‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Lal Salaam’ and How the Twain Shall Meet

‘Laal Salaam, Jai Bhim’, ‘Jai Bhim, Lal Salaam’: This is a slogan that rents the air amongst the protestors in Hyderabad Central and Jawaharlal Nehru Universities. As we know, the students and the teachers of these universities have been putting up a stiff united resistance against vicious attacks unleashed by the Sangh Parivar and its government. This resistance has thrown up many questions about the future course of action and the possibilities for alliances between Dalit groups and Left and other democratic struggles. This article is written with the perspective of exploring the ways in which such an alliance can be built in the context of a concrete political and material reality.

Ambedkar and the Marxists

Broadly speaking, the ideological and strategic difference between class and caste based political mobilisations can be summarised in the emphasis of Dalit politics on the question of representation. Since their inception the Ambedkarites have used the tool of Representation to press for social reform. It has been assumed that ‘only a Dalit’ can represent the interests of another ‘Dalit’ and all the others who advocate for Dalit rights are largely ‘Brahmanical’ social reformers. In fact, Ambedkar himself put Gandhiji in this category as he argued that the source of discrimination was Hinduism, and Gandhiji, far from opposing it, just wanted to reform it to make it “tolerable”.[1] 

But this was not a viable project since the social structures associated with Hinduism needed to be opposed in totality and this could only be done if Hindu religion was rejected by all Dalits. Instead Ambedkar advocated the path of Buddhism. In his book ‘Buddha and Marx’ he writes that the best way of achieving the goal of Communism was through the Rule of Righteousness and not the Rule of Law. Ambedkar in fact argues for the moral superiority of Buddhism as a pathway to Communism.

As Ambedkar writes in his critique of Lenin’s conception of revolution: “The Russians are proud of their Communism. But they forget that the wonder of all wonders is that the Buddha established Communism so far as the Sangh was concerned without dictatorship. It may be that it was a communism on a very small scale but it was communism, without dictatorship a miracle which Lenin failed to do”. [2]

This Buddhist version of communism is characterised by austerity and the redistribution of wealth through a change of heart. Once again Ambedkar writes with regard to the question of private property that the rules imposed by Buddha were far more stringent than those of the Communists.In the context of this overall framework, Ambedkar in fact lays down his own theory of caste when he argues that caste is in fact enclosed class, and all classes are turning themselves into castes through practices of endogamy and excommunication. The occupational and economic difference forms a basis and sustains itself through such enclosures.[3]

Hence Ambedkarites consider ‘caste’ as the primary contradiction of Indian society, and it is on this basis that the Satyashodhak Communist Party was formed. Advocating a dialectic between caste and class, Sharad Patil, the founder of the party, gives primacy to caste contradiction and subsumes within it the issue of class struggle.[4]Ambedkar himself wrote to this effect that: “Class-consciousness, class struggle and class wars are supposed to be ideologies, which came into vogue from the writings of Karl Marx. This is a complete mistake. India is the land, which has experienced class-consciousness, class struggle. Indeed, India is the land where there has been fought a class war between Brahmans and Kshatriyas (sic) which lasted for several generations and which was fought so hard and with such virulence that it turned out to be a war of extermination.”[5] 

While it is true that representation of Dalits in the political sphere broadens the social basis of the democratic structure, it does not necessarily alter or improve the material conditions of the Dalits.

Class struggle and class war are interpreted in terms of the conflicts between castes. In this sense caste and class are conflated with each other and it is believed that class differences may be erased but caste will prevail. For Ambedkar and the Ambedkarites, the representation within institutions of power would be the first step towards empowering themselves to bring about social transformation through the annihilation of caste.  This became the focus of most of Ambedkarite politics whose programme was quite different from that of the Justice Party, which also asked for the annihilation of caste but added land reforms and minimum wages to their programme.[6]

Such politics has also been continuously challenged by the emergence of the new Dalit organisations like the Panther Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s, especially after the emergence of a strong OBC political lobby.[7]In contrast, from a communist perspective, the question of class unity was central to the mobilisation of the Dalits, and it was soon realised in communist practice that no major movement could be launched without an anti-caste component. A good example of this is the preparatory phase before the Telangana movement where the caste question and discrimination with agricultural work became one of the major ways of building a movement of agricultural workers. In this phase the aim was to create a democratic consciousness within the Dalit agricultural worker and also a democratic anti-discrimination consciousness amongst the non-Dalit worker. Hence the project of ‘class struggle’ was firmly linked to the opposition and oppression of the Dalits. The communist led anti slavery movements were firmly embedded in this perspective.[8] 

The relationship between the politics of representation and class formation has been a severely under-analysed theme in both Dalit studies as well as Marxist analysis.

But despite these examples the persistence of caste has been seen as a challenge to Marxist theory within the country. It has been argued that prominent ideologues have seldom taken note of caste in their political discourse. This understanding is however a misrepresentation of the theory and practice of democratic Dalit politics in India.  Since the early days of its inception the communist movement has been forced to recognise the existence of caste and interpret it in its own material context.

One of the earliest theorists to do so was D.D. Kosambi who argued that the transition from ‘tribe’ to ‘caste’ was a hegemonic process to deprive the oppressed people from their legitimate rights. As Kosambi writes, “Caste is class at a primitive level of production, a religious method of forming social consciousness in such a manner that the primary producer is deprived of his surplus with the minimum coercion.[9]  This classical statement shows that Kosambi used the method of the Marxist anthropologists to show how religious and ethnic ideologies became the legitimating force of oppressive relations. Religious and caste consciousness are thus both tools of hegemony, and as E.M.S Namboodripad was to write later, the movements for reservation and lower caste upsurge (especially in the context of Kerala) could be seen as a form of a democratic upsurge. However the class unity between the oppressed people of the upper castes and the Dalits was essential if any further movement was to be made on the question of opposing both social and economic oppression.[10] 

This understanding has been further strengthened by the later analysis that argued for a sympathetic look at the opening up of democratic spaces by lower caste resistance.[11] Hence the ‘Dalit’ is interpreted as a ‘political identity’ which has come up against the oppression of ruling class politics, which is characterised by affirmative action without social transformation. The limit of such politics is seen in the emerging scenario and inequity within the scheduled castes.

Class Formation and Inequities amongst the ‘Scheduled Castes

The relationship between the politics of representation and class formation has been a severely under-analysed theme in both Dalit studies as well as Marxist analysis. This lack of focus is largely because the co-evolution of the Dalit political identity and working class formation have not been understood as simultaneous developments which structure all kinds of Dalit and working class resistance.

In post-Independent India, this phenomenon is largely true because while affirmative action has created a strong Dalit leadership, its representation in the public sphere has not in fact solved the problem of growing disparities within the social groups. The analysis below looks at the question of class formation in selected states which have historically been important for both Dalit and left politics. It analyses the trends in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh (important centres of Ambedkarite politics), Tamil Nadu (which has pioneering movements in radical Dalit politics like Panthers) and West Bengal and Kerala (important centres of left politics). Through such an analysis in an all India context, an attempt is made to correlate the problem of disparities within the Dalits with the trends in Dalit and left movements.

Inequalities due to Access to Land

According to recently available data (2013) the disparities amongst the Scheduled Castes is highest than amongst any other social group in India.[12] The pattern of land holdings as it has emerged in 2013 shows that 54.9 percent of the Scheduled Castes have only homestead lands and out of this 4.4 percent do not even own homesteads. About 84.1 percent of the Scheduled Castes own less than 0.2 hectares of land other than the homestead lands. Of these 21.2 percent have no access to any land apart from their hutments. The rest of the 62.9 percent are virtually (or in effect) landless as they largely depend on labour for their livelihood.[13] Thus the first disparity that exists within the ‘Dalits’ is between those who possess land for purposes other than homesteads (which is about 7.2 percent with land over one hectare), and those who are landless and virtually landless.

This pattern is reflected at the state level also where the rising landlessness amongst the Dalits has created a differentiation between land losers and those who possess some cultivable land. The data for selected states (chosen on the basis of states with important and significant history of Dalit politics) show the following:

Decadal  Change in Ownership of Cultivated Land in Selected States, 1999-2011 

 Cultivated Land (Ha)
Statelandless0.001-0.400.41-1.01.01-2.02.01-4.0above 4.0
Tamil Nadu9.7-6.7-2.6-0.80.30
Uttar Pradesh7.9-4.1-2-0.7-1-0.1
West Bengal9.1-2.9-3.8-2.2-0.5-0.1

Source: Calculated from NSSO data from different years.
The table shows that land deprivation is one of the main problems faced by the Dalits in almost all states. It is interesting to note that at the All India level there is a growing landlessness amongst the Dalits with access to all other categories of land showing a decline. Though the percentage growth in landlessness is the lowest in Gujarat the rise in middle and large land holdings indicates that a consolidation of land holdings amongst the Dalits is taking place in the state.

States with strong Ambedkarite politics like Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra have increasing landlessness in terms of ownership of land holdings and more than 80 percent of the Dalits are landless in these two states. States with strong left politics like Kerala and West Bengal also show a rise in landlessness in terms of ownership of land, but the land disparities are the lowest in these states. In Tamil Nadu, another state with radical Dalit politics, 91.1 percent Dalits are landless. This proportion is much higher than Bengal and Kerala.

But disparities in land do not tell the entire story about land based inequalities. The landless Dalits still depend on agriculture through lease agreements. Since evictions are not permissible under the land laws, recorded leased-in rights in land reform states are instrumental in creating secure agricultural employment. The available NSSO data (2013) shows that in states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh with strong Ambedkarite politics but no land reforms, the lease-in tenancy arrangements are varied over two cropping seasons.

For example in Uttar Pradesh the average size of leased-in land varies from 0.277 hectares to 0 0.321 hectares over two seasons, and seasonal landlessness (i.e. Dalits with no access to cultivable land in one season) varies by about 4 per cent, whereas in Maharashtra the average size of leased-in land varies from 0.13 to 0.5 hectares and seasonal landlessness varies by 3 percent. Even in a state like Tamil Nadu with radical Dalit Panther politics, the size of lands leased-in remains relatively small, however seasonal landlessness varies by 6 percent.

In West Bengal and Kerala, the states with strong left politics, the size of land holdings leased-in by Dalits remains stable and so does the tenure of land holdings.[14] This is largely because these are land reform states and here leased-in rights are recorded, permanent and inheritable. Hence states with strong class based mobilisations give greater land based livelihood security to Dalits than states whose Dalit politics is largely based on question of representation.

Inequalities Arising from Income

Income inequality, measured through data on expenditure is another aspect of inequality which reveals how the character of the proletarianisation of Dalits has impacted the disparities within this social group. It is particularly interesting to note the disparity index within social groups across time. Using the available NSSO data, a recent study shows the following results:

Economic Disparity Ratio by Social Group

Economic Disparity Ratio
Tamil Nadu6.
Uttar Pradesh6.
West Bengal7.
All India7.
Note: Economic Disparity Ratio= Rate of average MPCE of richest decile to the average MPCE of poorest decile. It reflects the disparity within the social group.
Inequality (Gini Coefficient)
Tamil Nadu.304.233.377.
Uttar Pradesh.265.178.320.266.271.305.168.347.447
West Bengal.267.278.304.207.207.323.296.278.316
All India.276.280.304.
Note: Gini Ratio is caluclated on an index between 0-1. An index number closer to 1 reflects greater inequality.

Source: Extracted from Ashish Singh, Kaushalendra Kumar and Abhishek Singh, ‘Exclusion within Excluded: The Economic Divide within Scheduled Castes and Tribes Economic and Political Weekly Volume 50 Number 42, October 17, 2015, Tables 4and 5.
The table above shows that the disparities amongst all social groups are increasing in the post- economic reforms period. It is also evident that the period of the late 1980s is also the time when the inequalities amongst the Dalits reduced. This reduction in inequities could be attributed to some of the measures undertaken by the state under pressure from the emergence of a new wave of Dalit, Adivasi and left politics that emerged from the late 1970s onwards.

As the figures from Kerala and West Bengal show, the disparities amongst Dalits seem to have reduced as a result of the land reforms project. This is in stark contrast to the disparities within ‘Others’ which seem to have increased in the same period. But this process seems to have reversed in the post-reforms period, when the inequities within ‘Others’ has decreased and those within vulnerable social groups, especially the SCs, has increased. This trend is especially true of the states with Left dominated politics and not for regions with strong Dalit identity politics.In the states dominated by Ambedkarite Dalit politics like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, the increasing disparities within the Dalits have grown at a very high rate. This is also true of Tamil Nadu where the Panthers attempted to raise the class question within Dalit politics. Coincidentally the rate of growth of Dalit disparity is lower in those areas where class based mobilisations are stronger than Dalit identity movements.

Political Implications of the Concrete Reality

These trends raise the fundamental question of whether the strengthening of class based mobilisation is important to address the basic problems of Dalits and what type of democratised Dalit political identities should be shaped to combat non-transformative ruling class ‘Dalit politics’. One of the assumptions of ‘Dalit activists’ is that Dalit representation in all forms is inherently transformative. Thus the very presence of ‘Dalits’ will lead to the transformations of the lives of people belonging to the most vulnerable and historically discriminated group.

This assumption lies behind the fundamental question asked by several progressive activists and scholars: how many Dalits are in the leadership of the communist party?  However, such a question also begs a counter question: has Dalit politics in fact led to the transformation in Dalit lives?

This questioning and counter questioning raises important issues on the relationship between representational politics and social transformation. History has shown that whenever and wherever the communists worked and organised the Dalits, the Dalits accepted and supported them as ‘natural allies’ irrespective of the social origins or caste of their leaders.

Simultaneously, the very organising of Dalits on their everyday issues often yielded a democratic Dalit leadership. The political identity of this leadership was however not based on an ‘exclusivist’ position (that only a Dalit can work amongst Dalits) but on the belief that the annihilation of caste was an important component of building a classless society or even a People’s Democracy.

These trends raise the fundamental question of whether the strengthening of class based mobilisation is important to address the basic problems of Dalits and what type of democratised Dalit political identities should be shaped to combat non-transformative ruling class ‘Dalit politics’.

Such a political position has the potential for developing a ‘working class Dalit politics’ whose import and thrust is quite different from ruling class or class insensitive Dalit politics. The challenge of building such politics is however twofold. First the problem of combating the discrimination of Dalit workers by non-Dalit workers has to be squarely addressed by working class politics. To an extent, this may need the transformation of the political practice of present day communist activists themselves, who may believe in an anti-caste ideology but are unable to put it into political practice in their own neighbourhoods.

Second, the acknowledgement of class contradictions within the Dalits needs to be translated into the mobilisation of the most vulnerable within the Dalits. In other words a transformed working class consciousness can form the basis of a democratic Dalit politics. But such a challenge can only be met if class based politics is strengthened and expanded amongst the Dalits and Dalit dominated regions.As far as the potential of non-class Dalit politics is concerned, it may be noted that our discussion of the concrete material conditions has shown that Ambedkarite politics has a limited counter hegemonic potential. While it is true that representation of Dalits in the political sphere broadens the social basis of the democratic structure, it does not necessarily alter or improve the material conditions of the Dalits.

A glance at the political sphere in fact shows that the beneficiaries of representation in the political sphere possess a ruling class consciousness and therefore fail to have a vision for social transformation which will form the basis of the annihilation of caste. However, at present, non-class based Dalit political movements are crucial political allies in stopping the rightwing Sangh Parivar from spreading its tentacles within historically vulnerable social groups and the working classes. This emerging potent combination of the left-Dalits in Indian universities (for example the support for Ambedkar study circle by the Students Federation of India in IIT Madras and Hyderabad) has threatened the hegemony of the Modi led rightwing developmental discourse.

In this sense ‘Jai Bhim, Lal Salaam’ may be a slogan that is relevant and necessary in the context of an immediate political reality. But the project of social transformation needs to go both beyond just this slogan. Ambedkarites need to firmly address the class dimension of the Dalit question if they are to in fact bring about the fundamental social transformation they seek.At the same time the slogan of ‘Lal Salaam Jai Bhim’ by communist activists is an important recognition by democratic working class politics of the challenges it faces in bringing about fundamental social transformations under contemporary Hindutva led capitalism.


[1] Ambedkar’s reply to Mahatma Gandhi in Appendix II Annihilation of Caste, 1936, in Selected Works of B.R. Ambedkar accessed from http://drambedkarbooks.wordpress.com.
[2] Ambekar ‘Buddha or Karl Marx’ in Selected Works of B.R. Ambedkar, p.598.
[3] Ambedkar ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanisms, Genesis and Development.
[4] Sharad Patil, ‘Dialectics of Caste and Class Conflicts’ Economic and Political Weekly, Volume 14, No 7/8 1979.
[5] Ambedkar, ‘India and the Pre-requisites of communism’, in Selected Works of B.R. Ambedkar, p.1124.
[6] V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai, Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium, Samya 2008.
[7] Hugo Gorringe, Untouchable Citizens: Dalit Politics and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu, Sage, 2005.
[8]  For example see instances in P. Sundarrayya’s interview to Hardeo Sharma, Oral Transcript Number 449, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi, 1974. Also see narratives of anti-caste struggles in Malabar or movements on discrimination against adivasis in Thane. For a fuller theoretical explanation of this see Archana Prasad, ‘Class, Community and Identity’ in Amiya Bagchi and Amita Chatterji eds., Marxism: Marx and Beyond Marx, Routledge, 2013.
[9] Quoted in Irfan Habib, ‘Kosambi, Marxism and Indian History’ Economic and Political Weekly Volume  43 Number 30, 2008.
[10] EMS Namboodripad, ‘Caste Conflict Versus Growing Popular Unity of Democratic Forces’ Economic and Political Weekly Volume 14 Number 7/8, 1979.
[11]  Javeed Alam, Who Wants Democracy, Orient Blackswan, second edition, 2012.
[12] National Sample Survey Organisation, Household Ownership and Operational Holdings in India (Jan-Dec 2013, NSSO Report Number 571, November 2015, p.28.
[13] Calculated from Table 4 in Ibid., p. A-210.
[14]  Calculated from Table 8 with detailed data for different states on the basis of Ibid., pp. 436-468.



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