Chris Harman


Caste and class


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The demonstrations of Dalits – “untouchables” – at the World Social Forum in Mumbai focussed the attention of the activists across the world as well as in India on the continuing role played by caste. Chris Harman looks at how this supposedly “archaic” institution can still be so important in the Subcontinent.

The origins of caste

When the British colonised India two and a half centuries ago they accepted the view of Hindu traditionalists that Indian society had been graded into a hierarchy of tightly defined social layers for thousands of years. This notion of it as a peculiar, essential and apparently age-old feature of Indian society has permeated much subsequent thinking on the issue. It found its way into the writing of Hegel and Marx, and has been widely propagated more recently by the anthropologist Louis Dumont.

But it is challenged by much recent analysis.

What is called “caste” in English is a composed of two different features that existed in medieval and early modern Indian society – neither of which was unique to it.

The first is what are called Varna in Hindi and Urdu. It divides society into four great hereditary categories – priests, warriors, and merchants, and the mass of peasants. The division, first formalised (in the “Laws of Manu”) in the first centuries AD, is not fundamentally different to that found in many other places.

So there existed three or four great orders or “estates” in much of medieval Europe – the feudal barons, the clergy of the church, sometimes the urban merchants, and the mass of the working population. This division lasted in one form or another right through to the great revolutions of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (hence the three “estates” of pre-Revolutionary France and the division in the British parliament between the House of Commons and the nobles and bishops sitting in the House of Lords).

Everywhere it was in the interests of the aristocrats and nobles at the top to claim they were an age-old breed apart from the rest of the population, however recently they had actually obtained their position. And everywhere, those in the religious order sought to advance their position by sanctifying these claims from those who dominated the state.

In this way those in the nobility where able to maintain religiously sanctified legal privileges even after economic changes had begun to undermine their old class position. And sections of the clergy advanced their own material interests by acting as administrators for those with state power. The estates originated out of class power, but persisted even when there was some erosion of that power.

The pattern in India was essentially the same, with the priestly Varna, the Brahmins, providing religious legitimacy to the warriors and rulers, the kshatriyas. But there was one important difference. In India (as in many other parts of the world) the priests established themselves as a hereditary profession – and succeeded in maintaining their supposed superiority over the mass of peasants (the sudras) even when many of them stopped fulfilling priestly functions at all.

Varna divisions were not exactly the same as economic classes – although they originated out of them. Membership of the top castes, like membership of the nobility in France and Britain, gave privileges and an aura of superiority even to those individual members who became impoverished – and the few individuals from the lowest castes who achieved a position of wealth were denied full social rights.

The other dimension to caste is called jati. It refers to hereditary groups of people, supposedly associated with certain occupations (although, in practice very many do not follow such occupations), whose members intermarry. The development of these in precapitalist India also has parallels elsewhere. In medieval Europe occupations such as pot making, weaving, milling, baking, iron working, saddlemaking, were often passed from father to son (hence many of the surnames that survive today: Potter, Weaver, Miller, Bakers, Smith etc.) and the guilds for each occupation were central to the social organisation of the towns.

In India the Brahmins attempted to maintain their privileged position in each locality by fitting the jatis into the Varna hierarchy. They claimed for themselves the top position (although, in reality, real power lay with rulers from a warrior background, whether Hindu or Muslim), on the basis of their supposedly “pure” forms of behaviour (especially vegetarianism). Others went into a hierarchy below them, signalled by the degree to which they were involved in “polluting practice” like working with the plough and eating meat.

At the bottom were those whose hereditary occupations were held to be absolutely polluting because they involved doing things dealing with animal carcasses or skins, bodily excretions, clearing up dirt and disposing of the dead. These groups were outside and underneath the Varna system, and the upper castes had to undergo elaborate purification exercises if they so much as touched them.

Since most of these “untouchables” were in fact landless agricultural labourers, this set of ideas and practices had the effect of subordinating them both to landowners belonging to the upper castes and to farmers from the middle castes. And “untouchability” never stopped the men of the upper castes abusing the women of the lower castes (any more than the colour barrier did in the slave societies of the Americas).

The jati hierarchy was not some firmly fixed, unchanging structure across the whole of subcontinent. The relative position of the different groups varied enormously from area to area, and over time some groups would rise and others fall. And there were large forests and hill regions lived in by tribal peoples organised along completely different lines.

Caste and capitalism

Caste in its modern form is a product of the last 250 years. With the disintegration of the old Mogul Empire at the beginning of the 18th century, state power in particular localities was seized by military adventurers, often from low caste, tribal or pastoralist backgrounds. These turned to the Brahmins to sanctify their rule by inventing a noble kshatriya ancestry with the number two position in the supposedly sacred caste hierarchies. And then the British turned to these hierarchies as they built an administrative system that spread out to encompass the whole of India by the mid 19th century.

Meanwhile, the growing penetration of the whole of society by market relations encouraged very many people to turn to jati “communities” and associations for economic security, so identifying themselves with their jati position in the hierarchy.

Brahmins used their ritual superiority to hold their own against rich merchants and big farmers who were more successful in market terms than they were. The landowners used it to seek to maintain their dominance over the peasants. And the peasants with small amounts of land used it to keep “untouchable” landless labourers in their place.

Just as the development of capitalism in the 19th century strengthened the barriers of race in the southern states of the US and in South Africa, and the religious barrier between protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, so it hardened caste attitudes in many parts of the subcontinent. And at the bottom, as sweepers, as night soil removers, as coolies, as rickshaw pullers, above all as labourers on the land and in industry, the “untouchables” were subject to continual humiliation, forbidden to even look their oppressors in the face.

Caste oppression today

At the beginning of the 21st century few things have changed for those at the bottom. Leaders of the Indian independence movement saw it would be weakened unless it could get some support from the “untouchable” 15 per cent of the population, and Gandhi campaigned to change the attitude of religious Hindus, renaming “untouchables” as “harijans” (meaning “children of god). Legislation in the early 1950s banned formal measures of discrimination and provided for a certain proportion of government jobs to be “reserved” for what were now referred to as “the scheduled castes”. A few members of these castes have even made it to top positions: their best known leader Ambedkar was a member of the first Indian government and wrote the national constitution.

But the everyday reality of discrimination, humiliation, poverty and abuse persists for the great majority of the 150 million members of the “scheduled castes” (and another 75 million belonging to the “scheduled tribes”).

It does not go away with capitalist economic development, and can even get worse.

In the countryside, the pressure of the market on tens of millions of small farmers makes them want to cut labour costs – and so increase the burden on their Dalit labourers. Old caste loyalties and prejudices are brought into play as the poor turn on the very poor. Hence a sharp rise of “caste violence” – usually meaning the murder of Dalits by the organisations of the middle and upper castes – over the last 30 years. Today there are about 25,000 notified attacks on Dalits each year, including 500 murders and 1,000 rapes.

And as people flee rural poverty for the cities, caste connections become very important in knowing where to get jobs and who to talk to for them. Those from the historically literate groups, especially the Brahmins, are best placed to get white collar and professional posts (even if many have to eke out an existence in low level clerical jobs with meagre pay and no prospects). Those from castes which did the drudgery in the countryside find few openings in the city other than the same drudgery. Again there are similarities with the fate of black and latino people in the US, and with the indigenous peoples of Latin American countries like Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

The Dalit revolt

Something else has accompanied the ever-greater penetration of the countryside by capitalist market relations and the influx of people into the city: a growing unwillingness to put up with oppression. Today’s generation reject the terms “untouchable” and “harijan” and instead call themselves “Dalits” – “the oppressed”.

It is an explosive development of enormous potential importance for Indian politics, which is why it was such a positive feature of the World Social Forum. This has led some people to see it as a completely new phenomenon going completely beyond the old debates in the movement. This, for instance, was the view expressed at one Globalise Resistance meeting by George Monbiot, who contrasted the vibrancy of the Dalit demonstrations with the “abstractness” of issues raised in that meeting.

But, precisely because Dalit movement is from a heavily oppressed minority, it raises many of the “old” issues in a very sharp form – just as the American black movement did in the years of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers.

The history the Dalit movement is a history of debates over which path can lead to liberation. There have been five main approaches.

(1) An adaptationist approach attempts to persuade the higher castes to stop their discrimination. In return if often urges the “lowest” castes to make themselves acceptable by abandoning “impure” practices like meat eating, working on dead animal products, drinking alcohol, alleged sexual “licentiousness”. It was the approach of Gandhi, and it has also appealed to some low caste organisations seeking to raise themselves above other castes they regard as “more polluted”. The most militant groups have rightly rejected it for blaming oppression on the behaviour of the oppressed.

(2) Caste vote reformism seeks to put electoral pressure on governments. This led in the post-independence period to the outlawing the most obvious forms of discrimination (like bans on Dalits using wells and entering temples), and to the “reservation” of some public sector jobs, so creating social mobility for a small minority. But the mass of the former “untouchables” remain at the very bottom, still doing the most menial jobs and subject to daily harassment by those above them and by the police.

The high point so far for caste vote reformism came in the mid 1990s when a Dalit party, the BSP, succeeded in forming a government in the biggest north Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, in coalition with a party based on the middle castes which make up about half the population (confusingly called the “other backward castes”). This gave the impression of being an alliance of all the most exploited – the small peasants and the landless labourers.

But it soon became clear that it was an alliance of politicians working for small gains within the existing framework – and gains which involved building rival patronage machines to reward their activists while leaving untouched the problems of the great mass of people who had voted for them. As the poor and the very poor continued to squabble over the crumbs from the system, the coalition fell apart. Then, to keep their political machine going, the Dalit-led BSP formed a coalition with the worst enemies of all the oppressed – the Hindu chauvinist, BJP.

(3) A class reformism looking to unite the Dalits as landless labourers, workers or the urban poor with members of other castes in the same economic situation. This has been the approach of the mainstream Communist Parties, the CPI and the CPM. The CPM has dominated left coalition governments for decades in two states at opposite ends of the country, West Bengal and Kerala. For a period it provided real, if limited, reforms (land reform and improved education, for instance), but today it finds difficulty in preserving these in face of the pressures of the global system. And it has hardly been able to alleviate the suffering of many Dalit labourers. Some Dalit leaders speak as if the CPs were “Brahmin” parties like Congress and the BJP.

(4) Some have turned to cultural approaches in reaction against the failure of other policies. So Ambedkar decided after unsuccessful attempts at caste vote reformism and class reformism that the only solution lay in Dalits to converting to Buddhism. More recently there has been the growth of movements that extol Dalit identity without developing political strategies and tactics.

(5) Finally, there are the attempts at armed resistance. In the 1970s a group emerged calling itself the Dalit Panthers it fell apart, with one section adopting a culturalist line (in much the same way as happened with the black American movement it took its title from). Armed militancy today is centred in the most impoverished state, Bihar where “ML” Maoist splits from mainstream Communism have provided armed defence for some Dalit castes against murderous attacks from upper and middle caste landowners. This has provided the ML groups with a degree of political support (including winning seats in state parliaments). But actions by a minority of the population in some of the most backward parts of the country cannot, by themselves, destroy the overall structure of oppression weighing down on Dalits across India as a whole.

The Dalits and the Hindu Chauvinist threat

These discussions about the way to fight the oppression take place against the background of the rise of the BJP, with a politics of whipping up Hindu hatred of Muslims.

It is dominated by the upper castes. But this does not mean it has met with automatic, mass opposition from all the oppressed. In fact, the BJP, its fascist-like paramilitary RSS partner and its religious-ideological front, the VHP, have been able to send activists into Dalit areas, preaching that they part of the “Hindu nation” and that all their suffering is the fault of the Muslims who live alongside them.

As a study of the slums of Madras by Anandhi S tells, the RSS was able to get Dalits to play a key part in riots directed against Muslims who were as poor as they were. As she points out, Dalit consciousness like the consciousness of all “subaltern” groups, is contradictory – finding expression both in clashes with the dominant ideology but also in forms which take up some of the reactionary messages of that ideology.

The large-scale involvement of Dalit groups in the World Social Forum is a very important sign that one of the most oppressed layers in the Subcontinent is stirring. But enthusiasm for the dynamism of the movement should not lead people to ignore the way it repeatedly throws up political questions which desperately need answering.

There is very little room in India today for reforms in the interests of the mass of Indian workers, peasants, agricultural labourers and urban poor. The top 10 or even 20 per cent of the population are enjoying a consumer boom. But hundreds of millions of people continue to live on or below the poverty line.

Despite growing industrial output, labour saving technologies mean there is virtually no growth of jobs in modern industry to prevent rising unemployment. And the agricultural growth taking place in certain regions does nothing for the half of all peasants with holdings of less than one acre, let alone for the landless labourers.

In such conditions, any fight which is merely a fight for reform risks setting one section of the poor against another section of the poor. And the Dalits, as the most oppressed minority, will get most hurt if they get trapped in struggles that end up in this way.

To emancipate themselves, they have to have to be part of a project for emancipating all the exploited and oppressed. That does not mean dropping their own demands, least of all so as to allow reformist leaders to do deals within existing political structures. But those demands will never be won securely unless wider groups of workers and peasants are pulled into a struggle to overthrow Indian capitalism in its entirety. The way different section of the exploited and oppressed came together at Mumbai shows the possibilities. But they will not be achieved without hard arguments as well as hard struggles.

Last updated on 28 February 2010