January 30, 2013
[An interview with Bangalore-based activist and journalist Shivasundar, conducted by Shiv Sethi, on the evolution of caste and class politics in Karnataka – Ed]
A demonstration by the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, Shimoga, Karnataka
Q. Give us a historic perspective of the rise of left and its interaction with caste-based politics in Karnataka.
A. The left in Karnataka has been traditionally weak. The present day Karnataka was spread over Madras and Bombay Presidency under the British rule and Nizam’s Telangana and old Mysore area under the rule of Mysore Maharaja. During that time, the colonial rulers neither invested in large scale industries in Karnataka nor encouraged the nascent bourgeoisie that was emerging since the time of Tipu Sultan. As a result, the industrial working class in the Karnataka region was numerically small. As we all know, the Communist Party of India concentrated its work among the industrial working class right from the beginning and they hardly invested much in Karnataka, although there were party and trade union units in several parts of the state. Interestingly, unlike Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the then communist party did not try to develop its base among the peasantry. It is true that the famous Kayyur movement in the coastal Karnataka, bordering Kerala and Karnataka, later became the folklore of the left movement in Karnataka. Nevertheless, the organisational presence of communists among the peasantry was quite negligible throughout. Only in the last two-three decades, both the parliamentary left and the revolutionary left are trying to increase its base among the peasantry. While the revolutionary left started its organised work strategically among the landless labourers and small and marginal peasants in the most backward areas of Karnataka, the parliamentary left traditionally limited itself to middle and rich peasantry with few exceptions.
Because of the above background, the parliamentary communist parties could not physically make inroads into the rural dalit masses. The revolutionary left, because of its political strategy and principles, had its major presence in the rural dalit masses but were confined to remote and limited packets and were thus unable to influence the alternate politics. On the other hand, until recently, the parliamentary left’s thinking about caste has been very dogmatic and they refused to acknowledge caste as an important problematic in Indian revolution. Thus their participation or initiative with regard to movements lead by dalits against atrocities or around reservation was very limited or was an exception rather than a rule.
In such a political situation, Lohiatites and other political streams championed the democratic issues around caste discrimination. In fact, the left missed at least two or three historical moments of intervening in the caste related democratic movements. In the early 1950’s, there was a big movement basically lead by Deevas or Eedigas, a backward caste who were share croppers, over the measure of the share of the crop against upper caste land lords. It was a classic case of how the caste and the class question intertwine itself in rural India. While Lohia made a visit to the area which gave a boost to the movement, none of the communist leaders, either from the state or the country, visited the area or tried to influence or participate in that movement. But, nevertheless, it is true that the revolutionary peasant movement in Andhra had a big influence on the peasantry in the bordering areas. In the later part of 1967, a militant anti-landlord movement against share cropping was lead by Appanna Hegade, the then leader of CPI (M). Even though it was a rare and militant rural communist movement involving backward caste and dalits, it was only an exception, even though heroic. But since the party leadership was not equipped to grasp the potential and necessity, the communists could not sustain either the movement or the relationship with the backward castes and the dalits. So much so that the Lohiaite leaders, who claimed all the political credits of the movements, do not even mention the presence of the left in the movement. On the other hand, the communists themselves are reluctant to claim the heritage of such a militant movement.
Later in the 1970’s, during the regime of Devraj Urs, who is portrayed as the harbinger of backward castes movement and as the leader who brought revolution in Karnataka through the Land Reforms Act 1974, there were 5 communist party MLAs. It is due to the consistent fight of these MLAs, along with the support of few socialist MLAs, that the Land reforms Act of 1974 gained its radical edge from the earlier conservative version presented by the Urs government. But this part of the history is hardly remembered by either communists or others! In spite of this and the big claim of great success of Land reforms Act of 1974, it was hardly successful beyond the coastal districts (where communists had their presence) and neighbouring one or two districts (where socialist movement also had good presence). And the act itself never had the agenda of providing land to the landless dalits. In that sense, the communists lost one more opportunity to connect themselves, in a radical democratic way, with the backward and dalit masses of the state because of their political myopia.
Later in the late 70’s, the emergence of dalit movement, independent of the communists’ programmatic or political interventions, came as a eye opener to the communists. It is said that the communists did some fractional work in such organisations. More than that, the growing influence of the Naxalite movements in the neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, had a deep influence on the dalit youth of bordering districts. Thus one can say that at the time of formation of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti in 1974, a socio-cultural organisation that swept the political mainstream of Karnataka, the revolutionary left had made a dent on its politics and the parliamentary left had realized the necessity of working with such oragnizations. But later the DSS did not retain its radical politics and compromised with the power politics, eventually splitting into numerous groups. The backward caste organisations tried several coalitions. But the ultimate motive was to use caste politics as a bargain with political mainstream. Most of the dalit and OBC movements in the later period was basically around reservations like Mandal, roster system or against attrocities on Dalits or for proportionate opportunities in power and administration. This period (i.e. the last two decades) has seen the decline of left interaction and influence on such organisation and movements.
Q. Where were dalits in this changing social dynamics?
A. I have partially explained this in the answer to previous question. Till early 80’s, dalits as a community did not get much from either the mainstream politics or “alternate politics.” Nevertheless, there are several myths around the Kagodu Movement of 1950s and the Land Reform Act of 1974 by Urs as helping Dalits. As explained earlier, the Kagodu movement was about share cropping and there were hardly any share croppers who were dalits. And the 1974 act was mainly a tenancy abolition act – only a tiny fraction of dalits were tenants in the state. None of these struggles had the agenda of “land to the landless”. So dalits hardly benefited from it, although the general political mood of the state was turned in favour of the oppressed. This clubbed with the Green Revolution and the Havanur report which threw open reservation for backward castes in Administration and Education actually helped in the upward mobility of the Shudra castes’ society and polity. But it did not help dalits in the same way. The ideology that was dominating the social movements at that time was more Lohiaite than communist or Ambedkaraite. Lohia’s politics perfectly suited the upwardly mobile Shudra petty bourgeoisie youth. By that time, there had emerged a enlightened petty bourgeoisie youth among dalits which found its political space earlier in such OBC dominated Lohiaite forums. But later, the growing assertion and contradiction between the interactions of these two communities in the rural Karnataka eventually led to the formation of a separate DSS.
Q. What changed since 1970’s?
A. 1970’s also saw the rise of revolutionary left in Karnataka; it was influenced by the rise of People’s War in AP after late 1970s. It coincided with the rise of radical dalit politics through the founding of DSS. Both flourished and fed off each in the two districts, Raichur and Kolar, bordering Andhra. By mid-1980s one noticed a diversion of revolutionary left from dalit politics. It is partly due to the rise of “middle class interests” and influence of power politics within the enlightened Dalit leadership. DSS slowly drifted towards political compromises and alliances with dominant parties, rather than being a grass root movement. Some dalit leaders became allied to mainstream parties like Janta party. The introduction of 1987 Panchayati Raj legislation further tilted dalit leadership towards parliamentary politics. DSS finally split in 1989 over issues related to building of political alliances in the upcoming elections. At present there are numerous factions of DSS. The revolutionary left also failed to engage with the new rising middle strata of dalits. Instead of understanding their aspirations and attempting to keep them within the fold of left politics, there was also a tendency to reject all caste-based politics (there is enough precedence of this tendency within the revolutionary left in India, e.g. MCC in Bihar).
Q. What are your views on the changing contours of caste-based feudalism?
A. When we say caste-based feudalism, we mean that the base of such feudalism is caste, implying that the production relations are determined by caste. But, in the last three decades, caste-based feudalism is on decline as indicated by some of the markers of such a system: feudal usury, unfragmented feudal power, bonded labour, jajmani system where caste becomes the category of production and distribution. There is also a rise in production for markets and the capitalist modes of exploitation of the surplus. In most of the places, the capitalist mode of surplus exploitation dominates, resulting in the increasing secularisation of work place and labour force. Having said this, it is also equally true that the diversification of rural elite is not taking place, or it is changing its configuration very slowly (in comparison to secularisation of labour). In many of the districts, the erstwhile dominant castes (the Brahmins) have left the village once and for all. Their position has been occupied by the Lingayats in north and Vokkaligas in the south. Now, in the last two decades, the elites of these castes are also investing in the urban economy and moving out. Their position is slowly being occupied by the OBCs who are next in the hierarchy. On the other hand, because of the agrarian crisis, small and the marginal farmers from the Shudra castes and in many cases even from the Lingayat and Vokkaliga castes are joining the ranks of the labour. But hardly anywhere dalits have been elevated to the ranks of rural elite. This is the peculiarity of the rural scene today. While the old caste-based feudalism itself is declining and capitalist penetration has increased and has brought in mobility of the OBC castes, it is still unable to change the basic dialectic of the caste system, namely the fundamental divide between the Savarna and the dalit. Also caste hierarchies increasingly appear as class divisions. In some ways, there is a caste in all classes, which manifests itself in identity politics. Even though such politics cut caste hegemony, it also undermines class solidarity. Also there is class hierarchy in all castes, which prevents a common front to be forged. It could be seen as a partial transformation from caste-based feudalism to caste-based capitalism! A partial proof of this change was brought out in a recent survey which showed that over 80% of software professionals marry within their own sub-caste.
Q. How do we understand the recent increase in atrocities against dalits?
A. This is trend across the country which is also seen in Karnataka. In 2000, 8 dalits were burnt to death Kambalpalli village in Kolar district. Invariably these atrocities are committed by recently empowered OBC castes e.g. Kurbas, Bedas, etc. Since the Brahamins and other upper castes have moved to urban areas, the battle of land and other resources has pitted these recently empowered castes against dalits. And unlike the erstwhile upper castes, these new emerging Shudra castes have no prior history of dominating dalits through arrangements like jajmani etc that were well entrenched in the society.
Q. What are lessons for the left, especially the revolutionary left?
A. The growing distance between the revolutionary left politics and dalits should have been foreseen and countered by the left in both Karnataka and Andhra. The left should realize that caste as a relation of social power remains. In the usual formation of the left in terms of base and superstructure, the caste is often thought to be a part of the latter. However, caste in a different form, continues to be a part of the base also. Caste continues to be a a factor in production and class relations and therefore relegating it to the role of a cultural phenomenon is a mistake. There has been growing realisation of this within the ranks of the radical left in the past decade or so. The development of capitalism in India also has caste biases stamped on it. Indian capitalism is often comprador in nature. It collaborates with feudalism instead of serving to annihilate feudal relation, which also also means it fosters the caste base of the society. Caste in its ultimate sense is a social codification of work division and an ideology to loot the surplus with consent. It also serves the modern capitalist class with its ideology. So class in India is drenched in the caste system. The revolutionary left needs to understand this reality in the fast changing polity and the economy. It needs to evolve proper political understanding and develop political strategies because without the annihilation of caste system complete elimination of neither feudalism nor capitalism is possible.