A Voice from India: Race, Caste and the Limits of Class Reductionism

Lalan Kishor Singh

Summary: A report by an Indian factory worker on how the struggles against racism and attacks on immigrants call for developing a conception of socialism and communism that avoids the pitfall of twentieth century Marxism. It is translated from Hindi by Arvind Ghosh — Editors

The movement that rose in response to the killing of George Floyd by the police did not come as a gift from a party or an organization but rather developed as a spontaneous self-organized movement in which the Black masses have played a vanguard role. Racism is very much a part of American society and the manner in which this movement became a united struggle of the Black as well as white masses with extensive participation of workers is truly inspiring! We put forward here a brief report on the condition of the working class in India and the recent movements that have taken place here before and during the lockdown period.


The movement against CAA, NRC, NPR

The movement in India against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and National Population Register (NPR) started a few months before the Lockdown in India which was declared on March, 25, 2020. Although CAA, NRC and NPR were specifically targeted against the Muslims in order to turn them into second class citizens and thus serve the neo-fascist Hindutva agenda of the ruling party, these were also directed against the poor sections of the working class to make them into surplus population in order to intensify the exploitation of the entire working class.

The movement against CAA, NRC and NPR was initiated by Muslim women of Shaheen Bag, Delhi. Women in large numbers came out of their homes and gathered at the Shaheen Bag area on 15th December, 2019 for an indefinite 24-hour sit-in protest which continued for month. Several attempts to disperse them by the police ended in failure and the militancy of these women protesters came as a surprise to the authorities as well as the political parties, while the movement spread to scores of other cities in India which included Lucknow, Kolkata, Patna, and Mumbai among others. It is interesting to note that like the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement this movement in India too was not led by any party or organization.

The Majority of the participants at Shaheen Bag belong to the working class and are housewives. They were soon joined by the students of different universities and were in the process of spreading to different working-class areas of Delhi. Several attempts were made by the Central Government to divide as well as disorient the movement. Hindu-Muslim riots were organized in Delhi during Trump’s visit to India, in which many innocent people of Delhi lost their lives. But nothing could stop or disorient the movement from its demands that CAA, NRC and NPR be scrapped! The movement was halted only when taking advantage of the Pandemic and the Lockdown, it used force to evict the protesters from Shaheen Bag and other places all over India.


The movement of the migrant workers

With the declaration of the lockdown millions of migrant workers who were thrown out of their jobs came out into the streets and demanded that transportation be arranged for them to return home. When this was not done, they started walking towards their homes hundreds, and sometimes a thousand km away from their place of work. The administration could not stop their march in spite of the makeshift arrangements made for their shelter and food at some places. The workers resorted to protest demonstrations. Eventually the Supreme Court had to intervene and the government had to arrange special trains and buses for their return home.

At the beginning of the second phase of the lockdown, our Prime Minister played another stunt to gather support. He asked people to switch off electricity and light up candles at a particular time at night to show their solidarity towards the Government. The workers refused to be fooled by such stunts. It was a question of their survival! They continued their marches and protests on the streets in spite of the Lockdown. It is true hundreds of them perished while walking or sleeping on the railway tracks and on the roads due to accidents, hunger and lack of medical help. But this was only one side of the picture publicized on the media to show their helplessness and misery.


Strikes and agitations of the healthcare workers

The doctors and health care workers including nurses have been treated by the government of India most callously during the Covid-19 crisis. They were made to work without necessary protective equipment. Many doctors in Delhi resigned in protest and nurses in different hospitals protested against the callous treatment meted out to them while resorting to gimmicks by the Indian government like showering flowers over them supposedly to honor them for their selfless services.

A few incidents of care workers protests:

  1. April 3, Kolkata (PTI) Nurses, group-D staff and ward boys of the state-run MR Bangur Hospital here staged a protest on its premises, demanding adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).
  2.  June 2, 2020: The AIIMS Nurses’ Union launched a protest outside the Director’s office, saying they were “extremely disturbed and dismayed” by the “state of affairs” in the hospital due to Covid-19and the apathy of the administration towards their demands.
  3. June 10: Hyderabad Gandhi Hospital: 300 doctors went on strike because of being over burdened with work and the hospital being understaffed.


Attack on the Indian and the world working class

If we look around us in India today, we can see that taking advantage of the Pandemic the Indian Government works hands in glove with the capitalist class to intensify the exploitation of workers to extract more and more surplus value from them. The privatization of Defense Industry is designed to lower the wages of the relatively well-paid workers of this industry and at the same time to extract more work from them by extending the working hours. The board of state-run telecom operator Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL) Limited has reportedly approved the proposal to lay off over 54,000 employees. The decision to cut down the retirement age and announce VRS package will see around 54,451 BSNL employees exiting the government-owned Telco. Introduction of contract labor on a large scale in government as well as private enterprises, retrenchment and sudden closure of industries without compensation, amendment of labor laws in favor of owners of industries- have become the order of the day.

But as we know: Rage against exploitation and oppression is the beginning and not the end point of any spontaneous mass movement. We also believe that these spontaneous movements have the potential to overthrow the very system of Capitalism, under which we are forced to live today and move forward to build a new society free from all forms of exploitation and oppression.


Our tasks today

However, the question may be asked: what tasks we the communists are faced with while these spontaneous uprisings of the oppressed masses take place?

First and foremost, we need to adopt the method of “Workers Inquiry” initiated by Karl Marx in 1879. He had prepared 100 questions to approach and connect with the workers to know the details of how they live and conduct their day to day struggles against capitalism. It is necessary to do this groundwork in order to be an organically linked enlightened participant in the workers movement. We have to know the class composition of the movement and the demands of the different sections of the participants to understand the nature as well as the direction of the movement!

Second, it is our task to conceptualize communism as a completely new human society distinct from Capitalism. The prevalent twentieth century understanding of socialism as a social system with socialized or nationalized means of production with a market-less “planned economy” did not lead to a society free from exploitation but rather to a system of state-capitalism wherein the workers remained wage labor without any control over either the means of production or the process of production and the distribution. Although Marx was opposed to all utopian imaginations about what communism would look like, he has given enough hint in the Critique of the Gotha Program that in a socialist or communist society there would be no production of “value,” and therefore no money acting as the mediation between people, a society where social labor would not be indirect like in capitalism but will be direct and therefore there will be no need for an outside force like a market or a state to regulate social life.

In short communism is a classless, stateless and moneyless society free from all forms of exploitation based on wage labor as well as oppressions based on gender, race or caste. If the divisions based on gender, caste and race continue we are likely to reproduce the capitalism we wanted to destroy. We need to study and discuss to gain clarity on the concept of socialism/communism in order that we do not repeat the mistakes of twentieth century socialism which designated state-capitalism as socialism and communism.

Finally, on the question of caste in India!  There is an uncanny similarity between the question of race in America and the question of caste in India. Casteism is an age-old system of hierarchy in India based on inhuman oppression of the lowest caste—the “Dalits.” Indian capitalism, instead of destroying casteism, has accommodated it in the system for its own benefits. The lower castes in India have been subjected to all forms of atrocities by the higher castes whenever they have attempted to assert themselves as equal citizens. Public lynching and extrajudicial killing of Dalits by the police are common phenomenon in India.

Unfortunately, the communists in India have neglected the caste question for a long time at the altar of class reductionism, although some comrades are now paying serious attention to the issue. We members of IMHO need to seriously study and discuss on the issue, to facilitate our understanding and participation in the ongoing spontaneous mass movements against caste and religion-based oppression and atrocities in India.


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1 Comment

  1. Arun K Sinha

    i am extremely happy to find the writing of Lalan Singh in such an international platform – i wish you publish more from him as i have got some degree of personal knowledge about him.