Mumbai: On December 25, a large group of Ambedkarites, including college-going youth, gathered in the Bakhasar area of Barmer district in Rajasthan to burn a copy of the Manusmriti. There was nothing unusual about this gathering or the act – every year, for over 95 years, followers of Dr B.R. Ambedkar across India have been organising “Manusmriti Dahan Divas” as a symbolic protest against the so-called “ancient text” that caste Hindus have for centuries considered a “legal code” that stratifies the Hindus into Varnas, placing the Shudras at the bottom.
But this year, the event didn’t go as planned. The Barmer police, yielding under pressure from several caste Hindu outfits, booked the participants for “defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class” and “committing an offence at a place of worship or in any assembly engaged in the performance of religious worship or religious ceremonies”. Four men have been arrested so far and are still in jail – Ajmal, Amrut Ram, Ravta Ram and Shankarlal Meghwal. The first two were arrested soon after the event and the others on December 31.
This is perhaps the first time that any state police has acted against those burning the Manusmriti or Manu’s law, a text antithetical to the Indian Constitution. The Bakhasar event was organised by the Samta Sainik Dal, an organisation founded by Ambedkar in 1924. The convener of the event, advocate Amit Dhandey, too has been named in the FIR but has not been arrested yet. Dhandey told The Wire that the event, like every year, was held peacefully, but within hours “well-framed provocative messages” were systematically circulated on social media platforms claiming “sacred Hindu text has been defiled”. “In a few hours, the unknown sacred Hindu text was cleverly replaced with Bhagwad Gita”, Dhandey said. Dhandey, an accused in the case, is also legally representing those already arrested.
The police acknowledge that the situation went out of control following a social media campaign, primarily led by the local BJP workers. But they claim the arrests were inevitable. “We had to act on the complaint received,” says Narpat Singh, additional superintendent of police, Barmer district. Singh revealed that in the course of their investigation, it was clear that the Bhagwad Gita had not been burnt. “But sentiments were hurt nonetheless following the burning of Manusmriti,” Singh told The Wire over a phone call.
When asked if this was the first time that the Manusmriti Dahan event was organised in Barmer, Singh said no, further adding that “This was the first time someone had registered a complaint”. Interestingly, the police didn’t press for the arrested persons’ custody as “the case didn’t need custodial investigation”, Singh said.
The situation in Barmer has since been tense and Hindu organisations, mainly led by local BJP activist Bhoora Singh, have been organising spontaneous public protests. The publicly available videos of these demonstrations show that they are provocative. Govardhan Jaipal, handling Samta Sainik Dal’s work at the state level, alleged that the police have been letting the Hindutva brigade have a field day in the region just so the atmosphere is vitiated and the Dalit Ambedkarites participating in anti-caste activities continue to face harassment.
Durg Singh Rajpurohit, a senior journalist working in the border district for two decades and editor of The Barmer Times, was one of the first to report about the right wing’s involvement in the controversy. Rajpurohit says the police deliberately ignored the evidence and went with the Hindu groups’ claims.
The reason behind burning Manusmriti
There is no evidence to back the claim that Manu ever really existed. But caste Hindus believe that Manu had authored the Manusmriti, also known as ‘laws of Manu’, which laid down regressive laws for Shudras, ati-Shudras and women. These smritis – believed to have been composed somewhere between 200 BCE and 1000 CE – sanctioned different rules and punishments on the basis of caste.
In 1927, as a part of the famous Mahad Satyagraha in Maharashtra, Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti. Ever since, big and small anti-caste organisations across India have been making a bonfire out of the objectionable text.
When Ambedkar burnt the text, he too was met with serious opposition. In an interview to T.V. Parvate in 1938, Ambedkar had said:
“The bonfire of Manusmriti was quite intentional. It was a very cautious and drastic step but was taken with a view to force the attention of Caste Hindus. At intervals, such drastic remedies are a necessity. If you do not knock at the door, none opens it. It is not that all the parts of Manusmriti are condemnable, that it does not contain good principles and that Manu himself was not a sociologist and was a mere fool. We made a bonfire of it because we view it as a symbol of injustice under which we have been crushed across centuries. Because of its teaching, we have been ground down under despicable poverty and so we made the clash, staked all, took our lives in our hands and performed the deed.”
Despite criticism, Rajasthan has had a long history of promoting Manu as a “Hindu icon”. The book is inherently against the principles of justice and equality as enshrined in the Indian constitution. Yet, Manu’s statue stands inside the Rajasthan high court’s premises in Jaipur. In 2018, two Dalit women from Maharashtra – Kantabai Ahire and Sheela Pawar – climbed up the statue of Manu in the high court and smeared black paint over it. They were arrested and continue to face legal action.
Senior anti-caste activist and lawyer Priyadarshi Telang says in Maharashtra too, attempts have been made to criminalise the act. “In Gadchiroli, at one such event, the complaint was filed with the police. However, the police didn’t convert the complaint into an FIR,” he said.
Telang said the pushback is just to stop Ambedkarites from carrying out these historic events in the future. “Not just Manusmriti Dahan, even Ambedkar’s 22 vows are looked at as a threat to the caste Hindu society.” When the former Aam Admi Party leader Rajendra Pal Gautam repeated Ambedkar’s 22 vows at an event in Delhi, he was soon targeted by the BJP, even leading to a police complaint against him. “The vows have been used by crores of people at different events since 1956 but today suddenly it is a criminal act,” Telang said.