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Interview: Jens Lerche and Alpa Shah

Jens Lerche is Reader in Labour and Agrarian Studies at SOAS, University of London. He is a specialist on caste oppression, rural and migrant labour, and agrarian relations in India. He is also editor of the Journal of Agrarian Change and co-author of Ground Down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in 21st Century India.

Alpa Shah is Professor of Anthropology and a Research Theme Convenor at the International Inequalities Institute, LSE. She is the author of the award-winning book Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas, as well as co-author of Ground Down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in 21st Century India.

18 Jan 2022, London

What makes class dynamics in India unique and how can we understand it? I.e., how is the presence of multiple ethnic, religious, caste-based, etc. divisions reflected in the idea of a working class, if at all?

You’re right, caste, ethnicity, class are inextricably linked in India. Such divides between those who are exploited are very significant. This is especially the case in relation to the Dalits (the ex-untouchable castes at the bottom of the caste hierarchy) and the Adivasis (the indigenous population) who make up a quarter of the population. The overwhelming majority of Adivasis and Dalits are relegated to the most backbreaking, precarious lowly paid jobs. They most often seasonally migrate to work in brick kilns, as agricultural labour, in low-end construction work, in unskilled short-term factory work, or in the socially stigmatised ‘dirty’ waste removal sectors. Other groups are also singled out, especially the Muslim population.

But we should also question how ‘unique’ this is. Caste relations have of course their unique roots in South Asia. But capitalism always divides and rules. Class based exploitation is always systematically intertwined with oppression along the lines of race, ethnicity, caste, gender, sexuality. It is a convenient ‘modernisation’ myth that capitalism eradicates all such social divisions. In reality capitalism transforms, entrenches and works through social difference. Take race, for example. Capitalism is racial. Think of colonialism, primitive accumulation through black slavery, and the ideology of the ‘white man’s burden’. Or take the working class divisions in the UK in the 19th century where the Irish were separated out as a different ‘race’ at the bottom of the labour hierarchy, effectively dividing the working class into two – not to mention the racial chasm in US working class history. Jobs and incomes across the world continue to be skewed along lines of race, ethnicity and gender, and institutional racism and sexism is omnipresent.

A united working class is the dream of many a worker’s movement or communist party. But the reality is that workers in India – or for that matter elsewhere – are fundamentally divided by caste or race or ethnicity, by gender, by language and by regional affiliations. We ignore these differences, and how the oppression of different groups is co-constituted, at our peril. Unity of the labourers doesn’t just exist ‘out there’ in an imaginary united working class, such a united class is something that needs to be built, to be constructed through political struggle that involves combating the oppressions that divides it.

Can you please explain the concept of conjugated oppression? Could you maybe also explain the idea of a class struggle for readers who may not be familiar with it?

Conjugated oppression is a term that explains how class-based exploitation and ethnic/race/caste discrimination interact explosively to produce an overwhelming experience of oppression that is more than the sum of its parts. The anthropologist Philippe Bourgois used it to explain the situation of indigenous plantation workers in Central America and we found it extremely useful to consider the situation of Dalits, Adivasis and other minority groups. In our work, we argue that the continued and changing oppression of these groups has taken place through three interrelated processes. First, that inherited inequalities of power – their extreme historical powerlessness and disadvantage - led to their adverse incorporation into colonial and Indian capitalism. Second, they have become the quintessential low-end super-exploited seasonal migrants of the modern economy. Third, conjugated oppression is central to this. While old-time caste and tribe based stigmatisation and oppression has lessened somewhat, it has not gone away. Instead it has been made to work in new ways that enables the exploitation of Adivasis and Dalits in the modern economy. They are still stigmatised, and if need be violently oppressed. Ethnic and caste-based slurs and sexual harassment are common, but also caste-based atrocities and the rape and murder of Adivasis by vigilantes and by the army are alarmingly regular phenomena. Leading Dalit and Adivasi activists, as well as labour and human rights activists are languishing in jail, without having their cases tried before the courts. Government oppression, public discriminatory discourses and direct violence keep them in their place and enables their super-exploitation. It is this explosive exploitation-oppression nexus across caste/ethnic/gender divisions that the term conjugated oppression enables us to see and understand.

Class struggle is the conflict between ruling and oppressed social groups, ultimately over the surplus value of the labour of the oppressed that the ruling classes loot. The ruling classes will not give up their position and wealth easily and those who are oppressed have to fight for their dues. Many communist parties and their unions are taking on the class struggle for ‘the proletariat’. But in fact, class struggle can be expressed in many forms, through the idiom of gender or race or indigeneity (not just class). In essence, class struggle is the struggle against conjugated oppression, for a future without oppression and exploitation.

What is the significance of class politics and conjugated oppression in understanding the current situation with farmer protests in India? i.e., How do these things influence the nature of action against the state and capitalism from an agrarian perspective? And how does it relate to who is leading/getting the most say in the farmer’s movement?

There have been several protests and struggles against discriminatory and oppressive government policies in the last few years but the farm laws struggle 2020-2021 stands out. It was the only one where the protesters won, and it is now challenging the Hindu fundamentalist rule in parts of India.

For nearly a year the farm laws protests dominated the North Indian countryside. Class politics and conjugated oppression are key to understanding the strength of the struggle. It is striking how broad-based the coalition of protesters was, crossing lines of class difference and oppression. The large protest camps in the outskirts of Delhi which were the epicentres of the struggle were teeming with activities by farmers, Dalit farmhands, labourers and unions, men and women, and caste Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.

This was not the least because the new farm laws would harm a wide set of social groups. The protest movement argued that the laws removed whatever protection there was left for farmers against large agribusiness conglomerates and traders, and would lead to cuts in the prices they get for their produce. Small scale farmers were already being squeezed and this would add significantly to their woes. The farm laws could also easily spell the end to one of the biggest anti-poverty programmes in India, the provision of basic foodstuff such as grains to two-thirds of the population, through the government ‘Fair Price Shops’ outlets. Without this, the already widespread poverty in India would get significantly worse.

The struggle quickly turned into an all-encompassing political fight against the ruling Hindu right party, the BJP. It stood accused of having sold out the farmers and the countryside to their cronies in the trading and agribusiness sectors. Faced with a very hostile electorate in large parts of North India, and regional elections coming up soon, at the end of 2021 the government decided to cut its losses and withdraw the farm laws. But the farmers still want the Hindu right out and the signs are that the BJP government in the biggest Indian state, Uttar Pradesh in North India, is facing a significant electoral challenge at the February 2022 elections.

The farm laws struggle was led by the dominant landowning castes in North India, mainly Jat caste Hindus and Sikh Jats. It included both small family farmers and the much fewer but economically important large capitalist farmers. Many organisations of Dalits and landless labourers also supported the struggle, in defence of the Fair Price Shop system and their jobs for the farmers in the countryside. So did urban workers and their organisations. The social distance between urban labour and the countryside has shrunk. Both small farmers and rural Dalits now also work as informalised seasonal migrant labourers in the urban economy – in ways reproducing class and caste differences. Times have been hard for all of them. Already, in the years before covid, the fast growing Indian non-agricultural economy began shedding jobs. But with the covid lockdown in 2020 up to 100 million seasonal migrant workers suffered a collapse in income, and poverty in India skyrocketed by an estimated at least 75 million additional people falling into poverty. All this meant that formal sector unions as well as groups of precarious labourers supported the struggle. Dalit women and women from the farming groups were also actively involved in the protest, in part as a reaction against the difficulties they faced in feeding their families properly.

A deep-felt anger with the government helped the movement to stay on course and to stay united. The unity was also nurtured by leaders and activists who spoke out in unison against caste and gender based oppression, although this attention to conjugated oppression, important as it was, did not stop everyday caste oppression in the countryside, and struggles between farmers and agricultural labourers over agricultural wages also haven’t gone away. Looking ahead, much now hinges on how important it will be for dominant landed caste groups, including capitalist farmers, to maintain a united front against the Hindu fundamentalists. Their leaders want to keep up the fight against the government and its policies but will they continue to rein in their own oppression of minorities and also support these groups in their struggles against conjugated oppression instigated by the government?

What is the role of Dalits and Adivasis in the class struggle? How does their current and historical position as the most oppressed peoples hamper the possibility of a unified class struggle? How do these dynamics pertain to the agricultural sector, in light of the role of Dalits and Adivasis as exploited migrant farm workers?

The schism between most communist parties in India and Adivasi and Dalit organisations is deep. Land reforms in India stopped when the caste Hindu farming groups had been given land. Redistribution of their land to their Dalit and Adivasi labourers was never on the cards. Adivasis in central and eastern India needed protection of their land and forests from mining and corporate interests, abetted by the state; issues which left unions rarely took up. Left unions mainly defend the interests of their members who tend to be in permanent jobs where caste Hindus dominate. On the rare occasion when seasonal migrant labourers – with their strong Dalit and Adivasi presence - organise and take action, it is mainly with the help of alternative unions, social movements and NGOs. Dalits and Adivasis are near-absent from leading positions within Left parties. Many Dalits, from their historical leader in the first half of the 20th century, Babasaheb Ambedkar, onwards, have given up on unity with the Left parties. Unity would mean that caste farmers and formal sector caste labourers in permanent jobs would have to stop being preoccupied with defending the sometimes small but nevertheless real advantage that they have in the workplace and society over Dalit and Adivasi labourers and farm hands. To establish such unity would need to involve a major campaign against conjugated oppression. A durable unity would have to mean not using Dalits and Adivasis as cannon fodder but to take their specific oppressive and exploitative situation seriously.

The farm law struggle shows that such unity it possible when focused on common interests and when efforts are made in the struggle to minimise conjugated oppression. But it is also a unity that primarily is based on the interest of, and led by, the landed farming groups. It is a progressive struggle but it is mainly a struggle to defend status quo against something worse for all the groups, which is why it works.

How can the various struggles of various particularly oppressed groups (Dalits, Adivasis, women, etc.) be united within an overarching emancipatory movement? i.e., how do you envision the dismantling of divisions among the agrarian classes? Do you think that traditional forms of Left politics (i.e., those inspired by Marxist theory and/or based in the power of unions) still hold potential for achieving a just and equitable future? Or do you think it’s time to synthesise new visions for an alternative to capitalism?

There is a long way to go for this to happen. There are many local groups that do excellent work, organising Dalit, Adivasi and other informal labourers in workplaces and for their rights as citizens. There are organisations fighting for land for Dalits, and against evictions of Adivasis for mining projects. There are anti-caste discrimination struggles, and radical women’s groups. As well as struggles for land, labour rights etc. there is also a need for counter-hegemonic struggles across all fields of society, against the ideological hegemony underpinning conjugated oppression. As Gramsci argued, counter-hegemonic struggle involves contests in the field of ‘common sense’: the shaping of taken-for-granted views throughout institutions of society, in education and within the family. Left politics as well as Dalit and Adivasi organisations must be part of the solution but that requires that the Left takes conjugated oppression seriously, also within their own organisational setups. Another major issue – which needs much deep thinking on the left in India – is the climate crisis and how any alternative to capitalism and fight for it will have to place the global ecological crisis at its centre.

How can rural/agrarian classes find support from, or make common ground with, urban populations in India? Does it even still make sense to speak of this divide?

Nearly all rural households have a brother, a son, or a daughter working and living in the urban economy, be it as seasonal migrant labourer or on a more semi-permanent basis. It doesn’t, if it ever did, make sense to speak of a rural-urban divide. Equally all progressive struggles will need to breach these divides to be meaningful and successful. We see a good model here in the farm laws struggle too where it has not been possible for the state to divide and rule along rural-urban lines of division.

Finally, for those of us among our readership who may be part of the privileged classes (particularly economically speaking), are we naturally an obstacle to the struggles of oppressed peoples, or are there ways for us to find common ground or even actively support them?

We must actively support the struggles of oppressed people – protest the actions of capital and the state that keep them oppressed. Progressive alliances both national and international are crucial to undermining oppression and to our common future.

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