Sunday, April 22, 2012

EMS and the Caste Question: A Response

R. Ramakumar

(My response to Manash Bhattacharjee’s article on Indian Marxists and caste in Outlook, titled 'The Left's Untouchable'.)

Manash Bhattacharjee’s (henceforth MB) article on Indian Marxists and caste in Outlook ( appears to be written more to attack the organised Left, specifically E.M.S. Namboodiripad, than to objectively analyse the position of the Left parties on caste. Writings of this genre have some general features: gross disregard for facts, deliberate misrepresentation of positions, use of “suitable” quotations out of context and shallow analysis. As a result, the article neither serves its implicit purpose of crucifying the Left vis-à-vis caste, nor its explicit purpose of offering a useful analysis of caste vis-à-vis the Left.

Let me take MB’s points one by one.

MB starts with a quote from EMS, used out-of-context regularly by misguided writers. The quote is from EMS’ book A History of Indian Freedom Struggle (AHIFS). According to MB, when Ambedkar “pushed” for the Poona Pact in 1932, the Indian Left opposed it and EMS noted that: “This was a great blow to the freedom movement. For this led to the diversion of people’s attention from the objective of full independence to the mundane cause of the upliftment of the Harijans”.

The use of this quote is a gross misrepresentation of EMS’ position. It is important to put this controversy to rest once and forever. EMS has not used such a term to describe the issue of Dalit emancipation. The original text of the book was written by EMS in Malayalam in 1975-76, serialised in the party daily Deshabhimani and published by Chinta Publishers in 1976-77. This book was translated into English and published in 1986 by the Social Scientist Press, titled A History of Indian Freedom Struggle. If we see the original Malayalam version, this controversial quote appears thus:
"പക്ഷെ ഇത് സ്വാതന്ത്ര്യസമരത്തെ സംബന്ധിച്ചിടത്തോളം വലിയ ഒരു ആഘാതമായിരുന്നു. പൂര്‍ണസ്വാതന്ത്ര്യം എന്ന ലക്ഷ്യത്തില്‍ നിന്ന് ഹരിജനോദ്ധാരണം എന്ന ഭാഗിക പ്രശ്നത്തിലേക്ക്‌ ജനശ്രദ്ധ തിരിച്ചു വിടപ്പെടാന്‍ ഇത് വഴി വെച്ചു" (page 565, 2009 reprint; page 608, 1982 reprint).
The accurate translation of this quote would be as follows:
“However, this was a major blow to the freedom movement. For this led to the diversion of people’s attention from the objective of full independence to the partial objective of the upliftment of the Harijans.”
Clearly, there was a major error in translation, which was not done by EMS. What should have been “partial objective” was wrongly translated as “mundane cause”. Nevertheless, writers who have not read the original Malayalam version have for long crucified EMS based on this quote and painted him as an anti-Dalit leader. I hope that the practice will come to an end with this clarification.

Even without access to the original text, there are two reasons why MB should have checked his facts twice. First, in his description of events leading to the Poona Pact and after, EMS does not favour either Gandhi’s position or Ambedkar’s position. Yet, EMS argued, the circumstances related to the controversy over Poona Pact led to a weakening of the second civil disobedience movement. After the Poona Pact, to ease his release from jail, Gandhi had given an undertaking to the British state that he would desist from pro-freedom agitations and singularly focus on “upliftment of depressed castes”. Thus, EMS writes that Gandhi:
“...subordinated the struggle for Swaraj to the day-to-day activities for the upliftment of the depressed castes. What is more, Gandhi gave a moral (religious) character to this political approach…Thus, the Congress as well as its undisputed leader, Gandhi, which was engaged in a country-wide struggle with the objective of liberating India from the British rule, engrossed itself in the programme of liberating the Depressed Castes and other Hindus from the curse of untouchability from which the entire Hindu religious community had been suffering…A direct result of this was the weakening of the civil disobedience movement. Thousands of Congress activists and many prominent leaders like Rajagopalachari, who were active in the midst of the civil disobedience movement for the past several months, gave up their activities completely and got themselves involved fully in the movement for the upliftment of Harijans...” (AHIFS, pp. 496)
This was the context in which EMS wrote about the shift of focus from full independence to the “partial objective” of Harijan upliftment. Any careful reader of the book would recognise that EMS does not subordinate Dalit causes to any secondary position in this analysis.

There is a second reason why MB should have been circumspect in using the quote. In 1932, a young EMS himself had enthusiastically responded to Gandhi’s call and led major agitations against untouchability in Malabar. Apart from EMS, two of the founding members of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) in Kerala – A. K. Gopalan and P. Krishna Pillai – were also leaders of the famous Guruvayur Satyagraha of 1932, organized to gain for Dalits and backward castes the right to enter the Guruvayur temple in south Malabar. Gopalan was brutally beaten up at the temple gate by upper caste Nairs during the Satyagraha. Earlier, in 1931, Gopalan was brutally attacked by the Tiyya (Ezhava) elite of Payyannur in north Malabar while organising a Dalit jatha demanding entry into a local temple.

Along with agitations against untouchability, Communist leaders of Malabar also engaged themselves in agitations to improve access to education for Dalits. For instance, in Kalliasseri village in north Malabar, two Dalit students who came to enrol at a primary school were beaten up and thrown out of the school compound by Nairs and Tiyyas in 1928. A Dalit youth – Sumukhan – who tried to stop the attack was beaten up on the public road. E. K. Nayanar, who later became Kerala’s second Communist Chief Minister, told me in an interview in 2003 that his entry into the national movement in the late-1920s was deeply inspired by the school incident. He said: “I was deeply moved…I did not understand why Dalit children could not sit with other students and study in the school.” Nayanar further said:
“…we started, under the leadership of KPR [Gopalan] and AKG (A. K. Gopalan), and instructions of Mahatma Gandhi, to work for the upliftment of Dalits…I, along with a number of young Congress workers, was in the forefront of activities like bathing Dalit children in village ponds, putting clothes on them and taking them to schools to protect them from attacks by upper caste members.” (the full text of the interview is at
Still further, it was Gandhi’s call to abruptly end the Guruvayur Satyagraha and his equally abrupt withdrawal of the civil disobedience movement in 1934 that led to massive disillusionment in Malabar with the Congress, the formation of Congress Socialist Party (CSP) in 1934 and the formation of Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1939.

In other words, agitations against untouchability and caste discrimination were an everyday political activity for EMS and fellow communists in the 1930s and 1940s. These facts are well-known too. Yet, MB ignores such facts and tries to defame a self-less leader, who submitted a life to the cause of the emancipation of the exploited.

It is necessary for scholars of caste to understand that EMS’ analysis of caste, and its origin and basis, was vastly different from that of Gandhi and Ambedkar. Further, EMS’ view on caste was not class-based alone, as is often made out to be. He always held that caste system contained elements of both social oppression and class exploitation; these elements were distinct even as they appeared fused in the manifestation of caste as a system. That was why EMS had famously characterised Malabar’s agrarian society as marked by jati-janmi-naduvazhi medhavitvam (upper caste-landlord-chieftain hegemony). According to him, Malabar was characterized by the combined domination of landlords in the economic sphere, Brahmin-dominated upper castes in social life and chieftains in the political sphere. His conclusion from the analysis of caste in Kerala was that,
“…it would…be unrealistic to pose the problem as if it is either class struggle or caste conflict. The fact is that there is a certain interpenetration of class and caste…In the actual social conditions of Kerala, the development of the democratic movement is bound to be linked with the organised struggle against caste-Hindu domination” (“Once Again on Castes and Classes”, Social Scientist, 1981, 9 (12)).
To understand EMS’ views on the caste system better, we can return to EMS’ analysis of the events of the 1930s that led to the failure of the civil disobedience movement. For him, the core issue “was the basic weakness of the national freedom movement headed by the Indian bourgeoisie.” About the leaders of the Congress party who were trying to find reasons for the failure of the civil disobedience movement, EMS had this to say in 1979:
“All this was conveniently blamed on the ‘wily manoeuvres’ of the British rulers and the ‘lack of patriotism’ on the part of the caste and communal leaders. Mahatma Gandhi made the heroic statement that, if only the British rulers left India to her fate, all the caste and communal problems would be solved immediately and automatically. The total unreality of this assertion was proved not only by the large-scale massacres that accompanied the partition of India - massacres which are perhaps the most inhuman in the history of mankind - but by the fact that, after full 31 years of independence, India today is as politically divided as it was in the pre-independence days on caste and communal lines. Those nationalists who even today blame caste and communal organisations for all the evils that are overtaking our country should ponder over the question of why they (the caste and communal leaders) are able to release the worst kind of sentiments among the people for inciting the most inhuman atrocities on the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and backward communities” (“Caste Conflicts v/s Growing Unity of Popular Democratic Forces”, Economic and Political Weekly, 1979, 14 (7-8), pp. 333-334).
Why were oppressed people from backward caste groups not ready to accept the leadership of bourgeois parties like the Congress? EMS explained thus:
“The national movement, as was sought to be built up by its bourgeois leaders, was primarily a movement for the ‘revival’ of the ‘age-old’ Indian civilisation and culture. This civilisation and culture, let us remind ourselves again, is based on the village community at whose centre is the division of society into a hierarchy of castes. Millions of people, who had, out of sheer helplessness, borne the burden of this caste-based society, were for the first time able to see that they need no more be bound by the ideology of Varnashrama Dharma. They started imbibing a part of the modern bourgeois ideology - freedom, equality and fraternity. They were not prepared to tolerate a movement which would culminate in the replacement of the then ruling British imperialism by the old Varnashrama society.”
What then is the alternative? EMS wrote:
“…one has to abandon all ideas of paying tributes to the ‘age-old’ civilisation and culture of India. One has to realise that the rebuilding 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 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.”
MB has a few more falsehoods to offer in his article. He argues that EMS called the caste system “a superior economic organisation”, which “facilitated organised production through a systematic allocation of labour”. According to MB, EMS did not understand Ambedkar’s distinction between “division of labour” and “division of the labourer” under the casteist relations of production. These accusations further betray MB’s total lack of reading of EMS, which, though, does not prevent him from calling EMS as someone with a “predominantly upper-caste mindset”.

What did EMS mean by what he wrote? For EMS, the caste system in India was marked by “flexibility”, which “made it possible for it to adjust itself to the two revolutions which in Europe created slavery out of the ashes of primitive communism, and feudalism out of the ashes of slavery.” Due to this flexibility of caste, India was able to attain the same socio-economic and cultural advances that Europe had attained under slavery and feudalism. This was the “superiority” that EMS saw in the use of caste system within the division of labour in India. However, EMS was quick to add that “it [also] created conditions for social stagnation. The uninterrupted repetition of social, economic and cultural life as embodied in the nature of caste organisation led to an absence of vigour and continuous change, so that, when Europe began to undergo its transition from feudalism to capitalism, India with its caste hierarchy was unable to catch up with it.”

Thus, it was EMS’ position that the caste system stubbornly slowed down social, cultural and economic advancement among Indian people. EMS termed the caste system as superior because it was an amenable instrument of exploitation in the hands of those who owned the means of production. This latter part of the analysis is conveniently omitted in MB’s argument; instead, the term “superiority” is attributed to portray EMS as someone who praised the caste system.

Regardless of what MB writes, EMS was acutely aware that “division of labour” would get transformed into the “division of labourers” within the confines of the caste system, as Ambedkar held. That is why EMS also wrote that:
“The essence of social organisation based on the hierarchy of castes and sub-castes is the monotonous repetition of the same job from generation to generation. Each person is allotted the job which is supposed to be his or her caste’s (or sub-caste’s). Here, therefore, there is no room for innovation, which is the essence of technological development. This is all the more true of a social organisation which has, besides caste, the village community and joint family as its two other pillars…”
MB appears to have had no time to read such detailed analysis of the caste system by EMS. Instead, he goes on a trip accusing EMS of having a “predominantly upper-caste mindset”, being “an exemplar of progressive casteism in the history of Left politics and thinking in India” and so on. One would only request writers like MB to spend some time reading what EMS and his fellow Marxists like B. T. Ranadive (BTR) have written on caste. For instance, MB argues that Indian Marxists have ignored caste as an apparatus of ideology. Here, MB needs to read BTR’s writings, who always highlighted the need to attack caste as an “ideology” as much as its material basis; BTR had written in 1979 that:
“In attacking the inequalities of the caste system and caste consciousness the anti-caste non-Brahmin leaders were attacking the ideology and the super-structure of the earlier feudal age. The ideology and consciousness had to be attacked and the superstructure had to be exposed and undermined, if society were to change. It can be nobody's argument - let the economic situation gradually change, let new economic realities and new classes emerge and the caste-system and caste-consciousness will automatically be eliminated” (Ranadive, B. T., “Caste, Class and Property Relations”, Economic and Political Weekly, 1979, 14 (7-8)).
Finally, MB and his ilk may also do well to read the CPI (M)’s programme to clarify a few of their other doubts. For instance, MB thinks that “…critics in the Indian Left see the Dalit movement as being merely a ‘politics of recognition’ and having no revolutionary potential.” The CPI (M) programme, updated in 2000, deals with this issue in detail. It says:
“The bourgeois-landlord system has also failed to put an end to caste oppression. The worst sufferers are the scheduled castes. The dalits are subject to untouchability and other forms of discrimination despite these being declared unlawful. The growing consciousness among the dalits for emancipation is sought to be met with brutal oppression and atrocities. The assertion by the dalits has a democratic content reflecting the aspirations of the most oppressed sections of society. The backward castes have also asserted their rights in a caste-ridden society.
"At the same time, a purely caste appeal which seeks to perpetuate caste divisions for the narrow aim of consolidating vote banks and detaching these downtrodden sections from the common democratic movement has also been at work. Many caste leaders and certain leaders of bourgeois political parties seek to utilise the polarisation on caste lines for narrow electoral gains and are hostile to building up the common movement of the oppressed sections of all castes. They ignore the basic class issues of land, wages and fight against landlordism, which is the basis for overthrowing the old social order.”
Having read the above, MB can better address his own lament regarding the “limitations of the historical conjuncture of Dalit politics”, which he forgot to pursue in the midst of abusing EMS and Marxists. He will then have time to pause and look at the state of the Republican Party of India (RPI) in Maharashtra and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh. He can better analyse their failure in ameliorating the plight of Dalit peasants or Dalit labourers beyond abstract recognition and self-respect. Even as these freedoms do constitute gains, the experiences with RPI(s) in Maharashtra and BSP in Uttar Pradesh point to the continuing relevance of the points raised by Marxists like EMS and BTR.

Gross misinterpretations of Marxist writings on caste, as by MB, would only help divide the united movement against caste in India. The Marxist Left, always respectful of Ambedkar, has successfully demonstrated the need to integrate issues of caste oppression with class struggle. Ambedkar himself had argued that if the French revolution was the first stage of human liberation, the Russian revolution would indeed be its second stage. These are important meeting points in political practice. A movement forward from here requires opening up of spaces where Marxists respectful of Ambedkar and Ambedkarites interested in Marx can meet, engage in debates and integrate their movements for emancipation. The evolution of such a united movement should not be allowed to be weakened by spreading falsehoods and misinterpreting positions.

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