Looking at B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, how does he address the idea of radical societal overhaul from a caste perspective? Explain this in terms of his countering of the predominant political and economic reform narrative of his time. (7.5 marks, 800-900 words)
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, in his most popular writing entitled “The Annihilation of Caste”, suggests a radical restructuring of Indian Hindu Society in its entirety, before going for political and economic reform. He states several examples to justify that political and economic reform that has almost always preceded social and religious reforms, has almost always been insufficient in bringing about equality in their reform agenda. This is particularly so because political and economic reformers have never considered the prevalence of inequality as a socially generated systematized and institutionalised issue. He refers to the backdrop of the National Congress and the Social Conference, and the latter’s failure in meting out social reform aligned with the political and economic reform agenda within their socialist framework. He critiques the socialist framework of the National Congress in India of treating reform as a purely economic and political issue, and never considering the actual monster behind their political and economic inequality, which is the “monster of caste”, an inherently social stratification that intersects with class and gender to produce inequality. Ambedkar addresses the question of radical overhaul of Indian Hindu Society from the centrifuge of its religiously institutionalized caste system.
National Congress, Social Conference and the Question of Caste
Ambedkar delves into the history of the formation of the National Congress in India, that was also simultaneously parallelled by the creation of the Social Conference. Initially under the same banner, while the Congress sought to met out political and economic reform, the Social Conference was founded by Mahadev Ranade with the sole purpose of carrying out social reform alongside the political and economic restructuring of the Congress. Ambedkar notes that a rift between the two was created due to the split in the twin embodied factions into two-party wings. This was over the question of whether social reform should precede political reform and also a consequence of the same was the distribution of the sheer number of educated Hindus between the two. While the Congress had a tremendous amount of representation and support alike, the Conference had minimal vis a vis the former. Eventually, when the Utilitarian ideological foundation of the Congress started to overshadow the purpose of the Conference, there was a split in the embodied factions and the Conference was forced to leave the Congress pandal after Bal Gangadhar Tilak exercised his leadership and influence. This eventually led to the Conference dying out due to lack of representation and also after realizing the violent repercussions of demanding its own pandal. Ambedkar connects this to a speech made by W.C. Bonnerjee post this issue wherein Bonnerjee implied the redundancy of expecting political reform to precede social reform. To this Ambedkar asks the question of caste. He recounts multiple incidents of violent and unnecessary social injustices carried out against the “untouchable” community by the Upper Cast Brahmanical Hindus. He mentions instances of violence, extremism and of the enormous risk of exercising personal autonomy on the civic right of education. In the light of all these instances, he poses the question of whether Indian Polity is really of prime concern in the light of numerous social injustices meted out to a large number of people considered to be persona non grata by a few power and property wieldingh upper caste Hindu elite.
The Lost Battle of the Conference and a Critique of Socialist Reform
After stating the question of caste on the table, Ambedkar moves on to critique the Social Conference for its elaborate failure of social reform. Ambedkar makes a clear distinction between the manner of social reform agenda that was meted out as opposed to what should have been the central focus. He says that the Social Conference focused largely on the reform of the Upper Caste Hindu family by seeking to abolish practices like the harsh treatment of widows and child marriages. This was done by ignoring the agenda of a radical overhaul of the Hindu Society at large, therefore the abolition of the Caste System. The Conference did not stand up for the Hindu society at large, owing to its defeat by poorly assessing the totality of the problem – an argument by which political reform preceded. Despite this Ambedkar admits that the victory of political reform was only a limited victory. In order to support this he quotes Ferdinand Lasalle: “political constitutions have value and permanence only when they accurately express those conditions of forces which exist in practice within a society.” He connects this argument made in the context of Prussia to the Communal award in India, a political reform that provided separate electorates for the backward classes and the communal minorities. Ambedkar saw this as not an ideal reform and states the example of the Irish Home Rule by assessing the strife between the protestants and the catholics as a caste issue, therefore a predominantly social issue. He then gives the example of the Plebeian Consul in Rome and its failure to justify his point of the misassessment of the precedence of political reform to ensure social reform. He uses this argument to critique the Socialists ignorance of problems arising out of social order.
He critiques the socialists’ adoption of the principle of the economic interpretation of history to social facts in India. He gives a detailed description of the policies of economic equalization of property by ignoring the actuality of the situation which is the inequality caused by the over ownership of property by the landed elites. Ambedkar goes on to prove that even more powerful than economic motive is the religious motive, a motive that governs social organization at large. He once again resorts to the case of Rome where the Oracle, represented by a patrician majority, never let Plebeian aspirations turn into exercisable power. In this context, he points to the Socialist fallacy in identifying the property as the prime source of power. He questions the dominion of property over society and talks about liberty being the destruction of the dominion of one community over another. Therefore he concludes by saying that when social and religious motives have dominion in society, if there is to be absolutely any overhaul of society, then it has to be in these domains. The question he asks the Socialists is whether they believe in the systemic nature of inequality caused by the exercise of power by a privileged community over another, in response to their belief in inequality. He denies the smooth functioning of socialist reform in the absence of the cognizance of grappling with the problem of social injustices and prejudice in society, and therefore shifts the focus of reform to justice, by the abolition of the monster of the caste system, the systemic root of this inequality.
- Ambedkar, B.R. (1944). Annihilation of Caste (4th ed.). https://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/ambedkar/web/readings/aoc_print_2004.pdf (pp. 1-16)
- Vinod, Renu (2020). Annihilation of Caste – [PowerPoint Presentation]