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The forgotten thesis

Abhijit Guha |

A century has passed since Dr BR Ambedkar (1891-1956) wrote a perceptive article on caste. It is shameful that the original of this article remained unnoticed in  academic discourses on caste. The  distinguished French anthropologist Louis Dumont (1911-1998) in his book, Homo Hierachicus (1966), viewed caste as the typical expression of the Indian mind and culture in which hierarchy and inequality were deemed to be natural. This ran counter to the modern western notion of equality and democracy. The anti-Dumont scholars like the American anthropologist Mckim Marriott  gave more emphasis on the local and regional variations in caste perceptions. In the 1950s, the noted Indian sociologist, MN Srinivas, propounded a theory of social mobility within the caste system through a process which he termed ‘Sanskritization’. Earlier, the famous Bengali anthropologist who was at one time the personal secretary of Mahatma Gandhi proposed a theory of ‘Hindu Method of Tribal Absorption’. The Marxist scholars, on the other hand, viewed the caste system as a kind of class formation.

An interesting feature of these discourses is the absence of the contributions of one of the most original thinkers on the caste system. He was none other than  Ambedkar, who was not only a scholar but was also one of the greatest policy makers of Independent India. His views on caste were also neglected in the anthropology and sociology curricula in Indian universities and colleges. Ambedkar is still a nobody in the anthropology syllabi in the midst of his 125th centenary grandstanding all over the country. The students of anthropology, sociology, history and political science are familiar with such distinguished brains as Louis Dumont, HH Risely, JH Hutton, LSS O’Malley, GS Ghurye, DD Kosambi, Nirmal Kumar Bose, Ramkrishna Mukherjee, MN Srinivas, Surajit Sinha, Andre Beteille, Rajni Kothari, Mckim Marriott, Ronald Inden, Bernard Cohn, Nicholas Dirks, and Romila Thapar…  but not about BR Ambedkar. He has been regarded only as a leader of the Dalits and one of those who framed the Constitution. However, he was not given the status of a scholar in the  discourses  conducted  by social scientists. GS Ghurye, who had introduced the discipline of sociology, in his famous book Caste and Class in India (1957) mentioned the name of Ambedkar only once on page 226 and that too as 'the leader of the Scheduled Castes’ although he discussed the importance of endogamy (marriage within a social group) in  analysing the cast system, which was first pointed out by Ambedkar in his 1916 essay.
Neither Indian  nor Western anthropologists nor for that matter social scientists gave academic importance to Ambedkar’s views on caste. Ironically,  he remained an untouchable to the higher castes and European  discourses on caste in India. As early as 1916, he had made a novel attempt to explain the caste system in a presentation  at an anthropology seminar convened by Dr Alexander Goldenweizer (1880-1940) at Columbia University on 9 May 1916.

Ambedkar was then 25  and a doctoral student. His paper was titled Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development. It was a  pure and detached academic exercise on the nature of the caste system in India and there was no comment on the personal experiences of the  writer. The text of this paper was first printed in: Indian Antiquary Vol. XLI (May 1917) and then long after in Vol. I of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches (1979), edited by Vasant Moon and published by the education department of the Government of Maharastra, It was an erudite presentation on the existing anthropological and sociological literature on caste. The style was as lucid as it was argumentative. In the first part of the paper, Ambedkar dealt with the works of four famous scholars like Emile Senart (1847-1928), John Nesfield (1836-1919), SV Ketkar (1884-1937) and HH Risley (1851-1911) and without being biased towards these well-known authorities, he pointed out the shortcomings of all these scholars in understanding the essential feature of the caste system. But his method of criticism was quite interesting. While criticising the authorities, Ambedkar noted the positive aspects of their contributions.

It is important to review these definitions. Viewed separately, the definitions of three of the writers include too much or too little: they are neither complete nor correct. They  have missed the central point in the dynamics of the caste system. Their shortcoming lies in trying to define caste as an isolated unit by itself, and not as a group within, and with a definite relationship with  the system of caste as a whole. Yet collectively all of them are complementary to one another, each emphasizing what has been obscured in the other. [Ambedkar (1917): 1979:7].

Looking at caste as a system in which each jati is part of the whole was definitely a step forward in social and cultural anthropology as early as 1917 and Ambedkar was not ready to accept caste as a system of ‘division of labour’ which minimised competition among occupational groups. For him the system is a division among the labouring classes rather than division of labour. A closer reading of this article reveals that  Ambedkar used the Morganian social evolutionary methodology to approach the basic principle behind the caste system. He observed that marriage outside one’s own immediate kin-group ~ represented through clan exogamy ~ was the fundamental and universal feature of human society and in India the state of ‘tribal exogamy’  has survived  whereas in the modern world there is no such system.

To quote from the original, with the evolution of history exogamy has lost its efficacy, and barring the nearest blood-kin, there is usually no social bar that restricts the choice of the bride or groom. But in  India, the law of exogamy is a positive injunction even today. Society still clings onto the clan system, even though there are no clans. This is evident in the law of matrimony which centres  around the principle of exogamy. Not that Sapindas (blood-kin) cannot marry, but a marriage within the same gotra is regarded as sacrilege.

This is the logical foundation on which Ambedkar advanced his arguments to elucidate the caste system. He cogently argued that since in India exogamy was the stronger rule, endogamy has been an alien concept in the  country. Then how was the caste system so entrenched in India? The manner in which Ambedkar addressed this anomaly is the most interesting part of the original paper. Before going into the details I would quote him again:

“Nothing is therefore more important for you to remember than the fact that endogamy is foreign to the people of India. The various  gotras are and have been exogamous: so are the other groups with totemic organisation. It is no exaggeration to say that with the people of India, exogamy is a creed and none dare infringe it, so much so that, in spite of the endogamy of the castes within them, exogamy is strictly observed and that there are more rigorous penalties for violating exogamy than there are for violating endogamy…Consequently in the final analysis creation of castes, so far as India is concerned, means the superposition of endogamy on exogamy”.

Additionally, Ambedkar explained  that since the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas were the most privileged classes, they began to “enclose” themselves to safeguard their privileges. Later, other groups also emulated the higher classes and the system spread over regions.

The writer is retired Professor, Dept of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University