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Casteism in India -The Fatal Accident of Birth

Story of struggle: “Rohith, like Ambedkar, was ousted from the only place that had afforded him shelter as a matter of right.” Rohith and his friends after being evicted from the Hyderabad Central University hostel.

Photo: By Special Arrangement

Story of struggle: “Rohith, like Ambedkar, was ousted from the only place that had afforded him shelter as a matter of right.” Rohith and his friends after being evicted from the Hyderabad Central University hostel.

Like Ambedkar who was kept ‘slightly apart’ in his school, our less-privileged brothers are kept in a ‘reserved’ status.

On Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, look closely at this year’s defining image of Dalit struggle and aspiration. It is a photograph of the late Rohith Vemula, carrying Ambedkar’s portrait out of the Hyderabad Central University hostel. Rohith, who was evicted along with his friends, spent the next fortnight on the pavement outside the university, in a makeshift tent decorated with that portrait.

If you look again at the photograph, the expression on Rohith’s face seems to be one of frustration and grief at a fall from grace. He was ousted from the only place that had protected him and afforded him shelter as a matter of right. When he was thrown out, he lacked privacy even to commit suicide. In his suicide note, he apologised to “Uma anna”, whose room he had borrowed to die in. A scholar without a university hall of residence, his stipend denied for seven months, his debts mounting and no discernible end in sight, Rohith chose to end his life. A life snuffed out, by a fatal accident of birth.

Ambedkar’s life too saw him being denied a place to live in. In a speech, he narrated how: “With a scholarship granted by Baroda State, I had gone for education abroad. After returning from England, in accordance with the terms of the agreement, I came to serve under the Baroda Durbar… Neither a Hindu nor any Muslim was prepared to rent out a house to me in the city of Baroda… I decided to get accommodation in a Parsi Dharamsala. After having stayed in America and England, I had developed a fair complexion and an impressive personality. Giving myself a Parsi name, ‘Adalji Sorabji’, I began to live in the Parsi Dharamsala… But soon the people got wind of the fact that His Highness the Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda had appointed a Mahar boy as an officer in his Durbar… my secret was soon out.” Ambedkar had to resign and leave for Bombay.

Historical prejudice

Now look at the photograph yet again, you will now see how little things have changed in India since Ambedkar himself walked the path towards education and constitutional change. Almost every story of oppression, of an upwardly mobile Dalit who manages to survive India’s culture of silent acquiescence, is the story of an aspiration for learning running aground on the fatal accident of the protagonist’s birth. In the Mahabharata, we have the story of Dronacharya asking Ekalavya for a sacrifice of his archer’s thumb, simply because a boy from the non-warrior caste could not have learnt the arts of war. In the Ramayana, the Shudra ascetic Shambuka was killed by Lord Rama for performing penances which were reserved for those of priestly birth.

In his lecture on ‘Annihilation of Caste’, Ambedkar wrote: “Some people seem to blame Rama because he wantonly and without reason killed Shambuka. But to blame Rama for killing Shambuka is to misunderstand the whole situation. Ram Raj was a Raj based on Chaturvarnya. As a king, Rama was bound to maintain Chaturvarnya. It was his duty therefore to kill Shambuka, the Shudra, who had transgressed his class and wanted to be a Brahmin… But this also shows that penal sanction is necessary for the maintenance of Chaturvarnya. Not only penal sanction is necessary, but penalty of death is necessary. That is why Rama did not inflict on Shambuka a lesser punishment. That is why Manu-Smriti prescribes such heavy sentences as cutting off the tongue or pouring of molten lead in the ears of the Shudra who recites or hears the Veda.”

Ambedkar recognised that an egalitarian society could never be built on a foundation of caste-classified occupations. He wanted that “the supporters of Chaturvarnya must give an assurance that they could successfully classify men and they could induce modern society in the twentieth century to reforge the penal sanctions of Manu-Smriti”. The supporters that Ambedkar referred to included Mahatma Gandhi who, to many a Hindu of 1936, was “an oracle, so great that when he opens his lips it is expected that the argument must close and no dog must bark”. Ambedkar, however, persisted, in his argument, because he felt that “the world owes much to rebels who would dare to argue in the face of the pontiff and insist that he is not infallible”.

Caste and the nation

A decade later, when it fell to Ambedkar’s lot to draw up a Constitution for the Republic, he not only banned untouchability in all its forms but sought effective safeguards to enforce equality of opportunity to those who were hitherto deprived. In his memorandum to the Constituent Assembly he explained the safeguards “to mean that the Scheduled Castes are more than a minority and that any protection given to the citizens and to the minorities will not be adequate for the Scheduled Castes”. In his speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, he warned, “I am of the opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The United States has no caste problem. In India there are castes. The castes are anti-national. In the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.”

Was Ambedkar satisfied with his engrafting of liberty, equality and fraternity into the national scripture? The evidence is ambiguous. Five years on, Dr. Anup Singh, a Rajya Sabha member from Punjab, asked Ambedkar, “Last time when you spoke, you said that you would burn the Constitution.” Ambedkar retorted, “The reason is this: We built a temple for god to come in and reside, but before the god could be installed, if the devil had taken possession of it, what else could we do except destroy the temple? We did not intend that it should be occupied by the Asuras. We intended it to be occupied by the Devas. That’s the reason why I said I would rather like to burn it.”

Ambedkar’s Constitution, the cornerstone of our nation, was described by the American author Granville Austen as “first and foremost a social document”. “The majority of India’s constitutional provisions are either directly arrived at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement,” he said.

Today, on his 125th birth anniversary, we have to evaluate Ambedkar’s legacy by asking whether a social revolution has at all come about through constitutional means. Has our national life over the past sixty-six years of the Republic fostered a sense of Indian fraternity? Are our commitments to liberty and equality mere coats of paint over foundational flaws? There are no easy answers. We have moved a few Dalits from the cesspools built over centuries to colleges and universities. But we neither welcome them there nor do we accept them into our workplaces. Like Ambedkar who was kept “slightly apart” in his school, our less-privileged brothers are kept in a “reserved” status, which is separate and inherently unequal.

A true tribute to Ambedkar on his 125th anniversary would be to ensure that the value of a Rohith Vemula is not hereafter “reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing”.

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