Contrary to the criticism that the Communists often ignore the issue of caste, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-CPI (M) organised a massive walkathon that concluded in Hyderabad this week. Leaders of several social organisations converged under the banner of Laal Janda.
The merging slogan was Laal and Neel should unite. While those who were aggrieved that the Left was not taking up the caste question are obviously exuberant over the sudden shift at least in practical terms in the political line of the Communists, the critics are aghast over the indiscriminate admixture of caste and class. The fundamental question before the Left is how they should look at the vexed questions of caste and class in the Indian society.
In the Indian context, the fact remains that caste and class significantly overlap with margianlised castes forming the major chunk of toiling classes. But, this significant reality cannot make us oblivious to yet another equally important fact that there exists noteworthy differences in caste and class and there has been a class formation within the marginalised castes, too. Caste is very much part of the consciousness of all the classes which exist in India today.
Any failure to comprehend this would be seriously detrimental to the interests of the Communist movement.Delivering the P Sundarayya Memorial Lecture in 1997 on ‘Caste and Class in Indian Politics Today,’ Sitaram Yechury said that unless this important phenomenon of the growing role of caste assertion in Indian political life was tackled with clarity, the Communists would not be able to overcome the ‘potentially disruptive’ role that caste mobilisation could have on toilers' unity.
Therefore, the Telangana CPI (M) leadership is right in taking up the caste question as the key agenda of its walkathon; the point of introspection should be how far they could be alive to the caution their top comrade gave two decades ago and whether the thin yet critical demarcation line between the caste and the class is blurred in their socio-political mobilisation.
To a large extent, the most exploited classes in our society constitute the most socially oppressed castes. And, to that extent, the struggle against class exploitation and the struggle against social oppression complement each other.
But, failure to realise this relationship between the caste and the class would not eliminate myriad forms of caste oppression but would alienate the Left from the classes it represented all these days. This is because there is an inherent limitation in the struggles against caste inequalities despite their socially progressive character. Viewing merely the level of superstructure without attacking the economic base that nurtured such monstrous iniquitous caste stratification cannot reach its logical culmination but in fact may further nurture caste-based pre-modern identities.
The Communists were earlier criticised for confining to class struggles like the land and wage questions without articulating issues emanating from caste system. Now, in their overzealous effort to embrace the issues of social oppression, they would be doing injustice to their basic moorings if the class issues are relegated to the backseat. The future of Communist politics depends on how best they balance these two issues that have striking similarities yet fundamental differences.
While focusing on issues like reservations in private sector, political representation for backward communities, sub plans etc., the inherent limitation of such issues needs to be underlined. Calling them palliatives, Sitaram Yechury said that such concessions must be supported. But no illusions must be entertained that this is the only solution.
These palliatives will neither solve the problem of poverty and unemployment, nor change the condition of untouchables and other downtrodden castes. They will certainly offer some relief to individuals from these communities, enhance their confidence in their advance, but won’t change their status.
In fact, mere focus on such concessions alone may prevent “a basis of challenge to the present socio-economic system from the most downtrodden sections.” There is a growing consciousness amongst the oppressed castes to rebel against their conditions of social oppression. This is a positive aspect. Without such a growing consciousness, the struggle against oppression and exploitation cannot be carried out decisively. This is a consciousness that needs to be nurtured and strengthened with the effort to integrate this consciousness with the struggles against the present socio-economic system.
There is also an attempt to confine this growing consciousness within the parameters of the caste concerned.
Appealing only to the caste consciousness and ignoring, if not evading, the basic issue of the struggle against the existing agrarian order is only appealing for a change in the superstructure without affecting the base. That goes contrary to the Marxist understanding of the caste question.
In fact, the Communists are the victims of duality in this consciousness. The oppressed sections are willing to fight for their economic struggles under the banner of red flag, but when it comes to electoral preferences and voting, they appear to be guided by their social kinship and caste affinity.
This is the result of exclusive emphasis on class struggles, without realising the importance of caste question, though the latter cannot also be given disproportionate importance. This should differentiate caste leader’s perception of caste question from that of Marxist understanding of it.
The recent culmination meeting in Hyderabad which saw the convergence of vast number of leaders, who look at the caste alone, on the CPI (M) platform can help the party reach out to the sections that are rallying behind these leaders. But, the inherent limitation of these leaders cannot be ignored. Appeal of such caste leaders to their following is not to strengthen the common struggle to change the present socio-economic system.
The appeal is confined to spreading the illusion that coming to power within the same system that protects the existing socio-economic order is a solution to their problems. This may serve the lust for power of the leaders but the living conditions of the mass remain as backward as ever. This has been the experience of the governments that have come to power in Bihar and UP, using the caste identity politics. Neither of them even initiated the implementation of existing land reform legislations.
The possibility of these caste leaders separating the struggles on caste and class questions, disrupting the unity of the toiling masses, cannot be ignored. Ideas of caste exclusiveness and identity politics, which are being embraced by vocal sections of these caste organisations, should be rejected.
The document adopted by the Kerala State Committee of the CPI (M) at its meeting on 27-28 March 2003 entitled ‘Casteist Organisations and the Party’ stated that the party has to evolve effective tactics in reaching the masses rallied around caste leaders by taking up economic and social issues and also by exposing the vested interests of the leadership.
The society does not need a political bargain in the name of oppressed castes but a political struggle that ensures a true emancipation of the marginalised communities from the dual exploitation of caste and class.