B.R. Ambedkar and His Quest For Equality: Women, Caste, and Reform

Ambedkar was born into a Mahar family. As a child, he experienced what caste prejudice meant in everyday life. In school, he was forced to sit outside the classroom on the ground and was not allowed to drink water from taps that upper-caste children used. After finishing school, he got a fellowship to go to the US for higher studies. On his return to India in 1919, he wrote extensively about “upper”-caste power in contemporary society. In 1927, Ambedkar started a temple entry movement, in which his Mahar caste followers participated.

Brahman priests were outraged when the Dalits used water from the temple tank. Ambedkar led three such movements for temple entry between 1927 and 1935. His aim was to make everyone see the power of caste prejudices within society.

The Non-Brahman Movement

In the early twentieth century, the non-Brahman movement started. The initiative came from those non-Brahmancastes that had acquired access to education, wealth, and influence. They also challenged Brahmanical claims to power. One of the champions of this movement was E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, or Periyar, as he was called, came from a middle-class family. Convinced that untouchables had to fight for their dignity, Periyar founded the Self Respect Movement.

He argued that untouchables were the true upholders of an original Tamil and Dravidian culture that had been subjugated by Brahmans. He felt that all religious authorities saw social divisions and inequality as God-given. Untouchables had to free themselves, therefore, from all religions in order to achieve social equality.

Periyar was an outspoken critic of Hindu scriptures, especially the Codes of Manu, the ancient lawgiver, and the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. He said that these texts had been used to establish the authority of Brahmans over lower castes and the domination of men over women. These assertions did not go unchallenged.

The forceful speeches, writings, and movements of lower caste leaders did lead to rethinking and some self-criticism among upper-caste nationalist leaders. But orthodox Hindu society also reacted by founding Sanatan Dharma Sabhas and the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal in the north, and associations like the Brahman Sabha in Bengal.

The object of these associations was to uphold caste distinctions as a cornerstone of Hinduism, and show how this was sanctified by scriptures. Debates and struggles over caste continued beyond the colonial period and are still going on in our own times.

Read More: The Planning Commission and The 5 Year Plans: India After Independence

Open chat