December 20, 2020

Manusmriti – A Marxist Perspective Class, Caste and Gender-based Oppressions

P Sampath

THE concepts of freedom, democracy, and secular republic were widely accepted in India, based on which the Constitution was drafted. While implementing these, one can see feudal relations and Manusmriti as big obstacles.

UNTOUCHABILITY - VIOLENCE                    
Article 17 of the Constitution declares untouchability has been completely abolished by law. But what is the current situation? Various forms of untouchability are rampant in thousands of villages, such as the double mug system in tea shops, Dalits being not allowed to walk on public roads, ban on taking water from public taps and wells, denial of burying and cremating Dalits in public cemeteries, and also denying Dalit dead bodies to be carried on a common path, and refusal of access to many temples in many places.

Field studies conducted by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front in villages reveal that there are 78 types of untouchability atrocities and 28 types of violence against dalits in Tamil Nadu. If dalits fight against atrocities and assert their rights, the casteist forces severely beat them up, even massacre them, burn their huts, damage their belongings, and even rape Dalit women. Violence of these kinds does not get registered as cases for many reasons and compelling circumstances. One of the main reasons for this is the caste bias of the bureaucrats and ruling class representatives. Such cases are reported in a limited manner in this context. Based on these cases, When National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the Human Rights Commission enumerate the attacks and atrocities taking place against the Dalits, our heart trembles.

The law that anyone irrespective of caste can be a priest was enacted by the Tamil Nadu government when M Karunanidhi was chief minister. But in Tamil Nadu why is it that any of the castes other than Brahmin have not yet become priests in big temples? Such appointments are denied in society on the basis of Agam rules derived from Manusmriti. Whereas, we see many non-Brahmins being appointed as priests without any objections in Kerala by the LDF government. It shows that society progresses if the left ideology is strong.

Not only this. There is still strong opposition to and condemnation of inter-caste marriages and honour killing of those who defy such socially rigid diktat. In particular, we often witness all over the country a Dalit man marrying a caste Hindu woman after love affairs being brutally murdered by evil casteist forces. Sometimes young girls marrying outside the caste are also killed. Dalits who marry outside the castes are getting killed in high numbers.

DENIAL OF POLITICAL POWER                      
Even today, caste forces continue to vehemently oppose the granting of democratic rights and political power to Dalits. We cannot forget the fact that all over the country, including Tamil Nadu, elected Dalit panchayat presidents are being assassinated. Many Dalits elected as panchayat leaders and representatives of local bodies being not allowed to sit in chairs, physically attacked, verbally abused, and being slandered.

Though there is not much difference in terms of economy and living conditions between them, we see a series of incidents created by caste elements in which Dalits and backward caste people clash with each other, and casteism and sentiments are revived by conflict. In addition to Dalits, backward caste people are also being discriminated against and insulted by casteist forces. Even reservation is not implemented fairly and fully for these people.

Despite a ban, what is the reason for such atrocities and crimes against Dalits and backward caste people? Is it not the Manusmriti that have long ago shaped and justified caste oppressions that have penetrated deep into Indian society? The Manusmriti is currently being debated on social media and beyond. In Tamil Nadu, TholThirumavalavan, the leader of the Viduthalai ChiruthaigalKatchi, sometime back spoke at a meeting criticising the outrageous aspects of the Manusmriti with regard to women. The BJP and Sangh Parivar organisations misinterpreted his speech and a huge controversy erupted all over. After that in social media and other places arguments supporting and condemning the BJP appeared. The CPI(M) issued a statement condemning the BJP's stance. Many progressive and democratic movements expressed comments condemning and criticising the BJP's position.

Manu Shastra is one of the basic texts of Hindutva ideology. Varnasrama and female slavery are among the basic duties that Manu Shastra emphasizes on Indian society. The features that Manu Shastra emphasizes on the implementation of Varnasrama and how the life of the Shudras should be are as follows:

“God's order to the Shudra is that he should do charity for the other three Varnas. If a Shudra hurts someone from higher varnas with insulting words, he should cut out his tongue. Because Shudra was born lowly. If the Shudra insults the caste or name of the upper caste, he should put a ripe iron rod in his mouth. The Shudra should be given waste food and old rags in old plates as wage.

Even if the Shudra can earn and add wealth himself , it should not be allowed as such. The reason is that the rich Shudra will gather arrogance and will hurt the Brahmins and the upper castes. Shudra should not learn nor to be listened to Vedas. If he happens to read the scripture he should cut his tongue 2 times. If he hears the scripture he must pour lead into his ear. The organ by which the Shudra injures the upper castes must be cut. If he beats by hand the hand must be amputated. If he kicks, you have to cut off the leg.

It should be noted, therefore, that the dominant forces in the society perpetuated the caste system by imposing and enforcing severe repression and violence.

In this context, what is the Marxist standpoint on Manu Shastra? We shall examine some aspects like what should be the mechanism of propaganda and struggles against the conservative ideas that it proposes? Manu Shastra was written about 2,500 years ago. In India, it was a time of peasant slavery and feudal domination. It was also a period when class and caste oppressions were firmly in place. Millions of working people were subjected to horrific class oppression and economic oppression in the name of caste. As part of this, sexual harassment of women was rampant. Manusmriti says definitively that caste and class differences were the creations of God himself and therefore all people must obey the will of God and those of the violators should be punished hard and the kings were empowered to punish.

Though numerically small, landlords as the ruling class, resorted to such repressions. The kings of the time were representative of this feudal system. Manu, a representative of the exploiting class structure, wrote Manu Shastra as a shield to protect such a system. Manu Shastra was accepted as the constitution for the rule of kings and came into force over a period of time. The caste/sexual oppression that is taking place today is nothing but the impact and continuity of these.

So, it should not be forgotten that this is the history of the development of class, caste and sexual oppression in Indian society and that in this history there have been valiant struggles against these oppressions and many changes and progress have taken place due to these struggles. Karl Marx asserted that the whole of human history is a history of class struggles. (Engels later proposed an amendment to the phrase "except for the primitive communist society").
India is no exception to the rules of human history. However, these historical events have taken place in each country according to the social and economic characteristics of that country. Varna (caste) system in India has its uniqueness. The CPI(M) programme clearly defines that the caste system in India has been created long ago and that caste oppression and class oppression are intertwined.

It must never be forgotten that in the history of mankind, after the primitive communist society, the present bourgeois society has evolved from a slave and then feudal society and that these changes happened due to class struggles. And the eventual collapse of the capitalist system and the formation of a socialist society will also evolve through class struggles of the working class. It is a historical fact that the primitive communist society was a society in which women played a major role and that when human society was divided into exploitative class and the exploited class, property ownership emerged and in order to pass on the ownership to the male heir, women were subordinated to men. Therefore, it should not be forgotten that misogyny is also intertwined with class oppression. It is in this historical background Manusmirti that was written in feudal society while justifying caste and class oppressions also justified misogyny.

Manusmriti emphasizes how women's lives should be dependent on men and be slaves.

"Women are to be nurtured by the father in childhood, by the husband in    adolescence, and by the son in elderhood"

"A man should hand over his daughter to someone of the same caste, even if she has not reached the appropriate age (puberty)."

"Thirty-year-old men can marry a 12-year-old girl and 24-year-old men can marry the 8-year-old girl."

"With regard to inheritance of property the elder will have two parts, the very next will have one-and-a-half part and the rest of the sons will have one part each. And this is the correct division" (women have no property right).''

"After such division among brothers, they must give one-fourth of their share for the sake of marriage of their sisters."

"A child born to someone other than her husband is not hers."

“The widow has to eat the fruit, the tubers on her own free will. She should not even be allowed to pronounce another man's name after her husband dies."

Thus, we can continue to list the elements of female slavery contained in Manusmriti. There may have been some changes in the forms of female slavery due to the history of anti-class, anti-caste, and the struggles for women equality that have taken place in India. Yet who can deny that female equality is still a dream even today?

Here we must take into account another peculiarity of the Indian social conditions. In the West and many other developed capitalist countries, feudalism was completely destroyed and capitalism was built from its ashes. In the case of India, the big bourgeois, who emerged strong during the freedom struggle and later played a major role in shaping the bourgeois society and economic system, made a compromise with feudalism altogether for their own benefit. Neither land reform laws have been properly enforced nor the land confiscated from the landlords and the excess given to the landless poor and small peasants. Due to this, feudal relations and the ideas it stood for have not been completely eradicated. Under this situation, we can see that the feudal period Manusmriti and its concept continued to be strong.

In the above background, we see the ruling classes, led by the Indian big bourgeoisie, using the caste system and sentiments without the slightest hesitation to establish their dominance and divide the working people. We clearly see even now the existence of a casteist outlook and sentiments in the functioning of the bourgeois parties. As part of this, obscurantism also rules with regard to gender equality. It is no coincidence that the 33 per cent reservation for women in legislatures remains just a dream.

It is in this perspective that we need to understand the pervasiveness of caste oppression and the increasing sexual violence against women that Manu Shastra emphasizes. It is omnipresent and strong in Indian society. It should not be underestimated that these conservative ideas are influential among a wide range of people. The Sangh Parivar and Hindutva forces are actively making efforts to strengthen the conservative ideology among the people. The fact that the BJP is in power with a majority in Parliament has greatly enhanced opportunities for this. They have introduced a new education policy that incorporates the Hindutva ideology. They seek to rewrite the hitherto written history of India. The BJP government has set up a committee that will rewrite 12,000 years of Indian history in their favour. Archaeological sources have sought to cover up and twist the facts. Epic stories which are myths written to justify Hindutva racism and female slavery are portrayed as true history.

In the Supreme Court, they argued and fought that Lord Ram's birthplace was exactly where the Babri Masjid stood and the Supreme Court has given a verdict in favour of Hindutva forces. On that basis, the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the Ram Temple was held on August 5, 2020. The Prime Minister of the country, in violation of fundamental secular principles of our Constitution, attended the ceremony and went so far as to compared the day (August 5) to the Independence Day of India.

The Sangh Parivar is actively seeking to mobilise millions of people behind the Hindutva ideology by fabricating history and carrying out false propaganda. They did not leave out the Dalit people who were most affected by the caste system. They are trying to promote caste divisions among them and mobilise under their leadership. In the wake of such efforts, some leaders and intellectuals of Dalit organisations have already fallen into the Sangh Parivar trap. They are also involved in all sorts of evil campaigns and adventures to attract many Dalits and also bring other castes to their fold.

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?                
In India, in this context, the question arises as to how to conduct the struggle against Manu Shastra codes. We strongly acknowledge the need for a social reform movement that includes anti-Manusmriti propaganda and agitations. The contribution of stalwarts, including Jyotiba Phule, Periyar E V Ramasamy, B R Ambedkar and Narayana Guru, in the social reform movement is immense. As a result of these struggles, Dalit and backward caste people and women gained so many rights and privileges. Reservation is one of the key rights so acquired. These struggles, however, did not bring an end to caste and gender oppression. Therefore, the struggles against these two oppressions should not be stopped with the social reform movement alone. At the same time, these struggles must be linked to the struggle against the feudal system and relations underlying social oppression and to the struggles against the Indian ruling class led by the big bourgeois who have compromised with it. Yes, social reform movements and class struggles must work hand in hand. Such an approach has not been widely attempted in the past.

One of the senior leaders of the communist movement, B T Ranadive said, “The freedom struggle and the social reform movement did not work together during the freedom struggle. In many cases, one contradicted the other. As a result, both movements have been weakened at times.” This situation should not be allowed to continue. The experience is that wherever the Left and the Communists have been strong, such an approach has been made in the past and progress has been achieved. The struggles in Telangana, Kerala, West Bengal, Tripura, East Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu are examples of this. It is no coincidence that caste oppression and gender discrimination against women in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura are much lower than in other states. The improvement was due to the adoption of the above approach and the presence of strong left-wing movements.

In recent years, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the leftist movements have become increasingly concerned and intervening not only in class struggles but also in struggles against social oppression. We will further strengthen this path and put an end to not only class exploitation but also the caste and gender inequality and Manusmriti ideologies that support it.