Why it is time the Left changed their stand on caste
The Leftist political parties of India have never allowed Dalit representation because they do not even believe in the word "Dalit".
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The outcomes 2021 Assembly elections have been very significant for the Communist Party of India (Marxist). While the CPI(M) has retained its power in Kerala, it lost abysmally in Bengal. The lessons for the Left are many, but most importantly, it should be time for the Left to rethink their ideology about caste.
In India, with elections becoming increasingly polarised, a vague stand on caste will only weaken the Left further. Going by the outcomes of these elections, today the Leftists in India should face the reality and rethink their traditional ideas of avoiding questions on caste. If the Left wants to confront the RSS, then they should reconsider their faulty caste narrative.
Not every political party gets an opportunity to change its historical mistakes. It's true that under the Left regime, large scale caste violence has not taken place in Kerala, Bengal and Tripura. But that does not mean the Left has ever recognised the existence of caste. Several political parties in India look at the caste system in different ways. However, not recognising this fundamental idea of Indian society is anything but progressive. The mistake of the Left is not only distancing themselves from the masses, but also creating room for the RSS to expand freely.
In India, with the elections becoming increasingly polarised, a vague stand on caste will only weaken the Left further. (Photo: Reuters)
The Leftists have never allowed Dalit representation because they do not even believe in the word "Dalit". India's Left political parties denied Dalit representation in their politics, public participation and even in religious expression. The Dalits of Bengal and Tripura under the Left regime have remained as oppressed as they have been under any other upper caste political parties. At the end of the day, the CPI(M) in Bengal took the same path of reaching out to the Matua or Namashudra communities just before the elections. Today, the CPI(M), which considers itself as the political representative of “Sarbahara” or the Proletariat, does not have the support of the most oppressed section of Indian society — a fact they must face.
After the partition of Bengal, a large number of Dalits from Bangladesh resettled in the Marichjhapi area of Sundarban in West Bengal. In 1979, under the Left rule, these Dalits were forcibly evicted and massacred. The Left-led state government at the time neither accepted this massacre nor allowed any investigation into it, and eventually denied justice to these people. In 2025, the Communist Party of India will be 100 years old. But in these many years, the Left is yet to approve that their key leadership carries the identity of the upper caste.
Jyoti Basu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Manik Sarkar, Sitaram Yechury, Prakash Karat and the top brass of the CPI(M), both past and present, are from upper castes. Noted Dalit author and social activist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd observed in an article, "...I mentioned these names because they are well-known communist leaders past and present. Does anyone find last names such as Sarkar, Bhattacharya, Basu, Mitra among the Shudras (Other Backward Classes), Namashudhras (Dalits) and Adivasis in West Bengal or Tripura?"
During the recent Assembly elections in Bengal, the Left asked for a change. But a change is needed within the Left dispositions. It is high time the Communists started realising that to break the class dynamics of our country, it is important to go beyond their own upper-caste-centric political representation. In India, the Communists could have established their own theory of Communism by approving the caste system. However, they never paid attention to the factor. The Left has consistently refused to even recognise the annihilation of the caste theory by Dr BR Ambedkar.
It was only after the death of Hyderabad University's Dalit scholar Rohit Vemula in 2016 that CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said that 'Jai Bhim' and 'Lal Salaam' should fight casteist forces together. He said, “Rainbow has both colours, blue (representing Ambedkarites) and red (symbolising Communists) and if they unite, the movement will get strength.” And this was the first time that the CPI(M) spoke about Ambedkar and expressed the need to adopt this discourse. However, this whole idea has remained confined within some speeches by CPI(M) leaders. Neither the Politburo nor the Central Committee of the CPI(M) has approved of any such idea.
This has eventually distanced the Left from the Dalits in Bengal and Tripura. Without any representation in their politics, the Dalits and Adivasis of Bengal have shifted their leanings towards the RSS. In both the states, the first major penetration of BJP happened in the areas where majority voters are either Dalits or Adivasis. In Bengal, the Namashudras or the Matua community is one of the biggest vote banks of the BJP. They are Dalits who have traditionally been against the Brahminical politics of Hindutva, but today they have found their voice within the BJP, based on the massive groundwork of the RSS. And this has been happening due to the failure of the Left to acknowledge and address the caste system.
It is time the Left re-thought their stand on caste.