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Caste and Exploitation in Indian History: Bharat Patankar

February 17, 2012

Guest post by BHARAT PATANKAR translated by GAIL OMVEDT

Introduction: The Process of Exploitation

Exploitation arising from the caste hierarchy is a particular feature of the South Asian subcontinent. There was no such exploitative system in other continents or in countries outside of South Asia. But since caste exploitation has been a reality for 1500-2000 years this shakes the belief that only class can be the basis of exploitation. And because of this we have to transcend the attempt to find a way only pragmatically and deal with the issue on a philosophical and theoretical level. Class has been theorized extensively in terms of exploitation; to some extent gender also, but not caste. Exploitation as women in various forms has also been a reality for thousands of years; this also is not through “class”. This reality from throughout the world gives a blow to the idea that exploitation can only be class exploitation. This can also be said of exploitation arising on the basis of racial and communal factors.

By exploitation we mean the extraction of surplus from labour by those who do not themselves labour. The process of exploitation is not a process in the cultural or social fields. The process of exploitation can only come through the relations that exist among various human beings while creating new products in the process of production.  It is not a historical fact that these relations are those of exploitation everywhere and among all humans. Exploitation is not an “eternal” fact and will not necessarily exist in the future. In the matriarchal society the relations of production were not those of exploitation.

A system in which production gives more than is necessary for an abundant existence is one in which “surplus” is created. Such surplus is fundamental for a society of varied production. When the productive forces give more than the food that is necessary to live on, then there is a surplus created. When this happens then some humans are freed from simply producing food. They can do such work as creating clothes and tools. After producing the food or clothes necessary for themselves they can then produce for others. The others may do varied forms of production, or take leisure, or devote themselves to art and philosophy. Thus a “social division of labour” is born. There is no necessity that this must be one of hierarchy or exploitation. Initially it is one of exchange.

However, when some people seize the “surplus” created in this situation, exploitation begins. Or, when those who are direct producers get simply enough to stay alive rather than the goods for an abundant life, and the rest is grabbed as “surplus” then exploitation begins. Thus arises a social division of labour based on exploitation.

Such an exploitative social division of labour may be based on class, on caste or on gender relations. In Hindustan the characteristics of a division of labour based on caste exploitation can be seen from about 600 BC. However this division of labour based on caste exploitation became triumphant, fixed and general only from about 600 AD.

The General Characteristics of the Caste System

Dr. Ambedkar had argued that the form of this exploitation was that of an “unequal hierarchy“. It was an exploitative hierarchy for the extraction of surplus. The fundamental unit of this division of labour is the caste. Its general characteristics are as follows:

1.    Beginning from the lowest caste in the hierarchy, while giving a small share of the surplus to every level of the hierarchy, the greatest share goes to the top.

2.    What is fundamental to the relations of exploitation is that in the division of labour the surplus from every level goes first to the level above it and then is channeled further “upward.”

3.    In the division of labour all the castes which participate in direct production can be called “toiling castes”. The proportion of people of the society in these castes is greater than 90%.

4.    Apart from the lowest castes among the toiling castes, the “toiling castes” all participate in the “exploitation” of the castes in the rung below them.

5.    It is a special feature of exploitation in the caste hierarchy that there is a mechanism for providing the greatest share from this internal exploitation among the toiling castes to the higher “exploiting” castes.

6.    Because of these characteristics, Dr. Ambedkar had said in regard to the internal division of labour in the caste exploitative hierarchy that it was actually a “division of labourers”.

7.    The type of work that people in the castes at each rung of the hierarchy was to do was ordained from generation to generation by birth; this is a special authoritative type of feature of the exploitation of the caste hierarchy.

8.    Besides this, there exists:
a)    The compulsion to marry within the caste;
b)    Caste-wise residence;
c)    Dining only within the caste;
d)    Exchange of daughters only within the caste;
e)    Decisions regarding the internal affairs of each caste through its caste panchayat;
f)    The principle of deciding caste by birth.

9.    The lowest castes will do the work considered dirtiest and requiring the most physical labour (these were the castes that were previously considered untouchable).

  • The toiling castes above these do comparatively less polluting and fully physical labour (the farming castes and the artisans who were not considered fully untouchable).
  • The castes in the rung above these do not do physical labour. They will do the planning, organisation, deciding rules, and organising of the mechanisms of violence (the castes considered to be “kshatriyas”).
  • The Brahman castes on the highest level will do no kind of physical labour.  This caste will have a full monopoly of the mental field (taking and giving of knowledge). Not only will they do no type of work understood to be “polluting”; they will not even go near it.

These are features that underlie the “laws of motion” of the caste system. Marxists refer to the “laws of motion” of a class-based economy, but the same concept can apply here.

The Laws of Motion of the Caste System

In regard to the reality that comes to view in connection with caste exploitation it is extremely important to distinguish the external features and the laws of motion. The external features of any exploitative system do not remain completely the same for the mode of production of that system in every era. But its laws of motion must remain the same. If they do not, then that system is broken. This happens inevitably.

If we consider this, then the laws of motion which must continue for the hierarchical exploitation of this system to go on appear to be the following:

1.    The caste of a person in the hierarchy is determined by the caste level of that hierarchy.

2.    The castes doing the most polluting, dirty and most heavily manual labour and the least mental work are at the very bottom, and to the extent that the “polluting” nature of work and the severity of its toil becomes less and the mental aspect increases, the level of the caste in the hierarchy will rise.  The castes at the highest level will hold a monopoly of mental work and will do no “dirty” or physical labour.

3.    Due to the form of exploitation in the caste hierarchy the situation of the “division of labourers” is created.

4.    A different form of hierarchy from that of the relations of class production is created, one in which there is a basis for each caste considering itself superior to those below it in the hierarchy.

5.    Without breaking these “laws of motion,” even if other characteristics of the caste system vanish, still as a system caste will not be annihilated.  It will continually be recreated and reproduced.

The Link of the Caste system to Class in the Capitalist System

Though the caste system as a system exists today, and though its laws of motion are reproduced from second to second, still its hierarchy has been joined completely and firmly to the capitalist relations of production. Since this linkage is integral and encompassing, without a movement to end the class system, there can be no effort to “independently” destroy the caste system.

1.    In the country, and Maharashtra, those who as sweepers fought as exploited workers, for an “eight hour day” are 100% drawn from the previously low castes. In doing such work, along with the laws of class exploitation, the laws of motion of the caste hierarchy apply. There are thus two sorts of exploitation, and it is not possible to destroy them in separate stages. This linkage is also seen with the fourth-class employees who collect waste, glass, paper etc.

2.    Those who work as porters in the railways, carrying heavy burdens and doing all kinds of physical toil in the cities are included among “unorganized” workers. Here the previous farming castes (Marathas, Dhangars, Kunbis etc.) work. Here also the principles of caste exploitation on the one hand and class exploitation on the other apply. In this connection also there can be no separate fights. The majority of these castes work in the rural areas as toiling farmers, agricultural labourers. It is also necessary to take account of the fact that among them 3-4% have become capitalist farmers, cooperative barons, small industrialists.

3.    The capitalist class in the country has primarily emerged out of castes of Brahmans, banias, and khatris (Ksatriyas). Within it some 1-1 ½ % come from farming castes, artisan castes to become small capitalists. In fighting with these capitalists it is clear that the struggle has to be both for the annihilation of caste and class.

4.    In today’s ultra-modern imperialist system based on “intellectual property rights” the people who monopolize a pure intellectual field such as computer software and hold a main position in areas from state administration to big companies have come mainly from Brahman castes. This is also true of the financial field. Here also there is an integral connection between class and caste. A dual struggle will have to be given in this respect.

5.    Aside from the Brahmans, banias and Thakurs who are considered Ksatriya castes, about two to five percent of the people of the toiling castes have become capitalists, capitalist farmers, cooperative barons, or professionals in high level intellectual fields. This section will not take part in a fight for the annihilation of caste. Only a few individuals from them may possibly become part of the struggle. This is a result of the ultra-modern capitalist class reality.

A Historical View: the Need for Struggle against Brahmanic Religion and Culture   

Brahmanic culture and religion has functioned for 1500-2000 years to give a firm foundation for the hierarchical exploitative caste system. From the time of Gautam Buddha up to today there have been many struggles against this culture and religion.  Alternatives have been given. Buddhist Dhamma expelled brahmanic religion and culture from the main trend of the social structure Indian subcontinent for a long time.   Buddhist Dhamma and Jain religion remained as the main trends for a thousand years in this country. But once the caste structure became fixed, the place of Buddhism as the “mainstream” began to end; it could not prevent the solidification of the caste system.  As long as the production system based on the exploitation of the caste hierarchy is reproduced, no great blow can be given to brahmanic culture and religion. This exploitative system has continuously reproduced both of these. Because of this the struggle for the annihilation of caste must go on two fronts – that of the material productive system, and that of culture.

Brahmanic culture has in the last 2-3 thousand years had a major effect on the society and its people. But in this lengthy period it has also tremendously changed; along with the eras of various modes of production change, so brahmanic culture has adapted and changed itself. It has attempted to shape itself to suit the ideology of the newly coming modes of production. Except for the nearly thousand years of hegemony of Buddhist Dhamma, brahmanic culture has remained dominant in Hindustan.

It appears that in the period of the decline of the Indus civilization brahmanic culture first began to gain hegemony in some parts of the subcontinent. It is proclaimed in the Purush Sukta of the Rig Veda (dated to about the 10th century BC) that from the sacrifice of the original “Purusha” the Brahman came from his mouth, from his arms the Kshatriya, from his thighs the Vaishya and from his feet the Shudras. The ideology of the superiority of Brahmans and the hierarchy of superiority and inferiority dates from this period. But such four varnas were not existent throughout the south Asian subcontinent. In some places there were three varnas, in some two and in some the Sangha-ganas of only one varna existed. Aside from the Sangha-gana of one varna, the Kshatriya, in the other varma forms there was a clear superiority of Brahmans. But in the majority areas of the subcontinent these varna types did not exist. In most areas there was no exploitation based on the hierarchy of a varna system or class system. In these areas, adivasi communities existed. There were some doing settled agriculture, some living by hunting and gathering food, grains and fruits, and some shifting cultivation. Among these the majority must have been matriarchal or matrilineal. The one or more varna systems with brahmanic hegemony existed only among those doing settled agriculture. In some of these areas, kingdoms began to appear around the time of the Buddha.

After the defeat of the matriarchal or matrilineal communities, the first exploitative systems founded on patriarchy and the exploitation of women could be found also in the non-kingly sangha-ganas. Later, societies based on kingship emerged. With the rise of agricultural production and commerce, paid “karmakaras” or labourers began to appear as the basic exploited toilers. In the beginning of the period of Buddhism the kingdoms were growing. On one hand, destroying the sangha-ganas, these kingdoms cleared the forests where adivasi communities residing and forcibly turned them into settled agriculturalists, collecting revenue from them. This created the “kutumbin” farming class. The shrenis of artisans began to be formed in the large cities; their heads of families began to be known as “gahapatis.”  Artisans organized in shrenis and as labourers in the cities and in the rural areas the agriculturalist “kutumbins” were the main producers, with dominant people, the “shreshtis,” taking the production from agriculture. This was the general structure of society. This was also the period of in which the land, forests and mines were under control of the kingly states. Their administration developed the roads and irrigation systems.

With the decline and end of this state power, the caste system originated in the society it had ruled.  By the time of about the sixth century it was solidified and generalized, and with this the hegemony of Buddhism ended and the hegemony of brahmanic culture and religion was established. The defeated adivasi communities and clans now began to be settled as “kutumbin” farmers doing agriculture, and with this their various kinds of work were determined. In this way the exploitation of the caste system, and the hierarchy of superiority and inferiority took birth with the changes in the mode of production. In addition, a new form of brahmanic culture consistent with this became established in the place of the old forms of brahmanic culture. A new brahmanic religion became created. In the beginning of this period, in the time of the nomadic warlike Vedic Aryans, Indra was regarded as the “hero” who led the battle against asuras and rakshasas – the indigenous peoples. Along with such personalized gods as Indra, elements like the earth, water, fire and sky were seen as divine. The yagna which reclaimed the superiority of Brahmans was central to religious practice.  Cattle were sacrificed, and horses also. With this, all the “twice-born” varnas also were of course eaters of beef. The Brahmans did the hegemonic work of legitimizing the varna system and applying its restrictions, and of controlling the snatching of the surplus of production so that it went to the twice-born varnas.

Brahmanic culture was sidelined during the period of the hegemony of Buddhism. Though in this period the “das” or slave system came to an end and the ideology of brahmanic culture was proclaimed in the Manusmriti, still it did not gain dominance in the field of direct production. For this system was based on wage labour, on kutumbin farmers paying revenue, and gahapatis in the large cities. The ideology of this society was largely drawn from Buddhism. But from the decline of this society and the rise of brahmanic kingdoms, the caste exploitation began to grow. An ideology of a fully developed caste-based society could not be created from Buddhism which completely opposed caste. And so this ideology and Dhamma began to be sidelined. Because of this the dominance of brahmanic religion and culture once again became created. However, the base and shape of both of these became to be largely transformed at this time; new deities were adopted, often from indigenous traditions. Of course, the legitimation for exploitation based on superiority and inferiority remained permanent.

The yagna and sacrifice of brahmanic religion in this period was declining.  Brahmans became completely vegetarian. New gods emerged. Indra and the five principles were sidelined. Puranas were written and a false history created. The imaginary fables of the Ramayana, Mahabharat became of huge importance. A “book” known as the Gita began to be praised. Krishna is shown as saying in this Gita that “I was the one who created chaturvarnya on the basis of guna and karma,” and is treated as the avatar of Vishnu who supposed preserved the universe. Such books as the Vedas and Upanishads fell into oblivion. Although some sections of the Vedas were taken where necessary to support the caste and varna system, these books no longer remained the foundation for brahmanic religion. The Manusmriti was brought forward as a weapon to establish in a strong way the exploitation of the caste system.

From village to village social and cultural relations began to be born which directly brought caste exploitation. The Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharat and of the Manusmriti and all were brought forward to legitimize and give shape to this exploitation. Under the dominance of the fully superior Brahman caste, people were taught that one should behave according to the position giving in the caste hierarchy and make to effort to do anything different. One should carry out the “duty” of one’s caste. There will be punishment if the rules of caste are broken.

It was in the general era of brahmanic dominance that finally, imperialism in the form of British colonialism intervened. Imperialism made it possible for the capitalist mode of production, the capitalist form of state power and ideology to begin to develop. In this new reality, Brahmanism once again began to change. In today’s era, brahmanic culture and religion has taken new form through these changes. Without understanding this, it is impossible to understand what kind of alternatives the cultural movement can give in order to annihilate the exploitative hierarchy of caste.

The brahmanic culture of this age has made a special intersection with imperialist capitalist and national capitalist culture. Because of this such practices go on as the dances of Michael Jackson, a corrupted copy of western-style dancing in marriage processions and in the sinking of the Ganpati idols, the garba, the commercialization of women as market objects and practices understood to be low according to the old system.

The concept of calling the brahmanic religion as “Hindu religion” has become established. Originally “Hindu” was a geographical conception. The people living in the area from the region of the Indus river to the east, north and south were described as “Hindus” by the Persians. In their language “S” is pronounced as “H” for example, “Asura” had become “Ahura”. Thus the Muslims knew the subcontinent as “Al-Hind” or “Hindustan”. Its people were called Hindus; the term had nothing to do with religion. But during the British period the meaning was changed, to become a religion – with the implication that “Hinduism” is the “national” religion of people of the subcontinent.  Because of this very clever and far reaching attempt, even while maintaining the oppression from brahmanic religion and the brahmanic rules that establish what is high and low, the brahmanic religion has been able to carry out the effort of making the oppressed castes themselves participate in the ideology of their oppression, using such slogans as “Hindus are all one”.

In reality in the expansive region of Hindustan the religion practiced by the people is completely different form Hindu religion. Festivals such as Bendur (Bailpola), “Ghat basavane”, Hatga and others are considered important by these people. No basic “religious book” has said anything about following these festivals. The “Kulswamis” male or female, honoured by these people as their own particular deities are not mentioned in these religious books. Because of that the brahmanic religion that is called “Hindu religion” today has an uneasy coexistence with the elements it claims. It hides in fact what is a different religion. These two religions scorn each other completely. The brahmanic hegemony that exists over the non-Brahman people is primarily in connection not so much with religious practice, but with the high-low caste hierarchy. Because, though the brahmanic religion has continuously functioned to give cultural support to this exploitative hierarchy. It has also taken strategies. On occasion violent methods have also been used. The caste exploitative hierarchy has the structure of the material relations of production. This structure of material exploitation also, consciously or unconsciously, is continuously reproduced by brahmanic culture. As a result, the exploited castes themselves observe the superiority and inferiority determined by the culture. Because of this splits fall in the middle of the struggles they give from time to time, due to emotions of suspicion and hostility. The “division of labourers” takes place.

Strengthening one’s caste, living in caste-wise settlements even in cities for self-protection, refusal of those exploited castes who considered themselves “savarna” (including those who were not considered “savarna” by the brahmanic religion, or were previously even untouchables) to live near those considered lower, this was the practice. In the last many years also caste was used as “vote banks” and bought by capitalist leaders. The middlemen (dalals) in every settlement and caste leaders were in a large way responsible for this. This is also a huge obstacle in the way of ending the exploitation of the caste hierarchy.

The commercialization of all deities and buwas has gone on in a big way. A huge business has been made of making capital in the name of god. The happenings after the death of Satya Sai Baba have been shocking in this respect. In the name of these gods and festivals money, gold, and silver are collected, demanding contributions and propagandizing companies goes on everywhere.

The religious barons began to apply a new meaning to the books of brahmanic religion. It is claimed that today’s ultramodern knowledge is discovered in the Vedas, and such books as the Ramayana and Mahabharat. Caste exploitation is done proclaiming that the “history” told in the Puranas is a true history. This has also entered into the field of education. In such subjects as “moral values,” history and geography this tendency has infiltrated. The mysteries that remain in science are gone into in the brahmanic method. The central government has provided funds for the “modernising” of the baluta work done by various castes, and so has given it a “modern” solidification.

On the basis of caste, community and clan, our democratic independence is being crushed. The old rules and customs are changed. Yet some remain. Bhangis still carry out the “traditional” duty of removing excrement. Women are compelled to practice “sati” in many areas.

Radio and television media are used for mythologizing, and spreading the false history told by the brahmanic religion, and supporting the casteism and superstition arising from the ignorance of brahmanic culture.

The fact that a handful of people from the toiling, exploited castes have entered capitalist state power is used to keep all the men and women of that caste permanently in the thralls of caste. The ideology is solidified that “our caste people” are in power. On this background there is a great need for people of all exploited castes to unite to give alternatives to Brahmanic culture and religion. It is useless to simply give negative curses to brahmanic culture and religion. Realizing the new knowledge and ignorance existing among the people, studying it, we will have to examine closely the kind of alternatives that are necessary. In working for an ecologically balanced, abundant society, a team of conscious activists should work for a new realistic “religion” and culture consistent with that, leaving aside their weariness and hunger.

This work will not be done through movements organised simply on immediate demands. Activists must be prepared to work in terms of an ideology based on theory. It is possible to link movements on immediate demands and the long-term struggle to permanently annihilate caste and the exploitation of its hierarchy. For this a perspective and set of tasks has to be prepared.

Note: The above paper was first prepared for the “People’s struggle conference for caste annihilation”, held in Kankavali, Sindhudurg District, Maharashtra, January 14-15, 2012.    

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Priya permalink
    August 23, 2013 10:21 PM

    I am very impressed with this website.
    I hope this website will help to remove this caste exploitation in our society.

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