Indian Dalit Politics: a Left Turn?

Comments by NDMLP International Affairs Study Group

The Background

Indian identity politics, much in practice in the name of Dalitism, has, especially in Tamilnadu, carefully avoided reference to certain issues.  Class and class struggle, imperialism and national question received minimal attention or been totally ignored. For over two decades such Dalitist approaches had serious influence in the political affairs of the State of Tamilnadu as well as of the entire country. But the net outcome was disappointing.

The main weakness of Dalitism was not just its inability to unite a large mass of people marginalized by Indian Varna system but also its inability to align the Dalits with communities whose socio-economic conditions were as bad as those of Dalits or at times even worse to launch united struggles against social oppression.

Although Dalitist leaders initially dwelt much on matters of social injustice and denial of rights including caste-based discrimination, partiality and violence, soon their attention turned to power and position in Parliament, State Assemblies and local government. The way politics of Dalit unity was conducted in each state of India, was much like the way minority nationalists of Sri Lanka used ethnic unity, for one or another form of bargaining, which had little to do with the issues at stake. Proliferation of political parties representing different caste-based groups hurt the vote banks of Indian national parties, the Congress in particular. In the Uttar Pradesh (UP) with the highest Dalit percentage population, caste-based electoral alliances enabled the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) Mayawathi to become chief minister. While it was a remarkable achievement for her to become chief minister, compromises made in the process with ‘Other Backward Caste’ parties and later even the Brahmin elite eventually sapped the BSP of its Dalitist essence and, more importantly, weakened the struggle of the Dalits for social justice. The BSP, had no serious impact in Haryana with a 20% Dalit population, and had limited success in Madhya Pradesh with 7 out of 230 seats in 2008 dwindling to 4 seats in 2013. The point is that the hopes and aspirations stirred by the success of the BSP in UP soon evaporated as the interests of the Dalitist leaders were not at one with those of the Dalit population; and the performance of Dalit parliamentary politicians was, overall, less impressive than that of their predecessors with other party affiliations and much less mass support. What parliamentary Dalitism lacked most was the ability to arrive at ways that would lead to the expected social emancipation of those oppressed by caste.

The Crisis of Dalitist Politics

In place of political consensus among members of all castes subject to caste-based oppression to overcome such oppression, Dalit parliamentary politics lost direction to make unholy alliances with strong parliamentary parties in order to strengthen the hold of the elite of certain caste groups on power. A most despicable example of this was the Dalitist BSP seeking the support of Hindu fundamentalist BJP with a strong Brahminist undercurrent to become the ruling party in the State Assembly of Uttar Pradesh in 1995, only for the latter to withdraw support and topple the regime months later. The BSP also wooed the Brahmins in UP since2007 to secure power in the UP. The poverty of Dalitism of the time was even more evident in Dalitis and urban Tribal populations joining hands with the BJP in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002.

Especially in Tamilnadu, Dalitism has degenerated to the level where each depressed caste has a party for itself; the Paattaali Makkal Katchi (Toiling People’s Party, PMK) which started as Vanniyar Sangam (Association of the Vanniya caste) representing an ‘Other Backward Castes’ group formed an opportunistic electoral alliance with the Vituthalaich Chiruththaikal (Liberation Leopards, a Dalit Party) to contest State Assembly elections. That alliance barely survived an Assembly election. Today PMK is back to square one as a party of the middle-level Vanniyar caste which indulges in anti-Dalit violence.

Brahminism as Dominant Ideology

Whatever is the origin of caste in India, the Brahmin system of Varna had a major role in casteism to its present status and making untouchability an integral part of the Hindu religions. But it may be said that the caste system as we see today took shape after British colonial penetration of India and amid compromises between the colonial rulers and Indian feudalism. Although Brahminism still plays a strong role in matters of religion and ritual, it has lost its instrumental role which it played once, even a century ago, in the practice of caste oppression, despite being the source of religious justification for the Varna system with which the caste system, and untouchability in particular, had close links. Caste groups that rose to positions of social power and influence during the past century or two have since adopted and sustained the practice of caste oppression, especially in rural India, where resentment is strong among these groups against any sign of individual or collective upward social mobility of local depressed caste groups.

Thus we should be mindful of the reality that Brahminism, which constitutes a key component of the dominant ideology of various Indian societies, can survive without a role for the Brahmin. It is also necessary to overcome the tendency to equate anti-Brahminism to merely resisting parasitic Brahmin interests, especially those of the Brahmin elite and middle class groups.

Left Responses

There is now need to review positions adopted by the Left and other progressive forces towards Brahminism and Varnasrma in the context of social changes in the past century, when social movements led by BR Ambedkar and EV Ramasamy (Periyaar) had great impact on awareness of caste oppression as well as resistance to it. Readings of Ambedkar and Periyaar also deserve a balanced review free of sentimentalism. There is a tendency among sections of the Left to over-correct earlier critical stands on both Ambedkar and Periyaar, for their distancing themselves from the left movement and to some extent left ideology. Opportunistic pandering to the idol worship of Ambedkar and Periyaar will not help and will in fact hurt the genuine Left ideologically and politically. What is really needed is due recognition of the positive roles of not just Ambedkar and Periyaar but also other Dalit leaders, especially those with a broader social outlook.

The heydays of Dalit parliamentary politics were over by the first decade of the 21st Century as revealed by the results of the parliamentary elections of 2014. The Dalit vote bank will, however, remain strong in states like UP so that the Dalitist BSP will hold sway for some time since rival political parties have yet to offer a credible alternative for the Dalits. Nevertheless, the failure of Dalit political opportunism has during the past decade paved the way for alternative thinking among younger urban Dalit activists.

Interaction between Left and Dalit activists has been growing among the educated youth, outside the domain of parliamentary politics, especially in universities. The militant left in India, notably Marxist Leninists, have recognized the need to address caste oppression as an important aspect of their struggle against the capitalist state and its imperialist allies.

While the Parliamentary Left, in response to the rise of Dalit politics, softened its stand on Periyaar and Ambedkar in late last century, the Marxist Leninist Left held to its position supportive of Dalits on matters affecting their rights and wellbeing and of the oppressed nationalities and the tribal people in struggles against state oppression.

A succession of events during the past five years or so has been particularly encouraging from the point of view of a Left-Dalit dialogue. An important turning point was the election of the BJP to power with a steam roller majority in 2014, soon followed by high handed action by the BJP and its Hindutva affiliate organizations in a series of attacks against religious minorities, especially the Muslims, and Dalits. This was time for the Left to stand up and be counted, which it did.

Recent Developments

An important instance was the stand of the Left as a whole, and Marxist Leninist parties in particular, on the banning of the Ambedkar-Periyaar Study Circle (APSC), a predominantly Dalit student association of IIT Madras, by the administration in late May 2015, following an anonymous complaint from pro-BJP quarters that it was instigating protests against the policies of the Centre and creating “hatred” against Prime Minister Modi and the Hindus. Mounting public protest forced the administration to retreat a month later.

Things came to a head when Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad committed suicide on 17th January 2016 following harassment by the university administration based on his role in the activities of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) earlier in August 2015. Protests by the ASA were themselves about politically motivated persecution of Muslims like the death penalty for Yakub Memon, wrongly convicted in the 1993 Bombay bombings and the attack by the pro-BJP student body, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) on the screening of the documentary “Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai” in Delhi University.

Vemula’s suicide note was a strong political statement against the caste-based persecution which led him to take his life. Vemula’s suicide rapidly grew into an all India issue with protests by university students in many parts of India. The University responded with attempts to discredit Vemula by questioning the legitimacy of his claim to be a member of a “Scheduled Caste”. The response of left wing student organizations in universities was vigorous and as strong as it was on other burning issues such as state brutality in Kashmir and the selective targeting of Muslims.

Shortly after, on 9th February 2016, members of the Democratic Students Union (DSU) of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) held a protest meeting on the campus against the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013, wrongfully convicted for the armed attack on Parliament in 2001, and the unlawful execution of Kashmiri separatist Maqbool Bhat in 1984, defying withdrawal of permission for the meeting by the university authorities. The arrest of JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar by the Delhi Police and charging him of sedition led to a wave of protest and the first public show of solidarity between Left and Dalit student bodies. Convergence of solidarity with the oppressed Muslim community and Kashmir nationalists was a new political experience for both. Although attempts by the BJP regime and the Hindu Nationalist student body ABVP to intimidate the Left and Dalit students failed, harassment of students and academics supportive of democratic rights persists in university campuses.

There are vested interests with an anti-Left agenda seeking to drive a wedge between progressive Dalit youth and the Left. Dalit reservations about the Left cannot, nevertheless, be readily dismissed. Trust between the Left as a whole and the Dalit community needs to be built and cannot arrive overnight. Differences take time to clear. Meanwhile, contesting student union elections in ways similar to parliamentary elections will hurt the prospects for an anti-fascist alliance in a grave situation where the far right is working aggressively to undermine opposition to the BJP regime within universities.

Among Dalitists who nurtured deep suspicion of the left and even argued that taking a working class stand could harm Dalit interests are enemies of the left whose loyalties are to the capitalist classes. But there are also others whose fears and suspicions although not well founded have genuine concerns which need to be addressed. Ways need to be found to win over every section of society oppressed by caste, religion, nationality, gender or any form of identity to the cause of social justice for all. This is an issue which only the genuine left can address credibly and provide sustained leadership.

A healthy trend has gathered strength in the wake of the crises at the University of Hyderabad and the JNU, and should be developed upon. The willingness of various Dalit groups to speak aloud about issues faced by other oppressed sections of society is a good thing and should be cultivated. Militant solidarity between Dalit and Left activists should be built to transcend rivalry for parliamentary posts and other positions of power and influence in a bourgeois democratic setup.

There is a long way to go for the genuine left. Ritualistic praise of Ambedkar and Periyaar will do no good. The Left should seriously study their respective roles as individuals and as leaders and spokespersons of popular organizations. Their positive contributions and errors should be critically studied in context. What should be most appreciated is the service that such leaders rendered to the oppressed people― subject to limitations imposed by their circumstances on their thoughts and deeds. Dalit and Left activists need to be particularly cautious of those who seek to present Ambedkar and Periyaar as infallible cult figures and thereby cultivate forms of idol worship, which neither leader would have ever endorsed. Intellectually dishonest persons promoting the worship of Ambedkar and Periyaar have their self-interest at heart and will overtly and covertly resist the unity of progressive forces in the struggle against class, caste, gender and national oppression.

The genuine left of India needs to adopt a more holistic approach to identity-based issues. In the neo-colonial era, reaction has hijacked issues of racial, gender, national and caste oppression. The dogmatic Left has at times isolated itself from oppressed identity groups by taking an inflexible stand on identity-based issues. The opportunist Left, on the other hand, has resorted to stands bordering on populism to attract the vote of oppressed minorities. Neither approach helped the socialist project. Admittedly, the genuine left has some way to go in winning over the marginalized identity groups to its anti-imperialist cause. But there is no easy way. There can never be a substitute for a principled position that takes into account the objective reality and adopts a flexible approach in identity-based issues.

It will thus be futile for the genuine Left to heap ritualistic praise on Ambedkar or Periyaar. What is needed is an honest and critical analysis of their respective social roles in historical context and of the contextual limitations in their world outlook — which was not proletarian — and giving them their fair due for their mainly positive and commendable roles. While their errors should not be swept under the carpet, there is need to assess them in specific contexts alongside a self-critical view of the roles played by all sections of the left at the time.

Lessons from Sri Lanka

The experience of the genuine left in the struggle against caste oppression in Sri Lanka is much relevant to the Indian context. Persistent struggle against caste oppression took off with the political awakening of the North of Sri Lanka in the early 20th Century. It won small but significant victories, including the passage of the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of 1957, prohibiting caste-based discrimination against anyone. But that piece of legislation was inadequate to overcome the continuing practice of untouchability, which denied members of the depressed castes of northern Sri Lanka entry to temples and other public places including eateries, besides discrimination in education, employment and access to social services.

Protests and peaceful campaigns for social rights for the depressed castes therefore continued but faced difficulty under the right-wing UNP-led coalition government of 1965-70, which included the two main Tamil parties. When matters came to a head under the right wing regime, the Marxist Leninist faction of the Communist Party (then referred to as the Peking Wing Communist Party by the media) decided to launch a mass struggle against untouchability and caste-based discrimination. A struggle known as the Mass Movement to Eliminate Untouchability was launched in October 1966.

The campaign itself was not anybody’s brainchild, nor was it the result of any particular event. It was the culmination of a long process of struggle which synthesised the class outlook of Marxism Leninism, the idea of a broad-based united front which was highly effective in the anti-fascist struggle in Europe, and the Mass Line as evolved by Mao Zedong.

Marxist Leninist leadership ensured that the struggle upheld a class-based outlook and put in proper perspective the relationship between caste and class in the matter of caste oppression. It identified the dividing line between the feudal-capitalist oppressive class which upheld the caste system and the mainly worker-peasant class that opposed the oppressive system, supported by enlightened sections of the middle classes. The united front strategy enabled unity of all forces that could be united against the injustice. The mass line combined with the recognition of the need to bear arms against the oppressor made the campaign the only successful post-independence militant campaign in Sri Lanka.

Nobody claims that the 1966 October campaign which lasted until 1972 has eliminated the caste system. But it can be said with confidence that it succeeded in delivering a death blow to the socio-economic base of the system, making it irredeemable. It also gave courage the oppressed to dare to expose discrimination and injustice, making it hard for oppressors to act brazenly in the way they did even as late as in the 1950’s. Thus the remaining struggle is at the social level, against feudal remnants of the dominant ideology.

It seems that the Indian Left has not learned much from the lessons of Sri Lanka: on fighting Trotskyism and revisionism; on the dangers of opportunist electoral alliances and cohabitation with capitalist parties; on addressing the caste issue, which certainly is quite complex in India but just as severe as in the North of Sri Lanka at one time.

The Dalit movement has to learn about the benefits of broad based alliances, the need to avoid sectarianism, and the pitfalls of parliamentary politics.

We recommend therefore that the Marxist Leninists of Sri Lanka who recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the mass movement of October 1966 should expand on the political lessons of the struggle for the benefit of the South Asian Left and the oppressed by caste.

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