On a lesser hero of Indian Politics – Lohia and Caste in Indian Politics


The following is a review of political thoughts and writings of Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia who happens to be a lesser known figure of Indian independence movement and of the political transformation that unfolded in the 1950-70 period.

Lohia’s vision of egalitarian politics appears to be a case of lost opportunity for Indian politics and its leaders. It is a lost opportunity in a sense that had the rapidly rising regional political parties spared some time thinking about what kind of identity they are creating for themselves and their people they would have done much towards transforming the state of their lot as well as works towards nation building. This transformation one might add has often been the common denominator for almost all the political parties that have come up post- independence. Tragically, in India such a discourse on transformative politics remained on the fringes of mainstream politics. This mainstream comprised of the Congress party’s variety of politics by social consensus driven by political hegemony of small elite.

The following thoughts draw from Lohia’s essay “Towards the Destruction of Castes and Classes in India” written in 1959 edited by D.L Sheth. It outlines Lohia’s political and social ideas which he felt can transform society. His key concerns were – justice, equality and a society without caste in India which will lead to a certain variety of politics that is constructive and in the best interest of the nation. Democratic aspirations of Indian masses are based on caste and regional factors notes Lohia. Political coalitions built not on caste associations but on large and material interests will bring about a transformation in Indian society. A key concern to him remains the evil of caste system which must be tackled with a ‘crusade’ against it. The paper reasons that adult franchise may help in destroying upper caste domination. Noticing that regional parties are also caste parties, evidences of caste dynamics are cited from Maharasthra (with Mahars displacing Brahmins from their traditional place at the top of social domination), Tamil Nadu (with the two Dravidian parties asserting regional identities), Andhra Pradesh (where Harijan, Kammas and Communism have a peculiar political interaction) and Bengal. In all these states he observes that caste has significantly coloured the political processes. Most numerous group tends to acquire political and economic privileges. Therefore, if the disadvantaged groups of lower castes aspire to achieve such privileged position then it is imperative that they rise above the caste distinction. This is because a caste based association will never help them achieve numerical majority as there exist a vast variety of castes. He anticipates that this is problematic and will in the future lead to disastrous consequences to Indian politics and further to the vision of nation building which occupied the imagination of leaders of early decades of independence.

Lohia attempts to provide a radically different social and cultural basis to politics which transcends caste based distinction. He identifies that economic and power relationships have traditionally been allocated to hereditary groups by ritual status. Class stratification due to modernization has created gaps. These gaps are being filled by caste groups. Such a layered social structure will lead to inequities and in the end may not achieve what it ought to i.e. a complete abolishment of caste. Instead it will only lead to displacement of higher caste by lower caste in domination and power status.

He attempts to transcend caste – caste dichotomy and attempts to guide the political processes to the larger goal of nation building. The ruling class he observes has three characteristics – high caste, wealth and English education. These are the means through which the higher caste has made itself distinct from the lower castes. One must understand how this operates in order to realize social justice. This is further complicated by caste – gender segregation. Emerging social coalitions he suggests should be of ‘a single exclusive party of disposed and disabled humanity in the country’.

Considering the range of ideas and themes that Lohia engages with in this paper, he appears to be an original thinker, not necessarily in line with the prevalent political thought of his times. Influence of European socialist traditions on his political thought is evident when he considers the interaction between caste and class and tries to orient the course of struggle in a manner that caste based distinction is eliminated and various groups of people identify themselves under class.

It is remarkable how the arguments made by Lohia on caste and politics in his times are relevant today. He warned against caste – politics interaction that is likely to arise and a possible ‘politicization of castes’ and ‘casteisation of politics’. Both of these have now happened and in a good measure at that.  A recent controversy over Ashish Nandy’s comment on people from SC and ST community being corrupt and the consequent response from leading thinkers from SC and ST community is in many ways a realization of the scenario that Lohia warned against. The fracture in the Indian society in six decades of Independence are now prominent enough and is deeply polarizing public and social life in India. It is difficult for the diverse range of castes to imagine themselves without their caste label and instead think of themselves in any other way. For instance, they could identify themselves as Indians first (nationalism too is problematic, but perhaps much lesser than caste) yet the first choice seems to be caste.

This said, peripheral location of Lohia’s thoughts in India politics should also be noted. How could Indian society where caste and social heterogeneity is so deeply entrenched start thinking with a completely new frame – that of no caste. It can be argued that caste assertion has brought about a positive change in the social, economic and political situation of lower caste as well.

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