Caste and Class: Achilles’ Heel of the Indian Revolution - Anand Teltumbde
“…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.