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Juned Shaikh: "Indology and Marxism: Caste in the Time of a Vibrant Labor Movement in Bombay, 1928-1974"

Some of the important 20th century social movements in western India – the communist led labor movements and the anti-caste movement – turned to ancient Indian history to articulate a politics for the present and the future. For the anti-caste movements, there was a lot at stake in figuring out the origins of the caste system. The Marxist engagement with this question though was spotty. It has been widely acknowledged that Indian Marxists did not pay adequate attention to caste and dismissed the anti-caste movements as the particular demands of the petit bourgeois from the subordinate castes. Many Bombay based communists like S.A Dange, S.G Sardesai, and Gangadhar Adhikari acknowledged the limited engagement with the caste question and opined in the 1950s and 1960s that a systematic study of Indology would have helped them understand caste better. Through their excursions into ancient Indian history, Bombay Marxists had concluded that class oppression in India’s pre-modern history took the form of caste coercion and therefore caste could be folded into class in the 20th century. What could Indology – the study of language, literature, religion, philosophy, history have offered Indian Marxists? What were the conceptual blind spots and the historical context that prevented them from a deeper engagement with the caste question even as many anti-caste intellectuals had worked out an ideology of the caste system? This paper attempts to answer these questions with the help of pamphlets, articles, and monographs published by Bombay based Marxist intellectuals in Marathi and English between 1928 and 1974. I also use archival material and labor reports to flesh out the socio-historical context in which arguments about caste were made. In the last part of the paper, I discuss the work of Sharad Patil, a Marxist activist who took time out from his duties as Communist Party of India (Marxist) activist for a detailed engagement with Indology. He concluded in the 1980s that ‘traditional Marxism’ was inadequate in solving the caste riddle and therefore proposed the trinity of Marx, Phule, and Ambedkar in moving the debate forward. Not surprisingly, by then Patil had moved beyond the communist movement.
Juned Shaikh is a professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His research lies at the intersection of urban history, labor history and Dalit Studies. Shaikh studies the ways in which marginalized groups negotiated and created urban spaces, navigated institutions of the modern State, produced social movements, and how these groups fashioned an intellectual corpus including a field of literature in 20th century Mumbai. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2011 with a dissertation entitled Dignity and Dalit Social Imaginaries: Entanglements of Caste, Class, and Space in Mumbai, 1898-1982.



Wednesday, November 12, 2014. 12:00 PM


Encina Hall West, Room 208


Center for South Asia




Free and open to the public.