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How Do We Break The Bonds of Caste?

We are living in an age where democratic demands and assertions by the people are seen as a crime against the state by the state. For the people these demands are necessary for a dignified life. But what demands are democratic? Is it a homogeneous concept for everyone? Usually, our practice comes from our class position, and it shapes how we see the world. Generally, people depend on common sense and are unable to differentiate between common sense and good sense, i.e., an analysis on the basis of concrete conditions. When speaking of hegemony Antonio Gramsci differentiated between ‘common sense’ and ‘good sense’ while highlighting the role played by ruling class ideology.1 In any society, common sense is the reflection of the dominating class perspective or ruling class ideology.  What we perceive is the practice prevailing in a particular mode of production. Pre-historic humans accepted natural calamities as a supernatural phenomenon and started worshiping nature. Today, with the deep roots of Brahmanism deriving from texts like the Bhagwad Gita, there is an emphasis on searching for a Taranhar (a person who can resolve all problems). Drawing from such personalities in history, the Brahmanical Hindutva forces turn to symbols like Ashoka, Pritiviraj Chauhan and Shivaji and map the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of this legacy. This tendency of looking for solutions through the intervention of decisive individuals, worshipping their Brahmanical-masculinity and posing it as the only solution is part of the idealist phenomenon of searching for Yug-purusha to bring changes in society. In sharp contrast, the historical and dialectical materialism of Karl Marx rooted social changes in material conditions. Marx said, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”1 In the current social context, informed by complexities rising from class, caste, religion, race and region, the dynamic of social structures is fraught with contradictions. The relationship between caste and class is one such complex dynamic today.

Caste is a hierarchy based socio-economic production relation where a person’s caste determines the work they do. The notions of purity and pollution are the most degrading and reactionary part of the caste system through which a large section of people are secluded from society. In India, we understand feudal society and economy through the system of caste, which is more or less an economic production relation based on land. Land and this land related economy has created a society and political structure that serves the interest of land owners and its feudatories. The Brahmanical ideology of caste suppresses the majority of the Indian people including the Dalits, Adivasis, women, and reproduces itself on the basis of extraction of their labor. The history of this exploitation has continued even after the transfer of power from the colonial to the contemporary state.

Bhaurao Gaikwad (1902-71), a Dalit social reformer and member of the Republican Party of India, had started a strong movement for the distribution of land to the oppressed sections in Maharashtra in 1950s. But his efforts went in vain. The question of land distribution was subsumed under land reform and resulted in legislation that was never put into practice. Meanwhile, Bhaurao Gaikwad got a seat in the Rajya Sabha and his demand for land distribution was co-opted by the opportunist leadership of the Congress. In 1969, the Green Revolution,3 a programme brought to developing countries by the Ford Foundation to curb world-wide economic crisis, served imperialist capital and the landlord section of the country. Only a few big landlords had the material base to gain the benefits of production through new seeds and implement fertilizer-based agriculture. The banking system which was evolved in rural areas aided the big landowners. Here, caste played an important role in restructuring the old societal domination through the close nexus between the administration, banking system and the landlords. The continuous commoditization agricultural production in rural India based on foreign capital had a deep impact on the rural and urban India with differing intensity. The income gap between the landowning and the landless people (largely the Dalit community) sharpened day by day. This was prominent in 1980-90 when the productivity of agriculture decreased. The agricultural growth slowed from 4.69 percent in 1991 to 2.6 percent in 1997 and 1.1 percent in 2002.  Those who had capital to invest in agriculture were gaining wealth while the majority of the landless peasantry remained dependent on the minuscule share of crops and small per capita income from agrarian work.

Continuous sidelining of landless peasantry from agricultural production increased the crisis in society and built a strong resistance to this form of domination by the rural elite. In the late 60s, Naxalbari emerged in this context as a militant resistance of the landless and poor peasantry against the big landlords. The slogan of land to the tiller alongside the demand of land distribution drew from the well of transforming the unequal relationship in the countryside. In Maharashtra, in the years after Naxalbari, the Dalit Panthers, inspired by the Black Panthers, recognized the relationship between class struggle and the struggle for the annihilation of caste. In 1973, the Dalit Panthers recognized the dual evils of Indian society – the system of caste and the role of American imperialism. Exposing the class collaborationist nature of the electoral system that retains bourgeois control and restricting the oppressed sections to token representation, the Dalit Panthers spoke of revolution as indispensible for transforming society.4

In the 1980s, the emergence of a social reformer from Punjab in Dalit politics in North India charted a new path. Kanshi Ram was a dynamic leader and organizer. He brought to the fore the unity of the oppressed through the conception of Bahujan which would include the Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Minority communities. He spoke of working with the system to change it to strengthen the political control of the oppressed castes over the bureaucracy and administration. Working on political representation, Kanshi Ram argued for political leadership to ensure political equality. This meant political power through elections. From All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) to the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), the 80s and 90s in North India saw direct participation in elections as necessary for Dalit assertion. Meanwhile, with the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the prevailing conditions in Uttar Pradesh, the unity between the Samajwadi Party and the BSP united to repel the assault by Hindutva forces. Soon after, this unity broke down with changing caste equations. By 1995, the rise of Mayawati as the protégé of Kanshi Ram and her electoral victory was ensured through an alliance with the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). He argued that, “to get the political power if we need to ally with the most oppressive section of the country, we should go for it.”5 The leadership of the BSP was trapped inside electoral opportunistic politics and served the expansion of foreign capital through its division on caste lines.

Kanshi Ram’s analysis of the prevailing social conditions factored caste networks for political gain but failed to provide a mechanism for Dr. BR Ambedkar’s call for the Annihilation of Caste.5 Without addressing the networks of caste, its interdependence and mechanism of control over society and the deep-rooted inequality on which it is based, the analysis furthered the penetration of Brahmanical ideology among the sections of oppressed by reinforcing the political power of new land-owning castes.6 This period saw a spurt of social boycott, caste atrocities, practice of untouchability and sexual violence on Dalit women by other backward castes all over the country. The neo-landlords emerged as the enforcers of Brahmanical domination at every instance where the aspirations of the Dalit community dared to rise. Ensuring the unbridled penetration of foreign capital through cheap labour, these forces served imperialism utilizing the networks of caste embedded in society.

During the 90s, with the so-called opening up of the Indian economy through Liberalisation, Globalisation and Privatisation, at the very time when the BSP was charting its rise in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the Dalit community was forced to migrate en masse from the villages due to worsening economic conditions and increasing caste atrocities at the hands of the landlords. The urban space remained tied to the bonds of caste and class. The contractualisation of labour, the decreasing wages and miserable working conditions were not the concerns of the BSP. By the 2000s, electoral politics of Mayawati further degenerated into open opportunistic alliances and power-sharing. In 2007, Mayawati coined a new term Sarvajan. At that time Kancha Ilaiah predicted that “Mayawati and BSP’s political evaporation is certain.”

Anand Teltumbde, Dalit scholar who offers a break from the dominant identity politics trend for caste annihilation

This ideological degradation was detrimental for the anti-caste movement. This degeneration was not sudden or unplanned. By the 1970s, when the Congress party started degenerating, the new landowning class of OBC section formed many regional parties. The leadership of these parties largely belonged to the petty-bourgeoisie and rural elites. These parties were created on the mass base of single-caste solidarity. In Bihar, Yadav, Koiri and Kurmi were some dominating castes that took emerged prominently during days. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh the Yadav caste rose as neo-landlords. In Andhra Pradesh, the Reddy community established its position. All these parties never raised the question of the annihilation of caste. Instead, they formed alliances with the Brahmanical forces to win elections. We cannot escape the historical baggage of caste atrocities against Dalit and Adivasi’s. But the nature of Brahmanical order and the application of caste have been evolving since time immemorial. The new era demands a revisit of caste as a system where we have to analyze the social dynamics of caste. Rather than the demand for the annihilation of caste, caste as a means to organize has grown strong since 1970s. Among the urban petty-bourgeoisie, this emerged as a sharp identitarian shift, which actually missed the main target. Our major arguments are coming from the lap of Brahmanism. The anti-caste movement moved closer to caste-based identity formations for political gain retaining Brahmanism among the Shudras. One such derailment is the concept of “Dalit capitalism”[6].

The concept of Dalit Capitalism is based on Black Capitalism. Milind Kamble, the founding member of DICCI (Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries), proposed a vision that the Dalit will not be a community that takes. They need to develop their ability to give. In his introductory speech he announced that “the market makes the best time for Dalit entrepreneurs”. Milind Kamble’s petty-bourgeois cry is clear and evident. It is important to recognize that any window for the oppressed to shake the tyranny of oppressor only works as a safety valve for them. But the concept is not a safety-valve at all. In United States Black Capitalism is an old concept. It is important to understand this through the whole era of Black Capitalism. After decades of this so-called Black Capitalism, African-Americans languish at the bottom of socio-economic indicators. In 2011, the poverty rate among blacks was 28.1 per cent, almost three times the rate for non-Hispanic whites. The prison population is filled with Black people. US data shows that American Blacks are incarcerated six times more than white Americans. In an interview, Anand Teltumbde speaking of DICCI said, “The same is happening in India. The upper strata of the Dalits, propagandized by their spokespersons in the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), did benefit from these policies. They are visibly and extraneously promoted by the neoliberal state and its sole beneficiary, the big capitalists. The poor have to be content with either development trinkets that trickle down, or with the state’s largesse that flows on the eve of elections.”

The fight for elections and representation has left the question of Dalit emancipation far behind. ILO has published a survey report on the global presence of slavery which states the pathetic situation of working class in India. Around 18 million people, which are 1.4 percent of India’s population, work as slaves in brick kilns, the carpet industry, glassware and bangle industry, besides children who work as domestic work or roadside eating joints. To maintain this oppressive system, there is a close nexus which has been functioning between rural big landlords and urban middle men. Providing cheap labour and the maintenance of this supply of work force are the two major functions of the village big landlords. Extra economic coercion also inflicts upon the female members of the male worker. They need to work in the houses of landlords for odd jobs. Child labour and sexual exploitation of women and child are still maintained in rural and urban work areas.     

The unending saga of caste violence is a reminder of the challenge before us today. Laxmanpur Bathe, Khairlanji and Dharmapuri are instances of the perpetuation of Brahmanical Hindutva dominance over the most oppressed of this country. The struggle for right to land in Una, Gujarat reminds us that the organized assertion by the most oppressed for transforming their relation to production is met with the most severe state repression. Its clearest manifestation today is the repression on the Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerana Abhiyan resulting in the incarceration of a range of activists, academics, lawyers and intellectuals for daring to demand an end to the Nayi Peshwai of the ruling class. The unity of the oppressed communities, of the Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and the working people of this country in the cities and the countryside, the coming together to mark the victory of the oppressed to overthrow their chains is met with brutal vengeance. This shows us the need for the hour – the unity of the oppressed to transform these structures of oppression through a revolutionary change. Are we prepared for such a struggle? Do we dare to imagine a new dawn? It is insufficient to wait for time to tell us what is to be done.

by Nishant Anand, Law Student at Delhi University


  1. Gramsci, Antonio, ‘The Concepts of Ideology, Hegemony, and Organic Intellectuals in Gramsci’s Marxism’, Theoritical Review, 1982.
  2. Marx, Karl, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848.
  3. Kar, Guruprasad, ‘Where are the Indian Capitalists?’, Towards a New Dawn, 2013.
  4. ‘ Dalit Panthers Manifesto’, Raiot, 2016.
  5. ‘Manyavar Kanshi Ram in Aap ki Adalat’, zeeTV
  6. Teltumbde, Anand, ‘An Enigma Called Kanshi Ram’, Economic & Weekly Political Weekly 10.2307/4418854

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