Tag Archives: Ambedkar

Fifth annual Dr B.R.Ambedkar Lecture at the University of Edinburgh

This year’s (2018)  Dr.Ambedkar lecture was delivered by Prof. Rupa Viswanath, Professor of Indian Religions at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the University of Göttingen, and a Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College at the University of Cambridge. In this brilliant lecture, Prof Viswanath discussed  ‘What defines a permanent minority? : Comparative reflections on Ambedkar’s evidence before the Southborough Committee.’

Dr Hugo Gorringe, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, UoE introduced the speaker and Dr Wilfried Swenden, co-director, Centre for South Asian Studies chaired the event.  Key scholars among the audience were Prof Roger Jeffery, Prof Crispin Bates and Prof Jonathan Spencer.


http://www.routesblog.com is happy to podcast the Dr.Ambedkar Lecture.

Please click the file below to listen to Prof. Rupa Viswanath’s Ambedkar lecture.


Dr.B.R.Ambedkar Lecture at University of Edinburgh

In this brilliant Dr.Ambedkar lecture delivered by Prof. David Mosse, Professor of Social Anthropology and Head of the Department of Anthropology and  Sociology, through two distinct cases one in India and the other in offshore explicates how debate and policy on caste is warped by issues of religion and nationalism. Prof. Mosse has more than thirty years of experience in south Asian studies and it was indeed a great privilege for the Centre for South Asian Studies to host him to deliver the Dr.B.R.Ambedkar lecture.

http://www.routesblog.com is happy to podcast the Dr.Ambedkar Lecture.

Please click the file below to listen to Prof. Mosse’s Ambedkar lecture.

The abstract of the lecture is given below.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar provided a remarkably clear-thinking basis for social policy and law in India in relation to caste inequality and discrimination. However, the course he charted towards justice and common humanity in the age of equality and rationalism was frequently challenged by crosswinds of religion and nationalism. Opening with two distinct instances, this lecture shows how debate and policy on caste continues to be warped by issues of religion and nationalism.

The first case is that of the status of non-Hindu (Christian and Muslim Dalits) and the denial to them of state provisions and protections as Scheduled Castes (historical victims of oppression and untouchability). The second case is the resistance to the implementation of legislation outlawing caste-based discrimination in the UK by Hindu organisations. Here an interlinked perspective (in part Gandhian) regards caste within India as bound up with Hinduism and the nation, and public debate on caste outside India as a (missionary-colonialist) attack on Hindus and Indian national culture.

An elite internalising of caste to Hinduism or silencing caste in the name of religion and nation may illustrate a postcolonial predicament, but it also sets the freedoms of caste against the Dalit freedom from discrimination, and profoundly misconstrues the experience and perspective of Dalits themselves. The final part of the lecture will explore the latter with the case of Dalit Christians in south India whose overt struggle against the public humiliations of caste have limited success against caste when reworked as structural exclusion and blocked aspirations in the liberalised Indian economy; and among whom there is now a quite pervasive aspiration for casteless humanity — captured so eloquently in Dr Ambedkar’s vision of the recovery of common humanity and a society free from social barriers.

Towards ex-brahminization: The Everyday Life of The Brahmin Male



Gajendran Ayyathurai*

What happens to a human when she is called a broken person, an oppressed person, an ex-untouchable, a lower-caste person and so on has remained an under-examined, even un-examined, theme in psychological, sociological, anthropological, linguistic, literary, and historical studies. Given the entrenchment of privileged caste groups in Indian and Western academy (as well as in Indian public life), centering or re-centering the humanity of those oppressed by caste in universal categories and identities is safely far away in theory and practice. Be that as it may. The purpose of this article, however, is to reverse the gaze on brahmins. By doing so we, the anticaste people of the world, could help those who claim birth as brahmins to begin the process of becoming “ex-brahmins”.

But first, why should there be ex-brahminization of those people who think that they are naturally born with a brahmin identity in Indian society? Because, as a self-ordained minority (making up less than five percent of the population?), brahmins have lived and thrived through hegemony and violence against their fellow humans. Indeed, their spurious religio-cultural, economic, and historical claims in particular have only glorified their self-ghettoization.

Consider what a tuft on a brahmin male head, sacred thread on a brahmin male body, ash and vermillion lines and dots on a half-naked brahmin male body and typical brahmin dress do to a brahmin body. They give brahmins the power to assume a sense of religious power, and thereby to inferiorize others in order to secure a variety of benefits. For brahmin males, to speak of “human beings” refers only to brahmin males; brahmin women and girls are not their equals, neither in ritual nor in everyday life.[1] But the brahmins have paid so dearly for insulating themselves against nature. That is, they have lost humanism and love, since such values are incompatible with anyone who would self-identify himself as a brahmin male with all the aforesaid embellishments.

The sociological, cultural, political, and historical explanations clearly demonstrate that brahmins have remained possibly one of the most exclusionary groups in human history. Barrington Moore was right in comparing brahmins and Jews in his illuminating historical sociology of them, Moral purity and persecution in human history. But he was wrong in considering Jews as more orthodox and exclusionary than brahmins. For, while it is disputable that the roots of racism could be traced to Jews, it is evident that brahmins are the fountain head of casteism and inventors of gruesome violence, such as untouchability.[2] The irony is that after the arrival of Buddhism, Islamic and European empires, a republican constitution, and anticaste movements and policies in India, the brahmins have made the bodily exclusion of their own women, and of non-brahmins, as their virtue, instead of seeing it as a self-dehumanizing shame and tragedy. Unveiling the assumptions of brahminical virtuosity as antihuman will hopefully set off brahmin males to ex-brahminizing their community.

How does one identify him or herself as a brahmin? Brahminical religio-cultural inventions have been historically self-proclaimed, as the exclusive domain of brahmin, as naturally given, and so prohibiting the other. Today, for instance, this brahmin/othering process begins even from the mundane context of a brahmin introducing him or herself by their surname, be it Sharma, Trivedi, Chatterjee, Iyer or so on. Such surnames audaciously assume a putative historical and cultural superiority over non-brahmin, and guarantee the instant camaraderie with another brahmin which is brutally denied to a non-brahmin.[3] Needless to say, historicizing a brahmin name such as Iyer could suggest that we are in a murky field of brahmin male inventions, which are basically attempts to shut the doors on others, as Ambedkar’s metaphor vividly demonstrates in his work, Caste in India. Aside from the surname, many more bodily doors are shut against those who are excluded, the other.

When one begins to identify one’s body in caste terms, as a brahmin male does, what flows thereafter are the divisions, such as body and mind, not just within oneself but also between people. Self-ghettoization is therefore set in motion from one’s body to imaginations and practices of space and time leading to what Alain Badiou has called “collection of ghettoes” in another context.[4] Language, for instance, is an amazing human invention to communicate with and between one another, rather than to hold as the exclusive creation of one’s own god and to deny it to one’s own women and others. This is what brahmin males have done. From the sage Manu’s path-breaking insistence that brahmin males have to pour hot oil or molten lead in to brahmin women’s and lower castes’ ears if they listen to Sanskrit, to brahmin males’ exclusive power to be the priests in temples today, now across the world, the brahmin males have made a killing out of the sacred linguistic connections they make for themselves. That is, they have policed Sanskrit as sacred, but meant only for them, as the only source of other languages and human wisdom in India, as the only ancient language with modern ideas of genetics, and as the only language to be researched at IITs and IIMs. It does not matter whether the 2011 Indian


A sacred thread  wearing ceremony of brahmins taking place. Image Courtesy : impressivemagazine.com

census found only around fourteen thousand Sanskrit speakers among India’s one and a quarter billion people. The brahmin male language needs local and global endorsement. Sadly, the global academy has sanctified such spurious claims of brahminical obscurantism through its own power to canonize what P J Marshal has called “caste segregation” in the last two hundred and fifty years.[5]

Self-denial of speaking to fellow humans, let alone inviting them for a dialogue, is ominous enough to spur other dangerous brahminical exclusions. No wonder then, the brahmins are also known for their politics of food. Consider the irony of brahmin male food categories such as vegetarian, pure-vegetarian, prasadam (sacred food) and so on in order to ridicule and reject the food humanity eats across the world as non-vegetarian. When a male identifies himself as a brahmin and sells food, it is automatically celebrated as the best, the most wholesome. Even if it is unpalatable, even if the brahmin who prepares and serves the food is nauseatingly dirty and lacks the basic culinary skills that thrive among those they have oppressed, such as untouchables. Arguably the vegetarian vigilantism of brahmins in modern times is intertwined with their ascendance through and collusion with colonialism since the late nineteenth century, particularly in two ways. Firstly, brahmins begin to displace caste-dormant or caste-free relations among urban people into caste-manifest relations with their migration to urban places, as they did in the villages they owned prior to colonialism; and secondly, in using their caste-based ritual power and colonialism-based material power, brahmins have begun to monopolize the hotel industry for instance, sidelining mixed and cosmopolitan cuisines and customers in urban centers such as Madras.[6] Ironically, the non-brahmin privileged caste males in the Tamil speaking regions who attempted to usurp the ritual and material power from the Sanskritic-brahmins in late colonialism also mimicked the brahmin males with their own pretentions of ritual and culinary purity, as is evident from the Tamil purist movement and its doyens such as Vedachalam Pillai (who was also known for his vanity as Maraimalai Adikal).[7]

Once basic human elements, such as language and food, are religiously rarified and ritually excluded in order to favor brahmin males, then sexual and “spatial segregation” are inevitable consequences.[8] Imagine a brahmin woman ever becoming a temple priestess. One cannot. This is not because brahminical gods, such as Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva denied brahmin women their right to religious, secular, and material parity with brahmin males. Rather, brahmin males have policed their own women, mutilated their bodies, and sanctified their power over them through their religious scriptures and interpretations, as did Manu, for instance. Pratiloma, that is, the prevention of a privileged caste woman from having sexual relations with or marrying anyone “below” her caste status is not her own decision. Rather, women’s deciding about their own desires is the privileged males’ paranoia. Nevertheless, brahmin women have always had sexual and marital partners from other caste groups, and vice versa, even when they were “widowed” and prevented from re-marriage by brahmin males’ violence. This is confirmed by Pudiyamaadu editor Swapneswari Ambal’s critical analysis of brahmin males widowing (their forced rules/restrictions) brahmin girls and women, who in any case became pregnant and indulged in infanticide in the early twentieth century.[9]

Have these caste-based sexual and spatial segregations changed today? Considering the spectacle of information technology, IITians soaring in Silicon Valley and to Mars, special economic zones, and the emergence of gated communities, a handy answer is that things have turned upside down. India: the casteless democracy has finally arrived. And so India is now free of brahmin power and violence against their other: i.e. their own women and other caste groups. However, a quick survey of temples mushrooming in India and among the Indian diaspora in the West (one count says there are now seven hundred temples in the US) confirm that brahminism is alive and well, and that mutations of brahmin-male conceptions are countering the traditional and modern challenges thrown against them. No wonder Obama carries a hanuman in his pocket as an amulet and celebrated Diwali in the White House with a brahmin male solemnizing the occasion.[10]

While this age-old temple-based casteism is reproduced through brahmin male ritual and material power, our understanding of sexual and marital relations between brahmin women and Dalit men, and vice versa, for instance, remains understudied. A pedestrian observation could, however, point out that such unions, which break down caste boundaries, are few and far between. Whereas the sexual and marital relations between brahmins and whites are on the rise, true to what Iyothee Thass observed a century ago, brahmin males more than welcome their daughters cohabitating with white-men (married or not), while they brutally prevent their daughters marrying from people they oppress as untouchables.[11] In other words, brahmin male power survives only because of the psychological damage they cause their daughters and sons through casteism and sexism early in life, thus preventing them from becoming humans.

When children are raised at home with symbols and practices of caste-based religiosity and exclusion, brahmin male owned or brahmin male employed educational institutions do nothing to reverse the antihuman self-destruction of their children. Instead, brahmin children are trained to be hate-mongering segregationists. Harvard anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian’s incisive exposure of Madras IIT, where the student festival is still called Shaastra—shamelessly echoing Manudharmashastra— confirms this.[12] Unequivocally stating that Madras IIT is a den of casteism, she clearly traces how brahmin children arriving at Madras IIT understand themselves as the engineers of the future India, having already been trained in social-Darwinism in the brahmin-owned and controlled middle and high schools in Chennai. Ironically, such brahminical enclaves have always thrived in Chennai city, despite the Dravidian parties’ decades’ long gimmicks against caste.

It is clear brahminization of merit and brahmins’ prosperity through casteism is complete, both locally and globally. In fact, one could say that globalization has become a euphemism for the predominance of brahmins. A sugar coated global brahminism shining and exclaimed as incredible is in-built in anti-democratic principles. It is even a threat to humanity, since the seeds of casteism have been sown across the world in a variety of ways. For instance, people like B K S Iyengar, flaunting his brahmin male surname, could spread his yoga in the US and Europe, conveniently connecting brahminical, mythical, and material aspects in which brahmin male power and its exclusionary interpretations of the human body and mind remain unchallenged, locally and globally. Never mind the multi-billion dollar industry that Iyengar has left behind by patronizing brahmins and recruiting white Americans and Europeans.

Therefore emancipation of those oppressed by casteism could only be possible at the death of the brahminism (re)created by brahmin males, and those who emulate them. This is what the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle students in IIT Madras, through their successful agitation against brahmin-male dominated IIT administration banning of their organization, emphasized when they quoted Ambedkar in their pamphlet, saying “Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors and it must die for caste to vanish”.[13] Otherwise, the brahmin-Dalit bhai bhai bonhomie offered by brahmin males and their associations are meant to re-ghettoize the Dalits, just as brahmin males have ghettoized themselves.[14]

Considering the predominance of brahmins in India today, in the global economy and the academy, and the inevitability of casteism spreading across the world through the agency of brahmins, the question before us, anticaste people, remains: Is there a scope for brahmins becoming ex-brahmins? One cannot escape the depressing situation we now find ourselves in.


IIT Madras, a premier institute of higher education which is overwhelmingly dominated by brahmins.

However, there are some ways to end the exclusionary and oxymoronic brand of brahminical cosmopolitanism. Anticaste solidarities and movements among the oppressed—not just political parties—are naturally the time tested ways to resist casteism/brahminism. The deep anticaste politics and history of the subalternized in India are a testament to this observation—even though Western and local historians and comparatists have chosen not only not to heed, but have indeed silenced such a past, as G. Aloysius’ Nationalism without a Nation in India confirms.

Needless to say, for a collective transformation, the onus is also on the brahmins themselves to embrace self-emancipatory casteless sociality, and reject entrenched caste-based self-ghettoization. Brahmin women, considering the grave gender oppression inflicted by their own males, have the potential to breach caste by establishing anticaste solidarities with other oppressed people, such as those who have been discriminated as untouchables, for instance. Indeed, the religious, ritualistic, sexual, and material oppression achieved through brahminical governmentality of women’s and untouchable bodies could only be decimated through sexual and material transgressions between the oppressed. This is also actually not new. Iyothee Thass and Swapneswari Ambal appealed for such unions a century ago. Sadly, this has not happened to the extent one may have expected, with privileged caste women daring to break free from the casteism of their men has been met with even more violence, such as honor killing.[15] Nonetheless today the developments of new communication technologies and social media, as well as transportation, have enabled more anticaste unions and movements.

However, a predetermining requirement in such unions is the pledge against caste and the commitment to breach the segregation of bodies, space, and time among the privileged groups, because it is the predicament of the privileged to shed caste and self-emancipate, to become the ex-privileged. Once a brahmin woman breaches caste through living-in or marital relations with a male from a community which has been persecuted as untouchable, the emancipation is mutual. For neither the man nor the woman retains any purchase in their persecuted past. A privileged woman needs to be inspired by people like Padita Ramabai, even as she has to overcome the caste-based dilemmas which the pioneering feminist could not.[16]

The people who break free from brahminical untouchability also need to reinforce their movements and politics by rejecting invocations of sectarian categories, and rather embrace universalizing new identities in which they remain locally grounded and globally interconnected. Iyothee Thass’ total rejection of condescending and discriminating epithets such as Paraiyars/Pariah, Panchamas, Depressed Classes, and so on, and embracing the category The Tamilian (as he named the weekly journal he published from 1907 to 1914) confirms this. In fact, Thass and the anticate movement he built in the Tamil speaking regions are a testament to a history of universalization against marginalization by caste that the people who are prone to oppressions of various kinds in the present cannot afford to overlook.

A critical understanding of the social-Darwinist tendencies of brahmins’ everyday life is the first step in opening up the possibilities for brahmins to become ex-brahmins. For only by becoming ex-brahmins could they too embrace universal humanism and love, something they have denied themselves so long.


[1] By quoting Caroline Osella and Filippo Osella’s observation that “Brahmanhood is synonymous with maleness”, Ute Hüsken rightly takes a step further to conclude that “(f)or the Brahmanic Sanskrit texts it goes without saying that being human is identical with being male.” See Ute Hüsken, “Denial as silencing: On women’s ritual agency in a South Indian Brahmin tradition”, Journal of Ritual Studies, Volume 27, Number 1, 2013, pp. 21-34.

[2] Patrick Ollivelle’s detailed translation of the ancient Manudharmashastra confirms it is a violent text intending to establish brahmin male power over their own women, and those the male brahmins have deemed as untouchables. See Patrick Ollivelle, Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-Dharmashastra, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005.

[3] This applies to all caste groups which self-capitalize on caste-based names.

[4] http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1557-alain-badiou-people-cling-onto-identities-it-is-a-world-opposed-to-the-encounter (last retrieved on 29 April 2016)

[5] P. J. Marshal, The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970, p. 24.

[6] Caste in the hotel industry, particularly the sociological history of brahmins’ “pure-vegetarian” brand remains an underexamined theme.

[7] See Vaithees, N. Ravi, Religion, Caste, Nation in South India: Maraimalai Adikal, the Neo-Saivite Movement, and Tamil Nationalism, 1876-1950, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014.

[8] Fuller and Narasimhan, “The agraharam: The transformation of social space and Brahman status in Tamilnadu during the colonial and postcolonial periods”, in Ritual, Caste, and Religion in Colonial South India, (Eds) Michael Bergunder, Heiko Frese, and Ulrike Shr̹öder, Franckese Stiftungen zu Halle, Halle, 2010, pp. 219-237.

[9] Pandit Iyothee Thass, (Ed) The Tamilian, 14 August 1907.

[10] For details, see the racist website: http://endoftheamericandream.com/archives/obamas-lucky-charms-a-hindu-god-in-his-pocket-a-masonic-emblem-and-a-ring-that-says-there-is-no-god-except-allah . For Obama’s Diwali celebration at the White House with a brahmin male solemnizing see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X94Z5SUsUzU (last retrieved on 25 April 2016)

[11] Pandit Iyothee Thass, (Ed) The Tamilian, 16 December 1908.

[12] Ajantha Subramanian “Making merit: The Indian Institutes of Technology and the social life of caste”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 2015; 57 (2):291–322.

[13] See here: https://www.quora.com/What-is-your-opinion-on-the-Ambedkar-Periyar-study-group-derecognition-issue-in-IIT-Madras (last retrieved on 26 April 2016)

[14] Likewise, Dalit political parties surrendering their anticaste and de-brahminizing agenda in order to recruit brahmins as brahmins will only guarantee the continuity of untouchablilty.

[15] For similar views on non-brahmin privileged males’ honor killing women who have decided to break free from their privaliged caste see T. Dharmaraj: http://tdharumaraj.blogspot.de/2016/03/blog-post.html?spref=fb (last retrieved on 25 April 2016)

[16] See Pundita Ramabai Sarasvati, The High-Caste Hindu Woman, Hyperion Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1976 [1888]), pp. 60 and 63.

This article was written by Gajendran Ayyathurai.

*Dr.Gajendran Ayyathurai is Research Fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies
Indian Religions at  Göttingen University, Germany. 




Like all Hindus, somewhere deep down inside me I had assumed that Harijans (Dalits), Gandhi’s supposed “children of God,” relegated to the fringes of society, were part of the Hindu community, part of “us.”

Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence [12]

The partition of British India in 1947 was accompanied by the mass murder of Hindus by Muslims, and Muslims by Hindus. It is estimated that up to a million people were killed (B. Metcalf and Metcalf 2006, 221), often by hand and at close quarters. While collecting oral histories of this vast human tragedy, historian Urvashi Butalia was astonished by evidence of Dalits who remained calm amid the violence around them. They knew no one would touch them, one Dalit woman recalls, because the conflict was between Hindus and Muslims and they belonged to neither group. Her father nevertheless urged her to stay indoors for fear that the Hindus might mistake his daughter for a Muslim (Butalia 2000, 235). Dalits displaced by the violence had no place to go, Butalia later reveals. For “in a war that was basically centered around Hindu and Muslim identities,” she explains, no one set up “camps to help [Dalits] tide over the difficult time. No recourse to government—all too preoccupied at the moment with looking after the interests of Muslims and Hindus, no help from political leaders whose priorities were different at the time” (2000, 238). Could untouchables not have gained admission to Hindu relief camps? At a time when Dalits were excluded from schools for Hindu children—because they were regarded as polluting—and were confined to separate quarters in government prisons for the same reason, this most likely would not have been possible. Even in 2004, in the wake of a devastating tsunami, Dalits were excluded from relief camps that sheltered caste Hindus (Human Rights Watch 2005, 25–29; Anand and Thangarasu 2006; Gill 2007).

Butalia is not the only late twentieth-century scholar surprised to discover that “Hindu” and “untouchable” are understood as contrasting categories by ordinary people, even in the present day. Mary Searle-Chatterjee recalls, “I could hardly believe the evidence of my ears” when she first noticed sweepers in Benares, among whom she was conducting ethnographic research in 1971, refer to “the Hindus” as other to themselves (2008, 189). These were not politicized Dalits who actively rejected the Hindu label in favor of Ambedkarite Buddhism, she explains. “This was the usage of ordinary, nonpoliticized sweepers” (2008, 189). They were not using the term in a segmentary sense, in which “the Hindus” means caste people in contrast to “Harijans,” and that encompasses both caste people and Dalits in contrast to Muslims. While “segmentary [terms] may be more or less inclusive,” Searle-Chatterjee explains, “in the case of the ‘low’ caste reference to Hindus as people other than themselves, something more is involved. Even when Muslims were present, sweepers did not shift to referring to themselves as ‘Hindus’ ” (2008, 189).

Butalia’s and Searle-Chatterjee’s sense of surprise is itself unsurprising. As historical anthropologist Joel Lee explains, it reflects the hegemony of the contemporary assumption

that “sweepers” and other Dalits, insofar as they are not formal converts to Buddhism, Islam or Christianity, belong in a taxonomical sense to the Hindu community and should therefore see themselves as Hindus. This assumption follows logically from the most basic lessons that students across the globe learn about Indian society; to be educated in the world today, whether in Tokyo or Chicago or Johannesburg or Delhi, is to know that Hindu society has or had a caste system that classed some people “untouchable,” that therefore “untouchables” belong to Hindu society, that therefore “untouchables” are Hindus . . . This constitutes commonsense among the educated in urban India and in the academy as well. (2015, 82)

Today this common sense is backed by the force of law. Dalits who do not specifically proclaim themselves Christian or Muslim are legally categorized as Hindu by default. Exceptions like those discovered by Searle-Chatterjee and Butalia were still common in the late twentieth century (e.g., Lynch 1969, 162–63).[13] But in many urban settings at least—including my own field site—Dalits now accept the government’s new, more inclusive definition of Hindu as including people like themselves (Roberts 2015a).

nate Roberts

Cover image of Nathaniel Roberts authored book, To Be Cared For : The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging brought out by University of California Press. Image Courtesy : UC Press.

It was not always so. Before the twentieth century Dalits were not regarded as Hindu by others, nor did they regard themselves as such. It is conceivable that exceptions may yet be found, but in the absence of clear documentary evidence it is an anachronism to label pre-twentieth-century Dalits Hindu (Searle-Chatterjee 2008, 187; Frykenberg 1997). The only significant context in which “untouchable” castes were treated as Hindu before the twentieth century was the decennial census of the colonial state, which categorized all Indians by caste and religion and which assigned those who did not proclaim themselves Muslim, Christian, or members of another recognized religion to the category “Hindu” by default. In so doing, the colonizer rejected native precedent. Census taking and other enumerative technologies were well established in India’s precolonial states and like later colonial censuses categorized subjects by caste and religion (Guha 2013; Roberts 2015b). But these precolonial censuses did not recognize untouchable castes as Hindu. As Norbert Peabody has shown in an important paper on precolonial census taking, even as late as 1835 the Hindu kingdom of Marwar conceived the primary division among its subjects as lying, not between Hindus and Muslims, but between the so-called “clean” castes, which included both Muslims and Hindus jātis, and the impure servile castes, namely Dalits, who were understood as distinct from both (2001, 834–36). Unpublished research by Divya Cherian on the same kingdom in the late eighteenth century paints a similar picture. Official guidelines on religious duties and prohibitions in that state “categorically divided its subjects into two types: Hindus (hinduvan) and untouchables (achhep). The latter category consisted of leatherworking castes, nomadic pastoral groups, Muslims (turak), and the sanitation labor castes (halalkhor). Not only were the sweepers not Hindu, they were the antipode of the Hindu: the order made clear that what actions the state required of its Hindu subjects were precisely those that it forbade its untouchable subjects” (quoted in Lee 2015, 120).

Cherian’s findings differ from Peabody’s only insofar as the records she unearthed categorize Muslims together with untouchables. Rupa Viswanath’s research in the Madras Presidency similarly finds that the term Hindu referred, until the early twentieth century, exclusively to those jātis eligible to live in the ūr and expressly excluded those confined to the cēri, the Dalit ghetto (2014c; see also Ebeling 2010). [14] Indeed, the association of Hindu with respectable caste status was so well established in nineteenth-century Madras that Christians and Muslims belonging to the so-called clean castes were sometimes referred to in native discourse as “Hindu Christians” and “Hindu Muhommedans,” to distinguish them from coreligionists of untouchable origin, known as “Pariah Christians” and “Pariah Mohammedans” (Rupa Viswanath, personal communication). And even as late as 1916, Gyan Pandey records that in Chhattisgarh, “to call a man a Hindu convey[ed] primarily that he [was] not a Chamar,” that is, not a Dalit (1993, 246).

British census officials departed from existing usage. Colonial observers had long stereotyped Indian subjects as divided into two distinct and antagonistic religious “communities,” Hindu and Muslim. The latter were portrayed as following the religion of “foreign” invaders who had ruled much of the Indian subcontinent since 1206, the former as followers of India’s original religion. By playing up alleged conflict between the two, colonizers justified their own rule as bringing peace to the land and as protecting India’s disenfranchised Hindu masses (T. Metcalf 2007, 132–48). Reversing precolonial precedent, the colonial census simply lumped untouchables together with Hindus. This policy met with frequent objections by native census takers, typically high-caste Hindus, who persistently refused to record Dalits as Hindu (Lee 2015, 110; Mendelsohn and Vicziany 2000, 27–28; Juergensmeyer 1988, 72, cited in Searle-Chatterjee 2008, 191).

Hindu census takers were not alone in rejecting untouchables. Dalits were also banned from Hindu temples; access to sacred Hindu texts was forbidden to them; Hindu priests refused them. A distinctly anthropological argument could nevertheless be made for classifying untouchables as objectively Hindu, irrespective of how they classified themselves or were classified by others, on the basis of three criteria: morphological similarities between their cults and those of popular (non-Brahminical) Hinduism, Dalits’ limited participation in village religious festivals, and the fact that Dalits serve Hindus by removing ritually impure substances for them. But it is unclear why forced ritual service to a cult implies membership in it, and by the criterion of participation many Indian Muslims and Christians are also “Hindu,” and vice versa (Roberts 2015a, 242–44). As for morphological similarities at the level of practice, these are common also between popular Hinduism and Islam in India, which is why Peter van der Veer, an anthropologist who has studied these extensively, argues that the only valid criteria for group membership are self-definition and acceptance by others. Morphological comparisons at the level of doctrine are reviewed by Viswanath (2012a), who argues they do not establish common religious identity. But the classification of Dalits as Hindu for census-taking purposes was never purported to rest on objective criteria. Dalits were recorded as Hindu by state fiat. It is thus not surprising that Hindu census takers would refuse to comply with this order, only to have their surveys later “corrected” by higher-ups.

Joel Lee’s ethnographic study of the 2011 Census describes a fascinating historical reversal: the Brahmin census taker he accompanied on rounds recorded untouchables as Hindu even when they themselves told him they were not (Lee 2015, 3–10). What had changed? Since the late nineteenth century Muslims and a Hindu missionary organization known as the Arya Samaj had been competing for converts in the United Provinces and the Punjab. The Aryas focused on converting Christians, Muslims, and wayward Hindus but at this time still regarded untouchables as beyond the pale, and the one or two attempts by renegade Samajists to convert untouchables were met with a strong backlash within the organization (Jones 1976; Adcock 2007). This began to change when the Morley-Minto reforms were announced in 1909. The franchise was extended, and representation of different communities became tied to demographics. What had been a struggle for cultural preeminence became a competition for sheer numbers (Tejani 2008, 141–43). The inclusion of untouchables within Hinduism merely for purposes of census taking suddenly had very real political implications, and Muslims began to argue that Hindus’ numbers were artificially inflated by the inclusion of untouchables (Mendelsohn and Vicziany 2000, 28; Rao 2009, 131; Sartori 2003). And all over India untouchables themselves demanded to be recognized as a separate element distinct from both groups (Sartori 2003, 272–73; D. Sen 2012; Irschick 1969, 71–72; Viswanath 2014b).

Fairness and accuracy required that the controversial policy of listing untouchables as Hindu be revisited. Census Commissioner E. A. Gait argued in 1910 that Hinduism should be conceived broadly and not be limited to those holding specific beliefs or practices. “A man may believe in the whole Hindu Pantheon, or for that matter, in no god at all—he may sacrifice or abstain from sacrifices—may eat fish and flesh, or abstain from doing so,” and still be legitimately called a Hindu, Gait argued (quoted in Mukerji 1911, v). But he observed that it was “absurd to enter without comment as Hindus persons . . . who are not regarded [as such] by others, and do not profess themselves to be Hindus,” as previous censuses had done (quoted in Mukerji 1911, v).

The possibility of losing a large portion of their official numbers sharpened the minds of high-caste Hindu leaders, who began at this point to vociferously claim Dalits as fellow Hindus and to accuse the colonial state of conspiring to undermine Hinduism by divide-and-rule tactics. It is true that the British would later seek to capitalize on the refusal by Dalits to recognize the leadership of the high-caste Hindu-led Congress Party (Prashad 1996). But “divide and rule” implies a prior unity, and in the case of Dalits and Hindus the evidence for any such unity is lacking. Interestingly, evidence for precisely the opposite—a lack of both common identity and regular social relations between caste Hindus and Dalits—can be found in the urtext of the argument that the British were subjecting Hindus to divide-and-rule by separating out untouchables. This was a pamphlet entitled A Dying Race, originally published in serial form by the Hindu strategist U. N. Mukerji in 1909. Even as the author accuses Gait’s memo of attempting to create a divi¬sion between Hindus and untouchables, he elsewhere notes,

It will puzzle most Hindus if they are asked as to the inner life of these “low castes.” Respectable people scarcely trouble themselves about such things. There is a sort of a “Ghetto” . . . attached to nearly every village, far away, of course, from where the respectable classes live. Nobody belonging to the “high castes” ever thinks of visiting these quarters. Everything about the . . . people of that class is pollution—their touch is pollution, their presence is pollution, water touched by them is polluted, their very shadow carries infection. These people do a certain sort of work and, when their services are needed, are tolerated to that extent, but they are the “itars”—“the oth-ers”—quite apart from respectable people. At other times there is hardly any contact. (Mukerji [1909] 1929, 43)

Mukerji’s admission that for Hindus untouchables were outsiders, and that Hindus wanted nothing to do with them, is not presented as an original observation. That Hindus regarded untouchables as beyond the pale was common knowledge; Mukerji’s express purpose was to persuade them to reverse course and enlist untouchables as fellow Hindus. Nationalist scholars have nevertheless treated as an established fact the accusation that Gait set out deliberately to create a division where none had existed. Historian Pradip Kumar Datta calls Gait’s memo a “blatant act of social engineering. . . . designed to encourage the detachment of low castes from the ‘Hindu’ category” and to provoke “low-caste resentment” (1999, 24, my emphasis). Datta offers no evidence for this startling claim, apart from a quote from Mukerji insisting that it is so, an instance of circular reasoning on Datta’s part that usefully illustrates the common ground between the secular liberal and Hindu nationalist on the untouchable question.

Mukerji’s pamphlet was reprinted countless times, and its arguments are repeated by Hindu nationalists to the present day (Bhatt 2001, 62–68). Its core message was that Hinduism was in a demographic struggle with Islam, a struggle in which Hindus were literally in danger of becoming biologically extinct. It also provided the strategic blueprint that would become a central feature of Hindu nationalism from that day onward—namely, that the very survival of Hinduism in the face of a putative Muslim threat (and later a Christian one) depended on its ability to incorporate Dalits and tribals within its fold. The necessity of integrating untouchables within Hinduism would become a key plank in the program of Hindu sangaṭhan (consolidation/organization).

By far the most important proponent of untouchable integration was Swami Shraddhanand, an Arya Samaj leader whose mission to the untouchables was inspired by a personal meeting with U. N. Mukerji in 1912 (Datta 1999, 22). Mukerji’s enduring influence is evident in the title of Shraddhanand’s 1924 tract, Hindu Sangathan: Saviour of the Dying Race, a text that reproduces and expands upon Mukerji’s core argument. A “constant refrain” of the swami’s writings and speeches on the untouchable question, as Joel Lee’s study of Shraddhanand’s corpus reveals, was the worrying prospect of Dalits emerging as an autonomous political force in the Indian landscape (Lee 2015, 141). Perhaps equally alarming to Shraddhanand was the threat of Dalits converting to Christianity or Islam. Thus the swami openly warns that Dalits who convert to Islam “will become equal to Hindus. . . . They will not depend on Hindus, but will be able to stand on their own legs”; those who convert to Christianity will “dream of entering its halls of governance” (quoted in Lee 2015, 140, 142). The key to preventing this, according to Shraddhanand, was eliminating the divisive practice of untouchability from the collective Hindu body. As Lee observes, “Shraddhanand insisted that the danger . . . of [Dalit] autonomy from the Hindus could only be defused if Hindus radically curtailed the regime of disabilities they imposed on untouchables. Further, he maintained that [checking] this autonomy, [by] bringing the untouchables to accept Hindu leadership, equated with the neutralization of the Muslim and Christian threat, and was an essential, sine qua non . . . for the manufacture of a Hindu nation” (Lee 2015, 143). For Shraddhanand the Hinduization of untouchables was not merely a Hindu communal cause but a national one. In his writings the good of the Hindu community was indistinguishable from India’s struggle for national independence: “The uplift of the untouchables and their assimilation in the Hindu polity is the very plinth on which alone the edifice of free India can be constructed” (quoted in Lee 2015, 143). As we will see, the mission of ending untouchability would play an identical role for Gandhi. For Gandhi, too, it was essential to the strength of both Hinduism and the nation—even to the extent that the good of the one was often presented as indistinguishable from the good of the other.

The imperative of Hinduizing the untouchable was eventually endorsed, in theory if not always in practice, by Hindu organizations across northern India and from Bengal to Bombay (Prashad 1996). The major bases of support for this movement were in towns and cities, among modernizing Hindu organizations like the Arya Samaj (Jones 1976; Adcock 2014), and among politically minded Hindu reformers keen on establishing India as a Hindu nation (Bayly 1998). But it was by no means universally accepted. Orthodox Hindus remained deeply opposed, wanting nothing to do with those they regarded as untouchable. Opposition was also widespread among rural Hindu elites (Jones 1976). And in South India, where Muslims were not perceived as a threat, programs for Hinduizing the Dalit found few takers.

Nate Roberts Navayana

The Indian edition of Nathaniel Roberts authored book, To Be Cared For : The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging, published by Navayana Publishing House.

The Congress Party passed its first resolution condemning the practice of ritual untouchability, seen by advocates of Hindu sangathan as the principal barrier to Dalits’ inclusion within the Hindu fold, only in 1917. But it took no concrete steps on this matter until the 1930s (Prashad 1996, 553). As early as 1920, M. K. Gandhi, the party’s paramount leader, proclaimed the eradication of untouchability as essential to swaraj, and in 1921 announced he had in fact opposed untouchability since childhood (Zelliot 2010, 153). Gandhi did not act on this conviction until the 1930s, however, despite urgings by Shraddhanand to join him (Lee 2015, 145), and despite multiple opportunities to lend support to autonomous Dalit struggles, including invitations from Dalit activists, which he repeatedly declined (Ambedkar 1946, 251–59). According to J. T. F. Jordens, Shraddhanand’s sole supporter of any note within Congress until the 1920s was G. D. Birla, one of India’s leading industrialists, whose vast wealth bankrolled Shraddhanand’s operation (1981, 165, cited in Lee 2015, 143–44; Renold 1994).

As for Dalits themselves, some reacted with enthusiasm to the prospect of Hinduization (shuddhi), which by the second decade of the century many embraced as an opportunity for social advancement. And just as it was Dalits who first approached Christian missionaries, and not the reverse, with demands to be converted (Viswanath 2014b; Webster 2009), so too did they begin to approach the Arya Samaj (Rawat 2011; Adcock 2014, 48–50; Lee 2015). But finding the promise of full inclusion as equals illusory, Dalits began to turn away from shuddhi by the 1920s (Lee 2015, esp. 150–53) and, simultaneously, to assert their independence from the Congress Party (Prashad 1996, 552).


The idea that religions divide naturally into converting and nonconverting, and that the latter are inherently tolerant and the former conflict prone, derives from a taxonomic distinction developed in nineteenth-century Europe (Adcock 2014, 61–70). . . .


[12] Butalia (2000, quoted in Lee 2015, 81). I thank Joel Lee for directing my attention to the writings of Butalia and Searle-Chatterjee and for providing the analysis of them (Lee 2015, 81–82) that the next three paragraphs repeat and expand upon.

[13] This contrastive usage remained commonplace in confidential Government of Tamil Nadu reports on anti-Dalit atrocities as late as the 1970s. Caste folk responsible for these attacks are referred to in these reports simply as “the Hindus” in contradistinction to their victims, who are distinguished as “the Harijans” (Rupa Viswanath, personal communication, September 2015).

[14] The idea that untouchables were always regarded as beyond the pale of Hinduism has been challenged by Arvind Sharma (2015). Sharma argues that the common understanding of untouchables as being outside the fourfold varna system is wrong. According to him untouchables should instead be thought of as a special subcategory within the shudra varna, a category he terms the excluded shudra. If untouchables were formerly included within the varna system, the argument seems to go, then by definition they must have been Hindu. But Sharma has previously argued that varna was a classificatory system that extended to the entire world, and therefore that all the world’s people were originally regarded as being within it (1992, 179). If consistently followed, the logic of Sharma’s argument would compel us to accept not only that untouchables were originally Hindus but that Chinese, Greeks, and Persians were too. Apart from this implausible implication, Sharma’s claim that untouchables were regarded as Hindus in ancient times rests on a faulty methodology. Rarified theoretical texts accessible to only a tiny cohort of Brahmin intellectuals provide no direct window into ancient social reality and tell us nothing about how ordinary people classified themselves and others.


Adcock, Catherine S. 2007. “Religious Freedom and Political Culture: The Arya Samaj in Colonial North India.” PhD diss., University of Chicago.

————— . 2014. The Limits of Tolerance: Indian Secularism and the Politics of Religious Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ambedkar, B. R. 1946. What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. 2nd ed. Bombay: Thacker.

Anand, S., and R. Thangarasu. 2006. “The Smell of Dead Bodies.” Outlook, January 9. http://www.outlookindia.com/article/the-smell-of-dead-bodies/229708

Bayly, Susan. 1998. “Hindu Modernisers and the ‘Public’ Arena: Indigenous Critiques of Caste in Colonial India.” In Swami Vivekananda and the Modernization of Hinduism, edited by William Radice, 93–137. Chennai: Oxford University Press.

Bhatt, Chetan. 2001. Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths. Oxford: Berg.

Butalia, Urvasi. 2000. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Durham: Duke University Press.

Datta, Pradip Kumar. 1999. Carving Blocs : Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth-Century Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ebeling, Sascha. 2010. “Another Tomorrow for Nantaṉār: The Continuation and Re–invention of a Medieval South-Indian Untouchable Saint.” In Geschichten und Geschichte: Historiographie und Hagiographie in der Asiatischen Religionsge-schichte, edited by Peter Schalk, Max Deeg, Oliver Frieberger, and Christoph Kleine, 433–516. Uppsala: Uppsala University Press.

Frykenberg, Robert. 1997. “The Emergence of Modern ‘Hinduism’ as a Concept and as an Institution: A Reappraisal with Special Reference to South India.” In Hinduism Reconsidered, rev. ed., edited by Günther D. Sontheimer and Hermann Kulke, 82–107. New Delhi: Manohar.

Gill, Timothy. 2007. “Making Things Worse: How ‘Caste-Blindness’ in Indian Post-tsunami Recovery Has Exacerbated Vulnerability and Exclusion.” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cerd/docs/ngos/tsunami_report.pdf

Guha, Sumit. 2013. Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present. Leiden: Brill.

Human Rights Watch. 2005. “After the Deluge: India’s Reconstruction Following the 2004 Tsunami” Human Rights Watch 17(3C): 1–49. https://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/india0505/india0505.pdf

Irschick, Eugene F. 1969. Politics and Social Conflict in South India: The Non-Brahman Movement and Tamil Separatism, 1916–1929. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jones, Kenneth. 1976. Arya Dharm: Hindu Consciousness in 19th–Century Punjab. Delhi: Manohar.

Jordens, J. T. F. 1981. Swāmī Shraddhānanda, His Life and Causes. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Lee, Joel. 2015. Recognition and Its Shadows: Dalits and the Politics of Religion in India. PhD diss., Columbia University.

Lynch, Owen M. 1969. The Politics of Untouchability. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mendelsohn, Oliver, and Marika Vicziany. 2000. The Untouchables. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

Metcalf, Barbara D., and Thomas R. Metcalf. 2006. A Concise History of Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Metcalf, Thomas R. 2007. Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mukerji, Upendra Nath. [1909] 1929. A Dying Race. Calcutta: Bhaskar Mukerjee.

—————. 1911. Hinduism and the Coming Census : Christianity and Hinduism. Calcutta: Srikali Ghosh Cotton Press.

Pandey, Gyanendra. 1993. “Which of Us Are Hindus?” In Hindus and Others: The Question of Hindu Identity in India Today, edited by Gyanendra Pandey, 238–72. New Delhi: Viking.

Peabody, Norbert. 2001. “Cents, Sense, Census: Human Inventories in Late Precolonial and Early Colonial India.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (3): 819–50.

Prashad, Vijay. 1996. “The Untouchable Question.” Economic and Political Weekly 39 (9): 551–69.

Rao, Anupama. 2009. The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rawat, Ramnarayan S. 2011. Reconsidering Untouchability: Chamars and Dalit His¬tory in North India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Renold, Leah. 1994. “Gandhi: Patron Saint of the Industrialist.” Sagar: South Asia Graduate Research Journal 1 (1): 16–38.


Roberts, Nathaniel. 2015a. “From Village to City: Hinduism and the ‘Hindu Caste System.’ ” In Handbook of Religion in the Asian City, edited by Peter van der Veer, 237–53. Berkeley: University of California Press.

—————. 2015b. “Setting Caste Back on Its Feet.” Anthropology of This Century, no. 13, May. http://aotcpress.com/articles/setting-caste-feet/.

Sartori, Andrew. 2003. “ ‘Culture’ in Bengal, 1870s to 1920s: The Historical Genesis of an Ambivalent Concept.” PhD diss., University of Chicago.

Searle-Chatterjee, Mary. 2008. “Attributing and Rejecting the Label ‘Hindu’ in North India.” In Religion, Language and Power, edited by Mary Searle-Chatterjee and Nile Green, 186–201. New York: Routledge.

Sen, Dwaipayan. 2012. “ ‘No Matter How, Jogendranath Had to Be Defeated’: The Scheduled Castes Federation and the Making of Partition in Bengal, 1945–1947.” Indian Economic and Social History Review 49 (3): 321–64.

Sharma, Arvind. 1992. “Ancient Hinduism as a Missionary Religion.” Numen 39 (2): 175.

——-. 2015.  Review of The Pariah Problem, by Rupa Viswanath. International Journal of Dharma Studies 3 (1): 8.

Tejani, Shabnum. 2008. Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History, 1890–1950. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Viswanath, Rupa. 2012a. “Dalits/Ex-Untouchables.” In Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism, vol. 4, edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Angelika Malinar, Helene Basu, and Vasudha Narayanan, 779–87. Leiden: Brill.

—————. 2014b. The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion and the Social in Modern India. New York: Columbia University Press.

—————. 2014c. “Rethinking Caste and Class: ‘Labour,’ the ‘Depressed Classes,’ and the Politics of Distinctions, Madras, 1918–1924.” International Review of Social History 59 (1): 1–37.

Webster, John C. B. 2009. The Dalit Christians: A History. 4th, rev. and enl. ed. New Delhi: ISPCK.

Zelliot, Eleanor. 2010. “Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Study in Leadership.” In From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays in the Ambedkar Movement, 3rd ed., 150–83. Delhi: Manohar.

This book excerpt was provided by Nathaniel Roberts, from his  book To Be Cared For : The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging published by University of California Press, Berkeley, 2016. pp. 124-31.

Nathaniel Roberts is Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Germany. 

A Tribute to Babasaheb Ambedkar





you left this world
before I came

you hang as a memory now
on our rusty mud wall

a beaming portrait
inside a humble glass

my mother cleans it gently
with the end of her wrinkled sari
when our roof leaks on a rainy night

she wipes those tears,
becoming your fingers

I write on a tiny sheet,
“why is he weeping,ma?”,

Placing it on her lips,
I kneel to caress her hair.

She just kisses my cheeks
and leaves in a haste

Her breath feels
Like a drop of tear
She doesn’t want me to hear

My father, whispers,
On sulky nights,
“look, at those sober eyes,
That’s where we painted our past”

He, then, gazes at the farthest point
In that folded sky

“ Baba fought against gods,

Gods whose letters
Became molten lead
When it reached our ears

their water
turned into a flaming bird
bursting into temples
we cannot enter
when it touched our lips

their clothes
burnt themselves
when it covered our bodies

their streets
were laden with thorns
that pierced only our soles

we were naked beings,
bleeding from all our pores

those wounds
that wore off our dignity

we were epilogues
torn off from their stories

we were bodies
that belonged only in their borders

baba burnt those books
and wrote a new tale,
still unfinished,
all his life,
where untouched pages
were filled with languages
that spanned a nation

an untouchable nation
spawned from a million borders

he looked
into the eyes of their shivering temple-tops,
and screamed,
that a god who cannot touch us
doesn’t deserve us

we all walked behind him
like colours that follow a rainbow
as he closed their window
that seeks our worship ”

he would then go to sleep
nursed by the verses
hanging softly in his heart


No other figure in Modern Indian history attracts such veneration like that of B.R.Ambedkar. He braved great odds  and fought for the emancipation of millions of people enslaved by caste system. Image Courtesy : Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images


the lowest on our ladder
still spend their lives,suffocated,
inside the shameless sewers

even our own
have flushed their fates
to the corners of our conscience

our slippers still can’t sink
in their streets
our lips still can’t sip
from their cups

they walk on the carpets
of our corpses
to burn your statue
in the cauldron of caste

severed heads of lovers
rest on the lips of railway tracks
women hang from branches
in the shadows of a sombre night

the Hindu rule you feared
during your time
has now dawned in our realm

those scheming saints
now weave an umbrella
into whose shade they pull us
shrieking into our ears
through their holy shells
that we all are ‘Hindus’

us, baba, the very people they spit at, even in their dreams

they usher us into a ghar
that nourished on our grief
where silhouettes of our sorrow
still wail in their garba-grihas

this ghar
where we were the steps
of spiritual stairs
they never stopped climbing
: crushed beneath their feet
we pleaded for our breaths

all this,
while they shower
trishuls of tragedy
onto the skulls of the ‘other’

the other who sells fruits
beside our cobbler stands

the other who drives the flies
away from the meat we skin

the other whose God
tended to our millennial scars,
with a tint, and a moment, of dignity

with grief,
I whisper to you,
this dewy night,
that some of us
have tainted our foreheads
with the tilaks they threw at us

scribble with your worn-out pen
on this moth-eaten cloud
hiding the moon in half
those words you want to scream
at these souls who betrayed you

they shall read it soon,
one night,
when those saffron tongues
shall vomit them
into the abyss
near the horizon of hatred


rss-21 ambedkar

HEIGHT OF APPROPRIATION : Portraits of RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar and Dr.B.R.Ambedkar being carried out during an RSS rally. Ambedkar was a trenchant critic of Hindutva throughout his life. Image Courtesy : Indian Express Archives


the priests
who flayed our skins
and severed our tongues
now, light the lanterns near your feet,

come back, baba,
like the fiery breeze
that swallows their flames

they bow
in their ironed suits
before your statues
they paint with their saffron stink

come back, baba,
like a tender downpour
washing off the stains
disguised as garlands on your coat
and heal the wounds
that sprout with their prayers

they trap you in the temples
you sought to wreck

they praise you in the words
you strove to burn

come back, baba, come back

if only to nurse my mother’s fingers’
that wilt every time you weep.


All the poems were penned by Abul Kalam Azad.

Abul Kalam Azad is a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Chennai. He can be contacted at saka16492@gmail.com

Featured Image Courtesy : Economic Times.

University of Edinburgh to celebrate Dalit History Month

routes and FB Dalit History

Caste is a very complex social phenomenon. Typified by social stratification and preserved through endogamy, it designates ritual status in a hierarchy where everyday social interactions are based on cultural notions of purity and pollution. The caste system functions on the premise of structural inequality in which some people have high status, whereas others are deemed to be impure. Dalits (formerly Untouchables) are integral to the system even though they are mistakenly referred to as ‘outcastes’. Relegated as ‘polluted’ and inferior human beings, they are ostracized socially, politically, and economically, and endure myriad forms of discrimination.

Whilst caste is sometimes perceived as a South Asian phenomenon, this impression overlooks the fluid nature of caste, which transcends specific cultural contexts. After all, caste discrimination extends beyond both religious and national environments. It affects approximately 260 million people worldwide, the vast majority of whom live in South Asia.Experiences of caste-based discrimination among South Asian migrants in the United Kingdom, Europe and North America has long remained hidden but is now surfacing within the public domain as victims increasingly assert themselves. This has attracted media attention as well as legal and institutional inquiries. The United Kingdom and European Union have begun to address the issue, that latter of which recently passed a resolution designating caste-based discrimination as a human rights abuse. Given this, we feel that caste-based discrimination must be approached as a global phenomenon.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye during her presentation of the first comprehensive UN report on caste-based discrimination to the Human Rights Council on March 21, 2016 said, “ This is a global problem affecting communities in Asia, Africa, Middle East, the Pacific region and in various diaspora communities.” She also stressed that “caste-based discrimination and violence goes against the basic principles of universal human dignity and equality, as it differentiates between ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ categories of individuals which is unacceptable.” Ms. Izsák-Ndiaye warned that discrimination leads to extreme exclusion and dehumanisation of caste-affected communities, who are often among the most disadvantaged populations, experiencing the worst socioeconomic conditions and are deprived of or severely restricted in the enjoyment of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Why Dalit History Month?

Taking into account this emerging scenario, we feel it is important for us as scholars working on South Asia with a special emphasis on Dalit scholarship to aid in the dissemination of Dalit history. Dalit movements and Dalit literature were highly influenced by Black history. Scholarship on black history month shows us that it was through the widespread dissemination of black history during Black History Month and elsewhere that a social consensus on racial discrimination and injustices of slavery came to the fore. Likewise, there have been attempts within India and elsewhere to replicate the tradition of Black History Month. Such efforts, we believe, will help non-Dalits within India and abroad to understand and address pressing issues related to social discrimination based on birth.


Dr. B.R.Ambedkar with the women representatives at the Depressed Classes conference held in Nagpur on July 8, 1942.

The common-sensical view that existed and still exists is that Indian history was upper-caste male dominated which also became celebrated as part of the nationalist history. Going against this tradition and by talking about ‘History from Below,’ the Subaltern Studies Scholarship altered historiographical practices by recording narratives of people from the margins such as peasants. However their scholarship came under strong criticism because it elided the question of caste and its history. Today, Dalit Studies is an emerging field of scholarship that raises such questions and discusses those omissions. It draws upon inquiry into the subjective experiences and cultural practices of Dalits, which enables us to understand how Dalits negotiate with the state, engage tenets of democracy, their contribution to nation building, and how they claim the public sphere.

Scholarship on Dalit History is a form of cultural politics that attempts to transform the ways in which Dalits represent the past. Dalit history functions within the realm of a politics of recognition that, by producing counter narratives, challenges and subverts dominant narratives; phrased differently, it tells an alternative story. Though Dalit histories are replete with stories of discrimination, atrocities and injustices, it also celebrates the achievements of the dispossessed who struggle against stacked odds to live a dignified life of equal status.

Given the fact that University of Edinburgh is committed to diversity and recognizing voices from the margins, we are organising events in the School of Social and Political Science to celebrate April as Dalit History Month. This attempt is aimed at making the University of Edinburgh acknowledge as an institution the significance of the caste question. There are critically important forums that address Racism and Xenophobia, Black Lives Matter, and LGBT History, but Caste does not factor into any of these existing discussions and, therefore, we feel that it is important to bring caste to the fore in order to contribute to and further enrich these critical conversations through commemoration of Dalit History Month. Following the success of the anti-Apartheid movement as a global phenomenon, we feel that anti-caste movements should have a global outreach. Celebrating Dalit history month at a time when we are celebrating B.R.Ambedkar,s 125th birth anniversary would be a fitting tribute to multifaceted leader who was the chief architect of Indian Constitution, a legal luminary, statesman, political and social theorist and above all a crusader for social justice.

This post was written by Karthikeyan Damodaran.

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on caste processions and commemorations in Tamil Nadu, and his interests include, identity politics, social movements, caste and class, film studies and urban studies.

`Heart of Darkness: Some Thoughts on Rohith Vemula’s Suicide

The pan-Indian outrage which has also reached Harvard Square in the US over scholar and Dalit activist Rohith Vemula’s suicide seems to establish our present political and social moment as an exceptional one, a moment in which the combined force of right wing Hindutva intolerance and systemic institutional inequality have brought about a great social tragedy. What makes the incident even more shocking is the fact that Vemula left behind a deeply meditative and poetic final letter. The letter outlines a history of cultural and personal alienation that has made several intellectually inclined people remember Camus or Fanon on their social media feed. To many who would not otherwise react to caste related atrocities that occur in India every single day, such as the statistics shouting rape and murder, Vemula’s suicide seems unacceptable.

It is now imperative that we highlight the extraordinary nature of Vemula’s death. What makes this a moment of exception? Is it his obvious learning and sensitivity that makes us read his letter with tears in our eyes? Is it the fact that for many of us young scholars and professionals, the university space is somehow seen as sacred ground? And that his death is seen as a violent rupture from a shared ground of intellectual and physical comradeship? Or do we think (like many do in the US) that caste, like race, is a problem of the poor?

On one hand, we have gone into shock because the problem of caste has slapped us on the face, shaking us out of a complacency born of privilege and apathy. On the other hand, we are now forced to confront the horror of our lived social worlds in an urgent, immediate, and ghastly way. Caste atrocities are not things that happen in villages in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. They happen to us. By us. Every. Single. Day. Of. Our. Lives.

It is time to ask: who is culpable of Rohith Vemula’s death?

Do you, my friend and reader, remember the debates that your Brahmin, Kayastha, Vaidya friends had about reservation in high school and university? Do you remember somebody saying something about how reservation undermines the high standards of excellence that central and state universities otherwise maintain? Did you intervene at that point? If you were silent, then you are culpable.

Did you, my fashionable Brahmin left liberal (as indeed I am one by the great accident of birth) leave out that girl who was a small town second generation college goer, wearing clothes that outraged your sensibilities? Did you inwardly cringe being seen with her at the bar? Or did you spend time with her, only because it assuaged your conscience—not because you enjoyed it, not because you believed that you were social equals? Or did you enjoy her company, but also felt that there was a universe of unbridgeable distance between you—not that you were superior, or she inferior. Nevertheless, the distance. The gap. Between Brahmin and Dalit. Hindu and Muslim. Man and woman. The accident of birth. The great misfortune…

You too are culpable.

Did you know B.R. Ambedkar as the Maker of the Constitution, a Columbia Man, a man responsible for taking away your slot because of that unfair provision made at the time of independence—this completely outdated thing that is NOT affirmative action (because race is not caste, you argue, race shows physical difference and caste…caste does not exist…not at IIT. Not at IIM. Not as Delhi University. Not at Jadavpur University. Not at Presidency College. Not at Central University of Hyderabad…)

You wondered, what is this irrational thing imposed upon us which makes our merit go unrecognised, our jobs are snatched from us—what is this absurd thing called reservation?

If you have thought silently in this vein, you are culpable.

Did you read Frantz Fanon and C.L.R. James with uncritical admiration? Did you get a degree in English Literature or History or Sociology? Did you ever bother to read Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste from cover to cover knowing the historical and sociological context?


Cover of the first edition of social reformer and India’s first Law Minister B.R.Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste. Image Courtesy : drambedkarbooks.com

Have you ever questioned Gandhi?

No? You too are culpable.

If you have never questioned who clean the garbage vats and sewers in your metropoles, cities, small towns and villages…

If the news about the rapes and murders and deprivation and the dropping out of school of lower caste men and women and children have dulled your eyes and senses and you cannot begin to raise your voice against systemic and institutional violence and injustice, then you too are culpable.

We are all guilty of Rohith Vemula’s death. In more ways than one. The political immediacy of his death in a dispensation that is marginalizing minorities like never before is indisputable. What we do need to do right now is to recognise that Vemula’s death is both murder and suicide. And precisely because it is suicide, it is a deeply political act. His final words bear testimony to the fact that despite reservation and limited representation, the problem of caste in Indian democracy is not addressed. It is not addressed by both the right wing and the left wing. And that upward social and intellectual mobility does not guarantee the fact that a Dalit, in this mockery of a democracy, will be seen as a “mind…made up of stardust”.  How can one ever say, ” Rohith Vemula, Rest in Peace”?

This blogpost was written by Ahona Panda.

Ahona is a PhD candidate in South Asian Languages and Civilization at the University of Chicago. Her academic interests include literary history and politics.

Dalit Students as Victims of Institutional Casteism in India

India’s unparalleled revolutionary leader B.R.Ambedkar’s infamous dictum is ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise,’ none of which the Indian Brahmanical state wants the 200 million Dalits (former untouchables) to do and this intentional objective of the state was exemplified in the death of an young Dalit scholar Rohit Vemula of University of Hyderabad who aspired to become like Carl Sagan.
The only fault of him was, he was a Dalit that too someone who was conscious of his identity and followed the footsteps of Ambedkar involved in the construction of a Dalit selfhood and claimed himself as a Dalit-Marxist, a political category propagated and made famous among the student community by comrade Chittibabu Padavala.

As president of Ambedkar Students Association Rohit worked hard to forge a Dalit-Muslim solidarity and fought against food fascism by organising beef festivals a visibly upsetting political exercise for the right wing Hindutva forces in the state who had earlier in another educational institution of higher learning had tried hard to foil the establishment of a study circle on Ambedkar but in vain. A whole young generation of conscious Ambedkarites is the most threatening factor for these right wing forces.



Rohith Vemula sloganeering during a protest as the president of Ambedkar Students Association. Pic courtesy : Facebook.

What followed was arm-twisting by the Hindutva politicians and the casteist university administration, which succumbed to it and expelled five Dalit students. The expelled students continued their protest by staging a sleep-in-protest within the campus, however as a result of deep inflicted psychological pain, one of the students committed suicide leaving a note depicting the cruelty of caste, he wrote, “ The value of a man is reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility to a vote, a number to a thing, never was man treated as a mind.” This evaluation of what is being valued it is not mind but identity which in practical terms does count in the most hierarchical society in the world leaves us with what Gopal Guru[1] famously formulated as the Theoretical Brahmins and Empirical Shudras where the latter is a matter of mere numbers while the former is associated with cognition.

The brahmanical state follows certain uniformity when it comes to dealing with the Dalits, they practice humiliation to an disgusting extent. The state, which was not able to provide a dignified life to Dalits at least should guarantee a honourable final journey. More like the recent incident that happened in Tamil Nadu where a 100 year old Dalit man whose funeral procession was prevented by caste Hindus despite a High Court Order which finally saw the police instead of implementing the HC Order were found carrying the body doing the cremation. In Rohit Vemula’s case too, the state after seeing the students assemble in huge numbers sensed that they would showcase the anger towards state secretly without a grain of respect for the departed soul hurriedly did the cremation.


WEAPON OF THE WEAK : Students in Delhi resisting water cannons carrying the portrait of B.R.Ambedkar  while protesting against Ministry of Human Resource and Development demanding action against authorities over Rohith Vemula’s suicide. Pic Courtesy Facebook.

The educational institutions in India are largely nothing but an extension of rural life marked by caste rigidity for most of the Dalit students, the only difference is caste is tangible in the latter case while in the former it is a combination of visible forms of caste practices and also more subtler forms. The caste discrimination starts from the level of primary schools where once can cite numerous cases of Dalit kids being asked to clean toilets to use separate utensils to eat and drink. And it is also a common phenomenon to witness social boycott of Dalits as mid day meal programme cooks. Citing ritual pollution the caste Hindu parents would make their children go hungry than eat food cooked by a Dalit. In a recent incident, a Dalit kid was asked by his teacher to remove faecal material in front of fellow students using bare hands. Ashamed by this act the kid went into a psychological affect and has developed an obsession to wash his hands. Suspecting changes in behaviour the parents probed the kid to find out what happened and after strong protests the caste Hindu teacher was arrested. This is one among numerous cases we see in what are called as “spaces of learning.” Coloured wrist bands as a form of identification of their respective castes is a common feature in most of the schools in the rural and semi urban pockets of southern Tamil Nadu and a few areas in Northern Tamil Nadu.

You can pick any random Dalit and inquire him about caste discrimination in classrooms there would be a tale to tell, the perpetual psychological fear of being discriminated against and humiliated based on their identity is a lived experience that every Dalit has to undergo inside educational institutions in India. Many are in fact living their lives masquerading their identity for want of caste discrimination. As deftly put forward in a recent piece by Meena Kandasamy,“ Education has now become a disciplining enterprise working against Dalit students: they are constantly under threat of rustication, expulsion, defamation, discontinuation.” By restricting social interaction the Dalit students are thus faced with deprivation of capabilities, a common feature practiced and perfected by caste Hindus in educational institutions to maintain and safeguard their caste privileges.

The percentage of Dalit students who enter higher educational institutions are meagre in number and even they are not spared. In the name of accumulated privilege over centuries in the form of both cultural and social capital the upper caste Hindus function within an invented realm called meritocracy. Entering the corridors of elite educational institutions like Indian Institute of Technologies (IIT) and Indian Institute of Managements and Central Universities for scores of Dalit students is like walking into hell, the fear of being shamed and humiliated based on birth status hangs like a Damocles sword above theirheads. After years of relentless struggles in their everyday lives they reach these institutions only to get caught in the entanglement of the most-unfair game of caste based micro power politics. It was no wonder why given nature of its exclusivity the IIT’s were dubbed as Iyer and Iyengar Technology, a stronghold of brahminical supremacy.

Root of the Problem

The root of this problem definitely lies with the caste Hindus who are nurtured and brought up in a feudal mindset and even the progressive among them carry a patronizing self as pointed out clearly by Ambedkar,

It is usual to hear all those who feel moved by the deplorable condition of the Untouchables unburden themselves by uttering the cry; We must do something for the Untouchables. One seldom hears any of the persons interested in the problem saying, ‘Let us do something to change the Touchable Hindu. It is invariably assumed that the object to be reclaimed is the Untouchables. If there is to be a mission, it must be to the Untouchables and if the Untouchables can be cured, untouchability will vanish. Nothing requires to be done to the Touchable. He is sound in mind, manners and morals. He is whole; there is nothing wrong with him. Is this assumption correct? Whether correct or not, the Hindus like to cling to it. The assumption has the supreme merit of satisfying themselves that they are not responsible for the problem of the Untouchables.

The idea of caste Hindus to empathise and sympathise with the Dalit cause needs to be shunned, instead they should all question their own selves and accept the bitter truth that they as part of this brahmanical structure indeed failed not only to see annihilation of caste as a praxis but used it as a mere rhetoric. The guilt as practitioners of the most carefully planned hierarchichal system should haunt them as they in a way by remaining silent also played a part resulting in the death of Rohit Vemulas, Senthil Kumars and Nagaraju Koppalas. Ambedkar both as a symbol and an ideologue remains as the ‘weapon of the weak’ in India and carrying his ideals let us march forward to brazen out the social distinctions, inequalities and injustices of a caste-ridden society.


[1]. Guru Gopal (2002) How Egalitarian Are the Social Sciences in India? Economic and Political Weekly 37: 5003-5009.

This post was written by Karthikeyan Damodaran.

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on caste processions and commemorations in Tamil Nadu, and his interests include, identity politics, social movements, caste and class, film studies and urban studies. He was previously working as a Correspondent for The Hindu Newspaper in India.