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Economic and Political Weekly September 8, 2001 3422

Commentary
SUMANTA BANERJEE
T
he Indian governments nefarious
plan to keep away the issue of caste
discrimination from the agenda of
the UN Conference on Racism and Intol-
erance has provided academics with the
opportunity to engage in hair-splitting ar-
guments over the semantic distinction be-
tween race and caste. This debate is
surely important for anthropological and
sociological research. But it is of purely
academic interest at the moment, in the
present Indian context. Whether they
describe the dalits and the adivasis as
belonging to a race, or to a caste, it makes
no difference to their daily trials and tribu-
lations when they face the brunt of dis-
crimination and intolerance, both from the
upper caste people, and the government
officials. What is of utmost importance
now therefore is to face squarely this issue
of caste-induced oppression which in
terms of both physical and mental suffer-
ing is as agonising for a large mass of
Indians as racial violence was for the
victims of apartheid in South Africa.
It is praiseworthy that different
organisations from India (including even
the National Human Rights Commis-
sion),like dalit groups and NGOs, have
opposed the governments stand and are
taking up the issue of caste discrimination
and oppression at the Durban conference.
But it is about time that concerned
organisations and individuals peep into a
different nook of the hierarchical caste
system in India. This is the cobwebbed
hideout of discrimination and intolerance,
loss of power in the villages, the yadavs
under Jayanandans leadership stepped in
to fill the power vacuum. Jayanandan left
the PWG, sought the political patronage
of a Bihar minister from his caste, and
formed a gang to cleanse his area of all
PWG influence, obviously in a bid to turn
it into a pocket borough for his new found
political patron. Since most of the follow-
ers of the PWG were dalits, Jayanandans
campaign took on the form of a casteist
cleansing. He was reported to have vowed
to kill all dalits within three km radius of
his area of operation. True to his vow, on
August 22, his gang swooped down upon
a dalit village in search of PWG activists,
but unable to find them killed three dalit
women and three children. Sometime ago,
his gang had invaded another dalit village
and carried out a similar operation.
Traditional differences between middle
caste people (who are accepted as subor-
dinates in the Hindu caste hierarchy) and
the dalits (who are considered outcastes)
are resurfacing and exploding into con-
flicts in situations where a newly emerg-
ing socially dominant group is seeking
power at the expense of a traditionally
socially downtrodden group. Laloo Yadav
is the best representative of this trend.
Coming from the middle segment of the
Hindu hierarchical caste system, he re-
tains his links with it, and yet puts on the
robes of a messiah of the dalit outcastes
an unscrupulous adoption of a rather
unsophisticated and rustic type of
Gandhian tactics in the local politics of
Bihar. While Gandhi appealed to the
masses through the cultivation of a popu-
lar idiom, Laloo also tries to woo his
voters by his rustic jokes. Like Gandhi,
he is cunning enough not to call for an
end to the Hindu caste system. But he is
ruthless when it comes to power. If the
dalits agree to accept his hypocrisy, he is
all too sweet to offer them compensation
for their relatives who have been killed
by gangs led by his caste men. But if they
dare to call Laloo Yadavs bluff, they will
have to face the consequences the warn-
ing delivered by Jayanandan Yadavs latest
operation.
Similar messiahs have emerged among
the dalits and the adivasis, who are taking
them for a ride. Characters like Mayavati
Wheels within Wheels,
Castes within Castes
differences and conflicts among the op-
pressed and backward castes, which is the
breeding ground of their disreputable
leaders. It is rather risky for an outsider,
even if a diehard opponent of the
brahminical caste system, to raise this
question, since he/she might be immedi-
ately accused of sowing divisions within
communities. But however much one may
protest against caste oppression at inter-
national conferences, unless the oppressed
and backward castes in India themselves
overcome their own differences, put an
end to intolerance within their own com-
munities and throw up ideologically com-
mitted leaders from their own ranks to
fight the discrimination, they will remain
politically ineffectual, and continue to
suffer under the brahminical caste system
and the Indian state that acquiesces in its
perpetuation.
It is an undeniable fact that certain
sections of the OBCs today have replaced
the earlier upper castes as oppressors of
the dalits. In places like Bihar, some from
among the yadavs who till the other day
were victims of discrimination and intol-
erance at the hands of the rajput and
bhumihar landlords, and were allies of the
dalits in their fight against these feudal
forces, have now become oppressors of
the same dalits. A tell-tale instance is the
emergence of Jayanandan Yadav in the
Jehanabad-Masaurhi region of Bihar.
Some years ago, Jayanandan along with
other members of his caste had joined the
Naxalite Peoples War Group (PWG) to
fight the upper caste bhumihar landlords.
With the retreat of the bhumihars and their
Whatever be the manner in which dalits and adivasis are classified
as belonging to a race or a caste it is a fact that caste-induced
oppression has been as agonising to a large mass of Indians as has
been racial violence in South Africa. However, it is also time the
intolerance, discrimination and divisions existing among the
oppressed castes that have bred a great deal of violence and have
thrown up unscrupulous leaders is confronted and acknowledged.
Economic and Political Weekly September 8, 2001 3423
of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Shibu
Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha are
typical examples of the new breed of
opportunist politicians, bereft of any ide-
ology, who now flirt with the Left and the
next moment toady to the Right.
The problem is aggravated by the fact
that the dalits themselves are as hopelessly
divided along a hierarchical order, among
a variety of castes and sub-castes, as the
caste Hindus. Whether sections among
them in their efforts to emulate the Hindu
upper castes replicated the same hierarchi-
cal order on a mini-scale in their own
communities is a matter of historical re-
search. But what is alarming in the present
context is that such traditionally ordained
divisions among the dalits are reviving
conflicts which often take violent forms.
We keep reading reports in newspapers
from villages as widespread as from
Haryana or Uttar Pradesh in the north to
Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the
south to Bihar and West Bengal in the east,
about dalits belonging to one caste taking
umbrage at someone from another dalit
caste marrying into their community. They
go to the extent of lynching the bride or
the bridegroom, or both! They appear to
replicate the same forms of violence that
the upper caste Hindus use against them
if any dalit man dares to marry a woman
from their caste.
Even on a non-violent level, discrimi-
nation among the dalits have been preva-
lent for ages. Let me give a few examples.
In eastern India, people from the cobbler
caste (muchi) consider themselves supe-
rior to those from the tanner caste (chamar)
and are not supposed to break bread with
them. In some parts of the country, mem-
bers of the dom caste (employed for cre-
mations) will not take water or food from
dhobis (washermen). Among the tantis
(weaver caste) of Bengal, the sudra weaver
looks down upon the jugi weaver as impure.
In Bihar, a musahar will not eat food with
a dosadh, although both belong to the
cultivating class.
These may appear to be idle taboos, but
they acquire ominous importance when
inter-caste marriages take place in defi-
ance of these prohibitions, or at times of
caste-based alliances during elections.
Women, as usual become the main targets
in such conflicts among the oppressed
communities. The obnoxious upper caste
habit of raping or stripping a woman in
public if she is suspected of any
misdemeanour is being adopted by these
communities also. A recent case of a dalit
versus tribal conflict in a Karnataka village
is worth mentioning. A dalit youth eloped
with a tribal girl, following which the irate
tribal villagers raided the house of a tribal
woman whom they suspected of encour-
aging the two to elope. They dragged her
and her daughter out of their house, stripped
them and paraded them through the village.
Like the leaders of the dalit panchayats,
the headmen of the adivasi or tribal assem-
blies, are equally intolerant and oppressive
towards members of their own communi-
ties, if they are deemed to have violated
the traditional community ordained rules.
The punishment that follows is swift and
fatal. Women again are the targets. Even
in Left-ruled West Bengals tribal areas,
the headman of the village tribal commu-
nity lays down the rules. He can indict a
santhal widow as a witch and rally his
entire community in a witch-killing cer-
emony! For all that one knows, the head-
man brands the widow as a witch to get
rid of her and occupy her land. Sheer
economic greed masquerades as devotion
to traditional tribal norms!
It is these divisions and persistence of
regressive values that have kept the dalit
and adivasi movements fragmented, and
as putty in the hands of unscrupulous
leaders. While it is surely necessary to
expose the hypocrisy of the Indian gov-
ernment at every international forum, it is
equally urgent for the younger generation
of dalit and adivasi intellectuals and social
activists to put their own house in order
and rid their society of internal discrimi-
nation and oppression. EPW