Shri Anand Ranganathan recently gave a talk on 26 May 18 at INTACH, Delhi, organised by Srijan Foundation, content of the talk being mainly from his two articles published online- "Remembering Ambedkar: The trials of an 'untouchable' boy" and "Dismantling Sainthood: Ambedkar on Gandhi", wherein he has brought out issues related to caste in the context of Dr. Ambedkar's writings.
This write up in two parts attempts to address some of the points brought out by Anand in the abovementioned articles and his talk on 26 May 18 at INTACH, Delhi.
Anand Ranganathan writes in his article "Remembering Ambedkar: The trials of an 'untouchable' boy"-
"James Chadwick was born in a Britain scarred with class distinction while Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, in an India damaged to its core by caste prejudice."
Note that while one society is merely scarred, which means superficial skin disfigurement, the other is "damaged to its core".
This description is in line with atrocity literature peddled by missionaries to attack the Indic society.
India at the time of Ambedkar's birth was damaged, not by caste prejudice, but by 1000 years of repeated attacks by Jihadists, followed by more than 200 years of plunder by Europeans. This is overlooked in the attempt to paint the Indic society in a negative colour.
Anand notes- "Ambedkar, the son of a subedar and an uneducated mother of 13 children".
The 'uneducated' part is important.
Shri Dharampal in his book "A Beautiful Tree" relies on British colonial records and quotes Sir Thomas Munro, the Governor of Madras: “Every village had a school...”. Dharampal observes that the castes considered Sudras and those below them “predominated in the thousands” in the indigenous schools. "
In 1836, British report on the schools of Bengal Presidency noted that, while most teachers were from upper castes, a significant number came from lower castes, including ‘Chandals.’ Girls too attended schools, especially from the 'lower castes', he noted. It was however common for girls to be taught at home.
Then the British under Macaulay systematically dismantled the indigenous educational system.
Anand further notes about Ambedkar-"He became the first untouchable to enrol in Elphinstone High school, the first untouchable to graduate from Bombay University..."
So if other contemporary British records show that lower caste students dominated in traditional schools, and teachers were also from lower castes including Chandals and if Elphinstone High school did not have Dalit students before Ambedkar, doesn't that say more about the Elphinstone High school and its rules of admission than anything else?
Why was education deprived to students by the British? Does it not show that the British divided the society MORE than what it already WAS?
Time and Again, Anand makes statements such -"First Untouchable — an epithet used without knowing what evil lay within it, an epithet laced with unfathomable shame."
Anand quotes Ambedkar- “My five years of staying in Europe and America had completely wiped out of my mind any consciousness that I was an untouchable…”.
Is Ambedkar implying that he did not experience colour prejudice in Europe and America in early 1900’s? Or is it necessary to overlook such, if any, in the context of this narrative.
Ambedkar- "Manu was at the railway station, at the boarding lodge, at the restaurant, on the road...."
Remember this was the time of the British rule. MK Gandhi had a life altering experience on a train that is now famous. Did Ambedkar ONLY find Manu everywhere, or is it again necessary to ignore the facts that society then was ruled by the British who had imposed strict class difference and privileges.
Ambedkar wrote, “I had friends in Baroda who had come to America for study. “Would they welcome me if I went?” I could not assure myself...."
Though Anand has not quoted in his article, Ambedkar later in his original article says- "I did not like to go to the Indian Christian friend. Once he had invited me to go and stay with him. But I had declined, preferring to stay in the Parsi inn. My reason was that his habits were not congenial to me."
It seems natural for people, as Ambedkar here does, to prefer the company of those with whom they share common habit, interest, custom, behaviour. Ambedkar later in his original article also brings out that the rejection he had anticipated from the Hindus, he actually did experience rejection in the hands of the Parsis and Christians.
It is noteworthy that the Vedas say- "Yatha drishti tatha shrishti".
Ambedkar then states, "It was then for the first time that I learnt that a person who is an untouchable to a Hindu is also an untouchable to a Parsi."
Does it not indicate that we should seek reason for untouchability elsewhere too, not just in 'Hindu' scriptures?
In a society ruled by the British with strict notions of race and class, segregation would have been imposed.. As a saying goes- "Yatha Raja tatha Praja"
Anand states- "Of all the blights this world has to offer, the most vile is the rejection of one man by another. "
At that time when globally “race” and “class” were strong denominators of social segregation and privilege, 'rejection of one man by another' that Anand notes above, therefore, should be considered a natural consequence, or should it Only be peculiar to the Hindu community ?
What could be more vile is that during that time India was racked by famine and more than 1 million people died in 1899-1900. Various famines and Massacres engineered by the British had by then taken a toll on millions of Indian lives during that time.
Maybe Ambedkar was unaware of the extreme cruelty perpetuated on all sections of Indian Society or maybe he was too overwhelmed with his own situation to pay attention to the British atrocities. Either way, it must be noted that Ambedkar couldn’t have been oblivious of such glaring facts.
Anand quotes Ambedkar- “It is difficult for them to understand how it is possible for a few untouchables to live on the edge of a village consisting of a large number of Hindus; go through the village daily to free it from the most disagreeable of its filth and to carry the errands of all and sundry; collect food at the doors of the Hindus; buy spices and oil at the shops of the Hindu Bania from a distance; regard the village in every way as their home – and yet never touch or be touched by any one belonging to the village.”
Before making this statement Ambedkar begins his article stating- "Foreigners of course know of the existence of untouchability. But not being next door to it, so to say, they are unable to realise how oppressive it is in its actuality."
It would seem the objective of Ambedkar's article may have been to educate foreigners about how oppressive untouchability is.
It is pertinent that Ambedkar never experienced what he narrated above. He states in his article that his family were in the service of British East India Company from the very commencement of their rule and his father, following the family occupation, joined the Company and rose to the rank of an officer and was a Subedar when he retired. Which means that about 100 years before Ambedkar was born, his family were serving British East India Company and therefore were comparatively well off in relation to others of society. It is also noteworthy that Mangal Pandey, sepoy with East India Company who initiated the 1857 uprising, was a brahmin by caste. Like him there may have been many brahmins with East India Company. It is therefore natural to expect that Ambedkar's forefathers were colleagues with brahmins who were in East India Company employment. As he rose to rank of Subedar, brahmin sepoys would have naturally taken orders from Ambedkar's father.
Anand says- "When Ambedkar was nine years old, he travelled to Koregoan. His recounting of the journey can make one lose faith in humanity. It takes us to a place where the souls have turned to stone."
The narrative that follows is about the expression of 'repulsion' that Ambedkar perceived in the face of Railway Station Master upon being informed that they- well-dressed children- were Mahars (Ambedkar earlier in his article states that "New shirts of English make [=style], bright bejewelled caps, new shoes, new silk-bordered dhotis [=wrapped lower garments], were ordered for the journey.").
However, Ambedkar later also mentions that the same Station Master returned and enquired about their destination, bargained with bullock cart drivers on their behalf, and helped send them to their destination. A cart driver agreed to take them at double the cost, with them driving the cart and the cart driver walking alongside it, so as not to touch them. Half way through the journey however, the cart driver got into the cart, sat alongside them and drove.
Ambedkar mentions that they had suspicions about their cart driver's intention of robbing them; but it proved unfounded.
When they stopped at a toll point to spend the night, he states- "There was plenty of food with us. There was hunger burning within us; with all this we were to sleep without food; that was because we could get no water, and we could get no water because we were untouchables.”
However, in Ambedkar's article, a toll-collector, who did not have knowledge of their being untouchable, when asked for water had merely told Ambedkar- "Who has kept water for you? There is water on the hill, if you want to go and get it; I have none".
Ambedkar mentions about getting water at school only when the peon or another boy was available to open tap for him because as untouchable he was not authorised to touch the tap. Recall that as per British records, before British imposed their schools, traditional schools had predominant lower castes including teachers from the Chandala caste; back in 1830s. After 70 years of British colonial schooling, the situation came to what Ambedkar described.
On these experiences of Ambedkar, Anand further states- "Does a parallel exist in literature, one may ask? Mulk Raj Anand’s intense first novel, Untouchable, comes to mind. So, does Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, which is a deeply affecting, harrowing account of a black man in an America before Rosa Parks and Dr Martin Luther King." ... "Ellison’s prose is harrowing to read, but not as harrowing as Ambedkar’s. One cannot but be ashamed of India, of Indians, of a people so deeply entrenched in prejudice and bigotry that their every pore sweats barbarism."
Anand equates the narrative of Ambedkar with that of black man's life in racist America, but finds it not as harrowing as Ambedkar’s. And he is "ashamed of India, of Indians, of a people so deeply entrenched in prejudice and bigotry that their every pore sweats barbarism".
Does Ambedkar's narrative above warrant such strong emotion?
A Station Master who had helped arrange transport for them late in the evening. A cart driver who can best be blamed for collecting double fare. A toll-collector who told them to get water for themselves. A teacher who gave him permission to go drink water during class and a peon who opened water tap for him when he could.
At the same time, one million of his fellow citizens were reduced to skeletons and starved to death, by the policies of colonial British.
Ambedkar notes in his original article - "My father was away on service as a cashier at a place called Koregaon in Khatav Taluka in the Satara District, where the Government of Bombay had started the work of excavating a Tank [=artificial reservoir] so as to give employment to famine-stricken people, who were dying by thousands."
So his father was employed as a cashier giving the 'employment' of excavating a tank 'to famine-stricken people who were dying by thousands'.
Photographs of gaunt walking skeletons that famine-stricken Indians were reduced to, during British raj, can be seen on internet.
Ambedkar, who was contemporary of those people, however does not write about them or their experience, except that they were to excavate a tank under his father who was paymaster in colonial govt.
Note that 50 million people had died by then in India through various famines since British East India Company rule had started, Ambedkar's family being employed with them for a long time.
Anand writes- "Ambedkar wears the reader down, his words pierce and jab and singe until they can singe no more, until you are gasping for air, and while you come up for it, you ask: how is this even possible? What was the point of human progress and science and culture if in the end it all boiled down to one human treating another as untouchable? What was the point of discovering the neutron when, in a village thousands of miles and a few dreams away from the Cavendish, a little boy of nine had to drive a bullock cart by himself and go thirsty the whole night because he was not allowed to drink water? The answer was given by none other than Ambedkar. His standing up, his fighting for his rights, his drafting the Constitution, his saving India from barbarism, his keeping India alive, was the answer. His life was the answer."
What was the point of that rhetoric?
Further- "in a small village in Ratlam a Dalit bridegroom arrived for his marriage on a horse. Only, there was something unusual about him. He was wearing a helmet. Why?"
As per the news report linked by Anand, it was because "upper caste" men threw stones at him.
News report also mentioned that police case was registered and 27 people were arrested.
Punishment given to perpetrators and Justice being done.
It is noteworthy that prohibition of riding horse was imposed on Hindus during rule of Aurangzeb. Manusmriti does not prescribe such to lower caste.
Anand writes- "And so one cannot discuss the greatness of Ambedkar; his genius, his phenomenal role in the making of modern India, a nation that gave him nothing. Nothing. The love he got was from those who also were never loved, by those who also were given nothing by Bharat Mata."
As noted above, Bharat Mata gave up millions of her children in British-engineered famines alone, for the prosperity of British, with whom Ambedkar's family were employed all those years. A mother should not be asked to give anything more.
Anand continues-"And that is why nations are not mothers; they are but a landmass. Nations become mothers only when they are capable of giving love, which is possible only when their people are capable of giving love. It is a miracle that Ambedkar chose to stay in this cruel land."
Many of Ambedkar's contemporaries fought the atrocities inflicted by British with the cry- "Bharat Mata Ki Jai".
For them, getting an opportunity to be born was more than enough to venerate this mother land, and they willingly gave up their precious lives for her.
(continued in Part -II)