Assessing Ambedkar’s Controversial Manusmriti Dahan
Burning of Manusmriti on 25th December 1927 by Babasaheb Ambedkar inspired a new style of defiance of the Manusmriti. The Manusmriti, literally "reflections of Manu", is a theological document that came into being roughly 1,800 years back and propelled a comprehensive code of conduct for human society. This very code of conduct, categorically its position on women and caste, and its implications for South Asian theology and socio-cultural fabric is widely debated.
Focus on the Brahmin-Kshatriya Dynamic Of nearly 2,500 verses in Manusmriti, more than a thousand are for kings and governance, a similar number of verses pertain to Brahmanas, whereas only eight pertain to Vaishyas and two pertain to Shudras. Devadutt Patnaik, an Indian mythologist, uses this to suggest that the Manusmriti’s focus has been the relationship between the kings and the Brahmanas, instead of the entire society.
Is a critique of Manusmriti an attack on Hinduism?
Many Indians, who view the Manusmriti as a law book for Hinduism, hold a belief that its critique is an outright attack on Sanatan Dharma; and compare it with disrespecting the Sharia, or the Church dogma, for instance. While it is understandable that religious discourse is a sensitive topic, it is important to note a critical fallacy in this belief. Manusmriti is not the law book for Hinduism. Instead, it is a Sanskrit code of conduct put forth by Brahmanas and is a part of the Dharmashastras. This code was only rigidified with the coming of British, as it was used as a basis for constructing the Hindu personal law.
Manusmriti on Caste System & Women
The laws of the Manusmriti claim a divine sanction for the hierarchical ordering of society. The Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas are accorded the status dvija (twice-born) whereas Shudras having a ‘single-birth’ are deemed as ‘unclean’ and unfit to study the Vedas. The supreme duty or dharma of a Shudra was to serve his dvija masters. The Dalits, a community to which Ambedkar belonged, were entirely left out of this four-fold division and systematically exploited as a result. The Manusmriti’s strict emphasis on maintaining the caste boundaries led to various controls over women’s sexuality in order to avoid inter-caste marriages. Manu says, “A girl, a young woman, or even an old woman should not do anything independently, even in (her own) house. In childhood a woman should be under her father’s control, in youth under her husband’s, and when her husband is dead, under her sons.” The seclusion of women, the insistence of their being married immediately on entering puberty and the stern norms of chaste behaviour laid down for them are necessary to maintain caste-purity. Gradually, the position of women deteriorated in the Hindu society. They were denied education and treated at par with the Shudras.
Ambedkar was critical of the inherent inequalities in the Hindu society. He was born in the Mahar caste and could not shake off the stigma of untouchability associated with his ‘low birth’. How could people owe their allegiance to a system which discriminated and divided people on basis of their caste and gender? This question mortified Ambedkar, who argued for ‘annihilation of caste’ as the only means to secure social justice, economic and political reforms in India. As part of the Mahad Satyagraha, a fight to assert Dalits' right to access public water, Ambedkar burned the Manusmriti as a symbol of rejection of the religious basis of untouchability. This event on December 25, 1927 marked the Manusmriti Dahan Divas. It is also celebrated as Stree Mukti Divas to challenge the exploitative gender norms prescribed in Manusmriti. Ambedkar continued his struggle against the caste system. As the chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, he was instrumental in the legislation for abolition of untouchability. His lasting legacy was to institutionalize constitutional morality among people, based on principles of equality and social justice, which would triumph the social morality based on discriminatory practices sanctioned by Hindu texts.
Parallels with Pastor Terry Jones' ‘Burn Quran Day'
Believers of the Manusmriti often invoke parallels between Manusmriti Dahan and Pastor Terry Jones’ Burn Quran Day. The Florida pastor, Terry Jones, was arrested in Mulberry, right before he planned to burn 2,998 Qurans on the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. However, there are some fundamental differences between the two incidents. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit Hindu at the time of Manusmriti Dahan, belonged to a community which had suffered at the expense of the ideas promoted by the Manusmriti, whereas Terry Jones in no way belonged to a community oppressed by the Quran.
Almost 93 years after the public burning of Manusmriti, the text still underpins many oppressive social policies in India. The recent introduction of ‘Love-Jihad law' is a testimony to the fact that age old customs still supersede the concerns of consent and individual choice. In this context, Manusmriti Dahan Divas still remains relevant as a potent instrument to achieve the emancipation of women and lower castes. Ambedkar’s radical call to destroy the ideals of the Manusmriti are essential to establish a religion of liberty, equality and fraternity, and to bring to life his vision of annihilation of caste.
By Amitoj Singh Kalsi & Kush Bansal
Amitoj is the Publisher of Hindu College Gazette and works as the President of The Symposium Society. He is a raging queer feminist and a public policy aficionado. Currently in his final undergraduate year at Hindu College, University of Delhi.
Kush works as an Associate Editor at Hindu College Gazette and is a third year Political Science student at Hindu College. Interested in political theory, he loves a conversation on ethics and moral philosophy. He is also a sports enthusiast and plays football and tennis.