(Government of West Bengal, Dr. Ambedkar  Fortnight Celebration Committee Seminar on Social Justice, April 25, 1998)

       Sitaram Yechury

          It is, indeed, appropriate that the Government of West Bengal is observing the Dr. Ambedkar fortnight Celebration on his birth anniversary and organising this seminar on social justice. The topic: "Problems and means of integration of the dalits and backward classes in the mainstream of society" is one that must engage every conscious Indian interested in the progress of our country and welfare of our people.

          In recent period, this issue has not only engaged policy makers but has become an important element of political mobilisation.  While we shall return to this aspect later, it is necessary to recollect the following warning of Dr. Ambedkar: 

"On 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the  principle of one man-one vote and one vote- one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man-one value.

"How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?

"If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.  We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has laboriously built up."  (From Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s speech in the Constituent Assembly on 25th November, 1949)

          On another occasion, speaking of social reform, Dr. Ambedkar had to say:

"There is nothing fixed, nothing eternal, nothing sanatan; that everything is changing, that change is the law of life for individuals as well as for society….

"Stability is wanted but not at the cost of change when the change is imperative.  Adjustment is wanted but not at the sacrifice of social justice….

"The path of social reform like the path to heaven at any rate in India, is strewn with many difficulties… Caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster."

          Yet today, after 50 years of independence, the plight of dalits and the backward castes, for all practical purposes, has not universally improved.  They may be individual cases, but on the whole, the statistical evidence suggests that in achieving the task of converting political independence into real, social and economic independence for the most oppressed sections to our society we still have a long way to go. 

          In a sense, even after 50 years of independence, it is relevant to recollect a quotation from the poet, P.B. Shelley, which Ambedkar used in one of his writings to describe the plight of the dalits and the oppressed saying that they are :

"pale for weariness of climbing heaven, and gazing on earth, wandering companionless 

Among the stars that have a different birth"

          Addressing himself to the task of eradicating such a plight of the dalits, Ambedkar had spoken of constitutional safeguards such as reservations.  The country had adopted the policy of reservations for the SC and ST initially for a period of 10 years which had to be extended till date. It needs to be extended further as the improvement in their lot has not matched either expectation or requirement.

          During the post-emergency period since 1977, rightly the question of proper integration of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) came to the fore and the Mandal Commission was appointed.

          The recommendations of the Mandal Commission, which were finally adopted by the Government, as a policy of reservations in government jobs in 1989, as all of us know, generated a lot of heat and controversy.  As the economic crisis in the country was not providing adequate number of jobs or opportunities for education, the upper castes and the privileged sections resisted any measure to share a part of the shrinking cake, so to speak. 

          While supporting the reservations for the OBCs, recognising the importance of the struggle against social oppression carried on through the caste structure, the CPI(M) had the distinction of being the only political party to speak of combining caste reservations with economic criteria.  The reasoning was simple.  The benefits of reservations, however limited as we shall see subsequently, must reach those who require them the most. Those economically better off within the OBCs should not corner all the benefits.  There was much controversy which finally settled down when the Supreme Court came to our aid through its historic judgement  on the creamy-layer.

          Despite all such measures, what is the reality today?  While  constitutional safeguards such as reservations are important, experience has shown that unless the economic status of the oppressed is drastically improved such safeguards by themselves  will not radically change the situation.  This is a factor that, both Dr. Ambedkar and Shri Mandal in his report, not only accepted but underlined.  We shall, however, leave this line of analysis for the moment only to return to it shortly in order to consider the other important aspects of caste mobilisation and review briefly the record of our experiences in the post- independence decades aimed at a proper integration of the dalits and the backward castes into the social mainstream.


          During the recent years, caste mobilisation has become an important factor  in shaping Indian politics.  Ever since the issue of Mandal commission recommendations for reservations in government jobs for the OBCs came to the national agenda in 1989, it has left an impact on the evolution of national politics.  For a Marxist and a communist, it is not only necessary to assess this growing role of caste  assertion in Indian political life but also to map out the manner in which the unity of the toilers is strengthened in order to achieve the People’s Democratic Revolution. Unless we tackle with clarity this important phenomenon, we will not be able to overcome the potentially  disruptive role that caste mobilisation can have on toilers unity.  It is for these reasons that this issue needs to be addressed with all seriousness.

          At the outset, it is necessary to debunk a common fallacy that attempts to pit caste versus class.   Vested interests often advise communists that since they believe in class divisions in society, caste ought not to  engage their attention. Such  a mechanical distinction between caste and class is not only a vulgar simplification but divorced from the present day Indian reality.  The caste stratification of our society is something that has come down to us from centuries.  Despite all the refinements and changes within castes and between castes, that have taken place over the years, the basic structure, in so far as the oppression of the Dalits or the backward  castes is concerned, remains. It is within this social stratification that the class formation in India is taking place.  Capitalism is still developing in India  and  the process of the development of society divided into modern capitalist classes, is taking place constantly within the existing caste stratification. The question, therefore, is not one of class versus caste. It is the formation of classes under modern capitalism within the inherited caste structure.  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. These sections, as it were, are subject to dual oppression.  It is this  complementarity that not only needs to be recognised but on the basis of that  recognition, it must follow that an important task before the communist movement in our country today is the  integration of the struggle against class exploitation  with the struggle against social oppression.  As we shall see later, it is only through such an integration that the firm unity of the toilers can be forged and strengthened in order to  advance towards People’s Democracy.

          Before we take up the task of trying to understand the nature and characteristics of caste mobilisation in the present day political life, one needs to examine, albeit briefly,  as to why caste divisions  and social oppression continue to persist even after all the tall claims made by the ruling classes through the post-independence decades to overcome them. 

          There is a vast amount of literature on the evolution and sustenance of the caste system in India.  The large number of such works are only matched by the divergence of their conclusions. I am not here going into the origins of the caste system or its tenacity.  Some scholars have also linked it with a discussion of Marx’s Asiatic Mode of Production.  Without any disrespect or devaluation of such work, which  I consider is of immense intellectual and political value, it would suffice for our discussion to base ourselves on the fact (agreed upon by most) that the caste system, in Marxist terms, is the superstructure of an economic base which is pre-capitalist. In that sense, any attempt to overthrow this sinful heritage and obnoxious caste oppression will have to target the elimination of the vestiges of pre-capitalist economic formations.  This, in our present case, is the elimination of the vestiges of feudalism and semi-feudalism.


          This does not mean, even for a moment, that such elimination, through a comprehensive agrarian revolution, however complex and difficult it may be, will automatically eliminate the caste system and the entire range of social consciousness associated with it.  As Engels, in a letter to Bloch says, Marx and he had meant that the economic factor is decisive in the final analysis.  Even after a change in the economic base the superstructure and associated social consciousness may persist and would require an intense ideological struggle to eliminate it. But without the attempt to change the pre-capitalist agrarian order, mere appeals for a change of heart or behaviour cannot and will not eliminate this obnoxious social oppression. There was an opportunity to effect a sweeping agrarian revolution alongwith the anti-colonial freedom struggle. But this was not to be due to the compromising character of the leadership of our national movement.

          The main reason for this persistence of social oppression based on  caste stratification is the inadequacy of the ruling classes, during the freedom struggle, in addressing themselves to this issue.  The overcoming of caste differentiation was sought through proper social behaviour between individuals and castes without going into the social roots of this phenomenon.  The sinful heritage of caste oppression was something that the national anti-colonial struggle  could not repudiate because the leadership of the freedom struggle was not interested in going  to the root of the problem and  uprooting it.  Even if it had a correct understanding of the social roots of the problem, it did not have the courage to  seize it by the roots.  By refusing to sweep away the feudal and  semi-feudal agrarian relations, which were  the bedrock for the continuation and persistence of caste exploitation, the leadership of freedom struggle not only permitted but in later years perpetuated the caste exploitation. Thus, the struggle against caste oppression over the decades of freedom movement and post-independence India was divorced from the anti-colonial struggle earlier and from the struggle for an agrarian revolution later.


          With the advent of  modernisation under the  British rule, particularly the railways,  many, including Karl Marx, had thought that the old order would  crumble, paving the way for a class division of modern  society. However, this did not happen as envisaged. This was so because it was not in the interest of the colonial rule to transform Indian society. Its interests lay in exploiting the Indian people and its economy on the basis of their backwardness.  This required to keep the rural land relations intact, in class terms, modifying them only to advance  the colonial  revenue collections without disturbing the economic or social  relations. The British also required that a powerful indigenous Indian capitalist class did not arise.  The result was an alliance with the feudal landlords for its political survival and the  superimposition of minimum modern capitalist relations on the  existing feudal land relations which sustained the caste system.

          Thus, we find that under the British rule, a contradictory process was set into motion. The effect of modern relations, as Marx had foreseen — railways, communications, growing market, few industries, trade — accentuated the tendency towards destroying the old structure and with it the caste system and replacing it with modern day class divisions.  On the other hand, the vital interests of the colonial power lay in seeking political and economic support from the landlords and feudal interests, thus maintaining the old land relations and thereby supporting the caste structure and institutions.

          Thus, the process of change of the old  society, under the British rule, was slow and painful and never destined to be completed.


          Simultaneously, within the  freedom movement itself, there were two main trends that contributed to the persistence of the caste institutions.  One was the revivalist ideology which gripped a number of leaders of the freedom movement. Coming from upper caste Hindu background, these leaders in the struggle against the British drew sustenance from India’s so called  past and, in  the process, defended the social institutions of that past.  Tilak was a classic example of such a tendency. Rajni Palme Dutt in India Today summed up this line of thinking most appropriately by the following:

"So from the existing foul welter and decaying and corrupt metaphysics, from the broken relics of the shattered village system, from the dead remains of court splendours of a vanished civilisation, they sought to fabricate and build up and reconstitute a golden dream of Hindu culture — a `purified’ Hindu culture — which they could hold up as an ideal and a guiding light.  Against the overwhelming flood of British bourgeois culture and ideology, which they saw completely conquering the Indian bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, they sought to hold forward a feeble shield  of a reconstructed Hindu ideology which had no longer any natural basis for its existence in actual life conditions.  All social and scientific development was condemned by the more extreme devotees of this gospel as the conquerors’ culture : every form of antiquated tradition, even abuse, privilege and obscurantism, was treated with respect and veneration"  (page 327).

          Similar is the attitude of present day communal forces. Precisely because their ideological roots are based on revivalism and obscurantism, they are opposed to a thorough agrarian revolution.  Even at the level of the superstructure, despite mouthing radical slogans, they only strengthen the caste hierarchies of the old Hindu order.

          The other tendency during the freedom struggle, which prevented the liquidation of the old order, was the vacillation of the Congress towards landlords and feudal interests.  At a time when huge mass peasant revolts had started growing against landlords, the Congress in the 1922 Bardoli resolution, calling off the national campaign against the British, stated: "The Working Committee advises Congress workers and organisations to inform the ryots that withholding of rent payments to zamindar is contrary to the Congress resolutions and injurious to the best interests of the country.  The Working Committee assures the zamindars that the Congress movement is in no way interested to attack their legal rights ….."  Thus, the Congress’s efforts to achieve independence were divorced from the agrarian revolution.  In fact, as we shall see later, instead of carrying on a sweeping overthrow of the old feudal order, the Congress compromised with the landlords sharing power with them in post-independent India.

          These two tendencies, put together, prevented any meaningful attack against the social oppression of the caste system associated with the feudal and semi-feudal order existing in the country.  It was only the Communist Party of India which linked the struggle against British imperialism with a comprehensive agrarian revolution. Right from the Platform of Action of 1930 to the memorandum submitted to the National Integration Council by the CPI(M) in 1968, the  communist movement constantly underlined that caste exploitation and social emancipation could be possible only through sweeping changes in agrarian relations.  However, in the absence of a powerful agrarian movement, this task has remained unfulfilled to date.  As a result, given the compromising attitude of the bourgeois leadership, the atrocities and caste oppression continue to persist.


          Another current also needs to be properly analysed in order to understand the persistence of the caste stratification to date, i e, the social reform movement.  There have taken place powerful anti-caste movements in the country and they wielded significant political influence at  their time.  Amongst the giants who stand out in such movements was  Jyotiba Phule.  Jyotiba was a great secular democrat whose passion for the untouchable and sense of justice was unheard of.  He, personally, had absolutely no caste bias and the movement demanding equal  treatment was named as the satyashodhak — a movement against untruth, injustice and hypocrisy of the Hindu social order dominated  by the Brahmins.

          Ideologically, Jyotiba’s movement was an uncompromising attack on the ancient and feudal superstructure.  However, this uncompromising attack did not go beyond to attack the basic agrarian structure based on feudal land relations which was the basis on which this superstructure existed.  While this movement contributed immensely to raise the consciousness against caste exploitation, it could not reach the levels of that structure’s elimination precisely because it could not mobilise the peasantry for an agrarian revolution.

          Similar has been the experience of Ambedkar.  This most outstanding and tireless fighter, who on behalf of the Dalits exposed the upper caste hypocrisies and lambasted the Congress and its policies, had to finally ask his followers to embrace Buddhism to escape the injustices of Hindu society. But the  grim social reality based on unequal land relations did not change because of conversion to Buddhism.  Unfortunately,  smashing the present socio-economic system as the decisive step for elimination of caste exploitation,  was replaced by formal declarations of equality, reservation of seats, jobs, etc. It was once again shown that despite a leader of Ambedkar’s stature, and despite the strength of the movement, the objective could not be achieved because it failed to target the basic source of this exploitation, i e, feudal and semi-feudal land relations.

          Similar also has been the experience of the Dravidian movement led by Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker. Periyar did succeed in creating a great feeling against caste oppression and his voice loomed large against untouchability.  But yet again, viewing this merely at the level of superstructure without attacking the economic base that nurtured such a monstrous iniquitous caste stratification, the movement could not reach its logical culmination.

          Thus, we find that the social reform movement, despite the glorious uncompromising role of its leaders, could not achieve the stated objective as it either ignored or bypassed the tasks of the agrarian revolution.

          Thus, we find that at the time of independence, all these currents, put together, had created a situation where the tasks of the democratic revolution —  chiefly the agrarian revolution — remained unfulfilled under the bourgeois leadership of the freedom struggle that not only vacillated but compromised with landlordism.


          This process gets manifested in a concrete expression in post- independent India.  The Indian bourgeoisie, in its eagerness to capture state power, compromised on the one hand with imperialism and on the other with landlordism and semi-feudal forces. It shared power with the latter in the ruling class alliance. Thus, instead of sweeping away the feudal and semi-feudal land relations in the course of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle, the ruling classes perpetuated these relations, seeking only to modify them for their interests by attempting to superimpose capitalism.  Thus, instead of a sweeping overthrow of the old order from below, what happened over these years of independence was a limited superimposition of capitalist relations in agriculture, that too in limited pockets, without overthrowing the social relations. This only perpetuated the social consciousness associated with the semi-feudal relations — caste and communalism.

          Further, the system of parliamentary democracy that was adopted was based on an electoral system which tended to reinforce the caste consciousness. Instead of guaranteeing equality, irrespective of caste, the electoral system, itself, nurtured the perpetuation of caste consciousness in terms of choice of candidates and the appeal to the electorate.  The ruling classes have consistently refused to accept the CPI(M)’s suggestion to introduce proportional representation.  Apart from its other advantages, as people would have to vote for parties and not individuals, this would have minimised the appeals based on caste, religion, community, etc.

          While both these factors tended to reinforce the perpetuation of caste oppression, the Congress leadership continued to mouth concern  over caste oppression and continued to appeal to people to change their way of life and outlook rather than attack the economic basis on which this oppression thrived.  The inability to proceed with even the limited land reform legislations because of the alliance with the landlords prevented in the past and prevents today the Indian bourgeoisie to complete the tasks of the democratic revolution.

          This is reinforced by the attitude of the Congress leaders, even those coming from the Dalits.  A case in point is the experiences and opinions of Shri Jagjivan Ram in his book Caste Challenge in India.  Unlike many other Dalit leaders who stood aloof from the national movement, Shri Jagjivan Ram has a proud distinction of active participation in the freedom struggle, including imprisonment.  With justified passion, he recounts the plight of the Dalits and the oppressed castes. Intellectually, he accepts the fact that the struggle against caste oppression can only be successful as an integral part of the struggle of the exploited classes of India.  Despite emphasising this consistently in his book, the final solution he offers is characteristic of a bourgeois leader. He abhors class struggle for the emancipation of the poor and urges the people to  adopt the Gandhian way, i e, the elimination of such oppression with an exercise of the force of morality.  Thus, once again, we find that while understanding the problem correctly, while describing the situation graphically, the modern day leaders of post-independent India also fought shy of mobilising the people for a sweeping agrarian revolution as the basic solution of the problem.


          Let us now return to the initial line of analysis concerning the issue of properly integrating the dalits and backward castes in the social mainstream.  The net result of the post-independence decades has been not the building up of a movement for the eradication of social oppression that the caste system represents, but for palliatives offered to redress to some degree the suffering of these sections through the extension of the British concept of concessions such as reservations in educational institutions and jobs.  These are projected as an end in themselves.  This, despite the plethora of statistical information that this has not substantially altered the conditions of a vast majority of the oppressed. In the absence of any meaningful change in agrarian relations, such concessions must be supported.  But no illusions must be entertained that this is the only solution. 

          In the very nature of things, 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 not change their status.  For the ruling classes these concessions play an important role. In the first place, in the general competition for jobs etc, they pit one section of toilers against another.  Secondly, they create an impression among some sections that the government is their real friend and they should confine the struggle within the framework of the bourgeois system.  It is thus that a challenge to the present socio-economic system from the most downtrodden sections is prevented.

          Another phenomenon,  which was taking place simultaneously, will also have to be noted.  A parallel development that was taking place during the days of the freedom struggle and particularly after the independence was the process of emergence of a modern state in India. The vast multinational character of our country ensured that different sections — caste, religions, ethnic, regional — began to rightfully demand equality of status and opportunity in the new independent polity.  But, however, as the economic crisis deepened in the post-independent decades, far from the expectations of these different sections being met, the disparities started growing.  This led and continues to lead today to a scramble  amongst these different sections for a share of the cake.  As the size of the cake shrinks, this scramble takes the form of a conflict between various groups. Hence, the demand for reservations from new sections and the opposition to reservations from other sections becomes a common practice. 


          It is, in this background of deepening crisis in our country, that one must understand the nature of the present caste assertion.  There are two aspects to this.  On the one hand, as a result of whatever limited development has taken place since independence and in the background of the deepening crisis, 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 by the communists with an effort to integrate this consciousness with the struggles against the present socio-economic system. It is only through such an integration of the struggle against social oppression and the struggle against modern day class exploitation that the struggle for an agrarian revolution can be strengthened  and  carried forward to its logical culmination.

          There is, however, another aspect to the present day caste assertion.  This is the attempt to try and confine this growing consciousness within the parameters of the concerned caste.  This is resorted to by the leadership of the present day movements whose outlook is no different from the ones we discussed above. While appealing only to the caste consciousness and ignoring, if not evading, the basic issue of the struggle against the existing agrarian order, these leaders are once again appealing for a change in the superstructure without affecting the base.  In doing so, they treat this growing consciousness amongst the Dalits and the backward castes as separate compartments, as vote banks for their political fortunes, rather than addressing themselves for a genuine solution of the problem.


          The 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 to elect their brethren to power,  thus 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. None of them even  initiated the implementation of existing land reform legislations that the West Bengal Left Front government has done. By exploiting the growing consciousness amongst the socially oppressed, the leadership is thus perpetuating the very edifice of exploitation of the existing socio-economic system. Instead of  sweeping agrarian changes, they seek to preserve the existing order that perpetuates the caste system and its oppression. 

          Yet, why is it that a significant section of the oppressed castes are carried away, at least momentarily, by their leaders’ appeal? Here one must understand the tremendous sense of caste solidarity that exists. In the face of atroci­ties committed by the upper castes, the only source of re­sistance and protection the oppressed have is the strength of their being together. This is particularly so among the Dalits as they are often, and in many cases to date, huddled together and their habitations confined to certain areas. The bonds of kinship forged through common suffering shape a common consciousness of solidarity. Their moving together is not due to lack of education or civility as the upper castes contemptuously tend to describe. It is out of sheer necessity to offer the strongest possible resistance to the oppression heaped on them.

          The net result of this is that this dual nature of the present caste assertion presents itself in a manner as though there is a duality of social consciousness amongst the oppressed.  The communist movement itself has experienced instances of how the oppressed sections are willing to brave the worst police oppression  in their economic struggles under the red flag, but when it comes to electoral preferences and voting, they appear to be guided by their social, kinship and caste affinities. It is this apparent duality of social consciousness that the vested interests of the caste leadership seek to preserve for electoral benefits.

          But in the process, they seek to divorce the struggle against social oppression from the struggle against modern day class exploitation. Thus, instead of strengthening the unity of the toilers against the present socio-economic system, they tend to separate the two struggles thereby weakening this unity.


          It is the task of the communists today to integrate these struggles against social oppression and against class exploitation in one, overall wider class struggle to change the existing socio-economic system and unleash an agrarian revolution.  This is the challenge of our times.  The red flag should be as active in mobilising the people in the struggles against the new economic policies, against communalism, as in mobilising the oppressed in the struggles against social oppression.

          It is precisely because the communists seek and strive for such an integration that various caste leaders  pour venomous attacks against us.  For, when such an integration takes place, there is no room for sordid political bargaining and manoeuvring that is done by the leaders in the name of the exploited castes.  Hence Shri Kanshi Ram’s preposterous attacks against the communists, particularly the CPI(M).

          Therefore, while supporting reservations for the Dalits and the backward castes, the communist movement unhesitatingly and always emphasises that this is not the final solution.  Enough statistics can be adduced to show that despite  reservations, the plight of these sections have not substantially improved.

          While all caste leaders mouth the  necessity of radical economic reforms to improve the lot of the oppressed, it is by now clear that unless the struggle for a sweeping agrarian revolution takes place, no meaningful emancipation of these sections, who continue to pay for the sins of the past, cannot be achieved.

          Thus, for a thorough and proper integration of the dalits and backward castes into the social mainstream requires all of us to carry forward the struggle that Dr. Ambedkar initiated and undertook in his time, in modern day conditions. The source of inspiration of the glorious peasant struggles in Bengal in the past  must motivate all of us to  unleash a powerful agrarian movement to sweep away the semi-feudal land relations. This is the only manner in which social oppression and economic exploitation can be overcome, leading to the liberation of the millions of the oppressed and exploited brothers and sisters of ours.