70th anniversary of partition of India: Caste and the class struggle in South Asia

A commission on ‘caste and class’ at this year’s CWI Summer School in Barcelona looked at an important issue which, in South Asia, can make or break an organisation that aims to win mass support for the socialist transformation of society. We carry here the main points from the introduction by Clare Doyle (CWI International Secretariat) which dealt predominantly with India.

The question of caste and class has added importance during this week’s 70th anniversary of Indian independence and partition. CWI archive articles on 1947 and historic background can be found here:






Two dramatic developments last year in India literally put the issue of caste and class on the agenda of the 2017 CWI School and demanded clarification of at least some of the issues raised.

One was the wave of protest at the beginning of last year that swept Indian universities after the forced suicide or murder of PhD student Rohit Vemula, a Dalit activist thrown out of Hyderabad University and unable to support his family.

The other was an ‘uprising’ of Dalits throughout the state of Gujarat after four young Dalit men, whose job it is to collect and skin the carcasses of dead cows, were tied up and publicly whipped and humiliated. For a time, the cow vigilantes, backed by the viciously communal RSS – the organisation behind the ruling BJP (and Modi’s political nursery) – had to take a step back; the BJP Chief Minister in Gujarat resigned.

This was effectively a state-wide strike by Dalits – the largest of the oppressed caste groupings in Indian society. Solidarity demonstrations took place across the country. This marked an ‘awakening’ of the Dalits and a radical departure from the fatalism that Indian traditional customs have forced on people.

Without a mass party or trade union force to develop and widen the struggle, it subsided. This year an atmosphere of dark reaction developed with almost daily lynchings across the country for the ‘crimes’ of carrying beef, eating beef, being Muslim… These horrific murders are reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan killings of blacks in the Southern States of the US. As one documentary film-maker has expressed it: “Caste is to India, what Apartheid was to South Africa and segregation was to the US.”


The division of society along caste lines is more complicated to explain and to combat than the division of society along class lines. Class is defined by us, as Marxists, according to the fairly simple relationship to the means of production – both industrial and agricultural.
But there is an overlapping of ‘upper caste’ and the ownership of the productive forces. Class struggle and the fight against caste-ism are inseparable. There is no choice but to take up the struggles of the most oppressed.

The Communist Parties of India sweep the issue of caste under the carpet, saying it is subsumed by the class struggle. Unfortunately, they sweep the struggle for socialism under the carpet, too!

In the past, the CPI adopted campaigns like “Land to the tiller” and carried through land reform when they had power in W Bengal. The Congress Party too made declarations against casteism and caste practices. Attempts to alleviate, compensate, give a better chance…have done nothing practical to change the centuries-old system of oppression.


Some on the left equate ‘casteism’ with fascism. The Indian prime minister, Modi’s roots in the ‘fascistic’ Hindu nationalist paramilitary RSS do not make him a fascist. Nor does a fierce adherence to Hindutva and communal attacks on Muslims amount to fascism.

Fascism involves the violent elimination of particular sections of society and of labour organisations. In India, the unions organise only a tiny per cent of workers but can still call 180 million out on a one day strike – as they did last year – against price rises and changes in the labour law. The fact that the country’s labour law remains intact, despite Modi’s wishes, is an indication in itself that the country is not on the road to fascist dictatorship.


The division of society into hereditary castes is a particular feature of Hindu-dominated India (where over one billion of the population are designated as Hindu) but it is not unique either to Hinduism or to India. Caste is determined by birth, it is inherited.

In India, there are 4.7 million different caste categories! The main ones known about outside India are the super-privileged Brahmins at the top of the pyramid and the 300 million or so super-exploited ‘Dalits’. They constitute Twenty seven percent of the overall population – with Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Strictly speaking there is no such caste as Dalit or ‘untouchables’, as they used to be called. ‘Dalit’ is a term adopted by the most oppressed sections in society themselves. It is an expression of their wanting to come together just as workers strive for unity in the class struggle.

Being born a Dalit does not mean that you cannot be very rich! One or two Dalit leaders have actually made it to become very, very rich, but they are the exception. The majority are very, very poor.

They risk their lives daily, forced to do the dirtiest and most unhealthy jobs like cleaning drains and sewers in which each week between 10 and 15 workers die. Dalits work and live on building sites – women as well as men – where rape and super-exploitation are just a part of their sub-human existence. In the countryside, where the majority of Dalits live, 75% have no land and eke out a living as labourers along with the poverty-stricken Adivasis of the indigenous tribes. Some have small-holdings of an acre or two – diminishing in size with each generation.

Dalits suffer daily humiliation and suffering. Recent figures show that on average 2,000 Dalits are assaulted every hour, three Dalit women and children are raped every day, two Dalits are murdered and at least two Dalits are tortured or burned every day.

This awful system of castes designates people into segregated categories who cannot do particular jobs, marry across caste lines, enter certain buildings (including temples), drink water from the same source, sit in the same part of the class-room at school. The upper caste members are not permitted to eat food prepared by the most oppressed caste members, but privileged caste members can and do use them as slave labour. A report from the ‘Walk Free Foundation’ estimates that in India there are no less than 18 million actual slaves. Another report gives bonded labourers as 65 million in 2001.

Nowhere is there a law that permits the barring of Dalits from temples, shops, water supplies and bathing places but it happens all the time. It is all enforced along the lines of centuries-old custom and practice.

The caste system predates capitalism by thousands of years. The brutal system of British colonialism not only did not eliminate this vile system of oppression from society; it reinforced and exploited it for its own purposes! It perfectly suited the age-old strategy of imperialism – divide and rule!

Tamil Solidarity has produced a pamphlet which analyses the origins of the caste system and its development. As it explains, invariably “the oppressing caste is also predominantly an oppressing class, occupying the leading positions in the state, education and all higher status professions in India”.

It spells out a programme for struggle against caste discrimination in South Asia and stresses the need for unions to follow a zero-tolerance approach in the workplace. Unfortunately, this is not operated by the trade union leaders in India, even though they are predominantly so-called communists.


The most famous and venerated Dalit figure in Indian history was Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Before the British pulled out of India – just 70 years ago – he had taught himself to read and write and got into university. Against all the odds, he became ‘independent’ India’s first Law Minister and wrote the country’s first constitution. (The country’s constitution still commits India to “socialism, secularism and democracy” and embodies no official recognition of caste division!)

Ambedkar was angered by the acceptance of casteism, in however diluted a form, by the venerated Mahatma Ghandi. (As Arundati Roy says in her book, the ‘Doctor and the Saint’, Gandhi wanted to abolish the designation of the most exploited as “untouchables” but Ambedkar wanted to get rid of the caste system in its entirety and spent his life campaigning against it. He was also attracted by the ideas of socialism but saw around him only the Stalinist parties in India which repelled him. He tried himself, on more than one occasion, to build a workers’ party – setting up the Independent Labour Party in 1936 and getting 14 Assembly Members elected the following year. (After independence, he tried, on advice, to set up a party which concentrated on the abolition of the caste system; but it didn’t really get off the ground. A year before he died in 1957, he abandoned Hinduism and converted to Buddhism.

Sri Lanka

Buddhism was derived from a revolt (centuries ago) against the rigidness of Hinduism. But in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, Buddhism is by no means free of casteism or communalism, including against Muslims.

The special features of Sri Lanka’s development, up to and after ‘independence’ from British Imperialism – not least the approach of the first ever mass Trotskyist party, the LSSP – have, to some extent, softened the caste system in the country.

But caste is still a feature of Sri Lankan society. Socialists have to approach it with sensitivity, explaining how it is used by the ruling class to maintain divisions. Maximum unity of the working class and poor is needed if decisive blows are to be inflicted on the main enemy.

The tea pluckers in Sri Lanka –overwhelmingly oppressed caste Indian Tamils – live with their families in the notorious ‘lines’. They are hovels of buildings that few farmers would consider appropriate for animals to live in. The women plantation workers are capable of being the most ferocious class fighters in the country.


The grounds exists for many more mass uprisings of the most oppressed in both in Sri Lanka and in India. At the same time it seems inexplicable that Dalits in the largest state in India – Uttar Pradesh with 41million of the 200 million population – could vote en masse in March of this year for the party of Narendra Modi – the BJP. Mayawati, of the Dalit party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), had been Chief Minister of UP four times, but was now forced out.

Modi himself has, on various occasions, has demagogically posed as the defender of the poor and down-trodden in society. Last year he took five Dalits into his government, two ‘Tribals’ and some other ‘Backward class’ members to attract the votes of ‘their’ people for his government. He presented his ‘shock therapy’ monetary reform of last November as a battle with corruption in high places to appeal to the common man. In terms of winning over Dalit voters, Modi is attempting to ‘appropriate’ Dalits and even ‘Brahminise’ one or two, getting them elected to high office – putting a Dalit from Bihar forward as president to replace his own party’s Pranab Mukerjee, for example. 

Oppressed caste parties, including those like the BSP, can, and do, succeed in various states on the basis of mobilising a massive ‘vote bank’ of electors from their own caste. But they do not proceed to carry out policies for an end to the caste system itself, let alone to capitalism. On the contrary!

A certain layer of the most poverty-stricken caste voters are literally bought off by free gifts (‘goodies’) handed out at election time. Others have been persuaded that having one of ‘their own’ – a Dalit like Mayawati in UP – as their representative will guarantee them justice. But her main concern has been to enrich herself. In 2008, Forbes had Mayawati in 59th place on its list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. Her assets run into millions of dollars, with several properties to her name. In the 2007–08 assessment year, Mayawati ranked among the top 20 taxpayers in India. (She has been ousted now, but a come-back cannot be excluded.)

Unfortunately, there are no mass parties posing the alternative of class struggle against the system, and this in a country where 77% of the population (836 million people) earn no more than 20 rupees a day!

Affirmative action

Aimed at redressing the balance in Indian society is the elaborate system of reservations, or percentages allocated to different strata or castes in society – for elections, for job allocation, access to higher education etc. This has been in place since ‘Independence’. Article 15 of the country’s constitution talks of advancing “socially and educationally backward classes”.

Marxists do not use the word ‘backward’ but we cannot oppose this form of ‘affirmative action’; it gives opportunities to the most deprived in society and assists them in overcoming the special oppression they face, on top of that of being workers …be it as women, people of colour, lower caste members etc. (This is clearly different from the issue of positive discrimination in the labour movement).

Demands from slightly better-off castes for a better deal for themselves have often been voiced as a reaction to a better deal for Dalits. Last year, for example, hundreds of thousands of Marathis, who constitute about a third of the population of Maharashtra, took to the streets in their millions on silent marches to demand a higher percentage of jobs and farming land to be allocated to them – 35% in fact. This was a direct response to the ‘uprisings’ of the Dalits – an expression of fear on the part of a slightly more privileged layer in society but amongst whom are some desperately poor farmers.

In the present context – of a capitalist, caste-ridden India – trying to solve the problem through adjusting the proportion of jobs, land, university places etc. is like arguing over how big a slice of the cake you get. Instead the discussion should actually be on how to make the cake bigger – how to build a movement with a programme for taking over the bakery – a programme of nationalisation and planning under democratic workers’ control and management!

This example alone shows why the scourge of caste division cannot simply be reformed away.

A revolution is vitally necessary in a country where 73 of the top billionaires on the Forbes List live (some of the time!) and make their fortunes, where foreign firms come in to exploit the still horrifically cheap labour and where Donald Trump has set up at least 16 businesses to enrich himself and built massive towers.
The two major ‘Communist’ Parties in India are big. The main one has tens of thousands of members throughout the country but denies that caste is an issue that it needs to address. Its leadership is made up almost entirely of Brahmins who have not broken with their background.

The CWI comrades, several of them from a Dalit background, urge united action by all workers within the workplace and across workplaces. But they have also developed, and are still developing, a clear position on the question of caste – what it is and how to fight it.

This issue cannot wait until after the revolution. We cannot say ‘The Dalits must wait!’.

It is true that only the removal of class division in society can end discrimination and humiliation of all kinds, but a united working class challenge for power cannot be forged without a struggle against all prejudices that divide and against all forms of oppression.

Just as insults, prejudice and discrimination against women can have no place in the organisations of the working class, and least of all in a revolutionary organisation, nor can any form of casteism. We welcome into our ranks comrades from all backgrounds who see the need for class struggle against capitalism and put themselves on the standpoint of the working class as a whole.

Our aim is to unite workers against the common enemy – the capitalist class and its political representatives. We aim for a classless society free from all oppression and cleansed of all the ‘old crap’ of prejudice, mysticism and discrimination; to build, as Trotsky put it, a paradise here on this earth.

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August 2017