“Waiting for a Visa” is a short autobiographical account by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, written in 1935-36 and first published as a booklet by the People’s Education Society in 1990. In 1993, this text was included in Volume 12 of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, published by the Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra.
The curse of untouchability and caste-based discrimination have ruined the Dalit community for generations and continue to be the primary concern of contemporary Indian society. The title, “Waiting for a Visa,” is metaphorical - a government provides “Visa” only when the individual is a formally approved citizen of a country, and therefore, indicates that the country will take complete custody of the safety and protection of that person. The title, “Waiting for a Visa,” thus suggests how the ‘untouchable’ Dalit community still awaits acceptance or welcome not only from the Indian government but also from the society in general. The outside world is unaware of this idea of untouchability alongside the special case of the caste system and according to Ambedkar, the only way of explaining this issue to the international audience is to narrate them certain instances of untouchability. He does so by referring to some of the unfortunate incidents among many, including a few from his own life experiences.
(In pic: Ambedkar In center line first from right with his professors and friends from the London School. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
In Chapter I of the text, Ambedkar recalls the terrible experiences of his childhood. He and his siblings were refused any assistance as they travelled to meet their father who was in a different town, on the grounds that they belonged to the ‘untouchable’ caste. The author remembers the intolerance and discriminative practices of his school directed towards the Dalit children, which left grave, indelible impressions on his mind. Ambedkar’s family and community were ignored, despised and hated in Satara, their hometown, and as a mere nine-year-old, he would feel shattered and extremely traumatized the face of such immense cruelty and derision.
However, it is in Chapter II of “Waiting for a Visa” that one gets to read about a different dimension of the vulnerability and helplessness of the untouchable community. Following his completion of postgraduate studies from both Columbia University, New York, and The London School of Economics and his subsequent return to India in 1918, even as a learned and qualified individual, Ambedkar discovers that he is particularly unwanted by the Hindu hotels and is not allowed accommodation anywhere when he returns to serve the State of Baroda. In fact, the acute disrespect and casteist intolerance Ambedkar experiences become so hard to endure that it forces him to leave the place. This chapter is a lesson on how caste-based discrimination is fostered through religious differences and decadence of the fundamental values of humanism.
It is also significant to note that a huge portion of the Dalit community yet remains unaware of the primary human rights. Their members are often oblivious and unconscious of what it is that they are deprived of and exactly how the mechanisms of the Hindu caste system function against their well-being. In Ambedkar’s third instance, he is met with a threatening accident, much due to the nescient nature of the Dalits. Hindu tongawallas refuse to transport Ambedkar from one bank to the other in the fear that it will cause them to lose their own dignity. This particular incident compels the reader to grasp the severity of the problem. The sheer impudence in considering oneself superior to the other is highly dangerous and needs to be eliminated immediately. The inherent attitude of intolerance and fanaticism in the Indian temperament is a long-drawn result of the colonial subjugation which has barred every prospect of growth in the subcontinent for the past fifty years.
A person who is untouchable to a Hindu is also an untouchable to all other religions. Ambedkar explains that the tendency to oppress that manifests itself in this very practice of untouchability is naturally incorporated in different religions. In chapter IV of the text, Ambedkar draws attention to the superstition of impurity and sinful contamination. Casteism harbours this belief wherein people from lowest rings of caste system, the untouchables, are not allowed to touch or utilise the items of everyday use to preserve the prestige of the higher castes. However, the holy scriptures of several religions state that a person should never refuse water to another human because it is the least we can offer to a fellow human. The disrespect and discourtesy towards these values are appalling and shameful.
The following chapter unfolds yet another dreadful tale of injustice and corruption. When the superstition of untouchability reigns supreme over a medical practitioner’s code of conduct, we can surely assume that society has hit its nadir. Ambedkar introduces this story published in Mahatma Gandhi’s journal, named “Young India,” dated December 12, 1929. A Dalit school teacher loses his wife in childbirth due to the lack of medical attention. Their identity as untouchables prevents the doctor from attending to the needs of the dying mother. Ambedkar concludes the fifth incident by portraying the uselessness of the doctor’s code of conduct which binds him to his profession, illustrating how a Hindu will wholeheartedly prefer to be inhuman and abandon an ailing human rather than touching an ‘untouchable.’
It is futile to prove one’s worth before a society which recognises individuals based solely on their birth-based caste identities, which in turn plays a crucial role in determining their class identities. The untouchable communities of India have proved time and again that they have immense academic capabilities to lead dignified lives, yet have been deprived of equal opportunities for as long as one can remember. The suicide of Rohith Vemula – much contended as a political murder – in 2016 triggered massive strings of protest within the student communities across India, although hardly inducing visible, constructive response from the government. Furthermore, attacks on the marginalised or minority communities have continued ever since, with no evident action taken to prevent so. In chapter VI of the text, Ambedkar narrates the story of a Bhangi boy who receives no respect and dignity in his profession as a Talati (village Patwari or scribe). It becomes practically impossible for the Bhangi boy to continue his job as a Talati when the villagers refuse to obey him due to his caste identity, a direct consequence of the widespread practice of untouchability and the deep-rooted prejudices that back it is prevalent in reputed government offices in India. Their alarming threats force the boy to leave his job permanently and resettle with his parents in Bombay.
This unrestrained hatred on the Shudras and the untouchables began approximately in the early medieval period of India. One can find evidences of torture and suppression even in medieval Indian texts. In the Mahabharata, Karna is barred from participating in the Swayamvar of Draupadi because of him being a ‘Shudaputra’, an offspring of the fourth varna, deeming him unfit for the task. Ambedkar, as a member of the Simon Commission in 1925, tried his very best in addressing several problems regarding untouchability. His leadership in the historic Mahad Satyagraha of 1927 had generated a profound impact on the Indian government and had paved way for securing fundamental rights for the Dalits. Ambedkar, in his Annihilation of Caste, firmly proffers his thoughts on the discriminatory features of the Hindu texts like Manusmriti and the Vedic verses of “Purushasukta”. In “Waiting for a Visa”, Ambedkar’s captivating style of storytelling evoke the true emotions and hardships behind these experiences. It makes one aware of the centuries-old religious dogma that makes people turn a blind eye to the ultimate cause of human peace and liberty, while promoting hatred and spreading disharmony among caste-communities for no valid reason. In today’s times of intolerance accompanied by ruthless exhibition of unmitigated force, it is the phenomenal works such as these by the likes of Ambedkar that deserve to be read and appreciated all around the globe.
Ambedkar, B.R. “Waiting for a Visa.” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Speeches and Writings, vol. 12, edited by Vasant Moon, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp.661-691.
Barshana Banerjee studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. She loves to study Asian-African mythology, Renaissance paintings and has a great interest in Western comics. Her favourite authors are Guy de Maupassant and Arundhati Roy.