OBC Literature – to fight cultural dominance

Investigating the historicity and the reasons of brahmanical dominance, Omprakash Kashyap argues that OBC Literature is indispensable for waging a battle against cultural dominance

Adulteration is bad. Knowledge can help us expose all adulterations and that is why, in this country, the knowledgeable and the wise have always been respected. Hundreds of books are devoted to singing paeans to them and to their contributions. But unfortunately, it is still knowledge that is the most adulterated here. Some wise men have tampered with knowledge in the name of caste, regionalism and nationalism with such finesse that separating the truth from untruth has become a daunting task – especially for those who value the human right to knowledge and want to use knowledge for the welfare of humanity.

indian-farmerThe title of this article raises hundreds of questions. It will give one more handy issue to the reactionaries. “Dalit Literature was already there, now OBC Literature too! Why? Who are these people bent on dividing the nation? They should realize that literature and litterateurs have no caste – humanity is their caste. These dim-witted people want to parcel out literature. They are spreading casteism. Shame on them!” This will be the reaction of those who are making merry because of the caste system, those who abhor any change, those who are steeped in casteism cloaked in religion and nationalism, those who think they are superior to others, those who want to take our society a thousand years backwards, whatever it takes. Coincidentally, the present times are favourable to them and that is why their tone has become aggressive.

It is not that their criticism is entirely without basis. It is true that the OBCs are a cluster of backward castes, which differ from state to state. Governments can have their own classifications but literature, by definition, is inclusive. How is it possible that the author of a particular caste is considered an OBC writer in a particular state but is placed outside the pale of the OBC Literature in other states? If this is done, won’t it give a boost to casteism? Then, how will you plead not guilty to the charge of spreading casteism, especially when fighting casteism is one of the foremost duties of literature and litterateurs? But the same problems confront Dalit literature too. Why are these questions not raised vis-à-vis Dalit Literature? It is because instead of caste, Dalit Literature talks about a class that has been a victim of apathy and oppression since time immemorial. It is as the literature of a class that Dalit Literature brings to the centre the discourse of the struggle of crores of people for their identity and rights. OBCs are also a class but due to the caste loyalties of its members, it was never viewed as such. The OBCs have suffered class discrimination as much as Dalits have. The restrictions imposed on “Antyajs” in Brahmin scriptures were the same as those imposed on Shudras. The class difference between the two was created only to entrust different responsibilities to them.

The term OBC is officialese and does not create the same impression as “Dalit”. The word “Dalit” evokes images of oppressed castes and the oppressor classes and castes. So, should the quest for delineating OBC Literature be aborted? But that would be nipping in the bud its potential of kick-starting a discourse on the issues that are of concern to half of India’s population. To make it a success, it is necessary to convince the people of these castes that they are a distinct class. That can be done only if the word “OBC Literature” conjures up images of class exploitation and oppression and their miseries, along with the struggles waged to fight this state of affairs – not only in the eyes of those who knowingly or unknowingly are responsible for their miseries but also in the eyes of those who have given up the attempts to change their fate, those who have come to believe that “backwardness” is their past, present and future.

Literature can and will do this but before that, it needs to overcome a host of external and internal challenges. The Dalit movement has a long history. The Sant tradition has been one of its backers. The Dalit movement is also about socially backward classes and in that sense, it embraced these classes too but due to lack of education and class-consciousness, the OBCs kept away from the Dalit movement. They forgot that the classes that are considered “backward” today had given a string of forward-thinking thinkers to this country like Raikva, Purna Kashyap, Makkali Ghoshal, Sati, Jautsa, Ajit Keshankbali, Mahidas, Upali and Mahamoggalayan. The problem was a lack of people who could conserve this knowledge and take the tradition forward. The result was that we are unaware of the contribution or even the names of these thinkers who lived from the pre-Vedic to the Buddhist eras. The coalition of power and religion did everything it could to obliterate the knowledge that sought to challenge their tradition. These thinkers find a fleeting mention in the scriptures of Buddhism and Jainism – the two religions born out of the opposition to Brahmanical Hinduism. But since the founders of both these religions were Kshatriyas, the Brahmins preserved their philosophy. They had their own class interests too. Brahmin authors sought to brahmanize Buddhism. In Deeghnicay, Buddha opposes sorcery, hypnotism, etc but in subsequent Buddhist works, he is himself involved in these practices. Declaring Buddha an incarnation of Vishnu was also a part of this conspiracy.

potterFor want of class-consciousness, the OBCs behaved with the Dalits just as the savarnas behaved with them. This hurt the OBCs more than it did the Dalits. The Dalits were quick to realize that no messiah would descend from the heavens to emancipate them. In keeping with the maxim “App Depo Bhav”, they realized that they would have to do themselves whatever needed to be done. But their slavish mentality meant that the OBCs kept looking to the forward castes for their emancipation. Despite being in a majority, they dissipated their energies on inter-caste struggles. The first challenge thus is to make the authors and the readers realize that OBC is not a conglomeration of castes but a class – a class that includes artisans and toilers who embellished the human civilization with their skills and labour. For this, they have to sacrifice both their comfort and respect. The Dalits have been greater victims of Brahmanism than the OBCs and so the Dalits are their real comrades-in-arms in their battle against caste and domination.

It is often said that capitalism deprives the workers and artisans of their right to determine the price of their labour and exploits them by paying them only subsistence wages. It is thus presumed that exploitation of workers and artisans is the product of a modern, liberalized economy. The truth, however, is something else. Competition ensures that in a modern economy, these sections can negotiate the price of their labour to some extent and, even if limited, options are available to them. They can approach the courts if they face injustice. In India, it was not capitalism that deprived the workers of the right to fix the price of their labour – the caste system did it centuries ago in the name of division of labour. The imagery of “Virat Purush” exemplifies this. It places intellectual work on a higher pedestal than manual work. This imagery also seems to suggest that those at the top of the pyramid use their intellectual prowess for the welfare of all. Plato had envisaged an ideal state ruled by philosopher-kings in his Republic. His disciple Aristotle was also a great philosopher. Aristotle believed that morality was an essential constituent of the state but he rejected his mentor’s idea of a state ruled by philosophers as being impractical. Indians take great pride in their philosophical tradition. But here, philosophy was either confined to books or was left for those who lived in jungles to practise. It was religion that ruled society. The intellectual and religious power centres were indistinguishable. Their emphasis was on faith, making it impossible to criticize religion or even question it. Those who dared to do it were branded as Shudras and anti-religion. The Brahmins, who were at the helm of society, used their wisdom and their knowledge only to serve their own interests. They had no rivals. They interpreted theories in their own way and even distorted the scriptures written by their own ancestors. The priests had great influence over the people. They could have turned the people against the kings any day, so even the kings avoided rubbing them the wrong way.

To perpetuate their rule, it became obligatory for the kings to keep the priestly class in good humour. That reflected in the remuneration and facilities offered to the priests. Entire villages were donated to priests and Brahmins. In the Mauryan Empire, the priests were paid 48,000 panas as monthly wages, which was equivalent to what the generals and the Amatyas were paid. In comparison, the skilled artisans were paid 120 panas per month. This can give us an idea of the pathetic condition of the artisans – who were Shudras – in the Varna system. This was done when the artisans and the workers were the mainstay of the state’s finances and prosperity. Hence, there is a long history of treating manual labour with contempt and as inferior to intellectual work. Chanakya’s Arthashastra and Manusmriti propounded a system in which those on the lowest rung of the Varna system could never become economically self-reliant. If they became self-reliant, where would the slave-cum-servants come from? How would they work day and night for their Brahmin and Kshatriya masters in return for food or for minimal wages? Manusmriti says that Brahmins have the right to ensure that that Shudras are never able to amass wealth. If a Shudra somehow manages to accumulate wealth, the Brahmins have a right to forcibly seize it. Arthashastra suggests that the Brahmins and Kshatriyas should work in tandem to achieve this objective. It says that the interests of the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas are inter-linked. “Brahmins cannot grow without the help of Kshatriyas and Kshatriyas cannot progress without the help of Brahmins. Only if they work together can they be happy in this and the other world.” (Manusmriti 9/322) This symbiotic relationship, which helped both the classes retain their position at the helm, led to the creation of the mythology in which three principal deities keep showering praises on one another and the common man is ever confused.

india-weaverThe Brahmin scriptures have prescriptions set in stone for keeping the Shudras in perpetual poverty and economically and socially dependent. But these prescriptions were changed in keeping with the changing needs. The older Brahmins scriptures did not allow the Shudras arm themselves. It was believed that the Brahmins were the ablest of all castes. “In the army, Vaishyas should be preferred over Shudras, Kshatriyas over Vaishyas and Brahmins over Kshatriyas (Arthashastra, 9/2/21). Kautilya’s advice was in consonance with the brahmanical teachings. However, the Mauryan Empire had to face Greek invasions. The Kshatriyas, who frittered away their energies on internecine battles, could not be relied upon for protecting the country from the foreign invaders. Brahmins had begun to love the comforts of life, engaged, as they were, only in priestly pursuits. So, the rules banning Shudras from joining battles were relaxed. Kautilya’s logic for keeping Brahmins away from battles is both bizarre and laughable. He says Brahmins, by nature, are large-hearted and forgiving. So, the enemy may win them over “by prostrating before them in the battlefield”. (Arthashastra 9/2/23). Had tradition allowed him to, Kautilya would have probably straightaway said that fighting wars was not the duty of the Brahmins, but since he was well aware of the weaknesses of the Brahmins, he allowed the recruitment of Shudras in the army citing exigencies of the times. The arguments he uses are clever. “Instead of the polite Brahmins, it is better to recruit Kshatriyas in the army. Vaishyas and Shudras should also be recruited because of their higher numbers.” (Arthashastra 9/2/24). Contrary to Kautilya’s construct of Brahmins being “large-hearted, polite and forgiving”, the Vedas and other scriptures are replete with instances of Brahmins’ cruelty in wars. Even a Brahmin like Parshuram is glorified, who, it is said, had made the Earth Kshatriya-free many a time. Despite all these tales of “valour” of the Brahmins, if Kautilya wanted to keep them away from the battlefield, it could be owing to two reasons – one, the flirtations of Brahmins with the ruling class and their preoccupation with priestly works might have led to them losing their battle skills. Two, he did not want to pit the Brahmins against the trained Greek army and thought that the Shudras were expendable. In Arthashastra (5/2/38), he advises the kings that if the royal treasury is short of funds, “The king should seize the wealth of “Pashand Sanghas” (possibly Buddhist Sanghas) and the wealth of the temples not being used by Kshatriyas” (Marx Aur Pichchde Hue Samaj, Dr Ramvilas Sharma, p 195). He further writes, “The Devtadhyaksha will gather and seize the wealth of temples and fortresses and seize it” (ibid). Kautilya was well aware that it would be difficult to persuade the Brahmins to capture the wealth of temples and of Buddhist Sanghas, so his advice was to build an army of Vaishyas and Shudras to do this job. This would save the Brahmins from indulging in an apparently unpopular exercise, besides preserving their image as forgiving, humble and ascetic men. Needless to say, this image of the Brahmins, built by Kautilya, helped them remain close to the ruling classes.

Kautilya was the proponent of a strong kingdom and that is why, to protect it, he allowed recruitment of Shudras in the army, and to improve its finances, he has no objection to the seizure of wealth of the temples. But Manu was not as liberal. Manu was more fearful of the Shudras and the Vaishyas than Kautilya. He feared that if the Shudras were allowed to fight battles, they could gain proficiency in warfare and, being numerically superior to the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas, might easily make the latter bite the dust. So, he framed strict rules under the Varnashram system, obviating any such possibility. This sealed the fate of the Vaishyas and the Shudras for centuries to come.

But all this does not mean that the Shudras accepted Manu’s constructs without demur and that there was no opposition to the Varnashram system. Of course, Brahmins’ scriptures do not even remotely refer to any resistance to this system and reading them, one get the impression that the Shudras had quietly accepted it. The fact is that even at that time, a big section of the people were resisting Brahmanism, or rather, Brahmanism had limited influence.

In his Brahmajaalsutta, Buddha talks about 62 contemporary philosophical schools. These include at least four atheistic schools. Jain Prakrit text Sutrakritangsutt refers to 363 philosophical schools, which include 183 atheistic, 84 Akriyavadi, 67 Sanshayvadi and 32 Vainayik (Ajivak) (Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, Kultisa Nand Jaytilake, p 116). Thus, it is clear that the philosophical schools based on Shraman traditions far outnumbered the others. A big section of the population had no faith in Brahmanism. That was why the Lokayat, Charvak, Ajivak, Shraman, Buddhist and Jain philosophies gained pre-eminence in the times that followed. The Shantiparva (59/97) of the Mahabharata talks about the Mlechchas and the Nishads, who lived in mountains and forests, challenging the Varna system. According to Basham, the Ajivaks inhabited almost all the important towns on the banks of the Ganga. Ajivaks influenced all sections of society, especially the flourishing businessmen community (A.L. Basham, History and Doctrine of Ajivaks, p 133-134). Jain scriptures talk of a potter called Sadalputta, who lived in Polaspur. He was the chieftain of 500 potter families. He was the owner of a fleet of boats that plied up and down the Ganga. The Jain and Buddhist texts also talked of Mahshresthi Kunkolye, the millionaire resident of Kampilyapur. He had mounds of gold and innumerable cattle. He was also a supporter of the Ajivaks. There is a lot more historical evidence to show that before the rise of Brahmanism, most of the Shudras were non-believers. A section of them were drawn towards Buddhism and Jainism in the times that followed.

Panchvish Brahman is one of the early brahmanical texts. It says that Shudras belonged to a society that did not believe in the existence of god and did not hold yagnas but owned a large number of cattle. (Panchvish Brahman, 6/12). Basham talks of a potter family that rises against the excesses of its employer. In that era, quitting the job was the most popular form of protest of the Shudra artisans and workers. A Jataka Katha says that a family of woodcutters was paid in advance for some job. For some reason, they could not carry out the assignment. When pressure was mounted on them, they secretively built a boat and, one night, escaped from their home. They sailed down the Ganga till they reached the seas and continued to sail till they found a fertile island. (Shudron Ka Pracheen Itihaas, Ramsharan Sharma, p 130). Manu calls the Buddhists and others who opposed the Varnashram system “Vrishal” (Shudra). According to Basham, the Vishnupurana was written in the Guptan period. By that time, the Ajivaks had been branded as Shudras. The scripture clearly shows that the Brahmins had branded as Shudras every individual and community that challenged the superiority of their religion.

india-artisanAttaching more credibility to what is said or believed by those close to people in power is a human weakness, from which the Brahmins immensely benefited. Buddha and Mahavira also understood that people follow their rulers. That was why they used the kings to propagate their religion and philosophy. Buddha was opposed to caste-based inequality but he was not particularly against the system of slavery and the class-based inequalities. All his sermons were either delivered at the initiative of one or the other king or in the garden of some Shresthi. Brahmins always had a privileged position and were close to the kings and the rulers. They tried as much as they could to keep non-Brahmins away from the centres of power. The Ramayana talks about Sita’s Agripariksha. Years ago, I had read somewhere about a pond in central India which was used to test the worth of new books. Instead of reading the manuscript, it was dumped in the pond. If it sank, it was considered worthless. More than 5,000 manuscripts were consigned to the pond in this way. Later, the pond was filled up, burying the books forever. This is an example of the intolerance of the priestly class to new ideas. Referring to the mishmash of ideas in the Puranas and the epics, Hegel wrote, “Indians have a long row of kings and innumerable gods and goddesses but none are above reproach.”

Brahmins have always considered their religion greater than the country. They had no problem with any ruler who supported their privileges and acknowledged their place at the top of the pyramid – no matter how ruinous his rule was for the people at large. Almost all foreign invaders took advantage of this weakness of Brahmins, who were said to be the brain of the Hindu community. The Muslim invaders had entered India flying the banner of Islam but they developed such a liking for this land that they decided to settle here. At the time, instead of fighting the invaders, the Brahmins thought it prudent to protect their own position. When Aurangzeb started getting tough on them, they turned against him, but instead of arousing the conscience of fellow countrymen, they welcomed the East India Company’s annexation of Bengal. Their opportunism ensured that they remained at the top of Indian society for a long time. Macaulay challenged their domination by drawing up a common criminal code for all Indians in 1861. That is why Macaulay became an eyesore for them.

This discussion may sound irrelevant but its objective is to show that the main challenge before OBC Literature is to break free from cultural domination. The battle against cultural dominance is more important and greater than the political battle. India now has a democratic set-up and due to their numbers, the OBCs have emerged as a formidable political force. To grab and retain power, they are indulging in all sorts of stunts. But it is very important to realize that no social change is possible without breaking the cultural domination. The shackles of caste are loosening but a substantial number of people in the country are still trapped in a centuries-old mindset. They still think that Manu’s code of conduct is the ideal. They might not say it in so many words but their endeavour is to drag the country into ancient times. Since these people are adept in the art of concealing their real motives, identifying and neutralizing them is easier said than done. So, the challenges before the OBC litterateurs are formidable and they will have to make a sustained effort to overcome these challenges. They will have to persuade their comrades to join this new stream of literature. At the same time, they will have to fight the factors – including caste and religion – that have kept them backward. They will have to retain the humanistic nature of literature.

They will have to understand that Hinduism and caste feed on one another, that religion is just a business for the Brahmins, just as milking cattle is the business of Gwalas, making shoes of the Mochis and grazing cattle of the Gadarias. With experience, each of these castes, including the Brahmins, get better at their work. But the priestly class does not believe in change. For it, what is ancient is sacred and inviolable. Even the thought of changing it is blasphemous. Brahmins keep on harking back to the past. Religion makes the people adhere to it by invoking fear. The Brahmins have linked the sacred with the mythical to prove what is ancient is everlasting and to ensure that the people are mortally afraid of going against the religion. They propagate the theory that the Brahmins have a monopoly over knowledge, that they are the thinkers and that only they can show the right path to society. Never in history have the Brahmins had a monopoly over knowledge, though they would like us to believe that it was so.

What is Hindi literature except a collection of writings by Brahmins aimed at protecting and preserving their interests? Barring some honourable exceptions, most of the Brahmin writers are diehard casteists. They have been subjecting society to a stiff dose of casteism. If OBC litterateurs start a dialogue with the Brahmins in their capacity as member of this class, they will never be taken seriously because for the Brahmins, the OBCs are nothing more that the lowly Shudras. But if the OBC writers project themselves as representatives of one-half of India and weave the dreams and struggles of this biggest chunk of population in their works, one day, the Brahmins will have to take this stream of literature seriously. But this is easier said than done. The problem is not that certain castes have dominated Hindi literature for centuries and that a majority of Indians consider their writings as the real literature. The problem is that the exploited three-fourths have become so conditioned that they think that their emancipation lies in turning exploiters. The only way to protect oneself from this trap is to ensure that the OBC litterateurs are perfectly democratic in their writings and in their conduct.

OBC Literature might only be a concept as of now but it is not a new concept. Neither will it have to be built from scratch. It has always been a part of Indian civilization and culture. The OBC Literature will have to hunt for and collect the traditional literary works and will have to reinterpret them in keeping with the interests of the OBCs. Some questions are bound to rise. For instance, what is the basis of OBC Literature? What will the touchstone of its aesthetics? Like Dalit Literature, will OBC literature also shut the doors on non-OBCs? The OBC authors will have to find answers to these questions. Casteism is one of the evils that literature has been fighting. Hence, it will be better not to divide literature on the basis of caste. But what is even more important is that society should not be divided on the basis of caste. It is not possible for caste to continue to be the norm in society but disappear from literature. One of the rejoinders to the charge of OBC Literature being casteist can be that the OBCs (Shudras) were not the creators of this system. They were always trying to break free from it.

If they want, the OBC writers can name this struggle a battle against cultural domination.


For a deeper understanding of Bahujan literature, see Forward Press Books’ The Case for Bahujan Literature. The book is available both in English and Hindi. Contact The Marginalised, Delhi (mobile: 968527911).

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The Case for Bahujan Literature (English edition), Bahujan Sahitya ki Prastavana (Hindi edition)

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The Case for Bahujan Literature (English edition),  Bahujan Sahitya ki Prastavana (Hindi edition)

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