Finally, Indian communists take to caste mobilisation

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS

New Delhi : After asserting for decades that only class matters, Indian communists are finally organising the poorest of the poor, the Dalits in particular, along caste lines.

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Leaders of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) say there is growing realisation that caste cannot be ignored in the political arena.

"Caste is a social reality whether we agree or not. It is important that the Dalit question is addressed earnestly (by communists)," said CPI's deputy leader D. Raja, a Rajya Sabha MP and the country's most senior Left leader of Dalit origin.

"It is imperative that the communists should strengthen class struggle in a comprehensive way," Raja told IANS.

A senior CPI-M leader who did want to be identified by name admitted that his party was increasingly networking with Dalits as a community, which forms 16 percent of India's population and which is overwhelmingly poor and destitute.

"Earlier we had a doctrinaire position on this, like some algebra problem," the leader said. "Caste is a reality. It is part of our social structure. You have to deal with it.

"Dalits themselves see the value of Dalit mobilisation. They see themselves as Dalits first. That is why the appeal of Dalit groups has increased. The Left has to take this into account."

In recent times, the CPI-M and other Left groups have organised seminars and meetings on the Dalit question and also held huge demonstrations that have drawn large numbers of Dalits, once derisively known as "untouchables".

For a long time since its formation in 1925, the CPI – one of the oldest communist parties in the world – refused to pay heed to the caste divides saying that caste identity would get suppressed by class struggle.

The Dalits occupy the bottom heap in caste-ridden Indian society. Upper castes have traditionally tormented and tortured them, producing a cruel system that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has compared with apartheid.

Economically too, the Dalits are the worst off, often doing menial jobs no one else wants. Over the decades, they did join the Left groups in large numbers. But the Left saw them as peasants, as workers, as poor – not as Dalits.

Although discrimination against Dalits has waned in urban areas, it is a reality in rural areas across the country.

The steady growth of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and caste-based parties such as Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in northern India robbed the Left of a lot of their support base. Naturally, the CPI and CPI-M began looking at caste with a fresh perspective.

The CPI-M leader, who is a member of the party's Central Committee, however, accused the CPI and the radical Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML) of having become "casteist" in places like Bihar.

"Caste has to be understood in the context of the cross-cutting reality," the leader said. "There are now conscious efforts to enter Dalit politics. But CPI and CPI-ML are espousing caste identity at the cost of class differences. In a way they have reversed the old dogma."

Raja pointed out that the caste divide was unique to Indian society and that much of what Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar preached was close to communist ideas on issues such as state control of industry and banks.

K. Elangovan, a former student leader at the Jawaharlal Nehru University here and who served in the CPI for years, feels the communists are unlikely to make much headway despite their newfound understanding of the Indian social system.

"There was a time when communist parties dubbed caste consciousness as false consciousness," Elangovan told IANS from Chennai, where he is now a lawyer. "The cadres never had an answer to caste question. It happened to me personally."

The CPI-M leader admitted there were dangers in caste empowerment.

"There will be no immediate benefits for us in the short run," he said. And we have to figure out this question as we go along. For now, we are only organising the Dalits, no other caste."