THE REAL WORLD OF CASTE IN INDIA:
AN EFFORT TOWARDS UNDERSTANDING HIRA SINGH’S RECASTING CASTE
“Sociologists of the caste have invoked religion, cognition, cosmology, heaven and hell to find the secret of the genesis, growth, and survival of the caste and caste system. In the process, they have missed the real secret of the caste and caste system, which lies in political economy.”
[“Recasting Caste: From the Sacred to the Profane” by Hira Singh]
Joan Robinson, the legendary Cambridge economist, was visiting India after a tour of revolutionary China in the 1950s. In India, she met E.M.S. Namboodiripad, a senior leader of the then united CPI. She asked EMS, despite many similarities between the two countries why there was a revolution in China, and why it did not happen in India, what was the problem? “Caste” was the answer given by Namboodiripad. Today, the India political left is divided, so one need not toe the political line of E.M.S. Namboodiripad or his later party CPIM. This, however, is not to deny the existence of caste or caste atrocities in India. Every day one gets the gory news of medieval barbarism inflicted on the Dalits of the country. Therefore, understanding the caste system is a serious task for anyone who is interested in the revolutionary transformation of Indian society. For communists, it is an urgent task, because the annihilation of caste is intrinsically related with the abolition of class rule in India.
Orientalists, indologists and colonial administrators had tried to understand the caste system in India each according to their own ideological prejudices, predominantly from the colonizers’ mindset of “the whiteman’s burden” and the “exotic east”. Risley, the Census Commissioner of British India, was one of the early pioneers to study caste. Later, with the establishment of the Bombay School, eminent sociologist G.S. Ghurye wrote “Caste and Race in India”. The book has achieved iconic status with the 19th reprint done by Popular Prakashan, Bombay in the year 1911. M.N. Srinivas, a well-known scholar on caste, left his teaching job at Oxford in the year 1927 to start the first sociology department at Baroda. M.N. Srinivas is also an eminent writer on different dimensions of caste in India. After Independence, caste has been one of the major pre-occupations of Indian sociologists. There is no unitary theory of castes. There is a whole spectrum of perspectives. From the orientalists to the post-colonial, there is a variety of caste theories. Hocart and Quigley give the kingship theory, while Morton Klass calls his method as electic anthropology. Marxists and liberals, Gandhians and Dalit intellectuals have also written on caste. So, Marxism and Ambedkarism are only two red and blue colours in the colourful spectrum of caste theories. Apart from differences on the “book view” and “field view”, overall debate on caste within Indian sociology has been pro or against Louis Dumont. For Marxists, the basic debate is between the method of D.D. Kosambi and Louis Dumont. “Division of Labour” and property regimes have been one of the major ingredients of Kosambi’s method. Ursula Sharma, who also has done her fieldwork in Himachal Pradesh, has done a fairly good mapping of the caste debates within sociology and social anthropology in her book “Caste” published early this century. Within the Marxist tradition, there is this whole debate about “infrastructure” and “super structure”. Suvira Jaiswal, Uma Chakraborty, Anupama Rao, Sharmila Rege, Susie Tharu et al., have written on the intersections of caste and gender.
Over the years, in my interactions with different young research scholars in the universities in Delhi, to my surprise I found even a handful of Marxist talking about the inadequacies of Marxism in understanding the functioning of caste system in India. As a Marxist, this was a personal challenge for me to construct a Marxist narrative of the caste system in India. In my search for Marxist discourses on “caste”, Hira Singh’s book “Recasting Caste”, which was published this year, has made me proud of the Marxist tradition in interpreting caste.
Outlining his alternative approach to caste system vis-à-vis mainstream sociology, Hira Singh says:
“The difference between the West and the rest was essentialized in the dominant discourse during slave trade, colonialism and imperialism constitutive of modern West. Identification of India with caste and reduction of caste to its religious essence is a product of the colonial process of essentialization. Interrogating the [mis]identification of India with caste and the reductionist view of caste as essentially religious or ideal going back to the classical roots of mainstream sociology is a necessary step towards decolonizing sociology of caste. Decolonization here is not being used to draw distinction between Indians and non-Indians or between East and West. Decolonization I talk about is not related to cultural or national identities of scholars or scholarships. Rather, it is related to an alternative perspective. Sociology of caste has followed the classical sociological tradition which, as discussed above, originated in ideological opposition to Marxism in the 18th-century Europe. In extending that framework to the study of the caste system in India, it had two main objectives. One, it used the caste system to critique Marxist interpretation of society and history, the notion of class in particular, at home. It was simultaneously used to argue that India remained stuck at the stage of status opposed to contact, mechanical opposed to organic, lineage opposed to state, despotic opposed to democratic, irrational opposed to rational, static opposed to dynamic and savage opposed to civilized modern West. That was the dominant discourse of modern West in the age of colonialism-imperialism. Dumont extends that, in a reinvigorated form, at a time when colonialism-imperialism was in the decline, but the struggle between Marxism and mainstream sociology in the West (and the East) had acquired new vitality in the background of the ideological divide of the Cold War. Theoretical-methodological framework used by mainstream sociology is a hindrance to produce a theory of caste. To develop a theory of caste, we need an alternative approach that enables us to see the intersection of economic, political and ideological in the origin of the caste system, its reproduction, continuity and change in historical perspective.”
[Pp. 61-62. “Recasting Caste: From the Sacred to the Profane” by Hira Singh]
This is an extremely important book in the caste debate in the neoliberal era. In “Recasting Caste”, Hira Singh makes an excellent critique of the weberian/dumontian/subaltern/
post-colonial constructs of caste. The publication of this book is an important contribution to Marxist theory of caste and caste politics. This book dispels the myth created by the so-called new social movements, NGOs and many Dalit groups, that Marxists do not understand caste. Partly this may sound true because, except for Marxist historians and rare Marxist sociologists like A.R. Desai, very few Marxists have written on caste. Only Dr. Anand Teltumbde consistently writes about the inter-relationship between caste and class. Rethinking the caste and class inter-connection is extremely important at a time, when after two decades of neoliberalization and state repression to facilitate primitive accumulation. We suddenly have a mass murderer at the helm of affairs, who will sell off whatever is left of India. And these two decades were also the decades of “social justice”, “Dalit assertion”, the low caste revolution according to Christophe Jaffrelot which saw OBC and Dalit chief ministers ruling the Hindi heartland, which determines the course of Indian politics.
However, with the rise of Mandalite parties like RJD, SP, JDU, etc., and Mayawati as the symbol of Dalit power, the atrocities of Dalits did not stop. In fact, they increased, and this was also the era of judicial impunity – upper caste convicts of Laxmanpur Bathe, Bathanitola, Tsundur, etc., were acquitted. The recent election victory of the fascist Sangh Parivar is quite shocking. One has to see beyond the veneer of the development mantra and the so-called Modi wave. BJP played the Hindutva and OBC card openly. The upper castes, the non-Yadav OBCs and the non-Jatav Dalits voted for BJP. Hence, caste is very much an important component of Indian politics, and it is a reality which no sensible Marxist can afford to overlook. Apart from important interventions by Dr. Anand Teltumbde to combine the caste debate with the class question, not much Marxist analysis of caste has been made during the Mandal/Kamandal and neoliberal decades in India. Suvira Jaiswal’s very important book of “Caste” was published in 1998 after a long intergenum. Hira Singh’s book “Recasting Caste”, is an important Marxist intervention in caste debate in the year of BJP’s victory. The most important aspect of “Recasting Caste” is that it brings in political economy to the centre of caste debate. The irony of the neoliberal decades in India was that apart from loud assertions of the tiny microscopic Dalit middle class; nobody talked about the exploitations of the Dalit landless labourers and safai karmacharis.
A section of the co-opted mainstream Dalit intellectuals also propagate the idea of Dalit liberation within capitalism, they push extremely dangerous (and in long-term really very anti-Dalit) concept of “Dalit Capitalism”. Chandra Bhan Prasad, one of the foremost ideologues of the idea of “Dalit Capitalism”, had given an interview to Sunday Times of India last year. In that interview, he said that capitalism provides the space for a Dalit to purchase a Mercedes and hire a Brahmin driver. This is a very dubious and dangerous proposition. Ambedkar’s central aim was the equality between castes, not the creation of a new and exploitative hierarchy of social relations. The owner of the Mercedes and the driver share a different power equation; one is an employer and the other is an employee. This goes against the grain of both Marxist and Ambedkarite views. Dalit capitalism cannot solve the central contradiction of capital and labour under capitalism. The absurd logic of Dalit capitalism also means that a Dalit murderer can replace a Brahmin murderer. The moral of the story is murderers will always be murderers. The land question was totally out of the Mandalised caste politics. Class was completely out from the academic works on caste.
For a comprehensive appreciation of Hira Singh’s contribution to the caste debate in India, one should read his review article in the Journal of Peasant Studies (April 2008). The title of the article is “The Real World of Caste in India”, where he reviews Dipankar Gupta’s “Interrogating Caste”. In that book Dipankar Gupta, apart from critiquing the hierarchy theory of Dumont and Weber (which is known as the book view of caste in sociology), he brings in the mode of production dimension into the caste debate. I find Dipankar Gupta’s “Varna” as Asiatic mode of production, and “Jati” as feudal mode of production quite problematic. Nevertheless, he brings in production and property relations into the caste debate. Nowadays Dipankar Gupta does not call himself a Marxist; in fact, Meera Nanda calls him a sophisticated liberal. For the past few years whenever Dipankar Gupta speaks on globalization, he almost corroborates the Congress view that during the UPA-I and UPA-II many people came out of the poverty line. His unflinching support for the Anna Hazare movement was also quite problematic. However, in the early 1980s, Dipankar Gupta firmly called himself a Marxist. He criticized the eminent Marxist anthropologist Maurice Godelier, whether caste is infrastructure or superstructure; his position vis-a-vis Godelier was more orthodox Marxist. Dipankar Gupta’s important intervention in the 1980s was his polemics with Gail Omvedt on the issue of renaming the Marathwada University which is popularly known as the Namantar Movement in Maharashtra. There he criticizes Omvedt’s position as eclectic Marxism.
For me, reading Hira Singh’s “Recasting Caste” was important because it reassured me that a Marxist can understand caste, which had been mystified in the subaltern and post-colonial debates. Hira Singh’s book is extremely important in an era where academic discourses are getting more and more detached from the issues connected with real lives of the vast multitudes. Exploitation, feudalism, capitalism, inequality, etc., are out of fashionable discourses in academia. With the discrediting of socialism as an alternative to capitalism, “identity politics” and “social justice” within capitalism is the solution offered. If one has a serious look at the state of social science in India, one could see with the rise of a plethora of post-office theories in the Anglo American academy and their comprador followers in the third world academia, not only the social science discourses became opaque, day by day it is becoming anti-working class and ofcourse, totally irrelevant to the social realities of India.
When more and more exotic subjects like cultural studies are proliferating, knowledge is getting fragmented in the form of super-specialties like ethno-medico anthropology. Commenting on the state of social sciences today, Prof. Randhir Singh had said that in the age of super-specialties more and more people are learning about less and less. Social totality is an old-fashioned concept; fragmentation of social reality is the order of the day. Terms like “feudalism”, “capitalism” and “class” have become obsolete in interpreting social reality; they have been replaced by caste, gender, ethnicities, cultural world, sexual preference, and so on. “Governmentality” has replaced “state” and the class character of state. In the urban studies, nobody talks about the brutalized, miserable “life world” of the underclass in the sprawling slums, but deconstructed discourses of “Regimes of Pleasure” in the “ethnoscapes” and “mediascapes” in the conditions of late (post) modernity are the trend in urban studies. History has been ethnicized by the post-colonials, especially Nicholas Dirks. “Civil society” (read NGOs) have replaced the political left as the emancipatory platform of the oppressed. There is a strange coincidence with the rise of “new social movements” and NGO as the central flag bearers of the politics of protest. In these times also, the trend in the transatlantic academies is that, unless one works on sexy cuttingedge postmarked theories, getting a tenure becomes difficult.
The doors of economics departments are closed for the Marxist economists. Likewise, Adivasis, Dalits, women, ecology, etc., have become sexy and hot issues for funding for NGOs and academic research projects. As some perceptive observers of the autonomous women’s movement have said that NGO funding finished off the autonomous women’s movement, so also the NGO-isation of Dalit issues. After the Durban Conference on racism, funding for the Dalit NGOs has increased exponentially; there is another important linkage here. Funded Dalit middle class activists and NGOs are extremely anti-communist. That, however, does not mean that caste and caste atrocities are not social realities, but imperialism and class exploitation are also important social realities. This is not the question of privileging caste over class or vice versa, but having a Marxist framework of the inter-sectionalities and co-terminalities of class, caste and gender. Communists should be in the forefront in the fight against caste, gender, racial, national and ethnic oppressions. One need not miss the wood for the tree. In the light of above arguments, Hira Singh’s book “Recasting Caste” is a serious Marxist intervention in the contemporary caste debates.
In the post-Soviet world, where any political imagination towards an alternative to capitalism is derided as “metanarrative” and totalitarian, study of castes and ethnic groups assumed added importance in search of truth in “micro narratives” like multi-culturalism in the west. In India, in the era of Mandal and Kamandal politics, caste has assumed an overwhelming importance both in politics and in the Academia. While caste-based parties are proliferating, specialization in caste and ethnicity is on rise in the Academia. The post-colonials have muddled the waters further for their exotic extolling of the “ethnic chic”. The metropolitan middle class loves to pick up ethnic jewellery from the state sponsored handicraft exhibitions. The primitive rebel has been commodified beyond recognition. If one has a close look at the politics of social science from the colonial era, anthropology was used to understand the natives in order to control and co-opt them. Today in the Gaudy academic supermarket, the more one speaks about dispersed, picturesque essentialised social identities with hardened cultural boundaries the more one is accepted in the academic careers, they have become the sole representations of social reality. Class, political economy, imperialism and production relations in the context of understanding social reality is shun as economic determinism and reductionist vulgar Marxism and so on. “Difference” with a big “D” is the in thing, all apparent inter-connections in the different social power play is totally lost. The academic factory churns out pre-programmed jombies for the neo-liberal job market. Their intellectual guilt forces them to consume more and ethnic artifacts and discourses, they do all these while paying the EMIs and holidaying at Bangkok. Rising commodification of life, immiserisation of broad masses of people, amidst the glittering glass and steel towers are sick indicators of the famous post-modernist dictum “I shop so I exist”. With the rise of identerianism in politics, where the ruling class parties push the primordial ties to the hilt to build up their respective caste vote banks. On the other hand, universities with their ethnicisation of social realities are producing generations of disinterested and depoliticised students, who prefer to shut themselves in their own ‘ethnoscapes’ in the gated communities happily consuming a fast macdonalised culture. If one seriously looks out the depoliticized, co-opted products churned out by the sociology, anthropology, and political science departments, then in the larger interest of society and social change, I would argue that those departments should be immediately locked up until a thorough review of their curriculum is done.
Caste is the leading theme in academic publishing industry, everyday a new book on caste is in the market. It is really difficult to keep track of the caste debate. There is a glut in the discourse on caste and ethnic identities; on the other hand, the invisible hand of the market ruthlessly appropriates the surplus of the subaltern masses. The stock exchanges are exuberant.
In these contending discourses on caste, Hira Singh’s book “Recasting Caste” is a serious Marxist intervention in understanding the contemporary issues of caste and class conflicts and helps us to conceptualize the ways to understand the structural relations between caste, class and capitalism. The importance of Hira Singh’s book is not that it brings in political economy to study castes, but locates caste in political economy. According to Hira Singh, this book is an invitation to a debate on caste such that one can understand the contemporary dynamics of caste conflicts and delineate a strategy for a classless and casteless society. He says in the concluding paragraph of the Preface in “Recasting Caste”, “In my writings on caste spread over several years, I have suggested that there are serious issues - theoretical and methodological - in the study of caste, which call for debate (Singh 2008)”. When it comes to caste studies, there are there two solitudes: (1) mainstream sociology, and (2) Marxism. The former shuns history and studies caste mainly at the level of ideas in isolation from material conditions. Marxists, on the other hand have, by and large, stayed away from studying caste. According to sociologists, Marxists do not study caste because they consider it as “superstructure” determined by “infrastructure”; hence, secondary and less important. That is not even vulgar Marxism, rather vulgarization of Marxism. The question whether caste is infrastructure or superstructure is redundant. It is both, infrastructure and superstructure intersect in caste. However, in their ideological battle against Marxism, sociologists have erred on the other side, focusing on the superstructure to the exclusion of the infrastructure. This is most clearly the case with Louis Dumont. Critics of Louis Dumont from within mainstream sociology have not adequately addressed this critical issue. The other serious problem in sociological studies of caste is the neglect of history. Finally, mainstream sociology has dubbed Marxism as ideology, but it does not recognize its own ideological orientation and how that has shaped its perspective on caste. (Hira Singh, “Recasting Caste: From the Sacred to the Profane. Sage, New Delhi 2014.) Purity and pollution has been the dominant model defining the caste hierarchy in India. Endless debates have been done by sociologists on this issue, but almost everyone has mystified it.
The signal contribution of Hira Singh’s book has been to demystify the whole discourse on purity and pollution in understanding the caste system. Commensality and endogamy are the defining features of the caste “life world”. Cooking and dining are important features of inter and intra caste inter subjectivities, food plays an important role in the caste discourse. Hira Singh’s book unravels the mystery of food production and consumption debate in the cast discourse. He raises the pertinent questions about food, which non-Marxist sociologists deliberately ignore. His book points to the politics of food production and consumption debate in the caste discourse. He raises the pertinent question about food, which non-Marxists sociologists deliberately ignore. Hira Singh raises the issue about who produces the food grains and who appropriates it and the centrality of labour process and the production relations in food grain production. Hence, caste cannot be understood without explaining the class exploitations, land ownership and different hierarchies created by different property regimes.
As a Marxist, I would go by the eleventh thesis of Marx, i.e., it is not enough to understand caste system and caste exploitation; but if caste is an abominable, unjust and undignified system, one has to find ways and means to annihilate it. It is here that the Marxist and Ambedkarite project of ‘annihilation of castes’ converge. Having said that, I would like to stress the inadequacies of non-Marxist perspectives on the caste system and the strategies to abolish it.
It is in this context of emancipatory political praxis of the underdog, Hira Singh’s contribution in the caste debate assumes extreme importance. His article in the Journal of Peasant Studies, “The Real World of Caste in India” should be read with his book “Recasting Caste”. In this Journal of Peasant Studies article, critically reviewing Dipankar Gupta’s “Interrogating Caste”, Hira Singh points to the inherent limitations of liberal ideology to solve the caste question in India. He raises the basic ontological issue of the “wretched of the earth” in his search for liberation. Taking a cue from Marx Engels and Lenin that working class “in itself” cannot liberate itself without becoming “class for itself”. If one looks at the politics of social justice, Dalits and OBCs as “caste in itself” have become “caste for itself” in their militant assertion in the electoral arena and to some extent in is the real “life world”. But this assertion has not removed the class exploitation of a vast majority of Dalits, OBCs, Adivasis and Pasmanda Muslims as the working class they are ruthlessly exploited and humiliated by the neoliberal regime in India. Hence, to the complete the trajectory of emancipation “caste for itself” has to transform itself to “class for itself”, otherwise the project of liberation of oppressed identities in India will be incomplete and will be co-opted by the ruling classes by creating a greedy self-centered middle class from the marginal groups.
The failure of Parliamentary Dalit and Mandalite outfits like BSP, RPI, RJD, SP, JD(U), Apnadal extra is a stark reminder of this incomplete project of emancipation of the lower castes. Writing about the limitations of ‘caste for itself’, Hira Singh in his JPS article says, “Eliminating the subordinate position of labour castes in the Brahminical hierarchy will not be achieved simply by their becoming a “caste for itself”, but rather by a broader process: the recognition of the contribution made by their labour power to the making of Indian history and society. This is the empowering discourse made by the black population of the United States, and the political lesson that the sociology of caste has to learn from the sociology of Race.” (see Hira Singh: Real World of Caste in India. Journal of Peasant Studies, April 2008.) Drawing our attention to the limitations of understanding caste by non-Marxist sociologists, Hira Singh says, “The sociology of caste does not address the question of production relations: land is for the most part, a taboo subject notably absent from the vocabulary of sociologists who dissect the caste system. As a result, not only does sociology not have the right answer about the origin and development of castes, but it does not even have the right question. (see Hira Singh JPS 2008.)
Since only interpreting the caste system is not enough, our aim is to annihilate them, Hira Singh draws our attention to the limitations of Dalit liberation within the capitalist electoral system, he endorses Dipankar Gupta’s views on the limitations of Dalit political parties and caste mobilization for creating a society without class and casts oppression:- “That scheduled castes, historically deprived of access to material resources have been unable to realise their political objectives in this regard is an affirmation of this basic principle at work: the strong and enduring connection between economic and political power in a liberal democratic system. The chances of scheduled caste voters changing the Indian power structure by means of the ballot box is about the same as those of the working class in the liberal democracies of metropolitan capitalist societies: that is to say, negligible. Hence, the centrality of the question: why does the working class keep on electing governments that continue to protect and perpetuate the rule of the capitalist class? The mere fact of voting is designed not to transform the existing socio-economic structure, but rather to perpetuate the rule of the propertied over the non-propertied. As with class so with caste. The inference is not that class is irrelevant in liberal democracies - far from it - but that the political transition from “class in itself” is not just crucial but also difficult to resolve. In much the same way, a “caste in itself” is not necessarily a “caste for itself “(Hira Singh JPS 2008). The lesson one draws from the above quote is that for the ultimate dream of a society without exploitation in India that if “caste for itself”, i.e., the Dalit and OBC assertion, it has to transform into “class for itself” to transcend capitalism, only then the ultimate project of a society where human beings do not exploit other human beings can be realized. And it is here that the political project of Ambedkarites and the political left converges.
The above argument, however, does not mean that caste and caste atrocities do not exist in the real “life world” of people. They do exist, and have to be resisted and eliminated. One need not wait until the “revolution” to resist them. But the fight against caste oppression will be incomplete without taking up the land and wage questions. To fight for the land, wage and dignity of Dalits, and the urgent task to put a robust resistance against the shameful gangrapes and the sexual exploitation of Dalit women. There is an urgent need for a principled joint front of Dalit organizations, the women’s movement, the democratic rights movement and the political left. This principled joint front should be based on mutual respect for each other, which also includes respecting for each other’s politics and worldviews. The Ambedkarites just cannot go on ranting against Marxists, while blaming them of not understanding the caste issue. They should seriously read the literature on caste question by the political left and the political left also should seriously engage with the writings of Ambedkar.
And finally, going by the politics and political economy of knowledge production and consumption, I would like to clearly state that if the weberian/dumontion/subaltern/
post-colonial/Ambedkarite versions of the caste system have a democratic right to represent the ‘truth’. Going by the same democratic principle of “truth claims”. We Marxists have the equal democratic right to weave a Marxist narrative of ethno politics and caste question. Hira Singh’s just published book is an important intervention in this endeavor. I strongly recommend it for anyone who tries to understand the caste question in India.
1. Hira Singh: Recasting Caste: From the Sacred to the Profane. Sage, New Delhi, 2014.
2. Hira Singh: The Real World of Caste in India - a review article. Journal of Peasant Studies, April 2008.