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Nothing to lose but chains

A final solution to the social ills is possible only through sweeping agrarian reforms, writes Sitaram Yechury.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2006 03:08 IST

The immediate provocation for this fortnight’s column is a piece that appeared on these very pages a few days ago (CPI(Muddled), June 22, by Samrat). It goes on to  characterise the CPI(M) as the Casteist Party of India (Mandal). This echoes the widely misplaced  and inadequate understanding of Marxism as looking at society in terms of “only two basic classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat”. Such a mechanical simplification of Marxism ignores its rich analysis of society, in which exists a large section of people who Marx called petit bourgeoisie, which includes the peasantry. However, let us move to the central issue: since communists believe that class struggle is the mover of social change, they ought not engage their attention with matters of caste.

The living essence of Marxism is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. The coexistence of pre-capitalist forms of production with growing capitalist relations in India means that the process of development of our society, divided into modern capitalist classes, is taking place constantly within the caste stratification that has come down to us over centuries. Despite all the refinements and changes  within castes and between castes that have taken place over the years, the basic structure, in so far as the oppression of the Dalits or the backward castes is concerned, remains.

Since the process of class division is taking place within the existing class stratification, the issue is not one of class vs caste. To a large extent, the most exploited classes in our society constitute the most socially oppressed castes. There is a caste-class overlap. And, to that extent, the struggle against class exploitation and the struggle against social oppression complement each other. It is this complementarity that needs to be recognised, and on the basis of such recognition follows the important task of the communists to seek the integration of the struggles against class exploitation with the struggles against social oppression. Both these constitute the two mutually inclusive aspects of the current class struggle in the country.

The source of provocation referred to above goes on to say that, “The caste system is an anachronism that needs to be removed from Indian society. This can only be done when the terms on which people identify themselves and with one another are changed. Therefore, to begin with, all surnames that indicate a person’s caste should be dropped.” My name at birth was Yechury Venkata Sitarama Rao. The caste title has ceased to exist, by my own volition, for over three decades. Nothing has changed substantially in our society during this period. On the contrary, the number of NRIs -- many of whom have never set foot in India -- seeking alliances in their specific sub-castes, in matrimonial columns has increased.

However, let us leave aside these minor aspects and try to understand why the curse of caste oppression continues to plague us after all these years of Independence. Mahatma Gandhi had coined the term Harijan and appealed for a change of heart in our attitude towards Dalits and lower castes. Among other giants who stand out in the powerful anti-caste movements in the country was Jyotiba Phule. He was a great secular democrat who wielded a significant political influence in his time.

The Satyashodhak movement that he launched continues to hold influence today. Baba Sahib Ambedkar, one of the most outstanding and tireless fighters against caste exploitation, had to finally ask his followers to embrace Buddhism to escape the injustices of high caste Hindu society. The powerful Dravidian movement led by Periyar EV Ramaswamy Naicker roused strong feelings against caste oppression and untouchability. His influence  and that of the movement he launched continues to have its impact on present-day politics in Tamil Nadu.

Yet, despite such tall leaders and the powerful movements that they launched, caste oppression and discrimination continues to plague us. Despite the glorious uncompromising role of such leaders, the objective of ending caste-based social oppression could not be achieved. Why?

The answer lies in the communist analysis of how to eradicate this social curse. Mere appeals for a change of heart or behaviour cannot and will not eliminate this obnoxious system. In order to do so, we require to bring about a radical realignment in the economic empowerment of these sections. This means the implementation of sweeping land reforms that will empower the vast majority of the socially-oppressed sections. With economic assets as the basis, the struggle against social manifestations of caste oppression can be conducted.

Mere moral outrage or even a correct understanding of the social roots of the problem cannot lead to its elimination unless sweeping agrarian reforms are implemented. It is precisely this that the dominant political leadership of Independent India did not do. It is precisely this that communists seek to achieve. The implementation of land reforms in West Bengal and Kerala may not have eliminated caste identity but have surely led to a quantum decline in caste-based social oppression.

Since we continue to work for such changes elsewhere in the country, our support for reservations, therefore, cannot be seen as the final solution for ending caste oppression. Reservations in the present conditions are a necessity that offer some relief to some individuals in these communities, enhance their confidence in their advance and seek to make them more equal in the vastly growing unequal society in India. However, by themselves, reservations cannot be the final solution to the problem. The final solution can come only with a sweeping agrarian revolution that economically empowers these sections.

This is attested by the fact that even after five decades of reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in our country, the overall status of these communities has not radically changed. Between 1980 and 2000, the total enrolment in the primary stage for SCs went up from 15.11 per cent to 17.98 per cent and that of STs from 6.41 to 9.37 per cent. However, 49.35 per cent of SCs drop out at the primary stage, 67.77 at the middle stage and 77.65 per cent at the secondary stage. The similar figures for STs are 62.52, 82.19 and 85.01 per cent.

This, naturally, reflects in the entry of these sections into higher education. In all courses of graduation and above, only 8.18 per cent of SCs and 2.9 per cent of STs are enrolled as against the 20 per cent reservations provided for them. Hence, the fear that extension of reservations to the OBCs will deprive the general category of students must be tempered with this reality.

Clearly, while reservations are not the final solution, the benefits of this should naturally reach the most needy sections within the OBCs. Introduction of an economic criteria, which the CPI(M) alone had suggested in the Nineties, was mercifully upheld  by the Supreme Court in its definition of the ‘creamy layer’. This will have to be integrated with the OBC reservations in higher education.

The CPI(M), while supporting reservations, is engaged in strengthening the struggles on the larger agenda of the economic empowerment of these sections. This alone can render the caste system and the associated caste oppression as an ‘anachronism’ in modern India.