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Peek into History: Perception Change & Agrarian Struggles in Telangana Politics - Part 2

This article is 8th in the series on the evolution and development of Telugu States)
 
Agrarian scenario in North Telangana
 
To appreciate the spread of Naxalite activity in the districts of North Telangana during the 1970s, it is necessary to understand the agrarian conditions of this region. Socio-economic conditions in the Telangana countryside, despite the State’s agrarian reformist intervention, presented a continuity of oppressive landlordism. 
 
The social ecology of this region presented extremely unequal land ownership patterns, and the dominance of landed exploitative social relations showed the implementation of the tenancy and land ceiling legislations in poor light.
 
The Dominance of landholders (Doras)
 
In the early 1970s, most of the villages in the districts of northern Telangana were still dominated by doras or big landlords, as in the Telangana of the 1940s. Each dora usually dominated not only his native village, but also a cluster of villages. Two broad categories of landlords can be identified: i) absentee landlords, who fashioned themselves after the erstwhile deshmukhs and owned large tracts of land in the villages under his dominance; and (ii) resident landlords, some of whom were tenants to the earlier deshmukh doras or rich peasant-turned-landlords, with a direct interest in agriculture, supervising the cultivation of lands under their control. They belonged mostly to the Velama, Reddy and, in some cases, the Brahmin castes.
 
The relations of production are more crucial to the definition of this class than mere ownership and control of land, the principal criterion being the relation to labour. What distinguishes a landlord from a rich peasant is the fact that while the latter considers labour as a commodity and tends to enter into a market relation with labour, the former continues to resort to forcible extraction of labour through a series of customary obligations. In other words, it is force, customs and practices governed by caste rules, rather than contractual or market relations that bind not only the labouring and service castes but also the peasantry to a landlord.
 
The variety of labour services extracted by doras from different castes in the Telangana countryside could be classified into two categories. The first form is the one related to the production process; the second is that which takes place outside the production process. 
 
Vetti (forced labour), which was a predominant form of labour exploitation and subjugation in the Telangana countryside until the 1940s, when the peasantry and agrarian poor rose in revolt against such a practice, continued in its form and spirit until the 1970s in certain pockets of northern Telangana, such as Karimnagar, Warangal and Adilabad. The term vetti refers to all forms of ‘extra-economic’ exaction of labour and goods.
 
The social origins of vetti can be traced to the Hindu jajmani arrangement. As per the jajmani, there exists mutual co-operation and complementarity between different castes with defined occupations in agrarian society. Thus the peasant, artisan, service and labouring castes transact their goods and services in kind; terms and conditions are determined by local practices.
 
The vetti system can be defined as a deformed version of the jajmani relationship (Dhanagare, 1983, p.185). The violation of the principle of exchange and mutual co-operation is the quintessence of the vetti system, which prevailed in certain parts of Telangana until the 1970s. 
 
The peasants were required to supply vetti nagallu (a free supply of ploughs) for a requisite number of days to the landlord; demands were also made upon the peasants to supply penta (organic manure), regardless of their own requirements. 
 
Shepherds, who usually charged a certain amount to farmers for resting their flock of sheep on their farms during the night, were to rest vetti mandalu on the landlords land. Artisans such as blacksmiths (Kammari) and carpenters (Vadla) were required to repair the agricultural implements of the dora without any payment.
 
In the case of agricultural labour castes such as the Madigas and Malas (called vetti Madigalu and vetti Malollu), vetti services were to be rendered to the landlord for a requisite number of days on a priority basis during peak agricultural seasons, when there was a high demand for labour. Even when payment was made, it was less than what was paid by the rest of the farmers.
 
Vetti is not limited to services and goods related to agricultural production alone but quite significantly extends to domains outside the production process. Every caste had to supply its services and goods free of charge to the dora. Thus, the Goudas (toddy-tappers) had to reserve certain high yielding palmyra trees for the dora, tap them and supply the produce freely. The village Kummari (potter) supplied pots; Chakalis (washermen) and Mangalis (barbers), in addition to their caste occupation-related services, had to perform other household chores at the gadi (residence of dora).
 
Besides the eviction of peasants from their lands, what contributed to the landed property of the doras was their occupation of common property resources and government lands, such as shikam (tank bed land), poramboku and banjars (cultivable and non-cultivable government waste lands) and inams of village artisans. 
 
With the pretext of settling disputes, fines were collected, most often from both parties of the dispute. In addition, moneylending was a major source of income for them. Thus, the doras exercised their dominance in almost every sphere of social life – including the private lives of people in the village.
 
Unlike those of the earlier generation, these landlords had access to the developmental resources allocated by the State. Thus, they could reap benefits from the vast State funds allocated to the development programmes, agricultural extension services, agricultural co-operatives and rural banks. In addition, they controlled the civil, excise and forest contracts. With the introduction of the Panchayati Raj system, they could even gain a certain legitimacy by being elected onto local bodies.
 
Agriculture mechanisation brings change in mindsets
 
One significant factor – often ignored or less emphasised in the accounts of the peasant movement – which catalysed a perceptual change in the outlook of the landlords on the one hand and the peasantry and the landless on the other, was the technological change in agriculture induced by the rural electrification of Telangana in the late 1960s. 
 
As a result of electrification, large tracts of land, left fallow earlier due to the lack of water resources, were brought into cultivation under bore well irrigation. The phenomenal rise in the number of bore wells also induced changes in the cropping pattern, which changed from coarse crops to paddy and other commercial crops, increasing the marketable surplus. 
 
This perceptible change in Telangana was accompanied by Indira Gandhi’s populist politics, which at least symbolically undermined the political hold of the élite of dominant castes. This was not to result in the challenge of the dominant caste-class structure in the countryside. But Indira Gandhi, through her populist slogans of garibi hatao and land reforms, etc. definitely aroused the aspirations of the rural as well as the urban poor – the desire to own some land of their own being an important one. 
 
The failure of the Congress Party government in the State, as elsewhere, lay in their lack of political will to attempt to translate these promises into reality. This is on the one hand.
 
Economic growth ushers change
 
On the other hand, rural Telangana also witnessed another change in the late 1960s. With the entry of industrial products into rural markets, traditional, rural artisan communities experienced a gradual decline in their economic position and significance in rural society. 
 
Two numerically large communities that felt the impact of this competition on their livelihood patterns were the traditional handloom weavers and the Madiga leather workers. The former were affected by the entry of cheap powerloom products into the rural markets, which eroded their livelihoods and caused their entitlements to decline. This forced the men to shift to working with the powerlooms and their women to beedi making. 
 
Technological change in agriculture led to a decline in demand for leather chappals, as preference was given to industrially-produced chappals. This forced the Madigas to turn to agriculture as an alternative form of income. This only increased the pressure on agriculture and created surplus labour facilitating the landed classes’ hold on the labour.
 
This scenario formed the backdrop of the agrarian unrest for the class politics and mobilisation in rural northern Telangana.

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