There are in my view two enemies which the workers of this country have to deal with. The two enemies are Brahmanism and Capitalism.– Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Speech at G.I.P. Railway Depressed Class Workmen’s Conference
The opening to the compilation of Dr. Ambedkar’s collected writings and speeches, from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment opens with a note from the NCP’s Sharad Pawar, then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, as he pens his praises for Ambedkar’s contributions as a revolutionary social thinker in the foreword. In response to Pawar’s constant adulation of Jotirao Phule and Ambedkar, the Shiv Sena’s Raj Thackeray has publicly pointed out how his grandfather used to hold ‘Prabhodhan’ sessions periodically in 1921, which derived its ideology from Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj. A few decades later, the party which continues to uphold this ‘tradition’ would drop rocks onto the heads of protesting members of the Dalit Panther, leading to the martyrdom of the likes of Bhagwat Jadhav. As they continue to try to snatch and subvert fragments of the revolutionary legacies of Phule and Ambedkar, the Indian ruling classes are propping up a larger folly against the oppressed masses of India, that of the idea that annihilation of caste is possible within the realm of the current brahmanical Hindutva fascist Indian state. For this purpose, the central government has recently declared the week leading up to Dr. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary on 14th April as “Samajik Nyay Saptah” (social justice week).
Fascism has latched onto post-modernist identitarian politics very well, quickly allying with the likes of Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramdas Athawale, the leader of the splinter group of the carcass of Ambedkar’s own Republican Party of India. Over a period, the party has been quick to produce its own set of Dalit and Adivasi leaders, with the likes of Ram Nath Kovind and Droupadi Murmu, both serving as Presidents of India. On a day when the ruling classes will trot out all its paraphernalia of appeasement while they butcher the legacy of Babasaheb, we will attempt to delve into the caste question in India through the lens of feudalism and Ambedkar’s roadmap in dealing with the caste question, as well as an evaluation if this roadmap ever materialized in supposedly democratic India.
A Brief on The Caste Question
70% of India’s population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Yet, the share of the role of agriculture in the gross domestic product of India is being continuously reduced since the transfer of power to the current Indian ruling classes. Colonized regions like India, where independent capitalism was never allowed to develop due to the imposition of colonialism led to extreme unequal development. Unlike Europe where capitalism and the bourgeoisie combatted feudalism to establish their class rule and capitalism as a mode of production, in colonized countries like India, imperialist forces formed alliances with the feudal lords from the get-go. From the Battle of Plassey in the early days of the various East India Companies to the establishment of the British Raj directly under the British crown, imperialism fostered in India on the base of feudalism instead eradicating it.
The transfer of power by the British to the Indian big bourgeoisie and its party, the Indian National Congress, did nothing to qualitatively change the relations of production and this fundamental character of India. Caste in the base is predominantly a question of land ownership, that is, vast sections of Dalits in India have historically had no ownership of land and served as semi-slave landless peasants for the Brahmanical ruling classes to derive surplus from. From theses relations of production, the ideology of Brahmanism perpetuates deprivation of Dalits not just from land but from all resources available to the ruling classes, through the ideological lens of untouchability. Caste, therefore, finds both a material and an ideological existence. This entire mode of production is premised on pre-capitalist caste relations, where poor peasants, landless peasants and agricultural labourers are continuously forced into labouring on the fields of landlords, who take no part in the production process. Caste endogamy is a form of apartheid that ensures deprivation from all resources, which includes land.
The Manusmriti says, “no Shudra should have property of his own, He should have nothing of his own. The existence of a wealthy Shudra is bad for the brahmins. A brahmin may take possession of the goods of a Shudra.” While the transition from the Varna system of the Shudra-holding system to the Jati system in the feudal and the current semi-feudal society has seen drastic changes in the conditions of the Shudras, this maxim which was being applied to the labouring masses by Manu is prevalent in the current land-holdings for Dalits. Taking the state of Haryana as a case study, Agricultural Census in Haryana shows that Dalits only have 3.12% of the land-holdings in agriculture, while among Haryana’s nearly Dalit population (20% of the total number of people in Haryana), 83.31% have land less than 5 acres, with the rest owning less than 0.5%. These are extremely small land-holdings and force Dalits into the destitute status of poor peasants and landless peasants.
This deprivation is further institutionalized through semi-feudal bondage and is seen in particular forms of begaar and jajmani systems across all of India. To take the example of Haryana alone, 88.56% of the bonded labourers are Dalits, with 10% coming from other backward castes. In further studies conducted in Haryana, it was found that the restrictive definition of who is a bonded labourer (based on euro-centric understanding of serfdom) has led to emergence of alternate forms of caste-based agricultural labour where persons referred to as ‘naukar’ function as semi-bonded labourers, indebted to landlords, coming from Dalit castes and working for the same landlord for over thirty years due to these obligations. Haryana is considered a successful example of the so-called Green revolution, a programme devised by US imperialist Rockefeller Foundation, which proclaimed that it would transform agriculture from its feudal nature into “modernization.” Yet, it is clear that even in area where many prominent economists argue capitalist relations prevail, semi-feudalism is rampant and finds its basis in the exploitation and oppression of Dalits. Finally, on a pan-India scale, among all persons categorized as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 81% work as khetmajdoors, with the number of khetmajdoors increasing from 7.46 crores to 10.74 crores in the decade between 1991 to 2001. Yet, beyond the question of the oppressed castes, Pratik Rumba analyzed the National Sample Survey’s results from 1961 to 2013 and discovered, “contrast to our expectation, the Indian agriculture has observed the increasing share of both marginal and small households (small scale production). The recent data also suggest that the ‘effectively landless’ households have declined, in its total households share, from 60 per cent to 40 per cent.”
It is apparent then that not only has liberalization led to intensification of bonded and semi-bonded caste-based labour, this caste relation a paramount actor in the functioning of the semi-feudal condition. Given that nearly a 100 crore people in India are tied to this sphere of agriculture, the eradication of semi-feudalism then becomes a necessary pre-condition for the annihilation of caste. This is not a grand revelation that is being made here, Dr. Ambedkar’s writings show that he was already developing an understanding regarding this issue.
Agrarian Change and Transformation of Society
In one of his earlier studies, Dr. Ambedkar made astute observations regarding the predominantly agrarian nature of Indian society. Even in 1918, Ambedkar understood that India was a country of small agricultural land holdings. Looking at European societies, Ambedkar recognized that these holdings would have to be consolidated and enlarged for them to become productive in a capitalist market. He wrote, “Does our agriculture—the main stay of our population—give us any surplus ? We agree with the answer which is unanimously in the negative. We also approve of the remedies that are advocated for turning the deficit economy into a surplus economy, namely by enlarging and consolidating the holdings. What we demur to is the method of realizing this object. For we most strongly hold that the evil of small holdings in India is not fundamental but is derived from the parent evil of the mal-adjustment in her social economy. Consequently if we wish to effect a permanent cure we must go to the parent malady.” Ambedkar recognized therefore that agriculture did not produce surplus, that Indian farmers were largely not producing for the market and were thus not capitalist farmers, and that the resolution of this land problem was a problem of the political economy of the country itself. At this early stage of the development of his political thought, Ambedkar looked towards the process of industrialization in England and France, that is, the process of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Europe as a way out of this situation. Of course, the bourgeois democratic revolution was a progressive force in the destruction of feudalism in Europe and it is logical to find democratization as a way out of this deadlock.
By the late 1930s, Ambedkar’s thought regarding this feudal nature of Indian agriculture developed further. Clause 4 of Article 2 (Section 2) of States and Minorities text contains a radical proposition from Dr. Ambedkar, which he states are quintessential in preserving the fundamental democratic rights of citizens. He posits that all industry in India would be wholly-owned and maintained by the state. He then emphasizes on agriculture being one such industry, with the land being redivided into state-owned collective farms, with tenancy being strictly equal and unbiased from caste distinctions. This is a radical proposition, one which strikes at an important pillar of semi-feudalism, that of land relations and ownership of land, and one which would democratize the caste relations that dominate the majority of the Indian population. As established previously, the question of who owns agricultural land and the size of land-holding plays an important role in the class divisions among the peasantry, where feudalism is prevalent. Dr. Ambedkar dubs this a form of state socialism in his explanation of this clause.
It has to be noted that along with this agrarian democratization, Dr. Ambedkar is simultaneously presenting a need for social and cultural change in this document, by way of securing democratic rights and eradication of institutions of social evil like untouchability. He elaborates on this position further in his famous speech, Annihilation of Caste, where he calls out the contemporary communists of his time for their hyperfocus on land reform and redistribution of land with no understanding of the need for a social revolution. Early Indian communists like M.N. Roy and the Communist Party of India in general, were unable to grasp the semi-feudal semi-colonial nature of India atleast until 1951 (which was later reversed), considering caste to be a dying phenomenon and merely a question of economic struggle. Such mechanical understanding of caste as merely an economic relationship, or conversely a relationship at only social level, with the understanding that solving one aspect of the relationship (economic or social level) and hoping that this would lead to its elimination was prevalent among the socialists contemporary to Dr. Ambedkar.
In States and Minorities, Dr. Ambedkar offers a radical break from this brahmanical trend and gives a new direction to anti-feudal politics through this document. Yet, what can be observed is that in the same way Raj Thackeray and Sharad Pawar were bickering regarding their co-option of fragments of the radical character of Dr. Ambedkar and Jotirao Phule, the Indian National Congress as the representatives of Indian big bourgeoisie were not willing to adopt this document in its entirety. Instead, a de-fanged version of the same is seen as the Indian Constitution of the present. Indian ‘independence’ was a chance at revolution against semi-feudalism, a chance at revolution against imperialism, a vision that progressives like Ambedkar were also largely grasping but was also being actualized by the downtrodden peasantry during the Telangana people’s revolution. In this region, “lower-caste and Dalit-Bahujan women formed a large section of the six-million strong agricultural labour force and were slated to not benefit from India’s independence.” The movement saw the peasantry revolting against casteist institutions like the zamindari system, burning debt notes and landholding records, forming socialist village republics, redistributing agricultural land, collectivizing farms en masse while carrying out a social revolution against feudal patriarchal and casteist practices, the results of which are observed to this day in the social formation of the Telangana region. The actions undertaken by the oppressed peasantry during this revolution shows clear signs that the direction chosen by the masses of India were very close to the one Ambedkar posited. In the same bloody way that the Indian army crushed the revolution, under great pressure from the United States of America, the vision presented by Dr. Ambedkar was butchered and neither the agrarian revolution nor the land reform were completed.
This is a two-part article. The next part can be read here.
by Shri Rishi, student of law, Jindal Global Law School
 B.R. Ambedkar, Speech at G.I.P. Railway Depressed Class Workmen’s Conference, 1938 https://velivada.com/2017/06/03/dr-ambedkars-speech-depressed-class-workmens-conference-nashik/.
 Yogesh Joshi, Monday Musings: Maha politics unable to shed its casteist lineage, dating back 2 decades, Hindustan Times, 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/pune-news/monday-musings-maha-politics-unable-to-shed-its-casteist-lineage-dating-back-2-decades-101629715464448.html
 India at a Glance, https://www.fao.org/india/fao-in-india/india-at-a-glance/en/
 Casteist Verses from Manusmriti – Law Book of Hindus Velivada, https://velivada.com/2017/05/31/casteist-quotes-verses-manusmriti-law-book-hindus/ (last visited May 6, 2020) (ManuVIII-417 & X129).
 Labour Department Haryana, Report of Survey on Bonded Labour in Haryana (Government of Haryana) (1995) https://storage.hrylabour.gov.in/uploads/labour_laws/Y2017/June/W4/D29/1498736197.pdf
 Ajay Kumar, On Production Relations: Investigation Haryana, Towards A New Dawn (2013), https://toanewdawn.blogspot.com/2013/04/on-production-relations-investigation.html
 Radical Publications, Theoretical Justification of Semi-feudalism, Towards A New Dawn (2011), https://www.toanewdawn.in/theoretical-justification-of-semi-feudalism/
 Pratik Rumba, Agrarian Relation and the Maoist Movement in India, BRICS Initiative for Critical Agrarian Studies (2015), https://www.iss.nl/sites/corporate/files/CMCP_62-Rumba.pdf
 B.R. Ambedkar, Small Holdings in India and Their Remedies, in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches Volume 1 (1979), 472, https://www.mea.gov.in/Images/attach/amb/Volume_01.pdf
 B.R. Ambedkar, States and Minorities: What are Their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India (Government of India) (1947).
 Anand Teltumbde, To the Self-Obsessed Marxists And The Pseudo Ambedkarites, Counter Currents, 2013, https://www.countercurrents.org/teltumbde030413.htm
 Women And Armed Revolution: The Telangana Peoples’ Struggle (1946-51), Feminism in India (2020), https://feminisminindia.com/2020/08/12/women-armed-revolution-telangana-peoples-struggle/
 Akhil Gupta, Revolution in Telengana 1946–1951 (Part One), 4 Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East , 1-26 (1984).
 John Roosa, Passive revolution meets peasant revolution: Indian nationalism and the Telangana revolt, 28 Journal of Peasant Studies , 57-94 (2001).
Leave a Reply