by Gail Omvedt

For seminar on “Locations of Caste,” University of Mumbai, 20-22 February 2012

Anna Hazare’s “movement against corruption” has monopolized political and media attention now for several months.   There has been a tendency for people on the left, with the notably exception of most dalits, to assume its progressive character and feel that they must participate.  But there has been a dearth of solid analysis.

One exception has been a notably critical article by Arundhati Roy.  Roy mistakenly assumes that, like the Maoists, the Jan Lokpal bill seeks the overthrow of the state, though she might otherwise note the dangers an unrestrained, “civil-society-based” Lokpal poses to democracy.  We might say that it seeks to rescue the brahmanic capitalist state from the growing democratic aspirations in India.   Roy also points out, in terms of the timing of the movement, that it comes after embarrassing revelations by Wikileaks and a series of scams; she exposes its high-level corporate support, the immense funds it has had available.  And Ranjit Hoskote’s comment that “Anna Hazare’s agitation is not a triumph of democracy [but] a triumph of demagoguery” deserves to be remembered.

One may also question the degree of its popular support.  It had no effect on the recent local elections in Maharashtra.  Tellingly, a cover of Outlook showed Hazare sitting in the middle of a group, not of thousands, but hundreds of people.  It would appear that the media has always exaggerated its backing.  In fact, one of the disturbing aspects of the whole movement has been the role of the media.

But analysis of why the movement is growing has consistently left out one factor: that of caste.   Even Arundhati Roy ignores this aspect.  This is what I will examine.

Indian democracy has a system of reservations, which is currently being extended to OBCs – and demands have been heard from Muslims and from Dalit Christians that they also be included.  Reservations are anathema to many of the core supporters of Anna Hazare.  This includes, for example, a group calling itself “Krantikari Manuwadi Morcha.”  Its leader, one R.K. Bharadwaj has said, “Reservation is the root of all corruption.  The real revolution is to return to Manu’s merit-based society.”  It’s hard to believe – the author of all anti-merit demands for privilege according to birth!   Bharadwaj argues, “those with reservation are the ones in corruption. Those in the general category are the sufferers.”   This is an astounding statement.   But it indicates that a major aspect of the democratizing movement today, the growing readiness of Dalits and OBCs to act against the old privilege of birth, is hated by those who benefit from it.  With Anna Hazare’s movement, these age-old privileged sections are getting a chance to divert attention into the single issue of “corruption,” with the hidden agenda of blaming much of it on reservations!

The fact that the Parliament has been considering returning to the caste-based census is also something that has troubled the Manuwadis of India.  This would be an important reversal of the decades old policy of trying to pretend that caste does not really exist, that it is withering away on its own.  Dr.Ambedkar had a pertinent comment about the Home Minister of the 1940s when the first Census without caste was taken.  He said, “The Home Minister of the Government of India who is responsible for this omission was of the opinion that if a word does not exist in a dictionary it can be proved that the fact for which the word stands does not exist. One can only pity this petty intelligence.”  Only by admitting a  phenomenon exists and devising policies to deal with it can it be overcome.

Hazare speaks of “civil society.”  But, in Marxist terms, the concept of “civil society” covers a multitude of castes, classes and genders.   The civil society of the elite is very different from the civil society of the toiling people.  And, with the Lokpal idea, it seems clear that this elite, tired of dealing with even the limited – but growing – form of Indian democracy – wants to escape it, go beyond Parliament, and return to its old, unquestioned rule.  The  Lokpal Bill  in fact is very authoritarian, in putting non-elected people of high class-caste background over elected officials and government bureaucrats (but not, as people have noted, over corporations!).[1]  “Pal” means “guardian,” and the proposal recalls Plato’s Guardians – philosopher-kings who would rule the state.   Plato, of course, believed in something like a varna system – people would be said to have special “essences,” gold for rulers, silver for warriors, bronze and iron for workers and farmers.   So apparently does Anna Hazare.

This can be seen if we look more deeply at the reality of Anna Hazare.   A study of Ralegon Siddhi, Hazare’s village, by Mukul Sharma, shows this.   Hazare runs the village like a military despot (in fact, his background is military).    “Drunkards” are to be whipped.   (And Hazare has in an interview said that he would like to see the same at a national level).  Dalits are to be taken care of —  but they are to remain in their “place.”   And Hazare has said himself, “It was Mahatma Gandhi’s vision that every village should have one chamar, one sunar, one kumhar and so on. They should all do their work according to their role and occupation, and in this way, a village will be self-dependant. This is what we are practicing in Ralegan Siddhi.”

Meera Nanda has called Gandhi a “prophet looking backward.”  Many may question Hazare’s Gandhism – at times there seems more of the RSS in him (and regardless of disclaimers, his RSS connections are clear) – but in respect to taking the self-sufficient, stable village as an ideal, they are clearly the same.

The “Self-Sufficient Village” of Asiatic Despotism

It is time for some theoretical considerations.   What was the significance of the “self-sufficient village” for Indian society?   We may remember that Marx had been eloquent on this point.  In a journal article written in 1853, he had stated,

“we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.”

This was the foundation, Murzban Jan has argued, for Marx’s theory of “Oriental despotism” and eventually for the “Asiatic mode of production.”   The “self-sufficient village” provided a foundation for a rather unrestrained rule.

And this is the self-sufficient village that Hazare wants to revive.  He has built such a society in Ralegan Siddhi.  He himself is the “despot,” limiting access to television and the electronic media; he is the idol of the people; he is the arbiter of disputes.  And, as has been reported, he is the one who goes on fasts and speaks in the name of the “people.”  (Mukul Sharma, again,has noted that when someone else tried a fast against Hazare’s method, the police were called in – exactly what was condemned in the case of the Congress’ organizing Hazare’s arrest in Delhi).

“Contaminated by distinctions of caste….”  Anna Hazare has, quite explicitly, linked his vision of the self-sufficient village with the traditional hierarchy of caste duties, explicitly using caste names to describe the functions to be performed in the village.   The limitation of access to modern media – however much Hazare’s campaign has benefited from it – in Ralegan Siddhi allows people to sink into stagnation and tradition; this ongoing reality provides a foundation to trust in the “great man” to run things.   Marx was correct in linking the traditional “stability” or stagnation to the externally imposed rule of a despot.

Hazare is perhaps the major figure on the Indian political scene to have as his base such a traditionally run village.   It is the internal secret of its politics – and it rests on the maintenance of the caste hierarchy.   It is thus not accidental that Dalits (and many OBCs) are firmly opposed to the Lokpal.   Just as Hazare is the “Guardian” or despot of his village, so the “Lokpal” should be the Guardian protecting the common people of Indian from the corruption of elected officials!

What then to do about the problem of corruption?  The reality is that all modernizing societies, including the U.S., have gone through periods of tremendous corruption.  It takes time for democratic practices to be immersed among the people and find their natural home.  Corruption, rampant in U.S. politics in the nineteenth century, has been heavily curtailed – and the former governor of IIllinois, one of its most recent practitioners, has received a heavy prison sentence.  In Britain and European societies it no longer affects elections.   Russia, newly taking up democracy, is going through a period of severely corrupt electoral practices.  But these factors are brought to an end, not by some legislated Guardians, but by public awareness and public actions.  “Lokpals” fighting corruption must arise at the grassroots of society; not one Lokpal outside of and above parliament, but a million Lokpals, people acting in the streets if necessary.  Already such things are happening, we can read of people releasing snakes into the offices of corrupt officials.  Such actions presage the decline of corruption – not the Guardian, not the self-sufficient village (which has no need of corruption presumably because it is pre-market, non-commercial and traditional).

We may also remember that Marx ends his article saying that whatever the crimes and brutalities of British rule, their justification is in the breaking up of such a society.

“England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.”

Not a Lokpal, not an “Asiatic despot,” but a revolution against caste and capitalism is called for.


[1] It might be noted that Hazare’s nemesis, Sharad Pawar, however corrupt, is also quite progressive on social issues of caste and women.

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