Having written a university assignment on the subject, I aim to analyze the impact of neoliberal policies of the state and how they further the caste-class divide, along with the class problem – the state’s role in creating an anti-backward caste community narrative, in this article. In this context, I will refer to Anand Teltumbde’s Atrocities by the State: Neoliberalism, Naxalism and Dalits and the acclaimed Marathi film Fandry on the issue of caste in Bharat, particularly in Maharashtra and Haryana.
Impact of neo-liberal policies on caste and class divides
Bharat’s adoption of neoliberal policies, on the principle of open competition in the global marketplace in its post-colonial context, was bound to deepen the caste and class divide. In 1991, with the backdrop of economic liberalization, the state chose to embrace World Bank and IMF’s economic policies in hopes of increasing the country’s foreign investment, with little regard for those embedded in the lowest occupational strata of the society.
Keeping aside the atrocities committed against Bharatiyas en masse, the landowning and educated general castes suffered relatively less in times of colonial rule, and some of them with the help of the state’s policies even furthered their wealth. The landless and uneducated castes on the other hand, now classified as SCs and STs, were further marginalized and forced into menial jobs, be it cleaning the sewers or catching pigs.
As illustrated in the movie Fandry, despite having enrolled in a school, and having the drive to get an education, Jambuwant aka Jabya to his close ones and the son of the ‘untouchable’ to others, went to get the homework questions for the days he had missed school. And why did he miss school? His family and old ailing parents needed him to work with them to provide for the family. And what does the state think of this? Ah, well! We have allowed him to obtain an education, alas if he doesn’t come, what can we do? This attitude of the state to formulate flashy policies in the name of ‘social welfare’ pays no heed to how someone like Jabya might still not be able to access this education
Anand Teltumbde argues that understanding the neoliberal ethos is important to understand the contemporary character of the Indian state, which is something I agree with. He theorizes that neoliberalism has led to the invention of theories like the ‘civilizational clash’ and the creation of the ‘phantom of Islamic extremism’ to justify the ‘war on terror’. Within India, he argues the label ‘Naxalite’ is used to ‘suppress any kind of dissent on the part of Dalits and Adivasis’, who are projected as ‘ideal phantoms’. This is hypothesized to be similar to the ‘demonization of Muslims as potential terrorists’ in the US-led ‘war on terror’.
This is a recurring theme seen in his paper, and is something I find problematic. In particular, first being his assertion that suspicion of Muslims is unfair despite the numerous terrorist carnages taking place, with a trend of it being justified by Islamic extremists and some Islamic nations, going as far as to harboring such transgressors. Second is the comparison of marginalized scheduled caste individuals in India with Muslims abroad and even within the Indian context. While the scheduled caste individuals have been marginalized and suppressed by feudal landholders and some state mechanisms, be it negligent neoliberalist economic policies or its ill-designed welfare schemes, the distinction in the experience and the type of issues faced by Muslims are vastly different than it is for the scheduled caste individual who cannot escape their caste identity even if they undergo a religious conversion, for it is embedded in their class identities by the present socio-political order. The Muslim community on the other hand has a complex class-caste hierarchy of its own.
The Class problem
While the state’s perceived hostility towards Naxalism and religious communalism is theorized by Teltumbde to be rooted in its ‘age-old caste prejudices against subordinated and oppressed groups’, I don’t appreciate his comparison of it to alleged ‘Hindu hatred towards Muslims as an expression of historical disgust towards the denigrated’. He blatantly oversimplifies that it was the ‘oppressed castes who converted to Islam to escape torture and humiliation within the Hindu fold’. He seems to be ignorant of our Mughal colonizers and all the forced conversions they drove throughout their colonial reign.
I will not nit-pick at his argument with every example of so-called upper-caste individuals converting but leave you with an account of my own. As a Kshatriya Jaat by caste, and from the north Indian state of Haryana, I come from the district of Hisar, a place I only saw for about a month every year during my summer vacations. Throughout the years, I could observe the increase in people around, with every vacation bringing more people to the area.
It was only recently that I was made aware of why this had been happening since the 1980s, a phenomenon conveniently swept under the rug for it contradicted the popular narrative used to muster votes. While Teltumbde talks about the ‘displacement of the backward classes by the state’, he is oblivious, knowingly or otherwise, to the situation in districts such as Nuh, Haryana. From the accounts of my parents, I learn of a certain politician in the 1980s who among his many endeavors, polarized the people living in the region of Nuh on a communal basis for his vote bank.
In the process of new districts being created, to appease the Muslim Mewati community of the region (also following the caste system and ranking as Kshatriya Jaats per them), a new district of Nuh was created in the year 2005. Since the 80s, this community, which also claims to be ‘marginalized’, has terrorized the Hindu community in the district, displacing the indigenous population to such an extent that in the 2011 census, 79.20% of the population in the district practiced Islam.
The systemic enabling of this gatekeeping by the state and the atrocities committed against the Hindu community here is something that you wouldn’t find in mainstream media for it is seldom reported and goes against our perception of class realities. It is only in recent years that a handful of digital news outlets have started covering this issue. While the Muslim Mewati (Meo) community is relatively poor and does have dismal literacy, such is the state of the rest of Haryana and does not warrant such a degree of appeasement.
Teltumbde believes that the Naxalite movement, which promises ‘revolutionary change’, is ‘denigrated due to its attraction to Adivasis and Dalits’. However, I do believe it is more to do with the threat to the safety and property of the public at large, which includes all classes, that fuels the anti-Naxalite mood.
‘Caste and class at the lowest rung of Indian society are indistinguishable’, says Teltumbde, and per him ‘India’s fundamental consciousness is a caste consciousness’. He argues, echoing critical race theory, that most of India’s problems, even those seemingly unrelated to caste, ‘can be traced back to this fundamental issue, because of how embedded it is into the social norms of the society, that we have come to accept it as our status quo’.
However, this seems so because our society is mostly rural and feudal, and it was drained for centuries by exploitative colonialism. Such colonial rule destroys the inner harmony of any native society and causes communities to turn against each other to please the colonial masters and just to survive in a ravaged economy. It can take decades for countries to recover from the physical drain of colonialism, and even more to recover from the mental scarring.
Also, people oppose Naxalism because we know how communist revolutions often end up – with one-party dictatorships and a new ruling elite destroying society to rectify perceived historical injustices, as seen in the purges carried out by Stalin and Mao.
The most effective way to end feudal structures, with the least amount of pain, has proved to be rapid industrialization and urbanization, accompanied by welfare measures such as universal education, healthcare, and equal opportunities in all occupations. This is how Europe rose to power (although it was built on the exploitation of colonies), and later Japan, Korea, and China.
While I acknowledge the caste and class realities of contemporary Indian society, and how embedded they seem to be in societ, and where Teltumbde is coming from as the son of a Dalit farmer, being victim to both the class and caste structures in place today, I do not appreciate Teltumbde’s oversimplification, generalization, negative essentialization of Hindu society, denial of Islamic radicalism, and general blame on the state wherever possible for its convenience.
I also acknowledge that it is my privilege and personal experience that has led me to my conclusion, but we can meet in the middle to accept the fact that while class and caste seem to be ubiquitous in Indian society today, and the state often forms structures to strengthen the class divides in the name of economic and welfare policies, be it in the form of resentment of those getting perpetual reservations in educational institutions and government jobs or the rich getting richer by gaming the system, but there have been many attempts by the government and well-meaning voluntary groups and reformers to break such structures.
We must also not dismiss the importance of further decolonizing as a society to rediscover the true harmony we are capable of.