Dr Ambedkar’s Burning of Manusmriti: Shaking the Foundations of an Oppressive Order
Besides being associated with the birth of the Son of God, December 25 is memorable to Indians for an event that acquires more and more resonance as days pass by. It was on this day in 1927, in the wake of Mahad Satyagraha, Babasaheb Ambedkar publicly burned a copy of ‘ Manusmriti ‘, the Hindu Book of Law that presents the caste system as an eternal order and sanctifies all inequalities and injustices based on it. The Mahad Satyagraha was a definitive moment for Dalits who started a satyagraha demanding access to drinking water from the town tank. It was an assertion of the rising democratic consciousness among the Dalits – the, most oppressed and exploited section of the Indian population. This Sudra assertion did not go down well with Gandhi and most of his followers. Gandhi’s entire endeavour was directed towards the preservation of the caste hierarchy from the unsettling influence of modernity. So it is no wonder that he would oppose this with a bizarre logic: Satyagraha was against the foreign rulers, not against our own people. Gandhi, despite all his sly equivocation, was more honest than most of his followers. He never denied he was a varnashrama Hindu and he was a lifelong admirer of the grandeur, harmony and beauty of the caste system. Now one can only expect a casteist Hindu to be as much a democrat as a racist in the US.
Caste, as Ambedkar rightly noted was based not on the division of labour but labourers. It is a graded hierarchy based on rigid divisions and exclusion. Manusmriti is comparable with Justinian’s Code or Corpus Juris Civilis. As the latter summed up the enormous corpus of the Roman law, Manu’s text summarized all the previous ‘ dharmashastras that appeared from the 2nd century AD. It is a chilling text of caste tyranny and patriarchy. For instance, it enjoins that molten lead is poured into the ear of the presumptuous Sudra who would dare to read or utter the sacred Vedas. Ambedkar noted with much insight ” The rock on which the Hindu social order is built is ‘ Manusmriti. Manu not only upholds caste and untouchability but gives them legal sanction … Manu embodies the spirit of inequality which is at the base of Hindu life ..” Democracy, on the contrary, is based on the principle of equality as also socialism which is its natural fulfilment. Ramohun Roy long back saw the incompatibility between the spirit of modern bourgeois liberalism and the inequality of caste. He also found that it contradicted the triad – equality, liberty and fraternity. Instead of brotherhood which is so necessary for a democratic community, it only breeds division and hatred. Many of his followers spoke against caste and some Brahmins, such as Ramtanu Lahiri even gave up the sacred thread. Phule, a Maharashtrian sudra intellectual was the first to write an eloquent critique of caste as degrading social slavery. Ambedkar who followed Phule in so many respects carried on the battle against the caste hierarchy both at the intellectual and political level. The public burning of Manusmriti which for the Hindus a more living text than the Vedas, was thus an act of defiance and open rebellion. It was an appropriate democratic ritual symbolizing and asserting the new values.
Wise as he was, Ambedkar was wrong in thinking that caste is comparable to the inequity that Bastille stood for. It did not take the Paris mob much time to tear down Bastille but caste has proved to be a more enduring institution, more subtle in its working and more pervasive in its influence. Not only did it win a victory over Buddhism and Jainism that denied caste hierarchy but later deformed the concept of democracy that India had accepted and even crept into the new radical movements such as socialism, Marxism and Maoism. Most leaders of the Indian National Congress were unabashed casteists. Caste ran so deep in their psyche that they were not aware of it. It was as natural to them as breathing and defecation. Nehru characteristically never took caste seriously. Like other Leftists, he subsumed it underclass and came to believe, as did all Marxists, that once class inequalities are addressed, caste becomes vestigial. It will explain why primary education was in a deplorable condition in the Nehru era, considered to be a golden age of Indian liberalism. After his death, his followers desperately tried to project him as a wise Brahmin who also came to embody Plato’s Philosopher King. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren try their best to suppress their Parsi lineage and emphasize the Kashmiri Brahmin ancestry. It shows how Hinduism swallows up its rebel children.
Indian communists are the most pathetic victims of casteism. As doctrinaire Marxists, they never recognized caste and silenced those in the party who raised the issue . Naturally, they hated Ambedkar and saw him as an enemy of working-class solidarity. PC Joshi did everything in his power to ensure Ambedkar’s defeat in the general election. All communist parties are bastions of Brahminism. The Leninist centralism helped upper castes to consolidate their power in the party. In Bengal where they ruled the longest also developed the nastiest variety of Brahminism. They never allowed Sudras any space: they were only numbers to win elections . Indian politics has steadily moved towards open Brahminical hegemony under BJP which makes on bones about their respect for Manu, the Lawgiver. India remains one of the egregiously unequal societies and poor too. Who are the victims of the inequality? Of course the Sudras – a fact the government and academics try to hide. It is only belatedly some Left intellectuals are waking up to the depth of the problem . But recognizing the caste and power of Manu also means rejecting much of the Marxist baggage. India’s top-down Brahminical democracy is on the verge of collapse, mainly under the impact of the Brahminical upsurge which began in the late 19th century. Some Marxist writers in their accustomed manner would like to trace its origin in wrong places such as Neo-Liberalism. They only need to read Sir Valentine Chirole’s ” Indian Unrest ” to understand the political development of the last hundred years. To build a democracy from below would require a new vision and strategy. We need to remember not only Ambedkar’s spirited defiance but also his limitations which have been recognized and supplemented by theorists like Gail Omvedt . Will our democrats and Leftists ever take note of that?
This article is written by Bhaskar Sur
Remembering Maulana Azad and his death anniversary
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, also known as Maulana Azad, was an eminent Indian scholar, freedo…