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Palace on a dung heap!

Against The Madness of Manu is an excellent book by Sharmila Rege that brings together in one place the writings and speeches of Dr BR Ambedkar on caste and gender, written when he was only 25. Janaki Abraham writes.

books Updated: Jul 09, 2013 16:42 IST
Janaki Abraham
Janaki Abraham
Hindustan Times

An excellent book that brings together the writings of Dr BR Ambedkar on caste and gender.

Against The Madness of Manu; BR Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy
Selected and introduced by Sharmila Rege
Rs. 350 pp 266

Against the Madness of Manu is a treasure! Sharmila Rege brings together in one place the writings and speeches of Dr BR Ambedkar on caste and gender.

These have never appeared together before in an accessible book with annotations and introductions to each section. This volume brings out the deep understanding that Ambedkar had of the entangled nature of caste inequality and patriarchy — an aspect of his work that has received little attention within academia.

Rege’s compilation is creative as it brings together Ambedkar’s writings on caste such as his essay ‘Castes in India’ written when he was only 25, selections from his ‘Riddles in Hinduism’, which was published posthumously in 1987, and extracts from speeches in the Constituent Assembly on the Hindu Code Bill.

The book ends with an extract from his statement on the eve of his resignation from the cabinet in October 1951.

In these essays, Ambedkar argues that the practices of sati, enforced widowhood and child marriage are ways of ensuring caste endogamy — the practice of marrying within the caste. This, for Ambedkar, was at the heart of the caste system.

BR Ambedkar and Sharda Kabir at their wedding on April 15, 1948.

These ideas of caste were reflected in the Hindu Code Bill that Ambedkar presented to the Constituent Assembly. The Bill embodied, as Rege explains, a vision in which women were recognised as individuals who were equal citizens rather than bearers of the ‘honour’ of the family, community or caste.

The proposed legislation aimed at limiting the practices that reproduce brahmanical patriarchy and challenged, as Rege writes, compulsory endogamy, the absence of women’s absolute right to property, the indissolubility of marriage for women, and polygamy.

Ambedkar saw the lack of political will as the reason for the stalling of the Bill and it was one of several issues that led to him resigning from the Constituent Assembly in 1951.

Rege presents extracts from the statement he distributed to people outside the Assembly in which he expressed deep disappointment at the treatment of the Hindu Code Bill.

Here, he explains the importance he attached to the Bill: ‘To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society, untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap’. Ambedkar’s writing is not only sharp and clear but also filled with wit and humour.

Rege brings together her rich research on the Ambedkarite movement to illustrate its recognition of Ambedkars’s gendered understanding of caste. She shows how Ambedkerite events in Maharashtra ‘reveal that the claiming of a feminist Ambedkar has a much longer and richer history outside the academia’.

In both, the introduction to the book and to the sections, Rege has laid out the context beautifully, making the essays accessible to even a reader who may not have had any exposure to debates on caste in India. She draws from an impressive range of sources.

This is a job of a thorough scholar who brings together a whole archive that has not been accessible to the non-Marathi literate audience. We get a rich picture of the Dalit counter public — the songs sung, poems recited and posters designed on Ambedkar and his life.

We learn details about Ambedkar, such as that he loved watching movies — a snippet drawn from the memoirs of Ambedkar’s cook Sudarna Genu Gangawane. This book should be essential reading for all students of social science.

It is also for those who want to bridge the gap in their education on great thinkers and statesmen in Indian history, and build a deeper understanding of the gendered nature of caste.

Janaki Abraham is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics.

First Published: Jul 05, 2013 22:16 IST