Hinduism haunts Ambedkar ceaselessly. He confesses to having experienced that uncanny feeling one gets when ghosts exercise their force on the living. Still in his mid-twenties, the prodigious Ambedkar writes of being troubled by the ghost of Manu, that mystical jurist of the Hindu tradition, whose classic work Manusmriti he will publicly burn in 1927. Of course, this sacrificial gesture of destruction by fire (yajna)—whose name by now is “satyagraha” and of which Ambedkar is a temporary adherent—is itself unequivocally Hindu, perhaps even Vedic. It is almost prophetic that the young Ambedkar should write in New York in 1916, more than a decade in advance, “I may seem hard on Manu, but I am sure my force is not strong enough to kill his ghost. He lives, like a disembodied spirit and is appealed to, and I am afraid will yet live long.”
So, force, whether of religion or the law, is a living apparition. What stands out however is Ambedkar’s awareness of that religious phantasm that goes by the name of Manu: disembodied, invisible and deathless, a figure that lives on, impossible to exorcise. This spectral thinking of sacredness and authority, this consciousness of force as such, makes its first appearance in Ambedkar’s Masters thesis at Columbia University. Within it is arranged the young Ambedkar’s formidable ethical and political itinerary that is still to come. The strange possession by spirit in New York perhaps also explains why it is not Ambedkar’s favourite Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France appears in Ambedkar’s corpus somewhat later, but instead William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that establishes the young Ambedkar’s moral and political procedures.
At the end of the opening section of his thesis, after having detailed the corrupt procedures of the East India Company’s Court of Directors by which the Company has come to secure its political sovereignty over India, Ambedkar comes up with this exemplary theatrical allegory. “The last chapter must have made it clear how and why Western Europe was at a death grapple for the control of India. We followed the armies of the different leaders of different nations—fighting for a country the people of which had very little to choose in the final destiny—the Cama, the Albuquerques, the Busseys, the Lallys, the Clives, the Malcolms, the lakes and the shores as though enacting the train of ghosts of Banquo’s line all that terrified Shakespeare’s Macbeth out of his senses.” This is an intriguing formulation and for someone like Ambedkar who is the master of pithy prose, exemplary for the conjuring gesture it makes. This might be, in fact, another Ambedkar altogether, whose own conceptual and mystical rhythm we must now, more than ever, follow with care.
Of course, there is a distinctive history of this suspicion; a long genealogy of this Shudra-Shakespearean willingness to see religion as a scene whose staged aura corrupts life at its very source. For, Ambedkar’s militant master Jyotirao Govindrao Phule too will have seen at work in the modern colonised Brahmin the grey shades of Shakespeare’s Othello. “The Brahmin of the present time,” Phule writes in Gulamgiri, “finds to some extent, like Othello, that his occupation is gone. But knowing full well this state of matters, is the Brahmin inclined to make atonement for his past selfishness?” It’s as if Ambedkar, in invoking Macbeth half a century later, is answering the master’s Shakespearean question. Note his pointed accent on the people who had “very little to choose in the final destiny”. These are the multitude that have had little choice and have been rendered mook. Devoid of speech and representation, they are spoken for only by ventriloquists, by conjurers of divinity whose own authority lies shrouded in religious secrecy. If the long line of European conquerors chases the dream of domination over India, the Brahmin ventriloquists who claim to speak for India do not resist. Instead, they look away, hiding behind their own gods and spirits, scared as they are, like Macbeth, “out of their senses”. Macbeth always knew that the guilt lay with him. Deep down, he knew of the evil and violence he harboured within himself. And the Empire, like Banquo’s apparition, is the reminder of that guilt: the violence at the very source of religion, the corruption at the very heart of Hinduism, that has now returned to haunt the Macbeth-like Brahmins.
As if Shakespeare, read in haste, has prepared Ambedkar for ghosts, as if Empire and Manusmriti share some duplicitous force, as if their auras are derived from the same source, as if they are merely ghosts of one another that must be exorcised together. For, barely a year later, still in New York, Ambedkar turns his gaze to the sovereign figure of Indic jurisprudence. Invoking chaturvarnya and its ghostly author, he announces, “I first propose to handle the law-giver of India. Every country has its law-giver, who arises as an incarnation (avatar) in times of emergency to set right a sinning humanity and give it the laws of justice and morality. Manu, the lawgiver of India, if he did exist, was certainly an audacious person.”
It is three months after Ambedkar’s essay is published that Gandhi—unaware of this corpus taking form in New York—speaks of the Shudra’s disarmament as the very foundation of ahimsa. “Everyone cannot bear arms here,” he says, curiously instituting Shudradharma as the ethical ground of satyagraha. Where Ambedkar insists on handling the ghost of Manu—and handling, touching, wielding, manual strength, the hand as such are not here merely metaphors for the untouchable, they are also questions of ability and right—Gandhi perversely hinges the very possibility of ahimsaic civility on the historic amputation of the Shudra’s hand.
For Ambedkar, Gandhi’s ahimsa, founded on the forced demilitarisation of the unequal, is not non-violent enough. It doesn’t give love; it instead merely regulates sacrifice in the name of epochal duty (Yugadharma). In the decades to come, Ambedkar’s task will be impossible: the task not merely of the annihilation (ucched) of chaturvarnya, but the task instead of thinking up another civility (vinaya) in the midst of that annihilation, the task of annihilation as ahimsa. In 1940, he will, intriguingly, term this task the “love of politics”. Clearly, a political love, a democratic love of hands, numbers, and counting, demands not only civility but also force—militancy even. As Ambedkar affirms some months before his death, “Ahimsa does not say ‘Don’t Kill’. It only says ‘Love all’.” A very paradoxical and sacrificial love then, an ahimsa still to come, yet one that Ambedkar presses on us more urgently than ever.
Aishwary Kumar is assistant professor of intellectual history and political theory at Stanford University in California, USA
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Are u guys blind to the political realities of the present, and the near future. Guys (upper castes); your days are over, and whether you like it or not, despite your best attempts to get the mainstream parties led by Brahmin/upper caste leaders to resort to “caste calculations” to come to power in 2014, the prospect of a non-Congress & non-BJP Third front, a combine of regional parties, mostly caste based is almost certain. Brahmins have been applying the “law of contradictions” (read Mao- Tse-Tung) to play one caste against the other in every part of India to see that their illegally usurped properties and privileges are not lost, when Babasaheb’s constitution brought parliamentary democracy throwing the Brahmins into dog house. Earlier, they thought that after gaining independence from the British, they could take over and lord over the country again. But Babasaheb’s constitution struck the first nail on the Brahminical coffin. Different state govts. passed into the hands of non-Brahmins. Since about eight years, even the Union Govt. is going out of their hands because caste and region -based parties have ousted all “national” (read Brahmin) parties like the Congress, BJP, CPI-CPM etc.
The coming parliamentary election will see the final death of all “national” parties and the Govt. of India will be captured by caste and regional parties. This is the prediction of not just several surveys, but also senior leaders of BJP, and Congress.
And if that outcome is foiled by corrupt, manipulative, exploitative, cunning political leaders from the upper caste (namely Brahmins), then get ready to bear the burnt of a total revolution, and a bloody one.
BTW Shyamal Barua, despite Ambdekar's strenuous efforts (and success) in bringing Dalits of out of poverty and ignorance, I see you still miss the shithole you came from; thus your constant reference to it. You can still retire and go back to wherever you came from - someone more deserving can fill your place.
It is sad, but what is even sadder is that despite your supposed education, you choose to generalize that all upper castes are the same. Shows that there's a huge difference between being literate and being educated. Which is why I'm not such a huge fan of reservations. The idiots get the jobs while the deserving continue to rot.
@Whatever,Alakshyendra,Fedup,Vasant,Aaditya,Shankar,Sandilya,Irreverent, Ramki et al.
>> Does this piece of news widen up your chest with pride, or shame?
Pathetic high caste Hindus! Still so actively carrying out the legacy of inhumanity for thousands of years! Still couldn't come out to the light from their dark SHlT HOLE!
@ WHATEVER, Bangalore >> Now that the article been removed from homepage, no point in continuing the debate (sic. rant) in this column, but enjoyed your posts, including your labelling me as a "frog in the well', which I take it as a compliment; and going by your familiarity with Bengali vocabulary and pastimes, I have a feeling that you cud be a Bengali or non-Bengali Brahmin, who had been a resident of Kolkata.
Keep up the good job of helping poor students from the upper caste; lest they may self-immolate themselve like young Rajiv Goswami in protest against report of Mandal commission; tut..tut..feel sorry for him; for he couldn't survive the effect of even 30 yrs of token reservation post 1953, when the dalits have braved 100% reservation for upper castes, not to talk about the severe atrocities they were subjected to for over 3000 years, since the days of Manu.
Looking forward to cross sword with you in other posts....ab aayega majaa.
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