Cambridge: One of the first questions CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat was asked when he went to study on a scholarship at the University of Edinburgh in 1968 was: "What is your caste?"
The questioner was the Professor of History and noted Marxist historian, Victor Kiernan, who had an early influence on the young Karat.
Kiernan died in 2009 and the conference organised by the Centre of South Asian Studies last evening attracted a high profile gathering of academics, students and admirers of Kiernan`s work.
Karat called himself the only `non-scholar` among the speakers.
Recalling his first meeting with Kiernan, Karat said: "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 are you going to join the civil service. I said Menons are also communists and I belong to the latter group."
In 1970 he received the MSc degree from the University of Edinburgh and wrote his thesis on "Language and politics in modern India".
During his time at the 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.
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.
Karat recalled that Kiernan would criticise the party leaders and cadre, some of whom he called the `cafe going intellectuals`, for indulging in political gossip.
Speakers at the gathering included academics from the US and India, including Jayathi Ghosh of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Vijay Prashad of Trinity College, Connecticut (US).