In this second interview, Vasu discusses in greater depth the issue of caste in India, and how the communist parties did not address it adequately, from the 1960s.
This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.
Vasu begins by suggesting that caste is the form class reification took in India, but that communist leaders failed to realize this. He then explains the historical origins of the caste system in India. Caste, he argues, has its roots in the division of labor, creating 4 large castes (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, & Shudra). As the Brahmin priest class emerged at the top, they legitimized the hierarchy they imagined by claiming to be closest to God, and creating separate deities for each class to worship, developing theological justifications for this. However, the Adivasis were not initially included in this caste hierarchy as they were treated as a tribal population outside mainstream society. It was only when Hindu activists like the RSS began working to revive the Hindu faith, and began their outreach to tribes from 1947, that Adivasis were belatedly included in the hierarchy. While Vasu sees Brahminical theology as superstition, he also acknowledges that the division of labor in the caste system served a pragmatic purpose. It facilitated the transmission of specialized skills that required a significant time commitment to master, at a time when individuals could only learn their ancestral trade. Marrying within the same community with the same traditions also provided cultural familiarity for brides joining a new family.
However, he feels that early communist leaders failed to realize the connection between the Marxist theory of class and caste in the Indian context. While they recognized that lower caste communities were being oppressed by upper-caste Jenmis, and felt that it was the responsibility of the communist movement to enlighten the victims, they did not identify caste itself as the root cause of the problem. Instead, it was the many welfare and social reformist groups in Kerala that articulated the problem of caste in this way. As such, Vasu finds that Kerala is unique amongst Indian states in achieving progress for oppressed communities; there was no national-level movement to uplift groups like the Adivasis.
For him, who began as a Communist Party of India (CPI) member and then moved to the CPI (Marxist) splinter party, this was a source of disillusionment with the mainstream communist parties; their preoccupation with electoral politics had led them to overlook the Marxist goal of ending class struggle. Instead, they were even building cordial relationships with the Jenmis who were oppressing Adivasis. He felt that this was a function of the fact that many communist leaders themselves came from upper-caste backgrounds, and could not eliminate caste conditioning from their psyche even after studying communist ideology. However, he acknowledges that the early communists parties still tried to improve the circumstances of the Adivasis, such as by campaigning against the slave trade, although they were only successful in organizing estate unions.
Amidst his disillusionment, he encountered Maoist literature in 1966, and later moved to the Naxalite organization which was more successful in ending the Jenmis’ trading of Adivasi slaves and their sexual exploitation of Adivasi women. The early Naxalites, unlike mainstream communist parties, were helmed by leaders from disadvantaged backgrounds. Vasu participated in attacks on police stations in 1968 and 1969, and was later arrested for his association with Naxalite leader Varghese, after the latter’s assassination in 1970. He began studying the caste issue in detail while in prison.
Some time after his release in 1977, he found that the Naxalite demographics also changed to consist of more upper-caste Brahmin members. When he campaigned against their pivot towards electoral politics, reminding them of the need to focus on building the revolution envisaged by Marx and Engels, he was excommunicated from the organization.
2nd January 2020
Kunhi: I interviewed several people associated with Naxal organizations and other communist parties. Most of them were not ideologically well-aware and were following the footsteps of well-known leaders. Most of them became communists because of leaders like AKG. However, most of the early communist leaders are from upper caste communities. My question is: What was the approach of the communist party in addressing caste questions in the early years?
Vasu: They had no understanding about caste. They did not consider caste as a form of class. They did not consider caste as the Indian version of class. Caste was a serious problem neither in the acts nor in the words of any communist leaders. Since 1946, I’ve listened to the speeches of all top-level communist leaders of India. They share no real understanding of the caste problems in India. Like Mahatma Gandhi, they were also sympathetic towards the life of lower caste communities.
Kunhi: How did they see communities like Adivasis? I mean, caste discrimination was a real problem in those days. In that context, how did these upper-caste leaders treat lower caste communities, including Adivasis?
Vasu: They considered them as lower castes. They believed that communists were responsible for enlightening these lower caste communities. The caste issues were addressed as a real problem only during the period of reformation in Kerala, during the time of leaders like Sri Narayana Guru. Ayyankali organized the Dalit community and Narayana Guru organized the Ezhava community. Their effort helped to create movements against all kinds of caste discrimination in Kerala. There was no national level reformation movement in India. It is only in Kerala that we have had some kind of movement against caste discrimination. These movements happened because of certain individual leaders, like Sri Narayana Guru and Ayyankali. There are many names, but I’m unable to remember them now.
The lower castes are communities oppressed for many centuries. They became oppressed when the system of production in India evolved. They became different castes through the process of division of labour. Division of labour happened everywhere in the world, whether it is in the sector of agriculture, or industry. For example, building a house. A single individual can’t do all the work. If one is an expert in woodwork, another is an expert in other kinds of work. All work requires special skills and that skill can be developed only through a long period of training. Since human beings began to do complex work which required long-term training, dividing labour became inevitable. The different sectors of jobs emerged due to such division of labour. When humans were hunter-gatherers, there was no need for such division of labour. The situation changed when they became farmers. Whenever humans tried to employ advanced tools of production, they came to require creating a new expert in the field. In India, caste emerged through this process of division of labour. The communities that emerged through the division of labour became more solidified through various forms of social relations. For example, marriage. In the early period, women also participated in the production process. If a man belonging to a blacksmith community married a girl from a different community, she would not be familiar with the practices in a blacksmith family. However, if he marries someone from a blacksmith family, she could help in his work as she would already be familiar with such wors. Such situations forced people to choose their partners from the same community.
Kunhi: So are you suggesting there is nothing beyond the division of labour in the Indian caste system?
Vasu: Yes, there is nothing more than division of labour. Everywhere in the world, the division of labour did not create a solid caste system, as they were all treated as workers. In India, they did not become similar workers, instead, they all became members of different castes. It is only in the later stage, each caste group developed different practices, customs and traditions for their caste. It is only in the later stage they began to pray to different gods.
Kunhi: If is just division of labour, how come a rigid caste hierarchy and puritan order emerged?
Vasu: It happened in the later stage. It is the Brahmin community that created such an order. As they emerged as a community of priests within the division of labour, they easily convinced others about their divine authority. They exploited people’s belief in a superpower called God and presented themselves as a community that is in direct contact with God. By asserting their divine authority, they created a caste order and hierarchy. They created divine theories and assigned different Gods for different communities. This is the reason why Ambedkar said that we should burn all Shruti, Smriti, Shastras, Puranas and Ithihasa. It is through such theories that they created several Gods and all superstitions. But they convinced people that all these theories are divine truth. They are the ones who solidified the differences that emerged in society through the division of labour. Through asserting various divine theories, they prevented social relations between different communities.
Kunhi: The caste system does not include communities like Adivasis in its fold. They remain outside the structure of caste at the bottom of the puritan order.
Vasu: Yes, that is there. In the beginning, they created castes for those who are with them, those who are working for them, and those who are living under their rule. It is Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudras. These four groups do four different jobs. When Aryans came to India, there were only four castes among them. However, once settled here they expanded these differences to others too. For this purpose, they used various divine theories. Communities like Adivasis were not part of this system. They were living in the forest. Therefore, they came to be outside the structure of caste.
Kunhi: Ok. Communities like Adivasis were not part of this system. Today they also claim that they are not part of the Hindu system. Some of them trying even to create a new Adivasi religion for those communities. However, Hindu organizations do not accept their claim. What do you think about this?
Vasu: Such issues happened after the formation of RSS. Since it intends to strengthen the Hindu community, they expanded their activities to forest areas where Adivasi communities settled. They started working with a proper plan after 1947. They started organizing various events. I did not see people celebrating events like Srikrishna Jayanti before the 1950s. In the beginning, they organized events such as processions with a few kids and their parents. Eventually, it expanded to become a massive procession and colourful event. Moreover, they revived and renovated several abandoned temples throughout the country. In Kerala, people abandoned several temples because of the communist campaign against superstitions and primitive beliefs. It happened during the period of the freedom movement. RSS revived those temples and restarted regular puja (worship) and festivals. Through such processes, they revived superstitions.
Kunhi: Coming back to the activities of communist parties in Kerala. Once they became active in electoral politics, they received financial support from various Jenmis. It would have naturally affected their fight against feudal exploitation. What is your observation in this regard?
Vasu: The early communist leaders who came from upper caste communities were highly critical of the feudal system. But they were not aware that castes are essentially classes that emerged through the production process of the past. They were aware that the caste system is a form of oppression and that lower caste communities are oppressed people. They asserted these things through their speeches and criticized the caste system.
Kunhi: However, they did not try to eliminate the caste system. Right?
Vasu: Yes. They were not aware of that. During the time of the freedom movement, even Congress members were highly critical of the caste system and superstitions. Because of their campaign, people stopped visiting temples. Even famous temples like the Ollur Shiva temple were about to be abandoned, as there were no devotees. I did see several thousands of devotees visit the Ollur temple on days like Shivratri. However, when I reached 20 or 25 years old, the temple was struggling due to the lack of devotees visiting. They almost stopped the annual Shivratri festivals.
Kunhi: Is it due to the interventions of various organizations of the reform movement?
Vasu: Yes. They were aware that the caste system is a system of oppression, created by the Brahmin community. They problematized caste with scientific and rational views. However, even the communists did not accept those who problematized the caste in that way. Communist leaders EMS like criticized the views of reformists like Sri Narayana Guru and Ambedkar.
Kunhi: Though they were against feudalism, the communist parties failed to bring any change in the feudal system in areas like Wayanad. What do you think about it?
Vasu: It is after a particular event, after the Thirunelli-Thrissilery action of Naxalites, that Adivasis started getting monetary wage like other workers. It happened in 1970, and that February, Varghese was murdered. They stopped their traditional slave trade in Valliyoorkkav temple that same year. It was a practice of Jenmis selecting Adivasi families He would select the families he wanted to work for him the next whole year. The children in the family would do work like taking the Jenmi’s cattle to and from pastureland. The women would work in the paddy field.
Kunhi: How severe was the problem of Jenmis’ sexual exploitation of Adivasis?
Vasu: That was a significant part of the Jenmi system. It was like they had legal rights over all these women. It is practised even in non-Adivasi areas. Even the Dalit community had to send their girls to satisfy the Jenmi before they conduct her marriage. These things were commonly practiced when I was young. Such things ended only in the recent past.
Kunhi: Talking about the slave trade, how much was the money they paid in general?
Vasu: It was a very small amount. Most often there was no money. They would give only some raw rice. It is called the Vally system. It was for increasing the vally wage, that leaders like Varghese and P S Govindan conducted their first campaigns in Wayanad. Through such campaigns, these leaders gained the support of Adivasi communities. When they became Naxalites, Adivasis stood with them because of this relation. It was not completely Adivasis, they were only a small group among the supporters of the Naxal movement.
Kunhi: Agricultural migration was happening in Wayanad in this period. How was the migrant community’s approach towards Adivasi workers?
Vasu: They paid them money wages. But wage was very low in Wayanad compared to other parts of Kerala. However, migrants did not see Adivasis as slaves. It was only the system of upper caste communities. The main groups of Jenmis were Jains and Brahmins who came from Karnataka. Most of the migrants did not employ any outsiders in their agricultural activities. They bought a piece of land from Jenmis and they themselves worked in it. If they needed any extra hand on special occasions like harvesting, they largely took help from other migrants. Moreover, Jenmis did not allow their slaves to work for others, including migrant farmers.
Kunhi: What was the nature of early communist interventions in Wayanad? Did they work for Adivasis or just for migrant farmers?
Vasu: They did not work with such discrimination. They started their activities in highly backward areas. In the beginning, they only inspired locals to fight for solutions to their immediate problems.
Kunhi: Don’t you think that the early communists failed to address Adivasi problems? Isn’t it because of that reason that leaders like Varghese were forced to choose radical methods for combatting the exploitation of Adivasi communities?
Vasu: We cannot say that. We cannot say that early communists failed in their attempts. They were highly successful in organizing estate workers. They fought for Adivasis too. They campaigned for increasing the Vally wage of Adivasi communities. Essentially they did conduct many movements for improving the economic conditions of the marginalized communities. However, they were not successful in campaigning against the practice of slavery.
Kunhi: Ok. And you believe that they did not totally ignore questions of caste even though they did not consider caste as the class. Right?
Vasu: The widely shared perception among the communist leaders was that the caste system will go extinct once people become economically empowered. These are recorded facts. Even leaders like EMS shared the same view.
Kunhi: You mentioned in the previous interview that your decision to join CPI(M) in 1964 was influenced by the activities of leaders like AKG. What were the factors that influenced you to join the radical faction of Kunnikkal Narayanan?
Vasu: I didn’t go to the faction of Kunnikkal Narayanan. I decided to leave the party because of their deviation from the communist agenda. Both the CPI and CPI(M) had transformed with their increased focus on electoral politics. While I was dissatisfied with the politics of the mainstream party, I got an opportunity to read Mao’s literature published by Kunnikkal Narayanan. Therefore, I associated myself with the activities of Kunnikkal Narayanan.
Kunhi: Did this problem in CPI(M) that you mentioned include any issues related to caste?
Vasu: I began to have serious questions about the caste problems only during my prison days. It was during those days that I started reading Ambedkar. My attachment with the Naxal movement was purely influenced by Mao’s thoughts. Perhaps the revisionist policy of the mainstream communist parties also influenced my interest in the Maoist movement. I hated Khrushchev’s thesis on peaceful coexistence, peaceful competition, and peaceful transition. The mainstream communist made a conscious effort to make sure that such understandings became familiar among its members. These kinds of things really annoyed members like me, as we were in the party because of the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin. I read their writings even before I join the communist movement. In the period of Khrushchev, the party became completely different from what I learned about a communist party through the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
Kunhi: Did the CPI(M) also support Soviet revisionism?
Vasu: It formed only 1964. I’m talking about the condition of the party since 1956.
Kunhi: My question is why you left the CPI(M)? It was not openly supporting Soviet revisionism, right?
Vasu: I already told you about these things. It is due to various changes within the party, within its leadership, since they came to power. Their approach towards the public transformed when they came to power. They preferred luxurious lifestyles and established friendly relationships with Jenmis and other rich businessmen. We, the lower level party workers, were not aware of the Chinese or Maoist approach towards communism. We did hate the transformation in Soviet communism. But we had no idea about the Chinese approach. It is only in later years, in 1962, people realised that there was an ideological tension between China and the Soviet Union. Till then it was only an intra-party discussion. I got an opportunity to read Mao’s literature only in 1966.
Kunhi: You came in contact with the radical group of Kunnikkal Narayanan and participated in the Thalassery police station attack. How was the question of caste within the discussions of this group?
Vasu: That must be the first communist group with no superior leadership of upper caste leaders. More than 90 per cent of the members were from lower caste communities. Most of them, including Kunnikkal Narayanan, was from the Ezhava community. Both the leaders and followers were from the working-class community. The majority of workers in the weaving and cigarette industries were from the Ezhava community. The Thalassery incident was their attempt to bring about a revolution.
Kunhi: After the Thalassery police station attack, you joined Varghese in Wayanad. During the Thrissilery-Thirunelli action, you were his right-hand man. After this incident, he was murdered by the police. In this context, the Church did not allow his body to be buried in its cemetery. Did such issues, like the approach of the religious community, bother you when you were a revolutionary?
Vasu: No. These were meaningless issues. They were not ideological issues. The Church and religious community would naturally follow such an attitude towards the communists. That was not a big issue. I cannot be bothered about hundreds or thousands of years old practices of a religion.
Kunhi: Can you tell me about the question of identity among the Adivasi communities during the years of the Naxal movement?
Vasu: As I already mentioned, in the past, the mainstream Hindu community did not try to include them in the folder of Hinduism. It is only after organizations like RSS became active in the region, such attempts were made. The Hindu organizations tried to include Adivasis in its fold as they did not want Adivasis to emerge as a separate group. When these organizations started making them Hindu, some of the others started arguing that they are not Hindus. Other than that there were no identity issues among Adivasi communities.
Kunhi: Ok. Is there any change in Kerala’s caste consciousness after the entry of radical communist outfits like the Naxal organizations?
Vasu: The Naxal organizations did not talk much about caste-related issues in Kerala. Like the other communist parties, the main leadership of the Naxal organization was from upper caste communities. I was the only one among the Naxalites who talked about the caste issues. I started talking about these issues about 30 or 40 years back. Even today they think something is wrong with me since I’m talking about caste issues and associating with minority communities to address the question of identity. They are not free from Brahminical ideology even today. Even the Dalits among them have no such concern. They don’t even know the real meaning of ideology. The elite leadership under K Venu ousted me from the party when I began to talk about the Brahminical domination among the leaders of the Naxalite organization in India.
Jenmi were the landed aristocracy of Kerala.
Adivasi is a broad term referring to any aboriginal peoples of India, in this case the Kerala region.
The RSS, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is a Hindu nationalist volunteer paramilitary group.
The Ezhava community was another impoverished group in Kerala, but unlike Adivasis were not aboriginal.
How does Vasu’s movement across various communist movements throughout his career illustrate his agency in shaping his Cold War experience?
Assess the importance of caste in shaping India’s Cold War, both at macro-level politics and the lived experiences of civilians, in light of Vasu’s reflections.
Consider Vasu’s explanation of the historical origins of the caste system. What are its implications for the historiography of India’s Cold War, and the writing of social histories of India more broadly?