The Materialist Basis of Caste Hierarchy & Its Abolition in Indian Society

The following is an essay by Anant Phadke 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 Phadke explains both the materialist basis for the existence of caste hierarchy in colonial and neocolonial Indian society and the materialist basis for the abolition of casteist oppression.

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

The nature and role of caste relations in modern India including the post-colonial period is a matter of debate within Left in India. Traditional Marxists consider caste relations as a part of only the ‘superstructure’ and in modern India they consider ‘caste-oppression’ as a remnant of feudal relations because according to their understanding, the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution has not been completed in India. Hence in this framework of understanding of caste relations in modern India, abolition of casteist hierarchy would only require Cultural Revolution. Some of us have been arguing that this view is unscientific. Along with anti-capitalist measures, specific economic measures would also be required during the post-revolutionary Socialist March to abolish the material basis of the caste system. Let us see how.

In pre-capitalist India caste was an overwhelming, dominating, all pervasive reality. It was not merely part of the superstructure, but who would or would not get access or control over the means of production was very much decided by the caste in which people were borne. The same was true about who would have what role in the social process of production. For example, people borne in the carpenter caste were compulsorily tied to carpentry all their life. The same was the case with people in the barber caste or the tailor caste and so on. This ‘division of labour’ was laid down juridicallyalso and it was a crime to try to break the caste-based rigid boundaries.

Capitalist development introduced by colonial rule and after, has broken down this rigid division of labour. But a new caste-based division of labour has come-about in which people borne in dalit and tribal castes are largely confined to unskilled, hard labour and to dirty jobs. People borne in middle castes are generally confined to blue collar industrial jobs as to non-remunerative, hard farming work in the fields where as people borne in higher castes have mostly occupied the white collar and managerial jobs. Thanks to spread of education and reservations, an increasing proportion of dalits are getting employed in white-collar jobs and have also entered elite professions. But only about 10% of dalits have thus been benefited. This broad division of labour is being reproduced and it constitutes the material basis of the new, bourgeois caste system in which the place in the class hierarchy is broadly decided by the caste in which one is borne.

The exploitation of the dalit and tribal wage-labourers is of course in the form of surplus value; but the nature of work they are involved in and the remuneration they get for the work is decided by the new bourgeois caste system also and not only by the dynamics of the class struggle. Wages for unorganised farm and non-farm labour are extremely low partly because these labourers come from dalit, tribal castes. The caste system thus influences the price of labour power of the lower caste labourers. Even when a middle peasant employs a dalit/tribal labourer, he extracts extra surplus because of the very low wages paid to these wage-workers and caste is partly responsible for these low wages. For example, it is not incidental that wages in the construction industry are so low given the fact most of these workers come from the lower castes and the tribal people.

Even the non-wage work done by dalit and tribal caste toilers is lowly paid. Thus when a service of a painter or of a launderer or a sweeper is bought by the capitalist or by an urban middle class person, the service is bought at a very low rate, partly because those who render the service are dalits/tribals. Thus both the capitalists and occasionally the middle class derive material benefit from the bourgeois caste system. In this bourgeois caste system not each individual is totally tied down to his/her occupation given at birth by the caste system. But as mentioned above, members of the caste-groups are largely confined to certain types of occupations and this social division oflabour is being reproduced for generations. The form in which surplus labour is pumped off is of surplus value. But the hierarchy within social division of labour is decided by the caste-relations.

Secondly, even 150 years after the British introduced modern capitalist development in India and 60 years after Independence not only is that newer generations of Dalits and Tribals continue to belargely confined to these back-breaking, dirty, lowly jobs, occupations, but marriages also continue to be largely intra-caste and dwellings also continue to be largely caste-based even in cities. This is despite the fact that on the one hand, the Bourgeois State’s policy has been to promote inter-caste marriages and inter-caste dwellings. Caste-based social organisations continue to operate along with class-based or area-based social organisations. In politics, caste-based identities have strengthened. All these caste-based social relations constitute the modern bourgeois caste system which operates as a sub-system in the overall capitalist social formation. This sub-system reproduces social relations based on the caste in which people are borne. It is dominated by and subservient the class-system. Whether this sub-system of hierarchy and exploitation would continue or would be progressively undermined by the capitalist mode of production is debatable. What is certain is that to overcome this caste-based hierarchy, not only social, cultural, political measures are needed but specific economic measures are also needed which would progressively eliminate the current caste-based division of labour and also the current caste-based marriage system. Unless the material roots of the caste hierarchy are eliminated, caste hierarchy in all walks of life will not be eliminated. What are these economic measures which would abolish the material basis of the caste system? 

1) Inclusion of the landless labourers in redistribution of land and water in the agrarian revolution. The majority of the landless labourers come from Dalit castes. Their conscious inclusion (as well as those of deserted women) in the redistribution of ownership/control over productive resources, would empower them and would lay the material foundation for progressive abolition of caste-based hierarchy along with class-exploitation. After this redistribution, revolutionary transformation would have to rapidly move towards cooperative socialist agriculture. Erstwhile dalits would be equal partners in this new venture.

2) With the help of the modern technology of organic farming, specific training (free or subsidised) to the erstwhile dalits and tribals to enhance and improve upon their traditional knowledge of agriculture. This is needed for the Dalit castes as they have been primarily used merely as labourers and hence their traditional knowledge and skill is limited compared to the peasant castes.

3) Special concession to erstwhile dalit caste labourers to access seeds, samplings, farm implementation, etc. required for modern agriculture.

4) Toilers from erstwhile lower castes who were artisan castes would have to be given training to enhance with the help of modern appropriate technology, their traditional artisan knowledge, skills to move towards modern decentralised socialist agro-industry.

5) Special credits, encouragement packages for these artisans will have to be designed and implemented. This policy would have to be applied also for majority of Muslims as the majority of them belonged to dalit castes and are part of the artisan community in India.

6) Reservations policy and special encouragement policy in education and other spheres will have to be continued during post-revolutionary March to Socialism. In capitalism, there is cut-throat competition for very limited opportunities or to win in the race of money-making. This will be absent during post-revolutionary Socialist March as there will be no such fierce competition. However, for some period, competition would continue in some form to a certain extent. Hence equal opportunities will have to be created for people coming from deprived sections. Inter-caste marriages will have to be especially encouraged.

The need for such measures would dwindle during forthcoming decades after the revolution in proportion to the reduction in the material differences amongst people in erstwhile castes. However, so long as these systemic, social differences exist, the reservation policy and special encouragement measures will have to continue.

There may be some difference of opinion about the specific nature of material roots of caste-based hierarchies in India today and the specific remedial measures needed to overcome them, but the fact that caste-based hierarchies are not merely a ‘super-structural phenomenon’ and that specific economic measures would be required in the post-revolutionary Socialist March to abolish the material roots of casteism needs to be squarely acknowledged.


Posted on July 10, 2012, in Economics, Revolutionary Culture & Cultural Work, Revolutionary Theory and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Materialist Basis of Caste Hierarchy & Its Abolition in Indian Society.

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