Caste, Class and Indian Communists

Anil Rajimwale

Ever since their emergence Indian Communists have had to face a unique situation, unlike anywhere else in the world. And that is dealing with the institution of caste. Indian society is characterised, inter alia, by the varna and caste structures, organisations, ideology and caste-‘ism’. These features are not to be found in other societies of the world.

Caste and varna are usually taken as ‘exotic’ and mysterious categories, particularly by foreigners. Indians themselves have hardly understood the real nature and essence of the caste-system.

Allegations are often made that the Communists have not understood the Indian caste-system, particularly because they have failed to come to terms with the Indian traditions and ethos. Let it be pointed out here that no party or organisation in this country has really understood caste and casteism. Where is the party in India, which has really understood and come to terms with this phenomenon? Indian Communists have really tried to go into the origins, socio-economic nature, causes and role of caste and casteism. There may be lacunae though, which is another matter.

Communists and the Caste Phenomenon

Here we will not be able to go into the details of theoretical explorations and the application of the Marxist method with its scientific objective world-view, for lack of space. That would have been as crucial and revealing. We will only state that the Indian Communists put the enquiry of the caste question on a scientific basis, and it has enriched the understanding of Indian society and its specific nature.

Caste really became rigid and fossilised in the medieval era. The colonial system under the British rule both further rigidised the caste-system as well as opened up ways for its weakening. The contradictory processes of limited and colonial industrialisation and semi-capitalist development loosened the caste-bonds, and at the same time created new castes, bondings and rigidities.

Factories and mills objectively weakened caste as a structure. The growth of the market including the labour-market, money-commodity exchange and the far greater movement of men and material (roads, railways, etc.) violated caste-barriers. As S.A. Dange was fond of saying, one never knew in whose plate one was eating in an eating-place or which castes and hands in a factory handled the threads in a factory.

The British colonial system needed the caste-system, at the same time, as a source of cheap, even bonded labour. The disintegrating caste hierarchy was sought to be kept alive as forms of movement of labour. New caste practices came up eulogising the ideology of casteism and ‘glorious’ histories of each one of the castes were written. It has to be realised that casteism is basically a product of colonialism.

Communists and ‘Social Justice’

The recruitment of urban labourers, factory hands and even educated personnel took the form of the transfer and migration of people of the same caste, village, district, and language groups to towns, mills and businesses. These castes were basically the most depressed ones. In the rural areas the oppression of the lowermost ‘castes’ (by birth) was most virulent; their members were thus ‘liberated’ by industrialisation and urbanisation, often resulting in the preservation even increase in caste-consciousness.

Caste began to break up but casteism gained strength.

A lot is being made of the struggle for ‘social justice’ today. But the early Communists launched a great assault on caste-discrimination, caste-identification and all forms of casteism. It was in fact a great historic contribution, it led to a giant shift in the consciousness of the motive forces of the anti-colonial freedom and revolutionary movement. It enabled the untouchables, the ‘Harijans’, and ‘backward’ castes to come into the front-ranks of those fighting for social and political change. They were made aware of their labour, and were taught to be proud of it, enabling them to stand up to other castes including the ‘upper’ and ‘forward’ castes. This was one of the most gigantic reform shifts ever, and its significance is grossly underestimated.

The efforts of the Communists had multi-pronged results. Who would imagine in the 1920s, 1930s and the 1940s that the Harijans and other untouchables among the municipal, textile and other workers would sit on the floor along with the activists and leaders of the upper castes and share the same food from the same plates or tiffin-boxes? It was unthinkable, but the activists of the CPI and trade union and other movements made it possible.

For example, P.D. Marathe was one of the staunchest Communists and organisers of the municipal workers’ and the trade union movement in the Nagpur region in Maharashtra before independence. According to the interviews conducted by the N.M. Joshi centre for Labour Research and Education under the AITUC, P.D. Marathe and his associates would  go to the bustees(shanties), door to door, meeting, talking and mixing with the untouchable ‘safai’ and municipal workers, sitting and eating with them. This was shocking enough for the workers themselves. Besides, Marathe would mingle with the workers and cadres in his union office. They would sit around, and take food collectively, without caring for ‘jutha’ (touched food, also in caste sense). (Interviews conducted with old-time trade union leaders during 2002-04).

Marathe’s work was a great example of the attempt to rouse and raise the class consciousness of workers to the exclusion of caste awareness. They could now stand at par with the owners and upper caste people. A kind of ‘caste-parity’ was achieved. Many were taught to read and write, Marathe was an upper-caste leader, who lived effortlessly among the workers as one of them without the least feeling of segregation and discrimination.

These were not isolated experiences as the communist and working-class movement progressed. The municipal, ‘safai’ and such other workers began to be organised all over the country. Besides, a substantial section of the textile and other workers came from the dalits and the downtrodden. It developed into a great movement to instill confidence and a sense of equality and education among these sections and castes. It took a great deal of courage in those days to work among the oppressed castes. There were workers of lower castes and untouchables among the textile, bidi and other industries. There is little recognition of the fact that caste-division was, and is, one of the greatest barriers in the battle of labour against capital. This was the major consideration of the Indian Communists when they approached the labouring masses to organise them for their class, national and international issues.

Caste and the textile labour movement

The Indian working class was and still is, a class in the making. The early textile workers’ movement presented interesting cases of caste problems and discrimination in the course of production and labour processes.

During those early days, the workers of scheduled and untouchable castes were not allowed to touch the cotton thread. The roots of this practice go back into the ancient times: cotton thread is regarded as sacred and used in pujas, ‘hawans’, ‘yagyopawit’ (the ceremony of wearing the ‘sacred’ thread etc.) and so on. Only the Brahmins could touch it, and with their permission other upper castes. But the lower castes were not allowed to touch its sacredness!

Consequently in modern times the untouchables and other lower castes were barred from the production process of cotton thread. The textile mills of Bombay, Madurai and elsewhere religiously carried forward this practice. So much so that the workers of the spinning and weaving departments initially would not spin or weave even touch the thread ‘touched’ by the untouchables, who were condemned to do only the menial jobs like carrying and shifting various articles. (Interviews conducted by N.M. Joshi Centre in Bombay, Madurai and other places in 2003-05).

So, the caste-structure was almost replicated within the factory, even among and by the workers, and even by the workers of the backward castes! (Not to talk of the factory owners).

Various documents and interviews with the living legends of the working class movements bring out interesting facts. Veteran leaders like Sitaram Jagtap of the Girni Kamgar Union of Bombay (experiences related in June 2004), Yelkar and Chandrabhaga (GKU, June 2004) and other in Mumbai, talks with A.M. Gopu, T.R.S. Mani, in Chennai in 2005, with R. Chakrapani in Trichy (18 March 2005), R. Karupaiah (Trichy, same day), P.A. Sambasivam (Trichy on same day) and many others bring out the above-mentioned and other details. They bring to light the struggle of the labour and Communist leaders to free the workers of casteist shackles, physically, socially and mentally.

Among the important struggles were the ones to make the untouchables acceptable to other workers. These efforts had positive results; for example, the spinning and weaving workers even began accepting the thread touched by mouth and teeth of the untouchables (the thread had to be moistened and straightened with the mouth).

This was a great advance, a giant stride. These threads had to be put into the ‘shuttles’ (the instrument to throw the thread across the longitudinal threads: the process of ‘weaving’). Unity of the workers was greatly helped. The subsequent models of shuttles and bobbins did not need mouth-touch, and as such the problem get ‘technologically’ solved!

Thus, new technologies, along with powerful labour movements, helped the social mobility of the untouchables. The AITUC also had to fight for, and got conceded, such simple demands as common drinking water, sitting and working arrangements for all the workers irrespective of caste. (These points were brought up in the various interviews and documents of the N.M. Joshi Centre). Many of the workers would offer the leaders water, tea, refreshments in separate utensils and maintain a distance in accordance with the practice of untouchability! The labour and Communist leaders and activists had to make constant and painful efforts to overcome this kind of attitude and to underline that there was nothing like a ‘caste-human being’.

Some interesting experiences of the Girni Kamgar and other unions

The AITUC adopted a resolution against untouchability in 1926. The Communist influenced leadership tried to bring caste-Hindu and untouchable workers together. It is much easier to pass resolutions then to put them in practice.

The GKU (Girni Kamgar Union) and AITUC cadres made sustained efforts, for example in 1928 and later, to make workers of different castes to work and live together. (See documents of the GKU for the period). They encouraged them to live together in the communal houses and chawls of Bombay. They tried to transfer the untouchables to the weaving shops in the mills.

Some sections including from among the workers, even approached the Simon Commission to redress their complaints against caste-equality at a time when the commission was being boycotted all over the country!

The attempts of the GKU to bring together the workers of all the castes sometimes created complicated situations. For example, during the strike of the textile workers in 1928 in Bombay, the workers of the Mahar caste were in worse position compared to the caste Hindu workers, who used to get help and relief in form of food from nearby villages and their homes. Therefore, the Union had to deliberate upon the question of additional or separate help to the Mahar workers.

Caste Problem in the Handloom Workers’ Movement

The handloom workers’ and their cooperative movement was and is a powerful and widespread one in the South. A study of the workers’ cooperative movement in Trichy and surrounding areas bring out interesting facets. (The interaction of the N.M. Joshi Centre with R. Chakrapani, P.S. Balasundaram and many others in 2005 brought out several details).

The handloom workers’ movement was deeply divided along caste lines in and before the 1940s. For example, they had strong cooperatives, but these were generally built up on caste bases. The Devanga community had its own handloom cooperative society, and so on.

It was P.C. Joshi, the then general secretary of the CPI, who gave a call in the 1940s, even before India achieved freedom, to build up a movement to organise workers’ co-operatives. The Communists decided to break up the caste barrier and to create a widespread cooperative workers’ movement. It was a great movement during the British days, and a difficult one keeping the conditions in view. The Communists decision to form all-caste workers’ cooperatives caught on immediately and become a powerful vehicle of the workers’ movement. Many of those cooperatives still exist  today. The workers’ cooperative movement became a powerful force in 1946-47 in the Madras Presidency.

Present-day Workers and the Caste Question

In a Marathi pamphlet (‘Why General Strike?’) brought out in 1950 by the Girni Kamgar Union, Handloom Workers’ Union and the Beedi Workers’ Union of Sholapur, the position of the untouchable workers was especially dealt with. It was demanded that they should be provided work in every department, so that the social inequality was removed and all the workers became united. This was the condition in the late 1940s and early 1950s. For this situation not only the management and the government were responsible but also the level of consciousness of the workers themselves and the various casteist forces working among them. On several occasions the workers themselves resisted any concession to the lowermost castes, and they had to be persuaded to accept them. Besides, the leaders of the Dalit Federation, as per the pamphlet, did not fight for or support the fight for the integration of the Harijans, Mahars and others in the working class. They actually wanted to use the untouchable workers as their sectarian base and as such did not feel inclined to help unify the workers of particular factories and mills. These above-mentioned unions, in particular the GKU, fought long drawn and hard battles to get the untouchables into the cloth and other departments.

Forced, bonded and serf labour is a phenomenon closely linked to the caste-system. The oppressive caste hierarchy makes it easy to force the oppressed castes and the untouchables to work for the lords of the land, factories and mills, and yet not pay them at all or pay very little. As such, the caste structure becomes doubly oppressive. The untouchable has to work on moral, caste and ‘divine’ grounds for his masters, this being his natural duty as determined by the scriptures.

The method of payment for labour is a peculiar distortion of the caste structure  in which the lowermost castes are crushed down under the weight of economic and social exploitation.

Agrarian serf labour has been an integral part of the rural proletariat for centuries past: the Hali in Gujarat; Kaimuti, Janouri, Kamiah and others in Bihar; Gothi in Orissa; Gassi-Gullu in Andhra; Panal Pathiran in Tamilnad, and so on. The origins of dependent labour can be traced to the land problem in the Indian economy, according to a top leader of AITUC, G.V. Chitnis of Bombay (See his ‘Forced Labour’ in India, AITUC, 1954). Serf labour worked a number of days a year without wages or for a certain share of produce and many would have to do domestic work for the landlords.

The wages were very meagre. Such forced labour often originates in the failure to repay loans. The serf could not undertake any other employment or rent any farm without the consent of his landlord. If the labourer tried to run away, he would be caught by the agents of the landlord and subjected to torture. Further, the ‘solidarity’ among the landlords was such that he could not get ‘employment’ with any other landlord.

The Padialis a serf who has fallen into hereditary dependence on a landlord as payment a against a loan. The Kamiahs were bond-servants, who having borrowed money bound themselves to manual services to the master. They belonged to the depressed castes, and having no other security, pledged their labour and that of their wives and children.

In Bombay Presidency the Dublas and the Kolis existed as bonded slaves serving for generations. Besides, there are the Warali and Kat Kari communities. Their lot has changed considerably.

On the east coast, the Brahmin’s hold on land was very strong and the Padials were their slaves; in the south west of the Madras Presidency the bonded labourers belonging to the Izhavas, Cherumas, Pulayas and Holigas communities who suffered untold economic, social and caste atrocities. Under the ‘Paleru’ system in the Madras Presidency, the ‘paleruthanam’ was paid only six bags of rice per annum. In Thana district of Bombay the ‘Khads’ were often tied to the post and beaten mercilessly.

The scheduled castes composed a large part of this labour. Being untouchables, they were required to build their huts on the outskirts of villages. Besides, they were denied all access to village tanks, rivers and other water sources, public buildings, hotels, shops, and houses built by caste Hindus. Even their burial grounds were different. In Kerala not very long ago, the untouchables were required to stand at least ten metres away from the boundary walls of houses to receive food. The food would be put on the wall, and the giver would then disappear into the house or stand, at the most, in the veranda only then the receiver would approach the wall and take away the food. All this done to avoid the shadow of the untouchables.

The Communist Party carried on relentless campaigns and movements to fight such evil practices and labour bondage. It was the Communists who were the pioneers in this. It was not at all easy in those days to talk to a harijan or to sit with him and so on. It was doubly or ten times difficult to protest  against Harijans’ ‘shadows’ being treated as a source of pollution and to say that should be given food just like other human beings. Many communist sons and daughters of landlord, rich peasant and middle class families revolted and fraternised with the untouchables. They had to pay the price and frequently had to leave their families.

CPI’s Struggles in Bihar

In former days in many zamindari areas of Bihar most of the agricultural labourers were of the musahar, rajwar, chamar, and dusadhcastes. There were utterly oppressed and outcast. Except the chamars, none of them knew any craft. They were ‘kamias’ under the zamindars and money-lenders. In the course of time chamars lost their shoe-making craft so they lost whatever property they had. Consequently, they were unable to borrow money. Therefore, they had to sign bonds to get money for marriage ceremonies. These bonds or agreements were called ‘kamiauti’, which was a kind of slavery. The kamiacontinued on the occasion of marriage of every subsequent generation (grandfather, father and so on).

The debt generally could not be paid. In some places several generations of kamias could be found. Many of the kamias came from the artisan class and poor peasants. The backward and Harijan caste people were forbidden to touch the food, water and persons of the upper castes.

Another category was ‘Chhutta’ i.e. those free to work anywhere and their agreement is for a fixed period, for example one year.

The agricultural labourers, particularly of the afore-mentioned castes live in separate areas (tolas) at the edge of or the outside of the village. Their homestead is situated in the fallow (gair mazarua) land i.e. the common land. They could be evicted anytime after the survey carried out at the time of zamindari abolition.

If there is no fallow land around the homestead, the labourers face problems of urinal and latrine. There was no space for skinning the dead animals or for cremating the dead. There was no land for grazing. (See: Bihar State Khet Mazdoor Sabha, later the Bharatiya Khet Mazdoor Union of CPI, ‘A Report on Bihar Landless, 1964).

The CPI and the Bihar Khet Mazdoor Sabha conducted sustained campaigns on all these issues and faced terrible repressions to get some semblance of justice. The labourers often had to drink dirty water from the polluted ponds or fetch whatever water was available from distant and usually dirty sources.

The kamiutisystem was quite widespread in Gaya district. There were several movements against this in the early 1960s.

Land Struggles Weaken Caste

During the land struggles of the 1970s- 1980s, and even in the 1990s, the harijans and other downtrodden were brought into the limelight in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, eastern Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. It was a period when the Communist Party of India and its  agricultural workers wing was able to claim that it was for the first time that the class of agrarian labourers and the sections of harijans, untouchables and others came to the forefront of the Indian political scene. It was not an empty claim. Vast sections of these classes and castes had become relatively conscious and educated, the new harijan youth was not prepared to put up with oppression. This was what caused the events like that in Kamchadu (a village in Andhra), where dozens of harijans were killed and injured in gory incidents and women humiliated. The events were sparked off in 1989 out of a petty incident.

One of the biggest problems facing the land occupation moments has been the difficulty in charting the further direction i.e. what to do after land is distributed? No agrarian movement  has been able to solve this problem satisfactorily. Land distribution transforms the landless into landowners, however small into petty producers. Their class character changes. The rural poor become slightly better off though not necessarily in all cases. New problems of peasant proprietorship come up instead of those related to the landless mass of people. Therefore their relations with and devotion to the democratic movements weakens and may be even lost.

The caste question resurfaces in a big way after the distribution of land. The peasant and petty proprietors lose much of their class consciousness and class identity and find expression in renewed caste identity. If the mass movement does not reach a new stage and is not very strong, there is every possibility of the spread of casteism and of its becoming a mass identity, of the division of peasant owners into caste groups.

It is worthwhile mentioning the land struggles of the 1960s-1980s led by the CPI and its kisan and agricultural labourers’ wing (AIKS and BKMU) respectively. We will not go into the details for lack of space. Suffice it to say that the movement brought the harijans, the untouchables, the landless and rural poor and others to the centre of Indian society, politics and economics. Saying this has great significance and implications for the problem under discussion as well as for the movement as a whole and its future. The movement of the 1960s-1980s was fairly widespread. Even in states like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh the ‘weaker’ ones, the landless, harijans and the tribals occupied huge areas of land in Bihar, Andhra, Tamilnad and other places, the occupation movement was quite extensive and more ‘real’ than symbolic. In many places, they were even able to get pattas for their land.

The point to be emphasised here is a long term one, of the next and future phases and nature of the movement. It has to be realised that in the absence (or weakness) of proper follow-up and continuation, to the next level, the movement got, in many senses, ‘dissociated’  and stagnated, and it moved confusedly. It also, consequently, helped the casteist forces and casteism to proliferate. These are the many negative and positive results of these movements. The leaders and initiators of such movements forget that they are no longer dealing with the rural proletariat, at the end of a (successful) movement, but with petty (though quite poor) owners and petty-bourgeois, with aspirations quite different from the landless proletariat, and with aspirations to become ‘better off’ owners.

Consequently, their demands undergo a transformation: now they want a house or land, facilities, seeds, water, electricity and roads. They would, if possible, like more land. They are attracted to modern consumerism which is now within their reach (at least that is what many think, and some achieve).

The ideal world of a substantial section is driven by caste-awareness and casteism. And the younger generation who are more removed from the traditions of mass movements are more prone to such ideas.

This in brief is one of the crucial problems of the movement as well as a source of the re-emergence of casteism and corruption among a section of petty landowners.

The Indian communist movement as a whole is yet to satisfactorily come to terms with the caste-phenomena and caste-class relationships. The tools of Marxist dialectics and of historical materialism need to be applied properly to the origins, evolution and the present and future of the India society. In other words, a lot of theoretical and abstract work needs to be done before entering the practical domain. Much remains to be done to fight casteism in practice and draw conclusions accordingly. A new entrant in the picture is the information and communication revolution which both restricts and extraordinarily spreads casteist consciousness.

The Indian Marxists face an uphill practical and theoretical task.

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