When Karat was asked his caste

The questioner was the Professor of History and noted Marxist historian, Victor Kiernan, who had an early influence on the young Karat.

Growing nostalgic at a Cambridge gathering, Karat recalling his first meeting with the celebrated Marxist. “He asked me where I was from. I said Kerala. Which caste, he asked. I said in Kerala my caste is known as Menon.”

He asked, “You are going to join the civil service.” I replied “Menons are also communists and I belong to the latter group.”

Organised by the Centre of South Asian Studies on Friday evening, the conference attracted a high profile gathering of academics, students and admirers of Kiernan’s work,who died in 2009.

The Indian Left, Karat told the Cambridge gathering, was historically wrong in writing off the institution of caste. He said there was an “acute need” of theorising the new developments in India, including the ways in which caste continued to retain its importance at various levels in public and private lives.

A friend and supporter of the Communist Party of India, Kiernan was nonetheless scathing in his criticism of the lack of awareness and focus on theory.

He recalled that Kiernan would criticise the party leaders and cadres for indulging in political gossip, some of whom he called the “café going intellectuals”.

Karat received his MSc degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1970 and wrote his thesis on “Language and politics in modern India.”

During his time at the UK university, he was politically active in anti-apartheid protests, for which he was reportedly expelled. The expulsion was later reversed based on his good behaviour.

Speakers at the gathering included academics from the United States and India, including Jayathi Ghosh of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Vijay Prashad of Trinity College, Connecticut, US.

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