THE PERSISTENCE OF CASTE
The Political Economy of Atrocities
The Shaping of The Macabre Spectacle
Dalit Political Dismemberment
In the rallying of the Backward Classes, additional motivation was provided by resentment of the perceived rise of the rural dalit. The process of consolidation of the new agrarian social structure thus contained within it an added dynamic of oppression, resistance and violence. With the formation of anti-Congress parties built on a peasant, shudra constituency, conflicts between BCs and dalits, resulting from the practice of violent forms of untouchability, intensified in rural areas across the country. To draw on Srinivasulu again:
The new dominant social classes consistently resisted, refusing to allow any change in the lives of the labouring classes. Any assertion on the latter's part was suppressed, with the resources available to these dominant agrarian classes being used to this end. This political economy of agrarian change provides a clue to the incidents of atrocities against dalits and the violent suppression of their aspirations and mobilization.
The emergence of the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra in 1972, representing the frustration and anger of dalit youth, was ostensibly in response to the increasing incidence of atrocities in post- Independence rural India. One of the earliest of these was the massacre at Keezhvenmani, a village in Tamil Nadu. On 25 December 1968, middle-caste landlords and their henchmen locked forty-four dalit agricultural workers into a hut and burned them alive, women and children included. The background to this act of mass murder lay in the landlords' rage at the growing strength of the leftwing agricultural workers' movement in the region; it was followed by a spate of atrocities nationwide.
Among the hundreds and thousands of such atrocities every year, a few would catch the limelight and evoke public uproar every so often: Karamchedu in Andhra Pradesh, where six dalits were killed, three women raped and many wounded in 1985; Neerukonda, also in Andhra Pradesh, where four dalits were killed in 1987; Chunduru, in Andhra Pradesh once more, where eight dalits were killed and many injured in 1991 over an altercation in a cinema hall; Lakshmanpur-Bathe in Bihar in1997, where the slaughter of fifty-eight dalits was only a further installment in a chronicle of bloodbaths going back to 1969; Jhajjar in Haryana, where five dalits were lynched in the precincts of the local police station in 2002; Gohana in Haryana, where about sixty dalit houses were burnt down with full support of the local police in 2005.
Initially, as in Keezhvenmani, the atrocities came as a consequence of communist class struggle. Class struggle, however, is homomorphous here with caste struggle - even though it was modeled and conducted along lines of class, it manifested itself in terms of caste. Economic polarization in the agrarian scenario corresponded with traditional caste divisions. The market-oriented, surplus-accumulating class of peasantry almost uniformly belongs to a single caste or caste group in the village microcosm, (i.e., either to groups such as the kammas, reddys, rajus or kapus in Andhra Pradesh, the jats in Haryana, the maratha kunabi in Maharashtra; the yadavs or kurmis in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar). The bulk of agricultural labour equally belongs to a single caste or caste group of dalits everywhere (such as the malas/madigas in Andhra Pradesh, the chamars/balmikis in Haryana and the mahars/mangs in Maharashtra). Thus, the contradiction between these economic groups tended to articulate itself in terms of familiar caste cleavages rather than along class lines. Even though dalits read the situation in class terms, as in Keezhvenmani and indeed in many other places, they were never accepted sans caste howsoever they tried to rise above it. No matter how sincerely they waged fierce class struggles all their lives, they could never escape their dalithood, their caste identity.
During the period of the early caste atrocities, a comprehension among India's politicians of the manipulative prowess of caste had not yet widely arrived. Nor had the dalit belief in emancipation till then declined. It still showed up either through the communist platform or through their own movement. Its most radical expression manifested in 1964 through a countrywide 'jail bharo' ('fill the jails') campaign for the redistribution of surplus land to landless peasants. Led by Dadasaheb Gaikwad of the Republican Party of India (RPI, the dalit movement's political wing) - based in Maharashtra and with feeble following in other states – this articulation of the cause of the landless reflected a very new direction for the movement, which until then had largely been occupied with issues of socio-cultural exploitation. Its revolutionary potential was not lost on the ruling class. A co-optation strategy was quickly sharpened, and in 1967, a susceptible Gaikwad took the RPI into an alliance with the Congress. Gaikwad received a seat in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament, whose members are nominated, not directly elected - and thus began the degeneration of the dalit movement.
Despite the fact that modernization enabled dalits to push the level of their aspirations higher, yet in relation to the empowerment and growth of the Backward Classes as a bloc, it has certainly rendered rural dalits more vulnerable. With the sole exception of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has seemingly succeeded in consolidating the dalit and a section of the shudra vote, and has now extended its appeal to even the privileged castes (making it a dalit party merely notionally), dalit politics has only been characterized by hopeless disunity. The sole platform for their political empowerment, political reservation - the fact that 22.5 percent of legislators have to be from the dalit and adivasi communities - has been effectively manipulated by ruling class cooptation to render them defunct as an independent political force.
The Post-1991 Rural Crisis
While these processes built up through the post-Independence decades, they have been exacerbated after 1991 due to the neoliberal reforms the state adopted. This exacerbation came about owing to an intensified rural crisis and the establishment of a market ethos in place of a welfare state. There is a large body of literature on how neoliberal reforms, or globalization in popular parlance, created and accentuated the rural crisis. Agricultural growth slowed from 4.69 percent in 1991 to 2.6 percent in 1997-1998 and to 1.1 percent in 2002-2003. Significant factors that contributed to the rural crisis include decline in public investment in agriculture, falling rural employment, trade liberalization in many agricultural products, cutbacks in agricultural subsidies, rising costs of agricultural inputs, falling prices of produce and a sharp increase in the prices of food items. Compounding the crisis are the lack of easy and low-cost institutional credit to agriculture leading to a debt trap, the restructuring of the public distribution system and the policy thrust towards contract farming and special economic zones.
Even as the rural masses faced an escalating crisis of livelihood, there was an increasing erosion of democratic spaces from where they could voice demands for mitigation. The neoliberal state became increasingly authoritarian. People could not organize themselves, express grievances and hope for even a hearing from the government. The terror-security syndrome further choked the space for democratic dissent. This led to a desperate situation, characterized by a tragic trend of suicides among destitute, debt-ridden farmers that inevitably resulted in either frustration or aggression.
With the all-round crisis the liberalization period brought rural India, dalits were hit particularly hard. The statistics on atrocities during this period clearly show a marked increase in all major categories of crime. As the numbers of farmer suicides climbed higher, rural dalits suffered a loss of income on account of depression in farm wages and the unavailability of non-farm employment. A virtual closure of the public distribution system had a severe impact on the cost of living, compounded by the increasing prices of food items and other essential services. Urban dalits also suffered because of 'downsizing' and the closure of industries. Under the competitive pressure of the market ethos, public sector units also resorted to massive personnel reduction and outsourcing, resulting in large-scale loss of employment. The increasing informalization and casualization of jobs led to shrinking wages, lack of job security, worsening work conditions and consequent health hazards. Rural employment growth fell to an alarming 0.67 percent during the period 1993-94 to 1999-2000; urban employment growth fell equally sharply to 1.34 percent over the same time.
These were far below the annual increase of the job-seeking population, causing massive unemployment year after year. Expectedly, the cumulative impact of these processes reflected in declining consumption patterns among the poor during globalization. Data shows that the share in consumption expenditure of the poorest section of the population (about 30 percent of the whole), which had been growing consistently from 1987-88 up to 1990-91 in both rural and urban areas, had a sudden reversal soon after the reforms were launched. The share of the middle-income section (approximately 40 percent of the total population) also dwindled in the same manner in both rural and urban areas. The losses suffered by this 70 percent population aggregate appear to have benefited the top 30 percent. Apart from the economic crisis, the market ethos accentuated the marginalization of dalits in every field.
The cumulative impact of all these processes was reflected in the increasing gap between the incomes of dalits and nondalits. A study of poverty by Thorat and Venkatesan during the pre-globalization and post globalization periods has used the disparity ratio (poverty among dalits/ poverty among nondalits) and the disparity index (difference between poverty among dalits and nondalits/poverty among dalits), to measure the gap between the poverty of two social groups. It indicates that between 1983 and 1993, the disparity ratio and the disparity index between dalits and nondalits had declined 1.96 percent and 6.95 percent respectively. However, during 1993-2000, both the disparity ratio and the disparity index had increased by 8.67 percent and 1.01 percent respectively. Thus, although absolute poverty may have decreased according to the state's claim, the disparity in rural poverty between dalits and nondalits increased during the 1990s, in terms of both the disparity ratio and the disparity index.
Unlike the disparity in rural poverty - which showed a decline during the overall period 1983-2000, and during the 1980s but an increase during the 1990s - the disparity in urban poverty rose during the overall period by about 26 percent, the same figure during the 1980s and the 1990s as well. The increase in urban disparity was also higher during the 1980s as compared to the 1990s. The data also shows that the decline in rural poverty among dalits was accompanied by a decline in disparity in the 1980s, whereas during the 1990s, it was associated with an increase in disparity. In the case of urban poverty, however, the decline in urban poverty was associated with an increase in disparity during both the 1980s and the 1990s as well as during the overall period 1983-2000. Thus, while for urban areas the impact of globalization on the relative poverty of dalits could be termed inconclusive; it is clearly detrimental to dalits in rural areas. The implications of this study for dalit vulnerability to atrocities comes from their relative weakness in relation to the nondalit populations, which has been intensified during the globalization period.