Land-grabbing behind India’s new caste wars

The fetish for hacking apostates to death on the Subcontinent has spread from the jihadis to the Hindu-fundamentalist competition… In another case of mounting caste violence in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, a newly-wed couple was beaten in full public view in the town of Udumalpet on March 13—and the man then hacked to death. Times of India reports the attackers were the woman's relatives. The local police commissioner said her family was angered by the couple's marriage: "They married some eight months ago and the woman's family was unhappy. She is an upper Thevar Hindu caste and the man was a Dalit." (First Post, March 14) The Dalits are India's lowest caste, the so-called "untouchables."

This follows last month's militant protests by members of the Jat caste in northern India, which left more than 10 million people in Delhi without water for days. Jat protesters sabotaged a key canal that supplies much of the city Feb. 21. Water was only restored when the army was sent in to take control of the Munak canal. The issue in play here was job quotas. The traditional land-owning Jat caste of Haryana and other northern states is actually relatively affluent. The Jats are currently listed by the government as an "upper caste," but the protesters demanded inclusion in quotas for jobs and education opportunities that have been available to lower castes since 1991.

In 2014, the  national government said it would capitulate to these demands and re-classify Jats as Other Backward Castes (OBC). But India's Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the Jats are not a "backward" community. After February's protest campaign, Haryana state authorities agreed to consider creating a new special status for the Jats that would open job quotas to them. (Times of India, March 14; BBC News, Indian Express, Feb. 22)

In a wry commentary on the protests in India's The Wire, writer Vipul Mudgal notes the irony of upper-caste communities engaging in such militant actions and adopting populist postures. He remarks that Rajputs and Brahmins, "the original tormentors in the Varna [caste] system," have joined to form a "Social Justice Front" in Rajasthan state. But he also sees economic forces pitting castes against each other:

Jats are to Haryana what the Patels are to Gujarat, the Rajputs to Rajasthan and the Marathas to Maharashtra—the dominant castes, without a doubt. Some of them are poor but most possess land, cattle, businesses, muscle power or political clout. What is common between all these peasant castes…is that their landholding is fragmenting fast. Having prospered after the green revolution, these castes are now facing agrarian distress and deep stagnation in the rural economy. Two successive droughts and untimely rains have worsened the crisis. Their anxieties are real, never mind the absurdity of their situation.

He cites a study by India's National Sample Survey (PDF), finding that the average land holding in India has been reduced from 2.63 acres in 1960-61 to 1.06 acres in 2003-4—or about 60% in four decades. This has been due to fragmentation of peasant lands, and their expropriation by corporate interests.

Although it failed to make global headlines the way the Jat action did, last month also saw angry protests by members of the Gujjar peasant caste in Jammu & Kashmir state. At least one was killed in clashes with police who were sent in to evict Gujjars from state lands they had "encroached" upon. (Indian Express, Feb. 23; Indian Express, Feb. 22)

Of course, the peasants are only "encroaching" on state lands because their own lands have been "encroached" upon by private interests. In addition to agribusiness interests seizing untitled traditional lands from the peasantry, the government is also expropriating lands for energy and resource projects.

Last April, more than a dozen protesters and several police were injured when security forces evicted activists blocking a road to protest the planned Kanhar hydro-dam in Sonbhadra dictrict, Uttar Pradesh. The protest was led by the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), made up of peasants and Adivasis (tribal peoples) whose lands stand to be expropriated for the project. (Times of India, MeriNews, April 19)

The National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) last year protested that a new law amending the 2013 Land Acquisition Act would lead to the "seizure" of 3,90,000 hectares from farmers for the government's planned Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). A press release charged that the government (led by the Hindu-fundamentalist BJP) had changed the law "so that industrialists, Indian and foreign, and builders can construct industrial corridors, open mines and accumulate real estate profits in the name of building cheap housing for the poor by grabbing farmers' lands." (Counterview, Feb. 16, 2015)

These protests are encouraging, and part of a global convergence between issues of class justice and issues of urban ecology and control of space. Seeing anger ultimately rooted in these same issues being channeled into caste rivalry is very discouraging. Caste was seen by India's post-independence leadership as something that would wither away in a free country. Now caste identification is back with a vengeance—ironically due to globalization and "modernity."