The Indian Left has had a troubled association with the caste question.
The major reason, in case of the Left has been the over arching importance that Marxism has attached to class and class conciousness. This has been true of the Marxist Left which includes the original and later CPI, the CPM and even most of the Maoist formations. The socialist parties, specially under Ram Manohar Lohia and to a lesser extent Acharya Narendra Dev acknowledged the issue of caste since the fifties though from the backward caste, and not a Dalit perspective.
This post, however, focuses on the relationship between the Marxist Left and Dalit politics.
The class based approach of the Marxist Left gave little importance to caste, and even saw it as an impediment for growth of class consciousness. It’s mass fronts consisted of the trade unions, the peasant associations, landless agricultural workers. Outside these class based fronts were those for women, students and the cultural wing (the famous Indian People’s Theater Association).
No scope was seen for a Dalit or any other caste based association. In fact, when the DS4 of Kanshi Ram began to grow in the 1980s, it was seen, even by those cadres in the existing communist parties who came from a Dalit background, as reactionary and dangerous- since these threatened to break the unity of the class based fronts along casteist lines. At no time, till the Mandal Commission forced it to take a firm stand, did the Indian Left see centrality of the caste question in India.
Within the CPI and the CPM, the leadership has been, even till recently, primarily drawn from the Brahmins or the local dominant castes, with very few exceptions. Neither have these parties made any conscious attempt to bring cadre from the Dalit strata into leadership positions. Instead, they have recreated in their internal structures the imbalances of society.
This is not to deny the fact that they have also been relatively less susceptible to casteism, and many among their cadre continue to be within these parties because of the relative absence of casteism within these parties in comparison with others. This is especially so where Dalit movement has been weak or non- existent.
In comparison with some other countries, the Indian communists’ participation and acceptance of parliamentary politics has been long and unquestionable. However the stress of political action also blunted the social and mass based actions that these parties should have been involved in.
This came out very clearly when, after the CPI(M) Congress in 1998, in reply to a question as to why the Left had failed to strike roots in Uttar Pradesh, the then party General Secretary H.S. Surjeet explained the reasons thus:
“There has been no social reform movement in the state”.
This surely is a case of putting the cart before the horse, since for those on left of the political spectrum, reforms are only a part of a much more comprehensive radical agenda. The task of the left is to carry out changes that go beyond reforms and not wait for others to carry out the job. Surjeet’s words raise an existential question for the CPI(M).
Another reason of this dichotomy between the Left and the Dalit movement has been that Dr. Ambedkar, by far the most towering leader of the Dalit movement if not its only one till the rise of Kanshi Ram, had been an opponent of Marxism. His focus remained the social upliftment of the Dalits and as a politician his sensibilities honed in English liberalism restricted his view. W.N. Kuber puts it thus:
In 1937, (Ambedkar) founded the Independent Labour Party, for sometime joined hands with the communists in the labor field but did not take consistent attitude and fight class battles. Though his community was downtrodden and landless and mostly wage- earners, still he could not make them class- conscious, because of the weakness in his inherent thinking. After the Poona Pact he tried to lead the working class, but failed and left the field forever, and chose to become the leader of his community.
(source: Ambedkar: A Critical Study by W.N. Kuber, 1973. Page 304)
His insistence on Buddhism as an alternative to Marxism also did not help to build bridges.
Buddhistic countries that have gone over to communism do not understand what communism is. Communism of the Russian type aims at bringing it about by a bloody revolution. The Buddhist communism brings it about by a bloodless revolution. The South East Asians should give a political form to Buddha’s teaching…. Poverty cannot be an excuse for sacrificing human freedom.
(Source: Ambedkar, Life and Mission, page 487, quoted in Kuber).
To the over arching importance that Dr. Ambedkar gave to conversion as a salvation for the Dalits (then called the Depressed Classes), the scholarly CPI leader Hiren Mukerjee commented:
But merely by changing one’s religion, one cannot bring a solution, particularly to the kind of problem that we have in our country. That is why I say the conversion to Buddhism was a gesture, a moral gesture, with certain conceptual connotations of its own. Buddhism is a magnificent religion, but somehow it was eased out of India. If by some miracle, Buddhism is brought back again, well and good. But things do not happen in real life like that.
(source: Hiren Mukerjee: Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Extirpation of Untouchability, page 46, quoted in Kuber)
If the Left parties are more sensitive to the caste question in recent years, it is because of the battle lines that were drawn in the aftermath of the Mandal Commission and also because of the political base that caste based parties, especially the Bahujan Samaj Party have been to create for themselves. While these made a dent in the following of all existing parties, the ones specially impacted were the Congress and the Left.
The second reason is the recognition of near absolute identity of the Dalits as one of the more oppressed sections in the country. Earlier observers, even among the most radicals ones, disdained this. Groomed in the modernist, Nehruvian framework in the backdrop of global appeal of Marxism, the caste factor was pushed under the carpet. It was even seen as an obstacle in establishing class-consciousness.
This has now changed, and rightly so. The communists and the Dalit movement share a complementary role. While the Dalit movement has articulated the social and political aspirations of the oppressed community, it has lacked a firm economic program, with the result that once power is gained (in Uttar Pradesh, for example), the lack of a class based theoretical perspective restricts it to either parliamentary politics or the perspective, often narrow, of a single leader. A Marxist understanding and placing the Dalit movement within a larger national and world wide struggle for emancipation complements this social and political approach.
It is not that this has not been attempted, it was there during the brief existence of the Dalit Panthers Movement in the 1970s before its disintegration. It was also there in the approach of Sharad Patil who broke away from the CPM to form the Satyashodak Communist Party in Maharastra in the 1980s.
Given the ossification in the dominant Left, however, this dialogue will have to be initiated by the cadre of the Dalit movement and independent Marxists.
(This post owes much to Raghbir Singh, with whom I’ve had numerous discussions on the topic. He had first “warned” me about the “threat” from DS4 way back in 1987. Needless to say, we have both substantially revised our understanding since then.)