This is not a book review as such but a reflection on few aspects of the speech Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar written to be presented in 1936 at the invitation of an anti-caste association in Lahore.
There is nothing like caste as an unchanging category. Slavery was once upon a time a reality. What made it real was that there was something called the slave mentality and likewise a master mentality. Slavery disappeared once the mentality changed. The same is true of colonialism and patriarchy. What exists therefore is the casteist mentality or mindset because it involves a set of mental attitudes towards reality. The mindset of the believer in caste as a category is what makes caste real. It is a mindset that is faithfully distributed across the spectrum and Dalits and other oppressed groups are as guilty of internalizing the casteist mindset as are their so-called "upper" caste oppressors.
As much as Ambedkar genuinely hated the culture of cronyism or hero-worship, the kind that comes from a servile sense of gratitude, that permeated the Congress Party in his view, I am sure he would have been sickened by the hagiography surrounding his name which is being done by his Dalit supporters and the pseudo-admirers usually from the upper castes who pretend to understand his struggle. The constant and unbearable tendency among certain section of Dalit intellectuals to accuse everybody who disagrees with them as being casteist or anti-Ambedkarite, or to use Ambedkar as the measuring scale against which the statement of every other caste person is looked at, this surely does not help the cause of Dalit liberation but rather exacerbates caste-based divisions. Most of the people who invoke his name and make comments, whether Dalits or others, I am certain haven't read a single work written by Ambedkar cover to cover. The document Annihilation of Caste falls in the list of works everyone wants to talk about and praise or criticize without a careful reading.
Where the argument fundamentally fails is that it puts social and political issues above ethical issues. In fact the ethical component is nowhere in sight and is reduced to making categorical statements. The worst thing about caste system is that it creates a hierarchy of those who are superior and those who are inferior owing to their birth. In his biting critique of the upper castes Ambedkar actually buys into the sinister logic of caste rather than engage with or reject it. He merely is reversing the equation in categorizing the upper castes as morally evil because they belong to caste as a system of reality. The statement below I am quoting even from a polemical point of view carries the scent of sectarianism in how it homogenizes everyone born "upper" caste as being morally incapable of rising above their situation.
"As a matter of fact, a Hindu does treat all those who are not of his caste as though they were aliens, who could be discriminated against with impunity, and against whom any fraud or trick may be practised without shame. This is to say that there can be a better or a worse Hindu. But a good Hindu there cannot be. This is so not because there is anything wrong with his personal character. In fact what is wrong is the entire basis of his relationship to his fellows. The best of men cannot be moral if the basis of relationship between them and their fellows is fundamentally a wrong relationship. To a slave, his master may be better or worse. But there cannot be a good master. A good man cannot be a master, and a master cannot be a good man."
Going by the above statement all the Christians who lived in Western Europe or America in the 18th and 19th centuries would be guilty of slavery and colonialism and there would not be a "good" Christian -- only "better or worse." On a more practical level, I really want to know who is the "Hindu" that Dr. Ambdekar is referring to? I go by the Gandhian distinction that religion and caste are two different things. A "lower" caste Hindu has a worldview that is not the same as that of the Brahmin Hindu just as a black Christian, a Latino Catholic and an English Anglican are all Christians in principle without subscribing to the same worldview which is connected to specific social circumstances. The "Hindu" is broadly speaking a member of a social order but that doesn't mean Hinduism (if at all there is a worldview that binds everyone born into the social order) should be reduced to caste system as if to say that different castes did not have their own gods or forms of worship.
Gandhi might be guilty of naïve idealism in his defense of the varnas and ashramas because he claims that there is no difference between spiritual teaching and scavenging and one is as good as another. In principle perhaps many people might not make this distinction either. In practice needless to say there would hardly be any upper caste person who would be willing to do scavenging with the same commitment as any other work least of all scavenging. The defense Gandhi offers is therefore weak and rather pointless and might be applicable to him but not to upper caste Hindus in general.
Seen as a theory challenging upper caste hegemony, Ambedkar's "annihilation" argument is not without flaws. In Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of Peasant Resistance, James C. Scott argues against the concept of hegemony when he says that it, "ignores the extent to which most subordinate classes are able, on the basis of their daily material experience, to penetrate and demystify the prevailing ideology." In addition, Scott adds, "theories of hegemony frequently confound what is inevitable with what is just, an error that subordinate classes rarely, if ever, make." I don't think the lower castes of India ever made the mistake of confusing the ideal with the real or did not make an attempt to use the ideal against the real whenever it suited them.
Arguing against the "inevitability" of any system of domination, Scott says, "if one accepts that the serf, the slave, and the untouchable will have trouble imagining social arrangements other than feudalism, slavery, or caste, they will certainly not find it difficult to imagine reversing the distribution of status and rewards within that social order. In a great many societies, such a simple feat of the imagination is not just an abstract exercise: It is historically embedded in existing ritual practice." Ambedkar's argument rests on the "inevitability" of caste system owing to its hegemonic character. It makes it look like there never were any attempts towards resistance from the bottom and that what is essentially wrong with caste is that it is an immutable entity.
More importantly, I am not sure if Ambedkar ever made a careful reading of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. He would have known that human nature is a little more complex than his personal experience with caste system as an untouchable. People are not good or bad because they are born into a particular caste or community. The history of power is the history of an idea and no one is particularly averse to the temptations of power. Human nature cannot be reduced to notions of race, class or gender and by extension caste as well. Shakespeare makes Iago say: "I am not what I am" only for his audience to recognize the ambivalence that defines what the self is in relation to existence and identity. In realizing that birth is an accident we realize that identity beyond a point is a fiction albeit a dangerously real one.
For instance in his reply to Gandhi on the undelivered speech, Ambedkar says: "That the sanctity of Caste and Varna can be destroyed only by discarding the divine authority of the Shastras." I seriously am interested in knowing how many Hindus have actually read or know about the Shastras. Hinduism is not a religion of the book like the religions of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions. What we call Hinduism is a colonial bringing together of a set of traditions unless we are making a reference to the social order and social orders cannot be confused with ideologies. They are about power both at the interpersonal and the systemic level.
Annihilation of caste is a product of colonialism and in fact throws light on colonial constructions of religion and caste especially in the politics of resistance. Ambedkar might not be particularly different in his perception of caste along Manichean lines of "inferior" and "superior". When Gandhi says, "The Vedas, Upanishads, Smritis and Puranas, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are the Hindu Scriptures," he is falling into the same colonial understanding of Hinduism as a monolithic religion which was never the case in reality. Gandhi's politics which includes his understanding of Hinduism are anti-colonial while Ambedkar is addressing the issues of a colony within a colony that form the lower strata of caste system.
In his book A History of India, Burton Stein makes the point that goes against the argument subscribing to the absolutist nature of caste as made in Annihilation of Caste:
Neither caste nor religion nor place, the ancient determinants of affinity, has a meaning unchanged from that expressed in medieval dharmashastras. Perhaps such continuity was not to be expected, but the reduction of the ties binding people to particular places and to filaments of ideology, which are thus incapable of protecting ancient historical interests, is a striking characteristic of the contemporary age. (Stein 229)
Along with sects and communities, caste relations had always responded to changing historical circumstances. How else could the essences and traditions of some supposed antiquity have been maintained in the face of such changes as the enormous expansion of agrarian over pastoral economies, the Muslim domination of northern India or the imposition of European dominance? (Stein 238)