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 analhysis, 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.