Books | Seeds of Rebellion

How socio-economic inequities in Indian villages incubated mass disaffection

Prof. Surinder S. Jodhka

BookCaste was never about ritual hierarchy alone. Power too was its constitutive feature, always. Empirical studies of village life from across the country reported this extensively. Relations of power tended to overlap with ritual hierarchies. The mediating factor was control over agricultural land. The caste groups that tended to be in possession of land also held power. Notwithstanding significant regional differences, these tended to be all from upper or middling castes. Reporting form Tamil Nadu where traditionally Brahmins were the big landowners, sociologist Andre Beteille writes:

‘Up to the 1940s, the Brahmins enjoyed a great measure of power in the village. Their power was based upon ownership of land, high social and ritual status, and superior education… The panchayat president was a Brahmin, the panchayat room was in the Agraharam (the locality where Brahmin and other dominant groups in the village lived), and initiative in all important matters was in the hands of Brahmins… Non-Brahmin members… had the position of second-class citizens.’

Likewise, reporting from Rajasthan, Anand Chakravarti found that until around the early 1950s, the Rajput jagirdars nearly completely dominated village life. Even though their numbers were not large in the local populations, they owned as much as 84 per cent of the agricultural land. They were also locally seen as ‘upholders of the traditional social order’. The other caste communities lived in the village under their command.

However, the introduction of Land Reforms after Independence and the accompanying process of political democratization weakened the exclusionary power of the traditional upper castes, such as the landed Brahmins or Rajputs, in the village settings. In the Rajasthan village, for example, after the introduction of Land Reforms in 1954, the share of agricultural land owned by Rajputs came down from 84 per cent to 29 per cent. Likewise, the Brahmin lost their position to the non-Brahmin in Tamil Nadu because of the powerful mobilizations against them during the later decades of British colonial rule. The Brahmins of rural Tamil Nadu were among the first to move out of the villages to the emerging urban centres, such as Madras, or what is now known as Chennai.

The Land Reforms transferred land mostly to the middle castes of tenants and actual tillers of the land. As we have discussed in the sixth and seventh chapter, rarely did the Land Reforms transfer land titles to the Dalits, though many of them worked on the land as sharecroppers and labouring hands. Thus, the logic of rural power still revolved around caste. The middling castes emerged as main landowning groups. They also tended to be numerically larger groups within the rural demographics. In most regions of the country, therefore, they began to emerge as holders of rural power. Anthropologist M.N. Srinivas described them as the ‘dominant castes’. Sources of their power were multiple. As Srinivas writes:

‘A caste may be said to be ‘dominant’ when it preponderates numerically over the other castes, and when it also wields preponderant economic and political power. A large and powerful caste group can be more easily dominant if its position in the local caste hierarchy is not too low.’

Another variable that he found becoming increasingly significant was the number of educated persons in a caste community and the occupations they pursued outside the village. In other words, even in the rural setting, education and occupational diversification added to the power and influence of the communities they came from. This would have also worked as a motivating factor for the rural families to educate their children, if they could afford it. For Srinivas, materiality had always been an important factor in caste relations. A socially and economically mobile caste could also make claims to a higher ritual status. He famously described such a process as ‘sanskritization.’

‘…a caste which is numerically strong and wealthy will be able to move up in the ritual hierarchy if it Sanskritizes its ritual and way of life, and also loudly and persistently proclaims itself to be what it wants to be. It is hardly necessary to add that the more forms of dominance which a caste enjoys, the easier it is for it to acquire the rest.’

Beyond the ownership of agricultural land, power of the dominant caste was also realized through the institution of local panchayats. Contrary to the popular Gandhian notion, panchayats were not simply a communitarian institution. They tended to work to reinforce the power of the powerful patriarchs from the upper and dominant castes in the village. Despite their name, panchayats did not work with the notion of representation.

Though the idea and institution of panchayat functioned at different levels, one of their critical roles was juridical. Wherever they existed in the subcontinent, individual caste groups tended to have a panchayat of its elderly men, who resolved the internal disputes within the caste groups. However, the disputes involving members of different castes were in the domain of the village panchayat, which in effect tended to be the panchayat of the locally upper and dominant caste elderly men. Rarely would a Dalit or a woman sit in these panchayats. It was their ability to enforce their will over the larger village community, even when some did not agree, that made them ‘upholders of the traditional social order’. In other words, as is the case with the dynamics of power everywhere, coercive violence was not alien to caste domination.

Furthermore, dominance of the dominant castes extended beyond the village, to the region, which helped it reinforce its power locally, a subject we shall discuss in a later section of this chapter.


Landlords and Rich Peasants

While caste has indeed been an important axis for discussions on rural power in India, scholars have also pointed to the additional significance of ‘class’ and individual skills of leadership tended to be important. However, it would have been nearly impossible for a Dalit or a landless person or a woman to be a village leader.

Mostly using the language of Marxist political economy/ agrarian studies and drawing from Russian and Chinese history, the advocates of class framework tend to divide the rural residents into four or five categories: the big landlords; the rich peasants; the middle peasants; the small and marginal peasants; the landless labouring classes. As discussed in the last chapter, in effect, however, such a class model in the Indian countryside tended to overlap with the hierarchies of caste and also functioned within or through the logic of caste. The big landlords all tended to be from the so-called upper castes of their respective regions. The rich middle peasant tended to be all from the next level of hierarchy. The marginal cultivators and tenants tended to be from ‘backward’ castes. A large majority of the landless tended to be from the ex-Untouchable castes.

In the class model, rural power was held by the big landlords and the rich peasants. Given that these two categories owned or controlled most of the agricultural land, the primary source of rural livelihood, the poor labourers and the small/marginal landowners depended on them for employment and often also for credit. The marginal cultivators often leased land from the bigger landowners and worked as their tenants/ sharecroppers.

The landless often worked as tied-labourers. They all tended to borrow from their patron, cash and/ or grain, particularly when there were some special needs, such as a wedding in the family, a major illness, or house repair, and remained perpetually indebted.

For the rich landowners of the village, lending was an opportunity to tie the labouring poor for labour. These dependency relations made the poor servile. Given their perpetual indebtedness, the tenants and sharecroppers were forced to sell the produce to the landlord moneylenders. This resulted in a hopeless situation where the poor worked like slaves, always unfree and dependent on their lords. Any resistance or disobedience was met with brutal violence. In some regions of the subcontinent, the big landowners also sexually exploited the women of the labouring classes. Reporting from South India during the early 1950s, M.N. Srinivas claimed that ‘members of non-dominant castes may be abused, beaten, grossly underpaid, or their women required to gratify the sexual desires of the powerful men in the dominant caste’.

While such ‘semi-feudal’ relations of production and social power had a long past, they became entrenched into the system during the British colonial period. However, the agrarian policies of the British varied across regions of the subcontinent. The power of ‘semi-feudal’ interests was most visibly present in the regions, such as Bengal, Bihar, and Rajasthan, where the British had introduced land revenue systems that were absent elsewhere. Under such a regime, the landlords emerged as an important support base for colonial rule. Even after Independence, they remained a conservative lot and tended to be averse to any initiatives that would empower the rural poor. They invariably lobbied against the introduction of developmental projects, initiated by the independent Indian state. They preferred keeping the local agrarian economy in a state of ‘backwardness’ often marked by low productivity of land and relationships of bondage and servitude. They feared that economic development would usher in changes that would weaken their hold and power over the rural society.

Surinder S. Jodhka
Aleph Book Company, Pg 265, Rs 799



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