Workers Hammer No. 242
For a Leninist party to fight caste oppression
Liberation of Dalits: key to Indian workers revolution
Review: Ants among elephants
In modern India, with its gleaming IT centres and manufacturing hubs, there are widespread illusions that untouchability is a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. Untouchability is at the core of the caste system, which has been perpetuated and entrenched within every sphere of Indian capitalist society. Sujatha Gidla’s 2017 book, Ants among elephants: an untouchable family and the making of modern India, shatters many of the myths that serve to make untouchability invisible. Her book is a sharply drawn picture of caste oppression and of her family’s unending struggles against it. It is a compelling read and has been widely acclaimed by reviewers.
Untouchability is not simply a condition of poverty that can be overcome by education and social mobility. As Gidla matter-of-factly states: “I was born into a lower-middle-class family. My parents were college lecturers. I was born an untouchable.” She uses the word “untouchable” rather than “Dalit” because it emphasises the reality of what it means to be part of that population. Untouchability was formally abolished by the constitution of India, which gained its independence from Britain in 1947, and since that time much has changed in the country. But little has changed for the vast majority of India’s 220 million Dalits, for whom freedom from the yoke of caste oppression is yet to come.
Ants among elephants is both a family memoir and a political history of the author’s uncle, KG Satyamurthy (1931-2012), who became a famous leader of a Maoist guerrilla group. As such, the book shines a harsh spotlight on the atrocious record of India’s Stalinist parties on the question of untouchability. The Communist Party of India (CPI) and its offshoot the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]) reject the fight for proletarian independence, and thus the fight for socialist revolution. Instead, they subordinate the interests of the oppressed and exploited masses to an alliance with the national bourgeoisie. From its inception, the CPI has acted as an appendage of the Congress Party, which has always been permeated with brahminical (high-caste) Hindu nationalism. Both the CPI and CPI(M) have utterly refused to fight against caste oppression, falsely counterposing such a fight to the class struggle. This is the opposite of Leninism. We stand on the tradition of Bolshevik leader VI Lenin, who insisted that the revolutionary workers party must champion the cause of all the oppressed in society, acting as the “tribune of the people”.
Untouchability is a form of special oppression that is not simply reducible to class exploitation, though it overlaps with it. A classic example of special oppression is the subjugation of women, which is a key prop of capitalist rule; a working-class woman, for example, bears the double burden of her oppression as a woman and as a worker. India is permeated with myriad forms of oppression, including those based on religion, language, ethnicity and nationality. In heavily Muslim Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan, the Indian army this April gunned down twelve people in one day.
For Marxists, addressing the oppression of Dalits is a matter of strategic importance. Without a programme for the liberation of Dalits, there will be no socialist revolution in India. Dalits are a central component of the working class. To date, there is no history or tradition of genuine Leninism as applied to caste oppression. As part of the struggle to forge a genuinely Leninist party in India, we Marxists of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) are committed to the fight to end the caste system and for the liberation of Dalits.
The indignities of caste oppression
The age-old caste system is historically rooted in India’s rural village economy. The wealthy upper castes dominate the lower castes and the countless subcastes, each one bowing their heads to those above and grinding the faces of those below. But none of these caste divisions is as fundamental, or as envenomed, as the chasm between caste and outcaste. A special place in hell is reserved for “untouchables”, who are forcibly segregated, socially and often physically, beneath all castes. As Gidla writes:
“The untouchables, whose special role — whose hereditary duty — is to labor in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all. They must live outside the boundaries of the village proper. They are not allowed to enter temples. Not allowed to come near sources of drinking water used by other castes. Not allowed to eat sitting next to a caste Hindu or to use the same utensils. There are thousands of other such restrictions and indignities that vary from place to place. Every day in an Indian newspaper you can read of an untouchable beaten or killed for wearing sandals, for riding a bicycle.”
In Gujarat last year, a Dalit man was thrashed by upper-caste thugs for “sporting a moustache”. In late March, a Dalit youth was bludgeoned to death for owning and riding a horse.
Gidla’s great-grandparents, tribal forest dwellers, were born in the late 1880s. They were not Hindus but worshipped their own deities. The family was driven out of its dwellings by the British colonial rulers in order to clear the forests for teak production. Her forebears worked an unused area of land and grew crops, only to be forced to pay revenue to the hated zamindar (landowner), who collected taxes on behalf of the British. The family was driven into debt and forced to surrender its land to the zamindar, and they became landless labourers. The enslavement of tribal people (the adivasi) continues to exist to this day.
Gidla’s family converted to Christianity and Sujatha, the author, grew up in a Dalit slum in what was then part of the state of Andhra Pradesh, where being Christian is synonymous with being “untouchable”. She “knew no Christian who did not turn servile in the presence of a Hindu” and “knew no Hindu who did not look right through a Christian man standing in front of him as if he did not exist”. It was only at the age of 15 that Gidla discovered, to her great shock, that there are Christian Brahmins — the Nambudiripad caste, which exists mainly in Kerala.
So entrenched is the caste system in the Indian subcontinent that it is practised by virtually all religious groups in the region, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists. India’s Muslims are in their vast majority regarded as “untouchable” and targeted for communal violence. In April, protests of outrage erupted over the torture, rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl, Asifa, from a nomadic Muslim family — a depraved and calculated act of terror by Hindu chauvinists in Kashmir. In Bangladesh, outcastes include the Rohingya, many of whom have been massacred in Myanmar. Pakistan’s impoverished Christians, who face Muslim-chauvinist terror, including for “blasphemy”, are also overwhelmingly deemed outcastes. Oppression based on caste is rife in Nepal as well as in Sri Lanka, where it is practised by both Tamils and Sinhalese. Gidla, who lives in New York and works as a conductor in the subway system, points out that caste prejudice is rampant among Indians living in the US.
Gidla’s grandparents were allowed to attend a school run by Christian missionaries. Education enabled them — and their children — to rise above the unspeakable poverty that afflicts the vast majority of Dalits. But the family could not escape the burden of their untouchability. The story of the author’s mother, Manjula, a central character in the book, gives a sense of the oppression that Dalit women face: blatant caste and sex discrimination. Manjula and the other women in the family had to clean, cook and care for the extended family. Her older brother chose Manjula’s husband, who beat her to appease his own mother. Overcoming these immense obstacles, Manjula acquired a postgraduate degree.
Gidla’s family lived in the city and was thus spared the most heinous violence that is intrinsic to the caste system in the villages. Women are particularly targeted for sadistic crimes by upper-caste men who use rape as a means to humiliate both the woman and her caste. At the same time, inter-caste relationships are deadly dangerous. In February, a 20-year-old woman writhed in agony for hours before dying of poison that her father, assisted by the mother, forced down her throat. The father told the police that this was “just punishment for loving a man outside the community”, ie a Dalit.
In the city, one’s caste is less obvious. But by tradition everyone has the right to know, and if you lie, countless clues would give your caste away. In the universities, Dalit students are entering citadels of brahminism. In 2016 Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student at Hyderabad Central University, was hounded to death in a witch hunt spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Vemula’s suicide note said: “My birth is my fatal accident.” This February in Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit university student, Dileep Saroj, was beaten to death for having accidentally touched a caste Hindu. As Gidla put it: “Your life is your caste, your caste is your life.”
On average, every 15 minutes a crime is committed against Dalits, who have been facing increasing attacks since the BJP came to power in 2014. On 2 April, Dalits staged an enormous bandh (shutdown protest) across India against a court ruling that weakens the Prevention of Atrocities Act, which ostensibly facilitates the prosecution of crimes committed against Dalits. Protesters were met with massive repression by the police, who killed at least twelve people, injured dozens and arrested thousands. While the legislation does little to protect Dalits from being murdered and maimed with impunity, the court ruling gives the green light to caste-chauvinist gangs for even more violent attacks. Indeed, upper-caste politicians and spokesmen have long been howling to repeal the law.
Stalinism: a rotten tradition on caste
Sujatha Gidla’s uncle, KG Satyamurthy, who is a focus of Ants among elephants, was a college student when he was drawn to the Congress-led Quit India campaign against British rule. Quickly disillusioned with Congress, Satyamurthy decided to join the Communist Party of India. In so doing, he accepted the view that “one was supposed to think only in terms of class and not of caste. When the class struggle was won, discrimination based on caste would disappear.” With this rotten line, India’s Stalinist parties have tarnished the banner of communism on the question of caste, as they have on every other question of revolution. The deep caste chauvinism prevalent in society constitutes an enormous obstacle to forging the unity the working class needs in its struggles against capital. The struggle for socialist liberation in India requires the building of a Leninist vanguard party to lead the proletariat in the fight against the oppression of the Dalit masses.
Satyamurthy joined the CPI because — unusually for the Stalinists — the party joined a revolt of the oppressed in Telangana (which was then part of Andhra Pradesh). The Telangana struggle (1946-51) was an insurrection against the monstrous rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The Nizam’s rule was reinforced by the British, providing a textbook example of how colonial rule strengthened the caste system. As Gidla writes: “There were systems of servitude in every part of India, but none was as ruthless as the vetti system in Telangana, the heartland of the Nizam’s kingdom of the Deccan.” Under the vetti system, “every untouchable family in the village had to give up their first male child as soon as he learned to talk and walk”. The child would become a slave in the household of the dora, the Nizam’s local agent. Similarly, all the women of the village were the property of the dora. Gidla notes that if the dora “called while they were eating they had to leave the food on their plates and come to his bed”.
The CPI in Andhra Pradesh became involved in the Telangana armed struggle and built a guerrilla army that soon controlled large areas of the countryside. In 1948, the ruling Congress Party under Jawaharlal Nehru dispatched the army to Telangana. The Nizam had initially refused to bring his kingdom into the newly independent state of India, but quickly surrendered his “princely state” to the Indian army, which then turned to its main mission: crushing the Communist-led rebellion. Over the next three years the army massacred untold numbers of Muslims, peasants and tribal people. In the wake of the slaughter, the CPI reverted back to its historic role as an appendage of Congress, which had previously ordered that Communists be hanged from trees. Gidla bitterly notes that the CPI leadership “gave in to Nehru without even demanding amnesty for the ten thousand party members who were rotting in detention camps”.
Satyamurthy was devastated that the CPI abandoned the armed struggle and even more shocked to discover that the turn was sanctioned by Stalin. In 1964, the CPI split into pro-Soviet and pro-China wings. Satyamurthy sided with the pro-China faction that would become the CPI(M), hoping that the “Chinese path” would mean following the example of Mao, who had led a peasant army to victory. But the CPI(M) voted at its first conference to follow the parliamentary road.
When the CPI(M) became part of a capitalist government in West Bengal in 1967, a layer of party cadre split and launched an armed uprising in Naxalbari, becoming known as Naxalites. The split attracted a large portion of CPI(M) members in Andhra Pradesh, including Satyamurthy and many veterans of the Telangana struggle. Both the CPI and CPI(M) drew a blood line against the Naxalites. In the 1970s, the CPI supported their ruthless suppression at the hands of Congress leader Indira Gandhi. In August 1971, CPI(M) cadre joined with Congress goons in a massacre of Naxalite suspects and sympathisers in Calcutta.
And when it came to crimes against Dalits, the CPI(M) during its decades in power in West Bengal mirrored the Indian ruling class. In 1979, the CPI(M)-led government massacred hundreds of Dalit Hindu refugees from Bangladesh who were living on the island of Marichjhapi. In 2007, in Nandigram, West Bengal, CPI(M) goons joined cops in a massacre of perhaps 100 people who were protesting against land-grabbing for capitalist enterprise.
In 1980, Satyamurthy cofounded the People’s War Group (PWG) in Andhra Pradesh with Kondapalli Seetharamayya, a caste Hindu who was a veteran of the CPI and the Telangana uprising. The PWG, which became one of the best-known Naxalite groups — and the Naxalites in general — won significant support among Dalits, for whom the armed guerrillas offered a much-needed measure of protection against the brutal violence of the upper-caste landlords and the state. However, the Maoist programme offers no way forward. The Maoists have no political programme other than to look for “progressive” bourgeois allies, invariably sacrificing the interests of the poorest peasants to unity with “broader forces”. According to the Naxalites, Dalits must unite with the “intermediate” castes in a struggle against the “feudal” large landowners. In reality, the “intermediate” castes are often bitterly and violently hostile to Dalits and tribal people owning land.
While the Naxalites traditionally drew their support largely from Dalits (and today mainly from among the adivasi people), they have refused to politically address the question of untouchability. The issue exploded inside the PWG in 1984 when young Dalit party members complained to Satyamurthy of caste-chauvinist practices in the functioning of the party: comrades of the barber caste were assigned to shave other comrades; those from the washer caste to wash clothes; Dalit members were told to sweep floors and clean lavatories.
Satyamurthy, who had personally experienced caste chauvinism from his comrades, scheduled a Central Committee meeting to discuss the issue. The party leadership responded by having him “expelled on the spot for ‘conspiring to divide the party’”, as Gidla reports. In refusing to even discuss caste prejudice in its own ranks, the Maoist PWG was true to its political roots in the CPI.
MN Roy’s distortions of Leninism
Ants among elephants brilliantly exposes the political bankruptcy of Indian would-be Marxists on the question of caste oppression. The task that genuine communists face is to outline a Bolshevik perspective for India. Marxists must address the daily oppression of Dalits and adivasi people up to and after the victory of socialist revolution. The ICL looks to the lessons of the first four congresses of the Communist International (CI). We seek to forge a party in India armed with a programme of permanent revolution, the programme that laid the basis for victory in the Bolshevik-led 1917 October Revolution. Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolsheviks established the dictatorship of the proletariat with the support of the poorer peasantry and downtrodden ethnic minorities. The Soviet government issued far-reaching decrees, granting the right of self-determination to the oppressed nations, full legal equality for women and land to landless peasants.
In 1920, Lenin drafted a set of theses on the agrarian question, which could have been written for India today. As opposed to the Maoist strategy of peasant war divorced from the struggles of the working class, the theses stipulate that “there is no salvation for the working masses of the countryside except in alliance with the Communist proletariat”. The theses continued: “The industrial workers cannot accomplish their epoch-making mission of emancipating mankind from the yoke of capital and from wars if they confine themselves to their narrow craft, or trade interests, and smugly restrict themselves to attaining an improvement in their own conditions.”
The founder of the Communist Party in India, MN Roy, brought a distortion of Leninism to the subcontinent and put the nascent movement on a course of capitulation to bourgeois nationalism. As early as 1922, Roy drafted a manifesto for the bourgeois-nationalist Congress Party urging the organisation to put itself at the head of the working-class and peasant masses. Under Roy’s guidance, the CPI set out from its founding in December 1925 to build a Peasants’ and Workers’ Party in Bengal. Rather than fighting to build a proletarian party that could lead the peasant masses, Roy sought to build a two-class party (ie a bourgeois party) where the interests of the working class would necessarily be subordinated to those of the petty-bourgeois peasantry.
Roy’s political programme was contrary to the perspective outlined at the 1920 Second Congress of the CI, which Roy himself attended. Lenin insisted: “The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form” (“Preliminary draft theses on the national and the colonial questions”, 1920).
When the CI came under the bureaucratic leadership of the nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy, Roy acted as Stalin’s representative in China in 1927. On Stalin’s instructions, the Chinese Communist Party remained within the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang even as its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, staged a coup in April 1927 and disarmed and massacred tens of thousands of Communist-led workers in Shanghai (see “MN Roy, nationalist Menshevik”, Spartacist [English-language edition] no 62, Spring 2011). The slaughter in China was the bitter fruit of the Stalinist programme of subordinating the proletariat to the bourgeois nationalists. Two decades later, the Indian Stalinists reaped the reward for their support to the Indian nationalists in the bloody suppression of the Communist-led peasant uprising in Telangana at the hands of Nehru and his home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, known as the “Iron Man of India”.
The CPI’s capitulation to brahminical chauvinism precluded their fighting against the oppression of Dalits. This was evident in the late 1920s when Dr BR Ambedkar, the historic Dalit leader, led mass protests against untouchability in the state of Maharashtra. During that period, the Communists had acquired significant support among the combative proletariat in the Bombay textile mills, where Dalit workers were forbidden from working in the higher-paying weaving department and forced to drink water from separate pitchers. A Leninist party would have fought tooth and nail to win all workers to demand an end to untouchability in the workplace and for equal pay for all.
But CPI leaders would not carry out such a fight and did not even mobilise for the protests against untouchability. An exasperated Ambedkar disdained the CPI leaders as “mostly a bunch of Brahmin boys”. He concluded: “The Russians made a great mistake to entrust the Communist movement in India to them. Either the Russians didn’t want Communism in India — they wanted only drummer boys — or they didn’t understand” (quoted in Selig S Harrison, India: the most dangerous decades ).
Amid the growing drive for Indian independence from British rule, the CPI grotesquely dismissed the fight against caste oppression as a diversion from the “anti-imperialist” struggle. Moreover, in the wretched tradition of Roy, the CPI ceded the leadership of the anti-colonial struggle to the bourgeois nationalists led by Mohandas (“Mahatma”) Gandhi. By turning a deaf ear to the struggle against untouchability, the CPI drove many Dalits into Ambedkar’s dead-end framework of reforming capitalism.
In 1931, the British masters of “divide and rule” offered Ambedkar a separate electorate for the “depressed classes”, as they had granted to Muslims. This would have allowed Dalits, who are geographically dispersed, to form a single electoral bloc. Astutely recognising that Ambedkar’s followers might unite with Muslims to form a counterweight to Congress, Gandhi declared a “fast to the death” against the British proposal. In opposition to Ambedkar, Gandhi proclaimed himself to be the leader of those he patronisingly labelled “harijans” (children of God). Though he campaigned against certain aspects of untouchability — demanding, for example, temple entry — Gandhi was a staunch supporter of the brahminical caste system.
For his part, Ambedkar fostered illusions that the British could be used as a bulwark against the upper-caste Indian nationalists. With the outbreak of World War II, he supported the imperialists and joined the Viceroy’s Executive Council. In this, he was not unique. Gandhi, too, supported the British at the beginning of the war, though he could not win the Congress leadership to his position. It was not until 1942 that Congress launched the Quit India movement. As for the CPI, the Indian Stalinists also supported the “democratic” imperialists from the time of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 onward, betraying the interests of the colonial masses.
Following independence, the ruling Congress Party agreed to reserve seats in Parliament for “scheduled” tribes and castes and co-opted Ambedkar to draft the new constitution. In addition to banning untouchability, the written document promised many freedoms, including for women, but they remained largely a dead letter. Ambedkar himself later noted: “The same old tyranny, the same old oppression, the same old discrimination which existed before, exists now, and perhaps in a worse form.”
For a Trotskyist perspective
India’s transition from preindustrial society did not lead to the dissolution of caste relations. The British colonial rulers — backed by the large landowners and nascent local bourgeoisie — preserved, manipulated and reinforced rural backwardness and the caste system. The post-independence period has shown that the Indian capitalist rulers are incapable of solving basic democratic questions. The land reforms introduced by Congress largely restricted redistribution to those within the landowning castes.
To this day, Dalits who manage to buy land are often attacked by mobs, and the legal transfer of ownership is routinely bogged down in wrangles for years. The proportion of landless people in rural India has increased from 28 per cent of the rural population in 1951 to nearly 55 per cent in 2011. And it continues to rise.
Indian capital is dependent on imperialist finance capital. Almost 70 per cent of the population lives in small villages. However, the rural areas are no longer the main source of capital accumulation for the dominant rural castes, who are increasingly investing in industry. This fact underlines that the fight to expropriate the landlords — and provide land to the landless masses — is inseparable from the fight to expropriate the bourgeoisie as a class.
Side by side with its rural backwardness, India is now the fifth-largest manufacturer in the world. The Indian proletariat is small relative to the rural population, but it has the social power to lead the peasant masses and all the oppressed in a fight to overthrow capitalist exploitation. To exercise that power will take a struggle to overcome the insidious caste divisions in the working class.
As Leninists, the ICL fights to build a vanguard party that imbues the proletariat with the understanding that the struggle against Dalit oppression is in the interest of the entire working class of India. A case in point would be to mobilise to free 13 imprisoned union leaders from the Maruti Suzuki plant at Gurgaon-Manesar near Delhi. In 2012, a supervisor attacked a Dalit worker with casteist slurs. The union defended the worker. But the company, which has long sought to crush the union, hired thugs who provoked an altercation, after which the union leaders were outrageously framed up on a murder charge. Last year, the 13 unionists were sentenced to life in prison (see “India: free Maruti Suzuki union leaders!” Workers Vanguard no 1112, 19 May 2017).
The workers movement should also take a stand in defence of the Bhim Army, a Dalit rights organisation that has been subjected to fierce repression by the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. The Bhim Army’s leader, Chandrashekhar Azad, is being held in prison under the draconian National Security Act, despite having been acquitted of all the (bogus) charges against him. The unions and organisations of the oppressed must demand: Free Chandrashekhar Azad now!
Sujatha Gidla’s Ants among elephants powerfully illustrates the central role caste oppression plays in Indian society. The liberation of the Dalit masses requires the forging of a revolutionary workers party dedicated to fighting all forms of oppression. In turn, Marxists committed to building such a party must fight to overcome the shameful legacy of Stalinism by planting the banner of the Trotskyist programme of permanent revolution. This programme is thoroughly internationalist, aiming for proletarian revolution not only in India and the rest of South Asia but also in the imperialist centres of North America, Western Europe and Japan. The true Leninist party that we aim to build will be composed in its majority of Dalits as well as oppressed minorities. Winning the trust of the Dalits and adivasi people will require special demands and forms of organisation. A Leninist-Trotskyist party in India, section of a reforged Fourth International, will open up the possibility of a way out of the endless cycles of brutal oppression, injustice and poverty.
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard no 1132, 20 April