Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who unravelled the unique South Asian master-servant relationship based on the Indian caste system 

Basil Fernando

B.R. Ambedkar was a man whose work unraveled the unique nature of the master-servant relationship in South Asia. Today is the anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s birth. Born to the family of an untouchable on April 14th 1891, Dr. Ambedkar was destined to reveal the central mystery of the South Asian social relationship which, has for its grounding a system of human grading or branding based on a classification known as the caste system. From his lifetime until now, the understanding of this issue has spread from small groups of militant intellectuals and activists to one that has spread into mainstream thinking, not only in South Asia but also throughout the world. Mahatma Gandhi spoke of Ambedkar as one of the few who had taken the radical stance of the interpretation of the entire history of India on the basis of caste. However, if that was a radical view then that is no longer the case.

Today there is almost unanimous acceptance that without paying serious attention to the implication of the system that is called caste, there is hardly any possibility of understanding South Asian society, culture or politics.

The same can be said of the understanding of South Asian conflicts which, in recent decades have turned into some of the world’s most violence clashes. In the understanding of these clashes insight into the work of Ambedkar could be an enormous resource. In fact, much of the analysis of these clashes and conflicts is poorer for the lack of attention to the central issue of caste and its implications on countries where Indian culture had a foundational influence.

Two well known creative writers in India through their work have brought the issue of caste into mainstream contemporary thought. Arundhati Roy, in her work, the God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga, in his novel the White Tiger have based their stories around the social behaviour rooted in the caste system. Aravind Adiga makes this more explicit. He writes:

The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop.

Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench — the stench of terrified, feathered flesh. On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.

The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.

Watch the roads in the evenings in Delhi; sooner or later you will see a man on a cycle-rickshaw, pedaling down the road, with a giant bed, or a table, tied to the cart that is attached to his cycle. Every day furniture is delivered to people’s homes by this man — the delivery- man. A bed costs five thousand rupees, maybe six thousand. Add the chairs, and a coffee table, and it’s ten or fifteen thousand. A man comes on a cycle-cart, bringing you this bed, table, and chairs, a poor man who may make five hundred rupees a month. He unloads all this furniture for you, and you give him the money in cash — a fat wad of cash the size of a brick. He puts it into his pocket, or into his shirt, or into his underwear, and cycles back to his boss and hands it over without touching a single rupee of it! A year’s salary, two years’ salary, in his hands, and he never takes a rupee of it.

Every day, on the roads of Delhi, some chauffeur is driving an empty car with a black suitcase sitting on the backseat. Inside that suitcase is a million, two million rupees; more money than that chauffeur will see in his lifetime. If he took the money he could go to America, Australia, anywhere, and start a new life. He could go inside the five-star hotels he has dreamed about all his life and only seen from the outside. He could take his family to Goa, to England. Yet he takes that black suitcase where his master wants. He puts it down where he is meant to, and never touches a rupee. Why?

Because Indians are the world’s most honest people, like the prime minister’s booklet will inform you?

No. It’s because per cent of us are-caught in the Rooster Coop just like those poor guys in the poultry market.

The Rooster Coop doesn’t always work with minuscule sums of money. Don’t test your chauffeur with a rupee coin or two — he may well steal that much. But leave a million dollars in front of a servant and he won’t touch a penny. Try it: leave a black bag with a million dollars in a Mumbai taxi. The taxi driver will call the police and return the money by the day’s end. I guarantee it. (Whether the police will give it to you or not is another story, sir!) Masters trust their servants with diamonds in this country! It’s true. Every evening on the train out of Surat, where they run the world’s biggest diamond- cutting and polishing business, the servants of diamond merchants are carrying suitcases full of cut diamonds that they have to give to someone in Mumbai. Why doesn’t that servant take the suitcase full of diamonds? He’s no Gandhi, he’s human, he’s you and me. But he’s in the Rooster Coop. The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy.

The Great Indian Rooster Coop. Do you have something like it in China too? I doubt it, Mr Jiabao. Or you wouldn’t need the Communist Party to shoot people and a secret police to raid their houses at night and put them in jail like I’ve heard you have over there. Here in India we have no dictatorship. No secret police.

That’s because we have the coop.

Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent — as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way — to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

You’ll have to come here and see it, for yourself to believe it. Every day millions wake up at ,dawn — stand in dirty, crowded buses — get off at their masters’ posh houses — and then clean the floors, wash the dishes, weed the garden, feed their children, press their feet — all for a pittance. I will never envy the rich of America or England, Mr Jiabao: they have no servants there. They cannot even begin to understand what a good life is.

Now, a thinking man like you, Mr Premier, must ask two questions.

Why does the Rooster Coop work? How does it trap so many millions of men and women so effectively?

Secondly, can a man break out of the coop? What if one day, for instance, a driver took his employer’s money and ran? What would his life be like?

I will answer both for you, sir.

The answer to the first question is that the pride and glory of our nation, the repository of all our love and sacrifice, the subject of no doubt considerable space in the pamphlet that the prime minister will hand over to you, the Indian family, is the reason we are trapped and fled to the coop.

The answer to the second question is that only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed — hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters — can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.

The understanding of punishment within the caste context involves two components. One was that the punishment far exceeded, in proportion, the alleged offense. For example an untouchable who is not supposed to learn meditation and the practices of yogis may be punished with death for doing so as demonstrated in the story of Sambuka, or an untouchable boy who is not supposed to learn archery may have his thumb cut off for having done so arbitrarily. Coming down even to the modern day are examples of children being blinded for looking at a TV screen at a shop belonging to an upper caste person or people being punished for drinking water in a glass instead of using the utensils that are allowed for the lower castes. However, the spread of the concept of punishing the poor in the severest possible ways has become inbuilt into the criminal justice systems of the countries in the region. Even today, the prisons are full of the poor who, of course, at the same time belong to the so-called lower castes. Torture meted out at police stations and prisons is also directed towards this same class of persons.

The second aspect of punishment within the caste system is that it is collective. As Aravind Adiga has graphically explained, for the transgressions of any single person the entire family will be massacred. This message is written deep in the psyche of all persons and acts as a motivating factor on matters regarding safety at the deepest levels of their minds.

Another talented India thinker Dr. D.R. Nagaraj, in his famous study called the Flaming Feet – the Study of the Dalit Movement, wrote:

The important thing here is that the entire community of Dalits is punished for the offence committed by a single individual. That traditional society in India has never accepted the concept of individual should not make us blind towards the working of the caste ethos here. When similar offences are committed by an individual of upper caste he is always treated as an individual, and his act is not linked to his community. In other words, the notion of the individual is preserved in the context of deviant behaviour of the upper castes. We are yet to hear the news of a village boycotting an upper caste for a crime, that too a petty one, committed by one of its members. In Indian literature there are enough descriptions of the unpardonable violation of ethical codes of society, but only the individual concerned is held responsible. To put it differently, one of the chief characteristics of the caste system is to attribute certain inerasable traits to each caste, and they are even judged in moral terms: the superiority of the caste is indeed decided by its rank and station in the hierarchy. A careful analysis of proverbs and popular sayings of Indian languages will reveal the hidden and not so hidden biases and prejudices of the caste system. When it comes to understanding the nature of virtues and vices of a social stratification, the caste system accepts the collective category as the criterion. While confronting deviant behaviour of upper castes the individual is used to explain away the aberration, but in the context of lower castes the category of the individual is never accepted as legitimate. Such at least is the value system that informs the eruption of violence against the untouchables. To give a charitable reading of this phenomenon one could say that the charges in historical situation have intensified the hypocritical behaviour of the caste society which was under check in the pre-conflict situation.

Recent conflicts and the caste based habits of disproportionate and collective punishment

The tracing of many of the existing violent conflicts in South Asia would clearly demonstrate that one of the most important contributory factors that continue to contribute to these conflicts is the culturally inherited habits of disproportionate and collective punishment towards the weaker sections of society. Many conflicts which have today blown up into so much violence that they have come to the notice of the global community are often the result of a limited protest of one or another weaker group within society, protesting on some issue and being subjected to disproportionate and collective punishment. The use of police fire power against small groups engaged in protests and the use of state sponsored riots to retaliate against some violent act done by a militant group has later developed into the type of crises that has undermined the stability of entire nations.

The use of disproportionate and collective punishment by those in power leads the more self-conscious sections among the protestors to take precautions for their security by adopting methodologies that can equal the ways of disproportionate and collective punishment of their opponents. In this way a conflict is magnified from its very inception because of the fear of annihilation by such disproportionate and collective punishment.

In this kind of conflict those who represent the state develop the ideology of the total annihilation of the opponent. In preparation for this the protestors also acquire a similar mentality and prepare themselves for a kind of battle which has, for its aim, the annihilation of the state counterparts.

Such conflicts defy any form of resolution by way of agreements arrived at on the basis of the mutual understanding of each other’s legitimate positions. Even the very thought of a dialogue or compromise does not enter into a mindset that is full of fear of disproportionate and collective punishment.

The state, when faced with a conflict abandons the rule of law rapidly. The concept of the rule of law is based on the idea of proportionality of punishment to the offense and the total rejection of collective punishment. Within the rule of law context offenders are always individuals and it is the guilt or otherwise of the individual that the judicial system deals with. By this means the rule of law system when properly used prevents the conflicts degenerating into collective conflicts. When the state abandons the rule of law and goes back to the cultural habits of trying to deal with opponents with ideologies of annihilation there is no room for any mediators to deal with the parties to the conflict with a view to bring about a rational discourse leading to settlements which both sides can accept as legitimate.

While almost all leaders of the independence movements in South Asian countries attempt to romanticise and glorify the cultural traditions of their countries, B.R. Ambedkar alone raised the issue of the internal contradictions which were inherent within all cultural traditions which had the Indian culture as its core by pointing to the nature of the master-servant relationship within this setup rooted in the organisation of caste. By raising this issue he provided the basis for the understanding of conflicts in the post independence societies of South Asia. His life and work and the enormous amount of writings that he left behind remain a guide to the understanding of the type of conflicts that many people have thought of as defying any kind of rational understanding.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-016-2009
Countries : Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka,
Issues : Caste-based discrimination,