.June 17, 2000

Caste war escalates in Bihar

Last week's killings triggered the massacre

Thirty-four lower caste Hindus have been killed and more than 15 others injured in a revenge attack by suspected members of a banned private army in the north-eastern Indian state of Bihar.

The massacre, the second outbreak of caste violence in a week, happened at Miapur village in Aurangabad district, 150 km (93 miles) south of the state capital Patna.

Eyewitnesses say up to 150 armed men in black commando uniforms ringed the isolated village late on Friday.

After a gunbattle with a handful of armed residents, they singled out members of the lower caste Yadav cattle-herding community and shot them, shouting "we will avenge".

Nine children and 13 women were among the dead, according to state police.

Locals said the attackers shouted "Long live the Ranvir Sena" - a reference to a banned group used by feudal landlords to terrorise peasants and lower caste Hindus.

Police said the attack was in revenge for Sunday's murder of 12 feudal landlords by what were believed to be landless farmers, in Bihar's Nawada district.

That attack in turn was thought to be in retaliation for the murder of five poor farm workers on 3 June in an ongoing caste war.

Extreme left-wing Maoist groups have conscripted poor farmers into their private armies which often clash with the powerful landlords in the state, which borders Nepal.

About 83% of India's one billion people are practitioners of Hinduism, which classifies its adherents into a social hierarchy of castes.

With an annual average of 5,000 reported murders, 12,000 incidents of rioting and hundreds of abductions, Bihar has earned the dubious distinction of being India's most lawless state.

Prime Minister Vajpayee wants to impose direct rule

Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi, an illiterate mother of nine, belongs to the Yadav community and is currently facing criminal charges of corruption and opposition demands to step down for failing to tackle caste violence and crime.

The caste-related killings in Bihar prompted Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to recommend direct federal rule over the state last year.

But his proposal failed to get the required backing in Parliament because it was not supported by the Congress party, a coalition partner in the Bihar government.

However, after the latest killings, the Congress party threatened to change its position if the state does not improve the security situation.

Caste barriers are rigidly enforced

From being one of India's richest areas before independence from Britain in 1947, Bihar is now one of the country's most impoverished states. Its infrastructure is perhaps the poorest in India: roads are notoriously delapidated and it is renowned for its dismal lack of public services.

The reasons for Bihar's decline are manifold, but a key reason is its entrenched caste system.

The overwhelming majority of the population of 86 million work on the land, producing only enough food for their immediate families.

Rural Bihar is basically a feudal society, where caste barriers are rigidly enforced and where landowners live in court-yarded houses nearby the mud huts of their workers.

Linked to the caste system is Bihar's unequal distribution of wealth. Although it has provided much of India's coal, iron ore and mineral deposits over the last 30 years, the wealth generated has remained concentrated in the hands of a small minority of businessmen.

The huge financial divide between the ruling class and the poor has not only led to communal tensions but also to the growth of an extreme left-wing Naxalite insurgent group.

This mostly operates in the central and southern part of the state, killing landlords and encouraging peasants to agitate for better pay and basic civil liberties.

The landlords have responded by forming their own private militias, the most well-known of which is the Ranvir Sena.

This organisation is alleged to have carried out numerous mass killings of low caste villagers.

The caste violence in Bihar prompted Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to recommend direct federal rule over the state last year.

But his proposal failed to get the required backing in parliament because it wasn't supported by the main opposition Congress party, which is a coalition partner in the Bihar government.

Dalits' political awakening

Dalits, formerly called untouchables, suffer from every conceivable form of discrimination.

They cannot live with, marry or drink the same water as high caste people. But politically things are changing for the better.

In a classroom in Tamil Nadu, low and high caste children mingle freely.

Dalits learn nursery rhymes and writing alongside pupils from other castes. Or so it seems.

The principal and teachers do their best to integrate the children, to overcome the historic inequities of a system that never made sense, and is increasingly detrimental to modern India's prospects.

But when the children go home, it is back to the bad old days.

Dalit politics is acquiring a new urgency in Tamil Nadu, as the lower castes realise that they no longer have to tolerate abuse and discrimination.

Thiru Mavalavam of the Dalit Panthers party says political awareness has been a long time coming:

Caste-based jobs remain, but Dalits are chipping away at political exclusion "Our women have been molested, our houses burnt down. For 30 years we have endured atrocities. We have two ways to fight this - militancy or politics. We choose politics. We're fighting for our rights under the Dalit banner."

It takes just five minutes for the children to walk from school to their homes in Annukur's Dalit colony. But they cross a cultural divide as wide as any ocean.

All over rural India, Dalits live separately from other Hindu castes. Despite years of reform, of laws banning untouchability and the steady march of education and development, Dalits still suffer.

In the Dalit villages of India, the traditional jobs - basket weaving, raising pigs and helping cremate the dead - are still the tasks of the lower castes.

But education and growing awareness means that Dalit concerns have to be taken seriously. They are not politically untouchable anymore.

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