Draft version of Sundarayya Memorial Lecture delivered by Javeed Alam.
It is indeed a great privilege to be invited to deliver the Sundarayya Memorial Lecture. You would not know how deeply honoured I feel to do so. Sundarraya was not only a great communist leader but he was a legend. I and many of my generation learnt a great deal of our left politics from him. From the glorious Telengana struggle to the formation of the CPI(M) and up to the Salkia Plenum he played a key role in the making of the party line and in determining its strategic perspective. Not only that. He was a scientist. In the 1970’s we were all excited when he came out with the results of his detailed survey in the villages of A.P. to study the differentiation within the peasantry and the class formation. This was published in the Social Scientist and latter on as a small book the The Land Question. In choosing on the topic of the lecture for today I asked myself if Com. PS would have liked it. Only when I could tell myself that he would approve of this that I decided to write this lecture. So here I am trying to be one with him. But there is one big difference. I will not be basing myself on detailed empirical facts as he did in his study. Being a public lecture I will be talking in terms of broad trends.
My concern will also be different from that of com. PS, which was to specify the differentiation. I and many of the Left colleagues have been worried that the exploited masses have not been getting mobilised across the division of caste and religion. It has been the belief of the communist parties, right from their inception, that the exploited masses have a natural propensity to unite to end exploitation and oppression. Not that this had not happened. There were glorious peasant struggles in Telangana and Tebagaha and at many other places; there are many works by leftist scholars describing these. Even in normal times there have been long periods of the unity of poor and middle peasants and their united political action with the working classes. But of late, especially after the Mandal agitation there has been a decline in the unity among the exploited peasantry and its reluctance to act in united action with the working classes. In fact in large areas of the Hindi belt there has been a perceptible decline in the political influence and organisational capability of the Communist Parties, most perceptibly in Eastern UP and Bihar.
I want to examine this assumption of optimism about the propensity of the exploited to unite and then go on to look at the condition that has led to the decline of the influence of the Left.
The beginning of this optimism is with Marx himself. In the Communist Manifesto Marx had quite unambiguously suggested a pronounced trend towards the homogenisation of the proletariat, in the sense that it will be more and more the same in England as in France or anywhere else in Europe or America. The basis for saying so was an inexorable trend where “machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour”. In another similar remark he asserted that with the development of industry “ranks of proletariat are more and more equalised”. This takes two forms. One the one hand, cultural and ethnic differences begin to melt away and on the other “narrowmidedness become more and more impossible” and so will “national one-sidedness”. All this is the basis of the simplification of class antagonism. All this is the result of the development of capitalism but the rise to supremacy of the working class, all these will “vanish still faster”.
The basis on which Marx could base his optimism was on the basis of a condition that was uniformly universal all over Western Europe. It was the rapid dissolution of pre-modern communities; that is to say, the pre-capitalist past was becoming archival. (Archival is not the loss of the past but the loss of something as a presence with us.) In contrast to this, the pre-modern world is a living presence in India. In case of Europe if I want to know how people worked, for example, in the guilds, weaved cloth, made the plough or how they spent their leisure time with family and friends, I have to go to some or other archive. That is why at some point in the first half of 19th. Century words like kinship or guild quietly disappeared from the political vocabulary, to be replaced by class and industry; this loss and replacement of such key term can be, in fact, a substantiation of my claim above. Whereas in India, I do not have to travel even a hundred miles to get to know that these ways of working and living are not only alive but also vibrant. And this holds true for much else to do with ritual and kinship and status. In other words, the “past” with us here is not yet a past. It presses for recognition. We do not live in tenses as a continuum but simultaneously.
The antagonism we live in is vastly different than any society “living with modernity”1 in the West ever experienced. The rapid dissolution of pre-modern communities of work and status with rise of capitalism and the emergence of an individuated, autonomous, self-centered interest maximising person is also the making of western modernity. With us the past is not yet a past. Here the “past” is always pushing modernity. We do not live in tenses as a continuum but simultaneously.
Capitalism achieved this by in a simple but very effective way by a process of “dissociation of the labourer from the means of labour”, that is by depriving the peasant and artisan from the instrument of production. This is what Marx also calls the primitive accumulation in the last chapter of Capital. In hundreds of thousands people were thrown out of the land and hearth to move into towns to become the working class or make up the ranks of surplus labour. Cut off from the roots and wandering hither and thither they become bereft of the community and lost all sense of belonging. Hegel, the great teacher of Marx, called this the “great exodus”. The early making of the working class was preceded by process of disembedding people from hitherto communities and the slow re-embedding of the people into the working classes. In other words, there was nothing left to mediate between the individual and the state/nation.
In the background of the profound difference, I want to examine the condition, in the wake of the Mandal phase that has led to the massive mobilisation of the communities and the peculiarly Indian communitarian upsurge. The Mandal agitation and the counter-revolutionary upper class vandalism backed by sections of the ruling establishment led to the crystallisation long term tendencies which were underway within the various backward class and Dalit communities in India.
The trend, which is thoroughly changing the character of the oppressed castes, is based on the internal differentiation and class formation within these caste communities. Two things were happening within these vulnerable communities. First, there was a long period of capitalist development, especially in agriculture, which was followed by land reforms, after Independence. Many of the OBC’s became propriety peasants. The long chain of dependence and bondage was snapped. There has been a slow but wide spread expansion of education, employment, etc. among OBC's. New modern classes were slowly emerging. Among the Dalits reservations as quotas in education and employment and other meekly implemented affirmative action also led to similar results though on a much smaller scale. What thwarted the collective development of Dalits was the nature of land reforms where land often did not go to the direct tiller. Most of the Dalits remained dispossessed of land and were forced to remain agricultural labourer under conditions of coercive wage determination in work and brutality in the social life.2
As a consequence of all this, class and income differentiation have been taking place, however uneven, among these castes-communities and therefore a dispersal of earlier forms of power from their traditional leadership. Earlier such castes organised as Jatis were, and this is important, internally egalitarian because of the same occupation and skill endowment and therefore similar income levels. The break-down of the inviolable links between the ritual status and occupation had far reaching consequences. It encouraged the movement of people, imperceptible though among the oppressed unlike with the Sawaranas earlier, into different occupations and the acquisition of varied and dissimilar skills. With all these developments, jatis started becoming internally inegalitarian; the process though has had a different tempo across the distinct castes leading to the formation of modern classes within the caste communities. Differentiation and dispersion of inherited bases of power, if we go by the global pattern of consequences of capitalist development, also sets in process the dissolution of the "primordial" communities. Nothing of the sort has happened in India, as noted above, nor seems likely to in the near future even with the rapid individuation of interests and persons with spread of capitalism and the complete penetration of market forces. A thin stratum of rich peasants, a bulky presence of middle peasantry and quite sizeable number of poor peasants now define the peasantry among the OBC’s.
Within the class formation noted above, a middle class, drawn largely from the rich and middle stratum of peasants, as well has been in the process of formation and consolidation within these caste-based communities. A further result of this has been the impetus given to a contrary process, or rather opposite to dissolution, of unification of these communities. It is in the interest of these newly emergent middle classes, as distinct from the established ones who belonged overwhelmingly to Savarna castes, to unify these communities as blocs to compete for power in democratic contestations, especially the electoral competitiveness. We will refer to these emergent middle classes from among the oppressed as a neo-middle-class to distinguish it from the established one. These two contrary trends, one, the differentiation and undermining of the inherited forms of constitution of castes and, the other, that of the process of internal unification have had a simultaneous run.
The contradiction inherent in the class formation within the communities and the individuation of interests around these did not fructify. There was thus a negation of the possibilities of the articulation of class tendencies as political positions. Instead what happened has been a consolidation of the caste groups on scales larger than ever before.
A two-way contest has now come about in Indian society with deep repercussions for the democratic process. First, the neo-middle-classes see in white-collar jobs and professional positions the only route to gaining status and prestige in society. Unlike the established middle classes from the Savaranas they have no status or other social assets to fall back on. So to break through into these, monopolised by the established middle classes, is crucial for their self-esteem. Hence there is the clamour for quotas as a necessary aspect of “social justice.” There is, secondly, a fierce contest on for a share in power. Self representation, share in power corresponding to the numerical strength, allotment of ministerial berths, and so on are all a part of what is now talked of as “empowerment.” These two terms sketch out the self-definition of the politics of the oppressed communities.3
As a result this, first, it hastened the process of this unification under the neo-middle-classes, which also simultaneously is the dominance of the rich peasant, within these communities. And if we read this together with the first trend described above, then the Yadavs or the Kurmis or Thevers or the Kunbis or the Dalits are now a caste in only a nominal sense because all the normative markers of what constitutes the Varna order are being rejected. They have become a community in any sense of the term. Communities can be identified when they articulate in a socio-political context. A fixed definition of community can be a source of mis-specification. Community boundaries vary as per the context. For example in face of the onslaught of the Hindutva forces Muslims or Christians may consider themselves and act as communities. But in a situation say of strife between the Shias and Sunnis or Catholics or Protestants these then constitute themselves into communities in that context. Such examples can be multiplied in different ways; for example, a village gets constituted into communities in a different way during Melas then when it is in a feud with a neighbouring village. If we have a collectivity in a process of formation without the acceptance of any of the attributes which define the relations between jatis as set out in the Varna ideology then the ascription of caste as its mode of social existence is difficult to sustain. This is more so in the realm of politics, democratic politics is in any case subversive of ordained hierarchies even if other things were to remain the same. The available varna terms stick as the Varna vocabularies provide common idiom and an over-arching discursive framework. These vocabularies are not so much for internal references or self images of oppressed castes any more but much more so for mobilisation for power to seek equality with those who consider themselves superior because they are pure. But it no longer can define the character of the collective as caste within the caste system as it earlier used to do. It is the upper castes of Dwijas who still refer to themselves with pride as Brahmins or Thakurs and make all the efforts to enforce caste disabilities to sustain their social domination as a part of the class rule.
These are the communities made up of the oppressed castes, which now are fighting for equality and recognition vis-à-vis, on the one hand, the dwija castes, and, on the other, against the privileges of the established middle classes. The battle is fierce and "ugly" and ugly because everyone among the oppressed is in a hurry to gain all that in the world, which will make the claim to equality enforceable. We therefore must be cautious in judging by our sense of parliamentary decorum or social niceties as much of the media and drawing room conversation does. There is also a sense of hurry to bury the memory of the past relationships with the Savaranas.
All this is closely related to what I have called collective unfreedom and the battle for democracy. Even a minimal move towards freedom in conditions of collective unfreedom as prevailed in India is also simultaneously a call for "recognition". Recognition is, as Hegel would tell us, an ideal reciprocal relation between subjects. A call for recognition is therefore also a call for equality, which ought not to negate my difference with the other. So being recognised and recognising the other constitute me as a subject and gives me a sense of self. It therefore follows that the denial of recognition is detrimental to subject hood. Hegel here is suggesting that the making of an Identity is a dialogical process in society. In taking the castes as our concern here, I think, it is important to be clear about the distinction between making of Identity and identity politics; one is a necessity for being an autonomous actor whereas the other leads to reification of caste identities. Yet it is important also to acknowledge that given the earlier nature of unfreedom, the battle for equality will necessarily take a collective form. If Hegel is right, as I presume him to be, then the denial of recognition to the claims for equality of the lower castes in India by the upper castes goes a long way in perverting the values of democracy in India.
I have therefore called, elsewhere in my writings, it a struggle for bourgeois equality, no pejorative sense is implied here in the use of the word bourgeois. One can as well call it juristic as against substantive equality, following the use of the "juristic" Marx made in some of his early writings like for instance in The Jewish Question. Let us look at the very content of the politics of the oppressed for substantiation. There is hardly any worked out economic agenda in their call for "social justice" as is always the case with the proletarian politics. This politics is not fighting for substantive equality, even Mayawati does not ask for land reforms. She wants Dalits to have power in the same way as the Swaranas always exercised it over others. Whether or not it is a democratic advance is not the central issue. But surely this represents a major shift in the terrain of democracy in India. All this has been a source of new kinds of commitments to the democratic processes, without necessarily a commitment to democratic values, in Indian politics and has given rise to a process of reconsolidation of democracy in India. The battle for bourgeois equality in India is not being fought, as was the case in the West, between unequal individuals. It is being fought much rather between and by the vulnerable communities which were collectively unfree and found themselves in the realm of juristic freedom and competitive politics all of a sudden, around the time of Independence. They also found their chances thwarted by the established middle class, the privilegensia composed of upper castes with English education.
In passing it is important to realise that there will always be a heavy dose of communitarian angle to all struggles in India because, outside of the working class, all collective assertions will be conditioned by the boundaries, even if somewhat vague, which earlier defined collective unfreedom. Those from within the communities who snap or seek to even loosen community links will draw a lot of flak from within their communities. Therefore the individual, taking him, as a right bearing person yet embedded in the community will feel besieged by community pressures.
Let me now terminate one side of my argument. Among the oppressed the appeal to caste is for unification of similar jatis into larger collectivities and political mobilisation for power so as to subvert the very relations of the Varna order. Caste appeal here therefore is far from being pure casteism, as is often alleged. The allegation is based on an over-valuation of surface features and an utter disregard to the inner logic of the deeper processes in Indian politics. By the way, it is futile for us on the Left to expect a replay of the patterns of development in the wake of capitalist development in the West where communities of primordial bonds were, again as seen earlier, slowly dissolved to be replaced by one supreme primordial bond, the nation. In the way that the capitalism in the third world is incapable of actualising bourgeois democratic aspiration, it is by a similar logic (of infirmity internal to it) not going to dissolve the pre-modern communities. They are going to be with us as potent political forces for a very long time to come. Therefore tactical ways appropriate to the situation have to be worked out the Left forces, for radical advance.
I am not denying the existence of casteism in Indian politics. I am asking for a more nuanced delineation of what is happening in Indian politics. All I am saying is the mere assertion and mobilisation even when caste vocabulary is used does not make it into pure casteism; the qualifying term in not unimportant. The question then is: where and how does casteism come into Indian politics. I now want to look at the other side of the coin.
What makes this battle further murky is the second process let loose by the post-Mandal struggles within the realm of social equations. There has been a steady decomposition of the consciousness of the established middle classes into articulated caste interests of Brahmins or Thakurs and so on. The traditionally hegemonic middle class always imagined itself as based on accomplishment, not untrue, but also believed that it has outgrown caste as the basis of its social being. The self-perceived transcendence from caste consciousness, as can now be seen as illusory, has rapidly collapsed in the last decade and more into a heap where they still want to be on the top of it. It has taken the form of the separate spheres of varying upper caste consciousness, separate, but all in close affinity one to the other. The Brahmin and the Baniya are therefore in a close embrace within the Hindutva fold. It is the privilegensia striking back with a new reactionary sweep.
It is easy to understand this process if we remind ourselves that the established middle class was overwhelmingly drawn from its inception in the colonial times from the upper castes. It therefore inherited, in the process of becoming, property, prestige, and power from its prior status. Its hegemony because of the head start in economy, bureaucracy, and other institutions of public life did not make it feel the need to think in terms of caste but could consciously and by habit talk of itself as having transcended the caste barriers. It is this consciousness that has decomposed. Now as various upper castes, they seek to preserve their privilege by any means but relying mainly on modern discursive jargon. Merit and efficiency is important in any modern society that is why affirmative actions are of such crucial importance for the socially disadvantaged. But if these same qualities are abstracted from larger considerations of social welfare and equity then this leads to deification and deification can be a disguised mode of defence of vested interest. All this itself is an aspect of the making of caste identity. Note also the reverse direction among the upper castes. But also important is the way the identities of the vulnerable communities get affected. Refusals and denials of the claims of the others by the upper castes and the identification with the Hindutva has also brought in the Muslim community on the side of OBC’s or Dalits in the battle for equality, depending on the class location of the Muslim communities.
The developments I have described above are deeply conditioned by a historically grounded material force. Let us ask: what was the nature of bondage of the “direct producer” in the Indian social formation in the pre-colonial times? This is important because what we today call the Dalit or the OBC were the producing classes in India, either in agriculture or in secondary manufacture through household craft production or by working in the guilds. All these sections of society were made up of dependent jatis whether as peasants or artisans upon the superior (clean!) castes. What is important to note is the fact that the dependence was of collectivities and not just of the individuals. In other words the direct producers, like elsewhere in feudalism were unfree. But the nature of “unfreedom” of the producer in India was of a collective kind unlike the individual unfreedom of the European serf or earlier of the Greek or Roman slave. Not only this but the difference was not just of unequal status but manual work was morally and spiritually down-graded. Furthermore manual work was hierarchically treated as unclean. The more unclean the work, the greater the degradation and lower the entitlement to food and therefore the greater the unfreedom. India in this is unique, clearly in a perverted sense.
Once the scriptural or juristic or structural of this bondage begin to crack, as has been happening in India over a long period of time first with the beginning of capitalism and then with the abolition of caste discrimination by the Constitution, it should therefore follow that the battle for freedom and dignity too has to be of a collective nature. And given that the producer was considered degraded as a human being, the urge for dignity and self-respect tend to gain ascendance over questions of economic relief. Both of these features are, I strongly believe and tried to demonstrate, deeply materially grounded. So to recognise this is to reaffirm Marxism from another angle. This is what I have tried to do, I do not know how successfully.
(In need of some re-writing)