When the private soldiers migrate for Job: conflict and change in a strife torn village

Ravi Kumar 

Conflict, Structure and Society

The Central Bihar has been in conflict since early 1980s, involving different radical left groups, gangs of landlords and private armies constituted by the landed gentry of different castes over a period of time. This conflict has been intrinsically about social structures and the situations- economic, social and political- emanating out of it. Efforts have been made to typify the Bihari society and economy. In fact, not only Bihar but in the country as a whole debates have taken place around how to understand the society and economy and how to classify its mode of production. It has been termed as semi-feudal because of the overwhelming role played by caste in the social and economic organisation of society. Others looked at how caste has been “affected by economic differentiation (Omvedt, 1992, p.131) and how, in fact “the existing class/caste complex also provides a fertile ground for capitalist farmers to use casteism to appeal to their kin among the middle peasants and labourers, to divide the rural semi-proletariat, and to attack its dalit and adivasi sections… who are often most militant” (Omvedt, 1992, p. 133). There are still others who look at the caste-class correlation as existing even today (Louis, 2002, p.26-27). And the movement of the radical left political formations try to explain the atrocious tendencies of landlords in terms of feudal remnants or traits of semi-feudal Bihari society. Some scholars have tried to argue on lines of characterising the Bihari society and economy as semi-feudal by stating that

“while this sort of ‘semi-feudalism’ became the characterising aspect of Bihar’s agrarian social structure, the slow but inevitable process of commercialisation broke the isolationist, self-contained village whose peasantry had until then stoically borne exploitation and oppression. Economic unification led to the evolution of a general policy whose features were instability, disequilibrium and unrest. The socio-political placidity which had been caused by economic stagnation was broken by the changes in the economy of the state of Bihar became witness to an era of agrarian tensions, unrest and movements which, though endemic, were limited in their scope and arrested in their development like the economy itself” (Das, 1982, p.45).

Prasad (1994) furthers the semi-feudalism thesis and goes on to argue that due to “the semi-feudal mode of production” the exploitation of the poor peasantry intensified in Bihar after mid-sixties (p.178). The significance of caste was recognised by the CPI(ML) in its early days when it was found appealing to the caste feelings without even critically reflecting on what kind of implications it would have as Omvedt above seems to argue. CPI (ML) in one instance appeals to the Kurmi peasants that their caste has been “known as honest, hard-working and brave” but some “arch-reactionaries and their goons” belonging to the same caste were endangering the respect that people had for the caste (CPI (ML), 1986, p.A-20).

This debate has been very vital to the understanding of the society and therefore, for not only strategising movements but also setting their agenda. The issue of structure has been a vital aspect of this debate. Structure, which can be looked in terms of differentiations across class or caste, also experiences transformation. This transformation may not be necessarily about breaking down of structures but it may also imply certain form of mobility in economic terms experienced within each caste, if that is understood as the primary basis of stratification, or across class if latter is taken as the fundamental division in society. The battle in Central Bihar in a certain sense is interwoven with the issue of structures and the changes experienced by it. The reasons for conflict remain more or less same despite the fragmentation of land holdings as the Dalits are still largely landless agricultural labourers (see table below for an indicative picture) and the issue of social oppression remains omnipresent. However, there have been significant changes in the nature of conflicts as market comes in and aspirations keep people tied to the dream of an urban el-dorado. Table: Per thousand distribution of households of different social groups by household type (all-India rural)

Table: Per thousand distribution of households of different social groups by household type (all-India rural)

  household type
Social Group Social self employed (SE) in Rural labour (RL)    
  Agriculture Non-agriculture Subtotal agriculturallabour otherlabour Subtotal    
ST 393 64 457 340 113 453    
SC 202 141 342 405 154 560    
OBC 387 176 562 224 104 327    
others 433 181 614 156 77 233    
all (incl. n.r.) 359 158 517 258 109 367    

Source: NSS Report No. 516: Employment and unemployment situation among social groups in India, 2004-05, p.23

Hence, this paper tries to understand how within a village these changes are reflected. The changes in the politics of radical left movements as well as its counter-forces such as Ranvir Sena are taking place at the level of villages where they flourished. Jehanabd, for instance, no longer remains the same ‘flaming fields of Bihar’. While these changes have not been analysed in detail, in fact, not even paid enough attention, there are efforts at delegitimising the existence of marginalisation at grassroot level. This delegitimisation is done by ignoring existence of socio-economic situations which actually result in such a crisis. The movement, whether armed or unarmed, are reflections of deep rooted discontent in society. They become mirrors of structural inequality in many cases. Once such movements fall silent, they need to be read as indications of some profound change, which in many cases may imply a silent victory of the ruling class ideology and politics. These changes become, more so for us, interesting because of the two simultaneous developments – (1) while the radical left forces seem to be weakening in many of the areas which they considered as their bastion (2) there seems to be a consistent and well planned strategy to delegitimise their existence by branding them as terrorists or equating them with any other form of law and order problem.

The paper, which is based on years of observation in a village and its surrounding areas, also tries to bring forth an account of evolution of conflict in a village and district, which has not been used very frequently as a method to understand the violent conflict in the area. The other aspect which this paper intends to highlight is the need to look beyond the current trend of characterising the conflict in Central Bihar or elsewhere in India as a law and order problem. The paper reaffirms the socio-economic and political character of the conflict and tries to argue how the delegitimation process of struggles and the efforts to construct new discourses towards that process are flawed.

The nature of radical left activism in the Jehanabad district has been consistently changing. The issues raised by them as well as the nature of their activism have also experienced significant changes. However, not much attention has been paid to these changes which so profoundly affect the existential aspects of the organisations active in the area. Rather, a general consensus is being built by the Indian state about their characterisation as “threats to internal security”. And there is hardly any reflection on the construction of this discourse which aims at destroying the basis of movements as well as hides the reality that lies in the belly of this emerging tiger economy. In fact, the standpoint of the UPA itself has changed drastically from the days it came to power. The CMP of UPA posted on the website of the Prime Minster’s Office says that

“The UPA is concerned with the growth of extremist violence and other forms of terrorist activity in different states. This is not merely a law-and-order problem, but a far deeper socio-economic issue which will be addressed more meaningfully than has been the case so far. False encounters will not be permitted” (p.10, PMO).

The Prime Minister has been a transformed man as far as his stand on this issue is concerned when he remarked, quite contrarily to the above statement while addressing the Chief Ministers on internal security

“I have said in the past that Left Wing Extremism is probably single biggest security challenge to the Indian state. It continues to be so and we cannot rest in peace until we have eliminated this virus.“

“We need a coordinated response to this challenge. The answers to the problem are well known. We need to cripple the hold of naxalite forces with all the means at our command. This requires improved intelligence gathering capabilities, improved policing capabilities, better coordination between the Centre and the States and better coordination between States and most important, better leadership and firmer resolve. Improving policing capabilities requires better police infrastructure, better training facilities, better equipment and resources and dedicated forces”. (Singh, 2007)

And it has been no surprise that L.K. Advani of BJP also took a somewhat similar stand when he said that “when the threat is so menacing as this, I am both dismayed and alarmed at the failure of the UPA government to educate the people of India about the ideological basis of left-wing extremism, its nature of operation, its international connections and the crimes against humanity perpetrated by it around the world”. He goes on to say that “communist extremism not only endangers India’s national security and our democratic system, but also our precious cultural and spiritual heritage. The rabidly anti-Hindu propaganda of naxalites must be noted in this context” (Advani, 2006).



Towards Conclusion

We find that violent conflict in the village began as an innate part of the local socio-economic dynamics. This has been a replication of the conflict that has been haunting Central Bihar for over two and half decades now. There are also always certain incidences which act as catalysts of change and which bring over ground the subterranean tensions. In the case of Kasauli, the entry of the radical left organisations can be attributed to the two incidences in which the Bhumihar peasants were playing tyrants with the Dalit as well as the Backward Caste. But the real reasons were the underlying tensions that have been accumulating due to the approach of the landed class in economic as well as social terms. The issue of wage, capture of gair mazarua lands, retaining lands exceeding the ceiling etc., were some of the economic issues whereas in social terms the issues ranged right from the usage of a demeaning language in the everyday life to the treatment meted out to their women. The assertion of the landless and the socially oppressed began when the radical left entered the village. The landed could not accept the challenges that were posed to them. And the Ranvir Sena gave them an opportunity to avenge the asserting landless. It was an opportunity that the Bhumihars saw to rein in the landless. And by reining in they meant not allowing them to raise voices for better wage or continue as attached labour and accept the atrocities with ease. CPI which preceded these formations failed to play the role that it was expected to as a representative of the working masses. The political strategy of the party was generally of compromise and peaceful coexistence and consequently, its support base – the Dalits – deserted it and even the peasants left it because it could not become a militant representative of the landed upper caste in the village. Murders happened. People had stopped coming out of houses beyond 4PM as was the scene in the whole district. An omnipresent fear of violence loomed over the village. Meanwhile, both the radical left as well as the Sena developed their own internal contradictions and weakened. The lumpenisation of the cadres was one of the reasons why many Dalits stopped playing active role in the People’s War, for instance and the similar development plagued the Sena after a strong central leadership declined. Another significant reason for the lull in terms of violence or political activism has been large scale migration and the shift towards an aspiration oriented marketised life style. The Backward castes, meanwhile emerged as new landed gentry as they (especially Yadavas from neighbouring villages) started buying chunk of the land sold by the Bhumihars. Though the violence has not taken place but there are still dangers of its eruption.

The violence or the conflict that stayed in Kasauli has had certain significant consequences or in other words it provides certain important lessons. One of the consequences of the series of massacres has also been the complete demolition of dialogicity as a strategy in movements. While one of the activists, when interviewed, retorted by saying that ‘when you are being killed you cannot think about being dialogic’. He was true because if a soldier is asked about his reactions about relevance of dialogue while in battlefield he cannot react in any other way; there were others in Kasauli who said that ‘we had situations of conflict earlier as well but the villagers used to resolve them peacefully. Now there is no space for dialogue or peaceful resolution. A situation came in 1990s when gun was the only medium of resolving the crisis’.

The other significant observation which emerges is about the role played by the richest in the landed segment. They have physically remained outside the conflict (and therefore out of physical danger) because they have properties in cities and they flourish there but they also remain important part of the conflict because they have land in the village. No damage has been done to their economic interests, whereas there are many whose children became active members of the Sena and who cannot even imagine having income both ways – from cities or from the land. Those participated most vocally were the Bhumihars owning land between 5-10 bighas.

Lastly, a major change in the life of landless and socially oppressed happened. They can speak out against the Bhumihars. But the movement for wages or for land is no more part of their agenda because the organisation either does not take it up or has weakened. The ideological element of struggle has been lost.

But where does one go from here? A member of CPI (ML) liberation from Ekwari said, in reference to a criminal Bhumihar peasant who has returned from jail, that he has started acting the way Bhumihars were in habit of doing – getting drunk and abusing the Dalits. There is a possibility that any day he could be killed. In Kasauli, the members of People’s War said that Abhinandan Sharma has duped a leader of People’s War and in this situation of calmness there is always a possibility that he may be killed any day (remember that because of his role in Sena there is already a hidden anger among Dalits). In the panchayat elections that were held in 2006 the Bhumihars of Kasauli had put up a candidate, who was an active but very shrewd worker of Sena (he needed to have good relation with the Dalits because of money lending business). His cousin who happens to have criminal antecedents and is wanted by police was working for him. He would still go to the Mushari (the hamlet of Mushars) with other members of the Sena and abuse them and threaten them of massacres. It has been actions such as this which have not been liked in past. And there is no guarantee it will be liked now. The only possibility is that there may not be massacres but pick-and-choose murders as People’s War declared after Operation Jail break. However, given the dominance of lumpen elements, one may still expect outsiders (dasta of Sena comprising of people from outside the village) to initiate violence because with 50% of Bhumihars migrated and Kasauli appearing to be bearing an aged look not much physical or moral support can be expected from here.

This situation also leaves us with questions such as how do we understand the participation of poor peasantry from Bhumihar community within class framework when they fight against the landless and poor though their own condition may not be much different? How significant will be the variable of caste while understanding this conflict especially when we see that the backward castes emerge as the new landlords in the village? What kind of movemental framework is required to resolve the problems that confront the poor, landless Dalits? Will market, desire to be co-opted within the world on endless aspirations, provide an interlude for the conflict to stop till the unfulfilled desires again resurface? The framework of struggle may be different then.

Certain other issues such as the need to make ‘land to the tillers’ distribution of the land belonging to absentee landlords acquire great significance at this conjuncture. Unless such issues are raised, which in turn will also sharpen the question of minimum wages and control over land, the movement of the left will continue to experience a downward slide. 

Advani, L.K. (April 23, 2006) Press Statement issued by L.K. Advani at a press conference in Bilaspur (Chhattisgarh), available at http://www.bjp.org/Press/april_2006/apl_2306_p.htm, downloaded on 9th January 2008

Björkert, Suruchi Thapar (September-October 2006) ‘Women as arm-bearers: Gendered caste-violence and the Indian state’, Women’s Studies International Forum, Volume 29, Issue 5, Pages 474-488

CPI (ML) (August 1986) Report from the Flaming Fields of Bihar, CPI(ML): Calcutta

Das, Arvind N. (1982)’Peasants and Peasant Organisations: The Kisan Sabha in Bihar’, in Das, Arvind N. (ed.) Agrarian Movements in India: Studies on 20th Century Bihar, Routledge, pp.40-87

Gupta, Shaibal (2002) Subaltern Resurgence: A Reconnaisance of Panchayat Election in Bihar, Crisis States Programme Development Research Centre, London School of Economics: London

Gupta, Shaibal (1994) ‘Socio-economic Roots of Peasant Movement in Central Bihar’ in Sharma, Kaushal Kishore, Singh, Prabhakar Prasad, Kumar, Ranjan (eds.) Peasant Struggles in Bihar, 1831-1992: Spontaneity to Organisation, Centre for Peasant Studies, Patna, Janaki Publications: Patna, pp.191-209

Louis, Prakash (2002) People Power: The Naxalite Movement in Central Bihar, Wordsmiths: Delhi

Omvedt, Gail (1992) ‘Capitalist Agriculture and Rural Classes in India’ in Berberoglu, Berch (ed.) Class, State and Development in India, Sage Publications: New Delhi, pp. 82-138

Pinch, William R. (1996) Peasants and Monks in British India. Berkeley:  University of California Press. available at http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft22900465/, accessed on 2nd August 2007

Prasad, Pradhan H. (1994) ‘Poor Peasant Movement in Central Bihar’ in Sharma, Kaushal Kishore, Singh, Prabhakar Prasad, Kumar, Ranjan (eds.) Peasant Struggles in Bihar, 1831-1992: Spontaneity to Organisation, Centre for Peasant Studies, Patna, Janaki Publications: Patna, pp.175-190

PUCL Bulletin (2001) Police Atrocity Against Women of Senari, Jehanabad on 27.7.2000, http://www.pucl.org/reports/Bihar/2001/jehanabad.htm accessed on 10th March 2006

Saraswati, Swami Sahjanand (2000) Mera Jeevan Sangharsh, Granthshilpi: Delhi

Seldon, Mark (1992), The Naxalite Legacy and the Political Economy of Contemporary India: An Interview with Dev Nathan, in Berberoglu, Berch (ed.) Class, State and Development in India, Sage Publications: New Delhi, pp.295-329 

Sharma, Alakh N (2005, March 5) Agrarian Relations and Socio-Economic Change in Bihar, Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 960-972

Singh, Manmohan (December 20, 2007) PM’s speech at the Chief Minister’s Conference on Internal Security, available at http://pmindia.nic.in/speech/content.asp?id=632, downloaded on 10th January 2008

For more on the paper contact me

[1] Abstract of the paper presented at National Seminar on ‘Structural Transformation and Developmental Politics in Post-Liberalization India ‘ January, 24-25th 2008