Caste in a new mould

Caste in a new mould
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First Published: Wed, Oct 28 2009. 10 10 AM IST
Updated: Wed, Oct 28 2009. 10 10 AM IST
In the first week of this month, 16 villagers were murdered in cold blood by armed killers in Amausi village in Bihar. Of those murdered, 14 were Kurmis, the same caste as the chief minister of the state, two were Koeries, also from the other backward classes (OBCs). Those who understand the murky C of India know that the incident was not only about settling some local scores. It was also sending an unambiguous message to the Kurmis and other OBCs who have emerged as powerful landlords in the state during the last few decades of OBC rule. The locals insist that the killers were not Naxals as the police claimed, but assassins hired by the newly empowered Dalit community of Mushars, for settling old scores with Kurmi landlords. Whether the killers were Naxals or hired assassins, two things are clear: One, usually a long-standing land dispute lies at the heart of most violence in our villages. And two, the usual definition of caste oppression can no longer explain the emerging patterns of dominance and subjugation.
The genesis of the recent violence is said to lie in the report of a recently appointed government commission on land reforms in Bihar. It had suggested that the state government must protect the rights of the landless sharecroppers, put a cap on land ceiling at 15 acres (for both agricultural and non-agricultural land) and computerize all land records. In Khagaria district, where the massacre took place, as elsewhere in rural India, ultimately all fertile land is controlled by the most powerful (read politically best connected) caste with the landless Dalits as their sharecroppers. The Kurmis say they are the titled owners of 500 bighas in Amausi, but Mushars quoting the report say they have a bigger right to it since they have tilled it for generations. This tension is what ignited the caste war.
When the issue of caste-based violation of human rights in India came up at the 12th Human Rights Council in Geneva recently, it was proposed that caste be put on a par with race. But in 2009, when we talk about caste biases, we cannot overlook India’s actual electoral politics. Here, being identified as a Dalit or backward leader offers a distinct advantage and becomes the biggest guarantee of a candidate’s electability. From Bihar to Tamil Nadu, they have voted out upper caste groups regularly, but the unjust land ownership patterns born of unfair state patronage extended by incumbent leaders to their own community, persist. Expunging caste from school syllabi has not helped either, and the learning system still remains unequal and heavily biased in favour of the powerful and rich. This is because of a confused and confusing language policy perpetuated by the new rulers. They insist on government schools teaching the children (mostly poor) in the regional languages, even though English is undeniably the language of all power discourse and higher learning. None of these leaders will educate their own children in the local language, though.
Actually, the traditional characteristics and power of the Brahmins in the traditional upper caste hierarchy (high learning, arrogance and clever use of a certain elite language to build firewalls around knowledge and information to keep it away from the commoners) are now much more visible among India’s upper middle-class professionals, whatever their caste. Whether backward, Dalit or forward, successful children of the new dominant classes no longer acquire their basic knowledge, skills and networking abilities in Brahminical Sanskrit, but in English. Likewise, the power of the old-style, landowning Thakur (Kshatriya), who killed a thousand tigers and routinely torched Dalit huts, has been usurped by today’s political class, who ride lal batt i cars with similar disregard for laws, sirens blaring and black cat commandos in tow. They hold power dialogues with neighbouring warlords, make and break treaties—not the princes and nawabs who, if they have not become penniless, have turned hoteliers and protectors of wildlife. The traditional merchant class, thanks to family-based businesses, may have retained some part of their old glory, but in the global arena they are now heavily dependent on the neo-Brahmin: the Indian Institute of Management-trained, multinationalized manager, banker and expat consultant, who strides the global village and carries vital knowledge in his laptop, as a Brahmin once carried in his almanac.
All caste systems need a cleaning class. They are today the invisible and unorganized freelancers. Moving from job to job, they help mop up the night soil of the global village and provide the paymasters with linguistic bridges into the vernacular heartland, where the markets are also the votes.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is a writer and freelance journalist in New Delhi. Comment at theotherside@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Oct 28 2009. 10 10 AM IST