Becoming a Naxalite in rural Bihar: Class struggle and its contradictions
George J. Kunnath*
[From: The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, January 2006]
*George Kunnath is a doctoral student in Anthropology at SOAS,
University of London. This article has been developed into its final
form in dialogue with Tom Brass, to whom many thanks are due for
comments and suggestions. Thanks are also extended to David Mosse and
Caroline Osella for their insightful observations. The author is most
grateful to Rajubhai, both for the telling of his life story and for
allowing it to appear in these pages.
[From: The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, January 2006]
Ever since its inception during the 1960s, the Naxalite movement in
India has been the focus of scholarly interest and political analysis.
In spite of internal splits and external repression by the state, this
agrarian mobilization continues to gain ground in Bihar and elsewhere.
Both achievements and contradictions of such Maoist-inspired agency
and ideology are examined via the life story of a Naxalite - an
organic intellectual - from the Dalit community. Of particular
interest are the difficulties of having to protect family members, as
well as positive developments, such as shifts in the language of
struggle (from caste to class), and negative ones at the level of
political consciousness (the persistence of traditional beliefs,
receipt of pro-poor funding from the state).
I met Raju during my first visit to his village I call Dumari in
September 2002. My contact introduced him as netaji (leader). 1 He was
sitting with more than a hundred people who had gathered in Dumari for
a village meeting. In a torn vest and faded yellow dhoti, he was
wholly unlike the Indian netajis who paraded themselves in their
trademark kurta pajama. I sat with him on a bundle of straw in the
village square, and began a conversation with him. The interview
situation was not one that is described in any anthropological
fieldwork manual, and I felt rather awkward asking him questions in
the presence of so many people.
In the course of this discussion, the first of many, Raju told me he
was around 48 years old and belonged to a Dalit community. Like
numerous other Dalits in the region, he was a landless agricultural
labourer who joined the Naxalites in the late 1970s. Unlike many,
however, he rose to prominence in the movement; for various reasons,
he later withdrew from active involvement. I would learn more about
him and the Naxalite movement, as I stayed in his dwelling for a year
(2002-03) conducting fieldwork in Dumari and other villages of
Jahanabad district, Bihar. 2 We developed a close friendship, and I
began to address him as Rajubhai (bhai = brother), with affection and
respect. This presentation outlines his story, one that has been
shaped by exploitation, class struggle and violence.
A week after my first interview with Rajubhai, I returned to Dumari,
this time for a much longer stay. The assumption of the villagers was
that I had come back for yet another interview with Rajubhai. He
greeted me with the Naxalite lal salaam (red salute), a raised
clenched fist. That evening I ate at Rajubhai's house, after which his
eldest son took me to the dalaan (common room) in the Dalit quarter of
the village. 3 There were already more than ten young men sleeping on
straw bedding, thickly spread across the floor. I settled into one
corner, but was unable to sleep in that windowless crowded room. Next
morning, I told Rajubhai about my difficulty in sleeping in the
dalaan, and without a moment's hesitation he said that I could stay in
his dwelling. This episode is mentioned here because it provides a
significant insight into the personality of Rajubhai.
During the initial stages of fieldwork (and later too), I was
identified with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)
People's War, the largest Naxalite organization in Bihar. 4 Providing
shelter to a `Naxalite activist' would have imperilled Rajubhai and
his family, putting them in a dangerous situation vis-à-vis two kinds
of opponent: law enforcement agencies, and other groups in the region
that were rivals of People's War.5 Later on he informed me that his
wife had also had reservations about inviting an anthropologist to
stay in their dwelling. Apart from the fear of a visit by the police,
she was also worried about the risk posed to her two grown-up
daughters by a complete stranger. I asked Rajubhai why then did he let
me stay, to which the reply was that he was able to distinguish friend
For the whole of the next year Rajubhai's dwelling became my home. The
initial fear and suspicion on the part of his wife - whom I called
Bhabhi, or `sister-in-law' - was replaced by friendship, and Rajubhai
himself often introduced me to others as his kutumb (= a member of the
family). We ate together, and on occasion I worked alongside his
family, carrying out agricultural tasks such as harvesting and
threshing paddy. For his part, Rajubhai invited his friends and former
comrades in the movement so that I could interview them. In the course
of fieldwork, I spent many hours talking to him, not just about the
Naxalite movement and his participation in it, but also about caste
and class relations, as well as many other topics of mutual interest.
What emerged from these discussions is the complex, and sometimes
contradictory, picture - presented here - of what it means to be a
rural Dalit Naxalite in Bihar.
Naxalite struggles in Bihar: History, politics, ideology
In order to understand the views, arguments and actions of Rajubhai
(set out below), it is first necessary to locate them all in their
historical and geographical contexts. As many sources [Jannuzi, 1974;
Das, 1982; 1983 attest, throughout the twentieth century the agrarian
history of the northeastern state of Bihar has been one of enduring
class struggle. 7 In both the colonial and the post-colonial era, this
has involved roughly the same protagonists: on the one hand the
repressive forces of the state (the police, judiciary) in alliance
with the rural rich, and on the other poor peasant sharecroppers and
agricultural labourers. From the mid-1960s onwards, however, this
struggle became more acute and widespread, and took the now familiar
form of the Naxalite movement.8 A conflict involving rural guerrillas,
Naxalism spread throughout India during the 1970s, a process that has
been chronicled by numerous observers, both in relation to India
generally [Sen Gupta, 1972; Das Gupta, 1974; Roy, 1975; Sen, Panda,
and Lahiri, 1978; Banerjee, 1980; Myrdal, 1984 and in terms of its
particular role in Bihar [Mukherjee and Yadav, 1980, 1982; CPI (M-L),
1986; Louis, 2002; Bhatia, 2002; 2005.
A specifically Maoist movement [Roy, 1975; Ghosh, 1974 that took the
form initially of a peasant mobilization during 1967 in West Bengal,
Naxalism in India was in ideological and strategic terms the outcome
of the Sino-Soviet split in the mid-1960s. 9 The latter influence
manifested itself politically in two ways. The first was a
corresponding split as regards tactics and ideology between on the one
hand the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of
India (Marxist-Leninist), and on the other the Communist Party of
India.10 By taking a path of armed struggle, the more radical leftist
parties, such as the Beijing-oriented CPI (M) and CPI (M-L), sought to
distance themselves from the reformist Moscow-oriented CPI, which was
interested only in a parliamentary road to power.11 The last named
leftist party maintained that the struggle should be directed only at
foreign (= monopoly) capital in India, and that consequently what the
CPI termed the `progressive national bourgeoisie' should not be
opposed but supported politically.
An ideological corollary was that landlordism, and not the bourgeoisie
or capitalism, became the main target of armed struggle, the focus of
which was correspondingly on the countryside. According to the
Naxalites, therefore, the agrarian sector in India was still
`semi-feudal' and `semi-colonial' [Ray, 1988, dominated by
economically unproductive large landlords tainted in three particular
ways. First, members of the landlord class in India were seen as the
local representatives of foreign capital. 12 Second, these proprietors
were deemed to be interested only in rental income extracted from
sharecropping and/or bonded labour relations.13 And third, as such
they were held to be an obstacle to capitalist development.
It was against these large landed but supposedly non-capitalist
proprietors that the Naxalite `people's war' was to be waged by a
`United Front of all revolutionary classes and all revolutionary
groups engaged in the armed struggle under the leadership of [the CPI
(M-L)]'. 14 In a departure from classical Marxist theory about
grassroots agency, therefore, the immediate political objective of
this conflict was to be the realization of democracy (and not
socialism), and took the form of a multi-class alliance that included
rich and middle peasants as well as poor and landless peasants.15 It
is this historical background that confers an overarching ideological
and political meaning on Rajubhai's views and actions.
Jehanabad district, Bihar
Turning to the geographical context, Jehanabad district lies in the
Magadh region, which together with Mithila and Bhojpur regions form
the three linguistic and cultural zones of the northeastern state of
Bihar. Following the separation of Jharkhand from Bihar in the year
2000, the Magadh region forms the southern part of the state. The
District of Jahanabad was carved out of Gaya earlier, in 1986. Its
adjoining districts are Patna in the north, Gaya and Aurangabad in the
south, Rohatas in the west and Nalanda in the east. Both demographic
patterns and relations of production in Jahanabad are the same as
those throughout the region. In terms of caste, the rural population
in Jahanabad is characterized as follows: upper castes (Brahmins,
Rajputs, Bhumihars and Kayasth) constitute 19 per cent, middle castes
(Yadav, Kurmi, and Koeri) account for 24 per cent, while lower or
Other Backward Castes (OBCs) make up 22 per cent. Scheduled Castes, or
Dalits, account for 34 per cent of the rural population in the state
[Prasad, 1994. 16
From the 1970s onwards, this region has been the scene of intense
agrarian unrest and rural violence. Between 1976 and 2001, for
example, there were some 90 recorded incidents of local massacres (of
which 22 occurred in Jahanabad district), resulting in the death of
860 people. 17 As is well known, such violence has deep socio-economic
roots. Historically, nearly 95 per cent of the population lived in
rural areas, of which 85 per cent depended on agriculture for their
livelihood [Sinha, et al., 1990. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was
access to or separation from land that governed class location and its
related economic dominance, political power and social prestige
[Mendelsohn and Vicziany, 1998: not just for those at the bottom of
the rural hierarchy (tenants, sharecroppers, agricultural labourers),
but also for those at the top (landlords, merchants).18
After the Permanent Settlement of 1793, a landowning class emerged
during the colonial era, consisting mainly of Brahmins, Rajputs and
Bhumihars, who were made responsible by the British for the extraction
of rent from their tenants. The latter were in turn differentiated
along economic lines: the upper stratum of tenants was composed of
higher and a few middle castes, who enjoyed reduced rents and followed
the Brahminical avoidance of manual labour. By contrast, tenants in
the lower stratum came mostly from the middle and lower castes, and as
such themselves cultivated the holdings they leased from landlords, as
well as working for wages during the lean season. The main source of
agricultural labour consisted of Dalits, who were attached workers of
one kind or another [Mitra, 1985; Frankel, 1989; Gupta, 1994;
Chakravarti, 2001. Landowners extracted high levels of surplus labour
from poor peasants and unfree workers, via numerous levies and
Contrary to the expectations of many observers, the incidence of
bondage, workforce exploitation and rural poverty simply intensified
in the years following Independence [Thorner and Thorner, 1962. Long
after the abolition of the zamindari system of landlordism in 1953, in
Magadh and other parts of Bihar the majority of Dalits continued to
work in harsh conditions for low pay as attached labour subordinated
by debt bondage relations [Brass, 1999: 110ff.]. Such oppression did
not go unchallenged, however, and from the 1970s the rising incidence
of discontent among poor peasants and landless agricultural labourers
found its expression in different Naxalite organizations. To counter
this grassroots challenge, the landowning classes in Bihar created
their own caste senas (militias). 20 Rajubhai's story, which unfolds
below, is a product of this struggle, and embodies all its contradictions.
Telling the story of a Naxalite: Some methodological issues
As presented here, Rajubhai's story is rather obviously the product of
a collaboration, between on the one hand a subject telling his story
and on the other the anthropologist who records, organizes and edits
that story [Davies, 1992. This collaboration was made possible by
various factors. Living under the same roof, we developed sense of
mutual trust and friendship. More significantly, our collaborative
venture was based on a shared vision of life. Both of us were
committed to the liberation of the oppressed classes, and believed in
class struggle as a means to that end. There was, however, an
important difference. Whereas he was an active member of the Naxalite
movement, I did no more than share with him certain sympathies for its
political ideals and strategies.
In an obvious sense, therefore, the recounting by me of his life story
reflects this shared vision. For his part, Rajubhai has reciprocated
by a telling of memories/experiences/reflections, and placing them all
within the context of the resistance struggles initiated by the
Naxalite movement. About this kind of exchange Patai 1988: 9] has
written: `Memory itself is no doubt generated and structured in
specific ways by the opportunity to tell one's life story and the
circumstances of the situation in which it occurs. At another moment
in one's life, or faced with a different interlocutor, quite a
different story, with a different emphasis, is likely to emerge.
A number of voices contribute to the resulting narrative: not just
that of Rajubhai himself but also those of others who participated in
the telling (about him), as well as that of the anthropologist. To
this end, many interviews and informal conversations with Rajubhai
have been pieced together. These sources have been supplemented in
turn by data gathered from close observation over a long period of his
interaction within the family and the village, as well as from
conversations with his wife, members of his family, the villagers of
Dumari, and some of his former comrades in arms. The result is that
the central dynamic - Rajubhai's life experiences, often told in first
person - is interspersed with the editorial voice.
Who is speaking?
It is clear that, once outside the fieldwork context, it is the
anthropologist who exercises a greater degree of control over the
telling of this story - and thus what kind of life Rajubhai will be
seen to have had. For this reason, my own cultural and linguistic
background, education, caste and class status, all influence - and
enter into - the representation of Rajubhai. To this extent,
therefore, ethnographic discourse cannot but entail a process of
self-representation [Behar, 1990. Accordingly, as Edward Said 1985:
4-5] notes, the very act of representing `almost always involves
violence of some sort to the subject of representation.' It was this
methodological aspect that was uppermost in my mind when constructing
Rajubhai's life story.
As crucial in terms of methodology is the other strand of this
relation: not just how the anthropologist represents the story told by
an informant, therefore, but also how this story itself represents the
wider fieldwork context. In short, to what degree is it possible to
categorize the story of Rajubhai as being that of a `Dalit Naxalite'.
Unlike the representation by Majorie Shostak 1981 of Nisa principally
as the token of a type, the !Kung, Rajubhai is not the token of a
type, the Dalit. Not all Dalit men in Jahanabad join the
Marxist-Leninist movement or become the `commanders' of its armed
squads. At the same time, however, his story does embody a common set
of Dalit experiences - that is to say, of Dalit exploitation and
resistance in rural Bihar. Though the account of his life does not
fall strictly into the genre of testimonio, which is essentially a
first person narrative [Beverley, 1992, the story of Rajubhai is
nevertheless akin to the meaning and purpose of testimonio literature. 21
In support of this contention, one can do no better than cite the
opening lines from `I Rigoberta Menchu', the celebrated testimony of a
Guatemalan woman. She says [Menchu and Burgos-Debray, 1984: 1]: `My
name is Rigoberta Menchu. I am 23 years old. This is my testimony. I
did not learn it from a book and I didn't learn it alone. I'd like to
stress that it is not my life, it is also the testimony of my people .
My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience
is the reality of a whole people.' The telling of Rajubhai's story is
in many ways similar to that of Rigoberta Menchu, a testimony that
represents the wider experience of Dalit anger, anguish and
aspirations. His voice, like hers, is thus a combination of `self' and
`other'. On the one hand, it evokes an absent polyphony of other
voices, experiences and lives. On the other, it is also an affirmation
of individual selfhood (= the specificity of the subject who speaks).
It is therefore a voice that chronicles individual growth and
transformation, but is rooted within a group or class situation,
marked by marginalization, oppression and struggle [Beverley, 1992.
From silence to struggle
Reflecting on the overarching significance of context in the analysis
of a life story, Beverley 1992: 19] points out that such background
`reveals the range of experience and expectations within which the
actors live, and provides a vital perspective from which to interpret
their ways of navigating the weave of relationships and structures
which constitute their worlds'. Rajubhai's life unfolds in the context
of - and is accordingly structured by - Kurmi domination in Dumari,
the landlessness of the Dalits, and their consequent economic
dependency on Kurmi landowners. 22 The relationship between them was
one of malik/Mazdoor (landlord and labourer), a link underpinned by
caste ideologies. Here the focus is on events and experiences that
left an indelible mark on Rajubhai's political consciousness and
shaped the course of his life.
He began his story by recalling his childhood memories, after of
course a playful resentment at my insistence in putting questions to
Saathiji [comrade], you are very insistent. Let me try to remember the
old days. After settling in Dumari in the early 1960s, my father had
started working as a labourer bonded to a Kurmi landlord. All the
Dalit labourers were bonded to the Kurmis or other upper caste
landlords in this region. When I was a little fellow like him
[pointing to his ten-year-old son], I also started working for the
same landlord to whom my father was bonded. He sent me to graze cattle
for a monthly salary of Rs. 25. I was given food. I had to eat from a
separate plate kept for the labourers. This was the custom in all the
Kurmi households. At that time, I did not think of it as an oppressive
practice, though today I consider it very abhorrent. Now I will not
eat in such houses anymore. Some Kurmis still keep separate plates for
us. I resented the salary of Rs. 25 a month. I had to graze cattle
from morning till evening, no matter what the weather. I also could
not bear the abusive words from the landlord. Once, when I displayed
resentment, he threw a whole bucket of cow dung at me, which I had
just filled. I felt very angry and humiliated. But what could have I
done at that time? I still went on working for him. There was no other
alternative. All of us were constantly subjected to humiliation,
overwork and abusive words. None of us ever spoke back. I also saw so
many other forms of athiahchar [oppression]. But remaining silent was
the best option.
For me, however, silence became ever more painful with each atrocity I
suffered or I witnessed others suffer in Dumari. One noontime, while I
was returning from the field, I saw Hariprasad Singh, the most
oppressive Kurmi landlord in Dumari, coming out of a house after
raping a Dalit woman. Her husband was away working in the field.
Hariprasad threatened me with death if I ever opened my mouth about
it. I kept silent again. I was afraid, and also I did not want others
to know the shame the woman experienced. At that time, I thought
keeping quiet about it was the best way of protecting her ijjat
[dignity]. Hariprasad and other Kurmis had raped many Dalit women.
Many of us knew about all these things, although we never spoke about
such incidents. But this time I could bear it no longer. With the
arrival of the Naxalites, things began to change. Silence gave way to
Rajubhai then recounted how the Naxalites came to Dumari, and his
involvement with them in late 1970s. In his own words:
In the initial stages of the Sanghathan [= organization/collective] in
Dumari, I attended all the night meetings held in the paddy fields. 24
I was at the forefront of mobilizing resistance against Hariprasad
Singh. We organized strike actions and mashaal julus [= torchlight
procession]. The Sanghathan then killed Hariprasad. Between 1980 and
1983, many more oppressive Kurmi landlords were killed. The Kurmis
then brought Bhumisena, their caste militia, to Dumari village. When
the clashes became more intense in Dumari, the party asked me to leave
the village and take the responsibility of mass organization in other
villages. I became the commander of a Naxalite armed squad. We fought
pitched battles with the Bhumisena and defeated its activists in
I thought it politically too sensitive to ask Rajubhai about his
activities as the squad commander, or to tell me more about his
involvement in the different incidents of violence in Dumari. He told
me about an incident of two comrades snatching police rifles in
Jahanabad. But again, I dared not ask whether he was one of those two
comrades. However, in another incident, which he described, it was he
who led the action. His account was as follows:
On a village market day in 1983, three policemen were having tea in a
local teashop. I was with five members of my squad. We also went to
the teashop and ordered tea. I had a shawl wrapped around me, as it
was a cold morning. I was holding a sten-gun under the shawl. In a
flash, I took out the gun and waved it at the policemen, ordering them
to hand over their guns. As I was covering them with my weapon, my
comrades collected the police rifles. We took one policeman hostage as
we began retreating. By then the crowds were gathering from all
directions. We fired in the air to disperse them. People thought we
were dacoits [bandits] and began to chase us along with other
policemen. We shouted that we were Naxalites, and kept firing in the
air. I told the people that if they stopped pursuing us, we would
release the hostage. But when we did, the released policeman took a
gun from one villager who was pursing us, and started firing at us. We
got away without suffering any harm.
The main source of weapons, then as now, are the police, and raids
conducted by Naxalite squads against police stations are undertaken
primarily to seize arms. The police were identified as accomplices of
the ruling elite, joining with landowners and upper castes in the
oppression of poor peasants and landless labourers. Any action taken
against the police was considered heroic, so when Rajubhai recounted
episodes that included taking them on, this went down well with those
listening to our conversation. He continued telling us his story:
The atrocities unleashed by the Bhumisena in Dumari forced a mass
exodus of the labourers from the village. My wife and three children
were also on the run. I was away with the squad. Once I bumped into
them in one village. My eldest son was so scared that he clung to me,
pleading not to leave them again. I cried with them. It was a very
difficult moment. I could not continue with the party activities at
the same time as my family was on the run. I needed money to support
them. I also had some disagreement with the Sanghathan on the question
of honorarium paid to the squad members. Those who left their land and
joined the squads were paid more. They were mostly from the Kurmi and
Yadav castes. The landless in the squad were naturally the Dalits, and
they received less payment. I could not stand this discrimination in
the Sanghathan, which professed a priority for the landless. So I left
the squad in order to look after my wife and children.
Family and revolution
When talking about his decision to quit the squad, Rajubhai jokingly
accused his wife of putting pressure on him to leave the movement. She
retorted fiercely: `But for the pleadings and prayers of the children
and me, you would already be dead, with a bullet from either the
police or the Ranveer Sena'. 25 Stating that there was always tension
and anxiety while he was with the squad, she told those present that
`whenever I heard some news about police encounters with the
Naxalites, or about murder, I used to panic so much that my health
deteriorated steadily.' Rajubhai agreed, adding that his wife used to
be very beautiful: `This haal [her appearance] is because of my
involvement with the Naxalite movement'. At this stage I asked him to
tell me more about his marriage and family in the context of his
participation in the Naxalite movement. His wife protested, stating
that there was no need to say anything about the marriage.
Nevertheless, Rajubhai continued:
I got married before the winds of change and violence began to blow
across Jehanabad. My marriage was quite revolutionary. Her first
husband left her for some reason. Then I fell in love with her. She
was very beautiful. If I had not married her, perhaps she would have
remained unmarried. In our caste seldom does a man marry a woman who
has been married once before. It was revolutionary, because it was a
love match and, moreover, both of us were from the same village. It
was our custom that the elders bring the proposals. In my case, I
myself initiated this marriage proposal. Saathiji, you go around and
find out for yourself. To date mine is the only case of a love match
`The most difficult years of my marriage,' he went on,
was the period when Bhumisena came to the village. Being an active
member of the Sanghathan, it would have been too dangerous for me to
stay in the village at that time. So the party assigned me to another
area, with the additional responsibility of commanding an armed squad.
I had to leave my wife and three children, the eldest of them was just
five yeas old. With the Bhumisena activists patrolling the Dalit basti
[the Dalit section of the village] day and night, I had no chance of
coming to see my wife and children. Since the Kurmis knew that I was
actively involved in the Sanghathan, they were harassing my family all
the time. It was a nightmare for my wife and children. The Kurmis did
not employ any labourers then. Dalits were also not allowed to enter
the Kurmi fields. It was impossible for them to get out of their basti
as the fields owned by the Kurmis surrounded it. So there was a mass
exodus of the landless peasants from Dumari in 1982. We lived in exile
for eighteen months. It was only after the Naxalite triumph over the
Bhumisena in 1984 that our families returned to Dumari. I stopped
going with the squad. But after the return, the Sanghathan appointed
me as the head of the village committee. My main job was to assist the
Sanghathan in re-settling the Dalits in Dumari and negotiating peace
with the Kurmis.
In the light of my own experience as an observer of life as lived by
the inhabitants of Dumari, it is possible to say that Rajubhai was
different from many other Dalit men in the village. During my one-year
stay in his dwelling, there was not a single incident of wife-beating,
a significant non-occurrence in that almost every Dalit household in
Dumari was characterized by domestic violence. He held his wife in
high esteem, and consulted her on all matters relating to the family,
something that did not happen in other Dalit families. Although she
was very scared about the risks he ran as a result of his involvement
in the Sanghathan, she often spoke to me proudly about his
contribution to the cause of poor peasants in his capacity as a
Naxalite leader. She said that it was because of his position in the
Sanghathan that they are able to live with dignity in Dumari.
Rajubhai was also unusual in that, unlike many other Dalit men, he
cared for the education of his children. His eldest son passed
matriculation examination, and the second son studied up to class
eight. The younger children were still at school, including the
youngest girl. He was most insistent that his children attended school
on a regular basis, and told me that he was willing to spend any
amount of money to educate his daughter. The value of education was,
he said, something he came to realise when commanding the Naxalite
squad, and he outlined his journey into literacy in the following manner:
I never went to school. While in the movement I used to move from
village to village, creating awareness about the need to fight against
oppression. Songs were a good medium and I was a good singer. Once
when I finished singing, a comrade who had just joined the team, asked
me to write that song for him. But when I did not oblige, he felt
offended and accused me of being rather selfish in not sharing the
lyrics. I felt very ashamed of myself. I could not write it down for
him because I was illiterate. I did not want my companions to know
this fact. That day I made up my mind to change, and within the next
few months I taught myself to read and write. Literacy then gave me a
passport to Marxist literature. I do not want my children to go
through the same shame I experienced.
His children were very articulate. The eldest daughter was married,
and had come to the maaike (= mother's house) for the birth of her
child. Her husband was away in Delhi working as a labourer at a
construction site. She said her in-laws treated her with respect and
never harassed her because they knew that her father was a Naxalite,
and they were very scared of him. She said proudly: `I told them that
if they harass me, my Bapuji would come and put a bullet into their head'.
However, his eldest son, who was also married and living in the same
house with his wife and child, was not very happy with his father's
Naxalite legacy. He said that his father devoted his whole life to the
movement, but the Sanghathan had given him nothing in return. He cited
a recent incident, when four men had threatened his father with a gun.
The Sanghathan should have expressed its gratitude for all that he had
done, and should have apprehended those culprits immediately. But it
did nothing. One day, he said, all of them would be shot dead because
of his father's Naxalite leanings.
When I arrived in Dumari, another of his sons was away in Gujarat,
also working as a construction labourer. At the end of my fieldwork
stay there, Rajubhai sent two more of his sons away to Gujarat, saying
he wanted the children to get out of Dumari. He nevertheless joked
about this, insisting that all his sons were being sent away from
Dumari in order that none of them should become a Naxalite. In
reality, he was very concerned about the increasing violence in the
region. To him, the drudgery in Gujarat was better than the dependency
on the Kurmi landlords in Dumari. Rajubhai and his spouse always took
the opportunity of sending food parcels to their children whenever
people from the village travelled to Gujarat. His sons occasionally
sent money remittances by means of the same method, through villagers
returning to Dumari. 26
For Rajubhai, therefore, the family was his priority. One day while I
was there, the local secretary of the People's War asked Rajubhai's
eldest son to deliver a letter to a person in the neighbouring village
who had been summoned to appear before the people's court. That night,
Rajubhai was furious with his son for agreeing to run the errand on
behalf of the Sanghathan. The person summoned by the Sanghathan, he
said, came from a village where the Liberation group (a rival
Marxist-Leninist party) held sway. What Rajubhai feared most was that
someone from that village might identify the messenger as his son,
with all that this recognition entailed.
His own loyalty and commitment to the party was one thing, he
insisted, but he did not want his children getting involved in
Naxalite activities that might invite retaliation by a rival group.
The area was notorious for fierce rivalry between the Liberation
group, People's War and the Ranveersena, each of which regarded even
those who were merely supporters and sympathizers of another group as
enemies. It was, in short, a situation that required all Rajubhai's
skill in order to keep both his family and himself safe.
Land and labour, pride and shame
Though `land to the tiller' was the mobilizing slogan of the
Sanghathan, Rajubhai - who once commanded one of its armed squads -
was himself still landless. Yet he worked tirelessly for the Naxalite
land-grab campaigns, and had been instrumental in the distribution of
land obtained in this manner among the landless labourers. However,
owning a plot of land still remained his dream. Landless he might be,
Rajubhai noted, but he refused to be bonded to any Kurmi landlords in
Dumari. The practice of debt bondage, which was an integral element of
agrarian production relations in the Magadh region, was outlined by
him in the following words:
More than eighty per cent of the agricultural labourers in Dumari are
bonded (bandua) to the Kurmis. Before the struggle, the entire family
was in life-long bondage. Under the present system, a labourer becomes
a bandua to a landlord for a year. During this year of bondage, he is
not allowed to work for any other employers. The bonded labourer was
known as Harvahi [= plough-man]. However, he did every kind of work
that his malik [= master, owner] demanded of him. Apart from the daily
wage of three kilos of paddy or wheat, the bandua was given five or
six katta [a twentieth of an acre] of land to cultivate for the
duration of the contract period. The bandua relation allowed the
landlord to have complete control over his labourer throughout the
year of contract. This was something I could not bear. After all that
I have learned and taught in the Sanghathan about human dignity and
freedom, I could not even imagine myself attached as a bandua to any
Kurmi in Dumari or elsewhere. Even if it meant going hungry, I wanted
to keep my dignity.
Instead of working as a bandua or as a daily labourer, Rajubhai
entered into another production relation with the Kurmis in Dumari. He
cultivated two acres of land leased from its owner through a practice
called manki - a sharecropping relation (for rent-in-kind). This was
an arrangement familiar throughout rural Bihar, and entailed a
contract lasting one year between a landowner and the tenant who
wanted to cultivate the land. Rent was payable after each harvest,
when the landlord received 11 mann (one mann = 40 kilos) of grain (6
mann of wheat and five of paddy) for every acre cultivated. If the
harvest suffered due to flood or drought, the product was divided
equally between sharecropper and landowner. However, if the
surrounding fields had a better harvest yield than the peasant who had
entered into a manki contract, the sharecropper was bound to deliver
the amount of rent-in-kind stipulated in the contract. These
sharecropping contracts were oral, not paper, ones. Kurmi landowners
usually never entered into manki contracts with the Dalits in Dumari,
but Rajubhai was an exception to this rule.
Rajubhai also cultivated a small plot in front of his dwelling, leased
to him in another type of contract called patta - a form of cash rent.
It, too, lasted for no more than a single year, and involved the
payment to the owner of between Rs. 2000 to Rs. 3000, depending on the
irrigation facilities on the land. On this smallholding Rajubhai
cultivated rice, wheat and vegetables on a seasonal rotation. That
piece of land, he informed me, was something that he longed to buy.
However hard he worked, he added sadly, he would never be able to save
enough money to purchase that holding. He did not even have sufficient
money to rent it on a patta basis for the following year, as the owner
was demanding a cash sum of Rs. 2000.
Occasionally Rajubhai and members of his family worked for Channa
Singh, with whom he had the manki contract. Their arrangement did not
possess the usual outward appearances of the owner/worker
(malik/mazdoor) relation. During the paddy transplantation season,
Channa Singh used to come to Rajubhai's house many times a day, always
pleading with him to work in his fields. According to Rajubhai, this
was because the days of issuing orders and abuses are gone. One
particular day I saw Channa Singh helping Rajubhai to cut fodder for
the latter's buffalo. That is a sight never before seen in Dumari - a
Kurmi helping a Dalit with manual labour. Rajubhai only laboured for
him when he had completed his other work. Unlike other landless
labours, Rajubhai appeared to have some autonomy in his labour
relations with the Kurmi landlord.
Even with produce from both the manki and the patta land, Rajubhai
barely managed to feed his large family. However, they never starved,
at least not during the year while I was there. They worked throughout
the whole agricultural cycle to obtain a quantity of grain (mostly
paddy) that for them functions both as food (use-value) and money
(exchange-value). Whenever his small grandson had to be taken to the
village doctor, his daughters needed their tuition fees paid, or salt
and spices had to be bought for the kitchen (or tea and sugar for his
anthropologist comrade), it was necessary for him to sell his precious
anaaj (grain). There was never any cash in the dwelling. Two meals -
rice and daal - were eaten daily, one in the morning and one at night.
For those who remained hungry, there were always some leafy
vegetables, mostly gathered from nearby fields.
In an absolute sense, and rather obviously, Rajubhai was poor; but
compared to other Dalits in the village, however, he seemed better
off. Although his dwelling was thatched, it nevertheless had brick
walls. Five years ago, he had received Rs. 17,000 under the Indira
Awas scheme so that he could improve his habitation, but part of that
money was diverted to cover the cost of hospital treatment for his
son. In this kind of economic situation, the anthropologist could not
but express concern at becoming a financial burden to the family. 27
So after the first week spent as a guest under his roof, I approached
Rajubhai with some money to pay for my board and lodging. He indicated
that he felt very offended, adding that:
I have not yet reached such a level of misery that I have to take
money from a comrade who is staying in my house. You are the guest of
the Sanghthan, so you are my guest, too. I am indebted to the
Sanghathan for all that I am.
I felt ashamed, and decided to return his generosity in kind. It was
winter, and on some days it was extremely cold in the village, the
temperature dipping below zero. And with no hot water or other heating
facilities, life for peasant families became quite difficult during
the winter. Since the family of Rajubhai possessed no warm clothing,
these - together with blankets - were purchased by the anthropologist
on his next trip to Patna, the capital of Bihar. All were then given
to Bhabhi, and the following morning everyone in the family was
wearing new warm clothes. Encouraged by this, two more blankets were
purchased, but this time - very politely - Rajubhai expressed his
Saathiji, please don't do this anymore. All the villagers might think
that I am keeping you in my house because I am receiving a lot of
benefits from you. Regarding the blanket you gave last time, some
people were asking about it. I had to tell them that I gave you Rs.
100 to buy the blanket from Patna.
This was an unexpected reaction, not least because of what generally
happened when - prior to this fieldwork - I had stayed in a number of
Dalit villages in Bihar. On those occasions, peasants who were poor
often used to approach me with a request for money. But Rajubhai,
though very similar to them in terms of poverty and landlessness, was
nevertheless very different in outlook. No experience of deprivation
could rob him of his Naxalite pride and dignity, characteristics which
it is argued here were constituent elements that form part of an
Rajubhai as `organic intellectual'
Rajubhai was a working-class intellectual who played a crucial role in
the Naxalite movement in the Magadh region. This claim, however,
raises a number of questions that require addressing. The first, and
most obvious is: how is it possible to categorize Rajubhai as an
intellectual, when he had never been to school nor received any formal
education, let alone produced texts outlining strategies for working
class struggle? To this the answer is that Rajubhai is indeed an
intellectual, but in the very specific sense defined by Gramsci 1971,
who characterized intellectuals in terms of their educative and
organizational role, their socio-economic background, and political
According to Gramsci 1971: 9], `all men are intellectuals' in so far
as they think, but `not all men in society have the function of
intellectuals.' For Gramsci 1971: 97], then, intellectuals are those
who exercise `an organizational function in the wide sense, whether in
the field of production or in that of culture, or in that of political
administration.' His definition thus broadens the category of
intellectuals to include not only `thinkers' but also civil servants,
political leaders, clerics, managers, technocrats, and so on
Gramsci identified every class - dominant and subordinate - as
possessing within its ranks the two kinds of intellectual: the
`traditional' and the `organic'. 29 Unlike the former, whose role is
merely to transmit ideas compatible with current authority (= to
reproduce existing dominance, in other words), the latter challenges
them and in an important sense advances the ideology that either
establishes or destroys the rule of a particular class. The
application of the label `organic intellectual' to Rajubhai, however,
raises a second question about whether - and why - it is wholly
accurate to place him within such a category.
There is on the face of it a contradiction between the fact that
Naxalites waged an armed struggle, and the Gramscian concept
`hegemony' that informs his notion of an `organic intellectual'. As
elaborated by Gramsci 1971: 5-23], the main role of an organic
intellectual who emerged from the ranks of `those below' - and
especially from the peasantry - was to persuade, not to enforce. By
contrast, the armed struggle replaces persuasion with force. Insofar
as the Naxalite object is to enforce their authority over the
political opponents, this corresponds to abandonment of consent, and
is consequently the negation of hegemony. Seen thus, the
categorization of Rajubhai as an `organic intellectual' would appear
to be problematic. However, on closer inspection, this is not so.
In order to sustain the argument that Rajubhai was an `organic
intellectual', it is necessary to clarify exactly what this means.
Hence the necessity of differentiating between the distinct kinds of
audience addressed by this `representative voice'. On the one hand,
the organic intellectual seeks external consent: that is, from
political opponents, for class-specific policies/programmes that are
against their interests but favour those of his own class. 30 Clearly,
this would be inapplicable in the case of Naxalites, who are not - and
never have been - in the business of gaining the consent of members of
the landlord class in Bihar. On the other hand, however, an organic
intellectual also seeks to establish an internal hegemony: that is,
not merely to express but to give coherence to the
ideas/programmes/project of their own class or its allies. It is in
this latter sense that Rajubhai could be said to be an organic
intellectual of the Bihar peasantry.
There is another sense, as well. It is noticeable that, in the case of
India, there is no shortage of accounts written by or about those on
the left, describing in some detail how they joined the ranks of the
Communist Party, and how they acquired political consciousness and
influence. 31 The account presented here, by contrast, is not of this
kind; much rather it is the story of a villager which in the normal
course of events would remain untold - and thus unheard - outside his
or her own particular milieu. In this regard also, therefore,
Rajubhai's narrative is that of an `organic intellectual' - someone
whose political efficacy not only operates at the rural grassroots but
also is continuously reproduced at this level.
The construction of internal hegemony
In establishing an internal hegemony, organic intellectuals with
fundamental structural ties to particular classes they represent - and
who are themselves products of that class - through their activities
generate an ideological cohesiveness within their class together with
an awareness of its political direction. In short, they contribute to
- and perhaps even make possible - that crucial and (in terms of
agency) all-important transformation, from a class-in-itself to a
class-for-itself. A central aspect of this process is the re-casting
and extending of selfhood, so that it becomes both a positive identity
and one that is simultaneously shared by others belonging to the same
The twofold identity embodied in the person of Rajubhai made him an
ideal subject to initiate this transformation. 32 As a landless Dalit
labourer in what was in caste/class terms a highly stratified agrarian
society, and as a Naxalite commander, he was in a position to
formulate programmes and to spread ideas about the
desirability/feasibility of grassroots empowerment. This dual identity
also enabled him to undertake an effective counter hegemony campaign,
consisting of the kinds of grassroots agency demonstrating an
empowered agricultural workforce, images/actions aimed both at the
latter and also at class enemies (the state, bureaucrats, landowners).
That Rajubhai was instrumental in the way envisaged by the concept of
internal hegemony is clear from a number of things. For example, he
played a vital role in transforming the caste feelings of the Dalits
into a consciousness of class. In the numerous songs he composed and
sang at various village meetings, therefore, Rajubhai urged
agricultural labourers present to go beyond their particular caste
identities and affiliation, and instead forge themselves into a class
based on their common experience of landlessness, oppression and
untouchability. In other words, he sought to persuade them not just to
see themselves as workers, but also to act together on the basis of
this identity. During the 1980s, Dalit labourers for the first time in
the history of the region waged a collective struggle against the
It was in the context of this agrarian struggle that the Naxalite
movement placed before the rural masses new possibilities: these
included land to the tiller, higher wages for agricultural work, and
an end to the oppressive practices of bonded labour, caste abuse and
exploitation. Rajubhai did not spare himself in pursuing these
objectives, designed to usher in a new social order. As the commander
of a Naxalite armed squad, he led labourers in many jameen kabja
andolan (land grab campaigns), and then saw to it that the captured
land was redistributed among the landless. He also organized a
janadalat (people's court), where oppressive landlords were tried by
labourers, who decided on the punishment. For the first time in their
lives, Dalits experienced power over the landlords.
Rajubhai was a recognized Naxalite leader not just in Dumari but
throughout the entire region. After he withdrew from the armed squad,
he was elected the head of the village committee set up by the
Naxalites. In that capacity, he set about fostering a class unity
among the rural poor, an identity that served them well in their
struggles against the dominant Kurmis. He also settled disputes, not
just between landless Dalits and landowning Kurmis, but also those
arising from within the ranks of the Dalits themselves. In the course
of our interviews, he recounted a number of these incidents. To quote
In the year 2001, as the head of the village committee, I had to deal
with a complaint lodged by a working class widow from the Kahar caste
. whose daughter was sexually assaulted by a Kurmi man. I convened the
janadalat. Poor peasants and the Kurmis were present, the latter
because one of their caste-men was being put on trial. In spite of
some Kurmi protests, the people decided that the girl should slap him
five times with her chappals [sandals]. They also decided that his
head be shaved of hair and chuna [lime power] applied, and then made
to run five times round the village. However, this public shaming of
the offender had to be abandoned as the police arrived in the village
before punishment was carried out. Yet I managed to have the girl slap
the accused five times with her chappals. He then asked her pardon
with folded hands.
It became evident in the course of fieldwork in Dumari that one of the
major issues a lot of inhabitants were concerned about was the brewing
and selling of liquor by the Musahars in the village. The consumption
of alcohol led to frequent outbursts of fighting, and also sometimes
the abuse of women. On various occasions Rajubhai took the lead in
organizing anti-liquor campaigns in the village. At his behest, the
local squad of the Naxalites twice destroyed the vessels used in
brewing alcohol, and also imposed a fine on those involved in its
distillation. However, the party was unable to eradicate it
completely. Rajubhai himself frequently expressed anger and
frustration at the lack of commitment on the part of the Sanghathan to
solving this problem. Because of a fight between a Dusadh boy and the
Musahars, Rajubhai became so enraged that he broke the liquor
containers belonging to two Musahar women. In order to have evidence
for this action, he asked me to take photographs of the women with
their containers before he broke them, and then warned them of further
consequences if they continued to brew and sell alcohol. In this,
however, Rajubhai appeared to be fighting a lone battle. 33
Significantly, Rajubhai's leadership also extended beyond the
boundaries of purely working class concerns. As a local leader of the
Sanghathan, he was approached by landowning Kurmis and asked to settle
disputes among the Kurmis themselves. About this kind of episode he
had this to say:
A woman of Kurmi caste, whose husband was killed by the Sanghathan
during the initial days of struggle, was refused her share of land by
her husband's brother. She approached the Sanghathan. As the head of
the village committee, I took up the issue on her behalf. I met her
husband's brother, and with the authority of the Sanghathan behind me,
I persuaded him to hand over her husband's share of land to her. She
then sold that piece of land, and now is happily settled elsewhere.
In the Gramscian sense, therefore, Rajubhai had emerged as a working
class intellectual in the context of the Naxalite movement, to which
he was `organically bound' as a `collective intellectual of the
proletariat' in the region [Femia, 1981: 133]. At the same time,
however, because of his rootedness in the rural working class, he was
critical of the movement whenever it failed to represent the
aspirations of landless peasants. He pointed out that during the past
two decades the Naxalite party had done nothing to raise the level of
agricultural wages. Nor had its slogan `land to the tiller' been
realized in the course of this 20-year period. Rajubhai was also
critical of the fact that landed classes were joining the party, saying:
Earlier the party fought to defend the interests of the working class.
Now it is admitting men from those classes against which we fought and
sacrificed many lives. As a result, now we are feeling neglected.
In the manner of a true `organic intellectual', Rajubhai was critical
of party policy where and when this diverged from the interests of
poor peasants and agricultural labour, from whose ranks he himself had
emerged, and in the ranks of which he still remained.
For the rural poor, especially those in Dumari, Rajubhai was the focus
of political mobilization. Many Dalits in the village pointed out
that, in the event of Rajubhai joining another (= rival)
Marxist-Leninist group in the region, they too would shift their
allegiances, and go along with him. Yet he continued to be loyal to
the Sanghathan, on behalf of which he worked hard, but not
uncritically. In short, Rajubhai fulfilled all those characteristics
that Gramsci and others require of a person identified as being an
`organic intellectual' of the rural working class.
Consciousness of class, and its contradictions
As noted above, Rajubhai shared with other Dalits a common set of
experiences: landlessness, untouchability, oppression and poverty.
According to E.P. Thompson, it was these kinds of common experience
historically that informed grassroots agency, linking consciousness of
class to struggle based on such identity. Hence the following - now
classic - view about the process of working class formation [Thompson,
1963: 9], although about nineteenth century England, has a more
general application: `By class I understand an historical phenomenon,
unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both
in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise
that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a
"structure", nor even as a "category", but as something which in fact
happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships'
(original emphasis). 34 What is important about this view is that,
conceptually, it breaks with the long-dominant sociological notion of
`class' as a static (a-historical) structure, and converts this into a
dynamic whereby class is a process of becoming, based not just on
`being' (= what-one-is) but on consciousness (=
The centrality of consciousness to Thompson's dynamic notion of class
is itself reinforced by two additional factors: it is a transformation
that is not only undertaken by those at the grassroots, but also one
guided by politics. This much is evident from the following
description [Thompson, 1963: 711-12, original emphasis]: `There is a
sense in which we may describe popular radicalism in these years as an
intellectual culture. The articulate consciousness of the self-taught
was above all a political consciousness . The towns, and even the
villages, hummed with the energy of the autodidact. Given the
elementary techniques of literacy, labourers, artisans, shopkeepers
and clerks and schoolmasters, proceeded to instruct themselves,
severally or in groups.' These words (`autodidact', `elementary
techniques of literacy') accurately describe the kind of process
Rajubhai was undertaking in rural Bihar, and also underscore the core
meaning of what Gramsci understood by the concept `organic intellectual'.
Such `from below' forms of political consciousness, however, do not by
themselves determine what Marxists interpret as consciousness of
class. For the latter to be present, an additional historical factor
is deemed necessary: participation by the grassroots in a political
party that is revolutionary. It is only when this latter condition is
met that consciousness is said by Marxist theory to be that of class.
Thus, for example, Lukacs 1971 differentiates between elementary and
imputed consciousness. Whereas the former encompasses the
`actually-existing' oppositional discourse of subordinate
socio-economic categories unconnected with class, dissent which is
`contingent' and may arise at any historical conjuncture, the latter
by contrast is an historical discourse necessary for (or `appropriate'
to) the empowerment of a specific class at a particular conjuncture.
In his 1967 preface to the English edition, Lukacs argues that his
analysis is no different from that of Lenin, who made a similar
distinction between a spontaneously emerging trade union
consciousnesses and one of class, which a socialist party brings to
workers. 35 The importance of these divergent forms (actual, ascribed)
will become apparent below, when considering the contradictory aspects
of Rajubhai's political consciousness.
The language of class
A subsequent attempt to develop a non-static sociological theory about
a dynamic relation between class and consciousness was made by Leggett
1964: 228], who argued for a connection based on a `cumulative series
of mental states, running from class verbalizations to scepticism and
militancy to egalitarianism'. According to Leggett, although
utterances indicate the extent to which individual workers discuss
issues in terms of class, consciousness of class does not require that
they do so consistently. This is precisely what Rajubhai did in the
course of interviews with me, where his descriptions of everyday
relations were occasionally couched explicitly in terms of class. An
example of this occurred during our first conversation, when his words
were as follows:
The struggle in Dumari began on 23 May 1981 [his recollection of the
exact date took me by surprise]. There was no zamindari here. But the
mentality of the kisans [the landowning Kurmi peasants] was that of
big zamindars. The Sanghathan began here because of the oppression by
the kisans. They paid the labourers just sava ser kesari [less than
one kilo of coarse grain which had no market value] as a daily wage.
They were very rude to us, and abused us often. After the struggle,
the wage level was raised to three kilos of grain [either wheat or
paddy]. Now things are better. We sit together, and sometimes eat
His language made clear references to class, as the following
instances confirm. Dalits commonly referred to themselves as Harijans,
as did non-Dalits; however, the latter referred to Dalits as Harijans
in a derogatory sense, identifying them as the lowest components in
the caste hierarchy. 36 Having taught himself Marxism, Rajubhai
analysed what it meant to be a Dalit in terms of production relations.
Thus he employed the term mazdoor varg (working class) when speaking
about the Dalits. He also referred to them as the shoshit varg
(oppressed classes), or as bhoomiheen mazdoor (landless labourers).
Conversely, he spoke of the landowning upper castes as shoshak varg
(oppressor classes) or samanthi (feudals). When talking of the
relationships linking Dalits to Kurmis, he deployed words such as
malik/mazdoor (landowner/worker), bandua (bonded labourer), and
harwahi (ploughman). In his utterances, caste terms were replaced with
class categories. For Rajubhai, resistance waged by Dalits against the
Kurmis was nothing less than vargsangharsh (class struggle).
Of particular interest is the fact that Rajubhai used this same
language - of class - in his criticisms of the Sanghathan for its
current shift of priorities. He said:
When the Sanghathan came here, it began among the mazdoor varg. The
cadres used to sleep and eat in the mud houses of the mazdoor. It
fought for the issues of the working classes - land and wages, as well
as against social abuses, exploitation and the sexual abuse of women.
But now that the Sanghathan has got a foothold here, its ambition has
grown into one of capturing state power. So they have started taking
in people from the dominant castes, against whom we fought previously.
As a result of the entry of the landowning castes into the Sanghathan,
it is hesitant to raise the issues of land and wages. For the last
twenty years, wages have remained the same: three kilos of paddy for a
day's work. The working class is no longer a priority for the Sanghathan.
The second category used by Leggett in his analysis of the link
between consciousness and class is `scepticism', which encompasses the
belief that wealth is distributed within the community so as to
benefit primarily the middle class. Since land was the main source of
wealth in rural Bihar, Rajubhai was highly critical of the fact that
it was all in the hands of the upper and middle classes, while Dalits
remained what they had always been - landless agricultural labourers.
Of particular interest was the connection he made between landlessness
and landowners, drawing out the dependence of the latter on the
former. From this stemmed his scepticism about landowner commitment to
reform, particularly as this involved property. Pointing to the land
just outside his front door that he was cultivating on a patta
contract (see above), he observed:
The working classes would never be able to buy land from the
landowning castes. They wanted us to remain always landless, so that
we are always available as cheaper labour for them.
The third criterion invoked by Leggett is `militancy', or the desire
on the part of those exhibiting consciousness of class to involve
themselves in action with a view to realize objectives in furtherance
of this identity. A commander of an armed squad of Naxalites, Rajubhai
believed in the necessity and efficacy of armed struggle. As long as
inequalities continued, in his opinion there was no alternative to
armed struggle. This militancy, however, did not translate into
mindless violence: revolution, he said, did not consist of cutting
throats. Here Rajubhai was making an oblique reference to the way
Naxalites have been labelled as moodi katuwa (`those who cut off the
heads') or chah inch chota karnewala (`shortening someone by six
inches'). These terms, which border on black humour, are themselves
part of the language of class struggle, since they refer the listener
to the decapitations that were part of the Naxalite annihilation
policy during the early days of the conflict in Bihar.
The final category used by Leggett is `egalitarianism', which
identifies the distribution of wealth as a desirable outcome of agency
and consciousness of class. Not only had Rajubhai always advocated the
redistribution of land among the landless, but a fundamental
commitment to what might be termed `an everyday egalitarianism' was
important to him. This emerged during my first interviews with him,
when he talked about his unhappiness at the unequal distribution of
fish caught from the village ponds. On this subject, he observed:
Once the Sanghathan became strong in Dumari, it supervised the fishing
and the distribution of fish among all the families. Now just a few
Kurmis and Chamars come together and catch all the fish.
This sense of egalitarianism was not limited to an equal distribution
of resources. He emphasized that there should also be equality in
work, noting that it was always the Dalits who worked the land. The
upper castes never muddied their hands, he said, a criticism that was
applied by him especially to upper caste women. This he contrasted
with the division of labour at the bottom of the rural hierarchy,
where Dalit men and women did all the menial jobs. In his view true
egalitarianism would exist only when upper caste men and women worked
in the fields alongside other caste groups. To bring this about,
Rajubhai suggested, the Sanghathan should raise the wage rates so high
that the Kurmi men and women would eventually be compelled to work in
their own fields. Women from these landowning families should also be
employed in paddy transplantation and harvesting. Working alongside
labourers, he thought, would not only break their feudal attitudes but
also create a sense of equality among all rural inhabitants.
Countervailing hegemonies: Rural tradition and state funding
As a working class activist, the consciousness of class exhibited by
Rajubhai clearly went far beyond the `mental state' that Leggett
constructed in his analysis. But it is important to note also the
presence of contradictions within this seemingly uniform domain of
class consciousness, and it is to these that we now turn.
The contradictions manifested themselves in numerous episodes, in
themselves apparently meaningless or insignificant. Of particular
interest is the way traditional religious beliefs persisted, and in an
important sense formed a parallel discourse that shadowed the
materialist consciousness of Naxalism. Thus, for example, one night
Rajubhai's grandson was very ill, and crying incessantly. His response
was to take the child, along with its father and mother, to a village
exorcist in the middle of the night. The following morning, I asked
Rajubhai whether he believed in the power of the exorcist to cure the
child. It was a question that he preferred not to answer, and
intellectually the issue remained unresolved.
During March 2003, Rajubhai, his wife and a few other villagers from
Dumari (together with the anthropologist) all went to Calcutta to
participate in a demonstration organized by Naxalite front
organizations to protest against the US-led invasion of Iraq. Before
the protest march, Rajubhai had been heavily involved in mobilizing
the people for the demonstration. As the event was approaching, he
said proudly: `Many villagers from Dumari are planning to go to
Calcutta this time. They are joining the party demonstration after a
long gap because my wife and I are going now'. For many villagers, an
added incentive was of course the prospect of free travel to a big
city. On arriving in Calcutta, however, instead of joining the
demonstration, Rajubhai and the people who accompanied him from Dumari
headed straight for the temple of goddess Kali on the banks of the
Ganges. There they had a `holy dip' in the river, and then worshipped
in the temple. Later that evening, when I met up with him, he was very
apologetic, saying it was the women in the group who had compelled him
to accompany them to the Kali mandir.
During my stay in the village, Rajubhai's father died. In keeping with
standard Hindu practice, and together with all the male members in the
family, he shaved the hair off his head. Rajubhai was also scrupulous
in following all the funeral rituals of his caste and religion. He
took the body of his father all way to Patna, for cremation on the
bank of the river Ganges. In order to pay the cost of carrying out
this funeral ceremony in Patna, it was necessary for him to borrow
money. When asked why he did not cremate his father in the village
itself - a less expensive option - his reply was that `it is a matter
of prestige to cremate the dead on the banks of Ganga in Patna.'
Rather than the usual Dalit practice of cremating their dead on the
banks of a small stream on the outskirts of the village, therefore,
Rajubhai insisted on following the upper caste custom of cremating the
dead by the Ganges in Patna.
The persistence of such traditional practices in a Naxalite as
politically aware as Rajubhai is open to a number of conflicting
explanations. On the one hand, a classic Marxist approach might
categorize this situation as evidence for the existence of `false
consciousness', and thus for the continuing absence of a consciousness
that was authentically one of class. Alternatively, a non-Marxist
perspective associated either with the subaltern studies framework
[Guha, 1982-89] or with resistance theory [Scott, 1976; 1985; 1990
would seek to recast such traditional beliefs/practices in a positive
light. That is, as an empowering reassertion of cultural `otherness'
on the part of poor peasants and agricultural labourers, thereby
validating their own subaltern identity in relation to landowning
upper castes. 37 For this reason, traditional practices and/or beliefs
should be seen not as `false consciousness', and thus politically
conservative, but rather as progressive.
Departing somewhat from both these interpretations, and writing about
the conflict between the Miskitu Indians and the Sandinista state in
Nicaragua, Hale 1994: 204-5] argues as follows. That `the very
definition of "necessity" at a given moment is the product of prior
struggles, which help to determine what protagonists in a resistance
movement perceive as their own limitations. When subordinated ethnic
group members conclude that a negotiated accommodation of structural
inequity is the only alternative (i.e., necessary), we must at least
consider the possibility that such a conclusion reflects the prior
impact of hegemony on their reasoning.' In other words, grassroots
accommodation - as reflected in a continued adherence by those at the
rural grassroots to existing traditions - may indeed be conservative,
but this is what a long history of enduring struggles (and defeats)
teaches poor peasants and workers.
Turning once more to Gramsci, it is here that one finds what is
perhaps the most useful explanation of the reason why subaltern
consciousness not only diverges from that `imputed' or `ascribed' to a
rural working class (as understood by Lukacs), but also co-exists
with the latter. He attributes the mixed - not to say ambivalent -
character of grassroots ideology to the fact that subaltern groups are
confronted by what he terms contending hegemonies. The state does not
stand idly by in the course of class struggle, but attempts to win the
consent of subaltern groups by imbuing in them values and behaviour in
keeping with the interests of the ruling class [Gramsci, 1971: 258].
Hence the loans, housing projects and other welfare programmes on
offer to Dalits are a way of obtaining from them their active consent
to the existing socio-economic structure. In a highly stratified caste
society, moreover, Dalits are offered an additional temptation:
sanscritization, or the attractiveness and prestige of imitating (and
thus subscribing to) upper caste cultural norms. It is for this reason
that, as Gramscian theory anticipated, consciousness of class acquired
by poor peasants and agricultural labourers in Bihar as a result of
participation in the Sanghathan is permeated by these countervailing
tendencies. Even after years of Rajubhai's participation in the
Marxist-Leninist movement, therefore, contradictory aspects of
consciousness are still in evidence.
As a longstanding activist engaged in the Naxalite movement, Rajubhai
was opposed to the state, and its coercive and ideological
apparatuses. At the same time, however, along with other Dalits he
received government loans that were disbursed under various `pro-poor'
development schemes. Both the local state in Bihar and the central
government of India were making available substantial amounts of
public funding to those rural areas where Naxalites had grassroots
support. 38 Although Rajubhai knew that accepting such funds entailed
a greater dependence on the provider, he nevertheless remained keen on
this kind of resource from the state. Together with the persistence of
traditional beliefs/practices, it is this fact which helps to explain
the contradictory character of subaltern consciousness.
The story of Rajubhai presented here underlines both the strengths and
the weaknesses of Naxalite struggle in rural Bihar. As a landless
`untouchable' agricultural labourer, he embodied and thus represented
the collective identity and aspirations of poor peasants and landless
labourers in the area. Like them, he sought to transcend the
oppressive structure and relations of exploitation (caste, bonded
labour, tenancy, low wages, rape/abuse of women, landowner violence
against workers, murder/beatings at the hands of police) that were
common to the experience of `being a Dalit' in Dumari village. To this
end, Rajubhai conducted a protracted war on two fronts.
On the one hand, he waged an external conflict against the landowning
upper castes, their militias and the state. He was also critical of
official Naxalite policy to accept erstwhile opponents - landowning
peasants - as party members, thereby diluting its programme. On the
other, Rajubhai conducted a simultaneous internal struggle, to
challenge and then to recast existing hegemony operating within the
Dalit ranks. Accordingly, he fought to shift the language (and thus
the meaning) of agrarian conflict from caste to class, and distributed
any land acquired in the course of battle to workers. He also strongly
opposed many aspects of Dalit community (alcohol
production/consumption, wife beating) that were incompatible with a
politically progressive outlook. Rajubhai was, in short, a classic
example of an `organic intellectual' as envisaged by Gramsci.
About the contradictions informing the ideology, practice and
political consciousness of Naxalism, however, the theory of Gramsci
was also right. In class terms, there are real problems in
categorizing Rajubhai's views and actions as radical, in the sense of
challenging - let alone seeking to overturn - existing systemic forms.
Not only does he wish to purchase a plot of land instead of
expropriating the landlord class, therefore, but his desire for
private property plus his adherence to religious beliefs/practices,
all suggest accommodation rather than revolutionary agency. In many
respects, his Naxalite ideology and practice are no different from
that of non-Naxalite petty commodity producers throughout Indian
history. In subaltern terms, he can indeed be said to be engaged in a
defensive action (= `resistance') against local landowners. But this
is not radical, in the sense that such grassroots agency has always
occurred, and - more to the point - when it has, it has usually been
unconnected with any Marxist/socialist theory/practice and
consciousness of class.
Much the same kind of difficulty arises with regard to production
relations, and in particular the continuing prevalence in Dumari of
unfree labour. 39 Having outlined succinctly the oppressive and unfree
nature of debt bondage, Rajubhai claimed that as a Naxalite activist
he could not conceive of ever again being bonded to a Kurmi landowner.
Although he still worked for the latter, it was now as a sharecropper;
despite the fact that Rajubhai was proud of what he regarded as a
transition to freedom, this characterization is nevertheless
problematic. In many parts of Bihar (and elsewhere in India), a
sharecropping relation such as the manki contract is not an exit from
but rather the first step into a bonded labour relation.40
It is perhaps significant, therefore, that in order to perform funeral
rites for his father, Rajubhai had to borrow money from the Kurmi
landowner with whom he had an annual sharecropping arrangement.
Although seemingly respected by the latter, Rajubhai was under
constant pressure from this proprietor to enter a more permanent
employment relationship. More generally, some 80 per cent of Dalit
agricultural workers in Dumari remained in attached labour
arrangements with particular landlords, as a result of which wage
levels have stayed at the same level for two decades.
This element of contradiction extends to Naxalite power itself. On the
one hand, there are undeniable achievements and successes, not least
in the fact that Naxalites can strike at will anywhere in Bihar. This
they have demonstrated in the recent Maoist jailbreak in Jahanabad. 41
Not only does their war against oppressive landowners and the state
(especially the police) continue, but Naxalites have managed to roll
back powerful upper caste militias. Moreover, they have in the main
succeeded in organizing grassroots resistance by poor peasants and
landless labourers. It is important, however, not to over-estimate
both the extent and the durability of these achievements.
Rajubhai invoked janadalats and village committees as effective
programmes of local empowerment, and he himself conducted many such
meetings where erring landowners were punished. Yet the element of
contradiction still surfaces. Although a powerful process of village
justice, therefore, the actual punishment (= slapping with a sandal)
meted out in the case of a lower caste woman who had been sexually
assaulted by an upper caste male aggressor suggests that the punitive
role of janadalats is symbolic only. 42 As such, it is an insufficient
deterrent to prevent this kind of incident from recurring. The reason
for this is not difficult to discern: as long as those who exercise
political and economic power in rural Bihar remain unexpropriated,
they will continue to be able to do so, the local existence of
parallel Dalit institutions notwithstanding. Rajubhai's story simply
highlights the contradictions in the ideology and practice of Naxalism
within just such a context, where the class power of upper caste
landowners - although challenged - is still largely intact.
1All the names of villagers appearing in this article are pseudonyms.
2For an analysis of the difficulties in carrying out fieldwork in a
context where violence is prevalent, together with the methodological
implications of this fact, see Kunnath 2004.
3Dalits and the upper castes live in different sections of the
village; normally the Dalits are located in the south and the upper
castes in the north. Various reasons - such as the inauspiciousness of
the south, the directions of the wind, etc. - are given for such a
spatial arrangement. Generally the wind direction in this part of the
state is either easterly or westerly, hence the belief that the upper
castes are protected from the polluting air coming from the Dalit
4Along with the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), the Communist Party of
India (Marxist-Leninist) People's War was one of the main Naxalite
organizations engaged in armed struggle in central Bihar during the
time of my fieldwork. In November 2004, both these organizations
joined together to form a single party with the name Communist Party
of India (Maoist). It is classified as a terrorist organization by the
Indian state and the US government. Another Marxist-Leninist party,
known as CPI (M-L) Liberation, also operates in this region. Although
earlier this particular grouping was engaged in armed struggle, it has
now shifted its activity to parliamentary politics. For the histories
of these organizations in Central Bihar, see Bhatia 2000; 2005 and
Louis 2002. My fieldwork was conducted mostly in the areas under the
influence of People's War, a party to which Rajubhai himself belonged.
5Each Naxalite group was engaged in an internecine conflict, a war of
all against all. The MCC and the People's War had already come to a
mutual understanding by 2003, but the CPI (M-L) Liberation continued
its fight with People's War. All the latter fought with the armed
squads of the Ranveer Sena, a private militia of the upper caste
Bhumihars in the region.
6Anthropologists are all too familiar with the fieldwork situation
where an outside researcher is not just drawn into the social network
of a figure like Rajubhai who is influential but becomes a conduit for
the reproduction of the latter's influence in two specific ways. These
involve external/internal status enhancement of the informant in
question: in the eyes first of their own peer group, and second of the
anthropologist himself. Hence the process of external status
enhancement derives from an informant being able to tell the
researcher how powerful/influential a person he (Rajubhai) is in the
locality. The informant is simultaneously able to use the presence of
the anthropologist for the purpose of internal status enhancement. It
is true that my close association with Rajubhai seems to have had just
such an effect. However, in the initial phase of fieldwork, my
presence was more of a liability than an asset, due to the volatility
of the situation.
7As the indices of landlessness, outmigration, and rural poverty all
confirm, Bihar has been and remains economically one of the most
backward states in the Indian Union [Sharma and Gupta, 1987; Yugandhar
and Iyer, 1993.
8Useful accounts of agrarian struggles in India, both in the colonial
era and the post-Independence period, are found in the now classic
analyses by Dhanagare 1983 and Desai 1979; 1986.
9For the background to plus an account of the original uprising by
tribal peasants in Naxalbari, organized by the CPI (M-L) during the
1967-72 period in Darjeeling District of West Bengal, see Sen 1982:
10Historically, the CPI had always exercised a strong influence over
peasant agency by virtue of its powerful leadership position in the
All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS). Even after the end of the Second World
War, the CPI was still conducting what amounted to a national rather
than a class struggle, in which its object was to make itself the
standard bearer of Indian nationalism, thereby competing with and - if
possible - replacing the electoral supremacy of the Congress Party.
Given this reformist approach, its objective was unsurprisingly to
establish as wide an electoral basis as possible. To this end, the
1950s programme of AIKS was designed to generate a broad Democratic
Alliance. This is evident from the following programmatic statement
[Rasul, 1974: Appendix I] by the AIKS: `Attention should be also be
paid to the task of forging the solid unity of kisans [= peasants]
with their allies in the towns, that is the working class organized in
trade unions, the middle class employees and other sections of the
urban poor, the small and medium shopkeepers and industrialists who
are daily being squeezed out of existence because of the oppressive
taxation and other policies pursued by the government.' That
components of this alliance might be separated in terms of class, and
thus have not just different but antagonistic interests, was an issue
that the CPI and the AIKS failed to address.
11The CPI was dismissed by the CPI (M-L) as the embodiment of `modern
Soviet revisionism' [Roy, 1975: 272].
12According to the CPI (M-L) programme of 1970, therefore, its object
was `the complete overthrow of the rule [in the Indian countryside by]
the big feudal landlord classes, the agents and lackeys of US
Imperialism' [Roy, 1975: 271]. In other words, the economic
backwardness of the agrarian sector was seen as an effect of
`semi-colonial' foreign domination mediated via `semi-feudal' landlordism.
13The literature on bonded labour in rural India is vast, and the
debate about this form of employment (whether such relations are - or
are not - coercive, unfree, a specifically feudal form of
exploitation, and compatible with capitalism) is correspondingly
wide-ranging. For recent overviews of this debate, see Brass 1999; 2002a.
14See Roy 1975: Appendix I]. Naxalite tactics took the form of
`annihilation of class enemies', a category that included not just
landlords but also moneylenders (who were usually also substantial
15As Mitter 1977: 23-4] points out, there is some confusion as to what
kind of rural subject comes in which category, and why. This is
particularly true of the top end of the agrarian hierarchy, where the
socio-economic distinctions between a small landlord (a foe in class
terms) and a better-off peasant (a friend in class terms) are not
always evident. There are additional problems. According to Marxism,
the main historical subject in the transition to capitalism is the
capitalist him/herself. In the case of agriculture, this may be either
a capitalist landlord or a capitalist rich peasant. Similarly, the
main historical subject in Marxist theory about systemic transition
from capitalism (to socialism) is the working class, in the form of
urban proletariat and agricultural workers.
16Some of the larger backwards caste groups are the Dhanuk, Teli,
Kahar, Kandu, Lohar and Nai communities. Among the Dalits, the major
groups in the region are the Chamars (Ravidasi), the Paswans (Dusadh),
the Musahars and the Dhobi.
17These figures have been compiled from the list drawn up by Louis
2002: 241-6]. Individual killings are too numerous to include here.
18Some 96 per cent of the upper castes belong in the landlord and rich
peasant category; only 36 per cent of the Yadav, Kurmi and Koeri
castes are found in this same category. Nearly all - some 93 per cent
- Dalits are landless agricultural labourers. Between these two
extremes come others who, because they own only small amounts of land,
have to sell their labour-power in order to survive. The fact that 60
per cent of the rural population - those who owned insufficient or no
land - were ranged against the 30 per cent who were upper caste
landowners, plus a minority of proprietors from the Yadav, Kurmi and
Koeri castes, sometimes gave the agrarian conflict the appearance of a
caste and not a class struggle [Prasad, 1994: 180].
19Under the zamindari system the various exactions included begar
(forced labour), nagdi (cash rent), Bhaoli (rent-in-kind), and abwab
(an additional cash or kind levy). For further details about these
forms of surplus labour extraction, see Rakesh Gupta 1982, Mitra 1985
and Shaibal Gupta 1994.
20Each landowning caste in Bihar had its own sena, most of which were
formed during the 1980s to counter the rising challenge from landless
labourers. Their zone of operation was in central Bihar (now south
Bihar). That of the Kurmis was known as the Bhumisena, while the
Loriksena was formed by the Yadavs, the Gangasena by the Rajputs, and
the Sunlightsena by the Kisan Morcha. Most dreaded of all, however,
was the Ranveer sena formed by the Bhumihar caste. From its inception
in 1994, until the year 2000, it was responsible for some 26
massacres, in the process killing 247 people. Ranveer sena remains the
most feared of all the private armies organized by the landed classes.
For details about these senas, see the PUDR Report  and Louis 2002.
21It should be noted that the concept of testimonio is problematic, as
a recent exchange in this journal [Brass, 2002b; Beverley, 2004
22The Kurmis are the dominant caste in various districts of the Magadh
region. In Dumari, all the land - apart from that in the hands of a
few upper caste households - was owned by the Kurmis. Hence the
struggle in this particular context was between on the one hand the
Kurmis, and on the other the landless labourers who worked in the
fields owned by the Kurmis.
23All the interviews with Rajubhai were carried out during the
one-year fieldwork period in Dumari. Interviews themselves were
conducted in Hindi, the translations from which into English are mine.
In doing this, every effort has been made to reproduce as accurately
as possible the meaning conveyed by the informant in the course of the
24All the supporters of the People's War referred to their
organization as Sanghathan.
25On the private armies of the landowning castes, see above.
26His sons would also phone from Gujarat, calls going to the telephone
located in the village shop. A boy from the latter would run to inform
Rajubhai and his wife about the call, for which errand he was paid Rs.
2. They would then go to the shop and await a second call.
27This is merely to underline the importance of another familiar
methodological issue that crops up in the course of
participant/observation fieldwork. One should not, therefore,
underestimate the extent to which the additional presence of an
anthropologist put pressure on the already fragile household economy
of Rajubhai and his domestic unit. Nor should one underestimate the
unstinting generosity of hospitality offered by peasant families to
those from other societies. Bhabhi went out of her way to provide the
visiting researcher with an afternoon meal, mostly chuvira (flattened
rice). On feast days everyone consumed special food, which is why -
along with the family members - the anthropologist eagerly looked
forward to holi, diwali, chatt and other Hindu festivals.
28With regard to the latter designation, Gramsci 1971: 16] noted:
`That all members of a political party should be regarded as
intellectuals is an affirmation that can easily lend itself to mockery
and caricature. But if one thinks about it nothing could be more exact.
29Gramsci contrasts the role and position of the `organic
intellectual' - an authentic voice of and participant in grassroots
agency - with that of what he terms `traditional intellectuals'.
Although some of the latter may have emerged from the ranks of the
rural poor, therefore, in doing so they shed this identity in part or
in whole, and become the `other' of their socio-economic roots. About
the important and enduring role of these `traditional intellectuals'
Gramsci 1971: 14-15] observes: `One can understand nothing of the
collective life of the peasantry and of the germs and ferments of
development which exist within it, if one does not take into
consideration and examine concretely and in depth this effective
subordination to the [traditional] intellectuals. Every organic
development of the peasant masses, up to a certain point, is linked to
and depends on movements among the intellectuals.
30When Gramsci used the term `organic intellectual' to describe the
agency of a `permanent persuader' which resulted in the hegemonic
domination by working class discourse over that of traditional
intellectuals (priests, doctors, lawyers, scientists, technicians,
etc.), he was referring to this external role. About this his view
[Gramsci, 1971: 10] was as follows: `The mode of being of the new
intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior
and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active
participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, "permanent
persuader" and not just simple orator . One of the most important
characteristics of any group that is developing toward dominance is
its struggle to assimilate and to conquer "ideologically" the
31See, for example, the account by Krishnan 1971 of the founder of the
Communist movement in Kerala, by Murugesan and Subramanyam 1975 of
`the father of Communism in the South', and by Namboodiripad 1976 of
his own leftwards path.
32This transformation is depicted somewhat differently by Crehan 2002:
129], for whom it is a largely cultural recasting. Her view is that an
organic intellectual, the bearer of such change, was `crucial to the
process whereby a major new culture', one that represented the
`worldview of an emerging class', came into being. The view taken
here, by contrast, does not confine the transformation wrought by an
organic intellectual simply to the domain of culture. It has an impact
both on politics, agency in furtherance of politics, and also on ideas
about political economy.
33This attempt by Rajubhai to eradicate alcohol production and
consumption is not a moral stance, driven by a puritanical zeal on the
part of Naxalites. The fact of excessive alcohol consumption in rural
areas of the so-called Third World is well known, but the economic and
social problems linked to this are not always made clear. Brewing in
the domestic unit is frequently depicted in much of the
anthropological literature - see, for example, the volume edited by
Douglas 1987 - as no more than an income-generating form of informal
sector economic activity, a benign type of petty trade that empowers
women from poor peasant households. What is not said quite so often is
that many females in rural areas attribute family poverty to
expenditure by males on drinking, in furtherance of which the latter
sometimes incur debts and enter bonded labour relations [da Corta and
Venkateshwarlu, 1999: 107ff.].
34Elsewhere the same point is made slightly differently [Thompson,
1978: 150]: `Class eventuates as men and women live their productive
relations, and as they experience their determinate situations, within
the ensemble of social relations, with their inherited culture and
expectations, and as they handle these experiences in cultural ways'.
35As Lenin 1961: 349ff.] pointed out, many grassroots components of
`popular culture' - religion, nationalism, and racism among them - are
backward-looking, and the task of politicization by external/urban
influences (intellectuals, trade unions, political parties) is
precisely to challenge and then change such ideas. Whether Marx
himself advocated such primary importance of the party in developing
class consciousness is unclear. In The Poverty of Philosophy [Marx,
1963: 145] he observed: `Economic conditions had in the first place
transformed the mass of the people into workers. The domination of
capital created the common situation and common interests of this
class. Thus this mass is already a class in relation to capital, but
not a yet a class for itself. In the struggle, of which we have only
indicated a few phases, this mass united and forms itself into a class
for itself. The interests which it defends become class interests.'
The inference is that the proletariat would develop a consciousness of
class by itself, simply through the process of class struggle.
36The term Harijan, meaning `people of God', was popularised by
Gandhi. However, it rapidly acquired a derogatory meaning, and the
Dalit movement in India rejected the term because it was first used by
a Gujarati poet to denote children born to Devdasis (temple prostitutes).
37Hence the view [Scott, 1976: 236] that `Folk religion may undergo a
transformation that places it in sharp opposition to the religious and
social doctrines of the elite.
38See the volume edited by Washbrook 2005 for a similar tactic adopted
by the Mexican state in an attempt to buy off the Zapatista rebels in
39When fieldwork was conducted in this area of Bihar during the
mid-1980s by Brass 1999: 117-23], bonded labour was frequently
encountered in villages where it had previously been said this
relation had ceased to exist. A case in point is the village of
Pawapuri near the state capital Patna, where the Bihar government
Department of Labour and Social Welfare declared in 1976 that `the
bonded labour system does not exist' (cited by Vijayendra, Ghatak and
Rao 1984: 135]). Yet a decade later, research in Pawapuri indicated
that bonded labour continued there unabated.
40On this see Brass 1999: 115], who argues that a landless labourer or
poor peasant may end up indebted to the landowner `as a consequence of
cash or kind loans received in order to cultivate the sharecropped land'.
41On November 13 in 2005, nearly 1000 cadres and supporters of the CPI
(Maoist) stormed Jahanabad jail, rescuing many of their comrades
imprisoned there, including the area commander Ajay Kanu. The
jailbreak also resulted in the escape of more than 389 prisoners, and
the seizure of police weapons. The Maoists also killed two leaders of
the Ranveer sena, and took many others as hostages. As a propaganda
victory, this episode is unsurpassed: it made front-page news in every
leading daily in India. For details, see Bhatia 2005, Louis 2005 and
42The importance of symbolic action should not, however, be
underestimated. In rural Bihar, where exploitation is also articulated
through symbolic and ritual actions, such instances of lower caste
retribution - a man/woman slapping the upper caste landowner, or
garlanding him with slippers - in janadalats are indeed significant.
It is nevertheless the case that structural change - that is to say,
the roots of oppression and exploitation - is effected by mass agency,
not symbolic punishment.
 Banerjee, Sumanta (1980) In the Wake of the Naxalbari: A History
of the Naxalite Movement in India, Calcutta: Subarnarekha.
 Bhatia, Bela The Naxalite Movement in Central Bihar, unpublished
Ph.D thesis. 2000.: University of Cambridge
 Bhatia, Bela (2005) The Naxalite Movement in Central Bihar,
Economic and Political Weekly, 40(16).
 Bhatia, Bela (2005) Jahanabad - 1: Jail Break and the Maoist
Movement, Economic and Political Weekly, 40(51).
 Behar, Ruth (1990) Rage and Redemption: Reading the Life Story of
a Mexican Marketing Woman, Feminist Studies, 16(2).
 Beverley, John (1992) The Margin at the Centre: On Testimonio
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