Perils of casteism
R. L. Singal

Community Warriors: State Peasant and Caste Armies in Bihar
by Ashwani Kumar.
Anthem Press.  
Pages 229. Rs 450.

THE book is an exposition of the ugly and bone-chilling reality of Bihar, where everybody seems to be ranged against each other, and the state, once materially opulent and culturally rich, is now a land of weapon-wielding senas thirsting for the blood of their adversaries — the landlords and the landless, the Rajputs, the Yadavas, the Bhoomihars and the Kurmis and at the other end of the spectrum, several groups of communist extremists have converted Bihar into a raging battle field. The government, whosoever has been in power during the last about 30 years, just mouths platitudes of its pious resolve to stamp out extremism, without any tangible results.

Caste identities are so deeply embedded in the social, economic, political and cultural life of Bihar that other identities become almost non-existent. Caste presents a case of static, unchanging, enduring social status, neither dependent on power-relations nor contingent on shifting sands of history. Whatever the merits of caste, it invariably divides, splits and ruptures the notion of universal citizenship. This is the genesis of caste armies in Bihar.

The most notorious caste army in Bihar today is the Ranvir Sena, whose occasional massacres of Dalits and vice-versa we have been reading about frequently in the press. The author rightly opines that the Ranvir Sena, a private caste army of the Bhoomihars, is the most violently organised, ideological and political instrument of the ruling elites to suppress people’s movements and also eliminate the increasing influence of Maoist insurgency in Bihar. The extent of political patronage and the impunity with which the Ranvir Sena plans massacres of Dalits is evident from the fact that the Sena’s spokesman issues advance notice of these massacres through the media in the state capital. The author quotes a national daily, which, while commenting on the extent of political patronage extended to the Ranvir Sena, says it can be gauged by the fact that while a large number of Naxalits are killed in encounters with police, not a single Ranvir Sena man has been subjected to this fate. The administration awakes a little late when it comes to tackling these private armies.

In contemporary Bihar, the term ‘sena’ means a violent syndicate comprising neo-rich peasants, mafia politicians, sundry feudal elements and criminally inclined Dalit gangs, engaged in defending their vested interest. Senas have thus evolved into a calibrated political response of a fractured and fragmented society in Bihar. Caste senas have come to be viewed as surrogate arms of the ruling class political elites. Initially, they began as loose mass organisations under locally influential caste leaders and musclemen but gradually got converted into mobile death squads that by and by got ideologically motivated to wreak vengeance on their adversaries.

These caste armies, besides presenting a calibrated political response of a fractured society out to protect their identity, also serve a positive function as voluntary and participatory organisations that play a significant role in building a cohesive society. These social groups comprise Rajputs, Yadavas, Kurmis, Bhoomihars, both upper-caste rich and lower-caste backward poor agriculturists. They hold out a ray of hope, however dim it may be, that some order may one day emerge out of this confused amalgam of disorderly violent coming together of some sections of society.