The Fight Against Caste Oppression Can Unite Indian Workers

The Indian state of Punjab shows us that caste oppression owes far more to material interests than it does to inherited religious ideologies. A movement of Dalit rural workers offers a powerful example of how that oppression can be challenged today.

A laborer carries a sack of wheat at a wholesale market in Punjab on April 30, 2024. (Narinder Nanu / AFP via Getty Images)

The Indian state of Punjab, located on the border with Pakistan in the country’s northwest, has a population of twenty-seven million, the majority of which is Sikh. In recent times, Punjab has given rise to an important movement that seeks to organize the Dalits who comprise the poorest and most downtrodden section of rural society in the state.

More than two-thirds of India’s population still lives in the countryside, and 45 percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture. A closer look at the movement in Punjab can thus shed light on some of the most important questions for Indian politics and society, such as the relationship between class and caste, the extent to which India’s neoliberal turn over the past three decades has transformed its social structures, and the potential for mobilization of oppressed and exploited groups such as Dalits.

Virgin Soil Upturned

In 2008, Bahal, Amarjit, and a couple of other young Dalit men formed the Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union (Revolutionary Rural Laborers’ Union). Amarjit had been working for A. P. Solvex in the nearby town of Dhuri. As a child, he was a siri (a form of bonded laborer) with a family from the dominant Jatt agricultural caste for ten years.

He presents his life as a siri as having been akin to slavery: “I was given staled chapatis and milk with added water to eat, I had separate utensils. I used to work from early morning to late night. I was treated like a useless male calf.” In India’s modern, mechanized agriculture, farmers consider male calves worthless and keep them hungry, barely allowing them to suckle milk.

When the yearly bid for reserved land was unfolding, some local Dalits approached Bahal, Amarjit, and their comrades. They succeeded in disrupting a proxy bid that a Dalit was making on behalf of a Jatt farmer. The local administration, dominated by members of the upper castes, did not want the land to go to Dalits, so several more bids were obstructed. But the labor organization persevered and eventually took control of the nine acres of land.

Bahal belonged to a left-wing student organization in his college. He was familiar with Chinese and Soviet collectivization and had acquired a rosy picture of those experiences from reading translated works of literature like Mikhail Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned and The Hurricane by Chou Li-Po.

When he and his comrades began farming communally on the plot of land they had acquired, they called it a sanjha khet after the phrase used for a collective farm in the Punjabi translation of Sholokhov’s novel. They posted the figures for income and expenditure publicly on the village walls and held regular general meetings.

Dalit Mobilization

While about 250 Dalit families had joined the bid for the land, ninety-four of those families supplied the necessary funds. Those families owned cattle and wanted a share in cultivated sorghum and other greens as fodder. Cattle have always been significant for Dalit households, who rely on milk for nutrition. They also provide an asset for landless Dalits to sell in times of hardship.

In the absence of common land, the Dalit women used to go to the boundaries of Jatt farms to collect greens twice every day, where they regularly faced abuse and sexual harassment at the hands of Jatts. Because of this experience, women outnumbered men in the movement.

Inspired by this example, a Maoist group went on to form the Zameen Prapati Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC) demanding reserved land for Dalits in 2014. The ZPSC has been leading a remarkable and unforeseen caste-based movement.

Every village has some common land, though the amount varies from village to village. One-third of this land is reserved for Dalits to make a bid every year. In the past, Jatts used to control this land under the name of proxy Dalit bidders. The ZPSC organized Dalits to bid for reserved land as a community and engaged in cooperative farming.

Without any competitors, they could keep the amount for the bid as low as possible. The amount of land varies from just a few acres to more than a hundred. Over the last ten years, this movement has spread to more than 120 villages.

At first glance, this looks like a movement of Dalit women looking for self-respect and economic benefits they reap from the land. But it is also much more than that. The movement is a form of lower-caste assertion against Jatt domination. It has faced a brutal and violent reaction from Jatts and the state administration.

Caste and Class

The Orientalist understanding of caste presents it as having originated in the Hindu religion, with the ideology of Brahminism maintaining caste hierarchies. This metaphysical understanding of caste dominates the discourse of identity politics in India’s universities.

However, the pattern of caste relations in the Sikh-dominated state of Punjab defies this explanatory framework. About 58 percent of the state’s population is Sikh, with a much higher proportion in rural areas, which form the crucible of caste-based oppression.

Punjab also has the highest proportion of Dalits in any Indian state: they comprise nearly one-third of the population but own less than 2 percent of agricultural land. Again, the Dalit proportion is higher in the villages, where members of the Jatt caste dominate.

Sikhism is a comparatively new religion, based in principle on the equality of castes. However, the material reality of control over the land made this religious philosophy ineffectual as an emancipatory movement, resulting in the prevalence of caste oppression and exploitation.

In the past, caste relations were based on the jajmani system. This was a system of hierarchical caste occupations based on the notion of “reciprocity.” In the village economy, land was central to production. Jatts owned the land and employed members of other castes such as julahe (weavers), lohar (blacksmiths), or ghumar (potterers), offering them a meager share of grain in return.

In this system, Dalits engaged in the so-called dirty work of removing dead animals, making leather, and scavenging. Their main occupation, however, was that of agricultural labor. The relations between landowners and laborers were highly oppressive and exploitative.

The caste structure that the jajmani system produced and reproduced was predicated on the economic and social power of the Jatt caste. But the village economy and the jajmani system have disintegrated in the wake of the Green Revolution in the 1970s and India’s subsequent turn to neoliberal policies from the 1990s.

After the Green Revolution

During the 1970s, the Indian state introduced hybrid crop varieties and fertilizers, combined with the use of new machinery, in an attempt to solve the problem of national food deficiency. Punjab was at the center of these changes.

Over the last fifty years, the employment of tractors and combine harvesters as well as herbicides has drastically reduced the number of working days required in agriculture, pushing out the Dalit laborers. According to recent data, out of the total rural workforce, about 30 percent only engage in agriculture for short periods of the year, facing unemployment the rest of the time or relying on petty trade and other forms of wage labor.

The phenomenon of the permanently attached laborer (siri), paid a meager income at the end of the year, has declined from nearly 36 percent of the entire workforce in 1987–88 to just over 1 percent by 2018–19. Siris were highly exploited, without any fixed number of hours or any set type of work. Their levels of remuneration were very low, as they usually had to repay debts they had taken on at onerous interest rates from Jatts. This often trapped them in a debt cycle, forcing them to work as siris throughout their lives.

Most Dalits now work as wage laborers in construction, manufacturing, or the service sector. They are inclined to disassociate themselves from the village economy and work in nearby towns and cities. On the other hand, members of the middle and lower castes from poorer Indian states now migrate to Punjab to take up the agricultural work that Dalits used to do.

Although the Green Revolution increased the income of Jatt farmers at first, with the advent of the neoliberal era, the state began clawing back support it had previously provided to farmers and they found themselves subject to exploitation by multinational corporations. Between 1991 and 2000, out of a total of one million farming families, two hundred thousand small and marginal farmers left agriculture, with many joining Dalits in the ranks of wage laborers.

At the other end of the scale, there has also been a decline in the number of large farmers and the land they own. Across the whole of India, only those rural families that own at least ten acres of land earn more than they spend, and the vast majority — 96 percent — of rural households fall below this threshold.

The gap between income and expenditure for Jatts has resulted in debt and distress, eventually culminating in a wave of suicides. A large number of Jatts and Dalits now form what the sociologist Henry Bernstein calls “classes of labor” — working people who eke out their living through a combination of petty commodity production, small-scale trade, and wage labor. While this might suggest that there is a growing disconnect between caste and social power, that impression would be mistaken.

A New Ruling Class

A new regional ruling class has emerged in the process as rich Jatt farmers reaped the benefits of the Green Revolution. They also had avenues into moneylending, the sale of farm inputs, and other businesses outside of agriculture. This class has a firm grip on village resources of various kinds, including religious shrines, panchayats (village councils), welfare institutions, farmer organizations, political parties, and bodies of the state administration.

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), for example, is a Sikh religious body that internal critics has accused of being dominated by Jatts. It controls the Sikh shrines in Punjab, Haryana, and the union territory of Chandigarh. The practice of social boycott is enforced through village-level Sikh shrines, which are dominated by this class of rich farmers.

Usually, when Dalits demand better wages during the labor-intensive period of rice cultivation, which still relies on hand cultivation, the Jatt community excludes the Dalits from any kind of economic transaction, whether that means selling food or milk, paying wages, or receiving welfare benefits, which are distributed by village councils. The Jatts mobilize all the institutions of power in the village to make this social boycott work.

Jatts dominate the village councils. Even when the position of head is reserved for Dalits, the person actually elected is someone faithful to the rich farmer class. In most villages, Dalit members of the council are not allowed to sit in the chair in front of the upper-caste members. The welfare institutions of village cooperatives are under their control, including government resources for lending money to poor Dalits. Recently, the ZPSC sought to challenge their control over the village cooperatives, but without any success.

Jatts control several large organizations of farmers. However, the left-wing farmers’ organizations are stronger and more numerous, offering support to Dalits when they are the victims of atrocities. Unfortunately, in some villages, local branches of the left-wing farmers’ organizations have actually imposed the social boycott, but the state-level organizations took notice of this and expelled the members responsible.

Through control over these various institutions of political, social, and economic power, rich Jatts exert their authority over electoral politics and all the mainstream parties. For their part, left parties that adhere to Maoist ideology see liberal democracy as a sham and avoid participating in elections, believing that this would convert them from revolutionaries into reformists.

Small farmers have also been the perpetrators of discrimination, although many small farmers share a class position with Dalits when they work alongside them in small industries and the service sector, or as laborers in state employment schemes. One can understand these social boycotts and atrocities as the reaction of rich farmers and newly pauperized small ones to the assertion of Dalits, seeking to maintain caste power.

In the village of Jhaloor, a Jatt crowd of around 250 responded to the Dalit demand for reserved land by attacking the Dalit area. They assaulted a woman with axes, severing her leg; she later bled to death in the hospital. Jatt youth sexually harassed and beat Dalit women, whose homes were ransacked.

This was not an isolated incident of persecution. In the village of Balad Kalan, the local administration arrested forty-one Dalits on trumped-up charges of attempted murder, demanding their share of land. They were put in jail and only released after a struggle lasting fifty-nine days.

Beyond Base and Superstructure

The program of the underground Communist Party of India (Maoist) depicts caste oppression as a legacy of India’s “semifeudal” system and predicts that “distribution of land to the tiller” will begin a process leading to the eradication of caste. For its part, the legal, parliamentary Communist Party of India (Marxist), which forms part of the opposition alliance in this year’s elections, defines caste as “a remnant of precapitalist society.”

We can divide the understandings of caste among India’s communists into three broad categories. The first is composed of those who see caste as part of the socioeconomic “base” and believe that it can only be abolished through class struggle and revolution. The second is composed of those who see it as a phenomenon of the “superstructure” and argue that a cultural transformation can eliminate it after the revolution. In the third category we have those, like the ZPSC, who see caste as an issue of base and superstructure alike.

The problem with using the inherited binary division of base and superstructure, which derives from a particular text of Karl Marx, is that we always tend to trivialize what we place in the superstructure — in this case, social and political institutions. Since the communist groups characterize Indian society as “semifeudal,” they argue that land reforms are required to clear away the forces of feudalism and complete what they call the New Democratic Revolution.

Economist Vikas Rawal has estimated that if an upper ceiling on land holdings of 17.5 acres is imposed, it will only supply 0.33 acres of land for each currently landless household. This does not mean that land reforms are redundant — if carried out, they would have a significant impact on caste structures and should be fought for. But we should also recognize the importance of challenging the institutions through which Jatt hegemony is manifested.

Local village-level organizations along the lines of the ZPSC can organize such a challenge. This may not be a movement for socialist transformation as the Maoist groups would understand it, but the fight against caste is vital in order to build the unity of working people. After all, no such unity is possible on the basis of Jatt domination. This movement could supply the basis for working people to engage in a future united struggle against global capitalism.