In the Black Lives Matter movement that followed the murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota, protesters across the United States demanded the removal of racist statues and symbols.
Many supported the demand. To some protectors of culture, it caused discomfort. To them, the call was anarchist in nature.
But both the demand to take down these statues and the agony that their presence causes needs to be understood in light of the growing inequalities caused by race, caste and gender. In legitimising and legalising social structures that are inherently unequal, both ‘past’ and ‘memory’ play a great role.
In India, one such vestige of the past and of memory rests in front of the Rajasthan high court. It is the statue of Manu, considered the author of the Manusmriti.
It is no secret that the so-called societal principles of casteist India rest on the grounds of prejudice, hatred and subordination. These principles are a result of the Vedas, Shastras and Smritis.
Spaces (social, economic, political and cultural) serve the dual purpose of upholding a notion of purity and ostracising Shudras and Ati-Shudras in the process.
This is a time-honoured process of dehumanisation and can be traced back to the time when the Manusmriti began to be considered a constitution of sorts.
As is well known, the text of the Manusmriti as a legal code has sanctified the ritual hierarchy of the four Varnas and placed Shudras at the bottom.
Babasaheb Ambedkar understood the importance of symbols of the historic past and how they legitimise inequalities.
In Volume 12 of B.R. Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches, he wrote:
“It might be argued that the inequality prescribed by Manu in his Smriti is after all of historical importance. It is past history and cannot be supposed to have any bearing on the present conduct of the Hindu. I am sure nothing can be greater error than this. Manu is not a matter of the past. It is even more than a past of the present. It is a ‘living past’ and therefore as really present as any present can be.”
It is necessary to see these symbols that propagate inequality in society for what they are. Here, the power of mythical figures comes into consideration.
Memory, past and the current realities of violence in society are all part of the Brahminical worldview. The ability of the Brahminical world order to condone immoral and barbaric inequality renders it antithetical to the idea of constitutional morality.
The Manusmriti, as the Brahminic ‘constitution’, has no place for the idea of constitutional morality. What it does is to legalise and legitimise selective violence and selective justice.
It is for this reason that Ambedkar, on December 25, 1927, burned copies of the Manusmriti..
In an interview with T. V. Parvate in 1938, he said:
“The bonfire of Manusmriti was quite intentional. It was a very cautious and drastic step, but was taken with a view to forcing 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 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.”
This was exactly the sort of move – against a symbol of unequal social law – that made nationalists who also doubled as protectors of ancient culture so uncomfortable.
One such response came from Gandhi where he said:
“I do not consider the burning of Manusmriti to be on a par with the burning of foreign cloth. Burning of foreign cloth is like burning a thing that is injurious; but the burning of Manusmriti is at best like the burning of an advertisement for foreign cloth showing nothing but childish rage. Moreover, I do not regard Manusmriti as an evil. It contains much that is admirable, but in its present form it undoubtedly contains many things that are bad and these appear to be interpolations. Whilst a reformer would therefore treasure all excellent things in that ancient code, he would expurgate all that is injurious or of doubtful value.”
This language of condemnation is also something that needs to be looked at. It is used to delegitimise and ridicule this method of protest and the people involved in it.
Gandhi called the act of burning the Manusmriti a childish rage. The protestors in the Black Lives Matter movement are often labelled anarchists. Many of Ambedkarite activists in universities are called rabble rousers, rowdies, unruly and anti-national. Even the administration joins in when it comes to the latter.
When the force of violence is not easily available to the oppressor and its agents, language becomes the primary tool in humiliating the oppressed. Similarly, symbols are powerful agents in imbuing oppressors with the strength to claim themselves as the ‘higher’ specimen when it comes to race, caste, gender and class.
This glorification of the ‘supermen’ who have higher moral ideals is a natural detrimental factor when it comes to the functioning of any social democracy that tries to attain equality.
Manu’s statue at the Rajasthan high court premises is an existing symbol of humiliation. It also symbolises an eternal un-freedom.
The gospel of Brahminism teaches us that what is right for the superman is the only option which is morally right and morally good, and the statue exemplifies this. It helps in continuing what sociologists call ‘Social Death’.
Democracy cannot afford the sight and practice of oppression to be seen at a place which aims to deliver justice, and is morally right.
Once oppression such as this is systemised, human consciousness becomes redundant.
Pallikonda Manikanta is an MPhil student of political science, University of Hyderabad. A Phule-Ambedkarite scholar and activist, he is actively engaged with BSF in HCU and BAPSA in JNU.