The Left’s Untouchable
Why was Ambedkar’s critique of caste anathema for Indian Marxists?
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.