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Dalit Capitalism And Pseudo Dalitism

By Anand Teltumbde

07 March, 2011

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels had stated “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In capitalism this history comes alive in its pristine form through the contention of two antagonistic classes, bourgeois and proletarians. They prophesied that proletarians would emancipate themselves by intensifying class struggle so as to bring about revolutionary transformation into socialism. Alas, it did not occur to them that proletarians could themselves become bourgeoisie and subvert the history. Why slave had to wage uninterrupted fight against freemen, plebeian against patrician, serf against lord, oppressed against oppressor; they could have themselves become freeman, patrician, lord and oppressor and solved their problem. Indeed, why even struggle against Brahmanism as did Ambedkar; dalits could themselves become Brahmins and end the problem of castesim. The proposition may sound preposterous but then that is what is precisely suggested by a section of Dalits who have been propagating Dalit capitalism.

Deflecting Dalit Agenda

If one looks at the profile of Dalits as the predominantly (81 percent) rural people, linked with land as landless labourers and marginal farmers with a small (19 percent) section living in urban areas, a large part of which lives in slums and works in informal sectors, one surely finds that the historical Dalit discourse revolving around reservation has always been unrelated with the majority of people, because it was articulated by upwardly mobile urbanite Dalits, who detested stereotypical Dalit description and aspired to see themselves as ‘arrived’. It is this section which has been having five star conferences and international conclaves and had even planned a Dalit Capitalism March in 2006 of 5000 Dalits in three piece suit and an umbrella in hand on the roads of Delhi to demonstrate their progress. It is a different matter; they could not do the latter. Since, globalization was opposed in the name of downtrodden; they tended to support it to stress their difference from the common stock. The concerted propaganda from them in favour of globalization and capitalism in various newspapers and even scholarly journal such as this one should be seen in this light.

It claimed how Dalits have prospered by migrating out of villages during the period of globalization. It is forgotten that Dalits, with little stake in village, have always been migrating out. As for the claim that they are better off today than before globalization (contrary to the tons of macro evidence), it suffers methodological fallacy basing itself on some superficial observations. Secondly and more importantly, the state of Dalits, better or worse needs to be established in relation to that of non-Dalit population. The celebration of Dalit capitalists and their Chamber of Commerce on the basis of some hundred odd individuals (out of more than 17 crores) in businesses, the cumulative value of which may not even be a droplet in the corporate ocean will certainly elate the neoliberal propagandist but in itself it is not a great development. There have been such ‘capitalists’ and such ‘chambers’ many times before. Although, any achievement by Dalits may be laudable, when it is projected over the entire community overlooking its woes, it becomes seriously problematic.

Ambedkar on Capitalism

In the Dalit universe, Ambebdkar constitutes supreme ideological authority and hence he is invariably invoked by people in support of their viewpoint, particularly when it is unfamiliar. The protagonists of globalization had tried to show him as free-marketist neoliberal and even gone to the extent of painting him as monetarist (monetarists are supposed to be the initiators of neoliberalism) to get him in support of their propaganda. In any case how many Dalits, even among the educated ones, knew what monetarism was? Ambedkar who publicly professed his opposition to capitalism throughout his life was thus willfully distorted to be the supporter of ultra capitalism, which globalization is! Way back in 1938 Ambedkar, while addressing the railway workers in Manmad, had famously declared that the Untouchables had two enemies: Brahmanism and Capitalism. His first political party, the Independent Labour Party (ILP), was fashioned on the lines of British labour party, which followed the Fabian line of peaceful transition to socialism but abhored capitalism. Ambedkar’s ILP was not only the first but true leftist party of India, the communist party then being the socialist block of the Congress, which had borrowed the moulds of class analysis that left caste, the pervasive reality of Indian life, out. ILP, on the other hand, demonstrated on road how to embed caste and class in people’s struggle.

Although, he had to dissolve ILP and form the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) in response to the Cripps Mission Report in 1942, his leftism and anti-capitalism remained unaffected. The States and Minorities, a memorandum submitted to the Constituent Assembly in 1947 on behalf of the SCF had proposed a radical model of state socialism, to guard against unbridled grid of capitalists. As a abiding lover of democracy, he termed capitalism “a dictatorship of private employer.” (17/1/381). Elsewhere he rationalized his choice saying that “capitalism appeals to the rich and does not appeal to the poor. On the contrary socialism appeals to the poor but does not appeal to the rich.” (5/444). In fact, even at the very fag end of his life, while explaining why he embraced Buddhism, his love for socialism (and hence hate for capitalism) comes out starkly. In his “Buddha or Karl Marx” he comes closer to accept Marx but for his methods, which according to him were overcome in Buddhism.

Caste of Capital

Capitalism emerged as a distinct mode of production from the ruins of feudalism, which was the system of preordained privileges. It came to India under colonial cover and did not have to contend with the feudal forces for its growth. It rather made skillful use of some of its components and let live others. For example the caste identities came handy to keep the working class divided. Still its advent and spread did impact the complexion of the castes which have internalized its accumulation logic. In that sense the general lament over Marx’s prophesy at the time of the introduction of railway network that it would entail collapse of castes is misplaced. The ritual aspects of castes did collapse among the dwija castes which adopted capitalism. These castes used their caste networks to mobilize investments, mop up credit, collect and conserve information and secure political patronage, which impelled some to characterize capital by their caste, such as Marwari, Gujarati, Kutchhi capital and so on.

The same phenomenon is noted in its pronounced form in relation to the successful entrepreneurship of the middle castes. During the early post-independence decades, these farming castes were hugely enriched by the Nehruvian modernist policies of land reforms, which were immediately followed by the green revolution. The surplus coming from capitalist agriculture found ways into capitalist enterprises, which prospered primarily using the caste resources. Tirupur, a world leader in the knitted garment industry, set up by the Gounders, a typical middle farming caste in Tamilnadu, is by now famous exemplifying caste as social capital. Gounders made use of their community and family network for mobilizing capital, credit, information and as a mechanism for enforcing contract far more cheaply than competitors. The same is true of the Nadar community in Virudhunagar area entrenched in the matches and printing industries as also of the Marwaris, Sindhis, Katchis, Patels, etc, who have global networks of their castes aiding their businesses.

While it is true that caste acts as social capital, in societies sans caste, other community ties have performed the same role. The real question is while capital is created using caste networks, can that be characterized as caste capital. Going by the logic of capitalism, the answer has to be in negative. The caste can obfuscate contradictions between capitalist and workers belonging to the same caste but cannot eliminate them, nor can they foil trans-caste formation of class of capitalists. As a matter of fact, capital does not have race, religion, caste, creed or even country. Capital has intrinsic tendency towards globalization. Today, it comes out in its true character as global capital.

Dalits as Capitalists

The Nehruvian modernist project spread capitalist relations in the countryside, and hugely empowered a section of middle castes economically and politically. As a fall out, the jajmani relations, which characterized village life for most parts of the country, were uprooted rendering Dalits hopelessly dependent upon middle caste farmers for their survival as wage labourers. As the villages were vacated by the upper caste landlords, the baton of Brahmanism also came into the hands of the middle castes, which in caste terms joined the dwija caste block, reducing the caste system to its classical divide: caste and non-caste or non-Dalits and Dalits. The contradiction between Dalits and these castes, mostly stemming from capitalist paradigm, however manifested into caste atrocities. Since mid-1980s, with elitist neoliberal policy thrust, they were further adversely impacted vis-à-vis others. The odds have thus multiplied against the vast majority (more than 90 percent) of Dalits, the caste being neatly intermingled with the modern secular institutions. In the face of this pathetic dalit reality, citing stray examples of Dalit petty capitalists as the marker of progress is nothing short of a cruel joke.

One fails to understand the real motive behind such projections. If it is to highlight the riches of Dalit individuals, such cases of individual richness existed even before. Somewhat inexplicable, but there have been Dalit individuals who were extremely rich even in colonial times. That did little difference to their status as Dalits, least to their community. If it is to underline the capability or merit of Dalits, it is a hackneyed statement. During the colonial times (and even before), Dalits have displayed ample entrepreneurial prowess by accepting new vocations, setting up petty businesses, or modernizing their caste vocations and made huge progress. In fact, the Dalit movement was actually the byproduct of this process. If it is to praise the government for its policies of globalization, which appears to be the case in view of this section belaboring to show how Dalits made progress during globalization period, it would be condemnable as not only dishonesty but also as betrayal of Dalit interests. There have been a plenty of Dalit intellectuals seeking favours of ruling classes by singing praises of their policies. Let Dalit individuals become big bureaucrats, big bourgeoisie or any big gun, he or she cannot count much in the emancipation project of Dalit community, which lies only in thoroughgoing social transformation.

Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai




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