EMS Namboodiripad taking oath as the First Chief minister of Kerala. (Photo courtesy: Frontline)

Castes, Classes and Parties in Modern Political Development

EMS Namboodiripad

EMS Namboodiripad (Photo courtesy: www.cpim.org)
EMS Namboodiripad (Photo courtesy: www.cpim.org)

[5 April 2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the swearing in of the First Communist Ministry in Kerala, with Comrade EMS as the Chief Minister.

Among the many far-reaching measures of the First Communist Ministry were the pioneering land reforms which abolished statutory landlordism and ‘jenmi’ system in the state, thus breaking the back of Brahminical landlordism and weakening “upper caste” Hindu landlordism as a whole.

On the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of the First Communist Ministry, Anticaste.in republishes Comrade EMS’s landmark essay “Castes, Classes and Parties in Modern Political Development”, published first in the journal ‘Social Scientist’ in November 1977. The essay was republished in the book ‘History, Society and Land Relations’, a collection of essays by EMS brought out by LeftWord in 2010.]


Several scholars, Indian as well as foreign, consider Kerala as being so caste-ridden that every political party is based on some caste or other. The Congress in the old Travancore State, they argue, was based on Christians and Nairs, while the Communist movement had its roots among the Ezhavas, the Scheduled Castes and other backward communities. A whole ‘theory’ has been built on the basis of such an analysis.

It is not the contention of the author of this paper that there is no substratum of truth in the theory of the interconnection between castes and political parties. It would be totally unrealistic to close one’s eyes to the fact that even those political parties which claim to be secular and above all considerations of caste and community, have to take into consideration the caste or communal composition of particular constituencies when they select their candidates for elections. This, however, is only one among the many important factors which have to be considered. Further, it is submitted that with the emergence of classes and political parties which cut across the barriers of castes and communities, the caste or communal factor is being steadily overshadowed by class considerations.

It is necessary for a proper understanding of this problem to note that castes and communities play an important role in all fields of social life including politics, not only in Kerala but everywhere in the country. The Jats, the Khatris and the Brahmins in North India, the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas in Karnataka, the Kammas and Reddys in Andhra Pradesh, are all playing as important a role in the political life of their respective states as the Ezhavas, the Nairs, the Christians and the Muslims do in Kerala. As for Tamil Nadu, it is well known to have been the cradle of the non-Brahmin movement. It would therefore be unrealistic to treat this as a phenomenon peculiar to Kerala.

The real problem lies in explaining why India, unlike the rest of the world, has a social organisation based on such a proliferation of castes and sub-castes, that anybody who has to participate in public life, including politics, has to take due note of their impact on the consciousness of the people. The explanation has to be found through a concrete study of the manner in which the old tribal society was disrupted in India, to give way to a new form of social organisation which was originally based on what is known as Chaturvarnya, but which subsequently developed itself into a hierarchy of innumerable castes and sub-castes.

From Tribal to Class Society

Like any other country in the world, India is known to have had a tribal society in prehistoric times. That society neither knew any inequality based on castes, communities or classes, nor did it have any relation of superiority and inferiority between man and woman. Such a society is still living in the folklore of Kerala as “the regime of Maveli“. The memory of that ancient regime is still kept green in the popular song which nostalgically recalls the days when “the people were all equal”. Every year on a particular day, Maveli who once ruled such a society, but was overthrown by Vamana, is supposed to come back to Kerala to see how his former subjects are living. Every family in Kerala is expected to celebrate that day (Onam) with all the pomp and glory which it is capable of showing.

Such a prehistoric society is known to have existed all over the world and is known in Marxist terminology as “primitive communism”. The equality of prehistoric society was based on a very low level of production and standard of consumption. Nobody could, under primitive communism, exploit somebody else for the simple reason that no member of that society could produce wealth over and above what he or she required for his or her individual consumption. It took human society centuries and even millennia to outlive this ‘primitive’ as well as ‘communistic’ state of social organisation. Men and women living their tribal life had, in their incessant confrontation with nature, been obliged to adopt and did evolve new and more effective techniques of production. The result was that social production as a whole steadily increased. It reached a stage when every individual producer was able to produce something more than he or she could use for his or her own consumption. Under the new conditions, it became profitable to set some individuals (those captured in war for example) to work and to appropriate their surplus produce, after providing them with what is barely necessary for their animal existence. This gave rise to inequality, with a small minority appropriating the surplus produced by the majority. This appropriation of the surplus produce of the majority by the minority gave rise to class society. The overthrow of Maveli by Vamana is symbolic of this process.

Class Society and Social Development

Once the deep division between an exploiting minority and the exploited majority came into existence, human society changed beyond recognition. It is not as if the exploiting minority is the arch devil condemning society to eternal misery and oppression. While the exploited majority is of course subjected to brutal repression and inhuman exploitation, the exploiting minority happened to be the ‘unconscious tool’ of human civilization. It is the leisure which the exploiting classes can afford to use for all sorts of avocations, which do not directly produce material values, that becomes the basis for the creation of cultural values. The steady development of human civilization with the flowering of literature, the arts and philosophy, leading to the flowering of the sciences and culminating in the Scientific and Technological Revolution of the modern era -these are the social consequences of the emergence of class society. Reference may be made here to Engels’ evaluation of slavery in Anti-Dühring, where he says, “without the slavery of antiquity, no modern socialism”.

The era of capitalism saw the perfection of this process of social development under class oppression, so that today the productive power of human society are rapidly reaching so advanced a stage that the acquisition of the best human culture can be made the common property of society as a whole, rather than of a small group of exploiter . That is why Marxism considers that capitalist development will inevitably lead human society to a phase in which a new communism – “communism” which is not “primitive” -can come into existence, if only the exploited majority overthrows the exploiting minority, takes over state power and utilises it in the common interests of society rather than of a small minority as has been the case in class societies.

The Indian Experience

India is no exception to this process of historical development. Here too “primitive communism” was overthrown and class society established. It was this class society, or rather the ruling classes within this society, that became the purveyor of civilization. The entire heritage of ancient and mediaeval Indian society-all the rich treasures of Vedic, post-Vedic and Islamic culture-was the result of the coming of class society, which is inscribed on social memory in the well-known Maveli tradition of Kerala. The revivalists who would have us go back to the days of the Maveli regime do not realise how dull our social and individual life would be if we were to enjoy the ‘equality’ and ‘absence of exploitation’ of the Maveli regime, together with the absence of all those good things which have been produced in our country since the symbolic overthrow of Maveli.

Karl Marx in his monumental study of pre-capitalist societies — a work which no individual researcher can complete and which therefore Marx too could not complete — has barely indicated the specific circumstances under which the process of disruption of the old ‘primitive communist’ societies occurred in various countries. It is outside the purview of this paper to cover this ground. It would be enough to point out that the emergence of Chaturvarnya was the concrete manifestation of this process in India.

The Caste System

Although the term ‘Chaturvarnya’ means a system of four castes, it originally had only three — warriors or Kshatriyas, those performing rituals or the Brahmanas and the rest or Vis in that order. The division itself was based on the functions allotted to each in a society distinguished by the recurrence of tribal wars. Kshatriyas naturally came first in the order of priority, since the waging of wars was the most important task of a particular tribe. Gradually, however, the Brahmanas attained equal or still greater importance, since no war could be waged without rituals. Furthermore, society required the services of those who devoted their leisure for the study of the scriptures, for meditation, and so on, through which it could acquire greater and greater control over nature. As the process of waging wars and capturing territories became more perfected, a still wider mass of people outside the three original Varnas became part of the same tribal society-they were the Sudras. Further, wars between tribes and the conquest of one tribe by another, gave rise to new institutions in the political field like empires, armies and administrative organs and new methods of production and forms of organisation in the socio-economic field. This facilitated all round (social, economic and cultural) advance and led to the formation of ever so many new castes and sub-castes, each of which had a definite place in the social hierarchy.

While this is generally applicable to India as a whole, the exact nature of caste organisation varied from place to place. Kerala, for instance, never had one of the four Varnas — the Vis or Vaisias. The reason for this unique feature of social organisation in Kerala should be separately considered. The point to note here is that the institution of caste in India conceals the essence of class division in society. This concealment does, of course, create complications. Unlike ancient Greece, Rome and some of the West Asian countries, India did not have an openly-declared slave society. The essence of class oppression characteristic of slave society was hidden behind caste inequality which, in its turn, was sanctified by the authority of the Vedic and post-Vedic scriptures. In a subsequent phase of Indian history when, following the successive invasions from West Asia, a type of feudal-military regime was perfected (of which early forms can be discerned in the military­ political set up of the later Hindu empires), feudal oppression too was covered up by the caste and religious conflicts characteristic of that epoch.

In fact, one of the distinguishing features of India’s social organisation based on the caste system was that it could easily fit itself into the three particular patterns of social organisation known in Marxist terminology as primitive communism, slavery and feudalism. Elements of tribal organisation and tribal consciousness can be seen in the organisation of caste and the caste consciousness arising therefrom. Caste is, in other words, a social organisation in which society has not completely outlived the tribal form of organisation. The manner in which caste is superimposed on tribal society and the relations of superiority and inferiority that are established within the caste hierarchy makes it easy for this organisation to serve the purpose of the division between owners and slaves. Again, when society is ripe for a transition from the slave to the feudal phase, caste could easily be used to cover up the relationship between lord and serf.

No doubt, there emerged a new complicating factor when the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traders came and settled in the coastal regions of South India and the Muslim soldiers and emperors occupied North India. Groups of people belonging to these non-Hindu religious communities could not be absorbed into the hierarchy of castes as ordained in the Hindu scriptures. These new social groups, however, integrated themselves into Indian (as distinct from Hindu) society and became Indian citizens. The inevitable consequence was that, for all practical purposes, these non-Hindu religious communities became new castes. That is why even the Islamic generals and emperors of North India (not to speak of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traders of the South) became patrons of an Indian culture which cut across all barriers of caste and community. In other words, upper class dements from these non-Hindu religious communities, together with the upper classes of Hindu society, became the co-creators of a genuinely Indian civilisation which could flower into its perfect form only in modern times.

Positive and Negative

Thus the institution of caste in India had a positive as well as a negative element. Its flexibility made it possible for it to adjust itself to the two revolutions which in Europe created slavery out of the ashes of primitive communism and feudalism out of the ashes of slavery. This was its positive element, enabling it to continue to be a part of Indian society for centuries. Negatively, however, it created conditions for social stagnation. The uninterrupted repetition of social, economic and cultural life as embodied in the nature of caste organisation led to an absence of vigour and continuous change, so that, when Europe began to undergo its transition from feudalism to capitalism, India with its caste hierarchy was unable to catch up with it.

The essence of social organisation based on the hierarchy of castes and sub-castes is the monotonous repetition of the same job from generation to generation.          Each person is allotted the job which is supposed to be his or her caste’s (or sub-caste’s).            Here, therefore, there is no room for innovation which is the essence of technological development. This is all the more true of a social organisation which has, besides caste, the village community and joint family as its two other pillars. This three pillar structure was powerful enough to break the barriers and rigidities of ancient tribal society. It enabled India to have the same socio­ economic and cultural advances which Europe had under slavery and feudalism.   It however stood in the way of the advances that were witnessed in the Europe of the capitalist epoch. Thus while caste organisation did not have much of an adverse impact in the ancient and mediaeval epochs of human history, when India occupied a position more or less the same as, if not better than, Europe in the order of civilisation, it made her lag behind modern Europe — the Europe of revolutionary changes in technology and productivity leading to unprecedented development in the socio-economic, cultural and political fields. The series of revolutions through which mediaeval Europe transformed itself into modern Europe could not take place in India because of the rigidities which were the joint product of the three institutions of caste, village community and the joint family. A complete destruction of this centuries-old pattern of social organisation, which replaced the old tribal society, was the essential prerequisite for the revolutionary transformation of Indian society. This however, was precluded because the three institutions were too deep-rooted to be undermined.

Revolution From Without

It was to such a society that the representatives of foreign capitalism came first as trading companies, then as participants in the continuous wars among the feudal nobles and, finally, emerged as the supreme rulers. We do not propose, nor is it necessary, to narrate here how the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British trading companies allied themselves with one or another Indian ruler against his rivals in India and their rivals from abroad, and how in the end the British established their rule over virtually the whole country, with small parts left under the control of the Portuguese and the French (the Dutch having completely left India in favour of what is now known as Indonesia). What is important to note is that this process of economic, military and political penetration of European capitalism proved to be the undoing of the centuries-old Indian civilization propped up by the three institutions of caste, the village community and the joint family.

This, of course, was not done easily or at one sweep. Even today, nearly five centuries after the first harbinger of foreign capitalism arrived in India (Vasco Da Gama in Kozhikode in 1448), these three institutions, together with the social consciousness that they jointly generated have not been completely replaced by a modern, bourgeois social order and the consciousness that arises from it. The influence of caste in modern political development, referred to at the beginning of this paper, is sufficient evidence of this reality. It however is indisputable that the expansion of trade between India and the various European countries undermined the very basis of India’s social order. No more could the village remain the self-sufficient socio-economic unit that it was throughout the ancient and mediaeval periods of Indian history. No more could the division of labour as between castes and sub-castes remain sacrosanct. No more could the joint family become the unit of social organisation on which is built the magnificent superstructure of education, culture and polity.

Every village in India was, in course of time, made part of the world market. Every family and individual purchaser was made a cog in the wheel, producing for sale abroad and consuming what is produced in the world market to an increasing extent. They were permitted, or rather forced, to seek employment in areas other than those prescribed by their caste status. This naturally meant that the occupation allotted to a particular caste came to be increasingly encroached upon by persons belonging to other castes. The two institutions, the village community and caste having thus been completely destroyed, it did not take long for the third institution (the joint family) also to be broken up. Both the patriarchal and matriarchal types of family had, in the course of several decades, to give place to the modern family consisting of the father, the mother and their unmarried children. Karl Marx was therefore entirely correct when he characterised the enormous social changes brought about by the British rulers in India as “the only revolution that has ever taken place in Indian history.” This ‘revolution’, however, had very serious limitations in that it was carried out by a class which, for its own survival as the ruling class in a foreign country had necessarily to seek political allies. Such allies they readily found in the representatives of those very classes and strata whose domination in society was to have been completely eliminated if the revolution was to be full and real.

The very fact that the society of that time was being undermined as a result of its integration into the capitalist world market made it inevitable that the representatives of that society would put up a fierce resistance. Dethroned emperors, feudal chieftains who were made powerless, the leaders of the ancient and mediaeval (Hindu-Muslim) culture — all were up in arms against the new rulers. So were the mass of the rural people who felt that their faith, their way of life, was being attacked by the alien rulers. A series of revolts, local and sporadic as well as more widespread and organised, broke out all over the country and reached their high-water mark in the prolonged Sepoy Mutiny and popular revolt of 1857-58 in North India. South India too had its own share of these popular revolts, Kerala having had its Pazhassi revolt in Malabar, Velu Thampi’s in Travancore and Paliyathachan’s in Cochin.

The universal character and sweep of these revolts forced the new British rulers to make compromises with the leaders of those movements and the forces they represented. The well-known proclamation made by the then Queen Empress, Victoria, after the suppression of the 1857 mutiny and revolt, gave the necessary assurance to the leaders of the caste and other institutions of pre-British Indian society that their powers and privileges would be preserved. That proclamation, in fact, was a de jure unilateral declaration by the British rulers of a de facto peace agreement between the British Crown and the representatives of the old social order in India. While the latter did in practice recognise that they we-re powerless against the mighty British Empire, the former made it clear, in words as well as in deeds, that it was far from the ruling power’s intention to destroy India’s ancient social order. Here therefore was an anomalous situation where the new rulers who should normally be considered to be the inveterate enemies of the old social order committed themselves to be the protectors of that very social order.

However, what was thus a virtual compromise between the foreign capitalist rulers and the leaders of India’s social order could not but help unleash new forces which were bound to become a challenge to both. For, in spite of their compromise, the new capitalist rulers from abroad could not prevent the development of capitalism, however stunted and dwarfed it might be due to the pressure exerted by the antiquated social institutions, beliefs and culture. The village became less and less self-sufficient, more and more dependent on the world market. The system of education and culture which was built on the socio-economic basis of a caste-ridden division of labour, became outmoded, and was therefore destroyed; in its place came bourgeois education and culture for which the basis was laid in the well-known minute of Macaulay. Caste barriers were therefore necessarily broken when new social relations came to be established. Taboos regarding inter-caste dining, inter-caste marriage and so on, were increasingly done away with. All this weakened the hold of those venerated aspects of Indian civilization on the minds of the growing generation who began increasingly to take to new ways of life. Thus was the deathblow delivered to the three institutions of caste, village community and the joint family.

Emergence of New Classes

The socio-economic consequence of this epoch-making transformation was the emergence of two new classes-the employers and employees, or rather the bourgeoisie and the working class. The latter half of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of these two classes and their growing consolidation in the socio-economic, cultural and political fields. The movement for social and educational reform of which the pioneers were Ram Mohan and his associates in Bengal and Jotiba Phule in Maharashtra; the new economic organisation symbolised by the setting up of modern mills in the 1860s; the evolution of bourgeois Political Economy of which the founding fathers were men like Ranade, Naoroji and Dutt; the formation of socio-political organisations which culminated in the formation of the Indian National Congress — such were the phases through which the new Indian capitalist class came to get organised as a distinct class. It had its affinity to the foreign rulers in that both were basically the representatives of the same socio-economic order. The Indian bourgeoisie, however, had its conflicts with the rulers in that, coming as the latter did from abroad, they wanted to monopolise for themselves all the fruits of capitalist development in India. But, it also had its conflicts with the ancient social order and was in this respect closer to the foreign rulers, as was clear from the fact that Ram Mohan and others were opposed to the 1857 mutiny and popular revolt.

Alongside this new class of the Indian bourgeoisie emerged the new working class which naturally took longer than the bourgeoisie to get organised as a socio-economic force and still longer to emerge as a political force. While the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a political force may be said to coincide with the emergence of the Indian National Congress in 1885, the working class could organise itself as a socio­ economic force only by the 1920s, (the AITUC as the elementary organisation of India’s working class came into existence only in 1920). As for the political organisations of the working class, the socialist and communist parties, their foundation took still longer. Only in the 1930s could the socialist-communist movement become strong enough to act independently. Even then, it could act only as a ginger group within the anti-imperialist freedom and democratic movement, which was under the leadership of the political party of the bourgeoisie, the Indian National Congress.

The result can be seen in the fact that, by the time the British were obliged to hand over political and administrative power to the representatives of India, it was the bourgeoisie that had become strong and organised enough to take over. It was into its hands through its two representatives — the Indian National Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League — that power was transferred when the British left with a divided India. It is, however, necessary to bear in mind that, within just five years of the bourgeoisie taking power from the British, the political party of the working class, the Communist Party, came to occupy the position of the major opposition in Parliament and in four States.

These facts of recent political history are being cited here for no other reason than to indicate that the modern or British period of Indian history, culminating in the decades of the freedom struggle and post­ Independence development, is a period in which classes and political parties are acquiring increasing importance in social life. During the several centuries covering the ancient and mediaeval periods of Indian history, we do not have classes and political parties, but castes, religious communities, villages, families, and so on. Social organisation began and ended with these institutions, the roots of which go back to the days when Chaturvarnya was built on the ashes of ancient tribal society. These institutions of ancient and mediaeval society do, of course persist in modern times and exercise their influence on the classes and political parties which cut across the barriers of castes and religious communities. But as political democracy advances, as social and class conflicts get intensified, the mass organisations and political parties of the various classes and strata acquire increasing importance. Only a proper, balanced appreciation of the role which caste played in the development of classes and political parties and the extent to which the latter overshadow the former will enable us to come to correct conclusions. It is with this approach that we propose in the following pages to deal with the relations of castes, classes and parties in Kerala, as they prevail at the present moment and as they developed over the last few decades.

Caste in Kerala

The fact noted earlier, that the innumerable castes and sub-castes in Kerala do not include one which is allotted to the trading profession may appear to be a matter of detail which has no significance for the interpretation of social history. It would however be incorrect to dismiss the issue in this manner. The absence of a trading caste in the traditional caste hierarchy of Kerala shows that, unlike in most other parts of India, production for the market (together with the consumption of commodities bought from the market) was insignificant in the social life of the people in the historical epoch in which social evolution took the form of caste stratification; not that trade as such did not exist in Kerala of the ancient epoch. It did undoubtedly exist as is evidenced by literary references as well as archaeological, numismatic and other material discovered. They show that there was a certain amount of commercial contact, not only between Kerala and the rest of India but between Kerala and several other countries as well. These commercial contacts however appear to have been confined to a narrow stratum of society, namely the upper class. The people at large were living a life of near complete self-sufficiency.

It is important in this connection to note that, unlike in North India, there were in Kerala no large-scale invasions and conquests culminating in the formation of empires. What is known as the Chera empire in South India (of which present day Kerala is considered to be an integral part) in no way compares with the Maurya, the Gupta and other empires in the North which culminated in the Mughal regime. There was therefore, no occasion for the formation of a standing army as was characteristic of the political-administrative organisation in Northern India. Absence of such standing armies and their movement from one place to another, meant that the need to supply them was much less here than in the rest of India. The local chieftains and Rajas who did certainly exist all over Kerala in the mediaeval period were provided for by the self-sufficient villages with the rulers of the small principalities having under them then only a limited number of soldiers to protect them.

Such an organisation of society which was typical of Kerala. did not of course preclude foreign traders coming here in search of certain natural products which were available in abundance, such as timber and sea products. These traders were also able to supply the Rajas and their chieftains with certain luxury products brought from abroad. That was how trade appears to have originated in ancient and mediaeval Kerala. As society advanced and contacts at various levels developed between the people of Kerala and those in the rest of India, traders from other parts of India as well as from other countries began to arrive in larger numbers. Locally too production seems to have become much more varied, so that an increasingly greater assortment of commodities became available for trade. The hierarchy of castes and sub-castes had however become so ossified that neither the foreigners who came from other countries, nor the traders from other parts of India, could be absorbed into the system of castes and sub-castes as it existed in Kerala. Nor was it necessary to throw up a new cast or sub-caste engaged in trading, since the non-Keralite Indians and the foreigners could well look after that job and had sufficiently acclimatised themselves to Kerala.

Impact of Commodity Production

All this would indicate that the development of commodity production, which after all is the starting point of capitalist development was much weaker here than in the rest of India. This however could not continue in the modern epoch, particularly after Kerala, along with the rest of India, came into direct contact with rising European capitalism.

The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British trading companies undermined the self-sufficient village in Kerala as in the rest of India. The self-sufficient village, the joint family and the caste system came under as fierce an attack in Kerala as in the rest of India. In fact, the impact of all this on the socio-economic and cultural life of Kerala was even greater than in several other parts of the country. For example, the transformation of agriculture, from one geared to the production of food grains and other necessities meant for local consumption, to one producing commercial crops was far greater here than else­ where. As is well-known, the major part of cultivable land in Kerala is used for the cultivation of products like tea, coffee, rubber, and coconut (only a very small proportion of whose product is used for direct consumption, the rest being devoted to the production of oil and other manufactured commodities). One economic consequence of this shift to commercial crops is that not less than 50 per cent of the acknowledgedly inadequate food requirements of Kerala’s population is provided for through imports, either from the other states of India or even from other countries. But far more serious than this, is the fact that the producers of these commercial crops — the millions of small cultivators — are put at the mercy of the capitalist world market. Any fall in demand for, or in the price of, these commercial crops in the world market would ruin the mass of working people in Kerala. No other part of India has been faced with such a serious problem from the very early days of British rule. In addition, Kerala shares with the rest of India the miseries borne by the hundreds of thousands of families dependent for their livelihood on various handicrafts. For this class of people, the fact that India was tied to the world market has meant that while they have to face competition from their foreign rivals who can supply the local population with cheaper products, the foreign markets are virtually closed to them.

Besides all this, the transformation of land relations under the aegis of the British rulers, the consequent establishment of new landlord­ tenant relations in certain parts of Kerala, the introduction of a rigorous levy and the collection of land revenue as well as other taxes, also added to the misery of the rural population. The people at large were, in other words, made to suffer to an unprecedented extent due to the slow emergence of capitalist relations all over India and as part of it in Kerala too. The pauperisation which came out of this prolonged process did not leave the people belonging to any caste or sub-caste untouched. All were affected by the misery arising from the decline in traditional job opportunities combined with the impossibility of getting any new jobs.

At the same time, the new administrative system and the organisation of education made it possible for a small section of the population to get absorbed in government jobs as peons, clerks, teachers, minor officials and so on. Those of them who loyally and faithfully served the regime were also tempted with opportunities for promotion, for being made superior officers with emoluments which would be the envy of the common people. All this resulted in the emergence of classes cutting across castes, sub-castes and religious communities and completely upset­ ting the centuries-old social set up. No more was caste or community the basis on which the division of labour was determined. Families and groups which, in the ancient and mediaeval epochs, belonged to the same caste or community and therefore played particular roles in social life, came to be divided into different classes.

Modern Intelligentsia Emerges

A small group adopted the new (British) rulers’ way of life and culture and became, so to say, ‘anglicised’. They were absorbed by the new rulers into their administrative, educational and cultural organisations. They therefore became the nucleus around which a new class, the bourgeoisie, ultimately took shape. Parallel to this was the large mass of people-the peasants, the handicraftsmen and the professional groups in pre-British Kerala society-who were being steadily ruined and pauperised. Before the former was a wide vista open for systematic and uninterrupted growth towards the position of a partner in the new bourgeois society, dominated by the foreign rulers. They were to become the pioneers of what is known as ‘modernisation’. This, no doubt, is an all-India phenomenon. It was, in fact, stronger and more influential in Bengal, Maharashtra and some other parts of the country than in Kerala. The first manifestation of the emergence of this new stratum or class as a vital force in India was the emergence of the Brahmo movement in Bengal in the first quarter of the 19th century. Ram Mohan and his colleagues were the torchbearers of modernisation not only in Bengal but in the entire country. They had utter contempt for the old social order and a kind of qualified veneration for the new British dominated bourgeois social order. That is why, as opposed to other sections, Ram Mohan and his colleagues refused to participate in the historic mutiny and revolt of 1857.

The torch that Ram Mohan lit in Bengal was taken up very soon by Jotiba Phule in Maharashtra and other movements in the rest of the country. Kerala too witnessed the same phenomenon, though with a distinction of its own. The old social system based on castes and communities, however, could not but have its impact on this process of modernisation. Although in the final analysis the emergence of the new classes and the rise of the new movements was a process cutting across castes, sub-castes and religious communities, the fact remains that from the very position occupied by each caste, sub-caste and community in the pre­ British social order, some of them took to modernisation quicker than others; they were therefore able to benefit from it to a greater extent. Those who lagged behind were necessarily handicapped in various ways.

The consequent discrepancy as between castes and communities lies at the root of the present distinction between the ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ communities.

Syrian Christians were in the most advantageous position in this respect for it was easier for them to adapt themselves to the new bourgeois community as the new British rulers, although the majority of Christians in Kerala belonged to denominations other than the British. They however were closer to the new rulers from abroad than the former indigenous rulers of the caste dominated feudal society of Kerala. The Christian missionaries became pioneers in using the most potent vehicle of modernisation — the printing press. This was followed by several other measures such as the introduction of modern education, which raised Syrian Christians as a whole to the position of a junior partner in the socio-cultural domination of the British rulers.

Conflicts between Communities

Although a little behind the Syrian Christians, the Nayar and the Tamil Brahmin, who contributed the professional element to the pre-British ruling classes in Kerala, followed them without delay. In their case too, it was relatively easy to take to modernisation. They were after all the cream of the professional element in the old social order. All that was needed in their case was a change in allegiance from the old to the new rulers. From the position of serving as links in the old bureaucracy they converted themselves into elements in the new bureaucracy. Together with the Syrian Christians, they contributed to the process of modernisation, or the growth of modern trends in the socio-cultural and political life of the country. There was however no complete harmony between the Syrian Christian, on the one hand, and the Nayar and the Tamil Brahmin, on the other. For, the pre-British social order and even the political system were dominated by the upper caste Hindus, particularly in the princely states of Travancore and Cochin, whose rulers were devout Hindus. The Syrian Christians were naturally handicapped when compared to the Nayar and the Tamil Brahmin. Even the most advanced Syrian Christian was, in some respects, at the same level as the inferior castes in Hindu society. The Nayar and the Tamil Brahmin could occupy the highest positions in the new political set-up in the two princely States, while the Syrian Christian was excluded from some of them. There was, at the same time, another conflict — between the relatively well-to-do and cultured Syrian Christians on the one hand and the mass of backward Christians on the other. The former were more or less equal in the socio-political hierarchy with the Nayar and the Tamil Brahmin, while the latter were subjected more or less to the same handicaps as the inferior Hindu castes. This was further strengthened by the fact that the Syrian Christians in Travancore and Cochin (belonging to the Orthodox and Catholic denominations) pride themselves in being the descendants of the high caste Hindus who were converted by no less a person than Apostle St Thomas. The non-Syrian Christians were considered to be of a lower order, since they were by and large converted in recent centuries from the lower castes. The bulk of Christians in the British-ruled part of Kerala (Malabar) belonged to the latter category.

The non-Nayar high caste Hindus, particularly the Namboodiris and the Muslims, were objectively in a position to follow the Syrian Christians, the Nayars and the Tamil Brahmins in adapting themselves to the conditions of modern Kerala. The former were as much part of the professional element in pre-British society as the Nayars and the Tamil Brahmins, while the latter were occupying more or less the same position as the Syrian Christians in trade, land holding and other avocations. All of them could therefore modernise themselves as quickly as the Nayar, the Tamil Brahmin and the Syrian Christian if only they wanted it. They however did not want it. The Namboodiris and other non-Nayar caste Hindus were too proud of the pre-British society of which they were the backbone and therefore contemptuous of the ‘up-starts’ who dominated the new British-dominated social order, The Muslims too were hostile to and contemptuous of the British ruling classes. Both stuck to their old socio-political outlook and were left far behind in the race for modernisation. The consequent social and educational backwardness resulted in their inability to secure positions of importance in the administration. They however made up for the lag once they woke up to the situation, so that today most of the non-Nayar upper caste Hindus have come to the position of near equals with the other ‘forward’ communities.

As opposed to these are the former ‘inferior’ castes which are today included in the categories of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and backward communities. Having been the most oppressed (in every sense of the term) in pre-British society, the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are even now in the most disadvantageous position. The other backward communities including the Ezhavas, the Vishwarkarmas, the Latin and other backward Christians, and so on are slightly better. They have been able to take advantage of the provisions made by the new British rulers for educational advancement and for securing posts in Government service. The principle of reservation for backward communities has also helped them to get some important positions in Government service and to get admission in educational institutions. Had it not been for this, they would have remained as backward as in the old society. The scheduled castes and scheduled tribes too have been helped by these measures, but they as communities have not been able to overcome their backwardness to the same extent as the other backward communities have done. There is therefore a discrepancy if not conflict between the other backward communities on the one hand and the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes on the other, and even among the various backward communities themselves.

One cannot leave this subject without referring to another and equally important aspect of modernisation. The formation of the new class consisting of the intelligentsia and professionals — those who took to and benefited from            modern education and other opportunities — was only the beginning of the formation of modern class society. From the very castes, sub-castes and communities which threw up the modern intelligentsia and the professional classes, arose the new bourgeois class in the economic sense of the term. Although much later and on a much lower scale than in Bengal, Bombay and Madras, in Kerala too, the entrepreneur class began to take shape. The establishment of factories, the organisation of plantations, the introduction of modern techniques in agriculture and industry, reforms in the system of land tenure, changes in the law of inheritance and family property — all these made for the emergence of a class which was bourgeois not only educationally and culturally but economically too. The process began in the later decades of the 19th century, and accelerated during and after the First World War

A part of the process of the formation of this bourgeois class was the formation of a class of proletarians and semi-proletarians. The former were interested in completing the process of bourgeois transformation — through the rise of a class of landlords and rich peasants basing themselves on modern land relations and modern techniques of production — and in the consolidation of the trading and industrial bourgeoisie as a class. The proletarians and semi-proletarians on the other hand were interested in defending themselves against the former. In the ranks of both the classes were people who were drawn from almost all castes, except perhaps from the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and some of the most backward among backward communities. There was little or no development of the bourgeoisie as an economic category from among the scheduled castes and tribes; bourgeois development touched them only to the extent of the emergence of an educated elite. Social tensions therefore ceased to be based purely on castes, sub-castes and religious communities, as it was in pre-British society. Every caste, sub-caste and religious community contributed its own share (some more and some less) both to the bourgeois-landlord as well as to the proletarian, semi­proletarian, peasant classes. Class society was thus emerging within the very framework of an essentially caste society. Struggles between the two major classes and conflicts between the various castes, sub-castes and religious communities were getting mixed up with each other. It would therefore be totally unrealistic to pose the problem as if it is either class struggle or caste conflict. The fact is that there is a certain amount of interpenetration of class and caste.

These developments prepared the soil for the formation of modern political parties and the fighting mass organisations of the proletarians and semi-proletarians. But Kerala was behind the rest of India in this respect. The premier political party of the Indian bourgeoisie, the Indian National Congress, came to be formed, as is well known, in the latter half of the 19th century. In Kerala however, it took shape only towards the end of the First World War and that too only in the British administered Malabar region. The Home Rule League formed under the leadership of Annie Besant had its branches established in Malabar. This was followed by the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi in the post-war years as the topmost leader of the freedom struggle. Only at this stage could the Congress get real roots among the people of Kerala, but even then it was confined to the Malabar region. The princely states of Cochin and Travancore were left out of the fold of the Congress movement, due mainly to the Gandhian policy of “non-intervention in the internal affairs of princely states.” Since this was the position even in relation to the political party of the bourgeoisie, it is not surprising that the party of the working class, the Communist Party, took still longer to be born and take roots here. While the Communist Party of India was born in the 1920s, it could form its branch in Kerala only towards the end of the 1930s.

Caste-based Organisations

A still more significant difference between Kerala and the rest of India is the fact that the first form of political agitation, and the corresponding organisations for carrying on such agitations were based on particular castes, sub-castes and religious communities. Tamil Brahmin domination in the princely state of Travancore was resented by the rest of the community which found expression in what is known as the Malayali Memorial. The discontent of the non-caste Hindus found expression first in individual petitions to the Maharaja and then through collective action by some of the backward Hindu communities. The relatively ‘forward’ community of Nayars also had some grievances in the Brahmin dominated state and gave expression to their resentment. All these agitations and movements led to the formation of caste organisations with definite political demands. None of them, however, can be considered integral parts of the modern democratic political movement, since the demands voiced by them were not of the people as a whole, but of particular communities. Opportunities for educational advancement and share in government service for separate communities, rather than democratic rights for the people — such were the demands for which they fought. This however was the initial form in which the simmering discontent of the common people found expression.

As a matter of fact, these caste-based organisations were, in their outward form, social reform organisations, rather than democratic political parties. The most widespread and most powerful of them is the SNDP Yogam which voiced the grievances and demands of the non­caste Hindu communities in general and the most numerous and most advanced among them, the Ezhavas, in particular. This organisation inspired and led by the saintly Narayana Guru, and combining within it elements of Ram Mohan’s Brahmo movement, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda’s spiritualism and Jotiba Phule’s revolt of the untouchable classes. Behind it, however, was the urge of the common people — the peasants, the artisans, the newly-emerging class of manual wage labourers and middle class employees — who were groping towards some outlet for the ventilation of their grievances. Preceded and followed as this was by a number of agitations and movements confined to particular castes, sub-castes and religious communities, this became the model for the common people to express their grievances. Together with this particular form of social-cum-political agitation, other forms like the publication of political news-and-views papers also came into existence. While the use of the modern press for the publication of books, magazines and periodicals began as early as in the 19th century, it began to get the sharp political form of agitational newspapers only in the early 20th century. This, however, was limited to a few cases like that of Ramakrishna Pillai’s Swadeshabhimani in Trivandrum. Brought out in the early years of this century and in the end suppressed by the hostile Dewan’s administration, this paper and its editor became the torch-bearers of modern political journalism in Kerala more than a decade before the Gandhi-led Non-Cooperation movement began.

The facts mentioned above relate, by and large, to the princely state of Travancore. The then British administered Malabar (which was part of the then Madras Presidency), did not witness the same type of agitations, movements and organisations. The SNDP Yogam was, in fact, more or less confined to Travancore, though its saintly founder, Sree Narayana Guru, established some temples even in the Malabar region of present-day Kerala. The agitational needs of the non-caste Hindu and other communities subjected to various disabilities under the old social order, therefore had to wait for the formation in Madras of the Justice Party whose branches were formed in Malabar as well. All these, however, were overshadowed by the gigantic national upheaval of the post First World War years which witnessed the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi as the supreme leader of a modern bourgeois democratic political movement.

The National Movement

This period can therefore be considered as the watershed marking the change over from the days of caste-based sectarian political agitations to the modern secular democratic political movement. This is definitely true in one sense: for the first time in the history of our polity, a movement was now born embracing individuals belonging to all castes, sub-castes and religious communities. A common political movement voicing the demands and grievances of all sections of the people, regardless of caste or community was something new for Kerala. This does not mean that the caste factor was non-existent. On the contrary, it continued to play an extremely important role and had its impact on the very functioning of emerging political parties. While the Indian National Congress was, in form, a secular democratic political party and while its leaders tried their best to keep it as such, the fact remains that its leadership was dominated by some and excluded other communities. The movement launched by the Congress under Gandhi’s leadership was, in fact, based on a pact between the Congress and the Khilafat Committee. Large chunks of people including the untouchable communities and the Christians were out of the purview of this movement. If this was the situation even in relation to all-India politics, it was all the more so in Kerala where, as has been noted above, castes, sub-castes and religious communities are an important element in the socio­political life of the people.

The interrelation between caste or religious community on the one hand and class and the modern political movement on the other was brought into sharp relief in the well-known Malabar rebellion of 1921, otherwise known as the Moplah Rebellion. The roots of the discontent that broke out into rebellion go back to the changes in agrarian relations made by the British rulers. The absolute right of property conferred on the Jenmis (which meant that the tenants by and large were to be at the complete mercy of the Jenmis) created acute discontent in the entire Malabar district. It however found clear expression only among the Muslim tenantry in the Muslim majority areas of the then taluks of Eranad and Valluvanad. A series of sporadic attacks on individual Hindu landlords by the Muslim tenants reflected a combination of agrarian discontent with particular grievances of the Muslim community. The outbreaks which first occurred in 1836 and which repeated themselves in subsequent years had not only an agrarian basis but also heavy overtones of Muslim fanaticism. They were suppressed with an iron hand by the British rulers. This in its turn further accentuated the discontent of the Muslim community which too found expression in various forms of Islamic unity and brotherhood both against the British rulers as well as against the Hindus in general.

Coming as it did against this background of agrarian and Muslim discontent, the Non-Cooperation-Khilafat movement led by Gandhi, the Ali brothers and others stirred the Muslim masses of Eranad and Valluvanad more than any other section. The organised movement for tenancy reform which had, in the meanwhile, taken shape and which came to be integrated with the Non-Cooperation-Khilafat movement added to the sweep of the movement. Here was the first upsurge of the masses in the British-ruled part of Kerala which combined within itself political, agrarian and communal aspects. The movement in the beginning, therefore, had all signs of a modern political-cum-agrarian movement which brought together the two major communities of the area — Hindus and Muslims. This however did not last long. The heavy repression let loose by the British Government which declared martial law not only in the two taluks but in the four neighbouring taluks as well, combined with the political line of eschewing violence by all means pursued by the Congress leadership, gradually turned the Muslim community against the Hindus. The obscurantism of the Islamic outlook which dominated the thinking of rebel leaders added to it. The rebellion became communal in its subsequent phases, though in the beginning it had, by and large, a modern secular democratic outlook.

While the British ruled part of Kerala was thus swept by the modern anti-imperialist movement headed by the Congress-Khilafat leaders, the princely states of Cochin and Travancore remained relatively quiet. Not that nothing happened there. The Non-Cooperation movement had its impact on the people of the States too, but on a much smaller scale. The non-Hindu communities and the non-caste Hindus by and large rallied behind the administration and against the Indian National Congress. But the development of the democratic political movement in the rest of India could not but have its impact on the people of the princely states of Cochin and Travancore. The latter half of the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s witnessed two parallel movements. First, a modern secular political movement — in the form of the States Peoples’ Conference came into existence and started agitation for responsible government. Secondly, the non-Hindu and non-caste Hindu communities began to voice their political demands not in the earlier form of a share in government employment, but in the general form of electoral rights and a share in the policy making sphere of the country’s political life. Both drew their inspiration from the discussions that were going on between India’s political leaders and the British Government and among the various Indian political parties themselves, which were reflected in the Simon Commission, the all-parties Conference convened by the Congress, the London Round Table Conference, and so on, and culminating in the adoption of the new Government of India Act ( 1935) by the British Parliament.

While all these quickened the tempo of political development even in the relatively quiet princely states, the new political aspirations found expression not only in the non-sectarian secular political movement (as formally represented by the Indian National Congress and the States People’s Conference) but also in the emergence and activities of various caste and community based political organisations. It was this that ultimately led to the formation of the Joint Political Congress in Travancore which subsequently converted itself into the State Congress. This in its turn influenced the formation of the Cochin Congress, Cochin State Congress, Praja Mandalam, and other organisations. As opposed to the Travancore State Congress, which was by and large dominated by the non-Hindu and non-caste Hindu communites, there arose what was called the Travancore National Congress dominated by the caste Hindus functioning with the open support of the state administration.

Reservation on the Agenda

It should be noted that, when the modern political movement took this form in the princely states of Cochin and Travancore, the question that assumed overriding importance was that regarding the position the non-Hindu and non-caste Hindu communities would occupy in the administration when the modern democratic political set-up is established. Reservation for backward communities in government services became a point of acute controversy. While this was universally demanded by all the backward communities, and while the demand was fully supported by the radical forces which were then taking shape in the state, the leaders of the ‘forward’ communities took the cover of modern secular nationalism to oppose any such demand. It goes to the credit of a large number of genuine nationalists who belonged to the ‘forward’ communities that they realised the necessity for acceding to this demand of the ‘backward’ communities in order to develop a viable political movement against the autocratic Dewan regime.

The acceptance of this principle by the counterparts of the Indian National Congress in the two princely states of Cochin and Travancore — the Travancore State Congress, the Cochin Congress and the Praja Mandalam — and the incorporation of this demand in their policy documents was a turning point in the history of the modern political movement in the state. It shows that, while caste was declining as a factor in the socio-cultural life of society, it was bound, for a long time to come, to play a by no means unimportant role in political life. This, it can be seen, is the origin of the present controversy over “caste or economic status” as the basis for reservation. Before going into it however, it is necessary to state that, by the time the modern political movement began to spread to the two princely states of Cochin and Travancore, the monopoly of the bourgeoisie in the field of political leadership had come to an end. The working class had become a vital political force. Not only had it formed its own mass organisations like the trade unions and resorted to its own specific form of action-the economic and political strike-but it had also given birth to its own political party. The formation of the Congress Socialist Party in 1934, the contacts established by the leaders of this party with the Communist Party of India, and the gradual transformation of the Congress Socialist Party of Kerala into the Communist Party together with the active role played by the Congress Socialist-cum-Communist cadre in the KPCC of Malabar, as well as in the Travancore State Congress and the Cochin Congress, were a big turning point. It was now clear that, independent of the right wing bourgeois leadership of the Indian National Congress and its sister organisations in the two princely states, there was a growing political force which openly and without reservation declared itself to be the party of the working class. The role played by the working class in the 1938 State Congress struggle in Travancore and similar struggles in Cochin and Malabar proclaimed the emergence of a new political party which was an independent part of the secular modern democratic political movement. The last four decades have witnessed an unceasing struggle between the right and the left, between the bourgeois and the proletarian trends, in the modern political movement.

The Present Debate

The emergence of these two — bourgeois and proletarian — trends in the modern political movement has not rendered the question of castes, sub-castes and religious communities irrelevant. On the other hand, they still play a very important role. This is clear from the furious controversy that is now raging around the question of reservation for backward communities dealt with in the Kumara Pillai and Nettoor Damodaran Commission reports. The problems dealt with in the two reports, though related to each other, are different. The Kumara Pillai Commission dealt with the question of educational concessions which way be divided into two parts — reservation in respect of admissions to educational institutions and financial provisions for fee concessions, stipends, books, and so on. The Nettoor Commission dealt with the question of reservation in the matter of appointments in government service. Admission into educational institutions and reservation with regard to appointments in government service are of the same category, since whatever concession is given to the ‘backward’ communities in this respect would obviously be at the expense of the ‘forward’ com­ munities. The latter therefore have an obvious grievance that they are being denied something for no other ‘crime’ than that they were born in particular communities. Financial concessions, on the other hand, are such that what has so far been given to the ‘backward’ communities can be given to the ‘forward’ communities as well, provided only that the government is in possession of adequate resources for financing the education of both sections. The government has found that it can do so and the grievances have thus been redressed.

On the question of reservation for backward communities in admissions to educational institutions and appointments in government service, the spokesmen of the ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ communities are ranged against each other. The former denounce such reservation as ‘unscientific’, since it is based on nothing but caste and since caste is no more a relevant factor in modern political life. The spokesmen of the ‘backward’ communities, on the other hand, demand that the entire scheme of reservation should be kept intact without any change at all. Around this question, a big battle is going on today. It should however be noted that almost every political party — both in the ruling coalition as well as in the opposition — has rejected the demands of both the ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ communities. They endorse the recommendations of the Nettoor Commission that, while caste-based reservation should continue for some more time (with provision for periodical review of the extent to which each ‘backward’ community has been able to overcome its backwardness), those families belonging to the ‘backward’ communities but whose annual income is above a particular ceiling should be excluded from the enjoyment of the benefits of reservation. Those political parties which frankly base themselves on the modern secular democratic political system endorse these recommendations of the Nettoor Commission, since they combine the perspective of ending all reservation as the ‘backward’ communities catch up with the ‘forward’ with the necessity for its continuation for the present, in the case of those who belong to the ‘backward’ communities but whose annual income is below the fixed ceiling.

The fact that all the major political parties in the State are in agreement with this view shows that the two extreme views held by several scholars and publicists are wrong. Caste is not of such overriding importance that every other political consideration is subordinated to it, as some of them seriously argue. Nor is it true, as some others claim, that caste is no more a relevant factor at all. A proper analysis of all aspects of the existing situation would show that, while classes and political parties are assuming greater and greater importance in the political life of the state, the existence of caste as a social factor and the problems arising therefrom cannot he wished away. Taboos regarding intercaste dining, intercaste marriage, and the like are being steadily overcome, while the observance of untouchability is almost nonexistent even in the most remote villages. But what the Nettoor Commission calls the ‘social, economic and educational backwardness’ leading to backwardness in respect of sharing government appointments still continues. Furthermore, the consciousness of one’s caste, sub-caste or religious community is still a strong force exercising its influence on the functioning of even political parties, with no political party being free to dismiss this particular factor in selecting candidates for election, in making appointments to the ministries and so on. The party of the working class with its advanced ideology has also to take account of this factor; failure to do so would weaken the struggle for uniting and consolidating the proletarian and semi-proletarian forces in the struggle against the bourgeois-landlord forces. In taking it into account however, the party of the working class will not allow itself to be turned into a tailist hanger-on of the bourgeois-landlord elements growing within the backward’ communities.


(Originally published in Social Scientist (Vol. 6, No. 4) in November 1977, this essay was reprinted in History, Society and Land Relations: Selected Essays by EMS Namboodiripad, published by Leftword Books, New Delhi in 2010. The book was published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 India license. For details of the license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/in/).

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