The continuing struggle against caste oppression
Bhimayana: experiences of untouchability. Navayana Publishing, 2011, £12.00 (Sterling)
Bhimayana is a beautifully illustrated, simple and sometimes amusing account of one of the ugliest and cruellest features of Indian society, the Hindu caste system. There are 170 million in the most oppressed caste or Dalits, referred to as ‘untouchables’, in India today. On average, two are killed every day and three Dalit women are raped. Every hour, two Dalits are assaulted. Every day, two Dalit houses are burned down.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, born 120 years ago, and the country’s foremost Dalit fighter, has more statues erected to his memory than either Mahatma Gandhi or Pandit Nehru, India’s first prime minister after independence. With the former he argued publicly about measures to overcome the plight of the lower castes. Under the latter he served as the first law minister and chair of the constituent assembly. His proposals for a Hindu code bill to make personal law more equitable – for assuring equal opportunities and women’s rights in the new India – were amended out of existence and he resigned.
Ambedkar had been given the chance to study in the US and Britain, unlike the overwhelming majority of Dalits, even today, in spite of education and job quotas for ‘backward and scheduled castes’, which are supposed to provide them an equal opportunity. On the first pages of the book, a young man of the 21st century is complaining to a friend that the quota system for allocating jobs is holding back his own prospects. His friend then runs through some of the most humiliating aspects of the caste system encountered by Ambedkar and points to newspaper cuttings to show how little has changed.
The Hindu caste system originated in ancient, pre-capitalist society. It is a rigid, hereditary hierarchy of social rank. But, unlike class, it is not based on particular occupations or relationships with landowners or employers. In this order, Brahmins, originally priests, generally have dominated professions such as scholars, teachers, lawyers, etc, and enjoyed high status. The so-called ‘outcasts’ or ‘untouchables’ have generally been excluded from education and training as well as access to many public assets, condemned to a life as poor labourers, engaged in so-called ‘unclean’ work at the bottom of the pile. While individuals have been able to achieve certain concessions in society, these archaic distinctions have been carried on even under ‘modern’ capitalism.
Stories from Ambedkar’s childhood and youth move along the pages of this unique book with pictures by two Adivasi artists, Durghabai and Subash Vyam. It was devised and written by Srividya Natarajan and S Anand, but the artists have added their own embellishments – pictorial and in inventions for the dialogue. There is a parallel with the cartoon book by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis. About a rebellious girl in Iran, it was also made into an animated film.
Quite unexpectedly, simple pictures and direct messages can move you to tears and anger, joy and delight. The words of each character, including Ambedkar, are contained in speech bubbles – in the shape of a bird for those who are soft and gentle; attached by twisted venomous coils to those who are cruel and callous. The pages are strewn with birds, animals, snakes and fish. The story almost literally flows from page to page with water in various forms – streams, lakes, ponds and water storage tanks.
Fighting for water rights
And it is water over which the most glaring discrimination is practised: the denial to Dalits of water used by all other Hindu castes, by Muslims, Parsis and animals. The very name Bhimayana is a skit on the Hindu’s holy book, Ramayana, the epic tale of the life of the chief god Ram.
Bhim (Ambedkar) fought all his life against the scourge of the caste system. In one of the early scenes in the book he is travelling on a train in 1918 reading Democracy and Education, by John Dewey, a tutor of his at Columbia University. Dewey was an eminent US philosopher who, in 1937, headed a commission of inquiry into the charges fabricated against Leon Trotsky and his supporters in the infamous Moscow trials.
In 1920, Ambedkar launched a hard-hitting, anti-caste newspaper. Three years later, he began organising for a mass rebellion over access to water, the Mahad Satyagraha. It took four years to prepare a kind of mass ‘trespass’ of 3,000 untouchables to take water from the Chavadar tank in the Bombay area. They would be exercising their right to do so, inscribed in law but denied in practice. The Dalit activists called the event a ‘declaration of independence’. There were defiant speeches: “The Dalits rallied to the cry of the French revolution: ‘Liberty, equality and fraternity’. Twenty people were injured when the demonstration was violently attacked”.
Ambedkar was seen as a revolutionary in his own way. Though never a Marxist, he drew the conclusion that no ruling class gives way without a fight. He explained to those who took up the struggle with him: “If it was not for the resistance of the rulers, violent revolution would not be necessary!”
When the Brahmins at Mahad decided that, rather than let Dalits drink water from the Chavadar tank, they would pollute it with cow excrement and urine (among other things), a second Mahad Satyagraha was organised, on 25 December 1927. This time there were 10,000 protesters. A copy of the Manusmriti, the ‘sacred’ Hindu law book which upholds caste practice and women’s enslavement in the home, was ceremonially burned on a pyre.
A newspaper story from January 2008, copied into the Bhimayana, shows that nothing has changed. When Dalits, aided by human rights organisations, took direct action to claim access to the waters of a pond in Chakwara, near Jaipur, and bathed in it, they were set upon. Local Hindus bombarded them with sticks and stones. The police waded in with tear-gas and live ammunition. “The caste Hindus”, writes the newspaper, Tehelka, “have started to shit and dump garbage in the pond. Recently, some men dug up the village sewer and directed it to the pond water”. The right to use the water was granted, but the water was unusable!
A life of struggle
At various stages in his life, Ambedkar came up against the humiliations and deprivations that Dalits experience to this day – discrimination in schools, transport and hospitals, even among barbers. The only time he began to feel equal and be treated equally was when he was studying abroad. In his home country, even as an eminent lawyer, he was refused lodgings on the basis of his origins, not only by a Hindu friend but by Parsis and Christians too. A Hindu ‘friend’ says that if he gives him accommodation, his servants will leave! There follows an account from The Hindu (5 May 2008) of students in New Delhi training for the civil service being beaten up by a landlord and his family when they came to know they were Dalits.
In the book, Ambedkar shows how, even though Muslims are maltreated, even persecuted, by the majority Hindus, they operate their own kind of hierarchical system, including looking down on and discriminating against Dalits. He laments, they “teach equality but practice the caste system”.
Ambedkar’s militant anti-casteism brought him into conflict with Mahatma Gandhi. He was angry that Gandhi only saw discrimination when he was out of his country, in apartheid South Africa in the 1930s. Ghandi’s solution at that time was not to fight to abolish apartheid but to campaign for a separate category for Asians, superior to black people. This was eventually established. The pacifist campaigner against British rule in India was less aware of the brutality inherent in the caste system in his country.
Ambedkar’s approach to injustice was in many ways revolutionary and linked to the general struggle of all workers and poor against inequality and exploitation. In an echo of Karl Marx’s comments to his daughter that “happiness is to struggle”, the Dalit leader maintained, “the battle to me is a matter of joy”. “Educate, agitate and organise: have faith in yourself”, he urged. But his solutions were limited. He advocated that political representatives for Dalits should be Dalits exclusively, and be voted in by a Dalit-only electorate. This would appear to consolidate separateness rather than overcome it, but it was an understandable attempt to get a greater hearing for the views of the most oppressed in society. It was aimed at getting a certain political independence from politicians who came from other castes and continually ignored the plight of the Dalits.
Ambedkar did not turn to the class struggle as a way of uniting the oppressed against their oppressors, or to the ideas of socialism. At the end of his life, however, he did finally repudiate Hinduism. “It was not my fault I was born an untouchable”, he said, “but I am determined I will not die a Hindu”. Incredibly, he turned to another mystical explanation of the world, Buddhism. In 1956, a few months before his death, half-a-million people converted with him, the biggest known mass conversion in history. Unfortunately, Buddhism, while appearing to Ambedkar to be more honestly egalitarian, has been used in Sri Lanka, where it is the state religion, as a cover for one of the most bloody oppressions of a national minority in the world – against the Tamil-speaking people of the island.
Each of the book’s chapters shows that the worst anti-Dalit discriminations are far from eliminated from Indian society. The denial to Dalits of medical care continues. A special kind of ‘honour killing’ persists: persecuting, beating and killing women and their male relatives simply because they are Dalits.
The election of some prominent Dalits to high office has not led to the elimination of discrimination against the untouchables. A Brahmin-Dalit alliance swept the Bahujan Samaj Party to power in Uttar Pradesh in May 2007. Its leader, the Dalit woman, Mayawati, became chief minister. Dripping with gold and jewels she is as rich and corrupt as any upper-caste politician in a similar position. In her state, almost 80 million people live below the poverty line, 40% of the total population.
The Bhimayana carries a 2007 account of two Dalit women in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, who died after being thrown out of hospital as soon as they had given birth to their babies. Doctors are not meant to do life-saving examinations on Dalit patients because of their untouchability. Discrimination of this kind brings back memories of what happened in the southern states of America when the great jazz singer, Bessie Smith, was injured in a car crash. Because of the colour bar operating at the time, doctors were not ‘allowed’ to treat her until all whites had been seen to. By that time she had died, of treatable injuries.
The caste issue is deep-rooted and complicated. It is not sufficient to do as the ‘communist’ parties of India do. They declare that casteism cannot be eliminated until classes are eliminated, which would only be in a communist society. They do not put forward policies to combat caste prejudice and discrimination in capitalist society in the course of building the socialist movement. Worse still, they have stopped even trying to establish genuine socialism, let alone communism. On the contrary, by 2007 they were scandalously involved in the murderous events in Nandigram, West Bengal.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had been in control of that state for more than three decades, partly because of its early popular land reform measures. It had not, however, pursued an uncompromising struggle against capitalism and landlordism across the state or on an all-India basis. It was the CPI(M) administration which ordered armed gangs of police and party thugs to move in against poor farmers in Nandigram and clear them from their land to make way for multinational corporations. Fourteen people were killed, many injured, hundreds made homeless and deprived of their livelihoods. This and other anti-working class and poor policies have now lost them political control in poverty-stricken West Bengal, as well as in Kerala in recent elections.
The Stalinists have argued that there must be a stage of industrialising society through developing capitalism. Then, the basis can be laid for socialism and communism. That was the policy of the Mensheviks who, in Russia in 1917, opposed the Bolsheviks’ strategy of taking power into the hands of the workers and peasants to build a socialist society. But the ideas of socialism seem now to have been sidelined along with any pretence of taking up a struggle against caste discrimination. They have not been able to develop a programme that would link up the just demands of the Dalits and their struggle for emancipation with the demands of organised workers, peasants and other poor people for a transformation of society along socialist lines. This failure, even in the middle of the last century, is also what drove Ambedkar and other Dalit activists away from what they saw as Marxism and communism – in reality, Stalinism.
Marx’s idea of communism was a society in which no private ownership of major industry, land and banks would exist. Under a democratically-run plan for the economy and society, all that is produced can be distributed according to people’s needs and without any discrimination or privilege. In the transition towards such a society, even if the working class took power tomorrow, not only would the economy have to be completely transformed along socialist lines, but many vestiges of capitalist society would remain in the form of reactionary ideas, prejudices and chauvinistic attitudes and practices. Steps would have to be taken with the aim of eliminating all forms of discrimination without worsening the rights and conditions of others.
Against all discrimination
Even under capitalism, during boom periods, some measures like quotas and positive discrimination can have an effect in providing better opportunities for women, ethnic minorities, Dalits, etc. But they are limited and open to misuse. The elimination of inequality, exploitation and injustice needs always to be linked to the need to change society along socialist lines. But long before a truly communist society can be established, socialists must take up and fight against every form of discrimination.
The workers’ movement, in the battles over wages, conditions, housing and prices must inscribe on its banner the unity of all workers and oppressed, regardless of nationality, caste, sex or religion. It must aim for the equal treatment of all workers and poor: for full and fair access to education, healthcare and other social facilities, jobs and housing.
Ambedkar’s words about Indian democracy still ring true: it is “only a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”. Great advances can be achieved through struggle. But they can only be maintained for any length of time where all natural and human resources are massively expanded on the basis of nationalisation and planning under the democratic control and management of workers and poor people’s elected representatives.
‘Superabundance’ is the basis for genuine socialism and is vital to enable all to receive what is needed for a fulfilling and useful life. Until then, there will be many and varied conflicts over scarce resources. This is shown in the Bhimayana when it comes to quotas on jobs. A system of quotas can ease the situation for those who are most discriminated against in terms of jobs, education, housing and even in politics and on governing bodies. It is an attempt to redress the bias against them, the lack of opportunities and inadequate representation by politicians of their grievances and interests.
Socialists support all steps towards equality in society, but not at the expense of other exploited layers. There is always a risk of positive discrimination measures being used by individuals to better themselves, regardless of what happens to others.
In today’s corrupt, capitalist India, some Dalit political figures have been elevated into privileged positions where they have pursued their own interests and turned a blind eye to the problem of caste. They have adopted the lifestyle and approach of the caste oppressors. This has happened where caste-based parties have made compromises with capitalist politicians and business interests to gain power and influence, but then have not used their positions to further the interests of the most downtrodden people but only to feather their own nests.
Socialists will take up and combat all forms of oppression, exploitation and discrimination. Where today, as described in the Bhimayana, a resource such as water is denied to Dalits, an uproar has to be created and mass protests organised in the manner of Ambedkar’s Satyagrahas but involving as many organised workers from different backgrounds as possible to give weight and a perspective to the struggle.
The rottenness of the caste system must be exposed at every turn, along with the incapacity of capitalism to provide even the basic necessities for the world’s inhabitants. It is a system that deserves only to be swept away through mass resistance and the organised struggle of workers and poor people behind a programme of socialism that can end the horrors of class and caste oppression once and for all.