OVER six decades ago, the Constitution of India abolished “untouchability” and prohibited discrimination based on caste – yet caste continues to oppress and ostracise people in India today. Even a sketchy understanding of India’s socio-political narrative or its economic and human development is incomplete without comprehension of what is referred to as world’s “longest surviving social hierarchy” .
Here are four books you could read to understand the pertinent role caste plays in India’s social fabric:
1. Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar
Ambedkar, a Dalit social activist and the guiding force in drafting the Indian Constitution, has been at the forefront of the movement against caste discrimination and the fight to establish Dalit identity in India.
This undelivered speech which was later self-published by Ambedkar in 1936, delves into the age-old practice which has oppressed lower caste communities, pushing them to the margins and caging them in everyday humiliation by stripping them of their dignity.
Talking about why casteism is an impediment to development, Dr Ambedkar says: “You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundations of caste will crack, and will never be a whole.”
2. Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand
The novel published in 1935, narrates a day in the life of a young manual scavenger called Bakha. A peek into the daily life of a man from the lowest of the lower caste who sweeps and cleans latrines for a living, the book tells us how intricately the caste apparatus has both dehumanised and normalised the oppression of ‘untouchables’.
People termed as ‘untouchables’ live with the constant imposed burden of being impure and unwanted. One of the high points of the novel is when Bakha is slapped because he committed the ‘crime’ of touching an upper caste Hindu. It is telling of the arrogance of social power ingrained in the caste system.
3. Gulamgiri by Jyotirao Phule
Jyotirao Phule was one of the first voices to critique the caste system in India. The book, published in 1873, is written as a 16-part essay with four poetic compositions. The hard-hitting prose is in the form of a dialogue between Jyotiba and a character he calls Dhondiba.
In this book, he explores Brahmanical hegemonies, puts forth the ‘racial theory of caste’, critiques the Vedas and argues that “a superior, foreign race invaded this land, and they became what we know as Brahmins today” and the “lowly, indigenous people who were conquered … became the Shudras”.
Through his book, he points to the rampant discrimination in the social structure that allowed the upper caste Hindus to stamp down the basic rights of poor, lower caste communities.
4. Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla
This is one among a selection of contemporary books which charts the first-hand struggle with caste and identity. The author was an ‘untouchable’ born in Andhra Pradesh who moved to the US in her mid-twenties. In her memoir published in 2017, she writes of her life-long struggle with the social ostracism she has faced because of the caste system which has shaped her identity and the memories of humiliation that burdened her family.
In this anecdotal account of growing up in a society that constantly reminded her of being less human than most, Sujatha Gidla talks about the mistreatment of ‘untouchables’, how they were termed as ‘polluted’ and how their segregation was normalised and forced to be their reality.
Gidla’s deep-rooted anger from the life-long oppression is something you can’t miss in the book. She says: ”If you get them to believe your lie, then, of course, you cannot tell them your stories, your family’s stories. You cannot tell them about your life. It would reveal your caste. Because your life is your caste, your caste is your life.”