If you don’t understand caste, you don’t understand India.
It took me a long time to read this book, which is actually an undelivered speech (more on that later). It took me even longer to write this review. Frankly, I didn’t think it would be this long. I started typing it in the Goodreads app, and then it became so long that I had to move it to my laptop. And here we are!
Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar should be a must-read for every Indian and anyone who wants to learn about India.
Most modern editions of Annihilation of Caste also come with a lengthy introduction by Arundhati Roy, which is decent if you’re totally unfamiliar with Indian political history and the caste system. I suggest you try the wiki, though. We don’t need another caste person, no matter how brilliant and privilege-aware they are (and she is), to give legitimacy to an anti-caste book.
As an ex-Muslim, I’m well familiar with the machinations of organized religions like Islam to hold and spread political power under the garb of being pious & divine.
At the outset, Hinduism doesn’t seem that sinister. And yet, growing up in India, I knew that something was wrong. Not just with Hinduism, but with all of us regardless of our religious affiliations.
But I couldn’t figure out the root cause then. That was until I discovered Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
As I was reading, I started marking interesting points and taking notes. I soon realized that I was highlighting every other line in the book.
Ambedkar writes with such clarity and prose, it’s hard not to put the book down. But I did, multiple times. The topics covered are so heavy, it’s extremely trying and tiring to keep going. However, if you’re a fast reader, I think you can finish this book in a day or two. It isn’t that long. After all, it was supposed to be a speech.
Dr. Ambedkar is clinical in his exploration of caste, its origins, and how it’s a system that’s similar to slavery (and in many ways even worse), yet practiced by millions of people for millennia with no shame or guilt (sadly, this holds true even today, 8 decades after Ambedkar wrote this undelivered speech).
He minces no words here. Ambedkar’s approach is akin to a lawyer prosecuting a criminal. And he indeed was a brilliant lawyer, among various other things.
On trial is casteism and its ardent supporters, led by the so-called Mahatma (yes, the one and only Gandhi). We, the readers, are the jury, the audience, and the judges.
And the crime?
Everything you can imagine: theft, murder, rape, sexual assault, physical assault, abuse of human rights, physical and mental harassment, hate crime, fraud, conspiracy — the whole shebang.
And when did it happen?
It’s happening right now. And has been for over 2,000 years.
He picks each instance of these crimes by casteism (and its supporters) and then presents arguments against them backed by solid evidence. The Doctor is going to nail the accused for their crimes against humanity.
Annihilation of Caste is as much a takedown of Gandhi as it is about destroying the caste system.
Being a first-hand victim of casteism himself, Ambedkar doesn’t let that cloud his judgment. He states the facts and places the evidence straightforwardly with extreme clarity.
It’s super personal for him — he was from the Hindu Mahar caste, a community deemed “untouchable” by the upper classes. His school teachers would segregate the lower class students from Brahmins and other upper classes. They were often asked by the teachers to sit outside the class and listen to the lectures.
This is the environment he grew up in. Yet, he doesn’t let that show and weaken his case. He knows what’s at stake, even if it’s just for a show.
At times though, you could sense his passive-aggressive nature. This can be attributed to his frustration with the justice system. And his frustration with the fact that political power rests largely in the hands of the very people he’s fighting against for getting justice.
“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.”
Ambedkar doesn’t just linger with the basics. He was well-read and highly educated. B.A. in Economics and Political Science from Bombay University (India). M.A. in Economics from Columbia University (USA), twice. And later, a Ph.D. from the same university (I recommend you read his profile on Columbia Global Centers). He also did an M.Sc. in Economics from the London School of Economics. His subject interests include Sociology, History, Philosophy, and Anthropology.
John Dewey, one of the most influential modern philosophers, psychologists, and educational reformers, known for his advocacy of democracy, was Ambedkar’s professor. Under Professor Dewey’s guidance, Ambedkar charted his ideas for social justice and equality.
As one of the founding fathers of Independent India, Ambedkar went on to draft The Constitution of India.
India was (and still is) the largest democracy in the world. Professor Dewey must’ve been proud of his student.
More often than not, those from an oppressed group must go above and beyond what’s generally accepted as exceptional to even be heard, let alone be given a place at the table. Ambedkar knew that he was one of the select few, if not the only one, from the depressed classes to have had this privilege (an ironic term here).
And he didn’t let it go to waste. He wanted to be heard.
“When Bhimrao got the opportunity to go abroad, he decided that he would study very hard. But when he went to New York he forgot about this resolve. When he was in Satara and Bombay, he could not mingle with upper-caste students; he could not even join in games with them. In New York, he was able to live and dine with other students. Indian and American students got along very well, and lived on friendly terms. Without any hesitation, Bhimrao participated in many pastimes. The students danced together, and played tennis and badminton. Sledding was an especially favored game. Girls would sit in front, and boys would wrap their arms around their waists as they slid down the hill.
In this and many other entertaining activities Bhimrao spent the first four or five months. He thought that the M.A. and the Ph.D. could be achieved while also enjoying life, so why should he trouble himself too much with study? Accordingly, he would stay up till 2:00 AM talking and amusing himself with friends.
But one night, after wrapping up all the chit-chat around 3:00 AM, he lay down in bed and began to ask himself, “What am I doing? I left the loving members of my family thousands of miles away and came here to study–and I am just sidelining my studies and amusing myself–and that too, on the Government’s money! If I make good use of the opportunity given to me, then I will be able to achieve a greater name and fame for myself. Just getting degrees is of no use in itself.”… At 5:00 AM he sat up in bed and made a strong resolve that henceforth he would dedicate his life only to study, not to amusements…. His friends teased him, but he stuck to his resolve. At night, when students in the room next door laughed loudly and made a ruckus, Bhimrao would shut the door and windows of his room and put balls of cotton in his ears, so he could sit and study. ”
Ambedkar digs into his vast knowledge and experience to critically analyze casteism from its innermost depths. He cites examples from the subcontinent — extending from the long-gone eras to recent events — adds in some other examples from world history, including past and present socio-religious and political revolutions. He gives scientific and economic explanations wherever necessary.
Babasaheb, as he was dearly called by his supporters, even takes on arguments of the caste system apologists who want to wash their hands away by comparing it with other class-based social structures, racist ideologies, and eugenic reasoning. Even those who think it’s an economic problem (and not a social one) to be addressed by just tackling poverty.
In every instance, he forces the criminal into a corner with his no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point reasoning.
“…turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster.
It is a pity that caste even today has its defenders. The defences are many. It is defended on the ground that caste system is but another name for division of labour; and if division of labour is a necessary feature of every civilized society, then it is argued that there is nothing wrong in the caste system. Now the first thing that is to be urged against this view is that caste system is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers.”
The entire book is a grand takedown of the grandest ongoing crime in human history.
Ironically, support for reparations from Great Britain for their colonization and exploitation of erstwhile India is picking pace. I’m not against this, and I think it’s justified, maybe even necessary, to set things straight.
But who will give reparations for millennia of discrimination and exploitation happening here in India, even today?
Reading Annihilation of Caste also gave me an insight into the peculiar caste system-like practice of Muslims living in the subcontinent, even though it’s not sanctioned by Islam’s holy scripture Quran.
“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. You therefore, deserve the support of all those who are suffering from this infection–Sikh, Mulsim and Christian. ”
Ambedkar ends the speech with a sad and dejected note. You can sense his feeling of despair and hopelessness, knowing very well that no matter how good his arguments are, he still has a hard fight ahead.
For a moment, though, it did seem like he did get through the thick charade of the caste system — he became the first law minister of Independent India.
But that’s the thing with socio-political charades. You can’t just penetrate inside and try reforming them without getting engulfed by the very thing you’re out to change. You need to annihilate them.
Deceived by his fellow lawmakers (read privileged caste Hindus) for the umpteenth time, Ambedkar resigned from his position (read his resignation letter), and finally decided to leave Hinduism for Buddhism (Note: It’s not the same as popular Buddhism schools, and even rejects most of their teachings to form a new socially and politically engaged school of Buddhism). Thousands of his followers joined him in a mass conversion ceremony on 14 October 1956.
Less than two months later, on 6 December 1956, Ambedkar bade goodbye to this world. This was just three days after he’d completed his final manuscript for The Buddha and His Dhamma, his final work.
Even in death, Ambedkar had achieved what he’d always wanted: not die a Hindu.
Today, caste is not yet annihilated. Ambedkar’s dream remains unfulfilled. There are many who have taken up the mantle since, but I’m afraid we’ll never see someone like him again. Even amongst caste Hindus who consider themselves to be post-caste (similar to the post-racism logic given by some racists), Ambedkar’s teachings aren’t that prevalent.
Today, the caste system has systematically been exported to western nations by privileged Indians — many such Indians themselves take advantage of policies regarding affirmative action, diversity, inclusion, etc. (Sources: , . ). Only to disregard all that when it comes to paying it forward.
Note: The wiki on caste discrimination in the United States does a great job of summarizing the current situation in the US.
More than angry, I’m sad and disappointed with such people — some of who are also my friends.
Regardless, this shouldn’t dishearten you. Today we know that collective action of a determined group is extremely powerful. Mass protests are making a massive comeback. Perhaps, some of them may even lead to a revolution. And maybe, just maybe, one of them will eliminate almost all traces of caste.
Thank you, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, for everything!