Violent Kapu agitation in Andhra shows how caste continues to determine political power

The Kapu agitation undermines the reservation policy by ridiculing it and simultaneously laying claim to it.
Violent Kapu agitation in Andhra shows how caste continues to determine political power
Violent Kapu agitation in Andhra shows how caste continues to determine political power
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By Pavan Korada  

The ugliness of the scenes witnessed when four coaches of the Ratnachal Express were set on fire near Tuni recently by agitating Kapus demanding their inclusion into the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) list in Andhra Pradesh conclusively proves K. Balagopal’s prognosis that caste would be the last of the iniquitous institutions to die in this country.

Why has the argument against reservation shifted from a ‘merit’-based argument to a more openly aggressive and populist clamour towards the inclusion of these cultivating castes, into the OBC list?

 The reasons for this seem to lie in two broad phenomena. First, the historical evolution of the caste system, its real nature, and not the meaningless Brahmin-Kshatriya-Vaishya-Shudra classification of the Dharmashastras. Second, the pressures generated by the post-independence political economy and latterly the post-liberalisation period.

 A large part of the history of India can be told in terms of the transformation of endogamous groups or communities (loosely called tribes) into castes. Caste groups continue to be endogamous enjoying relations of exchange with the surrounding societies, with each caste having a well-defined position within the larger unit of production. Since tribal communities are localised in their spread, it follows that it is most natural for castes to be localised and confined to small regions. This phenomenon is easily observable in the case of BCs. Among the hundred odd BCs identified in AP, a very large number are confined to just one or two districts, or at most to an eco-historical region of the state.

Over time, the tribal community frequently split into two, indicating a class division. A large number of castes, for instance, exist in pairs, one backward, and one forward, with the difference being indicated by a prefix. For instance, there are two kinds of Balijas, two kinds of Kalingas, two kinds of Velamas. The upper sections take to trade/cultivation, and the lower sections remain food gatherers or become labourers.

The next thing that happened is that the upper sections of different communities spread across a large area, a class consolidation took place, based primarily on substantial landholdings or substantial trade-based wealth. The rich among the various localised communties-turned-castes consolidated across the board as a fresh grouping. The original characteristic of endogamy is carried forward and reproduced in what is essentially a class formation and so what should have become a class of substantial landholders becomes one more caste. This appears to be the genesis of all the dominant landed castes: the Reddys and Kammas of AP, for instance. There is no other way that one can account for the large spread of these castes across the state, in contrast to the localisation of the backward, cultivating castes.

 Sometimes, a secondary consolidation is attempted at a lower level, with the remaining middle level, cultivating castes ‘trying’ to come together as another extensive caste. In AP, this secondary consolidation which has remained incomplete for a long time has finally come to fruition. The Munnurukapus, Balijas, Telagas, Tenuous and Mutrasis collectively referred to as Kapus, seem to have consolidated and the term Kapu which often referred to the profession of cultivation now refers to a caste or caste complex. But what explains the consummation of this consolidation of the kapus? The answer lies in the pressure generated by the contemporary political economy of this country.

Against this background of uneven caste formation, economic development has taken place during the post-independence and, in acceleration, during the post-liberalisation period.

Technological modernisation in agriculture and allied activities, and an attendant growth in trade, business and finance led to the rich class, based on landholdings and trade, growing further. The basis of the enrichment of this class is certainly the possession of property, but the rich among the landholding upper castes have made full use of not only their substantial landholdings but also the wide spread of the upper castes as a whole, to appropriate the fruits of this development, especially to entrench themselves in the political superstructure, which has grown over this process of development and which directs it. The caste connection has thus played a major role in political power-mongering.

 Everybody knows that if employment were the only issue involved, reservation by itself would be a small issue. Something fundamentally changed post-liberalisation. The role of the public sector in employment generation, which has never been commensurate with its share in investment, has rapidly decreased. The initiative in investment has been passed into the hands of the private sector, and even basic industries have been handed over to the private sector. Essential services like health and education are consciously being privatised rapidly. What this leaves, for all practical purposes, is a few jobs.

 The highly emotional response to reservations, therefore, must be seen not just in the context of employment and unemployment, but also in the context of the caste system, and the continuing role it is playing in determining the distribution of resources and political power.

 It is the children of these lower level/class of cultivating castes leading the violent agitation for their inclusion into the OBCs list. Now this clamour might seem ironic given the earlier ‘merit’ argument, the horror of reserved categories and may even seem pro-reservation but reactionary social movements rarely symbolise what they truly represent. The same is true with the Kapu agitation also.

The Kapu agitation undermines the reservation policy by ridiculing it and simultaneously laying claim to it. The merit argument was by caste elites whereas the inclusion argument is populist because it represents a caste/class interest desperate for political and economic power. Indignation at the upper class of cultivating castes appropriating the wealth and fruits of development has morphed into a claim for reservations. This claim is based on massive amounts of violence, long aimed at Dalits, now aimed at the governmental system, known to buckle under violent protest.

 It is only when we recognize this conjunction of class and caste that we can understand these violent agitations for OBC status among certain sections of caste groups and contest them.

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