Ram Manohar Lohia and His Tackling of Caste Issue Essay

This paper will study how and why caste became so crucial to Ram Manohar Lohia’s politics. This would be understood by tracing the different dimensions of some of his theoretical and political activities, specifically on caste and even otherwise. So, for example, how Lohia drew his own grand historical narrative through Wheel of History, that contextualised caste in a certain way, or how this understanding of caste also allowed him to incorporate other sites of power in his social theory for India, that subsequently shaped his politics.

Of course, such an attempt thrives on an assessment of the chronology of some of Lohia’s positions over the course of his life. Doing so, allows one to recognise the context and influences that shaped Lohia’s perspective, in this case, on caste. It is so interesting then, to realise that his politics on caste was framed in post-independent India, that period of time when celebrations welcoming a new nation were getting over and it was time to deal with some real issues.

Lohia, an important constituent of the Congress Socialist Party, and a trusted aide of Jawaharlal Nehru so far in the nationalist struggle, suddenly grew inimical to him and the Congress party. The discord is traced back to the struggle for civil rights of Goans against the Portugese administration in 1946 and the general complain that the satyagraha movement envisaged by Lohia was not reaping fruits due to disinterest of the Executive Committee of Congress, that comprised all Brahmins.

Lohia, even as he tried to being in new members from other castes, lamented that he could not achieve much success. This episode brought him face to face with the harsh reality of how deep rooted casteism is in Indian social fabric and how difficult and perplexing it is to uproot it. Post independence, in 1948, socialists in Congress decide to go their own way, though there were different streams amongst them on the question of cordiality with Congress.

In 1951, caste once again became important in the political arena, when the Directive Principle of State Policy to provide any special provision for the educational, economic or social advancement of any backward class of citizen was invoked and an amendment to Article 15(3) was brought about so that such measures by the state could not be challenged on ground of being discriminatory in the future. The Indian state was now in the midst of dealing with these issues openly.

The Kalekar Backward Caste Commission recommendations too were rejected by Nehru and his ruling Congress government in 1955 on grounds that caste is not a sufficient index for determining backwardness and that caste based reservations had the potency to reinforcing these structures. For Lohia, this aversion to deal with caste and to regard everything as an economic problem by Congress was construed as emanating from its elitist leadership, which wanted to continue with the present structures, to maintain their hegemony.

Lohia’s generic understanding of caste and class. The first general elections of free India were won by Congress in full majority. Soon after, Nehru took up vociferous centralised economic planning, assuming that economic progress will be a remedy to social ailments of the Indian society. His style of governance showed signs of besottedness with the Soviet Union kind of State-sponsored economic development project and sharp influence of Euro-centric norms of centralisation of power.

For Lohia, this was an inadequate outlook to deal with caste, and the larger Indian social circumstances. Thus, Lohia was sceptical of both a communist and liberalist solution for the country. He reasoned that both these perspectives were Euro-centric in nature. The model of socialism in Soviet Union was no different from capitalism, since it also stressed heavy, rigorous industrialisation by a leviathan State, instead of private capitalist players.

He had earlier itself, in his Economics after Marx, 1943 (incomplete) critiqued Karl Marx’s linear progression of history as only being concerned for bringing socialism to Europe and failing to take into cognizance the poverty and deprivation of non-Europe caused by industrial revolution and imperialist tendencies of European societies. The situation at home and his larger socialist instincts must have propounded him to pen his own grand narrative, Wheel of History, away from existing views of history.

In 1952, he was working on an alternative theory of social change in terms of internal oscillation between a rigidly defined social stratification, caste and a more mobile social stratification, class; and the external shift of power between regions in the world; with an interconnected movement between the two. His contention was that a region remained powerful, economically and politically as long as it kept improving its technical and organisational efficiency, which however is a very one dimensional procedure of seeking efficiency.

Such a situation allows for internal mobility in the society, characterised as class behaviour with its own manageable tiffs for equality status. However, as soon as the society reaches its saturation level of one-dimensional growth, and compromise between classes becomes impossible, it restricts social mobility and converts itself into a caste conglomerate, while simultaneously losing its place of dominance amongst other regions. There are continuous upsurges for movement from class to caste and vice versa in all regions.

A region annexes its dominance again by sorting out the internal conflict, and initiating a movement from caste to class again. Thus, in societies there is constant movement between caste and class, caste comes and goes, and it is this resolution of conflict between them that takes a society forward. However, when a society’s internal oscillation becomes passive at the stage of caste immobility, stagnation steeps in, as was witnessed in Indian societies. Importance of the theory to his politics What this theory does for Lohia’s politics on caste is two-fold. At one level, he changes the way class was interpreted in the Western discourse, and at another level he does the same for caste, and shows it to be a universal phenomenon and reduces the two as interchangeable structures. At the next level, this theorisation lets Lohia do something profoundly unique that gave life to his politics.

He formulated that the fact caste persists in Indian society and is unable to revert to class mobility in this chain of oscillation means there is a need to study how other dimensions of political, economic, cultural power hierarchies manifest in the continuity of caste through linkages and connectivity with each other. Thus, in 1953, he gave his theory of the interconnectivity of caste and gender discrimination. He propositioned that segregation on caste basis and gender discrimination in India take place simultaneously and therefore stem from he same ideological perspective. Hence the agitation to liquidate caste discrimination would invariably represent voices against gender discrimination as well. His politics of an intersectionalist approach for understanding the inequalities, exclusions and exploitations basically goes on to establish the interconnectivity and intersectionality of caste, class, gender and language. So, he says, that all women, even those who are high caste, are oppressed within the power hierarchies.

Next, he targets the class differences within high castes and calls out to the poor dwijas who he puts at being nearly 90%, against the rich dwijas who despite being a minuscule number have control over all political, economic resources. He even highlights the elitism of English speaking Indians to the non-English speaking masses. And of course, there are the lower castes, amongst whom, however, not all are poor and suffering from exploitation.

This approach allows him to devise his own interpretation of a ruling class against whom all the oppressors had to strike to combat caste divisions, and simultaneously other political, economic, social and cultural hierarchies. This ruling class was characterised by any two of the three features – High caste, English speaking, Wealthy. Thus, even though Lohia understood that caste was a primary form of inequality in Indian society, he also recognised that there are other social divisions in the system as well, and that what exists is a ‘complex phenomenon of graded and cross-cutting inequalities. Thus, even though Lohia understood that caste was a primary form of inequality in Indian society, he also recognised that there are other social divisions in the system as well, and that what exists is a ‘complex phenomenon of graded and cross-cutting inequalities. ’ This understanding also called for forging ties with other interest groups, seeking a unified struggle, as was aimed through the merger of National Backward Class Federation with Lohia’s Socialist Party in 1957. His politics was thus shaped by the urge to deal with this complexity of inequality.

Principle of Equality in Lohia’s socialism and practice For Lohia, equality was at the crux of his socialist theoretical formulation and politics. Yet, his equality was so different from the traditional communists and socialist understandings. In contrast to their notions of equality as that requiring parity within economic classes of a society, Lohia formulated the concept of equality along two dimensions. One dimension of equality was represented by the binary of inner and outward equality, which followed straight from his theory of history and held a universal appeal.

The other dimension was represented by the binary of spiritual and material equality. The interaction of these dimensions yielded the four components of his more comprehensive concept of equality – inner-material (equality within a nation), outer-material (equality among nations), outer-spiritual (equality as kinship or fraternity) and inner-spiritual (equality as equanimity). Such equality, for Lohia, was to be achieved through Seven Revolutions, to crack seven kinds of inequalities.

These seven dimensions included revolutions to end gender inequality; caste inequality; class inequality; racial inequality; and inequality among nations. By doing so, he emphasised the autonomy of the various dimensions of social life that required revolutionary transformation and did not merely lead a narrowly understood caste based movement in Indian politics. He wanted people to reject the “old caste policy” that created a vertical solidarity of castes, and instead create a “new caste policy” to bring solidarity of all marginalised sections, economically, socially, culturally.

These revolutions were to materialise as concrete economic and political demands on the State by people, who he brought together through his synthesis of caste-class-gender-language hierarchies, talked about earlier in the paper. Thus he lifted the mantle for preferential opportunities for the marginalised ‘majority’, his call for 60% reservation for them, which implied reservations for not just lower castes but women, poor upper castes, Dalits, Shudras, depressed sections amongst Muslims and Christians and Adivasis.

However, merely providing reservation opportunities was not enough, and could only lead to prosperity of a mere few, while the caste-class system would continue flourishing. Lohia had no patience for such caste politics. In fact, he often criticised caste politics of Marathas and Lingayats as resulting in prosperity of only there people, and in fact, emerging as a kind of Ruling elite. Thus, along with political implements, Lohia wanted economic-socio policies to tackle poverty and the power structures of oppression.

Both had to go together, and neither was sufficient in itself. Other influences on his politics Lohia’s tackling of caste, theoretically and politically was also heavily influenced by his nationalist vigour. It cannot be doubted that Lohia was a committed nationalist at heart. And his tactic to seek equality for all marginalised sections of society, and not be limited by a narrow understanding of caste stems from his desire to hold the nation together by eradicating problems of all. In this sense, his politics on caste was way different from Ambedkar and Periyar.

For the two, caste inequality held sole centrality; it was what led to other forms of inequality. Also, their politics concerned certain sections of caste and Lohia never believed in mobilisation of individual castes. And to top it, Periyar even sought a separate Dravidistan! For Lohia, their politics was sectarian and thus, he began separate correspondence with them in the 1950s to understand their position on caste, as well as induct them in the large project of national unity through equality of all kinds of marginalised groups. Unfortunately, Ambedkar expired before Lohia could meet him personally.

To Periyar, he kept urging that instead of an anti-Brahmin movement, he should call his Self respect initiative as an anti-caste movement. Moreover, Lohia’s discourse on caste could never develop a critique of Hinduism; rather he made distinctions between conservative (Vashistha) tradition and liberal (Valmiki) tradition of Hinduism. One could interpret this as an unconscious manifestation of his nationalist fervour, as also traces of influence of Gandhi. ( In fact, his commitment to a non-violent socialism is also a reflection of his affinity to Gandhian principles. )

On closer scrutiny of his politics on caste issue, one will see that he had a fluid understanding for caste. So, while caste was a universal phenomenon in his socialist doctrine, Lohia did not stop from pointing to its specificity when he criticised Nehruvian vision of combating casteism through economic progress, and claimed that poverty might go, but it was no guarantee that caste structures would recede and dissolve as well. Yet, the fact that he acknowledged the importance of other economic, cultural, social dimensions along with caste was not only commendable, but quite radical for politics of that era.

His ability to see through the narrow vested interests of certain caste groups’ and deny them space within the socialist agenda speaks of his political acumen. What is also crucial is that Lohia himself did not accept a staunch belief in his wheels of theory doctrine, or the class-caste interchange by anyone. There was no absolute truth to his theory. Could this then imply that this was a theory to ignite political action? It could surely seem like a sensible approach to conduct politics, without assuming hypocrisy in intentions.