Saturday, January 24, 2015

Religion is Politics by Other Means

"Annihilation of Caste,” by B.R. Ambedkar, 1936, a response by Mohandas Gandhi, 1936, with a long Introduction “The Doctor and the Saint,” by Arundhati Roy, 2014, with extensive notes by S. Anand

This historic document lays out the rationale for rejecting the Indian caste system and its religious foundation, Hinduism.  By its nature it is a revolutionary book.  It was written by one of the authors of the Indian Constitution, who was born a member of an “untouchable” caste.  Roy’s long introduction, some 124 pages, goes into detail on Ambedkar’s conflicts with Hindu nationalist Mohandas Gandhi.  The introduction stands alone as the best collection of quotes showing the reactionary Gandhi. 

Roy reveals the ‘other’ Gandhi behind his well-crafted image.  Gandhi was a consummate politician who contradicted himself frequently, collaborated and made unprincipled compromises with the British, looked down on South African blacks (Kaffirs) and Indian ‘untouchables’ in South Africa and in India, and was well-funded by wealthy Indian businessmen for his whole career. He was actually a representative of these castes and upper classes, in spite of his cleverly constructed image of the village ‘saint’ in peasant garb. 

At the key moment in Indian history which was to decide if ‘untouchables’ would be given a protected vote, Gandhi said he would fast ‘to the death’ if untouchables were able to get a reserved communal vote status, which would allow them to vote on their own political representatives free of caste Hindus.  Gandhi, a Bania sub-caste of the businessmen caste, did oppose untouchability by praising the jobs ‘untouchables’ were consigned to do – like cleaning latrines or shit-covered railroad tracks. Yet because he was a religious Hindu, he opposed getting rid of the caste system itself, as it is encased in Hindu scripture and practice.  And because he was a politician who claimed all power to the Congress Party for all Hindus, he didn’t want the Hindu electorate split. Muslims and Sikh’s did get communal vote status, but not untouchables.  Gandhi basically black-mailed Ambedkar by threatening to kill himself.  This defeat was memorialized in the signing of the “Poona Pact’ in 1932, something Ambedkar regretted to the end of his days.  Even today, the caste system, while legally weaker, wrecks havoc on the Indian working-classes.  Just on one issue, rape, many rapes are of lower or no-caste women who are supposed to be subservient to any of the higher or designated castes.  The police do not interfere for the most part, and that is the reason why. 

Ambedkar and Roy point out that the official USSR-aligned Communists in India did not know how to deal with caste either, because, as she puts it, these Marxists of the CPI and CPI(M) were ‘people of the book.’  If it’s not literally in the book – ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ ‘Capital,’ etc. – then they could not synthesize it. (Which reminds us of some present Marxists!!)  Ambedkar was a pro-labor socialist who once ran on the Independent Labour Party ticket in Bombay.  He and the CP could not agree on fighting for Dalit rights within the working class movement.  Ambedkar addresses the limitations of the socialists he knew, who only thought about economic issues.  Everything else was not important to them, including social issues like caste. 

I see no real conflict with fighting caste and class together, as they are intertwined yet not identical.   It is similar to fighting racism and sexism in the U.S. as part of the class struggle, where racism and sexism exist partly outside class.  Caste exists in India somewhat in the same way as ethnically-coded or sex-coded labour-force jobs exist in the U.S.  In India these jobs are coded by the religion instead. Caste is hereditary, so the children of Dalits must remain Dalits – even if they become lawyers, as did Ambedkar.  Gandhi wanted ‘untouchables’ respected, but he still wanted them to stay in their social/class place for all eternity.  

To most people, caste seems as absurd as the Hindu religion and all its blue gods, animal slaughtering and bathing in polluted rivers full of human ashes.  Even religious ideas like karma (and not in the “My Name is Earl” sense) justify present oppression as a punishment from former life.  (If reincarnation is true, why has the world population suddenly expanded exponentially?  Perhaps suddenly more dogs and monkeys have been good and been promoted?)

What are some details of hereditary ‘untouchability’?  Almost what it says….  You can’t touch a person of the 4 main designated castes. (There were 4,000 sub-castes!)  One of those designated castes are ‘shudras’ – menials, who do the work for the other 3 – priest/ intellectual Brahmins, soldier/ warrior Kshatriyas, landowner/ moneylender/ businessman Vaishyas.  The untouchables (called variously in these texts untouchables, Dalits, no-caste, outcasts (where we got the word…), Depressed Classes or untouchable Shudras) are forbidden to walk on the same streets, to enter the same temples, to drink or get water from the same wells, to eat with the other castes, to hold a job outside their role and certainly most of all not to intermarry.  If they objected, they could be killed or shunned and deprived of their livelihood, land, house or belongings.  In a way, it is Indian Jim Crow, yet courtesy of the ‘holy’ Hindu religion, not state law.  Untouchables are not the same as indigenous forest people, the Adivasi, and to Roy, one of Ambedkar’s biggest failures was not to see the Dalit’s struggle aligned with the Adivasi.  The Adivasi are an oppressed tribal people and the base for the present guerrilla war in India against corporate control of their land.  

Ambedkar is an exponent of reason, but he knows that Hinduism is not reasonable.  This document, a speech to a group of Hindu social reformers, was cancelled by them because it hinted that he was rejecting the whole Hindu religion.  Ambedekar later converted to Buddhism.  The great fear of the Hindu upper castes and the Congress Party was that they would lose clout if millions of Hindu untouchables decided to convert to Islam or Christianity or Buddhism, attempting to escape the prohibitions of caste.  Many have done so anyway.

Ambedkar goes into a long polemic against Hindu justifications for caste by using the 150 year-old slogans of the French Revolution - ‘liberty, equality & fraternity.’  He makes fun of the caste designations as not much different than that great reactionary Plato’s 3 ‘natural’ classes of ‘law-givers,’ 'labouring and trading people,’ and ‘warriors.’   He points out the justifications for caste exist in the Hindu ‘holy’ books and stories, the shastras and Vedas, like the ‘Law of Manu.’ He cites one important Bhagavad Gita story of Rama justifiably killing Shambuka, the latter being a person who wanted to transgress his Shudra caste and become a Brahmin.   He also accuses caste of being anti-female, because Hindu society is particularly resistant to women soldiers and priests - and those are two whole ostensible castes.  He points out that the untouchables (and the Shudras) were not allowed to have weapons, and hence could not defend themselves.  (Shudra's seem to have two sides - pure and impure - which fall in and out of the caste system, so it is somewhat confusing.  Ambedekar seems to be a proponent of the caste Shudras too, as they are the majority ‘designated’ menial caste in India.  Menials mean workers and small farmers.)  Socially he thinks that inter-marriage is a key way to break down caste divisions.  He points out that the Marxist slogan, “You have nothing to lose but your chains,’ works only if those with lighter chains, to retain their privilege, don’t oppose those with the heavier ones.  Unfortunately caste works as an excellent way to divide a rebellion, much as racism and nationalism works in the U.S.

In the debate between the two, Ambedkar makes a crack at Gandhi, pointing out that Gandhi himself was of the businessman caste, a “Bania’, but became an attorney, then promoted himself to ‘Mahatma’ status – a godly man, a Brahmin.  Gandhi’s son married a Brahmin, so both broke caste.  “Saints’ can break cast, but the common people cannot. Ambedkar says, “What Hindu’s call religion is really law, or at best legalizes class ethics.”  Gandhi’s responds about the 'truth' of the Hindu religion: “It lives in the experiences of its saints and seers, in their lives and sayings.”  Ambedkar responds that none of the famous seers cited by Gandhi opposed caste (‘chaturvarna’), in fact they supported it.  Gandhi:  “Caste has nothing to do with religion.  It is a custom whose origin I do not know.”  Ambedkar responds to this willful ignorance by noting that the Hindu holy books are full of support for ‘varna.’  Gandhi ignores the religious mentions of the system of caste, decreed by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi’s favorite book.  Ambedkar points out that earlier in his life, Gandhi was opposed to inter-drinking, inter-dining and inter-marriage as a more orthodox Hindu, and thought of untouchables as ancestrally unclean and stupid.  All typical caste mentality for a religious Hindu, an attitude that Gandhi did not fundamentally change.  

This book raises the question of the present permeability of castes, which is certainly going on among the higher castes.  But as indicated by Roy’s statistics, the class/caste system in India has not really changed the majority of Indian society.  Caste is a religious justification for the Indian class system. Gandhi justified caste by saying it was needed to ensure ‘social stability’ and ‘order.’  This shows that Gandhi was what Marxists call a bourgeois nationalist, interested in independence from colonial Britain so that the Indian bourgeoisie could exploit their ‘own’ working-class more effectively.  Ambedekar reminds me of W.E.B. Dubois and his discussion of ethnic oppression in the U.S. Ambedkar was opposed to this and this is why he is essential reading for any opponent of the Indian class and caste system.

 Review of W.E.B. Dubois’ classic “Souls of Black Folk,” below.  Other non-fiction books on India reviewed below:  Walking with the Comrades,”The God Market,” Capitalism – A Ghost Story,” “Field Notes on Democracy” and  commentary "Women are the Secret Revolutionaries."  Use blog search box, upper left.  

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 24, 2015


AA said...

The myth constructed around Gandhi -- particularly in the west -- is fabrication and fairytale. He's effectively been canonised. He never even struggled for independence -- what he wanted was India as a British protectorate with limited self-government.

The Indian hero in my book is Subash Chandra Bose.

Red Frog said...

Subash Chandra Bose? I will look him up.