Monday, October 14, 2019

When India’s Lie Ends: A review of Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva by Anand Teltumbde

For those used to appreciating India as the largest democracy in the world, Anand Teltumbde’s recent work, Republic of Caste:Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva, will come as a rude shock. Teltumbde, a management professional, civil rights activist, and political analyst, articulates timely arguments that put paid to the decades-long publicity exercise that the Indian Republic has benefitted from. The book demonstrates how caste, and the violent exclusions it effects, is not only an on-going practice in the Republic, but is in fact hardwired into its operation.  While some scholars have more recently suggested that the observance of caste, especially in urban India, is declining, Teltumbde clarifies that while the ritualist aspects of casteist exclusion are indeed waning, this does not mean that caste is a spent force in India. On the contrary, as the book elaborates, caste has taken on new and terrifying aspects in contemporary India, finding new force and allies in the time of neo-liberalism.

If neo-liberalism rests, as Teltumbde demonstrates in the evocatively-titled chapter ‘The Education Mantra and the Exclusion Sutra’, on the privatisation of public goods, then the caste system, which rests on the appropriation of surplus of those at the bottom of the system is primordially suited to neo-liberalism. However, what the context of neo-liberalism– i.e. the corporate requirement of the Indian market and cheap labour, etc. – ensures is that now there is no criticism of the horrific culture of savarnas, nor any State attempt to reform it. This is what fuels the rise of Hindutva, which is gung-ho casteism of the Indian middle-classes, overwhelming constituted by dominant castes, rather than earlier apologetic casteism of the Congress.

But the renewed operation of caste in the functioning of the Indian Republic cannot be put down merely to the effects of this neoliberal time. Rather, ‘Reservations: A Spark and the Blaze’, the first chapter in book, demonstrates how, through the provision for caste-based reservations, the space for the legal operation of caste was written into the Constitution itself. Teltumbde affirms the need for a constitutional scheme of positive affirmation but suggests that the strategy adopted in the Constitution, which extended reservations to Tribes and Backward Classes, the latter being defined along caste lines has effectively reinforced caste identities. This, Teltumbde argues, is due, in large part, to the fact that the formulating of the Constitution and the schedules that identified groups able to claim reservation was merely an exercise that “served the Congress by exhibiting its commitment to social justice” (p. 51). As such, reservation now works “simply [as] a mechanism to ensure dalit participation [in the Republic], not a measure of justice” (p.59).

Refreshingly, Teltumbde does not hesitate questioning the major symbols that have taken on added significance in these troubled times. While there is no doubt that Teltumbde is committed to what the Indian Supreme Court would call constitutional values, he points to the largely undemocractic nature of the Constituent Assembly whose “members were indirectly elected via a system of proportional representation from the Congress-dominated provincial assemblies, which in turn had been elected in March 1946 on a restricted franchise consisting of about 20 to 24 per cent of the adult population” (p. 125); and the fact that the Constitution was “very largely a rehash of the India Act 1935” (p. 126). This is a bold argument at a time when many opponents and critics of the BJP government, including Dalit activists, base their opposition on a fierce defence of the Constitution.

There is a method to Teltumbde’s madness however, for he indicates that if we peel away the rhetoric and look critically at the Constitution, we would realise that:

Instead of being an instrument of change, it has, in operative terms, fortified the rule of the entrenched classes. The first-past-the-post election system, adopted as a method to effectuate democracy, is the primary mechanism that guarantees the perpetuation of the status quo. The structural absence of the feature of checks and balances between the three wings of the government – the legislature, executive and judiciary – considered most vital for any constitutional democracy, also furthers the same object. In India, the first two, i.e., the legislature and executive, collapse into a single oppressive apparatus that manifests in the nexus of police, bureaucracy and politicians at ground level, playing a maleficent role in every atrocity case. The only hope for ordinary people has been the judiciary, which for all its infirmities, has evinced a certain independence of mind from time to time. However, if one takes a view from the perspective of the exploited and the oppressed, its record is also pathetic. Barring some honourable exceptions, the courts have always been biased against the poor, tribals, dalits, and Muslims (p. 173).

Addressing those who uphold the Constitution as the result of Dr. Ambedkar’s efforts, Teltumbde points out that Ambedkar himself had disowned the Constitution soon after its adoption.  Discussing Ambedkar’s politics, Teltumbde stresses Ambedkar’s pragmatism, changing “opinions, decisions and actions” (p.27) to grapple with evolving situations and whose theory emerged not from a desire to craft theory, but was “the by-product of practical struggles that he waged…” (pp. 140-1). This appreciation of Ambedkar, which suggests taking his concerns as a starting point for our politics, offers a route away from contemporary attempt to deify Ambedkar which Teltumbde argues only aids Hindu nationalist attempts at controlling the “terms on which people engage with him, replacing the uncompromising thinker with a deified object of rituals, a saffron Ambedkar, a handy Trojan horse for gharwapsi” (p. 268).

As one would expect from someone who engages with the work of Ambedkar, Teltumbde is critical of Gandhi. But this critique could be sharper. Right in the first chapter, Teltumbde has the opportunity to point out that it was Gandhi’s stubborn refusal to allow for a separate electorate for the depressed classes, and his desire to constitute a Hindu majority that caste is at the beating heart of the Indian Republic. It is only in the twelfth chapter that he comes close to pointing this out, that thanks to the Poona Pact “The entire scheme of political empowerment of dalits conceived by Ambedkar was thus reversed to become its opposite, political enslavement” (p. 373), and this too is not satisfactorily articulated.

While a critical contribution to the appreciation of Indian politics, one cannot help feeling that the book lacks a coherent and systematic development of an argument. For example, the term Ambedkarite consciousness in used in the fifth chapter, even though criticised in an earlier chapter.  In an early part of the book he argues that the Green Revolution resulted in the “the erosion of an ethos of economic interdependence in the countryside” (p. 157), postulating later that “Economic interdependence is an aspect of liberty and its absence, as a corollary, spells slavery” (p. 211), dangerously suggesting the autonomous village as an arcadian paradise. These, inconsistencies probably result from the fact that the book is a collection of essays previously published in the author’s monthly column in the Economic and Political Weekly. A little more attention to the text would have gone a long way in making a more forceful argument.

The book is also marked, at times, by a bitterness, which is unsurprising given that Teltumbde admits to being misunderstood by many. The misunderstanding arises from Teltumbde’s challenging the prevailing understanding of both the Dalit and the left movements, when he sees caste and class as intertwined. There will be no resolution, he argues, to the pervasiveness of caste in the operation of the Indian republic until Indian citizens are able to follow Ambedkar’s lead in recognising the violence of caste but challenging it through harnessing of the language of class. Teltumbde’s argument for creating a class identity among castes comes out clearly when he analyzes the reasons for the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) limited success. Harshly critical of the forging of caste identities by groups such as the BSP, Teltumbde warns that “Castes are inherently divisive, they can never integrate. Nor can they be equalized” (p.366) and that the BSP’s formula of “caste-based coalition ends up deepening casteism – in ways antithetical to any social revolution” (p.364). He argues that the BSP’s formula could only be short-lived and tied to the context of Uttar Pradesh. Further, as the history of the BSP evidences, in the absence of a class agenda, the manipulative tactics would work against social revolution to privilege an elite within the party.

While critical of the functioning of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati of the BSP, Teltumbde also points out that their pragmatic politics are products of the Indian electoral democracy, where there is a grotesque and cynical use of the system to further feudal power. Their crudeness only highlights the rot of the system, for “when corruption is traced to a dalit, it gets amplified; when non-dalits engage in it, corruption appears muted or is simply dismissed as being of little consequence”(p.251).

The Republic of Caste makes for depressing and disturbing reading. The varied examples of castiesm that Teltumbde assembles fall like one bludgeon after another, revealing the quotidian violence that is the foundation of the Indian state. Is there a route out of this rot? Perhaps; Teltumbde suggests the rejection of mobilization along caste-based identities, the embrace of ethical politics, and above all revolution. At the close of the fifth chapter, he rightly observes that “Middle class attempts at tweaking the system appear trivial and ill-judged” (p. 201) an analysis that continues in his very perceptive analysis of the Aam Aadmi Party in the final chapter, and that it is only the Maoists who with their agenda of revolution “appear to have comprehended the dimension of the problem”. But the revolution he proposes is not necessarily the violent overthrow of the state. Rather, it revolves around the revolutionary – or dramatic – change in economic relations. In chapter six, where he lauds the movement in Una, Gujarat, he is clear that changing patterns of land ownership, where Dalits gain access to productive land, instead of the usual waste land, is at the heart of the revolutionary change he proposes.

Placed at the current moment, where the possibility of ethical politics in the face of contemporary Indian politics is remote, if not a joke, it appears that there is no hope in electoral politics and the only possible road to revolution would be to return to the moment before Gandhi wrecked the possibility of double electorates, i.e. to rework the Indian electoral system.

Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva
By Anand Teltumbde
Navayana, 2018, New Delhi, 432 pp., Rs 600 (HB)
ISBN 978-81-89059-84-2 

(A version of this text was first published in Biblio: A Review of Books Jan -Mar 2019)

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