Villagers fall victim to India's caste war

Suresh Chandra Pandey’s mutilated body was discovered more than a year ago, less than half a mile from his mud and stone house in the sleepy village of Nunnar, about 350 kilometres south-east of Delhi.

It was a violent execution-style killing; the 50-year-old farm labourer was hung up, shot in the chest and finally had his arms removed from the elbow joints.

Everyone knows who the murderers are, say his family, but the killers have not been brought to justice. The police, the local administration and the local MP will not lift a finger to help, they add.

“They are all from the same caste. They are all Yadavs and they control everything here,” said his wife, Annadevi, 40.
“They have left me with nothing and my children with no father. We are just poor people.”

Villagers say the gruesome attack was a “warning” not to challenge the Yadav caste, the local land-owning elite.

“Suresh had argued with some Yadavs before a wedding in our village. That is why they killed him,” said Pandey’s elder brother, Ashwani. “We are being told not to fight back.”

Pandey was a Brahmin, traditionally placed at the top of India’s society and revered as priests and teachers. His alleged killers are Yadavs, once cow farmers, whose land holdings and cohesive ethnic identity have today made them politically powerful.

In another incident an upper caste man, Rupendra Singh, from Nagla village in Kannuaj district, was shot dead in front of his mother in a dispute over 11 acres of land. Again, his alleged killers are Yadavs.

In the past, tales of upper caste atrocities were commonplace in India. So a murder of a Brahmin by a Yadav would have been seen as a reprisal by an oppressed community for some bloody, unwarranted attack.

But the middle caste has risen in India, fuelled by a state-sponsored affirmative action programme and some penetrating land reforms, especially in the “cow belt” that stretches from Delhi to Calcutta.

In southern Uttar Pradesh, an outbreak of Sicilian-type violence has raged for more than a year in and around the sunflower fields of India’s most populous state, leaving 140 dead. Most victims were either Brahmins, at the top of Hinduism’s hierarchy, or Dalits (“untouchables”), found at the bottom.

Both these communities say they are now in the sights of the lower-middle orders of Hindu society. In the towns and villages, Brahmins and Dalits can be found joining hands across often centuries of caste animosity and prejudice to fight “Yadav Raj” (Yadav rule).

Not far from Nunnar in the unpaved lanes of Kasawa, there is evidence of a caste war being fought. Dalit homes have been destroyed, their walls smashed until the roofs collapsed. A local Brahmin, Neeraj Mishra, who came to the aid of the untouchables was beheaded.

Mishra’s, elder brother, Munish, said the trouble started during last year’s parliamentary elections, “when the Yadavs came here in cars with guns. They stopped people from voting and my brother and two Dalits protested. For that they were killed.”

Although 2,000 Dalits live in Kasawa, none could remember what happened last year in the town. All appear too terrified of speaking out for fear of reprisals.

Munish Mishra said a political spat quickly spiralled out of control, with shoves, blows and finally bullets being exchanged. In the ensuing violence a Yadav was shot dead, the Dalit homes smashed and Dalit women raped.

Neeraj Mishra was allegedly picked up a day later by police, accompanied by a gang of Yadav farmers. His headless torso was fished out of a river 24 hours later.

“There is no law except that of the jungle,” his brother said. He said it was now too dangerous for political parties which draw their support from the lowest and highest ends of Hindu society to campaign openly in the village. “The Yadavs behave like the mafia here. They do what they want and nobody stops them.”

The nearby Yadav village of Kabirganj, has a concreted road and electricity. Here, there is little regret about last year’s events. “They started it by firing on our people,” said Ram Prasad Yadav, 55, a farmer.

Allegations that Yadavs have persecuted other castes is denied by state ministers. “There have been no complaints of this kind. There may be village enmity, but I assure you that these type of incidents do not exist in Uttar Pradesh,” said Ashok Bajpai, the minister of agriculture.

Uttar Pradesh, say rival politicians, is now the personal fiefdom of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the chief minister of the state and leader of the Samajwadi (Socialist) party. He is accused of favouring his own community above all others.

A £5m airstrip capable of handling a Boeing 737 is being built in Mr Yadav’s birthplace of Safai, a village in western Uttar Pradesh. Mr Yadav has also been criticised by the parliament for attempting to divert £250,000 of development funds for his birthday celebrations. With a population of 170 million, Uttar Pradesh contains 8% of the world’s poor.

Caste once identified a person’s occupation but in today’s India it is more to do with birth than work. “In many contexts, caste today is really just about who you can or cannot marry. In that sense it is pretty tribal,” said Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta of Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.

In the cities, caste identities can be concealed merely by altering a surname and disguising an accent. But in some of the country’s biggest states, such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which are predominately rural, caste loyalties stubbornly persist.

In Uttar Pradesh the Samajwadi party rests upon attracting the lower-middle caste vote and the Muslim electorate, a base of 35% of the population. Brahmins and Dalits in Uttar Pradesh make up roughly the same amount of voters.

Last week India’s most prominent Dalit political leader, Mayawati, launched a drive to recruit Brahmins - once seen as her ultimate political foes - to her party. She told a crowd of 30,000 upper caste voters in Uttar Pradesh’s state capital, Lucknow, that she would treat them with respect, and appealed for their votes.

Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist who first floated the idea of an alliance with Brahmins, said such coalitions were a sign of political maturity. “Democracies have historically flourished by defeating the landowning classes. In Uttar Pradesh that now means taking on the Yadavs.”—Guardian Unlimited Â

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