Speaking at a function to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar in Chennai on March 24, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury said, “I’ll shout Jai Bhim, I’ll shout Lal Salaam and all the slogans will converge into one slogan that Bhagat Singh gave — that the communists give today – and that is, Inquilab Zindabad!” Yechury went on to say that the convergence of Ambedkar and Communist parties was necessary to build a new India and to “face the common enemy”.
Anand Teltumbde, who has written extensively on Dalit politics, says that “as an aspiration”, the coming together of the two traditions “is a positive development”, though historical discordance remains. “Slogans are only aspirations, and ideological issues that kept the two movements apart will need to be seriously studied to cement the relationship,” says Teltumbde. He adds that the “superficial understanding” among Indian Marxists about class made them ignore caste and that vested interests misinterpreted Ambedkar’s utterances on communists to keep the two movements apart. The youth, he believes, may be able to bridge the divide.
Ambedkar’s political journey had many moments where he collaborated closely with the Left. After the Poona Pact of 1932, which denied separate electorates for Dalits, Ambedkar turned a bitter critic of Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress. The Independent Labour Party (ILP), which Ambedkar organised in 1936, sought to be a worker-peasant party and had a programme to “advance the welfare of the labouring classes”. The ILP, unlike the socialists and communists, refused to accept the leadership of the Congress in the national movement but organised or were part of many mass struggles against tenancy and landlordism. A massive textile workers’ strike in Bombay in 1938 saw the ILP in alliance with the communists. The ILP had a broad social base across Maharashtra though its electoral successes were limited.
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In the 1940s, the ILP made way for the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF), conceived as an all-India party exclusively for Scheduled Castes. In her book Dalits and the Democratic Revolution, Gail Omvedt describes the formation of the SCF as a step backwards from the radicalism of the 1930s. “Its very formation meant giving up the effort to form a broad radical party of Dalit and caste Hindu workers and peasants for the different goal of uniting Dalits on an all-India level,” writes Omvedt.
The Ambedkarite movement has since then carried on with the political logic of the SCF to build a social and cultural universe for Dalits that’s independent of Hinduism. Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia wanted Ambedkar to engage with the Socialist Party in the mid 1950s and received a favourable response. However, Ambedkar passed away in 1956 and a possible collaboration between the two anti-caste ideologues never materialised.
Thereafter, the welfarist and patronage politics of the Congress blunted the radical edge of Ambedkarite politics by coopting leaders or splitting the movement. However, the fire was kept alive in the cultural space as literature, music and other forms of cultural production became the voice of Dalit political expression. The Dalit Panthers, which emerged as a political platform of Dalit writers, sought to redefine Dalit politics in the way ILP had — as a broad platform of the working class, though in a much more militant way. However, it later split into different groups.
The Dalit movement and the Left have shared a history of mutual suspicion and disagreements that dates back to pre-Independence days. The Left subordinated the problem of caste oppression to class struggle whereas Ambedkar foregrounded annihilation of caste in nation building. The Marxists dismissed any Dalit attempt at political assertion as ‘identity politics’.
In fact, Ambedkar’s writings on caste and social exploitation were ignored by Left ideologues who worked on similar issues. Attempts like building a communist party (Satyashodhak Communist Party) based on the teachings of Marx, Ambedkar and Phule by Sharad Patil were too few and had limited influence. Much of the intellectual and organisational activity in Dalit politics in the past decades has been focused on exclusive platforms than building political solidarities. This may not have helped the Dalits increase representation in legislatures but there is now a powerful Dalit presence in the cultural space, especially in literature and music. Violence against Dalits has not reduced, but the violence does not go uncontested.
Political scientist Badri Narayan argues that the rise of Hindutva “does not leave the two movements with any other option other than explores a common political language and space”. He points out that Kanshi Ram identified with the communist position on many issues, including land, and the BSP under Mayawati has been neutral towards the communist parties. On its part, the Left, especially the CPM, has started floating exclusive outfits to fight caste oppression and organise Dalits. In Andhra, the party had launched a campaign to fill up posts reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
For now, the solidarities between the two political streams are visible mainly only on university campuses. It will take a lot of hard work before the two can come together and become a viable political force.