The Indian left today presents a very contradictory picture. As opposed to many left formations/movements in different parts of the world which witnessed decline/3reverses after the Soviet collapse, it has been able to sustain itself and at places even expand itself. Yes, the movement is far from united, there are ruptures and divisions at various levels, which at times even prove deadly, but if one is able to look at the cumulative impact of what is known as left and contrast it with many other countries, situation does not appear that bleak.
It’s sustenance and continuation amongst heavy odds, does not mean that it is not beset with challenges. The challenge of outlining its emancipatory vision of social transformation for 21 st century, devising innovative strategies of mobilisation and rejuvenating itself organisationally still remains. It also needs to reboot itself to address few important issues which are of key importance for any radical restructuring of Indian society and state. Undoubtedly, its failure on this count has cost it heavily. Question of dalit emancipation or the whole struggle for annihilation of caste forms one such core issues which demand serious attention.The following note is an attempt to partly address this question, with an emphasis on looking at the past and also to underline the need for carving out a social agenda for future.
Perhaps one can start with an anecdote which I think has some relevance for the ensuing discussion.
It was late nineties when we – part of a small left group – had taken up a solidarity action programme in the national capital in support of a struggle launched by different organisations to end discrimination against dalits at Chakwara, Rajasthan. Dalits in the said village were not allowed to take water from the public pond. Thousands of people from different parts of Rajasthan and outside had decided to march to the village and challenge this diktat issued by the dominant castes. Our solidarity dharana went well. Incidentally few days later I happened to meet a young Ambedkarite activist who had also joined the protest and a discussion ensued around some topical issue. The moment this young man came to know about my ‘credentials’ – that I have been part of the left movement for the last two decades – all the bonhomie we shared a few moments earlier just evaporated. He lambasted the left for its neglect of the caste question and its supposed ill treatment of Dr. Ambedkar.
Perhaps it was sign of my political innocence / naiveté, I was not prepared for such a sudden outburst. It was definitely difficult to come to terms with the feeling that for an educated enlightened section of the oppressed people Marxists of various hues were an anathema. This experience still stays with me.
There were two ways to look at this experience.
– Reject it outright and declare that it has no material basis and claim that everything was constructed
– Be more patient and try to understand the roots of this anger, roots of this disillusionment with the praxis of liberation which many of us believe in.
One knows that things have definitely moved ahead from the period of 90s when the phenomenon of dalit assertion had made its presence felt. As we are moving on in the second decade of the twenty first century, one sees a partial change in the overall situation. Leftists of various shades now have better appreciation and understanding of the caste question in general and dalit emancipation in particular and have also tried to take up the issue in creative ways. They have formed platforms to specifically take up the issue, have lauched satyagrahas, struggles to end discrimination, have tried to reach out to the oppressed castes and are putting in organisational mechanisms so that they are found to be more inclusive.
Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reforms unless you kill the monster.’
Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar
‘If Lenin was born in India , he would not have even let the idea of revolution come to his mind before he had completely buried casteism and untouchability’
Despite all these very positive changes in attitude and action one gets the feeling that there are still gaps in how we perceive the issue and we are still not ready to
– reevaluate the past critically.
One is yet to come across a serious acknowledgement of the blunders we committed or the silences we maintained while dealing with the question of graded hierarchy called caste existing in our society which is sanctified by religion as well.
– revisit our earlier understanding of the social revolutionaries
One always finds the use of the term ‘social reformers’ inadequate. It underestimates their – theoretical as well as practical – contributions. One needs a fresh appreciation of their role in overall schemata of future social transformation. Question of (re)claiming their legacy would logically follow.
– Present a more integrated, holistic vision of the future left movement
where it does not appear to be focussed merely on economic/political changes which lacks social agenda
Perhaps the left can learn few things also from neighbouring Nepal which shares similar social composition like our Indian society and has been undergoing tremendous churning and where leftists of various hues find themselves in better appreciation of caste question
Few examples from our distant/not so distant past can convey what does one mean by ‘critical reevaluation of past’. I agree that these are stray examples from pages of history but they do convey the then prevalent thinking within the left.
– Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, (1848-1897) a senior leader of the Satyashodhak Samaj founded by Mahatma Phule (1873) was instrumental in forming Bombay Mill Hands association- an organisation of workers in Bombay.For students of history one may quote report of the meeting where the said organisation was formed which appeared in Times of India (23.9.1884)
Mill Labourers and the Factory Commission
An association has been formed, the members of which consists of a few of the head jobbers and other employees of the different mills of Bombay for the purpose of protecting the well-being and interests of those connected with the mill industry of the city…Mr Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, formerly an employee in one of the Mills, but the present editor of the ‘Dinbandhu’ a Marathi newspaper, was voted to the chair.
(Quoted from ‘Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, Manohar Kadam, Akshar Prakashan, 2002, P. 159)
Apart from trying to organise workers to better their working conditions, it also fought for enactment of bills to ensure their rights, history bears witness to the fact that it organised a big gathering of different communities in the aftermath of communal riots in 1893 which was attended by more than 60,000 people. It is a different matter that for quite sometime within the left circles itself a studied silence on his contribution – who is considered one of the pioneers of the working class movement – was maintained or due credit was not given to him. What stopped stalwarts of our movement to acknowledge his role ?
– The historic struggle by the Bombay textile workers in late 20 s provides another classic example. It is known that at the shop floor level in the textile mills dalit workers faced discrimination, they were not allowed in some sections supposedly because of their ‘low origins’. When the strike for better working conditions and wages was launched and proved to be creating a massive impact on the owners of capital, (1929) Dr Ambedkar proposed that the charter of demands should also include the caste discrimination faced by the dalit workers. Interestingly the then leadership of the left felt that raising such a demand would ‘break class unity’ and it straightway declined to include this demand. This refusal forced Dr Ambedkar to ask his followers to withdraw from this strike
– The All India Kisan Sabha, formed in 1936, made no mention of caste or untouchability in any of its programmes until 1945. The meeting of Central Kisan Council on Septmber 1945 worked out a ‘Charter of Demands’ that included ‘penalisation for enforcing social disabilities on the ‘untouchables’ (Ref History of the All India Kisan Sabha Calcutta : National Book Agency, 1974, P. 123) The non-mention does not mean that dalit issues were not taken up but were understood as ‘pre-capitalist forms of exploitation’ and ‘feudal bondage’.
– All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) had brief resolutions against untouchability in the 4 th, 5 th and 6 th sessions ( 1924-1926), but then the issue was not raised until process of unification occurred in which few other unions joined in and a comprehensive ‘charter of working class demands’ was prepared which included abolition of all discrimination of caste,colour. creed, race and sex’ and ‘equal wages for equal work without any discrimination of caste, creed, race and colour. (New Delhi, AITUC publications, 1980)
– The second Congress of CPI (1948) took up the issue of caste in little detail. The Political Thesis included a ‘Programme of the Democratic Revolution’ of which point (5) was as follows :
Just and democratic rights of minorities to be embodied in the constitution : Equality and protection to the language and culture of the minorities ; all liabilities, privileges and discriminations based on caste, race and community to be abolished by law and their infringement to be punishable by law. (Documents of the History of Communist Party of India (New Delhi : People’s Publishing House, 1976, p. 85 edited by M.B. Rao)
The ‘Political Thesis’ also contained five paragraphs on the ‘The Untouchables’, the high points of which claimed
Forming the most exploited and oppressed section of our people, the six crores of untouchables are a powerful reserve in the struggle for democratic revolution. The Congress, led mainly by bourgeois leaders belonging to the upper castes, has consistently refused to champion the cause of the untouchable masses and to integrate the struggle for social and economic emancipation of the untouchables with the general struggle for national freedom. This has enabled reformist and separatist leaders like Dr Ambedkar to keep the untouchable masses away from the general democratic movement and to foster the illusion that the lot of untouchable could be improved by reliance on imperialism….To draw the untouchable masses into the democratic front, to break down the caste prejudice of the upper caste workers and peasants, to unite the common people of all castes against their common enemy – such are the tasks faced by the party. This task will be carried out by a relentless struggle against the bourgeoisie of the upper castes as well as against the opportunist and separatist leaders of the untouchable themselves. We have to expose these leaders, tear away the untouchable masses from their influence and convince them that their interest lies in joining hands with the other exploited sections and that only the victory of the democratic revolution will emancipate them from social degradation and slavery…
(Documents of the History of Communist Party of India (New Delhi : People’s Publishing House, 1976, p. 111-12 edited by M.B. Rao)
Gail Omvedt comments ‘The communists fight for untouchable rights proposed a confrontation with Ambedkar, denouncing him as ‘separatist’ ‘opportunistic and pro-British. It also created ‘caste prejudice’ as only bourgeois divisiveness, made no effort to go into the specificity of caste exploitation, and asked untouchables to join the ‘democratic revolution’ (of which they were a ‘reserve’ force i.e. not the main oner) without giving a single concrete programme for fighting caste or untouchability.’ (Dalits and The Democratic Revolution, P. 183)
Could it be said that all these silences / positions were just coincidental and exhibited weaknesses of few individuals whereas largely the communist party was on the right track as far as fighting for caste annihilation is concerned. It is beyond comprehension that while in its ‘Platform of action’ (1930) the Communist Party had talked of ‘annihilation of caste’ and end to slavery of all kinds, end to caste system and struggle against all forms of caste inequality, it had also noted that in 20 th century dalits are barred from using public ponds and study in common schools ( Page 7, Caste Class and Property Relations – B T Ranadive) while in actual practice it could not take into consideration the specificities of the Indian situation and devise struggles suited to end the graded hierarchy.
Take the case of Com Shripad Amrit Dange, a long time leader of the Communist movement who represented the thinking going on within the left movement to the emerging dalit movement in Maharashtra. It is worth noting that while the emergent dalit movement was targetting Hindu scriptures, Dange was discovering Marx in them. According to him
”The Geeta supports Marx’s economic determinism’”(editorial from ‘The Socialist, No 5, Sept 1927, quoted in Selected Writings of S A Dange (1974) Vol I, P 148, Lok Vangmay Griha, Mumbai).
He even denied the democratic import of the non-Brahmin movement which was challenging Brahminical dominance in social-cultural life. According to him
“The rights of workship in temples, the monopoly of ceremonial rights, etc of the Brahmins are questioned sometimes not from a spirit of democratising, abolishing or communalising those institutions, but from the petty non-Brahmin bourgeois to have a share in their gains.”
(“The Brahmin and Non-Brahmin War,” Socialist editorial 25 th November 1922, Selected Writings, Vol I, P214-215)
Commenting on the demand for separate electorate for dalits raised by Ambedkar which ultimately culminated in a compromise deal between Gandhi and Ambedkar (Poona Pact) Com Namboodripad writes in 1981 after a gap of around fifty years after the said event
”However, this was great blow to the freedom movement. For this led to the diversion of people’s attention away from the objective of full independence to the mundane cause of the upliftment of the Harijans. (History of Freedom Struggle, Page 177).
Do we then want to say that struggles under left leadership did not have any impact on the situation of dalits. Definitely not. Prof Sumit Sarkar puts it correctly
“.it would be quite unhistorical to deny the substantial gains achieved, in terms of human dignity and not just economic advantages by lower caste and Dalit groups in other areas and times under left leadership and thru exploring the mobilising capacities of class..’ but ‘..The left paid a heavy price in many regions for its long underestimation of caste as a form of subordinate assertion.’
(Writing Social History)
It is great tragedy that these two movements claiming to work for the liberation of the exploited and oppressed people – the left and the dalit movement – seem to run in different directions away from each other today and one tends to agree with what Anand Teltumbde writes “Nowhere in the world would the movements of the proletariats be so clearly and hopelessly split as in India.”
Yes, there was a phase – albeit a very short one – in early seventies, when these two streams tried to join hands when the young generation of Ambedkarite’s revolted against the opportunistic politics of Republican Party.It was a period when they challenged the fractiousness and opportunism of leadership of the post Ambedkar movement. Taking inspiration from the rebellion of the Black Panthers, the newly educated Dalit youth formed Dalit Panthers and even fought pitched battles on the streets of Bombay against chauvinist forces represented by the Shiv Sena. It was during those times that Bombay witnessed a massive gathering of people when red flags of the Communists easily mingled with the blue flags of the Panthers. One still remembers how their manifesto had even talked of ‘people’s democracy’
We do not want a little place in Brahman Alley. We want the rule of the whole country. Change of heart, liberal education will not end our state of exploitation. When we gather a revolutionary mass, rouse the people, out of the struggle of this giant mass will come the tidal wave of revolution…..To eradicate the injustice against Dalits, they themselves must become rulers. This is the people’s democracy.
– From Dalit Panther, 1973
Browsing the pages of history, one cannot say that there were no voices within the left movement then which tried to question the Party’s approach towards the question of annihilation of caste or dalit emancipation. Interestingly while the leadership of the then Communist Party refused to think out of the box while dealing with the issue of caste, there are examples within the Party itself who tried to understand the specificity of this phenomenon. or who tried to integrate Marxian view with a definite anti-caste programme or who presented a very balanced picture of Dr Ambedkar.
Annabhau Sathe, a great dalit novelist and People’s poet, who was associated with the Communist Party, in his musical tribute to Bhimrao Ambedkar writes
Take a hammer to change the world
Bhimrao went saying !
Why is the elephant sitting
in the mud of slavery ?
Shake your body and come out
take a leap to the forefront !…
Singravelu from Tamilnadu, who initially worked with the Self-Respct movement of Periyar and fought for abolition of caste system, for a scientific temper among the masses and liberation of women from age-old slavery and later joined the Communist movement, wrote in his treatise ‘Socialism Explained’ :
“In western countries, only economic disparity among people exists. However, in India three evils persist. They are economic, religious and caste distinctions. These three evils are very specific to India only. So, in India it is not enough to end only economic disparities. In India with the end of economic exploitation, religious and caste differences also have to go.” He also noted that “…most of the rich are high caste people. So, even if economic differences are settled in a way caste and religious differences will not die. With the existence of those two evil social contradictions, unity among workers and victory over capital will be impossible.’
(Singravelu – Pioneer of Indian Communism,” New Age, Vol No XXXXIV, No. -7, -18, February 1996 to February 1996)
To get a feel of the earlier approach, one can as well refer to old documents or correspondence of the left movement.
It would be opportune to look at a note circulated by a senior comrade of the party Com R.B. More, who was a contemporary of Dr Ambedkar and belonged to similar social background and had even worked with him in the initial period. He happened to be the key organiser of the Mahad Satyagraha where thousands of people went to the Chavdar tank to drink water from it. The said note on the ‘Problem of Untouchability and the Caste System’ was submitted by Com More to the Polit Bureau (23.12.1953) with a request to place it before the coming Party Congress. It does give an idea about the lacunae in the understanding of the party vis-a-vis caste question and its ‘failure to give a positive lead on this question’. The note says (excerpts) :
The problem of five crores of our proletarian untouchables countrymen is a major problem before our party..The party has never correctly analysed this problem from the Marxist-Leninist point of view and subsequently, the party had to suffer gravely…
We have looked at this problem of untouchability with outlook based on economism. We have always been so overwhelmed by this outlook that we have almost revised and vulgarised Marxism. We have formulated an over simplified theory that a change in economic environment automatically brings about a change in the consciousness.We fail to understand that the change in the consciousness does not and cannot come automatically, but there is always a necessity to fight for it….
To analyse the phenomenon of untouchability as a feudal phenomenon is not enough.We have to study and analyse distinct peculiarities of Indian feudalism. Varnashram Vyavastha and caste system are peculiar characteristcs of Indian feudalism. Nowhere on earth these can be traced….
We have not even recognised the necessity of fighting old medieval caste hindu consciousness of the caste hindu proletariat.Caste hindu worker still thinks that he is a Maratha or Brahmin first and a worker afterwards. Caste consciousness is more powerful than class consciousness. This caste consciousness is the great obstruction that is hindering the growth of the proletarian class consciousness in our working class…
So far as the struggle against untouchability is concerned Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s role is, of course, most militant and most uncompromising. He alone pointed out that the root cause of the untouchability is the Varna Vyavastha and the caste system, which must be wiped out lock, stock and barrel. He attacked ruthlessly all old Hindu scriptures mercilessly and no wonder has become a sort of Messiah in the eyes of the most downtrodden of the untouchables…
It is worth noting that since Com More did not get satisfactory answer to his query he resent the note during the next Congress of the Party as well. Looking back it needed around two decades for a proper response from the party towards caste question. Com B.T Ranadive, tried to put forward the party’s understanding on this issue.According to him
The three powerful class interests, the imperialists, the landlords and bourgeois leadership were acting as the defenders of caste system, by protecting the landlord precapitalist land system.
,.. The social reform movements conducted many struggles against the caste system, caste oppression and untouchability in many ways. But, despite the struggles agains caste oppression, the social reform movement did not address the crucial issue of radical land reforms. It got delinked from the anti-imperialist struggle. The Congress led national movement on its part, failed to take up radical social reform measures as part of the freedom movement.
While nobody can deny the importance of land reform for any radical social transformation, one can see that the overemphasis on the ‘material basis’ tends to miss the specific nature of the caste question.One needed a very creative approach to understand this ‘division of labourers’ and ‘not division of labour’ which is hierarchial, based on birth and which derived sanctity and legitimacy from the broad masses of the people themselves. It definitely needed a very creative application of Marxist method to understand the Indian social system which was compared with a multistoreyd tower by Dr Ambedkar where you are condemned to live on the same storey forever as there are no staircases available to move from the one to the other.
Looking back history bears witness to the possibility that Communists could have entered into strategic understanding with the followers of Phule-Ambedkar-Jyothee Thass- Periyar etc during anti-colonial struggle. One can divide the struggles taking place under the colonial rule in broadly four categories. 1. Congres led movement , 2. Forces led by Communists 3. Stream owing allegiance to the ideas of Phule-Ambedkar 4. Communal organisations like Hindu Mahasabha or Muslim League. If one looks at the agenda of the second as well as the third stream and the issues taken up by them then retrospectively one can find that possibilities did exist for these two streams to enter into some sort of a strategic alliance. It is now history that despite occasional coalitions such a strategic alliance could not emerge. Such an alliance/coalition on a longterm basis could have given an opportunity to both the streams to know each other well and clear many a misunderstandings.
A fact worth emphasising here is that despite the mechanical approach of the then left leadership vis-a-vis caste question, Dr Ambedkar showed enough wisdom to maintain good relations with the left and when need arose even went in for joint action with the left. His call to his followers at the time of historic strike of the textile workers (1929) did not stop him from forming a joint front with the left to organise a massive march of the peasants from Konkan in Bombay against the inhuman Khot pratha (1933). A cursory glance at one of his masterpiece ‘Annihilation of Caste’ also makes it clear that while he appreciated Marxism, he was more puzzled by the behaviour of its Indian followers. In his text “The Buddha or Karl Marx” he paid homage to Marx’s revolutionary egalitarianism. His understanding was that it came closer to Buddhism as an emancipatory ideology. According to him both shared few commonalities. Like Buddhism, Marxism also advocated abolition of private property, aligned poverty with social exploitation and offered redress. in the here and now, for social suffering.(‘The Buddha or Karl Marx, in Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol 3, 457).
Perhaps the failure of the left to go for a strategic alliance with the anti-caste movement emerged not only from what is popularly known as its ‘class reductionist approach’ but it has its genesis also in its understanding of the world situation. It looked at the world through the binary of imperialism and its enemies and thus failed to appreciate the contributions of the likes of Dr Ambedkar and other leaders of the ‘social emancipation’ stream which at times culminated in them being castigated as ‘imperialist lackeys’ also.
It is clear how this provided a free play to the bourgeois forces to wean the dalit masses away from the communists. It then becomes clear why despite raising issues of deprivation and destitution of the marginalised sections, despite making tremendous sacrifices for the cause of the downtrodden, when forces owing allegiance to the ideas of Phule, Ambedkar gained strength, Communists happened to be their first target ?
There are many discomfirting questions which the left will have to deal with if it really wants to revisit its earlier understanding of what it likes to call the ‘social reformers’.
Take Mahatma Jyotirao Phule.
Perhaps it would be opportune here to take a bird’s eye view over major developments in his life
1848 – established first school anywhere in India for Shudratishudra girls alongwith his wife Savitribai
1851 – another school for girls of all castes
1855 – evening school for working people
1856- attempt on his life for his ‘divisive’ activities
1860 – started campaign for widow remarriage
1863 – started a home for widows
Organised a barber’s strike to protest tonsuring of widow’s head
1868 – drinking water tank in own house thrown open to ‘untouchables’
1 st June 1873 – publication of ‘Gulamgiri’ (Slavery) his best known work
24 th Sep 1873 – Satyashodhak Samaj ( Society of the Seekers of Truth) established
1876-1882 – nominated member of Pune Municipal Council
1882- Vociferously defended Tarabai Shinde (‘the first feminist theoretician’ according to Susie Tharu) when her book ‘Stree Purush Tulana’ evoked near hysterical reaction
11 May 1888 – a big public meeting conferred on him the title Mahatma
1889 – Publication of Sarvajanik Satya Dharma, his last book
28 Nov 1890 – Died in Pune
How does one evaluate the contributions of Phule who played a key role in the development and evolution of radical trend in social emancipation which talked of emancipation from the rule of the Shetjis and the Bhatjis ( The Moneybags and the Brahmins). One need not go into the details but it was the same movement which emphasised women’s emancipation in the Indian context which was qualitatively different from all those social reformers who came from upper caste background. Very few people on the left have even heard about Lokhande, a product of Phule’s movement and a leader of Bombay’s workers who established the ‘Bombay Millhands Association’.
In his introduction to ‘Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule’ G.P Deshpande tells us ‘Phule’s canvas was broad, his sweep majestic. He identified and theorised the most important questions of his time – religion, Varna System, ritualism, language, literature, British rule, mythology, gender question, conditions of production in agriculture, the lot of peasantry etc….Was Phule then a social reformer ? The answer will be ‘no’. A social reformer is a liberal humanist.Phule was more of a revolutionary. He had a complete system of ideas, and was amongst the early thinkers to have identified, in a manner of speaking, classes in Indian society. He analysed the dvaivarnik structure of Indian society, and identified the shudratishudras as the leading agency of a social revolution.’ (Page 20, Leftword)
Or take the case of Jyothee Thass (1845-1914) Jyothee Dasa, in the true classical line of philosophical dissenters that distinguished the Indian intellectual tradition from the days of Carvaka and Buddha, repudiated the Manu Dharma that created the caste hierarchy and aggressively canvassed for the total emancipation of the Dalits.
“Iyothee Thass (Ayodhya Dasa) is, perhaps, one among the several Dalit icons whose names have been blacked out by mainstream history.” The biographical sketch of this eminent Dalit, tells us that he knew English, Sanskrit and Pali. He strongly believed that Buddhism flourished in Tamil Nadu before the advent of the later Cholas and a conspiracy of circumstances, resulted in the decline of this non-Vedic religion. Eventually, according to Dasa, the Buddhists were deprived of their religion and they descended to the status of untouchables. It reads like a speculative theory but does not seem improbable. (From ‘Venomous Past.. Ravi Kumar ..)
A look at the trajectories of other ‘social reformers’ can bring forth many hitherto lesser known facts about their lives and struggles and perhaps impel us to comprehend how their uncompromising struggle against Brahminical social order was no less revolutionary. Ayyankali, the great rebel from Kerala, organised agricultural workers strike (1904) to ensure ‘right to education for the oppressed’.On what basis Ayyankali would be pigeonholed as a ‘reformer’ and someone who fought the Britishers as a ‘revolutionary’
According to E.H. Carr, history is nothing but ‘dialogue of the present with the past’. Definitely one cannot change history as it happened but engaging with the past in more critical way does opens up the possibility of understanding one’s own limitations and does help one rectify one’s approach towards specific questions.
Another important question which can come up is attitude of the ‘social reformers’ towards British Rule in India. It cannot be denied that it was qualitatively different from the nationalists as well as leftists. May it be Phule’s comment after the defeat of the rebels in 1857′s ‘war of independence’ that it was good that Britishers won otherwise ‘Peshawai’ (rule by the Peshwas) would have returned or Ambedkar’s celebration at Koregaon (Near Pune – where -the last battle against the Peshwas was fought by the Britishers in 1818) memorial which mentioned names of many of the sepoys serving in the British army then – many of which happened to be dalits – one can see that for the stream of ‘social reformers’ the main enemy was not the British but the internal class/caste exploiter whereas for the nationalists main enemy was imperialism.’ In his speech at Sinnar (Nasik district) conference of watandar Mahars in 1941, Ambedkar even declared that he had never organised an anti-British struggle because
The Depressed classes, surrounded by enemies on all sides, could not afford to fight on all fronts at once. I therefore decided to fight the two thousand year old tyranny and oppression of the caste hindus and secure social equality of the Depressed classes before everything else.
(Bombay Chronicle, 19thAugust 1941, quoted in Dalits and DemocraticRevolution, Gail Omvedt P. 212)
Would it be correct to say that Phule-Ambedkar’s understanding of British India compares partially with that of Karl Marx. Marx wrote in 1853 that ‘England has to fulfil a double mission in India, one destructive, one regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society and laying the material foundations of Western society in India.’ It need to be added here that in his extracts on the 1857 War, Marx unhesitatingly called it a ‘War for Independence’ but he had no qualms in saying that Britishers have laid the ‘seeds of a new social revolution’.
There could be many other questions e.g the whole debate in the left movement on ‘base- superstructure’ model or a detailed critique of the social movements, which we have not attempted here, which can be criticized for their limited horizons, for ignoring the class-political dimension, and for their willingness to remain within the bourgeois framework, or the question of integrating struggle against patriarchy with anti-caste struggle would be an important arena. If caste is the building block of our society, the family is the building block of every caste and the role of women has been crucial in preserving this building block. Patriarchy in India can only be fully understood by understanding the crucial role played by women in preserving this caste based civilisation
To conclude, while left needs to do away with mechanistic understanding of class reality or its earlier erroneous approach of counterposing caste reality against class, it also has to take into consideration the possibility that (in case of dalits and lower shudras) caste identities can be utilised for organising resistance and struggles against caste based oppression. It has also to aim itself for total annihilation of caste system.
It is high time that the left understands that caste system presents itself as a deep and serious problem of the Indian social structure and no part of the society, polity or culture can be said to be immune from the influence of this problem which even has economic dimensions. (Ref. Documents of CLI,ML 2000) The oppressed castes especially the dalits are victims of the dual system of oppression and exploitation comprising of the caste system and Brahminical social order on the one hand and of capitalism on the other. Capitalism in India while bringing about certain changes has adjusted itself to this social order and selectively utilised it to serve it own interest, thus adding its own reinforcements to the caste system. e.g. caste dimension of the electoral politics.It also needs to be understood that policy of reservations and the politics based on it has dual aspects 1. Empowerment of the ‘lower castes’ and challenge to the monopoly of Varna castes 2. Instrument of tying down the demands of the ‘lower castes’ to the sphere of bourgeois electoral politics and capitalist system
The left movement has often been criticized – and rightly so – for ignoring the social dimension of Indian reality and for its mechanical approach that attempts to reduce all social phenomena to the economic or the class dimension. It is high time that it sets its social agenda for the 21 st century.
I had started with an anecdote and I would end with another anecdote which I read in an article penned by Prof Tulsi Ram, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. According to him it was January 1956 when Dr Ambedkar visited Agra where he met with many educated dalits. While talking to them and listening to their priorities in life Ambedkar is reported to have become quite emotional and literally cried. He is reported to have said ‘Mere padhe likhe logon ne mujhe dhokha diya’.( Educated people from my community have betrayed me). It has been more than 56 years that this incident has occured and the post Ambekdar movement has also taken many twists and turns. It is just a matter of speculation what would have been Dr Ambedkar’s assessment of the movement he initiated. In fact, the question is open to everyone to judge whether developments in the post-Ambedkar movement vindicate Dr Ambedkar’s anguish or refute it.
(Draft writeup for a seminar on ‘The Indian Left: Social Development Visions and Political Challenges’ organised by Council for Social Development 8 th August 2012)