• “The history of India is a history of mortal conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism.”

    An excerpt from The Radical in Ambedkar: Critical Reflections

    Anupama Rao

    February 16, 2019

    Edited and introduced by Anand Teltumbde and Suraj Yengde, The Radical in Ambedkar: Critical Reflections seeks to unpack the radical in Ambedkar's legacy. Critically evaluating his thought and work, the book, through a collection of essays, discusses Ambedkar's theory of minority rights, the consequences of the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism, Dalit oppression in the context of racism and anti-Semitism, the value of his thought for Marxism and feminism, and more.

    The following is an excerpt from Anupama Rao's essay titled "Ambedkar's Dalit and the Problem of Caste Subalternity" of the book.

    Image Courtesy: Penguin India


    The detour through the global allowed Dalits’ marginality to become visible as historical injustice but to what extent was the caste question distinctively Indian?1 It was a formation that marked off ‘Hindus from other peoples’, an agonistic intimacy that structured history itself. While revolution provided the model of political agonism, Ambedkar’s important text, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, staged the defeat of Buddhism by Brahminism as the deep history of untouchability. Unlike Islam, which was more recent, and which Ambedkar framed as a matter of competitive sovereignty (Hindus, Muslims), caste’s relationship to Brahminism (and Brahminism’s relationship to state power) was both more ancient and more pervasive. Ambedkar writes, ‘The history of India is nothing but a history of mortal conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism.’ Brahmin power had emerged through the killing of a Buddhist king: the regicide of the Buddhist king Pushyamitra and the destruction of the Buddhist state was the originary moment which saw the birth of caste and Brahminism.2

    Ambedkar understood the Brahmin’s right to bear arms and to kill to be a defining feature of the sovereignty of caste. It recast the traditional understanding of the relationship between Brahmin and Kshatriya, and sacral and temporal power, respectively, and it was most a result of Ambedkar’s familiarity with the history of Brahmin kingship in the Deccan under the Peshwai. Meanwhile, Ambedkar argued that the norms of vegetarianism, which was imposed on Brahmins, was influenced by the Buddhist commitment to non-violence. These norms were then deployed against Sudras and Untouchables in order to confirm their stigmatized status.3

    The dehumanization of Dalits (as originary Buddhists) was located in this Indic past and challenged what might appear on first glance to be the shared history of Buddhism and Brahminism on the subcontinent. If the Dalit was the defeated, secret sharer of Hindu history, she was also its key protagonist who narrated the history of caste as a history of violence and being made a social outcast.4 Meanwhile, Ambedkar distinguished his account of the Dalit Buddhist from the origin story of the birth of a fourth varna, the Sudras, from a class of degraded Kshatriyas excluded from the right to perform the upanayanam (thread) ceremony. Ambedkar argued that Sudra identity was unstable due to the desire for incorporation into the caste Hindu order, while the Dalit perspective was developed from their position of symbolic negation. Thus, Manu’s caste laws and taboos were belated; their function was to justify the permanence of untouchability through the force of law in the aftermath of the violent defeat of the Sudras and the permanent outcasting of the Dalit Buddhist.

    We should note here that Ambedkar’s history of violence is both conjunctural and structural. Regicide inaugurated the cycle of violence that defined Brahmin counter-revolution. In short, this originary regicide altered the distribution of ritual and temporal power and challenged the king’s sovereignty by making him dependent on the Brahmin.5 As a consequence, the taboo on the Brahmin’s right to bear arms and hold kingly power was also lifted.6 With the destruction of Buddhism, the Brahmin’s sovereignty was embedded in codes and taboos, such as the Laws of Manu, while the varna order became a prosthetic of Brahmin power. (Ambedkar was anticipating Louis Dumont’s argument by nearly three decades when he argued that Brahmin power suborned the temporal power of kingship and subordinated the Kshatriya to the Brahmin.)

    Ambedkar goes further, however, by showing how Brahmin power operated as social totality, so to speak, by controlling access to the instruments and means of violence. First, there was the fundamental divide between the ‘touchables’ and Untouchables, which operated on the principle of social repulsion. Second, a separation was enacted between Brahmin and non- Brahmin through the principle of ‘graded inequality’, with the dvijas, or twice-born (Brahmins, Kshatriyas), restricting majority access to power and social mobility. Thus, Brahminism was predicated on a history of violence, which was iterative and archaic: the antagonism between castes structured the agonistic politics of caste.


    When did it become possible to think of an end to, if not a beginning for, the profound inequities of caste?

    When we discuss the social fact of Dalit existence as a problem for thought and not merely for social movement activism then we must also address the history of how and in what manner Dalit existence has been problematized. Ambedkar’s effort to think through approximation, that is, through affinities between the Dalit condition and the global contexts of dehumanization, was one part of the story. Ambedkar’s thinking also reprises the conversation between the abstract and the concrete by asking us to consider the place from where truly creative and expansive thinking can occur. Ambedkar reflects to us the torturous path of doing both. He is trying to think through the conditions of the everyday, and yet his commitment to a stance of liberal proceduralism and a uniformity of policy design means that his own thought carries signs of resistance, gestures that slow us down and ask us to think about the different scales across which he is thinking. (By comparison, his predecessor Jotiba Phule is interested in rich social description, but Ambedkar, while he also provides description, is not limited to it.) We can thereby convoke the social context that will allow situating Ambedkar’s thought in its time and place. But thought is not reducible to the context in which it is conceived and expressed; ideas are both within and without history.

    It is precisely the ‘untimeliness’ of Dalit thought that marks it off from history. Take for instance the concept or concept–metaphor of ‘Dalit’, which was conceived as a weapon for battles in which previous terminology was insufficient. Ambedkar uses asprushya, bahishkrit and paddalit (Marathi adjectives signifying untouchable, ostracized and broken underfoot, respectively), but the noun forms he uses in English are chiefly Depressed Classes and Untouchables. The entry of ‘Dalit’ into English language debates occurred much after Ambedkar’s death, in the early 1970s, when the mainly juridical and political terminology of SCs was unlikely to resonate with the general public. It arrived not so much as nomenclature for marginal classes as an oppositional style that was simultaneously political and literary. The presence of the Marathi word in Anglophone contexts resisted swift classification, warning instead of an epistemic depth brought by relatively unknown interlocutors who were entering arenas they were previously excluded from. The public visibility of the term thus also made the social conditions that lay behind it legible but on the Dalit’s terms and not the upper caste’s.

    This is a simple illustration of how political ideas, names and aspirations can appear to emerge from specific contexts that limit their forms of embodiment and modes of address, or, what might be called ‘modes of enfleshment’, but on closer examination force us to project a genealogy that is all too often fictive.7 The delimitation of the scale and scope of an idea in its time appears rather different when its genealogy is scrambled. In this way, the problem of the Dalit as a problem of/for thought also asks us to rethink fundamental categories of social ontology and their relationship to historical time. We have turned to the interrelated issues of person, time and thought in an effort to ask what it means to say that Ambedkar inaugurates Dalit thought as critical thought. Should we say that ‘Dalit’ as a figuration of equality and equalization therefore has to enfold within itself different temporalities, its untimeliness promising resolution in the unforeseen future?

    1We could argue that Ambedkar shifted towards a national resolution of the Dalit question during the 1940s and 1950s, culminating in the dual moves of Buddhist conversion and the Constitution. However, he was equally involved in internationalizing the issue at the time. Indeed, the correspondence in 1946 between Ambedkar and W.E.B. Du Bois is well known and concerned Ambedkar’s request for a copy of the National Negro Congress petition to the United Nations, which attempted to secure minority rights through the United Nations council, as he wished to make a similar representation for the Dalit cause. A recent paper also shows that Ambedkar was in active contact with Jan Smut, Churchill, and the Indian Conciliation Group and other conservative politicians. Jesus Chairez, ‘B.R. Ambedkar, Partition and the internationalization of untouchability, 1939–1947’, South Asia (forthcoming).
    2. Ambedkar, ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in India’, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 3, pp. 269–70.
    3. Ambedkar, ‘Who Are the Shudras’, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.7, pp. 318–55.
    4. Ambedkar was especially keen to challenge the perspective put forward by Hindu nationalists such as Tilak regarding the role of Vedic India—and later, the Bhagavad Gita—in incubating ideas of social equality and non-violence. See for example, Tilak’s Gita Rahasya, and Arctic Home in the Vedas. Ambedkar dates ideas of non-violence in the Bhagavad Gita to the post-Buddhist era in ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India’.
    5. Ambedkar describes the conflict between Kshatriyas and Brahmins by returning to Shivaji’s coronation, an issue that had preoccupied anti-caste thinkers from the Deccan before him. ‘Who Are the Shudras’, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 7, pp. 175–85.
    6. Ambedkar, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 3, 267, 269–71 and 276–77.
    7. Brutalized life, flesh, is ‘that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography’, Hortense Spillers tells us (Hortense J. Spillers, ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’, Diacritics 17.2 [1987]: 64–81.) In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois draws on the transubstantiation of Christ, on
    the idea that the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of the wounded Christ, to describe black history as ‘tragedy made flesh’.

    Read More:
    “Swachh Bharat is not possible without the annihilation of caste”: Anand Teltumbde
    A New Ambedkarite Wound
    Ambedkar and Sangh: The two poles of understanding democracy

    Anupama Rao is TOW associate professor of history and associate professor, MESAAS. She is working on a critical study of Ambedkar titled Ambedkar in His Time and Ours, and is in the process of publishing the English translation of the autobiography of Dalit communist R B Moré.

    This is an excerpt from The Radical in Ambedkar: Critical Reflections, edited by Anand Teltumbde and Suraj Yengde and published by Penguin. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

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