The anti-Brahminical movements in India, especially in Maharashtra, are important because the specific characteristics of Indian caste feudalism and the way it was transformed and yet essentially maintained by British colonial rule, defined the specific anti-feudal tasks of the Indian revolution. The most basic anti-feudal task the land question took on, was the extremely complex features as a result of Indian caste feudalism. Because of the way in which hierarchical relations were maintained within the village and among the exploited classes themselves, and because of the way in which productive work for the land was institutionalized through the jajmani/palotedarisystem, it was insufficient to look at the land question simply in terms of landlordism. Similarly, the slogan of ‘land to the tiller’ was abstract and insufficient in the Indian context without understanding the overall Brahminical domination. For the fact was that much of the land had two tillers– the cultivating middle caste peasant, whether tenant or ryot, and the Dalit field servant, whose connection to the land was equally long-standing.
The very inequality among the exploited, institutionalized through the feudal caste hierarchy, meant that the need for creating unity in the context of resolving land question was crucial. It is hard to see how this could be done without a specific programme of action constituting poor peasants including Dalits, as well as caste Hindu toilers who would have the responsibility of seizing and distributing the village lands and instituting necessary programmes of co-operative and collective agriculture.
Though attempts were begun by the Dalit castes from the late 19th century to organize themselves, the various sections of Dalit liberation movement really began to take off from the 1920s in the context of the strong social reform and anti-caste movements, which were beginning to develop a genuine mass base. The non-Brahmin movements in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu especially provided an important support. It is not accidental that Jyotirao Phule, the mali (gardener caste) who lived in the middle of the 19th century, made the initial ideological advances and formulated a theory of Brahminism and ‘Irani Aryabhat’ conquest turning the Aryan theory upside down to identify with the original ‘non-Aryan’ Shudra and anti-Shudra inhabitants of the country.
Dalits, to some extent, were organizing the 19th century also. An early attempt in Maharashtra was the movement of Gopal Babu Wangankar. Much organizing focused on the effort to regain their rights to serve in the British Indian Army, which they had helped till the 1870s, but which was then withdrawn from them. It was in the 1920s, however, that the Dalits began to organize strongly and independently throughout many regions of India. The most important of the early Dalit movements were the Adi-Dharma movement in Punjab (organized in 1926); the movement under Ambedkar in Maharashtra, mainly based among Maharas, which had its organizational beginnings in 1924; the Nama-Shudra movement in Bengal; the Adi-Dravida movement in Tamil Nadu; the Adi-Karnataka movement; the Adi-Hindu movement mainly centered around Kanpur in UP; and the organising of the Pulayas and Cherumans in Kerala. (For details see Mark Juergensmeier, “Adi Dharm: Origins of a Revolutionary Religion” University of California Press; Eleanor Zelliot, “Learning the Use of Political Means: The Mahars of Maharashtra”. In: Rajni Kothari, ed, "Caste in Indian Politics", Orient Longman, 1970. J.H. Broom-field, "Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth Century Bengal" (University of California Press, 1968).
In most of the cases the Montagu - Chelmsford Reforms provided a spark for this organization of Dalits, but the crucial background was the massive economic and political upheavals of the post-war period. The movements had a linguistic-national organizational base and varied according to the specific social characteristics in different areas, but there was considerable all-India exchange of ideas and by the 1930s this began to take the shape of all India conferences with Ambedkar emerging as the clear national leader of the movement. The founding of the Scheduled Castes Federation in 1942, and its later conversion into the Republican Party, gave Dalits a genuine all-India political organization, though this remained weak, except in certain specific localities, and did not by any means constitute the entire Dalit movement (Bharat Patenkar, Gail Omvedt: The Dalit Liberation Movement in Colonial Period). Writing about the Non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra led by Jyotiba Phule, Com. Anuradha says, "The movement began with the founding of the Satyasashodak Samaj in Pune. The rise of Satyasashodak Samaj (SS) took place in the context of a rise of Brahminical Hindu revivalism in western India in the 1870s, with its base in Pune, which put the upper caste reformers on the defensive. After working as a social reformer for almost 20 years, Jyotiba Phule founded the SS in 1873 in Pune. The main task of the SS was to make the non-Brahmins conscious of their exploitation by the Brahmins. Phule himself belonged to the malicaste, a caste involved in the cultivation of vegetables, and their trade in the vicinity of Pune. His family was middle class and he was educated in a mission school. The SS did not restrict its activities to any particular caste and worked among the various non-Brahmin (NB) castes in the rural areas of Thane, Pune and later in other districts in Bombay Province and Berar. They also worked among the workers in the textile mills of Bombay. The songs, booklets and plays written by Phule used a popular hard-hitting style and language to expose the various ways in which the Brahmins duped the people, especially the peasants. The SS interpreted the racial theory of the origin of caste in the context of popular tradition - the Aryan invaders had enslaved the local peasantry, the rule of Baliraja, the peasant king was defeated - showing the links of the SS with the democratic sentiments of the peasantry.
In Phule's time, the SS campaigned for social reform - they rejected their own feudal-style marriages and adopted the SS marriages, which were based on principles of equality, mutual respect and loyalty between husband and wife. The SS reform campaign in Phule's time led to a strike by barbers who decided not to tonsure widows leading to tensions in the village. Phule ran a paper called Din Bandhu. His main supporters were Telugu contractors and workers in the textile mills. The first reformist organization among the textile workers of Bombay, the Mill Hands Association, was formed in 1890 by N.M. Lokhande under Phule's guidance. This association represented the grievances of the mill workers till it was pushed aside by the militant trade unions that emerged among the workers in the aftermath of the First World War. Phule promoted modern agriculture among the peasantry and personally bought land to experiment and set an example before them. He was influenced by the democratic American writings of Tom Paine and the principles of liberty and equality. He wrongly believed that British rule had destroyed the role of Brahmins and brought modern education to all castes, and hence was a supporter of the colonial rule in the country.
After Phule's death, the activists of the SS continued to work. The fact that units of the SS were formed in villages not only in the districts like Ahmednagar, Satara, Kolhapur, but also in the Berar region in Amravati, shows that the growing peasant consciousness was being mobilized through the SS in the beginning of the 20thcentury. Their propaganda struck a chord among the peasantry. Campaigns against social problems like drinking and against untouchability were taken up. The SS also took up the problems of the peasants, promoting co-operatives among them. The contradictions in the rural areas were expressed by the SS as a conflict between the Shetji/Bhatji and the Bahujan Samaj (money lender/priest and the masses).
The SS functioned systematically, holding annual conferences after 1910, and bringing out a magazine. SS tamashas (the dramas) have toured the villages, singing songs and putting up performers to spread their message. The basic content of the activities was anti-feudal. The propaganda of an SS tamasha led to a spontaneous revolt of the peasants against Brahmin landlords in 1919 in Satara. The peasants were demanding a reduction in the rent. They broke idols and abused the gods and the wives of the Brahmins. This revolt was not supported by the landlord sections of the NBs in the rural areas. Nonetheless, SS activity continued and SS activists were involved in peasant agitations in other districts in the 1920s. The SS attacked the feudal authority in rural areas and aroused the democratic consciousness of the peasants. The SS campaigns led to the exodus of Brahmin landlords from the villages in western Maharashtra. It laid the ground for the militant anti-imperialist struggles led by the peasantry in the region in the 1940s, like the Patri Sarkar movement in Satara, when a parallel authority was set up against the British.
The SS Movement was the main movement in the early part of the 20th century in Maharashtra through which the anti-feudal, anti-caste sentiments of the peasant masses of the middle castes were expressed. It dealt a blow to Brahminical hegemony and feudal relations in the countryside. But since the leadership of the movement restricted their attack to caste ideology and failed to put forward a programme to break the foundations of the caste system, in the concentration of land, the main means of production, they could reform the caste system and feudalism and not break it. Hence, they were unable to fulfil the interests of the lower caste (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question in India”).
The anti-Brahmnical movement was an important milestone in colonial and post-colonial India to challenge the Brahminical hegemony and struggle for democratization in Tamil Nadu. E.V. Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker “Periyar” played a stellar role in this. Apart from this, there were social reform movements like the Madras Hindu Social Reform Association formed in 1892 for promoting education of women, reform of marriage, abolition of untouchability, etc. However, the Self-Respect Movement led by Periyar was much more radical and mass-based, though Periyar also used the platform of Justice Party, which has a more landlord upper caste base. Writing about Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement and the Justice Party, Com. Anuradha says, "The Justice Party was led by and clearly represented the interests of big landlords and merchants from among the upper castes among the non-Brahmins only. Periyar's movement was based on wider support of the rising working class, the middle class and the traders, especially in urban centers like Erode, Madurai, Coimbatore, Salem, Tiruchirapalli, Tuticorin and other towns. At its peak, the Self-Respect Movement took up the activities of propagating against money lenders’ exploitation and the problems of the peasantry.
While the Justice Party took a strong pro-British stand, anti-colonial intellectuals among the non -Brahmins, many of whom were active within the Congress, for instance, Kesava Pillai, EVR, and Dr. Varadharajulu, formed the Madras Presidency Association in 1917 to press for full communal representation for the non-Brahmins.
E.V. Ramaswamy "Periyar" formed the Self-Respect Movement "Suyamariyathai Lyakkam" after he walked out of Congress in 1925 for their unwillingness to support separate representation for the non-Brahmins. The conservative, pro-feudal, pro-Varna positions of the Congress leadership had led to tensions within Congress - between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. Periyar’s movement was concentrated in Tamil areas of the Presidency. It was oriented towards the oppressed castes, including the untouchables, and he took active steps to involve women and the youth. They ran a magazine called “Kudi Arasu”. Militant attacks, with an atheistic approach, were launched by the Self-Respect Movement, not only on Brahmins, but also on the religion itself, on superstition, caste dimensions and caste privileges. Periyar wanted to arouse self-respect and feeling of equality among the lower castes. They upheld the pride in Tamil language and opposed the use of Sanskrit. They propagated a ban on the use of Brahmin priests for marriages and popularized self-respect marriages; they opposed the use of the Thali, called for the abolition of caste names, and ridiculed the epics like the Ramayana. Periyar’s style was direct, propagandist and very popular. By struggling for the equality of all castes and breaking the hold of religion, the movement paved the way for a materialist analysis.
In the 1930s, the Self-Respect Movement, under the influence of communists in Tamil Nadu, and the influence of Periyar’s trip to the USSR, supported socialism. Communists like Singaravellu propagated materialist philosophy and socialism through the magazine. During that period, two trends were active within the Self-Respect Movement, one which wanted to take up anti-capitalist propaganda and activity. The Self-Respect socialists began organizing on problems of the peasantry along with their regular conferences. Under the influence of the CPI leaders, the Self-Respect socialists (Samadharma group) merged with the Congress Socialist Party in November 1936 (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question in India”).
The Revolutionary left alternative complementarity of anti-capitalist and anti-caste movements -
the move away from traditional Marxist theory was initiated from the 1970s when serious efforts were made both theoretically and politically to build bridges between Communist and Dalit Movements. The Dalit Panthers made serious efforts in this direction in the early 1970s. This was followed by two important interventions by Marxist scholar activists in the 1980s.
Dalit Panther Manifesto written in 1973, defined Dalits as not only the SC and Buddhist converts, but also laboring class, agricultural laborers, landlords and poor farmers, nomadic tribes and Adivasis. This way of definition is different from conventional categorization and it reflected very strong class factors. Similarly, the manifesto spelled out landlords, capitalists, money lenders, imperialists and bureaucrats as enemies. The political parties, depending on religious sentiment and casteism, and the government patronizing them, were also blamed as Panther’s enemies. The ideologue of the group Namdeo Dhasal, emphasized that not only caste system but also class system, should be eradicated. He further argued "casteists, capitalists, and religious leaders are all controlled by the Hindu feudal system. Therefore, issue of untouchability has not remained to be only psychological or mental slavery".
This perspective of Indian social system reminds us of a slightly different version of historical materialism than advocated by the traditional Marxist. This attempt at bringing together the twin agenda of anti-capitalist and anti-caste struggle rested on asserting the materiality of caste exploitation. It firmly rejected the relegation of caste to superstructure and untouchability to the realm of mental or cultural subjugation. In the early 1980s, an important intervention was made to explain the continued relevance of pre-capitalist relations in the “modern time” (Kumar Sanjay Singh: Foreword to Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Published by Students for Resistance; Delhi, 2012). Writing about the Dalit Movement in Maharashtra after Ambedkar, Com. Anuradha says, "Discontent with the existing political and economic situation among the youth of the newly converted Dalits burst forth in 1973 in Bombay, in the form of the Dalit Panther Movement.” The general political and economic situation among the youth of the newly converted Dalits burst forth in 1973 in Bombay, in the form of Dalit Panther Movement. The general political and economic crisis in the country, the revolutionary upsurge of students and youth around the world, the frustration of the newly educated Dalit Youth who found their desire for equality smothered, confronted by discrimination and unemployment, led to the emergence of the Dalit Panther Movement. The Movement challenged not only Congress rule, but also the corruption ridden RPI leadership.
On 15 August 1973, Raja Dhale wrote an article in “Sadhana” exposing the hoax of Indian Independence. Dhale abused the Indian flag since it had given the scheduled castes neither equality nor freedom from oppression.
The issue of “Sadhna”was banned by the Maharashtra government. This was the spark that gave birth to the Dalit Panthers. A literature of protest burst forth, attacking all forms of discrimination, mocking at those "immersed in plastering withering leaves" expressing the anguish of the injuries ploughed into their banks, calling upon countless suns aflame with blood to advance setting afire town after town. Namdev Dhasal, Yeshwant Manohar, Daya Pawar, Keshav Mesharam and many others achieved overnight fame. The literature of revolt vowed to take revenge for the centuries of oppression; it sprang up on notice boards, in slums, in small magazines and posters. Taking inspiration from Black Panthers, this movement gave itself a name - Dalit Panthers. Meetings were held, the Bhagwat Gita burnt; campaigns to break the practice of untouchablitiy in various forms were organized. In a short span of six months, militant organizational units sprang up in innumerable slums of Bombay and Pune. The state, taken aback by the spontaneous growth and the intensity of this movement, launched attacks on the Dalit Panthers, not directly, but through Shiv Sena. Minor reasons were utilized in order to arrest activists of Dalit Panthers, and to beat them up in order to prevent them from spreading. (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question in India”).
The anti-caste or anti-Brahmincal movement in India cannot be understood without discussing the phenomenal contribution of Dr. Ambedkar. He not only led the Dalits, but also had written extensively on the caste system and Dalit liberation strategies. His annihilation of caste is an extremely important tract for any serious anti-caste struggle. Writing about the "Annihilation of Caste”, Dr. Anand Teltumbde says, "What the communist manifesto is to the capitalist world, Annihilation of castes may be to the caste India!”Unlike Marx and Engels, who consciously wrote the Communist Manifesto as the clarion call for proletariat to revolt, Babasaheb Ambedkar did not have any idea that the presidential speech he was drafting to be delivered in the annual conference of Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal of Lahore in May 1936 would turn out to be the manifesto against the Hindu Caste System. Because of its hard-hitting attack on the Hindu religion, which in his analysis came out to be the source of caste system, the organizers of the Hindu Reformist Mandal had cancelled the conference and the undelivered speech, therefore, was published in the book form. The period in which this text was written is the momentous period in Ambedkar’s life. As is well known, Ambedkar has started off with the civil rights movement of the untouchables, which he thought would sensitize Hindus to undertake due reforms within the society to remove untouchability and other inhuman practices vis-a-vis the then untouchables. But the bitter experience in the very first struggle of this kind at Mahad, where the Dalits were brutally attacked for having dared to pollute the Chardar Tank, impelled him to rethink this approach. Although he tried to persist with it by calling a satyagraha after eight months at the very same Chavdar Tank, which was again thwarted by the caste Hindus, this time with an injunction from the court, and also supported some of the temple entry movements thereafter undertaken by his followers, he turned his focus towards the political arena. In the Round Table conferences he had successfully won separate electorates for the untouchables decimating the spirited opposition of Mahatma Gandhi. However, when Gandhi declared his fast unto death against this Communal Award, provoking in turn the entire caste Hindu hostility against Dalits, he had to compromise by accepting the increased number of reserved seats for Dalits but through joint electorates (Dr. Anand Teltumbde: Forward to Annihilation of Castes Students for Resistance Delhi).
Communists ignored his struggles as "Superstructural" and hence unimportant. This conduct of the communes led him away from them. Lamenting the increasing divergence and hostility between these two camps of proletariats today, viz., left and Dalits, one is tempted to imagine the revolutionary possibilities if the communists had duly empathized with and cohered with Ambedkar’s vision.
Evaluating Ambedkar's important role in Anti-Caste and Dalit Liberation Movement, Com. Anuradha writes, "Following the tradition of the earlier Non-Brahmin Movement Ambedkar did not participate in the nationalist movement though Ambedkar was aware of the exploitation of the British and Depressed classes realized that they needed Swaraj to develop the movement, he felt that it could not take on two enemies (i.e., the upper castes and the British) at the same time. So they targeted their attack on the caste system. Throughout his political career, Ambedkar was a firm opponent of Gandhi and he exposed the hypocrisy of the Congress leadership on the issue of eradicating untouchability.
Ambedkar played a very important role in mobilizing the lowest castes in Maharashtra to struggle against caste oppression and to demand equality. He gave the people, suppressed for centuries, a self-identity in which they developed a pride in being from the Mahar Community, and he gave them the self-confidence that, given equal opportunities, they were no less than members of the higher castes. The almost total conversion of the entire Mahar Community to Buddhism in 1956 served to encourage this sense of identity and pride. The pubic rejection of Hinduism which sanctifies inequality and caste discrimination and public conversion to a religion based on egalitarian principles, is another symbol of desire for equality. It includes also a rejection of the old feudal ideology of Brahminical ritualism.” (Anuradha Ghandy: Caste Question in India”) Underlying the necessity of Marxists having a correct understanding of Ambedkar’s role in revolutionary struggles, she writes, "There has always been a controversy on the evaluation of Ambedkar among communist issues like his attitude to communists, his attitude to violence or his role in trade union movement have been presented to judge Ambedkar. But what is significant in such an evaluation, form a Marxist point of view, is his objective role, in the process of democratic transformation of society.
The democratic transformation of India required a revolutionary struggle against the backwardness and semi-feudal agrarian relations in rural India. The Caste System had been part of the pre-capitalist feudal economy. Caste ideology was part of the traditional feudal culture and ideology. Therefore, to smash the caste system and actively fight caste-based oppression were an integral part of the democratic transformation of our society. Ambedkar and the Dalit movement led by him were an important part of this democratic current against caste feudalism. By asserting the identity of the Dalits, by demanding equality, by attacking the feudal ideology of Hinduism, Ambedkar fought for democracy in social life. But Ambedkar did not connect the caste system with wider agrarian relations in a comprehensive manner. He did not conceptualize the role played by the British in perpetuating and defending this backward exploitative agrarian economy. Hence, his movement remained one part of anti-feudal current. And this led Ambedkar to place hope in constitutional means for gaining political equality. Ambedkar was a leading liberal reformer of his time. He is a source of inspiration for the Dalits not only in Maharasthra, but in other states as well. For Dalits, who have acquired education but face caste discrimination, who demand equality but are denied it in various ways, subtle and crude, he is a symbol of their identity and desire to gain equality (“Caste Question in India”).
Taking to task the mainstream parliamentary left parties like CPI and CPM for their mechanical and opportunistic attitude towards anti-caste struggle, Com. Anuradha writes, "In India the traditional communists (CPI, CPM, etc.) have generally, viewed class struggle as primarily, an economic struggle. They have, most often viewed the caste struggle as dividing the people. What they did not realize is that the people are already divided on caste lines and the basis of unity must be equality (and that higher caste prejustices must be fought in order to gain equality). Also, class struggle is not merely an economic struggle, it is a struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor for control over the main means of production and the political life of society. It includes the struggle in economic, political, social and ideological spheres, and the key aspect of revolutionary class struggle is not economic struggle but political struggle - the struggle for the seizure of political power. In rural India, this struggle for political power involves the smashing of the feudal and caste authority. In the countryside, and also the setting up of new bodies (where the higher castes are not allowed to automatically dominate) through which peoples power is exercised.
The reason why the revisionist CPI and CPM have basically negated the caste question are three:
· First, they did not view the agrarian struggle as primarily anti-feudal and so did not see the significance of attacking caste oppression as part of the anti-feudal struggle.
· Second, because of their reformist politics, and their immersion in economic struggles and electoral battles, caste oppression was not merely negated but brushed aside, as the bulk of the organized workers are from the higher castes and the biggest vote banks are also from the higher castes.
· Third, because of a mechanical linking between the base and the superstructure, they did not feel the need to fight casteist outlook and maintained that common economic struggles will automatically bring together all castes and remove caste bias. Ideologically, they replaced dialectical materialism with mechanical materialism and assumed a one-to-one relationship between the base and superstrucuture by further maintaining that, with the transformation into socialist society all caste biases will automatically disappear. Influenced by the theory of productive forces whereby, they maintained that social relations of production will automatically change with a development of the productive forces. (Anuradha Ghandy: The Caste Question Returns. In: Scripting the Change - Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy; Daanish Books, New Delhi).
Com. Anuradha had a sharp eye on the Mandal Kamandal debate and anti-reservation struggles. About the opportunist and anti-Dalit prejudices of the ruling class parties and the reactionary nature of anti-reservation agitations, especially the anti-Mandal agitation, she writes, “ In an attempt to check the BJP’s efforts to dislodge it, the Janata Dal Government announced the implementation of reservations for the OBCs. But this was widely opposed by the upper castes in the form of anti-reservation agitations. The extent of the upper caste control over the government bureaucracy and prestigious professions can be seen from their violence and aggressiveness against the implementation of the Manda Commision. The Comprador bureaucrat bouorgeoise and its media gave wide publicity to this agitation which was restricted to elite institutions. The techniques they used, like self-immolation to those their opposition, also gave their agitation mere publicity. The upper caste sections of the bureaucracy also support the agitation. The agitating students were from ABVP and NSUI, although both the Congress and the BJP opportunistically remained silent during the agitation.
While recognizing the implementation of reservation policy for OBCs, will in spite of income limits, favour the landlord elite sections of the OBC castes and in that only a few castes may gain, yet the fact is that most of the OBCs are poor and landless peasants or those eking out of their subsistence in their traditional occupation. Reservations will provide only a very few small sections among them a secure middle class existence, for the majority the agrarian order to be overturned in order to give security and a better life. But the middle castes have hardly been represented in the administration and they have a right to their share in this sector.
The extent of caste prejudice and caste feelings that are nurtured and bred among the so-called modern sections of the upper castes has been revealed by the vehemence of the anti-reservation agitations. There is a need to oppose the anti-reservation agitations for what they are – an attempt by the reactionary sections of the uppermost castes to maintain their monopoly over the states’resources and prestigious lucrative professions with their vicious elitist castes biases. It is nothing but an indirect attempt to perpetuate the caste system by keeping the Dalits and the lower sections of the OBCs as menials and labourers to be exploited at will (Anuradha Ghandy: “Caste Question in India”).