By Basil Fernando –
A Sinhala Translation of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s book Annihilation of Caste is now available in Sinhala translation entitled “Kulaya Mulin Uputa Demeema” The book has been translated into an easy, readable language by Osadhi Nayantara Gunasekera and published by the Asian Human Rights Commission. The book is now available in bookshops in Sri Lanka.
Annihilation of Caste is one of the finest political works produced in Indian political literature. This book was originally written as the text for a keynote address. It was for a gathering of a society called Enlightened Hindus and published as a book in 1936. Ever since, this book has been translated into almost all Indian languages and into many other international languages such as English, French and others.
The cover page depicts a rule that prevailed in caste based societies forbidding both males and females to wear anything above the waist.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar is one of the greatest Indian leaders who was also in charge of the drafting committee on the Indian Constitution. He is now a legendary figure in India. His statues can be seen in all parts of India. They are particularly in areas where those once termed untouchables but now call themselves Dalits, live as the majority. One can see in almost all legislative buildings in various states of India, the figures and statues of Mahatma Gandhi on the one side and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on the other. In a popularity survey held a few years back, Ambedkar received more votes than Mahatma Gandhi as one of the makers of modern India.
In 1936, after Ambedkar returned from his studies abroad, he began to be recognised as the best known leader of the Dalits in India. He became quite famous for his forthright expositions on the origins of the caste system in India and its influence on the political, social and cultural aspects of Indian life. As a result, his views on the subject were sought after. It was in that vein that he was invited to deliver a keynote address. It was to be given to a gathering of educated Hindus. They wanted to discuss the problem of the caste system in India and particularly to listen to the views of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on that issue. Dr. Ambedkar realised that his views, if expressed in a forthright manner, could cause problems for the organisers of this meeting. They would be condemned by the conservative Hindu majority as being disloyal to their religion. He pointed this out to the organisers of the meeting stating that he would like to decline the invitation.
However, the organisers insisted that he should deliver his speech and that they were willing to listen to his views however forthright his views may be. Even then, he realized the implications of his speech and the possible backlash on the organisers of the meeting. So, Dr. Ambedkar wrote the full text of his speech and sent it to the organisers. He requested them to go through the text and inform him whether they would still want him to make the speech at their gathering. The organisers, after having read the manuscript, wrote back saying that except for few paragraphs they had no objection to the text. But, would he kindly consider removing those paragraphs from his speech? Dr Ambedkar then pointed out to the organisers that those paragraphs contained the very core of the views that he held. The removal of those would not result in a proper explanation of his views. Basically, what the objectionable paragraphs said was that the caste system of India was a product of the very ideals of Hinduism, based on the Hindu books known as the Vedas. The Vedas declared that caste was a creation of God and society should be organised on the basis of caste. Dr Ambedkar pointed out that it is this that makes the reform of the ideas of Hinduism on caste impossible. And it is not merely the mistreatment of Dalits that is the issue. Mistreatment itself is a product of the concept of an ideal society held in Hinduism. It considers the organisation of a society on the basis of caste as the ideal form of a society.
In short, it was then agreed that the planned meeting would be postponed. Dr Ambedkar published the text of his speech which was soon sold in large numbers. The book began to be translated into many Indian languages.
When the text of the book was published, Mahatma Gandhi in the paper that he was publishing, wrote an article blaming the organisers of the Hindu Enlightened Society for inviting Dr. Ambedkar for this meeting. They well knew the views he held on Hindu society. Mahatma Gandhi accepted many of the criticisms that Dr Ambedkar made on the ill-treatment of the Dalits. But, he was of the view that these disgraceful forms of ill- treatment did not arise from the ideals of Hinduism. They arose from various types of aberrations that had entered into the Hindu Discourse. Dr. Ambedkar replied to this article from Mahatma Gandhi. He stated that caste is not a division of labour but a division of labourers. It amounts to a grading of human beings. No ideal society could be based on such gradings of human beings, some higher and some lower.
Ambedkar in his book explains the problem of the caste system from many points of view. He goes into the debates in the Indian Independence movement. There were, originally, two themes that emerged: the theme for social reforms in India and the struggle for independence from the British. Originally, priority was given to social reforms such as: reforms of the caste system, reforms relating to the treatment of women. An example would be the prevalence of such practices as Sathi. It required the widow of a deceased man to jump into the funeral pyre to be cremated together with her husband. Many forms of myths remained as great obstacles to the spread of rational and scientific thinking in India. The original leaders of the Indian renaissance thought of modernisation of India in terms of these reforms. A free condition for independence and self-rule. Ambedkar points out that it was in the early 20’s that the social movement aspects were abandoned. Then, the entire movement concentrated only on independence.
Ambedkar in his studies in the United States had written extensively on the implications of a society organised on the basis of caste. He pointed out that no moral order can be built on the basis of human beings being graded into a higher or lower status, on the basis of birth. Rejection of any such classification on the basis of birth is a pre-condition for a society to be based on the idea of equality.
This translation can provide the Sinhala reader with an extensive, in-depth study of the implications of a society organised on the basis of caste. Sri Lankan society, both Sinhala and Tamil communities had been organised on the basis of caste for over a thousand years. Implications of this social organisation still persist and remain a major obstacle for the modernisation of Sri Lankan society. This book could give rise to a rich discussion on the important aspect of the South Asians cultural heritage in general, and into the Sri Lankan cultural heritage – both Sinhalese and Tamil.