Paul Divakar Mentors “‘The Annihilation of Caste’ Reading Group” at Columbia

Recording of the session available on SoundCloud: Paul Divaker Mentors The Annihilation of Caste Reading Group

“..People sometimes ask…why the Pope does not introduce this or that reform? The true answer is that a revolutionist is not the kind of man who becomes a Pope and that a man who becomes a Pope has no wish to be a revolutionist.”LGopal_2

What will the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar mean to India and the world one hundred years from now? It is not uncommon or insignificant that extraordinary genius remains under-appreciated in its time, waiting in the wings as the lens of human consciousness develops the capacity to penetrate into its beckoning depths. Far ahead of its time, even in this day and age, Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste is one such exceptional tract of extraordinary human insight. Though currently undervalued, its universal frame suggests that it must eventually take its place as a guiding beacon of the Indian nation.Like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, the legacy of M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar form an essential binary. One person paves the way for immidiate change, taking into consideration current sensibilities, while the other constructs the dreams of tomorrow–shattering every rotten, but dearly held sentiment that stands in the way. Today, we understand Gandhi and Ambedkar as polarities, in time perhaps we will see that they are two essential parts of the same puzzle of India.One hundred years from now, with the distance of time, we might realize that Gandhi was but India’s pope. His complicit charisma threaded together an unlikely nation. Ambedkar is our revolutionist. He set the terms for our freedom and through his drafting of the Indian Constitution, he won a victory that Gandhi never could. Unlike Gandhi, he did not see the nation that would exist in the next year, the next decade or the next five decades. He imagined the contours of a nation that persisted beyond this century and into the next. He constructed the strong foundations necessary for such longevity. His commitment to fundamental human equality and social justice sealed the nation together in an unbreakable bond. Through his words, his deeds, and his greatest legacy to the people of the Indian nation: the Indian Constitution, he has left us the foundations for the construction of an eternal nation. He has set his legacy in the strongest of stone. How our current generation decides to engage with his legacy, will determine the fate of our own legacy, as well as the fate of our nation.


On February 22 2013, The Annihilation of Caste Reading Group had its inaugural session with Mr. Paul Divakar, National Secretary, Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan, National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. We read the seminal Indian text, our reading group’s namesake, The Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar. We requested Mr. Divakar, a leading Indian activist and humanitarian and inspiration to people across the globe, to Skype in with us from New Delhi. He guided us through the tract at the level of textual interpretation, socio-cultural practice and current-day realities.

Caste, Faith, and Pyschology

In the text, Ambedkar considers the source of the legitimacy of caste: “Caste is the natural outcome of certain religious beliefs which have the sanction of the Shastras, which are believed to contain the command of divinely inspired sages who were endowed with a supernatural wisdom and whose commands, therefore, cannot be disobeyed without committing a sin.” (21-1) Therefore, he calls for a total divorce of the Shastras from Hinduism. He urges, “You must take the stand that Buddha took. You must take the stand which Guru Nanak took. You must not only discard the Shastras, you must deny their authority, as did Buddha and Nanak.” (20-12) This statement was a cause of serious controversy in his time.The text was originally written as a speech that was meant to be delivered at the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal of Lahore, to commemorate his election as the President of the group. However, the organizers wanted him to remove the passages relating to his views on Hinduism and Hindu texts. He was not prepared to do this. Thus, the speech was never delivered. Instead, Ambedkar self-published it in book form. Divakar highlights that Ambedkar does not mince words with the need for Hindu reform. Ambedkar clearly indicates that Hinduism must align itself with democratic principles and, therefore, caste must go. Caste must give way to democracy, the two, as Ambedkar sees it, are irreconcilable.LGopal_24Divakar takes note of the fact that The Annihilation of Casteengages in connecting discrimination to the very structures of faith. Ambedkar argues “that religion is a source of power is illustrated by the history of India.” He asks a key question: “What is this Hindu Religion? Is it a set of principles, or is it a code of rules? Now the Hindu Religion, as contained in the Vedas and the Smritis, is nothing but a mass of sacrificial, social and political and sanitary rules and regulations, all mixed up. What is called Religion by the Hindus is nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibitions. Religion, in the sense of spiritual principles, truly universal, applicable to all races, to all countries, to all times, is not to be found in them; and if it is, it does not form the governing part of a Hindu’s life.” (23-3) One tends to interpret Ambedkar as standing against Hinduism–in opposition to Gandhi. However, this conventional stereotype veils the elegant nuances of his ontological intervention, which was Kantian in scope. He argued for a division between Hinduism as a faith and Hinduism as a set of Laws and codes. He prescribed that any laws and codes that govern society must have a rational basis. Caste had no such basis and, therefore, its practice had no justification. He argued that the Hindu religion must change and adapt in order to allow for the emergence of genuine structural equality amongst people of different groups.In this respect, Ambedkar and Gandhi were on the same footing–if anything Ambedkar’s argumentation as seen in The Annihilation of Caste is far more sophisticated. However, the crucial difference between them was their treatment of the idea of equality. Both figures held that human beings were essentially unequal. Ambedkar, however, insisted that this ontological inequity was not a sufficient justification for the construction of an unequal social system. Gandhi, on the other hand, felt that this ontological inequality warranted social divisions for the sake of social stability. Thus, Gandhi sought to protect caste and Ambedkar set out to annihilate it.LGopal_15As Divakar notes, caste is not merely a Hindu phenomenon. He gives countless examples of societies that practice social exclusion tantamount to caste. In Japan, for example, a similar practice of exclusion is enforced based on traditional occupation. In Senegal, there are similar structures, except the privileged group is considered ‘uncaste.’ Thus, he highlights two ways in which caste manifests. On one hand, there is a system of privilege, which sets a small minority apart as unique or distinctive (as seen in Japan and India, as well as in discourses on ‘Whiteness’). On the other hand, there is a discourse of the privileged norm that categorizes subjugated groups as abnormal and, therefore, abhorrent. He argues that discrimination based on work and dissent is not sufficiently explored. It exists across religions and communities.Divakar points out a crucial facet of the function of caste as a psychological attitude: the same person who is considered a good person, no matter how heroic or pious, when she begins to tamper with the lines of touchability is considered morally corrupt. What is it in the nature of caste that allows for even the most marginal of transgressions to repudiate all good that any person does, he wonders? Human beings, he argues, have woven an intricate fabric of inclusion/exclusion that is sanctified by systems of religious/political faiths. He argues that these systems function to permit effortless subjugation. One does not need an obvious cause to subjugate another or to react in violence. There is no need to build up anger or plan political exclusion. Both the excuse and the pattern for subjugation–and, therefore, for dominance, are encoded into a code of conduct and a system of values. He provides the example of patriarchy and notes that despite decades of happy marital life, his wife still must remind him of the manner in which his socialization and social reception as a man implicate him in unconscious acts of discrimination. From this personal experience of the unconscious nature of his own participation in what he calls ‘default discrimination,’ he insists that in order to penetrate the core of discrimination of all kinds, we must probe our own subconscious. Divakar mentioned that what frightens him is default discrimination–discrimination that has become so engrained, manifest and commonplace that is goes without detection. “When you find violence/exclusion in conditions of natural disasters–when all of us are affected, when we have lost everything, why do we hang on to these imaginary privileges?” he asks.LGopal_6Divakar highlights Ambedkar’s description of an incident that took place in 1936, where a group of untouchables were enjoying a meal prepared with ghee. “Hindus, in their hundreds, armed with lathis, rushed to the scene, despoiled the food and belaboured the untouchables..” (2-12) Divakar notes that it was not merely that ghee was a luxurious item, but it is used in religious ceremonies. It is the purest unspoiled essence of milk. It was not meant for the impure. In this way and every way, the antyaja (the otherwise–antya born–ja) was kept a part from all things pure. In this way, the consciousness of the antyaja was burdened at each turn with the theft of experience and recognition of his humanity. Discrimination, through these invasive and intrusive social practices, became the default position. Now, the perpetrator subjugates at every turn, consciously and unconsciously–by default. In turn, the victim assumes the position of victimhood by default and begins to expect subjugation as a part of her own identity, by default.Divakar eloquently remarked that we are prisoners of structures of inclusion and exclusion that shape and define us. Perhaps, given the complexity and chaos of the human experience, we have to prioritize. For some, maybe caste is not a priority since it is not visibly painful or urgent. It is subtler. In exploring additional instances of discrimination, Divakar mentioned the treatment of domestic help. “What happens if they were to use your bathroom, sit and eat with you at the table, feel tired and sleep on your bed?” These are all unthinkable ideas in India today. He remarked that some people might show a certain degree of empathy or concern. Still, when the inner-consciousness begins to approach a lateral equality, then people start to label oppressed groups as arrogant. While kindness can thrive in even the most unwelcoming settings, equality is the ultimate taboo in unequal societies.LGopal_14
After suggesting remedies to improve Hinduism, Ambedkar proclaims, “the struggle is yours, I have now decided to leave the Hindu fold.” He was unequivocal in his embrace of change for the betterment of society. This belief in the positive potentialities of change encouraged him to change his faith and his affiliations completely. He writes, “There is no use of having Swaraj if you cannot defend it. More important than the question of defending Swaraj, is the question of defending the Hindus under Swaraj. In my opinion, it is only when Hindu Society becomes a casteless society that it can hope to have strength enough to defend itself. Without such internal strength, Swaraj for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery.” (26-4) Given the structural inequality of Hinduism, Ambedkar wrote, “I have, therefore, no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed, and I say there is nothing irreligious in working for the destruction of such a religion. Indeed I hold that it is your bounden duty to tear off the mask, to remove the misrepresentation that is caused by misnaming the Law as Religion. This is an essential step for you. Once you clear the minds of the people of this misconception, and enable them to realize that what you are told is Religious is not Religion, but that it is really Law, you will be in a position to urge its amendment or abolition.” (23-6) The disproportionate place given to these particular pronouncements has made Ambedkar infamous. Divakar notes these consequences of Ambedkar’s understanding of Hinduism as well as his choice to champion Buddhism. He notes that the merits and demerits of this choice and the debate surrounding Ambedkar’s exodus from the Hindu religion have been heightened and intensified to such an extent that we have forgotten the original foundations of Ambedkar’s meticulous argumentation. “Instead of gaining ground here and there, we must remember that we must maintain the foundational values of our struggle,” he reminds us.Beyond concerns of religious affiliation, the elegant gait of Ambedkar’s argumentation shines brightly. Ambedkar argues, “Reason and morality are the two most powerful weapons in the armory of a reformer. To deprive [a person] of the use of these weapons is to disable him for action. How are you going to break up Caste, if people are not free to consider whether it accords with reason? How are you going to break up Caste if people are not free to consider whether it accords with morality? This wall built around Caste is impregnable, and the material of which it is built contains none of the combustible stuff of reason and morality.” (22-25) In his tract, Ambedkar makes an eloquent claim for the irrationality of the category of caste: “It must be a source of silent amusement to many Non-Hindus to find hundreds and thousands of Hindus breaking Caste on certain occasions, such as railway journeys and foreign travel, and yet endeavoring to maintain Caste for the rest of their lives.” (22-16) One could break caste and then recover in a manner in which one cannot recover from a knife wounding the skin. Caste is some miraculous mystical object that might form, unform and reform on the uniques whims of a given community. It is not an egg that cannot be uncracked. It is an abstract concept, the psychological effect of subjugation. It is not a rational and scientific system of social organization. It is this point that Ambedkar belabors, and Divakar so eloquently examines.

Caste and the Nation

LGopal_20In this context of a thorough bifurcation of caste from faith, the essential question in The Annihilation of Caste relates to the relationship between social reform and political reform. Describing his contemporary environment, Ambedkar writes that platforms including the National Congress argued that political reform must precede social reform. In opposition, the Social Conference and the like insisted social change must precede political change. However, the cause of social reform quickly dissipated, as the majority of the Hindu community remained indifferent to the unjust social conditions within their midst and, instead, desperately focused on finding emancipation from British Rule.Ambedkar firmly believed that the two concerns were inseparable: “they will find that in the making of a Constitution, they cannot ignore the problem arising out of the prevailing social order….the emancipation of the mind and the soul is a necessary preliminary for the political expansion of the people.” (2-20/22) He found fundamental contradiction in the argument for political reform that insisted on the delay of social reform. He argued “Every Congressman, who repeats the dogma of Mill that one country is not fit to rule another country, must admit that one class is not fit to rule another class. How is it then the ‘social reform party’ lost the battle?…That political reform cannot with impunity take precedence over social reform in the sense of the reconstruction of society, is a thesis which I am sure cannot be controverted.” (2-14/16) He affirms. “Political Constitution must take note of social organisation.” (2-18) Ambedkar continues by making a similar argument with regard to the precedence of social reform over economic reform. He asks, “Can you have economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order?” (3-8) For Ambedkar, the social order itself is the originary frame of all possible economic and political potentials. Without a genuine engagement in social change, political and economic change would forever remain superficial and, therefore, without substantive impact.Ambedkar writes, “The question for him is whether he minds one class ill-treating and suppressing another class as a matter of system, as a matter of principle–and thus allowing tyranny and oppression to continue to divide one class from another.” His fundamental point is that classification and categorization of people is impossible and, therefore, all such attempts are arbitrary and irrational at best, tyrannical at worst. This fundamental notion is at the heart of the framing of India’s Constitution. It is the primary objective of the provisions against discrimination to reverse such arbitrary classifications, which Ambedkar understands as inevitable but not beyond correction. As Divakar echoes, we need to find mechanisms to check default discrimination. Ambedkar reveals one such mechanism in his treatment of equality, caste and discrimination in the Constitution.06_GopalIn addition to arguing for fraternity and conceiving individual liberty as the foundation of reform and social progress, Ambedkar writes, “it can be urged that if it is good for the social body to get the most out of its members, it can get the most out of them only by making the m equal as far as possible at the very start of the race.” (14-7) Ambedkar writes, “Equality may be a fiction, but nonetheless one must accept its as the governing principle. A man’s power is dependent upon (1) physical heredity, (2) social inheritance or endowment in the form of parental care, education, accumulation of scientific knowledge, everything, which enables him to be more efficient than the savage; and finally (3) on his own efforts. In all these three respects, men are undoubtedly unequal. But the question is, shall we treat them as unequal because they are unequal? This is a question which the opponents of equality must answer.” (14-5)Caste, he argues, is no more than an “this anti-social spirit, this spirit of protecting [one’s] own interests.” (7-3) It is in this definition that the use of caste in the Constitution finds its meaning in the mind of the framer. There are just under 100 references to caste in the Indian Constitution. There are two ways in which the Constitution employs the term caste. Caste is employed in the phrase “Scheduled Caste,” most often in association with ‘Scheduled Tribes‘ and ‘weaker sections,‘ but also with the phrase ‘backward classes.‘ Caste is also used in the phrase outlawing “discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex” and variously, ‘class,’ ‘place of birth,’ ‘language’‘descent’‘residence.’ Worthy of note is that the Constitution itself, provides no explicit definition of caste itself. Thus, we are left to understand caste in two ways. In this first sense, it is made up of various groups and tribes of populations. These are groups for whom certain political provisions of representation were made–given the lack of adequate representation in institutions of power under British administration (Scheduled caste, Scheduled Tribes). This group also include those who suffered historical discrimination at the socio-economic level. Provisions are made for these groups to correct historical political and socio-economic inequalities, respectively. In the case of the former, caste is a corrective measure to reverse irregularities in the distribution of power that occurred in the course of British and Hindu rule. In the case of the latter, caste is a matter of historical subjugation. The former does not entail the latter–lack political representation does not always entail socio-economic discrimination. However, the latter will always entail the former–those who are victims of historical discrimination will remain wanting in political power. Thus, the two instantiations are not unrelated. In both cases, it functions, as Ambedkar succinctly describes, as the result of an anti-social self-protecting spirit.LGopal_16Further, in the grounds for discrimination that accompany caste, we find that each has a substantial history of discrimination on the sub-continent: Under the British, race was a legal ground for discrimination. Under caste-Hindu rule, caste was a ground for discrimination. Patriarchy allowed for discrimination on the grounds of sex through the course of many systems and rulers. Elite culture, the Zamindari system and various other economic institutions encouraged discrimination on the grounds of class and its associated category ‘residence.’ Under the Mughals, religion as well as place of birth were actively used as grounds for discrimination.Notably, the Constitution does not equate these various grounds. It does not use the phrase ‘and the like,’ or ‘etc.’ The phrase ‘any of them,’ is deliberately employed. This phrase signals that there is no claim of parity between the various possible grounds for illegal discrimination. Rather, the use of the term caste in the Constitution suggests that the explicit motivation for all references derives from the intention to counter previous histories of discrimination. Considering that the first objective of the Constitution is to secure, in the first instance, justice and, in the third, equality, it seems necessary that the Constitution would make provisions to ensure the reversal of historic incidents of discrimination leading to inequality and injustice. The lack of such provisions would hamper the potential for liberty and fraternity (the two other objectives set out in the preamble). Thus, a study of the aims and ends of the Constitution demonstrate that one possible legal definition of caste is as a system of social organization that results in practices that have been outlawed variously, but in particular by Part III, Article 15, 16 and 17 of the Indian Constitution. Furthermore, it continues as a system of categorization that aims to reverse historic instances of discrimination. The limits of the Indian Constitution allow for no further exploitation of the term.Article 366, clause 24 of the Indian Constitution defines “Scheduled Castes” as “such castes, races, or tribes or parts of or groups within such castes, races or tribes as are deemed under article 341 to be scheduled Castes for the purposes of this Constitution.” Clause 25 restates the same with regard to ‘tribe or tribal communities,’ and refers to article 342 of the Constitution. Article 341, defines Scheduled Castes as any “castes, races or tribes or parts of groups within castes races or tribes, which shall for the purposes of this Constitution be deemed” by the President after consultation with the Governor, to be Scheduled Castes in relation to the State.” Article 342, once again, makes a similar statement with regard to tribe. Thus, the definition of caste is not static. It is fluid. Caste will not mean the same thing 200 years from now that it means today. Rather, it is recognition of the ever-changing texture of discrimination on the Indian sub-continent. It is also a provision for a definition broad enough to ensure that no population will be trapped in poverty and servitude and thereby denied, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity because of this this anti-social spirit, this spirit of protecting its own interests, which Ambedkar recognizes in certain groups and social structures. LGopal 8The intellectual foundations for this essential vision of India, promised by the Freedom Struggle and culminating in our most sacred public document, are laid out clearly by Ambedkar in The Annihilation of Caste. As the commitment to this vision becomes increasingly cloaked by veils of communalism, political agenda and economic profit the discourse and debate on fundamental issues of nationhood remains splintered and deliberately imprecise. Still, when we revisit Ambedkar’s seminal tract, the vision and the promises of the Indian Constitution find new clarity. What is caste? It is “this anti-social spirit, this spirit of protecting its own interests.” What is India, it is a nation constructed on the promise of the annihilation of caste and all other forms of discrimination, in order “to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual.” In order to understand the full purport of these potent commitments one need look no further than The Annihilation of Caste.

LGopal_7By providing such a broad and adaptable definition for caste, as a spirit in human nature, Ambedkar seems to appreciate the constant flux that administers the affairs of the world. He recognizes that the fundamental nature of both the world and society is change. He recognized the need for a state to adapt to change in a manner that clears out the dead weight of past ignorances in order to frame better possibilities for the future. He understands, therefore, that the shape of discrimination will constantly be altered and, therefore, in the Constitution, he transform the category of caste and liberates it from its immediate location within the structures of religion and politics. Ambedkar’s deployment of the word ‘caste’ ensures that the Indian Constitution will be able to make provisions against all or at least more potential instances of discrimination to ensure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. For example, centuries from now, imagine that human beings are divided into two groups based on those who are enabled with computer chips and those who are not. If those who are chip-enabled attempt to dominate their non-enabled fellows,the category of caste will be able to counter any impact this disctimination might have on their constitutional rights.  Through this new deployment of the term ‘caste,’ for the purposes of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar has legally annihilated caste as we knew it and re-caste the concept, so to speak, in a new form–as a sword for human upliftment.

However, Ambedkar understands that there are fundamental challenges to advancing social reform in India. “People will not join in a revolution for the equalizing of property unless they know after the revolution is achieved they will be treated equally, and that there will be no discrimination of caste and creed.” (10) This lack of unity means that the a proletariate revolution is precluded in India. (Perhaps, this is the exact purpose of current social conditions.) The problem of social reform, therefore, Ambedkar argues, is fundamental to the very fabric of Indian society, and all else that follows. Gandhi argues that violence is not justified because human beings will never have enough ontological certainty to justify the physical harm of their fellow. Ambedkar argues that structures of inequality are not justified. There will never be a manner in which equality can be described accurately enough to warrant unequal treatment. Thus, any ‘system’ that is based on the organization of people into different groups will be inherently arbitrary and irrational and, therefore, inherently unjust. Ambedkar asks, “Interdependence of one class on another class is inevitable. Even dependence of one class upon another may sometimes become allowable. But why make one person depend upon another in the matter of his vital needs? Education everyone must have. Means of defence, everyone must have. These are the paramount requirements of every man for his self-preservation. How can the fact that his neighbour is educated and armed help a man who is uneducated and disarmed?” (17-3) Despite the many sophisticated legal provisions, this is a question that still remains unanswered in India, as Ambedkar’s eloquent and elegant transformation and annihilation of caste remains far beyond the grasp of the consciousness of a majority of citizens in power and close to power.

LGopal_9Still, Divakar noticed that some nerve was touched with the Delhi rape case. To be able to touch a raw nerve is essential. It reminds us that we are alive and that we can fight back. Without this insistent awakening, he argues, society has a tendency to create zombies and the psychology of discrimination remains unexplored. He insists that we must encourage people to bring out stories that encourage unity and challenge issues, both in society as well as within families. We must also lower the cost of discrimination and act with compassion towards the wrong-doers. We must be able to recognize that they are possibly good people who, for a variety of circumstances, have caused default discrimination. Instead of discounting a person who enacts discrimination, we must be able to help them understand what they did wrong and how they can change their consciousness, as well as their behavior. We must help each other grow into higher levels of mutual respect and unity. In some cases, there are people who cannot take the mental and emotional load of seeing the humanity of traditionally subjugated groups. We must help these individuals to fight through their challenges to see people, as people, once again.

Questions from Participants:

Many of the students present asked pertinent questions: Joel Lee asked abut this appropriation of Ambedkar. Divakar argues that there are three main diversionary tactics employed to limit Ambedkar’s scholarship:

  1. He is portrayed as a leader of a sub-section of Dalits
  2. He is co-opted by certain religious traditions
  3. The right is now attempting to sanctify him by giving him considerable visible presence.

Divakar felt that the appropriation of Ambedkar was a positive phenomenon. He insisted that we needed an opening up of space for engagement with Ambedkar and his ideas that did not exist previously. He believed that we must run with this new embrace of the figure of Ambedkar. While continuing to challenge insincere engagements, we must keep Ambedkar and his message alive and contemporary.Aman Kumar made note of Ambedkar’s problematic embrace of the binaries of savage and civilized. In the text, he unproblematically refers to the need to ‘civilize’ Adivasis. He also mentioned the role of the upper-caste dominated English media, where headlines fetish in-fighting and highlight instances of conflict between Dalits and Adivasis. Through out the tract, Ambedkar makes allusions to civilization. He speaks of aborigines who have remained savage. He describes the higher castes as being at higher cultural levels. This contradiction, while easily accommodated within Ambedkar’s ontological position on inequality, leaves his discourse wanting.Riksum Kazi asked what the role of the Indian diaspora might be in furthering humanitarian discourse in India. Divakar felt that distance provided a different view. As the earth looks more beautiful from outer-space, India, for many non-resident Indians, looks more resplendent from abroad. There are two concerns: the first is the matter of ‘washing dirty linen in public.’ Diaspora communities are effected by their own set of difficulties. To confront challenges in India, additionally, can be considerably difficult as NRIs benefit from a positive image of India and Indian culture. At the same time, the diaspora can play an effective role in engaging with the middle class. He insisted that no matter where we are and what issues we choose to take up, we must engage these critical spaces that have not been addressed.LGopal_3Kazi asked further about the Durban Conference. Divakar mentioned that the Durban Conference was a result of the lack of receptivity towards issues of caste at home in India. After two decades of work in the country, no academics took their movement seriously. Even at the lowest levels, there was no educated response. To the contrary, there was a highly suspicious response. For a time, Divakar and his wife were both tracked as Naxalites only because they went to uncaste villages before visiting the caste homes. This was against traditional customs of the caste order. Divakar and his colleagues felt that the central concern was that caste atrocities were pitched as “social evils” and not as human rights violations. This categorization meant that there was a basic denial of the very humanity of the victims involved. It was at this point that he and his colleagues decided to come together as a human rights platform–with the clear understanding that the platform of human rights would offer little support as a discourse and a system of mechanisms. Nonetheless, this re-articulation of the age old problem brought a new energy to the struggle. Many in India took offense to this new articulation, and argued that, like domestic violence, caste should be dealt with as an internal/domestic discourse. Still, he feels the Durban Conference has brought this issue to the global level.

Looking Forward

Nonetheless, Divakar feels that there is little, if any, debate on caste in India. Reservations and merit are debated, but there is no debate about the importance of common humanity. Post-Independence there has been remarkably little discussion about caste. Things are beginning to change slowly now. We must continue to trigger this debate at the National Level. Thinking about ways in which the government machinery can be structured  to give planning power to Dalits and Adivasis is the essential need of the hour. Thus far, fiscal development for Dalits has been based on considerations of minimal survival. We need to start to think about how planning can help these communities thrive.

LGopal_12 We need to inquire into the very nature of planning in India. Is it aimed at reducing the gaps between the Dalits and the rest, or at uplifting the society in a manner that maintains their current subordinate status?India has worked with Fidel Castro, engaged in the struggle against apartheid, it was one of the first nations to recognize the rights of Palestine. In a manner of speaking, India can take a lead in thinking about building systems that make discrimination challenging. No other country has the laws/legislation that India has for the protection of minorities. Divakar believes that we have found the technology to address the fundamental issues of discrimination and social injustice.Reflecting on possible futures for the reading group as well upon the future of anti-caste discourse, Divakar suggests that we must create a forum where multiple groups can subscribe and converse from across different locations. He mentioned that there were areas of discussion that remain untouched, which require formal discussion. These spaced must be interrogated. We must create safe spaces where we can discuss our failures openly. We must further explore the unguarded pockets of our life that are causing havoc. We must ask whether Dalits have a stake in the economic development of India. Do they have a stake in the resources of production and productive forces? How will the Dalits participate in the future? Further, we must inquire, what kind of sexuality is casteist? Is there an inner mechanism that we can develop to catch our own patterns of default discrimination? Finally, We must find ways to bridge the gap between activists and academics.

 “The Annihilation of Caste Reading Group” is a global initiative initiated by Baraza and housed in Columbia University. We have bi-monthly Skype sessions with Activists at the forefront of humanitarian struggles in India in order to further the understanding of anti-caste discourse amongst budding academics. The group is open only to those who seek to end caste and all other forms of default discrimination. If you would like to Skype-in with us for our next session, please collect a group no smaller than four members and contact or

We would like to give special thanks to Mr. Paul Divakar and Dr. SDJM Prasad, as well as their fellows at the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, for their support, constant inspiration and guidance.

These photographs were taken across three villages in Madhya Pradesh in the district of Sihor, at Shankhamukham Beach in Kerala and in the Indian nation’s capital between 2010 and 2012

About Lakshmi Gopal

Lakshmi Gopal practices photography and studies political philosophy. Her interests are at the cross-section of philosophy and society. Her academic research focuses on the socio-political implications of philosophical frames and the impact of abstract frames on the creation of social orders. Her photographic practice parallels my scholarly research and seeks to provide a visual study of the social impact of dominant philosophical frames as well as a chronicle of the defiance of hegemony.

One thought on “Paul Divakar Mentors “‘The Annihilation of Caste’ Reading Group” at Columbia

Comments are closed.