Subhashini Ali delivered this speech at EMS Smrithi, Thrissur in June 2017:
25 years of neo-liberalism have seen the greatest concentrations of wealth and exponentially growing disparity. They have also seen not only growing unemployment but lowering of standards of living of the middle class and working class people. This is the natural result of the wage cuts and loss of jobs with guaranteed benefits. It has often been said that the market is not kind and it is unkindest to the poorest and most exploited. This means that even within the working class and the peasantry, socially and economically oppressed sections are the worst sufferers under the neo-liberal regime. Women, minority communities, dalits and Adivasis in India have borne the brunt of the harsh, market-oriented policies in the last two and half decades.
The victims of neo-liberalism are responding to new and vicious forms of exploitation in ways that need to be understood and studied by our movements because it is imperative that we become part of these protests by the most affected social groups.
The last two years have seen a tremendous dalit upsurge in different parts of India. Dalit oppression in India has always comprised of both caste (social) and class (economic) aspects. The creation of vast numbers of Outcastes who were denied space even at the bottom of a social hierarchy effectually created vast numbers of semi-slaves who toiled and served because this was what they were ordained to do. There was no possibility of any escape from the professions of various kinds of manual labour assigned to them by their birth. These professions, in turn, were classified as the lowliest and polluting. While much has changed as we enter the ‘modern’ era, social discrimination and inhuman economic exploitation are still the realities of Dalit lives.
Neo-liberal reforms with their emphasis on privatization of services and contractualisation of employment opportunities have meant that the few doors of opportunity and escape provided for Dalits by reservation in Government and Public Sector jobs and Government institutions of education are now being slammed in their faces with tragic regularity. This process is accompanied by attacks of increasing brutality in every sphere. Their resistance to attacks on their livelihood and opportunities for advancement and their resistance to the social discrimination that they face invite the most terrible violence and injustice. At the same time, as employment and education opportunities are shrinking for all sections of society, their limited access and entitlement to even a small portion of these shrinking opportunities are being fiercely and violently opposed by non-Dalits.
With the coming to power of the Hindutva forces and the formation of BJP Governments at the Center and in several States, we are witnessing a wide-ranging promotion of gender and social hierarchies, which are intrinsic to the Hindutva project. This is accompanied by the implementation of the most anti-poor ‘reform’ programme. The result is not only an increase in deliberate and vicious attacks on dalits but an increase in Dalit protest and opposition which have taken on the characteristics of an upsurge.
This spiral of attacks and protests that bring on more attacks have laid bare the inner contradictions of the Hindutva project. It has been exposed as a project that seeks to build a religious identity without doing away with terrible social inequalities based on birth within that identity within that religion. This identity is carefully crafted by creating hatred against people belonging to religious minorities and by valorizing the role of different castes without removing the social divisions between them.
The Hindutva project is an attempt to both promote and strengthen gender and social hierarchies by invoking and glorifying the Hindu tradition of varnashramdharm and subservience of women while subsuming all increasingly unequal Hindus within a Hindu identity. More than any other struggles that the policies of the Hindutva forces have evoked, it is the recent Dalit upsurge that has made its Achilles heel the most visible.
Our movement to remove social and economic inequality has been severely hampered by the social divisions that permeate the working class, peasantry and all sections of the poor. It is precisely these divisions that the entire ruling class perpetuates by its political mobilizations using casteism and communalism and by its fostering and strengthening of identity politics. While our movement seeks to build unity between castes and communities by building class solidarity through struggles it cannot and should not close its eyes to the reality of caste oppression. This has to be recognized as the bedrock of all exploitation – economic, gender, social – in our country. Our movement, therefore, has to encompass a struggle to smash caste and gender hierarchies and the social and economic inequality that they perpetuate. The dalit upsurge that we are witnessing is a historic opportunity to wage this kind of struggle by constructing new and strong structures of solidarity.
In this context, it is important to remember what Com. EMS Namboodripad, in whose memory we are all gathered today, had said in 1979: “One has to realize that the building of India on modern, democratic and secular lines requires an uncompromising struggle against the caste-based Hindu society and its culture. There is no question of secular democracy, not to speak of socialism, unless the very citadel of India’s ‘age-old’ civilization and culture – the division of society into a hierarchy of castes – is broken. In other words, the struggle for radical democracy and socialism cannot be separated from the struggle against caste society.” The Dalit upsurge that we see all around us today, presents new opportunities to implement EMS’ understanding.
In the last two years, new kinds of protests on Dalit issues have been seen that encompass a large range of very differing sites. At the Central University, Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula was leading a protest against the hanging of Yakub Memon and against the ban on the screening of a film on the Muzaffarnagar riots. The assertion of cultural rights of Dalits including the right to their own food habits was also part of the protest.
The fighting students had to face the ferocity of Ministers of the Central Government who goaded the University administration into taking a series of vindictive measures, including the stoppage of the dalit students’ scholarships, canteen, and hostel facilities, etc. Rohith Vemula, a brilliant Ph.D. student, was driven to suicide and became a tragic symbol of protest all over the country.
Six months after the ‘institutional murder’ of Rohith Vemula, dalits skinning dead cows were attacked near Una, Gujarat in the most brutal and degrading fashion. The perpetrators of the crime took videos of the violence they perpetrated and displayed them online. A massive and new kind of protest followed. Under the leadership of Jignesh Mewani, thousands of dalits, joined by members of various Left and progressive organizations, marched from Ahmedabad to Una vowing not only to stop the skinning and disposal of dead animals but also to force the Gujerat Government to distribute 5 acres of land to each landless dalit family. The march and the militancy of thousands of dalit men and women who participated in it sent shock waves throughout the country.
They also invited the wrath of the ruling classes who could mobilize non-dalit youth to attack the participants along with the police. The movement now quiescent but not dead expresses itself in different ways, taking up the issues of sanitation workers and the atrocities against Dalits in Gujerat. It has found resonance in different parts of the country.
Most recently, the attack by Rajputs, emboldened by the ascension to Chief Ministership by Yogi Adityanath, a fellow and unabashed Rajput, on dalits in Shabbirpur village in Saharanpur has seen an eruption of Dalit youth under the banner of a recently formed organization, the Bheem Sena (named after the historic Bheem Sena that existed in Nagpur during Dr. Ambedkar’s lifetime and which protected Dalits from Brahmanical attacks), that has become the symbol of Dalit resistance, militancy and self-respect in much of Northern India. The founder of the Bheem Sena, a charismatic young man from a poor family in the district who has adopted the pseudonym of ‘Ravana’ in a symbolic protest against Brahmanical beliefs was able to organize a massive protest on May 21st at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. The participation of thousands of young Dalit men who braved State repression to join the protest was indicative of a churning within the Dalit community in parts of Western UP and nearby areas, areas where the Left movement is traditionally weak.
The founder of the Bheem Sena, a charismatic young man from a poor family in the district who has adopted the pseudonym of ‘Ravana’ in a symbolic protest against Brahmanical beliefs was able to organize a massive protest on May 21st at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. The participation of thousands of young Dalit men who braved State repression to join the protest was indicative of a churning within the Dalit community in parts of Western UP and nearby areas, areas where the Left movement is traditionally weak.
Soon afterwards, not only Chandrashekhar Ravana but many dalits of Shabbirpur, including the dalit sarpanch of the village, were arrested. Those who suffered most in the violence are being accused of being responsible for it. The sarpanch, Shiv Kumar, saw his home being reduced to ashes and his son being beaten almost to death. The Rajputs responsible for the violence and arson and the BJP MP and MLA and other leaders who are all implicated in it have gone scot-free.
It is extremely important to remember that the dalits in this area have confessed to voting for the BJP in the recent Assembly elections. Some of them said that they had become disillusioned by the BSP. This is an indication of how important our correct understanding and intervention in this movement is for confronting the Hindutva forces.
Along with these major events, there are unending attacks on dalits and atrocities against dalit women. More and more these attacks and atrocities are not by individuals against other individuals but are turning into attacks in which large sections of non-dalits are mobilized against an individual dalit or a dalit family or a group of dalits. Many of these attacks are inspired by a desire to teach dalits ‘their place’ i.e. to deny them access to customs, land, lifestyles, jobs, and education which they were traditionally denied and for which the competition under neo-liberalism has become cruel and bloody.
It is essential for us to understand the dimensions of this upsurge and the churning behind it. This is also a moment when traditional caste leaders have become discredited in varying degrees. There is, however, no automatic acceptance of Left ideas or ideology that is going to result from these factors. In fact, various proponents of extreme anti-Communism in the garb of Pure Ambedkarism are extremely active precisely to keep those who are struggling and experiencing this churning not only away from the Left but to actually be extremely prejudiced against it.
Because of our intervention in the Saharanpur atrocity at a time when no political party dared to speak in support of the dalits, our DSMM leader, Nathu Prasad, was invited to address the Jantar Mantar rally. While, of course, many in the crowd appreciated this, it is important to note that there was tremendous activity on social media as various ‘Dalit’ intellectuals opposed the invitation extended to him vehemently.
This Anti-communist response of some Dalit groups is often used by us to explain or excuse the fact that our involvement in struggles against caste oppression is often symbolic. (Of course, there are exceptions to this in Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Kerala, Tripura etc.) This must change.
We have never been deterred in our pursuit of either political cooperation or alliances or trade union united fronts by the criticism, anti-communism, and abuse that we have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of these ‘friends’ and ‘allies’. We understand that they have a completely different class approach from ours and. Many of them actually share and support the policies and ideologies of the ruling classes. Because we understand the importance of joint struggles on specific issues, we ignore all these issues and concentrate on the task at hand.
It is, therefore, not only illogical but self-defeating to make ideological differences with many in Dalit movements a justification for a reluctance to support them and, more so, to participate in them. We have to recognize that the current Dalit upsurge has already crossed the bounds of Identity Politics. It is expressing solidarity with the minorities, it is creating spaces for the discussion of gender issues, it is intervening when incidents of violence against women occur and it is openly castigating the Hindutva project. Our participation going far beyond extending support, participation that is visible and subjects us to the same State violence that is being meted out to dalits in these movements and also our active initiation of such struggles against caste oppression and exploitation by organizations and platforms in which we are active and which we often lead is what is needed now.
In order to do this, we have to understand that ‘caste’ issues are ‘class issues’ in their essence. The denial of education and decent employment to members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes is as much a class issue as it is a caste issue; the denial of reservation in the private sector; the contractualisation of work that affects dalits and tribals the most, employment of vast numbers of women in Govt. ‘project’ work at pittance wages, the treatment of SC/ST students in institutions of higher learning that break their spirit and drive many to suicide, the barbaric violence that dalits, especially those who have accessed some education and are examples of some upward mobility; the unending violence that Dalit women face in factories, fields and educational institutions – these are all issues of class in a caste-ridden society and issues of caste in a class-divided society. It is essential to internalize this understanding.
Com. BT Ranadive, exhorted the working class many decades ago saying that “the common consciousness generated through the economic struggle cannot be pushed forward without such struggle and direct intervention of the movement on caste oppression.” In his book, ‘Class, Caste and Property Relations’, he wrote “The decisive challenge of caste and untouchability has to be defeated by the leaders of the mass struggles by inculcating a strong anti-caste feeling among the fighting toilers…The mass organizations, besides, must devote special attention to the problem of the untouchables, tribals and oppressed castes as part of their work to unite the oppressed. Then alone the mighty force of the united toilers will decisively strike for agrarian revolution, smashing the basis of caste distinctions and serfdom of the untouchables.”
We must accept that our movement has paid only scant and inconsistent attention to these words. We have not internalized what both Comrades EMS and BTR were telling us in completely unambiguous terms: that the success and advance of our movement depended on its commitment to smash the edifice of social hierarchy. To move in this direction, therefore, is our task and responsibility. To be undertaken irrespective of criticism, opposition, and hurdles.
It is important to remember that the ranks of our mass organizations, both class, and mass, are very large numbers of cadres who come from Dalit communities. They often make up the most militant of our activists. It is imperative to see that they occupy leadership roles and also to learn from their own experiences of caste-oppression. They can play a tremendous role in ensuring that movements and struggles against caste-oppression and exploitation become an integral part of our struggles and movement.
We must also recognize that there are many who are part of the Dalit movement or are thinkers deeply involved with the eradication of caste who are also convinced that only a coming together of the Communists and the Dalit movements can bring social and economic change. If anything, they are critical of the feebleness of our own efforts in this direction.
Dr. Ambedkar had described the caste system as being not a division of labour but of labourers. A division that had to be fought by all those who wanted to take the class struggle forward. He also said, “If the socialists wish to see socialism become a social reality, then they must realize that the problem of social reform is fundamental and that for them there is no escape for it.”
One of the greatest thinkers and writers on Dalit issues, Dr. Anand Teltumbde, a Marxist in his approach, writes in his foreword to BR Ambedkar, India and Communism (Leftword) “for both communists and Ambedkar people were the focus and not the imagined nation. This focus on the people is what unites their horizon.” He ends his foreword with “May this publication . . . inspire the Dalits and communists to complete this belated task to shape India’s and the world’s future.”
Dr SK Thorat, JNU Professor and former UGC Chairman speaks of the atmosphere that an organization like SFI could create in JNU which ensured not only fulfillment of quotas for SC/ST students and students coming from these and other communities who belonged to poor families in backward parts of the country but also ensured reservation for SC/ST faculty members which is denied to them in even Central institutions in the rest of the country.
After the historic Rally for Dalit Rights of 16th September 2016, G. Sampat wrote in the Hindu of 14th October in an article entitled ‘When Jai Bhim meets Lal Salaam’: “On September 16, Parliament Street near Jantar Mantar witnessed a Dalit rally that was unlike other such events in the recent past. What set it apart was the number of speakers from the Left. Sharing the stage with Prakash Ambedkar, Radhika Vemula and Jignesh Mewani were the likes of Sitaram Yechury… And surprisingly, for a gathering that self-identified as ‘Dalit’, the rallying cries of “Jai Bhim” were accompanied by a slogan rarely heard outside Left circles, “Lal Salaam”. Such an alliance of Jai Bhim and Lal Salaam, if translated into a political programme, could mark a significant departure for both Left and Dalit politics. The recent Dalit agitations in Gujarat offer a glimpse of what may be possible if a fusion of Jai Bhim and Lal Salaam were to go beyond sloganeering into the realm of praxis.”
Rohit Vemula had written in his diary that he dreamt of a red sun in a blue sky. He said that sometimes the blue sky was large and the red sun small, sometimes it was the reverse. It is up to us to make that dream a reality. A red sun, growing in a blue sky has to be the vision and focus of our movement. It is only this that can provide the setting for building strong structures of solidarity in which members of the same class who have been divided by their caste identities to view each other as their enemies can be united in a common struggle without which the emancipation of none is possible.