Indian Region Roiled by Conflict As Caste Armies Vie for Power

In rural Bihar, landed classes seek to quash demands of marginalized `outcaste' peasants

IF thuggery and corruption are features of election time in the rest of India, in Bihar they are a way of everyday life. Bihar State bore much of the election-related violence as polling resumed Wednesday. Of the 11 people reported killed this week, eight were Biharis.

Jai Kishore and Janardhan Singh are leading figures in this rising tide of political violence.

In Masauhri, a central Bihar hotbed of caste and clan warfare, Mr. Kishore commands the local forces of the leftist Front for the Mass Struggle. The group is among several communist armies or senas battling for the rights of landless outcastes or ``untouchables'' in this large and turbulent north Indian state.

Both sides claim `rights'

``We are fighting for a new revolution,'' says the young communist, interviewed in his tiny room off a cowshed. ``We are maintaining the rule of law against those with more land to obtain freedom from oppression.''

Five miles away in Nahwan, a village of mud huts and haystacks, Mr. Singh only reluctantly agrees to an interview to discuss the underground Peasant's Union, an army of upper- and lower-caste landlords that was founded here 10 years ago and now covers all of Bihar.

Helping the landless ``doesn't mean you deprive us of our rights,'' the steely village elder says, as henchmen with farm implements scrutinize two visitors.

``We were only created out of the need to protect our rights,'' he says. ``This is also a movement against extortion by other forces.'' Mr. Singh is widely believed to be behind an attack in which 14 people, mostly outcastes, died earlier this year.

In the past year, violence has hit an all-time high and is turning this election into the most turbulent since independence from Britain 44 years ago.

Scores of Indians die daily in uprisings in Kashmir, Punjab, and Assam states. More than 2,000 people have died in Hindu-Muslim riots over a north Indian shrine. Almost 200 more were killed last fall in protests over a job quota scheme for lower castes. At least 400 people died in the six-week election campaign, which culminated in the May 21 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Election and poll attacks, growing out of India's caste and religious polarization, also reflect the widening role of criminals and toughs in politics. Indian voters are familiar with candidate rosters that include hijackers, organized-crime figures, murderers, kidnappers, and embezzlers.

The Congress (I) Party, left rudderless by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, is believed to be the main patron of Bihar's Peasant's Union. And the state's most feared crime figure, Suraj Deo Singh, is running for Parliament under the patronage of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar.

Election fraud and violence are undercutting democratic institutions. Oftentimes, religious and caste minorities in villages are forced at gunpoint by the majority to vote a certain way.

``If we don't vote, then someone will come and massacre us,'' says an outcaste Bihari tea seller.

The caste conflict

Reports of ``booth capturing,'' when political muscle men seize polling stations and mark ballots en masse, are common. After the first round of voting on May 20, election officials nullified the vote in scores of north Indian polling stations and ordered repolling.

Caste hatreds, deeply embedded in the feudal backwardness and poverty of Bihar, have erupted anew as social and economic changes have swept India's most troubled state.

At the center of change are small farmers, many of whom are from the so-called backward castes or shudras who are at the bottom of the traditional Hindu hierarchy. Above them are the Brahmin priests, the Kshatriya warriors and monarchs, and the Vaishya merchants and farmers. Below are the casteless untouchables, renamed Harijans or children of God by Mahatma Gandhi.

Small farmers have broken free of traditional limits with the help of ``green revolution'' schemes and semi-successful land reforms that eased their reliance on landlords and moneylenders.

The farmers, who make up about two-thirds of Bihar's 86 million people, achieved control of Bihar's state government in a 1989 election. They have been further emboldened by the appeal to lower castes made by former Prime Minister V.P. Singh.

``Before, when the landlord said `Jump in the well,' they jumped in the well,'' says Naresh Singh, who is from an upper caste farming family. ``Now land ownership has changed that. That's why we have this anarchy.''

Fragmented leftist groups

Caste violence has spread as the radical left has made gains in organizing Harijans. Most prominent among the groups is the Indian People's Front (IPF).

``In the last five years, Harijans are raising their voices against the dominance of the landlords,'' says Dhirendra Kumar Jha, an IPF official.

But lately, leftist groups have fragmented, adding a new element of uncertainty.

``The IPF is an exploitive party that supports the election of institutional oppressors,'' says Kishore, of the rival Front of the Mass Struggle. ``Whatever cannot be obtained by vote should be obtained by violence.''

Supporters of the Peasant's Union have battled to stop the left and preserve their position. The targets of their fury are the landless Harijans who want higher wages for agricultural labor.

``Everything boils down to economics,'' says Shambunath Singh, a Union supporter. ``The government wants the farmhands to be paid 22 rupees daily. But landowners out here can't even pay that. We have no irrigation facilities, and you've seen the condition of the road.''

Janardhan Singh of the Peasant's Union says his group's attacks have been successful. ``Holdings were taken from whoever was tilling the land. Now, the land is being retained by the real tillers,'' Singh says. ``Whatever has been undone by the left in land tilling has been redone.''

Amid Bihar's growing lawlessness, Harijans say they are the most powerless and vulnerable.

``The big people have their dignity, but there is no dignity for the poor,'' says Jayadevi who lives with her husband and two children in a sagging thatch hut. ``Everything is doomed. They can come and rape us and loot us. This is what Bihar is.''

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