Why are those who consume beef reviled as Untouchables? The trace of this animus lies in the post–sixth century CE creation of distinctions between beef-eating Untouchables, meat-eating non-Brahmins and the mostly vegetarian Brahmins. To unearth this lost history, Dr B.R. Ambedkar undertakes a forensic examination of a wide range of Brahmanic literature. He exposes how the cow-loving Brahmin, for whom ‘every day was a beef-steak day’ in the Vedic period becomes a vegetarian, while the Buddhists who remained beef-eaters become Untouchable and are fenced out of society. At once partisan and dispassionate, militant and meticulous, Ambedkar reveals how some histories are brutalised by time and made to disappear.
First published in 1948, The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?, in Ambedkar’s words is ‘a work of art even more than of history’. This extensively annotated selection, Beef, Brahmins and Broken Men, furthers his sleuthish search. Every source is examined, every thought unpacked, every knot untied. In a bracing introduction, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd argues how the right to eat beef is the right to equality, it is the right to life.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956) was a radical thinker, statesman, lawyer, editor of newspapers and many books, economist, jurist, philosopher, and founder of a school of Buddhism. Born into an ‘Untouchable’ Mahar family in Mhow in present-day Madhya Pradesh, he waged a relentless, lifelong struggle for the rights of Dalits. Having earned doctorates from both Columbia University and the London School of Economics, he went on to serve as Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism along with half a million followers a few monthsbefore his death in 1956.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political thinker best known for Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy and Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution.
Alex George, a philosophy graduate from Birkbeck College, London, is an editor with Navayana.
S. Anand is the publisher of Navayana. He is the coauthor of Bhimayana, and has annotated the critical editions of B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste and Riddles in Hinduism.
In the Media
Read an excerpt from Kancha Ilaiah’s introduction which was published in Caravan.
An excerpt from Ambedkar’s text on the conflict between Brahmanism and Buddhism and how it led to the Brahmins first giving up eating beef appeared in The Hindu.
‘The book has the rare ability to confront research problems and dead-ends with the precision of a surgeon’s tools’.—BusinessLine
‘This is an important book that will give valuable ammunition to the forces that oppose the most glaring abuses of human rights in India today’—Wendy Doniger
‘This book exposes the duplicity and falsehood of the civilizational argument on which the entire Hindutva superstructure stands’—Anand Teltumbde
‘A huge intellectual endeavour. A labour of love!’—Vaibhav Abnave
‘Ambedkar makes a moving and completely original argument in this work to try and understand how untouchability came to be and what it became’—Uma Chakravarti
‘I applaud the spirit of this project… The urgency of the annotations is derived from questions, problems and passions that belong to our times’—Soumyabrata Choudhury