K Murali (Ajith) and K.P Sethunath in conversation. (Part 2)
Part 2: Communists and the caste question
Question. The most concrete issue of the basic democratisation of Indian society is that of annihilation of caste. This is something that we have understood earlier itself. But it is precisely in that matter that the Indian State has totally failed after the transfer of power. In this context this issue is becoming extremely relevant since the Dalits or the backward communities, I am not sure how much that term “backward” is appropriate, whatever it might be, the fact is that these communities are being assimilated by aggressive Savarna Hinduvaadis. At the minimum in electoral politics. How should we analyse this situation? How can we overcome it? Because this is in fact the most important issue of the internal democratisation of India.
K.M: In my opinion, caste annihilation is something which will only be possible along with large scale social change. Corresponding to it, as part of it, that is how it’s going to happen. Inter-caste marriage and other such measures will help to weaken caste. It will help to create a consciousness against it. But it’s also a fact that in a society where caste continues to exist, it will have only a limited role. Secondly, quite often people who do such inter-caste marriage ultimately often end up admitting their children in school as members of one or the other caste. They often try to do it in such a way that the child will get the benefit of reservation. That is they are trapped in a situation where they continue to be bound within the chains of caste.
At the level of electoral politics though the BJP has been able to make significant sections of these oppressed castes as the fighters of its aggressive Brahmanism in my opinion that is a temporary phenomenon. Because basically so far as those masses are concerned they cannot coexist with it. Incidents like the one at Una or the recent one where Dalit children were beaten to death, in so many instances that understanding will certainly develop among the Dalit masses at a broad level. In elections they will vote in many different ways, because the electoral vote on many occasions is not a reflection of actual opinions. A number of other compulsions, interests are what motivate people to vote for one or the other person. As I pointed out earlier there is the issue of the elite that has grown up among them, of their selfish interests, and the direction in which they are leading the masses. But even then all of these are temporary phenomena. They cannot continue to stand up in front of a situation of social advance. At present for example, the BJP has the advantage in all the reserved constituencies in Gujarat. Yet, the polarisation that has emerged there after Una, the large scale unification of Dalits, the emergence of new leadership like Mewani or like Chandrashekhar Azad in Uttar Pradesh, what do all of these show? Electoral politics has never succeeded in preventing that. Though the BJP has made some temporary gains it has not been able to prevent that polarisation. Because, basically, aggressive Brahmanism is an extremely divisive ideology. It can never achieve this so-called Hindu unity. No matter how much it pontificates about it, in the final analysis it has to necessarily bring about the domination of casteism, of those who pride themselves to be the uppermost section among the Savarnas itself. We can now see an example of the Lok Sabha speaker who is a staunch RSS fellow. He surely would be knowing what the RSS policy is nowadays. Yet what is he saying? He said that only the Brahmins have the right to rule, or the capacity to rule. On the one hand go around speaking about Hindu unity and the need for Hindus to unite, to take positions against caste, to state that Savarnas should go to Dalit houses and take food there, and invite them back to their houses. So you have Mohan Bagwat going around making speeches on all this and in the midst of this that senior RSS fellow is speaking like this. That is something that comes from his innermost feelings. No matter how much he has been trained by the RSS, no matter how much Mohan Bhagwat will tell him that these are not things we should speak about in public, we must keep it in our minds for the time being etc., that has to come out from his innermost self. Because once you give room to aggressive Brahmanism then it has no limit. You cannot say that it can only go to this extent. It has to come out in all of its details and forms. And therefore, since it has this character, polarisation is inevitable. So far as the masses of the basic sections are concerned they will certainly turn to the path of struggle for their demands.
The Limits of Parliamentary Politics
Q. Another question that comes up in relation to this, a point that I am trying to raise, is that our liberal left forces, whether it is the Congress or the parliamentary Left, they have not been able to bring up any alternative against Hinduvada. They have not only failed to bring up any alternative, I have the opinion that the domination of Hinduvada today is because they have directly or indirectly helped it. In such a context how can we face off against Hinduvada politically?
K.M: First of all it cannot be tackled through parliamentary politics. Because parliamentary politics represents ruling class politics. The change from the old liberal Brahmanism to the present aggressive Brahmanism has come about precisely because of the necessities of this ruling class. And all these political parties are complicit in it in one or the other manner, whether it be the parliamentary Left or the Congress. Take the case of Bengal for example. We saw the phenomenon of CPM votes transiting en mass towards the BJP. To say that this happened because they fear the Trinamool Congress, that they switched over to the BJP in order to face up to the TMC, is sheer nonsense. That is not the reality. Rather the fact is that so far as the CPM rank and file is concerned it makes no difference to be in the BJP. Because their culture, their social life, their rituals, in all of there is no difference between them and those who have already joined or aligned with the BJP. Today the RSS is making a big deal of the Ram Navami which was never a big thing in Bengal. Mamata and others are opposing this saying that this is not something that accords with Bengali culture. They are opposing the processions where weapons are flashed around. But for many years now, the celebration of Durga puja, the building up of large pandals, all of this has been a permanent part of the parliamentary Left’s political activity or cultural activity. Never have they ever attempted to bring about something different, to bring in an alternate idea or tradition. It is not that there is no such alternate tradition in Bengal. There surely is. But the parliamentary Left has never tried to uphold that tradition and through that spread a secular consciousness among the people. Because what they follow is parliamentary politics. Electoral politics. What is important for them is votes. So all they calculate is which caste will vote for whom, which religious section will ally with whom. Therefore in my opinion you cannot expect any resistance from those sections. Other than their making some noise, or opposing, or even casting votes against some bills, or proposing some bills in the parliament, in the end, ultimately they will allow all these things to happen. So contrary to this, we should primarily or mainly focus on the new uprisings, advances, initiatives emerging from the side of the masses. That is already happening here. As I pointed out earlier, the polarisation that is seen after Una, the development that is seen in UP, the uniting of more than 200 organisations in the Elgar Parishad in Maharashtra, there are so many such new initiatives that are coming up from the basic level in various places. New struggles, or existing struggles on environmental issues are also part of this. Through such struggles, at a very broad popular level, it will be possible to generate a new consciousness against this aggressive Brahmanism. On the other hand the most decisive question is that of the state itself. The forces facing up to that state, who are attempting to destroy that state with force of arms and create a new state, those forces, ultimately, they themselves are those who are going to face up to this in the long term. They are the forces who are going to eliminate this altogether.
The Revolutionary Left
Q. The present situation of that type of a politics, at present it is limited to a small circle. It is facing limitations in entering into the mainstream, or there is a situation where it cannot come into the mainstream. The objective situation has always been favourable for an uprising. But the absence of theoretical or intellectual preparations has been the main obstacle for such an upsurge. Isn’t such a situation existing today also?
K.M: Yes. But it is also true that there are upsurges going on that have overcome this. That is beyond doubt. We can make that out from reports that are coming from places like Chhattisgarh. There are reports of such upsurges at the local level. Beyond that there is the question of the influence, the impact it is creating at an altogether different level. As a symbol of resistance, as a symbol of the forces who are standing up against the state, as a model of serving the people wholeheartedly, genuinely, at all these levels it is creating an impact. In all the new upsurges and agitations that are coming up we can see one or the other reflection of it, in one or the other way. Besides we must also remember another matter. This is not a new phenomenon. The situation of such forces, staying separate from the mainstream, or having to face isolation, is not something we have to face in this country alone. In almost all countries that had been the situation for quite a long time. It is only when in certain concrete historical situations, a favourable situation is obtained, and the crisis reaches a totally new level, it is only then that these forces transform into major mainstream forces. Therefore, to say that this is not a countrywide force or presence now, in my opinion that is not a big matter. When we look at history we see that this has been the condition in most countries. What matters is that it has continuity. We see that continuity. That is the particularity of the revolutionary movement that emerged through Naxalbari. However much setbacks it has suffered, however much losses it has suffered, it has shown its capacity to withstand. Not only withstand but to overcome that and gain new advances. Certainly the Indian State is not a small force. It has a huge armed force and other infrastructure. And apart from that it has also got a lot of supportive forces. And therefore to face up to such a force with a small force that comes to at the most three thousand odd is not an easy matter. The fact that this small force has been facing up to its attacks for so many years is something that would have been impossible without the support of the masses. It is certainly something that would not be possible on the strength of weapons alone or just because there are some forests there and places you can hide. Without the support of the people it could never have sustained itself like this.
Communists and the caste question
Q. In the discussions on India’s democratisation the main issue is that of caste. The criticism is that the communist parties have never been able to understand the caste system in India is very strong. This criticism exists right from the time of Ambedkar. Today such criticisms are coming up from among the left forces themselves. Even in this situation our parliamentary communist parties are handling the question of caste as something that is going to be resolved through class struggle. They have not yet broken off from that old understanding that caste is yet another form of class, merely a matter of consciousness. There is also the criticism that caste is something that cannot be comprehended through Marxist concepts.
K.M: In my opinion the early communist movement, including the ML movement, did face such a problem. There is no point in closing our eyes towards that history. The positions adopted by the unified communist party on the mill worker’s struggle is a fact. There are articles written by Ambedkar criticising them. If that had not been the reality then there would have been no reason to write them. So there is no point in closing our eyes to such historical facts or arguing on the basis of certain reasoning that such a thing could not have been happening then. But today a lot of things have changed. I think, as far as I know, today there is no party that considers caste as merely a matter of false consciousness. As far as I understand, both the CPM and CPI do not understand caste in that manner. The articles written by CPM people on caste, on the caste question, have not dealt with it like that. But the question is this, at what level are they understanding and handling that question. It is at the level of reforms. They understand it as something that can be resolved within the existing system through constitutional positions. They see it as something that can be settled through these measures alone. And certainly they also accept that class struggle has its role in this also. But unlike this, or different from this, there is the question of radical social change. Because caste is something that is tied up with the production relations existing here. So long as one does not take that up, so long as those relations are not smashed, caste annihilation is not going to take place. That does not mean that caste annihilation will take place just by doing that. Certainly its remnants will continue to exist. Certainly Brahminism as an ideology will continue to exert its influence. Then to tackle that one would need specific methods of struggle and forms of struggle also. Certain initiatives in that direction have been taken up under the initiative of the revolutionary movement in the recent period. But they face a severe problem, because there is the reality that they do not have the freedom to carry out mass activity. Therefore, precisely because of that, the activities they carry out in that regard, they cannot claim them to be their own activity or give propaganda to it in those terms. But as far as I understand, in fact, many such activities are being carried out by them in this matter.
Q. How do you respond to the criticism that in its essence itself Marxism is unable to comprehend the issue of caste.
K.M: I don’t think so. Yes, Marxism puts stress on class. True. But at the same time one has Marx’s observation that the individual essence is an ensemble of social relations. What are these social relations? The social relations in which an individual involves are not those of class alone. Marx himself has pointed out how class reality divides the individual. He has observed how there is a division caused between the personal individual and the class individual. So then we have the responsibility of taking that analysis further ahead. What I mean is that this is not something beyond the capacity of Marxism. It is not something that cannot be comprehended by Marxism. When we view some matter from the standpoint of feminism, or from that of the Dalits, or from that of the Adivasis, or religious minorities, all of that is a reality. What they articulate are the issues of the specific type of oppression, of the specific alienation, they face, and other similar issues. Just because a woman is a proletarian or a poor peasant all these specificities do not disappear. That is there is no meaning in saying that the only reality existing is that of the poor peasant and the others do not exist. The individual is an ensemble, a complex ensemble, in which all of these aspects are intermingling. Therefore there is reason for a movement, there is a necessity for a movement that would address all of these different aspects of an individual’s existence. And that is something that can be conceived. So I don’t think that this is something that goes beyond, or stands apart from the Marxist theoretical framework.
continued in Part 3…
Youtube Link to the interview: