Caste and Exploitation in Indian History

By Dr. Bharat Patankar

(translated by Gail Omvedt)

                                            Part I

Introduction: The Process of Exploitation

Exploitation arising from the caste hierarchy is a particular feature of the South Asian subcontinent.  There was no such exploitative system in other continents or in countries outside of South Asia.   But since caste exploitation has been a reality for 1500-2000 years this shakes the belief that only class can be the basis of exploitation.  And because of this we have to transcend the attempt to find a way only pragmatically and deal with the issue on a philosophical and theoretical level.   Class has been theorized extensively in terms of exploitation; to some extent gender also, but not caste. Exploitation as women in various forms has also been a reality for thousands of years; this also is not through “class.”  This reality from throughout the world gives a blow to the idea that exploitation can only be class exploitation.  This can also be said of exploitation arising on the basis of racial and communal factors.

`           By exploitation we mean the extraction of surplus from labour by those who do not themselves labour.  The process of exploitation is not a process in the cultural or social fields.  The process of exploitation can only come through the relations that exist among various human beings while creating new products in the process of production.  It is not a historical fact that these relations are those of exploitation everywhere and among all humans.  Exploitation is not an “eternal” fact and will not necessarily exist in the future.  In the matriarchal society the relations of production were not those of exploitation.

A system in which production gives more than is necessary for an abundant existence is one in which “surplus” is created.  Such surplus is fundamental for a society a society of varied production.  When the productive forces give more than the food that is necessary to live on, than there is a surplus created.  When this happens then some humans are freed from simply producing food.  They can do such work as creating clothes and tools.  After producing the food or clothes necessary for themselves they can then produce for others.  The others may do varied forms of production, or take leisure, or devote themselves to art and philosophy. Thus a “social division of labour” is born.  There is no necessity that this must be one of hierarchy or exploitation.  Initially it is one of exchange.

However, when some people seize the “surplus” created in this situation, exploitation begins.  Or, when those who are direct producers get simply enough to stay alive rather than the goods for an abundant life, and the rest is grabbed as “surplus” then exploitation begins.  Thus arises a social division of labour based on exploitation.

Such an exploitative social division of labour may be based on class, on caste or on gender relations.  In Hindustan the characteristics of a division of labour based on caste exploitation can be seen from about 600 B CE.   However this division of labour based on caste exploitation became triumphant, fixed and general only from about 600 A.D.

The General Characteristics of the Caste System

Dr. Ambedkar had argued that the form of this exploitation was that of an “unequal hierarchy.“  It was an exploitative hierarchy for the extraction of surplus.  The fundamental unit of this division of labour is the caste.  Its general characteristics are as follows:

  1. Beginning from the lowest caste in the hierarchy, while giving a small share of the surplus to every level of the hierarchy, the greatest share goes to the top.
  2. What is fundamental to the relations of exploitation is that in the division of labour the surplus from every level goes first to the level above it and then is channeled further “upward.”
  3. In the division of labour all the castes which participate in direct production can be called “toiling castes.”   The proportion of people of the society in these castes is greater than 90%.
  4. Apart from the lowest castes among the toiling castes, the “toiling castes” all participate in the “exploitation” of the castes in the rung below them.
  5. It is a special feature of exploitation in the caste hierarchy that there is a mechanism for providing the greatest share from this internal exploitation among the toiling castes to the higher “exploiting” castes.
  6. Because of these characteristics, Dr. Ambedkar had said in regard to the internal division of labour in the caste exploitative hierarchy that it was actually a “division of labourers.”
  7. The type of work that people in the castes at each rung of the hierarchy was to do was ordained from generation to generation by birth; this is a special authoritative type of feature of the exploitation of the caste hierarchy.
  8. Besides this, there exists:

a)      The compulsion to marry within the caste;

b)      Caste-wise residence;

c)      Dining only within the caste;

d)      Exchange of daughters only within the caste;

e)      Decisions regarding the internal affairs of each caste through its caste panchayat;

f)       The principle of deciding caste by birth.

  1. The lowest castes will do the work considered dirtiest and requiring the most physical labour (these were the castes that were previously considered untouchable).

The toiling castes above these do comparatively less polluting and fully physical labour (the farming castes and the artisans who were not considered fully untouchable).

The castes in the rung above these do not do physical labour.   They will do the planning, organization, deciding rules, and organizing of the mechanisms of violence (the castes considered to be “kshatriyas”).

The Brahman castes on the highest level will do no kind of physical labour.  This caste will have a full monopoly of the mental field (taking and giving of knowledge).  Not only will they do no type of work understood to be “polluting”; they will not even go near it.

These are features that underly the “laws of motion” of the caste system.  (Marxists refer to the “laws of motion” of a class-based economy, but the same concept can apply here.


The Laws of Motion of the Caste System

In regard to the reality that comes to view in connection with caste exploitation it is extremely important to distinguish the external features and the laws of motion.  The external features of any exploitative system do not remain the completely the same for the mode of production of that system in every era.  But its laws of motion must remain the same.   If they do not, then that system is broken.  This happens inevitably.

If we consider this, then the laws of motion which must continual for the hierarchical exploitation of this system to go on appear to be the following:

  1. The caste of a person in the hierarchy is determined by the caste level of that hierarchy.
  2. The castes doing the most polluting, dirty and most heavily manual labour and the least mental work are at the very bottom, and to the extent that the “polluting” nature of work and the severity of its toil becomes less and the mental aspect increases, the level of the caste in the hierarchy will rise.  The castes at the highest level will hold a monopoly of mental work and will do no “dirty” or physical labour.
  3. Due to the form of exploitation in the caste hierarchy the situation of the “division of labourers” is created.
  4. A different form of hierarchy from that of the relations of class production is created, one in which there is a basis for each caste considering itself superior to those below it in the hierarchy.
  5. Without breaking these “laws of motion,” even if other characteristics of the caste system vanish, still as a system caste will not be annihilated.  It will continually be recreated and reproduced.

The Link of the Caste system to Class in the Capitalist System

Though the caste system as a system exists today, and though its laws of motion are reproduced from second to second, still its hierarchy has been joined completely and firmly to the capitalist relations of production.  Since this linkage is integral and encompassing, without a movement to end the class system, there can be no effort to “independently” destroy the caste system.

  1. In the country, and Maharashtra, those who as sweepers fought as exploited workers, for an “eight hour day” are 100% drawn from the previously low castes.  In doing such work, along with the laws of class exploitation, the laws of motion of the caste hierarchy apply.   There are thus two sorts of exploitation, and it is not possible to destroy them in separate stages.  This linkage is also seen with the fourth-class employees who collect waste, glass, paper etc.
  2. The who work as porters in the railways, carrying heavy burdens and doing all kinds of physical toil in the cities are included among “unorganized” workers.  Here the previous farming castes (Marathas, Dhangars, Kunbis etc.) work.  Here also the principles of caste exploitation on the one hand and class exploitation on the other apply.  In this connection also there can be no separate fights.  The majority of these castes work in the rural areas as toiling farmers, agricultural labourers.  It is also necessary to take account of the fact that among them 3-4% have become capitalist farmers, cooperative barons, small industrialists.
  3. The capitalist class in the country has primarily emerged out of castes of Brahmans, banias, and khatris (Ksatriyas).  Within it some 1-1 ½ % come from farming castes, artisan castes to become small capitalists.  In fighting with these capitalists it is clear that the struggle has to be both for the annihilation of caste and class.
  4. In today’s ultra-modern imperialist system based on “intellectual property rights” the people who monopolize a pure intellectual field such as computer software and hold a main positions in areas from state administration to big companies have come mainly from Brahman castes.  This is also true of the financial field.  Here also there is an integral connection between class and caste.  A dual struggle will have to be given in this respect.
  5. Aside from the Brahmans, banias and Thakurs who are considered Ksatriya castes, about two to five percent of the people of the toiling castes have become capitalists, capitalist farmers, cooperative barons, or professionals in high level intellectual fields.  This section will not take part in a fight for the annihilation of caste.  Only a few individuals from them may possible become part of the struggle.  This is a result of the ultra-modern capitalist class reality.