Caste oppression in South Asia is a social evil whose depth and scale is at once obvious and difficult to grasp. It is inseparably linked with women's oppression on the one hand and the oppression of the rural masses with regard to land rights on the other, and these three social problems, together with the oppression of religious and national minorities, form the main pillars of class society in the region. Smashing the material basis of the caste system is a central task of the Indian revolution.
Caste in South Asia grew out of the archaic division of labor on which the traditional mode of production was based. Today it serves to maintain the remnants of that system in the countryside along with the modern forms of exploitation that have by now eroded and partially replaced it, while in the cities it plays an indispensable role in dividing the working class. Despite the fact that many—and, in fact, most—of those in the upper castes are poor or working-class, social power remains concentrated in upper-caste hands, especially in rural areas where, according to a recent report by an Indian government committee, "large landowners invariably belong to the upper castes, the cultivators belong to the middle castes, and the agricultural workers are largely dalits and tribals."
Caste is not class, but the caste system has the material function of legitimizing the power of the exploiters and obscuring the common interests of those whose labor they live off, and it will persist as long as an exploiting class exists to wield it for this purpose. Doing away with it will take an agrarian revolution, combined with the qualitative development of all aspects of production so that individuals and small groups are no longer driven to compete for scarce resources—an impossible dream in a backward country subordinated to imperialism. Only through proletarian socialist revolution and its extension to the centers of world capitalism can the liberation of those oppressed by caste ever finally be achieved. But only a party that puts itself in the forefront of the fight against caste oppression and all other basic democratic struggles will be able to lead the multi-caste, multi-communal, multi-national proletariat of India to power.
The institution of caste rests on women's oppression and the control of female sexuality; in South Asia it forms an integral part of the fundamental institution oppressing women, that of the family, which will be replaced as an economic unit under socialism as its functions are collectivized. Caste cannot simply be abolished, but a revolutionary proletarian government will immediately proceed to dismantle the material basis of the caste system and the family itself, while vigilantly guarding against any remnant of caste oppression and caste-based discrimination.
Marxists seek to unite all workers across caste lines in common struggle against their class enemies. This entails an ideological struggle within the workers' movement against the caste-chauvinism and caste-based bigotry that pervades South Asian society. While dalits and tribals, being excluded from the caste system proper, suffer the worst forms of segregation and stigmatization, they are far from the only groups to be specially oppressed by caste. The great majority of Indians are born into castes and tribes officially classified as backward or worse.
Dalits, or untouchables, are those born into castes whose traditional hereditary work, such as waste disposal, leather-work, and agricultural labor, is classed by religious tradition as ritually unclean. Making up one-sixth of the population, they are routinely segregated and humiliated, and commonly subject to violence. The depth of this oppression has kept dalits from joining the industrial working class in proportion to their numbers. In cities most dalits do casual work if they are able to find any employment at all, and in the countryside, where the dalit masses are concentrated, they are overwhelmingly small and landless peasants. There is also a proportionally small but significant layer of urban petty-bourgeois dalits that has developed over the last sixty years as a result of a nationwide affirmative-action program called reservations.
Reservations is a constitutionally mandated scheme to reserve seats in state-run higher education and public-sector jobs for dalits and tribals. This system, which faces periodic political attacks backed up by mobilizations of upper- and middle-caste bigots, is a modest gain for the oppressed won through the mass social struggle against British colonialism. That this reform was intended to defuse further struggle as well as to guarantee a national electoral constituency for the main party of the Indian bourgeoisie does not make it any less supportable. This is the only way any gains for workers and the oppressed are ever granted under capitalism. At the same time, the limited reforms that are possible under capitalism are not what revolutionaries fight for. While defending the gains of past struggles, Marxists would raise demands for open admissions in higher education and jobs for all at union wages which can only be achieved outside the framework of capitalism.
Reservations has produced (and is now monopolized by) a so-called "creamy layer" of educated, petty-bourgeois dalits. It is quite wrong to think that this section is not oppressed by caste. To take just one illustration, the journal Aspects of India's Economy (summarizing the findings of the 2007 Thorat report) notes that at "India’s premier medical school, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Dalit students are beaten, physically tortured, humiliated, insulted, and segregated into separate hostels by upper caste students, and the top faculty encourage anti-reservation agitations." The dalit petty bourgeoisie, having made substantial but narrowly rooted economic gains and finding further mobility checked and real social integration impossible, forms the main base of the bourgeois dalit parties.
The urban petty bourgeoisie is an intermediate strata of small businessmen, shop owners, managers, professionals, and bureaucrats that is distinguished from the two main classes in modern society, the bourgeoisie who own the means of industrial production and finance and the proletariat who live by selling their labor power for wages. There is no contradiction in the idea of a party based in the petty bourgeoise being a bourgeois party: i.e., having a pro-capitalist program and administering the capitalist state when in power. As explained by the Trotskyist militants of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India in 1941, "[b]ecause of their position of dependence on the capitalist class, and in the absence of a real challenge to their leadership from the proletariat, the various elements of the urban petty bourgeoisie and of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia have always played a satellite role to the bourgeoisie." (Actually, it's quite possible for a bourgeois party to be based in the working class when the mass organizations of the workers are under pro-capitalist leadership, the British Labour Party being one example.)
Marxists would give no support of any kind to capitalist parties claiming to represent dalits, whose petty-bourgeois cadre exploit caste solidarity to tap into the enormous vote bank of the masses of dalit poor with whom they have no social contact. In Uttar Pradesh, a backward, populous northern state where dalits make up an unusually high proportion of the population, the dalit-based Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has come to power four times in the last decade and now rules with a narrow majority, led by the country's first dalit woman chief minister, Mayawati Kumari. The BSP has made electoral alliances with Brahmin chauvinists and the fascistic Hindu right, its coalition partner in three previous governments. In 2002, nine months after 2,000 Muslims were massacred in Gujarat by state-sponsored Hindu-right death squads, Mayawati campaigned for the chief minister who oversaw the killings. Under Mayawati, Uttar Pradesh continues to have the highest rate of anti-dalit atrocities (lynchings) in the country. Her government dismisses dalit cooks from schools when the parents of caste-Hindu students complain and bulldozes settlements occupied by poor dalits and Muslims that it decides are illegal. Like all bourgeois political formations, the BSP exists to uphold the class relations that create the conditions for caste oppression, and like caste-based parties of any kind it perpetuates divisions in the working class and contributes to the hardening of caste lines generally.
The way for revolutionaries to politically undermine the corrupt and reactionary pro-capitalist parties pretending to represent the interests of the dalit masses is to make themselves the best and most consistent fighters against caste oppression. They would educate workers and raise their consciousness to oppose any manifestation of bigotry or caste privilege within the labor movement, explaining that caste divides the working class in the interest of the class enemy. They would call on unions to make special efforts to recruit and train dalit and low-caste workers. They would call on the labor movement to organize the unorganized, including casual workers and the unemployed, many of whom are dalits and women—these workers should be seen not as competitors but as allies in the class struggle. Revolutionaries in India would organize labor-based actions in defense of the rights of dalits and other backward castes and tribes and take up the legal and social defense of victims of caste oppression at the hands of casteist thugs or the capitalist state. And at every point they would explain that real liberation from caste oppression can only be achieved through international socialist revolution and the resulting egalitarian order founded on abundance.
Proponents of petty-bourgeois dalit politics claim the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar, who emerged as a spokesman for the rights of untouchables during the independence struggle. A bourgeois liberal reformer and confirmed enemy of Marxism in both theory and practice, Ambedkar charted an erratic political course, collaborating at various times with the Stalinists and the colonialists, sometimes seeking to organize dalits separately and sometimes together with other laborers and poor peasants on an ostensible class basis. Despite his having been a bitter opponent of Gandhi and the upper-caste-led Congress Party throughout the struggle against colonialism, he was invited to join the Congress government as a law minister and drafted the Indian constitution. It should be noted that a few weeks after Ambedkar was appointed to Nehru's government, its army intervened in the state of Hyderabad to crush the heroic Telangana peasants rebellion. Though confined to the countryside, subordinated to the interests of rich peasants, and betrayed by its Stalinist leadership, this movement mobilized the rural masses against the landlords and their state-sponsored militia to seize feudal estates and do away with the caste-based bondage of labor under the vetti system.
However, those who recognize the centrality of the caste question in India and the simple fact that Ambedkar was the first and only national figure to consistently raise it (if only within the limits of a bourgeois framework) must acknowledge that he made a contribution. In fact it is one that the left in India has not assimilated to this day. So without giving any political support to either his program or his actions as a bourgeois politician and government official, Ambedkar can be valued as a personally sincere and frequently powerful spokesman for the oppressed and as an outspoken critic of the high-caste-dominated Congress Party on this question. This assessment of Ambedkar's historic role emphatically does not extend to those who now claim his legacy while peddling petty-bourgeois quota politics. Those attracted to Ambedkar's perspective of the "annihilation of caste" should take up the only program that can actually realize it, that of international proletarian revolution.