200 Years of Anti-Caste Struggle

A new wave of protest suggests that the centuries-old struggle against the caste system in India may be entering a new phase.

Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi paying floral tributes to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedka Ambedkar, at Bhim Birthplace Memorial in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh on April 14, 2016. Narendra Modi / Wikimedia

As 2017 came to a close, India’s nationalist right had much to celebrate. In mid-December, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which stands on the twin pillars of neoliberal economic policy and reactionary Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), convincingly won two state-level elections. This continued the party’s string of victories, with the BJP winning elections or forming ruling alliances in six of the seven states that held contested elections last year.

Meanwhile, Hindu nationalist groups, which have received the BJP’s explicit and implicit support, continue to terrorize non-Hindu communities — primarily Muslims and Christians. They are waging a real, violent war on Christmas that casts a dubious light on Donald Trump’s professed love of Hinduism.

But in the waning hours of 2017 and the initial days of 2018, a series of conflicts unfolded in the western state of Maharashtra that lay bare the contradictions of the nationalist right and suggested new alignments for progressive movements. The commemoration of a nineteenth-century battle triggered these events, but there is nothing arcane about the struggles surrounding this act of remembrance. Rather, the entire episode served as a pressing reminder that the fight for India’s future is also a fight for its past.

Facing the very real threat of European fascism, Walter Benjamin recognized the stakes of such struggles over historical interpretation. In his 1940 essay “On the Concept of History,” he wrote, “[t]o articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’… It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Benjamin specifies precisely what this danger is: that both the past and the present will become “the tool[s] of the ruling classes.”

The recent controversy in Maharashtra centered on concepts crucial to Indian history: caste, religion, and the nation. The ruling classes, particularly in their Hindu nationalist guise, want to project a mythical golden past, in which all Hindus were gloriously united before the devious Muslims and British divided them. This version of history has already become a tool — one that targets Muslims and Christians while distracting Hindu constituents from their economic woes.

This history, besides its glaring inaccuracies, has a particularly grievous flaw: it completely erases the divisions within Hinduism, especially those produced by the caste system. For more than two thousand years, caste has been a remarkably flexible and persistent tool of economic and social control. Far from a feudal hangover, as some Marxist analyses suggest, caste plays an integral role in Indian capitalism.

As the caste system has changed, so has resistance to it. The ongoing events in Maharashtra suggest that the anti-caste struggle is alive and well, responding to the Hindu right with its own innovations.

On the (Ideological) Battlefield

New Year’s Eve has special significance to anti-caste activists, especially those who place themselves in the Ambedkarite tradition. This movement draws on the pioneering activism of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian constitution, a brilliant scholar, and a tireless campaigner against the caste system’s inhumanity. Since his death in 1956, followers have developed an annual pilgrimage circuit, with visits to key sites in his life and the anti-caste movement more generally.

Every year, huge crowds gather in a small village in Maharasthra on January 1 to commemorate the 1818 Battle of Bhima Koregaon, one of the final fights in the third Anglo-Maratha War. This battle presaged the fall of the Peshwas, the rulers of the Maratha Empire.

This celebration may seem surprising at first. After all, the Peshwas fell to the British, and the dissolution of the Maratha Empire helped pave the way for British rule in the Indian subcontinent. However, the victory was notable because many of the British soldiers were not in fact British but Mahar, one of the castes deemed “untouchable” by Brahminic codes of conduct. Ambedkar, himself Mahar, was aware of the extreme forms of untouchability that the notoriously conservative and Brahminical Peshwas once imposed and of the harsh penalties meted out to those who dared to question caste boundaries.

For Ambedkar, the Battle of Koregaon didn’t represent a British victory, but the end of the tyrannical Peshwas and the assertion of Mahar strength and dignity. Recognizing Mahar valor was part of the transition from “Untouchable” to “Dalit.” The term Dalit, which translates to “crushed down,” highlights the caste system’s oppressive qualities. Ambedkar and later anti-caste activists have used this language to reclaim their own history.

Such reinterpretations — which “brush history against the grain,” just as Benjamin recommends — have always faced fierce opposition. If the Ambedkarite anti-caste movement has been particularly strong in Maharashtra, the state has also been a hotbed of Brahminical reaction. While Ambedkar was formulating his transformational anti-caste philosophy, Maharashtrian Brahmins were busy founding the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Hindutva’s most powerful organization.

In its early years, the RSS, including M. S. Golwalkar — a Maharashtrian Brahmin who headed the organization for more than thirty years — drew direct inspiration from fascist powers in Europe. Golwalkar also contested Ambedkar’s interpretation of Bhima Koregaon. Golwalkar portrays the Peshwas as proto-nationalists who defended India against foreign invasion. This is a gross anachronism: in 1818, there was no such thing as a unified Indian nation but rather a series of competing powers, of which the Peshwas controlled merely one kingdom among many.

While Golwalkar faced Ambedkar head on, more recent Hindutva approaches have taken a different tack. For these forces, Dalit politics create a dilemma: on the one hand, the nationalist movement must include Dalits in order to project a unified Hinduism; on the other hand, thanks to Hindutva’s Brahminical nature, they can never offer Dalits a fully equal role.

In recent attempts to square this circle, the BJP and RSS have tried to make Ambedkar a “safe” icon for Hindu India. This amounts to another gross historical distortion, given Ambedkar’s point-blank statement that “Hindu Raj [rule] must be prevented at any cost.” But the Dalit vote is increasingly important to the BJP’s electoral dominance, so they must at least pay lip service to the Ambedkarite tradition.

The BJP is clearly using Ambedkar as a ruling-class tool, and even some who place themselves in the Ambedkarite lineage have been seduced. Ramdas Athawale, for example, accepted a ministerial post in the Modi government, even though he leads one of the many factions of the Republican Party of India (RPI), the organization Ambedkar founded in the last year of his life and which split explosively after his death.

In keeping with the politics of appropriation, Hindutva groups did not attempt to disrupt or criticize the Bhima Koregaon celebrations for many years. But 2018 was different. Hindutva groups responded to the peaceful, large-scale celebrations with violent attacks on those celebrating the Peshwas’ defeat, which led to widespread protests and a statewide strike, whose effects are still reverberating across the country.

What changed? What produced the escalating conflict that has gripped Maharashtra this year?

Hindutva Politics and Dalit Assertion

The explanation lays in the confluence of state- and national-level developments, which have affected both reactionary and progressive forces. Hindutva groups have been making steady inroads in many villages and towns, taking advantage of the discontent produced by the nation’s economic distress. Even mainstream news outlets have recognized this trend: as the hollowness of the BJP’s economic claims become evident, the party leans more and more on Hindu nationalism and communal polarization to maintain its popularity. This trend is particularly clear in Maharashtra, the epicenter of India’s agricultural crisis, which has resulted in thousands of farmer suicides.

In Maharashtra, Hindutva groups particularly target young people from the Maratha caste. The Marathas, who occupy a middle position in both the caste and class systems, play a complex role in the state’s politics. They are the dominant landowning caste in many villages, though there is extreme internal variation: many are small-scale peasants who have felt the agricultural crisis’s crunch. Marathas have also played a historic role in the non-Brahmin movement, questioning that caste’s ritual dominance. Both Dalits and Marathas honor Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha Empire, and the non-Brahmin movement has generally argued that the Maratha Empire degenerated when the Brahmin Peshwas took charge.

Dalits and Marathas have thus historically found common ground against Brahminism. However, in practice, the two castes often clash. Marathas are often landlords, while Dalits are often agricultural laborers. Romantic relationships between Marathas and Dalits are generally forbidden, and if anyone crosses this line, anti-Dalit violence often results.

In recent years, Hindutva groups have tried to exploit these tensions in order to suppress Dalit self-assertion, which they think threatens Hindu “unity.” Drawing on preexisting traditions of Maratha pride, the nationalists have driven a wedge between the two castes by stressing the Marathas’ noble warrior origins and praising their role in the fight against the British.

This strategy produced the violence in Bhima Koregaon this year. It started not at the battlefield itself but in Wadhu, a nearby village, home to another marker of Dalit pride: the shrine of Govind Gaikwad, a Mahar who — legend has it — conducted funeral rites for Shivaji Maharaj’s son. Some Hindutva leaders find it shameful that a so-called Untouchable could perform such a sacred role and insist that a Maratha performed the rites instead.

On December 29, allegedly at the instigation of long-time Hindutva advocates Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, the shrine was ransacked and desecrated. Then, on January 1, groups of men with saffron flags — Hindutva’s identifying symbol — attacked a procession marching toward the Bhima Koregaon celebration site, throwing stones and killing a Dalit man in the process. In response to this unprovoked violence, Dalit groups and other organizations erupted in a protest that culminated in a massive one-day strike on January 3. They shut down much of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, as well as other parts of the state.

Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, called the strike. He leads one of the many factions that emerged from the RPI’s split, and, until recently, his work mostly focused in the Vidarbha region, one of the worst hit by the agricultural crisis. Prakash Ambedkar has worked with movements of landless agricultural workers and has built connections with various left organizations in Maharashtra and beyond. Further, like his grandfather and like many in the Ambedkarite lineage, he has tried to lessen, rather than aggravate, the divide between Dalits and Marathas, noting their shared non-Brahmin history and their common reliance on agricultural livelihoods.

Until this point, most considered Prakash Ambedkar’s party relatively minor, but his role in the strike has brought him attention at both the state and national levels. His emergence suggests that, even as Hindutva politics intensify in Maharashtra, new configurations of Dalit politics may also be taking shape. All the factions of the erstwhile RPI, including the one led by BJP ally Athawale, actively participated in the strike, as did many Maratha groups. It is too early to tell if this will lead to more lasting unity, but the strike hints at new possibilities for 2018.

Shifts in National Politics

These local players are clearly rooted in Maharashtrian politics, but they also draw on larger national currents. For nationalists like Bhide and Ekbote, the connection to Delhi is quite evident.

None other than Narendra Modi has praised Ekbote, and nationalist groups in Maharashtra — like many other elements once labeled the Hindutva fringe — have enjoyed increased impunity under BJP rule. Since the Modi regime came to power in 2014, his party has worked to change the national conversation on issues like nationalism and Indian pride. The Hindutva response to Bhima Koregaon is one result of this.

The BJP’s main political opponent, the Congress, has shown itself to be ideologically hollow and politically unequipped to face the nationalist onslaught. With the BJP’s electoral dominance, many have questioned where resistance would come from. There is still no definitive answer, but the last few years have produced a series of organizations and protests, many of them spearheaded by a new generation of leaders. There have also been attempts, albeit extremely tentative ones, to connect these struggles and develop new fronts for pushing radical change.

These groups face many challenges, both external and internal. To give just one prominent example, the Communist left and Ambedkarite groups have long had a strained relationship. Aware of this history, radical new leaders are nonetheless working to build alliances.

The Hindu right, supported by an increasingly unhinged mainstream media, has responded to these assertions predictably: it labels them “anti-national” and paints their supporters as terrorists — or at best, violent troublemakers. It has applied this label to an event at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) questioning the use of the death penalty against alleged Muslim terrorists in Kashmir, to a movement to hold university administrators and BJP politicians accountable for hounding the Dalit student and activist Rohith Vemula and driving him to suicide, and to the rise of the Bhim Army, which supports Dalit education and militant Dalit pride. The latter’s founder faces charges under the draconian National Security Act, which effectively brands him a threat to the nation.

The new movements and leaders have not backed down in the face of this Hindutva oppression. If anything, the shared experience has brought movements closer together and encouraged them to form alliances.

The movement for land reform and Dalit pride in Modi’s home state of Gujarat has been one of the most impressive responses to Hindutva violence. Sparked by a violent assault on Dalits, these protests pushed a young activist named Jignesh Mevani into the national spotlight. Mevani’s bold activism and his ability to weave together traditionally opposed ideological trends, particularly Marxism and Ambedkarism, make him a remarkable figure on the national stage.

Late last year, Mevani announced that he would run in the state-level elections. He received an outpouring of support from Dalit organizations, left groups, activists, students, and civil society leaders. More important, because he ran in the constituency in which he had organized a recent protest, he had strong backing at the local level. He won convincingly, beating the BJP candidate by nearly twenty thousand votes.

Modi’s party won the elections overall, but they did not perform as well as anticipated, and their majority in the state legislature fell significantly. Mevani’s victory suggests that new waves of progressive activism, which address both caste and economic issues, may be gaining strength not just on the streets but also at the electoral level.

Mevani spoke at a December 31, 2017, event in the city of Pune, near Bhima Koregaon. Prakash Ambedkar helped organize the event, which was a prelude to the larger celebrations. Representatives of all the movements highlighted above — including Umar Khalid, a left-wing student whom the jingoistic media has found particularly suspect because of his Muslim name, Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika Vemula, and the national president of the Bhim Army, Vinay Ratan Singh — also spoke. The event not only demonstrated Prakash Ambedkar’s growing national reach, but also showcased the diversity of forces ranged against Hindutva and the potential for new alliances in the fight against the hyper-nationalist right.

The regime is doing all it can to repress these new assertions. The corporate media has launched an all-out attack on the figures who spoke in Pune, especially Mevani and Khalid, and the state has registered criminal charges against them and the program organizers. Further, local and state officials have cracked down on those who supported the strike. The police have combed Dalit neighborhoods in Maharashtrian cities, picking up Dalit youth with little evidence, and arresting hundreds for participating in the protests. The strike’s success, it seems, spooked the BJP. Meanwhile, Prakash Ambdkar has alleged that the prime minister’s office has been directly shielding the Hindutva provocateurs from police investigation.

The situation in Maharashtra remains tense, but the spirit of protest and resistance is spreading, as is the hard work of building national connections. Activists in the southern state of Karnataka held a major strike in solidarity with the Maharashtrian Dalits. And on January 9, a Youth Rally in Delhi brought together Mevani, Khalid, and many others to protest the rising violence against Dalits and Muslims as well as the ruling party’s failure to improve citizens’ lives.

The event in Pune, then, was just one moment in a larger fight, the outcome of which remains highly uncertain. What made the Pune event so significant was its simultaneous invocation of the past and the present. Organizers framed the event as the beginning of a struggle against the “new Peshwas”: the Brahminical rule of the BJP, the RSS, and, as Mevani was careful to stress, their partners in the corporate world. The victory of the Dalits over the Peshwas two hundred years ago is now inspiring a new chapter of struggle.

As Benjamin reminds us, invocations of history fuel the struggling and the oppressed, driving them to become “the avenger[s] that complet[e] the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.” He describes revolution as a “leap into the open sky of history.” Looking at the rise of right-wing nationalism, not just in India but across the world, it seems we are long overdue for such a leap.