Castes and Tribes: Ambedkar’s Thoughts on Social Division
Ambedkar’s role in the upliftment of the Dalit community has had a profound impact on the colour of the Indian Democracy. His thoughts and philosophy far surpass that of most contemporary Indian thinkers, including Gandhi. And his instrumental role in the framing of the Indian Constitution secured stability for a country characterized by inherent social divisions based on caste, creed, culture, and religion. There is indeed no limit to what can be said of his contribution to India and Indian society in general through his thoughts and with his actions; but, most importantly, staying faithful to what he believed, epitomized by his words and deeds.
It is interesting to relate Ambedkar’s thoughts on the caste system and perhaps relate it to the societal context of Nagaland, so as to illustrate the degree of prescient insights he gained from his experiential observations of the society. He considered caste (or division of people into separate and incommensurable groups) to be one of the principal factors contributing to the division of society that propagates hate, bigotry, injustice, inequality, bondage, indignation, discrimination, and humiliation to one’s own sense of self-respect and humanity. For him, “There cannot be more degrading system of social organization than the caste system.” This is quite remarkable seeing that Nagaland is itself structured along this similar line of division, not necessarily caste system as such, but along tribal lines.
The question, as always has been for Ambedkar, is: Can Indian society, in general, and Nagaland, specifically, place their respective castes and tribes above the interest of their society? The answer certainly is elusive. To give a sincere response, it would require the Indian society as well as people in Nagaland to question the very essence of who they are and how they have structured their society: their identity. Seldom do people, let alone societies, welcome such disconcerting introspection. Rather, most of us take every effort to avoid such soul-searching analysis that unsettles our minds.
This clearly is illustrated in Gandhi’s (who did not favour ending the caste system, which he essentially thought saved Hinduism from disintegration) opposition to Ambedkar’s struggle to end and emancipate the Dalit (i.e. untouchables) community. To appreciate the deep intense passion with which Ambedkar put upon himself to emancipate the Dalit community, a few contextual sketches will suffice to give a background as to why Ambedkar’s struggles were incomprehensible to Gandhi. As Ambedkar writes that the untouchables, “…are illiterate ill-treated, and untouchables for ages… All public service…were closed to them…Thus, being deprived of social, religious, and civil rights, they had no chance of bettering their conditions… In short, they were born in debt and perished in debt. They were born untouchables, they lived untouchables and they die as untouchables.” This by no means undermines the magnitude of humiliation, indignation, discrimination, and insults meted out to Ambedkar because of his caste throughout his life from his schooling days to his experiences in the Indian parliament (even when he was framing the Constitution of India). This is an experiential reality that bewilders the experiences of Gandhi, who belonged to an upper-caste Hindu family. It is little wonder that history has been too kind (to the point of being excessive) to Gandhi, and inconsiderate to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s contributions, relegating him to the framing of our Constitution and as a prominent figure in the struggle for the Dalit community’s emancipation.
Many may wonder why the issue of caste is elevated and treated to be a major social issue requiring to be addressed. The answer lies in the destructive nature of division that caste (or, for that matter, tribes) inevitably promulgates. Ambedkar saw caste or any sort of social division to undermine the very essence of the Indian society that in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly, he made a powerful assertion saying, “The castes are anti-national. In the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality.” What Ambedkar is stating is that the caste system (a division of people in a society) creates an environment ripe for discrimination, prejudice, exploitation of the weaker section of the society, disempowerment, self-aggrandizement, selfish group-interests, fight and control over resources to dominate the weaker group/caste, etc. Small wonder, such societal conditions can hardly unite people. What we get instead is a society that is in conflict with itself. Or, as Lincoln once said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” This is why Ambedkar asks, “Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country?” If we observe India’s current trajectory in general, we seem to be placing our creed, castes, tribes above all else.
Now, how do all of these issues relate to Nagaland? Just as the caste system, the tribal system has been a disease appendage to Nagaland. Structured along the tribal lines, Nagaland is held hostage by a system of discrimination, prejudice, selfish tribe-interests, disempowerment, and exploitation of the weaker tribes, and toxic tribal competition to secure and amass the state’s government resources and land, further generating jealousy, hostility, and animosity between tribes. In such an environment, it is seldom possible to cultivate unity, let alone to speak of “Nation,” or “unique culture” different from the rest of India. ‘Nation’ is a far cry, a fantasy, an illusion so long as people place their tribe above and beyond the interest of the society. The sooner people in Nagaland realize this, the better. Nagaland is no different from the rest of India in that we too, like elsewhere in this country, are prisoners to our tribes, which is the ultimate source of communalism, narrow-mindedness, prejudice, localism, and a den of ignorance.
If castes are anti-national, then tribes are equally anti-national for they are a divisive and dividing force. If castes are anti-national because they generate jealousy and hatred, then tribes are equally anti-national forces as they generate hostility and animosity between tribes. Ambedkar’s warning in his final speech at the Constituent Assembly will perhaps bring lucidity to what has been mentioned so far, he states: “What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people. In the invasion of Sindh by Mahommed-Bin-Qasim, the military commanders of King Dahar accepted bribes from the agents of Mahommed-Bin-Qasim and refused to fight on the side of their King. It was Jai Chand who invited Mahommed Ghori to invade India and fight against Prithvi Raj and promised him the help of himself and the Solanki Kings. When Shivaji was fighting for the liberation of Hindus, the other Maratha noblemen and the Rajput Kings were fighting the battle on the side of Moghul Emperors. When the British were trying to destroy the Sikh Rulers, Gulab Singh, their principal commander sat silent and did not help to save the Sikh Kingdom. In 1857, when a large part of India had declared a war of independence against the British, the Sikhs stood and watched the event as silent spectators.”
Suffice to say that such treachery and infidelity not only contributed to the loss of India’s independence but, within the context of Nagaland, it has also contributed to many lost and squandered chances to unite and achieve a common cause by failing to prudently utilize the freedom and privileges accorded to us by the Constitution. In Nagaland, where each person’s ultimate allegiance is to each own tribe, treachery, deceit, and infidelities are part and parcel of this tribal state, unable to rise beyond the vicinity of one’s mere local interests. We can draw numerous parallels between Ambedkar’s warning and Nagaland’s quest for self-fulfilment. Indeed, Nagaland’s political history is filled with characters similar to the military commanders of King Dahar, Jai Chand, Maratha noblemen and the Rajput Kings who fought on the side of Moghul Emperors against their own kin, and Gulab Singh.
Social divisions of whatever kinds or forms erode and cripple societies. Injustice, exploitation, prejudice becomes a fact of daily life, making people foster antagonism against one another. In Nagaland, it already has. So, the question we must all ask ourselves is: Will we place our society above our tribe or will we place our tribe above our society? (On e-mail)