Sanhati’s Special Issue on “Caste and Left Politics in India”

The left is often accused of playing down the importance of caste. At the theoretical level this has often been the result of a mechanical application of Marx’s base-superstructure metaphor is to the Indian context. At the institutional level, communist parties have often been led by Brahmin and other upper-caste individuals. Articles in this special issue, which come from authors with very diverse backgrounds, offer theoretical analyses as well as examples of organizations and movements that have taken both class and caste seriously, and are committed to a revolutionary transformation of Indian society.

We are delighted to include not only analytical pieces and interviews, but also poetry of the Dalit movement. Swapna Guha-Banerjee has shared her translations of 5 Marathi poems by leading Dalit and tribal poets, Narayan Surve, Babulal Bagul, Waharu Sonawane, Arun Kale, and Pratibha Rajanand. The poems speak for themselves and are not in need for editorial commentary. They are accompanied by short bios of all five poets.

Contributions by Gail Omvedt and Anant Phadke highlight the work of the Shramik Mukti Dal an organization active in eleven districts of Maharashtra. The SMD organizes farmers and toilers on issues of drought, dam and project eviction, and caste oppression. At the theoretical level SMD is guided not only by Marxism but by Marx-Phule-Ambedkarism. As Gail Omvedt puts it, “In their analysis, caste is a system of exploitation in which there is a graded hierarchy: people at each level labour, and the surplus from their labour is extracted upwards to the level above.”

Asit Das reviews the writings of Comrade Anuradha Ghandy on the caste question. For this, we are also grateful to Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen for putting out a collection of Com. Anuradha’s incisive essays. Asit reviews Com. Anuradha’s principal essay on the issue “Caste Question in India,” in which she traces both the historical evolution of caste as well as 20th century anti-caste movements. She concludes with a concrete program for caste annihilation which it would behoove all revolutionary parties to study. Com Anuradha’s essay is an excellent example of the revolutionary left’s engagement with caste.

P.K.Vijayan’s article on caste and class solidarity is a theoretical look at why caste relations cannot be reduced to class relations. The author avers that caste bonds

…cannot be dismissed as false consciousness, or even as ideological constructs more or less independent of the economic circumstances they exist in, however persuasive this might appear to be. The caste system operates on a logic of ownership that transforms the individual (indeed the community itself) into an object…In the process, it shackles and stifles the ability of the individual to think beyond the immediate hold of the community. As such, caste works in favour of capitalism, as a ready and already regulated system of ownership of bodies and therefore of labour.

The special issue also contains two interviews. One of the dalit transgender feminist writer and theater artist Living Smile Vidya, who lives and works in Chennai, conducted by her transgender brothers Kaveri Karthik and Gee Ameena Suleiman from Bangalore, and the second of Karnataka-based Shivasundar, conducted by Shiv Sethi.

The conversation between Kaveri, Gee, and Vidya brings out, in vivid relief, the nature of oppression at the intersection of caste, class, and gender hierarchies. Vidya raises some difficult questions for left and feminist activists. In her response to a question on “unifying the oppressed peoples’ struggles” she notes:

I always talk about working together, along with women’s struggle. But I know that most so called feminists think that I am a man in woman’s clothing…The general public accepts me as a transgender quite readily so why do activists take longer? Some of these feminists will wear fabindia clothes and their gold and think women must be modest. They talk as if the strongest and most satisfying thing in the world is to give birth and take care of their children…They also are very patronizing about caste and can talk progressively but will have a dalit woman making tea and serving them at their meetings instead of also including her and learning from her experiences.

Shivasundar offers both a historical overview of how dalit, OBC, and left movements have interacted in Karnataka’s history as well as a theoretical analysis of “caste-based feudalism.” He notes:

When we say caste-based feudalism, we mean that the base of such feudalism is caste, implying that the production relations are determined by caste. But, in the last three decades, caste-based feudalism is on decline as indicated by some of the markers of such a system: feudal usury, unfragmented feudal power, bonded labour, jajmani system where caste becomes the category of production and distribution. There is also a rise in production for markets and the capitalist modes of exploitation of the surplus. In most of the places, the capitalist mode of surplus exploitation dominates, resulting in the increasing secularisation of work place and labour force. Having said this, it is also equally true that the diversification of rural elite is not taking place, or it is changing its configuration very slowly (in comparison to secularisation of labour).

Suraj Yengde’s piece brings much needed and timely attention to the question of caste discrimination and sexual violence. By focusing on rape of Dalit women, Suraj offers a critique of the rape protest across Delhi and worldwide. His essay points out that rape is a recurring phenomenon at the hands of upper caste groups and patriarchy. It also criticises the role of religious leaders for providing false leadership for the Indian citizens.

We hope that this collection will provoke a much-needed debate among and between left and anti-caste activists.

– Editors
Introductory Remarks by Saroj Giri

‘Brahminical Marxism’. ‘Being a Brahmin, the Marxist Way’. ‘Communist pundits’ (‘like say EMS Namboodiripad’). Or just think of Kanshiram’s characterization of communists as ‘green snakes hidden in green grass”.

How then can we start talking about the relationship between the left movement and Dalit movement?

Often one is referred to an originary moment of the (communist) left’s supposed bankruptcy on the question of caste. Here is Arundhati Roy:

Dr Ambedkar’s disillusionment with the Communist Party began with the textile workers’ strike in Mumbai in 1928 when he realised that despite all the rhetoric about working class solidarity, the party did not find it objectionable that the “untouchables” were kept out of the weaving department (and only qualified for the lower paid spinning department) because the work involved the use of saliva on the threads, which other castes considered “polluting”.

With an originary moment, there follows an entire narrative. Cut to the present period. Read Kancha Ilaiah on Gaddar. Gaddar is a Dalit but openly aligns himself with the left (Maoists). Gaddar calls himself anti-imperialist. In Ilaiah’s narration, Gaddar’s anti-imperialism passes almost unnoticed.

What is forgotten is the communist movement’s close ties, in fact, seminal contribution to the Dalit movement. Take one of the closest associates of Ambedkar, R. B. More. He was one of the chief organizers of the Chowdar satyagraha in 1927. More chooses to go with the left (the CPI) and remains a communist till his death. Ambedkar was always close to More. Dr Ambedkar and Shamrao Parulekar (a communist) led a huge peasant demonstration on the Mumbai Assembly in 1938 against the ‘Khoti’ system of landlordism that was then prevalent in the Konkan region.

If one speaks from within a particular way of doing politics which mobilises liberal upper caste guilt – where the latter accedes to rights and reservations for the Dalits – then of course it is a different matter.

Otherwise, we can perhaps say something else, something like this: Just as large parts of the left movement had for example become social democrats containing the class struggle similarly large sections of the Dalit movement today contain the anti-caste struggle rather than accentuate it. There is a meeting point here between a particular kind of left and a particular brand of Dalit politics. Some of it is badly spilling over into where the advocates themselves are getting bitten by what they reared for so long: ‘politics of hurt’, ‘narrow identity politics’ and so on.

We will not reject the term ‘Brahminical Marxism.’ But let us identify the counterpart to the ‘Brahminical Marxist’: the counterpart on the side of the Dalits. Is there any? Ambedkar himself used the term Harijan leaders to mean those who have compromised with upper caste domination.

In the US, there was a counterpart to the white left who could never really relate to the black question: the black strike-breaker. The black revolutionary had to fight the cunning of the white left as well as the scourge of the black strike-breaker. What is equivalent of the ‘black strikebreaker’ in India? Perhaps it is not just Harijan leaders. This brings us back to the ‘originary story’ about the strike above: is a different interpretation possible?

‘Brahminical Marxists and Dalit strikebreakers’ – is that the combination we need to challenge in order to effectively fight the scourge of caste?

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