Many positive aspects of the book have been written about and discussed so far, but this reading is an Ambedkarite critical approach.

Blue book cover of The Shudras Vision for a New Path
Features Review Tuesday, May 25, 2021 - 15:00

The Shudras as a subject of political, social and historical enquiry has never gained ground in the field of history writing or any other branch of social sciences disciplines in the Indian subcontinent. In this sense, the recent volume The Shudras: Vision for a New Path has once again brought the Shudras —  the largest agrarian-food producing community —  to the forefront of the debate. 

The book initiates a dialogue towards the subjectivity, identity, politics of the Shudras and their relevance in India today. But what is new in this venture is that these scholars and contributors are all from social science disciplines, and all of them are from the Shudra communities. The majority of them are engaged activists on the question of the emancipation of the Shudra-Ati-shudra and Adivasi communities.

The current volume is edited by the staunchest critique of Hindu nationalism and Hindutva politics of our time —  Prof. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, and Karthik Raja Karuppusamy, a Doctoral candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. The volume was published under the Rethinking India Series from Penguin and consists of a total of 11 chapters excluding the introduction.

In the editorial note, Kancha Ilaiah and Karthik Raja foreground the Shudra question in contemporary India with a brief note on the introduction of who are the Shudras. Further, it explores the Shudras’ lack of representation in various democratic institutions, knowledge production, bureaucracy and the state. The introduction to the idea and identity of the Shudra is essential as the volume claims to represent the identities of Shudras, their history and cultural consciousness. Many positive aspects of the book have been written about and discussed so far; my attempt in this reading is an Ambedkarite critical approach.

The question of the past of the shudra

Almost all the authors of the volume have engaged in or at least had some kind of visualisation of Shudra history. A noticeable similarity between Ambedkar’s Who Were the Shudras? and the current volume is the authors’ quest for the emancipation of the Shudra communities from the caste, class domination and oppression by the upper castes.

In the chapter “Production and Protection as Spirituality among Shudra”, the author Ram Shepherd Bheenaveni attempts to construct the Shudra identity and history in relation to the Indus Valley civilisation (p. 122). This has been a common trend among historians, to trace the origins of the Shudras to the Indus Valley; and secondly, they reduce the Shudra origin to that of the Aryan invasion which, according to them, is the basis of the Shudra enslavement.

Ambedkar, however, was surprised by this. Though the British developed the Aryan invasion theory due to their racism, the Brahmins scholars too overwhelmingly support this absurd theory to claim their supremacy over non-Brahmins. He went on to analyse why Brahmins support it, and said that they feel superior establishing their link to the Aryan invasion, which symbolises their eternal rule over the Shudra and Ati-shudra communities. Nationalists to Marxist Brahmin scholars, they equally espoused this theory. However, this narrative was also used by many non-Brahmin leaders in the later phase to reverse this supremacist narrative.

Ram Shepherd Bheenaveni not only claims that Aryan invasion is the result of Shudra enslavement, he goes on to claim that Krishna and Shiva are the ideals for the Shudras. Any historical enquiry will disprove that Krishna and his philosophy in the Gita are as late in their origin as the counter-revolution of the Brahmins. According to Ambedkar, the  reference to Krishna and the Gita cannot go beyond the era of counter-revolution of the Brahmins in ancient India, which would be roughly around 180BCE-600AD, let alone the 3000BCE of the Indus Valley civilisation.

According to Ambedkar, Krishna was a philosopher who espoused the Varna system and the Gita is the philosophic defense of it. Therefore, he can’t be held as an ideal for the Shudras just because some Yadavs trace their origins to him. Such claims will exclude the Dalits from the Shudra communities in their path of fighting for social justice. Therefore, any kind of claim or historical imagination of the oppressed must be inclusive towards other oppressed sections as has been practised by many anti-caste leaders.

The Shudra consciousness and future of the nation

According to the Shudra scholars, the future of the Indian nation is dependent on the rise and growth of the Shudra consciousness. They form the majority of India’s population. Pallikonda Manikanta in his chapter “The Shudra Consciousness and the Future of the Nation” has contextualised the Shudra enslavement in the face of a lack of emergence of the intellectual class among the Shudras. Further, all the authors have agreed on the point that untouchability and in many places caste atrocities, which are perpetrated against Dalits by Shudras in various part of country (pp. 143-145), will also disappear if the Shudras raise the consciousness of their socio-spiritual and educational slavery (see the chapter “Sociocultural Formation among Shudras”, pp. 136- 149). The authors have rightly pointed out that the RSS and BJP deliberately use this caste dividend factor and use the Shudra muscle power against the Dalit, Adivasi and sometimes, minority communities.

The nationalisation of Shudra politics is one of the important agendas of the book.  According to Kancha Ilaiah, the nationalisation of Shudra politics will save democracy in India from undemocratic and anti-constitutional forces. He criticises the Shudra leaders for their narrow state centric politics (chapter “Shudra and Democratic India”, p.36- 63). Further, Om Mahato and Sharad Yadav have also argued in their chapter, “The Importance of Shudra Politics in India” that the socialist politics of Baniya leaders such as Lohia have created backwardness among the Shudras, especially his glorification of the Hindi language (pp. 64-85). Apart from this agenda of nationalising Shudra politics and leadership, there is not much that has been offered or discussed as a political alternative for Bahujans.

Secondly, there is no critique against the narrow OBC caste politics that exists in many states led by powerful OBC castes such as Yadavs in the North. Their politics cannot be defined as OBC nor can it be defined as Shudra politics as it is often limited to a particular caste and lacks Bahujan consciousness or even Shudra consciousness for that matter.

The use and abuse of ‘Bahujan’

The idea of Bahujan was first coined by Manyavar Kanshiram in Indian politics in a universal sense, to unite and to denote SC, ST, OBCs and religious converted minorities under one platform to fight against Brahmanism and the electoral dominance of the Savarna.

Prachi Patil in her chapter “The Question of Bahujan Women” brings out the question of Shudra women and their lack of representation in various democratic institutions of government, including knowledge production. Apart from that, she and Sharad Yadav (in his chapter “The Importance of Shudra Politics in India”) have used Bahujan to define Shudra and OBC communities. This reductionism of the Bahujan concept is not new; Kancha Ilaiah throughout his writings has created a separate and new popular category which has become fancy among academics nowadays i.e., the Dalit-Bahujan. This is a big injustice to the founder of the Bahujan movement, Manyvar Kanshiram, and his legacy. It is wrong, ethically and epistemologically, for the scholars who bear the moral burden of uniting the oppressed classes in India, to misrepresent a fact. Kancha Ilaiah when he brought this category (in his famous book, Why I am not a Hindu) of Dalit-Bahujan was aware of the Bahujan identity and the politics of Manyavar Kanshiram. But he deliberately chose to use the Dalit-Bahujan category as he believed that Bahujan doesn’t specify the nature of the majority (Bahujan). He kept this idea ambiguous despite Ambedkarite critiques of his usage. Today ‘Dalit’ is being used to identify only ex-untouchables and ‘Bahujan’ for OBCs by many academics. This is totally in opposition to the idea of the Dalit as conceived by the Dalit Panthers and Bahujan of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

 Who really are the Shudras?

There is another methodological question that needs to be clarified by the authors or at least by the editors of the volume.  What are the methodological tools that are used to define castes such as Kamma, Reddy, Nair, and others as Shudras (p. 45, 117, 155)?

Consequently, almost all authors have used the idea of the Shudra without defining how they are Shudra in the Chaturvarnya order of social stratification. It is no doubt that this kind of discourse will exclude Dalit-Adivasi and the majority of oppressed Shudras from the equations of Shudra politics.

Further, if one makes a comparative reading of Ambedkar’s Who Were the Shudras? and The Shudras: Vision for a New Path, one would find a sharp difference. While Ambedkar was addressing the oppressed Shudras (see Ambedkar’s Who were the Shudras? introduction), the current volume addresses the dominant castes that are powerful, feudal and dominant in various regions of the country (p. 9, 117, 142,155). This is a dangerous turn to take in the politics of the oppressed. While it can appease them and create an impact in larger politics, it also will keep the majority of the oppressed Shudras in the mercy of those feudal castes.

The rhetoric of spiritual liberation or going back to the system?

Further, there is hardly any definition of the spiritual liberation of the Shudras. While reading the entire volume, it seems to me that the authors want to remain in the same religion and ideology of Hinduism which make them a slave of the system (see p. 59, 61). As Kancha Ilaiah writes in his chapter (p.59): Now, since the RSS is defining Shudras, OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis as Hindus, these groups should ask for priesthood rights in that religion. They should become interpreters of religious texts. They must take the philosophical leading position in Hinduism. Their priests must guide them to their ultimate authority.

It seems to be a departure from his earlier statements in Why I am not a Hindu? and Post-Hindu India. It is also evident that the authors have not paid attention to what Ambedkar said long back: “You cannot reform Hinduism you can only abandon it.”  

The usage of the identity ‘Shudra’ itself is questionable in the politics of emancipation, as the term ‘Shudra’ is a derogatory and imposed caste identity. Non-Brahmin leaders such as Periyar (EV Ramasamy) discarded the Shudra identity because of its derogatory, abusive and offensive character. How viable would it be to use such an imposed social identity is a question in itself.

If the idea of spiritual liberation and nationalisation of Shudra politics in relation to the Bahujan movement had been focused on more and thought out more deeply, the book would have presented a great vision. However, it ends up confusing the reader with rhetoric on spiritual liberation and spiritual equal rights etc.

Despite many of these disagreements with the volume, the intention of the editors and the authors cannot be questioned. It is evident that they have a vision and mission for the Shudra emancipation, a majority population which is being excluded from government institutions, and the political and intellectual debates of the country. However, there are methodological, political and intellectual issues with the book which we must be careful about when we engage and represent oppressed communities. Otherwise, such an effort might led to opposite direction of emancipation.

You can buy the book here.                                                    

Jitendra Suna, is a PhD scholar with Jawaharlal Nehru University. His doctoral research is on Ambedkar's idea of history. He is one of the founding members of BAPSA.

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