Brahmanical Supremacy and Workers in the Time of Pandemic

We seem to be living in times that are haunted and shaped by long enduring structures that keep getting dramatically revealed and then dissolving into the mundane, recently exemplified in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. While complex histories and everyday plays of power and their contestations can alone make for a robust understanding of our present, this article was provoked by the compelling force of structures as hauntings that seize and arrest everyday life and moments in history. An attempt to grasp hauntings is likely to over-emphasize certain aspects while undermining others, but it helps to ascertain some structural forms and forces while they are writ large. In this article, I try to outline the forms and workings of caste supremacy in relation to workers[1].

In the Indian national context, the response to the coronavirus pandemic has carried the force of a history of brahmanical supremacy (among others) and its fortification with the ascendance of a supremacist Hindutva formation. With a singular measure of the lockdown and a withdrawal of the central government from democratic accountability, an auto-reliance on the norms of caste society has been implicitly activated, through the exclusive championing of ‘social distancing’ despite its near-impossibility for the vast majority of workers, the economic abandonment of workers while simultaneously robbing their community resources and selling off (their bare minimum stakes in) public resources, and the resurgence of norms of sacrifice and warrior-ship. Thus, the relative medical and economic immunization of upper caste life worlds has been secured at the cost of the medical and economic protections of largely lower caste, backward caste and adivasi (bahujan) workers, ensured by a Hindutva government that truly trusts and is nirbhar on the caste atma of this society[2]. The “anti-social spirit” of the caste system, as bared out by Ambedkar in The Annihilation of Caste, has haunted the Indian response to the pandemic, but the latter has also socially networked the upper castes into a reinvigorated virtual world with all its economic, affective, entertainment, medical, fitness, and so on components, and blocked out the sight and voice of workers through what may be called a caste-governed ‘partitioning of the sensible’ (to indicatively use Jacques Ranciere). What struck like a tragic damnation of this order was that lakhs of migrant workers set off to walk thousands of kilometers back home, exposing and traversing the historical partitioning and alienation built into the system. Too many were killed in these journeys. The alienation at the species level that Marx writes about as the effect of appropriation of the product of labour from the labourer, that alienation is already created by caste partitions well before and after the appropriation of the product of labour. The precise historical moment when workers ‘emerged’ and were everywhere on the roads and the world that they built, in that very moment that (pandemic-struck) world was rendered old and invalid by the ruling castes and a new virtual world was forged, from where the upper castes saw the migrant workers on a screen. There is no framework or affective architecture that can hold those images for the ruling castes. Fleeting humanitarian impulses, however precious, do little to the structures of alienation that are built into caste society and are being fortified today. These impulses too have a sanctioned place, like every single entity and practice in a caste society, through the norms of seva and daan, which serve to reinforce partitions. Thus, the only real lasting effect that images of workers on screens is likely to have on the ruling sections is of a sense of threat. And that is what shapes the relationship – of othering. The extent to which this othering is made obvious by the Hindutva formation vis-à-vis the declared ‘other’ – the muslims, to that very extent it is masked vis-à-vis bahujans.

While workers do consist of upper caste people, and ruling sections do consist of bahujans, a relational distinction between the two is being made to highlight how caste norms and identities shape neoliberal economic relations. A caste-informed understanding of economic relations may actually weaken the “division of labourers” that Ambedkar sharply alerted to, as well as foreground caste-based inequalities in ownership and distribution of resources and wealth as arenas of political intervention (drawing on a recent essay by Rahul Sonpimple).

A Socio-Economic Web of Exploitation

While the salience of informal workers has been reluctantly recognized in neoliberal class contradictions, the significance of various identities in dispossession, migration, contract networks, nature of work and exploitation, need to be urgently foregrounded (building on Amit Bhaduri’s argument of ‘predatory growth’). In the absence of the latter, migrant/contract/informal worker will only keep getting rendered into governmental categories for social security and subjects of politically ineffective labour laws, and identities will be confined to electoral politics and identity based issues. Drawing on autonomous marxist and feminist scholarship one can say that, control over the movement and body of the labourer is a source of the very specific values that the service and informalized mode of contemporary capitalism seeks and appropriates from different bodies. This is no longer a part of the bio-political sphere of law and governmentality alone, as a kind of pre-condition and preparation for capitalist exploitation, but rather it is merged with the labour process that is conventionally understood within marxism to be the source of value and appropriation. We see the deployment of myriad aspects such as ritual/cultural/regional location, language, affective bearings, physicality, etc. of the worker’s body and migrant status in her valuation, exploitation and treatment, as well as in workers’ subversive manipulations and resistance of the same. These deployments are informed by different and morphing forms of structural oppression, which enable the emergence and perpetuation of service capitalism and informalization of economy. The caste system and other forms of oppression have allowed staggering, uniquely Indian levels of informalization and contractualization of the economy. Workers are mobilized through various caste networks while employers operate through a different set of upper caste networks. Caste brings the two networks into an informal relationship through contractors, which ensures that no robust system of claiming rights can fully transform this relationship into an economic one.

It is true that not only was the coronavirus pandemic globalized by the workings of global capital, it also exposed the damaging effects of the very system of capitalism for human survival – in terms of health, livelihoods and ecology. Not only has the culpability of global capital been forgotten with the nationalization of the response to the pandemic, already leading to competitive nationalisms, but the pandemic itself has been framed as an ‘external’ and ‘medical’ shock to an economic system whereby capitalism is absolved from any accountability in both, the making of the pandemic as well as the crisis it has generated within capitalism itself, in turn foregrounding national governments into the arena of accountability vis-à-vis the pandemic and the economic challenges it has created. In this circulation of onus between national governments and industries at multiple levels and areas of intervention, the two are actually coming closer in their complicity and bolstering each other’s immunity from accountability, thereby strengthening their hegemonic and coercive powers. But in the Indian context, even the façade of democratic accountability of the government, and the economic imperatives of employers to ensure the survival of employees and workers (already a bare expectation amidst informalization and contractualization where one is hard-pressed to locate a clear employer-employee relation), have been effaced. The lockdown and the relief packages, cumulatively make it clear that the medical-economic immunity of the rich has been relatively secured in their homes and in their new virtual regimes of work and life by displacing and proliferating the pandemic and its economic hardships, from the wings of global capital and travel onto the vast crammed up poor through the movement of essential service providers within cities and migrants across states. Where does this breath-taking audacity of one man come from, we cry out with renewed outrage into the heavenly clouds of virtual capitalism every day! How will the curve be flattened if a lockdown is imposed abruptly and not used to install an adequate medical infrastructure, ask the doctors! How will the economy revive if some demand stimulus is not injected into the economy, ask even big industrialists and conservative bankers! We may find some answers in the growing hauntings of a brahmanical response and order.

The Sacrificial Ritual Fire

As the dual figure of the Head Priest[3]-cum-King beckoned the inhabitants of the nation to the lakshman rekha of their homes, they banged their devotional enthusiasm into an inaugural war cry. While the middle and upper classes dug their heels deeper into their homes of fear and soon emerged in renewed virtual life worlds, the auto-immune system of the social/national body, set off, as it were, lakhs of its mercenaries, the workers, into the battlefield, bare essentials strapped to their backs. Mercenaries for a neo-liberal caste order, who paradoxically turned suicidal journeys into a wresting of life from imminent death. An insurrection that rattled the control of the sovereign and the higher castes over the lower caste worker’s life. Life in not only the bare sense of survival, but also as ties to one’s memories, to one’s longings. To restore and revive order in the face of this insurrection, the Head Priest re-casted it as ‘sacrifice’ of workers, but what had really been the inauguration of the sacrificial ritual fire of brahmanism, duly accompanied with its treasury to receive ritual wealth through daan to the Head Priest. Ministers came to operate as a caste of rulers, whose only dharma is to ensure and preserve their ‘rule’ and monitor the identified threats of the nation (muslims and political dissenters), not to cater to the welfare of the people, but to issue orders and delegate tasks to subordinated ministers in states-turned-chiefdoms, hear their petitions and pleas for blessings of reinforcements and margdarshan, and threaten the recalcitrant ones by sending emissaries to monitor and spy. The pliant in the media and intelligentsia were pressed into their priestly roles of serving endless homilies and cunnings about the prevailing order and whispering into the ears of the rulers. Perhaps in a bid to mask the abysmal lack of ‘merit’ among the rulers in dealing with the pandemic, the pliant in the intelligentsia displaced a caste society’s heightened anxiety of merit and performance amidst a pandemic onto the most vulnerable students. The pliant in the media spun and spread cosmic conspiracies about the ‘enemy (virus)’ being ‘the muslim, originating and swarming into the nation from foreign lands in a bid to establish their own empire’. As their followers gained this neo-shastric knowledge, they took to encircling and ostracizing ‘the enemy’ – in colonies, around vegetable carts, and in hospital wards. Businessmen, struck by a baniya caution and forgetfulness in all matters except money, became aloof in their curtained-off homes to macroeconomic indicators and ‘expert’ opinion so long as the bahi-khata of the rulers was intact and safeguarded their own balance sheets. The middle classes were slowly woken up from their wide-eyed neoliberal dreams and aspirations to the humbler realities of their various caste locations and roles as traders and professionals, with fragile assurances of stability and injunctions to make the local vocal. Workers, having barely been ‘freed up’ from their identities, were swiftly returned to their innumerable backward and lower caste and adivasi locations in villages lying far beyond the borders of urban upper caste settlements, being reduced back to their locations with hunger, contagion and beatings, and bent into the servitude of being available for any work and whenever needed[4]. As they face a new medicalized untouchability emerging between prawasis (outsiders) and niwasis (insiders), several of their counterparts in urban slums, at appropriate ‘social distance’ from settlements, continue to provide all round services under proliferating terms and conditions of a medicalized untouchability. Meanwhile, the hierarchized gender prescriptions of a caste order animates upper caste women into a caste-ridden micro-management of the household, and intensifies the survival hardships of the majority of lower and backward caste and adivasi women. The wife-mother-daughter roles and duties of women have been only amplified by the higher thresholds created for such tasks by a pandemic and the constant presence of family members under a lockdown. However, the various forms of abuse and invisibilization, amidst which this hierarchical realm is ever-running – even during a world lockdown – have only further intensified. With the caste and gender based devaluation and no governmental recognition of their occupation or occupational health concerns, a vast domestic workforce has instead been left to navigate intricate webs of control and exploitation of their bodies and movements, woven by the medical anxieties of their landlords, employers and RWAs; while the massive and critical grassroots interface of public health done by Asha workers and other health workers, continues to be underpaid and overworked by the feminization of their labour. As outcastes of socio-economic regimes, sex workers and trans people continue to be left unto themselves or their communities of support for their survival. All in all, the lockdown has drawn on the cornerstone practice of brahmanical supremacy, namely (new forms of) untouchability while possibly reducing the practice only among migrant workers of various castes. Just as untouchability practiced on the dalit body secures purity to the ‘higher’ castes, social and economic distancing has been practiced on the bodies of workers – who are now all the more crammed and ‘immuno-compromised’ – and secured relative immunity to the upper castes, while the medicalized ostracization and criminalization of muslims has once again secured consent for the Hindutva order. While the massive relief work done by various organizations and individuals is socially re-casted as seva and daan, even the most minor interventions by the head priest and the rulers appear in new benedictory light. Many workers and others did protest but as one act of fate followed another, the mythical aura of an archaic and stagnant societal order settled in, and so did the majority, into that order. The uniquely hindu slowness of administering the pandemic (which includes and merges with the nature of the response) is itself the time of caste, which can draw out dramatic upheavals into a mundane pain and navigate its fears by displacing and latching it to its proliferating ‘others’.

Amidst this however, global companies and their national employees, were left free to at once, perform as well as dissipate their upper caste identity. They display an upper caste apathy that simultaneously enables them to emerge ‘caste-less’ into virtual networks of their ilk across the country and the globe, where they leech out innovations from a virus and market themselves as saviours and harbingers of a new world, being duly supplicated by the head priest through his hegemony, a stability ensured by the rulers and a ‘disciplining’ of the fiscal bahi-khata. It is the desire for this complete fusing of the powers of the priestly, the ruling and the globalized capitalist class in a virtually caste-less national and global realm, while consigning workers to identity, criminality, informality and servility in ever shrinking spaces of the regional, the state, the local, the rural – which constitutes a significant aspect of brahmanical supremacy today. It seeks to harness the powers of propaganda (religious, national, aspirational), law and police, and capital and technology for a fused control of the consciousness, bodies and servile labour of the majority. The response to the pandemic, which has sharply brought out this brahmanical supremacy, has shown how securing even the relative immunity of the upper castes entails an assault on the consciousness, bodies and livelihoods of (bahujan) workers. In the name of the formalization of economy through a slew of top-down reforms (in line with demonetization and GST), we see that upper castes keep getting more formalized through an expansion, criminalization and increased precarity of a structurally linked shadow informal economy, swelled by bahujan workers (drawing on recent essay by Barbara Harriss-White).

Georges Bataille argued that ancient religious orders had sanctioned practices for managing the ‘excess’ of any society, but in the absence of any such sanctioned practices of managing ‘waste’, modern political economy or capitalism keeps running into social/economic systemic crises. Thus the latter are characterized by a problem of consumption or waste, and not of production or scarcity. This may help in grasping the paradox of some capitalist societies imploding despite their governments pouring enormous money into the system, while no such crisis or disintegration is yet in sight in the Indian context, despite the enormous pain and violence unleashed by the Hindutva government by adopting an approach contrary to all prevailing wisdom and predictions. Perhaps because the Hindutva formation reads its democratic mandate as a consent for an order that is inaugurated and maintained by the principle of the brahmanical sacrificial fire in which ‘excess’ (bodies) are ritually burnt to restore and revive the consensual order. Whether their reading is correct or challenged, time will tell. But with this gradual disappearance of the ‘world’, as a brahmanical order threatens a direct hostage and control of life, does not the journey of (bahujan) migrant workers, back to their homes, also draw us towards the most invisibilized stakes and possibility, the most hidden promise today – beyond the ‘essential’ realm, in the existential realm that endlessly tends, nurtures, desires, survives and affirms life? Which is also the cusp of memories and departures, the ever-present now of survival, care, affirmation and desire…


[1] I owe a great measure of these early caste-informed understandings to the Ambedkarite and anti-caste student discourses and activism, as well as lectures on Ambedkar, Marxism and Bio-politics in the JNU campus. However, the errors and mistakes in this analysis are mine.

[2] I use the terms ‘upper caste’, ‘higher caste’, ‘backward caste’ and ‘lower caste’ to refer to ascriptive identities/locations.

[3] A term borrowed from Dr. P.K. Datta in a personal correspondence

[4] This particular caste-based understanding of ‘servitude’ in terms of being available at all times for performing various service tasks is based on Dr. Soumyabrata Choudhury’s lecture series on Ambedkar and Marx: Principle of Labour, Problems of Service, Question of Organization.