The fifth volume in the 'Rethinking India Series' by Kancha Illaiah and team explores the marginalised status of Shudra castes.

A blue book cover showing the title Shudras Vision for a New Path with blurred images of the same on either side
Features Book excerpt Wednesday, February 24, 2021 - 15:11

The Importance of Shudra Politics in India 1

Sharad Yadav and Omprakash Mahato

Along with Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia devoted his life to combat caste-based injustice and inequality through a distinctly Indian version of socialism, which gave centrality to individual welfare and development. However, unlike other contemporary socialist leaders, it was not class that formed the basis of Dr Lohia’s understanding of inequality, but caste and gender. For him, ‘Caste restricts opportunity, restricted opportunity constricts ability, constricted ability further restricts opportunity, where caste prevails; opportunity and ability are restricted to ever-narrowing circles of the people.’  That is why Dr Lohia argued:

The fight for equality will necessarily have to mean a struggle against the entrenched ruling class and all that it stands for viz. caste (savarna), English education and wealth. Over 90 per cent of the ruling class in India belong to the upper castes and most of them possess both the other characteristics of wealth and English education. However, it is the element of caste that makes the whole situation almost hopelessly irredeemable.

But Lohia’s anti-English stand proved to be anti-Dalit Bahujan in later times as the Dwija castes educated their children in private English-medium schools, denying the benefit of that Indian and global language to Dalit Bahujans, in fact, to all Shudras including Jats, Yadavs, Gujjars, Patels and so on. However, we must see his arguments in the context of Nehruvian politics and their opposition to each other. The Nehruvian socialist model in which ‘each Five Year plan seems to be providing a fresh stream of five lakhs to a million people to the country’s ruling classes . . . Perhaps the most disastrous feature of the whole situation is the uplift of a limited section of backward and low castes into the ruling classes of the country’.

 This model of socialism has only given an illusion of class conflict between the bureaucratic class and the industrial or trading class. In contrast, both these classes belong to the upper castes. Their superficial conflict deceived the people, but in fact, at the ground level, it created more inequality in society. Lohia’s ‘Hindi– Hindustani’ campaign is now used by the RSS as ‘Hindu, Hindi and Hindustani’, while allowing English-medium education to proliferate in the private sector. The Hindi pride campaign forced the majority of north Indian Shudra/OBC/Dalit forces to remain immobile and underdeveloped. To eradicate inequality, Dr Lohia proposed first, the principle of legal equality where all men are equal before the law; second, the principle of political equality that called for, much like Ambedkar did, ‘one man, one vote’; and third, the principle of economic equality which raises everyone’s living standards.

He also consistently persuaded political parties to work for the removal of ‘the disinterestedness of the low caste people’ and for ‘breaking the hegemony of the savarnas’. Since the Dwija castes led most political parties, they could not be expected to usher in real equality. Of course, while he was sympathetic towards the lower castes, he was not an abolitionist. Lohia, having come from a Bania caste himself, stood between Ambedkar and Gandhi on the caste issue, while Nehru, being a secular Brahmin, refused to recognize the fault lines emerging out of the contradictions of the caste system. Lohia urged the ruling powers to ‘openly and frankly adopt a scheme of preferential opportunities to the mass of the people and to fight for the removal of distinctions based not only on wealth but also on cultural and social elements’.

 That is precisely why Lohia consistently argued that ‘equality is not a mere levelling-down process but also implies levelling up’. As an immediate measure, he suggested giving constitutional sanction to the scheme of preferential opportunities to the extent of 60 to 70 per cent of leadership posts in ‘politics, government services, the military, trade and industry to women and Sudras, Dalits, Adivasis and the backward castes and religious minorities’. But unfortunately, he did not visualize an education system with one common national language such as English as the medium of instruction for all communities, without which the oppressed castes could not become rulers. Lohia knew that historically Shudras were denied Sanskrit education. In the mid-nineteenth century itself, Mahatma Phule had stressed on the need for equal medium and content education. Lohia could be hailed as a progressive philosopher for his time. But he never recognized the great role of Ambedkar, who was his contemporary, and of Mahatma Phule and Periyar Ramasamy, who led the nation in different directions. This put him at a severe disadvantage when trying to make sense of and mount an effective fight against the well-entrenched caste system.

Lohia argued that people must reject the ‘old caste policy’ which created ‘vertical solidarity of the castes’, and instead adopt a ‘new caste policy’ of his ‘socialist model’ that sought to bring ‘horizontal solidarity’ of the backward classes, Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, women, peasants and the working class. This idea of horizontal solidarity shaped Mandal–Other Backward Classes (OBC) politics, which not only questioned caste inequalities but also advocated intersectional caste-based affirmative action. To this extent, though he came from a Bania background, Lohia was working within the anti-caste tradition. The notion of ‘horizontal solidarity’ (Bahujan identity) has become even more relevant given the unprecedented social, cultural, economic and political realities of India in these past few years. Because of Lohia, many Bania castes of north India enlisted themselves in the OBC list once the Mandal movement began to gain victories. Narendra Modi, a Gujarati from a lower-ranking ModhGhanchi business community, benefited from the OBC categorization and became prime minister of the nation with that identity. But he proved to be the opposite of Lohia in his political career, working as a member of the RSS which never openly fought for the causes of OBC communities during the Mandal movement or later. Lohia had a consistent stand on the negative role of the Indian caste system. Even now, pro-reservation political parties like the Samajwadi Party, the JD(U) and the RJD treat Lohia as their ideological guru. So far, Modi has not gone on record ideologically opposing the caste system.

Excerpted with permission from 'The Shudras: Vision for a new path' edited by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Karthik Raha Karuppasamy, published by Vintage Books, Penguin Random House India. This book is available on for Rs 500.

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