In a recent work, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ (2018), Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt talk about two versions of ‘Identity Politics’ : Common Humanity Identity Politics and Common-Enemy Identity Politics. They regard the former as a positive and loving approach since it aims at bringing the people of a community together to do away with the differences within it. Whereas the latter approach is based on the idea that a community is divided on several identities, and thus, it aims at breeding an ‘Us versus them’ attitude within communities. In this regard, this paper attempts to look at Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Mr. Kancha Ilaiah through their respective works, ‘Annihilation of Caste’ and ‘Why I am not a Hindu: A Sudra critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy’, and compare their methodologies in doing away with their religious identities as Hindus. While Ambedkar seems to have adopted the Humanity approach since he aims at reforming the Caste system to achieve a political revolution, Kancha Ilaiah, even while supporting Ambedkar’s viewpoints, seems to have adopted the Enemy approach since he affirmatively identifies his community as separate from the Hindus.
Dr. Ambedkar, in his famous undelivered speech ‘Annihilation of Caste’ in 1936, remarks in the beginning that the ‘politically-minded Hindus’ would regard his appointment as the President of the Annual Conference of the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal as an ‘insult’. Ramdas, who is said to have been the Guru of Maratha king Shivaji in the seventeenth century, is considered a great leader of the Hindu Nationalists today. Ambedkar talks about him in the context of the reluctance shown by the Hindu society in accepting an ‘antyaja’ as their Guru, even if the antyaja is a learned Pandit. “To them,” he says, “I am a snake in their garden.” This honor of presiding over the conference, given to an avarna like him, was eventually called off by himself. Since his speech remained undelivered, he went on to get it published on his own expenses. It was an amalgamation of the ideas of a radical against the oppression of the caste system, and ultimately Hinduism: morally, socially, politically and economically. “Caste is no doubt primarily the breath of the Hindus. But the Hindus have fouled the air all over, and everybody is infected—Sikh, Muslim, and Christian.”
He believed that the values of the Caste System in the emerging Nationalist identity was so inherent among the caste Hindu Indians, that it contaminated the other religions as well. The published version of his speech received a wide readership, and it was translated in various languages. It was through this speech that he publicly announced that this was his last address as a Hindu, to a Hindu audience. In his later years, he converted to Buddhism and embraced it till the end. Hence, the speech has left an indelible mark on the history of the struggle regarding eradication of the caste system.
Kancha Ilaiah, writing in the end of the twentieth century, claims in his radical work ‘Why I am not a Hindu: A Sudra critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy’, that the emerging “Hindutva” school in the 1990s ‘projected Hindu culture through all kinds of advertising agencies’ on them. He was born in remote South Indian village, to parents who belonged to the Kurumaa caste, i.e. the shepherd caste, and thus, they were always confined to their local social, political, and religious identity. “I was not born a Hindu for the simple reason that my parents did not know that they were Hindus… My parents had only one identity and that was their caste: they were Kurumaas. Their festivals were local, their Gods and Goddesses were local, and sometimes these were even specific to one village.”
Ilaiah alleges that Hindu culture, for their caste, was as foreign as the ‘English’ culture. Neither do they identify with their Gods, nor do they identify with their festivities. Hence, he rejects the ‘Hinduisation’ of Indian society by blaming it to bear the ‘sole responsibility for the tragedy of this country.’ Instead, he preaches the importance of ‘Dalitisation’ of Indian society, and how it would set up an ‘egalitarian’ society as a whole.
Thus, this paper attempts to compare how two Dalit social reformers, i.e. Dr. B.R.Ambedkar and Kancha Ilaiah, one each from pre- and post- independence India, struggle to identify themselves as part of Hinduism, and ultimately refuse to be subjugated by the evils of the Caste system.
Gail Omvedt regards the historic speech of Ambedkar as a ‘bold declaration of war on Hinduism’. Commenting on the importance given to reforms in various arenas, Ambedkar exemplified through Historical instances how social and religious revolutions have always preceded any political and economic revolutions. “The political revolution led by Chandragupta was preceded by the religious and social revolution of Buddha. The political revolution led by Shivaji was preceded by the religious and social reform brought about by the saints of Maharashtra. The political revolution of the Sikhs was preceded by the religious and social revolution led by Guru Nanak”
Omvedt carefully examines this differentiation of ‘revolution’ from ‘reform’. Thus, she argues, on the lines of Ambedkar, that the worst impediment for the ascendance of untouchables in the national political and economic revolution was Hinduism itself Although, in the pre-independence era, a few resolutions were passed to do away with untouchability, and the first All-India Depressed Classes Conference was also held in Bombay in 1917, yet, as Arundhati Roy argues, Ambedkar had always been skeptical about these ‘public but completely out-of-character displays of solicitude for Untouchables’ held by the conservative Hindu organizations and mainstream leaders like Tilak and Gandhi. According to her, Ambedkar’s main issue was not just around untouchability and pollution-purity; rather he wanted to dismantle the entire system based on caste, and henceforth Hindu religion.
While Ambedkar looks at Hinduism to be a ‘veritable chamber of horrors’ for the untouchables, Kancha Ilaiah denies the co-relation between Hinduism and Dalitbahujan culture and thereby accuses the former for attempting to destroy the latter by imposing itself on it. He provides a systematic critique of Hinduism by consistently defining it as a culture absolutely different from the Dalitbahujan culture in all aspects, be it gender relations, marital relations, power structure, economic structure or religious beliefs. However, his major analysis is about the coming up of the ‘neo-Kshatriyas’, due to the upwards social mobility of a few local Sudra castes present in the state of Andhra Pradesh, and gives the example of the Reddies, Velamas and Kammas, in the post-independence era. ‘Social Mobility’, according to Bernard Barber, is used “to mean movement, either upward or downward, between higher and lower social classes; or more precisely, movement between one relatively full-time, functionally significant social role and another that is evaluated as either higher or lower.” Thus, the so termed ‘Neo-Kshatriyas’ are gradually getting incorporated into the larger manifold of the Hindutva ideology by accepting the belief that they belong to the Hindu religion. “The neo-Kshatriyas believe that they are part of Hindu spirituality. They are becoming patrons of Hindutva.”
These neo-Kshatriyas, he argues, are progressively playing the role of Classical Kshatriyas by asserting their hegemony in the power structures, even though they do not have the authority of a ‘dwija’ or a Twice-born. What infuriates Ilaiah the most is the presence of these castes in both the communities; they are actively contributing in widening the gap between the upper Hindu castes and the Dalitbahujans. This is because the Brahmins and the Baniyas are endevouring to benefit from the neo-Kshatriyas and at the same time, eliminating the existence of the castes below them. Hence, in a disheartening, yet passionate tone, Ilaiah calls for a social reform against this continuous oppression and invisiblization of the Dalitbahujans in the hands of the Hindus.
Both Ambedkar and Ilaiah have taken sharp contrasting stand against Gandhiji, who was the first person to regard the Dalits as ¬Harijans, i.e., Children of God. In fact, scholars like D.R. Nagaraj have referred to the decade of the 1930s as thick with ‘complex yet fascinating Gandhiji-Ambedkar encounter’. Even Arundhati Roy argues that “to ignore Gandhi while writing about Ambedkar is to do Ambedkar a disservice, because Gandhi loomed over Ambedkar’s world in myriad and un-wonderful ways.”
Gandhiji had replied to the speech of Dr. Ambedkar, ‘Annihilation of caste’, in his weekly, Harijan. This reply was later published at the end of the second edition of the speech as ‘A Vindication of Caste by Mahatma Gandhi’. Defending Hinduism, Gandhiji denies the relation between caste and religion, and maintains that there is a difference between caste and varna. Advocating the idea of spiritual growth as an essential element for the national growth, Gandhiji argues that caste was indeed an obstacle in the path of such growth. However, he also upholds the sanctity of the Holy scriptures of Hindus, i.e., shastras which mention varnas as integral part of Hinduism, but outrightly denies the existence of the idea of untouchability or caste in the such scriptures.
Ambedkar rejects this idea of Gandhiji by advancing his thesis on chaturvarnya and claiming that the varnavyavastha eventually collapses into the caste system which is harmful for the Hindu society and thus, it is only by the destruction of the shastras that the societal evils such as caste and varna will be annihilated. He had taken this position even earlier, in the first issue of Harijan: “The outcaste is a by-product of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system.”
On similar grounds, Kancha Ilaiah has criticized Gandhi in the recent years. In one of his articles, he takes forward Ambedkar’s views and asserts that ‘Gandhi was no caste abolitionist’. He worked towards abolishing Untouchability, but always favored caste hierarchies to be maintained in the Hindu society. Linking it with today’s politics, he argues that both the major national parties of India, BJP and Congress are walking on this path guided by Gandhiji and refuse to give importance to the caste problems, except untouchability. He thus accuses Gandhi to be the ‘companion of the elite’ and calls Ambedkar to be the ‘prophet of the poorest of the poor.’
D.R. Nagaraj in his study of this Ambedkar-Gandhi debate comments on the spiritual and material faces of the movement against the caste system. According to him, it is easy to be inspired by the idealistic talks about the caste system and have the intentions to work towards eradicating it. But equally difficult task is to give up the material benefits that are enjoyed ‘in the name of communal justice and positive discrimination.’ In this aspect, he criticizes Gandhiji for only appreciating the spiritual beauty and moral beliefs of the revolution against the caste system, but completely ignoring the material horrors the revolution was entangled with. “According to Gandhiji, the materialist approach was the weakness of his adversary (Ambedkar), and, for the latter, spirituality was the weakness of Gandhiji.”
Nevertheless, Nagaraj observes that by the end of the decade, a lot in their respective personalities had changed due to their intense debates, and influence of each other’s ideas. While Gandhiji had adopted the Economic interpretations from Ambedkar, Babasaheb had taken over the importance of religion from Gandhiji.
Contrasting the Hindu culture with Dalitbahujan culture, Ilaiah also argues about the notions of private property in Brahmanism, which he believes is ‘exploitative’, as compared to collective notions of ‘labour’ in the Dalitbahijan culture. He blames the casteization of property to be responsible for the regressive role played by the system of property in India.
Along with Ilaiah’s position on economic oppression of the Dalits, his work on the religious oppression of the Dalitbahujans by the dominant Hindu Gods and Goddesses also demands attention. Hinduism, for him, has a ‘fascist nature’. The Hindu Brahmanical forces were dominant to the extent that even in the era of capitalism and democracy, Gandhi could successfully use the message of the Gita for building consent among the citizens of the country for the national struggle. According to him, the lower Sudra castes never identify with the mainstream Gods and Goddesses like Brahma and Sarasvathi, Vishnu and Laxmi, Shiva and Parvati. In fact, he puts them on a pedestal of hypocrisy and criticizes them for their discriminatory teachings. For instance, he looks at the caste identity assigned to Krishna, and ridicules the way it has been manipulated. This is because Krishna was born and bought up in the Yadava culture, but his political self was always identified as a Kshatriya, defending Brahmanical Dharma. Although, his analysis is not backed by complete evidence, and thus remains open to interpretation, yet his attack on the Pantheon of Hindu Gods as opposed to the ones worshipped by the Dalitbahujans such as Pochamma, Kattamaisamma and Polimeramma has the been a subject of scholarly attention.
Arundhati Roy studies Ambedkar’s view about the ways in which Gods are presented in Hinduism, and she concludes that he has been skeptical about Ramayana and Mahabharata. He argued with his father, “Krishna believed in fraud. His life is nothing but a series of frauds. Equal dislike I have for Rama.” It was later, in a series of essays called Riddles in Hinduism, that he commented on the misogynistic behaviors of Rama and Krishna.
Eventually, both Ambedkar and Kancha Ilaiah stand firm on the position of rejecting Hinduism as their religious identity. Amartya Sen, in his commendable work Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, states that “the identity of an individual is essentially a function of her choices, rather than the discovery of an immutable attribute.” Ambedkar worked for emancipating the Dalits from the oppression of the caste system and provides the solution of opting for conversion to be the way of determining their religious identity. “Choose any religion which gives you equality of status and treatment. We shall repair our mistake now. I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.”
Ilaiah chooses to dismiss the idea of even belonging to the Hindu religion. He goes further to elaborate on the idea of ‘Dalitisation’ of the entire community, which, according to him, will promote collectiveness in the society and do away with privatization. Dalitisation will also help in achieving equality on the gender ground, and eliminate any possibility of violence on the religious grounds. This position, however, can be criticized for its utopianism because Ilaiah fails to devise methods of peaceful transition from Hinduisation to Dalitisation. And as Ambedkar would ask, “Untouchable cannot do anything to get rid of his untouchability. It does not arise out of any personal fault on his part. Untouchability is an attitude of the Hindu. For Untouchability to vanish, it is the Hindu who must change. Will he change?”