A Caste-Class Analysis from rural Maharashtra – Two Essays

January 26, 2013

The following two pieces, the first by Gail Omvedt, and the second by Anant Phadke, expand on the caste-class analysis developed by the Shramik Mukti Dal, an organization working in rural Maharashtra.
– Editors

The Shramik Mukti Dal Flag

Anti-Caste Movements and the Left – Gail Omvedt
Towards Programme for Abolition Of Material Basis Of Casteist Hierarchy – Anant Phadke

Anti-Caste Movements and the Left
Gail Omvedt

Writing on the subject of “Anti-Caste movements and the left” is in one sense fairly simple because the Left has so thoroughly ignored and marginalized the issues of the anti-caste movements that there is little to say. Of course, left parties have defended Dalits against atrocities, have often taken bold stands on issues of human rights. But they have rarely sought to analyze caste exploitation as it goes on today and evolve determined, conscious movements aimed at the annihilation of caste. Tendencies to “mechanical Marxism” abound; the Left forgets warnings such as Ambedkar’s, “caste is not a division of labour but a division of labourers.” This is true not only of the parliamentary Left parties, the CPI and CPI(M) but also of the “revolutionary” Maoists. These have theoretically and practically neglected the issues of the anti-caste movements.

Left parties swear by Marxism. But the Marxism they use is a mechanical materialism, rather than a historical materialist analysis of Indian society. Caste is absorbed into “class,” and class struggle is seen as the be-all and end-all solution to problems of caste hierarchy and caste exploitation. “Exploitation” is not seen in regard to caste but is rather given a purely economic, class interpretation. Phule and Ambedkar are looked upon as at best petty-bourgeois democrats, at worst betrayers of the national movement.

One exception to this is the Shramik Mukti Dal, an organization working in eleven districts of Maharashtra, organizing farmers and toilers on issues of drought, dam and project eviction, and caste oppression. The Shramik Mukti Dal (SMD) follows an ideology not simply based on Marxism but on Marx-Phule-Ambedkarism. In their analysis, caste is a system of exploitation in which there is a graded hierarchy: people at each level labour, and the surplus from their labour is extracted upwards to the level above. Each level benefits to some degree from the labour of those lower in the hierarchy, though the greater part of the surplus is channeled upward to those at the top. The “laws of motion,” as SMD puts it, of this system are that the lowest levels of the hierarchy have people doing the heaviest, most manual and most polluting or “dirty” labour; labour becomes progressively “cleaner” and more mentally oriented as one rises in the hierarchy, until at the top Brahmans perform nearly purely mental labour. The most open version of this hierarchy was the traditional jajmani system, but it exists in a changed form today. Today, heavy manual labour, and polluting labour such as scavenging, rag picking, etc. is performed by people drawn from the lowest traditional castes; the “clean” peasant castes perform labour that is more neutral as far as pollution is concerned but is nevertheless heavy manual labour – they are porters or hamals, casual labourers on construction works and so on.

SMD has been moving into action on these issues. A “caste annihilation conference” held last January at Kankavali in the Kokan adopted several resolutions which formed the base for a demonstration march a couple of months later. Demands such as land for cultivation, jobs, and special issues of Dalits in the Kokan (lack of roads to villages, traditional forms of discrimination) were taken up. Another conference is being planned in Kolhapur for January of 2013.

A related effort in which SMD activists are taking part is a group on “brainstorming caste,” seeking to formulate and specify the theoretical basis for anti-caste activities. A three-day session is being planned this November in Wardha with selected participants drawn from all over India. In the notes developed so far for the discussion, the historical nature of caste is emphasized – far from being a timeless (and therefore undefeatable) aspect of Indian social structure, the dominance of caste is actually relatively recent: for nearly a thousand years, when Buddhism was hegemonic, there was no dominant caste system but rather a social class structure based on guilds of shrenis or artisans, gahapatis farming land with das-kammakara servant-slaves, and peasant or “kutumbin” farmers. It was only after about the 5th century when the guild system could no longer provide tools and implements for production and were replaced by caste-groups of artisans settled in the village that a material base for the dominance of caste ideology was created. Caste ideology, which had been in existence earlier, since the time of Manu and before, when Brahmanism was forecasting a society based on varnashrama dharma in contrast to the shramana propagation of a caste-free society, then became hegemonic. Caste became solidified, and with it untouchability and all the other evils we can see today.

Thus there are some important new left initiatives coming on the issue of caste and anti-caste movements. Hopefully the future will be different from the way these issues have been marganizalized among the left in the past.

Towards Programme for Abolition Of Material Basis Of Casteist Hierarchy
Anant Phadke [1]

The nature and role of caste relations in India including during the current post-colonial period, is a matter of debate within Left. Traditional Marxists consider caste relations as a part of only the ‘superstructure’ and in modern India they consider ‘caste-hierarchy’ to be only a feudal remnant; an instrument of only ‘oppression’ and not of exploitation of surplus labour. In their view, remnants of feudal relations have continued because according to them, Bourgeois Democratic Revolution has not been completed in India. Hence in this framework of understanding of caste relations, casteist hierarchy would require only Cultural Revolution. Shramik Mukti Dal a Left organization in Maharashtra has been arguing for last many years that this view is flawed; that along with socio-cultural measures, specific economic measures would also be required as a part of the revolutionary programme to abolish the caste system. Let us see how.

Feudal, brahminical caste system
The production relations in ancient India had it’s peculiar development spanning many centuries and took many forms in different periods in different areas. We restrict ourselves to the immediate pre-British period in which a peculiar Indian variety of feudalism was prevailing in large parts of Indian subcontinent. To understand production-relations in pre-British feudal India, along with class relations, we need to understand caste-relations also. This is because caste relations were not merely about cultural-social practices. Caste relations through the casteist division of labour also shaped the relations of toilers with the means of production and with the social process of production. Who would or would not get access to the means of production and which specific means of production can be operated by whom was very much decided by the caste in which people were borne. For example, toilers born in the carpenter caste were compulsorily tied to carpentry all their life. Same was the case with toilers in the barber caste or in the tailor caste and so on. This ‘division of labour’ was laid down juridically also and in the eyes of the feudal State, it was a crime to break these caste-based rigid boundaries. This division of labour was also division of labourers as Ambedkar put it, and that too a life-long division. This ‘by birth permanent division of labour’ continued for centuries and led to caste-based cultural-social norms. If we want to fully understand the dialectics of these social norms/practices, class-caste analysis and not class-analysis alone would be needed.

Pre-British India was a caste/class society. Leaving aside various details, variations and at the risk of simplifying the complex, varied reality across India, it can be said that in the immediate pre-British period, in India there were basically four classes, each one of these were made up of a group of castes –

The lowermost class, the ‘ati-shudras’ was formed by the group of ‘untouchable’ castes who’s surplus labour was pumped off to the ruling class through two routes. Firstly, it went directly to the exploiting class made up of the brahmins and the royalty-castes. The ‘untouchables’ served the Brahmins and royalty-castes through forced, free/almost free labour on the farms of these ruling castes as well as by rendering them gratis, services of various kinds. Secondly a part of their surplus labour was funneled through the village system in which also they were exploited. One form of this forced, unpaid labour was ‘veth-bigaari’. Though there was some hierarchy within ‘untouchable castes’, they all belonged to a single class of the most exploited and oppressed toilers in India.

The Balutedar-castes i.e, the artisan castes (barbers, carpenters, weavers, masons etc) together constituted the second exploited class of toilers, the balutedars. In social hierarchy it was above the ‘untouchables’ and rendered various services to the peasants in exchange of whatever part of the produce the peasants would share with them at the end of harvesting. Their social status and standard of living was below that of the peasant class because what they contributed to the peasants and the village system was more than what they received in exchange at the annual distribution of the agricultural produce. They also served the Brahmins and royalty-castes through rendering gratis, the respective services which these castes could provide. Though there was some hierarchy within ‘balutedar castes’, they all belonged to a single class of ‘balutedars’, the ‘Shudras’.

The peasant castes together constituted the third class. The peasant castes on the one hand ‘exploited’ the balutedars and the ‘untouchables’ and functioned as a conduit for transferring surplus from them to brahmins and the royalty-castes, the ruling class. On the other hand they themselves were exploited; they had to pay the king taxes and also had to part with a portion of their produce to the local brahmins and royalty castes or by tilting their farms through various arrangements. The caste-hierarchy thus led to the siphoning of the surplus labour in a step-wise fashion to the ruling class. Though there was some hierarchy within peasant castes and sub-castes, they all belonged to a single class of the ‘peasantry’. The toiling peasants were also recognized as ‘Shudras.’

The ruling class was composed of the Brahmins and the royalty-castes. The non-brahmin royalty-castes were different in different parts of India and in different periods whereas everywhere the Brahmins were part of the ruling class and in caste-hierarchy they were at the top. These ruling castes were appointed by the king as tax collectors and for this work they were allotted lands or were given a portion of the collected tax. In their own farms (given by the king) they exploited the toilers by extracting from them land-rent and free labour/service.

In the caste hierarchy, the brahmins were at the top and had an overwhelming ideological influence over the rest of the society. In this sense it was brahminical feudalism. But it may also be noted that Marx pointed out that dominance of ideology in feudalism should not distract us from the fact that in feudalism too, economic relations were the determinant factor. In capitalism the economic is both determinant and dominant because in capitalism the toilers have been divested of means of production and hence to survive, they have to necessarily go to the capitalist for wage-work ‘voluntarily’, without any ‘extra-economic’ force. In capitalism there is the separation of the economic sphere from the political; there is separation of the civil society from the State. The ideology of political equality and ideology of ‘equality in the market’ is the accepted ideology. It is commodity fetishism which primarily masks unequal relations and ensures the ideological subjugation of labour to Capital. In contrast, in feudalism the toilers possess means of production (land, artisan-instruments) and hence extra-economic force is needed to ensure that despite this, they serve the rulers. Thus in feudalism the acceptance by toilers of the openly hierarchical ideology and openly hierarchical political structure is necessary for the exploitation to take place. This explains the apparent overwhelming ideological domination of the Pope in Europe and of Brahmins in India, when in fact the ruling class was composed of both brahmins and royalty-castes and when in fact the material reality of production-relations determined the nature of the society.

The beauty and strength of class analysis lies in the fact it explains dialectics of social-cultural practices and guides the movement in this field better than the analysis offered by bourgeois sociology. But in case of India class analysis alone is not sufficient to do so. If we want to understand why in pre-capitalist India, certain group of people within the same class had very different cultural-social practices or mythologies or when we want to understand how surplus was pumped off in a step-ladder fashion from the ati-shudras to the Shudras and then to the royalty-castes and the Brahmins, use of only ‘class-analysis’ is not adequate. Similarly, if we want to understand the concrete mechanism of maintaining the hegemony of the rulers in pre-capitalist India, this cannot be done without understanding the inter-relation between the brahmin caste, the royalty and the toiling castes and this complex phenomenon cannot be grasped scientifically, adequately if caste-relations are understood as a mere derivative of class analysis.

Women were the most exploited, oppressed section of the society. Logic of the private property and of patriarchy (not of private property alone!) demands that women are ‘loyal’ to their husbands to ensure that the father of the child borne to the mother is the husband and of nobody else. (Men were allowed to be ‘disloyal’ and were allowed to have relations with prostitutes, ‘keeps’.) Casteist hierarchy adds additional dimension to it by strictly restricting marriages within castes. Strictly restricting women to marry within the caste was necessary to maintain the ‘purity’ of the caste. Brahmins and upper castes were obsessed with property and with purity of caste. That is why these sexual taboos were stricter in brahmins and in other upper castes. Secondly upper caste women were hardly involved in any social production; their role was mostly restricted to the reproduction of labour-power. Hence they were left with no role in this world if the husband dies. That is why Sati-practice was prevalent in some areas among some upper castes. But more often than not widows were allowed to survive in exchange of a lot of domestic labour they must do. In addition in some areas brahmin widows were shaved and could wear only dark brown plain clothe to make them sexually unattractive; underscoring the value that woman’s sexuality is totally tied to her husband. The tradition in certain lower castes of ‘devoting’ a girl-child to a particular ‘deity’ meant in practice that (upper caste) men would use her for their sexual gratification. These ‘devoted’ girls generally came from certain ‘untouchable’ castes. Pure class analysis cannot explain these peculiar, complex traditions.

Here, one would like to make a broader point about class-relations and non-class production relations. It may be pointed out that in fact, in his own formulation about his method of analysis, Marx in his famous ‘Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, introduces the concept of social relations of production, but does not even mention the term ‘class’! ‘Preface’ outlines a summary of materialistic, dialectical method of analyzing history and it should be noted that this conceptualization is broader than a framework of exclusive class analysis. Starting with broader basic framework of the dialectics between productive forces and social relation of production and some fundamental theoretical concepts, Marx studied mainly the European history, that too with whatever material available to him, and came to the conclusion that, “All history is history of class struggle”. This idiom is not his starting, basic, methodological proposition, but is a derived one.

Empirical evidence and searching arguments put forth by some feminists about patriarchy (“patriarchal relations cannot understood merely as derivative of private property”) and in India the issues raised by Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar about caste-relations, have raised a question-mark about this derived idiom by Marx if it is understood as “All history is history of only class struggle”.

Bourgeois Caste system
Capitalist development imposed by the colonial rule has broken down the feudal caste system, it’s totally rigid, by birth, ‘mandatory life long division of labour’ that was a hallmark of pre-British India. However instead of withering away of the caste-based hierarchy, during last 150 years, a new caste-based division of labour has come-about. In this new form, toilers borne in dalit and tribal castes are largely confined to unskilled, hard labour and to dirty jobs. Toilers borne in middle castes are generally confined to blue collar industrial jobs and to non-remunerative, hard farming work in the fields whereas people borne in higher castes have mostly occupied the white collar and managerial jobs. Thanks to spread of education and reservations, an increasing proportion of dalits are getting employed in white-collar jobs and have also entered elite professions. But only about 10% of dalits have thus benefited. This broad new division of labour mentioned above is being reproduced and it constitutes the material basis of the new, bourgeois caste system in which the place of the individual in the hierarchy within various classes is broadly decided by the caste in which one is born.

The exploitation of the dalit and tribal wage-labourers is of course in the form of surplus value; but the nature of work they are involved in and the remuneration they get for the work is decided by the new bourgeois caste system also and not only by the dynamics of the class struggle. Wages for unorganised farm and non-farm labour are extremely low partly because these labourers come from dalit, tribal castes. The caste system thus influences the price of labour power of the lower caste labourers. Even when a middle peasant employs a dalit/tribal labourer, he extracts some surplus because of the very low wages paid to these wage-workers and caste-hierarchy is partly responsible for these low wages. For example, it is not incidental that wages in the construction industry are so low given the fact most of these workers come from the lower castes and the tribal people. In this bourgeois caste system each individual is not totally tied down to his/her occupation which is given at birth by the caste system. But as mentioned above, members of the caste-groups are largely confined to certain types of occupations and this social division of labour is being reproduced for generations.

Even the non-wage work/services carried out by dalit and tribal caste toilers is lowly paid. Thus when a service of a mason or of a launderer or a sweeper is bought by the capitalist or by an urban middle class person, the service is bought at a very low rate, partly because those who render the service generally hail from lowermost caste/tribal castes. Thus both the capitalists and the middle class derive material benefit from the bourgeois caste system.

Even 150 years after the British introduced modern capitalist development in India and 60 years after Independence, not only that newer generations continue to be subjected to casteist division of labour, marriages continue to be largely intra-caste and housing colonies continue to be largely caste-based even in cities. This is despite the fact that on the one hand, the Bourgeois State’s policy has been to promote inter-caste marriages and inter-caste housing. Caste-based social organisations continue to operate along with class-based social organisations. In politics, caste-based identities have strengthened and strong influence of casteism in elections and other politics is a modern, bourgeois phenomenon; these are instruments to further bourgeois, petty- bourgeois interests also and not only interests of the concerned caste. All these caste-based social relations constitute the modern bourgeois caste system which operates as a sub-system in the overall capitalist social formation. This sub-system reproduces social relations based on the caste in which people are borne. It is dominated by and subservient the class-system.

Traditional Marxists argue that the continued prevalence of casteism is due to incompleteness of the ‘bourgeois revolution from above’. They gloss over the fact that pre-modern relations like caste (and gender) have been transformed into their capitalist form and in this new avtar they continue to be reproduced as part of the capitalist social formation. The new casteist division of labour mentioned above has been integrated into capitalist production relations. The new caste system is central and not peripheral part of the bourgeois order.

Towards a programme for abolition of material basis of casteist hierarchy
Whether this sub-system of hierarchy, exploitation would continue or would be progressively undermined by the capitalist mode of production is debatable. Capitalist development promotes bourgeois equality and hence it was expected that with the development of capitalism, caste-hierarchy would wither away. However, despite 150 years of capitalist development, the caste-system has not disappeared; it is being reproduced in a new, bourgeois form. To overcome this caste-based hierarchy, along with social, cultural, political measures specific economic measures are also needed which would progressively eliminate the current caste-based division of labour and also the current caste-based marriage system. Unless the material roots of the casteist hierarchy are eliminated, this casteist hierarchy in all walks of life will not be eliminated. The measures outlined below are not exhaustive but should give an idea about what kind of economic measures would be required to abolish the material basis of the caste system.

1) Inclusion of the landless labourers in redistribution of land and water in the agrarian revolution. Majority of the landless labourers come from dalit castes. Their conscious inclusion (as well as those of deserted, single women) in the redistribution of ownership/control over productive resources, would empower them and would lay the material foundation for progressive abolition of caste-based hierarchy along with overcoming of class-exploitation. After this redistribution, revolutionary transformation would have to rapidly move towards cooperative socialist agriculture and erstwhile lower-castes would be equal partners in this new venture.

2) Modern technology of organic farming, will have to be taught (free or subsidised) to the toilers from the erstwhile downtrodden castes and tribals to enhance and to improve upon their traditional knowledge of agriculture. This is especially needed for the dalit castes because they have been primarily used merely as labourers and hence their traditional knowledge and skill in agriculture is limited compared to the peasant castes.

3) Special concession to toilers from erstwhile lower castes to access seeds, samplings, farm implements, etc. required for modern agriculture.

4) Toilers from erstwhile artisan castes (including lower caste Muslims) would have to be given training to enhance, their traditional artisan knowledge, skills to move towards modern decentralised socialist agro-industry. This training should not be restricted to their traditional profession and they should be enabled to master any modern technology. This policy would have to be applied also for the lower caste Muslims because in feudal India majority of them belonged to dalit castes and have been part of the artisan community in India.

5) Special credits, encouragement packages including subsidized socialised inputs for modern co-operative agro-industrial transformation will have to be designed for these artisans (including muslim artisans) and implemented.

6) Reservations policy and special encouragement policy in education and other spheres will have to be continued. [2]

7) Inter-caste marriages will have to be especially encouraged as caste-based marriages and families are a material basis of continued casteism.

8 ) Inter-caste housing colonies will have to be crated and caste based segregation in housing colonies will have to be consciously broken down.

The Indian bourgeois state has been taking up some of the above mentioned measures to some extent. However these above policy measures cannot be taken up in the entirety by the bourgeois state. Only a revolutionary Socialist power can do this.

There may be some difference of opinion within the Left about the specific nature of material roots of caste-based hierarchies in India today and the specific remedial measures needed to overcome them. But the fact that caste-based hierarchies are not merely a ‘super-structural phenomenon’ and that specific economic measures would be required in the post-revolutionary Socialist March to abolish the material roots of casteism needs to be squarely acknowledged.

Caste-based hierarchy will not of course get automatically get abolished with the undermining of it’s material basis. A cultural-social revolution is also required. But this paper’s conclusion is that cultural-social revolution alone would not abolish caste-based hierarchy.

1. This is a thoroughly revised and somewhat expanded version of the note circulated for the ‘Samuhik Khoj’ meeting in Bhopal in February 2009. The views in this paper are based on the numerous discussions in Shramik Mukti Dal (Democratic) with which the author is associated.

2. The reservation policy will have to be continued for some time after revolution. In capitalism, there is cut-throat competition for very limited opportunities or to compete in the race of money-making. This will be absent during post-revolutionary Socialist March as there will be no such fierce competition. However, for some period, competition would continue in some form to a certain extent. Hence equal opportunities will have to be created for people coming from deprived sections. The need for such measures would dwindle during forthcoming decades after the revolution in proportion to reduction in the material differences amongst people among erstwhile castes. However, so long as these systemic, social differences exist, the reservation policy and special encouragement measures will have to continue.

1 Comment »

One Response to “A Caste-Class Analysis from rural Maharashtra – Two Essays”

  1. S.P.SHUKLA Says:
    February 1st, 2013 at 14:13

    It is an excellent analysis and exposes the inadequacy of the exclusively or mainly class-based analysis in the Indian context.The latter is largely responsible for distancing the mainstream left from the political tendencies centred around the reality of caste- based exploitation. The counterpart of this political reality is that the mainly or largely caste exploitation- based politics is devoid of class dimension and often degenerates into open or veiled support of the ruling capitalist class.
    To the measures enumerated to abolish the material basis of the caste system, one would like to add introduction of compulsory common school system.The deepening duality in the education system starting from pre-primary stage is an important material as well as cultural foundation reproducing the inequitous system.

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