The Importance of Class in Understanding India (3)

16 06 2007


Just as geography is a visible yet unobserved presence in the story of our past and present, we cannot live a moment without class – the social expression of economic relations of production – impinging on our reality. Yet, more often than not, it is either ignored or denied its rightful role in historical explanations.

Since class interests are primarily economic – this-worldly, material, selfish – interests, rarely do people express their class interests directly. Rather, class interests are expressed, almost always, in religious, nationalist or other ideological garbs. This is more so in the case of the propertied, who are loathe to accept that their public actions are intended to defend their privileges. Almost always is such class interest couched in terms of defending religion or liberty, or glorifying the nation, or rides on the supposed need to establish order and discipline in society, etc. Rarely has it happened in human history that class interests of the propertied are defended purely as economic self-interest.

Even the propertyless, exploited classes usually voice their economic grievances in the language of morality and justice. This is universally true for all pre-modern societies, where the class anguish of the exploited and propertyless is voiced in millenarian movements which espouse a programme of returning to the true religion or the “golden age” when the rich did not oppress and the poor were not bereft of food or dignity. These are almost always movements which claim to be against deformity in religion or the moral code or as a protest against the corruption of the ruling elites which have crept into contemporary life. It is only in the recent past, under the influence of working class movements, have the propertyless started espousing their class interests in purely class terms.

Like geography sets the physical-material boundaries within which human beings can hope to realise their potentials, class relations and class compositions of society provide the economic-material foundation for human actions. To underline the importance of class is not to argue that religious convictions, nationalist fervour or social reform agendas do not have a salience of their own. Ideologies based on religion or nation move human beings like none other, but the specific expression of religious feelings or nationalist affiliation is determined by, and has consequences for, class relations.

A person belonging to a propertied class would generally support a religious view which stresses on the need to follow social practices which do not disturb the status quo. S/he would normally support a worldview which would say that living according to laid down precepts would reward the person, rich or poor, with heaven in the afterlife. On the other hand, someone from a propertyless class would be more pre-disposed towards supporting religious ideas which emphasize the equality inherent in religion, which speak against accumulating wealth and which stress the need for social justice.

The peasantry of Bengal was largely Muslim and syncretic in their religious beliefs, while the landed gentry which emerged under British rule was almost all upper caste Hindus who, based as they were in the British capital of Calcutta, were absentee landlords. The colonial exploitation of the peasantry was mediated through this class of Hindu landlords and much of the peasant protests against their penury was articulated in terms of religious anguish expressed often in Islamic terms. Similar was the situation in Kerala, where the Moplahs, all Muslims but also poor peasant and petty artisan, felt the pressure of colonial exploitation through the oppression of the Hindu upper-caste Janmi landlords. Religion, specially the slogan of equality so central to Islam, provided the ideological vehicle for expressing the class anguish of the exploited and oppressed peasantry, landless agricultural labourer and petty artisan. To see this only, or merely, in terms of the religious affiliation, blinds us to the underlying cause of conflict.

Even the social reform movements among the Hindu upper castes who emerged as landlords under British rule, or their eagerness to learn English, cannot be understood in terms of religious affiliation. It must be remembered that their social position and economic wealth was founded on property which came their way during and through colonial rule. Therefore, their reform of traditional religious and social practices, or their eagerness to learn English, were efforts to fortify their class position as agents of British rule in India. They wanted to remain the best candidates for this class position which encompassed landed property and the lower rungs of the modern professions of bureaucrat and lawyer. If social reforms and English education were positive outcomes of this effort to fortify class positions, use of religious affiliations to deny others entry into this class and use of caste status to keep large sections of the population from becoming potential threats were the negative features of the same effort. This landed class, whether Hindu or Muslim, almost always formed the “loyalists” defending British rule, whether as a faction within the Congress or as the Muslim League.

The formation of the Indian National Congress was a result of the political development of this class, which was largely Hindu upper caste, but drawn from the various provinces of the British Indian empire and with representation from other religious groups too. As other groups of propertied classes emerged, they wanted their own political voice. To ignore the landed gentry base of the Muslim League in the Bengal Presidency, or the rich peasant – landlord base of the Unionist Party in Punjab, or the middle – rich peasant base of the Justice party in Madras Presidency and concentrate only on their religious affliation is to miss the main track of history. Similarly, the support of the emergent Indian bourgeoisie to the freedom movement was based on their class interests of defending their industrial capital from British Imperialism, while the increasing support of the peasantry, the small industrial working class, the struggling professionals and other toiling people for left wing movements was a result of their growing class consciousness.

By the late 1930s and later, peasants were rarely rebelling under religious banners but increasingly under the red flag. In Telangana, which formed the largest chunk of Nizam’s Hyderabad State, the peasantry rebelled under the leadership of the communist party. Neither appeals to religion nor the bullets of the police were strong enough to stop these revolutionaries from taking over lakhs of acres of land and distributing it among the peasantry and the landless. The writ of the once mighty Nizam was confined to Hyderabad city and a few other urban centres. Similar peasant upsurges, though of a lesser intensity, were being reported from almost every province and ‘native’ State under British rule. Further, there were revolts in the police in Bihar, while Hindu soldiers refused to fire on Muslim protestors in the NWFP identifying their common class interests. Bombay, the commercial capital of British India, was taken over by naval ratings waving the red flag who could finally be subdued only by subterfuge and heavy machine gun fire from British Air Force planes scrambled from as far away as Aden.

It was in this context of massive, countrywide class uprisings, that the British imperialists, as well as the Indian propertied classes decided to quickly arrange a transfer of power which would protect the extant property rights. It was this class threat which hustled the Muslim element of the Unionist party in Punjab to quickly turn into champions of Pakistan, and it was this same threat to class interests which encouraged the Congress leadership to accept Partition. To understand this only, or merely, in terms of a fight between Hindus and Muslims is to miss the main story!

Class is the elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge, but no coherent explanation or true description of this metaphorical room is possible without taking the presence of this elephant into account.

~ ~ ~

This was published in my weekly column in The Post on 13 June, 2007.






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16 06 2007
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