Earlier this week on April 14, Dr BR Ambedkar’s 132nd birth anniversary was observed. Dr Ambedkar remains one of India’s tallest leaders, the father of the Indian constitution, and an inspiration for generations of Indians continuing his struggle against caste oppression.
Today, we discuss a small excerpt from his classic undelivered speech, Annihilation of Caste. Written in 1936, the speech was meant to be delivered at a meeting of liberal Hindu caste reformers in Lahore. However, in light of its apparent controversiality, the organisers of the meeting revoked Dr Ambedkar’s invitation. Consequently, he self-published the speech which would go on to become arguably his most famous piece of writing.
Quotes from famous historical figures form an important part of the UPSC Civil Services Exam syllabus. This one becomes relevant for topics related to social issues and social justice.
“The Caste System is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers. Civilised society undoubtedly needs division of labour. But in no civilised society is division of labour accompanied by this unnatural division of labourers into watertight compartments … it is a hierarchy in which the divisions of labourers are graded one above the other.”
Responding to a commonly stated defence of caste (that it is just another name for division of labour), Dr Ambedkar succinctly yet profoundly describes the uniqueness of the caste system and why it is problematic.
Division of labour
The basic point of social organisation is to share responsibilities. In other words, living in a society means that no one person has to perform all the tasks required for their sustenance. The burden of these tasks is distributed in society, through what we call ‘specialisation’. Thus, a society has farmers who produce food, factory workers who produce goods, sweepers who clean buildings, cobblers who produce shoes, and so on. Over time, the division of labour has morphed and gained sophistication.
However, in almost all schools of thought, it is considered both necessary and inevitable. The issue surrounding it is rather about how this division is made – “who does what work” – and how remunerations are decided. This is at the heart of many discussions about different bases of injustice, such as class (why are factory workers paid a fraction of the amount a CEO is paid?) and gender (why is women’s labour at home not remunerated?/why are women expected to work at home”).
Division of labourers
Ambedkar acknowledges that the division of labour is necessary for society. However, caste goes far beyond being just that. This is because of two basic features of the caste system.
First, the caste system works on the principle of heredity – an individual inherits their caste, and thus their occupation, from their father. This means that if the father is a vaidya (doctor), the son must follow in his footsteps regardless of his own talents or proclivities. Through the principle of endogamy (marrying within one’s own community), the society is divided into “clear, watertight compartments”. This is why Ambedkar calls caste a division of labourers rather than labour – there is no scope for mobility and intermixing among castes (through taboos on things like interdining, untouchability, etc.)
If caste were just a division of labour, it would be possible for a sweeper’s son to become a priest and a priest’s son to be a sweeper. But that is not how caste society works. In fact, till this day, stories of social mobility are exceptions rather than the rule.
For instance, as recently as 2021, then Minister of State of Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athwale told the Rajya Sabha that 73.31 per cent of all manual scavengers were from Scheduled Castes, who, as per the 2011 census, make roughly 16 per cent of the population. Ambedkar calls this an “unnatural” division.
Gradation of these divisions
Not only does caste create watertight compartments in society, but it also grades these compartments on what French anthropologist Louis Dumont would call “the notion of purity and pollution”. Every occupation falls somewhere in this vast, often contested, scale. For example, intellectual work, such as reading scriptures, is considered to be the purest while manual work like cleaning toilets is considered to be polluting.
This is the basis of untouchability as well – people of castes who engage in certain tasks considered polluting are thus discriminated against as untouchables. Given that occupation is strictly passed down hereditarily, this gradation of individuals on the basis of the purity of their occupation is the ultimate injustice of caste.
While across the world, there are class divisions, which too treat some occupations as being better than others, the reason why caste is unique is that this treatment has a moral connotation, with certain tasks more virtuous than others. In fact, the justification for the caste system is done on moral terms – people are born into a caste based on the deeds/misdeeds of their previous life.
As Ambedkar writes in the following paragraph, “This division of labour is not spontaneous, it is not based on natural aptitudes… (the caste system) attempts to appoint tasks to individuals in advance – selected not on the basis of trained original capacities, but on that of the social status of the parents.”