K Murali (Ajith) and K.P Sethunath in conversation. (Part 1)

Part 1: Gandhi and Brahmanism

Question: In our current discussion, especially at a time when the Hinduvadis have gained domination in politics, many of the progressive forces are putting forward the view that we must go back to the Gandhi-Nehru stream in order to counter Hindutva.

K.M: The problem I am referring to is that this Gandhi-Nehru stream is something that stays within Brahminism . Then why did the ruling class abandon it and adopt the aggressive Brahminism of the Sangh Parivar? This brand of Brahmanism was existent then too. Savarkar, the Hindu Mahasabha, Golwalkar, Hedgewar, all were there. The ruling class confined it to a corner. It was never allowed to break into the mainstream. It was considered as something to be kept away. So, how did it arrive at the prominence it enjoys today from that position? It is simply impossible without the consent of the ruling classes, unless they are prepared for it. Because, basically it is the State existing here that they should serve. Who are the ruling classes represented by this State? If it is incompatible with their ideas, then the Sangh Parivar will have no role. So why did the change occur ? What was the crisis faced by the ruling class ? What were the problems with their legitimacy? Why did they choose this path to overcome it ? When we look into it thus we will find that it is not Sangh Parivar who began this, but Indira Gandhi. It is from the time of Indira Gandhi that the attempt to propagate Brahminism in this kind of an obvious way, explicitly, began. We saw it in Rajiv Gandhi too. We also saw it in the recent election campaign of Rahul Gandhi where the Janeu/poonool (sacred thread) is exhibited.

Q. In the language of medias, it is presented with the label mridu-hindutva (soft Hindutva) but it doesn’t seem to be something that can be contained within this label.

K.M: Not at all. This is just another form of Brahmanism. I would like to point out that it is simply impossible today. Aggressive Brahmanism is required by the ruling classes to survive the challenges and crises they face today. So relying on Gandhi-Nehru concepts to confront it is of no use.

Q. Gandhi as the author of Hind Swaraj is seen to be totally different from Gandhi as a part of freedom struggle. This points to a fundamental change in Gandhi. What is your opinion in this regard?

K.M: Of course there is a change. There is no doubt about it. There may be changes due to one’s own experiences. But let’s not forget the other struggles that took place during that period. The pressure it created, the moves that were needed to be made to cope up with it; there is such a thing also. It is not a linear change. It’s not like Gandhi arrives, makes a plan and executes it. For example, we see Gandhi’s earlier stance on Dalit reservation issues changed with time. But the most important thing to be kept in mind is that while passing through all this change, Gandhi has never abandoned the core values of Brahmanism. That is something to be noted. Most importantly let’s look at the clash of views between Ambedkar and Gandhi when an organisation like Harijan Sevak Samaj that took up Dalit issues was formed. What was the issue that Ambedkar raised ? The Dalits must fight the struggles against caste oppression for their emancipation on their own. It should be handled as a matter of their identity. But what did Gandhi stand for? He insisted that it should be handled by the Savarnas as atonement for their sins. This atonement is in effect a stance of condescending generosity. So I say that Gandhi was still trying to keep them within Brahmanism. What was Gandhi’s main argument against a separate constituency? It was simply that it will divide the Hindu society. Ambedkar pointed to the reality of fragmented Hindu society. The Dalits were never a part of it. They were always excluded from it. Then on what basis can one talk about a unified society, this was the key question raised by Ambedkar.

Q. There is a view that it was the idea of national liberation from colonial occupation that made Gandhi to put forward this statement ?

K.M: Yes. But there is one thing that we need to realise regarding this. Narayana Guru pointed out that it was the British who granted him sanyas. Because in any other period, he would certainly not have been allowed to live like that. We have the experience of Vaikuntaswami just before Narayana Guru. The king of Travancore put him in prison. The power was then in the hands of the king. As power was vested in the hands of a Kshatriya king, Vaikuntaswami was imprisoned in accordance to Brahmanic principles. It is beyond dispute that colonialism created new opportunities for the oppressed castes. If that had not happened, then probably they would have had to gain it through struggles. But the fact is that they got new opportunities. If freedom meant losing these newly gained opportunities, then wouldn’t their questioning of the meaning of that national liberation be quite legitimate? That so-called national liberation would be another manifestation of Savarna domination. Dalits and other oppressed castes quite naturally found it to be an attempt to establish a new kind of Savarna domination by exploiting the possibilities of nationalism or anti-British struggle. 

The Savarana and Avarna streams

Q. When we reach this point, we are getting into the reality of modern India. A stream in the history of our national Independence struggle was one which always strove for the recreation of the domination of Savarnas. There were different streams that stayed out of this. How accurate would it be to assess that the Indian state we are seeing today is something that denies these varied streams ?

K.M: It certainly is accurate. It has always excluded them. It should also be noted that it has been compelled to cope with them, to grant them some space. But basically it is excluded. It is branded as anti-national and communal. This is something that Sahodaran Ayyappan points out. The viewpoint of the above mentioned Savarna domination is claimed to be national, but on the other hand it is declared to be communal when presented from the viewpoint of caste and oppression of the castes. I think there are some other problems with that argument, something that I have tried to articulate earlier. When we speak of the process of democratisation there are two basic streams. One is the Savarna stream and the other, the Avarnna one. Coming to the Savarna stream, it tried to reform many of the customs, practices and values of the caste-feudalism of the old period. Because firstly, the new period requires a change, a reorganisation. Secondly, within the Savarnas, there is an upward movement of those who were Shudra earlier. They need to make their own change. It is also a period when a Savarna bloc, a social category called the Savarna emerges, transcending that of simply Brahmin, Kshatriya and so on. But basically caste is not a disadvantage for them. It is in fact a social capital, a benefit for them. So they can make reforms from within. There is an example I have pointed out before. In Chandu Menon’s ‘Indulekha’, the love between Madhavan and the heroine. It is simply something personal. The Brahmanical interference of Soori Namboothiripad comes in between. But this love eventually succeeds in overcoming it. It points to a validation of personal love negating the customs of Brahmanical domination. But at the same time, there is also a situation that the two, as murachekkan and murapennu, are betrothed by custom. Their relation does not, in that sense, violate the Nair’s casteist norms. What is seen there is the possibility of some reforms while staying within it. This is the general characteristic of Savarna democracy. Despite this, it too has played a role in the process of democratisation. That is beyond dispute. Whether it be Chandu Menon’s ‘Indulekha’ or other such works, or the Malayali Memorial demanding employment for the Nairs, they are certainly an integral part of our history of democratisation. But we should not fail to see its limits. Moreover, there is a qualitative difference between the Malayali Memorial and the Ezhava Memorial. The former came from angst over lost positions and the desire to regain them. The latter came from claims for positions that have been denied for ages. It’s a new right. It’s not a recovery of the old right. So, in that respect, there is basically a distinction between them. There is a basic distinction between the Savarna and Avarna streams. It is in the light of this distinction that we should examine them. Obviously the Avarna stream had its limitations. Firstly, it was often confined to a bourgeois perspective. On some occasions, it has compromised with the imperialist, British power. But to speak of it as anti-national and standing separate from the freedom movement just for this reason alone, is meaningless. For example we see such superficial views in EMS’ qualifying Vallathol as a national poet after comparing Kumaranasan and Vallathol.

Q. EMS criticised Kumaranasan for taking ‘pattum valayum‘ (silk and bracelets- an honour, as a form of appreciation) from the British.

K.M: Ok. It could be criticised that ‘pattum valayum‘ were taken. But how does Vallathol become a national poet? Especially after Sahodaran Ayyappan? How could a person simply raising the issue of untouchability only be considered progressive in a place Iike Keralam where personalities like Ayyappan, who took the values of Narayana Guru a step further, proclaiming the idea of ‘no caste, no religion, no God for humanity’; like Ayyankali and Poykayil Yohannan and others lived? The Malayali community had gone beyond that. It had a history of Ayyankali’s Villuvandiyathra (bullock cart ride) for the right to public roads and agrarian agitation for the right to education, the many struggles fought by the Sahodara Sangam and so on. Then this comes after all this. In fact, when Vallathol speaks of it, embracing Gandhian views he was going backward, not forward.

Q: The debates surrounding politics, particularly those about the Hindutva-vadis are all centred on the cultural. Beyond this, how can they be explained in a fundamental socio-economic context? Is it not an issue of what is put as a post-colonial state, the Indian state, and not just of the Hindu/Hindutva-vadis? When we say that Indira Gandhi or Rajeev Gandhi, all of them nurtured neo-Brahmanism, wasn’t it a restructuring or re-positioning of the post-colonial state in a specific manner?

K.M:  Yes, but I have disagreements with the use of the term post-colonial. It’s alright if it’s used in the sense of ‘coming after colonialism’. But the way it is really being used has an undertone of us being free; though it is not spelt out explicitly. Even though we say we gained freedom, it is not really nothing more than formal independence. India was still a Dominion of Britain from 1947 to 1950. It is meaningless to say therefore that we got freedom in 1947. It was only in 1950 that the status of Dominion ended and India was declared as a sovereign state. But fundamentally, all these third-world countries, India included, are neo-colonies, all subject to neo-colonial exploitation. Indirect imperialist control and exploitation is going on. This being the reality facing us, the crisis it creates can never be resolved by the ruling classes within this framework. Which is why the ideas of self-reliance, and import substitution economy have been given up step by step and replaced with an export centred economy, and then the later shift by the ‘90s towards globalisation, can all be seen. The recently declared Kochi-Coimbatore industrial corridor is just like the Nagpur-Mumbai or the Delhi-Mumbai corridors –  but where are all of them sprouting up from? On one side, CPI-M’s study congress claims this as the solution they discovered for the development issues Keralam is facing, while on the other side, Gadkari and Fadnavis discover the same thing! And Modi too advances it. So there is a common source to this – and that is imperialism. And then you’ll realise that all these are nothing more than different newer forms of development plans, devised by the imperialist agencies for different times. They can never overcome the crisis in political legitimacy and the economy. There was a new awakening with globalization, the feeling that something is about to happen. A big noise was made about how the IT sector is developing, this is developing that is advancing and so on.

Q: In one sense, it was a reorganisation of labour on a global scale.

K.M: Yes, there was a reorganisation. But it has hit a roadblock there. The same happened here, and that’s the basic problem. After the transfer of power of ‘47, there was a long period where the Congress held power both in the states and the centre. What was their basic claim? Congress led India to freedom, that they were now leading India to development, that the tradition of Gandhi and Nehru tradition was guiding us. It was at the centre of a legitimacy of rule which enjoyed domination politically and culturally.

Q: The state that was formed after the transfer of power in ‘47 was also one of a benefactor type. It took on the additional responsibility of leading the people along a proper path.

K.M: But was it just India? That tendency was global. The idea of the welfare state. The state had a direct role in it. In European countries the state has a direct, active role, be it in the social or educational or whatever realm. I think it was a common thing then. Especially coming after the economic crisis that preceded it. And then there was the quite different model of the Soviet Union. All this would have been an influence. What I was trying to formulate is this: whatever the legitimacy of the state was based on, like ideas such as independence or development and so on, all of them reached their inevitable crisis by the sixties. On one side all of its problems were starting to get visible one by one. On the other hand there was also a growth of new forces from beneath. That takes form as a crisis within the Congress. Its old centralisation falls apart. This is when the idea of a high-command comes up. Because there was no other way to keep themselves together. Be it the Congress, or the country itself, the problem is of the need of a stronger centre. But that is when new movements started coming up, national movements, revolutionary movements like Naxalbari. Many others too. In all ways the legitimacy was facing challenges. It is from that point that the ruling classes started to have thoughts on how to rethink or recast it as the need for a new consensus was evident. And what are the main parts of that consensus? One, an explicit Brahminism. Not aggressive but open, nothing hidden about it. Stating outright that it this is that is to be protected.The RSS’ stance is an aggressive variant of it. Secondly, this self-reliance is meaningless. Let foreign capital flow in, so that it’ll bring development, that this ought to have been done earlier, etc. As long as the GDP increases, we needn’t worry about anything else. And the third? The attempt to forge a Savarna bloc at the all-India level. It took form clearly through anti-reservation protests. The Savarnas in various states came out in these protests. The challenge to reservation was a questioning of the logic, reasoning, underlying reservation, one based on Gandhian views. That was what was being done at the ideological level. What is the need today for reservation, they asked. Why are we to blame for whatever our ancestors did? This is an overthrowing of the earlier thinking, the Savarna mental state, that reservation is justified, mistakes were committed by us earlier, that should be rectified and so on. Similarly, at a communal level, step by step, Islamophobia was pumped up with arguments that it is the Muslims who are causing problems, their population is high, they are simply going on increasing it, or that they are loyal to Pakistan. Incidents like Moradabad happened during the Congress rule, that did not happen under BJP rule.

Q: One of the main characteristics of the Indian state in the ’80s was the splintering of the consensus that had taken form after ’47.

K.M: True.

Q: And in it, one important issue was that of the national question of Assam, Punjab, etc. or ethnic issues like those of Jharkhand, Utharakhand and Gorkhaland. The communal riots happened parallel to them. Weren’t all these political events undermining the solidity of the state apparatus, or its credibility?

K.M: One type of credibility is negated, but meanwhile another is created. Both happen together. The latter is brought up by negating the former. 

Q: Does the aggressive Hindutva represent this new type of political legitimacy?

K.M: Yes, that is what I had mentioned, which is why it appeals to the ruling classes.

Why the BJP?

Q: What I’m trying to say is that the Congress finds itself unable to run the state. The Hinduvadis propagate a commonsense common logic that the Congress can only appease Muslisms or minorities, only we can run the state in a powerful manner.

K.M: It’s not just appeasement, though. They’ve done plenty of massacres as well. But the thing is, once you create a stage for explicit Brahminism, the aggressive one will follow. Just imagine, what would have been the reaction if someone in 1952 campaigned for votes, showing off his janeu and claiming he’s a Brahmin? When the then Congress President Rahul Gandhi does that today, there is a situation where that is simply seen as an instance of soft-Hindutva. It does not cause any shock. Concerned questions about how the president of a party like the Congress can do this were not raised. The Congress is trying to play the RSS’ game. And the discussion is about whether or not the Congress can take on the BJP and win. What I am pointing to is this change. Things have been taken to a new level. A situation has been brought about where the narrative begins from this level. And if that’s where things are, it would be the aggressive Brahminism that will be better received. Because there are no confusions or doubts in that Brahminism. It is something its proponents have been saying for long. They’re quite prepared in all senses to implement it. This is the force on which the ruling classes can rely the most.

Sangh’s influence among the oppressed castes

Q: One important thing to see when looking into the electoral success of the new-Hinduta (RSS) is the influence they have in Dalit-OBC sections. If we see the 2014 and ’19 election results, the majority of seats in Dalit-Adivasi reserved constituencies were won by the BJP. Same with the OBCs. Except Mulayam Singh Yadav’s group, OBCs in UP mostly are with the BJP. It is assumable that there must be some social engineering at work here that appropriates them into the Savarna politics. Then how do we form a political consciousness against Savarna Hindutva?

K.M: It is important to realise that there is a layer among these sections that aspire to move into Savarna-ness. Petty-bourgeois sections, as well as some bourgeois elements have emerged. For them the next necessity is to move to Savarna-ness. They want to get that sort of acceptance. They also are very influential within their respective castes, and if they move over to some side, their influence brings others along. This is the class the RSS and BJP is pulling in. So what I am saying is that this sort of a material condition has come about. This is not something achieved just through social engineering. A material foundation allowing such social intervention has emerged. Secondly, be it SP or BSP, or RPI, all are constrained within certain castes only, like the SP was a party of the Yadavs, and not all OBCs, or similarly for the BSP, or the RPI. The SP was never a party of all OBCs. It is mainly a party of the Yadavs. Similarly the BSP never was a party of all Dalits. It too mainly represented a specific caste, the Jatavs. In the case of the RPI in Maharashtra it mainly represented the Mahars. Not that this is completely, exclusively so, but these communities form the majority within the respective parties.  Moreover the benefits of reservation are also mostly gained by these communities. Quite naturally those left out, those who have not gotten as much benefits, their dissatisfaction will be there. The BJP is able to tap into these. So in UP and Bihar what they did was to avoid the dominant communities, and make alliance with the excluded, the Kurmi community in UP for example. For them, they are trying to find some way to get out of their situation. If they can become a Minister or MLA, enough can be earned for some generations itself. And so they go over there. There is nothing really surprising about that.

continued in Part 2

Youtube Link to the interview:


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