MANY writers have attempted to study the manifold fault lines underlying the Indian republic that cause perpetual tremors debilitating the polity continually despite the socio-economic revolution famously promised by the Constitution of India. In Anand Teltumbde’s, Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva, we have a system-centric and unique attempt at understanding these fault lines.
Are not almost all the ailments of this country attributable directly or indirectly to the fact of India being a republic of castes? This is the thread that runs through almost all the premises of the book, such as demolishing the icon of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, critiquing the reservation imbroglio, identifying the class-caste bias inbuilt in the Constitution, exposing the game plan of the ruling classes representing neoliberal forces and Hindutva protagonists, pointing out the strategies involved in branding Dalits and Adivasis as Maoists followed by their targeted lynching or pointing fingers at the wayward political experiments of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.
The recent spurt in mob lynchings has made many wonder how such diabolic and horrendous happenings are possible in the land of Krishna, Buddha, Asoka and Mahatma Gandhi. Teltumbde has dealt with the issue with reference to the instances of lynching of Dalits. Analysing the facts of anti-Dalit lynchings in the recent past, especially the ones that occurred in Khairlanji, Kawlewada, Dulina and Bhagana, the author draws important lessons from the recent lynching incidents, including those against members of minority communities. He brings out the police-bureaucracy-politicians nexus at the ground level. The last hope of the people—in the judiciary—was also disappearing. “Barring some honourable exceptions, the courts have always been biased against the poor, tribals, Dalits and Muslims” (page 173).
The author believes that the characteristics of a lynch mob—its easy assumption of moral righteousness and confidence about its impunity—are not generated spontaneously. They are honed expressions of a strategy perfected over many years of experiment and observation, mainly through precedents involving Dalits.
There is an attempt to re-baptise Marx into an Ambedkarite and Ambedkar into a Marxist. This is born out of the author’s conviction that the only plausible solution lies in merging Dalits and the proletariat. He urges Dalits to foreground the need to annihilate caste and to reorient themselves to see society in class terms. He is unambiguous in his view that annihilation of castes will necessitate a thoroughgoing democratic revolution, which can happen only through a class struggle, which presupposes a meeting point between Ambedkar and Marx. However, Teltumbde sees Ambedkar as reactive and thus purely pragmatic, and Marx as scientific and as having a theoretical foundation, which has objective rigour and correctly explains the past. Ambedkar is pictured as having only a short-term approach, whereas Marx is praised as one who has given a scientific framework for revolution and a theory to bring it about. So, the author is harshly and uncharitably critical of Ambedkar in comparison to Marx.
Ambedkar had identified Brahmanism and capitalism as the two enemies of workers and Dalits. So Teltumbde may be right when he concludes that Ambedkar never saw any contradiction between class struggle and anti-caste struggle.
Reservation as a ‘conspiracy’
The author offers a detailed conceptual analysis of the policy of reservation. It was not the British who introduced reservation but native rulers such as Shahu Maharaj (1874-1922), the king of Kolhapur; the Justice Party in Madras Presidency; and the princely states of Mysore, Baroda and Travancore.
It was Ambedkar who proposed separate electorates for Dalits with reserved seats during the Round Table Conferences (1931-32). After the Poona Pact in September 1932, reservation as a policy of giving preference for Dalits was incorporated into the Government of India Act, 1935. In 1943, Ambedkar, as a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, got this preferment policy transformed into a quota system reserving 8.5 per cent seats for Dalits in educational institutions and public employment.
Teltumbde smells a conspiracy by members of the Constituent Assembly in incorporating the policy of reservation in the Constitution. Thus, the policy of reservation was a “cynical game of the ruling classes” and Ambedkar was fooled into it. According to the author, the cost of reservation far exceeds its benefits. Moreover, it is a stumbling block to the realisation of the dream of paving “the way for the consolidation of all the sub-castes of Dalits into a class”. He is dismissive of the demand for instituting quotas in the private sector as a game plan called manipulation of expectations.
But the author’s ambivalence is evident. In the first chapter, he attempts to demonstrate that reservation became a weapon in the hands of the ruling classes, but he states in the introduction that it does not automatically mean that it is inherently bad and should be discarded. According to him, extending reservation to the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) diluted the concept of reservation, and even if it was permitted, the S.Ts ought to have been combined with Dalits. He is also against reservation for Backward Classes (B.Cs). He pities the “myopia” of the Left and the way all Left parties vied with one another to support the Other Backward Classes’ (OBCs) demand for reservation. According to him, this was bound to lead to “casteisation of society, which would eventually prove detrimental not only to Dalits, but also and most particularly to the idea of class unity”.
His grievance is that no one paused to question the Constitution that enabled it. But he forgets that non-implementation of the constitutional provisions in favour of the B.Cs by the Jawaharlal Nehru government was one of the reasons cited by Ambedkar for his resignation as Law Minister.
Teltumbde holds that reservation became the pretext to conserve caste in the Constitution. His analysis of the system of reservation appears to have left out a number of recent studies and his arguments do not appear to have considered the constitutional principles, including those stressed by Ambedkar.
His strong suggestion to improve reservation by excluding all Dalit families, who happened to avail themselves of reservation even once, is an argument in false fatigue to exclude the so-called creamy layer even in the case of the Schedules Castes/S.Ts. There may be many takers for the solution proposed by Teltumbde to the problem of reservation. See who is speaking through the modern messiah of Dalits.
A question may be pertinent: If India remains a republic of caste would the burden of blame not rest on Ambedkar and the Constitution that he was instrumental in drafting? In answering this, Teltumbde raises a serious allegation that Ambedkar had disowned the Constitution and had declared in Parliament that he was used by the ruling class, represented through the Congress, as a “hack” and that he should be the first person to burn it. This is one of the basic premises on which the author builds his conclusions. He repeats this charge against Ambedkar at several places in the book (pages 25, 51, 126, and 261).
The author also doubts the sincerity of the subsequent explanation given by Ambedkar himself.
To understand the correctness of this accusation, we may have to view the statement in its context and the changes, if any, in Ambedkar’s attitude towards the Constitution. The statements of Ambedkar are found in his speech dated September 2, 1953, in the Rajya Sabha during the discussion on the Andhra State Bill, 1953. The object of the Bill was to create a new State for Andhras on linguistic lines.
Ambedkar had already resigned as the Law Minister on the issues of the Hindu Code Bill and the failure of the government to implement constitutional provisions, especially those seeking to benefit the B.Cs and S.Cs. He continued to be a bitter critic of the government and its disregard for the Constitution.
In his speech, Ambedkar initially made a few comments attacking the government for its delay in forming Andhra as a separate linguistic State and for a few drawbacks in the Constitution such as the non-inclusion of Andhra in the schedule, which Ambedkar had to omit due to non-response from the Prime Minister and the Home Minister during the drafting of the Constitution. Then, he dwelt on a few specific suggestions for amending the Constitution providing for the protection of minorities and S.Cs in the new Andhra State as also in other States.
Referring to the fact that in the Andhra area, a few high-caste communities possessed almost all the land, resources, trade and even the smallest jobs and S.Cs were landless labourers, Ambedkar wanted to know “whether the reservation, which was blissfully granted to us by the Congress party for 10 years, is going to disappear”.
To this, one member intervened, “You accepted it.”
Ambedkar retorted: “Yes, what else can one do; if you can’t get puri you must get roti.”
Minorities & Governor’s role
Continuing his argument, he suggested two amendments to the Constitution to protect the minority communities against the community in office practising communalism: one, to give the power to the Governor to override the government in such matters, and two, appoint small committees of these minorities who can make representations either to the Ministry or to the Governor.
Ambedkar knew that the absence of these provisions in the Constitution would be seen as his failure as the maker of the Constitution, a charge that has already been made against him. He explained this absence by stating that not giving such powers to the Governor was not his idea but was the result of the tradition India had inherited as part of its hatred for the British. Ambedkar went on:
“People always keep on saying to me: ‘Oh, you are the maker of the Constitution’. My answer is I was a hack. What I was asked to do, I did much against my will.”
A member, P. Sundarayya, retorted: “Why did you serve your masters then like that?”
This led to a lot of commotion and the Chairman had to call for order repeatedly.
Thereafter, Ambedkar explained that we had inherited certain ideas of democracy on account of our hatred for the British, and one such idea was that the Governor should merely be a rubber stamp. He said: “If a Minister, however scoundrel he may be, however corrupt he may be, if he puts up a proposal before the Governor, he has to ditto it. That is the kind of conception about democracy which we have developed in this country.”
Immediately came the objection that Ambedkar had apprehended. M.S. Ranawat, representing Rajasthan, challenged him: “But you defended it.”
Ambedkar replied: “We lawyers defend many things. [Interruption] You should listen seriously to what I am saying, because this is an important problem.”
He further explained the need to give some powers to Governors for the protection of minorities and quoted the example of similar provisions in the Constitution of Canada. Then he posed a question to Home Minister Dr K.N. Katju, whether such a provision had made the Canadian Constitution undemocratic.
To this Dr Katju replied: “My answer is that you had drafted this Constitution.”
Ambedkar replied: “You want to accuse me for your blemishes?”
The Chairman had to intervene: “He has said that he defended the present Constitution because it was the majority decision. Get along.”
Ambedkar continued arguing for amending the Constitution to incorporate provisions similar to the ones in the Canadian and English Constitutions that seek to protect minority communities and take into consideration the sentiments of smaller communities. Pointing to the lack of similar provisions in the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar went on:
“Sir, my friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody. But whatever that may be, if our people want to carry on, they must not forget that there are majorities and there are minorities, and they simply cannot ignore the minorities by saying, ‘Oh, no. To recognise you is to harm democracy.’ I should say that the greatest harm will come by injuring the minorities.”
This was the context of Ambedkar’s observations, on the basis of which he is accused of denouncing the Constitution. His was a rhetorical plea to amend the Constitution and an expression of pain at its misuse and must not be treated as disowning the Constitution.
After this speech, Ambedkar again spoke in the Council of States on September 18, 1953, during the discussion on the Estate Duty Bill. Although he supported the Bill, he expressed his pain at not getting the Hindu Code Bill passed. He lamented that the Hindu Code was hanging fire for four years and nobody knew if it would hang fire perpetually. “And no one is sorry for that except myself” (Book & Writings of Ambedkar, Vol 15, page 871)
Attitude to the Constitution
On March 19, 1955, Ambedkar was confronted with his so-called denouncement of the Constitution. He was speaking in the Rajya Sabha on the Constitution (Fourth Amendment) Bill, 1954, which had sought to amend Article 31 regarding the provision for compensation when the government acquires any property. He said: “… Article 31, with which we are dealing now in this amending Bill, is an article for which I, and the Drafting Committee, can take no responsibility whatsoever. We do not take any responsibility for that. That is not our draft.”
He went on to explain that in view of the substantial differences of views, Article 31 was allowed to be there, which was an ugly thing and was an exception to the other parts of the Constitution, which was otherwise excellent. He went on: “If I may say so, and I say it with a certain amount of pride: the Constitution which has been given to this country is a wonderful document. It has been said so not by myself, but by many people, many other students of the Constitution….” (Book & Writings of Ambedkar, Vol 15, page 948).
Dr Anup Singh (Punjab) interrupted him: “Last time when you spoke, you said that you would burn the Constitution.”
Ambedkar: “Do you want a reply to that? I would give it to you right here. My friend says that the last time when I spoke, I said that I wanted to burn the Constitution. Well, in a hurry I did not explain the reason. Now that my friend has given me the opportunity, I think I shall give the reason. The reason is this: We built a temple for a god to come in and reside, but before the god could be installed, if the devil had taken possession of it, what else could we do except destroy the temple? We did not intend that it should be occupied by the Asuras. We intended it to be occupied by the devas. That is the reason why I said I would rather like to burn it.”
B.K.P. Sinha (Bihar) intervened: “Destroy the devil rather than the temple.”
Ambedkar: “You cannot do it. We have not got the strength…” (Book & Writings of Ambedkar, Vol 15, pages 948-949).
Thus, it would be unfair to conclude that Ambedkar was withdrawing his statement to please somebody. There was no change in his views. The rhetorical statement he had made earlier was properly understood by the listeneres, except a few like Katju, as reflected in the comment made by the Chairman then and there itself.
It is relevant to take note of the fact that the First amendment to the Constitution was made by the provisional Parliament when Ambedkar was the Law Minister. By this amendment, many Articles, including Articles 15 and 19, were amended. Although the Bill was introduced by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, it was passed only after Ambedkar intervened and explained the reasons behind the amendments and clarified the doubts of members. He made the speech on May 18, 1951 (Book & Writings of Ambedkar, Vol 15, pages 332-342). During the speech, Kamath interrupted, saying, “You yourself made it.”
Concluding the discussions on the final draft of the Constitution on November 25, 1949, Ambedkar had this to say on the merits of the Constitution: “However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it happen to be a bad lot” (Constituent Assembly of India Debates, Vol XI, page 975).
Ambedkar was aware of the possible condemnation of the Constitution especially by communists since they wanted a Constitution based on the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat. According to him, “They condemn the Constitution because it is based upon parliamentary democracy” (Constituent Assembly of India Debates, Vol XI, page 975).
“What I do say is that the principles embodied in the Constitution are the views of the present generation or if you think this to be an overstatement, I say they are the views of the members of the Constituent Assembly. Why blame the Drafting Committee for embodying them in the Constitution? I say why blame even the Members of the Constituent Assembly?” (Constituent Assembly of India Debates, Vol XI, page 975) Then Ambedkar pointed out the provisions to amend the Constitution and welcomed the critiques to amend the Constitution. He went on: “If those who are dissatisfied with the Constitution have only to obtain a 2/3 majority and if they cannot obtain even a two-thirds majority in the Parliament elected on adult franchise in their favour, their dissatisfaction with the Constitution cannot be deemed to be shared by the general public” (Constituent Assembly of India Debates, Vol XI, page 976).
While playing a singular role in making the Constitution, Ambedkar might not have succeeded in drawing up a Dalit manifesto as imagined by today’s Marxian Dalit intellectuals, but he was clear about what he was doing, and the ordinary Dalits, Adivasis, B.Cs, women and minorities have not doubted his wisdom, consistency and unparalleled contribution to the poor masses and their future generations. He might not have gifted them any magic wand like class struggle or a prescription like historical materialism, but he has initiated the process of ushering in a socio-economic revolution by promoting fraternity among all by assuring the dignity of the individual (Preamble of the Constitution). This unique role has not been dampened in any manner by his cultural experiment of converting to Buddhism or his rejection of Marxism (while sympathising with it) on two grounds: its reliance on violence and dictatorship.
Spread over 13 chapters, with an Introduction encapsulating them, the book provides an in-depth analysis of almost all the important problems faced by India today. The absence of a concluding chapter may be because of the fact that the author’s conclusions are spread across all the chapters. It can be seen as 13 separate but inter-related booklets put together in the form of a book. The Foreword by Sunil Khilnani highlights the achievements of the work in glowing terms.
The author offers a mine of information and analysis, disclosing interesting intersections between events and movements, which often go unnoticed by experts in the respective fields of research. In this work, the author shares with readers his dream of witnessing a revolution that marches on through the struggle by the “dalitariat”, an amalgamated class consisting of Dalits and the proletariat. The book is a must read for all those who are interested in caste-class issues.
M.P. Raju is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. He is the author of several books, including Minority Rights: Myth or Reality (2002) and India’s Constitution: Roots, Values & Wrongs (2017).