Moving beyond the narratives of victimhood and survival, Sujatha Gidla’s book on caste, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family […]
Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the tempo of the world has been accelerating forward at a breathtaking speed. However, in India, an indigenously created caste-based segregation, our version of racism, a minute and comprehensive form of discrimination and oppression that has existed for millennia, has been at work with the same speed, but unfortunately in the opposite direction. For the section classified as the Depressed Classes, day-to-day life is in itself a grave struggle, a manifold fight for survival.
In every modern, democratic nation, people want to feel fully alive rather than merely survive. In order to for them to do so, the polity is required to imbibe a sense of socio-economic and political equality, as well as liberty. However, in India, this is not, and has never been, the case, and there is no way to know how long, in the ongoing civilizational process, this human greed for adoring and enjoying certain privileges over others is going to last. But as long as inequality and discrimination exist, a struggle to get rid of this yoke by the deprived masses will certainly continue to be part of the socio-political fight for generations to come.
The nature of the struggle by the sieged population fighting to annihilate these caste fortifications has always been defensive rather than offensive. The credit for this civility goes to Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, one of the tallest, yet most neglected and often misunderstood intellectual-political leaders in the mainstream socio-political discourse of modern India. Perhaps because he fundamentally challenges the iniquitous Hindu social order, he has been rendered the most controversial of the mass political leaders in India. However, the fact remains that his key text, The Annihilation of Caste, contains persuasive arguments, heavily supported with solid facts, as well as a sophisticated, logical tone. This seminal book on the one hand depicts a rebellion against caste and untouchability and wants to destroy it; and on the other, it advocates non-enmity with coercion towards the tormentor, implicitly advising that there are always other practices available to push forward a struggle for justice responsibly rather than indulging in punitive violent measures. So the epoch-making approach Ambedkar adopts, though corrective and hence confrontational, is both a peacemaking as well as peacekeeping one.
Ambedkar and Gandhi
Ambedkar was the pioneer intellectual in the study of caste and untouchability. He delved into such details that with all their possible and conceivable dimensions, he fought caste discrimination at all given levels: social, political, economic and educational. His Annihilation of Caste is both an illuminative as well as a redemptive text. Ambedkar used his writings and lectures to confront a world of indifference and betrayal in order to pursue his reformative agenda, equal in dimension to that of Gandhi’s. The power of his reason was such that Gandhi described him as a ‘challenge to Hinduism’. But unfortunately he did not receive the attention, the critical acclaim, or the adulation he deserves, the way Gandhi did. Ambedkar was of the view that political safeguards for Untouchables were necessary as the Untouchables constituted the largest minority, and that without these safeguards they would not be able to enjoy political and social freedom. This was viewed as a direct challenge to Gandhi’s unchallenged leadership and therefore the conflict between the two was inevitable.
Being a multifaceted personality—an economist, a sociologist, a barrister, an editor, a constitutionalist of the first rank, a professor, an able parliamentarian, an educationist and a commentator on Buddhism—Ambedkar was predestined to engage himself beyond personality conflicts and look into the problems of India from both a macro as well as micro perspective.