On The Relationship Between Caste, State and Imperialism

The following is an essay by PJ James 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 James explains the relationship between India’s ancient caste system, the modern capitalist state and imperialism. 

I have recently also posted other works from the CPI(ML) on the question of caste in modern Indian neocolonial society. You kind these others works here and here.

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

Caste is one of the main pillars of class rule particularly in India and South Asia in general. As an inhuman social institution, which evolved out of the archaic division of labour from the very beginning, the caste system is integrally linked up with women’s oppression on the one hand, and landlessness of the broad masses of the peasantry on the other. In other words, as a legitimizing power of the exploiters and being intertwined with patriarchy and land question, caste was and is one of the most effective tools in the hands of both colonial and neocolonial state acting as the supervisor and custodian of ruling class interests in India. Therefore, smashing the material basis of the caste system is an inseparable task of the revolutionary forces in their fight for the establishment of a people’s democratic state.

Caste and Colonial State

Though the Western form of private property in land was not known to India until colonial invasion, the correspondence of caste and class was almost total in the Indian sub-continent from very early times. Thus, the caste system, sanctified by religious-ideological formulations, prohibited the ownership of land and means of production for dalits who were condemned to perform all the menial and manual work. The denial of dalits’ right to own land was carefully constructed and maintained through social engineering by the upper castes who wanted to retain their hold over the entire resources including labour power. The British colonialists who started their formal rule in India since the second half of the eighteenth century, while imposing the colonial–feudal land relations through the Permanent Settlement of 1793 did take particular attention not to alter the caste system that denied the vast majority of Indian people access to land, the principal means of livelihood on the one hand, and vested land and social power with the upper castes on the other. The three forms of land revenue structure viz., through feudatory principals or zamindars (zamindari system), semi-feudatory appointees or mahalwaris (mahalwari system) and directly through peasants (ryotwari system) set up by colonialism as part of its permanent settlement policy never granted the dalits even the status of an occupancy tenant though in certain regions of the country they cultivated land as sharecroppers. Thus, as a consequence of the colonial rule, the land owners invariably belonged to the upper castes, the so called “cultivators” belonged to the middle castes while the real peasantry who were the tillers of the soil and having no land rights were largely dalits and tribals. The fact that dalits have been denied any permanent right over land made them completely dependent upon the upper caste land owners and controllers of means of production for livelihood. During colonial times it was the dalits who had suffered displacement from land in the name of development and through colonial policy they were even forcibly evicted from their habitat at the flimsiest excuse. It is a historical fact that the pasture and fallow lands in various parts of the country were developed mainly by the dalits. However, it was easy for the upper caste vested interests with the backing of colonial state to snatch it away from them through various overt and covert, legal and illegal, economic and extra-economic measures.

Caste and the Neo-colonial State 

During the neocolonial period since 1947, there has been basically no change in the plight of the dalits in India. While a section of the middle castes benefited from the Nehruvian policies and succeeded in improving their position in the economic hierarchy, the lower castes composed of the dalits and tribals continued to be the worst sufferers of the harmful consequences of the imperialist sponsored Green Revolution since the 1960s. Even the anti-zamindari legislations and Tenancy Regulation Acts that came into force in the 1950s and 1960s in various Indian states utterly failed to address the question of land-to-the-tiller such that dalits’ deprivation of land continued unabated. At the same time, the dalits were at the receiving end of the economic displacement, social disruption, ecological distortion and cultural dislocation that resulted from Green Revolution. At an economic level, while it transformed the erstwhile feudal landlords into an agricultural bourgeois class, the strangle hold of the upper castes coupled with the newly emerging elite from the middle castes over the rural population remained more or less intact. In the ‘largest democracy’ that India is, dalits are denied vital resources like water, agricultural implements, and are subjected to worst forms of untouchability, social boycotts, violence, rapes and killings.

As a result of imperialist globalization and corporatisation of agriculture, the displacement of dalits has further extended from rural habitats to urban slums where most of the dwellers are dalits. With the connivance of bureaucracy, police and even judiciary of the comprador regime, corporate thugs and land mafia are forcibly evicting slum dwellers all over the country. As a consequence of the earlier displacement from rural habitats coupled with this latest urban eviction under neoliberal globalization, the entire livelihood patterns, social and cultural existence of dalits are subject to continuous disruption and economic and social squeeze.

General Imperialist Policy towards Caste

Colonial policy of imperialism prompted by the pressures of capital accumulation in general led to a disruption of the socio-economic formation in colonies including a distortion of the traditional village communities, changes in land relations including the introduction of private property in land, enforced monetization and exchange relations, imposition of forced labour, destruction of handicrafts and domestic industries, imposition of metropolitan cultures and so on. However, as far as the caste question is concerned, the Britishers pursued a cautious and calculated approach in India. Even while adopting measures against ‘sati’ and child marriage aimed at reforming the upper segment of Hindu religion with a view to integrating it with imperialist market, except the state-sponsored conversion of low caste people into Christianity and isolated missionary intervention with regard to certain heinous caste practices as was the case with the Channar Rebellion in Travancore, no significant step was initiated by the colonial administration to alter the caste foundations of Indian society. On the other hand, the colonial policy was one of manipulating the anti-caste movements of lower caste people that arose in the country as part of the renaissance movement and the anti-colonial struggle to divide the anti-imperialist unity of the people. At the same time, British imperialism ruthlessly suppressed several tribal and peasant struggles mostly led by tribals and dalits that challenged the colonial-caste-feudal order.

Under neocolonialism, policies of the comprador Indian regime that served imperialist capital have strengthened the caste oppression in new forms. Just as in the case of the communal divide of the people, the Indian state and the ruling system through their political representatives have succeeded in propping up caste based parties ultimately serving comprador bourgeois-bureaucratic-landlord classes through caste based vote banks thereby dividing the fighting unity of dalits and toiling people. Though a tiny section among the dalits has managed to better its position through reservation, the neoliberal policy of demolishing general education and closing down of public sector, public distribution and overall downsizing of the state itself has made even that option a mirage. Along with this, all kinds of decadent caste practices ranging from untouchability to khap panchayats and “honour killings” are propped up with ulterior ruling class motives. All these have made the life of dalits and tribals utterly horrific.

In this context, with the financial backing of imperialist funding centres and intellectual inputs provided by imperialist research institutions and through comprador intellectuals trained in academic institutions and universities, various hues of postmodern and post-Marxist ideologies such as “identity politics”, “subaltern studies”, “neo-tribalism”, “multiculturalism”, “orientalism” and so on are profusely manufactured to obliterate the true essence of caste question and the stark realities of life experienced by the dalits and oppressed castes in India. In the guise of mystifying “imagined identities” and glorifying pre-capitalist traditionalism, erstwhile progressive anti-caste formulations such as ‘caste annihilation’ are replaced by reactionary conceptualizations such as “caste fundamentalism”, “tribalism”, etc. Glossing over the material, social and cultural foundations of caste oppression under neocolonialism and camouflaging the way in which the various “identities” are shaped and used by imperialist finance capital, corporate media, mainstream literature, art and film often given much space for propagating these alien intellectual and theoretical trends with much fanfare. The ruling classes’ aim behind these ideological trends is to de-ideologise and divert the emerging anti-caste struggles of the downtrodden and the oppressed in India to safe channels.

In brief, imperialism and comprador Indian state are institutionalizing caste system by reinforcing its material, social and ideological foundations through the effective use of all economic, political, administrative, legal and cultural avenues at their disposal. Today, therefore, the struggle for annihilation of caste should be waged at two mutually interrelated realms, viz., political and ideological. As the material foundation of caste as a social institution in India is still firmly rooted in land relations, a revolutionary agrarian program based on land-to-the-tiller principle invariably forms the core of this political struggle. Vigorous campaigns and intensified struggles against all forms of caste-based oppression and social discrimination including resistance against untouchability, fight against the dilution of reservation as a democratic right, formulation of practical alternatives such as inter-caste marriages and similar struggles according to concrete conditions shall also form part of this political struggle against caste system. Along with this political struggle, a theoretical offensive against the various strands of postmodern and post-Marxist thinking that trivializes the cardinal importance of the interrelationship between land relations and caste oppression on the one hand, and disregards the need of resuscitating the slogan of caste annihilation on the other, is also urgent to politicize and conscientise the broad masses of the oppressed and win over progressive intelligentsia and democratic forces to the side of anti-caste movement.


Posted on July 22, 2012, in Imperialism & Colonialism, Revolutionary Culture & Cultural Work, Revolutionary Theory and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on On The Relationship Between Caste, State and Imperialism.

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