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Caste in a modern role

Biswamoy Pati 

This collection focuses on post-colonial Andhra Pradesh. Its author, K Balagopal (the well-known human rights activist and a contributor to Economic and Political Weekly) wrote them between 1984 and 2009, when he died. Besides being inspired by the historian D D Kosambi, the author’s exposure to major struggles to challenge caste and patriarchal domination and the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat (2002) have clearly shaped his creativity. Balagopal’s break with the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (which he had joined in 1981) in 1998 assumes significance if we keep in mind that he was opposed to the use of violence by the Naxalites.

Balagopal’s foremost interest seems to be issues related to caste and class, particularly the very nature of the Indian state and its ruling classes. For a region that had seen one of the most powerful tribal/peasant movements in post-colonial India in the form of the Telangana movement (1948-1951), this is quite logical. What makes the book interesting is the way it takes the reader on a journey that situates the Indian ruling classes and their pillars — viz. their regional class allies. In this sense, the author brings to life complexities that offer serious insights into the reality of the bourgeois-landlord classes, their dominance at the national level and their linkages at the regional level. The effort to locate the regional propertied classes makes him focus on the Reddys and the Kammas, whom he identifies as the agrarian gentry. At the same time, he is clear about the differences in the manner in which this regional ruling class makes its presence felt in different areas of the Andhra region on the basis of its ecology and the political economy. Thus, it is through an interactive framework of the regional and the Indian ruling classes that the author explains the rise of the “N T Rama Rao and Telugu Desam” phenomenon, as well as the decline of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh.

Balagopal refers to the illusory aspects of the Nehruvian era that appeared to build “socialism” while laying the foundations of capitalism in independent India. His idea of the Indian bourgeoisie building a heavy industrial base in order to transform itself into a comprador capitalist class is applicable today when a large segment of the Indian capitalist class is actually displaying such intentions when it comes to surrendering its class interests by jumping onto the foreign direct investment bandwagon.

Balagopal’s concern was primarily directed at rural Andhra. He dealt with issues that included the feudal exploitation of the peasants and the rural poor in post-colonial Andhra that marked serious continuities from the days of the Nizams. It included forms of bonded labour and was rooted in a system that saw the surplus appropriated not being converted into productive capital, but invested along parasitic channels. What is also emphasised is the predominance of the practice of vettichakiri, through which the landed gentry forced everyone in the entire region of Peddapally, for example, to provide customary unpaid services.

Balagopal also weaves in the problem of caste exploitation. Thus, the doras – the (land) lords (!) –imposed humiliating restrictions on the low/outcastes, which included a virtual ritualisation of customs that forbade them from wearing shirts or chappals in their presence. Of course, the question of sexual abuse of women of the poorer sections was a normal feature. Through this he traces the emergence of the Rytu Coolie Sangham, which was sensitive to a wide range of issues that ranged from those related to sexual and caste exploitation to corruption and drinking. A major point that is delineated concerns the absence of governance (that is perhaps noticeable even today in many parts of rural India) and the non-existence of any local administrative body. It is here that the Sangham assumed significance and was respected by the rural poor and even by a section of the affluent people.

This is followed by a detailed discussion of the struggles of the rural poor in Karimnagar that began from 1970-71. A broadcast by Radio Peking – “A Spring Thunder” – associated with the famous Naxalbari movement (1967), inspired the CPI (ML) activists. As the movement spread, it attracted outcastes to join in and resulted in the formation of a Sangham in Gudem that focused on issues affecting them. When the Emergency was lifted, the Sanghams as well as the CPI (ML) worked openly.

Balagopal is very critical of the opponents of the Mandal Commission recommendations on the issue of reservation. One also noticed his strong criticisms vis-à-vis other left political formations, like the CPI and the CPI(M). Besides, although he is ruthlessly critical of the Congress (I) and the Telugu Desam, Balagopal is largely silent when it comes to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Newspapers report the decision of the Andhra Pradesh government to compensate those who had been wrongfully arrested and tortured by the police following the Mecca Masjid blast in 2007 — a point that makes Balagopal’s work relevant even after his death.

K Balagopal
Navayana Publishing;
487 pages; Rs 550

First Published: Thu, December 22 2011. 00:02 IST