A person travelling through rural coastal Andhra Pradesh in the late 1980s will have come across gigantic buildings in the middle of nowhere that resembled the urban cinema halls of those parts. These were actually godowns that stored agricultural produce grown in these fertile districts. It required the insight of K. Balagopal to point out that this bizarre resemblance was not merely a cultural idiosyncrasy, but told the story of a complex relationship between agrarian capital, caste, cinema and politics.
The rich capitalist farmers of these parts, mostly hailing from the Kamma community, reinvested the agrarian capital in both agricultural industry and Telugu cinema. The investment in cinema created a space for them to use the medium for political mobilization. It was this background that created a fertile ground for the emergence of N.T. Rama Rao as a political figure.
Such moments of insight blended with academic rigour, clarity of expression and wry humour mark this compilation of Balagopal’s articles, a testament to the academic rigour and wry humour of one of India’s most important thinkers. Balagopal’s career followed a remarkable trajectory: from a mathematician to a hero of the democratic rights movement during the heydays of the Naxalite movement to a lawyer of the poor. His influences range from the other brilliant polymath, D.D. Kosambi, to Karl Marx, from Digambara poets to Dostoevsky. This eclecticism often found its reflection in his writings, where the sensitivity to social conditions seamlessly merged with psychological insight and a strong sense of ethics.
Ear to the Ground— Selected Writings on Class and Caste: Navayana, 487 pages, Rs 550.
A sizeable section of the articles, though not all, centre on the changing social and political landscape of his native Andhra Pradesh. Some of his writings on the incipient phase of the People’s War movement during the 1980s narrate how the functioning of the local nexus between the landed agrarian classes, political parties and police and the suppression of open politics left the exploited with no other choice but to respond with militant, underground forms of rebellion and protest. The series of articles on caste and politics treat caste identities not merely as politically manipulated historical baggage, but as identities that are actively generated through parliamentary politics. For instance, till the 1980s, the term kapu was mainly used to define the profession of several middle-level cultivating castes, but hardened into a caste identity through the efforts of a section of the landowning and business elites seeking political fortune.
Balagopal’s observation of Andhra Pradesh’s ground realities helps him draw conclusions that challenge many fundamental assumptions of development theory. The conventional wisdom is that development in a third-world nation will follow a linear path from agrarian feudalism to capitalist industrialization. For a modernizing Western nation in the past, this might have been the case, but there are more profitable opportunities available to the propertied classes today. Much of the agricultural profits of landowners of Andhra Pradesh were invested in film industry, real estate and liquor.
These “provincial propertied classes”, whose agricultural profits are invested in the city, are at the forefront of agitations for remunerative prices for farm produce—itself a contentious issue. What really concerns the poor are issues of work, irrigation and access to land. The richer classes project their own demands as that of oppressed rural “Bharat”. The oppression of Dalits is thus a means for them to suppress dissent and display a “unified” village movement, united in their opposition of urban industrialization.
Balagopal’s great theoretical insight is to link diverse elements—the character of peasant movements, caste oppression in the villages and modern industrialization—into a magisterial theory of political economy, calling into question several accepted paradigms of mainstream thought about India’s development.
A short review does no justice to the fertility of his thought on subjects like reservations or patriarchy, and the importance of his work as an activist. Every article shines with the originality of his insight and the fury of his concern. This volume is testament to the fact that one cannot engage meaningfully with the complex changes India is going through without having one’s ear to the ground.
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