Caste and Class are not separate concepts or projects
Jana Shatabdi trains are one of the prides of our middle classes. After Rajdhaani, it was the Shataabdis that offered us the dreams of speed and comfort (i.e., reservation) (and if one wants to see evidence for the expansion of the middle class and its dreams, one need only look at the increase in similar ‘comfortable’ services, not only in trains, but in air travel, education, housing, etc. etc. The state is basically taking up large amounts of commons and offering them to private capital to produce and consume).
Jana Shatabdi trains run between important local cities. They stop at intermediate small-towns and district capitals, thus inviting a lot of people who travel daily for a living. All seats have to be reserved, but when daily commuters see empty seats, why would they stay back? That is why, Indian law permits for a person with a reserved ticket to make an unreserved traveler vacate “his/her” seat, whether pregnant or old or PH. And hereon, unreserved travelers keep increasing in the gangway between the two gates on the two sides of compartments, while “comfortable”, reserved travel takes place in the seats. In these kind of trains, these contradictions are merely visible; they are far more acute in long distance travel. Increasingly, unreserved travel in Sleeper class upward is becoming unthinkable. On certain routes in which trains ply between regional towns, bands of youth who occupy seats despites muffled outcries, demand of propriety, etc. from reserved travelers are still seen, but the state’s bid to crack down on these kinds of acts forcefully (by increased policing) and strategically (by introducing trains that only go long-distances) is only a further indication of its allegiances to the upwardly mobile classes. On the other hand, in a long distance train, the four unreserved compartments, free-for-all, no ticket-checking happening, near-absence of the state (except for the ritual of the lathi-bearing policeman), contain more people than the rest of the train. Two women’s compartments out of those become general compartments, to speak nothing of the other kinds of hierarchies that arise within.
One casual look usually tells us that the unreserved travelers consist mainly of the dispossessed, even if within them there is a continuous struggle to rise upwards or do better in the long run. Whereas reserved travelers usually come from a class that enjoys better life-chances, whether acquired or by patrimony. And we shouldn’t forget similar scenes that range across our institutions, whether hospitals, schools and colleges, cafeterias and tea-stalls, etc.
These symptoms of exclusion speak of certain processes that are less local. While we cannot discount away the force of life-experiences in affecting where people stand in societies, those experiences themselves seem to be shaped out of certain dominant tendencies in society. We find that today the money-economy is decisive in including or excluding people in and out of institutions. If one can imagine pre-monetary states (say, skills at reading in Urdu, Hindi or English), those will be converted into some monetary value as people enter material society. Apart from certain other kinds of related notions, like meritocracy, first preference for the talented, etc., it is mostly the lack of enough money that tells people they need to back off, or go away if they don’t have a ticket, and so money-economy also becomes an ideological and psychological factor in people’s self and world perception. At a time when money was less common, there was still some material basis to this kind of exclusion – who holds “rights”-based access to what land, who toils on whose fields, etc., while some kinds of practices showed very elaborate kinds of ideological tools to perpetuate hierarchy: what kind of person is fit for carrying shit, what kind of a person will deal in leather works, these kinds of imaginary essences ascribed to professional roles under religious authority.
At a time when we find that authority based on money or land trumps ritual authority based on allusion to imaginary essences, how far should we refer to ‘caste’ and ‘class’ as wholly different concepts, and politically different projects? Sometimes, we keep the activities of the major parliamentary communist parties in our mind models of class-politics, and end up making crass reductionisms about differences between caste and class. More specifically, there is the suggestion that all the dehumanization – manual scavenging, name-calling, etc. – is only remnant caste-society, which leads us to other bizarre kinds of formulations, like “Brahmins rule this land” or “Dalits are beef-eating Hindus” which tell us nothing about what kind of state-power exists, how is our political-economy organized, the strategies people employ to cope with it, the kinds of alliances/hostilities being churned out, and so on. More importantly, it falls flat of addressing how money-economy fractured earlier communities leaving none in a position of total privilege. Hence, we suggest that we cannot use two separate concepts to explain a hierarchy that has the money economy as its spine; at the same time, in the abolition of state and hierarchy, we suggest that it is the smashing of the money economy that is crucial at ending the kinds of exclusions and privileges that emerge from current society.