Peek into History: The Political Economy of Change & Atrocities against Dalits

This article is 12th in the series on the evolution and development of Telugu States)
Even after five decades of Independence, we continue to witness social, economic and political violence against dalits. Despite the fact that the Constitution of India declares India to be a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic with liberty, equality and justice as its guiding principles, we are nowhere near the stated vision of the makers of the Constitution five decades later.

If increasing caste violence is symptomatic of the rising aspirations of the downtrodden and disadvantaged strata of our society and their challenge to the historically inherited and established structures of socio-economic, cultural and political dominance, then the violence is also an expression of resistance to these aspirations by the dominant powers-that-be.

In this context, the phenomenon of ‘atrocities on Harijans’ constituted a unique problem. As the most oppressed group in Indian society, forming the lowest level of the traditional social hierarchy, the dalit community continued to be subjected to socio-economic and cultural oppression. 

Although dalits or SCs are divided into numerous castes and sub-castes and reflect the country’s social, cultural and linguistic diversity, in economic terms they constituted the bulk of agricultural labour.

As a reflection of the process of socio-economic change, there was some change in dalits’lives. A decline in their traditional occupations, considered menial and polluting by caste Hindus, forced dalits to move away from these occupations and join the ranks of agricultural labourers. This led to a marginal increase in their occupational diversification into modern sectors of economic activity.

However, modernisation had virtually no impact on most dalits in the countryside and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the impact of the developmental process on the life of an average dalit was extremely marginal and superficial. 

As far as the dalits’ economic conditions are concerned, land reform legislations, developmental programmes and policies, minimum wage legislation and social welfare policies had little influence.
The political economy of development in the post-Independence period, on the contrary, brought about a perceptible change in the physiognomy of social class-caste structures, giving rise to a new class of rich landlord and peasant landowners, who replaced the old zamindar class. 

A new generation of market-oriented upper caste and backward caste landed peasant proprietors thus emerged in place of the old upper caste landed gentry. This broad generalisation, with slight variations, captures the picture of socio-economic change in different parts of the country.

The process of consolidation of the new agrarian social structure contained within itself new dynamics of oppression and violence. State intervention and the process of development contributed to a change in the old system of patronage and jajmani relations, paving the way for commercialisation, money nexuses and commodification in the countryside. 

However, the dominant social classes consistently refused and resisted any changes in the lives of the labouring classes. Any assertion on the part of the latter was suppressed and the resources available to these dominant agrarian classes were 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 mobilisation.

As a result, atrocities against dalits became a regular occurrence in the mid-1970s. Some of the most notorious incidents that received wide publicity in the media occurred in Belchi, Bajithpur, Jagganatha Puram and Vellipuram. These incidents clearly create the impression that the practice of untouchability and the conflicts between the landless dalits and the landowning caste Hindus assumed an uglier and more intense form. 

The post-Emergency period saw an increased incidence of violence on dalits, although this phenomenon was not new. Nevertheless, its increased and widespread occurrence must be seen as of serious concern and therefore requires analysis.

In the context of northern India, one of the significant reasons for this new turn was the consolidation of a peasant proprietor class, belonging especially to backward caste communities such as the Yadavas, Kurmis and Koeris. 
These communities formed the support base of anti- Congress Party regional political formations and, benefiting from the economics of agrarian development, emerged into a formidable social force. Their numerical preponderance and close involvement with agriculture necessitated regular interaction with agricultural labourers, who belonged predominantly to the dalit caste. 

A difference can be noted in their style of domination, compared to that of the Brahmin, Bhumihar and Rajput landed gentry. Historically, the latter were members of the gentry and their domination of dalits and dalits’ subordination to them was perceived as customary. Further, the process of change in the Brahmin, Bhumihar and Rajput-controlled areas had been very slow, if not dismal. 

In contrast, the members of the landed class of backward communities were considered upstarts who had mainly benefited from the agricultural development of the preceding decade or so. It is also necessary to note that the process of modernisation and development, which led to the rise of the backward caste communities, also impacted on the dalit community, though to a lesser extent. 

The neo-rich backward caste peasantry, imitating the upper caste landed gentry and its manner of dominance, seemed to expect dalits to show the same kind of obedience and subservience, and in the event of non-conformity tended to react in a more aggressive and violent way. The growing incidence of violence on dalits in the Hindi belt in the post-Emergency period may be traced to this new phenomenon.

In sharp contrast to northern India, the State of Andhra Pradesh appears to stand out as unique during the 1970s. Though there were minor incidents of violence on dalits, they were not comparable to those in the States of northern India or even to those in the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu, where major caste rioting took place in Kilvenmani.

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