The Question of the Dalits: a short analysis

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30/04/2018 by socialistfight

By Akhar Bandyopadhyay

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“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…” – Karl Marx, British Rule in India (1853).

Who are the Dalits?

For centuries, India’s social structure is characterized by a hierarchically organized socio-economic formation known as the caste system. The caste system is economically based upon an unalternating division of labour (One the characteristics of Marx’s ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’). But the understanding of the caste system goes further. It not only divides the Hindu community but also puts the divided communities in various vertically organized social ranks. It is not only division of labour, but also the division of labourers.

Though in reality there are probably four thousand castes (and sub-castes) or “jatis” (in Indian terminology); still under a holistic framework, India’s caste hierarchy has four major types of castes (on the basis of what is known as the Varna Vyavastha or Varna system), namely: Brahmins (Priestly Class), Kshatriyas (Soldiers/Warriors), Vaishyas (Traders) and Shudras (The servants, who does the manual labour for all of the upper castes).

Beyond this Varna system, there are the “Avarna” (outside the Varna system or simply the outcasts) castes consisting of the ‘Ati-Shudras’ or those known as the “unapproachables”, “untouchables”, “sub-humans”, “unseeables” etc. These ati-shudra castes are the Dalits. The term “Dalit” means “broken people”, obviously from the gaze of the upper-caste.

Caste is based on hereditary/ancestral occupation. One who is born in a particular caste has no other means but to do the specific tasks assigned to that given caste. He/she does not have the freedom to choose one’s own profession according to one’s aptitude, interests or capabilities. He/she is bound to accept his/her ancestral occupation. The caste system of the Hindu religion keeps the poor poorer, and the rich richer. So this whole caste system has two aspects: entitlements and ancestral occupation. It infringes the Indian toiling people’s liberty and hinders the free development of their faculties.

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What problems do the Dalits face, what is their condition?

Since the feudal ages, the Dalits have faced the worst forms of social and economic discrimination. Hitherto they have intentionally been ignored, oppressed, marginalized, kept backward and stagnant by the upper caste Hindus. They have been deprived of all the elementary human rights. Since then, they have been going through all types of caste-based segregation in all spheres of life. The Dalits are those who cannot roam freely around the streets, or take water from a public water tank or well. A Dalit cannot dare to read the Hindu scriptures or any book (as specified by the upper-castes) whatsoever. If he/she violates any of these conditions, then harsh punishment (as decided by the upper-castes) follows. Dalits have separate sitting places, separate toilets, separate bathing places etc. Even their shadows are viewed as “polluting” by the upper-caste Hindus. They have to perform all the menial works (termed by the upper-castes as “polluting works”). They may also have to carry over baskets filled with human fecal matter over their heads almost on a daily basis!

According to the Hindu upper-caste mindset, a Dalit cannot question his/her living and working conditions, because it has been “divinely ordained” by the “Almighty”! It is said to be the “result” of his/her “past sins”! By means of these false religious arguments, the upper castes have deliberately thrown off the so-called untouchables or Dalits in the far corners of the society. This has led to the growth of inhibition in the minds of those so-called untouchables.

To escape this discriminatory condition in the Hindu society, the Dalits have frequently converted to other religions like Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity. Therefore there exists a large number of Dalit Muslims, Dalit Christians, Dalit Sikhs etc., in India. Despite these conversions, the Dalits have not been able to move away from the social discrimination of the Hindu caste hierarchy.

As history shows us the case, that there is not a great deal of ‘unity’ between the three different upper-castes, they have also fought for power and position among themselves. Still, for preserving the caste-class interest, they have reached out to a compromise for carrying out the joint exploitation of the lower and out-castes.

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Radical Indian social reformers like Jyotirao Govindrao Phule (1827-1890) tried to put an end to this upper-caste hegemony in the 19th Century India. His efforts yielded positive results, as the untouchables/Dalits became aware of their condition and started to think about the ways of ameliorating their plight.

The British imperialists, despite introducing the most modern forms of technology in India, also tried to maintain the old form of land relations of the countryside by seeking support from the feudal lords, and in turn, giving support to the caste institution. This helped them to have a good grip and control over the rural areas, which dominate India.
The reformist and gradualist stance towards the caste system came up within the national movement through the leaders like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (or Mahatma Gandhi). Gandhi, although being against the “practice of untouchability”, lend an uncompromising defense of the caste system itself – by calling it “the best part of Hindu religion” etc. etc. Therefore, his aim was the abolition of untouchability without the annihilation of caste! This was indeed the bottom-line fallacy of his whole argument regarding caste. How can one be against untouchability while supporting the very idea of caste? Untouchability is the inevitable consequence of the discriminatory casteist order.

The Revolutionary movement and the communist movement within the freedom struggle tried to bridge the caste and communal differences and talked of united and direct mass action.

The Congress movement, with its (self-contradictory) pro-casteist and anti-untouchability stance, led the independence movement of the Indian capitalists. It helped to attain dominion status in 1947, characterized by a rule of the Indian capitalists with the active aid of the other capitalists from around the globe.

The making of the Indian constitution and the central role of anti-caste activist Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) in it marked a serious blow in the caste fabric of Indian society. Ambedkar, being a ‘Mahar’ or a low-caste Dalit himself, brought the question of the untouchables in the Indian constitution itself. By the introduction of universal adult franchise and the policy of reservation, the Indian rulers brought the untouchable masses in the ambit of the so-called mainstream politics. It offered them new opportunities while keeping the memory of the caste system alive.

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The reservation system offered special concessions and spaces for the lower-castes, tribes and other backward classes (technically known as the Scheduled Castes/SCs, Scheduled Tribes/STs and Other Backward Classes/OBCs) in legislative representations, educational institutions and other public (government and semi-government) services. This policy was based on the idea of “protective discrimination”. In actuality, the reservation system was nothing other than a kind of “positive discrimination”! It helped the Dalits to grasp on to various posts like doctors, teachers etc. Yet, it did not at all abolish caste from its roots, the economic roots! The reservation system operated within the capitalist system and helped to maintain its overall framework. The Dalits were appropriated by the capitalist rulers under the trap of officialdom and were put within the paradigm of the mimic institutes (technically known as hegemonic ‘selving’ of the antithetical other) by means of this reservation system so that they are alienated from socially necessary labour.

Post-colonial India has never been an abode of peace and prosperity for the lower-castes and the Dalits. It has been an ever-continuing war between adjustment vs maladjustment for them.

As per the records of the National Crime Bureau, a crime is committed against a Dalit by a Non-Dalit every sixteen minutes every day. Every week, thirteen Dalits are murdered, and six are kidnapped. In 2012 for example, 1,574 Dalit women were brutally gang-raped and murdered by the upper-caste men. Between 2007 and 2017, crimes against Dalits have increased by 66 percent!

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There have been plenty of incidences where injustice against Dalits has been reported in post-colonial and neo-liberal India. Be it the case of the Indian girl named Surekha Bhotmange, who, though not as ‘famous’ as Malala, was a fan-follower of Dr. Ambedkar. She was gang-raped and killed by the upper-caste men. Incidences like Dalit rape at Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, Swabhiman (Self-Respect) movement of Dalits in Maharashtra, Dalit-student Rohit Vemulah’s suicide in Hyderabad University, many cases of violence against the Dalits in Punjab and Rajasthan, and also the incidents like the damaging of the Ambedkar statue in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar rise the concern of the present times towards the deteriorating condition of the Dalits.

On the basis of the data provided by the government itself, it can be said with certainty that more than 70% of the Scheduled Caste students drop out from the schools even before they pass matriculation. According to the 2001 Census, merely 2.24% of the Dalits have finally been able to become graduates.

The National Commission for SCs and STs has reported that only 8.4% of the A-grade officers’ posts belong to the lower-castes or the SCs.

It is the upper-caste Vaishyas (Traders/Merchants) who control Indian big business in post-colonial neo-liberal India. The Brahmins, on the other hand, occupy the majority of the administrative, judicial and other governmental posts. So, still today, in spite of having the reservation system which strived to improve the condition of the lower-castes and Dalits, the upper-castes are in a relatively privileged position.

Nearly 90% of the people employed in India as sweepers or scavengers are Dalits, who do the task of going down inside manholes, cleaning the toilets and doing all types menial jobs.

We have the Fundamental Rights (Part III), the Directive Principles of State Policy (Part IV) and other provisions in the bourgeois Indian Constitution which manifest a certain “sympathy for the lower-castes” attitude. Acts like The Prevention of Atrocities against SCs and STs Act (1989) has only remained on paper. This act has recently been diluted and amended by the apex court of the country. This makes one thing crystal clear: the present ruling class obviously supports caste-class exploitation, being the part and parcel of the capitalist relations of the production. All of their talks on uplifting the poor and untouchables from their backward/stagnant condition are undisguised and shameless hypocrisy.

In the last few years, the Dalits have organized themselves to protest and fight against this discriminatory state of affairs in various parts of the country, especially in Maharashtra and in Uttar Pradesh. They have called strikes, and have protested firmly against the above-mentioned dilution of the SC-ST act. Their protests have fallen on deaf ears and their active protests in the streets have faced nothing but extreme forms of state repression. The voice of the oppressed Dalits has been trampled underfoot by the Indian state machinery.

Bourgeois democracy has obviously failed to abolish the caste system. The mainstream Indian communists, in a majority of occasions, have remained least concerned regarding the ‘caste question’ and have given more emphasis on ‘class question’ without comprehending the objective Indian reality.

Today, when India has gone under the rule of the fundamentalist Saffron fascists (headed by the Bharatiya Janta Party/BJP) with a casteist Brahminical mentality, atrocities against the Dalit masses have increased in a manifold manner. The Saffron fascists are inspired by the teachings of Manusmriti, an ancient law-book of the upper-caste Hindus which incessantly subscribes and promotes the exploitation of the lower-castes and the Dalits! It is clearly observable in the records that there are more incidents of atrocities against Dalits in the BJP-ruled states than non-BJP ruled states.

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The recent and ongoing anti-fascist students’ movements in India have highlighted the issue of the Dalits and are directing their efforts towards gaining a better understanding of the caste-class relation. A number of student leaders like Jignesh Mevani have brought the Dalit issue in the limelight of Indian national politics. The rise of the Bhim Army (The word ‘Bhim’ has been used to refer to Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar) in the past few years proves that the Dalit resistance against casteism-communalism-fundamentalism under the cloak of fascism is getting stronger as days are passing.

How can the problem be solved?

As said by Ambedkar himself, that “…caste is an enclosed form of class”. The Varna system is an economic system which has divided the exploiters and the exploited, the oppressors and the oppressed for centuries. The outcastes or untouchables or Dalits include the weavers, scavengers, sweepers etc., in one word – the manual workers. Quite obviously, the upper-castes are a minority, and the lower and out-castes are a majority. The upper-castes enjoy and prosper on the fruits of the labour of the lower and out-castes or Dalits. The Untouchables/Dalits/outcastes can better be called as the “stratified subalterns”, in Marxist terminology.

Interestingly, India’s unique Marxist-Leninist revolutionary martyr Bhagat Singh in his twenties thought deeply about the issue of the untouchables and went on to condemn the caste-class system through an article entitled “Achoot da Sawal” or “The Problem of Untouchability” in Kirti magazine in 1928! Bhagat Singh was the first revolutionary leader to bring forward the idea of a proletarian revolution in the forefront of the Indian revolutionary struggle. His study and understanding of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and other Marxists make his position with regard to caste both unique and scientific. According to Bhagat Singh, the untouchables or the Dalits were the “sleeping lions” and the “real working class”.

The task of the hour for an Indian communist, therefore, is to arrive at a scientific understanding of the caste-class relation and see how they are commensurable. One cannot abolish caste without abolishing class.

Our fight should not be against the upper-castes. It should be against the upper-caste mindset, the upper-caste ideology. In one word, the fight should be against the casteist mentality itself. Even a Dalit can have such a mentality. So, we need to address the question of the Dalit wage-labourers, those who plough the field, work inside manholes or toil in some factory. These Dalits have to face social discrimination plus they have to undergo economic exploitation at the same time!

The working class revolution is the only viable alternative which should be yielded in India to annihilate the caste system forever. Fight against the existing socio-economic order in India could only end with the abolition of the caste-class rule. Mass-based social agitations of the youth-peasants-workers which would lead to a political-economic revolution are the only path that Indian anti-establishment politics should take. We should give our efforts towards merging or integrating the Dalit movement into the broader socialist movement; only then we will be able to proceed in right earnest in the present Indian situation.

Those who would lead these mass-based agitations must rise above the feelings of caste, race, region, creed, religion, gender etc. The working poor all over the world have the same rights and the same duties towards humankind at the present. The capitalist order which fails to fulfil the basic needs and aspirations of the working members of the society needs to be overthrown and replaced by a socialist order, based on socio-economic prosperity.

Only a classless society without any discrimination would give each human being an opportunity to treat other fellow being not as “polluting” or as an “untouchable”, but just as another human being (species-being). We are human beings, and there is no divinely ordained power to decide our life condition. We ourselves possess the power to shape our own lives’ destiny according to our choice.

With this promise of true egalitarianism, let us rise up the banner of revolution. Dalits and other oppressed people unite – you all have nothing to lose but your chains! You have your rights to win!

 

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