In 1936, Dr B.R. Ambedkar was asked to deliver the annual lecture by the Hindu reformist group, the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal (Forum for Break-up of Caste) in Lahore. When the hosts received the text of the speech, they found the contents “unbearable” and withdrew the invitation. Ambedkar then printed 1,500 copies of his speech at his own expense and it was soon translated into several languages. Annihilation of Caste would go on to have a cult readership among the Dalit community, but remains largely unread by the privileged castes for whom it was written.
Ambedkar’s landmark speech has now been carefully annotated and reprinted. What will certainly draw contemporary public attention to it is the essay written as an introduction by the Booker prize-winning author Arundhati Roy, titled The Doctor and the Saint.
Almost half of the 400-page book is Roy’s essay, the other half Annihilation of Caste. Roy writes about caste in contemporary India before getting into the Gandhi-Ambedkar stand-off. Taking off from what Ambedkar described as “the infection of imitation”, the domino effect of each caste dominating the ones lower down in the hierarchy, Roy says, “The ‘infection of imitation’, like the half-life of a radioactive atom, decays exponentially as it moves down the caste ladder, but never quite disappears. It has created what Ambedkar describes as the system of ‘graded inequality’ in which even the ‘low is privileged as compared with lower. Each class being privileged, every class is interested in maintaining the system’”.
However, the thrust of Roy’s powerful but disturbing essay deals with her exploration of the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate, and the man deified as the father of the nation does not come off well in this book. She writes: “Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most formidable adversary. He challenged him not just politically or intellectually, but also morally. To have excised Ambedkar from Gandhi’s story, which is the story we all grew up on, is a travesty. Equally, to ignore Gandhi while writing about Ambedkar is to do Ambedkar a disservice, because Gandhi loomed over Ambedkar’s world in myriad and un-wonderful ways.”
The Doctor and the Saint, your introduction to this new, annotated edition of Dr Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, is also a deeply disturbing critique of Gandhi, especially to those of us for whom Gandhi is a loved and revered figure.
Yes, I know. It wasn’t easy to write it either. But in these times, when all of us are groping in the dark, despairing, and unable to understand why things are the way they are, I think revisiting this debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar, however disturbing it may be for some people, however much it disrupts old and settled patterns of thought, will actually, in the end, help illuminate our path. I think Annihilation of Caste is absolutely essential reading. Caste is at the heart of the rot in our society. Quite apart from what it has done to the subordinated castes, it has corroded the moral core of the privileged castes. We need Ambedkar—now, urgently. Continue reading