Peek into History: The Dalit Movement in Coastal Andhra

 This article is 10th in the series on the evolution and development of Telugu States)
Since the mid-1980s, the advanced and prosperous region of coastal Andhra has witnessed unprecedented mobilisation on the socio-cultural identity of caste by students, youths, employees and agricultural labourers belonging to the two major Scheduled Mala and Madiga castes. 
Although not new, mobilisation along caste lines, especially by underprivileged sections, can be seen as the beginning of a new phase in the social and political history of the State. While in the earlier period such mobilisation was limited and largely confined to the electoral sphere, the 1980s marked a new beginning in terms of politico-ideological discourse, organisational specificity and spatial spread.
It is important to ask why, contrary to the modernist scholarly prediction, the developed Green Revolution areas have seen caste mobilisation and conflict, despite polarisation along class lines. Is the coming to power of the TDP and the escalation of caste conflicts merely coincidental or are they substantially related? 
In this section we examine the dominant modernist perspective on caste to show why it is inadequate to understand the continual relevance of caste not only in electoral politics but also quite significantly in the people’s everyday lives. Locating the riots on dalits within the context of the political economy of change, we examine the significance of the shift in the regime in AP (that is, the emergence of the TDP). 
We also analyse the nature and patterns of the anti-dalit riots by taking up three cases for detailed study, to understand how they led to the emergence and expansion of the Dalit Maha Sabha (DMS).
Crucial to an understanding of dalit mobilisation and politicisation is the organised attack launched against them by the Kammas of Karamchedu in Prakasham district in July 1985. The Dalit Maha Sabha, formed in response to this event of extraordinary violence, soon became the organisational expression of dalit assertion, spreading across the entire region. Educated and politically active elements responded to it, cutting across ideological moorings and even party affiliations.
The articulation of social and political forces increasingly assuming caste and community form, especially in advanced agrarian regions, has been an enigma of sorts for dominant social scientific perspectives and analyses. This is becuse caste has largely been viewed as a traditional social institution and its decline premised on the process of development and modernisation. 
Scholarly writings on the Green Revolution have, generally echoing this view, predicted that the process of agrarian development accelerated by the Green Revolution strategy would lead to the widening of socio-economic disparities and result in the intensification of class-based movements of agricultural labourers.
Thus, Francine Frankel commented that:
‘ ... the introduction of modern technology under the intensive areas and the high- yielding varieties program has not only quickened the process of economic polarisation in the rural areas, but it has also contributed to increasing social antagonism between landlords and tenants, and landowners and laborers. In all areas, the introduction of modern methods of production has accelerated the transformation of the rural economy from a subsistence way of life to a profitable set of business activities. Landowners are now more likely to be influenced by rough calculations of opportunity costs in determining whether or not to lease out part of their land, or cultivate directly, than by traditional sentiments of personal obligation to customary tenants, certainly, they do not hesitate to raise rentals in line with appreciating land values and/or to evict even tenants having long-standing cultivating possession of the land. Moreover, the land reform laws in all States, while largely abortive, have caused landowners to view tenants as potential adversaries, and this has further contributed to the breakdown of permanent patron- client relationships.’
‘..The same tendency toward erosion in traditional attitudes of mutual dependence and obligation is also apparent in relations between landowners and laborers... Once again, there is not only growing economic disparity but also social polarisation between landowners and laborers. As impersonal bargaining arrangements replace customary patron-client relationships in the recruitment of farm labor, old ideas of reciprocal (albeit unequal) obligation give way to new notions of opposing economic or class interests.’
It is true, as Frankel observed, that the Green Revolution was instrumental in the thorough erosion of social norms that governed traditional Indian society. If disruption of the traditional jajmani norms of mutual dependence and caste-governed obligations based on the principle of hierarchy is one aspect of the emerging rural scenario, then the commercialisation of agrarian relations creating a new notion of social and economic interests, is another aspect.
However, contrary to the prediction of scholars such as Frankel and Hari Sharma, this new reality was not to result in social articulation premised on class. In other words, rather than leading to a rise in agrarian class conflict, the post-Green Revolution period in fact led to an increase in caste articulation. 
Since the 1980s, therefore, the advanced Green Revolution belt of coastal Andhra has witnessed intense caste-based polarisation and mobilisation on both sides of the social spectrum, i.e. among land owning as well as labouring communities. Heightened caste awareness and mobilisation in the educated middle classes of upper castes, backward castes and scheduled castes dates from the 1970s In spite of the significance of dalit mobilisation, based on caste-specific socio-cultural identity in the civil society arena and their important numerical constituency in electoral politics in the State, there are no important academic scholarly studies of this movement, except for occasional reports and analyses of events. 
It is therefore relevant to inquire into the political and socio-economic basis of the dalit movement, and to examine the discursive shift brought about by dalit assertion and self-cognisance. In this section we examine the question of the formation of dalit identity and dalit movement in the State.
Crucial to the social transformatory project of this movement is the category of dalit. The concept of dalit does not refer to any single caste or group of castes; it is a relational category. Its reference point is the caste-specific relationship of dominance and subordination in Indian society. Thus the concept of dalit may be defined as a community of oppressed castes with specific experience of being treated as untouchables and being humiliated through the conscious denial of self-respect and honour by the caste Hindus.
This understanding of the category of dalit, brought forth by dalit movements in India in general and in Andhra in particular, informs our analysis and assessment of dalit articulation in AP. Following this, we examine the extent to which the movement has succeeded in forging an imagined community of dalits, and what political and ideological/cultural impediments such a movement of the subalterns had to face.

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