In his incomplete work Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India, Dr BR Ambedkar credits Buddha and his teachings for laying the foundation of a revolution more than two millenniums ago. Buddha (died 486 BCE) repudiated the authority of the Vedas, harped on good conduct for salvation, and denounced the caste system as well as the ghastly, expensive ritual of animal sacrifice.

Under the Buddhist revolution, knowledge was not deemed the monopoly of the twice-born. Into the sangha, the monastic order Buddha founded, the Shudras were admitted – they could become bhikku, the Buddhist equivalent of Brahmins. Salvation was not ruled out for women, who had their own order, the bhikkhuni sangha.

Not only was the hegemony of Brahmins challenged, they also experienced a loss of status under the Mauryan dynasty (321 BCE-187 BCE). This was because “Ashoka made it [Buddhism] the religion of the state”, Ambedkar writes in Revolution and Counter-Revolution. That delivered the “greatest blow to Brahmanism. The Brahmins lost all state patronage and were neglected to a secondary and subsidiary position”.

Ambedkar writes that the withdrawal of state patronage affected the earnings of Brahmins, as Ashoka banned animal sacrifice, over which only they could preside in return for lavish gifts. “The Brahmins therefore lived as the suppressed and depressed classes for nearly 140 years during which the Mauryan Empire lasted,” he notes.

The Brahmin counter-revolution

The only escape for the Brahmins from their ignominy was to usher in a counter-revolution. The man who led the charge against Buddhism was Pushyamitra, commander of the Mauryan army. He assassinated King Brihadratha, usurped the throne and inaugurated the Shunga dynasty. Pushyamitra was a Brahmin. His aim was to “destroy Buddhism as a state religion” and deploy the state power to facilitate Brahmanism’s triumph over Buddhism.

Ambedkar provides evidence to bolster his theory of counter-revolution. For one, Pushyamitra performed the Ashvamedha or horse sacrifice on his accession, as if heralding the restoration of Brahmanism’s preeminent status. For the other, Ambedkar writes, “Pushyamitra… launched a violent and virulent campaign of persecution against Buddhists and Buddhism.” Ambedkar refers to Pushyamitra’s proclamation that set a price of 100 gold pieces on the head of every Buddhist monk.

Pushyamitra is indeed depicted in Buddhist texts as the community’s principal tormentor. In Political Violence in Ancient India, Upinder Singh writes of a Buddhist legend that says that “on the advice of a wicked Brahmana, Pushyamitra decided to rival Ashoka’s fame by destroying the 84,000 stupas that the latter had built”. Singh notes that archaeologist John Marshall linked the “great damage” that was “wantonly inflicted” on the famous Sanchi Stupa to Pushyamitra.

Ambedkar also mentions two later rulers, Mihirakula (520 CE) and Shashanka (7th century CE), who killed Buddhists to try to root out Buddhism. “The whole history of India is made to appear as though the only important thing in it is a catalogue of Muslim invasion,” he writes. “If Hindu India was invaded by the Muslim invaders so was Buddhist India invaded by Brahmanic India.”

Manu Smriti and revival

There are many similarities between the two invasions, but also one crucial difference – Islam did not supplant Hinduism, but Brahmanism drove out Buddhism and occupied its place. Whatever remained of Buddhism in India disappeared because of the iconoclasm of Muslim rulers. Ambedkar then delves into the mechanism through which Brahmanism struck such deep roots that Muslim rulers could not uproot it.

He says it was because of the promulgation of Manu’s code of law or the Manu Smriti. Unlike many contemporary historians who date the Manu Smriti anywhere between 200 BCE and 200 CE, Ambedkar painstakingly cites sources to show it was compiled between 170 BC and 150 BCE. That places the Manu Smriti in Pushyamitra’s reign.

According to Ambedkar, Manu’s code established the right of Brahmins to rule, turned them into a privileged class by a margin, converted the Varna into caste, degraded the status of Shudras and women, introduced the idea of “graded inequality”, and created “conflict and anti-social” feelings among castes. Manu bestowed on Brahmins monopoly over the teaching of the Vedas, apart from re-introducing the ritual of sacrifice.

Undoubtedly, Revolution and Counter-Revolution creates a neat binary of Brahmins and Buddhists without the greyness implicit in any reading of the past. Perhaps Ambedkar’s own experience of the inequality perpetuated by caste permeated into his aborted work. His insights did indeed influence the framing of the Indian Constitution, which signified a revolution of the democratic kind. It abolished untouchability, recognised the equality of all citizens before the law, and provided for positive discrimination or reservation for depressed groups.

A new counter-revolution?

On this day of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, a question therefore: is India in 2018 witnessing a counter-revolution of the kind Pushyamitra ushered in so violently in 187 BCE? This question needs to be asked not just because of the spurt in atrocities committed on Dalits and the denial of their rights. It should be raised because the legal basis for establishing equality seems threatened.

For instance, the Supreme Court has decreed that the college, not the department, should be taken as a unit for calculating reserved posts, the number of which is consequently expected to dwindle. Then on March 20, the court infamously diluted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, by giving the accused a degree of protection from arrest, with an aim to curb misuse of the law. This goaded Dalits to call a Bharat Bandh on April 2. It saw the upper castes mobilise and attack Dalits. In a throwback to the 1990 protest against the VP Singh government’s decision to provide job quotas for Other Backward Classes, the upper castes organised a bandh of their own against reservations on April 10.

It is the Sangh Parivar that has sustained upper caste hopes on rolling back reservation. For instance, before the 2015 Bihar elections, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat spoke of reviewing the policy of affirmative action.

Or take the position the Narendra Modi government took on K Mahajan versus State of Maharashtra, the case that led to the March 20 Supreme Court order. Amarendra Sharan, amicus curiae (adviser to the court) in the case, accused the government of agreeing that “anticipatory bail could be given in case there is no prima facie case being made out under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act”. He also said it was the additional solicitor general who had supplied data on misuse of the Act.

The luminaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party – Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde, for instance – have repeatedly spoken of framing a new Constitution. To achieve such a goal, the BJP needs to win majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This mission the government’s position on K Mahajan services – it polarised the upper castes and sections of Shudras against Dalits.

Dalit activists and supporters march against the Supreme Court order on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act during the Bharat Bandh on April 2. (Credit: PTI)

‘Graded inequality’

It may seem bewildering that the Sangh, undeniably the principal sponsor of 21st-century Brahmanic thought, should repeatedly win the support of non-upper castes. Ambedkar’s “graded inequality” explains the phenomenon well:

“… Inequality is not half so dangerous as graded inequality. Inequality does not last long. Under pure and simple inequality two things happen. It creates general discontent which forms the seed of revolution. It makes the sufferers combine against a common foe on a common grievance.”

By contrast, graded inequality, of which the caste system is an example, prevents the rise of general discontent that can become the “storm centre of revolution”. Ambedkar explains: “[With] the sufferers… becoming unequal both in terms of the benefit and the burden there is no possibility of a general combination of all classes to overthrow the inequity.”

This possibility is further reduced because the ruler adopts the divide and rule policy, of which the Modi government’s position on K Mahajan is an instance. It will soon sub-categorise the Other Backward Classes into three groups and slice and distribute the 27% reservation unequally among them. The government is also keen on passing the National Commission for Backward Classes Bill, which will vest in Parliament the power to exclude and include a social group from the reservation pool. This may just become the route to squeeze in Jats, Marathas and Kapus into the Other Backward Classes for reservation. The phenomenon of graded inequality will prompt the Shudras to fight among themselves; the beneficiaries will likely swing behind the BJP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has concertedly sought to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar. (Credit: PTI)

Co-option and communal tension

The other method of ushering in counter-revolution is through co-option of radical forces. A resurgent Brahmanism co-opted Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu, blunting whatever edge Buddhism retained after attacks from Pushyamitra, Mihirakula, and Shashanka. Likewise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has concertedly sought to appropriate Ambedkar.

Another favoured method of counter-revolution is to fan communal tension to spawn affinity among castes. In his Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar notes, “A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes, except when there is a Hindu-Moslem riot. On all other occasions each caste endeavours to segregate itself and distinguish itself from other castes.” It is to forge a bond among castes that Sangh footsoldiers target Muslims in the hope the BJP will benefit from it electorally.

Commentators have often spoken of the “Muslim question”, the “Dalit question” and such like. It is strange that they have never thought of discussing the “upper caste question”. It is to the reactionary elements among the upper castes that commentators should turn to preach, for it is their conduct that imperils the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity enshrined in our Constitution. The very ideas, however rudimentary, that Pushyamitra’s counter-revolution of 187 BCE undermined.