After the one century of Dalit politics, led by BR Ambedkar, we are still helpless to make the socio-economic and political system in an order which could follow the basic criteria of humanity, equality and democracy.
The more we try to dig it out and find the reasons, solutions, more we go towards a complicated and challenging situation.
Journalist and author, Bhupen Singh talks to social activist and writer Anand Teltumbde about various aspects and dimensions of the caste system in India.
How would you trace the historical reasons of caste system?
Many scholars have attempted to reason out the bewildering phenomenon of castes in India but there is no unanimity on any of them. Some kind of social stratification is observed in all ancient societies that lead some people to belittle the uniqueness of the Indian caste system but that should be dismissed as ignorance or motivated opinion. The uniqueness of the caste system lies in its persistent survival; whereas all other societies have rid themselves of such stratifications, the Indian caste system still defies solution. Neither people know how this vile system originated nor do they seem to know how it would be annihilated.
Therefore, I need not pretend to have a precise answer to this question. However, I do reckon that the answer must be searched in India’s unique material endowment than the notions like some Aryan coming and imposing their ideas over the vast tract of the subcontinent. I tend to see India’s natural endowment as unique in its flat lands, plentiful rainfall and sunshine; fertility of land, etc. which enabled the wandering tribes to settle for agriculture without undergoing any structural change. Elsewhere, they gave rise to serfdom, etc. because their natural endowment provided a narrow window for cultivation and harvesting, which warranted therefore large tracts of lands and huge army of serfs to accomplish the task within the available time. To avoid contention for the surplus product, they accepted some division. This primary division evolved over time into an elaborate caste system with the rise of monarchy. The Untouchability may have been the result of subjugation of alien tribes through fierce battles when geographical expansion took place with monarchical logic. In brief, this is my own way of understanding the historical reason for the caste system.
With reference to caste annihilation, how do you analyze Gandhi, Ambedkar and Marxism?
Gandhi’s concern for castes and communities emanated basically from his anxiety to establish social harmony which was vital for constructingIndia for the progress of the emergent capitalist class, of which he was a representative. He was not against the caste system as such. He rather tried to glorify the caste dharma by adopting the bhangiship himself to stress the point that people should discard the notion ofinferiority/superiority associated with their caste vocation and continue to perform their caste duty. His entire action is oriented to brush all the contradictions under carpet with such ephemeral notions such as trusteeship (labour-capital contradiction), communal harmony (hindu-muslim contradictions) and harijan (glorification of the untouchables). He did not try to resolve any of them.
Ambedkar, as we all know, specifically came out with the slogan of ‘annihilation of castes’. He was the first visionary who saw that India cannot have future with castes being alive. His analysis of castes however was constricted by his ideological proclivities, which saw their roots in the Hindu religious scriptures (Dharmashastras). It drove him to see religious conversion as the solution. It reflected a kind of ‘communitarian strategy’ to merge into an existing religious community, as he had explained to his activists in 1936. Alas, his prescriptions also have not worked and castes keep on teasing us with its ever increasing complexity.
Marx aimed to eliminate all familiar evils of the human world through a scientific approach of dialectical materialism, which he saw underscoring all changes in history. His reference to castes occurs inhis journalistic writings and his theorizations on Asiatic mode of production (AMP). Marx saw castes as feudal contrivance which will be destroyed in the onslaught of capitalist development. Many people, particularly those who would like to see him failed, think that he is irrelevant as far as caste system is concerned. I think this sweeping judgement is wrong. Capitalist development did impact caste in their ritual aspects and the castes that we encounter are much of theintrigues of the ruling classes who gave them new lease of life through the modern institutions. Marx is much misunderstood because of his metaphor’ base and superstructure’, which the Marxists, particularly the Indian Marxists have turned into a veritable dogma to ignore the caste issue and belittle all non-economic struggles, including Ambedkar’s. This was hugely unfortunate, creating a permanent rift between the proletarians of this land.
My take on this issue is that castes being essentially a divisive category cannot be the basis of articulating any struggle aimed at radical social change and therefore needs to be shun altogether. In corollary, one needs therefore to look for another category, necessarily class. I would see Marxist tools of analysis greatly aiding our endeavors inaccomplishing Ambedkar’s dream of annihilation of castes.
What are your views on identity politics especiallyin the Indian context?
Man, as a social animal, wears several identities right from his birth, which survive for varied lengths of time. These identities have varied political significance and hence it might appear natural that they are used for politics by identity holders. But in my opinion all identity politics is basically divisive and deflective from the core emancipatory issue. Even the identities such as nationality, which assumes universal valorization is no exception. There could be motivated debate on what is core emancipatory issue but I do not think there could be much dispute over it if one objectively analyze the human situation. The root of the evil in human society is to be traced to accumulation drive inman and identities are just the contrivance to serve it. Therefore, focusing on identities become treating mere symptoms ignoring the disease. For the argument sake, some identities may be tactically viable as a basis for politics in some historical phase (as in case of nationalities against colonialism) if one is acutely conscious of it. But some identities are intrinsically unviable. I consider caste identities one such.
Keeping in mind the myth of Mahisasurand latest politics which is being played out around this symbol.Do you think a fight can be combated against caste system while ignoring the political economy?
No. I do not consider caste system can be effectively combated deploying myths of Mahisyasurs or Macaulay. Those who try such things tacitly reflect the notion that caste is just a myth that can be countered by counter-myth. They as such belittle the vileness of the caste system. Such propositions create sensation and therefore attract attention of media and people.
They get huge publicity. I heard some time back of a myth raised in the form of English goddess and Thomas Babington Macaulay being the benefactor of Dalits. Such idiosyncratic propositions have huge sensational value and hence received huge publicity in media. It serves the interests of the ruling classes also inmuch enduring ways inasmuch as it deflects attention of the victims from the perpetrators. It targets abstraction and hence appeals to vast middle classes which relish mouthing slogans without risking anything. From time to time such myths are manufactured projecting them as cultural weapons to combat the caste system but they have only served the purpose to deflect the attention of Dalits from the systemic wrongs being perpetrated by the entrenched classes and castes and theirinstrument, the Indian state.
A section of people claim that Marxism can not address the caste issue. Your views?
Marxism, as a ‘science’ can and must address the issue of caste as well as all other evils provided it is rid of dogma its practitioners made it to be. Marxism or whichever name you may give it, in my conception is a science of society, quite like natural science, and should be dynamically correcting itself taking into account new evidence. Marxism is not something fossilized description of opinion expressed by Marx or Engels. Much of Marx’s formulation begs for correction todayin view of the changes that have befallen the world particularly as a result of advances in science technologies.
Unfortunately, the adherents of Marxism have made it into quasi religion. The class approach characterizes Marxism was surely useful to tackle castes but it required proper class analysis of the Indian society incorporating castes as the ‘life world’ of people. But the early communists, true to their brahmanic culture used the Russian moulds for mapping the Indian society and conceived classes leaving behind an idiotic duality of class and caste. This is not Marxism. Even if they had used Lenin’s definition of classes, theIndian classes could have incorporated castes and theIndian class struggle therefore would have incorporated the caste struggle, eliminating the parallel (or divergent) streams of anti-caste and class struggles or at least making them complementary.
How do you analyze the idea of‘Dalit Capitalism’ and its ideologues?
It is a non-sense pure and simple. It is also an idiosyncratic idea to create sensation in media and create identitarian confusion in masses. But I suspect it is not even that. It is a deliberate ploy to promote theinterests of global capital. The media upholds it for its sensation value and its neoliberal content. The Dalit middle classes relish it because it gives them identitarian kick and the Dalit masses follow them inbewilderment as they did all these years. The Indian state is overjoyed and welcomes its proponents with red carpet. Which other burning issue of Dalits was promptly acted upon by the Indian state as itinstituted reservations for these upstarts, the so called Dalit entrepreneurs in public procurements and contracts. Look, there have been rich individuals all the time and even Dalit entrepreneurs. The official definition of entrepreneurship is one who follows self employment.
In that sense, even a roadside cobbler mending shoes is an entrepreneur. Government’s economic censuses so far from 1990, 1998 and 2005 reveal that the proportion of Dalit entrepreneurship intotal has been falling during the globalization period, contrary to the lie propagated by these dalit capitalists. There is nothing wrong if Dalitindividuals take up capitalist vocation for their progress. But given the fact that 90 % of Dalits are faced with basic problems of survival, to propagate idiotic ideas that dalits should turn capitalists, or globalization has benefitted Dalits, etc. are the worst sins that could be committed against them.
I am speaking with authority of one who is formally trained in technology and management from the best institutes in the country, as practitioner who reached the highest position as CEO of a holding company surely knowing what modern business and entrepreneurship is, as a professor of International management inequally high ranking institute and with huge credentials as an activist and theoretician of issues of downtrodden people. I am not dishing out rhetoric with my petty personal interests and half-baked theories feigning intellctualism.
Some Flag bearers of Dalit politics do justify the colonialism, notably the education system of Lord Maculae. They also sing praises of English language and culture against the cultural hegemony of Brahmanism. How would you respond to this?
I think I have covered this issues above. There is no doubt that cultural combat is necessary in anti-caste struggle but it is not at the cost of the political economy. To cultural argument could be very slippery if it is not attuned to the material argument. It may massage identitarian egos of people but in ultimate analysis, they could be injurious to theirinterests.
How do you look atthe caste based reservation policy of Indian state? Is it really helpful intheannihilation of caste or it is just a safety valve of ruling class?
Reservations must have been a veritable dilemma for Babasaheb Ambedkar who had rationally come to the conclusion that castes needed to be completely annihilated but had to simultaneously empower dalits to accomplish that goal. The latter could be done necessarily on the basis oftheir caste identity and hence there was an inherent contradiction betweenthese two goals. The contradiction could be reconciled as the contradiction betweenthe long term and the short term. While one strived for annihilation of castes, one had to ensure that the Dalits survive in prevailing society and reservations were meant for their survival and empowerment.
While I concede that there was no easy solution to this dilemma unless the Left forces had internalized their historic responsibility and waged a revolutionary class struggle embedding the anti-caste struggle as its integral part, which the Left miserably failed in because of their brahmanistic attitude, there was still scope to creatively conceive the support system like reservation so as to make it complementary to the project of annihilation of castes. There is no doubt that given the societal attitudes, reservations to the dalits was necessary. But this consideration itself should indicate whose disability is warranting theantidote of reservations. It was the disability of the Indian society that warranted the countervailing force of the state to ensure that dalits got their due share.
If it was conceived in this manner, theonus of annihilation of castes could have been borne by the larger society, as it should be. The society should have internalized its guilt and striven to do away its disability as soon as possible. It could thus have been sans social stigma that cast so much psychological burden on dalits boys and girls that they perpetually lack in competition. That way, the exceptional policy of reservation could have been self terminating, as it ought to be. While caste basis could not be avoided one could still make family unit as the beneficiary, eliminating the fallacy of making the caste pay the costs while individual receivesthe benefit. By this family that availed of reservation could have been progressively excluded from the future reservations and avoided the sub-caste dynamics that has come to the fore because of the nature of policy that benefits increasingly smaller and smaller numbers. Inabsence of any other basis than caste, naturally people could beinstigated to see things in caste terms.
This is what is behind the conflicts among Dalit sub castes, negating the Ambedkar’s dream of annihilation.
The prevailing policy, apparently premised on thebackwardness of dalits puts a premium on backwardness, opens a pandora’s box of claims of all castes to be backward and thereby wanting reservations. Theprevailing policy seen as undue favour to dalits and thereby makes them subject of grudge of the entire society. In the ensuing conflictual context Dalits wouldzealously preserve their privilege and make the policy perpetual and thereby extending the life of the caste system. The second logic behind the reservation is representational logic, which again appeals naturally to anyone unless one is well-equipped to see transition in class of the beneficiaries. If one objectively assess the experience, this logic has not worked at all. Therefore I would say that within the given constraints and limitations also the policy could have been devised to serve the goal of annihilation of castes.
But it did not happen. Perhaps the ruling classes intrigued to have it that way. many ills that we confront vis-à-vis reservations would have been eliminated. Coming back to your question, there is no doubt that the prevailing policy has served theruling class interests more than it did dalits’.
Standing at this moment, one could see that reservations have been rendered meaningless by globalization. The total jobs in the public sector have been consistently declining from their peak in 1997, which clearly means that the reservations in net terms have ended in 1997 itself. But thevested interests among dalits do not let the masses know this. Perhaps they themselves do not now it or do not wish to know it. It is extremely unfortunate.
In your opinion, which is the most logical approach to abolish the caste?
Castes today operate largely as a cultural residue on the one hand and on the other as a contrivance of the ruling classes to perpetrate exploitation of people. There could be multiple strategies to combat castes. One of the structural methods that can effectively achieve it is to involve people in production system such as cooperatives that willintermingle their material interests. Cooperative farming proposed by Ambedkar in States and Minoritiescould have been a good example of this. There should be persistent education of people against the myths and decadent traditions and religious rituals. The Left and Dalits have a big role in building sans caste movement of people based on material issues of people. These are some of the measures that will surely weaken castes. But despite that a section of people may defy all of them and may commit caste atrocity. They need to be dealt with force, as a shock treatment. The movement should be able to strike them physically to teach a lesson. This is not an emotional response; it is based on solid scientific basis which I can explain to anyone. This is the near scientific package I can suggest as a anti-caste strategy.