Thursday, January 5, 2017

Book Review: Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis, and Development By Dr. BR Ambedkar

Nitheesh Narayanan

100 years have passed since the audience of Columbia University listened to the presentation of the paper “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” by Dr. BR Ambedkar in an Anthropology seminar on 9th May 1916. This, probably, will be the first academic work of Ambedkar on Caste. The paper carries on relevance even after one century of advanced developments, research bombarding and the experiences of changing social characteristics. It is this relevance that keeps the work significant, while studying the Caste system in India. It is also a powerful account of Ambedkar’s understanding of different social problems. Reading this text is also an active engagement at the time of heated debate around ‘appropriating Ambedkar.’  

Just before concluding the long presentation, Ambedkar drew the attention to the approach which needs to be adopted, to study Caste. It is also equally important for all studies on any subject. Ambedkar reminds that “we must guard against approaching the subject with a bias. Sentiment must be outlawed from the domain of science, and things should be judged from an objective standpoint.” And this paper is an exhibition of the approach Ambedkar was talking about.

As long as caste is not understood correctly, annihilating it will be an impossible task.   Ambedkar deals with the question of caste as a subject with complexities. These elements which make it complicated to comprehend may also be propagated and constructed in various ways. That is why establishing the real character and also exposing these constructions becomes a major task. This is the spirit of his undelivered speech “Annihilation of Caste” and many other works. He quotes Ketkar, “as long as caste in India does exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any social intercourse with outsiders, and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste will become a world problem.”

Ambedkar gives a short ethnologic explanation of Indian population which is vital to trace the Ambedkar’s understanding of the nation, India. He upholds that it is a mixture of Aryans, Dravidians, Mongolians and Scythians who came to India with different cultures, centuries ago when they were in the tribal state. This can also be read as a counter to the argument that Ambedkar was in the position that Aryan invasion was a false notion. This has no valid ground. What Ambedkar meant was that the invasion was not an aggressive one through the military but a non-violent infiltration. Reading ‘Castes in India’ will be a fruitful exercise to understand the ways through which this infiltration has happened.

A common culture is evolved in India through constant contact and mutual intercourse. There was no thorough Amalgamation (merger) of the diverse population. But measuring homogeneity only through the lens of the mere amount of merger of different cultures will be a futile exercise. Ethnically all people are heterogeneous. It is the unity of culture that is the basis of homogeneity. It needs to be underlined that he doesn’t glorify the way this integration takes place or uphold it as something to be preserved, but stressed. He articulates that it is this homogeneity which makes caste difficult to explain.

While dealing with the then existing scholarships on caste, Ambedkar successfully described how the different definitions are inadequate to identify with caste in an accurate way.

Senart, a French authority, defines caste as ‘a close corporation, in theory at any rate rigorously hereditary: equipped with certain traditional and independent organization, including a chief and a council, meeting on occasion in assemblies of more or less plenary authority and joining together at certain festivals: bound together by common occupations, which relate more particularly to marriage and to food and to questions of ceremonial pollution, and ruling its members by the exercise of jurisdiction, the extent of which varies, but which succeeds in making the authority of the community more felt by the sanction of certain penalties, and above all, by final irrevocable exclusion from the group’

Ambedkar comments that Senart draws attention to the ‘idea of pollution’ as a characteristic of caste. But by no means, it's a peculiarity of caste. It originates in priestly ceremonialism. The ‘idea of pollution' has been attached to the institution of caste, only because the caste that enjoys the highest rank is the priestly caste, while we know that priest and purity are old associates. Therefore the idea of pollution is a characteristic of caste only so far as caste has a religious flavor.

Nesfield defines caste as a ‘class of the community which disowns any connection with any other class and can neither intermarry nor eat nor drink with any but persons of their community. Ambedkar says he has mistaken the effect for the cause. Caste, being the self-enclosed unit naturally limits social intercourse, including messing, etc. to members within it. The absence of messing with outsiders is a natural result of caste, i.e. exclusiveness.

Sir H. Risley opines ‘A caste may be defined as a collection of families or groups of families bearing a common name which usually denotes or is associated with specific occupation, claiming common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine, professing to follow the same professional calling and are regarded by those who are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogeneous community. Ambedkar opined that Risley makes no new point deserving of special attention.

Dr. Ketkar defines caste as ‘a social group having two characteristics 1) Membership- by birth 2) prohibition of intermarriage. Ambedkar argues that they are not two different things. If you prohibit intermarriage, the result is that you limit membership to those born within the group. Ambedkar finds his definition merits consideration, for he has defined caste in its relation to a system of castes, and has concentrated his attention only on those characteristics which are necessary for the existence of a caste within a system, rightly excluding all others as being secondary or derivative in character.

Ambedkar criticizes all three definitions pointing that definitions are taking caste as a separate unit by itself, and not as a group within, and with definite relations to, the system of castes as a whole.

While dealing with the different scholars on caste, why did Ambedkar not comment on Jotirao Phule, may arise as a question. It acquires validity on various grounds. Both of them are from Maharashtra. Ambedkar is linked with Phule in the same row of fighting for the oppressed and writing on caste. Phule died on 1890 and Ambedkar was born in the next year, 1891. It is unbelievable that Phule was unknown to Ambedkar at that time considering their engagements in the problem as activists. I can draw two reasons out of assumption for this lapse. One is a general doubt that the writings of Phule might not have circulated widely so that Ambedkar had no access to it that time. Phule was not familiar in the academic sphere of caste since his writings were in Marathi; so that Ambedkar did not want to take the name of an unknown person can also be a reason. Later, Ambedkar dedicated his work “Who were the shudras?” to Jotirao Phule. There can be many points traced in both their writings which can easily be linked, especially while dealing the mechanism of caste. 

Ambedkar articulates that Caste in India means an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into another through endogamy. Endogamy is the only characteristic that is peculiar to caste. How it is maintained is the answer for its genesis and mechanism. It is different from the case of Negroes, whites and various tribal groups in the United States because people of India form a homogenous whole or cultural unity. And in the later part, towards the end, he criticizes the European scholars who committed a mistake in dealing with the issue of caste with colour prejudices or linking it with race.

Ambedkar finds exogamy has survived in India longer than any other civilization. The various Gotras in India are and have been exogamous. So, the superposition of endogamy on exogamy becomes a matter of research. And it is the creation of caste. There could be no caste in exogamy being the rule. Exogamy means fusion. The caste system finds its existence in the absence of fusion.

In the conditions of a group turning into a caste there is a need to have a balance in the number of the two sexes and also matrimonial rights are to be provided. The problem of caste, then, ultimately resolves itself into one of repairing the disparity between the marriageable units of the two sexes within it. What happens in the case of a surplus women or surplus man (Widow and Widower)? If he or she marries from outside the caste, it will break the endogamy which is the base of maintaining castes.

Most importantly while dealing with this issue, Ambedkar articulates the deep-rooted patriarchy associated with the system. ‘Annihilation of Caste’ can be treated as an elaborated version of these findings. He approaches the Caste question as a problem of women also as much as that of the lower castes. The caste system is not something which only oppresses the aspirations and rights of a particular section in the hierarchical caste structure, but divisions within the castes also get imprisoned by it. 

There are two ways to handle the problem of surplus women to preserve the endogamy of the caste. First, burn her on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband and get rid of her. It will not cause breaking the endogamy or lead to sex disparity. The second remedy is to enforce widowhood on her for the rest of her life.

Man, gets the benefit of the masculinity and is also provided with real options. The caste interest to keep him as a ‘grihasta' makes imposing celibacy an impossible choice. Such a situation ends in finding the solution in girl child marriage. So there are four ways to maintain the numerical equality between the sexes in the same caste 1) Burning the surplus women, widow 2) compulsory widowhood- Ambedkar call it as a milder form of burning 3) imposing celibacy on the widower 4) wedding him to a girl not yet marriageable. This is, in general, the mechanism of the caste. In short, caste is oppressive to all women, irrespective of which caste they belonging to.

Sati, Enforced widowhood, Child marriage becomes the customs of Hindu society. They were honored because they were practiced and the castes go on along with these practices to solve the problems.  Phule said that Varna and Caste systems were the products of the Brahmins drilling into the minds of the Shudradishudras through the Shastras and ritual practices and that these institutions were divinely constituted.

Ambedkar makes crucial observations on caste and class. He stresses that society is always composed of classes.

It may be exaggeration to assert the theory of class-conflict, but the existence of definite classes in a society is a fact. Their basis may differ. They may be economic or intellectual or social, but an individual in a society is a member of a class. This is a universal fact and early Hindu society could not have been an exception to this rule, and, as a matter of fact, we know it was not. If we bear this generalization in mind , our study of the genesis of caste would be very much facilitated, for we have only to determine what was the class that first made itself into a caste, for class and caste, so to say, are next door neighbors, and it is only a span that separates the two. A caste is an enclosed class.”

What is the class that raised this ‘enclosure’ around itself? This provides an important observation on the study of the subject. These customs in all their strictness are obtainable only in one caste, namely the Brahmins, who occupy the highest place in the social hierarchy of the Hindu society. Their prevalence in non-Brahmin caste is derivative; their observance is neither strict nor complete. It is absolutely clear which Class is the father of the institution of caste. He argues, the strict observance of these customs and social superiority arrogated by the priestly class in all ancient civilizations are sufficient to prove that they were the originators of these ‘unnatural institution’ founded and maintained through these unnatural means. Marx has also cited the blocking of the labour mobility in Indian society. Even though the mobility is blocked also in a class society, this ‘enclosing’ has become a law in caste society. 

How did the institution of caste spread among the rest of the non-Brahmin population of the country? The genesis and development or origin and spread are not separated. He does not believe Brahmins or Manu created the theory of caste. Manu did not give the law of caste and that he could not do so. Caste existed long before Manu. He was an upholder of it and philosophized it. His work ended up with the codification of existing caste rules and the preaching of caste dharma. The spread and growth of the caste system are too gigantic a task to be achieved by the power of cunning of an individual or of a class. So, even the theory that the Brahmins created caste is not correct. They might have helped the process by their glib philosophy, but imposing the caste system on the non-Brahmin population was beyond their mettle.

The Class groups emerge as Caste groups when the mobility provided by the earlier is blocked. While becoming the open door characteristic of sub-division of a class into the self-enclosed units called castes some closed the door, and others found it closed against them. Sub-divisions or classes became self-enclosed or endogamous because the Brahmins were so. It was whole-heartedly imitated by the non-Brahmin subdivisions or classes. It is the scientific studies of anthropologists including Gabriel Tarde, who lays down different laws of imitation; Ambedkar depends on to get validation of his arguments. The laws of imitation, flowing from higher to lower and distance create a difference, is an excellent account of understanding the development of caste. 

Caste in the singular number is an unreality. Castes exist only in the plural number and in connection. Caste becomes different from the race on this ground. Even though not elaborating, Ambedkar seems confident to state Caste is almost impossible to be sustained, for the difficulties that it involves are tremendous. Marx has said the same about capitalism looking at the internal conflicts it produces. Ambedkar deals with those problems in detail in ‘Annihilation of Caste' along with stressing how large, but important the task of eliminating the evil, caste system is. This text will also be remembered and referred for many more centuries to come, for generating this hope. But this mission must not be underestimated since the caste is strictly accompanying the society in all its changes over time. Understanding caste in the era of globalization becomes necessary on this ground. No doubt, Ambedkar provides an active material for such engagement. 

The Author is doing his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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