The Left and the caste question
By Gopal Guru

THE GROWING recognition of the caste question by the Indian Left, ranging from the ultras to the mainstream parties particularly the CPI(M), shows a promising advance in the democratic consolidation of the subaltern masses which have been crushed under the oppressive weight of civil society, on the one hand, and the repressive state, on the other. This Left recognition of caste and gender based discrimination was evident from two conferences. The national convention of the Sanza Sanskrutik Abhiyan, a cultural front of the marxist-leninist (ML) groups, in Chandigarh from November 9 to 11, 2000, and the CPI(M)'s conference in Thiruvananthapuram in October 2000.

While such reconciliation was overdue, how did it happen? It was certainly not due to the rising political pressure of the mainstream Dalit politics. It would be naive to expect Dalit leaders to take the political/moral lead to pressure the Left parties for such a democratic consolidation. In fact, as the experience of recent years shows, Dalit leaders have been using the Left as the counterpoint to rationalise their everyday forms of petty politics.

Similarly, the present efforts for reconciliation cannot be explained in terms of the righteous indignation of the Indian Left. They need to be explained, among other things, in terms of the shifting significance of the political categories whose progressiveness or regressiveness is conditioned by structural changes initiated by the forces of globalisation. These changes involve the fragmentation, if not complete replacement, of coherent forms of class consciousness and their replacement with more specific senses of identity. This fragmentation of class consciousness has, however, removed the burden of the Leftist, who in the past indulged in a class reductionism that in effect ignored the democratic promise that was present in Dalit assertions. In other words, Left leaders now do not have to feel sceptical about the caste issue for fear that it will disturb class unity, for the latter has anyway been overshadowed by other developments. This recent moves of the Leftists perhaps indicate their political journey that now includes casteless society as an important terminal point.

However, in this regard, the Left parties have to make a concrete beginning both at the level of offering effective programmes and building organisation. In this regard, it is interesting to note that some of the ML groups have already taken a definite lead in establishing such anti-caste organisations in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. These groups, for example, have established the Jati Vinashak Vedike (caste annihilation front) in Karnataka and the Kulam Nirmulan Porata in Andhra Pradesh. At the national level also, these groups have established the sanza Sanskrutik Abhiyan (Collective Cultural Campaign). Thus, these groups have realised that attacking caste is a must to take the project of revolution to its logical end. This was very forcefully put forward by these groups at the Chandigarh meet.

In this collective cultural campaign, the majority of the members recognised the importance of the different forms of cultural mediation in dealing with the question of caste. This particular form of mediation further recognises the need to interrogate the hierarchical social relationship within civil society. Thus, such efforts also seek to engage with civil society while confronting the state. Contesting the hierarchical social relationships within civil society is considered an essential condition for the ultimate elimination of caste exploitation. Such groups also find it critical to appropriate all the Dalit-Bahujan intellectual traditions to broaden the social base of these endeavours.

However, within the ML camps, there are some who do not seem to be welcoming of such multiple forms of cultural mediation into the caste question. They do not seem to be interested in engaging with civil society. They believe that the question of caste is firmly linked with the feudal land structures and that the annihilation of caste is, therefore, inextricably linked with the redistribution of land. Hence, the armed struggle with the state becomes the primary concern, leaving civil society outside the purview of the confrontation. Of course, this leaves a lot of scope for the ``Manuwadis'' to saffronise the spaces in the civil society. Witness, for example, RSS activists conducting their kawayats (drill) on the campuses of some of the universities, particularly in Andhra Pradesh.

While it is true that the annihilation of caste is certainly linked up with the redistribution of land and also that class is relevant in understanding the social reality, at least in certain parts of country, this approach of some of the ML members is problematic for the following reasons. First, it is problematic because its understanding of caste is one-dimensional. Since it treats caste as a feudal remnant rooted in the agrarian structure it, by implication, leaves out the caste dicrimination being reproduced in urban areas. In civil soceity, newer forms of exclusion based on caste are being reproduced even in the age of globalisation.

International capital which is spreading its tentacles particularly into information technology and the electronic media, does not seem to be interested in undermining caste discrimination. For example, the IT industry is, by and large, controlled by the ``twice born''. Similarly, the electronic media might look to be democratic in nature as it has opened up channels in different regional languages. But it still betrays the promise of a deeper, social democratic content in the sense that these new channels in the vernacular are filled by people belonging to the upper caste social background. This ``vernacular democracy'' further entails a parochial slant that often acquires Hindutva overtones. In addition to the reproduction of caste exclusion, there are also new forms of caste-based humiliation that are often produced on a everyday basis through language and speech and performative acts. For example, a Dalit research student in an institutions of higher learning has to walk at least three feet behind his upper caste research guide. Keeping in view the tormenting nature of civil society, a devastating critique of it is a must. Glossing over the inequities carries the peril of delaying if not messing up the cause of social revolution. Therefore, cultural mediation within civil society is as important as taking on the state on the land issue.

Second, the armed struggle as suggested by some of the sections within the ML ambit is also problematic when viewed from the vantage point of civil society. Some might argue that armed struggle cannot be discounted as a part of a creative historical process, that a certain amount of sacrifice is desirable and unavoidable. But what one increasingly finds is that revolutionary violence is yet to establish itself as the perfect virtue in a social order that is conditioned by the prevailing moral climate. In fact, the moral climate within a civil society can enable the revolutionary groups to turn the people against state-perpetrated violence. It can deny the state a political legitimacy to unleash fresh rounds of counter violence against the oppressed masses. Such intervention can continuously expose the frustation of the state that is evident from its ruthless suppression of ex-ML activists and Civil Liberties activists. Thus, engaging with the state within civil society turns out to be a far more effective method of confrontation; it can not only downsize the state on moral/political grounds but also expand the social base of the political delegitimisation of the repressive state.

Send e-mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
No Copyright 2000 dalit e-forum Last modified: December 20, 2000