How to Read ‘Annihilation of Caste’ as a Text


This talk was part of the seminar – Celebrating Ambedkar: The Relevance of “Annihilation of Caste” Today, organised by the Dalit Adivasi Bahujan  Muslim Students Association (DABMSA ), English Foreign Language University (EFLU ), Hyderabad held on 17.Apr.2014 on the occasion of 123rd birth anniversary of Babasaheb Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.

I can see so many inspiring faces in the audience. And, I always feel relevant myself, academically and politically, to come, to EFLU more particularly, and discuss the struggle notes. I won’t say that this is something which is very academic but this time we come here to EFLU, it is a struggle and we share struggle notes. People really offer struggles, bites to you and you just can’t avoid taking those bites seriously. You have to really engage with struggle. So, hold it onto the space in, hold it on to discuss your space in the academic world is also a struggle. People want to displace you from that discursive place but you need to hold on to it and continue to hold on to it very, very tightly. And that is the reason as to why I come to EFLU all the time. Because I find that feel we can hold this space collectively. And that is the string that one can really find here. I am not derelativising HCU or Osmania University, they are also very important but EFLU holds a very special significance for me in my own, fashioning out myself, in terms of politics and in terms of imagination. So I will speak for about 15 minutes and then we can listen to other distinguished panelists today.

I have a plan to introduce to you how to read “Annihilation of Caste” as a text. Bojja Tarakam has raised very important point in his writing on the Facebook, I guess, no, on DalitCamera. That is one way of looking at the text and making text very, very exciting and subversive. But there is another way of, actually accessing or approaching the text, and the text like “Annihilation of Caste”. One has to look at this text from a very, very fresh point of view, a distinct point of view. And I am already making a claim that there is a way to look at this text much more refreshingly than what has been done by scholars today who are in circulation today in this world. Let’s ask four questions; is “Annihilation of Caste” a pragmatic text which is offering policy alternatives to the government of India, to annihilate caste? So, is it a pragmatic text which is offering or dishing out policy alternatives to the government of India to chuck out a programme for annihilation of caste? This is one way of looking at it. People look at it as the pragmatic text but I would not say it is a pragmatic text, it is a different text altogether. And I will elaborate on that point a little later. Is it this text which is complaining about the victimhood of Dalits? Is it the text which is all the time complaining? Is it full of complaints? It is not a very, very complaining text. It is a very serious text which is actually going beyond complaints. It doesn’t celebrate victimhood. It’s a very, very politically powerful text which actually opens up into new ways of looking at social reality in this country. So it is not simply, it is a text which is not withdrawing into oneself as a reified entity. But it’s a text which actually is prompting you to go ahead and surcharge. So a very charging text to that extent. Therefore it is not a complaining text. It is not a regressive text. It is not complaining all the time about victimhood. Therefore it is a text which is looking in future, it is a very, very visionary text. And full of promise, therefore can’t be a defeatist, regressive, victimhood text. It’s not a text which is complaining all the time. It’s a small text but very powerful. Is it a polemical text, which is very close to victimhood? And I would like to argue with you that it is not a polemical text. Because in polemics what happens is you also guarantee equal advantage to your adversary, to score equally powerful fight against you. But, Ambedkar is not really considering any point to the adversary to score a final point against the protagonist that is Ambedkar. Therefore it not merely a polemical text. It is a text which is basically mired into a very, very deep debate. Why? Because it has two, as a text the debate is based on two discursive principle; one is the principle of discursive ethics and the other one is about discursive rationality. What do I mean by discursive rationality which is found there, that Ambedkar is interested in organising arguments in their logical sequence. Therefore he is writing to this Jat Pat Todak Mandal, the Arya Samajist in Lahore, who care that my text is going to be longer. My text is not going to be short-circuit it. It is going to be longer because I take this discursive rationality so seriously and therefore I can’t foreclose the discussion abruptly. I have to exhaust my point. I have to make a full statement. Therefore you can’t withhold my discursive ability to go ahead and that is followed by Ambedkar.

It (AoC) is a text which is basically mired into a very, very deep debate. Why? Because it has two, as a text the debate is based on two discursive principle; one is the principle of discursive ethics and the other one is about discursive rationality.

I think you must read, you will enjoy this text. Actually I was reading a Marathi text, wonderful translations done by one of the very staunch supporters of Ambedkar in 1969. Annihilation of Caste. Not many people know what has happened to “Annihilation of Caste” in vernaculars. As if, English is the only standard which decides the scale of argument, scale of debate. No! This is not what people are reading. This is only seven rupees. Its seven rupees and we collect and started with not more than seven rupees so that every small activist can buy this. Not like five hundred rupees we have now. That’s the logic. So discursive rationality is one. And what is discursive ethics that, and this is Ambedkar, I made this point last time in this hall only. I am going to repeat it again and I am sorry for repetition but repetition is always good for actually remaining relevant politically. Discursive ethic is something that you are actually, you want to focus more on inter-subject, ( I have no time so I am just putting into some language), you have to take the question of inter-subjectivity much more seriously rather than inter-textuality. To put it differently again, you will respect the person about whom you are writing. You will not condemn the person about whom you are writing. You will not hull those social constituencies of Ambedkar into utter contempt when you are writing about them. That is the discursive ethics. You are actually following certain ethical standards before you write. And the epistemological and as they call the ontological, they come only later. But what happens when they start from the second and not from the first. And we actually take serious objection to that. What is important in Ambedkar which is if you are a Buddhist, a human being, it’s so important, not the text is important, but later. That is a secondary importance. What is primarily important is to really how practical deliberation on a living human being. You can deliberate discursively later, you can make abstract sense of a human being later. But what is primarily important is to really restore the moral integrity of that human being which is so important. To say simply, and this is what EFLU is doing, a person is so important, you can’t dismiss the person. Accommodate the person into your own emotional, passionate vision, life-world, whatever word you want to use.  That is so important, I guess. So, you will have both the principles; the discursive ethics and discursive rationality, discursive rationality is second and discursive ethics is first. And the debate is based on that. For I think one must have a very fresh attitude towards “Annihilation of Caste” when you are making sense of “Annihilation of Caste”.

So, last point about, the above is the third point. The fourth point when you are approaching “Annihilation of Caste”, you will go into the text and find out why the Jat Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore cancelled the speech of Ambedkar. What was the reason? The officially stated reason was that Ambedkar was too much harsh, harsher on his critique of Hinduism. That is the stated fact. No one denies. But that is not the real reason. According to Ambedkar the real reason as to why he was not invited to finally deliver the speech was this: that the Arya Samajist who were actually after the “shuddhification”, “shuddhification” is my word, of the Dalits never wanted to interject to really give a lead to the social question. And then Ambedkar quotes, whosoever maha pandit is, whosoever big and erudite the pandit is from an untouchable caste, he can never be accepted by the Brahmins as their leader. Even in leading, the question of caste. Therefore, and this a very perceptive reading, and you really require a perceptive insight into perceptive reading of Ambedkar.

Discursive ethic is something in that you have to take the question of inter-subjectivity much more seriously rather than inter-textuality.

And, these are four reasons as to why we should really look at “Annihilation of Caste” as something which is so important, so intellectually serious but politically very, very subversive. This is the first portion, first part of my presentation here. And let me quickly therefore go on to the more substantive part. This is the first protocol question I was raising in the beginning. These four points are the questions of, points of protocol question as to how to really approach a particular text. And do you really have a special insight to approach a text? And we need to follow a certain protocols which are universally acceptable and universally valid. I think anybody who is actually approaching a text should not approach text to only find out originality of the text. Anybody wants to be original but not quoting, not quoting those people who are the object of that experience, for example, you don’t quote any Dalit author when you are writing a commentary on “Annihilation of Caste”. And that is how you make your text as original. The fallacy of originality, therefore. Your text becomes a great text only in the absence of the live experience that is waiting for your serious attention. But you have a privilege to really ignore that. So, that’s it. So you require a certain universal protocols. And who should? And it is Ambedkar who is taking the protocol seriously. And we should all take that protocol seriously.

The second part of the discussion, more substantive, I guess. What is “Annihilation of Caste”? To answer the question differently, “Annihilation of Caste” is perfectly a modern, ethical text, and that is my claim. Therefore, Ambedkar is critical of Hinduism, it’s basically a criticism which is actually asking several questions to Hinduism, for not having taken modernity seriously. And therefore Ambedkar is asking questions to Hindu leaders, all the questions of untouchables, lower castes, tribals, everybody. It’s a terribly modern text. Unlike the text, unlike Hind Swaraj. And, you know, we celebrated hundred years in 2009 and I was also present in this Hind Swaraj presentation in Delhi and I am just quoting one of the very sincere and serious Gandhian person, who is, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, I asked one question to the audience, the experts, so far experts on Gandhi, ‘please tell me whether Gandhi has used untouchability even once in Hind Swaraj?’. Not a single time, no mention on untouchability. And here, reverse is the case. So, “Annihilation of Caste” is a modern text. Many people may not agree on this. We can debate on this point whether it is modernist or not. But more comparable text is Hind Swaraj, for contradictory reasons. Is it not? And therefore, one is modernist. What is so modern about it? Because it gives full and final treatment to a very, very serious concept to fall into the framework of modernity. For example, equality. And I would please invite your attention to read what does Ambedkar mean by equality in “Annihilation of Caste”. It is not simply about annihilation. Sorry, it is not a practical question at all. It’s a much more discursive, analytical, epistemological question. What is equality according to Ambedkar in “Annihilation of Caste”?  And there is a fresh reading of equality and it is the reading that fashions to the traditions of political philosophy. And he thinks that equality is not given, inequality is given. People are not equal at all. But you have to somehow assume that there is equality. And then only a statement about equality becomes a possibility. That is something political philosophy. And Roy’s call is a veil of ignorance. You have to assume that there has to be equality some kind which doesn’t exist at all. And I think that this is a fresh reading and I think you can read it and agree with Babasaheb and you can disagree with him if you want. And we are not saying that you don’t disagree. People have a right to disagree or agree with a scholar, after all Ambedkar said, every time he reminded, he is not a perfect Brahma. There’s no Brahmavakya in him. And he would say that I may write one line and may not agree with my own line. I strike it off and then write another line. Likewise. So that is the style of a philosopher who has the benefits of being groomed into the atmosphere of enlightenment. Therefore, you can see that point. So equality is one point where you find there is a new understanding of equality as given to us by Babasaheb in “Annihilation of Caste”.

What is equality according to Ambedkar in “Annihilation of Caste”?  And there is a fresh reading of equality and it is the reading that fashions to the traditions of political philosophy.

Second, why it is so special? Freedom. Notion of freedom is absolutely important. ( And I am just taking one or two minutes more and then I will finish. And now that Javed has walked in and there’s also a strong feeling of unfreedom Javed in than “Annihilation of Caste” and your own agenda which is so dear to you and dear to me as well.) Caste thrives on unfreedom and unfreedom is created through creating more spaces of vulnerability. Ambedkar. Caste thrives not on freedom as a positive concept, caste thrives on unfreedom as a negative concept. ( This is Javed. Of course Ambedkar before Javed. Anyway.) But the spaces of unfreedom are created through the spaces of vulnerability. What are the important spaces of vulnerability? One of the important spaces of vulnerability where people feel completely vulnerable, insulated, isolated, is social boycott. Unfreedom, Javed is tied with notion of social death. Absolutely fantastic reading by Ambedkar in “Annihilation of Caste”. And you should ask this question to those who are commenting on this, are they really asking right questions or not. Because you are the judge. You as a reader, are the judge, of really judging the text. Please ask this question to those who are claiming to be writing original things about Ambedkar whether they are reading this accordingly. In the light, Ambedkar would like them to read. For example social boycott is the space of vulnerability when vulnerability is produced through social boycott. And therefore people are, certain people are meeting social death. And this has so much similarity with American philosophy, Orlando Patrickson social death. So there is an international connection already in “Annihilation of Caste”. So, freedom and unfreedom becomes so much more important in Ambedkar and caste denies freedom because it is rooted into unfreedom, vulnerability and social boycott. That is the negative conundrum in Ambedkar. There is no positive conundrum. Positive conundrums is there only in Roys and other people. People who are fighting, engage in struggle, there is always a negative conundrum before them. It can’t be positive. Positive of course is later. Negative. Therefore vulnerability, social death, social boycott, unfreedom. That’s it.

Finally, the last question is about the question of morality in “Annihilation of Caste”. That’s the central question in “Annihilation of Caste”. You need to have new morality of committing new community who will participate in collective life of producing, he says, nation. You can’t imagine nation outside this collective community which participates equally into making this nation a possibility. Participation is important. Therefore all those promises given by people, not addressing the question of participation, are false promises according to Ambedkar. What is there far morally important is to really promote, generate that conditions within which you can participate and therefore people do not want others to participate. They want to enjoy their own life, differently. Therefore it’s a moral question. Therefore there are two kinds of moral; one is the very radical, progressive, emancipatory morality in Ambedkar which believes, which advocates this morality, this participation. The other one is thug’s morality. Among thugs, the dacoits, there is morality. And Ambedkar says very, very poignantly that within the caste structure you can only produce thug morality. Not the emancipatory morality. And that is the devastating critique of caste. Therefore caste is not at all anti inter-caste marriages, inter-dining, no, sorry. Don’t reduce caste annihilation to that simplicity. But when you governmentalise the scholar and figure, you begin to realise, you actually begin to inferiorise. The point is that when you are, there is a scale, when you are not taking that point into consideration you can relapse into, no, sorry, you governmentalise a scholar, a thinker, you can do that only through putting the cover-up policies and other things. Put Ambedkar as the god of statistics. As some of the official intellectuals do. Even Dalits. We will criticise Dalits later. Not today. Once you do that you seek to inferiorise the scholar by actually running down the arguments, running down his vigour, intellectual vigour on the scale of arguments, that is what it is. I mean when the scale of argument is going down you are actually, officially celebrating the intellectual. When the scholar refuse to be the part of official intellectual, his scale of argument goes up. Now we have to decide whether we want to governmentalise the scholar and therefore run down, inferiorise the argumentative capacity of that particular scholar. And that is the real moral question. Therefore the high quality morality is the central theme in “Annihilation of Caste”. And at this point of time when we are celebrating hundred and twenty third birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar we must take this challenge of really asking some more self-reflective questions to ourselves and then only you will have a sound, solid ethical ground to criticise others as well. But you should not really give up the right to criticise others because we are pushed into the questions, we are pushed into the struggle. We do not want to struggle. We want to take discursive struggle much more seriously but you are not allowing us to do that. Somebody recently, and I am sorry for personal quotation, few days back I was in Columbia University and some people asked me why do you want to take all these debates seriously. I said, ‘no, it’s not a question of taking or not taking debate seriously but there is a larger question of struggle. And I can’t insulate myself’. And therefore more incentives, this is the first political meeting that we are meeting in EFLU. And how is that you are coming? And I said, ‘every participation and every deliberating dialogue is basically fundamentally political’. There is nothing outside political. With this I will stop. I think I have spoken more, thank you so much.


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