CPI(M): weve to talk about caste

Written by Nistula Hebbar | Nistula Hebbar | Updated: Apr 13 2012, 06:37am hrs
The party congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) held recently in Kozhikode in Kerala remained under the media radar, commensurate perhaps with its diminished electoral presence, but turned out to be an important exercise for the future of Left initiatives in the country.

A pressing clamour for an ideological document that moved away from the China model, the disapproval of the Chinese communist partys dropping of the concept of anti-imperialism from its ideological chart, and the CPI(M)s lack of connect with the masses on the issues of caste came up during closed door meetings at the party congress. In fact, fears of a counter-revolution occurring in China, if present economic policies were continued, were expressed at the meeting.

The significance of this development cannot be underplayed. While looking at communist parties across the world, noted historian Eric Hobsbawm, in a 1969 essay had said, Each Communist Party was the child of the marriage of two ill assorted partners, a national Left and the October Revolution.

The Indian communists were no exceptions. At their inception, the Left was confronted with a choice of fighting imperialist forces in India, or organising the Indian proletariat to fight the comprador bourgeoisie. At that time, the party found itself on the wrong side of history, by not participating in the freedom movement.

After independence too, the tactical party line kept wavering between various concerns. Whether the CPI should highlight workers struggles or that of peasants, armed insurrection against the Indian state or peaceful agitation. Whether a more centrist line should be adopted vis--vis parliamentary democracy or a armed insurrection be organised. These intense waverings on the question of an ideological line had a detrimental effect on the party attempting an understanding of Indias social and political context.

The split in the Communist Party in 1963-64, on the question of toeing a revisionist Soviet line (Khrushchev) or a more extreme position, remained a false start as the CPI (M) too in its Kolkata convention came out with a centrist position, more or less. The cleaving unto a communist brotherhood, and deriving models from other communist movements across the world continued to exercise an inordinate influence on the ideological line.

While the long and winding road of ideological positioning brings us to the Kozhikode party congress and the debates within the CPI(M) on the China model, the debates are taking place at a time when the party is at its weakest, electorally. The recent electoral debacles, that too in its bastions like West Bengal, and the wiping out of the party altogether in states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where it had a presence earlier (more in Punjab than UP), may have forced a rethink.

A rethink, quite frankly, on how the party deals with the question of caste.

The party has had a schizophrenic relationship with caste until now. In Kerala, the party is identified with specific caste groups like the Ezhavas, and the Nairs, who form the base of its support in the state. Meanwhile in West Bengal, caste considerations are never the reason for ticket distribution, either for the CPI(M) or even the Congress and the Trinamool Congress. Therefore the party has had some engagement with the question of caste, but always in a self-conscious, apologetic way.

The time for that is past now. After the 2009 election debacle, senior CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury had acknowledged this lacunae in the partys electoral campaign. He had said that for the party to gain dominance in states other than West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, a red flag needed to fly on every water well where Dalits had been denied access. The reference was to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where despite deep exploitation on caste lines, the party had not mobilised on those issues, ceding ground to other backward class movements and parties.

The primary problem according to party leaders has been the hesitation of the party to discuss caste equations, looking at the craven way in which caste considerations are pandered to by other parties.

Caste is a divisive, exploitative system, but within it, it holds the key to mobilisation. Karl Marxs view on the caste system was very clear : restraining the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. For years, the communist parties have laboured under a shyness of this condemnation in dealing with caste. Instead of combating the exploitation engendered by caste, they have prided in going to polls by trying to ignore that it exists.

In the first voices from Kozhikode, asking for an Indian model of communism, the first big question to tackle would be how to deal with the caste system.