Dalit Resistance and the Role of the Left
A fundamental and core feature of India’s socio-economic structures is its caste system. Birth and descent determine positions in immutable social hierarchies. When Rohith Vemula penned his tragic yet passionate suicide note he described his Dalit identity as a ‘fatal accident’. And it is true. Had he been born into another caste, he would not as a child has had to witness his mother Radhika facing caste based indignities. Nor would Rohith and his sibling Raja have faced discrimination in their school classrooms. The cancellation of his scholarship, his only means of survival as a student at a top University, would not have led to the drastic action he took, thus making him a victim of an institutional murder.
The institution in question is not just the callous university establishment, but in fact, the institution of caste.
Contrary to the claims made by the apologists of capitalism, the so-called modernizing features of capitalism have not succeeded in eliminating the horror that is the caste system in India. The trajectory of capitalism in India has been in alliance with the feudal and semi-feudal social forces. But this is not the only feature. Capitalism itself has co-opted the caste system to enable an intensified form of the exploitation of the labour of the scheduled castes and extraction of surplus value. It is systemic, part of the very structure of capitalism in India. Neo-liberal policies have accentuated this reality.
In the recent period, three issues have emerged as the focal point for Dalit resistance, all three of them very relevant for the Left:
The issue of livelihood of Dalits, highlighted by the Una movement in Gujarat.
- The issue of education for Dalits, highlighted by the suicide of RohithVemula.
- The issue of violence against Dalits, highlighted by the burning of two Dalit children in the village of Sunaped in Haryana.
But first, let us look at the political and economic context of these issues and movements.
Hindutva and Caste
Today, the fight for the annihilation of the caste system takes place in a qualitatively new political situation where the forces representing Hindutva are in power. The RSS has always taken a dual approach to the issue of caste. On the one hand, it is a votary of Sanatandharam, which not only sanctions but glorifies the caste system. On the other hand, it speaks about the ‘unity of the Hindu family’.
According to the RSS version of history, there was nothing wrong in the original caste system. It was only during the Mughal rule, they say, that caste became an instrument of oppression. Bhaiyya Joshi the RSS second in command, has written in his introduction to a book on Dalits that ‘shudras and Dalits were never discriminated against in the Hindu Shastras.There was no untouchability. It was the Muslim invaders who created such practices’.
What about the Manu Smriti and other Hindu scriptures that sanction and glorify caste centuries earlier? Facts hardly matter to the RSS.
According to another interpretation by none other than NarendraModi, now PM, manual scavenging done by Dalits was a ‘spiritual activity’ and chosen by Dalits themselves to serve the people as a spiritual duty.Modi wrote, in his book Karamyog,I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation’.This was not sufficient. Modi then wrote,
‘At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business’.
It seems Mr.Modi has not learnt any lessons from history. It was precisely this kind of unashamed defence of the caste system rooted in Hindu scriptures that had repulsed Dalit leaders and led the tallest of Dalit rights champions, Dr.BabasahebAmbedkar to convert to Buddhism.
The idea of the great ‘Hindu family’ is a non-starter, full of contradictions and daily hypocrisies in its practice.It is a concept of unity on the basis of the caste status quo, with the Dalits at the bottom of the ladder. This also came to the forefront during the GharWapsi of the Hindutva platform, when it was stated that the Dalit converts would return to their original position as Dalits in the caste hierarchy!
RSS speaks of Dalit rights but supports every reactionary agitation against reservation. The RSS chief openly spoke against reservations, asking for its reconsideration. The RSS uses Dalits in the Hindutva campaign, with a Dalit asked to lay the foundation stone for the planned temple in Ayodhya. But, at the same time, numerous temples deny Dalits entry. The RSS has never ever led a movement to enforce temple entry. It was communists like P.Sundarayya, AKG, and others – alongside BabasahebAmbedkar – who played that role, a legacy taken forward by the Left even today.The RSS talks of sharing food with Dalits, but stands on the side of KhapPanchayats when they issue dictates and incite violence against a love marriage between a Dalit boy and an upper caste girl. In BJP-ruled States there have been no efforts to address the multiple issues of discrimination and low economic and social indicators of Dalits. For the RSS, the main role of Dalits is as a militant force to be used against Muslim communities, such as in the Gujarat genocide.
The self-contradictory Hindutva agenda vis-a-visDalits is being pursued at all levels and with State patronage. It is, therefore, clear that the Dalit resistance movements necessarily come into confrontation with the RSS-BJP political combine.
Neo-Liberal policies worsen Dalit status
At the same time, the economic policies of neoliberalism pursued aggressively by the BJP Government have worsened the situation.
The Socio-Economic Census report indicates the utter failure of capitalism to address historical inequalities of Scheduled Caste communities. The gap remains wide.At the same time, it also shows how capitalism has led to a situation where the numbers of those who are poor and deprived, across castes, form the majority of the population. While the number of poor has increased, Dalits, because of caste oppression, are the poorer among the poor.
Among the 3.31 crore Dalit households, 72.58 percent come in the ‘deprived’ category, 55 percent have no land at all, 67.27 per cent are casual manual workers and only 11.29 percent have pucca houses. Scheduled Castes – based on this data – suffer a twenty percent deprivation when compared to non-SC/ST castes.
A recently published study titled ‘Social Exclusion and Caste Discrimination in Public and Private Sectors in India: A Decomposition Analysis’ (2016) shows that when equally-qualified categories of employees are compared, the pay gap between SCs and other social groups is an average 19.4 per cent in public sector and 31.7 per cent in private sectors. Significantly, it notes that in the private sector, the wage gap between SCs and others has increased in the post-liberalisation period. The public sector gap is less only because of the benefits of reservations, but even then it is quite high at almost 20 per cent.
Earlier, a study conducted by the IIM Ahmedabad of MBA graduates in 2006 found that graduates belonging to the SC/ST category got significantly lower wages ranging from 20 per cent to 35 per cent than those in the general category.
Whereas reservations mandated by the Constitution helped weaken the cast-iron barriers against social mobility of Dalit communities, with the advent of neo-liberal policies, the accelerated process of privatization, as well as a freeze in recruitment in the Government sectors, reserved posts for Dalits, have seen drastic cuts. Opportunities for educated members of the community have reduced in this period.
This, in turn, strengthens gross exploitation in caste-based professions. The so-called unclean professions – cleaning, sweeping, manually lifting human excreta, unblocking filthy sewers, skinning dead animals – are ‘reserved’ almost exclusively for Dalits. There is over-representation of the community in such jobs. Even in Government jobs of cleaning which is now outsourced and contractors, over 90 percent are done by Dalits. With the advent of the era of neo-liberal policies, all new recruitment for these jobs in the Government sector has been de-regularised even though the work is of a permanent nature. Thus it is the capitalist State that has led the exploitation of the labour of Dalits both in economic and social terms.
The ‘Gujarat model’, which is so close to the hearts of corporate India,epitomizes the twin images of corporate profits and Dalit distress. This was highlighted by the incidents in Una in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat where four young Dalit men were stripped, beaten and publicly paraded on the charge of cow slaughter.In fact, they were skinning a dead cow at the request of the cow’s owner, a farmer from a neighbouring village.
When I went to Una as part of the CPI(M) delegation we were told that the so-called GauRakshaks had threatened the Dalits to give up their profession of skinning cows. The father of two of the victims, who was also badly beaten when he rushed to the spot to save his sons, complained that in fact there were no other jobs available.
In Gujarat, the Scheduled Castes comprise around 8 per cent of the population. Most are landless. In rural Gujarat, they are employed either as agricultural labourers or are involved in caste-determined occupations. The lack of assets makes them all the most vulnerable to cruel untouchability and segregationist policies, which are commonplace.In the village we visited, the Dalit basti was segregated from the main village, which was much more developed. In the Dalit area, there was no piped water, no sanitation, no school, no built up road. This, we were told, is a feature across villages in the Saurashtra region. The Gujarat model based on the trickle down theory provides further evidence if such were needed, that the model only accentuates inequality, social, economic and political.
Neo-liberal policies have hit Dalits the hardest. Thus, Dalit groups and movements taking up these issues are the natural allies of movements against neo-liberal policies.
Relevance of Left Alternative Model To Fight Untouchability
In this context, it is most significant that in Gujarat the spontaneous upsurge among Dalit communities is focused on issues of Dalit Asmita – Dalit dignity – linked to livelihood and land. Leaders of the movement have called upon Dalits to refuse to do the ‘traditional’ jobs, which they consider demeaning. In a most powerful symbolic action, Dalits took the carcasses of scores of dead cows and threw them before the main offices of Government. One of the most crucial demands of the Dalit resistance that emerged after the Una atrocities is the demand for land reforms. The most popular slogan of the Dalit movement is ‘you keep the cow’s tail, give us our land’. This brings into focus the Left approach to land reform as an essential component of fighting discriminatory and untouchability practices along with social and political mobilisations.
The Left model as worked out in the 1970s in Bengal is most relevant. Out of the approximately 12 lakh acres of land distributed to about 30 lakh rural poor by the Left Front Government, as much as 37 percent of the beneficiaries were Scheduled Castes. This provided the foundation, which was later built up through the participation in leadership positions by the SCs in the panchayat structures. This process of land reform and local self-government broke the back of casteist practices in rural Bengal and provided the environment for the Left political and social intervention against caste. This is not to say that the caste system has been demolished in Bengal, but most certainly it is socially far less detrimental than it is in Gujarat. Thus, the Dalit resistance in Gujarat and the slogans raised by its protagonists once again establish the general relevance of the Left alternative model.
Another important aspect that the Gujarat movement has brought out is the issue of growth without social justice. Gujarat claims to have the highest growth rates among States in the last decade under Modi. But in social terms, it is only the rich and crony corporates like the Adanis and the Ambanis who have benefitted from this pattern of growth. Where are the jobs and who has got them? Highly capital-intensive industries have restricted the creation of jobs and have kept wages low in the Gujarat model. Dalits have been the worst sufferers. This is made clear by the absence of any alternatives for Dalits who challenge traditional caste-based jobs.
In a study done by Navsarjan, a prominent Dalit group in Gujarat, 64,000 vacancies in various state departments meant for scheduled castes have not been filled – this is according to the government’s own data released last year. The Director of Navsarjan, Martin Macwan, sees this as ‘a conspiracy to keep the caste chained to the occupations forced upon them by an exploitative system – manual scavenging or processing of carcasses, for example - to ensure their social status remains unchanged’.
The important point to note is that issues of livelihood, jobs, land, and wages have come to the forefront in the thinking and analysis of various Dalit groups. This is a shift from the earlier understanding which tended to divorce these issues from that of social status. The development is most welcome and provides the ground for sustained joint actions between Dalit groups and left-oriented mass organisations. In particular, trade unions and Kisan organisations can play an important role in building these new alliances.
Students and Educational Institutions
The second dimension of protest has been highlighted by the RohithVemula case, which is linked to discrimination in educational institutions from the school classroom to higher institutions of learning including technical and professional ones. Prof SukhdeoThorat has done detailed research on the different aspects of discrimination in educational institutions. In his capacity as UGC Chairman, Prof Thorat in his Report of the Committee to Enquire into the Allegation of Differential Treatment of SC/ST Students in AIIMS, Delhi detailed the discrimination faced by Dalit students and made a series of recommendations including the setting up of an Equal Opportunity Office in the institution. All these recommendations are relevant and valid, not only for AIIMS but for other institutions of higher learning and universities. But even though the report was placed in 2007, no action has been taken on it.
The developments in Hyderabad Central University culminating in the tragic death of RohithVemula and the subsequent callous approach of the Modi Government and especially the HRD ministry led to a strong solidarity movement by students in many colleges and universities in different parts of India. The demand for a Rohith Act has emerged as a rallying point for justice for Dalit students. It envisages a legislation that will address many and more of the issues pinpointed by the Thorat report, which is reflective of the situation for Dalits in most educational institutions.
The CPI(M) has supported the struggle for such a legislation. It is a welcome development that Left student organisations have shown through their practice and struggles in many universities such as in HCU, JNU, Jadavpur university, Himachal University and others that they stand with and by the demands against caste discrimination and oppression against Dalits in educational institutions. Here again, the possibility of broad alliances has emerged and is, in some instances, already in operation.
Violence against Dalits
The third dimension of protest which has been a constant feature but further highlighted by the barbarity of recent attacks is the violence against Dalits by non-Dalit castes, not necessarily only the upper castes but also some sections of the OBCs, the middle,castes who have achieved political and social power in the post-Mandal mobilisations. The horrific incident in Sunped(Haryana) when the upper landed castes took ‘revenge’ on a Dalit family for a perceived ‘insult’ by trying to burn them alive, leading to the deaths of two infants,outraged the country. It was further accentuated by the statement of a Minister in the Modi Government who compared the incident to the routine death of a dog – to justify the PMs silence on the issue.
Violence against SCs has grown in the last decade and specifically in the last few years. According to statistics compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), crimes against SCs rose to 47,064 in 2014 from 39,408 in 2013. In 2012 there were 33,655 crimes against Dalits, about the same as in 2011. In fact, the rate of such crimes against SCs surpassed the national average in as many as 10 states in 2013 and 2014.
In 2014, the rate of crime against Dalits was 23.4 and in 2013 it was 19.57. The rate of crime is the number of crimes reported against SCs per one lakh of their population. Every day three Dalit women are victims of rape. In a large number of cases, Dalit women who are sexually abused are unable to register cases for a variety of equally oppressive causes, further compounding the crime against them.
The conviction rates in crimes against Dalits were abysmal. If the conviction rate is to be calculated on the total number of cases undergoing trial in 2014, then the conviction rate was a mere 3.7 per cent.
The lack of political will of bourgeois parties, the deep caste biases in sections of the police and the predominance of vote bank politics, which has led to such flagrant violations of the minimum human rights of Dalits, have ensured vulnerability of Dalits to caste-based violence, The fight to stop violence against Dalits requires the most broad-based mobilisations of all sections of citizens. The left organization, particularly in States like Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, have, in the last several years, been in the forefront of the struggles against untouchability, successfully mobilising broader sections. The formation of the Dalit SoshanMuktiManch, an initiative of the CPI(M) but a broader-based non-party platform, has expanded to many States in India and is fighting on many issues for Dalit rights.
Politics of the Struggles against the Caste System
While resistance and awareness of the need for unity are growing on issues connected with Dalit oppression, it is true that among a section of Dalit organisations and NGOs the political, ideological trend of hostility towards the organised Left and Left oriented mass organisations remain. There are differences between Dalit groups as to what approach should be taken towards the Left. Some of them believe that the Left should be the main target and oppose any joint movements. This is not only rooted in a narrow reading and practice of identity politics but is oblivious to the qualitatively new situation that has arisen since the coming to power of the Modi Government. But the Left and specifically the CPI(M) has to overcome these prejudices against the Left and work with all those willing to build struggles against the hated caste system.
In this struggle, we have to overcome our own weaknesses. As Marxists our understanding that the class struggle in India requires the mobilization of the workers against the caste system needs to be emphasized both in theory and in practice. It is not a ‘social issue’, one concerning the ‘superstructure’, which can wait till after the revolution. The annihilation of caste and the struggle for it is very much a strategic aspect of the CPI(M) programme for revolution and has both the class aspect as well as the social aspect.
In India’s socio-economic realities, Dalits form a substantial section of what we call the classes basic to our strategy for fundamental social change, the urban and rural proletariat, the agricultural and manual worker. The slogan of class unity will have more meaning for a Dalit worker if working class and agrarian class organisations and movements, mobilize all workers against the specific oppression and exploitation that a worker faces as a Dalit.
Weakness stems from the absence of an understanding among some Left sections of the class dimensions of social issues. It is often taken mechanically that the common bonds of class exploitation will lead automatically to the unity of all the workers without necessarily addressing the specific issues of Dalit workers and the poor as Dalit members of the working class. There is a social differentiation among workers created by the caste system. The double burden that Dalit workers face, and in the case of women Dalit workers the triple burden as a result of caste and gender discriminations and class exploitation, has to be recognised and addressed.
It is wrong to posit class unity against the need to take up Dalit worker issues. Unless class organisations specifically take up the issues of Dalits among the sections we are working as part of the broader class struggle, why should Dalit workers and the poor working Dalits be attracted to the Left? It is no use criticising ‘identity politics’ if we do not address specifically the issues faced by the Dalit working poor from our broader platforms. For this, we will have to confront any casteist feelings and approaches which may exist in some sections of mass organisations.
The failure of the capitalist system to successfully address issues linked to caste discrimination is not fortuitous. On the contrary, capitalism in its various phases has utilized and strengthened casteist practices to maximise profits.The way Indian society has historically developed with the close intertwining of caste and class, it is clear enough that caste has been used as a tool to extract more surplus from the labour of the so-called untouchables and Shudras. Patriarchal cultures have been used to depress the value of female labour more so of Scheduled Caste women.
In the present situation with the Modi Government in power, the Hindutva forces attempt to build a wider ‘Hindu unity’. Communal slogans and mobilisations against minority communities are also used to mobilise Dalits by these forces.
Our fundamental theoretical framework in understanding the caste structures in India should form the basis for our day to day work among Dalits, in our relations with Dalit groups and organisations and in our being able to successfully build broad social alliances to take forward our positive agenda. New opportunities have opened up, we should grasp the moment, today is the time to move forward on a radical social and economic agenda to fight the caste system and all its inequities with a specific focus on the three aspects thrown up in the present struggles of Dalits for justice.
Brinda Karat is a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). For LeftWord Books, she wrote the introduction to Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution (2016).