‘Dalit movement has to see itself as part of a class-wide movement’



The ferment on campuses across the country following Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the recent crackdown in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have drawn international attention, with many academics, students and activists across the world expressing solidarity. Vivek Chibber, professor of sociology at New York University and author of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital , spoke to Meera Srinivasan in New York on these developments. While appreciating the significance of struggles around identity in India and the U.S., he argues that movements of the oppressed can be sustained and strengthened only if they take up issues of economic justice. Excerpts:

Following the death of Rohith, thousands of students in India came together in protest. The incident also sparked a spontaneous, nationwide mobilisation of Dalits, many of whom were already engaged in local struggles. Here in the U.S., we see Black Lives Matter drawing enormous support. All the same, some activists within the movement are said to be questioning the exclusive emphasis on racial identity. Are there any parallels?

I think in India it is quite necessary, essential even, for Dalits to organise around their social marginalisation and the various forms of exclusion that they face. But it is also the case that any Dalit movement, if it is actually going to address the needs of Dalits as a group, has to see itself as part of a class-wide movement. The reason for that is simple: the overwhelming majority of Dalits are wage labourers either in the rural areas or in the informal sector in urban settings.

The agitations that have been taking place in the cities are important, but it is important to recognise that the most visible ones have been around issues like reservations and discrimination in colleges, and these are issues that affect only a small proportion of the Dalit population. For Dalits to make progress therefore really requires that they take up issues around wage labour and economic justice. What has happened is that the Dalit movement, like identity movements across the world, has really narrowed its focus to forms of oppressions that are very real, but which still constitute only a small subset of the oppressions that the Dalits face.

There is a parallel with the U.S. Black Lives Matter has two layers to it. One is a layer of real organisers in urban areas, who were very concertedly active around issues of economic justice, not just narrowly racial justice. Because for them the most pressing issues are not so much discrimination in the labour market, but not having a job at all; not so much the exclusion in schools, but not having [access to] schools at all. Furthermore, these activists are also aware that Black Lives Matter is as much a brand as it is a movement. Many of the most prominent icons of Black Lives Matter are already moving into the Democratic Party, or into Teach for America, things like that. So it is an avenue that a certain section of the black middle class is using for its upward advancement. We have seen that happen in India too — with Dalit intellectuals and Dalit politicians.

Therefore, there is a clear position to take, which is that one cannot and should not set issues of Dalit identity against issues of Dalit class interests, because what they face is not simply economic exploitation but many things on top of that. Second, unless a movement for justice for Dalits is fundamentally based on class and economic justice, it will not address the needs of the vast majority of this section.

It seems ironic that class politics and identity politics should be in conflict. Why do some of these movements demonstrate that sort of tension?

One reason is that, especially in India, the Left has not given issues of social marginalisation and exclusion the importance they deserve. But the fundamental reason is that all around the world, one of the symptoms of the decline of the Left has been that movements for social justice have been captured by middle class and fairly elite people, who have disdain for class politics and class movements because those would affect their own status.

Do you think that points to a shift away from a position where the mainstream Left appreciated social marginalisation more than it perhaps does now? I am thinking of the Communist engagement with Dalit farmers in the past — in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, for example, around the time of the Keezhvenmani massacre.

The Left did, I think from the 1930s onwards, take the problems of casteism and gender domination more seriously. Nevertheless, within its internal functioning, it never confronted casteism with the force it should have. I have talked to older members of the Communist movement who testified that there were separate matkas (pitchers) for the Dalits and Brahmins in the organisation. While they would encourage inter-caste marriages, at the same time they incorporated many of the rituals of Hinduism. Once you give Hinduism sanction inside your organisation, inevitably those rituals are rituals around the exclusion of other castes. So yes, this was a real weakness. At the same time, this weakness on the part of the Left is being used as a reason to dismiss class politics. The people making such arguments are not doing it with the interests of Dalits and backward castes and Scheduled Tribes in mind.

The appropriate response on the part of people who call themselves Left is to say that the solution is to have a better Left, not move away from the politics that the Left represents. It is not just because of class, it is also because the Left has been the most consistent cosmopolitan, universal, democratic force in India. It has been the only one to argue consistently for democratic rights, for women’s rights, and for social inclusion. And what we are seeing right now, the viciousness that is becoming part of Indian culture, one reason for it is that even in the language of politics, sectionalism, narrow interests, nativism is not being challenged anymore. It has always been the Left that did it.

What hope do you see for movements, including the Dalit movement, seeking to mobilise people around identities of caste or religion to sustain themselves towards the goal of social justice?

I think there is a challenge, and an enabling condition. The challenge is that Left groups have to immerse themselves in the Dalit movement and other such struggles and show that they are fundamentally committed to the interests of marginalised groups. If they do this, then they can bring these movements into a broader agenda. The enabling condition is that the political establishment as a whole right now is lined up against the rights and interests of poor people.

How do you view the developments in JNU?

It shows again the narrowness and complicity of the media and of so many sections of the Left in that there are very few people who are challenging the very idea of a sedition law. The fundamental issue here is not whether Kanhaiya Kumar was complicit in shouting anti-national slogans, but the very idea of something being anti-national, and that the state gets to define what is anti-national.

Do you think that this government, which came to power on the promise of development, is using these issues to divert public attention from its own performance?

No doubt about it. But again, let us not keep the focus on the BJP because both its economic programme and its crackdown on democratic rights is an intensification of something that was already happening under the Congress government.

(Meera Srinivasan is the International Women’s Media Foundation Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow 2015-16. For full interview, see www.thehindu.com)

The fundamental issue here is not whether Kanhaiya Kumar was complicit in shouting

anti-national slogans, but the very idea of something being

anti-national, and that the state gets to define what is anti-national

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