A Holy Triumvirate: Class, Caste and Patriarchy in Modern Indian Society

Anti-Caste Movement of India

The following is an essay by Sharmistha Choudhury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). It was published as part of their work in the Anti-Caste Movement in India. In this essay comrade Choudhury explains the role of caste and patriarchy in modern Indian class society, and the organic relationship that exists between class, caste and patriarchy (as well as indirectly traditional Hindu religion).

As usual though the posting of his essay should not be taken as an endorsement of the line of the CPI(ML).

(* Please read ‘lower castes’ and ‘upper castes’ as ‘so-called lower castes’ and ‘so-called upper  castes’ for obvious reasons.) 

Class, caste and patriarchy share an organic relationship, especially in the context of the Indian subcontinent. While the toiling classes have traditionally belonged to the lower castes, the trading classes and the propertied classes have generally corresponded with the upper castes. Subsequently, the modern working class and capitalist class emerged from the erstwhile toiling castes and trading castes respectively. However, with increased concentration and monopolization under the capitalist mode of production, although a sizeable section of upper caste population has been dragged into the working class, there has been little or no traffic in the opposite direction, that is no ‘untouchables’ have gone on to obtain the status of big industrialists or giant corporates.

Patriarchy is the thread that binds caste and class into an integral whole. While patriarchy is essential to perpetuate a system based on private property and thus keep society divided into warring classes – the propertied and the propertyless – so also is it essential to perpetuate the caste system by ensuring that, one, mixed marriages do not blur caste lines and play havoc with the inheritance of property and ‘blood line’. Further, women as a whole are a lower caste as compared to men as a whole. This primordial caste division between men and women is one of the bases on which caste division between humans rest. The Indian caste-class structure isorganically linked to Brahminical patriarchy. Just as the ideology of the ruling class dominatesand establishes its hegemony in class-divided society, so also it is the patriarchy of Brahminism – the uppermost echelon in the caste order – that has consumed all the other lower classes. In addition to this, upper caste patriarchal hegemony also manifests itself in the countless unspeakable atrocities committed against lower caste women. While the lower castes are oppressed by the upper castes, the oppression and sexual exploitation of lower caste women is qualitatively greater, thus inevitably linking the struggle against caste oppression with the struggle against patriarchy.

The organic relationship between class, caste and patriarchy has been poignantly portrayed by Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things where the punishment inflicted on an upper-caste, upper-class woman (Ammu) for daring to love an ‘untouchable’ (Velutha) ruins several lives and triggers repercussions that continue to damage and devastate over the years. The ‘untouchable’ is, of course, summarily killed but the ‘transgression’ committed by Ammu in loving Velutha is worthy of retribution worse than death and, thus, Ammu has her dignity mutilated beyond recognition and repair by the holy triumvirate of class, caste and patriarchy. The caste system emerged on the basis of production relations. With the advent of colonialism and capitalist production relations in India, caste barriers were broken to the degree required by the ruling class, the British colonialists, in order to extract the maximum profits. Thus while industries required people of all castes to work under the same shed, it also required caste discrimination on the social level to be kept alive so as to obstruct the unity of the working class. This, in essence, was the approach of the British colonialists to the caste question. They contributed to doing away with some inconvenient (for them) and also outrageous aspects of caste discrimination, while making every effort to entrench it firmly on the newly emerging economic base of (distorted) capitalism.

After the transfer of power in 1947, when colonialism made way for neo-colonialism, the new Indian rulers of India showed that they had mastered to perfection the art of their British predecessors. Thus while discrimination on the basis of caste was abolished by the Indian Constitution, and reservation for backward castes initiated, the Indian ruling class took every measure to ascertain that caste distinction and disparity continued to exist, indeed thrive. There was no goal of the abolition of caste. Rather, the goal was to let castes exist, in all their wretched forms, so that they could be used as vote banks. Instead of distancing itself from religion, the Indian state swerved increasingly towards the majority religion of Hinduism and thus appropriated by default the caste system laid down by the Brahmin-dominated Hindu religion. At the same time, while the Zamindari Abolition Act and like laws abolished feudalism in name, the absence of real land reforms ensured that the lower castes remained landless and hence economically the most backward. A large section of this population also made up the migrant labour force which scattered throughout the country in search of livelihood and everywhere they were employed formed the most exploited lot. Oppression based purely on caste also remained as the Indian state, essentially the state of the majority religion, was reluctant to disturb the order prescribed by Brahminism. Stringent punishments for caste crimes were unheard of. Apart from being the state of the majority religion, the Indian state was also the state of the propertied class and hence disinclined to act against this class which also represented the upper tiers of the caste order.

Numerous studies, including the Mandal Commission Report, have established beyond any doubt that there is a high correlation between poverty and social ‘backwardness’ in India. This is particularly true of the dalits and the adivasis. It was estimated by the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in 1981 that 85 % of the Scheduled Castes andScheduled Tribes belonged to the poorest 35% of the population (Source: Report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 1979-81, 27th Report, Government of India, 1983). Another indication of the absolute poverty of the SCs and STs is that 84% of the SCs and 94% of the STs live in the rural sector (Ibid). Moreover, 90% of all bonded labourers and 80% of all child labourers come from the SCs and STs (Source: T.C. Joseph, “Child Victims of Exploitation”, Sunday Statesman Miscellany, Calcutta, 12 October 1986). Several investigations, including those by the Planning Commission, have revealed that landlessness and illiteracy are much greater among the SCs and STs than in the rest of the population (Source: Pradhan H. Prasad, “Rise of Kulak Power and Caste Struggle in North India”, Economic and Political Weekly, 17 August 1991, Table 2; DN, “Reservation and Class Structure of Castes”, Economic and Political Weekly, 13 November 1990; Eighth Five Year Plan, Government of India, Planning Commission, New Delhi, 1997).

Even the Mandal Commission, while emphasizing the role of traditional sociocultural prejudices in perpetuating the economic exploitation of the ‘lower’ castes, fully recognized the fundamental significance of the relations of production in the shaping of the class-caste structure. Hence it called for the radical restructuring of production relations in order to liberate of the oppressed castes from economic as well as social exploitation.. In the Commission’s own words: “Under the existing scheme of production relations, Backward Classes, comprising mainly small landholders, tenants, agricultural labour, village artisans, etc. are heavily dependent on the rich peasantry for their sustenance. In view of this, OBCs continue to remain in mental and material bondage of the dominant castes and classes. Unless these production relations are radically altered through structural changes and progressive land reforms implemented vigorously all over the country, OBCs will never become truly independent. In view of this, highest priority should be given to radical land reforms by all the states.”

However, the mistake lies in assuming that caste oppression can be eliminated through class struggle on the economic plane alone. As Jayantanuja Bandyopadhyay wrote in The Marxist in 2002, “In the first place, the crystallized prejudice structure of caste tends to rationalize and perpetuate the economic exploitation of the oppressed castes. By confining the ‘low’ castes to the lowest paid occupations on a hereditary basis through religious dogma and cultural prejudice, they are kept perpetually in a state of absolute poverty. Their poverty, in turn, reinforces the socio cultural prejudices against them, and tends to perpetuate the stigma of inferiority with which they have been branded from ancient times. Secondly, unlike the poorer sections of the ‘upper’ castes, the dalits and adivasis have been compelled to live in separate hamlets in the rural areas, and in separate slums in the urban areas. This geographical isolation of the oppressed castes is more due to social stigma than to economic status… Even with the advent of capitalism, caste prejudices do not seem to have lost their vigour in the capitalist sector of the Indian economy.” Undeniably, the unity of the working class is constantly vitiated by caste consciousness and caste loyalties of the peasants and workers. “The poor ‘upper’ caste peasant or worker does not consider his poor ‘lower’ caste coworker or neighbour as his equal, tends to look down upon him, and generally refuses to build or accept any socio-cultural linkages with him. While workers and peasants belonging to different castes do participate in common struggles on economic issues, they generally desist from developing life-sharing socio-cultural linkages across caste barriers. In many cases, it is individual and collective economism rather than class consciousness that motivates participation in agitations for specific economic demands. This is also evident from the fact that support of workers for political parties does not always correspond with their trade union belonging. Hence in determining their strategy of class struggle with Indian characteristics, the left forces have to take into account the dialectical relationship between class and caste.” As stated before, the institution of caste rests on women’s oppression and the control of female sexuality; and forms an integral part of the fundamental institution oppressing women, that of the family, which is the economic unit of class-divided society. Thus the struggle for the annihilation of caste must necessarily be linked with the struggle for the dismantling of the patriarchal order.

While basically preserving the material basis of the caste system and patriarchy, the Indian state – the state of the propertied class – has responded to democratic demands for the abolition of caste-based and patriarchal oppression through the constitutionally mandated scheme of reservation. This system, which faces periodic political attacks backed by associations of upper- and middle-caste bigots, and male chauvinists cutting across caste and class lines, is no doubt a reform intended to defuse further struggle. But that does not make it any less supportable. The point is to go beyond reservation and rally round the call for open admissions in higher education and jobs for all – irrespective of gender – at fair wages. The point is to go beyond tokenism and remember and rally round the basic demands that had been raised by Ambedkar – nationalization of land and industries.

Both caste and patriarchy – which today are not only mutually dependent but also an important prerequisite for neocolonial domination to thrive – are questions that demand separate attention. They cannot merely be bundled into the class question, it cannot be simply declared that such questions will gradually get sorted out with the democratic revolution. In fact, working class unity cannot be forged as long as these questions remain unaddressed and no severe cultural and ideological battle is waged for the elimination of caste and patriarchal ideology. The battle will not only be against the torchbearers of the oppression-based caste system, but also against those who strive to divide the people on the basis of caste identity in the name of working for the upward social mobility of backward caste groups. The battle will also be against those whose poster-girl the likes of Mayawati are – that is those whose ideas and actions invariable lead to the construction of a class-structure within a backward caste, with a lower stratum somehow eking out a livelihood and an upper stratum flaunting big achievements and donning the role of exploiter within that caste.

Neocolonialism, as all know, provides a façade of democracy, an illusion of rights. On the one hand, this complicates matters as the enemy is not out in the open, so to speak. However, on the other hand, it also serves to intensify class struggle, for when the illusion of rights does not get translated into reality, the failed expectation triggers a greater struggle for the attainment of the said rights. Thus, when discrimination on the basis of caste and gender have been formally outlawed by the state, and yet it happens with a frightening regularity while the state acts as either a mute spectator or active accomplice, the contradiction between the people and the antipeople state intensifies sharply. It becomes increasingly evident that the capitalist-imperialist system can never annihilate caste and patriarchy. The question of class comes to the fore as it becomes more and more apparent that the capitalist-imperialist class, despite making claims to the contrary, nurtures casteism and patriarchy for its own vested interests, and that it is only the state of the toiling people that can and will work towards uprooting caste and patriarchy for the true liberation of humankind. It is in this way, too, the subaltern theories that counter-pose caste against class are utterly discredited and objective conditions for an ever greater and more consolidated unity of all oppressed people against the ruling class become immensely favourable.

It is thus the need of the hour to launch a revolutionary anti caste people’s movement for the annihilation of caste. Since land relations are at the base of caste violence, there is a serious need for revolutionary land reforms. And since patriarchy acts as a sturdy prop to the caste system, there is also a serious need to link the question of revolutionary land reforms with the question of the abolition of the family as economic unit of society. This is the direction in which the working class, organized as a class, must provide true leadership.



Posted on July 5, 2012, in Revolutionary Culture & Cultural Work, Revolutionary Theory, Women's Liberation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on A Holy Triumvirate: Class, Caste and Patriarchy in Modern Indian Society.

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