In his book, Republic Of Caste, published earlier in 2018, activist, author and senior professor Anand Teltumbde writes on a range of issues afflicting independent India, exploring “inequality in the time of neoliberal Hindutva”. Through this collection of essays Teltumbde explores the marginalisation and disempowerment of Dalits by training a critical lens on the Constitution, Hindutva forces and the very concept of a republic.
In a prescient chapter titled “Manufacturing Maoists: Dissent in the Age of Neoliberalism”, Teltumbde also writes about how the state has a history of slapping labels of “Maoist” and “Naxalite” on those who criticise its policies and arresting them, particularly among Dalit and Adivasi communities.
On August 28, his words reverberated strongly when a team of Pune Police raided his home in Goa in connection with investigations into a public meeting organised before caste-related violence erupted at Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1. Raids were also conducted on the homes of other activists in Mumbai, Ranchi, Hyderabad, Delhi and Faridabad. Although Teltumbde was not arrested, five others activists were.
In a statement, Teltumbde asserted that he wasn’t present at the event in question. He said his house was raided as if he were a “dreaded terrorist or a criminal” and urged the judiciary to take note of the “monumental harassment and torture”.
Later that day, Teltumbde responded to an email questionnaire from Harish Wankhede, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University on behalf of Scroll.in, sent to him last week, about his book. In detailed and expansive responses, he wrote about the caste-class dichotomy, the premise of regional parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, and reservations. He emphasised the following:
- Refuting the claim that caste is a social category whereas class is an economic one, and deconstructing the distinction between the two, Teltumbde quotes Ambedkar who said “a caste is an enclosed class”.
- Calling reservations “alms” given by the state to Dalits, Teltumbde argues that “Dailts have been paying a huge cost for these reservations – the biggest being the postponement of the goal of annihilation of caste.”
- Stating that Left and communist parties understand the class question comparatively better than Dalits and Ambedkarites, Teltumbde nonetheless criticises these parties for “having advanced tools and theories of Marxism for understanding society in its motion” but having “failed to apply them judiciously”.
- Emphasising that nothing can be built on the divisive category of caste, Teltumbde avers, in the context of the Bahujan Samaj Party, that “achieving electoral wins by dextrously combining castes and communities may be (and indeed has been) the games of the ruling elites, it can be played by Dalits only to their peril”. The emphasis, as always, he writes has to be on annihilating caste.
- Problematising the concept of India as a “secular democracy”, Teltumbde declares that it is a myth: “When there is an overwhelming majority of Hindus in the country, to say that the state, which is constituted by majority votes will treat all religions equally is a contradiction in terms.”
- Teltumbde calls for a cohesion in ideologies among Dalits when it comes to resisting dominant parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party, stating that “unless we see right-wing brahminical parties as our ideological enemy, we cannot make any coherent argument.”
- Framing it as “politics that advocates social justice and equality”, Teltumbde says that the only brand of politics that works for Dalits, by definition, has to be broadly Left.
- Criticising neoliberal policies as opposed to the betterment of Dalits, Teltumbde calls for an opposition to “commoditisation and privatisation of education...slashing of funds for public healthcare services” and a demand for “security of livelihood in terms of land in rural areas and jobs in urban settings”.
- Laying down a social and political model for annihilation of caste in today’s time, Teltumbde says it “would be to build a broad class unity of masses against the Hindutva fascist forces.”
- Criticising the Congress for being in “disarray” and yet displaying “its megalomaniac attitude”, Teltumbde says it still holds the key, as the only national party, to avoid the imminent destruction of India by communal forces by “organising unity of all opposition parties”.
This is the text of the interview:
The title of your book is interesting. Republic is often associated with the rights of people, citizens and modern individuals to elect a political authority. When you attached “Caste” with “Republic” in the title, what exactly did you have in mind?
You are right; republic in popular imagination in modern times is normally associated with democratic implications though it is not necessarily so in reality. The term was claimed in the 20th century by states whose leadership enjoyed more power than most traditional monarchs, including military dictatorships, such as the Republic of Chile under Augusto Pinochet and totalitarian regimes such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In the past, it certainly had different meanings. Derived from the Latin expression res publica (“the public thing”), it was used to designate any state, not only democratic states but also oligarchies, aristocracies, and monarchies, with the exception of tyrannical regimes.
In Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576), the French political philosopher Jean Bodin provided a far-reaching definition of the republic: “The rightly ordered government of a number of families, and of those things which are their common concern, by a sovereign power.” It was during the 17th and 18th century that the meaning of “republic” shifted with the growing resistance to absolutist regimes and their upheaval in a series of revolutions, from the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) to the American Revolution (1775-83) and the French Revolution (1787-89). It is through these events that the republic came to acquire its democratic attribution in contrast to monarchy.
“Republic” in the title of the book wants to make a deliberate contra statement – that the state in India is not of the demos, but of caste. When, in the body of the book, I say that India is more casteised than even before, it succinctly highlights that bitter reality. The postcolonial state is constituted in the name of people, as depicted by the preamble, which misleads us to assume India to be a republic – a sovereign socialist, secular democratic republic.
The title seeks to expose the deception in this phraseology. India, as the most unequal country in the world, claims to be socialist; the country where the hegemony of the majority religion continues unabated and has assumed a Frankenstein form poses as secular; a society where people’s rights are trampled upon with impunity feigns democracy, and the state that exemplifies compliance with a Washington consensus, WTO, GATT, etc., imposed by the imperialist block, calls itself sovereign. Republic of Caste exposes this hypocrisy and shows what India always was, and today certainly is.
Why do you think that “caste” as a social category is more appropriate to understand the churning in India than the economic identity “class”? Do you think that the classical definition of “republic” needs to be redefined in the kind of democracy that we are living in today?
I do not consider caste to be a mere social category and class to be an economic category. You will find that this stereotype is demolished in the book. Since the times these categories became part of the transformative discourse, they were so intermingled that they could not be seen in such social and economic compartments. I problematised this understanding of caste and class.
Babasaheb Ambedkar perceptibly remarked in his very first published scholarly essay, “Caste in India” (1916) that “a caste is an enclosed class”. This notion of caste, that it is just a social category, betrays the understanding that caste has been a kind of fossilised entity continuing from prehistory. This may sound good as rhetoric, but it is not a reality. Caste has been changing, discernibly so since the medieval period and much faster during the colonial period. It has changed beyond recognition during postcolonial times, as I have explained, not so much due to anti-caste movements as due to the postcolonial political economy and the manner in which “democracy” was actualised through the Constitution.
My concern is not the definition of “republic”. As I have explained, “republic” carries the notion of democracy, but many dictatorial regimes too have claimed it. I am concerned with the definition of India. The entire thesis of Republic of Caste is to expose the real character of India, the Indian state, the Indian ruling classes.
Several essays in the book are categorically critical in nature. They criticise the state policy of reservation, highlight the limitations of caste-centric politics of Dalits and undermine the economic aspirations of the new Dalit middle class as a myth produced by neoliberalism. Is there any popular Dalit movement or initiative in the post-Ambedkar period that you admire?
Yes, true. Consistent with the objective explicated above, the book is categorically critical of most policies of the state and the responses of Dalits to them. One may agree or disagree with me, but I have elaborated on an explanation for my critique, whether it is of the Constitution, of reservation, of other policies of the government, or of the movements purportedly fighting for Dalit interests.
Contrary to the superficial understanding of my position by a section of Dalits who label me anti-reservation, I have explained how reservation was better implemented when it originated during colonial times – with creating an administrative category of “Scheduled Caste” and making them appear as “an exceptional policy of the state for the exceptional people” or “a countervailing force of the state against the prejudices of the larger society”. That was the colonial state that we never tire calling names and characterise by “divide and rule”.
In contrast, the so called independent state we created in the name of the people has systematically acted against the people. The brahminic cunning that informed Constitution-making deliberately used the noble idea of reservation to merely reinforce caste by linking reservations to “backwardness” – competitive backwardness among castes and the attendant caste consciousness were thus promoted. After the Green Revolution, castes were the divine weapon which the state wielded to divide people as it wished. Similarly, I have argued, the Constitution-makers preserved religion, messing with the concept of secularism. As we see, and hope we do, these two forces – caste and religion – with the sanction of the Constitution and the state have menaced society to the glee of the ruling classes.
As regards Dalits, I see their emancipation in Ambedkar’s dictum: “Annihilation of Caste”. That is the touchstone I use to evaluate organised Dalit actions, irrespective of the class they occupy. In relation to reservation, I have never said reservation was not required for Dalits as they still remain untouchables – the basic premise for reservation – despite Constitutional pretensions. What I have said is that the extension of reservation to all castes and communities, as done in the Constitution, should be reckoned as a ruling class stratagem to casteise society and undermine the original idea of reservations for Dalits.
Reservation was not a panacea; the Indian state owes much more to all people that it cannot offer reparations to – for, say, all the unpaid Dalit labour over centuries (which was nothing but slavery backed by religion and a premodern state). Instead, the state gives us alms in the form of reservation. People are so blinded by reservation that they indulge in internecine fights. I want people to understand these conceits and intrigues. And when it comes to Dalits, they too must be conscious that they have paid and have been paying a huge cost for these reservations – the biggest being the postponement of the goal of annihilation of caste. Who would do the cost-benefit analysis for this? Or is that irrelevant?
Regarding the aspirations of middle class Dalits to be capitalists, I am in no way against them. What I wish to say is that they should not be projected as the path of Dalit emancipation as some of them began doing in an organised way. As I see it, this further disorients the already disoriented Dalits. We all have existential compulsions and simultaneous aspirations for making a better world than we inherited.
Few might have lived this contradiction as much as I did. For a living, I have mastered the intricacies of capitalism. I have been the CEO of a holding company and have been teaching business to the future props of capitalism through reputed management institutes. But that did not deter me from exposing the evils of the system when it came to the interests of the multitude. Let the middle class of Dalits make money, but let them not pretend that it is the path of liberation for the masses.
There are hundreds of Dalit movements that I admire. Not only admire, but also associate myself with, unlike the armchair commentators who critique me. The struggles I am associated with may not be visible to the middle classes, may not be flashed on the electronic media or taken note of by even the print media, but they are there, spread all over the country. To name a few which accidentally came to the limelight and would be known to people: the Una movement in Gujarat, agitations carried out by Bhim Army in Uttar Pradesh, the struggles of Dalits in a village called Pathpally in Telangana led by Kula Nirmulana Porata Samiti, the silent movement of veteran Dalit leaders like Valjibhai Patel, and so on. I have discussed many of these struggles in the course of Republic of Caste.
These are the ones I have also been part of in my humble way, but there are hundreds of them all over the country, partly known to me and even not known to me. I admire movements that have grappled with the livelihood issues of the Dalit and Adivasi masses. I admire them because I see in them seeds of radical transformation – that one day people will realise in simple terms that their interests really converge with those of the masses, sans caste or communities, when it comes to the basic ingredients for living dignified lives: equal quality education, basic healthcare, and livelihood security in terms of land or jobs.
Why do you think the class-caste debate is still relevant today? Dalits have their own pragmatic and distinct understanding about economic order and the class question. Do you think that the Left, the communist parties or the militant Naxalites understand the class question better than Dalits and Ambedkarites? If yes, how would you substantiate this argument?
As I said before, I do not subscribe to the dichotomy between caste and class, and therefore no debate on that count. What I do is to explain how these two things cannot be separated and have to be struggled against simultaneously. This struggle for me is more relevant because I see that without a radical transformation of the world, human life on the planet itself is no more sustainable.
I don’t know what this pragmatic understanding of “economic order and the class question” you attribute to Ambedkarites is. Yes, if it is to know which side of the bread is buttered, Dalits have a marvellous understanding of “economics” and even the “class question”. All their leaders (there may be exceptions) display this understanding in their conduct extraordinarily. They will always be with the ruling party, with just chants of “Ambedkar” and Dalit interests.
They and the upwardly mobile Dalits also display acute pragmatic understanding of the class question, that being with the underclass will get them nowhere. I have problem with pragmatism itself, which is most prone to miss out on the long-term goal of emancipation and go astray by pursuing short-term, low-hanging fruits. What appears to be good in the short term may prove to be a trap in the long term. Pragmatism lacks that capacity to visualise a long-term goal and strategise for its accomplishment through coherent tactical actions.
Do I think that the Left, the communist parties or the militant Naxalites understand the class question better then Dalits and Ambedkarites? Yes, comparatively speaking I do tend to think that they have a better understanding of the class question than Dalits. It is because that is their staple. But it is just marginally better and far from desirable. This is the prejudice among Ambedkarite Dalits that when I sound critical of them, they immediately cry that I uphold communists. They must understand that I have been a much more severe critic of the communists for having squandered an opportunity to bring about a revolution in this country.
I criticise them more because they had advanced tools and theories of Marxism for understanding society in motion, but they failed to apply them judiciously. In the so-called class-caste dichotomy, I have solely blamed their understanding of both caste as well as class. Those Dalits who have such notions about me must read my Introduction to Ambedkar’s India and Communism published last year by LeftWord..
The Bahujan Samaj Party as a robust political force has mobilised a vast number of people into independent political action and challenged the conventional domination of certain social groups as political elites. It has a defined political agenda to replace the ruling social elites from the corridors of power and aspired to establish the rule of the “Bahujans”. Why call the BSP movement an enigma when its political agenda is so clear?
I think I have written so admiringly about Kanshi Ram that few may match it. It is true that he mobilised the masses and made the BSP a political force, though I am not sure of its robustness. I have given an explanation in the book that so long as “bahujan” is identified on the basis of caste, it will never gain robustness. What lies behind the BSP’s bahujan is the solid chunk of the Jatav-Chamars who, unlike in any other state, constitute a sizeable constituency in Uttar Pradesh.
This, in the context of the political history of Uttar Pradesh, resonated in making the experiment of bahujans an electoral success. The play of identity was crucial in this game and it naturally overshadowed the need to cement communities that came together with some radical reforms.
The fragility of the BSP has been seen in recent elections – the party that ruled the state longest in recent decades drew a blank in the election. The minor Dalit castes that placed their bets on the BSP, seeing it as the winnable horse, deserted it and so, reportedly, did the Jatav-Chamars. Brahmins would naturally desert it in favour of their own caste-party.
The strategy to mobilise people along caste identities may not be faulted if it is fortified by some material work to build lasting class unity. What has happened instead is to strengthen the caste identities of people. It is in this sense that the chapter “Assertion or Annihilation: The BSP Enigma” in the book, shows how the BSP beautifully made use of the political situation to create a counter-elite rhetoric, but failed to transform this rhetoric into a lasting discourse before the country.
The BSP will stay on, as no political outfit dies as such in India. Even the many-splintered Republican Party of India (RPI) is around in many shapes and sizes. In the prevailing political turbulence, Mayawati may even re-emerge as a national player and may even become prime minister. She has already been chief minister of the state four times, but is the social or political configuration of the state under her different than other states? Does it show up “challenging the conventional domination of certain social groups as political elites”?
Now, let that be, today when the BSP is not in power, leaving Dalits more vulnerable than in any other state. Even during her chief ministership, there was no letup in the incidents of atrocities on Dalits. The electoral unity of the backward castes with Dalits as bahujan did not show up in these statistics. The material contradiction between backward castes and Dalits in rural areas survived unaffected, producing atrocities while the “bahujan” triumphed in elections. What worked as electoral arithmetic did not affect the social arithmetic even when the BSP ruled the state with a full majority.
Let me reiterate my contention in the book that unless Ambedkar’s mantra of annihilation of caste is practised by Dalits, unless they refocus their attention on forging unity among various caste and communities, which can only be achieved by transcending these identities and emphasising their material deprivations, there is not going to be any solution to their problems.
Achieving electoral wins by dextrously combining castes and communities may be (and indeed has been) the games of the ruling elites, it can be played by Dalits only to their peril. They must understand that nothing can be built on the basis of the divisive category of caste. The basic characteristic of caste is to split, split like an amoeba; castes can never unite. Unity is not in their character. Anything, even winning power by playing caste game by Dalits, will eventually be only detrimental to their interests.
The BSP certainly had an agenda of tilting the vertical social hierarchy by 90 degrees as Kanshi Ram fondly used to depict by tilting his vertical pen to a horizontal position. It was laudable, but not viable when he spoke of achieving it on the basis of an amalgamation of castes. I had personally explained to him the flaw in it more than once. It can be empirically seen now, more clearly than before.
If raising some Dalit or Backward Caste to the corridor of power is what you mean by replacing social elites with bahujans, then I would say, Modi’s BJP is apparently doing a better job of it. It commands the maximum number of Dalits MPs, more than all parties together. It raised Modi, a backward caste person (as he claims), to the highest pedestal of power, which, using the caste logic of Dalits, should be construed as lower caste power. If Ambedkar parks and memorials are the expression of Dalit assertion, Modi’s monuments after Ambedkar simply outclass the BSP’s.
I am not denouncing the BSP’s accomplishments in terms of galvanising the masses with a certain anti-brahmin consciousness, of strategising to pay back the ruling elite in their own coin, of having the guts to challenge the hegemony of the upper caste, etc. These are important if they are taken as the means and not the end. If the BSP had used these to consolidate its constituency as a class, it may have faced bigger hurdles but would have paved the way for lasting unity of downtrodden people. Though it is done along a negative dimension, the BJP does it. It uses power to the hilt to consolidate its constituency communally. In the shortest possible time, it has brought the country to the brink of collapse.
Do you think that secular democracy should disallow assertions of social or ethnic identities in the struggle for power?
I have problematised this “secular democracy”. This is a big myth that we take as reality, that we are a secular democracy. When there is an overwhelming majority of Hindus in the country, to say that the state, which is constituted by majority votes, will treat all religions equally is a contradiction in terms. I do not have to argue this out as the stark empirical reality testifies to it such that at every step we see its failure.
Secular means a firewall between politics and religion; confining religion to homes and not allowing it to spill into the public. We must understand that these innocuous distortions have channelled our politics in certain ways. There is no question of disallowing assertions of social or ethnic identities in the struggle for power; they are a natural mode of peoples’ expression. But religious identities and caste identities in the context of India could have been certainly curbed. Besides these two identities, there are a number of identities which may be used for mobilising people in the struggle for power, but to construct all of politics on the basis of caste and religion is certainly undesirable from the viewpoint of strugglers.
Do you think that Dalits are a homogeneous collective, with common priorities and political goals? Let me argue that they are a heterogeneous community with groups and individuals representing distinct aspirations and political ambitions. Dalits are plural. If the dominant parties, especially the right wing party, the BJP, understands this heterogeneity well and functions to mobilise Dalits on cultural, ritualistic or on the sub-caste questions, how can we stop this?
I myself have been saying that Dalits are not a homogeneous people and therefore there is no disagreeing with you. It was a term used as a quasi class by Babasaheb Ambedkar. No community as such is homogeneous but when we speak about them in collective terms we speak about the majority within it that on certain parameters appears homogeneous. For instance, when we speak about the Dalit masses, which would exclude the Dalit middle classes, they can be taken as homogeneous on parameters like vulnerability, deprivation, lack of resources, helplessness, and so on. When we speak of them in the rural context, they represent a Dalit who is a farm labourer, with or without land, a petty shopkeeper, and suchlike. My reference to Dalits is mostly to the Dalit masses, unless I refer to the Dalit middle classes.
It is precisely because the dominant parties, especially the BJP, understand this heterogeneity and function to mobilise Dalits on cultural, ritualistic or on sub-caste questions that Dalits should be cautious. Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray was the first to use this internal differentiation among Dalits and speak openly against Ambedkarite Dalits. At least, in relation to these parties, Dalits should pose a cohesion of interests. If Dalits do not have this ideological cohesion, all arguments fall flat and nothing remains to be discussed.
The corollary of this is that individual Dalits should seek maximisation of their gain sans any ideological hangover. Perhaps this is what is being done by the upwardly mobile Dalits. But howsoever it might appeal to them, the Dalit masses do believe in their collective destiny, they have to. Individually they are nothing; only the collective can bring them hope. Unless we see right-wing brahminical parties as our ideological enemy, we cannot make any coherent argument.
Do you think that being born with a Dalit identity, one has obligations only towards the secular-liberal-Left brands of politics?
No, not at all. And as a matter of fact they have not been doing that under the spell of their opinion leaders, either political or intellectual. The only problem is that if we take into account the profile of the Dalit masses – as oppressed, impoverished, exploited, resourceless people living purely off their labour, without any security of living – then the only brand of politics that works for them, by definition, is Left. It is the politics of wronged people wanting social justice, equality and egalitarianism, in opposition to the social hierarchy supported by the right wing politics.
Can there be any dispute about the Dalit masses craving for social justice? Babasaheb Ambedkar, I thought, articulated for them what they want: a society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity; a society with political, economic and social democracy; a society sans exploitation. This certainly is characterised by only Left politics. There may be a range of Left politics but there is no doubt such depiction falls on the left of the centre of politics. Left politics typically involves a concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others, as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished. It is politics that advocates social justice and equality.
Historically speaking, these terms – “Left” and “Right” – were born during the French Revolution, based on that fact that those seated on the left in the French Estates General generally opposed the monarchy and supported the revolution while those on the right were supportive of the traditional institutions of the Old Regime. I am often stunned by some Dalits criticising me as “leftist”, of which I am of course proud, but pained to see them abusing themselves as rightist in the process.
The choice is available for the upwardly mobile people and they have already exercised it. Why confuse the Dalit masses?
In the neoliberal economic order, the state has withdrawn from all its major social responsibilities and policies of economic welfares. The economy is increasingly corporatised under the hegemony of big capitalists. There are very few possibilities that a socialism-sensitive state will return in these conditions. The struggles against new economic policies are often sporadic, weak and mostly centred around organised labourers. In such a bleak situation, what can a Dalit economic agenda be? Why do you think that the agenda of “Dalit Capitalism” is not a liberal move to democratise the capitalist class and to make capitalism a little humane?
Yes, withdrawal of the state from all its major social responsibilities and policies of economic welfare is a major part of the neoliberal economic order. Its ideology of free market competition means that all the public services hitherto provided by the state should be handed over to private capital and the state should be the protector of this order with its coercive might.
Its fallout is the economy being increasingly corporatised under the hegemony of big capitalists. But your” adjectification” of the state as “a socialism-sensitive state” foxes me. As argued in my book, the Indian state was never socialism-sensitive. Socialism was just a mask it wore to cover its pro-capitalist self. I don’t think you mean that the neoliberal order has been a force majeure for the helpless Indian state.
The fact remains that this state, consistent with its comprador and anti-people character, proactively brought this situation in with an alibi of a crisis in balance of payments. It has faithfully followed imperialist diktats there onwards, more than any other state, and suppressed people’s resistance with brute force. If in the face of such a mighty state, the people have kept their struggles alive, howsoever sporadic and weak they may be, it testifies to the steely will of the people.
Contrary to your reading, they are not “centred around organised labourers” but they are everywhere, though they may not be visible to the middle classes. The condition of organised labourers also is in no way different from those of others, as the plight of Manesar’s Maruti workers testifies. The situation no doubt is bleak, but the struggling people have not accepted defeat. Their resistance is on. History reassures them that eventually they alone will win.
These struggles of resistance provide a glimmer of hope, and inspire others to join in. It is only a defeatist mentality that will consider this order invincible. Vested interests in the prevailing order have always wishfully seen it as invincible as Francis Fukuyama did, calling the present order of liberal democracy and capitalism the “end of history”, but the struggling people will see it end in a just order for all.
The argument for “Dalit Capitalism” in this context echoes the patriarchal ancient Chinese proverb, “if rape is inevitable, lie down and enjoy it”. Neoliberalism is against the majority of people whom it considers “uncompetitive”. As per its social Darwinist ethos, they do not have the right to exist. Just because it is neither feasible nor possible to eliminate them, these people are made to live at the subhuman level of existence.
Way back in 1995, when many Dalit intellectuals voluntarily trumpeted their support to the government for these policies, I had ploughed a lonely furrow, explaining to people how detrimental they are to the lower strata, particularly to the Dalit masses, with whatever scanty data that was available then. The book I had written in Marathi in 1995 was perhaps the first vernacular critique of neoliberalism in this country. After two decades now, it is far easier to prove it, with rising unemployment, slashing of budgetary provisions for public services like education, healthcare, sanitation, etc., severe cuts in allocations for special component plans, the promotion of consumerist culture, the decimation of the environment, and the contraction of public and government employment.
Notwithstanding tons of data to testify to these trends, the majority of Dalit intellectuals still tend to support neoliberalism with their convoluted logic that it is caste-neutral, or is detrimental to the interests of native elites, or that it is supportive of Dalit entrepreneurship. What could be the Dalit economic agenda in such a situation?
Logically, it should be to resist this policy onslaught that seeks to worsen the conditions of Dalits. This agenda should resist commoditisation and privatisation of education, it should oppose slashing of funds for public healthcare services, it should demand security of livelihood in terms of land in rural areas and jobs in urban settings, it should oppose elitist development symbolised by bullet trains and hyperloops, and it should oppose privatisation at least to protect the turf of reservation. The Dalit economic agenda should obviously be along these lines.
I am not opposed to Dalits making progress. How can I be? One lives in given circumstances and struggles to better them. All of us have existential compulsions and as an individual we may not have the wherewithal to defy them. However, if one is aware that they are unjust, one should try to alter them by mobilising collective strength against them. There is nothing wrong in becoming a capitalist to make money as we all do to get a good education, to secure better employment, either in bureaucracy or capitalist establishments.
The entire thrust of Ambedkar’s strategy was to get Dalits to occupy important positions in the government by getting higher education, such that they protect the interests of the Dalit masses. Whether such persons will identify with the masses after they occupy higher positions in bureaucracy is a moot point, but at least they should not become props of the vicious system which is clearly anti-Dalit. The same thing can be said of Dalit capitalists. Let Dalit individuals become capitalists and make money for themselves, but let them not project it as the path of Dalit liberation and justify the inhuman system.
Democratisation means “making something accessible to everyone”. What does Dalit capitalism democratise? Making power and privileges of the capitalist class accessible to all Dalits? Forget all Dalits, it does not seem to have done that to Dalit capitalists themselves. Otherwise why did these Dalit capitalists ghettoise themselves as their tag, Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, suggests?
The agenda of Dalit capitalists, contrary to their rhetoric of “job givers and not job seekers” is to compete with non-Dalit capital, it is to play the same old trick of extracting concessions from the state using the caste card, being the prop of the system and weaken the potential resistance. It is not for nothing that without any popular demand, the government willingly showers favours on them by granting huge concession and rewarding a select few of them with government honours.
The ruling classes’ enthusiastic reception to this phenomenon clearly indicates that it serves their interests. It creates a mirage before Dalits and punctures their potential antipathy to the status quo. It reinforces the neoliberal agenda with the claims that it has opened up doors of business to Dalits. Anybody can easily see that this is untrue. Many Dalits have been entrepreneurial – not so much for accumulation of wealth but for subsistence. The mere venturing out of one’s caste vocation is itself an enterprise for Dalits. As for accumulation, one finds stray Dalit families in every part of the country being abnormally rich.
Lastly, to expect that capitalism can be “humanised” a little is a contradiction in terms. The credo of capitalism is exploitation. Whether it is imperial capital, native capital or Dalit capital, extraction of surplus is what characterises it. What appears human in its processes is just a strategic facade to camouflage its bloodthirsty character. To imagine that capitalism can be humanised is to subscribe to a nonsensical thesis like “end of history” – to gloss over the basic contradiction of capital versus labour. To negate this contradiction by imagining workers themselves as capitalists is self-deception. It is equivalent to saying that Dalits should become Brahmins, like the 12th century reformer Ramanuja did in the south, to escape their fate.
You mention that Ambedkar was immediately disillusioned during the nascent age of new Constitution and thought that the Congress used him as a hack. You also mention that democratic and public institutions have been dominated by the social elites and carried the legacy of the colonial era forward. Electoral politics have paved an easy path for conservative Brahmanical forces to reclaim power and establish Hindutva as a driving force of the state in the contemporary time. It appears in your assessment that all the major modern ideals: the Constitution, public institutions and the democratic electoral processes have failed the citizen completely. Do you think that the liberal political project in India was a sham and India needs a radical militant alternative of a Marxist orientation?
Yes, the Constitution, public institutions and the democratic electoral processes have failed the people completely. When I say people, it connotes the majority of people. “Citizens” perhaps reflect abstract persons endowed with certain rights. It was not just the liberal political project that many countries had; it came with an added toxin of brahminical cunning. India certainly needs a people-oriented radical alternative. I do believe that Marxist orientation provides such an orientation, but it needs to be taken in a spirit of scientific methodology and not as a dogma.
In India, right from the beginning, Marxism came in a distorted form and therefore it fails to communicate its radical alternative to the masses. In the given situation, it is futile to talk about ideologies. It is enough for people to reorient themselves to see their systemic deprivation and think of removing it. People should be concerned with basic things for their survival: food, healthcare, education and security of livelihood. Is there an ideology needed to discern that? Without them it would be futile to talk about other issues.
In terms of policies, they would translate as food security, provisions offered, universal quality of education to all children up the age of 18 – the definition of a child as per the United Nations to which India has been a signatory – through neighbourhood schools; universal and free access to a reasonable level of healthcare through a network of healthcare centres; and livelihood security to all people in the form of land for those who are engaged with agriculture and/or jobs.
I don’t think this even needs a Marxist orientation. It lies very well in a liberal democratic framework. Some western capitalist countries, like the Scandinavian nations, have most of these provisions for their populace.
What can be a new politics to annihilate caste? How valid is Ambedkar’s radical suggestion today that offers an uncompromising counter to Hinduism and its religious texts as it approves the caste system and its functioning? With the unprecedented rise of Hindutva forces, its cultural hegemony and militant assertion of brahmanical ideology in public, are there any social or political models left that can courageously proclaim the annihilation of caste in India?
The politics of annihilation of caste depends upon one’s understanding of caste. If caste is understood to be sourced from the rules of the dharmashastras of Hinduism, annihilation of caste would warrant destruction of these dharmashastras as Babasaheb Ambedkar proposed. He, however, found that impossible, as the Hindus would never let it happen. Therefore, he decided to renounce Hinduism and convert to another religion that does not have caste.
In course of his exploration, he found that all religions other than Hinduism, viz., Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism, either did not have caste or opposed caste. But still these religious communities in India actively practised caste. While it is easily understood as the influence of Hinduism, nonetheless its implication was that religious sanction was not a necessary condition for caste to exist. Even if the Hindu dharmashastras were destroyed completely, caste might not be annihilated.
One may invoke Ambedkar’s own analysis in “Mukti Kon Pathe” (the speech he delivered to explain his declaration for renouncing Hinduism in Yeola in 1936) of the miserable condition of Dalits. He attributed it to their lack of strength: strength of numbers, strength of finance and spiritual strength. The way to overcome this weakness was to merge into the existing religious community by converting to that religion. Although he viewed communities necessarily as religious, the underlying logic was very secular. The weaknesses that he enumerated may be overcome by means other than religious. When after two decades he fulfilled his vow, it was in contravention of the logic of Mukti Kon Pathe.
He embraced Buddhism as it not only did not have caste, but also had a history of fighting it. The conversion to Buddhism would not annihilate caste but would liberate Dalits from their caste ghettoes under Hinduism. This logic, however, could be problematised. Dalits after conversion would stay on in their own settings without any change in their social relation with the village community and thus the imagined escape from caste ghettoes would just remain notional.
What could the conversion to Buddhism do? Perhaps free the converts from the psychological bondage they had internalised for centuries. If the conversion was widespread, with all Dalits embracing Buddhism, it might wake the Hindus up to the imminent danger and impel them to undertake reforms to discard those provisions from their dharmashastras. Ambedkar did believe that, sans the caste rules in the dhramashashtras, Hinduism was good. He found the Hinduism of Upanishads (what he called the religion of principles) for instance, to be good.
One may pose many problems to this formulation. Does caste today exist just because of the rules of Hindu dharmashastras? As we have seen, caste does not have to have religious sanction. Even if it did originally, it has now mutated and evolved to determine every aspect of social relations, economics, politics, culture and so on. Can all this change with mere corrections to or the destruction of the dharmashastras? Unlike Hinduism, other religions do not sanctify caste although their communities in India came to possess them, arguably through the culture of their past in Hinduism.
Buddhism was the only exception and hence it became Ambedkar’s choice. But in relation to caste, this choice would only work if the entire population became Buddhist. Can this be a practicable proposition? If not, caste in Hinduism would continue and the conversion would prove to be just a name change, depriving the converts even of psychological solace.
Empirical results over the last seven decades prove just this. Therefore, contemporary caste should be recognised as pervading all spheres of life and hence needs to be destroyed in all its manifestations. They are economic equality and political equality. Unless Dalits are freed from their dependence on Hindus for their livelihood, caste will survive. In sum, annihilation of caste demands a thoroughgoing revolution. While that is a strategic goal, the tactics could be in terms of the above-suggested reforms (education, healthcare and livelihood securities).
With the unprecedented rise of Hindutva forces, their cultural hegemony, and militant assertion of brahmanical ideology in public, Dalits assume a bigger role in fighting its move. Hindutva forces have successfully tried to co-opt Dalit masses through their leaders, assuming them to be Hindus and exhibiting devotion to Ambedkar, the icon of Dalits. Despite this, there is a huge unease among Dalits on various counts such as growing atrocities, reservation, a slash in funds to their special component plans and scholarships, etc. It is important to educate Dalits to understand Hindutva forces and transform them into a democratic force.
Another prop of the Hindutva fascists is the Hindu identity of a majority of people, which they have skilfully employed to consolidate them by projecting the Muslims and Christians as others. There are close parallels to what is happening in India in other countries in the world, depicting the crisis of the current capitalist system.
The development in Turkey, for instance, is parallel to what is happening in India. The effect of the Erdogan-AKP rule that presented itself to the masses as their fellow Muslim brothers should not be underestimated, considering that former bourgeois governments of the status quo suppressed religion of the masses for many years in the name of a would-be secularism. The religion factor, which is more naturally embraced as a common denominator than race or nationality, has facilitated the Erdogan-AKP rule to move forward towards totalitarianism, without, in a sense, causing much disturbance among the working masses.
I think the social and political model for annihilation of caste in such a situation would be to build a broad class unity of masses against the Hindutva fascist forces. The impact of the Ambedkarite movement is not going to make it easy for the majority of Dalits to fall into the Hindutva trap. They only see a pragmatic gain in aligning with the powers that be, which again has been the driving stratagem of the Dalit movement.
The non-Ambedkarite masses of Dalits were not as influenced by non-Hindu identity (and some of them violently disagree with the renouncement of Hinduism) over the last seven decades, yet they came to respect Ambedkar as their leader. There is no need to belabour the issue of religion – that they are not Hindus but play the card of working class consciousness.
The masses that also constitute the working class need to be educated to see the importance of the annihilation of caste for fortifying the class unity of all people. This united front of broad progressive people could take up anti-caste struggle and class struggle simultaneously, progressively complementing the strength of each. There are issues in plenty to actualise these struggles.
For instance, all progressive forces do feel disturbed when they learn about a Bhagana-like or Khailanji-like incident. A Dalit woman being gang-raped or a Dalit being brutally killed on a farm are routine matters, and Dalits are often left to to deal with them. It may partially be due to sectarianism (other progressive people generally feel that intervening in Dalit matters is to incur the risk of being dubbed as brahminic or something similar, as they believe that the problems of Dalits can only be addressed by Dalit themselves) or of demonstrating pseudo sympathy (there may be superficiality about the concern). Muslims and Christians would easily join such a front, as it is relatively easier to convince them. Once such a front is built, it will pave the way for a broader unity of people, thwarting the expansion of Hindutva forces.
Only this united front of broad progressive people sans caste, community or religion can take up the task of annihilating caste. The broad antidote to fascism is to stress the democratic ethos. Since all fascists make use of the religious frailty of masses, secularism that advocates religion must be separated from politics, becoming an antidote. The fight against caste is necessary to nip the designs of Hindutva forces in the bud.
You mentioned that India is facing extreme problems like the rise of neoliberal economic power, the growing domination of Hindutva fascism and the exploitation of marginalised communities, especially Dalits and Muslims. No liberal political party, including the Aam Aadmi Party, is capable of countering and addressing these issues today. The opposition to the Hindutva brigade is in disarray, lacks dynamic leadership and there is an absence of an impressive political agenda. What democratic solution would you suggest in such a pessimistic condition?
I agree with you regarding the extremely pessimistic condition that we are living in today. But whenever and wherever fascism arose, similar conditions existed. It is mutually causative and reinforcing. The Hindutva forces are an organised group with a vision and ideology. No parliamentary political party in India can match them in their sophistication.
Their core originally consisted of a minority of Brahmins, who together do not exceed five percent of the Indian population. Although they managed to sustain their intellectual élan during the years of political domination by Muslims and British, in the wake of the possibility of dissolution of political power, they sensed an opportunity to regain their supremacist position and organised themselves, ironically at a time when the consciousness of anti-Brahminism also germinated among the lower castes. The emerging universal franchise posed a hurdle in their path. In such a situation they played up the Hindu card and carried on with their work with exemplary tenacity.
The Congress party claimed the aura of freedom struggle. The communists were the only other group that could match the Hindutva forces, but when they embraced the parliamentary path, they too became one among many seeking the votes of the majority community, defined by Hindus. For a long time the Hindutva forces strategically operated as a sociocultural force and even when they plunged into the political mainstream, they remained a marginal force for decades.
In the political crisis of the 1980s, with the advent of neoliberalism, and marginalisation of the parliamentary left, they catapulted themselves into the mainstream and became a contender for political power, actually winning it in states and even at the Centre. The Congress could not match their communal moves and began trailing with a “me too” strategy. The Congress, however, still enjoyed the support of global capital with the legacy of the ruling party.
When Modi, with his average family background, which he would exploit to the hilt in future, and his ruthless strategies consolidated and gained control of Gujarat, he demonstrated to global capital that he could take care of its interests better than the Congress. The switch took place on the eve of the 2014 election with the emergence of Modi as the leader. Modi, with his characteristic fascist persona and theatrical skills, mesmerised a large band of growing middle classes and a large section of backward castes, capturing power at the centre and breaking the trend of coalition governments. He has continued with his aggressive style of politics with communal polarisation as its strategic base, capturing power in one state after another.
Another important component of his strategy was to decimate all electoral opposition, projecting the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi as a comic character. He has created congenial electoral conditions to achieve the goal of a Hindu Rashtra in the coming election. The BJP has accumulated all resources – it is the richest party in Asia, the biggest party in the world, it has a battery of workers, and has a hold on all institutions of the country. Added to this, it has most of the commercial media as its trumpeters. It looks well nigh impossible to defeat such a force with ordinary tactics.
The times therefore demand an unusual initiative. The solution to this imminent danger of losing India is unfortunately in the electoral realm. With less than a year left for this catastrophe to befall, the so-called opposition parties have still not woken up enough to it. The Congress party is in disarray and yet displays its megalomaniac attitude. As the only national party, it could take a lead in organising unity of all opposition parties with an attitude of giving. One hopes this happens. The first-past-the-post election, with such a stratagem, can thwart the BJP dream.