Caste wars an ongoing threat in Bihar
Death of militia leader has ratcheted up tensions
Bihar in eastern India has been on the boil since June 1 when a leader of a banned private militia of upper caste people was killed.
Barmeshwar Singh, popularly known as “Mukhiya” (the leader), was shot dead by unknown people near Ara, headquarters of Bhojpur district.
The 67-year-old man was the founder of the “Ranbir Sena” (army of valiant fighters), an upper caste agrarian private militia that is blamed for mass killings of low caste people.
As the news of Singh’s murder spread, his supporters came to the streets, disrupting public life. They torched police headquarters and civil administrative offices, vehicles, trains, and damaged railway counters.
The killing surprised many since people thought he had become a changed man after spending nine years in jail. Singh had been out on bail for a year at the time of his death.
Singh, who had a master’s degree in political science from Patna university, gained prominence in 1980 when he became the village council president of Khopira, near Ara.
It was at this time that the Maoists began to target upper caste landowners on behalf of the landless peasants and low caste people.
As the landlords’ counter-armies failed to end the attacks, Singh took upon himself the responsibility and created the Ranvir Sena, which has been accused of 29 massacres between 1995 and 2000.
Singh’s release from prison, ahead of a trial on six charges, reportedly led to bitter reactions from the Maoist cadres.
Talk of suspects in the killing includes members of smaller upper caste armies resentful of the rise to power of Ranvir Sena.
Others say that Singh may have been removed because he was planning to launch a new political party that included upper caste landowners, laborers and marginalized farmers that aimed to challenge the government.
What shocked many, though, was the violent reaction of Singh’s supporters, who insisted on cremating him in Patna, the capital, instead of Ara.
They wanted to assert that Singh was powerful even after death. More than 100,000 people came to the cremation on June 2, bringing the city to a standstill.
Singh’s supporters committed numerous acts of violence over the next four days. The administration deployed thousands of police and paramilitary personnel across the state, while police arrested 40 people for rioting.
The killing, and the violence that followed, highlights a deep malaise among Bihar’s agrarian political structure.
Bihar has made considerable progress in the fields of economic and education in the past five years. But poverty, lawlessness and ongoing conflicts between the Maoists and private militias have kept the state on tenterhooks.
Upper caste groups form only 14 percent of Bihar’s 103 million people, but they own most of the land in the state. However, for decades they have been facing challenges from some 180 middle caste groups who form more than 50 percent of the population.
As Bihar has seen the emergence of neo-rich middle castes in the past few decades the class divide has now become a caste divide.
More than 15 percent of the population is low caste Hindus. The rest are Muslims and Christians.
Since India’s independence in 1947, Bihar has lagged behind in urbanization, production and income. It has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of landed and landless people in India.
Despite several land ceiling laws, nothing much has changed in Bihar’s feudal structure of landholding.
Political leaders, who depend on the landed for support, show little interest in pursuing reforms. Bihar pays the lowest wages for agricultural laborers in the country.
Since the 1960s, groups supporting dalit people have pressured the government to implement land reforms.
The Maoists, who promote armed resistance, kill landlords on a regular basis. Bhojpur district, with Ara as the headquarters, has served as a political laboratory of various Maoist groups.
Hundreds of peasants and landless laborers have joined their call to take on the ruling upper castes or high middle castes that they allege are arrogant, brutal, corrupt and pretentious.
Clashes between the upper caste private armies have become a regular feature.
The upper caste armies have killed hundreds of dalit villagers for allegedly supporting the Maoists or demanding better wages.
The landowners have struck at the rural poor, killing thousands. Between 1995 and 2000, the Ranvir Sena massacred hundreds of dalit. Worst among the attacks were 62 dalits killed in Lashmipur-Bathe in 1997, and 22 in Bathani Tola the previous year.
However, the state has also seen growing instances where dalits fight back to protect their rights.
Change can happen only if social inequity is reduced dramatically through the implementation of land reforms.
Even now, too much land is with too few people.
Bihar was the first state to enact a law to end landlordism. Theoretically, Bihar has abolished the zamindari (landlordism) system in 1950, but landlords continue to rule the state.
For instance, the administration has identified more than 1,215 hectares of land as surplus in Aurangabad district. However, one upper caste family holds nearly half that land under fake names.
The Maoists have gained ground precisely because they try to distribute land to the landless.
What has exacerbated Bihar’s woes is a series of inefficient and corrupt state governments that have ruled since the 1970s.
In some instances, government officials are suspected of acting as agents of private armies. State security forces have been accused of training the private armies. The police have allegedly accompanied the militias during their attacks on dalits.
After every massacre, they respond in a predictably misdirected manner. They set up more police camps and increase the financial allocation for anti-Maoist operations.
Since such steps do not resolve the basic issues, Bihar may see many more killings.
Jesuit Father Jose Kalapura is a noted Church historian and an expert on Bihar. He heads the department of history at St. Xavier College in Patna