It’s an abiding mystery of Indian politics: why the Left has consistently shown an uneasy reluctance to seriously engage with B.R. Ambedkar’s thoughts. When Ambedkar pushed for the Poona Pact in 1932, demanding separate electorates for Dalits, the Indian Left kept its distance from the issue. Symptomatically, E.M.S. Namboodiripad wrote: “This was a great blow to the freedom movement. For this led to the diversion of people’s attention from the objective of full independence to the mundane cause of the upliftment of the Harijans.”
EMS’s reaction to the Poona Pact was in consonance with his reading of Indian history in Marxist terms. Borrowing crudely from Marx’s understanding of the history of slavery, EMS found the caste system, despite its exploitative structure, to be “a superior economic organisation”, which facilitated organised production through a systematic allocation of labour. He didn’t note Ambedkar’s sophisticated distinction between “division of labour” and “division of the labourer” (including the hierarchy within that division) in the casteist relations of production. The eternal fixedness of the labourer with regard to his birth (as the “subject” who “will bear its Father’s name”), and the religious sanction behind such an identity, were deemed unimportant. Being mostly from the upper castes, Left scholars avoided examining the assumptions of caste.
Since before Independence, the mainstream Left framed the class question safely within the nationalist question; for EMS and his comrades, this issue was not a diversion.
Ambedkar had the courage to push for a radical division within the framework of nationalist politics, by asking for separate electorates. By calling Ambedkar’s cause “mundane”, EMS drew a specious distinction between the working class and Dalits, holding the former to be “superior”. Through this, EMS betrayed his predominantly upper-caste mindset. He is an exemplar of progressive casteism in the history of Left politics and thinking in India. This led to lower castes and Dalits not finding a place in the party hierarchy.
The most insidious form of caste solidarity ignores and hides the stark fact that caste is part of what Althusser calls the “apparatus” of ideology and is based in material existence. Every form of social practice (and exploitation) in India is contextually casteist. It creates conditions of multiple prejudice between the bourgeois and the working class (where the scavenging class/caste goes unnamed). And this prejudice becomes part of the relations of production as caste introduces elements of segregation and humiliation within those relations. In the case of untouchables, one might in fact call it relations of waste, where the disposing of sewage, etc, is not accorded even the minimum standard of dignified working conditions.
Ambedkar pointed out how the class system had an “open-door character”, whereas castes were “self-enclosed units”. He gave a brilliant explanation of caste’s forced endogamy: “Some closed the door: others found it closed against them.” The image throws up a phenomenon opposite to the Kafkan idea of law: the (Hindu) gatekeeper of law, in Ambedkar’s explanation, is also the lawgiver, and he allows entry by birth, but no exit. Once entry has been secured in Hindu society, as Ambedkar argued, everyone who is not a Brahmin is an other. Hinduism is a uniquely self-othering social system, whose (touchable) norms are secured by declaring a brutal exception: untouchability.
In his comparison of Buddha and Marx, Ambedkar bypasses Marx’s idea of private property and keeps out the question of capital ownership. He also does not complicate the relation between ‘law’ and ‘government’. These appear to be limitations of the historical conjuncture of Dalit politics. But Ambedkar finds the materialist and non-violent character of Buddhism to be evoking another thinkable historical version of a Marxist society.
Some critics in the Indian Left see the Dalit movement as being merely a ‘politics of recognition’ and having no revolutionary potential. It is a shallow view of the movement against segregated exploitation that seeks to penetrate entrenched hegemony. The politics against untouchability demands more than good wages and working conditions: it asks for a reconfiguration of the socio-cultural space and the elimination of a violated and untouchable ‘bare life’.
Ambedkar had warned that the Indian socialist would have to “take account of caste after the revolution, if he does not take account of it before the revolution”.
In a discussion after the screening of his film, Jai Bhim Comrade, Anand Patwardhan said that even though Gandhi erred on the caste system, he did more against untouchability than the Left. Under the stark light of this observation, the Left must rethink its ideological history. Or else, the crisis of its political legitimacy may not outlive the warnings.
Apropos of the column The Left’s Untouchable (Apr 23), mainstream Marxism remains Brahminical in India. From M.N. Roy, alias Narendranath Bhattacharya (founder of the Communist Party of India in Tashkent), down to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Sitaram Yechury and the Karats all vouch for what is true about ‘ideology’ in India. They have been merely using the lower castes as a ladder to capture power, and enjoy its fruits.
Sanket Biswas, Calcutta
EMS was a Brahmin who did not think caste was an issue purely because he was a devout following the tenets of Communism. The Communists failed in India not because of the class-caste conundrum, but because they were plain stupid. If Mao could change his base from the urban proletariat to the peasantry, Indian commies could have done some lateral thinking as well!
Abhishek S., on e-mail
In today’s Dalit politics, Gandhi is an unwanted personality and Left ideals are mostly irrelevant. An unfortunate casualty of this is the lack of a frank discussion about the true emancipatory potential of the politics being carried out in Ambedkar’s name.
Narendra M. Apte, Pune
The author might want to check with the CPI(M) in Kerala: for decades, they’ve won power on the back of their backward and Dalit workers.
D. Anjaneyulu, Chennai
There are so many untouchables within the untouchable.....
The knowall author would do well to reflect on the fact that the CPI(M) in Kerala has for decades won power led by Dalit leaders and Dalit workers, who form a majority of its membership in the state.
The bell didn't ring. Or may be the postman has to always ring the bell twice.
Ironically, I apologize for the last comment.
Many many genuinely humanitarian persons who hated oppression and injustice have in the past been drawn into the left, and especially into the Marxist stream of politics in India. Some of them who found themselves in leadership positions have misdirected the movement by their simplistic and dogmatic understanding of the Indian reality. But there is no doubt about the sincerity and commitment of such leaders who sacrificed a lot.
But one senses the deep caste prejudice of certain other left leaders who unconsciously perhaps chose to ignore the injustice of the caste system. It so happened that such leaders had the upper hand as ideologues in shaping the thinking of the Party as a whole.
Fortunately today such grey eminences are no more.
The Left can even now make a determined effort and change course. For this to take place the Stalinist mindset must be discarded. A willingness to engage is indispensable.
Unfortunately it seems that Mamata is the one who is learning from the Left and what she is learning is the Stalinist method which we want the leftists to unlearn.
YHWH >> It is Brahmins who know only to procreate and increase their number.
Ha ha...for a caste which was neither a martial race (meaning a warrior community/ruling community) and neither a mercantile race, which entirely had to depend on getting the grants from others and serving (be it religious blah blah or things like ayurvedha etc), procreation is simply ruled out. Kind of also explains despite being 2500 years on top of social order, only 5% of Indians belong to this caste. Not to forget that this community was the first target for any invader who did not agree with their culture (am referring to era from mohammed ghazni). And that continuesto date. Partition violence on Pakistan side was centred on hate of baniyas and brahmins.And we had right in secular India, Kashmir Pandits cleansed. Evenin buddhist sinhalese sri lanka, when race riots began in early 1980s, the first target of the sri lankan army was those umpteen murugan temples and the priestly families who managed them.
Not telling all this to make any case for martyrhood here, merely telling that India's caste system and consequent cruelties happened not because of one caste but because the elite across all communities found it useful to perpetrate their hold.
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