A conversation between Dr B R Ambedkar and Dr Mulk Raj Anand
In this conversation between Dr B.R. Ambedkar and the novelist Mulk Raj Anand, Ambedkar says: “There are more outcastes than caste Hindus—if we include the Muslims who are also regarded as untouchables by the casteists.” This was published as an appendix to the 1990 edition of Annihilation of Caste published by Arnold Publishers, New Delhi. Mulk Raj Anand says in a brief note: “This conversation took place on an evening in May 1950, on a bench in Cuffe Parade Colaba, Bombay, between Dr Ambedkar and Dr Mulk Raj Anand.” On the occasion of Dr Ambedkar’s 124th birth anniversary, Navayana reproduces this interview for the benefit of readers who may not have seen Dr Anand’s 1990 edition of AoC.
M.R.A(Mulk Raj Anand): Namaskar, Dr Ambedkar
B.R.A.(B R Ambedkar) I prefer the Buddhist greeting—Om Mani Padme Hum. May the lotuses awake!
M.R.A. I agree. How thoughtless we are! We inherit words without questioning their meanings! Of course, Namaskar means, I bow before you…
B.R.A. That perpetuates submission! ‘May the lotuses awake’ is a prayer for enlightenment!
M.R.A. Indeed old habits die hard. We adopt them unthinkingly.
B.R.A. In everything.
M.R.A. Come to think of it, one is not born stamped a Hindu, or Muslim or Christian. Hindu parents give their child a name in the naming ceremony! Sanctified by a priest reciting verses in Sanskrit, which the child does not understand. A sacred thread is put on his body. And lo and behold, the boy is a Hindu!
M.R.A. If you mean by the Greek word, Idiot—going round and round in a circle!
B.R.A. One must question all old habits, ideas, practices. Education should encourage the new young to ask the teacher one new question a day..
M.R.A. Best way to teach teachers! They often don’t know what is not in the textbook. As a matter of fact, even in one’s mature youth, one can only grow by asking questions. I learnt this from Henri Bergson’s book: Creative Evolution. I was in difficulties about various philosophical problems after reading Hegel, Kant and Descartes. Bergson said: One can heighten consciousness by questioning every philosophical proposition!
B.R.A. Buddha argues with the Brahmins about everyone of the beliefs. They had degraded whole peoples as outcastes. They said God had ordained the four Varnas—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Sudhras. Buddha asked what about man himself? The individual? Because a man is born in a family which handles corpses of dead cattle he is condemned to be an untouchable. All forest people are junglis to the Hindus…
B.R.A. Indeed! Everyone who works with hands was rejected. Those who skin animals! Those who carry dung! Those who do menial labour on the land! All branded! All bonded! Forever! After five thousand years it is worse! An Untouchable can’t enter a temple even if he has a bath before he goes there. He can’t graze his cattle on the landlord’s land. He is dirt because he cleans dirt. Always considered impure! An animal can be touched not an untouchable…
M.R.A. As a member of the Constituent Assembly have you been able to assert rights of the individual? I see that your Committee gives Fundamental Rights—the right of the individual to freedom. But we see that you also conceded the right to property as a fundamental right… Now, does the right to property give a decisive advantage to those who have inherited wealth. So the poorest of the poor, the untouchables, will always be at disadvantage.
B.R.A. In our Constitution we have put forward the ideal of a Secular, Socialist Democracy… If everyone can have the right to till the land from the State tenancy rights, then equality of privilege can be assured and there need be no exploitation. So far, untouchables, even many caste Hindus and Muslims, do not have the tenancy rights. All these landless peasants are mere hands.
M.R.A. Then the right to work should have been recognised as a fundamental right.
B.R.A. I was only one member of the drafting committee.
M.R.A. So you became a lamb before the lions!
B.R.A. I bleated a good deal! I am now roaring!
M.R.A. As a lawyer, you know, how the judges will always decide in favour of the high caste and upper class Hindus.
B.R.A. Of course, the only non-Brahmin in our Government of Pandits, Jawaharlal Nehru, fought hard against the right to own property being a fundamental right… But Babu Rajendra Prasad felt that Nehru wants to make India into Russia. The Caste Hindus, therefore, only conceded the other rights of man as directive principles… to be fought for in Parliament.
M.R.A. Which would be weighed in favour of men of property.
B.R.A. The Socialists can win a majority one day. And ask for redress. Anyhow, the outcastes and tribals have been declared scheduled castes. They will be given certain privileges to uplift them, like reservation for admission to school and colleges and scholarships…
M.R.A. The caste Hindus will always resent reservation.
B.R.A. We must organise ourselves! Arouse the disinherited to fight. There are more outcastes than caste Hindus—if we include the Muslims who are also regarded as untouchables by the casteists. And the tribal people. Together with the socialists they can abolish ownership of private property! No landlords means no tenants! No landless labourer!
M.R.A. State Capitalism might also prove to be dangerous. You know what Stalin has done in Russia. Imposed a set of bureaucrats on the people. In the name of communism!
B.R.A. Of course, we must protect the individual from invasion of his rights from other individuals. The liberty of the person must always be a primary concern. That was my mind when I urged fundamental rights.
M.R.A. If that was in your mind we might urge Parliament to revise fundamental rights. We must fight against both State Capitalism and Private Capitalism. You know how the vast majority of people everywhere are subject to the will of the employers.
B.R.A. Indeed, liberty so far seems to be the liberty of the landlord to increase rent. The Capitalist always wants to reduce wages and increase hours of work. Capitalism is dictatorship of the private employer!
M.R.A. The fundamental rights—right to life, liberty and happiness remain a dream.
B.R.A. The new young must go on fighting. They can change the Constitution.
M.R.A. This may not be possible without uprisings like the 1789 Revolution in France.
B.R.A. Strange to hear this from you! I thought that by making Gandhi the liberator of Untouchables in your novel, you have been converted to non-violence.
M.R.A. I could not live up to the Mahatma’s ideal. We had to face Hitler and Mussolini. I went to Spain and joined the International Brigade. Though I fainted at the sight of blood in a clinic and was asked to opt out! But one had to take sides in the Second World War. A poet called the so-called war for Freedom of the Democracies against racism as the fight for a ‘half-life’ against a ‘big lie’.
B.R.A. You know, though the Mahatma was all for the Harijans he did not give up his beliefs in the Varna Ashram dictated by the Bhagvad Gita… By calling them sons of Brahma the Supreme God, he thought he was exalting them. In fact they were left at the lowest low level.
M.R.A. Is that why you have adopted Buddhism as your religion?
B.R.A. Maybe—that was the chief consideration. Also, by remaining a Scheduled Caste citizen, one accepts the status of the outcaste. I have felt that through the faith of the Buddha, which does not believe in the Hindu God Brahma, [one] can aspire to be [a] human being free of dogmas obscure myths and legends. One can pursue knowledge! One can disown casteist heroes of the Hindus like king Ram, Avtar of Vishnu Bhagwan! And many other sentiments of Hinduism.
M.R.A. Indeed, I find the Buddha’s hunches far more plausible than the guesses of the Brahmins. He was the first existentialist of the world. He cried out: ‘Dukha’, ‘Dukha’, ‘Dukha’! The Hindus were always for make beliefs. God is Ananda! Consolation prize for beggars who ask the feudal Lord, God, for favours by offering gifts of flowers, bribes of garlands and fruits—via the priests.
B.R.A. That is why most priests have big bellies.
M.R.A. What is your message for rejected?
B.R.A. I say to the untouchable: Be a lion! Hindus sacrificed goats to the goddess Kali for power. You be your light—atta dipa bhav!
M.R.A. Like the Buddha said to Ananda: Be a lamp unto yourself.