Land Reform Needed in India
Caste Massacre Shows Need for Land Reform
Justice in the distribution of land would bring an end to petty caste customs and violence.
by Ranjit DevrajNEW DELHI - Yet another caste massacre in India's eastern Bihar state that left over 30 people dead, is a warning to implement long neglected land reforms in the nation's poorest region, say social scientists.
While political parties accuse each other of secretly backing the rural militia that carried out the Jun 17 killing, independent analysts blame the country's ruling class of ignoring a constitutional duty to lessen sharp socio-economic imbalances in the feudal countryside.
It is the failure of successive governments to bring about a meaningful redistribution of land, mostly held by upper caste landlords, that has led to the emergence of the private rival rural armies that routinely carry out such killings, they say.
The most notorious of these, the Ranvir Sena, gunned down 34 men, women and children belonging to lower castes in Aurangabad district this weekend, despite the presence of a posse of policemen on the spot.
The Sena boldly asserted it had carried out the carnage which it said was in retaliation for the massacre of 35 Bhumihars (upper caste landlords) in the region in March last year.
However, a more immediate provocation is said to be the killing of a 13-member Bhumihar family in the district of Nawada in early June by the dreaded, ultra-left Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) that champions the cause of lower caste peasants.
According to social scientists, the Sena and the MCC are symptoms not only of the lack of law and order in Bihar, but of failed land reform.
The Ranvir Sena wants to stall land reforms and push the clock back on land redistribution that has already been carried out by a reluctant state, says social scientist and expert on Bihar, Arvind N. Das.
It has been aided in this by successive rulers of Bihar, a state with nearly 100 million people that is rated among India's most underdeveloped despite its abundant natural and mineral wealth.
One of the declared top priorities of India's rulers since freedom from British colonial rule in 1947, has been to break up large feudal landholdings in the mainly rural nation and divide the surplus land among the poor. Yet successive governments have lacked the political courage to do so in a big way, say analysts.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party, which rules Bihar, rose to political prominence by championing the interests of traditionally repressed lower castes. But the RJD is also accused of inaction on land reforms and of covertly supporting the Ranvir Sena.
Das says the massacres have more to do with a sharpening agrarian crisis than with caste differences. ''The downtrodden are saying no to oppression and exploitation,'' he says.
Under the Bihar Land Ceiling Act, a rural household cannot hold more than about seven hectares. But upper castes, specially Bhumihars are known to own far in excess, says Das.
A Bihar government survey after a caste masssacre last year in Jehanabad district found that most low caste families there were landless. In contrast, some upper caste landlords were found holding more than 30 hectares each, even as official records showed them owning half this.
RJD chief and former Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, has accused arch-rival Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of a hand in the killing. The carnage is meant to give an excuse to the federal government to invoke special powers to sack the Bihar administration, the RJD claims.
But, India's main opposition Congress party, without whose legislative support the Vajpayee government cannot do this, maintains that caste violence in Bihar is the direct result of long-standing socio-economic imbalances.
Caste violence in Bihar emerged in the 1960s when the first serious attempts at land reform in Bihar were made. The Ranvir Sena has massacred over 500 lower caste peasants since then.
But it met its match in the emergence of armed radical left MCC cadres who unleashed a similar campaign of terror directed at upper caste landlords.
According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, a particularly violent phase of caste violence in Bihar began in the early 1970s with a land-grab movement backed by left extremists.
''Sharecroppers began harvesting crops on upper-caste land in Bihar's central districts as Naxalite (extremist) cadres burnt grain storages and imposed economic blockades on hundreds of acres of land that landlords forcibly kept them from cultivating,'' notes the Watch report, Caste Violence Against India's Untouchables.
The state responded with extra-judicial killings of left extremists and there was evidence to show that the police then colluded with the Ranvir Sena, adds the 1999 report. One of the reasons for this, says the report, was that most law enforcers belonged to land-owning castes.
Arrested Ranvir Sena members are known to be quickly freed on bail and no member has ever been convicted, while the left extremists are regularly prosecuted and some even sentenced to death, says the report.
''Not only does the state treat the crimes of the two groups differently, but the police and local officials openly tolerate the private armies,'' it adds.
In an earlier report, the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), an independent and premier Indian rights group, said the Ranvir Sena not only has the backing of the ruling classes, but also superior firepower.
This month's massacres was the worst since the killing of 61 Dalits, placed lowermost in the Hindu caste hierarchy, by the Ranvir Sena at Lakshmanpur Bathe Village in Jehanabad district in December 1997.
This article was distributed by the InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS) and the Grassroots Media Network.
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