Caste war blights India's poorest state Delhi worried

Guerrillas have vowed to protect the lower castes from ruthless landown ers, writes Tim McGirk
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The Independent Online
For generations, Ram Paswan's family of untouchables were victims of slavery. They were at the mercy of landlords in Bihar, a north Indian state. They did not dare complain when their sons were sold for 20 rupees, or when the upper-caste farmer su mmoneda Paswan girl to his house on the night of her wedding and raped her.

Finally, after the landowner cheated Ram Paswan, paying him one bundle of rice instead of five for three months' work in the rice paddies, Ram Paswan refused to take it any more.

"They're treating us like animals," shouted Paswan, a rangy man with a strong jaw, who stalked off from the landowner's fields, drawing a dozen other angry labourers with him. "They're using our wives and daughters for their own vices."

That night, several hundred landowners went after Ram Paswan to teach him a lesson. Armed with rifles, cutlasses and torches, they dragged Ram Paswan and his mother from their hunt out into the courtyard. He was made to watch as the Bhumiar caste farmershacked to death his 65-year-old mother. "They cut my mother's breasts off. The bleeding wouldn't stop," Ram Paswan says, pulling off his shirt to reveal his own disfiguring wounds. "And they left me for dead."

The other villagers treated Ram Paswan's injuries and sneaked him to hospital in Patna. He remained in Bihar's capital for three years, nursing his wounds and a desire for revenge. This year, Ram Paswan came back to his village near the Ganges River, andhe brought with him 40 rifles, ammunition, and several instructors from a radical group calling itself the Dalit Sena, Army of the Oppressed. They taught the peasants how to shoot and make home-made bombs.

"Since we've made it known that we are armed, the zamindars - the landowners - have paid our wages and left our women alone," Ram Paswan says.

Every day, more Indians are dying in Bihar's caste feuds than in Kashmir. In New Delhi, the Indian capital, alarm is growing that the frenzy of caste violence in Bihar may spread to other neighbouring states.

These are revolutionary times in northern India. The Hindu caste hierarchy, which has been in place for over 2,500 years, is starting to crumble. Hindus believe that the inequalities of human existence are caused by one's deeds or misdeeds in a previous life. Four main castes are recognised, in descending order of importance: the Brahmins, who are the priests and writers; the Kshatriya warriors and kings; the Vaishyas, the merchants and landowners; and, the Shudras, or labourers.

Below them are the out-castes, or Untouchables. They are despised as barbarians and made to perform such odious tasks as cleaning toilets, scavaging and burning corpses.

The Indian constitution bans discrimination based on untouchability, but according to one prominent US scholar, Stanley Wolpert, "Brahminic `purity' and ex-Untouchable `impurity' remain the polar stars of India's social hierarchy". Within these four maincastes are thousands of sub-castes, often based on profession, clans and customs. Increasingly, the Untouchables - who prefer to be called Dalits or the Oppressed - are challenging the core of Hinduism: that only through resignation to fate can one hopefor a better re-birth in a higher caste next time around.

A K Biswas is one of the few Dalits who has risen to the rank of Commissioner, overseeing 20 million people within his region of Bihar. He has fought prejudice every step of the way within the elite corps of the Indian Administrative Service. "This business of behave and you'll have a better incarnation is nothing but a ploy which has kept the Untouchables in their place," he said angrily.

"The caste system is worse than apartheid, because we face religious sanction, too Only now, after so many centuries, is the Untouchable daring to raise his head, to open his eyes a little."

What has happened in Ram Paswan's village is being duplicated all across Bihar. Three Maoist guerrilla groups have sprung up, ostensibly to defend the lower castes against the landowners. The Maoists now have hundreds of villages under their control in the central and western regions of Bihar. They hold Peoples' Courts out in the forests, chopping off hands or heads as they please. Often they prey on lorries roaring through Bihar on the Grand Trunk Road between Calcutta and Delhi. Their prof essed aim is to annihilate the upper castes, but often they are willing to spare a landowner's life for "a revolutionary tax" of 20,000 rupees and a good rifle.

In addition, the Dalit Sena's chief, Satyanand Sharma, claims he has provided crude, country-made guns to 1,800 peasant women. "So many atrocities are committed on women. They need to defend themselves," he says. Often the upper castes strike back. One village of Untouchables east of Patna was attacked last month by a band of 50 heavily-armed landowners. "We fought with everything we had," said one woman, Kailash Devi, 45, "Guns, bombs and stones. The children came out into the fields with us to fight. `Why keep them in the house?' I said. `Let them die with us, fighting.' "

After a two-hour gun battle, the upper-caste raiders were driven off. The Untouchables are afraid their oppressors will return, but in another village, 40 women trained by the Dalit Sena were able to fight off an armed attack by 300 upper-caste landowners who had wanted to punish them for owning guns.

The upper-caste landowners are also forming their own armies for protection. Travelling through the state, there were times when I thought I was witnessing an anarchy similar to that of the French Revolution, transported to a seemingly tranquil landscapeof water buffaloes, paddy fields and banyan trees.

Starting from Bodhgaya, I went with a politician from the upper-caste Bihar People's Party to Nagwangarh, a village belonging to the Rajput warrior clan. Their village had been under siege from the Sunlight peasant's army - one of the three main Maoist groups - for over four years. The revolutionaries had cut off all electricity and telephone lines into Nagwangarh, had stolen crops at harvest time, and had launched five frontal attacks on the village, each time with an army of over 3,000 men. When they need to leave for supplies or medical emergencies, the Rajputs load 20 gunmen on to a battered and many bullet-holed coach and shoot their way out of the village. During the last attack, said the village chieftain, Rana Jogeshwar Singh, the revolutionaries got to within 200 yards of the village: "We had to t ake up firing positions in the rice paddies." I asked why the police didn't come to their rescue.

"The police say the problem is out of their hands. There is no law here." Several months ago, when the Sunlight army attacked a nearby police station, it was the Rajput villagers who saved the police.

In Nawangarh, there were once 500 huts occupied by Untouchables who toiled in the Rajputs' fields. Now over 200 Untouchables have joined the revolutionaries, and the upper castes feel betrayed. "It's true that exploitation did exist in the time of our fathers and grandfathers, but we also gave them work, clothes and food. We are poor, too," said Amarendra Kumar Singh, a Rajput warrior, said.

It was getting dark. Cattleherders armed with rifles were bringing in the herds, and a dozen Rajputs were preparing for their night patrol by torchlight. "Their spies must know I'm here," said the politician. "We'd better go."

It was decided that two armed bodyguards was not enough, and a third rifleman crowded into the car. Safety catches were off, and their gun barrels poked out the window, ready for an ambush. I thought we were safe once we reached the main highway, but we soon pulled off on to a sideroad. Again, the guns were readied. "This time it's not Maoists, we have to worry about. Only bandits," laughed the politician.

The caste war in Bihar has been building to its full ferocity over the past five years, ever since a lower caste politician, Laloo Prasad Yadav, became Bihar's chief minister. The Yadavs are primarily a community of cattleherders and dairy men. Many of the underprivileged communities voted for Mr Yadav, hoping to break the upper castes' dominance.

However, the chief minister helped only his fellow Yadavs and trampled on the lower castes, heightening their frustration for social justice. A Patna sociologist, Professor Saibal Gupta, explained, "All castes now believe that the Yadavs have unleashed areign of terror. They have to be checkmated."