Workers Hammer No. 222
Class, caste and women's oppression in India
Mass anger over rape
The following article is adapted from Workers Vanguard no 1017, 8 February .
The heinous gang rape and mutilation of a 23-year-old paramedical student in Delhi on 16 December, who later died of her injuries, sparked a momentous wave of protests against the oppression of women in India. Demonstrations erupted in many of India’s cities, including Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai, Bangalore, Panaji and beyond. Significantly, demonstrations were also held in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, where women face conditions similar to those in India.
The epicentre of the protests was Delhi, which prides itself on being part of the “new” India, where shopping malls and nightclubs exist side by side with massive slums. In fact, the capital has the highest recorded incidence of rape of any major city in India. Demonstrations by students and other youth continued for days, courageously defying repression by the police who attacked with water cannons, tear gas and lathi (bamboo sticks).
Anger among women intensified with an outburst of grotesque anti-woman chauvinism that sought to blame the victim for the crime. ML Sharma, a lawyer for one of the accused, stated that “respectable” women do not get raped, while the Indian president’s son, Abhijeet Mukherjee, baited the demonstrators for being “painted” and “dented”, ie, “Westernised” and not young. A leader of the fascistic Hindu-chauvinist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) declared that sexual crimes “hardly take place in Bharat but occur frequently in India” (Wall Street Journal, 8 January). The RSS is connected to the Hindu-supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which openly espouses Hindutva (“Hinduness”), a toxic mix of nationalism and religious obscurantism, to stoke violent pogroms, particularly against Muslims.
The term “Bharat”, the Hindi word for India, harks back to an imagined past of idyllic rural life — as opposed to urban India, which is supposedly blighted by decadent Western influence, especially on women. The reality of life for most people in Indian villages is extreme poverty and brutal caste oppression. In the countryside, rape of dalit (“untouchable”) women is considered a matter of caste privilege by upper caste men, who use rape as a weapon in the subjugation and humiliation of the woman and of her entire caste. A March 2006 study of violence against dalit women by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights reported that out of 500 women studied, 116 had been raped or gang-raped; among the perpetrators, “dominant caste landlords emerged as the most prominent group”.
Police often assist vigilante groups which conduct raids on entire dalit villages, burning homes and raping women. The scope of such violence is captured in a November 2012 incident in Tamil Nadu, where 148 dalit houses were torched by a 2500-strong mob because of a non-dalit woman who had married a dalit man in secret. Police also rape and murder with impunity as part of the military offensive in areas such as Chhattisgarh in eastern India, where it is directed against a Maoist insurgency based on the adivasi (tribal) people. In Kashmir, the occupying Indian Army uses murderous violence, including rape, to subjugate the Muslim population, with the perpetrators exempted from prosecution by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. In 1991 in Kunan Poshpora, units of the Indian Army gang-raped nearly 100 Kashmiri women, aged 13 to 80, in a single night.
In many ways, the Delhi rape victim symbolises a layer of young urbanised women who have been drawn into higher education and into the workforce as part of India’s recent economic growth. Her father migrated to Delhi three decades ago from rural Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India. His daughter recently qualified as a physiotherapist and, like countless others, worked in a call centre and liked Western clothes. Breaching taboos, she went to the movies the night she was attacked with a companion who is from a Brahmin caste, whereas her family comes from an agricultural caste.
The increase in violence against women in Indian cities is part of a reactionary backlash against this layer of young women, who have some possibility of upward social mobility and are relatively privileged compared to the impoverished masses. In the “new” India, women who wear high heels and short skirts, or who think they have the right to choose their own friends and even marry outside their own caste, are perceived as a threat to traditional morality, the institution of the family, Hindu religious domination and the caste system that is endemic to rural life.
The issue of women’s liberation is explosive in India and indeed in the whole subcontinent. The fight for the most basic needs of women — for literacy, education, contraception, an end to forced marriage and a way out of grinding poverty and hideous caste oppression — means a struggle to root out the very deepest foundations of capitalist society. India’s burgeoning economy has created untold wealth for a few, while further immiserating the vast majority of the population. In the countryside, millions are being driven off the land and into the cities to live in unspeakable squalor in sprawling slums. These social conditions in India underscore that women’s liberation poses nothing less than the need for socialist revolution.
Cops: deadly enemies of women and all the oppressed!
The anti-rape protests represented a cry of rage against the treatment of women in India. At the same time, many of the demands raised have a reactionary “law and order” thrust, which were echoed by the reformist left. A case in point is the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]), which called to strengthen the hand of the capitalist state, namely the cops and courts. Having grotesquely sent a message of condolence for a policeman who died during the vicious cop repression of the Delhi protests (since removed from its website www.cpim.org), the CPI(M) in a 4 January statement urged the government-appointed Verma Committee to introduce “rigorous life imprisonment till death” for rape and to “recruit many more women police personnel”.
Coming from the party that administered the capitalist state in West Bengal for decades, siding with the cops is hardly news. In 2006, the CPI(M)-led government carried out a campaign of bloody repression against poor peasants in Singur and Nandigram on behalf of Tata Motors, one of India’s largest capitalist conglomerates (see “The Political Bankruptcy of Indian Stalinism”, Workers Vanguard no 993, 6 January 2012).
We oppose any increase in the repressive powers of the capitalist state that may be introduced under the pretext of protecting women. Make no mistake, bourgeois measures to make it easier to obtain convictions for rape will be used primarily to convict dalits, Muslims and the poor in general, who are often punished for rape and other crimes committed by members of dominant castes and the police.
The perspective peddled by feminists and the reformist left of looking to the capitalist state to guarantee the protection of women invariably finds expression in demands for more or better-trained cops on the streets. The fake-Trotskyist Pune-based New Wave Group, affiliated with the Morenoite International Workers League, published a 19 January statement proposing “more representation of women in police” (www.litci.org). Similar rhetoric pushing “extensive gender and sexuality sensitization programmes for the police and judiciary” (www.radicalsocialist.in, 20 January) comes from the Radical Socialist group, affiliated to the former United Secretariat. Particularly in India, illusions that the police will protect women from rape are obscene, and can be deadly: women are as likely to be raped by the cops as by anyone else. Police stations are notoriously dangerous for women who go there alone.
The explosive nature of any attempt to fight against the oppression of women in India gives the lie to the liberal pipe-dream of effecting a gradual transition to equality for women through reliance on the state and its laws. Indeed, women’s equality is already enshrined in the Indian constitution, for all the good that does. The burning issues facing women pose questions that only proletarian revolution can answer.
The literacy rate for Indian women as a whole is scandalously low at 48 per cent (compared to 73 per cent for men). According to a UNICEF study, 90 per cent of marriages are arranged (across all major religions and castes). The divorce rate is 1.1 per cent, compared to nearly 50 per cent in the US. Particularly onerous on women is the ancient and widespread practice of dowry — an amount of money, goods or property the bride’s family is forced to contribute to her marriage. The dowry system renders girls a financial burden on the family, thus it fuels selective abortions (for those who can afford both the test and the abortion). Given the lack of availability of abortion services for most women, female infanticide is common. “Dowry deaths” — ie, murders of wives by husbands or mothers-in-law — are on the rise. The official figure for dowry deaths in 2008 is 8172, but according to the International Society Against Dowry and Bride-Burning the actual figure could be three times as high. Of course, the practice of dowry has been prohibited by law since 1961 — so much for the liberal notion that rape and violence against women can be ended by legislation.
Also rampant throughout South Asia is “honour” killing — women murdered by their own relatives for transgressing the strictures of acceptable sexual behavior, particularly sexual relations outside of marriage or cross-caste relationships. In some cases, rape victims have been murdered. Frequently in India, rape victims are coerced into marrying the rapist to preserve “honour”. Common among Hindus as well as Sikhs and Muslims, honour killings are the most brutal form of family control over women’s sexuality.
This notion of honour is based on the assumption that women are nothing but chattel, the property of their fathers and husbands, to be disposed of at will. As Friedrich Engels, in his classic work The origin of the family, private property, and the state (1884), observed: “In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore of the paternity of the children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.” The family is the central pillar of women’s oppression and, along with religion, a key prop to the capitalist order.
The emancipation of women, which is strategic to liberating all of the downtrodden of India and the subcontinent as a whole, requires the programme of permanent revolution. The working class, leading the peasantry and all the oppressed masses, must seize power through socialist revolution, reorganise society on the basis of collectivised property and extend the revolution internationally, especially to the imperialist centres. The historical model for this is the great October 1917 Revolution in Russia led by the Bolshevik Party of VI Lenin and Leon Trotsky. The fight for women’s liberation is strategic to this perspective.
Imperialist subjugation, patriarchy and caste
India does have a significant proletariat — in auto plants, mines, steel plants, railways, textiles and machine manufacturing. The Indian capitalists and the imperialist powers to which they are beholden are well aware of the potential power of the working class. Last year, workers who carried out a series of bitter strikes at Maruti Suzuki, India’s largest auto maker, in Gurgaon near Delhi, were hit with severe state repression.
The labour of the proletariat produces the wealth that enriches the Indian ruling class and the international bankers. But this potential power is hamstrung by the existing leaders of the working class. A working class that is divided by caste, religion and ethnicity is further fractured into competing unions affiliated to political parties. What is essential is forging a revolutionary Marxist leadership that fights for proletarian unity and class independence. The class-conscious proletariat must take up the struggle for the emancipation of women and place itself at the head of all the oppressed, winning the rural masses to its side by championing agrarian revolution to overthrow the landlords and capitalists.
India is a classic example of “combined and uneven development”. More than six decades after independence, and despite its economic “miracle”, it remains predominantly rural — out of a population of 1.2 billion, a staggering 72 per cent live in villages where conditions are wretched. Caste oppression is enforced through the panchayat system of village councils that dictate what is acceptable in all aspects of social relations. These councils have the authority to punish anything from cross-caste marriages to violations of dress codes for women. Women’s liberation and the destruction of the caste system are inextricably bound together.
The persistence of rural backwardness is the legacy of British colonial rule, which exploited, retarded and dismembered the country. India’s transition from precapitalist society did not lead to the dissolution of patriarchal and caste relations because colonial domination preserved, manipulated and reinforced them. The British East India Company seized Indian territory by taking advantage of strife between local princes and fanning ethnic, religious, tribal and caste antagonisms. Colonial plunder enriched the ruling class in Britain and caused the collapse of entire branches of the Indian economy, including its irrigated agriculture. The peasantry was burdened with taxes owed to both the local landlords and the colonial state. To collect the taxes, the landlords and their middlemen wielded extortion, violence and cruelty against the poor throughout the countryside.
When the conquest of India was completed, the British rulers raised a native army, recruited predominantly from the higher castes. This situation lasted until the 1857 Sepoy uprising, which sparked what Marx called “the first Indian war of independence”. Subsequently, the composition of the army was changed. But divide-and-rule remained the governing principle, which Marx described at the time of the revolt as “the great rule by which Great Britain, for about one hundred and fifty years, contrived to retain the tenure of her Indian Empire”.
Since independence in 1947, capitalist India has been dependent on imperialist finance capital, and will remain so, notwithstanding the myths about it becoming a superpower. Meanwhile, the native capitalist rulers have used the caste system to maintain Hindu domination. Beginning in the days of Mohandas (“Mahatma”) Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the era that bourgeois liberals today hark back to as the golden opportunity to establish “secular democracy”, the Congress Party has manipulated caste divisions and communalism in the service of Hindu chauvinism. Congress represented the interests of the urban traders, professionals and above all the rich farmers. The Indian nationalism espoused by Congress always contained a strong element of Hindu and Hindi-language chauvinism.
Gandhi, an idol of liberals, was steeped in caste prejudice and anti-woman bigotry. In the context of the horrific bloodshed that accompanied the partition of India, Gandhi advised young women facing rape to bite their tongue and hold their breath until they died. In our article “Stalinist Alliance with Churchill Betrayed Indian Revolution” (Workers Vanguard no 970, 3 December 2010), we explained: “Gandhi’s job was to extract as much as possible from the British, in the common interests of saving capitalism, while keeping the burgeoning and now increasingly militant struggles of the workers and peasants at bay. The textile magnate Ambalal Sarabhai put it succinctly when he said Gandhi ‘was the best guarantee against communism which India possessed’.”
Out of fear that the untouchables might unite with Muslims and act as a parliamentary counterweight, Congress co-opted dalit leader BR Ambedkar to head up the drafting of the constitution, which banned “untouchability” but left the caste system intact. Seats in parliament were reserved for untouchables and tribals (dalits and adivasis today). Later, as a minimal reform, a percentage of jobs in public employment were reserved for dalits and lower-caste members. Coming to regret his involvement in drafting the constitution, Ambedkar summed up independent India: “The same old tyranny, the same old oppression, the same old discrimination which existed before, exists now, and perhaps in a worse form.”
The vile Hindu chauvinism peddled by Congress sparked intense pogroms against Sikhs in 1984. It also paved the way for the BJP to ride to governmental power on the back of murderous anti-Muslim pogroms that culminated in the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. The Hindu-chauvinist riots in Ayodhya were sparked in part by proposals from the government’s Mandal Commission to reserve jobs for certain lower castes.
Contrary to liberal illusions, a “democratic” secular society was not on the historical agenda for independent India under capitalist rule. Only proletarian socialist revolution — spread throughout the rest of South Asia and extended to the imperialist centres — can address the enormous task of eliminating scarcity. This alone can lay the material basis for eradicating the oppression of women and caste and for liberating all of the impoverished masses. A vast development of the productive forces will bring millions of women and men out of rural backwardness and into an industrialised society. We seek to build a Leninist-Trotskyist party in India, part of a reforged Fourth International, committed to a socialist federation of South Asia.