The Scourge of Caste

Photo Credit: John Fahy.
(Photo Credit: John Fahy).

“The Doctor and the Saint” is the name of the introduction that I wrote to one of modern India’s most classic texts, Annihilation of Caste, written by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was one of the most fascinating modern thinkers in India’s national movement, yet he is a person who has somehow either been written out of the popular account, or has been written in but not for the passions that guided him. He has been written in as the leader of the untouchables, or the person who drove the writing of the Indian constitution. Annihilation of Caste has this dubious distinction of being an underground classic, in that you can’t walk into a bookshop in India and ask for the writings of Ambedkar in the way you can ask for the writings of Gandhi or Nehru. Ambedkar’s people, the people who were once known as untouchables and who today call themselves Dalits, Gandhi rechristened very patronizingly as harijan, which means “the children of god”. While Annihilation of Caste was loved and passed around in the Dalit community, the privileged castes for whom it was written remain quite blissfully ignorant.


Ambedkar wrote the text in 1936 when he was invited to speak in Lahore by a privileged caste, Hindu reformist organization called the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, an organization that aimed for the breakup of caste. The organization asked him to give them a text for the speech in advance, which he did, and when they read it they dis-invited him because they realized he was going to use this platform to call upon the untouchable community, who at that point in time numbered about 45 million, to renounce Hinduism and to accept any other religion. Ambedkar said Hinduism is a religion that institutionalizes, valorizes, and even makes sacred the practice of caste. So he was dis-invited and he published this text himself at his own expense. It is an exhilarating text, a very erudite, scholarly text. He looks at the Hindu scripture and talks about the untouchables not only intellectually but also politically, discussing how the communist movement has also failed the Dalit people. When the text was published in 1936, the man who the world saw as the greatest Hindu in the world, Mahatma Gandhi, responded. Gandhi said that Ambedkar’s criticisms should be taken very seriously, but in his own response he himself did not take what Ambedkar said very seriously. There was a very patronizing dismissal of what Ambedkar had been grappling with in the text.

So when I began to think about writing an introduction to Annihilation of Caste, I read back into this debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi on the issue of caste. And I must say, I grew disturbed by the things that Gandhi was saying about caste. If your one-stop shop for knowing anything about the Indian national movement is Richard Attenborough’s film, you might believe Gandhi was a great fighter against caste. But Ambedkar, who is actually Gandhi’s greatest adversary, morally and ethically, doesn’t even get a part in the film. And then you realize that in fact Gandhi was a great defender of caste and he, like many privileged caste reformers, was campaigning against not caste itself but the practice of untouchability, which is the ritual and performative end of caste.

Ambedkar in 1950.
Ambedkar in 1950.

Ambedkar said caste is about entitlement: who has the land, who has access to water, who has access to education. Caste has everything to do with hierarchy and ancestral occupation. According to the sacred texts—Varna, Ashram, Ghari—society is divided into four varnas. The Brahmins were the priests, the Kshatriyas were the warriors, the Vaishyas were the traders—the caste to which Gandhi and the current Prime Minister Modi belong—and the Shudras were the service caste. Outside these four castes are the outcastes, the Athi Shudras, and the Dalits, who are themselves divided into untouchables, unapproachables, unsee-ables and so on. This is the broad system that Ambedkar called the mother of the caste system. Each of these is further divided into Jatis. There are something like 4,000 endogamous jati, and now there is no intermarrying between castes. Within jatis there is something called the pothra, and you’re not allowed to marry within your pothra. All marriages are policed with a great deal of violence and social pressure. Last November there was a survey done in India where, even today, only five percent of marriages that take place are inter-caste. Even among the five percent that do marry, many are met with violence.

What Gandhi said was that he believed in caste. He believed in hereditary occupation. But he believed that everybody should be treated equally and loved by god. This was the essence of the debate. At the turn of the century, when the idea of empire turned into the idea of the nation-state, when it was no longer enough to ride a horse at the head of your army and take power, when the politics of the nation was followed by the debates on representation, it began to matter now who was going to represent the Hindus, the Muslims, the Dalits. How is the Congress party, which is clearly run by the upper caste Brahmins, saying that it represents everybody? The mischief extended to the British Empire, which gave itself the imperial mandate to represent everybody, drained the wealth of a once wealthy population, and oversaw famines and the deaths of millions of people. How can a society that practices untouchability really say that it can govern itself?

When the anxiety about representation began, it was accompanied by an anxiety about demography. Until then, for centuries, untouchable people had been converting to Islam, to Christianity, to Sikhism to escape the scourge of caste. But suddenly, these 44 million people became a constituency and privileged caste reformers began to proselytize against untouchability, hoping to keep them under the head of Hinduism. The idea was not to question the caste system, but to bring them into the big house and keep them in the servants’ quarters. So you had organizations of reformers who actually proselytized quite rigorously against untouchability. Gandhi was the legacy of that, whereas Ambedker was the legacy of the genuinely anti-caste movement that believed in the destruction of the whole idea of caste. It was a confrontation that wasn’t new.

Ambedker had been born into an untouchable family, a caste that was traditionally expected to carry a pot around their necks so that even the spit would not pollute the floor. He was a brilliant student and after receiving a scholarship and going to Colombia University to study, he came back around the same time that Gandhi came back from South Africa to India. When he recognised that the privileged caste was manoeuvring to politically control the constituency of the untouchables, he said, “No, we want to represent ourselves”. He started developing a political and legal proposal for how untouchables should be given a right to be a separate constituency. And actually, Gandhi’s manoeuvres completely undermined that. By 1915, when Gandhi returned from South Africa, he was already called a Mahatma. And while I was following this debate, I began to think, who called him a Mahatma, and what had he done in South Africa to be known as a Mahatma?

So I read back on what happened in South Africa, and I have to say that it was so disturbing. Because I, as many others, had been brought up on the stories we heard in school, the idea that Gandhi, at the age of 24, went to South Africa as a legal advisor to a rich Muslim businessmen and was thrown off the first-class railway compartment for whites in Pietermaritzburg, and that’s where he had his political awakening. Yet in fact, that was only half the story, because there were two kinds of Indians in South Africa. There were the passenger Indians, who were the privileged caste of wealthy businessmen who had come there to trade. And there were the indentured workers who came from the subordinate caste, who were, more or less, slave and bonded labour. They were poorer Muslims and Hindus working on the sugar plantations. The story was that Gandhi objected to the fact that privileged caste Hindus were treated on the same level as what he called the Kafirs (those who commit “blasphemy” in Islam). Gandhi said that Indians and the English “come from a common stock” and are looking forward to an “Imperial Brotherhood”. And then he starts the Indian National Congress in Durban, wherein the membership fee was £3 in 1895. In 1906, eleven years later, the Zulu Uprising happened because the British had raised a £1 poll tax on the Zulus, so a membership of £3 was a very exclusive club. The first victory was the solution to the problem of the Durban post office, where they won the right to not have to enter the post office through the same door as black folks. So Indians got a third entrance.

Then came the First World War where Gandhi wanted to bear arms but was not given that duty. The First World War is known today as a white men’s war, where the British first came up with the idea of concentration camps and thousands of people died in those camps. And then again during the Zulu Uprising, Gandhi collaborated with the British. It went on in this way. Gandhi first came out as a political warrior when the British passed the Asiatic Registration Bill, which prevented businessmen from going to the Transvaal to compete with British traders. This is when Gandhi began to develop the whole protocol of Satyagraha and to recreate the rituals of poverty.

And it is interesting, because poverty is not about having no money. Poverty is about having no power. And here Gandhi was accumulating power, which is understandable against a political background, but it’s nevertheless interesting. What was that power being used for? Not to fight the injustice against the indentured, not to give the land that you’ve stolen from the Zulus back to them, but to allow Indian traders into the Transvaal. It’s only in 1913 that Gandhi actually comes out and joins the coal workers and other strikers and he signs a deal with General Jan Smuts. Part of that deal is that he had to leave South Africa and go back to India. There was a lot of dispute about that agreement because people said, “What gives you the right to represent us and sign agreements on our behalf?” But Gandhi went back to India, and on the way back he stopped by in England, where he was given Imperial Britain’s highest civilian award for services to the Empire. But then he comes back to India as a person who fought imperialism and racism and begins this whole encounter with Ambedkar on caste.

And so by 1930, we all know about the Salt Satyagraha. Gandhi was a brilliant politician, I have no doubts about that. The Salt Satyagraha was one of the most brilliant pieces of political theatre we have seen, when Gandhi led hundreds of thousands of Indians to the sea to break the British salt tax. But many of us don’t know that three years before that, in 1927, Ambedkar led what was known as the Satyagraha at Mahad, where 10,000 Dalits (untouchables) marched through the town of Mahad to drink water from the public tank. And they were of course beaten and driven away by the privileged caste, who then purified the tanks by pouring cow dung in them. And Gandhi actually didn’t support the Dalits in the  Mahad Satyagraha. That same year, he advised the untouchables to use “sweet persuasion” because these forms of protests, when it came to them, would be a “devilish” force. So it is obvious that the conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhi really complicates the national movement. It complicates the ethics that we have been so quick to admire.

When Gandhi met Ambedkar in Mani Bhavan in 1931, he thought that Ambedkar was a sort of self-hating Brahmin. Ambedkar was such a knowledgeable and confident man, much younger than Gandhi, and Gandhi questioned him. He said that Ambedkar’s very bitter criticism of the Congress amounted to criticism of the homeland. Ambedkar looked at him and said poignantly, “Gandhi, I have no homeland, because no untouchable worth his name would be proud of this land”.

What Ambedkar was trying to do is put in place political and legal safeguards so that when the British colonials left, they would not leave the untouchable community at the mercy of those who believed that human beings could be treated like that. Ambedkar’s story is fascinating because he tried everything: mass mobilisation, legal means, and direct participation. He developed this brilliant proposal at a roundtable conference, where the Muslims, Sikhs, and untouchables were all given separate electorates. Ambedkar proposed a double vote system, where he said the subordinated classes should have a separate constituency where they vote for their own leaders, and where they can also vote in the main elections. But this would last only for ten years, until they develop into a political constituency. So the idea was not to float away from the mainstream. The idea was to allow it to develop into equal citizenship. For Ambedkar, the basic right of equal citizenship was the right to representation.

But Gandhi said defiantly, “I, in my own person, represent the untouchables. If they’re given a separate constituency, I will protest it with my life”. Gandhi wished to separate the castes in every way—socially, in terms of education, in terms of access to water—but when it came to giving them a separate electorate, he said, “I’d rather die than grant this”. And then Gandhi went back to India and dropped in on Mussolini on the way.

Gandhi in Rome, 1931.

When the British actually announced the creation of a separate electorate, Gandhi went on a fast to the death. Everybody rallied on Gandhi’s side. Ambedkar was left knowing that if Gandhi died on his fast, the untouchables would be lynched and attacked and so he did have to succumb finally. And so what was agreed on, which is still the system in place today, is that within the main group of candidates, a few candidates are reserved for untouchables. Untouchables have a reserved number of seats, but they have to be chosen by the privileged caste. There’s the Uncle Tom situation that happened there.

Eventually, of course very disillusioned by this, Ambedkar wrote Annihilation of Caste in 1936. That same year Gandhi wrote an extraordinary essay called “My Ideal Bhangi”. Bhangi means “scavenger”. It’s an essay about what the ideal qualities of a scavenger should be, a person who follows his ancestral occupation. Gandhi said his ideal scavenger should be well-versed in sanitation, should know how to convert “night-soil and urine into manure”, should warn people if he thinks they are falling ill, and so on. Recently Prime Minister Modi echoed those same sentiments, saying that the Bhangis are a community of people born to be scavengers, and it is their divine duty. They themselves must have realized this, which is why they do it generation after generation. And, of course, they should never think of making money from it. Very disillusioned by all this, Ambedkar turned to Buddhism.



So how does caste currently play out in modern India? Many people think that because of the inflow of global capital and the breakup of old networks that caste has somehow ended. It’s an incredible thing that while other horrors like apartheid, racism, sexism, and modern slavery have been maybe not defeated but certainly discussed by the international community, caste never is. One of the reasons is that it’s not color-coded; it’s hard to see. The other reason is that people just associate it with Hinduism and “your God”, The Beatles, vegetarianism, or some sort of euphemism. The third reason is that a lot of the better-known intellectuals in India belong to the Left, and traditionally Indian communists have been unable to deal with caste. They just sort of invisibilize it by saying that caste is class. And sometimes people are so privileged that they don’t stumble upon it, even in the dark.

India’s wealth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The country has 100 people who own the equivalent of 25% of the GDP. I don’t think anything quite like India’s system exists elswhere in the world, where you have corporations like Reliance, the Tata group, Mittal, or Jindal whose owners are not just mining or media magnates, but have this immense cross-ownership. The same people own petrochemicals, mines, law schools, textiles, electricity distribution, literary festivals, water, the internet, and most importantly, the media. So the biggest corporation like Reliance owns 27 different 24-hour media channels. Look at the handful of major corporations: they’re all owned by Banias, the trading caste, which is only two percent of the population. If you look at the big national newspapers—Times of India, Indian Express, The Hindu, and so on—Bania or Brahmin ownership. If you look at the smaller businesses and the rural moneylenders, the whole of rural India is in the grip of serious debt. Almost all the moneylenders are Banias. Caste and capitalism have become this deadly symbiotic force.

During India’s debates just before an election, all they talk about is caste in terms of voting blocs: “Who will Dalits vote for?”, “where will the Buja vote go?”, and so on. Caste is foregrounded. But if you look at the actual ferocious arguments about caste, it all has to do with what in India we call “reservation”, similar to what in the U.S. they call affirmative action. Reservation actually applies to only two percent of the Dalit population who have the educational qualifications to be eligible. In, for example, the state of Punjab, which is perhaps agriculturally India’s great success story, forty percent of the population are Dalits and ninety percent of them are landless. So the landlessness, the access to resources, to health, to education, all of this is not debated. Just the two percent. And you have the privileged caste students in medical colleges protesting against reservation and sweeping the streets to show what they’ve been reduced to because of reservation. The only government jobs where you have ninety percent Dalits working is among municipal sweepers.

In India, if you go to any hospital, all the nurses will be Christians, because doctors in other communities don’t want to touch people. If you go to a hospital and you watch a doctor doing a post-mortem, they’ll get the sweepers who are Balmiki to actually do the post-mortem. The doctors won’t touch the body.

(Photo credit: John Fahy).

Caste is everywhere. It’s the engine that runs India. How is that system maintained? How do you make sure that a caste is never entitled to own land? That they will always be there when the seed needs to be sown, or the crop needs to be harvested? It’s a system that can only be maintained through the egregious application of violence. Everybody knows about the 2012 gang rape and murder in Dehli where people were mobilized. And certainly, it’s good they were mobilized, and good things happened in terms of re-writing the law. But no one will talk about the fact that 1,500 Dalit women were raped, and that means actually more like 15,000 women because only 1 in 10 cases get reported. 651 Dalit men were killed in a year. This past October there was a Dalit family murdered, their limbs chopped off and distributed on the fields and thrown into wells, because the killing of a Dalit has to be ritual slaughter. It’s a punishment that serves as a warning to those who might think of straying, who might think of improving their lot.

What do Gandhi’s principles of non-violent resistance mean when they are applied under conditions of such egregious violence? To critique Gandhi does not mean that we should forget about the principles of non-violence. But in India, today there are hundreds of thousands of paramilitary troops in the forest trying to drive out indigenous people from their villages because those lands have been signed over to infrastructure projects and mining corporations. In the forest it’s an armed struggle. Those villages are many-days walk from the road. There are no television crews, no audience. And yet intellectuals, TV anchors, and politicians are calling these people terrorists, the people who resist. We can debate this ideologically and morally, but when you are actually in the fight, Maoists in the streets and in the forests, tactics are key. If you live four days from the road, you don’t have an audience. 1,000 paramilitary officials are burning your villages and raping your women. What form of non-violence are you proposing that these people adhere to? If you’re starving, can you go on a hunger strike? If you don’t have goods, can you boycott anything? So if you look at it didactically, as a moral or intellectual issue, you can actually end up being immoral, preaching to people who are in a very dangerous place about what they should do when you don’t even understand the dangers they are facing.

I don’t know how this blight upon our land is going to go away, but I do think that somehow even being ashamed about it is going to play an important part. And we can debate what Hinduism means—there are a lot of people who practice Hinduism without adhering to those particular texts—but the fact of the matter is that in a nation of 1 billion people, only under five percent marry across caste. It is a horrible hierarchical system of social arrangement, one of the worst kinds that has ever been known to mankind.


Arundhati Roy is the author of many books, including The God of Small Things (1997), for which she won the Booker Prize for Fiction, and Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014). This is a transcript from Roy’s talk titled “Caste, Capitalism, Democracy and a Bit of History” given on the occasion of the Global Intellectual History Series and organized by the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, on 25 November 2014. With special thanks to the seminar’s convenor, Dr. Shruti Kapila.