Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (affectionately know as babasaheb) was born on the 14th of April, 1891. He was from a harijan (untouchable) caste and campaigned his entire life for the rights and lives of his people. And all day today people have been terribly troubled by the celebrations in the streets to mark the anniversary of his birth. I have heard twice that this day is problematic because none of the cleaners (and cooks and chandals and chamars and all those other people who perform essential functions and are then either shunned or patronised or both) are coming in to work. And several people have mentioned that the streets are too full and the music too loud at the demonstrations being held all around Pune. If it weren’t so infuriating, it would amuse me. And not just because when these people speak of caste based discrimination, they all use the past tense.
I am willing to consider the argument that the caste system was a complex and mutable thing. And that the creation of a monolithic and immutable hierarchy lies at the door of british ethnographers. But babasaheb Ambedkar had it to rights – all harijans who abide by the religious and cultural practices of hinduism derive no benefit from doing so. And that living on the outside of a religion that does not accept their presence as human does qualify them as having entirely different needs and beliefs. The politics here are of affinity under a system of enforced identity, and oh the power of claiming that with pride. It’s no surprise of course that he and Gandhi had radically different views on the nature, cause and function of the castes in India. Or that Gandhi bitterly opposed Ambedkar’s proposal of forming separate electorates for harijans even though he considered them necessary for other discriminated against groups and religions within India.
So today I get to celebrate a man who read and wrote and thought when all around him were desperately trying to pretend he didn’t exist while also adding to my ever growing list of why Gandhi was an annoying pest. Remind me to post that sometime. In the meantime, and if you’re interested, go read babasaheb’s paper on the genesis and function of caste, or better yet his thesis on who the shudras were. I need more friends who’ve read this stuff!