Relevance of Dialectical Materialism for the Struggle Against the Caste System
Interpretation of the old texts in Marxism to investigate the Indian social reality without an in depth study of the facts is the practice that leads to misunderstanding about Marxism. A view that, material realities of the economic base of society, rather than the ideological superstructure of politics, law, philosophy, religion, and art, drive historical change in the society, is often misinterpreted by the dogmatists as well as the critiques of Marxism. Dogmatic Marxist cling to a position of economic determinism to deal with problems in the superstructural sphere and critiques accuse Marxism for that practice.
Both end up ignoring the dialectical relationship between the concept of base and superstructure in the Marxist theory. It is misinterpretation of Marxism to say that since the changes in the base determine the realisation of new dominant from of politics, culture etc., means that Marxism denies the essential role of struggle in the superstructural sphere in the pre revolutionary period. Moreover, caste is not merely a superstructural issue but is also a part of relations of production operating through economic division of labour. Assertion that ‘the determining factors in the development, relations, and institutions of mankind are not mystical or ideological but economic’ is misinterpreted by the dogmatists and critiques alike. Both misinterpret it, as a deterministic view point.
Many critiques of Marxism are driven by a genuine need to find lacunas in the hitherto Marxist understanding of the Indian social reality in order to gain further insights about problems associated with the superstructural sphere like caste, gender etc. in India. Their approach is that of revitalising or developing Marxism by denying a mere Veda like stature to its texts. Whereas there are some others who share the need to gain deep insights in these issues but prefer to approach their studies without the shadow of any particular school of thought like Marxism. There is no doubt that existing non Marxist trends in the progressive movements like Ambedkarite Movement or NGO driven initiatives in social fields have also made significant contri-butions toward revealing the nuances of the caste struggle as well as struggles in the other areas of social injustice. These initiatives have successfully sensitised the downtrodden classes about the aspect of social discrimination in our society.
Rejecting of Dialectical Materialism As a European Theory
There has been a tendency within the left movement of undermining caste struggle with the excuse of avoiding the divisions in the revolutionary classes. This understanding clearly is not in line with Dialectical materialism. Identity of the lower castes has changed significantly with the growing proletarianisation within its own ranks. Despite that, caste identity remains as part of the false consciousness among those proletarianised. As an ideological system it affects all aspects of social life and acts as a drag on the development of class consciousness of the economically exploited castes.
Dialectical materialism demands a rising of class consciousness within the ranks of revolutionary classes. It follows from this demand that struggle against false consciousness in the ideological field is of utmost importance. Thus, the struggle against the caste system does not weaken the class struggle but actually strengthens it. It does not create divisions but helps to unite the revolutionary classes divided on the lines of caste. As such the objection to dialectical materialism, that its formulation of class based character of societies is irrelevant for the caste based peculiarity of Indian society is unfounded.
The charming simplicity of the premise that we need Indian solutions based on Indian realities to attain our socialism, is very attractive. But Condemnation of the Marxist philosophy and its method as European and position that there can be no general valid global method, stems from the refusal to address the global concerns of the working class and the international character of the movement of social change. It is alleged that Indian solution cannot be obtained from a global perspective originating from abroad. In fact, the concern for the Indian solution does not automatically or necessarily exclude the need for a general theory. To understand the particular there is no need to defy its universal context. To understand the caste particularity of the social reality, it need not be separated from its class context in India. Moreover, to understand the caste system in class perspective does not necessarily follow that caste should be seen as a class. Though the theory of Marxism has its origins in the European working class movement, its significance is not limited only to Europe.
It is not as if, European working class has been as Eurocentric in it approach to the world realities as the European ruling class. Classical Marxism had to adopt a broader world view on account of its emphasis on the international character of the anti capitalist forms of struggle. Marxism does not claim to have answers to all the questions arising from time to time in the ever changing social patterns of the world. Important thing to remember is that Marxism as dialectical materialism is only an outlook or method proposed for social change. It is a method to find answers and therefore is open to new results of investigations. It is not based on presumptions. Dialectical materialism can only help to explore the nuances of the caste society, in that sense Marxism has not provided readymade answer to the annihilation of the caste system beyond indication of its inevitable linkage with the struggle against the world capitalist system. It is upto the Indian people to make appropriate use of it and devise ways of struggles, basing themselves on the principle of dialectical development of society. Those accusing Dialectical Materialism of western bias are themselves victims of the western trend of identity politics with regards to the caste issue in India
Understanding and Changing the Society
Marxism does not stop at correct analysis and theorisation but it has a bearing upon actions to change the reality. It refuses to recognise any knowledge based merely on a logical theory but it seeks validation of theory in experience gained from practical activity aimed at achieving its goal of revolutionary change in a society. Dialectical materialism relies on experiments and verification of concrete facts, objective experience, real history, scientific logic and reasoning as main factors for investigation of the social reality. It does not ignore any source of knowledge peculiar to progressive historical traditions in the pre capitalist period in India or any other society.
Historical materialism needs to understand the progressive contributions made in the field of method of knowledge in the past. The binaries of brahminical and non brahminical along with patriarchal and matriarchal institutional structures in the social history of India are crucial to the understanding of Indian social history. Class perspective of our social history and present society cannot be developed without taking into consideration various non antagonistic contradictions arising from existence of non class social groups among the revolutionary classes.
Dialectical materialism gives a perspective regarding understanding of nature of contradictions and dealing with them. It teaches us to have differentiate between antagonistic and non antagonistic aspects contradictions. Caste contradictions prevalent among the friendly classes of revolution should be treated as non antagonistic and their resolution lies in education, persuasion and a struggle for unity amongst them. Caste antagonism embedded in relations of production and perpetuated by the enemy classes on the other hand should be treated as antagonistic. It means, there can be no reconciliatory approach and those contradictions can be resolved only by defeating the perpetrators of this kind of injustice involving socio-economic subjugation as a class, of the oppressed castes.
Preference for Dialectical Materialism
To Prefer dialectical materialism over the past traditional methods or other methods with non class approach is not denying the progressive role played by the other methods of understanding of reality. In the context of the understanding of the caste system, preference for dialectical materialism does not in any way signify belittling the importance of other progressive methods associated with Ambedkarism, Bahujanwad, neo-Budhism or neo-Marxism.
However, unlike many other epistemological theories, individual perception, individual intellect, individual thinking capacity or power of analysis of any philosopher (including Marx) are not the determining factors for arriving at truth in Dialectical Materialism. The failure of the communist forces in India to come to terms with the caste reality and making it an important part of the class struggle cannot be blamed on their tool of investigation, the dialectical materialism. It does not come in the way of finding Indian solutions to Indian reality.
Essentially the opposition to dialectical materialism stems from the rejection of general method of analysis for entire range of things and phenomenon in nature and society. There has also been a growing sense among critiques that the 21st century social and economic problems cannot be understood by applying methods of 19th century classical Marxism. It is argued that these texts cannot be held as sole fount of truth in the post Soviet period. Idea of universal truths is any way, considered to be out dated in the present post modernist period.
However, truth in the sense of knowledge is separate from a belief. Dogmatist approach to Marxism is often that of merely having a true belief in Marxism. Often, its opposition also stems from some other such belief. Faith in Marxism as a sole fount of truth is not a claim that a serious Marxist can make. Marxist scholar, Maurice Cornforth, in his book ‘The Open Philosophy and the Open Society’ has described the difference between faith and knowledge very categorically. “What we call ‘knowledge’ must also be distinguished from ‘true belief.’ If, for example, there is life on Mars, the belief that there is life on Mars is true belief. But at the same time we certainly, as yet, know nothing of the matter. True belief only becomes knowledge when backed by some kind of investigation and evidence. Some of our beliefs may be true and others false, but we only start getting to know which are true and which are false when we undertake forms of systematic investigation....For nothing can count as ‘knowledge’ except in so far as it has been properly tested.”
In the background of the failed projects of socialist construction in different parts of the world, it is natural to wish for alternative approaches to realising the goal of social development. All such attempts to analyse and develop the methods of investigation are extremely important in as much as they play an important role in realising the emancipation of the oppressed and the exploited. Many such studies being carried out in different fields of social science are providing meaningful insights into the different aspects of social contradictions in the Indian society. Some of these studies of the past and present have revealed many historical facts missed out by the Marxist scholars. Studies in caste also have presented significant aspects of caste reality and exposed the limitations of the Indian Marxists in understanding the deeper reality of the caste question. Such initiatives in alternative approaches to the study of society and their meaningful depth of investigations have woken up the traditional Marxists from their intellectual slumber.
If disproved by scientific investigation of facts, a Marxist according to Georg Lucas should be in a position to reject all of Marx’s thesis in toto, without renouncing Marxism. Lenin and Mao rejected some of the Marx’s observations to bring Marxism in synch with reality of their societies. According to Lucas, Marxism is not about uncritical acceptance of Marx’s investigation. “It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders.”
Alternative to a clearly defined and scientifically justified universal method of dialectical materialism can be found only in another such method with a genuine universal approach. No region specific method suitable only for India or any other society (like euro communism) can replace the universal method of philosophical investigations. However, the post modernist compulsion of negating the universal theory undermines the need to find an alternative universal method itself. But a truth can be negated only by a clear theoretical justification of the alternative newer truth replacing it on the basis of newer scientific knowledge. Similarly a correct universal method can have an alternative only in another newer method based on universal criteria and not in a combination of methods following different principles
While searching for newer methods of investigations, care should be taken that the central function of theory, to change the reality should not be undermined. Some critiques, while negating dialectical materialism as a linear method, suggest a multi-linear approach to understand the complex reality of the Indian society. We should be watchful that such a new theorisation should not stray towards Eclecticism, which is the practice of selecting doctrines from different systems of thought, without theoretically resolving the inherent contradictions in their methods of investigation. Dialectical materialism cannot be replaced by a combination of different approaches based on various doctrines lacking a single unified principle of investigation. A trend within the left social movements in Maharashtra, attempts to support Marxist methods in combination with some of the Buddhist methods in the field of epistemology.
While thus attempting a postmodernist fusion of Indian traditional methods and the so called European Marxism, neither dialects nor materialism is seen in its developed form. It is rejection of a holistic approach to Indian reality of caste and class. Distinctions rather than the commonality is emphasised in this approach to gain knowledge about class and caste. Dialectical Materialistic approach on the other hand seeks to find the common thread in these two categories in order to find solution to the resolution of these two specific woes of contemporary Indian society. It finds class struggle as a common thread and key for the resolution of the caste struggle.
Semi Marxist Method for Caste and Class
Conjoining of two separate approaches for caste and class contradiction to bring about a social change in India denotes a strategy based on bifurcation of the tasks without resolving the inherent contradictions in them. Caste and class issues are so much intertwined in the social fabric of India that without finding a unified method of dealing with them, you cannot deal with any one of them effectively. There will be a confusion if these two are dealt separately. Caste opposites in caste contradiction are not exactly the same as class opposites among the castes in Indian society. Both the phenomenon are at the same time overlapping, inter connected, inter related and determined by each other. They together form the single entity of Indian society and as such need a universal approach common to both.
Acceptance of socialism as a goal on the one hand and use of traditional ancient Indian methods to deal primarily with caste structure of the society is the multi-fold approach taken by some theoreticians from the progressive sections. Such a joint approach fails to understand the symbiotic relation between the class and caste. Fundamental principles of methodology for socialism and traditional Indian methods employed in pre-capitalist traditional societies for dealing with caste differ drastically. One is based on materialist view point while the other is based on Idealism. The so called multi-linear method completely ignores the contradictions arising out of two fundamentally different methods in their application to different social realities of caste in different social periods. The new feature of the contemporary society is the proletarianisation of the downtrodden castes. It demands a radically different principled approach to deal with the caste reality than the one used in the ancient period.
Universality of Dialectical Materialism
Universal method cannot be a mechanical sum of different ways of research chosen by people in different fields at random without consideration for the specific fields. Each of these fields has their specific methods. A universal approach to the method of investigation tries to identify a common principle present in all these specific methods. Understanding class contradictions in different fields of social studies like, culture, gender studies, caste etc will evolve specific binaries and methods to deal with them.
Understanding the caste system will necessitate the understanding of the struggle between the Brahminical and non Brahminical trends in the social practice and identifying the social groups associated with the dominant and oppressed sections of caste. While conducting the studies in Gender justice, one will have to work out specific strategy to deal with patriarchy and its opposition in the form of feminist assertions. At the same time if both these studies are undertaken with a common approach of a class bias, it does not in any way deny the importance of specific methods for specific issues. The problem with demanding primacy to the task of struggle against the caste system over the class struggle is not that it undermines the economic struggle, but that, it refuses to recognise class struggle as a political struggle which includes struggles in both social and economic sphere of politics without primacy of one or the other. Class struggle is thus the universal principle embedded in the struggle against the caste system.
Employing a common approach of class struggle to caste and class does not mean denying the existence of individual distinct issues of these two categories. It does not justify a requirement of combination of methods lacking in principled approach to the social reality as a whole. It actually demands understanding of concrete realities of these issues separately in their distinct and specific contexts and evolving a principled approach. It cannot be termed as indulgence in sectarianism. It does not necessarily be about attaching relations of inferiority to other methods. Dialectical materialism is not based upon prejudice about other methods but is based on scientific laws of social development and has no place for sectarianism.
Class Struggle and Economic Struggle
There exists an essential difference between economic struggle and class struggle. Class struggle is the political expression of countless contradictions between the dominant class and the oppressed classes. Class struggle does not mean the struggle of the working class alone. It is supposed to take in its political fold(not purely economic) all exploited classes and groups consisting of peasants, tribals, oppressed nationalities, women and oppressed castes in India; to challenge not merely the economic domination but also the ideological and political domination of the ruling class. The concept of change which is central to the dialectical materialism is based on the crucial importance of struggle in every field of societal discrimination, oppression and inequality. Identifying class struggle as the key does not mean belittling or neglecting the importance of the caste struggle, in fact it requires intensification of ideological and political struggle against the caste system.
Such a common principle as class struggle identified in all types of social structures does not come in the way of having distinct theories in different subdivisions of social science. Historical Materialism is a theory of social science as distinct from the field of natural sciences but at the same time, shares a common principle of dialectical development with it. It is not a combination of different methods based on different principles. It does not see the need to employ different methods for caste and class at the cost of their in-compatibility in the practice of social change. Even though the laws of development of different processes in nature have their own specific patterns, it does not necessarily mean that identifying the principle of dialectical development as common to all, is a negation of their specificities.
Urgency for Struggle Against the Caste System
Marxism does not necessitate postponement of activities concerning the field of superstructure to the post revolutionary period. It does not suggest that the solutions to the problems in superstructure follow mechanically as a result of revolution in economic relations. Though politics is considered as superstructural phenomenon in Marxism, struggle in the political field is considered as a precursor to the success of the revolution itself. Change in the political system occurs only after the capture of state power and consequent capture of the means of production but political struggle precedes it.
Similarly struggle against the caste system does not have to wait for the post revolutionary period. Caste is not merely a part of the superstructure. Structural analysis of caste reveals that it also forms a part of relation of production as representing a social status associated with economic division of labour. Caste system also include different classes in the same way as classes are also composed of different castes. The upward mobilisation of lower castes based on economic upliftment often leads to caste wars between the lower and upper castes. This form of caste war cannot is not the ultimate expression of class struggle. The caste system must be grasped essentially as hierarchical social system based on exploitative method of economic exploitation.
The real mark of the progressive aspect of the struggle against the social oppression of the higher caste is that it should be led by the revolutionary classes. The caste wars erupting in different parts of India are often led by different ruling class political groups for their parliamentary political gains. It is extremely important to note that distinctions based on caste and class are not purely exclusive of each other in the social reality of India. Therefore it is not correct to counterpose caste struggle to caste struggle. Caste struggle is a part and parcel of the class struggle and cannot be treated as a separate war exclusively against the caste system. Common economic deprivation among the members of a caste inevitably gives rise to a common class consciousness among them.
In fact the class struggle in a society cannot assume a sharp edge without a sufficient arising of a class consciousness in the working class. As such in India, the precondition for a heightened sense of class consciousness demands a will to abolish the caste system in it. Without rising above the caste pride and attitude of caste discrimination working class in India cannot be imbued with class consciousness for a revolutionary purpose. Prior to the revolution a political will has to be constructed through the practice of the advance sections of the revolutionary classes for abolition of the caste system. Struggle against the caste system has to be an important part of the revolutionary political struggle. It does not follow that without prior eradication of caste system in India class revolution cannot be accomplished. Moreover, capturing of state power by the working class along with the other exploited classes, does not amount to automatic changes in the economic relations of production in the society. Success of political revolution and capturing of the ownership of means of production in the hands of revolutionary state, also does not mean automatic dissolution of the caste system.
Relevance of Dialectical Materialism
Struggle against the caste system initiated prior to success of revolution will have to be continued in the post revolutionary period as well. The revolutionary state of socialism in India will have to create economic and social structures with the consideration of destroying the caste system. Without the efforts of the state of socialism backed by a strong post revolutionary movement against it, the caste system cannot be permanently abolished in India.
So the struggle to establish socialism which is the goal of Dialectical materialist method is a struggle not of the workers and peasants alone, it is a struggle of the oppressed castes as well. It is a struggle of all the oppressed sections including women and of the entire humanity. It is the proletarian class that suffers the most, if any form of social oppression is not dealt with. Proletariat has in its ranks, all the oppressed sections of the society besides the oppressed castes. Unless all these sections win the struggle against their specific oppression, proletariat as a class, cannot claim to be freed from oppression. Therefore in the theory dialectical materialism proletariat is expected to play a crucial role.
Here, the term proletariat refers to the proletarian class which is conscious of its revolutionary role and not just an aggregation of individual workers. Capitalism in contemporary India is firmly entrenched in fields of ideology and economic relations. It has also taken the caste system in its firm grip. As such Indian struggle against caste system cannot be won over without dealing with capitalism and waging a class struggle against the semi-feudal ruling class and the capitalist class. Victory of such a struggle in India is possible only by following principles of Dialectical materialism.
Critique of the Approach to Degrade Marxism in Favour of Buddhist Approach to the Caste Struggle
Dialectics in Buddhism as implicit in Praman Samuccaya (compendium of means of valid knowledge) written by Dignaga is in its preliminary form where the ever-changing and impermanent nature of things and phenomenon are identified as dialectical quality and termed as anitya wad (theory of impermanency). Dialectics in Marxism does not stop merely at accepting change and impermanency as characteristics of phenomenon or things, it goes beyond them to enunciate the element of revolutionary qualitative change resulting out of quantitative changes in the process of dialectical development.
According to the Sautantrik method followed in Buddhism, individuality of things is also marked by the distinctive process of change unique to them and as such no general principle of change can be applicable to any individual thing or phenomenon (which are characterised as Ananya). Marxism on the other hand, without negating the individualities of things and phenomenon identifies the principle of dialectical development of matter as a principle of change common to all.
From the Marxist perspective, Dignaga’s assertion that there are only two means of knowledge: direct perception and inference, misses out another important source, that of application of theory in practice. Understanding of the real world in Dignaga theory is only realised in its conceptual cognition and material world is supposed to exists independent and separate from it. Thus, though rejecting the existence of supernatural it does not see unity in matter and consciousness as acknowledged in developed form of dialectical materialism. Thought and consciousness are not in the sphere of material things in the Buddhist theory. Whereas Lenin wrote, “Matter is primary nature. Sensation, thought, consciousness are the highest products of matter organized in a certain way. This is the doctrine of materialism, in general, and Marx and Engels, in particular.”
“Matter is...the objective reality given to man in his sensations, a reality which is copied, photographed, and reflected by our sensations.” Lenin points out. The Buddhist theory has an opposite perspective. It is said that the ‘real’ that is reality of the matter cannot be grasped through sense organs and exists independent from human perceptions, theories, and constructs. That which is perceived by our sense organs is devoid of conceptual knowledge and since concepts are formulated in mind, they are limited in their capacity to grasp the reality in its entirety. Such is the understanding in Dignaga’s theory. However, basing itself on advances in scientific field, Dialectical materialism rejects such a dualistic approach to reality, meaning to matter and consciousness.
Lenin points out that perceptions as given to the human being in his or her sensations, can give correct impression of things. Here the mental activities relating to consciousness too are identified as having physiological bearings in the human body. Thus dialectical materialism treating thought process as materialistic neurological activity driven by chemical substances, does not separate matter from consciousness. It does not see a separation between direct perception through external sense organs and conceptual perception in mind as understood in Dignaga’s Buddhist theory. The whole process of perception according to dialectical materialism is a continuous process occurring through senses.
Theory of exclusion called ‘Apoha’ by Dignaga seeks to explain how it is possible for words to refer to categories of objects even if no such categories have an objective existence apart from their existence as words. For instance, the word cow does not mean a particular cow. Such a category as cow, is the formulation of the brain. Hence the category of cow is only in mind and does to have objective existence like the existing cows in the world. Dignaga’s thesis is that such categories do not refer to positive qualities that their members share in common, also meaning that we do not recognise cows for their aspects of commonality as a category. On the contrary, according to ‘Apoha’, categories are exclusions. As such, the term”cows”, for example, is composed of all exclusions which are common to category denoted by the word cows : like all non-horse, non-elephant, etc. Cows are recognised as not being horses or elephants. (not because they have some common qualities as cow family of mammals.)
Applying this theory to the social reality in India, caste as a category can be understood only as what it is not. As such understanding of caste cannot take place in the context of class and since caste is not class these two distinct categories cannot be understood through a common perspective. As different categories caste and class are supposed to have different principles of change unique to each of them. The Buddhist logic implicit in Dignaga theory is each thing is unique and the process of change in each ting is different and therefore general rule for change is not acceptable. Following this logic, universal method common to caste and class is rejected and a joint method for changes in class and caste structure is followed in the name of ‘Sautantrik Marxism’ as an alternative method of analysis for by some in the left movement in Maharashtra. They are very clear in their assertion that Marxism is not valid enough for Indian situation.
Alternative to a clearly defined and scientifically justified universal method of dialectical materialism can be found only in another such method with a genuine universal approach. No region specific method suitable only for India or any other society (like euro communism) can replace the universal method of philosophical investigations. However, the post modernist compulsion of negating the single universal theory undermines the need to find an alternative universal method itself. But a truth can be negated only by a clear theoretical justification of the alternative newer truth replacing it on the basis of newer scientific knowledge. Similarly a correct universal method can have an alternative only in another newer method based on universal criteria and not in a combination of methods following different principles.
While attempting a postmodernist fusion of Indian traditional methods and the so called European Marxism, neither dialects nor materialism is seen in its developed form. It is only a rejection of a wholistic approach to Indian reality of caste and class without a valid alternative. Distinctions rather than the commonality is emphasised in this approach to gain knowledge about class and caste in the joint method proposed by these critiques. Dialectical Materialistic approach on the other hand seeks to find the common thread in these two categories in order to find solution to the resolution of these two specific woes of contemporary Indian society. It finds class struggle as a common thread and key for the resolution of the caste struggle.
The purpose of this note is to point out that attempts to celebrate indigenous traditions which is a prominent part of post modernist approach to social phenomenon is at the root of negating Marxist view of the caste reality of India. Traditions do play an important role in the social development of a society and also they have bearing on the understanding of the present. However to reject modernist theory of Marxism one can not overlook the limited understanding inherent in the past traditions developed in comparatively elementary form of progressive ideas. Dialectical Materialism based understanding of history and contemporary society never ignores the progressive role played by the various humanist trends in the Indian philosophy. In fact it seeks to build a syncretic progressive movement deriving force from various such anti caste movements deriving inspiration from Buddhist ideas, Ambedkarism, rationalism and various soofie or Bhakti traditions to strengthen the class struggle against the caste system. Progressive ideas of the past cannot be pitted against Marxism in the name of an alternative approach to the struggle against the caste system. We therefore have to depend on Dialectical Materialism to study and work out tactics and strategy of our struggle against the caste system in India.
Dialectical Materialism and Modern Science- JD Bernal, Summary of Dialectics
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Edition,
Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin) Philosophy and Science
Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason by Dr. Martin J. Verhoeven
Comrade U. Sambasiva Rao, well known among his comrades and friends as ‘Usaa’, passed away on the early hours of 25th July in a Hyderabad private hospital. As soon as the information was received, I posted a brief condolence message which stated: “Usaa Passes Away: A Great Loss to the Revolutionary Movement: Com. U. Sambasiva Rao, known to all his close comrades as Usaa, left us. He was admitted to hospital in Hyderabad three days ago after he was tested positive to Covid19. He joined the ranks of communist revolutionaries following the Naxalbari Uprising and was part of the UCCRI (ML) stream. But he had differences with the leadership on the approach of communist movement to the question of caste system and on the importance to be given to caste annihilation. As this difference could not be resolved even after a plenum, he left UCCRI in 1987 and from that time was spearheading this question. Later when com. Sathyamurthi left the CPI(ML) People’s War on the same question, they worked few years together. But as SM decided to join the BSP, he criticized it as an opportunist line and left him.
We met in 2011 and started our discussion on the caste question, in which we had basic agreement, as Red Star was already thinking of launching the caste annihilation movement (CAM). We became ideologically closer on most of the basic questions and started working together in different fields in later years. Presently he was one of the conveners of CAM with responsibility for coordinating the work in South India. He was president of OPDR Telengana committee. He was also president of the broad based Anti-Fascist Movement, Telengana. He was very active in the struggle against alien trends among the CRs and attended the Seminar on caste question during the 11th Congress of the CPI(ML) Red Star.
Unexpectedly, when he passed away on 25th July early morning in a Hyderabad hospital one week after he proved positive to Covid19, immediately a statement was issued which concluded with thee words “It is difficultnot only to me, but to the very large number of comrades active in all fields to think that Usaa will not be with us anymore. Red Salute to Usaa whose departure is a great loss to the whole revolutionary movement”. Our comrades in Telengana and AP reported that many condolence meetings were held, and messages from large number of comrades and friends, colleagues, leaders of other political, cultural, social and democratic rights activists were received showing how much importance they give to his contributions to the communist movement in general, and especially to his tireless efforts to bring the discourse on the approach towards the caste system by the communist movement in our country. A joint effort is already started by his close friends and activists to bring out a memorial issue as early as possible including his contributions in different fields written by comrades who know him for decades as well as reports of his activities in different fields including the caste annihilation movement (CAM), OPDR, and Anti-Fascist Front, Telengana.
During our long discussions during 2011-12, almost 25 years after he left the UCCRI, Usaa explained that his debate was on ideological questions, mainly focusing on the extent of influence of caste question in the socio-cultural-political reality in India. Though the struggle was bitter, he had no personal criticism against any of the old leaders. His fight was ideological, he repeated. Born in a backward caste family, from the childhood itself he could feel the bitterness in the caste divided society and the sufferings of the people belonging to SCs/STs and BCs under Brahmanical, Manuvadi system. He joined the Marxist-Leninist movement for creating a new society, egalitarian in every sense. Degeneration of Soviet Union even after almost four decades of socialist transition had proved that giving answers like ‘everything will become all right once the working class capture power’ is not sufficient. If China also could degenerate to capitalist path even after the Cultural Revolution, the struggle against all inequalities, not only economic, but caste, gender like inequalities also should start from the pre-revolutionary phase itself. It was when these feelings were becoming stronger, the Karanchedu massacre of dalits took place in 1985. Immediately after the massacre, Usaa prepared a press statement with the title “Condemn the massacre of Dalits by Kamma upper caste landlords.” That the party leadership did not like it, he felt from their attitude and words.
By this time, there were heated discussions on the contributions of Dr. Ambedkar, especially on his paper of 1936 on “Annihilation of the Caste”, were taking place. Usaa started studying more of Ambedkar’s works, and the approach of the neo-Ambedkarites. One of these trends had taken Ambedkar’s critic of the communist party’s (CPI) refusal to take up the caste question in relation to the class formation in India when he discussed with its leadership in 1936, to anti-communist positions; upholding identity politics. For them the protection of dalit identity and reservation were main planks of dalit liberation; they became part of the ruling class politics, like BSP, most sections of Republican Party etc; another school of identity politics, who were also taking anti-Marxist positions, and influenced by the post-modernist theories like ‘theory of de-construction.’ pursued the line of NGO politics promoted by imperialist think tanks. But Usaa’s position was different.
He wrote more profusely on these questions and tried to put forward the Bahujan line with Marx-Phule-Ambedkar ideology, calling for unity of dalits, Adivasis and BCs with all revolutionary classes in the concrete situation created by the publication of Mandal Commission Report, and RSS parivar’s reaction to it by intensifying the Brahmanical-Manuvadi offensive for Ram temple issue, putting it in the forefront. In the complex situation then, on the one hand, the Congress and other ruling class parties were competing with each other to strengthen their vote banks using the caste and religion. The CPI(M) led Left Front parties and many of the CR organizations, in spite of these new challenges were refusing to go beyond repeating the old dogmatic positions that class struggle shall resolve all problems. Any discussion about Ambedkar’s approach based on annihilation of the caste system, or linking caste annihilation with class struggle was anathema to them. While taking up these studies, Usaa had allied with many forces including com. Sathyamurthi, who had left the CPI(ML) People’s War mainly on the approach to caste question. Many of these allies had later deviated to ruling class positions. But Usaa, as he used to say, showing his writings during this period, did not abandon Marxist positions; he was trying to apply it to Indian conditions. As Marx himself had pointed out, the European mode of production and class formation cannot be mechanically applied everywhere. Usaa argued that the Indian communist movement has failed to comprehend the caste-class relation in India. When comrades raise questions, the dogmatic leaderships become irritated and get them expelled through mechanical application of ‘democratic centralism’. Since Usaa had questioned them, even after his death they are coming out with slanderous statements in the name of condolence!
The history of October Revolution teaches that Lenin could lead it to victory by building the Bolshevik party by waging uncompromising ideological struggle against the right opportunist Mensheviks as well as the anarchist Narodniks, and mobilizing the working class and its allies, the oppressed classes and sections for revolution. So, in Indian conditions only through this ideological struggle we can put revolutionary Marxism in the leadership, unite all genuine communist forces and build a powerful communist party. And, if we have to unite the basic masses, the working class and oppressed masses, we have to fight against the Manuvadi caste system, which divide them. It calls for developing a correct approach towards caste annihilation along with class struggle; it basically means developing a comprehensive, all embracing understanding about class struggle. So, more than ever, as we are passing through a critical phase which demands that the working class should make revolution, the central agenda before them is to overthrow the imperialist system and their junior partners in power in countries like ours, to develop the socialist alternative at global level. At this critical juncture, we should learn from mistakes, and making concrete analyses of the vast changes that have taken place, and are taking place, develop Marxist-Leninist teachings according to these present conditions, and use it as our guide to action.
When our discussions reached this stage, he made his position clear. He will try to study more about the Marxist writings on class struggle; but his long experience of working inside the Marxist parties, and his evaluation of most of these organizations including the Naxalite organizations, he is yet to come across an organization with such a concept of class struggle. So, if Red Star is calling for advancing the struggle for caste annihilation as part of class struggle with such an understanding, he shall work with the CAM. But he will continue the discussion on caste-class relation in the Indian socio-economic formation, which is a complex question. When he came to Kolkata in September last year to participate in the “open dialogue to form a revolutionary left coordination” as a step towards unity of the CR forces to build a powerful Bolshevik style communist party capable of leading the antifascist struggle towards people’s democracy and socialism, and with the immediate task of working as a revolutionary left core to inspire, mobilize the broad based anti-fascist movement, participating in the debate he called for such bold experiments with concrete understanding of the Indian situation to achieve system change with anti-brahmanical, anti-Manuvadi approach. As we were staying together we could continue our discussion on the working of the CAM and other people’s movements.
Usaa was a Marxist and revolutionary in the true sense. Through his ideological, political work, mobilization of the masses, and the struggles he led, and even in his family life after marrying a Brahmin woman who was also working with the party, he has left behind a rich experience which the younger generation can emulate. For me, and for many other comrades and friends of Usaa it is still difficult to believe that he with his broad smile and simple life, always eager to cook something non-vegetarian for his comrades in his house where he was living alone after his wife’s death, which he had turned in to a centre for studies and publications, including a studio for social media work including preparing U tube, it is difficult to think he will not be there when I go to Hyderabad next time.
“…turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster.”
– B. R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste
“To be radical is to grasp things by the root.”
No two words in modern history might have had as menacing a consequence to the future of a country as caste and class. They have not only divided the working class movements into two camps, viz., movements believing in class struggle and movements believing in anti-caste struggle, but each backed by the ideological obsession of their protagonists and their historical trajectories pushed them onto the path of divergence and in course weakened both of them to the extent that today they find themselves struggling for relevance. Castes have been the life-world of people in the Indian subcontinent for more than two millennia and largely acknowledged to be the unique feature of its majority of people called Hindus although they never remained confined to them and infected the other religious communities that came into being since medieval times. It did face threats from counter-ideological streams such as shramans (later best represented by Buddhism) and political threats by the outsider invaders coming in from north but managed to outlast all of them. Contrary to a commonplace notion, Buddhism despite its ideological hegemony over the subcontinent for about a millennium could not disturb this life-world. Most of the outside invaders either left or settled mixing up with the local population leaving this life-world undisturbed in its essence. The medieval period saw emergence of Islamic society in India presenting an alternate civilizational prospect to the lower castes and it posed a significant threat to this life-world to the extent a large section of them escaped the thralldom of Brahmanism and embraced Islam. However, even this threat remained short-lived and soon even this new society got infected with caste virus. The new religion of Sikhism ostensibly professing equality of all humans by assimilating noble precepts of both Hinduism and Islam, also could not guard off the caste virus from infecting its society. Later, when Christianity came in, similarly attracting the lower castes in huge numbers as Islam did, the minority of upper castes who embraced it, castized it. Castes thus remained a pervasive reality of the India since antiquity to this day.
The life-world implied all its inhabitants internalized its principles and ethos. The people behaved as they were expected to by the caste code. It was only during the colonial rule that anti-caste consciousness germinated in the lower castes. The opportunities for economic progress, the new institutional mode of governance and the advent of capitalism under its shelter, catalysed it. Barring stray pockets in the world that reflected caste-like characteristics and African continent which had dominance of tribalism, classes characterized rest of the world. They came into prominence, however, with the spread of capitalism, which in its idealized form, divided the society into two interdependent but antagonistic classes, viz., proletariat and bourgeoisie. They particularly assumed prominence with the theories of Marxism that saw struggles between these two classes reaching their zenith where they would usher into a revolutionary change to socialism and thence, communism.
In this note I intend discussing the meaning of caste and class to elucidate the mistake committed by both the movements, dalit as well as communist, in dealing with them. While presenting my analysis of the situation of these movements, I try to sketch out a strategy for them to converge over a reasonable timeframe.
Definitional Aspects: Varna and Jati
Simply put, caste is a defining feature of the Indian society. Etymologically, the English word “caste” derives from the Spanish and Portuguese casta, with its roots in Latin castus. It meant “race, lineage, or breed”. When the Portuguese arrived in India in 1498 and encountered thousands of in-marrying hereditary Indian social groups they called them “castas”, which became “castes” in English in 1613. The Indian name for castes is Jati or Jat. While the Europeans did not know anything like jati, their conception of caste subsumed racial connotations and tended to confuse with the varna division of the society, which still prevails significantly among the western scholars.
There is much confusion even in the scholarly literature between jati, and varna [They are used interchangeably by most scholars. For instance, Stuart Corbridge, John Harriss, Craig Jeffrey, India Today: Economy, Politics and Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013; Also see Bharat Jhunjhunwala, Varna Vyavastha: Governance through Caste System, Rawat Publications, New Delhi, p. 183; Binod, C.Agrawal, Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Complex Societies, Ethnographic & Folk Culture Society, Lucknow, 1982, p.44; N. K., Dutt, Origin and Growth of Castes in India, Vol. I, The Book Co. Ltd., Calcutta, 1931, p. 4.], which together constitute basis for the caste system. It is largely agreed that varnas were brought into India by the conquering tribes of Aryas during the dark period of history. If the lineage of Aryans is traced to the Iranian society, Avesta mentions only three classes of people based on economic functions in society [See, Mukhtar Ahmed, Ancient Pakistan: An Archaeological History, Vol. V, Foursome Group, Reidsville, 2014, p.149.] sans hierarchy, evolved into four (Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Shudra) varna System (Chaturvarna) by the end of Rigvedic period with a notion of hierarchy and then led to designate the excluded ones as the avarnas (non-varna) or pancham (fifth) varna,.Thus, varnas were finite and with definitive hierarchy. Castes (jatis), in contrast, are countless and (because of it) with fluid notion of hierarchy. [The rough estimate of castes runs into thousands but no one for sure can vouch for those numbers. Louis Dumont deals with this question but leaves it unanswered because of its infeasibility. See Louis Dumont, Homo Hierrachicus, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970, p. 33]. Varna is the vedic classification of the four ranked occupational order, whereas caste refers to ranked hereditary, endogamous and occupational groups separated from each other by the ideas of purity and pollution. Classically, varnas defined the borders of Hinduism, whereas jatis were local within the borders of ethnolinguistic regions. The varnas may be taken as theoretical, a framework, whereas castes (jatis) are real and concrete. Besides, Brahman and the shudra within the original chaturvarna and avarna dalits in its extended form, which bracket overall Hindu social order, all other varnas are rarely found everywhere, but castes are found all over. As a result, the mapping of castes with intermediate varnas remains hazy and not accepted by many castes. Many castes reject legitimacy of the varna hierarchy and/or the places assigned to them by others. In the Brahmanical strongholds of south India itself the intermediate varnas hardly exist. Where they exist, they do so with local variations. Even historically, the village roost was not necessarily ruled by any Brahman caste; when it was, one could find wealth and power rather than its ritual status being instrumental in its placement. Many Brahmans did not enjoy any such reputation. Second, even their explanation for the advent of varnashram dharma also is unconvincing as it does not explain why it only survived in India and not elsewhere.
Historicity of Castes
The discourse on caste customarily starts curiously with the origin of caste, as though castes were the same as they originated. Many scholars have proffered theories of the origin of castes which in sum are no better than a blind man’s description of an elephant. Whether they are plausible or not, from the perspective of their annihilation, they do not serve any purpose. One of the motivations behind knowing the origin of caste is to possibly strike at its root in order to eradicate it. Probably Dr Ambedkar adopts it when in Annihilation of Caste; he attributes its origin to the Dharmashastras of Hinduism and therefore infers that unless they were dynamited, the caste system would not be annihilated.
The theories of the origin of castes may be broadly classified into as many as ten classes based on their thrust: (i) traditional or Indological theory, (ii) racial theory, (iii) political theory, (iv) religious theory, (v) occupational theory, (vi) racial/functional theory, (vii) guild theory, (viii) mana theory, and (ix) evolution or multi-factor theory. According to the traditional or Indological theory, the caste system is of divine origin. It is based on the allegorical explanation in Purushsukta in Rig Veda for the origin of four varnas being parts of the cosmic being purusha or the supreme creator (God)., Castes were born later as a result of different types of marriages between varnas in ancient India. Although of little intellectual value, it underlies the popular belief in castes. The Racial Theory propounded by Sir Herbert Risely held that caste system was due to racial differences between migrant Aryas and Anaryas (native people). G. S. Ghurye (1932) appear to support this theory. The political theory held that caste system was the result of political conspiracy of the Brahmans to secure control over the functions of the society. This theory was originally propounded by a French scholar Abbe Dubais and found tacit support in many scholars like Denzil Ibbetson and also S.G. Ghurye. The religious theory was advocated by Hocart and Senart. Hocart postulated that castes were a hierarchy of ritual offices centered on a king (or a local lord) having as their purpose the performance of the royal ritual for the benefit of the entire community. The king, as the representative of the god and religion, allotted positions to different functional groups. Senart tried to explain the caste system on the basis of prohibitions regarding sacramental food. Occupational/Functional theory, originally propounded by Nesfield, held that occupation were the main base of the caste system. The notion of hierarchy of castes stemmed basically from the superiority or inferiority of occupations. The Racial/ Functional theory put forth by Slater combines both the racial and functional origins, postulating that the caste system was created to safeguard the professional and occupational secrets of different races. The Aryan invasions intensified and developed the existing structure making occupations hereditary and marriages only within the same occupation groups, sanctified later by ritual practices and religious ceremonies. The Guild theory put forth by Denzil Ibbeston, holds that castes are the modified forms of guilds and the caste system was the product of three forces, (i) tribes, (ii) guilds, and (iii) religion. The guilds evolved into castes imitating the endogamy of the prestigious class of priests. The mana theory based on the views of J.H. Hutton accords the caste system pre-Aryan origin and suggests that the primitive belief in ‘mana’ among tribes accounted for the origin of the caste system. Mana was associated with magical and harmful powers and hence the ancient tribes evolved elaborate taboos or restrictions to protect themselves from other tribes’ mana. Lastly, the Evolutionary or Multifactor theory propounded by sociologists held that a complex phenomenon of the caste system could not be explained by a single factor and rather was a result of many factors such as beliefs in racial superiority, geographical isolation. metaphysical concepts, belief in mana, desire to maintain racial purity of blood and manipulation by Brahmans.
As could be seen, none of these theories, save for the last one, which does not claim a specific factor and hence is flexible enough to accommodate any of the above or entirely new one within its fold, are explaining the origin of the caste system. They rather explain the varna system and take for granted that caste system is born out of the varna system.
Ambedkar on Caste
In relation to castes, Babasaheb Ambedkar assumes extraordinary importance because of his life-long struggle, both in the realm of theory as well as practice. His seminal paper, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, which Ambedkar presented as a student, at an Anthropology Seminar taught by Dr. A. A. Goldenweizer in Columbia University on 9 May 1916, dealt with some of these views and also those of Dr. Ketkar and dismissed them as Petitio Principii of formal logic.. It was here that he observed, “A caste is an enclosed class”.
He disagreed with Senart that the “idea of pollution” was a peculiarity of caste as it was “a particular case of the general belief in purity”. As per him, the idea of pollution could be ignored without affecting the working of castes. It was attached to the institution of caste only because of the priestly caste which enjoyed the highest rank. To Nesfield’s theory highlighting absence of messing with outside the caste, Ambedkar would say that it was mistaking the effect for the cause. Caste being a self-enclosed unit, it naturally limits social intercourse, including messing. He did not find Risley’s views deserving even a comment. He rather included Ketkar who had defined caste in its relation to a system of castes, and had focused his attention only on those characteristics which were absolutely necessary for the existence of a caste within a system. Ambedkar however, critiqued Ketkar for taking “prohibition of intermarriage and membership by autogeny” as the two characteristics of caste and argued that they were but two aspects of one and the same thing. If intermarriage is prohibited, the membership of those born within the group also shall be automatically limited.
Ambedkar argues that the Hindu society like other societies was essentially a class system, in which individuals, when qualified, could change their class. However, at some time in history, the priestly class socially detached itself from the rest of the people and through a closed-door policy became a caste by itself. The other varnas, which were subject to the law of social division of labour, developed sub-division with social mobility of the class system. However, as he argued, they too lost the open-door character of the class system and have become self-enclosed units called castes. He explained their becoming castes saying “Some closed the door: Others found it closed against them.” He proffered a psychological explanation for the former saying that since the Brahmans or priestly class, occupied the highest position in the social hierarchy of the Hindu society, the other classes simply imitated them by adopting endogamy. Over the years, endogamy became a fashion since it originated from the priestly class, who were venerated and idolized in the scriptures. Endogamy was thus practiced by all the classes, which ultimately resulted into the rigid formation of castes. The custom of endogamy superimposed on exogamy, which prevailed in all ancient tribes, became the creation of castes. He points out that without the practice of endogamy, the caste system cannot survive. Along with endogamy, Brahmans followed the custom of sati and enforced widowhood which later spread to other castes. The mainstream sociology never acknowledged this analysis of Ambedkar, although it predated the thesis by G. S. Ghurye, celebrated as the first sociological treatise on caste by a decade and anticipated many of the ideas of the later scholars.
Ambedkar developed his theory of untouchability on the basis of ‘broken men’ (broken from their tribes during the tribal wars), who, since they were Buddhists, and did not respect Brahmans were made untouchables. He wrote, “...the Broken Men were Buddhists. As such they did not revere the Brahmins, did not employ them as their priests and regarded them as impure. The Brahmin on the other hand disliked the Broken Men because they were Buddhists and preached against them contempt and hatred with the result that the Broken Men came to be regarded as Untouchables”. They were made untouchables because they continued eating beef when the Gupta Kings made cow killing a criminal offence and beef eating a sin in the 4th century AD. This theorization that attributed untouchability to the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and Brahmanism helped him to endow the dalits with Buddhist past.
Ambedkar’s theorization of untouchability is as problematic as his analysis of castes was insightful. It is pivoted on ‘broken men’ being Buddhist, which, as candidly admitted by Ambedkar does not have any evidential support. He just concludes it saying “No evidence is ... necessary when the majority of Hindus were Buddhists. We may take it that they were.”
While the ideological contrivance surely plays a role in sustaining a social order, it cannot create it. The fact that varna-like systems of stratification existed in most ancient societies and they were not ordained by any religious ideology, purely ideological explanation for the origin of the caste system becomes problematic. Social systems come into being because the material conditions demand them. The ideological superstructure develops later to preserve them. A section of society that benefits from the system develops vested interests and wants to preserve it through an ideological apparatus. The pervasiveness of the caste system over the vast subcontinental space and its becoming a ‘life-world’ of people is surely attributable to the spread of ideology but the origin of the caste system needs to be searched elsewhere.
The material factors that gave rise to the caste system can perhaps be located in the uniquely rich natural endowment of the Indian subcontinent for the biotic mode of production extant in ancient times. In terms of plentiful flat, fertile land; rivers and water bodies; abundant and all time sunshine, and congenial climate, Indian subcontinent may scarcely have parallel on the planet in its richness for agriculture. These factors might be seen to be the key to unfathom the mystery of the unique system of stratification in the form of the caste system. When nomadic tribes began settling for agriculture, they necessarily underwent change in their social structure everywhere confirming to their material conditions. For instance, the places where lands were hostile and not so fertile; water sources were scanty and seasons were erratic; and sunshine had a narrow window of a few months, as for instance in England, it gave rise to a system of serfdom. In order to cultivate vast tracts of lands within a small time-window necessitated huge army of serfs to work and a lord to control them. In contrast, Indian tribes did not have to undergo such a structural transformation and had settled down with their tribal identities intact. These tribal identities were rather castes, albeit sans hierarchy or any stigma.
The notion of hierarchy and stigma (purity and pollution) were rather superimposed by the post-Rigvedic varna system. Thus, contrary to the proposition of the traditional ideological theory, it is not the varnas that came first and they evolved into castes, but quite the opposite. The castes in the form of tribal identities with some amount of magico-religious development, natural to agricultural communities, already existed in India, which were later overlain by the varna system brought in by the vanquishing Aryan tribes. With the growth of surplus production, it needed an intricate ideological contrivance, appealable to agricultural society as it purported to solve their myriad knowledge problems about natural events on which agriculture depended. The priestly class of Brahmans assumed the role of a mediator between people and gods, and slowly became ‘gods on earth’ themselves to establish their hegemony. They propounded a theory of karma to justify the present order and fortify their own supremacist position. While it made people to accept their caste statuses as their destinies according to their past karma, it also motivated them to adhere to the caste dharma in order to be born into better caste in the next birth. Besides this self propellant, there was a cobweb of rules as in Manusmriti that prescribed their behavior and punishments for any deviation from the prescribed code. This entire superstructure would stabilize making castes as the life-world of people.
It may be noted that the Manusmriti-like rules with harsh punishments provided for violation of caste code must have occasioned clearly to thwart the tendencies towards violation of the caste code. One may attribute it to the ideological influence of Buddhism when it began spreading among masses. In order to fortify the brahmanic structure of the society, such regidfied code might have been occasioned. But during the period of Buddhist hegemony, there appears no evidence that Buddhism actively engaged to fight the caste division in the society. It may be that while people followed Buddhism, the life-world of caste also survived. Buddhism, after it got royal support, lost its missionary zeal and became vihar centric engaged in production of intricate philosophies. People did adore Buddhism and its monks but the practice of castes also continued as a cultural drag. If the Buddhist tenets had crystallized into the cultural practice of people, it would be difficult to imagine complete erasure of it all over the subcontinent.
There were many upheavals in Indian history but this life-world adjusted itself to any disturbance. After the resurgence of Brahmanism under the leadership of Shankara in eighth century, it got strengthened further. It received numerous jolts during the medieval times through the stabilization of Muslim rule, emergence of Bhakti movement, emergence of Sikhism, etc., all of them ideologically oriented against castes, but it managed to adjust itself to the emerging circumstances.
Catalytic Role of the Colonial Rule
However, it received its severest jolt during the colonial period. The advent of western liberal institutions of governance, English education and capitalist enterprises proved hugely beneficial to the lower classes. Many of them ran after the opportunities created in new urban centers and made significant economic progress. Even before these changes began to befall, the advent of Britishers opened up opportunities for the lower castes to get into their employ and later into army. The latter proved especially significant because it not only gave them an opportunity to wield weapons, which were forbidden to them, but also win wars. It proved great moral booster in decimating the self image of inferiority solidified through centuries’ Brahmanic culture and realizing their martial prowess. The compulsory education in military service further reinforced it. All these changes created a class of relatively educated and economically well off Dalits, who became the harbinger of the Dalit movement. The work of Christian missionaries among them pushed the upper castes into taking up reforms in the Hindu society. The colonial rule variously impacted various sections of the Indian society including their life-world of castes.
From the dawn of the twentieth century, in process of responding to the various mass agitations (militant youth uprising in Bengal in response of partition and other parts), the British strategized to devolve power to Indian elites, albeit along the communal lines, so as to keep it in their control. The communal basis of sharing political power between two major divisions, Hindus and Muslims represented by the Congress and the Muslim League respectively, inevitably brought the question of where dalits and tribals belonged. On the eve of the Morley-Minto reforms in 1909 the Muslim League objected to the Congress’ taking them for granted as Hindus. It seeded the political space for the dalits in future to claim their separate identity and use it to bargain for their rights. The descent of Ambedkar, endowed with high academic accomplishments, as the dalit leader greatly accelerated this process. His main contributions have been in catapulting the caste question into the political arena, winning the dalits certain special rights such as reservations, theorizations of their struggles, and providing vision of emancipation.
The most significant measure that is entirely attributable to him is the scheme of reservations. Ambedkar won the dalits reservations with separate electorates in the Round Table Confernces during 1931-32 in contention with Gandhi. He was, however, blackmailed into giving up separate electorates by Gandhi with his fast unto death. The Poona Pact that symbolized the new agreement contained the principles of preferential recruitment of dalits in public services and other necessary things from the viewpoint of their uptliftment. In course, reservations in political representation, educational institutions and in public services (in 1943 when Ambedkar was a member in the Viceroy’s Executive Council) were established. The main justification of this ‘affirmative action’ was the exclusion suffered by the dalits in the Hindu society. They were accepted by the colonial rulers as an exceptional policy in favour of the exceptional people and were also largely reconciled by the populace. The significant development that happened for instituting these policies was the creation of a schedule that included all the untouchable people, imparting them a new administrative/political identity as scheduled castes. There was no back reference to the Hindu religious texts or customs necessary in future, thereby rendering the castes as such redundant.
When the reins of power came into the hands of the native upper caste-class elites, then represented by the Congress Party, they resorted to their Brahmanic cunning lain over the learning from colonial masters. The constituent assembly set up in accordance with the cabinet mission plan with the representatives elected by the provisional assemblies formed through the elections in July-August 1946 had to deal with the aspirations of masses, built up by the Congress during the freedom struggle. Way back in in 1928, under the Nehru committee, the Congress had resolved to undo untouchability. Later, in 1936, the Congress had decided to have a socialist system inspired by the constitution of Soviet Russia. Behind this mass façade, the Congress at its core remained the representative of the interests of the incipient bourgeoisie like Kuomintang in China during the same period. After gaining power, while it tried to keep up this façade, in reality it began surreptitiously but systematically pushing for the development in the interests of the capitalists as could be seen from its clandestine adoption of Bombay Plan (An investment plan prepared by the eight big capitalists during January 1944 for a period of 15 years in the post-colonial India, with the objective of doubling the GDP and trebling the per capita income) while rejecting it in public. In the context of castes, the constituent assembly took a decision to outlaw untouchability with much fanfare and amidst the slogan ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai’. It was indeed a victory to strategist Gandhi as he best represented all the upper caste reformers who wanted to abolish untouchability but variously defended castes. Untouchability, however, was a mere aspect of caste; it could not go away if the castes existed. There was a clear opportunity for the new ruling classes to outlaw caste itself. With castes gone, untouchability would automatically vanish. As could be experienced, nothing happened with the untouchability law as survey after surveys, right from the 1950s to just the present day (NCAER report) reveal.
Castes were not abolished ostensibly for giving reservations to the dalits. While theoretically, it may be conceded that the constituent assembly could do away reservations for the dalits that came through colonial times, none little versed with politics would dare say so. The constituent assembly expectedly adopted the 1936 schedule and continued with the reservations to the dalits but not without a mischief. It created another schedule for the tribals and extended the ditto provisions to them as were given to the scheduled castes. In doing this, it skillfully projected reservations as the only measure of social justice. Notwithstanding the fact that the tribals also were excluded like dalits, albeit not stigmatized socially, and therefore deserved reservations like dalits, the natural solution could have been to expand the existing schedule to include the tribals. By so doing the stigma associated with the schedule for the Dalits could have been diluted as the tribals did not have castes. It would have greatly aided the objective of eradicating untouchability if it honestly meant it. But it was not to be. There were many other problems too in creating this schedule. Foremost, there was no indisputable criterion like untouchability to identify tribals. Many a well-off caste managed to get them included into the schedule and deprived the real tribals of its intended benefits. It is an empirical fact that the entire benefit of the ‘scheduled tribes’ is bagged by these fake ‘tribes’ keeping the real tribals high and dry to take up guns. The ruling classes haven’t even stopped at that. They would create a vague provision that the state would identify the ‘backward classes’ (read castes) so as to extend similar provisions in future. They were to seed the reservations for the so called Backward classes but in reality was meant to construct a can of caste-worms the lid of which could be opened at an opportune time in future. As we see, the Prime Minister, V.P. Singh opened the lid in 1990 and unleashed the caste worms all over, castizing the country as never before.
The entire schema about castes being kept alive comes out clear when we see similar scheming around religion, the other weapon to divide people. The constitution scrupulously avoided the term secular that could create a separating wall between religion and politics with an alibi to have space for the state to carry out religion-related reforms. The only reform, seen with hindsight, that one could imagine was in the form of passing the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 in the wake of the burning of Roop Kanwar on her husband’s pyre. It is important to understand these matters to uncover the real strategies of the rulers in devising multiple layers of fortifications over castes.
Notwithstanding huge scholarly interest in caste in recent years, there is huge intellectual inertia in understanding them. Castes today are not the classical castes representing graded inequality. Actually, castes today are reduced to their primordial kink in continuum: dalit versus non-dalits. With the advent of capitalism the ritual aspects of castes have been fast weakening in direct proportion to the degree of interface the castes had with the capitalist system. The traditional ritual differences would come in the way of building supply chain relationships, thereby tending to increase transaction costs. Moreover, the rational base of capitalism also acted against the ritualistic systems. Therefore, the castes in urban areas that entered the sphere of capitalist relations began gradually dropping the ritualistic aspects of castes. It happened with the dwija castes. There is no necessity in caste context that all people belonging to a caste or caste group have such an interface. It may typically happen to a few families but the entire caste would emulate them as the leading elements of caste. When during the first decades of independence, the ruling classes carried out Land Reforms and brought in the capitalist strategy of Green Revolutions, in the name of giving land to the tillers and boosting agricultural productivity, respectively, but in reality to create a class of rich farmers in rural India that would stay as an ally of the center, the phenomenon extended to the shudra castes.
With the capitalist relations entering the country side, the bandwagon of the shudra castes also got hitched to the dwija castes. As for the dalits, these developments proved utterly detrimental. The traditional jajmani relations of interdependence collapsed under the onslaught of capitalist relations, reducing the dalits to be the rural proletariat, utterly dependent on the farm wages by the rich farmers. The latter wielding the baton of Brahmanism from the erstwhile upper caste landlords, who fled to the greener pastures in the urban areas, proved far more atrocious than the ones before because of the backing of overwhelming numbers of their castemen and their lack of cultural sophistication. The conflict over farm wages between the dalit labourers and the shudra farmers began to manifest through the familiar faultlines of castes creating a new genre of caste atrocities. Kilvenmeni, a village in old Tanjavur district classically inaugurated this new phenomenon. On 25 December 1968, the landlords along with their army attacked the agitating dalits and burnt 44 of them (mainly their women and children) alive. The saga of these atrocities continues unabated and unacknowledged by our bankrupt scholarship as characterizing changes in castes!
On the one hand, the majority of dalits in rural area (they are predominantly a rural people) suffered dual prospect of marginalization and repression by the new ‘Barhmans’ and on the other, they were seen as the undeserving beneficiaries of the state largesse. Their cultural awakening due largely to the Ambedkarite movement reinforced this perception. There is a widespread grudge against dalits in rural population. The politicians keep on announcing a plethora of schemes and keeping the fire alive. These schemes, if at all, benefit a typical minority of better off dalits but are propagandized in the name of entire people. As a matter of fact, reservations, as they have been formulated, benefitted only the relatively better-off dalits and thereafter kept on benefitting only them, increasingly excluding the needy ones. They have rather acted against the interests of majority of dalits. If one took an objective stock of this policy, the people it benefitted in terms of economic uplift may be less than 10 percent. However, the brunt of reservations is borne by the rest 90 percent of dalits in rural areas who can never dream of availing them. As I explained the mechanism of caste atrocities in my books , Khairlanji and Persistence of Castes, the pervasive grudge against dalits acts as fuel, which with the presence of systemic impunity (oxygen) can easily precipitate into a gory caste atrocity with a minor spark (source of ignition) explained with an analogy if fire triangle.
Dalits today are the sole prop of castes which cannot be afforded by the ruling classes to die. They may allow a section of them to be capitalist (as they indeed are promoting so called Dalit Capitalism) so as to neutralize potential resistance of dalits to their social Darwinist neoliberal policies but will not permit the same logic of capitalist relations to permeate the dalit masses. This feat is achieved through the instrument of reservations that preserves their dalithood. Interestingly, the bunch that flaunts their ‘coming of age’ as job givers and not job seekers also are sustained by reservations. The state that never listened to even the agonizing cries of dalit masses has picked up whispers of this bunch and promptly reserved a 4 percent of the SME quota for them. Tomorrow, the cost of this development also shall be borne by ordinary dalit masses.
Reservations as the Bane
Reservations have been used dexterously by the ruling classes in decimating dalit, which was a quasi class category Ambedkar conceived. Reservations as stated before benefitted a relatively tiny section of better-off dalits, who invariably belong to the most populous dalit castes anywhere. There is a material reason for it. The most populous dalit castes, because of their ‘excess' population could not be absorbed within a village system with any specific caste vocation. As a result, they have reflected most enterprising tendency in grabbing opportunities in history. As they did not have any stake in the village system, they were the first ones to go out. It follows that they were the ones who came to constitute the dalit movement. By the same logic, they grabbed better share of reservation when they came in. Over the years, this was gradually grudged by the other castes among dalits which could not stand in competition with them. The politicians rushed to cash in on this grudge. They could easily incite the next populous dalit castes to demand their due share of reservation as per their population. As a matter of fact (as I showed in many of my analyses) even among the most populous dalit castes, all people have not benefitted equally. When caste is taken as a unit, the most populous caste appears to have grabbed most of the reservation. In terms of family, (which I had proposed to be a viable unit as it is family—an immediate family—that really benefits if a member gets reservation benefits) my hunch is that the situation across the castes may be the same. But reservation has never been subject to amy such objective analysis. Today, this categorization demand, which had started in Andhra Pradesh in 1995 by the Madigas there (through their Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti) has spread all other states, making Ambedkar’s dalits as the most casteist community.
Reservations have distorted the entire politics in the country. They have been taken for granted as benefit by dalits, who never counted costs paid for it. Indeed, dalits have paid huge costs – psychological costs of killing one’s self esteem right in the childhood, living with social stigma for the entire life; depoliticization of the advanced elements of dalits (as they land up in the public services where politics is banned), questionably benefiting a few but definitely costing the majority, incurring the grudge of the entire society, and distortion and marginalization of the fundamental obligation of the state in terms of providing basic inputs like health care, education, jobs, land, etc. to the population, to recount the broad ones. Reservation-like policy could only be valid if the state has fulfilled its minimal obligations towards all. There have been numerous such deficiencies with reservation policy as it is designed and operated. I have been writing about them over many years (you may refer “On Reservations” in Mainstream, easily accessible on the net) but without much reception.
The concept of reservation was a product of representation strategy of Ambedkar. He thought that if dalit representatives reach legislative bodies, they would take care of political interests of dalit masses. Likewise, he expected dalits, endowed with higher education, to occupy important positions in bureaucracy to create a protective cover over the dalit masses from the bureaucratic bias and possibly help them. He experienced the folly of this strategy in his own life time insofar as he could never win an election in independence India. He painfully realized that the political reservations had turned out to be more beneficial to the ruling classes than to the dalits. It only produced the ‘stooges’ to use Kanshiram’s language. It is a proof enough that the political reservations which were meant only for initial ten years get automatically renewed before their expiry, without anybody especially asking for them. Ambedkar had similar experience even with reservations in public employment. He found that the beneficiaries of them were engrossed with their own promotion and betterment of their families. It was this realization that he vented off in a public meeting in Agra in 1953 saying that the educated people had cheated him.
While reservations are grudged by the non-dalit masses, this grudge is accentuated by treating them as holy cow by politicians. As far as they could be attributed to Ambedkar, with his iconization and glorification, as it has been happening in recent years, they killed many birds with a single stone. They wooed dalits by titillating their identitarian pride and correspondingly intensifed the grudge in non-dalit population. This may be roughly correlated with the increasing atrocity numbers. Politicians of all hues, including the parliamentary left (they essentially follow the same grammar as any ruling class party for winning the electoral race in the first-past-the-post type of elections) and even the revolutionary left. The latter is certainly surprising and one would wish to imagine that it is just because of the understanding deficit on their part. But unfortunately one cannot ignore the aspect of wooing dalits even among them. More unfortunate in their case is the ideological laziness that accepts any reservation as progressive and pro-poor. As reservations have become a ‘holy cow’ for politicians, for dalits, they are an irrational emotional issue. For instance, I have been telling them that the public employment had reached its peak in 1997 and since then it has been consistently declining declining. Over the first decade (i.e. up to 2007), there was a decline of over 1.7 million jobs over a base of 19.7 million. It clearly indicates that reservations in net terms had come to an end right in 1997 itself. Paradoxically, only after this decline set in, the clamour for reservations virtually by all castes, has reached its zenith. Dalits, anyway, would not like to listen to it as many of them engaged in pseudo-activism would find themselves jobless.
It is therefore that once I said that the day dalits come out and declare that they do not want reservation, that day will be the beginning of the Indian revolution.
Class Analysis and Castes
The ‘class-caste’ duality came into being with the communists coming on to the scene. They typically belonged to upper caste educated middle class youth dreaming of a revolution in India inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. They were fed on the secondary sources of literature which was smuggled into the country. As such there was neither an adequate understanding of the philosophical framework of Marxism, much less the nuanced understanding of its formulations. What guided their actions was the youthful romanticism about revolution. They jumped on to organize the workers in the urban industrial centers with stereotypical understanding that they were the proletariat who had nothing to lose but their chains. The environmental problem of castes that excluded almost half the population did not bother them. They convinced themselves that it was a superstructural matter drawing support from a metaphorical dictum of Marx, blissfully ignorant about the follow up on it that made both Marx and Engels to regret it. The dictum informed them that once the material (read economic) structure is revolutionized, the superstructure would ‘automatically’ confirm to it. Truly speaking it reflected a Brahmanic attitude of taking the word as sacred, a ved vakya syndrome. The words that reached them, they followed literally. The Brahmanic inertia in realizing the misery of the lower castes also played a role. And Brahmanic arrogance about their own ‘knowledge and wisdom’ added fuel to fire. The birth of idiocy was thus nevitable.
While castes are not a class they were not entirely different either. Ambedkar’s understanding that they were the enclosed classes was far superior compared to theirs. The simple thing to understand was that if castes were the life-word of people, how they could be excluded in the possible class analysis. It was gravest error to think that they were mere religious-cultural matter that belonged to superstructure. Unfortunately, even Ambedkar in his enthusiasm to prove them wrong came to support them when he argued in his celebrated text of Annihilation of Caste that religious revolutions always preceded political revolutions. Even when they (communists) confronted castes in practice, they shied away from correcting themselves and preferred to keep away from the monster. The case in point is the Girni Kamgar Union under their leadership (SA Dange, one of the stalwarts of communist movement was the secretary of the union) which did not take any note of exclusion of the dalit workers from the better paying jobs in weaving section of the mill and the blatant practice of untouchability in keeping separate pitchers for drinking water for dalits. Even when Ambedkar challenged them over the issue, it was not corrected. The communists, informed by their understanding that the caste issue was a superstructural matter, not only kept themselves away but also ridiculed Ambedkar for belabouring a non-issue. The other factor beneath their behavior was the fear of displeasing the non-dalit workers who were in larger number, reflecting the embryonic attitude that would that would dominate their politics when they entered parliamentary system..
What could have been done?
Class is a pivotal category in Marxism but Marx or Engels did not give its precise definition as for many such terms in their writings. The basic theme was that there could not be possible definition of such categories or constructs lest they should be inapplicable to some other social systems that they were not familiar with. It is not to say that they left any ambiguity about what they meant. In various historical contexts they discussed classes which make it clear that classes were to be conceived in concrete social conditions obtaining in a space and time. Marxist-Leninists hold that a person’s social class is determined not by the amount of his wealth, but by the source of his income as determined by his relation to labour and to the means of production. Lenin, who had to translate Marxism into practice to bring about revolution in Russia necessarily had to define class as follows:
“Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated by law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and their mode of acquiring it”. (Vladimir I. Lenin: 'A Great Beginning: Heroism of the Workers in the Rear: 'Communist Subbotniks' in: Collected Works, Volume 29; Moscow; 1965; p. 421).
To Marxist-Leninists, therefore, the class to which a person belongs is determined by objective reality, not by someone’s opinion. What was the objective reality of India then? If one goes by the above definition, one would necessarily come closer to consider castes themselves as classes. Are dalits, for instance, not differing from non-dalits ‘by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated by law—law of Manu (?)) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and their mode of acquiring it’? This perhaps is the sense in which Ambedkar said that the castes were the enclosed classes. But there is obvious difficulty in considering dalits as class because the law which made them different from non-dalits also could apply to the castes within them. While class potentially brings people together, caste tends to divide them by seeking hierarchy. Therefore they do not become a class. Moreover, the classes are to be conceived in relation to the dominant mode of production wherein the caste would lose their salience. Therefore, class analysis in the caste society should necessarily subsume castes. For example, proletariat would include most of the shudras and dalits but they would not be automatically a class until the caste contradiction between them is not eradicated. Therefore, the process of class consolidation should embed the anti-caste struggles. If this had been done in the 1920s, the need for the separate dalit movement itself could have been eliminated. It would have given real fillip to the anti-caste struggle accomplishing the annihilation of caste. It may sound exaggeration today, but this approach would have made Indian revolution a reality much before China.
What Can Be Done Now?
As discussed, both movements—dalit as well as communist—have their share of wrongs committed during the last centuries. The wrongs by the communists, however, certainly outweigh those of the dalits. Dalit movement confronted a unique issue and was juggling with theorizing and strategizing its struggle. It was thus an original exercise in which errors were natural. But the communists had a grand theory of Marxism to guide and the task was just to apply it in the concrete condition of Indian society. The errors therefore were expected to be minimal. But looking back, they were not even errors; they were blunders. The blunder related to ignoring the almost one-fifth of the population that could be the organic proletariat. The dictum of the dalit movement (given by Ambedkar) was not incorrect when he said that whatever path one traversed in India, one necessarily crossed the path of castes. The communists of all hues today have reluctantly come to terms that castes are a part of structure as well as superstructure, and hence deserved attention of the revolutionists; they just reflect a tailist tendency. Why can’t they discard the useless metaphor of structure-superstructure that has done more harm than good to the communist movement right since its birth?
Dalit movement, today equally dilapidated, failed to provide any solution to dalits. Contrary to the slogan of ‘annihilation of caste’ the dalits are out to strengthen castes and have already descended to the sub-caste levels. Ambedkar’s vision of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity is in shatters today. The political democracy that he imagined was established by the constitution itself is in question. It is only a notion of ‘one man, one vote, one value’ that is not even valid in rituals of elections. The economic and social democracies have been the chimera. He had famously warned that if they were not achieved soonest, the victims would blast off the structure of political democracy. Even this warning of him failed to materialize. Indian democracy neither flourished nor perished and has only limped along with its burden of contradictions. Ambedkar’s other solution such as conversion to Buddhism also yielded questionable result. The greatest contra-evidence is that castes are kicking as never before, untouchability is intact, and the condition of dalits, measured in terms of relative distance between them and others, is perhaps worse than when they kicked off the dalit movement. Then they had a hope, today they do not have any.
In such a hopeless situation, how does one look at castes? There should be no doubt that without annihilation of castes, there is no radical future for India. It should also be clear that annihilation of castes is impossible to accomplish only by dalits hampering upon castes. Unless masses of broad people realize the fact that their radical emancipation is not possible without eradication of castes, it would stay as distant goal. Annihilation of castes in this sense is an integral part of the Indian revolution. Those who tend to consider and contrast caste against class must understand that caste is a poisonous category unlike any other. Its fundamental property is seeking hierarchy. Therefore, it knows only to split; split ad infinitum like amoeba. It is incapable of uniting. It should therefore be clear that no radical movement can be articulated on the basis of castes. Even for annihilation of castes, class is inevitable. The caste question is an integral part of the class question and they cannot and should not be spoken in dual terms.
Necessarily, it demands coming together of the communist and dalit movements. In the current situation it may sound like a wishful thinking. But unfortunately there is no option than working for it. Since, the communists had blundered more; they must take an initiative in this regard. Apart from their failure to understand and analyse Indian society, the Brahmanical arrogance and superiority complex of the early communists had played a big role in alienating the dalit movement. The divide between them has gone deep enough and there developed vested interests in deepening it further (many educated Dalits vehemently treating communists as enemy number one), there are even opportunities emerging out of the intensifying crisis of living. The prerequisite in availing of these opportunities however is reestablishing dialogue with the dalit movement. This may only be done if the communists honestly admit their mistakes demonstrate their new understanding of the caste situation. While this may be necessary for moving closer to the dalits, it is in no way sufficient to get them into struggle.
The communists need to discard their dogma and rethink their theories and practice in light of the fast changing world. While the core of their theory still holds good, many a derivatives need critical examination. All this need to lead to a viable strategy in face of fascized and militarized states. Unless they convince dalits or for that matter any people that they can win them a better world, their project may be a non-starter.