In this putatively postMarxist (postmodernist) epoch, where history has ended decisively in favour of capitalist liberal democracy, class has been given up as an analytical category and socialism as the historical destiny of the oppressed. Multiculturalism is the dominant political theme in the metropolitan academies where volumes are written on the hardening cultural boundaries and the carnivalesque play of identity. Therefore the ‘subaltern’ and ‘postcolonial’ political subject’s consciousness has nothing to do with the totalizing the Soviet era mode of production narrative. Caste has become a very important subject, both for the metropolitan and Indian universities; book-shelves are packed with latest publications on caste.
In Indian politics, caste has emerged as one of the most important issues after the Mandal/Kamandal controversies. All the ruling class political parties carefully cultivate vote banks based on caste. In the postMandal Indian political reality where social justice has replaced social revolution, even the parliamentary left both the neo-revisionist and social democratic type have fallen into the trap of identity politics, whereas the gruesome massacres and atrocities on Dalits is a daily affair. Not a single day passes without newspapers not reporting various outrageous acts of atrocities on Dalits in India. On the other hand, contineous ‘deconstruction’ and ‘fragmentation’ of social reality, constant ‘decentering’ of the ‘self’ and creation of the ‘other’ , micro-narratives replacing meta-narratives is the fashion, where any kind of talk about ‘liberation’ and ‘emancipation’ are quickly reduced to linguistic mysticism. In the academic jargon, caste as a cultural identity has resurfaced with renewed vigour. However, for some of us who still call ourselves an old-fashioned fossilized tribe, who still believe in revolutionary left praxis and the grand narrative of emancipation and ultimate transcendence of capitalism, caste and caste oppression is a serious issue because as Ambedkar has said, caste system is not only a division of labour, but also a division of labourers. Hence, understanding caste and working a strategy is extremely essential for the politics of social transformation. Marxists and revolutionary left forces have been derided for not understanding the caste question in India. On the contrary, Marxist authors like D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma and Suvira Jaiswal have produced outstanding works on developing a theoretical understanding of caste system in India.
It is here that the writings on caste question in India by late Comrades Anuradha Ghandy and Com. Y. Naveen Babu assume extreme importance because they developed a framework for revolutionaries for dealing with the caste system for the achievement of democratic revolution in India. It is important to highlight that both Comrades Anuradha Ghandy and Naveen Babu were no armchair theoreticians, but active participants in the revolutionary left politics in India. Com. Naveen Babu was martyred in the year 2000 at Visakhapatnam. For anyone who is serious about radical social transformation, caste is an important issue because the caste system, apart from structuring exploitative relations of production, essentially forms a social hierarchy. Caste status is acquired by birth and castes are maintained as endogamous groups. There are more than 2000 such castes in contemporary Indian society. Modern 21stcentury India still embraces caste and it forms the basis or is part of the cultural, political and social events across India.
In fact, caste has reinvented itself and is very much part of the consciousness of all the Indian classes. It will not be an exaggeration to say that no conversation or discussion in everyday life of an average Indian goes beyond the second sentence without the phrase ‘which caste is she/he from?’ In a sense, perpetuation of the caste system is promoted by the upper echelons of the Indian society to bring order and to directly or indirectly control it. (Reinterpreting Caste and Social Change: A Review In: From Varna to Jati Political Economy of Caste in Indian Social Formation; Y. Naveen Babu. Daanish Books, Delhi.) The abolition of the caste system has to be a fundamental goal of the Indian democratic revolution. Any mass movement to abolish classes, which does not engage in a direct fight against the caste system, will not achieve its objective. The reverse is also true. Only identity-based caste struggle without challenging the exploitative relations of production cannot create a social system without exploitation.
Com. Anuradha Ghandy’s writing on caste question is an extremely valuable contribution in dealing with the caste question in India and its relation with the politics of radical social transformation. Com. Anuradha’s “Caste Question In India” is a seminal text in understanding the origin of caste/class, relations of production in agriculture, state, social hierarchy and formulating a political programme for the abolition of caste system and its relation with the democratic revolution in India. She wades through history explaining the origin of the caste system, tribal class society rise of the state in India and scripting a specific set of demands for struggle to abolish caste system and its relation with the democratic revolution in India. Explaining the theoretical framework, she writes, “The caste system has been one of the specific problems of the Indian democratic revolution. It is linked to the specific nature of the evolution of Indian society and has been one of the most important means for the exploitation of the labouring masses. Sanction by the Brahminical Hindu religion, Varnashra-Dharma legitimized the oppression of the working people, and the enslavement and degradation of one section of the masses, reducing them to near animal existence. For the ruling classes in India, from the ancient to the modern period, the caste system served both as an ideology as well as a social system that enabled them to repress and exploit the majority of toilers.
Invaders from other lands who came to rule over India, adjusted with this system, as it suited their class interest; religions like Islam and Christianity, which profess the equality of all men, adjusted with it, allowing its believers to be divided on the basis of caste, because they did not interfere with this system of exploitation. Today, caste ideology is still an important part of the reactionary ruling class ideological package, and it serves to divide the working masses, hampering the development of class consciousness and a unified revolutionary struggle. At the same time, caste based occupations and relations of production, caste based inequalities and discrimination, the practice of untouchability and the belief in Brahminical superiority, are still as much part of the socio-economic life of the country. Caste is being used in the corrupt electoral politics of the ruling classes. To root out the caste system we must first understand its origin and development and evaluate the successes and failures of the various struggles against the caste system and Brahminical ideology (see “Caste Question In India”; Anuradha Ghandy In: Scripting The Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy, edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen. Daanish Books, Delhi, 2011).
As I have explained earlier, Com. Anuradha was no ivory tower intellectual detached from the vagaries of everyday struggles of the oppressed, so she wrote with lucidity and without any academic jargon for grassroots activists involved in the day-to-day struggles of the underdog. She explains the origin of the caste system for people who are not formally trained in history or any other branch of social science. Writing about the origin of the caste system, she traces its history back to 3,000 years linking it up with the development of class society, emergence of the state, the development of the feudal mode of production and the continuous but often forcible assimilation of tribal groups, with their own customs and practices, into the exploitative agrarian economy (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question In India”).
She explains three distinct periods of the origin and development of the caste system:
1. Vedic period: The period from 1500 BC, when Aryan pastoral tribes and non-agricultural tribal communities took to agriculture, the emergence of agriculture as the dominant production system, to the rise of the state around 500 BC.
2. The period from 500 BC to the 4th century AD – the period of the expansion of agriculture based on Shudra labour, the growth of trade and its decline; the rise of small kingdoms to the emergence of feudalism.
3. The period from the 4th century AD onwards – when the development of feudalism took place, and Brahminical Hinduism and the jati system acquired their complex and rigid form (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question In India”).
Explaining the emergence of class society from the tribal society, she says class societies emerged from the clashes of the various pastoral Aryan tribes and the indigenous tribes and the development of agriculture with the widespread use of iron, which took the shape of the Varnas, hence the four Varnas were the form of class society which took place in the later Vedic and Upanishad period.
Giving the details of the process, she writes, “As the Vedic Aryans entered from the Punjab area and spread towards the Gangetic Plain from around 1500 BC, they were already divided into an aristocracy (Rajanya) and priests (Brahmins) and the ordinary clansmen (vis) In the incessant conflicts and wars that were associated with their spread eastwards, conflicts among the various pastoral Aryan tribes and with local tribes for cattle, water resources, land and then also for slaves, sections of tribes that were defeated began to be enslaved, known as dasas. The wars increased the importance of the chieftains. They relied on ritualism to enhance their prestige and consolidate it, and to appropriate the surplus through these rituals. Tributes of cattle and slaves were given by the ordinary vis to the rajanyas. Major and minor yagnas were increasingly performed by the rajanyas, in alliance with the Brahmins. The ruling elite and the priests live off the gifts (dand/bali) given to them by the vis at these yagna. At this stage, the tribunal organizations based on clan and kin were still dominant. The emergence of the Brahmin and Kshatriya Varnas was a process of the breaking down of the kin-based relations among these ruling elites and the creation of a broader class – the Varna – which lived off the tributes and gifts from the vis and subjugated the tribes. The pastoral tribes had adopted agriculture, and from the local tribes, the chieftain clans and the priestly clans were being incorporated into the Kshatriya and Brahmin Varnas, respectively.
The subjugated tribals, both Aryan and non-Aryan, gradually came to form the Shudra Varna. All of them were not slaves. While domestic slavery existed, it was basically the Vaishya peasants (from the vis the broader Vaishya Varna emerged) and the Shudras, who reared cattle, tilled the soil.
The widespread use of iron not only for weapons but also for agricultural purposes, from around 800 BC, marked a qualitative change in the production system of the ancient tribal societies. Plough-based agriculture could generate considerable surplus on a regular basis. Dense forests could be cut down and land cleared for cultivation. Thus, iron enabled the agrarian economy to become the prominent production system in this ancient period. The spread of agriculture was achieved at the cost of the non-agricultural tribes. They were either subjugated or displaced from the forests and their traditional means of livelihood. The conquest of new territories and the possibility of regular settlements further enhanced the importance of chieftains. Tribals’ oligarchies emerged. Many of the chieftains turned into kings who needed grander yagnas to consolidate their rule not only over their own clans and tribes, but also over the territories they commanded the janapada.
The Varnashrama-Dharma was already being developed by the Brahmin priestly class. The rituals became more complex, elaborate and wealth consuming. These rituals were the means by which the surplus could be distributed. The surplus, appropriated in the form of gifts, was shared by the ruling Kshatriyas and the Brahmin priests. Gifts were no longer voluntary. They were forced. The Arya dharma and Varna ideology legitimized the increasing power of the kings and priests and the absorption of the subjugated tribals into the lower Varnas. It became the ideological expression of the classes that had emerged from the womb of the various tribes. Those groups that did not accept the rituals and forced tributes were considered anarya or mlechha.
Development of agriculture, including paddy cultivation in the Gangetic Plains, was accompanied by the increasing division of labour and growth of trade. Private property in land emerged; towns developed; few classes came into existence - the Vaishya traders and the gahapatis, the landowners. The gahapatis did not themselves till the land, but got slaves or Shudras to till it. Tensions between upper two Varnas and the lower Varnas, and between those who owned and those who laboured, emerged. This led to the emergence of the ancient state. The first states emerged in the Gangetic Plains in Bihar (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question In India”).
She explains the emergence of the state in India and its relations with the Varna order and how Brahminical rituals were used to legitimize the rule of the kings. The emergence of the Kosala and Magadha monarchies around the 6th century BC was the form in which the state developed in ancient India. The ruling class in the proto states and these early states relied on yagnas and rituals to buttress and legitimize their rule. The early states had the explicit function of upholding the Varna order and private property. Gifts were replaced by taxes. A standing army came into existence. The Varnashrama ideology reflected and buttressed this class situation in the interests of the ruling Kshatriyas and Brahmins. The Brahmins and Kshatriyas enclose the Vaishyas and Shudras, the servants of another, to be removed at will, to be slain at will. In the context of the differences between the classes becoming sharp, the Varna divisions had become rigid. Social distance and endogamy came to be emphasized.
But the newly emerged classes, the lower two Varnas and the non-subjugated tribal communities did not accept this ideology and the Varna hierarchy with Brahminical superiority. The rise of “Lokayata”, “Mahavir”, Buddha and other opposing sects and philosophical systems was a challenge to this Vedic yagna-based Brahminism and Varna-based hierarchy. These sects gained the support of traders, and artisans organized into guilds and semi-tribal kings and chieftains. Later, with the consolidation of the state formation with Mauryan rule (4th-3rd centuries BC), the reduction in the importance of yagnas and borrowing certain principles from Buddhism, Brahminism tried to reassert its ideological role. Yet, it had to contend with Buddhism and Jainism for commercial and royal patronage and for social domination. This reflects the struggles put up by the various classes and peoples to the consolidation of the caste system based on Brahmin-Kshatriya superiority. Yet Brahminism played a key role in the development and consolidation on the state in ancient India and the development and formalization of a class society in the form of Varnas.
The Mauryan Empire, which rose in the Magadha region in the 3rd century BC, was the first major fully formed stake in India after the Indus Valley civilization. It was an ancient communal and state ownership type of state with Shudra-based production. The origins of the Mauryas themselves are obscure, but the state was guided by the famous Brahmin Kautilya, also known as Chanakya. Chanakya Arthashastra was the first and hence a frank account of how to rule. It laid down the principles of state craft without any ideological and religious cover up. The Mauryan state was a centralized state which took the responsibility for the extension of agriculture and trade. This arthashastra state settled groups of Shudras where lands could be cleared and brought under the plough. The sita lands were farmed directly by the state with the help of Shudras (serf) labour, under the autocratic regime, while rashtra lands were farmed by the free peasantry (Vaishyas). These rashtra lands were taxed on various counts. The state took taxes from the Vaishyas and labour from the Shudras, providing them with the necessities of cultivation.
While slavery also existed, slaves were used primarily by landowners for domestic work and by the state for processing the grain collected in the form of taxes and for the production of some commodities. The state also monopolized the mining and minerals. By this period, a class of dependent peasants and labourers (helots) – Shudras by Varna, had been consolidated. But the Vaishyas who carried out trade and settled in urban areas began to distinguish themselves from their peasant brethren. In latter centuries, peasant cultivation became the hallmark of the Shudras. The ordinary, free peasantry was pushed down into the Shudra Varna, while the Vaishya Varna became the monopoly of the traders and merchants. At the same time, the class of Kshetraswamis, those who got their lands cultivated by sharecroppers and dependent labourers, came to become the norm.
In the Mauryan period and upto the 3rd century AD, trade was an important aspect of the economy. While trade along with the dakshina pantha and to the north along the uttar pantha grew in the Mauryan period, in later centuries trade with the Roman Empire (1st and 2ndcenturies AD) also became important. In the south, trade links with the South-East Asian societies, including China, also existed. Thus, the class of artisans and merchants who were linked to the market were socially and economically important. Artisans and merchant guilds were powerful. Also, during this period artisan guilds were strictly not hereditary.
The restrictions on the marriage part of the tribal endogamous practices were adopted by Brahmins, though their social purpose became different. In the early Vedic period, tribal endogamy was not strictly followed in the assimilation of groups. But as class differences started to emerge and the need for a large number of labourers grew, the two upper Varnas enforced strict rules regarding the form of marriage, a method of distancing themselves from the lower two Varnas, while at the same time sanctioning hypergamy. Hypergamy allowed converted Brahmins and Kshatriyas to seek partners from among their own tribe’s folk, absorbed as Vaishyas or Shudras. It allowed political alliances with non-Kshatriya chieftains and kings. At the same time, marriage rules for the two Varnas were not restrictive allowing for the rapid increase in population of the labouring people.
In a primitive economy, human labour is the main productive asset. Hence, even marriage rules developed according to the interests of the ruling classes and gained ideological legitimacy through the rigid Varna divisions (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question In India”).
Explaining the popularity of Buddhism and Jainism, she says the toiling people like Shudras and traders like Vaishyas had to pay high taxes, but had to be content with lower social status. Expensive rituals based on sacrifice of animals created difficulties for agriculture. Explaining the process of creation of jatis, she says with the decline of yagnas, a transformation in the social role of the Brahmins took place and with that Brahminism also underwent a transformation. Brahmins, encouraged and protected by kings, brought the borders of the kingdom under agriculture, in the process ‘aryanizing’ the tribals in the region. From Ashoka’s time, the free peasants and the Brahmins migrated in search of fresh lands to bring it under agriculture. The ashrams set up by the Brahmins in the forests were the pioneer settlements that developed contacts with the tribes in the area, and brought them under the command of the plough and the Vedas. The local tribals were incorporated almost wholly as jatis of the Shudra Varna, and retained their tribal customs and became the labourers on the land carrying out the various tasks necessary for agricultural operations.
The tribal elite were incorporated into the Brahmin Varna. The Brahmins changed the form of their religion. Sacrificial yagnas became symbolic. The principle of ahimsa was adopted from Buddhism. The older Vedic codes, which were glorifications of pastoral life and wars, gave way to newer Gods, like the cult of Krishna, and also Shiva and later Vishnu. Tribal rituals were adopted, for instance the agni rituals, performed only by the Brahmins in South Indian temples, were non-Vedic in origin. Tribal worship of Mother Goddesses was also incorporated into the Hindu religion. In fact, with the development of feudalism, the feminine names of certain tribes, etc., Matangi, Chandali, Kaivarti and their tribal totems, were also incorporated into the Hindu fold. Gods and Goddesses were incorporated into the Hindu pantheon asavatars of the main God, Vishnu. This was the ideological manifestation of the social process of the absorption of tribes and semi-tribes into the spreading agrarian economy at the lower levels of social hierarchy. The significance of the Varnashrama-Dharma in this process, the importance and social base. In the king’s court, they provided the genealogy that proved the Kshatriya/Brahmin status of the ruler’s family; hence Brahminism was supported by the rulers. Yet, in the period upto the 6th century AD, at least, Brahminism and the caste system could not gain hegemony in invasion of foreign groups like Kushans and Shakas, which ruled over large territories, the strength of artisan and trade guilds, as also the influence of Buddhism and Jainism (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question In India”).
She explains how this Aryan system of caste and social organisations spread with iron to the south. And the patronage extended by the Satvanas, which were one of the first state formations in the 2nd century AD, consolidated the Brahminical caste system in South India.
The basic difference of Marxism and left politics with identity politics and ruling class politics vis-à-vis caste is that the Marxist approach sees caste oppression in India in the dominant feudal social relations and the liberation of oppressed castes including the Dalits intrinsically linked with the struggle against feudalism. Com. Anuradha explains the rise and consolidation of feudalism in the following lines:
“From around 6th century AD in the early medieval period the caste system, based on jatis, began to consolidate in most parts of India. It is clearly linked to the rise of feudalism all over India, when a class of intermediaries was created which expropriated the surplus in the form of revenue or share of the produce from the labouring masses. This was accompanied by the development of the self-sufficient village economy. The decline of trade and artisan guilds, primarily due to the collapse of the Roman Empire after the 3rdcentury AD, the contraction of money circulation, the settling down of artisans in the villages, created the conditions for the rise of feudalism. Land grants began to be given to Brahmins, Buddhist monasteries and to army officials. Though this process began in the Satvahana rule in the 2nd century AD, and with the Guptas in the 4th century AD, it became widespread from the 5thcentury onwards. From the 7th century onwards appointing feudal intermediaries who collected revenue and food on administrative tasks became common. The distribution of land grants to Brahmins, in the period of rising feudalism, meant that from the beginning they constituted a part of feudal class. This process essentially took place between the 5th and 7thcenturies, especially in the parts that were colonized by the migrating peasant settlers – in Bengal, Orissa, Gujarat and central and western Madhya Pradesh, in the Deccan. It began under the Pallava rule in the 6thcentury in the South, but reached its peak during the Chola rule from the 9thcentury onwards in Tamil Nadu, parts of Karnataka and the Kerala regions.
In this period the proliferation of jatis also began. Jati, originally a term used for a tribe with its own distinct customs, coming into a Varna, gradually replaced Varna since it became the main organization in which people were bound together. The original peasant settlers emerged as specific peasant jatis in particular regions. In the South the dominant peasant land owning jatis were considered as Satvik Shudras, ranked only next to the Brahmins. A number of jatis and upa jatis, each with an occupational specialization necessary for agriculture, or for social life in the village also developed. The carpenter, blacksmith, potter, tanner, skinner of dead cattle were available in the bigger villages. As also the barber, the washerman and the priest. They provided their skills to the peasant and other families including the families of the feudal intermediaries. In return they began to be given a share of village produce. Initially the share was decided by nattar, the association of the dominant peasant community. In later times the shares became more formal, they were also given the right to till a part of the village lands. The jagmani system, the balutedari or ayagari system emerged within the new arrangement of the village structure. Money was not needed for daily exchange. This arrangement greatly aided the Brahmins and the other upper castes from the land owning, feudal intermediaries to raise their ritual status and social prestige, since the lower castes were available in full complement to do all the various types of physical and menial labor. The upper caste did not have to soil their hands. The jati system was suitable for the feudal mode of production and it would not be wrong to call it jati feudalism.
It is in this period that the number of untouchable castes swelled greatly. From the 4th century BC itself, these are references to the untouchables, in Patanjali, who mentions two types of Shudras, the Nirashrit (excluded) and the Ashrit. But their numbers were restricted. Gradually newer tribal groups began to be included. But it is in the feudal period that their numbers went up greatly, the Chamars and Rajaks, for example, were reduced to the untouchable status of an untouchable. Tribal groups, subjugated by force after being dispossessed of their forests/lands, mans of livelihood and freedom were relegated to an untouchable status. Some artisan groups too were pushed down from Shudra to the ati Shudra ranks. They were in the main bonded agricultural labourers who were denied by religious injunctions any right to own wealth (gold, etc.) and land. Their only dharma was to labour for the entire village at a distance, polluting even by their shadow. Maximum surplus could be extracted from the untouchable labourers, forced into a low level of material existence and perpetual servitude.
Brahmins, both as individuals and as groups, were granted lands and a share of the revenue from the villages. They lived off the surplus created by the villagers. The Brahmadeva villages in South India became the centres for Brahminical culture and learning. In these villages and the surrounding region, Brahmins were allowed to keep the revenue of the villages, or the larger share (melavarm) of the total produce, they got their own lands cultivated through tenants or sharecroppers. The Dharma allowed them the right to own land, they could supervise cultivation, but they could not cultivate it themselves. A section of the Brahmin castes were closely associated with the rulers. Apart from providing fictitious genealogies to prove Kshatriya status of the ruling groups, they were the royal purohits and in many kingdoms they held administrative posts. These Brahmins, who helped to generate the surplus, gained the highest social era.
As land owners and revenue collectors, closely associated with the rule of the kingdom, the Brahmins held wide authority in the political, social and religious life. They were active members of the feudal ruling class, and its ideologies as well.” (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question In India”).
She succinctly explains the impact of Muslim rule on the feudal mode of production beginning with the Turkish rule. The establishment of Turkish power in North India, through the slave dynasty in the 13th century, marked an important phase in the feudal mode of production. They centralized the administration and introduced a systematic system of revenue collection. The composition of the ruling class underwent a change. Initially, it was the Turk slave families and their relatives that ruled, they were successively replaced by ex-slaves of Indian origin, Indianized Turks and foreign immigrants, to be replaced by even foreigners. The most important changes related to the methods in which the rights to revenue collection (iqta) were assigned. Originally restricted only for life, on the decision of the king, by the end of the 15thcentury they were made hereditary. The Turks were urban-based, and favoured Islam. Thus, Turkish rulers displaced the original feudatories and created new ones over a period of time.
The administrative changes induced by the Turks, and adopted in the Deccan too, introduced changes in the powers of revenue collection and administration, affecting military service holders, administrators, village headmen and the priestly clans, the office holders came to be called inamdars, watandars, iqtadars, deshmukhs-desais, and later as jagirdars, during the Mughal rule.
Although some of the earlier intermediaries who had lost their posts regained them during the later part of the Turk rule, yet in this period the composition of the feudal classes in north India was not stable. However, this did not affect the structure of the village economy. The Turks introduced new techniques in the science of war. They also gave a fillip to trade, commerce and artisan production in the urban areas. Hence, this period saw the development of the productive forces in Indian society (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question In India”).
By the 17th and 18th centuries when Moghuls consolidated their rule by associating with the Rajput chiefs and other upper caste intermediaries and the ruling groups of kingdoms annexed in north India and in the Deccan. This throughout the early period, though the Mughals monetized the collection of revenue to some extent, and also increased the exploitation of the peasantry, yet, they did not basically affect the social structure of the agrarian village economy as it had evolved over the previous centuries. It consisted of the intermediaries at the top of the rural structure, who were also invariably large landlords themselves. Often they held a post from the ruler, which gave administrative responsibilities and powers. These were also village chiefs and village level officials like accountants. These office holders and feudatories lived off the revenue collected from the peasants. They also controlled lands which they got tilled by either tenants or sharecroppers.
In some areas, they used the bonded labourers from tribal or untouchable castes. Most of these feudal intermediaries were from the uppermost castes – Brahmins, Rajputs and even if they originally came from the Shudra cultivating castes, they had elevated themselves to Kshatriya or to a high non-Brahmin status.
The control of temples had given the Brahmins wide control over the resources of the agrarian economy in the south. The appointment of Brahmins to high administrative and military posts during the Vijaynagara rule further concentrated power and resources under their control. In western Maharashtra too, the Maratha rule concentrated economic and political power in the hands of the Brahmins. The main cultivating castes were exploited for revenue and innumerable taxes. Yet their rights to the land had evolved over the centuries, even if they were under feudatories. The jagmani/balutedari system institutionalized the system of exchange between the services of the various castes – the peasants and the landlord. On the one hand, it formalized the share of the various castes to the produce, but on the other, it increased the power and prestige of feudatories and Brahmins, and formalized the system of beggar (forced free labour). Higher caste landowning sections could withdraw from all manual work, especially work connected with agriculture. The other castes served as their jajmans. It involved free labour for a number of artisans and service castes, who served various families at the same time, but the untouchable castes, were in many areas attached to a particular family (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question In India”).
Writing about the colonial period, she says that the British did not touch or tamper with the Brahminical system. By passing local customary and caste practices, they upheld the Dharamshastras, appointing Brahmin pundits to advise the British judges in interpreting the shastras in disputes relating to family and marriage, property and inheritance, and religious rights, including the status of specific castes. Hence, the British legal system upheld the entry into the temples to the untouchable castes in the name of protecting the established rights of other castes. The British courts entertained caste claims regarding privileges and precedence of exclusiveness in respect to religious rituals as well.
In the name of respecting the autonomy of castes, they upheld the disciplinary power of castes against violators of caste norms, even in inter-caste disputes. Thus, they upheld caste although in a much more restricted sphere than in the feudal period.
The economic changes introduced by the colonial rulers in the 19th century in order to consolidate their rule and intensify the exploitation of India, had an impact on the relations of production in the rural areas and created new classes from among the various castes, the various revenue settlements – the zamindari, rayatwari, etc., the introduction of railways, defence works, the colonial education system, the uniform criminal and civil law and colonial bureaucracy affected the caste system and modified its role in society.
In the land settlements, the British ignored the inalienable rights of the actual cultivators, in many areas made the intermediaries, the non-cultivating sections that only had a share in the produce traditionally, become the sole proprietors of the land.
In the zamindari settlement areas, the Shudra peasants became tenants at the mercy of the landlords; in other areas a class of peasant proprietors arose, but even in this the larger peasants gained while the actual cultivators became tenants or sharecroppers. The Shudra peasantry was divided into an upper section of the rich; intensified exploitation coupled with famines and other crises, indebted peasants of all the cultivating castes who were pushed into the ranks of the landless.
A section of artisans became landless labourers. A class of rural poor, landless or poor peasants, emerged from the ranks of most of the middle and lower castes in the 19th century (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question In India”). She gives a brilliant account of the Bhakti and non-Brahmin Movement in the pre-British and colonial period. She gives an excellent account of the dynamics of caste system after the transfer of power, including Dalit politics and caste atrocities.
The most significant changes have been in the countryside. The close correspondence between caste and class no longer exists in most parts of the country. The old upper castezamindars and other big feudal landlords have, to some extent, been weakened and feudal authority is, to a large extent, asserted by smaller landlords, the former big tenants of thezamindars and the large peasant proprietors. While the position of the upper castes has weakened the most, the new landlords are from the middle castes. The middle castes are, today, significantly divided along class lines. The landlords and the rich peasants are a small group from the traditionally cultivating castes, and these castes are also found in large numbers among middle and poor peasants and even among the landless.
The lower section of the middle castes, i.e., the artisan castes are primarily middle, poor or landless and some are continuing their traditional occupations. Therefore, today, the main exploiting class in the rural areas consists of the earlier upper caste elements, i.e., the Brahmins, the Rajputs, the Brahmins, together with the upper stratum of the middle castes, such as the Patidars, the Marathas, the Jats, the Yadavs, the Vellars, the Lingayats, the Reddys, the Kammas, the Nairs, etc.
The middle peasants, comprising about 25 percent of the rural households, largely come from the major cultivating castes and from other lower castes, as well as a small section of Dalits. This section has contradictions with upper sections of the rural elite, but due to the caste relations and low class consciousness in areas of low class struggle, they are trailing behind the elite landlord sections of the other castes.
The poor and the landless, who consist of 60% of the rural households, have the greatest number of caste divisions, including a large number of small artisan and service jatis, and even Muslims. This class consists also of a large number of households from Dalits and Adivasis. Of the rural agricultural labour families, 37% are Dalits and 10% Adivasis, while the remaining half are drawn from the cultivating castes and other lower castes. Here, caste divisions among the exploited is the greatest. The caste-class relationship in the present period is indeed complex (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question In India”).
Marxism, above all, is a philosophy of praxis and Com. Anuradha was a revolutionary who dedicated her entire life for the emancipation of the underdog. Therefore, as a mark of respect to her, underlining the seriousness of her praxis, I would conclude by quoting her programmatic agenda for the Dalit liberation struggle, which is intrinsically linked with the question of democratic revolution in India.
The following is the agenda she has systematically laid out for the struggle:
1. The proletariat must direct the class struggle against the caste system as an integral part of the struggle to accomplish the New Democratic Revolution.
2. For this, mobilize all the exploited classes in the struggle against caste oppression, exploitation and discrimination.
3. Smash caste-linked feudal authority in the villages and place political power in the hands of the oppressed classes, led by the landless and poor peasants.
4. Struggle to implement land to the tiller, keeping the interests of landless peasantry and poor peasantry at the forefront.
5. Wage an ideological struggle against Brahminical casteist ideology and all other forms of casteist thinking. Expose the casteist ideology in the scriptures like Manusmriti, the Gita and the Vedas, etc.
6. While upholding the right of the individual to pursue his or her faith, conduct a relentless ideological struggle against all forms of caste rituals and practices, like thread ceremony, etc.
7. Fight against propagation of vegetarianism, based on its link with ‘purity’ and other forms of superstition regarding ‘pollution’. Oppose ‘gohatya bandi’.
8. Fight social stigma against certain occupations and customs of lower castes, like beef eating or pork eating.
9. Fight against symbols of caste identity and degradation, and the culture having a caste slang.
10. Defend and actively support the struggle of the Dalit masses for self-respect. Defend the right of the Dalits to enter temples and convert.
11. Struggle for the civic and social rights of the Dalits and other lower castes, and oppose discrimination, e.g., use of common wells, hotels, toilets, hostels, etc.
12. Struggle for equal participation of lower castes in social functions. Try to establish social intercourse between the people belonging to various castes participating in the class struggle. Encourage inter-dining among different castes.
13. Oppose housing schemes based on caste segregation.
14. Defend and encourage inter-caste marriages. Demand incentives for all inter-caste marriages. Children of inter-caste marriages should get facilities as accorded to either parent.
15. End use of caste names in official records.
16. Encourage trade unions to take initiative in the implementation of reservation policy. Fight reservations in private sector.
17. Fight bureaucratic delays and corruption in loans and subsidies for Dalits and OBCs.
18. Demand special schemes to upgrade technology and the skills of lower castes and artisan groups.
19. Demand increase in scholarship amount and improved facilities in hostels for Dalits and Adivasis.
20. Expose the reactionary nature of caste associations, especially upper caste associations.
21. Fight against and expose the casteist leadership within the oppressed castes, who prevent the class unity of the toiling masses. There is a false consciousness among the poor people belonging to the upper castes that they are socially equal with the rich people of their castes. We have to expose this myth and make them understand that their real comrades-in-arms are the oppressed people of other castes. We should never put caste before class.
22. Fight and expose the opportunistic and reformist trends within the leadership of the oppressed castes. Fight bourgeois democratic illusions among oppressed castes.
23. Struggle against caste prejudices and caste beliefs within the ranks of the proletariat and other sections of the toiling masses, and build up a struggling unity among the exploited classes.
24. The communists should be one among the oppressed people of all castes and be with them in words and deeds. At the same time we should expose the pseudo communists who are rank casteists in practice.
25. Educate and struggle against casteist beliefs of activists of mass organizations.
26. Form special platforms of democratic sections to fight caste discrimination and programs against lower castes.
27. Form anti-riot squads in defence of lower castes in areas of caste tensions.
28. Propagate materialist scientific ideology, promote atheism.
29. Struggle to create a democratic culture, based on equality of all irrespective of caste and gender.
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