Why the upper caste leftists in India are ‘upper’ rather than ‘left’

Two things I wish to emphasize: one is that a section of the upper castes, the ones who might not be privileged enough, but wouldn’t mind holding on to some kind of power or other, have an interest in playing an ideological role in perpetuating casteism while seeming to oppose it. That is my personal observation of the upper caste leftists who are usually trying to portray themselves as defenders of the “lower” castes for no other reason except that they have personal agendas. Interestingly, we have a fair number of people among the “lower” castes themselves, who need the ideological support of the disgruntled and more subtly opportunistic of the upper castes, in order to enhance their position in the caste hierarchy. They don’t want to change the caste hierarchy; they merely wish to be the new upper castes.

The historical memory of oppression is not something the traditionally “lower” castes are willing to let go. They intend to use the law and state machinery wherever possible to enhance the interests of their group both separately as well as collectively. In my view, their agenda is not fundamentally different from the upper castes whom they claim to resist. They intend to preserve the caste system because it suits them fine to preserve class interests. Their main target is state power in one form or another, because they know that private organizations are powerful like the drug mafia and will not hesitate to use repressive force if necessary.

The “lower” castes have the numbers without completely having the social and political power; they are willing to challenge the idea of one India if it means being empowered against the upper castes. The middle and upper classes within the upper castes likewise need the idea of India—at least a very colonial version of it—in order to preserve their property and status. Colonial politics being what they are, it is these battles or caste wars that effectively weaken India, preventing it from challenging the economic and cultural domination of the West or the ruling hegemonies within. This tragic feeling of paralysis is the result of a violent system of conflicting interests battling for supremacy.

It’s not as simple as making a blanket statement that the “upper” castes are more upper than leftists. While that remains a fact, the truth is far more sinister. I don’t think that the upper castes suffer a “guilt” complex owing to their role in the preservation of the caste system the way white Europeans or Americans do for their role in slavery and colonialism. Guilt is alien to our culture and the history of colonialism tends to thwart a nation’s sense of reality. Therefore, the hypocrisy peculiar to South Asians is of a social nature and it is about making a certain kind of investment in the future.

Many things are attributed to leftists in India—some rightly and others not so rightly.

Someone like my mother who doesn’t know the theoretical distinction between the “right” and the “left” is never tired of pointing out that most people who are anti-American, given any choice at all, would be the first in line if the US were to offer a residency or a passport. She firmly believes that anti-Americanism in India is just hypocrisy. I don’t see her point completely but most leftists who claim to be anti-American, especially the upper caste ones, don’t hesitate to send their sons and daughters to the US for higher education.

Interestingly, I’ve found Dalits and minorities comprised of mainly Muslims to be much less anti-American when compared to the upper castes of India. It is also no surprise that most work in postcolonial theory, which is like almost all South Asians who studied in an American or British University in the humanities, is done by men and women who come from a specific caste background though this is something that needs to be further researched.

The upper classes among the Dalits and the minorities speak in the same language as the upper caste leftists because it suits their interests to do so. The rich blacks need “racism” to exist—otherwise how would they justify their wealth and power! The interests of the rich Dalits and minorities are best served with standing by their upper caste buddies. This “buddy” gang knows only too well where its real interests lie.

Poor students who manage to come to the universities wish to learn in order to upgrade their social and other skills. The “leftist” gangs in the universities instead of furnishing them with tools of self-empowerment want them to fight a “revolution.”

The conditions of a social revolution are created when the consciousness of the masses is raised to the extent where they are empowered to resist. In other words, decades of passive waiting where people learn and grow, accept the dignity of labor and the spirit of human equality—only then could one expect a social revolution to occur.

Through pointless acts of disruption, by preventing the poor from acquiring survival based knowledge, these are counter-revolutionary acts. Ultimately what the upper caste leftists want for themselves and their children, they don’t want the same for the children of the rural poor or the working classes.

My maid’s daughter makes me open a short clip of “Barbie” on YouTube and tells me that, that is her. I thought to myself: why not? She has every right and reason to feel as “Barbie” as she would like to be. That might be her way of feeling a sense of equality with the world around her. My point is that the “lower” castes and minorities are not stupid to be led by their condescending “upper” caste comrades. For some reason, I rarely notice “upper” caste leftists going to jails or having police cases on them. It is again always the “lower” castes and the minorities who bear the brunt of state violence.

I’m never tired of quoting James Scott from the book Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of Peasant Resistance:

“What is missing from this perspective, I believe, is the simple fact that most subordinate classes throughout most of history have rarely been afforded the luxury of open, organized, political activity. Or, better stated, such activity was dangerous, if not suicidal. Even when the option did exist, it is not clear that the same objectives might not also be pursued by other stratagems. Most subordinate classes are, after all, far less interested in changing the larger structures of the state and the law than in what Hobsbawm has appropriately called ‘working the system . . . to their minimum disadvantage.’ Formal, organized political activity, even if clandestine and revolutionary, is typically the preserve of the middle class and the intelligentsia; to look for peasant politics in this realm is to look largely in vain. It is also not incidentally the first step toward concluding that the peasantry is a political nullity unless organized and led by outsiders.”

Resistance was, is and will continue to be there no matter what is the social and political order of the day. The poor have always been fighting back, though not without paying the terrible price that poverty and oppression impose on them. To overstress the social and political condition is to ignore the individual and human condition. That is what is wrong with discourses such as casteism when it becomes a means to exclusion whether in the name of power or resistance; inevitably it takes away the humanity of the argument. Unless we go by the assumption that moral categories transcend political categories we would be ignoring the important fact that self-interest (and I don’t mean it in a bad way) is the guiding force to action. People have specific reasons for the support they extend to ideologies or political movements and not all of them are guided by love of humanity. It takes dedication and commitment of years for that to happen. Someone like Mother Teresa was unsure of her inner commitment to the last days of her life. That’s in fact proof of great commitment made possible through self-examination. Those who are one hundred percent sure of themselves are either fools or opportunists and usually both.

La Rochefoucauld writes: “We should often feel ashamed of our best actions if the world could see all the motives which produced them.” Devoid of any reference to the ambiguous personal element most of the upper caste “leftists” I am convinced are opportunists looking for a position or giving vent to private frustration and not individuals dedicated to the cause of social equality. Those who arrive at simple conclusions by placing other individuals or groups under one label are themselves of questionable integrity.

What I find particularly distasteful about most upper caste leftists is this attempt to take a transcendental position beyond caste. It simply means that the criticism they use against others doesn’t apply to them, their families or friends. Also, no notion of why they happily occupy positions both in state services as well as private organizations while coolly talking about others. There is never a notion of sacrificing money, power, time and effort in the making of a better society. Criticism of the order and demonizing people we don’t like are the easiest things on this planet. When, however, it is done as part of a leftist program I find it sickening.

If one thing has changed in the past couple of decades, it is that people stopped taking labels seriously. Terms such as “left” or “right” are losing their relevance because, from my own observation, I have found that both the camps are without any knowledge of what those terms mean and even less concerned about the commitment part. What is closer to the truth is that there are opportunists and there are not-so-opportunistic people and an ambivalent space in between that the majority of us occupy.

How often I’ve done things which I felt were “right,” but somewhere like the “invisible worm” in Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose,” there was an element of self-righteousness in it. Serious introspection has to go into the kinds of positions we adopt, bearing in mind the following lines from someone who responded to a previous article of mine: “Genuine free thinking objectivity, personal inquiry into our own conditioning and cooperation with others in a spirit of equality and mutual respect are the essential first steps in overcoming a culture that has created us, controls us and divides us.”

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Associate Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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3 Responses to Why the upper caste leftists in India are ‘upper’ rather than ‘left’

  1. It reveal the hypocrisy of the self-cited Messiahs of ‘lower’ caste and poor people. In my personal experience, I always wonder the dual approach of a group of people coming from different walks of life, who relentlessly struggle to protect the rights of ‘lower’ caste people as long as the latter blindly follows the former’s views and help them to fulfill their hidden motives in one or other way. And in doing so, the self-certified protector’s entire effort would be to keep the poor as poor and blind-follower; the moment someone of them refuses to go by their parameters, they become critical of them. They criticize all those ‘lower’ caste people who do not accept their sovereign thoughts of redemption that works on double logic: false remedy from the caste-system for the sake of show off and dispossession or betrayal from their fundamental needs. The very attempt of making somebody revolutionary, who do not have all those advantages that the ‘defenders’ enjoy, is simply betraying them from their basic needs.

  2. Minu Susan Koshy

    “Poor students who manage to come to the universities wish to learn in order to upgrade their social and other skills. The “leftist” gangs in the universities instead of furnishing them with tools of self-empowerment want them to fight a “revolution.””- This is exactly what happens in university campuses. I know people who come from such backgrounds and are trying to improve their financial and social conditions. It is not a revolution that they want. The upper caste pseudo supporters of the Dalit movement use them as tools to attain their goals. And quite often, it is them who bring the caste issue to the fore without any need when something goes slightly wrong. That way, it will be the people who protest, which most often happen to be Dalit students, as was seen during the incidents in our campus, who will be arrested. The pseudo-upper caste “activists” make sure that they save themselves and resort to facebook activism.

    Preserving casteism has become a necessity for the educated Dalits as well as for the upper caste sympathizers. When questioned or criticised, they react so pathetically and to divert attention, take it to a personal level and call people anti-Dalit, anti-reservationist etc and slap the SC/STs atrocities act on them. Unless this kind of intolerance is removed, there won’t be any kind of sensible decisions taken regarding the caste issue in the country. But then, these people do not want any sensible decisions. Ultimately they HAVE TO pursue their ulterior interests.

  3. Prakash Kona

    Thanks for your comments PK Ranjan and Minu.

    I am glad that you see my point which is critical of the nexus of interests surrounding caste that we are familiar with in this country. All nexuses are opportunistic and this one is no exception. This nexus needs to be challenged because it not only takes away the space for honest debate about social and political divisions, a debate that is completely hijacked by one particular group of interests, but as importantly makes caste central to everything that we do or don’t do. Caste becomes a determiner of behavior along with the presumption that people act in no other ways except as dictated by their caste. This is the questionable view of scholars whose names are not worth mentioning. About their followers, the lesser said, the better.

    I seriously do not think that is the case because it takes away the role of individual agency or how and why groups can use a certain social position to advance their interests. What makes it sinister is that the real downtrodden get left behind. They are not a part of the debate any longer. That’s what makes the whole thing such a cynical enterprise because it gives the illusion of being an alternative but seeing how it is intertwined with local, regional and personal interests you realize that it is in fact a cruel attempt to thwart the poor from ever rising above their condition.

    What most of these characters want for themselves they don’t want the same thing to ever go to the weaker sections. This nexus of interests needs to be undermined if we must come up with serious solutions on how best distributive justice can be achieved in any social order so that the real poor are able to speak for themselves.