“Dedicated to the good people of the United States as a token of admiration for their sublime, disinterested and self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro Slavery; and with an earnest desire, that my countrymen may take their noble example as their guide in the emancipation of their Sudra Brethren from the trammels of Brahmin thraldom.” With these words of dedication in his radical work Gulamgiri (Slavery), Jotiba Phule, the great Shudra social revolutionary, reminds us of an unfinished task. This unfinished task has now become bigger by the erasure of the social category, Shudra, from discourse and by the systematization of “Brahmin thraldom” in post-independent India through brahmanical nationalism. The Shudra identity has had the capacity to destroy the brahmanical social order.
In this age when “modernity” has failed to remove structural inequalities, can Shudra consciousness offer an alternative vision and future for the Shudras, especially those castes among them who have been categorized as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) by the government? While the category of Shudra status is not spoken of today, the government-given acronym OBC is, but the condition of these productive castes remains unchanged. At such a juncture, how can they radically forge organic solidarity and seriously challenge and fight the Dwij Hindutva hegemony?
I seek answers to the above questions in the ongoing farmers protest, which is teaching this country about the importance of a culture of labour as opposed to the culture of leisure of the Dwij castes. Throughout its rule, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has labelled its critics as anti-nationals. Now, we have come to a stage when the government is saying that the farmers, the food producers, are also anti-nationals. What does all this really mean?
The consumerist Hindutva philosophy does not invoke productivity at all levels of society. Even when its upholder assumes power, they endorse an anti-production ideology. This nation has inherited its production ethic from the Harappan Civilization, not from “Vedic civilization”. Yet, since Vedism came into operation, the Shudras have been the only producers, and the Dwij have only been consuming. The Shudra farmers are aware that only a labour-centred production consciousness can build a nation, not leisure or cow worship. By calling the farmers anti-nationals, the BJP government is baring its own anti-national and anti-human philosophy of leisure.
While writing my chapter (‘The Shudra Consciousness’) for the recently published volume The Shudras: Vision for a New Path (Penguin, New Delhi, 2021), I made an attempt to understand the “problem of consciousness” among the non-OBC and OBC Shudras. A few Shudra castes have tried to claim Kshatriya identity by conveniently forgetting that they have suffered by being denied spiritual, social and cultural equality as the least of the varnas. But an awakening of the Shudra consciousness, despite all the differences among the Shudra castes, can offer a possible alternative to the inegalitarian Hindutva ideology.
Benefiting from Phule’s legacy
The present mobilization of farmers and peasants (including the landless Dalit labourers) demands that the nation recognize the productive forces as its backbone and protect them by all means. Instead, the BJP government is bent on erasing from any discourse the human element of production while promoting “free market” and consumerism. What this would result in is the exploitation of productive forces and reformulating production relations, which would seriously affect the lives of the Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis who depend on productive labour for a living.
At this critical juncture, Jotiba Phule’s radical movement and writings help us understand how leisure and free market, which the proponents of Hindutva glorify, work against the production ethic that is inherent in the lives of the non-OBC and OBC Shudras. Phule endorsed the need for universal emancipatory political principles.
For instance, while countering the Dwij hegemony in all fields, Phule focused on the question of the peasantry. For Phule, peasants were the “shudratishudras”. He described in detail their poverty and proposed many welfare mechanisms in order to improve their condition. For example, he emphasized agricultural schools, the efficient role of the state in the improvement of agriculture, scientific education about agrarian production and operations and providing free school education to peasants’ children.
In the introduction to his book, Cultivator’s Whipcord, Phule talks about how three castes – Kunbis, Malis and Dhangars – originally survived on farming. Later, some among them diversified into growing vegetables and others into raising livestock. Brahmanism intervened, outlawing intermarriage among them, and they became different castes. Phule says that the three groups “must have been in the past a single Shudra farmer caste”. This shows how the caste system has divided the Shudra group, allowing the “bhatji-shetji” (Brahmin and Baniya) to control them.
In the introduction to Gulamgiri, Phule asks, “when the number of the Shudras and Atishudras is almost ten times that of the Brahman and Banias, how could the Brahmans have destroyed them?” He then explains how people are subjected to mental slavery by building a system that makes sure they can never unite.
Phule says, “One shrewd man can dominate the minds of ten ignorant people through persuasion; secondly, had these ten ignorant people been of one and the same opinion, they would not have allowed one person to dominate them. But since all of them held ten diverse opinions, the wise man had no problem in deceiving them. Similarly, the Brahmans came up with a devious and cunning scheme to keep the Shudras and Atishudras divided.” This is what the RSS’s top leaders have been doing for the last 96 years.
Phule says that “they realized that they [Brahmans] could sustain themselves and their domination only if they divided the Shudras and Atishudras and created mutual antagonisms between them … they wanted to exploit the labour of the Shudras and Atishudras to sustain not only their own luxurious lifestyle but also that of their future generations … they poisoned the minds of the Shudras against this group of people so much that the Shudras now consider them as untouchable … this is how the Brahmans have divided the Shudras into various castes, punished or rewarded them according to their loyalty, and established their control over them. As a result of this division the Shudras have lost their unity and have come to hold divergent opinions. This has given the Brahmans ample time to develop the system they wanted. There is a famous saying that when two fight, the third profits. The Brahmans thus divided the Shudras and the Atishudras and now are enjoying themselves at the cost of the Shudras.” This is exactly what the RSS-BJP is doing now. They are getting the Shudras, Dalit and Adivasis to turn against each other and also against the Muslims and Christians, thus dividing and ruling them all. The Congress Dwij used the same method in the name of secularism but to a lesser extent.
Given this condition of mental slavery among the Shudras, it is the need of the hour to reinvigorate the philosophy of production that is essential in taking the nation forward. The Shudra consciousness also involves identifying with this production ethic and taking on consumerism and the Dwij monopoly over the economy, politics and spirituality.
Through their sacred texts, the Brahmins systematized the philosophy and consciousness of “graded inequality”. Understanding the power and hegemony of philosophical literature, Dr B.R. Ambedkar maintains in his treatise Who Were the Shudras? that the Hindu scriptures “is a literature which is almost entirely the creation of the Brahmins. Secondly, its whole object is to sustain the superiority and privileges of the Brahmins against the non-Brahmins.”
Now, in order to constructively fight the inegalitarian Hindutva material and spiritual discourse, it is essential to textualize and disseminate the philosophy and consciousness of production. It is here that the ongoing farmer protests provides us with a possible cultural and political agenda to renew Shudra consciousness, let the non-OBC Shudras and OBC Shudras internalize the value of equality, who could then forge organic solidarity with other traditionally oppressed groups to fight Hindutva politics.
Farmers won’t be deceived again
By bringing together women farmers, landless Dalits and Sikhs, the farmers’ protest is challenging Brahmin-Bania hegemony. On 14 April 2021, on the occasion of Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, Rakesh Tikait, the Bharatiya Kisan Union leader who has become the face of the farmers’ protest, stated that this country should be saved from “Company Raj”. From day one, the protesting farmers attacked billionaires Ambani and Adani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s symbiotic relationship with them. (Earlier a party of Brahmins and small traders, the BJP seems to have transitioned into a Bania-Brahmin “big capital” party.)
The farmers are exposing the inhumanity of brahmanical nationalism as it seeks to increase consumerism and amass capital. By labelling the farmers as anti-nationals, the Dwij in government and in society are showing themselves to be anti-production. Under the liberalization of the economy from 1991 onwards, the productive castes have suffered the most and the purported democratization of capital has not translated into reality. Instead, what we have seen is the Brahmin-Bania monopolization of capital and a rampant increase in urban-rural disparities.
Recent history shows how Hindutva politics subverts the production ethic and the movements that demand recognition and redistribution. For example, the BKU spearheaded a farmers’ movement in Uttar Pradesh in the late 1980s demanding a more welfare-oriented State with respect to agriculture. But soon, in the early 1990s, the Ram Mandir movement would displace the farmers’ movement. The Sangh Parivar mobilized the Jats, especially those who were active in the farmers’ movement. It focused on the places where the BKU was active. This gradually set the Jats against the implementation of reservations recommended by the Mandal commission and also created anti-Muslim sentiments – which flared up in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. On the other hand, this mobilization for the building of the Mandir among Shudra castes took away their attention from their place in the economy. It was only later that they realized they have become victims of economic liberalization. Thus, of late, we have seen Jats demanding OBC status. Such is the impact of the Hindutva subversion on the lives of non-OBC and OBC Shudras.
But now the farmers’ movement is well aware of such tactics being used by the RSS-BJP. When the lower castes and backward castes were asserting their political rights in Uttar Pradesh in 1993-1994, the Hindu nationalists feared a possible “Shudra revolution” and appealed to their followers to rise up against it. Similarly, today, the RSS-BJP has been referring to the farmer’s protests as “caste rallies”.
Why wouldn’t they be caste rallies? When a particular caste has been traditionally allotted an occupation based on their Varna status and now their occupation is at stake, a movement will obviously mobilize that caste. But the farmers’ protest has not been confined to a particular caste or religion. It has brought together Jats, Sikhs, Mulsims, Dalits and others. Such mobilizations do the opposite of “when two fight, the third profits” maxim Phule used in Gulamgiri – that is, when two “unite”, the third loses. This is what the Shudra farmers are currently looking to achieve by exposing the anti-production nature of the Hindutva philosophy and politics.
This unity and solidarity across castes in the farmers’ protest can be seen as a rise in Shudra consciousness, which emphasizes the dignity of labour as a philosophical force and which can alter the existing hegemonic relations socially and politically. Rakesh Tikait was deeply hurt, and made it known publicly, too, when the farmers, especially Jats and Sikhs, were dubbed as traitors following the Republic Day march. But that only led to him and his brother garnering wider support for the movement.
RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat once said: “If someone is Hindu, he has to be patriotic, that will be his or her basic character and nature. At times you may have to awaken his or her patriotism, but he (Hindu) can never be anti-India”. The farmers have proven: “If someone is a farmer he/she is a nation builder; that will be his or her basic character and nature. At times you may have to awaken his or her consciousness, but the farmer can never be anti-national.”
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