Can Marx coexist with Ambedkar?
The Kollam temple fire emerged on the news horizon at about 7:00 pm on Sunday. By 9:00 pm, VS Achuthanandan, the former Chief Minister of Kerala and for the umpteenth time, the Left Democratic Front’s mascot for the upcoming Assembly polls had broken off his campaign in north Kerala and rushed for Kollam. In a recent article, an opinionator had pointed out what he thought is the most significant blemish of the official Left parties in India– their refusal to accept the “ubiquity” of religion in India.
Did the sequence of the above narrative reflect that position? Achuthanandan, a die-hard old school Marxist could have taken a position that this is a temple fire and a problem of the administration. All he could do by visiting the place of occurrence is to join the crowd of political leaders seeking to deliver placebos to the grieving people. Would that not have been sufficiently Marxist in its contention? After all, didn’t Marx say that religion is the opiate of the masses?
No. That statement of Karl Marx was quoted out of context from a philosophical tract. The actual statement is much more revealing.
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering," he had written in a critique of Hegel. "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” The opiate he meant was not religion itself, but the substance that deadens the pain the body and “soul” feels and perceives.
Is that scientifically incorrect?
During its early Leninist phase, the Indian “official” Left had fostered the notion that religion was meant to detract the people’s attention from the real problems of the day. One needed to be an atheist to deal with the conundrum of actual living.
But by the late 1960s, when the official Left parties found their feet in Parliamentary politics, they had slowly started to shed the weight of Lenin or Stalin. By the late 1970s, they disdained the non-Left party leaders’ proclivity for temple visits not just to seek godly obeisance for themselves, but to send coded messages to their electorate. These subtle shifts, for the Congress party (remember the “Congress system” coinage), was less aggressive than Mohandas Gandhi’s, but an answer to the slowly emerging “cow” politics of the Hindi “heartland”. This messaging, thus, was the Congress party’s attempt at showing its “soft Hindutva” character – that kept the Hindu upper caste happy and did not seem to be in-your-face Hindutva to the sizable Muslim “vote bank”.
The official Left took a marginally different tactic. In the context of West Bengal, they claimed the ubiquitous Durga Puja not as a religious festival alone, but a social and cultural phenomenon. So amidst the glittering lights and shimmering dresses of the Bengalis thronging these congregations, one would witness the sudden outcrop of flashing Red – the corner stall usually selling Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, besides the works of a few Indian Leftists.
But yes, the crucial mistake that the official Left committed, especially in north and central India, was to not recognise that caste and class were coterminous. This needs explaining though there is a plethora of literature on the subject. That the Dalits, the Adivasis – the really low in the pantheon of Hindu way of life – were also the lowest class; and had no parallels in the politically homogenous class character of Europe, which Marx had described. Hence, the Indian Left mistook the Marxian prescription of class struggle born out of internecine conflict, to be their preferred praxis in this country as well.
The enormous political fact of caste/class co-termination took a long while to sink in for parties like the CPI (M), CPI etc. On the contrary, the so-called fringe Left, the CPI (M-L)s, the MCC, and those mostly in areas like Telangana - and their limited forays into what is now in the headlines – were more receptive and adaptive. Dandakaranya region, besides in swathes of territory of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, or even Rajasthan, these smaller groups were adopting the cultural practices of these really backward classes, who were not even counted amongst the classical varnas.
They were social outcasts. In the official files, they were merely a statistic. And when the time came for the country's biggest festival every few years – elections for government offices – they were to be taken care of by the muscle-bound thugs, who would shepherd them to the polling stations. Or, even that was not required. They needed to be all locked into their hamlets on the chunavi festival day as the real masters of the country—the local feudal masters and the bourgeoisie—had their henchmen voting for these people.
This picture was barely dented by the implementation of the BP Mandal recommendations. The kamandal was to be confronted by the mandal. But that created some other problems. That is beyond the scope of this column at the moment. What we are witnessing now in the various university campuses is a final re-emergence of Left politics from the shadows of Marxist Euro-specific tenets, instead amalgamating BR Ambedkar with his basic principle of the decimation of capitalism, into the holistic Indian political picture. Let’s see what these boys do.
(The author is an independent journalist. The views expressed are strictly personal.)