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The Battle for Equality

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Book Review

By Dr Sanjeev Chopra

Manoj Mitta’s 596-page magnum opus Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India on the hitherto under-explored intersection of caste and law reflects his commitment, empathy, deep research and ability to contextualise issues in the ecosystem of their times.  

Eighty-two milestones – starting with the EIC’s bid to woo the upper castes in 1795 by exempting Benares Brahmins from death penalty to the 2019 ruling of the Supreme Court upholding the life sentence for the Khairlanji massacre without accepting the caste angle of the horrific crime – are covered in  eighteen chapters spread over five thematic sections. The first of these, Early Codes, examines legislative debates; Impure Majority looks at issues of inheritance and marriage; the third section documents Access Barriers and leads to the big debate on Temple Entry; the final section covers the Impunity of Violence against Dalits in post-independence India. 

The book narrates some familiar episodes in the anti-caste movement’s modern history, such as the Shanar women’s fight to cover their breasts, Vaikom Satyagraha and the massacres at Kilvenmani, Shankarbhiga, Belchi, Bathani Thola, Tsundur, Jhajjar and Khairlanji, in showing the ‘othering’ of entire groups of human beings on the basis of embodied difference. There is also the contest between the rights of an individual, against the liabilities that accrue based on the circumstances of their birth — even Chhatrapati  Shivaji, who took on the might of the Moghuls, was denied Kshatriya status by his Peshwa Prime Ministers on account of the Brahmanical assertion that all the Kshatriyas has been annihilated by Parshuram, and therefore all who remained in the Hindu fold were the Brahmins, the Sudras and the Panchams (outcastes).   

Caste Pride highlights how deeply entrenched the caste system was in that even stalwarts of the freedom movement, including Surendra Nath Banerjee, Gopal Krishan Gokhale, BG Tilak, Madan Mohan Malviya and C Rajagopalachari could not fathom that political freedom would have no meaning for those who were excluded from roads, wells, public spaces and educational institutions.

Not until Gandhi made the eradication of untouchability more important than political freedom, and organisations like Lala Lajpat Rai’s Servants of the People society put their lead volunteers like Lal Bahadur Shastri in the forefront of untouchability removal, did it become an important element in political and social discourse. Cynics may argue that the reason for this change of heart was the rapid conversion of lower castes by Christian missionaries with the implicit patronage of the colonial state. Be that as it may, untouchability eradication work became imperative for rising up in the hierarchy of the Congress Party.

Manoj brings out a key difference in the approaches of Gandhi and Ambedkar which reflects their times: the former believed in moral and ethical regeneration, while the latter wanted positive state intervention. This is highlighted through the polemical arguments between Gandhi’s varna ashram dharma versus Ambedkar’s drive towards the annihilation of caste.

Even before Gandhi appeared on the national firmament, many non-Brahmin communities had taken the initiative to emancipate themselves from orthodox rituals.  The authority of the priestly class was rejected by the Satyashodhak movement in Maharashtra, the Dravidian upsurge in Tamil Nadu, reformist awakenings by the Arya Samaj in the North and powerful Lingayat traditions in Karnataka. Mitta highlights the contribution of personalities like BV Narasimha Iyer who compelled the government in 1915 to repeal the punishment of lower castes by confinement in stocks, Maneckji Byramji Dadabhoy who was the first to bring untouchability into focus in 1916, Vithalbhai Patel (Sardar Patel’s brother) for bringing the first ever inter-caste marriage bill in 1918, MC Rajah  for debating  with the  Madras governor about access to public amenities for ‘untouchables’ in 1919, Kalicharan Nandagawali for moving the resolution in 1921 on access equality, SK Bole’s 1923 resolution in the Bombay Legislative Council on access to all public places and R Veerian’s 1926 Bill in the Madras Legislative Council which paved the way for the first-ever legislation against untouchability. Credit is given to Hari Singh Gour and MR Jayakar for prompting several social reforms and untouchability-related Bills in 1929, and finally to Thakur Das Bhargava for his 1949 Bill validating inter-caste marriage under Hindu law.

But who is a Hindu?  One answer may be found in the course of settling an election petition filed by VV Giri (later President of India), regarding the tribal status of Dippala Suri Dora in his double-member constituency — this led to a spirited debate between Justice  Jivan Lal  Kapur and Justice (later Chief Justice) P B  Gajendragadkar. While the former quoted the Bhagwat Gita and the Bhagwat Purana to assert that ‘caste is a function of aptitude rather than birth’, the latter said, ‘whatever may have been the origin of Hindu castes and tribes in ancient times, gradually caste came to be based on birth alone’, and this became the majority verdict which has since been the accepted judicial view on the subject.

There is so much that is riveting in this book, and each theme has enough material to be expanded into a doctoral thesis. Let me therefore in the second half of my review discuss the contribution of five remarkable women to the discourse. These include India’s first and foremost reformer: the redoubtable Savitribai Phule, and the four Constituent Assembly members (Founding Mothers) Dakshyani Velayudhan, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Durgabai Deshmukh, and Hansa Mehta.

The contributions of Savitribai are better known, and indeed for the given time and context they were truly path-breaking initiatives. Educated at home by her husband Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai established the first school for girls in India in 1848 in the city of Poona. This preceded the Native Female School or the Hindu Balika Vidyalaya established by Bethune on 7 June, 1849, in Calcutta. While not belittling Bethune’s contribution in any way, he was nonetheless a person of privilege — the Phules (from the Mali caste) had to essentially crowd-fund their initiative in the face of daunting protests. In fact, as her biographer records, mud would be thrown on Savitribai on her way to school.

Then we have Dakshayani Velayudhan, the only woman from the Harijan community in the Constituent Assembly elected from Madras. I have used the term Harijan here, for as Mitta informs us, it was only in the seventies that ‘Dalit’ became the preferred self-description. Incidentally, she and Dr Ambedkar were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to the provisions regarding penal provisions for the eradication of untouchability. The issue in question was a discussion on the clause: ‘Untouchability in any form is abolished, and the imposition of any disability of any kind on that account shall be an offence’. Earlier, in a signed editorial note of 25 November 1946 in her book Gandhi or Ambedkar, Dakshyani had written that ‘Dr Ambedkar has distorted everything really pure and sublime in the social attitudes of Gandhi. The magnificent talent of the Doctor is poisoned by the running sores of frustration and defeatism. The awakened community knows who is their true comrade and who runs after the sweets of fame and power’. With regard to criminalising untouchability, she suggested that it was contrary to the Gandhian approach of winning the hearts of the offenders, and ‘when this Constitution is put into practice, we do not want to punish people for acting against the law… what is needed is that there should be proper propaganda by both the Central and the Provincial governments. If this had been done effectively ‘there would have been no necessity for an article of this kind in this Constitution’. She urged the Constituent Assembly to pass a resolution against this practice. However, as she had not moved an amendment, Dr Ambedkar preferred not to refer to her observations at all when he spoke on the clause and its penal provisions.

We will now take up the point raised by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, member of the Fundamental Rights subcommittee headed by Acharya JB Kriplani, then-President of the INC. In recording a note of dissent, she insisted that the expression ‘free practice of religion’ had a loophole which ‘might invalidate legislation against social customs which have the sanction of religion’. In this she found support from Hansa Mehta, and together they wrote to BN Rau, the Adviser to the Drafting Committee chaired by Dr Ambedkar. They listed ‘pardah, child marriage, polygamy, unequal laws of inheritance, prevention of inter caste marriages and dedication of girls to temples’ as examples of retrograde customs towards which ‘we are naturally anxious that no clause in any fundamental right shall make impossible future legalisation for the purpose of wiping out these evils’. In this they were supported by Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, a former Advocate General of Madras: ‘I feel very strongly that there is a good deal to be said in favour of what the lady members have urged, and for inserting an explanation to the clause relating to the freedom of religion on the lines indicated by them.’

Finally, we have the intervention of G Durgabai (more popularly known as Durgabai Deshmukh) regarding temple entry. She insisted that Hindu religious institutions should be opened not to ‘any class or section of Hindus, but to all classes and sections of Hindus’. Her rationale was that replacing ‘any’ with ‘all’ would make the protection of temple entry legislation more unequivocal. What is significant is that while rejecting all other amendments to his original proposition, Ambedkar agreed to accept this suggestion therefore Article 25 (2) came into effect on 26th January, 1950.

There is more still, but with this I recommend the book to all those interested in understanding how the caste dynamic is panning out in contemporary India — and how the country has come to be what it is today.

(Sanjeev Chopra superannuated as the Director of the LBS National Academy of Administration after thirty-six years in the IAS. He is now the Festival Director of Valley of Words (VoW) and a Visiting Professor of History, Public Policy and Knowledge Management at the Swami Rama Himalayan University, Dehradun. He has held the Hubert H Humphrey, Robert S McNamara, Twenty First Century Trust and the Royal Asiatic Society Fellowships)