Review of ANNIHILATION OF CASTE: The Annotated Critical Edition, by B. R. Ambedkar, edited and annotated by S. Anand

Introduced with the essay The Doctor and the Saint, by Arundhati Roy

Navayana Publishing / Verso, 2014 


When Europeans and North Americans think about the founding of the Indian nation, what thoughts do they have about its distinguished founders?  Not very many.  More or less everyone could name Mohandas Gandhi.  Many could identify a photo of him, and some could even describe in a general way his views of non-violent protest.  Thanks in part to the excellent Attenborough film, but thanks as well to the appropriation of his ideas by Martin Luther King, Jr. -- and thanks above all to his own genius for attention-catching moral-political theater -- he is a world-historical figure, revered more than critically assessed, but at least not ignored.  He makes every top ten list of the world’s most influential human beings – usually right after Jesus, Mohammad, and the Buddha.   Meanwhile, the first -- and so far indubitably the greatest – political leader of the independent nation, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964, Prime Minister from 1947 to 1964), is known to most non-Indians as a name, and perhaps as a style of jacket; but few know anything much about his political ideas and almost nobody reads his marvelous and profoundly moving books (Autobiography and The Discovery of India).  Indeed, ignorance of Nehru is so complete that many people believe that the subsequent Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917-84, P. M. from 1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984) was Gandhi’s daughter rather than Nehru’s, despite the close association of father and daughter throughout the father’s adult life.  (Indira Nehru married a Parsi from Mumbai named Feroze Gandhi, who could not possibly be any relative of Mohandas, a Vaishya Hindu from Gujarat.) 

The palm of unjustified obscurity, however, goes to a man who was very likely the greatest intellect of all the Founders, and one of the most impressive legal minds of the twentieth or any other century, B. R. (Bhimrao Ramji) Ambedkar (1891-1956), who, as Nehru’s Law Minister, became the primary architect of the Indian Constitution.  His name is little-known, his struggles attract no interest, and his voluminous writings – many unpublished in his own lifetime because he was unable to pay the cost of publication – have been available only in dusty tomes until very recently -- when Columbia University, his alma mater, put many of them online, and publishers have begun to produce high-quality critical editions of the most important.  The present volume is therefore occasion for warm celebration.  It contains a superb critical edition of one of Ambedkar’s most important writings, Annihilation of Caste, with notes by S. Anand that are all that one might wish from a high-grade edition.  It also reprints the subsequent sharp published exchanges between Gandhi and Ambedkar, again extensively annotated, a boon to the student of either.  Finally, it includes an essay of 180 pages by Arundhati Roy, Booker-prize-winning novelist turned political polemicist, which contains a somewhat higher ratio of historical and social fact to shrill rhetoric than many of her other writings. While marred by a venomous hatred of Gandhi that few will share, or even come to share after reading her indictment, Roy’s essay still performs a useful function for the uninitiated, showing that uncritical reverence is not the only possible attitude toward this singular leader. 

Before turning to Ambedkar’s writing, however, it is necessary to introduce the man.  B. R. Ambedkar was born in 1891 into the untouchable Mahar caste, traditionally sweepers.  Mahars, however, also had a long-established military role, and his father, like other ancestors, was employed in the army of the British East India Company.  He thus attained a decent living standard if not affluence.  The British, who with all their flaws and their racism did not favor untouchability, supported the right of untouchable children to be educated at touchable schools.  (The people who used to be called Untouchables are now called and call themselves dalits -- meaning “broken people” -- but that term was popularized by Ambedkar himself much later, so I use the earlier term, which he also used earlier, as I narrate his younger years.)

So the young Ambedkar went off to school – where, as he wrote much later, he endured appalling discrimination.  He was forced to sit on a piece of gunny sack that no other child would touch, and he was forbidden to drink from the common tap.  (This is Madhya Pradesh, where temperatures can easily rise above 110 in the midday.   On May 31, 2015, the high reported in this region was 114.)  If the school servant was present, that servant could pour the water down to him from a height.  If the servant was absent, as he often was, then no water. 

Still, Ambedkar excelled in his studies.  Supported by a Brahmin teacher, he won admission at Elphinstone College of Bombay University, the first untouchable child to be admitted.  He received his B. A. in economics and political science from that university in 1912.  His supporters believed that a change of venue would help him advance without the continual exhausting struggle against the stigma of untouchability.  (For just one example: as with the Jim Crow South, he was unable to stay at touchable hotels, and he reports one appalling trip with his sisters, well-off well-behaved children wearing immaculate starched clothes and carrying lots of cash, and yet they almost had to sleep in the open, after a series of rejections all along the way.)  So, with the help of a scholarship, he went off to New York.

Ambedkar flourished at Columbia University (which in 2011 finally erected a statue to him on its campus).  He got two M.A.s (1915 and 1916) and one Ph.D. (1927) in Economics, writing on the Indian finance system, and he became a protégé of John Dewey, whose work and ideas remained dear to him throughout his life. America was always his favorite place.  He said he experienced social equality there for the first time; and he retained throughout his life a somewhat starry-eyed love of our flawed country, even arguing in an unpublished essay that slavery was not as bad as untouchability.  Intellectually, his rejection of Marxism and socialism and his embrace of a progressive New-Dealish type of parliamentary democracy owe much to Dewey’s influence.  (In a late work comparing the Buddha and Karl Marx, he indicts Marx for his idea that human progress must take place through “dictatorship” and the suppression of liberty.)  In  between his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Columbia, he spent time at the London School of Economics, getting an additional Economics Ph.D. degree there (1923) and becoming a barrister in Grey’s Inn.  (Thus he never had a U. S. law degree, but he gathered an encyclopedic knowledge of U. S. as well as British law.  The U. S. Constitution, with its combination of a written text, including a list of fundamental rights, and common law interpretive traditions, became, later, his model for India.)

Back in India, however, he always had to be not only a top legal and political mind, but also an Untouchable, and the political struggle against caste consumed a great part of his energy during the 1930’s.   Ambedkar was never a very effective politician.  Every time he ran for office he lost.  He simply was an intellectual first and foremost, lacking the common touch and lacking Gandhi’s instinct for symbol and strategy.  His epochal role in politics came much later, and in an appointive post: in 1948-1950, as Nehru’s law minister. His work on the Constitution and his remarkable speeches about it, preserved in the Constituent Assembly proceedings, are a topic for another occasion[1].  Suffice it to say that he deftly rejects the solidaristic vision of the left parties in favor of a liberal insistence on parliamentary democracy and on a type of formalism that puts procedure ahead of outcomes. 

But Annihilation of Caste preceded all of this; it belongs to a strain of Ambedkar’s thought that is really not political at all, so much as social and religious.  In 1936, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (“Forum for the Breakup of Caste), a group of Hindu reformers, invited Ambedkar to deliver the plenary lecture at its annual meeting.  He showed them the text of his lecture ahead of time, and they found it objectionable, so they canceled the entire meeting.  The group was dedicated to moderate incremental reform: they focused on mixed-caste dining, and probably hoped that social mingling would ultimately lead to intermarriage. But they were not prepared for denunciation of the entire idea of a religion based on the authority of text and priests; they hoped, rather like Gandhi, that judicious reinterpretation of text could solve the major problems.  Above all, Ambedkar’s declaration in the lecture that he had already left Hinduism behind was anathema to them.  For, again like Gandhi, they were hoping to keep Untouchables in the Hindu fold through reform; they were attached to their religion and wanted it to be the best it could possibly be.  (Gandhi’s motives were more complex and political: he did not want a potentially powerful independence movement to be fractured by sectarian religious splits.)  Ambedkar published the speech at his own expense, charging 8 annas for it (half a rupee, not high considering costs).  It was therefore snarky and insulting when Gandhi suggested in his first published reply that this fee was too high, and that the appropriate fee would be 2 annas or at most 4.  The work quickly became famous and was translated into many languages.  (Like all Ambedkar’s major writings it was written in English.)

Annihilation of Caste does not dwell on the horrifying discrimination involved in the caste system and the practice of untouchability. For data on this the reader should consult the first part of Roy’s essay, which does a real service by assembling facts about the persistence of caste practices, including denials of common water and food, denials of lodging, education, employment, and social association, and, often, horrific violence, including rapes and lynchings.  (The Jim Crow South is an apt parallel, except that caste practices are so much older and more firmly entrenched.)   The implied reader of the essay, the reform-minded Hindu, is expected to know what untouchability has meant for human dignity; the essay operates against that background.

Ambedkar’s objections to the entire institution of caste are fourfold.  First, the institution includes the horrendous practice of untouchability, with all its violence and insult.  Second, in the process of enforcing the caste hierarchy, the upper castes have deprived the lower (mainly Untouchables, but other manual laborers as well) of the two most efficient means of changing their lot: for the hereditary division of labor denies them the right to education and the right to bear arms.  (He always assumed that without the potential use of arms, at least in self-defense, a revolutionary movement would be crippled. But he never developed this argument.)  This second problem would not be removed by simply dropping the stigma attached to untouchability and reconceiving of caste in the way proposed by Gandhi, as simply a hereditary allocation of occupations.  Third, in the process of enforcing the hereditary division of occupations, caste rides roughshod over the profound human value of the free choice of occupation in keeping with talent and inclination.  (Here Ambedkar joins hands with Adam Smith, who made the same point about the odious system of apprenticeship and parish registration.)  Fourth, caste is just an irrational notion, part and parcel of a religion of blind subservience to tradition.  It cannot be defended by reason, and it can have no place in any religion based upon reason.  These last two objections, once again, cannot be met by moderate reform, although Ambedkar believes that the annihilation of caste leave lots of room for religion, rightly understood. 

In his later legal/political writings, Ambedkar adds a fifth, political objection to caste: it is anti-national, leading to an identity politics that breaks up people along traditional lines and asks them to have their primary affective ties to their caste group. It thus impedes the creation of a united nation and a politics based upon ideas rather than irrational traditions.  He was so right about this, and the politics of India today shows how well-founded his objection was: dozens of caste-based parties, most of them regional, since castes are regional, have balkanized the party politics of the nation, preventing to a considerable extent any rational sorting of parties along lines of policy. 

What is left, if caste should be annihilated for the four reasons given?  Ambedkar plainly thinks that Hinduism would not be left.  He thinks Hinduism cannot survive the end of idolatry and submissiveness.  But he insists that religion is not doomed by the demand to give moral reasoning priority over tradition. For there can be a religion of principle that does not ask us to pervert our judgment.  The moment religion “degenerates into rules it ceases to be religion…[R]eligion must mainly be a matter of principle only.”  Very like Immanuel Kant, in Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1793), he demands a reconceptualization of religion that accepts the supremacy of (moral) principle and reasoned critique.  He does not mention in this essay his belief that Buddhism is such a religion, but the reader would be expected to be aware of Ambedkar’s longstanding interest in that option and its history. 

Gandhi responded sharply to Ambedkar’s pamphlet in his own journal Harijan, and Ambedkar included the critique in the 1936 reissue of Annihilation, along with his own reply to Gandhi.  Gandhi’s response to Annihilation does not show him at his finest.  He keeps insisting dogmatically, and without any show of respect for Ambedkar, that Hinduism can be reformed from within and that all-out annihilation of caste means the annihilation of religion.   In saying this he simply fails to respond to Ambedkar’s powerful arguments.  As Ambedkar works his way through Gandhi’s essay, with each refusal to engage, his rejoinders become more blunt, more sardonic, until we find him saying flat out, “The Mahatma appears not to believe in thinking…Like a conservative with his reverence for consecrated notions, he is afraid that if he once starts thinking, many ideals and institutions to which he clings will be doomed.  One must sympathize with him. For every act of independent thinking puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril.” 

The best face to put on Gandhi’s stance is that he was thinking above all of the independence movement and what would strengthen it, and that he thought, plausibly enough, that if he adopted the Enlightenment stance of Ambedkar this would cause the mass defection of most Hindus from the movement.  Gandhi was always an inscrutable mixture of saintliness and strategy, and what Arundhati Roy stridently denounces as hypocrisy and compromise is very likely best seen as correct human insight about how to build a mass movement.  But there is also little doubt that Gandhi really did think that there was no harm in the hereditary division of labor, if untouchability were once removed from it.  There is also little doubt that his critique of tradition stopped well short of Ambedkar’s, retaining a profound role for text and authority.  As for whether (as Roy repeatedly asserts) he refused the full human equality of the Untouchables, that seems far less clear, and here her essay veers into snide polemic.  He surely did not trust them to lead themselves at crucial junctures, and he did make some patronizing remarks – but the larger conclusion Roy draws, namely that he was a proud upper-caste Hindu defending his turf by dishonest pretenses of egalitarianism, is not borne out by any evidence she presents.  All I can do at this point is urge the reader to delve for herself into the extensive controversy about Gandhi’s ideas concerning caste.  As for Roy’s snide disparagement of Gandhi for accepting funds for his movement from the industrialist Birla, another member of his own Vaishya (merchant) caste, as if it were some grave moral sin to accept money from rich people --  this seems to me very odd. Should he have tried to break the stranglehold of the Raj without funds?  Or should he have insisted on taking funds only from the most destitute? Roy’s shrill hatred of capitalism renders her critique here crude and incoherent.

For our purposes, it is enough to know that Ambedkar’s Enlightenment idea of religion is quite far from any reform that Gandhi would accept, and that Gandhi gives no arguments at all in response to Ambedkar’s cogent arguments.  But we must also keep in mind the fact that Gandhi formed and led an enormously successful and noble mass movement that eventually led to India’s independence, and that Ambedkar had no ability at all in this line of human endeavor.  When the time came for constitution-making, that was his shining hour.    

Ambedkar and Gandhi were both deeply religious.   Their rivalry was that of utterly opposed types of religious reformers.  Gandhi assailed untouchability in the name of human dignity, but retained, by some textual gymnastics or perhaps some fuzziness of thought, the authority of text and priestly tradition.  His understanding of religion retained an essential role for tradition, myth, symbol, and authority, and after a point it really is true that he had no room for thinking.  Ambedkar brooks no half-way measures.  Reform means using critical reason all the way down, jettisoning the authority of text and tradition, and fashioning a religion of moral principle in place of the religion of rules and laws.  Already fascinated by the Buddhism to which he would officially convert shortly before his death in 1956, in a mass ceremony joined by his Brahmin wife and his entire Mahar caste, he can conceive of no possible reform of Hinduism that would meet his moral demands.

But he does not jettison religion.  He understands the need for moral ideals that have a community and a history, even a poetry, attached to them.  Here too he joins hands with Kant, though there is no sign that he ever read him: for Kant held that imperfect people need religion, meaning communal ritual practices of some type, to reinforce their dedication to the moral law.  Ambedkar would have added too, I think, that people need religion to express human love fully and adequately, overcoming parochialism and self-interest.  His take on the need for religion seems less about avoiding evil than about the whole-hearted embrace of good.  His posthumously published book The Buddha and his Dhamma (not published in his lifetime only because he had no money to pay for its publication) is a lyrical and deeply moving work, an attempt to convey to a broad audience the greatness of the Buddha and his moral leadership – all the while emphasizing that, unlike other founders of religions, the Buddha did not make a place of honor for himself in his religion of moral law -- dhamma is defined by Ambedkar as “right relations between man and man in all spheres of life” --  or claim any divinity or infallibility for himself or even for his law.  “He said that it was open to anyone to question it, test it, and find what truth it contained.  No founder has so fully thrown open his religion to such a challenge.”

All the things the reader of Annihilation could have guessed at are in this late text: the insistence on universal moral legislation, the broad compassion, the refusal of asceticism, the egalitarian ethics.  But what such a reader could not have guessed at in advance is the sheer beauty of the story-telling, illuminated throughout by Ambedkar’s love of the charm of the Buddha’s personality and his gracious and life-affirming presence.  “On seeing him, he who was going elsewhere stood still, and whoever was standing followed him; he who was walking gently and gravely ran quickly; and he who was sitting at once sprang up…He was loved and respected by all.” Can this be the fiery denouncer of social evil? Can this be the sober legal scholar?  To begin to penetrate Ambedkar’s mind and heart, one has to figure out how the answer to both of these questions is, “Indubitably yes.”

Asking Ambedkar’s questions, Kant turned to a reconstruction of Christianity based on the recovery of the authentic teaching of Jesus, as he saw it.  Some Christians today agree with Kant that Jesus favored a religion of moral principle, although many do not.  The Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn tried to convince Kant that Judaism was the alternative Kant wanted – meaning a rational Judaism stripped of mere legalism.  And indeed, when I read Annihilation, I can’t help thinking of my own religion, Reform Judaism, which took Mendelssohn’s radical vision and ran with it.  Ambedkar’s vision really is that of the radical Jewish reformers of the nineteenth century, who remained Jews but rejected the authority of text and religious law, including the dietary laws, putting the moral law in first (and really the only) place and reconceiving of religion as focused on universal human love and the striving for human justice.  The difficulty these reformers encountered, however, was that they tended to omit poetry and ceremony as well, so the movement eventually either collapsed from within (the decline of the Ethical Culture Society) or turned back to recapture some of what was lost, hopefully the right things and not the wrong things.  My Reform congregation is not alone in trying to recapture poetry, ceremony, and beauty within the confines of reason – with much debate about which practices involve “totemism” and “fetishism” and which ones can have a symbolic moral meaning. It’s a tough act, but it’s what appeals to me, and it’s what evidently appealed to Ambedkar.

Above all, the present volume – along with late works including The Buddha and his Dhamma and The Buddha and Karl Marx -- shows that Ambedkar was a very considerable thinker about religion, human beings, and society.  If we combine these works with his legal and constitutional thought, including his work creating one of the world’s most compelling visions of liberal social democracy, the Indian Constitution, we will begin to take the measure of this remarkable human being.

MARTHA NUSSBAUM is an American philosopher and the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, a chair that includes appointments in the philosophy department and the law school.

[1] I discuss his ideas in “Ambedkar’s Constitution: Promoting Inclusion, Opposing Majority Tyranny,” forthcoming in a volume on assessing constitutions edited by Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, Cambridge University Press.