Essential Reading: Lessons for a Savarna From Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste’

I was first introduced to the Annihilation of Caste (AoC) by a stray remark at Presidency College’s famous quad – a perpetual hotbed of arguments. I was in the second year of undergraduate course and struggling with my own opinions on affirmative action policies.

Coming from what is termed an ‘upper-caste’ progressive household, caste had never really played a role in my life till then. Like so many of my generation, I was aware of its existence but not of its consequences. What I did not realise back then was that this absence of caste itself was a manifestation of my privilege. Discussions with many of my classmates broadened my opinions – but not as much as this one single book would.

Reading the Annihilation of Caste was an acute revelation, and this when I was no longer a complete stranger to the issue. Arundhati Roy, in her introduction to AoC, impeccably summarises what it feels like to read Dr. Ambedkar as a savarna.

“…I felt as though somebody had walked into a dim room and opened the windows. Reading Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar bridges the gap between what most Indians are schooled to believe in and the reality we experience every day of our lives.”

Dr. Ambedkar delivers powerful arguments in a lucid and scholarly fashion. He deconstructs every facet of the Brahmanical system with such sharp logic and rhetoric that there is no rational counter to his arguments.

Also read: How Events at Presidency From a Decade Ago Have Never Quite Left Me

But at the same time, one can feel his indignation and anger at the years of unwarranted oppression, meted out to millions of people in the name of religion. It forces you to face your own privileges and biases. It is not just the centuries of horrific oppression; rather, it is the understanding that even today an individual’s worth is ascertained by his caste is what serves as a punch to the gut.

To this day, merit is defined by whether you gained admission to an institution through affirmative action or not. Inter-caste marriages are still frowned upon and we hear of countless incidents of oppression. In such times, AoC remains an essential read.

Over the years, I have been repeatedly shocked by young people from affluent, savarna households who confidently claim that caste-based discrimination is hardly present in young, urban India. They deem it as some regressive, rural concept that does not call for affirmative action policies. The irony is that they do this while using hurling casteist slurs so casually in their everyday communications that it makes one’s skin crawl.

However, it would be easy to put the blame on individuals alone. We must also address the fact that along with the society as a whole, our education system, where one could hope to plant the seeds of change, has not only failed to address the caste conflict, it has also perpetuated it steadily.

To deny the existence and manifestations of caste is perhaps the biggest injustice that our education system has done to us. This ignorance is also dangerous: one cannot fight for what one does not know.

Also read: ‘He Made Me Hate Myself’: My Story of Being Bullied By a Casteist Teacher

In classrooms, especially those in private schools, caste conflicts and discrimination is hardly discussed. The textbooks do an unbelievably poor job in this regard – we just learn about the varna system, and some fleeting references which are now to be dropped altogether.

Students are asked to write essays on the evils of several social practices like the dowry system, and are taught about apartheid or the American Civil War – but it is as if caste discrimination never did exist. The situation worsens in most higher education institutions that, despite guidelines and laws, have failed to protect and promote Dalit students.

There is no doubt that our education system needs drastic reform. But given the socio-political scenario, it seems we still have a long road to tread. Till then, it remains our own responsibility to educate ourselves.

What is shocking and sad is that AoC remains relevant even eight decades after its publication. We, the urban, educated and “woke” savarnas support various causes from across the world. It is time we woke up to this spectre that has been haunting our own society for generations. We are quick to quip at every injustice, every wrongdoing, but shy away from something so close to home – perhaps because we keep benefiting from our caste privilege in some way or the other. Even while writing this, news of an assault of a Dalit man for touching an upper caste man’s motorcycle came in. It is time we all read Dr. Ambedkar.

It is time we acknowledge our privileges and wake up in solidarity to all those this system has oppressed for centuries.

Anushka Mitra is pursuing a PhD in Economics at the Department of Economics, University of Texas at Austin. She has previously attended Delhi School of Economics (M.A. Economics, 2014-16) and Presidency University, Kolkata (B.Sc. Economics, 2011-14). The experiences mentioned in this article are from her time at Presidency. 

Featured image credit: Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition/Navayana