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Appreciating Ambedkar, The Telegraph

In my personal list of books every Indian must read, four stand paramount. These, in order of their year of first publication, are M. K. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (1909), Rabindranath Tagore’s Nationalism (1917), B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste (1936), and Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India (1946). These works are both timely and timeless, speaking to the India in which they were published but continuing to speak to an India that would exist long after the writers themselves had gone.

Gandhi’s book is perhaps most notable for its passionate advocacy of Hindu-Muslim harmony and its principled opposition to the use of violence as a means of settling political disputes. Tagore was addressing his dangers of xenophobic nationalism to warmongers in Japan and the United States, yet, a hundred and more years later, his words bear re-reading by young Indians today seduced by the claim that their country is destined to lead the world. Ambedkar’s work focuses on that most characteristic—and most discriminatory—of Indian institutions, the caste system, and explains why it needs to be annihilated if our society is to renew itself on a more humane footing. Nehru’s reflections on the deeply layered and inescapably plural evolution of Indian culture are a direct challenge to the unifying, homogenizing, ideology of Hindutva, that identifies national identity with one religion (and often one language) alone.

Of these four works, Ambedkar’s is the most coherent in its organization and presentation. Gandhi’s defence of non-violence and religious harmony is marred by an intemperate attack on doctors, lawyers, and modern civilization in general. Nehru’s book meanders and digresses, perhaps because it was written in prison, in part because the author‘s own mind tended to meander and digress. Tagore’s book is powerful in intent but occasionally (or perhaps more than occasionally) clumsy in expression, perhaps because he was not writing in his native language, Bengali.

Annihilation of Caste is a much shorter work than Hind Swaraj, Nationalism, or The Discovery of India. However, that may not be the principal reason why the book is more focused in its presentation. Pertinent here is the author’s personal experience, as a Dalit who had experienced caste discrimination himself. Even more pertinent is his scholarly temperament. Ambedkar had a naturally curious mind and was a voracious reader from a very young age. These tendencies were given further shape by his education in Columbia and London, and the two doctoral degrees he obtained there. In and outside the classroom, Ambedkar had read widely in sociology, economics, philosophy, and history. Because of this scholarly training, he had—unlike Tagore, Gandhi, or Nehru—the analytical skills to synthesize his readings and his experiences into a cohesive and persuasive narrative. At the same time, unlike the jargon-prone academics of today, Ambedkar had the ability as well as the desire to communicate his arguments in everyday language. He was not writing for his fellow scholars, but for his fellow citizens.

I myself first read Annihilation of Caste in the early 1990s, in an edition brought out by a Delhi publisher. I had then begun studying Gandhi, and was struck by the force and directedness of Ambedkar’s approach. For, though in the main text of Annihilation of Caste Gandhi is mentioned only glancingly, it was the Gandhian view of caste that the tract principally targeted. Whereas the Mahatma thought Hinduism could reform itself by making individuals of different castes eat and live together, Ambedkar had no time for temporizing. He argued—to my mind, persuasively—that caste was so central to the moral and theological world of Hinduism that it could only be abolished by a frontal attack that questioned the legitimacy of the scriptures that sanctified it.

I have read Annihilation of Caste many times over the years, sometimes with students in university courses that I have taught. I have followed the critical commentary on the work, as provided by sociologists, historians, biographers, and anti-caste activists interested in Ambedkar and his legacy. I thought I knew the tract, its arguments, and its reception, pretty well, until I happened upon a draft of a book-length commentary on the text by a philosopher based in Hyderabad, Syed Sayeed. This provided an altogether fresh and deeply illuminating perspective on what Ambedkar wished to say.

Previous commentators on Annihilation of Caste have broadly asked, and sought to answer, four kinds of questions. First, why Ambedkar wrote the text and, after he could not deliver it as a speech, chose to publish it at his own expense. Second, whom did Ambedkar think his likely audience was. Third, whether apart from Hindus in general, Ambedkar had the most famous Hindu of the time, Gandhi, particularly in mind, when he wrote and published his tract. Fourth, what precise place does the text and its aftermath occupy in Ambedkar’s own biography.

In a daring, radical, move, Professor Sayeed chooses not to address any of these questions. He is interested not in the broader context of Annihilation of Caste but in a closer, more fine-grained, analysis of the text itself. In his own words, his book has been written to focus attention ‘on what this essay is saying, and only on what it is saying’. He defines his technique of presentation as follows: ‘This is what Ambedkar seems to be saying and, if that is so, these are the implications of his positions and his arguments.’ He thus brackets the relation of Annihilation of Caste to other texts of Ambedkar’s, to his broader political and social reform work, to the even broader question of his place and position in modern Indian history. As Professor Sayeed says, his attempt is to study the text ‘without the shadow of the towering author falling over it’.

In this task he very largely succeeds. We cannot altogether escape Ambedkar’s presence, but through Professor Sayeed’s lens we can more fully understand the structure of the text and what it says. He allows us to perceive the originality of Ambedkar‘s social theory, how it views the social, the political, the economic, and the religious as autonomous domains with their own structures of power, authority, and discrimination. Though in real life these domains do overlap, they cannot be simply collapsed into each other, nor is it helpful to see one domain (such as the economy) as ‘determinant in the last instance’. Professor Sayeed demonstrates how, on the one hand, Ambedkar’s analysis of social inequality in India is far more incisive (and wide-ranging) than that offered by the Marxists, and, on the other, how Ambedkar‘s programme for transforming Hindu society is far more thoroughgoing than that advocated by the Gandhians.

In his text, Professor Sayeed provided a penetrating critique of the identity politics of today. Thus, as he writes, ‘what [Ambedkar] wanted was the erasure of all marks of caste, whereas what we find today is the conspicuous foregrounding of those marks.’ He adds that Ambedkar ‘would have foreseen that identity politics inevitably results in the emergence of majoritarian politics (in the twenty-first century this has become apparent in India as well as globally), and that majoritarianism undermines both democratic politics as well as the moral, or loosely civilisational, character of the country it infects.’

On the current invocation of a glorious Hindu past, and how Ambedkar might have viewed it, Professor Sayeed writes: ‘Of what use is a great civilisational heritage of art and culture when its bedrock is oppression, bondage, and the treatment of a large section of their own kind as inferior to the point of subhuman by upper-caste Hindus?’

A significant contribution of Professor Sayeed’s work is that it successfully deprovincializes Ambedkar. ‘For many of his professed followers’, he writes, ‘Ambedkar’s views must be embraced not because he was a profound thinker but because he belonged to a particular caste.’ He himself insists that Ambedkar was ‘a spirit capable of the broadest human sympathy and deepest sense of what constitutes justice.’

In his book, to be published later this month, Syed Sayeed provides us a close reading of Annihilation of Caste that itself warrants a very close reading. This is a deeply original work of scholarship on one of the most remarkable and enduringly relevant texts ever written by an Indian. If you have—like this writer—read Annihilation of Caste before, or even several times already, you will find its ideas and arguments richly illuminated by Professor Sayeed’s arguments. If, on the other hand, you have not yet read Ambedkar’s text, this brilliant commentary provides you the best way to approach it with fresh eyes and an open mind.

Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 8th April 2023)