by Bernard D’Mello

Left intellectual activists often find it necessary to pen historical accounts of the nature of the processes they have been struggling against—racism, casteism, patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. Predictably, political partisans of the official positions in the higher academy invariably argue that the works of these intellectuals are not “objective”, and even try to “purge” them from the university in order to safeguard the “venerable institution” from “politicisation”. We need to however keep in mind that these intellectual activists write from the vantage point of commitment to liberation. Unlike establishment academics, they tend to give a great deal of importance to the successes and failures of the liberation movements of the past, and to human agency in making history.

One such intellectual activist, Angela Davis, sought to link the collective predicament of black people in the United States (US) and Dalits in India at the Eighth Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture in Mumbai on 16 December on the topic “Black Lives, Dalit Lives: Histories and Solidarities”. While acknowledging that “race and caste are not fundamentally the same; they are two different modes of subjugation”, she emphasised the importance of “learning from the long histories of Dalit peoples in India.” Angela’s lecture was a great opportunity to learn about the struggles for black liberation in the US, past and present, and to realise that such liberation is essential to the liberation of all people, and impossible without it.

Angela was at one time a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party, and has also been a member of the Communist Party USA. There was a time when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) considered her a fugitive and named her “the most wanted criminal in America” for a crime she did not commit and for which she was later found innocent by the courts. In 1969, Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, tried to get her barred from teaching in any university in that state.

When I think about Anuradha Ghandy (Anu) in the latter years of her life, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), invariably there’s this image of her dressed in fatigues, wearing an olive green cap with a star on it, and with a rifle slung over her shoulder, and of course, smiling, as always. Anu’s parents, comrades Kumud and Ganesh Shanbag, rational and progressive, raised their daughter Anuradha to decide what she wanted to do with her life and she joined the Revolution (Kranti). The Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sanghatan (KAMS) is justifiably proud of Anu (Janaki was what her comrades called her), and so too is the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights among whose founder-members Anu was in the late 1970s. The image of Angela Davis as an African–American revolutionary woman, at one time a significant figure of the Communist Party USA, and also a professor admired and respected by her students, like Anu once was, comes close.

Talking about her early life “in a family which had numerous ties to individuals in the Communist Party”, Angela recalls: “Because of my mother’s connection with communists, we were often followed by the FBI during the McCarthy era. By the age of six, I was already aware of the extent to which the government would pursue people who had different ideas of what kind of social order should prevail in this country. … I was fortunate enough to have a history teacher who openly espoused Marxism and encouraged us to think critically about the class interests represented by dominant historiography.”

The Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Committee (AGMC), very graciously, even though the professors whom it contacted informally expressed the Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ reluctance to share costs, arranged for Angela and her colleague Gina Dent to speak at this private university. This Angela did, on abolitionist feminism and on the US prison–industrial complex, and also closely interacted with the students there. Angela is well known for her the-present-as-history accounts of black incarceration, a subject of immense importance in the context of present-day mass incarceration of black males. The AGMC also wanted her to spend an evening with writers, poets, artists, theatre and cinema persons, and contacted Literature Live to host the event. But unfortunately Literature Live seemed to be quite ignorant of Angela’s abhorrence of cultural commodification. It planned to have a person, who personifies, more than anyone else in Mumbai, the cynical view that all culture, ideas, and expressions are no more than mere commodities in the capitalist marketplace, in conversation with Angela, leaving the latter with no option but to decline the Literature Live invitation.

More than anything else, Angela had come to India to meet and interact with activists, and it was heartening to learn from her that the black liberation movement in the US is now no longer beholden to “messianic black (male) leaders promising liberation in exchange for deference” and that the current Black-Lives-Matter movement was unlike any other in the past, with black feminist women-activists in the forefront.

What also came across in Angela’s lecture was the interplay of continuity with change in the racist lynching of blacks in the past and the 2014 incident of a police officer shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or the 2015 murder by Baltimore police of 25-year-old Freddie Grey despite a black political establishment being in-charge of the city. In a fundamental sense, whether in the past or the present, what has been happening in the US is a sort of state-sanctioned killing of black people. Such killing, whether through lynching by white supremacists in the past or murder at the hands of the police in the present, can be seen as the ultimate reaffirmation of the racist sentiment of white superiority.

We need to remind ourselves that both exploitation and racial discrimination are rooted in the very structure of American capitalism. One might then think of African-American and white workers as potential natural allies in a common struggle against the white ruling class. But racist ideology (claiming white superiority–coloured inferiority) still effectively divides the exploited and the oppressed. This ideology has its roots in capitalism’s initial international expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries and in its need for readily exploitable labour from among the natives, whether they are yellow or brown, red or black, with the latter forcibly recruited as slaves from Africa (indeed, it was the slave trade that principally underdeveloped that continent) to take advantage of the natural resources of America. The American Civil War did lead to the abolishment of slavery, but racial prejudice and segregation prevented the building of working-class solidarity of black, brown, red and white workers. In the decades since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a black political establishment has also evolved. Now, the black liberation struggle is crushed by the white ruling class with a combination of cooptation and repression that relies much more than before on the former.

In India, the Dalit struggle for liberation centres around the annihilation of caste, which, unlike race, originated in pre-historic times. Despite the development of underdeveloped capitalism from the colonial period onwards, the caste system still manages to stabilise and rigidify the social structure of Indian society. While the race problem does present a profound threat to the status quo in the US, caste, by and large, with its structure of “graded inequality”, has served as a conservative and divisive stabilising institution, despite the deep humiliation and indignity, cruelty and brutality that its main victims, the Dalits, are made to suffer. Caste thus remains a profoundly unequal and oppressive socio-religious institution that significantly determines access to the means of production, and also significantly structures the relations of production. Indeed, both exploitation and caste discrimination are rooted in the very structure of India’s underdeveloped capitalism. Caste as a social institution is antithetical to a sharing of the society’s resources and opportunities on equal terms.

The caste system has deeply divided and degraded the downtrodden peoples of India. Indeed, sweepers, scavengers, and gutter and latrine cleaners, the most downtrodden of the lot, are treated as untouchables by other untouchables. So, while caste-Hindus treat the untouchables as pariahs, a subset of the latter treats the even more degraded untouchables in the same way. Despite creating an avenue for individual upward mobility and improving the average income, educational and occupational levels of the “backward castes” and the Dalits, protective discrimination in the form of “reservations”—in the political system, in higher education and in government employment—has set the disadvantaged peoples of India further apart, even widening the disparities between them, and has thereby further fragmented the already divided masses. Caste is even more incompatible with the development of working-class consciousness than race. No one would wish the plight of India upon any other country. Class differentiation has led to very unequal access to wealth and income, healthcare and education, and a whole lot of other needs and opportunities. By itself, it is a very harsh form of inequality, but when it traverses caste and gender, as it does, the results and the experiences have been even more extreme.

Having spoken what I consider to be the truth about caste, I must state that my intention is not to cast a blanket of gloom over the Dalit question in India. Most political struggles do not result in a decisive upper hand for either side; elements of success and failure are intertwined; there are, after all, no positives without negatives. In this sense, 2016 was a significant year in the struggle for Dalit liberation. The year marked 10 years since the barbarism of Khairlanji in the Bhandara district of the province of Maharashtra, where four members of a Dalit family were lynched on 29 September 2006 in a most gruesome manner by persons who belonged mainly to the politically-dominant, “backward caste” Kunbi-Maratha jati (sub-caste). In the face of a short period of governmental, civil-society and big-media indifference to what had happened, Maharashtra’s Dalit community took awhile to react defiantly, but when it did, the government came down on the demonstrators with a very heavy hand. After all, the dispute at Khairlanji had a lot to do with land and a pending case against some Kunbi-Marathas under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Early 2016 witnessed the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, at first deprived of his fellowship because the authorities couldn’t countenance his politics under the banner of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA). What raised the level of intolerance of the authorities even more was when Rohit came into the forefront of the ASA’s campaign against the death penalty for Yakub Memon (convicted in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts) and its condemnation of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s (ABVP, the student-wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party) attack in Delhi on a screening of a documentary film on the Muzaffarnagar killings of Muslims. An ABVP false-complaint to a BJP Union Minister, Bandaru Dattaraye (a prominent member of the “backward-caste” political establishment), was forwarded to the then Union Human Resource Development Minister, Smriti Irani, and onward to the university’s vice-chancellor, professor P Appa Rao, which led to Rohit’s suspension. In the Dalit–Lives–Matter kind of movement that followed, the role of persons like Radhika Vemula, Rohit’s mother, has been remarkable.

But for Dalits, more kicks in the teeth and smacks in the face were in store. In July 2016, under the pretext of protecting the cow, in the vicinity of Una town in Gir Somnath district of Gujarat, four young Dalit men were stripped and beaten with chains by Hindutvavadi gau-rakshaks (cow protectors) for allegedly killing a cow when they were only skinning the dead animal for their livelihood. Proud of what they had done, the gau rakshaks put a video of the thrashing on social media, but this sparked off a wave of Dalit protests in Gujarat and other parts of the country, backed by the left.

Despite the lofty ideals of the Indian Constitution, the upper- and “backward”-caste establishment, with the latter having internalised the Brahminical culture, still don’t seem to think that the Dalits are human beings. However, there is a definite change from the past that is striking, if one recalls the Keezhavenmani killings of 1968 and the Dalit massacres of the late 1970s in what was then central Bihar. More than ever before, there is also a Dalit establishment in place—ministers in the union and state cabinets, members of parliament and the state legislative assemblies, backed by Dalit officials in the civil bureaucracy, the police and the judiciary—that seems to have no fundamental political differences with the status quo.

The dominant-caste Marathas, including the Kunbis, have come out aggressively demanding amendments of the Atrocities Act and reservations for themselves in the context of other such dominant castes also gunning for reservations—e.g., the Jats in Haryana and the Patels in Gujarat. The atrocities against Dalits must be seen in the context of such political consolidation of dominant, landowning, “backward castes” since the 1970s. Given the “graded inequality” of the hierarchically structured caste system, fragmented at every level, which also shapes access to economic and intellectual resources, the most acute contradictions are no longer between the upper castes (the foremost beneficiaries of the system) and the Dalits (the foremost victims) but between the latter and the jatis in the middle or even those more adjacent to them.

Predictably, the academic establishment is so divided over the caste question that arguments are—more often than not—not met by counter-arguments but with a vocabulary almost bordering on insinuation, innuendo and abuse. Need one remind the academic establishment that besides its obligations to the powers that give it its authority and pelf, and funds its research, it also has obligations toward the people whom it studies, its colleagues and the sciences it pursues, and its students who, we are delighted to find, are once again questioning that establishment’s goals, commitments and ethics?

We, of course, hold that nobody—Ambedkarites included—has a monopoly of the truth about caste; we should be open to a process of mutual learning. The Dalit question is all about Dalit liberation. Like black liberation in the US, Dalit liberation is essential to the liberation of all people, and impossible without it. Indeed, Anuradha Ghandy too felt very deeply that Dalit, adivasi and women’s liberation were part of the fight for “New Democracy”. Indeed, for her they were a prerequisite for any kind of genuine democracy in India, and she was instrumental in shaping this policy and its programmatic aspects for the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (People’s War) in the 1990s, which went on to become the CPI (Maoist) in 2004. As Anu once put it, “(t)he Dalits alone, constituting 16% of the population, cannot break the stranglehold of caste, let alone win the battle against caste oppression. The broader unity of the oppressed, cutting across caste lines, is a precondition for winning the fight against the caste system.” For Angela Davis, her Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture was a profound expression of international solidarity; for the AGMC too, the invitation to Angela Davis was in keeping with its effort to uphold the spirit of the Internationale!


[1] This essay draws considerably from two editorial drafts I prepared for the Economic & Political Weekly, which appeared as editorials in its weekly issues of December 24 and 31, 2016 as “The Dalit Question” and “Race and Caste”, respectively.

[2] “Build, Rebuild & Consolidate Communities: ANGELA DAVIS | 8th Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture”, video by Satyen K Bardoloi at

[3] In an interview that has been reprinted in The Angela Davis Reader edited by Joy James, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

[4] I would like to qualify this controversial statement of fact with the expression of certain nuances. The wider spread of higher education as a result of reservations has contributed to a more forthright articulation of the ideas of justice and equality, this, by “backward-caste” and Dalit intellectuals. And, one must acknowledge that it is also from the labour and the motivation of the “backward-caste” and Dalit poor that a “backward-caste” and Dalit middle class has emerged. Moreover, some members of this new “backward-caste”/Dalit middle class have maintained their close ties with the “backward-caste”/ Dalit poor. And, some of them have also joined the revolutionary movement alongside the backward-caste/Dalit poor.

[5] Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy, edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, Delhi, 2011.

[6] Scripting the Change, p. 91.


Bernard D’Mello is Deputy Editor, Economic & Political Weekly, and a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai, and the Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Committee.

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