The notion of deep caste barriers, feelings, irrationality and false religious consciousness, even among some advanced sections of the working class, become a potential threat to the all-round unity of class. The class struggle must overcome the barriers of mere economism and delve immediately into a massive intellectual and cultural struggle against religious, casteist and obscurantist belief structures and values.
THE struggle against neo-liberal economic policy in India has entered a critical phase, about 32 years after the launch of this policy in 1991, with growing unity among mainstream Central trade unions and several industry-level federations, inclusive of hitherto unreachable sections of the Indian working class such as several organisations of the so-called unorganised sectors of workers. Several path-breaking joint trade union initiatives, off late with peasant organisations, have illuminated the horizon of the united struggle of the toiling masses in India, who are no longer eager to stomach vaunted claims of “acche din” (good days) to dawn on their lives sooner.
The huge ‘Mahapadhav’ of the Indian working class in Delhi from November 9–11, 2017, the massive march of Maharashtrian peasants from Nashik to Mumbai in March 2018 and March this year (and now again from Akole to Loni from April 26–28), the mammoth jail bharo agitation by the peasantry (participated in at many places by the working class— both organised and unorganised) on August 9, 2018, the nationwide strikes by workers and peasants on November 26, 2020 and again from March 28–29, 2022, the gigantic united rally of workers and peasants in Delhi on September 5, 2018, and again on April 5 last month, and numerous other sectoral strikes and other trade union–united kisan actions (the most notable being the successful movement to force the government to drop the anti-people agrarian laws), have all pointed out to this gasping exasperation of the toiling Indian masses, eager to usher in some kind of immediate change in their socio-economic conditions.
In India, serious attempts are being initiated every now and then by the right-wing ruling class to divide and attack this growing unity of the toiling masses in the name of caste and false religious consciousness, and attack democratic, trade union rights.
Pitted against this united struggle, there are problems springing from neo-liberalism that have now further accentuated, with the global outlook for labour markets deteriorating significantly in 2022, as per a report titled World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2023 published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO notes with concern the present global stagflationary episode (the first of its kind since the 1970s), in which policymakers are confronted with a trade-off with elevated inflation in an environment of incomplete job recovery post the COVID pandemic.
It is a matter of great concern when the Central banks in many countries, including in advanced ones, facing a Hobson’s choice between growth and inflation, prefer to hike interest rates in subsequent bouts to tame inflation. Expectedly, in a world of growing inequality and economic surplus being increasingly stomached by a minuscule minority, this standard neo-liberal textbook prescription neither props up growth nor employment, while pushing the economy to lapse into stagflation. This leads to an unprecedented employment crisis everywhere, including in India, with the global jobs gap standing at 473 million (12.3 percent). This reserve army of unemployed labour poses a serious threat to the organised trade union movement everywhere, weakening unions’ bargaining power vis-à-vis capitalists.
Again, in countries like India, serious attempts are being initiated every now and then by the right-wing ruling class to divide and attack this growing unity among the toiling masses in the name of caste and false religious consciousness, and attack democratic trade union rights. There are overt and covert attempts to organise ‘lumpen proletariats’, often with full corporate backing, to launch a vicious attack on the idea of democracy per se in an environment of galloping metamorphosis of the polity towards a 21st century Indian variety of a religious, fascistic social structure.
Logically, there is a critical question that haunts all progressive minds— this is the moot question of how to break the barriers of caste and religious bigotry among working class and other toiling masses to form an all-round impregnable unity to challenge the neo-liberal order.
German philosopher, author, social theorist and economist Karl Marx was one of the pioneers who had visualised the real challenges posed by the highly petrified structure of casteism in India. In his famous essay titled ‘The Future Results of British Rule in India’, published in the New-York Daily Tribune on August 8, 1853, Marx had characterized the Indian castes as “the most decisive impediment to Indian progress and Indian power”.
The progress at the ground level is not up to the mark so as to foist a united challenge to the structure of caste and religious bigotry, now further reinforced and aided by corporate finance capital in India.
Marx correctly argued that the caste system in India was based on the hereditary division of labour, which was inseparably linked with the unchanging technological base and subsistence economy of the Indian village community. Though he had initial trust that the British rule in India, as a blind and unintended force of progress, through its rapid industrialisation and expansion of the railways, would pulverise this caste structure, he later admitted that he overestimated the potential impact of British Rule in India to break the caste structure.
But on an international plane, Marx could clearly and causally connect the antiquated social formation of the institution of caste in India with the relations of production.
So, from then on, a logical corollary emanated, which is that the elimination of the caste hierarchy and the brutalities of caste exploitation cannot be separated from the Marxian form of class struggle in the specific context of India. Legendary Indian Marxist thinkers like communist politician and doyen of the trade union movement B.T. Ranadive (BTR), communist politician and theorist E.M.S. Namboodiripad, historian and Indologist Prof. Ram Sharan Sharma, Marxist philosopher Prof. Debiprasad Chattopadhyay et al have all delved in detail into the specific needs for the Indian working class and the trade union movement to address this question of class oppression masquerading as caste oppression in India. These were all reinforced with the brilliant understanding and write ups by Baba Saheb Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar.
Comrade BTR, in his famous book Caste, Class and Property Relation published in 1982, strongly argued for the adoption of a common and united programme of struggle by all mass organisations, including by trade unions, against both caste and class oppressions. He noted:
“The new situation calls for giving up the tradition of fighting caste battles in isolation from other toilers. It was inevitable that in the earlier years the movement of the downtrodden castes should be conducted on the basis of caste vs caste. It was all the more inevitable in the case of the untouchables who were denied human existence. This tradition has led to an exclusiveness which refuses to consider that there are toiling sections in the other castes who have to be detached from their caste leadership and to be brought face to face with the common oppressor.
“The vested and opportunist interests in some downtrodden castes seek to keep their followers away from the common struggle so that they can continue to have their hold on them. All this must change; and without lowering the banner against caste oppression, every effort should be made by them to join the common struggle for democracy and social advance.”
Within caste (even among lower castes), especially in elite urban set-ups, the social and economic surplus is relatively disproportionately distributed towards people belonging to higher classes within a caste formation, as is natural, within an overall capitalist set-up.
But, we all understand, despite the felt need to usher in a change as aspired by leading Indian Marxist thinkers as well as by stalwarts like Dr Ambedkar, the progress at the ground level is not up to the mark so as to foist a united challenge to the structure of caste and religious bigotry, now further reinforced and aided by corporate finance capital in India.
Before one attempts to take the bull by its horns, one has to first comprehend the strengths and weaknesses of the bull.
On epistemological, cultural and organisational grounds, it is most pertinent to take the caste structure as a semi-autonomous socio-economic formation, belonging, in essence, to a super-structure over an economic base of society. However, in India, since this structure has rather strong religious sanctions of the majority Hindus rooted in the Rig Veda, the Manusmriti, interpolated forms of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, and which even spread its tentacles during the march of Buddhism in India from the third century BCE to the third century CE, it has achieved an autonomy of its own, irrespective of the economic base from which it essentially sprouted.
This is aptly noted by historian and public intellectual Prof S. Irfan Habib in his introduction to the anthology titled Religion in Indian History (2007), on the birth and march of the caste structure as under: “complex political, economic and cultural forces were probably at play, which we cannot perhaps as distinctly identify as we would like to.” So, the structure of caste consciousness is so deeply ossified that even among converts from Hinduism to Islam or Christianity, this legacy of caste consciousness remains, with the so-called ‘upper caste Muslims and Christians’ refusing to share common bonds with the so-called ‘lower caste’ categories within the same religion.
The grossly exploitative caste structure (which, in essence, is a class structure) of ancient India, was cleverly dissimulated and sanctified by the Dharmasastras, particularly by the Chaturvarnya that has almost remained unchanged to this day. Though the original Chaturvarnya (Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra) and the pre-Aryan race of Adivasis (branded many a time as ‘Atishudras‘ by some of the Dharmashastras) gave rise to the at present some three thousand castes and sub-castes, the kernel of assigning work based on “swadharma” and “swakarma” (assigned work based on one’s birth) is very much prevalent in the so-called modern India, particularly in her vast rural hinterland.
In a special, simultaneous attempt to camouflage the real nature of exploitation of labour by capital, a logic is now advanced to prove that in the present post-industrial digital age, the very nature of the working class has undergone a pure metamorphosis, and it no longer is subjected to brutal exploitation.
The existential crises now faced by these vast collectives of “Antyaja” (the bottom hierarchy of the toiling masses who are born on the margin of social class) is further reinforced by the neo-liberal project of ruin and destitution that generates increasing economic surplus at the top of the social society hierarchy (who, many a time, belong to the upper-caste hierarchy of the society). Although within caste (even among lower castes), especially in elite urban set-ups, the social and economic surplus is relatively disproportionately distributed towards people belonging to higher classes within a caste formation, as is natural, within an overall capitalist set-up. The superimposed structure of the neo-liberal project in today’s India now seeks to count on the support of this higher class within a caste formation (whom we call the urban middle class) to bolster its support base.
However, due to the ever-increasing crisis in which the whole neo-liberal project now finds itself in, this possibility to juxtapose the privileged hierarchy of middle class (sometimes cutting across caste lines in urban India) against the socially pauperised vast masses of people seems difficult today. At the same time, we have to remain conscious that there is an unremitting necessity to try to win over the masses through ceaseless struggles against false caste and religious consciousness. In this, a deep study and propagation of India’s strong rational and scientific philosophical tradition will be of great help.
We are being constantly fed with an idea that the rich philosophical tradition of India essentially borders on a strong belief system of deep religiosity, especially of Hinduism, wherein the spiritual emancipation and journey of soul into the other world for eternal pleasure, as opposed to material emancipation of people in the present world (by ‘people’, here the agents of the ruling class mean the “Antyaja” or lower castes: classes, who are deprived of assets as ordained by the Dharmasastras such as Manusamhita), is given utter prominence and has been accepted universally.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Incidentally, out of the nine major branches of Indian philosophy— Mimamsa, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya,Vaiseshika, Vedanta, Charvaka, Jainism and Buddhism— five, namely, Mimamsha, Samkhya, Charvaka, Jainism and Buddhism, are decisively anti-God or atheist. So, there is no one national philosophy in India, as propagated now by some pen pushers serving the interest of the ruling classes in India.
One has to consider the very diversity of her many streams as part of the Indian system of thought. For example, the Charvaka or Lokayata philosophy of the 6th century BCE was one of the strongest atheistic philosophical traditions in India that successfully challenged the notion of other worldliness and God.
This was the overall milieu of philosophical tradition which helped in the birth of zero as a separate numeral in India in 2nd century BCE, the genesis of the decimal system in 5th century CE, and rich astronomy in the writings of mathematician–astronomer Aryabhata, and then in the writings of astrologer-astronomer Varahamihira and mathematician–astronomer Brahmagupta. But, due to the utter neglect of scientific and materialist temper nurtured by idealist philosophers like Samkara (the proponent of Advaita Vedanta in 8th century CE), philosopher and theologian Madhavacharya (the proponent of Dvaita Vedanta in 13th century AD), and Brahminical culture, in which the whole institution of caste was given prominence with the birth of four hierarchical categories (which secured a decisive victory over ancient Indian materialism), India began to lose the race for the advancement of sience and technology.
Acharya Ray identified various causes behind the decline of Indian science after mathematician and astronomerBhaskara in the 11th century CE. The principal among them was the introduction of the caste system.
In this, the writings of chemist, educationist, historian, industrialist and philanthropist Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, a great scientist, and an epitome of scientific attitude and human values, especially in his magnum opus The History of Hindu Chemistry (1902) is considered to be really pathbreaking.
Acharya Ray identified various causes behind the decline of Indian science after mathematician and astronomer Bhaskara in the 11th century CE. The principal among them was the introduction of the caste system. He wrote, “…the caste system was established de novo in a more rigid form. The drift of Manu and of the later Puranas is in the direction of glorifying the priestly class, which set up the most arrogant and outrageous pretensions… The arts being thus relegated to the low castes and the professions made hereditary… The intellectual portion of the community being thus withdrawn from active participation in the arts, the how and why of phenomena— the coordination of cause and effect— were lost sight of, and the spirit of enquiry gradually died out among a nation naturally prone to speculation and metaphysical subtleties.”
In a special, simultaneous attempt to camouflage the real nature of exploitation of labour by capital, a logic is now advanced to prove that in the present post-industrial digital age, the very nature of the working class has undergone a pure metamorphosis, and it no longer is subjected to brutal exploitation, leading to the generation of ‘surplus value’ or ‘profit’, as theorised by Marx.
In this backdrop of hubbub by some neo-liberal theorists, one has to clearly note that digital labour cannot be regarded as a discrete form of labour, which is completely sealed and sequestered from the rest of the working class and the economy. Digital labour is simply an expression of growing complexity of the division of labour, which is, at best, far advanced from the antediluvian structure of division of labour based on one’s caste by virtue of their birth or “jati”.
Nevertheless, this characterises the essence of generation of ‘surplus value’ through the exploitation of labour by capital in the production of commodity— even when in its most sophisticated form as digital commodity. One must accept the Marxist logic that commodities are nothing but crystallised labour and a good (even a digital one) only has value because labour (both mental and physical) is objectified in it. This is true in all ages, especially after the birth of society based on class (and caste too, in the Indian context).
The working class and people in India today, apart from naked exploitation of labour by capital, face a massive challenge from a strong revivalist tradition, and a culture of communalism of all varieties, irrationality, brutal suppression of scientific temper (the latest attack being the removal of Darwinism from school text books), fed and nurtured daily by a significant part of the State apparatus that aspires to move forward towards some kind of a religious fascistic structure.
This neo-traditionalism in India today is sought to be armoured by heavy doses of corporate neo-liberalism that has an inherent interest to buffet any challenge mastered by the growing working/toiling class consciousness across caste and religious barriers. But, as already noted, the notion of deep caste barriers, feelings, irrationality and false religious consciousness, even among some advanced sections of the working class, become a potential threat to the all-round unity of class.
In contemporary India, if the working class, with the toiling masses such as the pauperised peasantry and trade unions as its vanguard, is to mount an effective challenge to the neo–liberal project in its Indian variety, the class struggle must overcome the barriers of mere economism (though it is no doubt a most essential adjunct of overall working class mobilisation and offensives) and delve immediately into a massive intellectual and cultural struggle against religious, casteist and obscurantist belief structures and values.
For as Marx noted, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their conditions is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
Even the partial successof such a project of cultural renaissance will aid in dawning an era of class consciousness among the masses, and fortify the class struggle (and caste struggle to eliminate caste oppressions) on the economic, social and political fronts. This is the only guarantee to usher in a new dawn in the lives of millions of deprived fellow citizens. This can be taken as one of the most important cardinal principles of the overall pledge by the working-class movement in India, especially when May Day 2023 is knocking at our door.