Annihilation of Caste is probably Dr Ambedkar’s most considered statement on the caste issue and its implications for Hindu society and India. It is very probably also the most thoughtful and most acutely argued text by anyone on the question of caste, and therefore deserves to be studied very carefully. The various points Ambedkar makes in this essay need to be discussed ever more seriously because almost all the concerns he addresses in it remain largely unresolved; in fact some of the points he makes are even more relevant now than they were at the time it was written.

Given this, it is good to see the recent resurgence of interest in this text – in the form of new editions with annotations, sometimes with long and well-researched introductions. Most such efforts show a hermeneutical component that involves a historical and ideological contextualisation of the text: this too is unexceptionable. For it would be wrong to presume that such contextualisation necessarily constitutes a disabling distortion – and, as we know, there is every reason to be suspicious of readings that claim to be free of interpretation.

However, there are degrees of hermeneutic depth in these various readings, and different contexts and purposes where a particular reading, or a set of readings of varying depths, is appropriate. There is another point we should keep in mind when considering context. The proper way of using context is as an enabler for interpretation. But sometimes context may be used to imprison a text – such that we fail to see its larger significance and deeper implications beyond the immediate circumstance of its utterance.

There is also a peculiar phenomenon in relation to great texts – such as literary classics, milestone writings that herald the beginning of a new intellectual era, and works that have become all-too-too familiar because they have been so frequently cited. The phenomenon consists in this: everybody seems to know about the text; some even seem to know the text itself and are vaguely aware of its contents, its central plot or message; and yet it is as if all of that has turned the text itself into an opaque, unsignifying object.

The text itself means nothing any more. The similarity here is to what happens when you recite some profound formula every day, the result of which is that, after some time, the formula’s meaning is no longer heard. It becomes pure sound. It becomes a mantra. It mutates from a text meant to be read and understood into a script for recitation. I venture to suggest that Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste has suffered a similar fate.

Not merely Dalit thinkers and professed Ambedkarites but every politically and socially aware person knows about this text, and of course they know what it is all about: they know Ambedkar said that caste should be annihilated; it is inescapable, it is in the title. But the extraordinary thing is that, when they say this, one gets the impression that the very phrase “annihilation of caste” no longer registers; its enormous implications are not even noticed; the several important points Ambedkar makes in this essay – each of which deserves serious reflection – seem to have coalesced in the vision of most readers into an amorphous and stubborn position against caste; Ambedkar’s nuanced stance, the moral basis of his arguments, the perspective from which he is speaking, are completely lost sight of.

The obvious paradox in this is that those who profess their most devoted admiration for Ambedkar and claim to share his view that the caste system should be demolished take positions that seem to serve the perpetuation of caste. Their engagement in identity politics and their endorsement of caste-based populism further confirm this impression.

The aim here is thus to bring Ambedkar’s essay back into our focused awareness. Annihilation of Caste needs to be read, understood, and implemented in all seriousness and must be brought back as a living text into our political consciousness. The recent commentaries and elaborately introduced new editions may have had the same objective. But I feel that, in order to properly meet this objective, we must re-present the text without distractions of any kind.

We must with a certain insistence ask the reader to concentrate his attention on what this essay is saying, and only on what it is saying. To this end, I attempt here to meet that objective in a somewhat different way. My method here – if it may be called that – is to offer what you might call a minimalist reading of the text which does not try to frame it in complex historical and inter-textual contexts, focusing instead and almost entirely on what Ambedkar was actually saying in this particular essay.

One of the things such an attempt involves is an avoidance of any reference to the other writings or pronouncements of Ambedkar, unless he himself makes such references – which, incidentally, are few and not very significant. There is reason to believe that Ambedkar wanted this lecture (the essay was originally a lecture) to be received as a stand-alone statement, and it seems to me that he made it rounded and autonomous enough to that end.

To come back to the present work, another facet of my approach involves an abjuration of anything ad hominem, the term understood in a very large sense. This follows from the view, to which I subscribe, that all texts that engage with ideas should be treated as anonymous. That is to say, I am not going to look at the text through the lens of Ambedkar’s life and circumstances.

As such, this may not be an issue. But in the specific case of Ambedkar it is quite possible that my insistence on bracketing out his identity when reading his text will seem wholly objectionable to a significant number of readers. Let me be clear: I readily concede that we cannot fully appreciate the passion, the anguish, and the painful earnestness of his statements, questions, and rejections on the question of caste in this text without grasping how much his own experience of belonging to a “low caste” and the interiority of being an “untouchable” moulded his thinking. But I wish to suggest that bringing this factor into the picture has, from a larger perspective, undesirable implications that outweigh any advantage derived from bringing the experiences and identity of the author into the frame of reading his text.

Excerpted with permission from Understanding BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation Of Caste, Syed Sayeed, Permanent Black.