Bhangi means “scavenger”. It’s an essay about what the  ideal qualities of a scavenger should be, a person who follows his  ancestral occupation. Gandhi said his ideal scavenger should be  well-versed in sanitation, should know how to convert “night-soil and  urine into manure”, should warn people if he thinks they are falling  ill, and so on. Recently Prime Minister Modi echoed those same  sentiments, saying that the Bhangis are a community of people born to be  scavengers, and it is their divine duty. They themselves must have  realized this, which is why they do it generation after generation. And,  of course, they should never think of making money from it. Very  disillusioned by all this, Ambedkar turned to Buddhism.


So how does caste currently play out in modern India? Many people  think that because of the inflow of global capital and the breakup of  old networks that caste has somehow ended. It’s an incredible thing that  while other horrors like apartheid, racism, sexism, and modern slavery  have been maybe not defeated but certainly discussed by the  international community, caste never is. One of the reasons is that it’s  not color-coded; it’s hard to see. The other reason is that people just  associate it with Hinduism and “your God”, The Beatles, vegetarianism,  or some sort of euphemism. The third reason is that a lot of the  better-known intellectuals in India belong to the Left, and  traditionally Indian communists have been unable to deal with caste.  They just sort of invisibilize it by saying that caste is class. And  sometimes people are so privileged that they don’t stumble upon it, even  in the dark.

India’s wealth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The  country has 100 people who own the equivalent of 25% of the GDP. I don’t  think anything quite like India’s system exists elswhere in the world,  where you have corporations like Reliance, the Tata group, Mittal, or  Jindal whose owners are not just mining or media magnates, but have this  immense cross-ownership. The same people own petrochemicals, mines, law  schools, textiles, electricity distribution, literary festivals, water,  the internet, and most importantly, the media. So the biggest  corporation like Reliance owns 27 different 24-hour media channels. Look  at the handful of major corporations: they’re all owned by Banias, the  trading caste, which is only two percent of the population. If you look  at the big national newspapers—Times of India, Indian Express, The Hindu,  and so on—Bania or Brahmin ownership. If you look at the smaller  businesses and the rural moneylenders, the whole of rural India is in  the grip of serious debt. Almost all the moneylenders are Banias. Caste  and capitalism have become this deadly symbiotic force.

During India’s debates just before an election, all they talk about  is caste in terms of voting blocs: “Who will Dalits vote for?”, “where  will the Buja vote go?”, and so on. Caste is foregrounded. But if you  look at the actual ferocious arguments about caste, it all has to do  with what in India we call “reservation”, similar to what in the U.S.  they call affirmative action. Reservation actually applies to only two  percent of the Dalit population who have the educational qualifications  to be eligible. In, for example, the state of Punjab, which is perhaps  agriculturally India’s great success story, forty percent of the  population are Dalits and ninety percent of them are landless. So the  landlessness, the access to resources, to health, to education, all of  this is not debated. Just the two percent. And you have the privileged  caste students in medical colleges protesting against reservation and  sweeping the streets to show what they’ve been reduced to because of  reservation. The only government jobs where you have ninety percent  Dalits working is among municipal sweepers.

In India, if you go to any hospital, all the nurses will be  Christians, because doctors in other communities don’t want to touch  people. If you go to a hospital and you watch a doctor doing a  post-mortem, they’ll get the sweepers who are Balmiki to actually do the  post-mortem. The doctors won’t touch the body.

Caste is everywhere. It’s the engine that runs India. How is that  system maintained? How do you make sure that a caste is never entitled  to own land? That they will always be there when the seed needs to be  sown, or the crop needs to be harvested? It’s a system that can only be  maintained through the egregious application of violence. Everybody  knows about the 2012 gang rape and murder in Dehli where people were  mobilized. And certainly, it’s good they were mobilized, and good things  happened in terms of re-writing the law. But no one will talk about the  fact that 1,500 Dalit women were raped, and that means actually more  like 15,000 women because only 1 in 10 cases get reported. 651 Dalit men  were killed in a year. This past October there was a Dalit family  murdered, their limbs chopped off and distributed on the fields and  thrown into wells, because the killing of a Dalit has to be ritual  slaughter. It’s a punishment that serves as a warning to those who might  think of straying, who might think of improving their lot.

What do Gandhi’s principles of non-violent resistance mean when they  are applied under conditions of such egregious violence? To critique  Gandhi does not mean that we should forget about the principles of  non-violence. But in India, today there are hundreds of thousands of  paramilitary troops in the forest trying to drive out indigenous people  from their villages because those lands have been signed over to  infrastructure projects and mining corporations. In the forest it’s an  armed struggle. Those villages are many-days walk from the road. There  are no television crews, no audience. And yet intellectuals, TV anchors,  and politicians are calling these people terrorists, the people who  resist. We can debate this ideologically and morally, but when you are  actually in the fight, Maoists in the streets and in the forests,  tactics are key. If you live four days from the road, you don’t have an  audience. 1,000 paramilitary officials are burning your villages and  raping your women. What form of non-violence are you proposing that  these people adhere to? If you’re starving, can you go on a hunger  strike? If you don’t have goods, can you boycott anything? So if you  look at it didactically, as a moral or intellectual issue, you can  actually end up being immoral, preaching to people who are in a very  dangerous place about what they should do when you don’t even understand  the dangers they are facing.

I don’t know how this blight upon our land is going to go away, but I  do think that somehow even being ashamed about it is going to play an  important part. And we can debate what Hinduism means—there are a lot of  people who practice Hinduism without adhering to those particular  texts—but the fact of the matter is that in a nation of 1 billion  people, only under five percent marry across caste. It is a horrible  hierarchical system of social arrangement, one of the worst kinds that  has ever been known to mankind.


All by
Arundhati Roy