Commemorating Ambedkar Jayanthi/ Equality Day

ambedkar dalit jai bhim

14th April is commemorated each year in the memory of B. R. Ambedkar. Because of his radical stance in favour of the oppressed Dalits, his birthday is referred to as “Bhim Jayanthi” and “Equality Day”

Contemporary India sorely needs a reincarnated Dr. Ambedkar. In his lifetime, he aspired for a society that gives equal rights, opportunities, and respect to the economically weak and depressed sections in India. Towards this, he aspired to reorganize Indian society by opposing the prevalent caste based social structure which he characterized as possessing ‘graded inequalities’.

Apart from four classes namely, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishya and Shudhras, there were the uuntouchables who were treated as inferior and disallowed entry into temples, barred from bathing in ponds used by upper caste people and denied use of the wells of the privileged upper castes.  Ambedkar defied this inhuman caste hierarchy and began a ‘Temple entry Movement’ in 1927. Ambedkar was relentless. Between 1927 and1935 he launched three more temple entry movements. Ambedkar’s intent was to expose the caste prejudices that existed within Indian society.

Dr B.R. Ambedkar was born into a ‘Mahar’ family and faced caste discrimination right from his childhood. He observed how he and other people of lesser castes were not allowed to drink water from the taps that were used by upper castes. The Mahars, original inhabitants of Maharashtra, are an Indian caste found largely in the state of Maharashtra and neighboring areas. Later, most of the Mahar community followed B. R. Ambedkar in converting to Buddhism in the middle of the 20th century only to break-out from oppressive caste structures that then prevailed.

Ambedkar’s defiant confrontation with the caste system led him to write a speech; “Annihilation of caste” for the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal of Lahore in 1936. His determination to end all forms of social stratification was outlined in his discourse in which he elaborated the persecution that people of lower castes suffered. His view was that the Dalit community suffered caste prejudice due to endogamy referring to the cultural practice of mating – usually in the form of marriage – within a specific social group, religious denomination, caste, or ethnic group, rejecting those from others as unsuitable for marriage or other close interpersonal relationships. This pattern of social exclusivity was deemed abhorrent by Ambedkar and his conviction that human society must, of essence, be inclusive.

Humankind cannot be built on social differentiations. Nor can social differentiations which allow the distinction made between social groups and persons on the basis of biological, physiological, and socio-cultural factors, as sex, age, or ethnicity, resulting in the assignment of roles and status within a society be perpetuated.  Ambedkar’s irrevocable views challenged the status quo and, as a result, the Jat-Kat-Todak Mandal cancelled the conference where Ambedkar was to present his treatise on “Annihilation of Caste”

The deep-rootedness of caste in India goes back to the Gandhian era. Gandhi and Ambedkar often clashed on the question of caste. Ambedkar proceeded to guide India’s Constitution, and pressed for separate electorates for India’s vast population of “depressed classes” or “untouchables”, referred to as scheduled castes today. Under the system, only members from these communities would be eligible to vote to elect a representative to designated legislative assemblies; caste Hindus would not be eligible to vote in these elections. Gandhi dissented. Strangely Gandhi who opposed separate SC electorates used a contrary stand to allow similar provisions for Muslims or Sikhs.

Caste contradictions and oppression of lower castes and, notably Dalits, underlie India’s society. Political attitudes further perpetuate the divisions. Dalits were excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism and were seen as forming a fifth Varna, also known by the name of Panchama. Dalits now profess various religious beliefs, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Islam. However, they still remain an excluded social category and face the agonizing traumas which underline discrimination, segregation in all spheres of life.

Possibly the worst-hit are Dalits who have converted to Christianity. They  find that not only are the benefits of reservation denied to them in contravention of constitutional provisions but even the church and the non-Dalit Christian community actively discriminate against them. This struggle persists and Dalits hang on to hope and, possible justice from the Supreme Court in the not-so-distant future.  At the same time, the political ploy of the dominant castes seems to be to deny reservations for Dalit Christians and, subtly, coerce them into ‘Ghar Wapsi’. This is an upper caste manipulation that combines casteism with communalism and is stubbornly resisted by activist lawyers who acknowledge the right of Dalit Christians to claim justice as Dalit Christians.

Today’s political arena lacks vociferous mass mobilization on the question of justice for Dalits. Ambedkar’s wisdom of 1936 stands valid today: Swaraj’ has to imply ‘uprooting caste’. In a retort to Gandhi’s version of ‘Swaraj’, Ambedkar asserted: “Who is Swaraj (self-rule) for? Would this be the ostracized Untouchables’ Swaraj, too? Would they be equal participants? Or would this Swaraj be the self-rule of the upper-castes who have been committing atrocities against the Untouchables for centuries?

Caste is a menace to India and plays an insidious role in electoral politics right here in Goa. A Lokniti-CSDS survey concluded that nearly one-third of the voters in Goa considered their caste identity as crucial while deciding their vote. This was slightly higher than what it was in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand.  The BJP secured 33% of the overall votes in the last election. Reliable reports show how 49% of the Hindu upper caste community in Goa, mostly comprising Saraswat Brahmins, voted for the ruling party.

As Ambedkar observed about the country, “turn in any direction you like, Caste is the monster that crosses your path.”

Ranjan Solomon is a political commentator and a human rights activist. Views expressed are the writer’s own.

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