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As the country waves flags and celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also time to take stock. What did India’s founders and citizens dream of, how has India fared, what have been our challenges and successes?
The Wire’s reporters and contributors bring stories of the period, of the traumas but also the hopes of Indians, as seen in personal accounts, in culture, in the economy and in the sciences. How did the modern state of India come about, what does the flag represent? How did literature and cinema tackle the trauma of Partition?
Follow us for the next few days to get a rounded view of India@75.
India is celebrating its 75 years of democratic existence. The Union government designated the celebration as “Amrit Mahostav”. Normally in global parlance it should be the ‘Diamond Jubilee’ of India’s Independence.
By 1947 when India got Independence, in many villages the life and human disconnectivity was such that the Dalitbahujan (the OBC/SC/ST oppressed and exploited castes as I defined in Why I Am Not a Hindu, 1996) masses did not even know what was Independence and what was colonialism. The masses who are aspiring for equality, self- respect, dignity and state and private industrial sector employment now, existed mostly around animal, artisanal and agrarian economies in the villages and forest and semi-forest zones. Poverty, illiteracy and minimal mortality rate of life were all around them.
In pre-Independence India the state for them was an extractor of resources, without the hope of offering welfare. There was no positive understanding of the state among them because it was a merciless exploiter.
Though the peasant and Adivasi revolts against the British rulers took place in several parts of India before the freedom struggle started, they were not seriously connected to the First War of Independence of 1857 and the role of such rebellious leaders was not acknowledged. The food producers, without any written history of their own, fought against the British and princely rulers for their survival. Among all of them, the sections of the Dalits – Untouchables of India – were in a hopeless condition.
At the upper end of the freedom struggle there were hardly any foreign English educated intellectual leaders representing their interests, except B.R. Ambedkar. He initiated an intellectual philosophical discourse about freedom from external and internal oppressive systems of colonialism, casteism and historical illiteracy. His 1936 book The Annihilation of Caste, which was an extension of Mahatma Phule’s Gulamgiri (1873), but there were hardly any educated Dalitbahujan to understand and follow their ideas.
The dominant Independence paradigm was set by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, broadly formulating an agenda for freedom from British rule without bothering much about internal social reform.
In the South, Periyar Ramasamy Naikar carried out massive mobilisational work of the lower castes with an ideology of Dravidian Nationalism, which registered recognition, but was seen as sub-regional and negativist. Many English educated North Indian intellectuals having come from the Dwija – Brahmin, Baniya, Kayastha, Khatri – background, both liberal and right-wing were comfortable with the idea that the Indian nation should be constructed around the notions of ‘Aryan’ (Raja Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Saraswati to K.P. Jayaswal to V.D. Savarkar used the racial notion Aryan as pan Indian) and ‘Brahmn’ identities. For a long time in the post-colonial discourses of Dwija intellectuals in the universities and outside, the Dalit and Dravidian identities were seen as narrow identitarian but not nationalist. Not only that, Ambedkar’s Dalit and Periyar’s Dravidian discourses were condemned as sectarian and narrow indentitarian. The communist Dwija intellectuals broadly went with the same narrative.
Dalitbahujan and the minority question
Further, the freedom struggle did not register the Dalitbahujan question as much as the Muslim minority question in the backdrop of Two-Nation theory of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal and the subsequent partition of the sub-continent. With the 1947 partition and communal carnage, Ambedkar and Pariyar’s efforts to institutionalise reservations for Dalitbahujan were not given any importance in the electoral and ideological realms.
Till the 1990 the Mandal movement started, everything revolved around Congress secularism and RSS’s anti-Muslim Hindutva agendas. The Nehruvian secular nationalism and M.S. Golwalkar’s Hindutva nationalism occupied dominant space in the literary, cultural and political realms. There were hardly any OBC intellectuals to understand these discourses.
The left, by and large headed by educated, middle-class Dwija intellectuals remained around class ideology and international communist guidance with blind opposition to the caste question and also to constitutional democracy. They were opposing the Ambedkarite constitution from a proletariat stand point of view, as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was opposing from the Manuvadi point of view.
In the post-Mandal era the left is the worst loser as it has not evolved a suitable indigenous ideological and political organisational pattern. They wanted to finish Ambedkar but Ambedkar finished them.
The Hindutva forces, on the other hand, in the post-Mandal phase, reworked their political programme with a theory of Social Engineering by re-examining their position on caste. Narendra Modi, an ambassador of the Gujarati capitalists, with an OBC certificate, was brought onto the national scene by the RSS/BJP combine. After the 2014 parliament elections they started giving space to OBCs which the Congress was giving to Muslims without reducing the Dwija space in their power structure. This is a new and unexpected method of gaining majority in the parliament by Hindutvavadis.
The SC/ST reserved space remained the same as ever, except the RSS/BJP speak openly about caste identities, including that of Dalit and Adivasi. Putting a Dalit (Ram Nath Kovind) president in the Rastrapati Bhavan in 2017 and an Adivasi woman president (Droupadi Murmu) in 2022 with an aggressive caste identity campaign by the the RSS/BJP combine weakened the Congress and the regional parties in the North.
The Congress and the left have no such ideological policy to accept the caste identity question so openly. They still hang around secularism, religious diversity and class questions for electoral mobilisation, but that ideology has limitations in a changed an ideology combined of Mandal and Hindutva. The OBCs also developed a negative view of minorityism as they wanted a share in power at all levels that the Congress denied them all along.
One critical shift in the Dalitbahujan ideological framework after the RSS/BJP started giving them visible space in the post-2014 elections is that OBC/SC/ST and minority unity has lost out. The SC/ST/OBC organisations for a long time worked with an ideology of integrating the minorities, particularly Muslims. But they slowly realised that the Muslims never came into that block during the whole post-Mandal phase. They were getting a share in Delhi power in the non-BJP alliance governments. During that whole period the Shudra-OBCs (there are Muslim OBCs in India) felt that the Congress was against them.
The Muslims also did not accept the Phule-Ambedkarite ideology. Perhaps for them it was not fitting into their Islamic spiritual ideological conservatism. The Muslims by and large remained with the Congress or some regional parties for electoral purposes and for their community welfare. Since the 2014 parliament elections, the RSS/BJP has given space to the OBCs which the Congress gave to Muslims. This is a major ideological shift and new identity and aspiration realisation. This strengthened the Hindutva bloc and therefore it became more and more anti-Muslim in particular and anti-minorities in general.
But the Hindutva forces are totally silent about caste-based inequalities within the Hindu religion. In that domain, Manudharma operates in the same classical mode.
In spite of several odds, Ambedkar managed to institutionalise the SC/ST reservation formula in the face of massive resistance from the Dwija leaders and intellectuals within the framework of the Constitution. This constitutional guarantee of reservation for SC/STS both in education, employment and also electoral representation led to the emergence of Dalit intellectual and political leaders. Periyar Ramasmy and the DK/DMK movements and politics kept the OBC reservation issue alive till 1990. Subsequently with the Mandal movement and implementation of the Mandal Commission Report by the V.P. Singh government in 1990, the OBC question took a serious turn, what Christophe Jaffrelot called a ‘silent revolution’.
But that revolution now revolves around Hindutva accommodation and co-option.
The neo-middle-class OBCs killed that revolutionary spirit by power sharing politics with the forces of Hindutva. This is a new phenomenon but the responsibility largely is that of the Congress and left-liberal silent Brahminism. Minorityism at the cost of OBC/SC/ST share in Delhi power in the name of multiculturalism landed India in the lap of Hindutva forces.
The Dalitbahujan ideology took a sharp turn after the Mandal movement and slipped into sharing power with Hindutva forces, which poses a threat to the present constitution and democracy, as the RSS has not given up its Manudharma ideology. The Dwija monopoly crony capital is acquiring massive private capital through the privatisation ideology of the RSS. The zero employment growth is a Hindutva growth.
A decisive change
The issue is not just reservation and representation in the elected bodies. Mandal changed the national, socio-political and economic structures quite decisively. This brought about a silent revolution in the life of OBC/Dalit/Adivasis, as it brought caste inequality to massive public and intellectual scrutiny. But the Mandir agenda killed the spirit of that revolution and the danger is that there is no national alternative to the Hindutva governing forces, as the Congress has lost direction and organisational ability.
Any amount of Muslim support to the Congress cannot match the OBC support base of the BJP.
The ‘class-not-caste’ intellectual paradigm of the left-liberals was attacked in every sphere of life. Anti-caste political mobilisation, in spite of the left-liberal and Hindutva resistance for some time immediately after Mandal movement and the OBC identity consciousness, has shaken the foundation of the Congress and left parties.
The saga of 75 years of Independence is a saga of struggles for the Dalitbhujan with the weapons handed down by Mahatma Phule, Periyar Ramasamy and Ambedkar. The real future of the nation depends on the very survival of this Constitution at least till the Centenary Celebration of Independence in 2047.
Being in my 70s, 25 years from now, I will not be there to see that great day of 100 years of Constitutional democracy. But I hope that democracy will survive, to ensure a good future for the children who are born and yet to be born from all castes, communities and religions till 2047 and beyond, for many more centuries to come.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. He is the author of Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Shudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy, and of Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution, The Shudras–Vision for New Path co-edited with Karthik Raja Kuruppusamy, Buffalo Nationalism and so on.