A review of Ear to the Ground: Selected Writings on Class and Caste by K. Balagopal

August 30, 2012

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Close listening: A critical theory of political economy combining peasant movements with India’s development

By Rahul Menon & T. V. H. Prathamesh

A person travelling through rural coastal Andhra Pradesh in the late 1980s will have come across gigantic buildings in the middle of nowhere that resembled the urban cinema halls of those parts. These were actually godowns that stored agricultural produce grown in these fertile districts. It required the insight of K. Balagopal to point out that this bizarre resemblance was not merely a cultural idiosyncrasy, but told the story of a complex relationship between agrarian capital, caste mobilization and politics.

The rich capitalist farmers of these parts, mostly hailing from the Kamma community, reinvested the agrarian capital in both agricultural industry and Telugu cinema. The investment in cinema created a space for them to use the medium for political mobilization. It was this background that created a fertile ground for the emergence of N.T. Rama Rao as a political figure.

Such insights mark this compilation of articles (Ear to the Ground: Selected Writings on Class and Caste, by K. Balagopal), a testament to the academic rigour and wry humour of one of India’s most important thinkers. Balagopal’s career followed a remarkable trajectory: from a mathematician to a hero of the democratic rights movement during the heydays of the Naxalite movement to a lawyer of the poor. His influences range from the other brilliant polymath, D.D. Kosambi, to Digambara poets, from Karl Marx to Dostoevsky. While his sense of sarcasm and clarity of prose in many ways is reminiscent of Ambedkar, perhaps the most gifted writer among Indian political thinkers. This eclecticism often found its reflection in his writings, where a sensitivity to social conditions seamlessly merged with brilliant psychological insight and a sense of ethics, all deployed in an uncompromising quest for justice. His works are as much a reflection of his individual genius as much they are of the political climate and the nature of debates it generated.

A sizable section of the articles, though not all, centre on the changing social and political landscape of his native Andhra Pradesh. Some of his writings on the incipient phase of the People’s War movement during the 1980s narrate how the local nexus between the landed agrarian classes, political parties and police and the suppression of open politics left the exploited with no other choice but to respond with militant, underground forms of protest. The series of articles on caste and politics treat caste identities not merely as politically manipulated historical baggage, but as identities that are also actively generated through parliamentary politics. For instance, till the 1980s, the term kapu was mainly used to define the profession of several middle-level cultivating castes, but hardened into a caste identity through the efforts of a section of the landowning and business elites seeking political fortune.

But at the same time, going beyond conventional notions of caste as being merely occupation-based, Balagopal also recognises caste for being a pervasive system of power and domination that, deeply ingrained in our society as it is, exercises its malevolent influence through every conceivable sphere that society organises itself around – the political, social and economic. The institution of caste is deeply rooted in the fibres of our society, and as such a mere capturing of state power, which forms the mainstay of Leninist vanguardist model of politics, would do nothing to solve the problem unless a social revolution of sorts that weeds out the institution of caste entirely is not made an important part of it. By establishing the primacy of the social transformation as the goal of any communist movement, as opposed to the fetishisation of politics which became an obsession with 20th century left of all shades, his position is reminiscent of Karl Marx whose own work never privileged the political over the social.

Balagopal calls for a fundamental rethink of Marxist theory, as imagined by many of the communist practitioners and thinkers in India, if one is to properly engage with caste. In fact, in many instances, caste forms an important productive relationship that enables the extraction of surplus value from labour through the exercising of conventional norms and societal mores. Since the working classes are fragmented as much by caste as by anything else, and since a recognition of the possibilities of class solidarity is essential if one is to realise the potential of a “class-for-itself”, it is vital that one works to break down the caste barriers that keep the working classes fragmented and segregated. In fact, the most insidious way in which caste forestalls dissent is by its own hierarchical nature; a move to rebel against one’s caste oppressors sanctions dissent amongst one’s caste inferiors. The caste system has institutionalized oppression at all levels, and this goes a long way in delegitimizing dissent.

Given his careful examination of the way in which caste works, it seems almost paradoxical that Balagopal advocates an engagement with caste politics when practiced by the most marginalised, and contextualises the importance of assertion of caste identities for emancipator projects. The paradox could be best understood by situating it in the historical context of Andhra Pradesh since 1980’s and the uneasy yet complimentary relationship between Dalit movements like Dalit Mahasabha and Naxalite parties. Balagopal’s experience in the civil rights movement helped him realize that the caste system led to a denial of recognizing Dalits and other oppressed sections as citizens itself. This blindness of the system and its official channels to the presence and rights of a number of its citizens serves to further entrench oppression and discrimination, and hence it became imperative to raise the issue of caste as a significant civil rights violation. The securing of civil rights, of the very visibility of Dalits in the eyes of the state is an important first step in securing more substantial rights, and hence it is vital that one actively engages with identities such as caste in the fight for societal transformation. There is no doubt that contradictions may emerge within certain castes within the economic sphere, as class formations may form within certain caste communities. However, this does not imply that one concentrates on class while sidelining caste or gender; it merely calls for a more concrete understanding regarding how these categories operate.

The article on the life and times of Chandrababu Naidu (titled ‘The Man and The Moment’) is among his most philosophically significant and captivating essays. The paradox of a backroom political manipulator from a lower middle class cultivating kamma background turning into the blue eyed boy of Indian corporate capital forms the primary problematic of the article. The genius of this article lies in the fact that through this problematic he reflects upon the dogma of historical determinism, while launching a critique of Raymond Williams’ thesis on social being and consciousness, dwelling on the nature of the caste-class complex and the endogenous aspects of neoliberalism in India. Like in the case of Chandrababu Naidu, growing up in a relatively poor upper caste background often creates a sense of entitlement and thus a class aspiration, which leads to its own forms of dominance in the political and economic spheres of life. In his words

This class-caste category of poor upper castes, especially in a rural setting that gives it a tightly knit character held together by unrepentantly medieval assumptions of worth, exhibits certain unpleasant traits all over the country: arrogance and insecurity born of unfulfilled assumptions of eminence, leading to either the bullying type who is a threat to the lower castes, the sycophant who hangs on to the rich of his caste inside and outside the village to bask in the reflected importance, the ruthless go-getter who tramples on all in his search for what his caste has promised but his economic status has denied, or some combination of these uniformly uninviting traits.

While the specificities of caste and class and their impact on personality explain Chandrababu Naidu’s rise in politics, his ascent to the position of chief minister was made possible by the frustration of the agrarian kamma capital with the compromises that it had to make with the NTR Government. The populist tendencies of NTR’s Government while dictated by the logic of parliamentary politics, was also integral to his own projection as a ‘benevolent provider’. The shift to Chandrababu Naidu at the helm as the Chief Minister paved way for policies which linked the interests of neoliberal capital and the World Bank, with the agrarian capital seeking to multiply its wealth through investments in land, construction and IT, the former more than latter. These endogenous developments serve as a counterpoint to the understanding of neoliberalism in an Indian context which seeks to view it merely as a top down development measure imposed by the dictates of the imperial capital and institutions like World Bank. The political genius of such a transformation lied in the way the pan class populist resentment of officialdom was channelized, while simultaneously transforming welfare from being a minimal redistribution of resources to facilitation given on the basis of whatever resources on hand. This transformation managed to strip large sections of society of their political rights without drastically affecting their economic status at one go, though in many pockets it did so.

Balagopal’s great theoretical insight is to link diverse elements—the character of peasant movements, caste oppression in the villages and modern industrialization—into a magisterial theory of political economy, calling into question several accepted paradigms of mainstream thought about India’s development. While rejecting the categories of mode of production and the dogma of universal history of capitalism, he explores how capitalist development need not necessarily be a development of industrial capitalism, when much more profitable opportunities available to the propertied classes. Much of the agricultural profits of coastal Andhra capitalist farmers were invested in film industry, real estate and liquor. These “provincial propertied classes”, whose agricultural profits are invested in the city, are at the forefront of agitations for remunerative prices for farm produce—itself a contentious issue. What really concerns the poor are issues of work, irrigation and access to land. The richer classes project their own demands as that of oppressed rural “Bharat”. The oppression of Dalit castes is thus a means for them to suppress dissent and display a “unified” village movement, united in their opposition of urban industrialization.

His critique of the ideological forms of the political movements of provincial propertied classes is of importance especially today, with current thought and discourse blurring important contradictions that exist in rural areas. Among the left it is no longer uncommon to talk about suicides among middle farmers of Vidharbha and adivasi resistance in Niyamgiri in the same breath, both having been subsumed under the grand narrative of neoliberalism and its impact on ‘other India’. This other India is either ‘left out’ of the growth story and its demands need to be met through ‘inclusive development’ or it is the victim of global capital. The contradictions that exist in the ‘other’ India are often ignored. This tendency to apply a uniform framework of subjugation to neoliberal domination results in viewing every rural farmer as any other, either on the verge of suicide or under the threat of land displacement. The specificities of local contradictions especially the ones emerging with growing capitalist development in agriculture as well as the semi feudal continuities may be lost if we do not pay close attention to ground realities. This is especially true in the times when Sharad Joshi is among the biggest supporters of FDI in multibrand retail.

A review such as this does no justice to the fertility of his thought on subjects like political violence or reservations or patriarchy, and the importance of his work as an activist. Every article shines with the originality of his insight and the fury of his concern. This volume is testament to the fact that one cannot engage meaningfully with the complex changes India is going through without having one’s ear to the ground.

(This article is a longer version of a book review that appeared on Livemint)

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