Written by Surinder S. Jodhka
‘Beneath the veneer of a modern, developing, superpower India remains a republic of caste’. These words from page 19 of the book clearly indicate the broad perspective and political orientation of the author. However, the book has not been written to champion the cause of caste-based identity politics of the Dalits and the OBCs. On the contrary, the author provides us with some of the sharpest critiques of the way politics and policy around caste has come to be articulated, the popular consensus across the mainstream political spectrum in the present day India, ranging from the left to the right or even among those advocating Dalit rights from within the Dalit communities. Perhaps the best example of this is the manner in which the persona of BR Ambedkar has come to be accepted and presented as a symbol of inclusive and democratic India by almost everyone, from the left to the right.
While “the caste question” is indeed the core concern of the book, the perspective it offers is that of change. How do we deal with the reality of caste and what is wrong with the ways in which it has been approached by political actors and those who see it as a source of exclusion and inequality in Indian society? In its 13 chapters, besides the Introduction, the author engages with a range of subjects, criticizes the existing wisdom(s) on it and offers alternative ways of approaching those questions. They range from the dialectics of caste and class to neo-liberalism, to Ambedkar and Ambedkarism, reservation policy and Swachh Bharat, to Maoism, Dalit protests and the manner in which mainstream political formations have dealt with the caste question.
Though the book is profoundly political, the chapters are based on a deep understanding of the history of the conceptual trajectories in each subject. The author engages as much with the social activists and political actors as with the social science scholarship on these subjects. The book has a foreword from Sunil Khinani and endorsements from some of the top scholars working on contemporary India including Gopal Guru, Jean Dreze and Christophe Jaffrelot. However, notwithstanding these advance accolades, its author is not a “mainstream social scientist”. He has the career of a “corporate guy” with degrees in engineering and management (IIM). Even though he moved from working for the corporate sector to a regular teaching job, professionally he remains located within the field of his expertise. Chapters of the book are shaped by his life as a public intellectual, primarily out of his columns in the Economic and Political Weekly.
Even though the book engages with a wide range of subjects, there is a clear perspective that flows through the chapters, a sense of purpose and politics. First and foremost is his take on the questions of caste and class, a subject that was also dear to Ambedkar. Ambedkar foregrounded the question of ‘caste’ in his writings and politics, and often scorned the Marxists for not giving due recognition to this obvious reality in their conceptions and politics. But he was acutely aware of the significance of ‘class’ as an overlapping ground reality, a source of inequality and Dalit deprivation. His disagreement with the communists was their inability to recognise that class in India was experienced within the framework of caste. Besides the everyday violence inflicted by the practice of untouchability, the Dalits were also poor because they did not have access to land and other assets that could provide a source of secure livelihood to them. Their “poverty” was sustained by the rigid system of caste hierarchy, reproduced through rituals and social norms.
Teltumbde is thus very critical of those who advocate Dalit rights today because they do not foreground this materiality of caste in their politics. Much of the present Dalit politics has come to be preoccupied with questions of culture, identity and representation. Even though identity and dignity or representation are not irrelevant as could become a source of claiming entitlements. However, contemporary Dalit activism seems to be almost exclusively confining itself to the issues of symbolic representation, an obsession with assertion of caste and community identities. Even someone like Kanshi Ram, and later Mayawati, who have been among the most astute and successful of Dalit politicians in their efforts to consolidate caste-community identities, mostly failed to foreground the question of land reforms and material entitlements to ordinary Dalits. A preoccupation with identity-based politics implies that its annihilation is no longer on the agenda. Such politics, Teltumbde argues, does not challenge the real foundations of caste.
Teltumbde also has very strong views on the reservation policy, which has come to be seen as the panacea for the ills of caste. He provides a scathing critique of the policy and shows how it has almost become counter productive. While reservations by itself may serve some purpose, preoccupation with it has meant abandonment of the annihilation project, or the concerns for the livelihood of a large majority of the Dalits who live in dire poverty in rural settlements or urban slums. At another level, he also feels the reservation policy has re-institutionalised caste through its inscription in the Constitution, making it a permanent feature of Indian political life. And this time with added stakes of those who have always been at the receiving end of the caste system.
What could be the way forward, beyond reservations, representation and identity politics. How could/should the champions of equality and democracy pursue the “annihilation project”?
For Teltumbde “caste” is not simply a question of identity and dignity. It must also be seen in its intersection with “class” and persistent economic disparities. Given that a large majority of the Dalits still live in rural areas and are desperately poor (more so than others), the first and foremost concern has to be securing their livelihoods through land reforms and other such initiatives that strengthen their economic situation. The second most important policy initiative has to be a complete overhauling of the education system, a shift to neighbourhood schools open to everyone, including the Dalits. For this to happen, India needs a proactive state, which, besides education, also ensures healthcare, sanitation and housing to all. How will this change come about? I suppose, this is not a question for Dalit politics alone. This has to be a question for all those who wish to see India as a substantive democracy, an inclusive society and a culture that provides dignity to everyone. A task that appears difficult, but not impossible.