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Why they hate Manu? - Colonial history, the Manusmriti, and Dalits’ struggle for emancipation

Dr Ashish Kumar, Assistant Professor of History, Panjab University, Chandigarh, India


Manu, the supposed author of the Manusmriti (dated circa 200 BCE-CE 200), is one of the most controversial figures in the 21st century India; being hated by some for instituting a legal code that assigned a humiliating position in the Hindu society to Dalits, Manu has also several admirers, some of whom have even established his lofty statue in the court complex of the Rajasthan High Court. Derived from his very name, the expressions, viz., ‘Manuvada’ and ‘Manuvadi’ are the well conceptualised terms that are widely used by Dalits in their literature, speeches and dialogues to highlight the caste-hierarchy-endorsing attitude of higher caste Hindus. The question that this paper raises is: Why Manu? How and when Manu and his legal code (Manusmriti) entered into public domain, and became the symbol of Dalit’s oppression? The proposed paper argues that the colonial interventions in Indian legal system transformed Manu into the father-figure of India’s Hindu law, and as a result, the Manusmriti whereas became in itself the first act of caste-discrimination symbolically, Manu -the author of Manusmriti, became the script-writer of Dalit enslavement. Translations of the Manusmriti (i.e., Code of Gentoo Laws, 1776; Ordinances of Manu, 1794; Digest of Hindu Law, 1797-98) that had been produced in the last quarter of the 18th century with the active participation of several Brahmin scholars from Bengal under the company officials (e.g., Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, William Jones and Henry Thomas Colebrooke), actually not only brought the Manusmriti into public domain, but also it made it an authoritative text, which could be used to develop laws to govern modern Hindus; the credit to write the first history of the Hindu India goes to James Mill (History of British India, 1817), who had used mainly the English translations of the Manusmriti as the primary source for recreating an image of Hindu India, in which caste was shown to have had shaped ancient Indians’ everyday life. It is argued in the proposed paper that Mill’s history transformed the Manusmriti into a hegemonic text by inventing the theory of oriental despotism on the basis of this very text. Once the Manusmriti was accepted as the earliest law book that created the ancient Hindu society by regularising social stratification (caste hierarchy, gender roles), Manu began to be seen as a founder of the caste-system, and therefore, he was held responsible for the exploitation and discrimination of Dalits even in the modern times. The burning of the Manusmriti by Dalits under the leadership of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on 25th December 1927 is celebrated as ‘Manusmriti Dahan Divas’ (Manusmriti Burning Jayanti) every year by Dalit groups, and it underlines not only their anger against Manu but also the caste-system that Manu is believed to have had first instituted through the Manusmriti in ancient times.

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