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Dr Bharat Patankar

Participating in an international seminar on ‘Dalits and African-Americans in 21st century: Learning from cross-cultural experiences’ at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bengaluru recently to celebrate the 100th anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar’s graduation from Columbia University, the author observes that change is in the offing for Dalits and Afro-Amercians, who may emerge as leading creators of a new society, bringing with them all oppressed, including women

The author (right) seen with (l to r) Kevin Brown, Professor of Law at Indiana University, S. Japhet of the Centre for the Study
of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, and Gail Omvedt, noted scholar, writer and human rights activist. Photo: NLSIU

For talking about changes in Dalit and Afro-American identities in the context of intensified capitalism, we have to begin with our understanding of imperialist globalization. Intensification of exploitation, intensification of the rate of profit, and intensification of monopolization has remained always the tendency in the development of the capitalist system world over. From the inception of capitalism, globalization has always remained a characteristic of the system. Starting from the creation of a national market, creation of wage labour as a part of generalized commodification and accumulation of capital from the world over were the special characteristics of the emerging capitalism from the womb of European feudalism.

Primitive accumulation of capital was one of the main sources for strengthening the base of capitalism and for that, colonization of the societies world over was used for looting raw materials, for getting them at a cheap rate, for acquiring indentured labour, where it was necessary to be supplemented and for creating captive assured markets for the commodities produced at the center. This made capitalism to intensify wars for colonies, intensify loot for getting gold and resources which were necessary as raw material and intensification of the rate of exploitation of labourers for increasing the rate of profit.

In the next stage, capitalism entered a stage when it started exporting capital to the colonies, starting capitalist production processes in the colonies themselves. Of course, cheap labour was easily available and because there was no limit of eight hours in the working day, they could intensify the extraction of surplus value by making workers work even for eighteen hours. But with this stage, trading capital from the colonies started emerging and some part of it started getting invested to start production processes like composite cotton mills producing yarn. By killing the domestic artisan production which was going on in all the villages in a country like India, the colonial capital not only killed the competition but also created new labour force which had skills as artisans to join the new capitalist labour market, and they expanded the market for factory-produced commodities in the space made available by the stoppage of artisan production.

Third stage comes up with the emergence of monopoly capital at a world level basically getting concentrated by the amalgamation of industrial and finance capital and dominating both the capital investment market and general commodity market the world over. This is the period when the capitalist system at world level was about to enter in crisis which actually got materialized during the twenties and early thirties. The beginning of the Keynesian economics as a solution to the crisis comes in during this period. And the bourgeois state in various countries started investing for the public utilities, education, health, social security measures etc. This began the stage where the state itself started investing capital into the public domain and started becoming capitalist owner itself.

But this was not the step which was taken by capitalism as a progressive step or as a measure to create facilities for the labouring masses so that they can get health and education as generalized services at cheap rates. On the contrary this was a measure to come out of the crisis by creating a sector which is directly not a productive sector and which gives money in the hands of the various sections which become necessary for running this sector, in turn creating a home market for the commodities produced by the industrial sector overcoming the particular crisis in that period. But following this period, various states started investing also in the productive sector, particularly the defense sector.

The countries which came out of the colonial domination and became independent nation-states started investing in the infrastructure industries as a response to the emergence of native capitalism, which didn’t want at that stage to invest in this sector requiring huge capital investment with slow returns on the investment. Sectors like nationalized banks, state-owned insurance companies are the products of this period.

The main stage of the world capitalist system unfolds itself up to the imperialist globalization after this stage in which monopoly capital loses its national character and really becomes trans-national in all respects. In the new stage of capitalism which can also be called as imperialist globalization, the capitalists have stopped caring for the country of their origin and without bothering about creating as well as slowness of development; they have various alliances with other trans-nationals, wherever they get cheap labour, cheap land and opportunities of producing commodities with relatively low investment. They formed worldwide chains or cartels, and functioned as the capital at world level.

There emerges a branch of capitalists propagating eco-capitalism, which talks against the polluting industries and global warming, the process of exhausting natural resources the world over. This kind of capitalism which is a product of imperialist globalization takes a futuristic attitude and uses the renewable resources as a base of production but in a monopoly form of ownership while by nature of these renewable resources, people-controlled decentralization production is possible. This stage also gives rise to the Black capital, Dalit capital, women entrepreneurs etc. They try to bring a new concept of erasing the identities of Afro-American or Dalit or enslaved and exploited people and say that they have found a way on which all the Afro-American and Dalit communities should start walking.

They also claim that by doing this those people who look down upon us and enslaved us on the basis of race and caste become our employees in our factories and companies, and on the basis of this we have started to reverse the process of Dalits and Afro-Americans getting continually oppressed and exploited. While saying this they don’t even realise that they are supporting the continuation of the system of exploitation of humans by humans and they want to become masters from slaves!

At the time of the inception of capitalist system, when capitalism was in the process of making labour power as a commodity, in USA and in some other countries, African Americans were made slaves and sold as commodities, body and mind together, to serve the emerging modern capitalism. This was not a slavery of a pre-feudal type but slavery of the capitalist era. The identity of the Afro-Americans in this period was as slaves fighting to get liberated from slavery.

During the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War in the USA, abolition of slavery became a decision of the state. But the racism and oppression and exploitation based on racism started taking a modern form, making Afro-Americans sellers of their labour in the market. But this did not change their identity as oppressed Afro-Americans because their position in the class relations in the USA was determined not by any other thing but by their race of origin. But the identity of the slave was erased, replaced by the equal citizen, having equal rights at least as provided by the law. In practice, in civil society, these rights couldn’t be exercised by them and so the continual struggle against racism and racial exploitation continues even today.

The process through which Dalits in South Asia, particularly India, went through took a different route. At the inception of the capitalist system Dalits could get away from the graded inequality of the caste system by joining the military forces of the various colonial powers, particularly the British. Because the British did not know anything about the caste system and the concept of purity-impurity attached with it, they treated them as anyone else employed in the military. This gave Dalits a chance to get educated, and experience a different relation with other humans which are not part of the graded inequality. Even before this, in the Marathi-speaking areas, a king like Shivaji emerged from a peasant background – hated by the Brahmans and so-called Kshatriyas as an upstart – and started employing Dalits into his armed forces, even appointing them lieutenants of the forts.

This provided an opportunity for Dalits to gain some freedom and revolt against the inequality of the caste system. The Mahar Regiment created by the British which fought the Peshwa army in the battle of Bhima-Koregaon near Pune is an example of the valiant Dalits tracing their military ancestry to Shivaji’s time. Dalits started getting organized as Adi-Hindus, Adi-Andhras, and Adi-Dravidas all over the country and then under the leadership of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar in the struggle of caste annihilation, or as he himself said, struggle for abolition of Brahmanism and capitalism. Before him, in the mid to late 19th century, Mahatma Jotirao Phule came up as a leader of the movement against the caste system, trying to unite Stri, Shudra and Ati-Shudra (women, bahujans and dalits), and giving alternative cultural and economic and social programs for the movement. All this process gave Dalits an identity as fighters against the caste system and upcoming capitalism.

Though there is a debate among the Dalits in general and Buddhist Dalits in particular about why they should call themselves “Dalits (when) we are human beings fighting for liberation.” But the Dalit identity is still evoked in the popular culture and in the popular movement today. The effects of imperialist globalization on this identity will not help them come out of it, but instead strengthen this identity. This is evident in the increased killings of Dalit youth engaging in inter-caste marriages, or love affairs, or the massacres of Dalits asserting themselves as free individuals equal to any upper caste dominant group in the village or city.

Increase in incidents of caste oppression is because of the fact that today’s capitalism doesn’t allow all oppressed castes in various hierarchies to come together but disperses them and pits them against each other – asserting their superiority over other in absence of a better world that they dream about, but find destroyed by capitalism in the present stage. Even in cities, in the middleclass flats and localities, incidences of banning of Dalits as residents are increasing.

If we go into the changes in the identities of Dalits, we can find that a few upwardly mobile groups have emerged from among them. One is that of educated, white-collar employees or persons doing petty bourgeois jobs, and second is Dalit capitalists and entrepreneurs. But these two new identities, which try to say theirs is the way for the liberation of Dalits, cannot be trusted by Dalits. This is because more than 95% Dalits are either agricultural, unskilled or contract labourers, rag and trash pickers, sweepers and scavengers etc. These jobs still remind them that they are supposed to do jobs that are “dirty” and mechanically repetitive, labour-intensive ones that don’t require intellectual labour. So the lowest grade, which was there in the traditional Jajmani or balutedari system, is reincarnated in the new form as a part of imperialist globalization.

So it seems from this situation that Afro-Americans as well as Dalits (not only in India or South Asia, but the world over) are in the process of consolidating their identity in a new enlightened form standing on the shoulders of the movements of their ancestors for liberating themselves from all kinds of exploitations. But consolidation of identities within themselves is what the system wants to happen. The system wants that they should not lead the overall liberation program based on the dream of creating a new humane, prosperous, exploitation-free and ecologically balanced society, that they should not break the barriers created by the existing capitalist social formation between themselves and other coloured people, other oppressed, marginalized communities or castes etc.

That is why it is the need of the hour that both these sections should not look at themselves as preys to the system, but as leading creators of a new society, bringing with them all oppressed, including women. This and only this can give them a new identity. As Namdev Dhasal says: “We should stop being the fellow travelers of darkness and carriers of the weight of eras of darkness, but we should turn our face towards the sun and become the carriers of the new light where the new sun will rise.”

This change is in the offing, if we look at the turn the movements of Afro-Americans in the USA are taking, and also the Dalit movements are trying to take in India.

Dr. Bharat Patankar is a leading activist intellectual of the left wing Shramik Mukti Dal and of the peasant movement (especially the dam-oustees and drought affected) in South Maharashtra. He is also one of the architects of the equitable water distribution movement in Maharashtra and has worked for over 40 years among workers, farmers, agricultural labourers, and radical anti-caste cultural movements

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