Student leader Rohith Vemula, who killed himself on January 17, 2016, was a prolific writer on Facebook, where he discussed everything from caste to cows. From 2008 to his last posts in January 2016, his words hold a mirror to the working of caste in modern India. In #Caste is Not a Rumour, edited by Nikhila Henry, Rohith’s posts have been collected, and they reveal a mind that was constantly questioning the inequity around him. The below excerpt quotes his post, and Nikhila’s note, on why the Indian Left ignored Dalit communism, and never acknowledged caste as the important social question it should have been:
The Indian Left or Left of Centre?
‘The Indian Left will regret bypassing social questions one day. And on that day communism of a different kind will reveal itself in our Nation,’ wrote Vemula in 2014. The young man who started with a revolutionary flair in the Students Federation of India (SFI) took his time to break away and form a diametrically opposite stand on the Left. In his writings, he explains clearly why he lost faith – the Left had de-radicalised, falling victim to electoral politics and hypocritical double stands on liberalisation and capitalism.
The Left severed ties with the masses long ago and had no voice in movements for social change because it had ignored the Dalit conscience for decades, Vemula argued. It had become the other side of the Hindu nationalist coin. He questioned the CPI-M caste Hindu leaders of ignoring Dalit communists.
Vemula fumed at the fact that the Indian Left, though it was questioned repeatedly by Ambedkar, never acknowledged caste as an important social question. The lacklustre strategy of Indian Leftists, whom he also called Progressives in the University of Hyderabad, in addressing the caste question reflected in their flaky arguments, he said. Mocking the Left’s demand for reservations in the private sector, he contended that leaders had no moral right to ask for the same as they had not implemented the tenets of constitutional reservation even in their supreme body, the politburo.
Vemula’s dismissal of the Left was not a dismissal of communism, socialism and Maoism. In fact, he regarded Ambedkar a socialist and considered The Communist Manifesto a potent, relevant text. In 2015 he wrote of the rise of a ‘Red sun in a Blue sky’ symbolising the meeting of the twin ideologies.
While some called him a Dalit Marxist, Vemula in his writing remained an Ambedkarite who held on to some tenets of Marxism and socialism.
The Left, Caste and Dalits: A Triangular Tale
July 8, 2014
‘Not disregarding the genuine efforts of some eminent communists like Singaravelu, Ramachandra Babaji, Annabhau Sathe, Kalekuri Prasad and Gaddar who questioned the caste system, it is not reductionist to say that the Left in India, at an organisational level, has always given the cold shoulder to the Dalit conscience.
The people who called themselves ‘Dalit-communists’ were never allowed top positions in the Left leadership, which is self-explanatory. They were either suspended, ignored and sometimes even demonised. Dalit thought from its inception was seen as revisionist and even counter-revolutionary by the communist parties in India. Even a person like Ambedkar failed to convince (impress) the Left in this matter. The intelligentsia of Indian Left portrayed Ambedkar as pro-British, separatist and opportunist.
But today we know that Ambedkar and Left intellectuals stand poles apart in our current society.
In fact, the whole of Marxist political thought is based on European economy, German philosophy and France’s already tried and collapsed (curbed) idea of the commune. The only novel aspect in Marx’s writings is his way of combining the three of them with scientific reasoning and historical objectivity (forgive me Marxists if I have not mentioned any other important works of Marx). Even while considering this background of Marxism, Indian communism has no excuse in neglecting the caste question as the whole of our history is caste centered. And even during fair economic times (goods exchange times) caste was strong enough to impact social relationships.
If Indian society is a monument, caste is its foundation. Without rebuilding from the foundation reshaping of the nation only gives a reversible progression. The actual problem with the organized Left in India is its intellectual lot who always studied hunger without ever experiencing it, studied history of oppression without being oppressed and hoped for societal change without moving their butts from cushioned chairs. They formulated the method of fighting the caste question by coming up with an out-of-box conclusion: ‘Don’t talk about caste. By not talking we are not encouraging caste’.
In reality this stand resulted in covert caste discussions and made Dalit cadre furtive inside the communist parties. Even as they had the world’s largest number of volunteers, the parent, peasant and student wings, communist parties utterly failed to educate their cadres about caste structure. These organizations have deliberately directed the attention of cadres to neo-liberal policies, international affairs and utopian dreams rather than ground realities.
In an article Baba Saheb wrote with sensible dismay that if Lenin was born in India, he would have not have left caste unquestioned.
Indian Left will regret bypassing social questions one day. And on that day communism of a different kind will revive itself in our nation. Until then the Left which does not contribute towards bettering the lives of poor sections in the society will continue to be a factory that has as its fuel the same poor sections whom they claim to represent.
Let me conclude by quoting Marx, ‘Nothing prevents us from lining our criticism with a criticism of politics, from taking sides in politics, i.e., from entering into real struggles and identifying ourselves with them. This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctrinaire principles and proclaim: Here is truth. It means that we shall develop for the world new principles (needed) from the existing principles of the world. We shall not say: Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us write true campaign-slogans. We show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it wishes or not…’ [Letters to Ruge, 1843].
Indian Communists have to acquire the Dalit thought inexorably; if they aim to stand with the progressive spectrum politically, socially or morally.’