Response to Badges of Color: An Afro-Dalit Story
Unfortunately Mr. (or Dr.) Vijay Prashad appears to belong to one of those breeds of the "hardcore left" or "old left", who can see no problem in the world other than economic problem. To them social, political, bureaucratic and educational inequities do not matter, or they think that all these inequities will be ameliorated once the economic disparity is removed, or sort of removed (via "to each according to their need" principle). That's why these old leftists do not believe in affirmative action here in the US, nor do they believe in quota system for jobs and admission to colleges in India. Indian old left opposes Mandalization (extending affirmative action to cover the whole society) more strongly than the upper caste fascist RSS.
Mr. Prasad talks about "communist government" initiated land reform. The said land reforms have definitely led to the upliftment of the dalits (the lowest castes, the ex-untouchables) to a certain extent but socially and politically I do not believe they have reached the state of self-respect and self-confidence that the dalits of Uttar Pradesh have reached. In West Bengal, I believe the dalits have hit a plateau of emancipation - emancipation brought about by virtue of land reforms. This plateau is definitely higher than the former abyss that they were living in. That no doubt is one of the reasons why the communists have been in power for more than twenty years in West Bengal. However, not much has been done to integrate them into the political hierarchy of the communist party. And their ethos are buried so deep in "economic disparity" being at the root of all problems, they refuse take any steps to ameliorate any other disparities. They are one of the states with the least amount of compliance for government job-quotas for dalits (In other words they have one of the least enforcement of affirmative action programs).
It would be interesting to see how long the lower castes of West Bengal would continue to tolerate the upper caste hegemony under the communist government. Even if they continue to win for a good while, there is something definitely not quite right with a system which allows a condition in which the lower castes only occupy the lower rungs of political, bureaucratic and educational power. Social status of a segment is generally rooted in its political, bureaucratic and educational status. So is the disparity in political, bureaucratic and educational status is allowed to continue, certainly the social disparity is bound to continue. This means caste discrimination in India (strongest manifestation of social disparity) and race based social discrimination in the US (again, nothing but social discrimination rooted in the past) would continue as long as the deprived segments do not achieve parity with the rest in the political, bureaucratic and educational arenas. Thinking that bringing the lower castes to the plateau of land owning small farmer position is good enough is being an ostrich with head in the sand. We need to continually work to bring about parity in all spheres of life.
Unfortunately the left movements in India as well as in the West were initiated by those in the upper echelons of the society. They found it convenient to over-emphasize the "economic disparity" as the main malaise of the society, so much so they tend not to even recognize other disparities as things that may be undesirable. Needless to say that a recognition of other disparities as undesirable will force them to share the political and other power with the downtrodden, which would not be very convenient for them.
To my mind "racialist nationalism, of the sort preached by Rashidi and Rajshekar," are nothing but calls for equity among races and castes - equity in all areas of social intercourse, not just "economic". Myopic Mr. Prasad says "Many Dalit groups, taking their cue from civil liberties organizations, ignore much of the economic ground for untouchability." He conveniently doesn't see that without achieving political equity by organizing as deprived group, no matter whether it is caste-based or race-based, they cannot really achieve equity in any other area, economic included. If the struggle for equity overshoots and leads to unlikely exploitation in the other direction we will have to struggle against that too. However, that kind of fear appears to be unfounded from the lack of historical precedence.
In the age of market economy which seems to have come to stay around the world, including in China, I do not see economic disparity going away in the near future. Frankly speaking, if steps are taken to eliminate the influence of money on politics, I couldn't care less about economic disparity. Government is nothing but an organization of people, somehow arrived at. And most of the multinationals and other corporations are nothing but organizations just like government, but on smaller scales. I like the possibility of picking and choosing the organization to work for and earn my living. In the absence of the latter, we will be left with the state as the only corporation - the communist model of a society. Are these old leftists still looking forward towards the communist model of the society? If they are, they will have to look for a long time.
However, I do believe political, bureaucratic and educational inequities, and hence social disparities among different segments of the society "can be" and "should be" reduced, and the faster the better. As far as political equity of different segments of the society is concerned, I see no other way of achieving the same other than with the help of Proportional Representational (PR) system of elections. Bureaucratic and educational disparities among different segments of the society can be reduced most rapidly with help of strong affirmative action measures. With political, bureaucratic and educational parity, social parity will automatically follow. Unfortunately, among the old left I do not see any kind of commitment or inclination to work towards political, bureaucratic, educational and social parity. They "conveniently" co-opt themselves out of this kind of struggle by burying their head under their imaginary economic sand dunes.
Z Magazine, March 2000