Caste-based Oppression and the Class Struggle

Caste Discrimination Britain

In 2013, the British government agreed to include caste-based discrimination as an amendment to the Equality Act (2010). An alliance of Tory MPs and caste-based ‘community leaders’, however, successfully stalled its implementation to after the general election. What is behind this opposition? What role does caste play, both in South Asia and Britain? Why is it an important issue for socialists today? 

The caste system in South Asia is one of the cruellest forms of oppression that exists today. Cold-blooded murder, sexual violence, untouchability, bonded slavery and other feudal forms of horrific discrimination are used against people from the most oppressed caste. People challenging this oppression face brutal violence, including being driven from traditional lands or the burning down of whole villages.

More than half-a-billion people in India are subjected to discrimination based on their caste, which is determined by hereditary membership and marriage within the caste. Higher castes dominate certain professions, businesses, etc. Beneath this hierarchical system are more than 200 million (Dalits and others) who face the most severe forms of discrimination. Traditional castes cut across class and class loyalties, although the leaders of the higher castes are a significant component of the ruling class.

Caste oppression is also present in other parts of the world where South Asians live, travelling with the migrations of populations over time. From Malaysia to Europe, caste divisions have been maintained. At least half-a-million people of South Asian descent face caste-based discrimination in Britain.

In April 2013, the British parliament debated the issue. True to their class interests the Con-Dems tried to place obstacles in the way of outlawing caste discrimination in the workplace. The Commons and Lords played ping-pong with the issue. Eventually, the government was forced to amend the Equality Act 2010 by adding that caste is an ‘aspect of race’, although the Tories, working with the Hindu elite, have kicked the issue into the long grass. A final drafting of the legislation has been postponed to the summer of 2015 – after the general election.

Looking at the different ways that opposition to the caste system emerged in India and Sri Lanka can help shine a light on what strategy we should adopt today. The ‘left’ has in general opposed all forms of caste discrimination. However, the leaders of some of the mass left organisations failed to develop adequate perspectives and strategy, eventually leaving the wider population who faced severe caste-based discrimination with no organisational weapon with which to fight back.

Opposition to caste in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, caste discrimination was present among the majority Sinhala population, of all religions, though not at the same level as among the minority Tamils. It was particularly prominent wherever poverty existed. Those who are most oppressed by caste discrimination are also kept in less privileged economic conditions. In Sri Lanka they were also minorities in terms of population, within each ethnic group, and faced various barriers to getting involved in the struggle to improve their conditions. Nonetheless, the relative economic improvement which took place among the oppressed Karava (Sinhala) and Karayar (Tamil) castes, due to their involvement in businesses such as fishing, the sale of alcohol, etc, created a certain confidence and enabled them to challenge the domination of the ‘upper’ Kovigama (Sinhala) or Vellalar (Tamil) castes. These oppressing castes did not involve themselves in these businesses initially as they saw them as ‘lower-caste activities’.

This also contributed to the emergence of organised opposition to class oppression. The Karava caste dominated the leadership of the first political party to be formed in Sri Lanka, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), set up in 1935. The LSSP immediately took on an anti-capitalist character opposing all sorts of oppression, including caste-based discrimination. The Karava or Karayar castes were prominent in the leaderships of almost all the resistance groups to emerge in Sri Lanka – not just the LSSP, but also the JVP (People’s Liberation Front, founded in 1965), the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, 1976) – and even a section of the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party, 1951).

In Sri Lanka all the left parties and formations consistently opposed caste-based discrimination, at times leading the struggle of the oppressed castes. Whenever they organised on a class basis, they were able to pull the oppressed masses behind them. For this reason the left organisations became the first port of call for the oppressed castes to fight back. The LSSP in particular played a formidable role in its early stages. However, its initial success among the super-exploited workers in the tea plantations of the hill country, where there was massive opposition by the oppressed caste against class exploitation, led the LSSP to assume wrongly that this could be a generalised mood among Tamils. At that time, the Tamil elite from the north and east, where most Tamils live, were almost exclusively from the most dominant Vellalar caste. The LSSP was correct in predicting that there would be a revolt of the most oppressed caste against Vellalar dominance, but it was wrong in assuming that it would be an automatic process.

Caste-based frustration and mobilisation does not travel automatically towards a class-conscious position. It can find its expression in a number of ways, including through religion. Alternatively, owing to their extreme deprivation, oppressed caste workers may not even participate in the struggle, initially at least. Without a conscious intervention, making an appeal to the wider working class, mobilising their opposition is not possible. A socialist and workers’ party that understands caste and opposes all oppression and exploitation can help speed up this understanding. There was a need, therefore, to draw a parallel and link the caste and class anger in a mobilisation against the Tamil capitalist and petit-bourgeois elite. The LSSP failed to do this.

At the same time, class opposition can be built through seriously taking up the fight against caste, race, or gender discrimination. A section of the Communist Party in Sri Lanka broke away and formed a Maoist-influenced pro-Beijing wing, establishing significant influence among the Tamil workers and poor in the north and in hill country tea estates through its participation in the struggle of the oppressed caste. However, its failure to understand the developing national question, and the caste/class composition of the Tamil community, led to the situation where the Tamil elite was able to side-line the left.

Though every armed Tamil group formally stood for ‘socialism’ – without a deep-going understanding of what that meant – they were not able to link up with the existing left organisations, such as the LSSP, as the LSSP had by then abandoned a consistent struggle against capitalism. Indeed, later on, the LSSP mistakenly formed a coalition with the capitalist and Sinhala nationalist parties. These were the parties the radicalised Tamil youth saw as their enemies and oppressors. Consequently, oppressed-caste Tamil youth, who instinctively looked towards the left, flooded the ranks of the armed guerrilla organisations.

Caste in India

Under the influence of Stalinism, maintaining an independent class position was abandoned by the communist parties in India – the Communist Party India, and the Communist Party India (Marxist). Instead they adopted a popular front policy of submerging themselves in alliances with capitalist parties. Their stagist approach – arguing that, firstly, a stage of capitalist economic development was required before a second stage of socialist revolution (at some indefinite future time) was possible – led them to give in to ‘Hindu nationalism’. They gave up on internationalism. Unlike in Sri Lanka, the oppressed-caste masses could not turn to a left party to express their anger.

These mistaken ideas and approach cut those parties off from people suffering caste-based misery and led to the emergence of various experiments in resistance, including ‘low-caste’ people changing their religion en masse, forming caste-based parties, etc. The communist parties in India, despite having a mass base, were never able to wage a class-based opposition in such a way that would also express caste anger, due to their continuous collaboration with the oppressing caste. The partial land reforms which were implemented under Communist Party rule in Bengal or Kerala did have some impact on caste relations, but their effects were limited in many ways as the majority of oppressed-caste people remained landless.

What took place in the late 1960s and 1970s in Sri Lanka, with the mass left parties abandoning the struggle against capitalism, had existed in India since post-independence. Those who were outside the Congress Party and communist parties began to play a significant role in mobilising the most oppressed. Like the leaders of the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s, these leaders – such as Ambedkar and Periyar – were often forced to draw the conclusion that a fundamental change of the economic system was needed to fight the caste system. Frequently, however, they came into conflict with the communist parties. In the Stalinist sectarian tradition, the communist parties dismissed other forms of struggle and operated without democratic discussions within and outside the party.

At the time of the initial emergence of caste-based groups, the communist parties began to change but not to the extent of leading the struggle. They started to talk about ‘equal rights’, and making inequality ‘punishable by law’, etc – as in the CPI programme (1951), and the CPI-M programme (1969). They believed that the ‘agrarian revolution’ would remove the caste relations and, as a second stage, the development of industrialisation and the working class would see revolution emerge. They never explained how they hoped to achieve this without the involvement of the working class, or how this could be achieved in alliance with the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois forces, which is what their programmes outlined.

Corruption and control

Only after the caste-based parties were fully formed and became a challenge to the communist parties, in the 1980s and 1990s, did they begin to search for a new ‘theory’ to justify their failure to organise the oppressed caste. One of their publications even argued that “caste consciousness proves to be antithetical to class consciousness, and stymies the growth of proletarian class solidarity”. Antagonism developed against the left in general on the part of the caste-based leaders who had begun to milk the system for their own benefit.

The emergent movement against the caste system became an opportunity for relatively wealthy leaders from each caste to establish their family’s grip on their respective caste. Winning elections gave them political authority which they abused to control the economic affairs of the community, through which they further enriched themselves. Money allocated for development projects had to go through the hands of these individuals, and got smaller and smaller by the time it reached those in need – if it reached them at all. Within each caste-based politics class discrimination dominates. The anger against this was kept within caste boundaries by the caste-based leaders who maintained the system of caste discrimination in their own self-interest.

Caste-based exclusivity and division was maintained in India to help the capitalist ruling elite to control the population. This exclusivity and protectionism created a type of ‘caste industry’, similar to that of the race-relations industry promoted by the ruling elite in Britain. This helped the Indian capitalists to integrate the most oppressed sections (Dalits and others) within the capitalist system and to use this as a weapon against the growth of the left in general.

These ‘integrated’ caste-based leaders and self-promoting intellectuals resisted, and continue to resist, the development of any form of class unity between the castes. They have also developed a conscious attack on the left, in order to draw their caste supporters away from seeking a different form of struggle. This has become increasingly important to them as the corruption and political bankruptcy of these leaders have been more and more exposed.

The early movements of the most oppressed caste (Dalits) failed to achieve what they originally aimed for. Now, however, the initial trust and illusions created by some of the caste-based leaders stand exposed by their corruption and submission to neo-liberal policies. Their future depends on how far they can maintain the caste divisions. Due to the fear and the friction that exist between the castes, the masses do not have any other alternative, at present, other than rallying behind their caste leaders. But this will not last for ever. There is already a thirst for a new alternative.

Fighting against oppression

Socialists, like those of New Socialist Alternative (CWI section in India), oppose all forms of oppression and understand that there is a connection between them. Divisions and the various complex relations in society, including forms of discrimination, are linked to the production method that dominates. Throughout history we have witnessed how change in the productive forces has changed social relations. Hence fighting to change the current capitalist system is key to getting rid of the various forms of discrimination that are maintained within it. However, fighting against oppression cannot wait until we get rid of the system as a whole. Instead, we must intervene in the fight against whatever repression emerges, and try to bring together these struggles, winning victories for those fighting oppression and advancing from there to end the very system that produces these menaces.

Despite the fact that there was for a period a mass Trotskyist force in Sri Lanka, the LSSP, and the conditions won by the workers were more far-reaching than their Indian counterparts, the communists in India were not able to debate the correct strategy and tactics in their parties. They did not have access, for example, to Leon Trotsky’s analysis of the revolutions in Russia. Trotsky explained the law of combined and uneven development, which prevented the completion of the democratic tasks in the colonial countries. Even if some economic and social developments have taken place, old feudal relations are not necessarily challenged under continuing neo-colonial relations. Trotsky noted that, without a strong working-class movement emerging to defeat the rule of capital and install a planned economy, the imperialist grip on the resources of the colonies could not be broken. Despite the varying degrees of development in the colonial (later, neo-colonial) countries, capitalism is incapable of completely freeing the workers, peasants and poor from feudal relations. Moreover, caste divisions continue to be used by the ‘indigenous’ capitalists, foreign investors, etc.

What can break this status quo is the independent mass organisation of the working class. This is a vital lesson that the past experiences in Sri Lanka and India clearly point to. Any collaboration with organisations or formations which exploit and oppress, in one form or another, will only weaken mass opposition. Independent mass organisations led by the working class can mobilise movements against all sorts of oppression. For example, if a strong working-class movement can be built in India today – bringing together the struggles against corruption, women’s oppression, nuclear plants, caste discrimination, the plundering of the hill country estates, massacres of tribal peoples, the poverty of peasants imposed by the cutting of subsidies, etc – it could become a powerful force to break the system maintaining all this oppression.

The workers’ movement

Though legislation can give confidence and a certain amount of protection to those who are victims of caste discrimination, a legal ban within the limitations of capitalism will not, in and of itself, be enough to end the oppression once and for all. Child poverty, joblessness, inadequate housing, etc, are rife among South Asians living in Britain. A majority subsists on low incomes. Without addressing these issues, real change cannot be achieved. Events to gain the confidence to fight back and participate in the struggle, and improvements in the economic conditions, are vital. Poverty does not directly result in a fight-back. The caste system in Britain can never be decisively defeated without real changes taking place in South Asia.

Revolutionary land reform, investment in education and housing, decent jobs for all, a living wage, and free health and education services are important demands that need to be taken up by the movement to bring forward real changes in South Asia. Powerful trade unions need to be built in these countries to intervene actively in the struggle. They need to follow a zero-tolerance approach to caste discrimination among their members and in workplaces. Trade unions can play a big role in educating workers about caste discrimination and to take up the fight for decent wages for all. They should come forward to organise not just the urban workers, but also the unemployed rural poor. Special funds and resources should be allocated to bring together peasants and the urban workers.

Combative trade union leadership is vital. Members should campaign to remove leaders who are not prepared to fight back. Unions and activists, the most oppressed caste and their organisations, should come together to form a mass alternative party that will fight for these demands and lay out an uncompromising strategy to win. Trade unions in India, organising millions of workers, are a major potential powerhouse which has never been used properly to strike a blow at the heart of the establishment and start winning the rights of the oppressed masses. A mass struggle by the working class would reveal it as the most powerful social force and help those suffering caste oppression to understand how society can be changed in their favour.

Caste is a remnant of an old Asian feudal system. It can be defeated. The development of the capitalist system challenged many feudal relations. However, capitalism also maintains some of them for its benefit – to divide and rule, particularly under neo-colonial relations. Those who are serious about fighting the caste system need to link that struggle to the fight for socialist transformation and the establishment of a democratically planned socialist society.

Caste discrimination in Britain

MPs from the three main parties often visit temples and mosques during election campaigns to persuade religious leaders to mobilise the vote for them. For these MPs ‘communities’ from different ethnic backgrounds represent blocks of votes. (We use the word ‘community’ here in the absence of a suitable alternative.) In reality, these are population groups like any other, riven with division, especially due to class and caste oppression. The majority of Hindu temples in Britain practise caste hierarchy in one form or other. The temples are big-business ventures, controlled by an elite. Oppressive caste-based Hindu organisations work very closely with these temples and with different capitalist parties. This is one of the reasons why the capitalist and Hindu elites are united in preserving age-old feudal practices.

Black and Asian ‘representatives’, like David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, north London, represent everything that capitalist politicians stand for. They use their links to the black and Asian communities to create vote banks for the capitalist parties. This has been facilitated by the way that ethnic communities often live, partly to provide much-needed support networks, but largely due to the lack of investment and opportunity in housing, jobs and services. In these conditions, old feudal, oppressive relations have been maintained in almost all South Asian communities.

From child marriage, caste discrimination, domestic violence to ‘honour killings’, brutal forms of discrimination continue, and are indirectly or directly tolerated by so-called ‘community leaders’. They maintain their positions through clan, tribal, caste, class, religious and/or political authority. While helping to preserve the rotten practices in their communities, these individuals often give legitimacy to the measures being taken by the capitalist parties they represent or are linked to – such as austerity and other attacks on the wider working class. This leads to a further deterioration of the relationships between working-class people from different backgrounds.

Many of the initiatives under Labour actually alienated the most deprived sections. Wealthy businessmen and the religious elite in each ethnicity-based ‘community’ have been promoted as leaders, undemocratically appointed to be the voice of those they themselves often exploit and oppress. Through this method, often in the name of so-called ‘multiculturalism’, the capitalists and the ruling elite have found a way effectively to control these deprived communities.

The Hindu Council UK, Hindu Forum Britain and other organisations controlled by oppressive caste/class Hindus vehemently oppose the idea of caste being included in legislation, or that anything is done regarding caste discrimination. The Tory MP, Alok Sharma, who promotes privatisation, university tuition fees and austerity, and opposes gay rights, also works closely with the Hindu Council to oppose the illegalisation of caste discrimination. His long speech in parliament opposing caste legislation sounded like a Hindu Council statement. Right-wing MPs supported the argument that ‘there is not enough evidence of caste discrimination’ in the UK. They wilfully ignore the information published by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and others.

Justifying oppression

There have even been murders related to mixed caste marriages in the past, and mixed couples who want to marry still receive death threats. Yet the government refuses to act, arguing that those who oppose caste discrimination are confusing class with caste. The clear implication of that, of course, is that class discrimination is legitimate! They certainly intend to maintain their continuous exploitation of the working class. Alok Sharma asked rhetorically whether the “government should legislate to protect people from every conceivable form of discrimination?” For him it is fair that class discrimination and other discriminations, including on the basis of caste, exist and that the state should not intervene.

The Hindu Council says: “There are record levels of homeless people in the UK, who are analogous with the outcastes of Indian society”. It argues that nothing is done against class discrimination so there should not be anything done against caste discrimination. The Hindu elites across South Asia frequently come out with such arguments to defend their social privileges. The answer to this is to mobilise a fight against all forms of super-exploitation – low pay, homelessness, poverty, etc. The existence of class oppression does not justify passive acceptance of caste discrimination.

These same leaders perpetrate severe class exploitation in the businesses they own. They use it to defend their caste position and to continue their domination of people from the same ethnic background. They defend ‘untouchability’ with similarly crude arguments, claiming that, “British menial workers seldom interact socially with those of the higher echelons”. They compare the use of gloves in hospitals and kitchens to the form of untouchability practiced by the caste system. They claim that Brahmins developed untouchability as protection from diseases.

They have also blamed oppressed-caste people for causing the problems themselves, citing the example of a worker who was sacked because, in order to get the job in the first place, he lied about his caste. They claim, therefore, that he was not sacked because of his caste, but because he lied. In another example, Arjun Vakaria, who represented the Hindu Forum Britain in the Newsnight programme on 15 April 2013, accused a Dalit of lying, after he had given an emotional account of his experiences of caste-based discrimination. The request to maintain respect for priests – similar to Christians respecting pastors and Muslims respecting imams – is a particularly cunning argument because, in Hinduism, the very ‘respect’ for Brahmins (the priest caste) is what defines caste discrimination.

In sections of academia, in the name of ‘post-colonial research’, some wrongly generalise the brutality against indigenous people under the British empire and other imperial powers as the fault of the whole western population, rather than as the means by which the colonial rulers kept control. Apparently to counter this, they ‘reinvent’ ancient ideologues and feudal practices. The attempt to ‘purify’ Hinduism and the ‘rediscovery’ of Gandhi are part of this phenomenon.

Some argue that the discussion on caste discrimination in Britain is part of a western, Christian agenda. They cite the examples of some Christian organisations holding meetings with MPs to lobby for outlawing caste discrimination. Of course, not all those who oppose caste discrimination see the need to oppose working-class exploitation, and some collaborate with right-wing politicians and religious organisations.

These ideas have gained strength in the last few decades, particularly in India following the introduction of the full ‘free-market’ economy in the 1990s. With a relative growth in the economy, the Hindu establishment gained further strength, and along with it emerged the academic/intellectual justification of the Hindu nationalist base. Among other factors, this also helped in the significant victory for Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party, the BJP (Indian People’s Party), in the general election in May, and the significant growth of the fascistic RSS (National Volunteer Organisation). The section of Indian academia attached to this establishment constantly promotes these reactionary ideas.

The lack of mass working class-based parties in Britain and India is decisive. It means that workers and the most oppressed caste have no way collectively to express their anger and opposition, and no way to organise their fight-back. The absence of such organisations, armed with a real understanding of caste oppression and how to fight it, has allowed reactionary ideas to continue to have an echo, even among those who are oppressed and those who genuinely want to oppose caste discrimination.

TU Senan

London