People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 33

August 19, 2007

No Moving Forward Without Fighting Caste


K Varadharajan


“ONE has to realise 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’ civilisation and culture – the division of society into hierarchy of castes – is broken. In other words, the struggle for radical democracy and socialism cannot be separated from the struggle against caste society.”


These are the famous words of late Comrade E M S Namboodiripad written in 1979. Almost after thirty years, it still remains an important task before the revolutionary movement in India.




The evil impact of the caste system on the life of the downtrodden can be seen all over India even after 60 years of independence, with caste Hindus in many parts of rural India considering even the touch or shadow of a low-caste person as polluting. The lowly ones have to live at the outskirts of villages, in most unhygienic conditions. They are denied the use of public wells and their children are not admitted to schools where caste Hindu children go. They are forbidden to keep cattle. Temples are closed to them; they cannot get the job of a barber or washerman. This oppressed section still receives sub-human treatment in many parts of the country, even though the country’s laws ban untouchability and discrimination.


Such caste discrimination and atrocities seek their legitimacy from the “Purusha Sukta” of Rgveda, which sanctioned a four-varna division of society. The hymn was not confined to explaining the origin of classes but provided a ‘divine’ justification for the existing order of society. Special rights for the upper varnas and disabilities for the lower ones were a virtually universal feature of our society. This civilisation rested on the village community, joint family and caste system, the last being regarded as divinely ordained.


According to the Vedic religion, the varnas were created by the God himself. In the Gita, Krishna says: Chaturvarna Maya Srishti (I have created the four varnas). The next line says: “Tasya Kartarama mavya; Vidya Kartaraya – Mavyam (though I have created this, even I cannot change it). The inherent idea is that everybody’s karmas in her or his last birth decide who is reborn in which varna.


Chhandogya Upanishad still more openly says: “If you don’t perform the duty of your varna in this birth, you will be a chandala (lowliest among the dalits), a pig or a dog in the next birth. But if you perform your duties rightly in this birth, then you will be a Vaishya, Kshatriya or Brahmana in the next birth.”


So the essence of the karma theory is that your position in society is decided by your birth which, in turn, is decided by the proper or improper execution of your duties in the last birth and that one’s duties are decided by one’s varna. In fact, the Vedic religion provides not the same but differential duties for different varnas.


That is why Comrade EMS said, “...what was done by the slave system in Greece was done by the chaturvarna theory in India. But, instead of the direct slave and slave-owner relations in Greece, in India the varna system has indirectly brought it through the caste division.” Moreover, he said, India’s varna system was sanctioned by religion and the belief that the castes are created by God himself. “Through all this the lower caste people were made to accept the slavery gladly.”




The introduction of the railways, buses and industries, recruiting their labour from touchables as well as untouchables, did bring about some change in the society during the British rule. But the British imperialists did not address the basic issue; in fact their main concern was to use the caste and religious divisions for their “divide and rule” game. The colonial rule in India followed a policy of non-interference in social and religious matters. This helped the upper castes only, since education was then the monopoly of upper castes only.


However, what to talk of the British rule, it has not been a very happy experience during the 60 years of independence. The bourgeois landlord order in India did not touch the basic issue; rather it confined itself to some manoeuvres only so as to make dalits their vote bank. This has been the approach of various bourgeois landlord political parties on the caste issue.


As the late Comrade B T Ranadive pointed out, “...the powerful class interests, the imperialists, the landlords and bourgeois leadership were acting as the defenders of the caste system, by protecting the landlords and the pre-capitalist land system.”


If the caste system persists in the country today, it is because it is being used to protect the exploitative system of asset holdings that existed in this country before the advent of capitalism as well as the one that emerged during capitalism. The fact is that caste exploitation continues along with class exploitation in this country because of this game of the exploitative ruling classes.




The result is that almost every socio-economic indicator shows that the position of dalit families is still awful and their plight is getting worse in many cases. Let us have a look at some of the major indicators ----


Seventy percent of the scheduled caste (SC) people in rural areas have no land or have meagre plots only. This is the root cause of the discrimination against them and shows the oppressive and exploitative character of the whole social structure.


In 2000, 35.4 percent of the SC population was below the poverty line in rural areas as against 21 percent among others (meaning the non-SC/ST population). In urban areas, the gap was still larger --- 39 percent of the SCs as against only 15 percent among the others. The largest incidence of poverty in rural areas was among the agricultural labour, followed by non-agricultural labour, whereas in urban areas the largest incidence of poverty was among the casual labour followed by the self-employed. The monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) for all household types was lower for the SCs than others.


The daily wage labour households accounted for 61.4 percent of all SC households in rural areas and 26 percent in urban areas, compared to 25.5 percent and 7.45 percent for other households.


Though 15 percent and 7.5 percent of central government posts are reserved for the SCs and STs respectively, SCs occupy only 10.15 percent of the Group A posts. It was 12.67 percent in Group B, 16.15 percent in Group C and 21.26 percent in Group D. The figures for the STs were even lower --- 2.89 percent, 2.68 percent, 5.69 percent and 6.48 percent for the four groups respectively.


In 2001, the literacy rate among the SCs was 54.7 percent and 47.1 percent among the STs, as against 68.8 percent for others. Among women, the literacy rate was 41.9 percent for the SCs, 34.8 percent for the STs and 58.2 percent for others.


Only 11 percent of SC households and 7 percent of ST households had access to sanitary facilities, as against the national average of 29 percent.
Only 28 percent of the SC and 22 percent of the ST population were using electricity, as against the national average of 48 percent.


Dalit women face oppression at three levels --- as Dalits, as women and (a majority of them) as workers. They are victims of the worst kind of sexual assaults, abuses and humiliation. Being at the bottom of the social ladder, they cry for justice and dignity, and we have to wage specific struggles for their rights including the right to a dignified life.




While such is the economic and educational situation of India’s dalits, they are the worst victims of social atrocities. A recent survey in Tamilnadu shows that untouchability exists in more than 40 percent of the state’s villages. An Andhra survey shows the prevalence of various types of disabilities --- regarding temple entry, the two-glass system in teashops, no access to public wells etc --- in many parts of the state.


According to the records available for 16 years between 1981 and 2000, a total of 3,57,945 cases of crime and atrocities were committed against the SCs. This comes to an average of about 22,371 crimes and atrocities per year.


There is no doubt that the position of dalits and adivasis has markedly improved in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura due to the whole range of alternative policies pursued by the Left-led state governments in these states. These governments took up land reforms as a priority task. A significant feature of this programme has been is that a majority of the beneficiaries are dalits.


But even though we had had great anti-caste fighters and social reformers like Dr B R Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, Thanthai Periyar E V R and Shri Narayana Guru who bitterly attacked the caste system and its intrinsic inequalities, their struggle was for the most part not linked with the struggle for economic empowerment of dalit sections. So what is needed today is that the struggle against caste oppression and that against class exploitation are linked. Only such a linking of the struggles for economic and social emancipation can change the situation.




In conclusion, we recount what Comrade BTR had said about the task facing us today. In his book Caste, Class and Property Relations, he said, “The mass organisations, 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 united toilers will decisively strike for agrarian revolution, smashing the basis of caste distinctions and serfdom of the untouchables, then alone the democratic forces will open the way to political power and rapid industrialisation on the basis of socialisation of all means of production and usher in a casteless and classless society.”


Thus, in the particular context of caste, there are two dimensions of the class struggle --- against economic exploitation and against social oppression. Neglect of any one of these two aspects of the struggle can only be self-defeating. How to connect these two aspects, is a basic challenge before us. It will lead us to great successes if we are able to link these two aspects in our day-to-day work.