Iconolatry and calcification go hand in hand. As we sing platitudes of Babasaheb Ambedkar on his 125th birth anniversary today, it would be infinitely more meaningful to revisit his ideas. Surprisingly, his views on India’s social structure are especially relevant today. Needless to say, any discussion on caste would be extremely stunted without also revisiting Mahatma Gandhi. In doing this, this article does not seek to reanimate the famous Ambedkar-Gandhi debate, which continued far beyond their life spans. These two towering personalities have been caricatured and (deliberately) frozen in perpetual battle. Ideologically there was little convergence between the two, so to enforce an artificial synthesis would be a historical absurdity. However, in this author’s estimation it is their very differences, ideological and ideational, that offer tremendous insights in understanding and addressing the issues of caste.
Ambedkar’s views on caste, his idea of social justice and his two-decade long debate with Gandhi are not mere theoretical musings, but extremely pertinent today because these very views substantially moulded the Congress party’s idea of India. The Congress subsequently embedded these in the Constitution and they continue to form the basis for all government policies. These principles, which are directly aimed at either furthering a constitutional social revolution, include socio-economic equality for all, irrespective of their religion, caste, gender or birth (Right to Equality & Right against Exploitation); religious tolerance and secularism (Right to Freedom of Religion); safeguarding minority rights (affirmative action and Cultural and Educational Rights of minorities); and abolition of untouchability, among numerous others.
Essentially India’s programme of social justice was designed at “undoing the baneful hierarchies of the past, and the unequal starting points they have constructed”. This government sponsored social re-engineering was intended to create a holistic future for those who have hitherto been excluded from full participation in India’s society, thus establishing a just and equitable society.
Despite the existence of this fine charter, casteism continues to be pervasive across India. The flaw lies not with the Constitutional framework that every government is mandated to uphold, but in the mechanics of its application. Ambedkar, who was a steadfast constitutionalist, almost exclusively vested his faith in the State and a state-sponsored social revolution. In his view, only a legally sanctioned rule of law (that would replace the religiously sanctioned rule of law) would ensure that Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and women got their due, and be treated equitably.
However, as he himself so precisely pinpointed, “rights are not protected by law but by the social and moral conscience of society. If social conscience is such that it is prepared to recognise the rights which law chooses to enact, rights will be safe and secure. But if the fundamental rights are opposed by the community, no Law no Parliament, no judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the word” (emphasis added). And thus, it is in a mirror that lies the answer.
Caste (and caste discrimination) continues to exist because as a society we continue to believe in and perpetuate it. In small (matrimonial advertisements, our surnames) and big ways (segregation/discrimination in housing, employment, denial of entitlements because of a person’s caste), we intentionally and unintentionally reinforce caste, which is a small step away from actual discrimination. The dynamics of intercaste relations are shaped by acculturation, which keeps caste alive; caste consciousness justifies segregation (and with just a gentle nudge, prejudice is learnt) and transmitted.
In India therefore, there exists a law of the land, which the Constituent Assembly and various subsequent governments spearheaded and implemented (with varying degrees of success). Covertly resisting and opposing this supra framework exist various dominant communities (who still monopolise the state apparatus responsible for the implementation of government programmes of social justice) who religiously adhere to the law in the land, which is diagrammatically opposed to the secular norms enshrined in the Constitution of India and draws inspiration from regressive scriptures like the Manusmriti (that Ambedkar vociferously decried). The problem is exacerbated by the Sangh parivar, which deliberately proselytises and propagates these norms as sacrosanct to Hinduism (something that Gandhi famously debunked, which is why he was assassinated).
The segregation of and discrimination against Dalits continues primarily because of adherence to this law in the land. The set of beliefs that shape the caste system were (and are) not diluted because of migration to urban areas (as Ambedkar hoped for). These are in-fact re-deployed in different ways and contexts and this continues to limit socio-economic and political opportunities for Dalits (as also minorities and tribals) throughout India. Given this conceptual friction between the two sets of laws, new forms of caste conditions have emerged, most notably, caste resentment. This resentment comes from prejudices stemming from competition and struggle over real and symbolic resources and privileges. Equality of opportunity and status was, and is a norm followed more in the breach.
Despite decades of reservations in government services, only 11.5% of the A class administrative positions in India are occupied by SCs, while 95% of employed SCs are clustered in grades C and D, in what can only be characterised as inclusionary exclusion.
Similarly, a first of its kind survey on the social profiles of senior decision-makers in 37 newspapers and television channels found that 90% of the decision-makers in the English language print media and 79% in television were upper caste, and none were SCs.
Consider also the percentage of SC/ST faculty across India. Only 1.02 lakh (7.22%) of the 14.1 lakh teachers in 716 universities and 38,056 colleges in the country were Dalits, while tribal communities accounted for just 30,000, or 2.12%.
Perhaps most reflective of the continued prevalence of caste discrimination within the application of government programmes (and hence the State apparatus), it has also been pointed out that the higher the percentage of Dalits in a rural area, the lower the level of public services in that area!
The problem is that the State, in the Weberian imagination, can only enforce its authority through violence and cannot impose Constitutional norms effectively enough. It is in this context that Gandhi’s concern about reconfiguring the terms of engagement between low and high caste Hindus is worth revisiting. Without articulating it as such, Gandhi realised that undue reliance on the State to affect a social revolution would be limiting because communities possessing a casteist outlook would resist the law of the land, while instantiating, and reinforcing existing hierarchies of caste. Ambedkar’s incisive exhortation to the Constituent Assembly is therefore extremely relevant for us to collectively reflect on. He argued, “in politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value…How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?”
Given the horrific atrocities and indignities that Dalits, Adivasis and minorities have been subjected to in the past year or so, this is a critical time for India. How we conduct ourselves henceforth will lay the grounds for who we are and who we want to be as a society. It is our moral responsibility to ensure that the promise of this country is accorded to all her people, regardless of their caste, gender, religion or ideological inclination so that no more Rohith Vemulas are denied the stars. It is therefore imperative for us, as a people, to pay heed to Gandhi’s insistence on a socio-political revolution to affect an organic transformation in India’s social consciousness, and to Ambedkar’s faith in the State as a means to guarantee not only equality of opportunity but also of outcome.
It is in striving towards this end that Gandhi and Ambedkar cannot (and should not) be divorced from each other, for it is only through the interplay of their divergences that India can re-conceptualise its political culture and hope to address caste inequities.
Pushparaj Deshpande is currently an analyst with the AICC. He has studied Contemporary India at Oxford University and worked on legislation and policy with various MPs.