STOOPING TO CONQUER
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) still doesn't know what to do with the social fact of caste. Intellectually it would rather caste didn't exist so that India could be assimilated into Marx's generalizations without the strain of pretending that caste was a feudal leftover or class by another name. Politically, too, a casteless society would make the task of mobilizing the oppressed easier. Adapting Marx's principles for proletarian struggle to peasant societies is hard enough; adapting them to a society where plebeian solidarity is systematically fissured by jati and varna identities must be a nightmare.
The failure of the traditional communist parties to make political headway in the Indian hinterland beyond their eastern and southern redoubts of Kerala and Bengal has something to do with their unwillingness to come to terms with caste as a political category and as lived reality. This reluctance has provoked curiosity and criticism. Today, with the Left Front out of power in Kerala and Bengal, and electorally in retreat nearly everywhere else, the social composition of the CPI(M)'s leadership is the object of scrutiny. It is a commonplace that in Bengal the CPI(M)'s leadership has been dominated by the bhadralok: not only does a Bhattacharjee succeed a Basu, even the party's renegade answers to Chatterjee.
It is in this context that Sitaram Yechury, politburo member and the CPI(M)'s parliamentary group leader, was asked about the dominance of upper castes in the Left in a recent magazine interview (Outlook, April 22). In his reply, Yechury offered two sorts of explanation. The first was a 'we're getting there' defence: Yechury said that the party's state level committees and student unions, the organizational positions below the apex national leadership, were dominated by backward and Dalit communities. This trend, he suggested, would percolate upwards.
It was Yechury's second line of argument that was startling. It took the form of an anecdote:
Kanshi Ram, said Yechury, once asked him "…why there wasn't a single Dalit minister in the West Bengal government. I was shocked, so I said let me find out. I discovered many Dalits and tribals. Kanti Biswas was the education minister for many years in West Bengal. I had no idea he was Dalit. We used to travel all across the country in the same coupe. I did not know he was Dalit till Kanshi Ram asked this. The point was these things were never part of our consciousness."
Here Yechury claimed for himself and his comrades such ideological purity that caste literally didn't cross their minds. To be innocent of caste is, by this argument, a state of political grace.
This is not a position confined to the Left; it is familiar to many Indians who consider themselves liberal modernists. An individual who moves from a state of active upper caste prejudice to an indifference to caste identity, progresses. Obliviousness represents the attempt of the savarna individual to become human and in this evolution from monstrousness to humanity, a willed blindness to caste is better than bigotry. But amnesia about caste can't be an operating principle in Indian politics because it is much easier for upper-caste individuals to forget caste hierarchies than it is for Dalits who have to deal with discrimination every day.
But in the interview Yechury appears to see the political acknowledgment of caste as a kind of Fall:
"Unfortunately, instead of raising the country's level to mine, where I, a Brahmin, did not even know I am in the same carriage as a Dalit, we had to stoop down to the Kanshi Ram level. We are doing it now."
Reading this I tried to imagine a plausible way of 'raising the country's level' of consciousness to Yechury's state of innocence and failed because the privilege of forgetting caste is available only to comfortable Brahmins and their savarna ilk. In passing I wondered why a recognition of the political relevance of caste identity or an attempt to compensate for the historical absence of Dalits in the leadership of the CPI(M) amounted to stooping to Kanshi Ram's level.
So what is Kanshi Ram's level and why does Yechury think it's so low? Kanshi Ram drew on Jyotirao Phule's and Bhimrao Ambedkar's ideas to imagine a political constituency made up of Dalits, backward castes and religious minorities which might constitute a social majority, a bahujan samaj. He founded the Bahujan Samaj Party in 1984 to consolidate the political potential of this imagined community. By 1995 the BSP had produced in Mayavati a Dalit chief minister for India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and in less than 30 years, the party's electoral success had made a Dalit-led political establishment at the provincial and national level a possibility.
Yechury is entitled to disagree with Kanshi Ram's politics but he ought to ask himself why the BSP succeeded in mobilizing the wretched of the north Indian earth where India's communist parties so conspicuously failed. He might also ask himself why Kanshi Ram's insistence that a political party should be concerned about the caste composition of its leadership, struck him as a low idea. In pointing to the under-representation of Dalits in Indian political organizations, Kanshi Ram was saying nothing that Phule and Ambedkar hadn't said before him.
The CPI(M) doesn't have to genuflect towards Kanshi Ram — or Phule and Ambedkar — but given the BSP's massive fillip to subaltern politics in north India, it is rude and impolitic to condescend to his political legacy. Especially if the Left is grudgingly going to take his advice. As Yechury said in the interview, the Left was now prepared to stoop to conquer: "We're doing it now."
The depressing thing about the interview is that Sitaram Yechury is the CPI(M)'s most plausible and least dogmatic spokesperson. The party he speaks for supports affirmative action and reservation for Dalits, tribal people and backward castes; the CPI(M)'s own figures show that scheduled caste and scheduled tribe members account for 25 per cent of its total membership. In spite of all this, Yechury lets himself be caught out comparing a Dalit leader's awareness of caste unfavourably with a Brahmin politician's caste-blindness.
Not only is the comparison politically toxic, it is a symptom of his party's unwillingness to accept that a politically progressive leadership isn't a substitute for a socially diverse and inclusive one. To have Dalits in cabinets and politburos as a matter of principle isn't tokenism as Yechury argues in the interview, it is an acknowledgment of fraternity, an assertion that in spite of visible inequality and difference we are connected by an imagined republican kinship. And fraternity (as Yechury must know) is a revolutionary ideal.
Kanshi Ram was right to ask his question and Yechury was wrong to offer innocence as an alibi. If the CPI(M) plans to take Kanshi Ram's advice to heart, stooping will be unnecessary. Diversity is Indian society's defining characteristic and fraternity ought to be the republic's cardinal political virtue. When his party's leadership makes room for Dalits at the very top, Yechury won't have to bend at all: he will, if anything, be entitled to stand a little bit straighter.