Vijay Prashad and Brinda Karat
Mallu Swarajyam (left) and other members of an armed squad during the Telangana armed struggle (1946-1951). Sunil Janah / Prajasakti Publishing House. Source: “One Hundred Years of the Communist Movement in India,” Tricontinental, September 1, 2020.
An Interview with Brinda Karat, Politburo Member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
The Communist movement in India celebrated its centenary on October 17, 2020. The party was founded in Tashkent (USSR) in 1920. A decade later, most of the leaders of the Communist Party of India (CPI) were arrested by the British colonial state and imprisoned in Meerut. In 1930, the CPI drafted a Platform of Action (1930), which not only clarified the basic communist positions on various issues but which—after it was distributed at the 1931 Karachi session of the Congress Party—influenced left currents within the anti-colonial freedom movement in India (the Karachi Resolution replicates many of the basic points of the Platform of Action). At the heart of the Platform of Action was a precise understanding of the wretchedness of caste and the necessity for its “ruthless abolition.” Communists in India and a range of movements led by oppressed castes called for the complete eradication of caste rather than its reform, which was the position of both the Gandhian sections and the right-wing groups that formed around the ideology of Hindutva (or Hinduness). Struggles to overcome the rigidities of caste made gains, certainly, but not enough to transform Indian society, which entered the new period of independence from 1947 without a social revolution; the Constitution of the Indian Republic (1950)—drafted by B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader who had fought for the annihilation of caste—nonetheless compromised with the basic outlines of social hierarchy, calling for compensatory discrimination—which is essential—but not the abolishment of caste itself. Over the years, the right-wing forces around Hindutva—from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—grew in strength and brought its pro-caste outlook to the center of Indian political life; the Congress Party, a pale shadow of the role it played during the freedom struggle, has a history of deliberate compromise with the bourgeoisie and the landlords, both fragments of India’s dominant classes that enjoyed the fruits of a social order defined by caste hierarchy. Once more, it was left to the movements of the oppressed castes—including the powerful Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu—and to the communist movement to frontally defend the rights of the people from oppressed castes and to fight to break down social hierarchies. Now, as we edge to the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, the impression of caste on Indian society remains fundamental. It was in this context that the Tamil language journal, The Marxist, interviewed Brinda Karat, a Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), India’s largest communist party.
Karat was born in Kolkata (West Bengal) two months after India won its independence. A member of the CPI(M) since 1971, Karat worked in the trade union movement, was a long-time leader of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and was a member of the upper house (Rajya Sabha) of India’s parliament. She is currently one of the Vice Presidents of the Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch, which she had helped set up a decade ago; her article in The Marxist—“Towards Intensified Struggles for Adivasi Rights”—in July-September 2010 explains the core issues involved for the platform. She is the author of Survival and Emancipation: Notes from Indian Women’s Struggles (New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2005), Food Matters: Law, Policy, and Hunger (Hyderabad: Prajashakti, 2012), and wrote the introduction to Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).
The 1930 Platform of Action written by leaders of the Communist Party of India (CPI) says: “The CP of India fights for the complete abolition of slavery, the caste system and the caste inequality in all its forms (social, cultural, etc.). The CP of India fights for the complete and absolute equality of the working pariahs and all the toilers of our country.” What is the significance of this statement?
The significance of this first policy statement of the Communist Party in 1930 has three aspects. The first is the commitment to the abolition of the caste system as a whole and all the inequalities resulting from it. In 1916 the young B. R. Ambedkar as a student in Columbia University had written of “persistent attempts to do away with caste” which he had described “as an unnatural institution.” After the great social reformers of the nineteenth century like Jyotiba Phule and others who fought the caste system followed by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, among the political parties, it was the Communist Party which was the first political party to give the call for a struggle for the elimination of the caste system itself. In this context the 1930 document criticizes the Gandhian approach for the “reform” of the caste system while retaining its basic framework.
The second aspect of the document is that it linked the struggle against the caste system with the national struggle against the British colonial Raj and feudalism. It said, “As a result of the rule of British imperialism in our country there are still in existence millions of slaves and tens of millions of socially outcast working pariahs, who are deprived of all rights. British rule, the system of landlordism, the reactionary caste system, religious deceptions and all the slave and serf conditions of the past throttle the Indian people and stand in the way of its emancipation. They have led to the result that in India, in the twentieth century, there are still pariahs who have no right to meet with all their fellow men, drink from common wells, study in common schools, etc.” There may have been illusions or hope among some of the those fighting the caste system that the British, unlike the national leadership, had no stakes in maintaining the caste system and were therefore the best bet to initiate reforms. In fact, the British were able to use caste, just as they did with the promotion of religious identities of Hindu and Muslim, for their strategy of divide and rule. This is because of the class reality that the bulwark of support for the British rulers were the feudal forces, the landlords, the Rajas and Maharajahs who had the highest stakes in retaining and strengthening the caste system as it allowed them access to the cheap labor of the “untouchables” and the maintenance of “serf and slave conditions.” Thus, the fight against the colonial regime was linked to the fight against feudalism and the entrenched caste system. The Communist Party of India’s 1930 Plan of Action stated, “Only the ruthless abolition of the caste system in its reformed, Gandhist variety, only the agrarian revolution and the violent overthrow of British rule, will lead to the complete social, economic, cultural and legal emancipation of the working pariahs and slaves.”
The third aspect is that the fledgling Communist Party, despite huge repression by the British, its leaders jailed in the Meerut Conspiracy Case (1929-1933) and charged in one “conspiracy” case after another, joined and in many cases led struggles against untouchability, forced segregation and against anti-Dalit practices in the decade of the thirties, after the 1930 Plan was adopted. Therefore, it was not just an ideological position regarding the essential aspect of fighting the caste system but also the role of communists in the actual struggle.
What was the role of the RSS [Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh] and likeminded forces regarding caste in the freedom struggle and in newly independent India?
As is known the RSS “contribution” to the freedom struggle was in its Indianization of the British strategy of divide and rule. After the 1857 revolt against British Raj based on the unity of both Hindu and Muslim communities, the British realized that such unity would spell disaster for its rule. After the 1857 revolt, the British rulers fashioned policies which focused on identities which divided and weakened the national unity for freedom, mainly by building up the most conservative forces in the main religious communities to increase social polarization. Thus, the Muslim League formed in 1906 was favored by the British if it helped divide the national movement. The RSS formation in 1925 was as much required to aggressively pursue the development of so-called Hindu identities. The RSS actively discouraged its members from joining the freedom struggle. Golwalkar considered as a guruji [master] by many, including the present Prime Minister, had said “We should remember that in our pledge we have talked of freedom of the country through defending religion and culture, there is no mention of departure of British from here” (Shri Guruji Samagra Darshan, vol. IV, page 40).
The claim is that V.D. Savarkar, the father of the Hindutva concept, was against caste and had organized inter-caste marriages. Was this part of a struggle for the abolition of caste? Far from it. Savarkar and others after him put up a staunch defense of the caste system. Savarkar wrote, “It should not be forgotten that the practice of birth-based caste division must have been responsible for the mighty consolidation and amazing stability of the Hindu society under certain circumstances and conditions. While evaluating its merits and demerits, it will be sheer ingratitude to only point fingers at the latter day ill-effects of the institution of caste…It must also be admitted that keeping the interests of the Hindu Nation at heart, the Hindus of yesteryears gave birth to or allowed birth- based caste divisions to develop spontaneously with the aim of preserving the purity of blood ties, community life and tradition (Sahaa soneri pane or Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History; Samagra Savarkar vangmay a, Vol. 4, 1963, p. 710) “All that the caste system has done is to regulate its noble blood on lines believed […] to contribute most to fertilize and enrich all that was barren and poor,” he wrote in his Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (1923). So, for Savarkar the icon of the Hindutva forces, caste played a crucial role to save Hindu society and must be appreciated, though there may be some “demerits.” The “noble blood” which had to be kept pure was of course that of the upper castes and the “barren and poor” were the shudras and the outcastes. So much for the claim of Savarkar being anti-caste. As part of the projection of the pan-Indian identity of the “Hindu” as opposed to the “Indian”, the RSS and likeminded social forces promoted the ideology of Manu Smriti and other religious texts. On the other hand, the political project of Hindutva and Hindu rashtra right from the birth of the RSS and earlier the Hindu Mahasabha (1915) required the projection of Hindu unity. As can be seen in Savarkar’s writing there was never an analysis of the basic anti-human exploitative nature of the system itself. While keeping the caste system intact, Hindu “unity” could be “achieved” by the theory that all Hindus were the victims of Mughal oppressors.
Taking this defense forward, Golwalker in the publication Bunch of Thoughts (1966) wrote:
On the one hand, the so-called ‘caste-ridden’ Hindu Society has remained undying and unconquerable… after facing for over two thousand years the depredations of Greeks, Shakas, Hunas, Muslims and even Europeans, by one shock of which, on the other hand, the so-called casteless societies crumbled to dust never to rise again. In other words, the caste system ensured the strength of the Hindus according to this perverse thinking.
Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the RSS intellectual, defended the varnavyvastha or caste system in his theory of Integral Humanism, upheld as the ideological example by the party of the Indian government today, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He wrote in 1965:
In our concept of four castes, they are thought of as analogous to the different limbs of Virat-Purusha [Cosmic Man]. These limbs are not only complementary to one another, but even further, there is individuality, unity. There is a complete identity of interest, identity of belonging…If this idea is not kept alive, the castes instead of being complementary can produce conflict. But then this is distortion.
So, the history of oppression and discrimination faced by the Dalits in history, is not because of the caste system but a “distortion.” This was and continues to be the understanding of the BJP. That is why for them it is the Manu Smriti which should be the basis for the Constitution of India. On November 30, 1949, four days after the Constitution was finalized by the Constituent Assembly, the RSS responded, “To this day his [Manu’s] laws as enunciated in the Manu Smriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”
Thus, while Dr Ambedkar and the communists believed and fought for the abolition of the caste system itself, the Gandhians believed in reform and the Hindutvavadis of the RSS felt that the caste system was necessary to hold Hindu society together.
Is there any change in the present RSS approach to caste?
There is no fundamental change in the approach of the RSS towards caste. It seeks to make cosmetic alterations through symbolic programs like inter-caste dining or BJP leaders eating in the houses of Dalits which in fact is itself insulting to, Dalits, who do not require affirmation of equal citizenship. However, at the same time the RSS is in full support of the reactionary khap panchayat[dominant caste and ruling class dominated village councils] approach to inter-caste marriage when the boy in a relationship is a Dalit. It has tried to hijack Babasaheb Ambedkar to conceal its own casteist character. But its efforts are self- contradictory as on the other hand it is trying to sanitize the Manu Smriti with novel interpretations of caste and on the other it continues to promote the rigidities of caste hierarchy.
The RSS has never even once repudiated or distanced itself from the views on caste articulated by its founder members, including Golwalkar who clearly defends caste hierarchy and oppression. The RSS holds that the caste system in Hindu society was a simple division of labor and it was the Muslims that introduced hierarchies and discriminations. In 2019, Bhayya Joshi a senior RSS leader wrote in a forward to a book on different castes written by an RSS supporter that “the ‘shudras’ [oppressed castes] were never untouchables. To violate Hindu swabhiman (dignity) of Chanwarvanshiya Kshatriyas, foreign invaders from Arab, Muslim rulers and beefeaters, forced them to do abominable works like killing cows, skinning them and throwing their carcasses in deserted places. Foreign invaders thus created a caste of charma-karma (dealing with skin) by giving such works as punishment to proud Hindu prisoners.” Suresh Soni, another senior RSS leader, wrote, “Dalits had their genesis during Turks, Muslims and Mughal eras. Today’s castes like Valmikis, Sudarshan, Majhabi Sikhs and their 624 sub-castes came into being as a result of atrocities against Brahmins and Kshatriyas during Medieval or Islamic age.” Thus, according to these RSS ideologues, Dalits are actually Kshatriyas and were punished during Mughal rule, with the Muslims forcing them to do “unclean work” so that it is the Mughal rulers who actually made them untouchable! Forget the injunctions of the Manu Smriti and other religious texts, forget the stories of Eklavya and Shambhukh and Sabari, as portrayed in myths considered history by the RSS; they want to ignore this textual record that long predates the arrival of any Muslims into the subcontinent.
The present Prime Minister and former RSS pracharak, Narender Modi wrote in the publication “Karmayog” on manual scavengers:
At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business.
This outlandish justification for birth-based caste determined occupations which continue today is the real approach of the RSS and Hindutva towards the caste system. The BJP government in Rajasthan with Bhairon Singh Shekhawat as Chief Minister (later Vice President of India) installed a statue of Manu in the premises of the Rajasthan High Court. When there was a case for its removal, it was another RSS front—the VHP—that got a stay order from the Court against the removal of the statue. That statue stands there today, a shameful symbol of the hypocrisy of the successive Governments in Rajasthan. The RSS agenda being implemented by the Modi Government is for a Hindu rashtra which carries at its core the caste system. After the adoption of the Constitution in 1950, Babasaheb Ambedkar said, “the rule of Manu has ended”; the RSS replied to him in an article in its periodical Organiser, “Manu Rules Our Hearts.” This is the ideology of the RSS. Ambedkar had also said, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country… it is incompatible with democracy”. That was the truth then, that is the truth now.
Even after 73 years of independence the majority of Dalits belong to the rural and urban proletariat. What is the Relationship of Caste and Class?
Communists and Marxist historians have shown how historically caste arose as a corollary to the development of class society itself. The caste system in India is embedded in social and production relations. With the development of productive forces into settled agriculture and the development of a social surplus, the development of classes into those classes who got ownership and control over the means of production and the surplus and those classes who produced the surplus, is part of the development of the studies of societies that we are all aware of. In India, as the widely recognized and respected historian of ancient India D.D.Kosambi wrote, “Caste is class at the primitive level of production, a religious method of forming social consciousness in such a manner that the primary producer is deprived of his surplus with the minimum coercion.” Caste was given religious sanction, and this further entrenched its toxic reach. As described by Jayantanuja Bandhopadhyay, in his essay on class struggles and caste oppression, (The Marxist, July 2002), “In reality, however, the support to chaturvarnya [caste system] given by the religious texts on the pretext of its allegedly divine origin served merely to sanctify and perpetuate an ancient form of unjust division of labor that was based on the oppression and exploitation of the entire working class, which constituted the overwhelming majority of the population in ancient India, by a small and parasitic ruling class. The ‘other-worldly’ religious injunctions were in the nature of a deliberately contrived functional ideology that served to camouflage a this-worldly socioeconomic structure of exploitation. In other words, the social roots of the metaphysics of chaturvarnya were embedded in the relations of production in ancient India.”
If after so many years, and more so as victims of neo-liberal economic policies, the majority of Dalits have been imprisoned at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, it is precisely because the caste system has been supported by the ruling class, the bourgeoisie of modern India. The caste system has been co-opted, adopted as an instrument for a more intensified extraction of surplus value produced by the army of Dalits especially and the more backward castes. It is, therefore, erroneous to see caste as only part of pre-capitalist relations. It was often said even within our movement that caste relations are part of feudal society. Implicit in this is the understanding that a modern bourgeois society will see caste disappear and class relations will predominate. But our experience itself shows this is an entirely wrong understanding. Class manifests itself in ways that reflect the history of a social formation. For instance, in countries where racist hierarchies persist, class intersects in complex ways with this racist inheritance (such as in many Western societies or in South Africa). In India, class manifests itself through our own historical developments and forms, which includes the hierarchies of caste and the penalties inflicted on Adivasis and others. These “older” forms are not survivals in the present but are reshaped as capitalist social relations develop and become a rotten principle for the organization of our modern society.
That is why the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Party Programme (1964, updated in 2000) states:
Unlike in the advanced capitalist countries where capitalism grew on the ashes of pre-capitalist society, which was destroyed by the rising bourgeoisie, capitalism in India was super-imposed on pre-capitalist society. Neither the British colonialists during their rule nor the Indian bourgeoisie assuming power after independence attempted to smash it, which was one of the most important preconditions for the free development of capitalism. The present Indian society, therefore, is a peculiar combination of monopoly capitalist domination with caste, communal and tribal institutions.
Therefore, instead of viewing caste as a feudal or pre-capitalist relation, we must understand that caste has been incorporated in the economic, social, political, and cultural relations developing under capitalism. We cannot fight capitalism without fighting caste and we cannot fight caste without fighting capitalism.
What is the way forward?
History has shown us the limitations of social reform movements which looked only at caste-based oppressions without looking at class exploitation. We have also learned from our own experiences that building class struggles without a social consciousness about the way caste oppression and exploitation operates, weakens the class struggle itself. It makes invisible the world of one big section of the proletariat which suffers the double exploitation and oppression because she belongs to a Dalits community. And being a Dalit woman means the three-tiered burden of exploitation and oppression as a Dalit, a worker as a woman. The only way forward is to build a combination of class struggle and anti- caste struggle and for the rights of Dalits.
We must understand that with the development of capitalism, the process of differentiation develops within castes also. Class and castes are not synonymous. Caste identity politics conceals this differentiation. However, in the wider sense this does not weaken the fact that the class struggle in India has a unique characteristic, that it is and must be a struggle against the caste system too. As the Party Programme states,
Working class unity presupposes unity against the caste system and the oppression of Dalits, since the vast majority of the Dalit population are part of the labouring classes. To fight for the abolition of the caste system and all forms of social oppression through a social reform movement is an important part of the democratic revolution. The fight against caste oppression is interlinked with the struggle against class exploitation.
Let us pledge that in this coming year of 2021, ninety-one years after the adoption of the 1930 Platform of Action, we will redeem the pledge to intensify the fight for the abolition of the hated caste system and all the forces that seek to perpetuate it.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). He writes regularly for Frontline, the Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.