Sunday, 23 March 2008
Navayana Buddhism of Ambedkar and
Ambedkar wrote The Buddha
and His Dhamma with the
intent of creating a single
text for new Buddhists to read
and follow. His introduction outlines
four ways in which previous
understandings of Buddhist doctrine
The Buddha could not have had
his first great realization simply
because he encountered an old
man, a sick man, and a dying man.
It is unreasonable and therefore
false to assume that the Buddha
did not have previous knowledge
of something so common.
The Four Noble truths “make the
gospel of the Buddha a gospel of
pessimism.” If life is composed
entirely of suffering then there is
no incentive for change.
The doctrines of no-soul, karma,
and rebirth are incongruous. It is
illogical to believe that there can be
karma and rebirth without a soul.
The monk’s purpose has not
been presented clearly. Is he
supposed to be a “perfect man”
or a “social servant”?
As these rather sweeping
critiques of Buddhism suggest,
Ambedkar was comfortable in the
role of consciously restructuring his
chosen religion to meet the needs of
the Dalit community he spoke for.1
Several scholars have remarked
upon and analyzed this aspect of
This article begins with an overview of Navayana Buddhism from two perspectives, that of
Ambedkar himself, based on his “Buddhist gospel” The Buddha and His Dhamma, and that of
practioners in Maharashtra, based available academic scholarship. In the case of Ambedkar’s
understanding of Buddhism, I will focus mostly on the changes he made to more traditional
presentations of Buddhism.
In the case of Maharashtran practitioners, I will attempt to draw some broad conclusions
about their relationship to this relatively new religion. The centrality of the figure of Ambedkar
in Navayana Buddhism, as well as Navayana Buddhist’s lack of conformity with Ambedkar’s
understanding of Buddhist principles as articulated in The Buddha and His Dhamma, will
guide me in my conclusions about the ways outside observers might want to move forward
in the study of this relatively new religion.
N a v a y a n a
C h r i s t o p h
E m m r i c h
of Ambedkar’s use of the traditional
Buddhists texts in Pali in writing The
Buddha and His Dhamma.2 Fiske
and Emmrich examined Ambedkar’s
references in the original version of
The Buddha and His Dhamma and
describe patterns of alteration from
the presentation of Buddhism in the
Pali canon that they characterize as
omission, change in emphasis and
changed meaning through
interpolation or interpretation.3
Following are examples of the
type of changes Ambedkar made to
traditional presentations of the
Buddha’s teachings and the way in
which these changes might support
Ambedkar’s first major
reinterpretation involves the
Buddha’s reununciation of worldly
life. Whereas traditional biographies
of the Buddha emphasize the
empathy the young prince felt when
he first encountered human
sufferring, Ambedkar highlights the
strength of the Buddha’s social
conscience during a conflict over
water rights. According to
Ambedkar, the Buddha advocated a
rational and peaceful resolution of
an inter-tribe water conflict but was
unable to gain the necessary political
leverage because he lacked majority
vote. He then went into exile and
became a renunciant because it was
the only way to prevent his tribe
from going to war with their
neighbors. Ambedkar omits any
mention of old age, sickness, and
death (the forms of suffering the
Buddha is usually understood to
have encountered). In this way the
Buddha’s renunciation is motivated
more by political exigencies rather
than a desire to find the ultimate truth,
and he becomes a figure not unlike a
minority politician in contemporary
India. The discussion of water rights
was also a familiar topic after the
Mahad Satyagraha. These changes,
though unorthodox, create a
character for the Buddha that might
be easily understood by oppressed
communities, specifically Dalits.
The Four Noble Truths
Ambedkar interprets the Four
Noble truths similarly. His
description of the first sermon at Deer
“The centre of his Dhamma is
man and the relation of man to man
in his life on earth. This [the Buddha]
said was his first postulate. His
second postulate was that men are
living in sorrow, in misery and
poverty. The world is full of suffering
and how to remove this suffering
from the world is the only purpose
of Dhamma. Nothing else is Dhamma.
The recognition of the existence of
suffering and to show the way to
remove suffering is the foundation
and basis of his Dhamma…A
religion which fails to recognise this
is no religion at all…The Buddha
then told them that according to his
Dhamma if every person followed (1)
the Path of Purity; (2) the Path of
Righteousness; and (3) the Path of
virtue, it would bring about the end
of all suffering.”4
Ambedkar makes several
obvious changes to early Buddhist
doctrine. The first Noble Truth that
life is suffering becomes the “second
postulate,” and the most important
characteristic of Buddhism becomes
its concern for human relationships.
The second Noble Truth, that
suffering arises from mental craving,
is also described in social terms as
“sorrow, misery and poverty.” In
turn he refers to the third Noble Truth
regarding the cessation of suffering
as the “removal of suffering.”
Christopher Queen’s detailed
analysis of Ambedkar’s presentation
of the Four Noble Truths reveals still
more ways in which they have been
altered to create a message of social
activism. Queen notes that as the
Buddha’s teachings continue it
becomes clear that the Path of Purity
is the Five Precepts, the Path of
Righteousness is the Eightfold Path,
and the Path of Virture is the Ten
Paramitas, or perfections.5 Yet
Ambedkar does not present any of
these concepts in their traditional
format. The goal of the Eightfold
Path, for example, is “to remove
injustice and inhumanity that man
does to man,” rather than nirvana.6
Nirvana itself is then described as:
(1) a fundamental understanding
(In Ambedkar’s view)
is motivated more by
political exigencies rather
than a desire find the
ultimate truth and he
becomes a figure
not unlike a minority
Path, for example, is
to remove injustice and
inhumanity that man
does to man...there
is a distinct element
rendering of the
Four Noble Truths.
“that there was
suffering in the
world, and (2) a
p r o a c t i v e
“how to remove
m a n k i n d
Buddhism and the Caste
These changes speak specifically
to Dalits in a number of ways. First,
there is a distinct element of anti-
Brahmanism in Ambedkar’s rendering
of the Four Noble Truths. “Nothing
else is Dhamma,” he states, and “a
religion which fails to recognize this
is no religion at all.” Although
Ambedkar does not criticize other
religions in this section—as he does
in other chapters of the book—this
and other statements bear close
resemblance to his earlier attack on
Hinduism. Here, Ambedkar again
legitimizes the use of Buddhism to
oppose traditions that are
unsatisfactory. Second, as Queen
notes, Ambedkar seems to believe
that the traditional presentation of
suffering—which places the “blame”
on the cravings of each individual—
would alienate Buddhism from the
socially and politically oppressed.8
Thus suffering is described in
transitory, but more graphic, terms
as “sorrow”, “misery”, and
“poverty.” These largely social
conditions are remedied quite
differently from the traditional
Buddhist understanding of suffering
as an intricate network of mental
cravings. This change also speaks
of the fact that the traditional focus
on craving might have lent itself to
manipulation by people in power,
who could advocate renunciation
instead of response to the materially
based claims of the dispossessed.
Third, by placing the Four Noble
Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the
Ten Perfections in a social context
he provides religious justification for
peoples’ social movements. Lastly,
and perhaps most importantly, his
definition of nirvana is not only
easily understandable but also
theoretically attainable within a
Concept of Rebirth and the
Role of the Monk
Ambedkar’s explanation of
karma and rebirth further legitimizes
both the source and the goal of social
action. He defends the concept of
rebirth but changes the concept of
the soul. Each time a person is reborn
his or her soul is divided and
recombined with parts of many other
peoples’ souls. There is thus no
single soul that is reborn over and
over again.9 In this way Ambedkar
establishes that there is no
inheritance of traits from one lifetime
to the next—a direct rebuttal to the
widespread views of caste. This in
turn negates the idea that current
social injustices are a result of past
misdeeds and assures Dalit converts
that their new framework does not
contain the possibility for religiously
sanctioned hierarchy. He also
explains that karma works only
within one lifetime and cannot affect
future lives.10 A this-worldly
emphasis on karma gives added
significance to societal changes, as
each life is now a unique and
unrepeatable opportunity for change
and growth. Whereas traditional
conceptions of karma and rebirth
render material changes insignificant
on a cosmological scale, Ambedkar’s
reinterpretation implies that such
changes actually have ultimate
importance. In this way oppressed
peoples are vindicated in their sense
of social outrage and are informed
once again of the importance of
political or social struggle.
Ambedkar’s reinterpretation of
the role of the monk provides a final
illustration that Buddhism takes a
proactive stance towards radical
change. Monks should not be
content merely to serve society—
they are instead the active
participants and creators of history.
He writes that the bhikkhu’s duties
are to proselytize for Buddhism and
serve the laity. The bhikkhu is
commanded specifically to “fight to
spread Dhamma.”11 “We wage war,
O disciples, therefore we are called
warriors.” Ambedkar’s Buddha tells
his disciples, “Where virtue is in
danger do not avoid fighting, do not
be mealy-mouthed.”12 Monks are not
hermetic ascetics who are focused
on the attainment of otherworldly
states. Rather they constitute the
driving force behind a revolution in
mind and body.
that there is no
inheritance of traits
from one lifetime to the
next—a direct rebuttal
to the Gandhian view
of caste. This in turn
negates the idea that
current social injustices
are a result
of past misdeeds.
Ambedkar’s Buddha tells
his disciples, “Where
virtue is in danger do not
avoid fighting, do not be
are not hermetic ascetics
who are focused on
the attainment of
Ambedkar’s Buddhism in
one finds in daily
life and practice
described in The
Buddha and his
differences vary according to
and range from minute
reinterpretations to fundamental
contradictions. Polarizing concepts
include karma, rebirth, dharma,
meditation, spirituality, materialism,
politics, individuality and social
action. Varying social categories
include the urban, rural, educated,
uneducated, and in many cases, old
and young. Thus, on the one hand
forms of Navayana Buddhist practice
can differ from each other quite
significantly in terms of both form and
content. This will be illustrated
through a simple comparison
between certain studies of rural
Buddhists and members of the
TBMSG. On the other hand, the
figure of Ambedkar provides a clear
and unifying link between different
Buddhism in Two Rural
Two studies of rural villages in
Maharashtra show that differences
between Navayana Buddhism and
Ambedkar’s understanding of
Buddhism can stem more from the
inevitable overlap of religion and
culture than from the type of
conscious religious reconstruction
that Ambedkar engaged in. One must
not extrapolate their conclusions onto
the rest of the Navayana Buddhist
community; however the picture
presented is useful in gaining a sense
she documents the persistence of
traditional Hindu concepts of karma,
dharma, and the transmigration of the
Burra characterizes the religious
practice of rural Mahars as
fundamentally Hindu with a Buddhist
exterior. For example, she describes
how the premarriage activities of the
Mahars are still Hindu (one example
is matching horoscopes), yet the
marriage ceremony itself consists of
placing garlands over the bride and
groom as they stand in front of
pictures of Ambedkar and the
Buddha.19 This dichotomy between
private Hindu practice and public
Buddhist practice marks other rituals
At the same time, Burra notes that
Navayana Buddhists now participate
with great enthusiasm in Hindu
festivals and ceremonies that were
previously forbidden to them.20 This
and other positive changes leave her
with the conclusion that the Dalit
Buddhist movement is a “symbol of
identity transformation” rather than
a true religious conversion.21 “The
Buddhist identity is important mainly
for the outside world,” she writes,
“There is an attempt to emphasize
one’s distinctiveness and this is
achieved by different methods. The
inner core may remain Hindu but this
in no way reflects a betrayal of the
cause.”22 Thus rural Dalit Buddhist
practice is distinguished from other
forms of Buddhism primarily by its
continued reliance on Hindu themes
This seems to suggest that the
many radical departures from
Ambedkar’s message are caused by
a blurred distinction between Hindu
culture and Indian culture. Even the
beginning of Ambedkar’s political
career was marked by ambivalence
about what constitutes Hinduism
of the range of Navayana Buddhist
For example, Timothy Fitzgerald
concludes that although rural
Mahars have begun to refuse to
perform traditional duties such as
scavenging and have given up the
practice of eating beef, their
recognition and practice of sub-caste
hierarchy and untouchability, lack of
intercaste marriage, and worship of
Hindu gods and goddesses is
evidence that they practice “the kind
of Buddhism which has not really
changed anybody or anything very
Neera Burra’s study of village life
provides different detail. She notes
that although 70 out of the 102
respondents to her research
questionnaire classified themselves
as Buddhist, none of them had taken
Ambedkar’s 22 vows.15 She argues
that this reflects both a lack of
knowledge about the vows and a
general hesitancy to take oaths that
characterizes rural society.16
Additionally, there were statues of
Hindu gods and goddesses—
alongside pictures of Ambedkar and
the Buddha—in every household she
visited.17 Over half of the people she
interviewed said that they prayed to
all gods, including Hindu deities, and
Dalit Buddhist movement
is a “symbol of identity
than a true
“The Buddhist identity
is important mainly for
the outside world,”...The
inner core may remain
Hindu but this in no
way reflects a betrayal
of the cause.”
c o n s t i t u t e s
I n d i a n
a l b e i t
marginally, in a
campaign—even as he denounced
Brahmans and traditional Hindu
religiosity in writings such as
Annihilation of Caste. It should
therefore come as no surprise that
some rural Buddhists have used their
newfound self-confidence to engage
in traditionally Hindu forms of
worship, as many societal roles that
are available for reclamation are also
related to Hinduism in some way.
The TBMSG is the Indian branch
of the international Buddhist
organization named the Friends of
the Western Buddhist Order
(FWBO), founded in London by
Sangharakshita in 1967. The FWBO
describes its purpose as “return[ing]
to the basic principles of Buddhism
and find[ing] ways of living them out
in the context of the modern
West.”25 The FWBO became
involved in the Indian Buddhist
movement, particularly in
Maharashtra, when several members
of its order came to India to teach
Buddhism in the late 1970’s. The
TBMSG now has twenty centres
located throughout India and runs a
network of social services
Fitzgerald goes so far as to assert
that Buddhists who are associated
with the TBMSG represent the more
“spiritual” side of Navayana
Buddhism.26 Their interpretation of
Buddhism is compatible with
Ambedkar’s because it emphasizes
rationality, moral action, and social
reform. However, the TBMSG strives
for total political nonpartisanship
and many of its members view
nirvana not in materialist terms but
as a transcendent state of awareness.
Johannes Beltz’ study of the
TBMSG in Maharashtra provides
more information on the type of
Buddhism that Fitzgerald seems to
be describing. He interviewed
several members of the TBMSG at a
retreat center outside Pune, many of
who described a Buddhist message
of increased spirituality. For example,
one practitioner explained:
“I was born Buddhist. But in
reality, no one can be Buddhist
without practicing the dhamma. To
be Buddhist from birth is not
possible…I took refuge in the
Buddha, the dhamma, and the
sangha. I think that I am on the path
of the Buddha. I want to become a
dhammamitra (a lay leader in the
TBMSG). A Buddhist is more than a
physical man. He is spiritual…I
would like to become 100%
Another told him:
“I consider myself Buddhist
because I believe not in God but in
humanity. I practice Buddhism. I
want to positively develop my
personality and help
others…Through meditation, we
augment our state of consciousness
to become better men.”28
These statements embody the
spirituality and humanism of
Buddhism as envisioned by
Sangharakshita, the founder of the
FWBO. Meditation lies at the center
of individual practice, and only
through knowing oneself does one
enter a state where he or she truly
begins to help others. In addition,
these practitioners negate a
materialistic understanding of the
world. “A Buddhist is more than a
physical man,” one states, “He is
spiritual.” This explains why “no one
can be Buddhist without practicing
the dhamma”: meditation and action
are two aspects of the same teaching,
and to engage in one without the
other is, according to the TBMSG,
to ignore the meaning of Buddhism.
Several of the individuals Beltz
interviewed also made a distinction
between “Dalit Buddhists” who do
not practice and “real Buddhists”
who do. “The Dalit movement
results in bad social conditions for
untouchables,” one dhammachari
asserts, “It is for politics. The Dalit
movement does not have a positive
approach to Buddhism…My
personal experience is different. I
have developed my personality. I do
not call myself Dalit. I consider
myself Buddhist.”29 An employee at
the University of Pune went so far
as to state, “The leaders of the Dalit
movement are selfish and corrupt.
They are demagogues and want to
suppress other currents of Buddhist
thought. They waste a lot of energy,
time, and money…The TBMSG
serenely runs the Buddhist
movement and continues the
work of Dr. Ambedkar with
respect….There is no love between
Victory over Caste
The disparate practices of some
Maharashtran Buddhists offer a
cautionary statement for those who
may be eager to equate Ambedkar’s
thinking about Buddhism directly
with that of Dalit communities.
Ambedkar, Ambedkar’s Buddhism,
and Buddhist communities are
merely the loci for numerous personal
and communal interactions that
comprise the forms of Navayana
Buddhism. In theory, The Buddha
and His Dhamma would serve as the
philosophical, ideological, and
religious template for Buddhists, and
my own experiences with Navayana
that this is
i n d e e d
possible. As D.
C. Ahir states,
Dhamma is a true guide for all the
Buddhists. It is the best basis for
propagating the Dhamma, at least in
India”.31 There are plausible models
that would explain how a narrative
text such as The Buddha and His
Dhamma could become the “just
governance” for society that
Ambedkar holds a good religion
should be.32 However, the above
review of scholarship suggests that
The Buddha and His Dhamma does
not occupy a central place in all
Navayana Buddhists’ lives.
Given the differences in
Navayana Buddhist practice, how
are we to understand the religion as
a whole? The element of Navayana
Buddhism that seeks to separate
itself from Hinduism provides one
link between an uninformed
adoption of Buddhism and an
almost instantaneous increase in
self-esteem and perception of selfworth.
Even if converts do not
remember each of Ambedkar’s
twenty-two vows, for example, they
are bound to remember the central
theme of rejection of Hinduism.
Thus many Dalit Buddhists
understand what Buddhism is not
before they focus on what it is. The
conversion experience can be
powerful because the ideological
victory over caste is expressed in
concrete actions on the part of the
At the same time, however, the
shift away from the Hindu caste
system is highly nuanced. As
Burra’s study shows, the Mahar
rejection of caste does not always
entail rejection of Hindusim. When
the rural Buddhist she studied align
themselves with Buddhism they
An Exemplary Prophet
Lynch’s interest lies in
investigating why and how
Ambedkar, a Mahar, was so fully
accepted and integrated into Jatav
culture. To this end, he provides
several comparisons between Jatav
myths of origin and a new “myth of
origin” that was presented by
Ambedkar. He views Ambedkar as a
Weberian “exemplary prophet” who
has now become the “chief hero” of
the myth that he himself created.33
Lynch seems to imply that the entire
“Neo-Buddhist myth” is
encapsulated by Ambedkar’s
explanation of the origins of the
caste system and the way in which
Dalits ended up at its bottom. This
would not hold true for other
Buddhist communities such as the
Alternatively, what if the figure
of Ambedkar is the defining element
of Navayana Buddhism? Even such
differing communities as the rural
Buddhists examined and the TBMSG
share their veneration for him. A
public debate between Gopal Guru,
a Buddhist and professor at the
University of Pune, and
Dhammacari Lokamitra, a member of
the TBMSG, supports this
hypothesis. Though these men
articulated very different opinions
about the relative weight of the
“spiritual” versus the “political”
aspects of Buddhism, they both
returned to Ambedkar for
justification of their arguments.
Lokamitra wrote, “I am afraid the
project Gopal Guru is talking about
is not that of Ambedkar but of those
who have attempted to use
Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism
to serve their own political ends”.34
Guru offered the following rejoinder:
“Lokamitra and his TBMSG are free
to sell their package of spiritual
Buddhism and synthesise it with
adopt a new social and
psychological paradigm that can
often be characterized foremost by
the victory of equality over caste;
only secondary is the victory of
Buddhist practice over Hindu
As another possibility, Owen
Lynch has applied an academic
understanding of myth to the
development of Navayana
Buddhism. He uses it to explain the
way that Ambedkar became a cultural
hero and icon of Buddhism for the
Jatavs in Agra, a group that has
significant linguistic and cultural
differences from the Mahars. He
suggests that there is a “Neo-
Buddhist” myth that provides
motivation and strategy for the
community it serves.
Even if converts did not
what Buddhism is not
before they focus on
what it is.
Mahar rejection of
caste does not always
entail rejection of
Hindusim... they adopt
a new social and
that is characterized
foremost by the victory of
equality over caste; only
secondary is the victory of
Buddhist practice over
B u d d h i s m .
Because it does
not allow such
Both judged the
o t h e r ’ s
reasoning as flawed specifically on
the grounds that it represents a
misinterpretation of Ambedkar’s
message. As Guru acknowledged, he
was bothered not so much by the
TBMSG’s false Buddhist doctrine as
he is by the fact that it has been
associated with Ambedkar.
Ambedkar’s figure fills in the
gaps that are left by the explanations
of origin and anti-Brahmanism. He is
the inspiration, motivation, and
justification for the Dalit Buddhist
movement. His life illustrates the
possibilities of the future, and since
his death those possibilities have
become the center of much of
contemporary Navayana Buddhism.
Ambedkar is in this view both
founder and standard-bearer of
contemporary Navayana Buddhism.
Evaluation and Conclusions
In 1956 Dr. B. R. Ambedkar led
over 50,000 Dalits in a mass
conversion to Buddhism. This act
was the first of many mass
conversions of low cast Hindus to
Buddhism. Today estimates range
from between three million and ten
million Buddhists in India, most of
whom are Dalit.36
For years there was little
scholarly material on Buddhism and
the Ambedkarite movement, save a
few examples such as the pioneering
work of the American historian
Eleanor Zelliot.37 Contrast this with
a recent conference on Indic
Religions in New Delhi held by the
International Association of the
History of Religions, where there
were two entire panels composed of
academics prepared to speak of their
research on the subject “Dalits and
Buddhism.” “Navayana”, “Dalit”,
or “Ambedkarite” Buddhism
(depending on who is speaking) is
also actively discussed by the
worldwide “engaged Buddhist”
community. The intellectual
discourse surrounding Ambedkar’s
understanding of Buddhism and
those who follow in his footsteps
has now grown to the point where it
is able to have a fruitful dialogue
even within itself.38
In turn, at this point it may be
useful for outside observers of
Navayana Buddhism to begin to
consider not only what Navayana
Buddhism is but also how and why
we should examine it.
First, a discussion of Navayana
Buddhist texts or canon must include
all of Ambedkar’s writing, not just
The Buddha and His Dhamma, as a
starting point. As the above
examples highlight, Ambedkar’s life
is usually viewed as the embodiment,
rather than the vehicle, of the
Buddha’s teachings. In theory,
Ambedkar’s significance leads to the
logical conclusion that, just as most
Buddhists’ veneration of Ambedkar
is not limited to the events
surrounding his conversion, so too
the texts which are understood as
contributing to Navayana Buddhism
should not be limited to The Buddha
and His Dhamma. In practice, many
Buddhists already impart religious
significance to Ambedkar’s other
political and sociological works. This
is readily apparent in D.C. Ahir’s
commentary on the Round Table
Conference, for example, which views
Ambedkar’s comments as the
embodiments of the principle of
Clearly this inclusive approach
may have its limits. Are we to view
Ambedkar’s doctoral dissertation at
Columbia as religious texts? Likely
not. Nor do I propose to delineate
here between those texts that should
be included in a Navayana Buddhist
canon and those that should not.
Rather this should be understood as
an idea to generate discussion and a
helpful approach to the study of
Ambedkar’s Navayana Buddhism. I
believe, however, that Buddhist
practitioners will ultimately be the
final arbiters in this matter.
Second, where are the studies of
urban, often professional, Navayana
Buddhists and the corresponding
surge in online Navayana Buddhist
communities? In New Delhi, for
example, I came to know several
Buddhists whose meditation
practice and highly informed
understanding of Ambedkar and
Buddhism bears little resemblance to
the conversions described in some
studies of rural Buddhists. There is
a need for scholarship of these
thriving Navayana Buddhist
communities among those who do
research in Marathi and Hindi. There
are also online forums for Navayana
Buddhists and websites on Dalit
rights that would provide valuable
material for those doing work in
Third, an attempt to describe
Navayana Buddhism through appeal
to the “essential” elements of
Buddhism that may exist in early texts
must be considered carefully. Surely
there are continuities between
traditional understandings of
Buddhism and Ambedkar’s
reinterpretation, but whether or not
these constitute some “essential”
Buddhism to be passed down from
movement to movement is unclear.
Furthermore, stressing this aspect of
Ambedkar’s writing when analyzing
it in the context of other Buddhist
traditions may be overly limiting. This
is not to deny
of showing that
is, in many
w a y s ,
of the Buddha’s teachings. Such a
project is a necessary part of
religious dialogue and
reinterpretation. However, one must
not lose sight of the “essential”
Navayana when determining its
relationship to “essential”
Buddhism. In this sense it would be
a shame if we fail to capitalize on its
most salient characteristic: a
confident and rational departure
from inherited patterns of thought.
Finally,the study of Navayana
Buddhism needs to be as
interdisciplinary as possible. Why
limit the study of Navayana
Buddhism to certain disciplines
when Ambedkar himself was
unencumbered by the traditional
boundaries between political,
personal, and spiritual
empowerment? The modern
Buddhist movement in India may be
as fundamentally related to
economics and development as it is
to politics and religion. Take, for
example, Amartya Sen’s well-known
Development as Freedom. Seen in
this light, Ambedkar’s project might
be understood as a project of human
development through religious
Focusing for a moment on the
subject of religion and development,
two additional suggestions can be
made. First, those who wish to study
development in India might take the
impact of Navayana Buddhism into
account. Has conversion had a
significant material impact on
practitioners’ lives and if so, how?
Given the fact that Ambedkar’s view
of religious conversion is integrally
tied to his goals of social
identity as Dalit and the past and
present connotations that are
associated with this. Although thus
far the body of writing that examines
Ambedkar and Navayana Buddhism
has been a positive development
with respect to Navayana Buddhism,
perhaps now is a good time to
remind ourselves that we must be
careful not to intellectualize
Navayana Buddhism to the extent
that we lose sight of the fact that it is
fundamentally a religion by and for
the politically and socially
This paper was presented at the First
Conference on Religions in the Indic
Civilisation organised in Delhi by
CSDS and IAHR from December
1 See Christopher Queen, “Dr.
Ambedkar and the Hermeneutics of
Buddhist Liberation,” in Engaged
Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation
Movements in Asia, Ed. Christopher
S. Queen and Sallie B. (State
University of New York Press 1996),
45 for a useful analysis of Ambedkar
as a modern or postmodern man.
2 See Adele Fiske and Christoph
Emmrich, “The use of Buddhist
Scriptures in B. R. Ambedkar’s The
Buddha and His Dhamma”, in
Surendra Jondhale and Johannes Beltz,
eds., Reconstructing the World: B. R.
Ambedkar and Buddhism in India
(Oxford University Press 2004). See
also Queen 48, and Richard Taylor,
“The Ambedkarite Buddhists,” in
Ambedkar and the Neo-Buddhist
Movement, Ed. T.S. Wilkinson and M.
M. Thomas (Christian Literature
Society 1972), 148.
3 Fiske and Emmrich, 10.
4 B. R. Ambedkar, “The Buddha and His
Dhamma,” in Dr. Babasaheb
Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol.
XXI, Comp. Vasant Moon (Education
Department of Maharashtra 1992),
5 Queen, 56.
6 See Queen, at 57.
We must be careful not
Navayana Buddhism to
the extent that we lose
sight of the fact that is
fundamentally a religion
by and for the politically
and socially oppressed.
One must not lose sight
of the “essential”
determining its relationship
to “essential” Buddhism.
Its most salient
characteristic is a
confident and rational
departure from inherited
patterns of thought.
empowerment for Dalits, it seems like
a missed opportunity not to consider
this religious movement within the
greater scheme of Indian
development. This may be true
despite the oft-prevailing view of
religion as an anathema to
progressive societal transformation.
Second, the context in which
Navayana Buddhist practice takes
place must not be forgotten by
outside observers. The picture of
human development for Dalits in
India is stark. Although I would
hesitate before projecting bleak
contours on the lives of all Navayana
Buddhist communities, it does seem
safe to assert that this is at least the
general context in which they live,
and that even if many Navayana
Buddhists who are Dalits have
gained upward social mobility they
are still aware of their distinct
8 Queen, 59.
9 Ambedkar, 333.
10 Ambedkar, 340.
11 Ambedkar, 447.
13 Note that the bulk of the research for
this paper was completed between May
2000 and May 2001. Although I think
the main conclusions still hold, there
may be scholarship that is not included
here and which would add additional
nuance to the picture portrayed.
14 Timothy Fitzgerald, “Buddhism in
Maharashtra: a Tri-Partite Analysis—
A Research Report,” in Dr. Ambedkar,
Buddhism, and Social Change, Ed.
A.K. Narain and D. C. Ahir (B. R.
Publishing Corporation 1994), 20.
15 Neera Burra, “Buddhism, Conversion
and Identity: A Case Study of Village
Mahars”, in Caste: Its 20th Century
Avatar, ed. M.N. Srinivas (Penguin
India 1997), 160.
17 Ibid., 161.
18 Ibid., 161-62.
19 Ibid., 165.
20 Ibid., 166.
21 Ibid., 168.
23 Fitzgerald, 20.
24 See Gauri Viswanathan, Outside the
Fold: Religion, Modernity and
Belief (Princeton University Press
25 Friends of the Western Buddhist Order,
“The FWBO and the Buddhist
Tradition”, available at http://
26 Ibid., 23.
27 Johanez Beltz, “Spiritualiser le
Dhamma? L’implantation Contestee
du Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha en
Inde,” Asiatische Studien Etudes
Asiatiques 4 (1997),1055-1072.
28 Ibid., 1063.
29 Ibid., 1065.
30 Ibid., 1066.
31 D. C. Ahir, Buddhism and Ambedkar,
(Dalit Sahitya Prakashan 1990), 110.
32 Charles Hallisey and Anne Hansen, for
example, provide a useful framework
for understanding the inner moral
transformation that result from
repeated exposure to the Jataka tales.
They hold that narrative has the
unique ability to “prefigure,”
“configure”, and eventually
“transfigure” moral life. See Charles
Hallisey and Anne Hansen,
“Narrative, Sub-Ethics, and the Moral
Life,” Journal of Religious Ethics 24.2
(Fall 1996), 323.
33 Owen Lynch, “Dr. B. R. Ambedkar—
Myth and Charisma,” The
Untouchables in Contemporary India,
Ed. J. Michael Mahar (The University
of Arizona Press 1972), 110.
34 Dhammachari Lokamitra,
“Ambedkar and Buddhism,” Economic
and Political Weekly May 18, 1991,
35 Gopal Guru, “Appropriating
Ambedkar”, Economic and Political
Weekly, July 6-13, 1991, 1699.
36 See Friends of the Western Buddhist
Order, “Reviving Buddhism in India”,
available at http://www.fwbo.org/
37 See Eleanor Zelliot, From
Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the
Ambedkar Movement, 3rd edition
2001, Manohar, New Delhi. I also
would like to thank Professor Zelliot
for her invaluable contributions to
this article, particularly through her
understanding of the weaknesses and
future strengths of scholarship on
38 See, e.g., Surendra Jondhale and
Johannes Beltz, Reconstructing the
World: B.R. Ambedkar and Buddhism
in India, (Oxford University Press
2004) and Gail Omvedt, Buddhism in
India: Challenging Brahmanism and
Caste (Sage Publications 2004).
39 See D. C. Ahir, Buddhism and
Ambedkar (Dalit Sahitya Prakashan
40 An example of an online forum is The
Buddhist Circle, at Yahoo! Groups.
Websites include www.ambedkar.org,
www.ambedkar.net. I would also like to
thank Mangesh Dahiwale and the other
members of The Buddhist Circle who
were a tremendous help and inspiration
to me while I was living in New Delhi.
Saturday, 22 March 2008
Meritocracy, Productivity and
the Hidden Language of Caste
This paper draws on interview data to analyse the attitudes of employers/hiring managers
in India’s organised private sector towards the caste and community attributes of their
potential employees. We focus on the role ascriptive qualities play in employer
perceptions of job candidates, arguing that they persist despite a formal adherence to the importance of merit. Antagonism toward reservations, as a mechanism for promoting employment for scheduled castes, is articulated as a principled commitment to the
modern virtues of competition and productivity.
Surinder S Jodhka, Katherine Newman
More than a decade ago, Joleen Kirshenmann and Kathryn Neckerman interviewed Chicago area employers to try to understand the role they played in the production of unequal employment outcomes by race and gender. Recognising that young black men in the United States were plagued with high levels of unemployment, these sociologists sought to understand how hiring managers viewed the landscape of job applicants, and how the stereotypes they employed affected their judgments about the qualifications of those who sought work.
In their oft-cited paper, "We’d Love to Hire them, But…" Kirshenmann and Neckerman [Kirshenmann and Neckerman 1991] discovered that employers believed black men were unreliable, unruly, poorly educated and low skilled. Coupled with evidence from audit experiments, like those conducted by the Urban Institute and Princeton sociologist, Devah Pager [Pager 2003; 2007], employer interviews contribute to the view that prejudice remains a problem in the distribution of jobs. Low skill and educational deficits are, to be sure, also implicated in the high unemployment rates of black men. But even those who are qualified will face suspicion on the part of employers who begin with negative views of the urban minority labour force.
The example of Kirshenmann and Neckerman has seldom been followed,1 even in the US, much less elsewhere in the world. But the same goals that led them to study the social attitudes of employers and hiring managers in Chicago animated the present study of Indian employers in the formal sector.
The Indian Study
This paper is based on a qualitative pilot study of a convenience sample of 25 human resources managers in large firms based in New Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR). While this is a small sample, worthy of replication on a much larger scale, the firms involved are generally large, established, and responsible for a significant number of hiring decisions in any given year. We have employment totals for 22 of the 25 firms and together they employ over 19,00,000 "core" workers (meaning they are on the direct payroll) and data on contract or temporary employees – usually hired via outsourcingly for only eight firms, for another 63,000 workers.2
Lengthy on site interviews were conducted in 2005-06 with the head of human relations or managers holding equivalent responsibilities for hiring and employment policy in each firm. They were told that the purpose of the study was to explore employer perceptions of the Indian labour force and challenges involved in hiring policy. Our informants were first asked to describe the firm’s history, size of the workforce, categories of employees, and labour search practices. They were then asked if they had any views on why members of the scheduled caste (SC) population display high levels of unemployment. Finally, we asked for their opinions of the "reservations policy", the longest standing quota system in the world. In particular, we wanted to know their views on whether this policy instrument, which is legally required in public higher education, public employment, and the legislative branch of government, should be extended to the private sector.
We must note at the outset that one cannot extrapolate from the data contained here, that the patterns of un- and under-employment of stigmatised groups in India be laid fully at the feet of discriminatory actors, acting either consciously or unconsciously on stereotypical expectations to overlook or eliminate qualified workers. Our interview data cannot speak to the question of whether hiring managers act on their preconceptions. Nor does it tell us whether clear statements to the effect that "merit is the only thing that matters" are indeed the real watchword of employment decisions.
For that, we have to turn to more persuasive experimental data.3 But because that experimental data turns up fairly persistent evidence of discrimination under controlled conditions, researchers have turned to the study of employer attitudes as one ingredient that contributes to the pattern of unemployment that plagues minorities in the US and religious or caste-based minorities in India.
Modernism and Merit
The most striking finding in the interviews was the view, expressed by virtually every interviewee, that workers should be recruited strictly according to merit. That this has not previously
Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007
been the case in Indian industry was both clear and easily acknowledged. India is a country with a very long commercial history and for most of it, jobs were doled out in a nepotistic fashion, first according to personal ties, second according to village ties, and finally caste affinity. These traditional practices served India well for centuries and the notion that a precious resource, a job opportunity, should willingly be deeded over to a complete stranger – no matter how well qualified – represented a departure from traditional practice.
Of course, India is not alone in this history. In most western industrial countries, the same practices obtained, and whatever inequalities emerged as a result were simply accepted as the norm. It was not regarded as unfair or unfortunate; it was simply the way things worked. The rise of the professions in the west, with their elaborate systems of credentialism, interjected a different conceptual framework and corresponding practices. Qualification was now important and competition was built up as the gateway to the institutions that certified the most desirable would-be businessmen, lawyers, doctors, teachers, accountants, and so forth.
Of course, nepotism and other forms of preferential selection played a role in the admission to credentialing institutions, but the concept of merit took hold as a public declaration in opposition to the old tradition of inherited privilege or I-scratch-your-back cronyism. This attitude received a powerful shot in the arm with the invention of the civil service, a reform intended to break the back of corruption and distribute jobs more fairly. Civil service employment was a coveted good in western states and, throughout the colonial period, in India as well. Stable, relatively well paid, respected (to a degree) by authorities, these jobs and the pathways that led to them were the essence of modernism in the market place.
The fact that written exams often functioned to exclude minorities unfairly, operated and still persists in many domains. The oncept of merit as the sole legitimate basis for employment was built into the foundation of what western employers see as modern. Indian employers outside the public sector did not leap on that bandwagon until the country began to move more decisively towards a self-conscious modernity.
Indian employers in this study speak about the past – which was dominated by localism and favouritism – as a period best left behind. The more India takes its place as an economic powerhouse in the modern world, they explain, the more it must operate strictly in accord with meritocracy and utilise hiring practices that will achieve this goal. To do otherwise – either in the service of a potentially laudatory goal, like the advancement of SCs or STs, or goals that no one would admit to in public, the exclusion of these groups from employment – is to stick the country (and the firm in question) in the mud.
A good example of this view is found in our interview with a hiring manager at Global Productions4 a major media company with its publishing headquarters in Delhi (interview 6) and bureaus in 16 Indian states. The firm is about 80 years old, has a workforce of 3,000 core employees and another 800 who are hired through outsourced contracts. They recruit new employees on a national level for their main news staff and locally for their auxiliary bureaus. It is a publicly listed company, though the majority of the shares belong to the Indian family that purchased the firm after Indian independence.
When asked about whether particular groups compose the workforce, the manager responded, "our workforce is quite diversified. No concentration on caste, creed and colour… talent and merit do not go with one particular caste or creed." Pressed about whether popular stereotypes of castes or religious groups influence hiring, he was adamant that prejudice plays no role. "No, things have changed", he explained "This was the perspective of the 1980s [before liberalisation]. Today when you are casting your own future in an unknown market, the internal flexibility is very important." He elaborated,
We don’t put any kind of template on any individual… We focus completely on merit. As our main goal is standardisation…We also have defined what merit is…. We need people who are more exposed [to the world]. We believe power of imagination comes with exposure. Exposure makes you observe certain things and this stimulates the power of the imagination. If you have to be part of global culture, your leadership should be… defined by your capability of redefining… the company. And this can be …made possible only through the power of imagination.
For Global Productions, which relies on projecting a cosmopolitan image as part of its market appeal, there is a bottom line value to recruiting people who are worldly, sophisticated, and well educated. In principle, individuals with this kind of cultural capital could come from any background. In practice, the institutions and experiences that produce cosmopolitanism are rarely accessible to members of the SCs.
Perhaps this is to be expected in a media company, where image is so critical to the bottom line. Let us turn, then, to a manufacturing firm where this pressure is less evident. Food futures, a 20-year old company that sells processed agricultural products, is a small family-owned firm with 150 people. As a fairly new firm, they embrace management practices that they believe are consistent with modern techniques. As the human resources director explained, he sees no relationship between the quality of one’s work and background characteristics such as caste:
I haven’t seen any kind of correlation between the religion of the person and his work. It is basically his calibre, attitude and his commitment that is seen. I have seen people from various castes. Some called from the so-called BIMARU states5 but they are very active and committed towards their work… So I never thought about caste and creed.
He acknowledges that not everyone shares his enlightened perspective and some actively practice an affirmative form of caste discrimination:
Some owners of Indian companies come from a particular caste and the people who belong to this community may have some kind of positive discrimination. For example, a person who is a thriving businessman is always helped by people from his own caste or community or the kind of friends he has also belong to the same caste.
Yet from his perspective, this is not a modern attitude and it is fading quickly. It is more likely to be found outside the major cities or in rural areas. "Such things are not very strong today", he explained.
About the impact of these stereotypes in recruitment, I don’t think it works. No one recruits anyone on the basis of his caste or the region he comes from if he is not going to be useful.
However, "there are people who are very particular about caste". They would tend to be people in smaller organisations who are more likely to "belong to the caste of the person who set up the company". But these practices are going the way of the past because globalisation creates competitive pressures that wipe the conservative or backward practices of the past out of the way. Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007 4127
Hence it is not that casteism or its cousins, in-group preference, have disappeared completely. As this manager sees the matter, an evolutionary trend is in progress. The firms most exposed to international competition and modern management have abandoned these vestiges of discriminatory tradition, while the smaller firms or family firms that cater to local markets are slower to accommodate. It is there, and only there, that these retrograde practices will persist.
The language of merit, the morally virtuous credo of competitive capitalism, subtracts from the conversation the many forms of institutional discrimination and disinvestment that prevent all members of a society from competing on a level playing field. It assumes that we begin from the same starting point (regardless of evidence of deprivation), enter equally efficacious credentialing institutions (despite the clear inequalities in schooling that take a heavy toll on the poor and low caste), and come out ranked objectively in terms of sheer quality.
The American language of meritocracy similarly relies on the subtraction of institutional inequality, as well as the ability to overlook the persistent impact of historical discrimination that has left deep tracks in test score gaps or differential educational attainment by race and class [Jencks and Phillips 1998]. Whatever the consequences of these handicaps, the American variant nonetheless clings to the principal that the only thing that matters is individual capacity.
For Indian employers, there is no contradiction between an emphasis on individual merit and notion of valuing "family background", which virtually every hiring manager emphasised was critical in evaluating a potential employee. This would indeed contradict the idea of "merit" as understood classically in terms of rising above one’s station at birth and one’s family of origin. On this theory, it is no more legitimate to "dock" a job candidate for characteristics of his family then it is to reject him or her on the grounds of race, age, or gender.
What kind of information is an Indian hiring manager seeking when she asks about a candidate’s family background? For some, the concept is amorphous and stretches to include virtually anything that is not directly related to educational credentials or work experience. For others, the idea is quite specific.
The human resources manager of a multinational shoe manufacturing unit, employing nearly 10,000 core workers and 2,000 casual workers, focused on a variety of qualities entirely beyond the control of applicants. "In family background", he said, "we look at…". (1) Good background, (2) educated parents, (3) brother and sister working, and (4) preference for those from urban areas.
The ABC firm employs over 20,000 people in over 60 locations throughout India. It has been an important corporation for over 100 years, selling agricultural manufactures, clothing, and paper goods, among other diversified products. The 45-year old brahmin manager of ABC’s HR department was clear that family background and/or the kind of setting in which a candidate was raised makes the difference between success and failure in a job applicant. "We ask them about family background", he noted, "depending upon the position applied [for] and the kind of task allotted with the position". The need to prove one’s worthiness through family characteristics was most important for managerial workers, he explained. For lower level workers, the assumption is that they would not pass muster on these grounds. Instead, they want to know whether a potential janitor (for one of the firm’s hotels) has the same standards as those that the company wants to promote:
Say for example, in housekeeping, we generally avoid keeping people from slum areas because their appreciation for cleanliness will be different from us. For him, a dusty room would also be a clean room. If he is trainable, then there is no problem in taking him into the company. But in the front office we go for trained and professional people and they all belong to higher castes.
Whether or not someone appears to be "trainable", is judged according to the interviewer’s estimation of how far away from an assumed list of traits, born inexorably out of the "neighbourhood characteristics" of his upbringing, the applicant can be coaxed to come. There is a barrier to be overcome rather than a blank slate on which to build.
Why does family background matter so much? To all our informants, it seemed unnecessary to explain; it is such an important part of the hiring system that the question seemed surprising. But when asked for more detail, respondents answered with a theory of socialisation: "merit" is formed within the crucible of the family. The HR manager of Food Futures provided the most coherent expression of this theory:
As personal traits are developed with the kind of interaction you have with society. Where you have been brought up, the kind of environment you had in your family, home, colony and village, these things shape the personal attributes of people. This determines his behaviour, and working in a group with different kinds of people. We have some projects abroad, and if a person doesn’t behave properly with them, there is a loss for the company. Here the family comes in, whether the person behaves well and expresses himself in a professional way, for a longer term and not for a short term. This is beneficial.
What one sees on the surface – credentials, expressed attitudes – is shaped in the bosom of the family. For the hiring manager who cannot delve deeper into the character of the applicant beyond surface characteristics, the successes of the rest of the job applicant’s family stand in as proof that the individual before him is reliable, motivated, and worthy. If the answers do not come back in a desirable form, the surface impressions may be misleading. Doubt is cast on the qualities of the individual.
Jatin, the hiring manager of a major manufacturing firm that employs over 2,800 people to produce some of the finest jewellery in India, echoed this sentiment in explaining what he learns from answers to questions about family background:
We also ask a lot of questions related to family background. Questions like how many family members are there, how many are educated, etc. The basic assumption behind these questions is that a good person comes from a good and educated family. If parents have good education, the children also have good education. Some questions about their schooling…and the locality where they [grew up].
As these managers see it, background characteristics of this kind are the source of "soft skills" that are an asset to the firm. The person who can manage adroitly in the organisational context of a firm hierarchy in India and abroad is going to contribute to the bottom line and the person who has trouble in these interactions will detract. But the surface evidence of soft skills is difficult to judge in an interview and by the time it matters, managers seem to believe, it would be too late if the judgment of the hiring manager at the outset has been faulty. Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007 4128
Hence, they search for additional information to short up their estimation of an applicant’s personal qualities and find it in the "data" on family background.
This practice of screening applicants based on family background, almost by definition will create employment barriers for dalits, OBC’s and others for whom historic (and contemporary) patterns of discrimination have made it difficult for family members to assemble desirable educational or occupational biographies. Of the 160 million dalits in India, the majority are rural, landless labourers. Even those living in towns and cities are more likely to be employed in the informal economy and their children invariably go to state-run non-English medium schools.
If dalits are too lowly, the scions of very rich families are considered bad material for employment for the opposite reasons. As the HR managers see it, they are pampered and lazy and accustomed to getting jobs on the basis of connections alone. In the competitive world of global capitalism, this will not do either. Khurana, of the Security Services Inc told us that a job in a security agency is not very exciting for somebody coming from a high profile family. Hiring them would not be a wise thing as they are unlikely to stay with the firm for long.
A car manufacturing firm, now half foreign owned, employs 3,800 workers in one plant alone. It is in the process of building another and hence has been recruiting new workers of late. What do they look for in a new employee? "First is the qualification and relevant background", the HR manager explains. "If the person frequently changes jobs, he is not preferred". But this is not sufficient. One must be willing to work hard and that is a quality which this manager believes is absent in those at the top of the social structure:
We judge and prefer a person who is humble, not aggressive, and open to all… We see the family background. People who come from high profile are not preferred as they have an inner pride within them which makes them arrogant. People from the middle classes are preferred.
Of course, the cost of exclusion for someone from the upper registers is not nearly so punishing as it is for those at the bottom. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that the meritocratic model which places "family background" in a central position favours those industrious members of the middling classes and makes life harder for those at the very top and the very bottom.
Closely linked to ideas of family background and the implications they have for the exclusion of dalits and other marginal groups of Indian society are pronounced regional stereotypes. Not only do HR managers have firm ideas about the qualities that different regions inculcate in their inhabitants, they worry about the social consequences both of throwing workers together in unbalanced combinations of antagonistic local groups or about the opposite: solidarity within the workforce, based on caste, tribe, or village membership, in the service of opposition to management.
The Kilim Chemical Company is a family owned business founded 45 years ago to supply caustic soda to the aluminum manufacturing industry. They run manufacturing firms in remote regions of India where the raw materials are extracted so and refined. Kilim has over 1,000 core workers on the payroll, and in addition employs thousands of seasonal workers who are involved in salt manufacture, an essential element of caustic soda production. According to the story of the HR manager, an economist employed by the firm for two years, the firm is very stable. "We have extremely good industrial relations", he explained. "We have never had workers going on strike".
The firm is "widely recognised for [its] generosity… there are people who have been working here for 20 years, 25 years and 50 years." As is typical of many family firms, a paternalistic relationship exists between the owners and the community surrounding the manufacturing plants.
[The owner] has a bungalow in [the township where the plant is located]. He goes there every two, three months for visits and then goes around the place. So everybody knows who he is. He is a ‘Mai-Baap’ [mother-father] but in terms of welfare.
Though described as a shy man, the owner nonetheless makes a habit of turning up at village weddings to make contributions to the bride’s father. In this respect, the firm is a kind of family, with obligations that stretch beyond the work world to the private sphere of kinship and household. Given this kind of integration, it is perhaps not surprising that the professional management can rattle off images of local ethnic groups that are strikingly categorical. "Are there any kind of stereotypes about labour?" we inquired. "I understand what you’re talking about", the HR manager replied.
Now it is a little impolite thing to say on a tape recorder. There is a great deal [of stereotyping] about Uttar Pradesh people. There is a constant mimicking of Bihari labourers. Lazy guys, come in drop in without work, you know, but we have no choice, we have to work with those kind of people, rather than people from Gujarat and Maharashtra… I can manage with these people, but in casual [conversation] we say he is so laid back. We have to adjust. The work I expect to be done in three minutes would probably take an hour and a half, but it will get done.
National Airways, a private airline employs nearly 8,400 workers including those on regular and contract hiring agreements. Their core workforce tends toward management and high level jobs, including pilots, air hostesses, and the like. Low level jobs like loaders, cleaners, data entry operators and sweepers are almost entirely contracted out, a common practice in Indian firms. A self-consciously modern firm, National Airways maintains a web site for employment applications, their preferred recruitment method.
When asked about the kinds of workers they employ with respect to background, region, or religion, the HR manager was completely open about the fact that they select on appearance, fluency in English, and cultural sophistication. "This is a service providing industry", Jagdish explained. "We need good people, people who have some style and looks".
A stylish guy, who also communicates well, speaks good English, who is well educated, well grown and who comes from a particular "class" is preferred. So we do not recruit anyone and everyone. We have identified some regions and communities from where we get people. Say in north India, Punjabi culture is very open; their faces have glow... But that is not the same case with Haryana culture, Uttar Pradesh or Bihari culture. They are not good for us. Their cultures, their way of speaking and dealing with others would not work in our company or this industry. They don’t have that openness… A majority of Air hostesses come from Punjabi families, as they are open. They can speak or communicate well. Some of them are from the north-east.
Jagdish went on to explain that National Airways likes to recruit "sardar" (Sikh) girls, who are also well spoken. But they Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007 4129
are not interested in just any sardar. Instead, they specifically seek out "those who come from good families…"
Sardar girls won’t speak well if they come from Himachal Pradesh. They may not be cultured.
Physical appearance is integral to his image of the right kind of employee for National Airlines. He has very definite ideas about where one finds people with the right features, the requisite "glow on their face".
Frankly speaking, people from urban areas are preferred more than those coming from a rural area in this company, because that rural mentality does not suit us and the company.
He is of the view that girls whose fathers are in the military are a particularly good bet for jobs in the airline industry. "People who come from this particular culture", he notes, "have a tendency to come together and work for the company".
Security Services, discussed earlier in the context of family background, combines views about the appropriateness of particular regions as a source of employment, with a straightforward caste bias. Recruiting in rural areas, where labourers move in and out of agricultural labour and seasonal employment with firms like this one, they have become acquainted with the STs in the region. They know that when the harvest season arrives, their workforce will disappear for a month or two. But this varies by region and the HR manager has developed very strong views of who will work and who will flake out:
If we go down to the south, say Chennai, Bangalore…that part of the country has a different attitude and they work much better. Basically it is the culture of the area. The feedback from the customer is that the service in those regions is much better. If I go to Noida area (in Uttar Pradesh), the social system is not balanced. If I go to Gurgaon, it is the most horrifying because of the concentration of jats there. They are very arrogant. In India, this is the community which is most unsophisticated. The most rough community is the haryanvi community. They don’t understand logic, their blood starts boiling fast. In terms of discipline, commitment and confinement to rule, I find it is least in these people.
India Motors, an automobile manufacturer is a multinational firm, jointly owned now by one of the major Japanese firm. Two production firms in the NCR have been in operation for more than 20 years. Nearly 4,500 workers are listed on the India Motors payroll, but the actual workforce is nearly double that number, since contract employees are brought on as ‘temps’. The senior HR manager, Vincor, who had been with the firm for 15 years, explained that the workforce that mans the plants is dominated by the indigenous peoples of the area:
The social profile of labour varies significantly in the two plants. The first plant in Dharuheda is dominated by the labour from nearby villages, which means they are mostly from Haryana. Since they were recruited from available labour locally, they are not very educated. In fact most of them were trained by us.
Caste plays an important role in organising the rural labour force. As Vincor explained, even the unions are structured by caste:
Nearly 450 workers [in the first plant] belong to the local dominant caste of jats and another 250 to 300 come from another dominant caste of ahirs. Around 100 to 150 would be from different backward castes. Our workers are also organised on caste lines. Trade union elections are mostly on caste lines…. The jat group is arrogant. They do not listen to any one. Ahirs are tamed. Brahmans are more learned and they speak well and schedule castes are not vocal.
These are not neutral observations. The social organisation of caste provides a platform for collective grievances and the firm has been on the receiving end of labour actions that can be more easily organised given the caste lines. "At times they are very aggressive", Vincor complained. "We have seen a lot of bad phases, strikes and lock outs".
The firm tries to temper the power of ethnic/caste based organising in two ways. First, the firm’s owner maintains a paternalistic relationship that they hope will cut through these solidarities and engender loyalty to the firm. As part of its civic relations, India Motors builds hospitals, schools, tube wells, eye camps and health camps. Between the personal gestures to family members and the infrastructure the firm provides, the link between worker and firm tightens into a dependency. Second, they no longer recruit workers from only one region.
If we recruit 50 people, not more than 10 to 12 local jats are recruited and the rest should be from diverse background. We need a loyal and obedient workforce. People who will listen to us and work religiously.
In their second plant, India Motors made sure that the workforce was ethnically diverse. This ensures that no single group dominates, and the labour relations are more professional and less personalistic. Vincor regards the second plant as more modern, closer to the rest of the world economy, in part because of its more impersonal labour practices. The language of globalisation, which equates patrimonial bureaucracy and ethnic or caste-based hiring with the past, favours formal mechanisms for hiring rather than personal networks, meritocratic principles (albeit in the context of "family background"), and national rather than local recruitment.
The flip side of caste prejudice is a preference for specific groups, regional ethnicities, and religions, based on the view that they are particularly suited to a given occupation. Fitness Health Corporation employs about 4,000 people in northern India, while another 1,800 workers – ranging from "ward boys, to nurses, cleaners and receptionists" are contract workers. Fitness is a new industry of private health providers that caters to relatively wealthy families. They are particular about the people they hire because they are serving an elite clientele.
The majority of our employees are local, mostly north Indians. We have peoples who have migrated from Noida and Gaziabad. However, most of our nurses are females coming from south India, especially from Kerala (Malu Christian girls)… they are better in knowledge than other girls and this is because they are doing the job from generation to generation and the knowledge is passed from one generation …to another. Higher caste people are reluctant to send their daughters in this nursing profession. They think that this is not a good profession, looking after the patients, cleaning them and other things. The nurses [we hire] are mostly Christians, must be converted (from low caste [Hindus]) or born Christians. They generally don’t belong to scheduled castes.
One could argue that this manager is merely describing a labour migration flow rather than unveiling a preference that affects who the firm will hire among those who present themselves as applicants. There hardly seems to be a difference in practice. Fitness Health searches amongst the groups it sees as "fit" for the job and neither looks nor easily entertains others.
Such a preferential policy often exists side by side with a bright line that excludes those who do not fit these stereotypical expectations. For Fitness Health, this clearly includes dalits, who need not apply. "Among SCs", the manager explains, "there is a lack of technical skills. And their attitude is unmatchable for Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007 4130
the company". Is this an unfair, an example of bigotry? "No", she insists. "We have no prejudices about SCs and Muslims. This is a mind set issue".
The proposal to introduce reservations in the private sector was uniformly opposed by the human resource managers interviewed for this study. Not one in the entire portfolio of research subjects had anything positive to say about quota based hiring. Ultimately, their objections trace back to the first topic raised in this paper: the relationship between modernity and meritocracy. The future of the Indian economy, they argue, lies in increasing productivity and this, in turn, requires that each firm permit the "creamy layer" to rise, while the incompetent fail and disappear. There should be little need to justify this perspective, as the employers/managers see the matter: it is the natural way of Adam Smith’s hidden hand, the only means to achieve the greater good.
From the perspective of HR managers, reservations policy inserts ascriptive criteria into the hiring process and short circuits the competitive processes essential to the market. This path leads to the ruination of India’s economy and hence the policy must be stopped dead in its tracks. Interference in the name of social engineering will ultimately defeat the purpose of national growth, and the loss of international investment that would accompany quota regulations would strip the whole country of the capital it needs.
Beyond this general attack on reservations, there are a variety of sub-themes worth exploring for the images they generate of the underlying nature of low caste workers. The first is the view that discrimination is not a problem at this stage in the development of India’s labour market. It might have been an issue in the past, but India has turned a corner and as a modern nation no longer thinks in terms of caste at all.
"I haven’t come across any instance where a SC has been denied a job because he is a scheduled caste," the director of a waste management company explained.
Nobody can do it. Even in the private sector. Private sector is more concerned about its profit and production. If someone is an asset to them, he or she is accepted….If a schedule caste person comes to me and he is brilliant, I will employ him.
Confidence in the basic fairness of the employment system was echoed in our interview with Palin, the manager of a large retail firm started 15 years ago to supply the growing Indian market for household products. When asked whether reservations were a good idea or a necessary practice, he answered that "if a person is capable enough, he or she doesn’t need reservations. There are enough jobs in the market; one can easily achieve what he wants…"
Virtually every interview we collected included a statement to the same effect. Yet, managers are aware that inequality is persistent, that low caste individuals have less opportunity than others in the labour market. Few would argue that this state of affairs comes about just because talent is differentially distributed. Instead, they suggested that a human capital problem created by an educational system that disadvantages dalits and OBC’s has produced a talent deficit in this population. The hiring manager for Global Productions insisted that unequal education is the root of the problem. When asked why it was that dalits are virtually never employed in top private sector jobs, she responded:
I haven’t thought [about] it that way. I don’t think that it is true [that discrimination is at work]. I think it could be a lot to do the way our society has developed. There could be a possibility that because dalits are economically weaker, so they haven’t gone to best schools and colleges. That could be a reason. But if you have a level and a degree, no one can stop you.
Hence, the explanation for poverty and disadvantage in the lower castes has shifted away from the pollution taboos and enforced exclusion; towards the institutions that certify talent. Almost down to each person, the view among employers is that education – not affirmative action – is the key to uplifting the low caste population.
And here, some would admit, India lags behind. It has not invested as heavily in education as it needs to do and should feel some obligation to remedy the problem. Dalit students attend inferior schools and this, business leaders agree, needs to be addressed. Pradeep6 Wig, the Owner of Kwality Ice Creams is the author of an important report from the business community submitted to the prime minister in July of 2006.7 Wig, concerned that the government would even contemplate the idea of extending reservations to the private sector, likens the idea to the confiscation of private property.
What, then, is the appropriate diagnosis and remedy? "Frankly, corporations have no solution to the problem", he explains.
We cannot progress in this regard (equal hiring) unless there is integrated schooling in India. In countries like US, where you have integrated schooling, the young people grow up together. For 15 to 20 years of their life, they have been together in the school despite the difference of colors… Industries have little role to play. One should not have more expectation from industry.
Hence investment in education and encouraging integration to break down barriers that divide Indians by caste will pay off in levelling the playing field. Then, and only then, can business be expected to show equal hiring rates, because it will be choosing from among equally qualified applicants.
The manager of Security Services also made a similar point. "In my perspective", he explained, "elementary education has to be strengthened".
Any parent who doesn’t send their children to school – the road side beggar, the street children – they should be provided with primary schooling and it should be strengthened. They should be rigorous at the primary level; there should be standardisation of education. Instead of giving theme reservations in jobs and compromising merit, provide them with elementary education… Give them extra slots in schools, their personal grooming, overall personality development, personal education. But (if we go) beyond this point, the country will go to hell.
His counterpart at the India Shoe Company echoes the same notion:
We do not support reservation. Productivity will suffer and the company will suffer. The scheduled castes should be given opportunities in education and after that, they should compete on their own. … There should be no reservation for any category of population in education either.
What are the pitfalls of insisting on reservations for the moment? Here a litany of problems emerge. First, employers argue, acquiring a job through a reservation policy destroys Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007 4131
the incentive to be productive. The Kilim Chemical Company HR manager is certain that anyone who gets a job as a consequence of government-induced social engineering will behave as if there is no relationship between performance and his ability to hold on to the job. He will take the position for granted and underperform. "In a corporate environment", he explained, "(reservations policy) is disastrous because people use it as a trick".
People take advantage and do not do any work… This guy, like he says, because I am a scheduled caste I will get away with anything that is not acceptable and it happens. That’s number one.
This manager worries that grievances will follow if a SC person is passed over or not hired, not unlike the problems he encounters with trade unions who he thinks make trouble when they do not get what they feel is their due. The trouble brings production to a halt and ultimately costs the company.
Indian employers complain that reservations will incline low caste workers not to work as hard as they would if they had to "earn" their job and worry about whether they can retain it. Multiply that times the millions of workers who would come into their organisations by virtue of quotas and, they argue, the productivity of their firms would collapse.
The assumption at work here is that the purpose of reservations is not to level the playing field or permit a deserving dalit to gain a job he would otherwise be denied for reasons of prejudice. Instead reservations represent a political victory that enables the unqualified to game the system, forcing firms to permit indolent time-servers into a labour force that is scrambling to meet production targets.
For further proof of the damage reservations would do to firm competitiveness, employers point to government organisations in their own fields. India has had public hospitals for many decades. The employment manager of Fitness Health, a private healthcare firm that operates hospitals for paying customers, looks upon his "competition" with contempt and believes that if his firm was forced to comply with reservations policy, they would end up in similar condition:
If there [were] reservations in this company, nurses and ward boys won’t work and pay less attention to patients. See what is happening in government departments. Incapable people are pushed in and ultimately we all lose. These people do not work hard. They enter with low [grades]. Our job is very technical and incompetent people cannot be relied upon to [do] such work. There is no place for poor education and technical skills in our institution. Our company will resist any kind of caste based reservation.
According to these employers, not only does reservation policy let the SC beneficiary off the hook, it has the potential to spread a watered-down work ethic to others. Or so the manager of Global Productions explains. "What has the reservation system done to India’s education system?," we inquired. "Somewhere it affects the people who work hard. It de-motivates them."
Dalits fail under reservations, we were told, in part because they have internalised the negative expectations that underlie the policy. As one respondent said:
They have already accepted that they are smaller [less capable] than the high caste people… They have a low confidence level. I had one person from SC background; he is a scared fellow. Doesn’t even speak with me. They are so much oppressed that he doesn’t even question me.
Here employers reflect an acquaintance with the position taken by some American black conservatives that affirmative action casts doubt on the capabilities of its beneficiaries, as well as race-mates who compete and succeed without any assistance from social policies. This view posits that white students or employees in American schools/firms come to see african americans in their midst as unqualified, able to gain entry to elite institutions only with the special help of a selection system that gives them preference for ascriptive reasons. Conservatives like Ward Connerly8 go on to argue that these preferential admissions policies undermine the self-confidence of minority students who come to believe that they are not really good enough to be in elite institutions. If the policy is dismantled, the only people who will be admitted are those who meet universal standards.
Finally, we also encountered the popular middle class argument that reservation policy serves only a small creamy layer among the dalits. The HR manager of Best Steel Company who has worked in both the private and public sector was of the firm opinion that reservation policy is a disaster because it has become the preserve of one class of dalits:
It is high time we should get out of [the quota system]. We must stop this. No one should avail of such a facility. It has become a privilege for them. Father was taking it; then his son; and now his great grand son It then becomes institutionalised. Government should stop it. Only the urban dalits take the benefit of it and [the] rural class is kept deprived.
For all of these reasons, it would appear that the reservations policy is a complete "no go" from the corporate perspective. In the 25 interviews we have, there was not a single supporter of the idea. At most, hiring managers were willing to support policies of educational investment, scholarships to reward deserving students, as a means of encouraging meritorious behaviour and the future benefits that are presumed to go with high achievement.
The language of meritocracy has spread around the globe along with the competitive capitalism that gave birth to it. Largely gone is the notion that patrimonial ties, reciprocal obligations, and birthright should guarantee access to critical resources like jobs. That ascriptive characteristics continue to matter – now dressed up as "family background" rather than caste – hardly causes the managers we interviewed to skip a beat. They are convinced that modernity is the future of their firms and the future of the country. It calls for the adoption of labour market practices that the advanced capitalist world embraces, and a blind eye to the uneven playing field that produces merit in the first place.
What are the consequences of this cultural shift, of the spread of a common language that resonates with moral precepts of fairness, level playing fields? Can one argue against meritocracy in the modern world? Two responses come to mind. First, as we have suggested in this paper, the belief in merit is only sometimes accompanied by a truly "caste blind" orientation. Instead, we see the commitment to merit voiced alongside convictions that merit is distributed by caste or region and hence the qualities of individuals fade from view, replaced by stereotypes. Under these circumstances, Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007 4132
one must take the profession of deep belief in meritocracy with a heavy grain of salt. Anti-discrimination law is required to insist on the actual implementation of caste blind policies of meritocratic hiring and, we submit, to question the common and accepted practice of assessing family background as a hiring qualification, for it may amount to another way of discovering caste.
Second, the findings in this paper return us to the question of how merit is produced in the first place. The distribution of credentials, particularly in the form of education, is hardly a function of individual talent alone. It reflects differential investment in public schools, healthcare, nutrition, and the like. Institutional discrimination of this kind sets up millions of low caste Indians for a life time of poverty and disadvantage. As long as the playing field is this tilted, there can be no real meaning to meritocracy conceived of as a fair tournament.
This is not to suggest that a commitment to competition is, in and of itself, a bad idea or a value to be dismissed. It is a vast improvement over unshakeable beliefs in racial, religious or caste inferiority, for it admits of the possibility that talent is everywhere. Until the day that institutional investments are fairly distributed, policy alternatives will be needed to ensure that stereotypes do not unfairly block the opportunities of low caste Indians and rural job applicants.
[Funding for this paper was generously provided by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. The authors would also like to acknowledge the assistance of the Indian Institute for Dalit Studies, New Delhi.]
1 An exception would include Philip Moss and Chris Tilly (2003). For a perspective of employer attitudes based on survey research, see Harry Holzer (1999).
2 The smallest of the firms has only 135 core employees, while the largest has approximately 1,00,000 (see the table). They range from manufacturing – still heavily represented in the city of Delhi – to service firms, especially hotels and restaurants. Many of the firms were founded as family enterprises and some still are. A number began as British owned production companies in the colonial era, transferred to Indian management after Independence and have now been absorbed into multi-national firms. Most were family run firms that have now transitioned to what interviewees refer to as "professional management", by which they mean that network based hiring has declined in favour of more formal sources of recruitment, including web sites, newspaper advertisements, on campus interviews, and "headhunters". These avenues do not entirely preclude the exercise of personal ties, as we shall see below, but it has become a matter of pride to move away from total reliance on "in group" recruitment as the former is regarded as too traditional, while more formal and open routes have been deemed more modern.
Hiring managers often do not know exactly how many contract or temporary workers are employed by their own firms, particularly if they are spread out all over the country. Hence, it could easily be the case that the total workforce of these firms is closer to 3,00,000 than the 2,10,000 we can total up. But the data on the demographics of contract labour is less reliable by far than what we have on the core labour force and, in any case, the hiring managers who participated in this study are not responsible for actual hiring decisions where contract labour is concerned. This is an important limitation, though, because for many low skilled dalits, the opportunities provided by contract positions is undoubtedly more important than the positions that are at issue for the core labour force.
Table: Firm Type and Size
Firm Type Number of Core (and Contract) Employees
Hotel 550 (100)
TV and Magazine 700
Auto manufacturer 4,500 (3500)
Shoe manufacturer 10,000 (2000)
Daily newspaper 3,000 (800)
Chemical company 1,100
Tobacco manufacture/hotels 20,000
Healthcare 4,000 (1800)
Steel manufacturer 11,000 (10,000)
Food processor 150
National airways 6,000 (2400)
Security firm 1,00,000
Alternative medicine 3,000
Air conditioning manufacture 300 (700)
Courier/cargo no data
Public toilet placement/cleaning 3,500
Retail home furnishings/clothing no data
Hotel 1,000 (100)
Automobile manufacturing 7,000 (42,000)
Watch manufacturing 2,800
Hotel/restaurant/food processing 2,000
Ice cream manufacturer no data
3 See paper by Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell in this issue of EPW. It is more likely the case that employers and hiring managers understate the degree to which bias influences hiring than overstate it. As Pager and Quillian show in a comparison of results from an audit study and a telephone survey of the same employers, those who indicate an equal willingness to hire black and white ex-offenders actually display large differences by race in audit experiments where they are given an opportunity to consider matched pares differentiated only by race [Pager and Quillian 2005].
4 All company names have been changed and identifying details modified slightly to protect the privacy of the firm and that of our interview subjects.
5 BIMARU is an acronym coined by demographer Ashish Bose to refer to India’s less developed states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The word Bimaru in Hindi means someone who is perennially ill.
6 This is the only participant in our project whose real name is being used here because he is speaking as a public figure, the author of a major government report, rather than as a business owner whose hiring practices are at issue.
7 ASSOCHAM report on Concrete Steps by Indian Industry on Inclusiveness for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe, submitted to the prime minister of India, July 27, 2006.
8 The former regent of the University of California who has sponsored successful ballot initiatives to make affirmative action by race or ethnicity illegal, on the grounds that it diminishes the confidence of minority students, causing them to question the legitimacy of their own achievements (as well as the illegitimacy of policies that are not "colour blind").
Holzer, Harry (1999): What Employers Want: Job Prospects for Less-Educated Workers, Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
Jencks, Christopher and Meredith Phillips (1998): ‘The Black-White Test Score Gap’, Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC.
Kirshenmann, Joleen and Kathryn M Neckerman (1991): ‘We’d Love to Hire Them, but…’: The Meaning of Race for Employers. In Christopher Jencks and Paul Peterson (eds), The Urban Underclass, The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, pp 203-34.
Moss, Philip and Chris Tilly (2003): Stories Employers Tell: Race, Skill and Hiring in America, Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
Pager, Devah (2003): ‘The Mark of a Criminal Record’, American Journal of Sociology 108 (5), pp 937-75.
– (2007): Marked: Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration, Forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.
Pager, Devah and Lincoln Quillian (2005): ‘Walking the Talk? What Employers Say versus What They Do’, American Sociological Review.
From Servitude to Assertion:
Ambedkar’s Subaltern Approach to Nationalism And Dalits Liberation
Ambedkar and Dalitisation of Untouchables:
Dr. Ronki Ram
Traditionally, according to the Hindu code of conduct, the untouchables were placed at the bottom of the caste hierarchy and were known by different names in different parts of the country. They were called Shudras, Atishudras, Chandalas, Antyajas, Pariahs, Dheds, Panchamas, Avarnas, Namashudras, Asprusthas, etc. etc.
The hierarchical and in egalitarian structure of Indian society came into existence during the period of manusmriti. The manusmriti set the tenor of social discrimination based on birth. This, in turn led to economic degradation and political isolation of the untouchables now popularly known as Dalits. Dalits are the poor, neglected and downtrodden lot. Their social disabilities were specific, severe and numerous. Their touch, shadow or even voices were considered by the caste Hindus to be polluting. They were not allowed to keep certain domestic animals, use certain metals for ornaments, eat a particular type of food, use a particular type of footwear, wear a particular type of dress and were forced to live in the outskirts of the villages towards which the wind blew and dirt flowed. Their houses were dirty, dingy and unhygienic where poverty and squalor loomed large. They were denied the use of public wells. The doors of the Hindu temples were closed for them and their children were not allowed into the schools attended by the children of caste Hindu. Barbers and washer men refused their services to them. Public services were closed to them. They followed menial hereditary occupations such as those of street sweepers, scavengers, shoe makers and carcasses removers.
Generally the term dalit includes those who are designated in administrative parlance as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes. However, in common political discourse, the term dalit is so far mainly referred to Scheduled Castes. The term Scheduled Caste was used for the first time by the British officials in Government of India Act, 1935. Prior to this, the untouchable castes were known as depressed classes. Mahatma Gandhi gave them the name Harijans meaning children of God. Gandhi himself did not coin the name. He borrowed the name from a Bhakti movement saint of the 17th century Narsinh Mehta. The name Harijan became popular during 1931 amid conflicts between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the issue of guarantying communal political representation to the dalits. Gandhi took this move as a step towards the disintegration of Hindu society. By terming the untouchables as Harijans, Gandhi tried to persuade caste Hindus to shed their prejudices against the achchutas i.e. untouchables. The purpose to adopt this new nomenclature of Harijan for the untouchables was to induce change in the heart and behaviour of the Hindus towards untouchables. At the same time, it was hoped that this new name would be accepted by the untouchables who would too try to cultivate the virtues which it connotes. To quote Gandhi “…probably, Antyaja brethren would lovingly accept that name and try to cultivate the virtues which it connotes… may the Antyaja become Harijan both in name and nature” (Gandhi 1971: 244-5). The term Harijan got further recognition as an emancipatory nomenclature in the formation of Harijan Sewak Sangh, an organisation established for the purpose of upliftment of the dalits under the aegis of the Congress. A weekly ‘Harijan’ was also started by Gandhi to provide voice for the cause of the downtrodden. However, Ambedkar did not find any substance in the change of name for the redressal of the structural hindrances that stood menacingly in the way of the their all around amelioration. To him it did not make any difference whether the downtrodden were called achchuta or Harijan, ‘as the new nomenclature did not change their status in the social order’ [Shah 2001a: 21].
The term dalit was used by no less a person than Ambedkar in his fortnightly called Bahishkrit Bharat (Guru 2001: 100). Though Ambedkar did not popularise the word dalit for untouchables, his thoughts and actions have contributed to its growth and popularity. The word dalit is a common usage in Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati and many other Indian languages, denoting the poor and oppressed persons. It also refers to those who have been broken, ground down by those above them in a deliberate way (Shah 2001b: 195-196). “It includes all the oppressed and exploited sections of society. It does not confine itself merely to economic exploitation in terms of appropriation of surplus. It also relates to suppression of culture – way of life and value system – and, more importantly, the denial of dignity. It has essentially emerged as a political category. For some, it connotes an ideology for fundamental change in the social structure and relationships” (Shah 2001a: 22). The word dalit indicates struggle for an egalitarian order (Zelliot 2001a: 232) and provides the concept of pride to the politically active dalits (Zelliot 2001 b: 130). The word dalit gained currency through the writings of Marathi writers in the early 1970s. “Dalit writers who have popularised the word have expressed their notion of dalit identity in their essays, poems, dramas, autobiographies, novels and short stories. They have reconstructed their past and their view of the present. They have expressed their anger, protest and aspiration” (Shah 2001a: 22).
“Dalit” is a by-product of the Ambedkar movement and indicates a political and social awareness. Ambedkar adopted a different approach and philosophy for the emancipation of Scheduled Castes. He wanted to liberate the dalits by building an egalitarian social order which he believed was not possible within the fold of Hinduism whose very structure was hierarchical which relegated the dalits to the bottom. Initially, he tried to seek emancipation of the dalits by bringing transformation within the structure of Hinduism through his efforts for opening the temples for the dalits and multi-caste dinners. However, Ambedkar came to realise soon that such an approach would not bring the desired result for the amelioration of the inhuman condition of the dalits. He asserted that the dalits should come forward and fight for their own cause. He gave them the mantra – educate, organise and agitate. He did not have faith in the charitable spirit of the caste Hindus towards the untouchables as it failed to bring any change in the oppressive social order. Ambedkar did not have any faith in Mahatmas and Saints whose main emphasis was not on the equality between man and man. Their philosophy, according to him, was mainly concerned with the relation between man and God.
Baba Saheb Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, himself a dalit, made efforts to transform the hierarchical structures of Indian society for the restoration of equal rights and justice to the neglected lot by building up a critique from within the structure of Indian society. His was not a theoretical attempt but a practical approach to the problems of untouchability. He tried to seek the solution to this perennial problem of the Indian society not by making appeals to the conscience of the usurpers or bringing transformation in the outlook of the individual by begging but by seeking transformation in the socio-religious and politico-economic structures of the Indian society by continuous and relentless struggle against the exploitative system where he thought the roots of the untouchability lay. He thought that until and unless the authority of the Dharam Shastras is shaken which provided divine sanction to the system of discrimination based on the case hierarchy, the eradication of untouchability could not be realised. It was his subaltern perspective, a perspective from below which helped him to come to the conclusion that untouchability emanated neither from religious notions, nor from the much-popularised theory of Aryan conquest. He believed that it came into existence as a result of the struggle among the tribes at a stage when they were starting to settle down for a stable community living. In the process, the broken tribesmen were employed by the settled tribes as guards against the marauding bands. These broken tribesmen employed as guards became untouchables. However, Ambedkar could not provide answer to the problem as to why only these broken tribesmen were confined to the one part of the village in the setting towards which the wind blew and the dirt of the village flowed. Ambedkar’s tirade against untouchability was a tirade to make these people conscious of their rights, and to prepare them to agitate and win their rights.
Dalit Liberation: Subaltern Approach
With the entry of Ambedkar into the Indian political arena during 1920s, the issue of social reforms achieved a new dimension. He was of the opinion that until and unless the downtrodden themselves came forward to fight their own battle, no one else could alleviate their grievances. No one else could know better than them about their own state of affairs. Ambedkar impressed upon the people to understand their own affairs themselves. Self-awakening, he believed, could provide them necessary strength to fight against evils in society. “Ambedkar (started) exorcising the spirit of despair from the minds of dumb millions who had been forced to live the lives of sub-human beings. Here was a liberator preaching them the grand universal law that liberty is neither received as a gift; nor begged for a charity it has to be fought for. Self-elevation is not achieved by the blessing of others but only by one’s own struggle and deed. Those inert, dormant masses lacked courage and needed a vision and a mission. Ambedkar was now inspiring them to do battle for their human rights. He was driving them to action by acting himself Ambedkar was displaying energy by his own action; arousing their faith by showing faith” (Keer 1971: 73-74). Although low-caste protest movement which started with Jyotirao Phule in the 19th century continued in western India with leaders like Vithalji Ramji Shinde, Shivram Janba Kamble, Gangaram Kishnajee and others, they could not pull out the victims of the Brahmanical system of social gradation from their forced ghettos to fight for themselves. However, the movement started by Jyotirao Phule was more nearer to the real goal of dalit liberation than that of the movements led by the Brahmin liberal reformers like Ranade, Gokhale and Karve who concentrated more on inducing reforms in the different settings of Hindu dominated society rather than its total transformation. It was Dr. Ambedkar who provided for the first time to the dalits a system of struggle which they could consider as their own. Although Phule had done the same before him in the 19th century, yet Phule like him did not belong to the untouchable caste. Phule was born in Mali-Kunbi caste broadly considered Shudra but not ‘untouchable’, while Ambedkar was born in the Mahar community which is an untouchable caste. Another factor which distinguished Ambedkar from Phule was that the latter studied at local mission school but had no opportunity available to study abroad. Ambedkar’s stays abroad during his higher education exposed him to English political institutions, liberal democracy and the system of rule of law, which cultivated in him a faith in parliamentary democracy as the best means for achieving the socio-economic liberation of the under- privileged sections of the Indian society. He was equally concerned with the cause of the freedom of India from the colonial rule. Ambedkar said “I will demand what is right full for my people, and I will certainly uphold the demand for swaraj” (Ibid. 145). However, Ambedkar was always concerned to highlight the cause of the downtrodden and ever ready to redeem the same. At the first Round Table Conference, he said that “One fifth of the total population of British India was reduced to a position of worse than that of a serf or a slave. He then declared to the surprise of all that the untouchables in India were also for replacing the existing government by a government of the people, for the people and by the people. He said that this change in the attitudes of the untouchables to British Rule in India was surprising and a momentous phenomenon. And justifying his stand, he observed with a rise in his voice and a glow in his eyes: ‘when we compare our present position with the one which it was our lot to bear in Indian society of pre-British days, we find that, instead of marching on, we are marking time. Before the British, we were in the loathsome condition due to our untouchability. Has the British government done anything to remove it? Before the British, we could not draw water from the village well. Has the British government secured up the right to the well? Before the British, we could not enter the temple. Can we enter now? Before the British, we were denied entry into the police force. Does the British government admit us into the force? Before the British, we were not allowed to serve in military. Is that career now open to us? To none of these questions can be given an affirmative answer. Our wrongs have remained as open sores and they have not been righted, although 150 years of British rule have rolled away’ ” (Ibid. 149-150). He continued “of what good is such a government to anybody. We must have a government in which the men in power will give their undivided allegiance to the best interests to the country. We must have a government in which men in power, where obedience will end and resistance will begin, will not be afraid to amend the social and economic code of life which the dictates of justice and expediency so urgently call for” (quoted in ibid.: 150). So from the above it is clear that for Dr. Ambedkar, political freedom was as important as the social transformation of Indian society.
In his speech delivered at Bombay on 12 June 1951, Ambedkar said that the Scheduled Castes should come forward to cooperate with other communities in strengthening the newly won freedom. But at the same time he cautioned his fellow beings to keep in view the interest of their community. He was sure that the Scheduled Castes could not capture political power by joining the Congress. To win, guard and promote the interests of the untouchables, he emphasized that they should consolidate themselves under their own political party (Bakshi 1992: 60). Ambedkar was of the firm belief that “howsoever, the caste Hindus worked hard for the welfare of the untouchables they did not know their mind. That was why he was fundamentally opposed to any organisation started by the caste Hindus for the upliftment of the Depressed Classes” (Keer 1971: 43). His principal objective was to achieve a respectable place of existence for the downtrodden sections of the society to which he himself belonged. But at the same time he was also not ready to compromise with the cause of the Indian Freedom. He too wanted swaraj but the contents of his conception of swaraj were more versatile than that of the Savarna leaders of the Indian Freedom movement. He accepted the responsibility of framing a constitution for independent India. He said, “I feel now that it was the golden opportunity for me and my community. By framing the constitution, I convinced the Hindus, who were abusing me and my party for the last twenty years as anti-nationalist, that they were entirely wrong. We are as staunch a nationalist organisation as any other” (quoted in Bakshi: 1992: 60). However, Ambedkar’s joining of the Congress government created a great amount of confusion among the Scheduled Castes. In clarification of his joining the government he said, “I have joined the central government but have not become a member of the Congress and have no intention to do so. I was invited by the Congress to join the central government and I had joined it unconditionally. I shall come out any time. I think it is useless to stay there. Our condition is such that it is necessary that our men should be in the administrative machinery. There is no fear of just legislation, but even good laws may be badly administered and if the government is composed of persons who are by tradition against the interests of the Scheduled Castes, then there can be no hope for us” (quoted in ibid.: 62). It was his subaltern perspective which made him to think practically that the administration was unsympathetic to the Scheduled Castes because it was completely run by the officers who were relatives of the oppressors or were known to them. Had these officers belonged to the Scheduled Castes they would have given proper protection to their brethren. He was of the opinion that the high caste tyranny and oppression could be averted only if more of the Scheduled Castes could find places in the administration. This could be achieved by being inside the government rather than by sitting outside. Ambedkar, a firm believer in the parliamentary form of government, impressed upon the Scheduled Castes and Backward Castes, who together formed majority of the population of the country, to come forward to capture political power in the system of adult franchise. He said, “People do not seem to buck up courage because they are overwhelmed by the belief that the Congress government is there for ever. I said, this is a wrong impression. In a popular democracy, no government is permanent and not even the government established by the two of the tallest congressmen, Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel. If you organise, you can even capture that government” (quoted in ibid. 66). Ambedkar was not only a visionary; he tried his level best to translate his vision into a practical reality. With the purpose of breaking the ‘ladderless multi storied tower of Hindu society’ he formed the Independent Labour Party in 1936 so as to have a broad alliance of peasants, workers and Scheduled Castes. In 1942, he formed another political party for defending the interests of the Scheduled Castes. That party was known as Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF). Although the SCF could not make a significant mark in the electoral politics, it provided an alternative to the dalits to think about capturing the political power by organising themselves into a political organisation. After the death of Ambedkar, his close associates formed the Republican Party of India (RPI) in deference to the wishes of their mentor and saviour. Ambedkar hoped that “the Republican Party would be a vehicle for all who sought to achieve the great goals surpassing the narrow confines of the Scheduled Caste Federation” (Omvedt 2001: 150). It shows that Ambedkar wanted to consolidate the downtrodden into a significant political force to guide them to achieve a dignified place in the Indian society. During his long journey of political struggle, he had come to realise that the issue of dalit liberation and empowerment could never be genuinely taken up by the caste Hindus.
The dalits themselves have to come forward to take up the herculean task of their emancipation and empowerment. He had no hopes from the caste Hindus to get any help in such a project. He was greatly disillusioned after his experiences of Mahad agitation in 1927 where inspite of the resolution of Bombay State Assembly to declare all public places open to untouchables, the high caste Hindus violently resisted the untouchables’ attempt to drink water at the public pond. Yet, in another struggle to seek special rights for the Scheduled Castes during the Round Table Conferences, in the form of special electorate, Ambedkar was opposed tooth and nail by Mahatma Gandhi. Although Ambedkar succeeded in getting communal award for the benefits of Scheduled Castes, yet finally he had to compromise under moral duress due to Mahatma Gandhi’s fast-unto-death. “The clash with Gandhi not only shook Ambedkar’s faith in the legal method of redressing grievances, but also convinced him of the futility of striving for equality by remaining within Hinduism. Ambedkar now opened that Hinduism was incapable of reform on its own and that the untouchables must ready themselves to fight their battle for equality alone” (Doctor 1997: 125). Moreover, even during his earlier attempts – three temple satyagrahas – to seek equality within Hinduism, Ambedkar failed to get any support from Gandhi or the Indian National Congress. As said earlier his efforts to join the popular Ganapati festivals in Bombay also proved futile. So, were his attempts to arrange inter-caste dinners and to organise a public ceremony for making the low-caste put on the sacred thread (Zelliot 1986: 163). The failures of all these attempts to bring reforms in the system of Hindu religion demonstrated to Ambedkar, “that the untouchables were not really a part of Hindu society and would never be accepted as equals by the Hindus within that framework (Verma 1999: 2806). In other words, the project of dalit liberation through reforms in Hindu religion failed to yield any result. In the face of such failure, Ambedkar was forced to leave the Hindu religion. At the Yeola Conference, in Nasik district, on October 13, 1935 Ambedkar said that unfortunately he was born a Hindu untouchable and it was beyond his power to prevent that. But he declared that it was within his power to severe ties with that religion. He thundered, “I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu” (Keer 1971: 253). Twenty years after, in October 1956 he converted to Buddhism. With this declaration of Ambedkar, the struggle of dalit liberation entered into a new phase: fighting against the oppressive structures of Hinduism from outside. This new form of dalit struggle which distinguished itself from the pre-1935 struggle of Ambedkar for transformation of the Hindu religion from within, shocked the Hindu community out of complacency and at the same time provided an opportunity to the untouchables to “grasp their own future” (Zelliot 1986: 165).
Dr. Ambedkar realised that caste and Brahminic Hinduism reinforce each other and discriminate against the downtrodden sections of the society. He said in 1946, “To the untouchables, Hinduism is veritable chamber of horrors” (Lobo 2001: 243). He traced the genesis of the oppressive nature of the caste dominated Indian society to the ‘sacred’ shastras of the Hindus who guarded them so closely that if any one except them read or heard them he would commit an act of sacrilege. Manusmriti sanctioned severest punishment for such a sacrilegious act. Ambedkar quotes from Manusmriti, “If the shudra intentionally listens for committing to memory the Veda, then his ears should be filled with (molten) lead and if he utters the Veda, then his tongue should be cut-off; if he has mastered the Veda his body should be cut to pieces” (Thorat and Deshpande 2001: 73). According to Ambedkar the Vedas, smritis and shastras were all instruments of torture used by Hinduism against the untouchables (Lobo 2001: 243).
In fact it was Ambedkar’s subaltern perspective which pierced through the shastras to reveal their true face. He emphasized in his “Annihilation of Caste” that the smritis and shastras were not the embodiment of religion but a system of rules to deprive the untouchables even of their basic needs and deny them equal status in the society. Ambedkar distinguished between rules and principles. Rules are practical and based on prescription. But principles are intellectual and are useful methods of judging things. Rules seek to tell an agent just what course of action to pursue. Principles do not prescribe a specific course of action. Rules are commands and tell what to do and how to do it, whereas principles provide man a reference point to his conscience to guide his course of action. This difference between rules and principles, according to Ambedkar, make the act done in pursuit of them different in quality and in content. Performing an act under the command of a rule and in the light of a principle, as a guide of conscience, are two different things. The principle may be wrong but the act is conscious and responsible by virtue of the fact that such an act has been performed by an individual by making use of his critical abilities. The rule may be right but the act performed thereof is mechanical. A religious act may not be a correct act but according to Ambedkar must at least be a responsible act. “To permit of this responsibility, religion must mainly be a matter of principles only. It can not be a matter of rules. The moment it degenerates into rules it ceases to be religion, as it kills responsibility which is the essence of a truly religious act” (Ambedkar 1995: 88). On the basis of a discussion around the distinction between rules and principles in reference to religion, Ambedkar comes to conclusion that what is called Religion by the Hindus is nothing but a multitudes of commands and prohibition. He said, the Hindu religion, as contained in the Vedas and smritis, is nothing but a mass of sacrificial, social, political and sanitary rules and regulations, all mixed up. Therefore, he said that there should be no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed and there is nothing irreligious in working for the destruction of such a religion that discriminates against its own people whom it bracketed as untouchables.
The most notorious aspect of these bunch of rules and codes of ordinances, masquerading as religion, is that they are made immutable – same for all generations, iniquitous – not the same for one class as for another, and were invested with the character of finality and fixity. Religion, in the sense of spiritual principles is conspicuous by its absence in them. In other words, what the Hindu call religion is, in fact, not a religion in a true sense of the term. It is “really Law or at best legalised class ethics” (ibid. 89). Ambedkar exhorted the untouchables to tear the mask and find in it the hidden conspiracy against them which projected the code of conduct as a religion. He opined that once the people come to know that what Hindus called religion is not a religion but a law, they could urge for its amendment or abolition because law can be changed but not religion. One can leave religion but cannot change it because, said Ambedkar, “the idea of Religion is generally speaking not associated with the idea of change” (ibid. 90). It is in this context that Ambedkar’s decision to leave Hinduism and his conversion to Buddhism becomes self-explanatory as a step for dalit liberation.
The above discussion shows that what Ambedkar was against was a religion of rules not religion in itself. Had he been against religion he could not have had embraced Buddhism. Ambedkar said “…I agree with Burke when he says that ‘True religion is the foundation of society, the basis on which all true civil governments rest, and both their sanction’, Consequently, when I argue that these ancient rules of life be annulled, I am anxious that its place shall be taken by a religion of principles, which alone can lay claim to being a true religion” (ibid.: 90). Ambedkar wanted to raise religion in consonance with liberty, equality and fraternity. In short, his religion could not be against the principles of democracy. He said, “I am no authority on the subject. But I am told that for such religious principles, as will be in consonance with liberty, equality and fraternity is, may not be necessary for you to borrow from foreign sources and that you could draw for such principles on the Upanishads” (ibid.: 92).
An other aspect of Dr. Ambedkar’s subaltern approach for the emancipation of dalits and their empowerment was his distinct formulation of Indian nationalism in opposition to the dominant discourse of Hindu nationalism as represented by Raja Rammohan Roy, B.G. Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Golvalkar and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee on the one hand and Communist secular socialist nationalism represented by M.N. Roy, R. P. Duta, T. Nagi Reddy and E.M.S. Namboodripad on the other. Although the protagonists of Hindu nationalism differed in many ways from each other, in essence they strengthen the Brahamanical hegemony in modern India. The communist secular social nationalism though based on abolition of class, its ideologues like that of the Hindu nationalism belonged to the upper-caste and upper-class background. Kancha Ilaiah put these two streams of Indian nationalism on a single platform by emphasizing that though they “appear to be antagonistic in their discourses of transformation; the social forces that were engaged in this discourse did not differ in their roots of existence and formation. In caste/class term, they belong to the Brahamanical upper and middle class. Though their consciousness appeared to be antagonistic to each other, their being and self remained Hindu. This was one of the main reasons why the Marxists and socialists schools failed to problematic and critique Hinduism and Brahmanism” (Ilaiah 2001: 109).
Dr. Ambedkar’s conception of nationalism articulated and synthesized the national perceptions and aspirations of the downtrodden. Ambedkar’s alternative form of nationalism, popularly known as ‘dalit-Bahujan-nationalism’ also incorporated the subaltern philosophy of Jyotirao Phule and Periyar E.V. Ramaswami Naicker. It constructed an anti-Hindu and anti-Brahamanical discourse of Indian nationalism. It aimed at establishing a casteless and classless society where no one would be discriminated on the basis of birth and occupation. Within the dalit-Bahuhjan framework of Indian nationalism, Ambedkar built up a critique of pre-colonial Brahmanism and its inegalitarian social set up based on low and high dichotomy of graded caste system. This system of in egalitarianism led to the process of exploitation by the unproductive Brahamanical castes of the various productive castes.
Ambedkar understands of the question of the identity and existence of the nation was based on his incisive analysis of the oppressive character of the Hindu community. “By arguing for the rights and basic needs of the dalits, he challenges the assumptions of both nationalist politics and indigenous communitarian politics” (Verma 1999: 2804). Since the dominant Hindu discourse of Indian nationalism remained indifferent towards removal of the caste system; and the economic analysis of the communist secular socialist school also failed to highlight the issue of caste in its mechanical interpretation of class, Ambedkar – himself an untouchable and victim of untouchability – formulated his own framework from the perspective of the untouchables for the understanding of the system of caste and untouchability. The foundation of dalit-Bahujan nationalism lies in this framework developed by Ambedkar. It aimed at restructuring the Indian society into a casteless and classless and egalitarian Sangha (Ilaiah 2001: 109). Annihilation of caste was its central theme. Caste for Ambedkar was nothing but Brahmanism incarnate. “Brahmanism is the poison which has spoiled Hinduism” (Ambedkar 1995: 92). Ambedkar realised that any form of nationalism whose roots were steeped into Hinduism could not be a solution to the problem of dalits. Any discourse of nationalism bereft of annihilation of caste was just not acceptable to him. The agenda of annihilation of caste was so important to him that it became a central point of his struggle against colonial rule. In the first Round Table Conference, he minced no words in criticizing the British government for its failure to undo untouchability. Swaraj without extinction of caste had no meaning for Ambedkar. In his undelivered speech to the Jat Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore, he said, “In the fight for swaraj you fight with the whole nation on your side. In this, you have to fight against the whole nation and that too your own. But it is more important than swaraj. There is no use having swaraj, if you cannot defend it. More important than the question of defending swaraj is the question of defending Hindus under the swaraj. In my opinion, only when the Hindu society becomes a casteless society that it can hope to have strength enough to defend it. Without such internal strength, swaraj for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery” (ibid. 97). Thus, it was Ambedkar’s subaltern perspective which distinguished his conception of swaraj from that of the protagonists of the various shades of the national freedom movement. In his editorial in the Bahishkrit Bharat a fortnightly, on 29 July 1927, Ambedkar wrote, “If Tilak had been born among the untouchables, he would not have raised the slogan ‘Swaraj is my birthright’, but he would have risen the slogan ‘Annihilation of untouchability is my birthright’”.
Dr. Ambedkar was an iconoclastic social reformer who at the very formative years of his career realised what it meant to be an untouchable and how struggle against untouchability could be launched. The social reform movement of the caste Hindus could not win him to its side because of his existential understanding of the pangs of untouchability. The issue of untouchability, for social reformers, was a mere problem. This problem was exterior to them in the sense that it affects only the untouchables. They themselves had never experienced the sinister us blows of untouchability. Moreover, though they were sympathetic to the cause of dalits but nevertheless, according to the social framework of the Indian society, they belonged to the opposite camp which practiced this inhuman system of social segregation based on sheer birth.
Although Ambedkar dedicated his book “Who Were Shudras” to Phule, the precursor of non-Brahmin anti-caste movement, he did not approve the movement as a harbinger of dalit liberation. In a message given to the Satyashodak magazine, on the 16th Satyashodak Social Conference, Ambedkar said, “The non-Brahmins have effaced the memory of Jyotiba Phooley completely. Not only that but that class has shamelessly betrayed his philosophy” (quoted in Kuber 1987: 119). According to Ambedkar the non-Brahmin leaders failed to germicide the virus of caste among themselves. He criticized that many of them tried to emulate Brahmins and failed to abandon Brahmanical practices. They did not cease to employ the card of caste in politics. “Marathas began to preach their superiority and the distinction between Marathas and non-Marathas became clear in all the party programs. Even in educational conferences of the non-Brahmins, the untouchables were seated away from others for fear of being polluted” (ibid. 119). There was no hope for untouchables in such a movement.
It was against this background of total despair and in the absence of untouchable’s own political philosophy and independent platform that Ambedkar entered into social and political space of the colonial India as a true representative of the dalits. His analysis of the origins of the untouchability and his action plans for its eradication were different from the approach and practice of both the caste Hindu social reformers and the non-Brahman anti-caste movements. Reflecting on the original contribution of Ambedkar in the rise of the dalit movement in India, Omvedt writes, “It is impossible to conceptualize the dalit movement in India in the absence of Ambedkar, it is equally difficult to imagine, sociologically, Ambedkar coming of any other region than the Marathi-speaking areas of British presidency” (Omvedt 1984: 139). If Omvedt considered the tradition of anti-caste movement in Maharashtra as a catalyst for the organisation of dalit movement by Ambedkar, Zelliot underlined the untouchable status of Ambedkar as the main factor for his meteoric rise as the leader of untouchables (Elliot 1996: 160). Of the two, the tradition of anti-caste movement in Maharashtra; and his untouchable status, it seems the latter played a more prominent role in the evolution of Ambedkar’s subaltern approach for the emancipation of dalits and their empowerment.
What distinguished his subaltern approach was that it looked at the problems of the dalits from below, from a vantage point of the deprived and oppressed. This perspective led him to think differently from the dominant stream of social and political thought of his time. His, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, Annihilation of Caste, Who Were the Shudras? and The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? are a testimony to his independent and original thinking. In these seminal works Ambedkar smashed the mythological basis of untouchability and laid bare its economic roots. He built a strong case against the ‘Janam’ (birth) thesis of the untouchability which foreclosed all the ways for dalit emancipation. He exhorted its victims to oppose it tooth and nail. He said, “It is disgraceful to live at the cost of one’s self respect. Self respect is most vital factor in life. Without it, man is a mere cipher. To live worthily with self-respect one has to overcome difficulties. It is out of hard and ceaseless struggle alone that one derives strength, confidence and recognition” (quoted in Jatava 1965: 15). He drew a distinction between merely living and living worthily. For living a worthy life, Ambedkar said, society must be based on liberty, equality and fraternity. “In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contacts with other modes of association. In other words, there must be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen” (Ambedkar 1995: 57). For Ambedkar, social tyranny is more oppressive than the political tyranny and “a reformer who defies society, is a much more courageous man than a politician, who defies government” (ibid: 75).
Ambedkar was one who defied society. In the beginning of his social reform crusade, he tried to get respect and equality for the dalits by bringing reforms within the social set up of Hinduism. He continued his struggle for empowerment of the dalits by seeking changes within the fold of Hinduism till 1935. When he realised that the salvation of dalits was not possible while living within the fold of Hinduism, he started his scathing criticism and tirade against Hinduism and ultimately sought the emancipation of dalits and its empowerment from outside the Hindu religion. Hence his conversion to Buddhism for Ambedkar the issue of dalit liberation was the foremost issue and he emphasised that dalits themselves have to come forward for its realisation. Thus, Ambedkar provided a subaltern perspective to see clearly the chameleon of Indian caste-ridden social set-up deceptively appearing in crimson colors and the ways to guard the interests of the dalits.
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I am grateful to Mr. K. C. Sulekh for his scholarly comments and to the anonymous referee for his seminal suggestions.
DR. RONKI RAM
Department of Political Science
Panjab University, Chandigarh-( india ) pIN-160014.
Ph:(R)+91-172-2541290 (cell):09872861290 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org