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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 51, New Delhi, December 4, 2021

Observations on Caste and the Peasant question in present-day India | Arup Baisya

Friday 3 December 2021


by Arup Baisya *

The dynamics of social categories are based on their creation and recreation within the garb of overarching social reality. The caste-identity has a sui generis characteristic in Indian society. The social time of caste is deeply related to the sociality of caste and defines the kind of social experiences that are shared by members belonging to a given ‘Jati’. But the changing dynamics of shaping and reshaping of the caste identity need to be assessed in the context of the overall situation and anti-systemic people’s struggle. Identities have to be created, as they are not inborn.[1] The two mutually inclusive phenomena operating in opposite directions mould and remould the contour of the identities and their assertions. One is defined by the motion of change of social relations within a particular identity in a historical setting of the capital imposing work on the society and the resistance of the workers against such imposition and the other is how the past memory is seized hold of as it flashes up at a moment of danger. The rise of linguistic identity aspirations and the formation of linguistic state formation in independent India are the result of such a twin process within the grab of unity of opposites in the freedom struggle. The rising social status resulting from participation in India’s military labour market also drove new cultural identities, as in the case of Kumbi farmers of Maharastra becoming Marathas, Gujarati pastoralist becoming Rajputs, or Jats of Eastern Punjab becoming Sikhs.[2] All these cases indicate how cultural identities were never fixed or immutable, but contingent upon, and shaped by, larger processes specific to a particular historical context.

Ambedkar defined caste as a feudal class. Going by the Leninist definition of class, caste as a group of people obtaining a historically decided social position in the hierarchy of division of labour can also be considered as a form of class. But its sui generis character is derived from its simultaneous existence in both structure and super-structure which are fused together. The ramification of such fusion is that the caste is both a neurosis as well as cretinism. The formation and penetration of capital and its concomitant production of value and subsumption of labour to capital destabilise the feudal relation of production during late colonialism, the period of dirigisme in the post-independent period, and subsequent neoliberal development. The tension thus developed within the caste-class continuum from the existing relation and the emerging new social relation may manifest itself in the localised terrain of faith, culture, and emotion. But the real contradiction is between the territoriality or confinement of space and the killing of space by time. Thus the agency for communal violence for maintaining status-quo ante to ensure ruling caste-class hegemony and domination and the agency for change is rooted in the social relation of production and is marked by the emergence of large-scale agricultural labourers. But this new dimension of the social contradiction at the base due to the emergence of class gives birth to the Indian form of modern neurosis and cretinism that crystallised in the present-day communal fascist ideology. This fusion of the economic base and the ideological and political superstructure is the peculiarity of the Indian state.[3]

The caste system is fundamentally embedded in the family structure of patriarchy that imposes taboos on inter-caste and inter-Gotra marriage. The capitalist development is marked by the prevailing of market relations over bureaucratic control, the emergence of a universal class of wage workers cutting across caste-community boundaries in the agrarian society, contract farming replacing sharecropping, and large-scale modern technological inputs in agriculture. But this capitalist development is also marked by the presence of rentier capital that extracts rent from land, nature, wealth, knowledge, technology, etc. under the domination of global neo-imperialist division of labour. This development of capitalist relations remoulds the family structure and accommodates it in the global framework of surplus extraction and for super-profits in such a way that caste division and alienation based on social taboos are retained and that’s why the caste division is visible in industrial and urban workers too. The production and reproduction of labour-power with unpaid domestic labour in a capitalist system is ensured by the existence of family structure. So the question of annihilation of caste is dependent on the process of building socialism and a communist society. This building of socialism begins with a radical break with the existing society that ensures the paradigmatic shift towards the praxis of building of new society.

The neoliberal restructuring post-1980s dismantled organised labour. The failure of the practicing left to resist this process of neoliberal dismantling instilled a defeatist and defensive mindset within the practicing left circle. The vacuum created by the absence of politics of the working class as a countervailing force and the agent of change for transcending capitalism was filled by the rise of democratic assertions of caste and identities under the leadership of the middle-class. But this middle-class leadership could not retain their caste-identity solidarities after an initial upsurge of the caste-identity movement because they were not interested to address the new reality that was unfolded due to the emergence of large-scale wage-workers as universal class cutting across the caste-identity boundary. The rise of the Hindutva identity movement as a fascist force has been successful in accommodating the diverse caste-community leadership through social engineering and reactionary ethnic-nationalism.

The development of capitalism builds the hegemonic structure to replace the feudal structure of domination and subordination and this entails subsumption of labour instead of coercion, domination, and subordination through casteist religious values. The conflict and compromise between the two structures are always at play throughout the global capitalist system. The domination and subordination of pre-capitalist relations are influenced by the hegemony and subsumption of capitalist relations. Thus the determination of caste relation cannot be an isolated endeavour and always remain encapsulated by the caste-class continuum or more precisely the continuum of pre-capitalist caste and the capitalist class. At a moment of history, one prevails over the other i.e. one is determining and the other becomes determined. After the long haul of colonial to the neocolonial journey of capitalist penetration in Indian society, class is now a determining factor continuously reshaping and remoulding the subaltern in a continuous process of becoming ‘New Subaltern”.

Even the colonial subjugation that needs a new form of administrative structure sometimes imposes rules against the caste division. David Arnold[4] in his essay on ‘The Colonial Prison” shows how the values of the European nation-state was imposed to restrain chaos due to caste-based self-cooking and eating habit to maintain the purity of the caste-divided social status of prisoners for the colonization of Indian prison by middle-class nationalists. The taboo on inter-caste marriage and caste-intermingling during eating is the most stringent norm for maintaining caste purity. So the question of annihilation of caste in a programme for radical change is not merely a struggle against caste-domination from the beginning. According to Marx, capitalism encounters an extreme variety of forms of land ownership, such as feudal, clan, communal (and primitive), state, etc., when it makes its appearance on the historical scene. Capital subordinates to itself all these varied forms of land ownership and remoulds them after its own fashion.”[5] The presence of all pre-capitalist relations within the capitalist system entails not only hegemony of law of value but also domination through coercion and submission is intertwined in capitalism. The class-caste dynamics is not the question of transformation from zoe to bios or bios to zoe, rather both are intertwined under the notion of contingency. The programme for a radical change must take into cognisance whether the caste-identity question is contingent on the class or vice versa.

In this light, the history of peasant struggle may be revisited to understand the character of the present ongoing peasant struggle and to ascertain the caste dimension ingrained in it. There had been a wide-ranging peasant uprising throughout the British rule in India. But most of these uprisings were confined within the boundaries of ethnic solidarity and that defined the weaknesses of these rebellions to challenge an imperialist rule which was built on the power of capital. The peasants might fuel a zamindar’s revolt (Marathas), they might rise in a locality (the Doab), or as a caste (Jats), or as a sect (Satnamis, Sikhs), but they fail to attain recognition of any common objectives that transcended parochial limits. This deficiency in the peasant struggle is hitherto stemmed primarily from the caste division in our society and also from the factors like the immense gulf between the peasantry and the menial proletariat, the deep-rooted authority of the zamindars, etc.[6] The peasant uprising could take a revolutionary turn when the anti-feudal uprising could find a universal category of agricultural workers for the unity of the peasantry across the system surpassing the community limit to challenge the imperialist masters who were at the helm of affairs of a rural feudal hierarchy, but the history of the peasant movement right from the British period tells us that the peasant struggle could have been subdued as the inherent deficiencies prevailed over the weak universal class. This universal category was agricultural workers.

The peasant question is always an important aspect of radical societal change. The role of the peasant community is dependent on the rural agrarian social relations. Engel succinctly described this role of the peasantry in the following passage of his writings on the “Peasant Question in France and Germany”[7].

“The hazy socialistic aspirations of the Revolution of February 1848 were rapidly disposed of by the reactionary ballots of the French peasantry; the peasant, who wanted peace of mind, dug up from his treasured memories the legend of Napoleon, the emperor of the peasants, and created the second Empire. We all know what this one feat of the peasants cost the people of France; it is still suffering from its aftermath.”

In this era of capitalist globalization, big monopoly capital not only extracts rent only through its control over markets but also by establishing private property rights over land, forest and water. Rent is also extracted by exercising private property rights over knowledge, science, technology, and agricultural inputs after these have been transformed into marketable commodities. Capitalist rent stipulates that capital dominates non-capitalist sectors and uses such dominance to extract part or whole of the surplus produced by them as rent. In analyzing the development of capitalism in Russia, Lenin highlighted Mr. Postnikov’s proposition that the number of people working including the hired labourers and the implements of production diminishes as the size of the farm increases.[8] Contract farming which has already been implemented in many areas of Indian agricultural production has been endorsed as the main policy drive of the Government in power by promulgating the farm act 2020.

There are two aspects of imperialist capital in underdeveloped countries. One is the domination of the state power represented by the native bourgeois and feudal classes but subservient to the imperialist corporate capital, the other is the hegemonic control in social relations of production due to the operational unity of imperialist capital with a higher organic composition of capital and the lower organic composition of capital in under-developed or developing countries. The first aspect of domination operates in an identitarian framework for primitive accumulation and the second aspect operates in a class framework for establishing the hegemony of the capital. These two mutually inclusive dimensions continuously interact with each other and are in constant motion. This process also creates and recreates the space for the development of capitalism from below as the monopoly imperialist capital strives for both cheap labour and productivity of labour. Thus this process breaks the chain of erosion and retention of feudal relations to make room for the capitalist social relations to be a dominant feature. The process operates in a combined and uneven developmental framework that sets capitalism as a global system. The green revolution in agriculture and the policy of land reform was undertaken to feed the toiling masses who were caught in a situation of food insecurity, but it simultaneously served the interest of imperialist capital for supplying technological equipment and other inputs for agricultural production. The areas beyond the influence of the green revolution were also witnessing the development of capitalism from below because the dynamism of capitalist relations is such that the inchoate form set in motion tries to be a dominant feature by destroying and remoulding all other existing relations, generating such energy that breaks the inertia of idle and static minds to consume the use-value. The law of motion is such that it sets the ground for intense contradiction for the own demise of imperialism. The entire period of neo-liberal restructuring for accumulation of capital through labour-arbitrage has accentuated and deepened this contradiction. The ongoing peasant uprising is inherently an uprising against the imperialist corporate capital for its further penetration and hegemonic control of India’s agricultural landscape.

In colonial India, the power simply stood for a series of inequalities between the rulers and the ruled as well as between classes, strata, and individuals. The subaltern discourse rests on the idea that these unequal relationships, despite the bewildering diversity of their form and character and their numerous permutations, may all be said to have derived from a general relation—that of Dominance (D) and Subordination (S). These two terms imply each other: it is not possible to think of D without S and vice versa. As such, they permit us to conceptualize the historical articulation of power in colonial India in all its institutional, model, and discursive aspects as the interaction of these two terms—as D/S in short.[9]

But the occupation of subaltern space by an imperialist colonial power also means expansion of capitalism from the center to the periphery. Marx showed when the organic composition of capital i.e. the ratio of fixed capital and variable capital i.e. C/V becomes too high in a capitalist space; the capital tends to move to a space of pre-capitalist relation to ensure profit and accumulation and to restrain workers’ resistance at the center. The rise of the organic composition of capital entails a falling rate of profit and a concomitant situation of over-production and this necessitates the movement of capital to a territory with a lower organic composition of capital. The rise of the organic composition of capital in the capitalist core does not mean that all the previous pre-capitalist modes of production including the primitive accumulation have been obliterated, it only means that the capitalist competition has alleviated the organic composition of capital to such a level where the rate of profit starts falling. But the expansion of capital from its center to the pre-capitalist periphery cannot be protected permanently from the development of this law of rising organic composition of capital in the occupied territory; this can only be restrained by the application of colonial power relations.

Unlike the peasant uprising in French and Germany, the peasant uprising in the past failed to achieve anything tangible in India. The caste system was one of the impediments that caused the peasant movement to be unsuccessful. But caste-class dynamics in the Indian rural landscape have undergone a change - the caste question has become contingent on class question. This is the reason why Jat peasant leaderships of the western UP could successfully build the Hindu-Muslim unity in a very short time in an area where the inhabitants witnessed hundreds of communal riots during the Ramjanambhumi movement. The ongoing peasant movement has also successfully united the Shudra peasant and the Dalit workers. The weakening of the division between OBC and Dalit castes based on the ownership of means of production due to the increasing control of the corporate capital over the means of production is rapidly changing the socio-political landscape and that is why we are witnessing new alignment and realignment of forces within the garb of peasant struggle. The class dynamics are now in a dominant position to remould the caste question. The caste barrier can be addressed only through class intervention. Furthermore, the changes in the structure of the category of the worker during the entire phase of neo-liberal restructuring entail a paradigm shift from all hitherto peasant movement as the struggle for the rights of the farmers takes a social character from the beginning to include the classes and social groups in the entire spectrum of rural landscape and there lies its inherent strength to achieve victory to fulfill their short-term or long-term demand.

* (Author: Arup Baisya is a writer and social and political activist based in Assam. He is the author of the book "Disruption in Economic and Social Polity: What is to be done” published by Cambridge Scholar Publishing, UK.)

[1] Thapar Romila: The Past and Present: Aleph: 2014
[2] Eaton Richard M.: India in the Persinate Age 1000-1765: Penguin Books: 2020
[3] Jal Murzban Economic & Political WEEKLY, MAY 10, 2014 VOL XlLX NO 19
[4] Arnold David: The Colonial Prison: Power, Knowledge, and Penology in Nineteenth- Century India
[5] Karl Marx (2010): Capital: Volume 1: Leftward Books.
[6] Habib Irfan: Essays in Indian History: Tulika: 1995
[7] Engels Frederick: Peasant Question in France and Germany: 1894
[8] V.I. Lenin: Collected Works: Volume 22
[9] Guha Ranajit (1998): Dominance without Hegemony: OUP

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