On December 25, 1927, Babasaheb Ambedkar burned Manusmriti as a symbol of rejection of the religious basis of untouchability. The event was arranged during the Mahad Satyagraha. Mahad Satyagraha was a fight to assert the Dalits’ right to access public water, and to embrace humanity and dignity. For Babasaheb—a staunch advocate of women’s rights and emancipation—it was a political action to burn Manusmriti publicly as he believed that the book entailed the rules preaching inhumane treatment not only towards women but also Dalits, in private as well as public sphere.
The Manusmriti Dahan Divas is celebrated today too, after close to 90 years of its burning. But my question is, who has been celebrating this day all along? Why should we still celebrate it?
Babasaheb had addressed the masses before the event saying, “Let’s destroy the authority of ancient Hindu scriptures that are borne in inequality. Religion and slavery are not compatible.” After his speech, his associate Bapusaheb Sahastrabuddhe said, “Even though I am born as a Brahmin, I condemn the doctrines of Manusmriti. It is a symbol not of religion but of inequality, cruelty and injustice. I move a resolution that the Manusmriti which has been the cause of sufferings for generations, should be publicly burned.”
At 9 pm that night, the book was burned at the hands of Bapusaheb Sahastrabuddhe and six Dalit sadhus. The three banners on the poles erected on the corners of a pit (dug for burning the Manusmriti), read: 1.”Manusmriti chi Dahan Bhumi” (Crematorium for Manusmriti), 2. Destroy Untouchability, and 3. Bury the Brahmanism.
Following are some of the things that Manusmriti prescribes:
- Since a woman is not capable of living independently, she is to be kept under the custody of her father as a child, under her husband as a woman (wife) and under her son as a widow.
- It is the duty of all husbands to exert total control over their wives. Even physically weak husbands must strive to control their wives.
- While performing namkarm and jatkarm, Vedic mantras are not to be recited by women, because women lack strength and knowledge of vedic texts. Women are impure and represent falsehood.
- Consuming liquor, association with wicked persons, separation from her husband, rambling around, sleeping for unreasonable hours and dwelling are six demerits of women.
- In case a woman, proud of the greatness of her excellence or her relatives, violates her duty towards her husband, the King shall arrange to have her thrown before dogs at a public place.
- Brahman men can marry Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and even Shudra women but Shudra men can marry only Shudra women.
- In case a woman enjoys sex with a man from a higher caste, the act is not punishable. But on the contrary, if a woman enjoys sex with a lower caste man, she is to be punished and kept in isolation.
- In case a man from a lower caste enjoys sex with a woman from a higher caste, the person in question is to be awarded the death sentence. And if a person satisfies his carnal desire with women of his own caste, he should be asked to pay compensation to the woman’s faith.
- Men may be lacking in virtue, be sexual perverts, immoral and devoid of any good qualities and yet women must constantly worship and serve their husbands.
No wonder Manusmriti Dahan Divas is also celebrated as Stree Mukti Divas.
The level of cruel injustice directed towards Dalits in the laws of Manusmriti can be seen in the Peshwa rule in Maharashtra which had implemented most of the laws from Manusmriti. The Dalits had to carry a broom stick attached to their backs so that when they enter the city, their footprints would not pollute the path. They were forced to put a pot around their neck to carry their spit in the pot. They were not allowed to hold any arms, and education was completely barred. Dalits were killed if they did not follow these restrictions.
However, Manusmriti was unjust towards Dalits as well as women across castes. The evil practices like Sati and child marriage are the best examples of this. Dr. Ambedkar acknowledged that Manusmriti restricts women from enjoying many rights such as education, independence, inheritance of wealth, etc. The book defines a woman merely as a sex object who is always dependent on and is protected by her male counterpart from childhood to old age. Manusmriti also gave rights to the upper caste men to not only own but also sexually exploit the Shudra women.
However, Ambedkar’s action was criticised by many people. Some even asked, “What is achieved by burning the Manusmriti?” Babasaheb answered, “What did Gandhi achieve by burning foreign clothes? This was the form of registering the protest, so was ours against Manusmriti.” For those who said “It is an outdated booklet“, his answer was, “Why then to give importance to it? How does it matter to you if somebody burns it?” He further declared that if unfortunately, this burning of Manusmriti does not result in destruction of ‘Brahmanya’, we will have to either burn the ‘Brahmanya-grast’ people (that is, people affected by Brahminism) or renounce Hinduism.
It is significant today to look at the specific occasion Babasaheb chose to burn the Manusmriti. From the beginning, like Jotiba Phule, Babasaheb had hoped that since in the eyes of Manu, women and Dalits were equally ridiculed, emancipation of women would lead to emancipation of lower castes too. Unfortunately, things haven’t changed! While in the past we saw opposition to the Hindu Code Bill—proposed by Babasaheb to give women their rights—by dominant and upper caste women themselves, today we see their silence on the issues of lower caste women. We witnessed their apathy towards Khairlanji massacre. They were also not as vocal to fight for justice to Delta as they have been by coming on roads for Nirbhaya or the Kopardi case.
Today, what is more surprising is that the rituals like Vat Puja or Karva Chauth have become more festive than before and are celebrated by young women too. Why is it so? Why do we see the “scientific” justifications for celebrating Vat Puja, observing fasts or the “logic” behind putting kumkum on forehead? I feel, more than earlier, Manu today has strengthened his roots in more rigid ways with the help of “modern science” and capitalism.
We have allowed Manu to enter our popular culture, TV shows and serials. We see around us the modern Manus in the form of Jyotishis sitting in their “shops” selling unasked-for advice, who are invited on TV shows, and let to interfere in our lives. We have allowed the Manu to enter in our routine lives so much so that we cannot even recognise him now.
I think, today, there is a need to celebrate Manusmriti Dahan Divas more than ever to invoke the subordination and humiliation of women as well as lower caste people. Manu is not just in Manusmriti, he is also in our minds. When are we going to burn the book in there?
Edited by Tejas Harad
Featured Illustration: Shreya Tingal for Feminism In India