The test of our times: Where Bhagat Singh must shake hands with Ambedkar
The students’-youth movement in the country had intensified since the #Hokkolorob movement in Calcutta, the attack on FTII and the #OccupyUGC movement in Delhi. But it went up to a new height after the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula. The movement seeking Justice for Rohith, saw the Left and Ambedkarite students groups coming together in Joint Action Committees that sprung up in different cities. The slogan of “Jai Bhim-Laal Salam” pierced the citadels of power and unitedly took the saffron powers that be head on. State repression was unleashed heavily on the students of JNU and University of Hyderabad, the current nerve centres of students’ movements. This alliance however is still incipient, tenuous and at times has bitterly fallen apart already. But such unity of struggles between Left and Ambedkarite forces at a countrywide level, is in itself a new phenomenon. Because historically, the Left and the Dalit and Ambedkarite movement have had a chequered history. Although both these ideologies challenge power and unequal distribution of resources in their own ways, they have failed to form decisive and formidable alliance against common enemies or forge long lasting united struggles. Rather what pervades is a historical scepticism and suspicion towards each other.
In the outset however, it must be clarified that neither the left movement nor the Ambedkarite/dalit movement in India is a homogeneous entity. Both have several strands that differ bitterly on various aspects from political program to strategy and tactics. Take the left for example, from the parliamentary parties of CPI and CPI(M) to the various ML parties that were formed since Naxalbari movement, the Left spectrum in India is indeed very wide. They bitterly differ on how to characterise the Indian society, strategy of mass movements, whether to participate in the parliamentary processes or reject it completely, as well as on the fundamental questions of political economy. To sum up they differ sharply on the question of social transformation and how is it possible in India.
The Dalit and Ambedkarite movement similarly cannot be encapsulated in a single bracket. Dr. Ambedkar’s own party Republican Party of India has split into several factions, each taking its own course of allying with different forces, including the right wing fascists in some cases. The Kanshiram-Mayavati led BSP and the Dalit Panthers of Maharashtra, represent completely contrasting political vision for social change and the liberation of the oppressed majority, although both claim to uphold Dr. Ambedkar’s vision. With such huge spectrum of differences, among the Left and Ambedkarites themselves, it is not easy to map unity and disarrays. Struggles, movements and electoral compulsions have often brought Left and Dalit/Ambedkarite forces together, but none of them had been very long lasting.
One can wonder why such a bridge between the Left and Ambedkarites could not be built. Historically, the left movement in India, needs to take its share of responsibility, in gradually alienating the dalits from their political vision and struggle. Going back to history, the early leadership of Communist Party of India preferred to remain within the socialist block of Congress for the longest time and later also remained close to Congress even after emerging as a separate party. They remained suspicious of Dr. Ambedkar’s politics and deemed his efforts like negotiating with the Simon Commission as being ‘British stooge.’ The CPI even opposed Dr. Ambedkar’s candidature to the Constituent Assembly, and leaders like Dange gave a forthright call to defeat Ambedkar, which led into his initial defeat from the Maharashtra state. By that time Dr. Ambedkar’s Labour Party of India and the Communist Party and its trade unions have already done many joint struggles and massive strikes for labour rights in Maharashtra.
Yet a solidarity could not be built that would eventually lead CPI to back Ambedkar and form a formidable alliance against Congress. CPI rather preferred to tail Congress instead. Well it is true that Dr. Ambedkar was not a declared Marxist, but so was not the Congress leadership. And on any issue from the caste question to the question of nationhood, minorities or gender, Dr. Ambedkar’s positions were far more progressive than that of the Congress. It was only natural for any Communist Party to have allied with him rather than tailing Congress. And that not only reflects the class-character of CPI leadership and their complete wrong understanding of Imperialism (whether British or US led) but also that of feudalism and how feudal social relations manifests and perpetuate in India.
Dr. Ambedkar on the other hand was clearer in his fundamentals on this question. He foregrounded how caste is enclosed class and how caste is not simply the division of labour as the conservative section would like us to believe. Going further, he called it a division of labourers. The question of class struggle in India therefore should take into cognizance the caste division that divides masses and fight to annihilate it. Such revolutionary understanding was clearly missing among the left leadership contemporary to Ambedkar.
As a result, class struggle for them got reduced to economist fights for rise in wages and other work place benefits for workers. Among the peasants also militant movements like Tebhaga and Telangana that took on feudalism head on were eventually shunned and betrayed by the parliamentary left leadership. Neither among the workers or peasants the Communist Party worked towards developing a class consciousness that prioritises or even addresses the question of annihilation of caste. Caste based social relations were not seen as materially rooted and were only considered to be a part of superstructure, thriving more in the culture as a feudal relic. Frankly that did not change much for the parliamentary left parties in the last seven decades. Their emphasis has always been on ‘modernizing’ the society through development and industrialization, as if that alone will result into the gradual withering away of ‘backward thinking’ and the likes of caste divisions. What they have not realized or deliberately overlooked is that caste is not a problem of mentality. Caste division in the society perpetuates access or denial to resources in a systemic way. Crucial resources like land or education have been monopolised by certain castes for centuries now and little effort has been taken to systematically break that monopoly.
What the development and industrialization model followed by all shades of parliamentary parties from the right to the left has done, is to exacerbate such monopoly over resources by the minority of already dominant castes and class. The development and industrial model has only resulted into destitution and dispossession particularly to the dalits and adivasi population of the country. So rather than withering away caste this so-called development which was seen as harbinger of modernity by successive ruling classes, only fortified the caste division and the differential access to resources as operationalized by caste. The Left forces whenever they were in power in various states did close to nothing to break the backbone of feudalism in India constituted by caste. The little land reform that took place in West Bengal under the left government for example, was aimed at giving land rights to the male heads of middle and upper caste families and not to the dalits and adivasis. The latter efforts to grab land for big corporate at gunpoint from once again Dalit, OBC, Muslim small and middle peasants only reaffirm their allegiance to the development that devastates the vast majority, particularly the already marginalised.
Similarly, the various Dalit and OBC parties that emerged on the question of fighting against the marginalisation of oppressed castes and for their long denied rights and dignity, in states like UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu had also followed the same model of industrialization and development. Their vision of dalit emancipation remain constricted only to the question of capturing power and for that some of these forces allied even with the communal fascist parties like BJP. The question of dalit asmita is once again materially rooted and cannot be achieved by ensuring upward social mobility to the upper echelon of the oppressed castes alone. A section of the dalit intellectuals openly celebrate privatization and capitalism, falling prey to the same ‘modernization’ logic, while being oblivious to the devastation that capitalism is bringing to the larger dalit masses. The apathy to include class analysis in understanding the dominance of caste is often overt in their theorisation and that can always produce a myopic and inequitable notion of caste dominance.
The revolutionary left movement and the radical Ambedkarites however, have attempted to bridge the questions of caste and class. The land struggles that were waged in Bihar, Telangana or Punjab under the leadership of various Marxist, Leninist or Maoist parties were also efforts to forcefully reclaim the crucial resource of land that has been historically captured by the dominant castes, rendering more than 90% Dalits as landless. Retaliatory strikes to caste violence also took place in various places as instances of Dalit assertion against the upper caste dominance. However, even the revolutionary movement lacks specific vision for annihilation of caste and often see problems related to caste and caste oppression will only go away if and when a revolution happens. The problem in such understanding is to treat revolution as an event and not a constant process. Revolution indeed entails a persistent democratisation of the existing society, its processes, institutions and practices, before and even after overhauling the current power structure.
The tenuous and unsteady alliance that students and youth built through their struggles seems to be a hope for this burgeoning unity of the oppressed. Increasingly there are questions being asked on both sides leading to a churning which can only serve well for the radical left and radical Ambedkarite forces. The Una struggle and the solidarities built around it are a product of this churning. The two radical legacies in India – one of Ambedkar and the other of Bhagat Singh – should equip us to understand and confront the contradictions of our times. We believe that when the enemy is the nexus between brahmanical feudalism and imperialist loot – we would need both Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar, for a real and radical social transformation.
Banojyotsna Lahiri did her doctoral thesis from Jawharlal Nehru University on the topic ‘Struggle over forests: state, adivasis and political economy in contemporary Jharkhand’. She has taught Sociology in Ambedkar University Delhi and is currently teaching in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.