Recurring cases of caste violence against Scheduled Castes in rural India bring to the fore the fragile nature of rural peace. As part of my research on caste, power and Ambedkarisation in rural Marathwada, I have observed the dynamics of caste and the role of violence in shaping and reshaping caste relations. One finds it difficult to make arguments like ‘caste is over’ or that ‘village culture is withering’ due to labour mobility/exodus and diminishing returns in agriculture. In villages, both culture and dominance have withstood, interacted and evolved with increased urbanisation, albeit with definite and visible changes in the cultural and political order.
Besides caste violence, one therefore needs to understand rural peace – cross-caste friendship, political alliances and the hidden or suppressed humanity of the dominant castes who indulge in violence against ex-untouchable castes. By dominant caste, I mean the caste that is numerically significant and controls land ownership, and usually also claims the role of village head. While it is mostly the middle castes like Lingayats, Vokkaligas, Maratha-Kunbi, Patidars, Kammas, Reddys, Jats, Thevars or Gounders who resort to violence as political communication, it is the local material and cultural conditions that construct both violence and peace. In villages where ex-untouchable castes outnumber dominant groups, instances of caste violence are rare.
The newer forms of social and political accommodation of marginal castes in rural society cannot be ignored. Castes are not always at war in villages, nor do ex-untouchables face physical violence every day. Caste power also operates through peace and politeness.
The idea of Hindu politeness is useful in deciphering the fragile nature of rural peace in the villages of Marathwada. Hindu politeness helps understand newer Hindu solidarity beyond caste in villages. These are embedded in power but also involve continued acculturation where castes not considered pure claimed purity and simultaneously attempt becoming authentic Hindus. These are villages with minimal and/or no presence of Brahmins; religion, however, is the critical sphere of solidarity. Babas, gurus or saptahs help promote purity and solidarity along with village temples. Regular religious gatherings, besides being sites of power operations, are therefore also places of cohesion. In these processes of universalisation of purity, ex-untouchables are not always equal participants but they are not totally excluded either. Elections provide occasions for other forms of cross-caste political solidarity – with money and liquor constituting the axis of mobilisation and celebration.
Hindu politeness also meant the birth of a new civilised Hindu subject who provided – or at least in principle agreed to – some dignity and equality to ex-untouchable castes in village public life (though this courtesy was not necessarily extended to women). The making of Hindu politeness is also a product of Phule-Ambedkarite movements and their resorting to the use of the SC/ST Atrocities Act along with individual family struggles in villages that protest discrimination.
Also, with caste rudeness of the earlier form – that normalised disgust and violence towards untouchables – decreasing, especially amongst non-dominant castes, the making of a new, ‘compassionate’ rural Hindu cannot be ruled out. For dominant castes like Marathas, however, it was most difficult to make peace with the idea of ex-untouchable castes or even nomadic tribes and lower OBCs as equal village citizens. This is because their feudal selfhood is predicated upon the docility of marginal castes in village social life.
A lot of the violence in rural Marathwada against ex-untouchable castes is also linked to them continually pushing the boundaries of Hindu politeness – claiming power in local panchayats, encroaching and cultivating gaairan lands, claiming dignity or worse, being in love with a dominant caste girl. Historically, the struggle over politics and the performance of newer icons of emancipation (like B.R. Ambedkar) in public spaces has democratised public spaces. Thus, constructing a newer Hindu subject who tolerates formal equality in public spaces.
Violence and new codes
Violence is often the way out for dominant castes when they disagree with new codes and the sociality of incipient equality – that includes the assertion and claims of ex-untouchables. However, in villages where the oppressed are able to pursue legal action and ensure some police intervention, the use of the law resulted in newer boundaries of tolerance and inclusion. Due to the fear of law, dominant castes adjusted themselves, leading to moderation of caste arrogance and rudeness in public spaces. The political and social networks of dominant castes to protect ‘caste honour’ do significantly affect the conviction rates in cases of caste atrocities. Despite its limitations, however, the use of legal means by oppressed castes has challenged the stranglehold of traditional justice arbitration mechanisms – administered and controlled by dominant castes.
Hindu politeness is thus a new subjectivity of rural dominants. Caste is not erased here – one continues to be a caste-self – but a new form of politeness governs cross-caste relations, which veils caste and more particularly disgust towards ex-untouchables. Such politeness creates a mirage of rural peace and equality, only to turn violent as soon as ex-untouchable castes make newer economic, cultural or political claims. The violence can polarise castes, pushing village peace and Hindu politeness into the abyss, and even those within dominant castes sympathetic to the suffering of ex-untouchable groups would turn into caste-specific subjects and warriors.
Hindu politeness may thus be at odds with genuine civility and substantive rural equality but it syncs well with democracy of procedure and patronage while constructing a newer rural Hindu solidarity – based on temporal peace and adverse accommodation of marginal castes. We may continue to celebrate procedural democracy and cultural solidarity in rural India but the problem of incivility thrives.
Suryakant Waghmore is an associate professor of sociology at IIT-B.