Sharad Patil: Marxist, Phuleite, Ambedkarite (1925–2014)
Sharad Patil, one of the finest anti-caste intellectuals/activists in the post-Ambedkar period, and the founder of the Satyashodhak Communist Party, died on the 13 April 2014 in Dhule, Maharashtra. He was 89.
Patil was famous for his monumental effort of synthesizing Marxism with the anti-caste radical thought of Phule and Ambedkar. Patil’s philosophical position, Ma.Phu.Aa (Marxism-Phule-Ambedkarism), attracted much attention and generated many debates since its formulation in 1978. His efforts, both within the communist domain and outside it, influenced a great number of intellectuals and activists in Maharashtra over the decades. His theorization of this synthesis was based on the critique of both Indian Marxism and the Dalit anti-caste critique. He perceived Indian history in terms of a grand debate between Brahminism and anti-Brahminism, i.e. the Vedic Darshanas and anti-Vedic philosophies of Buddhism, Jainism and the Lokayata. In Patil’s framework, the principal dialectics in Indian history, in philosophical terms, is between Brahmanism and anti-Brahminism, which, translated in sociological terms, becomes the dialectics between caste and anti-caste.
It is worth recalling his definitive statement on Marxism-Phule-Ambedkarism here: “A positive sublimation of contributions made by the Brahmanical and the non-Brahmanical streams of thought, flowing incessantly, cutting across one another and merging into one another, since the end of Indus valley civilization, in the fields of Indian history, philosophy, science, culture, literature and art etc is possible only through Marxism-Phule-Ambedkarism” (Patil 1993, 16). This was a call for a new philosophical Weltanschauung.
However, in 2003, he discarded this position and produced a new form of Indian Marxism—based on the synthesis of Marx and the Buddhist epistemologist Dignaga (fifth century BCE), one of the founders of Buddhist logic. Patil called this Sautrantika Marxism. Patil’s argument here is that Marxism as a science of changing the material reality—instead of merely interpreting it—needs to be supplemented with a theory that takes cognisance of this material reality. Borrowing from Dignaga’s theory of perception rooted in anti-Brahmanical aesthetics, Patil argued that this would pave the way for the debrahmanization of the subconscious of the social mind.
Patil, born in a Satyashodhak (Phuleite) family in 1925, dropped out of the J.J. School of Arts in Bombay, to participate in the students’ movement led by the Communist Party in 1945. He aligned himself with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) after the spilt in the Communist movement in 1964. Following a long, internal struggle within the party on the question of caste struggle, Patil eventually founded his own Satyashodhak Communist Party in 1978. In the process of this synthesis of precolonial anti-Brahmanical philosophies with the radical potential of Marxism, Patil challenged many theories about history, philosophy, ancient Indian democracy, matriarchy and epistemology through his writings. He severely criticized Indian communism by arguing that class as an institution did not exist in precolonial India (This argument, as with many of his other arguments, is scattered through his rather dense writing. A brief articulation can be found in Marxism-Phule-Ambedkarism). At the same time his claim that Gautama Buddha considered the then caste system as a progressive mode of production and therefore he propounded it. This controversial point led to discontentment among Dalit anti-caste activists. His principal critique of the post-Ambedkar Dalit literary and political discourse was what he perceived to be their departure from the goal of annihilation of caste. Without any formal academic training, Patil worked as an Indologist, a Sanskritist, a philosopher and a historian and remained a lifelong Marxist activist who never deviated from his commitment towards annihilation of caste. In the midst of these intellectual engagements, he participated first in the Trade Union Front, Dhule, from 1947 to 1949, and later in the peasant struggles from 1951 to 1956. He also worked amongst the tribal communities of Northern Maharashtra continuously since 1956. Patil was what Gramsci calls an organic intellectual.
His oeuvre includes:
1. Dasa-Shudra Slavery – a two-volume historical work which argues that the great Indian civilization was founded upon the slavery of the Dasas and Shudras. (The English edition was published by Allied Publishers, Delhi, in 1978; the Marathi edition was published in 1982 by Sugava Prakashan, Pune.) Patil also tells us that the Marxist journal Social Scientist had initiated a serial publication of this text in 1974 but was stopped due to the disapproval of his analysis by the party leadership.
2. Marxism-Phule-Ambedkarism a collections of essays that establish a philosophical synthesis of Marx with Phule and Ambedkar. (The Marathi edition published by Sugava Prakashan, Pune, in 1993, has been out of print for at least a decade. The text has not been translated into English.)
3. A contentious work called Who are the Real Enemies of Shivaji’s Hindavi Swarajya: The Mohammedans or the Brahmins? attempts to rescue Shivaji from his appropriation by the Hindutva historians by arguing that Shivaji’s was a radical anti-caste political struggle against Brahminism. (Published by Mavlai Prakashan, Shirur in 2006. Unavailable in English.)
4. Caste-Feudal Servitude chronicles the historical battles between Brahminical and anti-Brahminical forces in the domain of aesthetics and epistemology within Indian philosophical discourse. (Published by Sugava Prakashan in 1996. Patil himself translated the book into English and it was published by Mavlai Prakashan in 2004.)
5. Caste-ending Bourgeoisie Democratic Revolution and its Socialist Consummation analyses the possibility of annihilation of caste in the post-liberalization India. (The Marathi edition was published by Sugava in 2003. Patil’s English translation was published by Mavlai in 2008.)
6. Towards an Abrahminical Aesthetics rewrites the theory of subaltern aesthetics and its importance for annihilation of caste. (The Marathi edition was published by Sugava in 1987.)
7. He was also an editor of a Marathi journal titled Satyashodhak Marxvadi since 1978. The question of literary production and aesthetics remained central concerns for him. His manifesto of the A-brahmani Sahitya and Kala Mahasabha, published in 1987, posits a dialectics between Kalidasa’s brahmanical aesthetics and Dignaga’s anti-brahmanical aesthetics and argues how this eventually led to his theory of Sautrantika aesthetics.
It is sad that Patil remains virtually unknown outside Maharashtra though many of his texts are available in English. Let me conclude with an anecdote narrated by Patil in the Marathi edition of Caste-ending Bourgeoisie Democratic Revolution (which is surprisingly omitted from the English translation by Patil himself; the year of this particular conversation is also not given). In an informal conversation with the farmers in Vatoda in Dhule district in Northern Maharashtra, after Patil
’s public speech, he was told about these farmers’ visit to China as part of the Indo-China agricultural exchange programme. A Chinese–Marathi translator was accompanying this group of farmers from Maharashtra. After they became friendly with each other, the translator asked them: How is Sharad Patil doing?
The Chinese translator was familiar with Patil and his works. He enquired about Patil with farmers from Maharashtra as one would ask about the well-being of an acquaintance. Patil of course never went to China. He does discuss Chinese communist thinkers occasionally in his writing but there is no reference to him being read in China at all. This begs a few questions: How do we explain such a circulation of ideas? How do we theorize this intellectual history? And why is it that someone like Patil is not even acknowledged in India’s national/ mainstream/ English academia and media. In his speeches and talks, Patil often mentioned that he was being discussed in many Marxists circles across languages. If not Indians speaking and writing English, some Chinese may lament the death of Sharad Patil.
(Rahul Sarwate is pursuing his PhD in South Asia history at Columbia University, New York. He is translating Patil’s Ma.Phu.Aa for Navayana.)
To read Sharad Patil’s essays in Economic and Political Weekly, see here.