In a background, wherein ‘reforms’ are ever more turning reactionary and beefing up the reactionary ruling classes,that we look back on Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary viewpoint on caste question. We feel they are more relevant today. It is necessary also in the context of genuine democrats, even those claiming to be revolutionaries, failing to see the futility of reforms that are more than a century old, and that are perpetuating caste segregation: (This is so despite chanting Ambedkar and ‘ Abolition of caste,’ and despite – rather because of – all Constitutional and legislative measures). Many of such forces, some in the name of ‘tactics’, are playing second fiddle to the ruling class parties, which are vying with each other in promoting the cow-mark Hindutva. ‘Tactics’ true, but they are part of ruling class strategies.
The Congress party, as also some others, show as if a caste census is a panacea. The BJP, mouthing Hindu unity, is not content with it: Modi is the first PM who flaunted his caste, saying some are not tolerating a BC PM! The BJP seeks to outwit its rivals by playing the caste card more intelligently, and displays it by appointing leaders, as chief ministers and deputies in three states, their being new faces from different castes and sub-castes, including SCs and STs. BJP is no more a mere Brahmin-bania party it was painted to be. It is double-tongued, multi-faced, and plays electoral games by using the caste card even to woo a section of Muslims, the low-caste Pasmanda, that include some untouchables too.
It should be noted further that after more than a century of communal politics of quotas and reservations, based on caste in India, caste discrimination and oppression are very much there in varying forms. It is compounding and camouflaging class exploitation. It is some time since there emerged a dalit billionaire class too, with a Dalit Chamber of Commerce of India (DCCI), even while lakhs of dalit graduates (B Tech too) remained unemployed despite reservations for over 70 years. In the latest Assembly elections, among the richest candidates (elected) in Telangana was Dalit leader G. Vivek who declared assets worth Rs. 600 cr; and his brother (MLA) G. Vinod declared Rs. 200 cr.
The class and political division among SCs and STs is complete, with a bulk of them, like Athwales (RPI), Paswans, Murmus joining BJP too. Mayavati joining hands with BJP (which she blamed is a Brahmin-Bania party) is too well known. The above mentioned Vivek was in BJP until the last phase, when he defected again, was back in Congress ( his father late G. Venkata Swamy was a Minister and CWC Member for a long period) and got a Congress ticket. Both won as MLAs. They head businesses worth several thousand crore rupees. Many do not know that Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge of Karnataka is a dalit billionaire of Karnataka worth thousands of crores like the Vivek family.
Caste card and related divisive vote bank politics have been a primary tool of the ruling classes and their political parties. The BJP, as in UP, successfully weaned away and groomed many SC sub-caste leaders, the latest being Telangana’s Manda Krishna Madiga, Founder of MRPS who was literally (politically too) embraced by PM Modi on the stage, and who called on Madigas to support Modi and BJP.
Telangana today has Residential Government schools, hundreds each for SCs STs BCs Minorities, all exclusive to those communities. That means they will be groomed separately until School Final examination, and that was hailed: The segregation, by the government, from birth is complete and official.
It is in such context that it is necessary to recall Bhagat singh’s viewpoint on caste.
He was a contemporary of Gandhi and Ambedkar
Bhagat Singh (September 28, 1907 – March 23, 1931), we know, was a revolutionary intellectual with a very short political life of less than eight years. His family, father and uncles, had a distinct revolutionary heritage, all being connected with the Bharat Mata Samiti, the oldest revolutionary organisation in pre-partition Punjab, and later the Ghadar Party. That moulded his life as a revolutionary. He was a prisoner, briefly for five weeks in 1927 May, and later again since his arrest on April 8, 1929. He was hanged along with his comrades, as is well known.
It needs to be pointed out that he was a famous contemporary of Gandhi and BR Ambedkar whose debates on caste question are widely discussed, but his own distinct, revolutionary views on caste – despite being limited in many ways – were less known. He differed with Gandhi who upheld Chatur varna system; and with Ambedkar on his legislative reform path. Being born in a peasant family, he grew in (pre-partition) Punjab and closely observed the caste-ridden rural life. Punjab has among the highest proportion (almost 32 percent, some districts having 42 percent ) of “untouchables,” as they were called those days, referring to dalits, now called Scheduled castes, or SCs.
Bhagat Singh did not see caste in an ossified manner through Manuvad scriptures. He instead recalled the chapters of history when depressed communities played important, even military roles. They were not confined to merely menial roles. ‘Untouchables were the real power of Guru Govind Singh. Shivaji also depended on them and his name is still alive today’. He was referring to their role in armies, as fighters.
In Tamil Kannada and Telugu societies too, dalits played military roles, it should be recalled: In Kakatiyas’ Telugu dynasty (12th to 14th century) they were known to be soldiers. In Palnadu battle (12th century) of Andhra, the miltary chief commander was a dalit Kannama das, who led prayers in the local Chenna kesava temple. These were all long before the much-glorified Koregaon (1818) battle, and before Ambedkar’s ancestors served in British East India company’s army.
But alas, they were fighting not for their own causes, but for the feudals in their battles for power. They are being roped in, used likewise by today’s power-hungry ruling classes, by throwing in a few crumbs of power in a State of exploitation.
Calling dalits as the “real sustainers of life….the real working class.…the pillars of the nations and its core strength,” he urged them to fight their own battles. He warned the rulers “are on the look-out for how to make you pawns of their designs.”
“Apparently I have acted like a terrorist. But I am not a terrorist. I am a revolutionary who has got such definite ideas of a lengthy programme..,” he clarified in his famous article, To Young Political Workers, written, on February 2, 1931, during his last days. In the years he was in prison, he had studied and adopted Marxism as his ideology, and revolution – not reform- as his goal.
His connections with journalists and journalism helped publication of his articles; his writings were published in a few contemporary journals, mainly Kirti, of Kirti Kisan Party, but also Veer Arjun from Delhi. He was visited by Nehru while in prison, and Jinnah was among his Defence lawyers. All these helped his becoming very popular young man even in those days of limited communication. His becoming a revolutionary martyr helped the popularity of his writings later on, particularly after his death, and they were translated and published across India.
But still his article Achoot Samasya (The Untouchability Problem), was less known. It was published in the June 1928 issue of Kirti, three years before he was hanged. The present article is mainly based on that as we get in it glimpses of his revolutionary thoughts on one of the basic problems of Indian society. ( please see acknowledgments at the end.)
In his more popular 1930 pamphlet, Why I am an Atheist, he wrote: “…well, you Hindus, you say all the present sufferers belong to the class of sinners of the previous births. Good. You say the present oppressors were saintly people in their previous births, hence they enjoy power. Let me admit that your ancestors were very shrewd people; they tried to find out theories strong enough to hammer down all the efforts of reason and disbelief”.
In the same article he went on to criticise the sanatan dharma and its inseparable varna system. Criticising the rules and “laws”, prescribing most severe forms of punishment reserved for the untouchables, he wrote: the rules ‘are the inventions of the privileged ones’ to ‘justify their usurped power, riches and superiority’.
In his 1928 article “Achoot Samasya”, Bhagat Singh had quoted a speech of Noor Mohammad, a legislator in the then Bombay Council: “What he says is fully justified, but as he is a Muslim, he will be accused of pitching for conversion of untouchable Hindus into Islam.” Bhagat Singh then defends religious conversion: “If you treat them worse than animals, they will convert to other religions, where they will get more human rights and will be treated like human beings. Then your lament that the Muslim and the Christian are harming the Hindu fold will be futile.”
What is remarkable is that by 1928, when Bhagat Singh had already written this article, Dr Ambedkar had not yet declared his intention to leave the Hindu fold to embrace another religion.
The Sangh parivar that seeks to appropriate Bhagat Singh’s legacy, needs to be asked whether they will frame posthumous cases on sundry charges against him, including his criticism of Sanatana dharma, which drove people to religious conversions.
Practical activities, Conversions and Beef-eating
He was not merely a writer on caste. He and his comrades were engaged in practical activities on caste question. The Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) which was formed by Bhagat Singh and his comrades in 1926, used to organise social dinners to which people of all castes and creeds were invited and where they served each other.
Bhagat Singh felt that the so-called upper-caste should collectively apologise to the “untouchables” for the wrongs they had done in the past. In the ‘Problem of Untouchability’, he wrote:
“…present is the moment of its atonement…In this regard strategy adopted by Naujwan Bharat Sabha and the Youth conference is, most apt – to seek forgiveness from those brethren, whom we have been calling untouchables by treating them as our fellow beings, without making them go through conversion ceremonies of Sikhism, Islam or Hinduism, by accepting food/water from their hands”.
In his article ‘Religion and our Freedom Struggle’, Bhagat Singh says that the “meaning of our freedom is not only to liberate ourselves from the clutches of the English but also complete independence, when all people live together harmoniously, liberated from mental slavery”. Here the term “mental slavery” is related to the hold of religion as well as the untouchability.
He wrote that cooperation and unity against the British is possible “by leaving aside our narrow-mindedness…by changing partisan food habits and removing the words touchable-untouchable by their roots”.
“ In the historic meeting held at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi in 1928, where the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) was transformed into Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) and socialism was adopted as its official ideology and goal, another historic decision was taken: It was decided that the revolutionaries would discard all symbols of religion and caste. Even before these historic decisions , the revolutionaries of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) like Rajendranath Lahiri, Manmath Nath Gupta, Keshav Chakravarty and others (all sentenced under the Kakori Conspiracy case) had thrown away their sacred thread, the “janeyu”.
“That the HRA revolutionaries used to break Brahminical socio-religious conventions is also confirmed by Gupta in his autobiography They Lived Dangerously. Gupta writes, “We used to take beef in defiance of the whole society. This does not mean that all our members were of this view.” Even though the ‘old’ members did not support the eating of beef, they did not impose their beliefs among the ‘young’ members who were experimenting with revolutionary ideals in every aspect of life.
Bhagat Singh’s last wish: He “wished for roti cooked by ‘Bebe'(mother), which was how Bogha, a Dalit prisoner in jail, was addressed”. This was not merely a symbolic act, but formed part of his politics and practical activities.
Dalits as working class.
Calling the practice of untouchability ‘a grossly cruel conduct’, he pointed out that it “amounted to the negation of core human values” and therefore adversely affected the “self-esteem and self-reliance” of the untouchables. Being a materialist, he also pointed out the adverse impact on the civilization and economic development of Indian society. He Called dalits as the “real sustainers of life….the real working class.…the pillars of the nations and its core strength.
‘The second side-effect of untouchability/caste was its promotion of contempt for labour, especially physical labour’. This, according to him, had negatively impacted the historical economic development of Indian society. Underlining this particular consequence, he writes:
“…In broader social perspective, untouchability had a pernicious side-effect; people in general got used to hating the jobs which were otherwise vital for life. We treated the weavers who provided us cloth as untouchable. In UP water carriers were also considered untouchables. All this caused tremendous damage to our progress by undermining the dignity of labour, especially manual labour”.
Incidentally the above lines show the diversity of the caste problem: weavers and water carriers too were untouchables in some parts of India, unlike elsewhere.
He links it with class exploitation with low wages, and possibility of resistance. In his article Satyagraha and Strike (1928), written during a strke in Jamshedpur, he wrote:
“…the ‘scavengers are on strike and entire city is in a mess…we do not allow these brothers who serve us the maximum to come close to us, cast them off calling ‘bhangi, bhangi! and take advantage of their poverty, and make them work for very low wages, and even without wages! They can bring the people, especially in the cities to their knees in just a couple of days. Their awakening is a happy development”.
He was critical of reformist movements as well as legislative illusions.
Criticising Madan Mohan Malviya, who undertook campaigns to remove untouchability, Bhagat Singh wrote:
“…a reputed social reformer like Pandit Malviyaji, known for his soft corner for untouchables, first agrees to be publicly garlanded by a sweeper, but then considers himself to be polluted till he bathes and washes those clothes. How ironical!”
In an article titled ‘Religion and our Freedom Struggle’, (Kirti, May 1928) he wrote: “…people also say that we must reform these ills [of untouchability]. Very good! Swami Dayananda abolished untouchability but he could not go beyond the four varnas. Discrimination still remained!” In the same essay, he wrote that the only way to do away with these problems was to oppose the Santana Dharma, which upheld varna.
He was not for glorifying reforms, which he felt, resulted not from any genuine concern for the untouchables, but were a reaction to the introduction of communal representation or separate electorates (The communal award) by the colonial rulers. He was referring to the proposed Minto-Morley reforms of 1909, a British colonial ploy to create a submissive polity, by dividing the subjects with competitive politics of quotas, that he said were ‘resulting in widespread disturbances’. ( We see it today by dominant communities like jats, patidars, marathas, Vanniyars ..)
He saw through the divisive games a century ago, but wrote with a practical attitude:
“In the context of our advance towards national liberation, the problem of communal representation may not have been beneficial in any other manner, but at least it means that Hindus/Muslims/Sikhs are all striving hard to maximise their own respective quota of seats by attracting the maximum number of untouchables to their own respective folds…all three are trying to outdo each other,resulting in widespread disturbances…this turmoil is certainly helping us to move towards the weakening of the hold of untouchability”
He further raised a very relevant and basic question: “can a legislature, where a lot of hue and cry is raised even over a bill to ban child marriages on the grounds that it shall be a threat to their religion, dare to bring the untouchables on their level as their own?”
He knew the ultimate solution was not through such legislative quotas:
He warns Dalits against bureaucracy: “Don’t get trapped by bureaucracy. They are not willing to get you help. Rather, they are on the look-out for how to make you pawns of their designs. This capitalistic bureaucracy is the real cause of your poverty and slavery. Never make an alliance with it. Beware of their machinations. Then everything will be set aright.”
He stressed that bureaucratic/legislative-led “gradualism and reformism shall not be of use” and only way out was to “start a revolution from a social agitation and grind up…for political and economic revolution”.
“..ultimately the problem cannot be satisfactorily solved unless and until untouchables communities themselves unite and organise….we regard their recent uniting based on their distinct identity…as a move in the right direction…we plead that they (the untouchables) must persist in pressing for their own distinct representation in legislatures in proportion to their numerical strength…without your own efforts, you shall not be able to move ahead”.
He stressed “without your own efforts” and cautioned that the privileged upper class/caste would always try their utmost to “keep on oppressing those below them”.
In the present context, ‘proportionate representation’ has become highly divisive as castes and sub-castes (so also various tribes) fight for their own sub-share in the cake. The SCs want their quota divided into A B C D; so do STs. The Mandal commission is cited by many, but the fact is it had listed thousands of castes and sub-castes. BJP, and others too, identified and wooed scores of sub-castes that never had a share in legislatures. Modi promised a sub-quota for Madigas, strongly detested by Malas for decades. The sub-castes and tribes were at times mobilized into violent factions, ‘resulting in widespread disturbances.’ Reservations for dalits among Christians and Muslims was strongly resisted by Hindu sections of dalits. BJP stirs up communal trouble too. Modi openly called for cancellation of four percent job quotas for Muslim communities in Telangana, and said the quota deprives Hindus of their share.
“Raise the banner of revolt”
Towards the end of his article on untouchability, Bhagat Singh exhorted the untouchables to “raise the banner of revolt” and “challenge the existing order of society” with the famous quote from the Communist Manifesto: “Workers unite – you have nothing to lose but your chains”, and added importantly that, “you are the real working class”. He was of the firm view that only a working class revolution with ‘untouchables’ playing a key role could free India from both capitalist and caste exploitation.
At a time when genuine democrats, even those claiming to be Leftists and revolutionaries, are enamored of reforms, deceptive and diisive as they are today, Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary viewpoint, expressed a century ago, is significant and noteworthy .
The author of this article on Bhagat Singh’s views is greatly indebted to two writers:
— Ashok Yadav whose article, Bhagat Singh On Dalit Question, first appeared in Countercurrents.org on 23 December 2009. Quotations of Bhagat Singh were translated from Hindi by the author, who added: Achoot Samasya referred to here is the version that is part of Bhagat Singh’s collected works published by Rajkamal Prakashan.
— and to Harshvardhan, a research scholar, who quoted and reviewed Bhagat Singh’s views, in his article published in thewire.in, 2021 March 23. )
About the author:
Ramakrishnan is a political observer, who regularly contributed articles, including a series on caste oppression in Tamilnadu, to countercurrents.org. Some are cited below:
Tamilnadu’s Caste Mafia Has Deep Roots And Thrives By Patronage Of Ruling Parties
‘Honour killings’ in the land of ‘self-respect movement’