Caste Murders in India Linked to Land Issue

By Suryamurthy Ramachandran | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

New Delhi ( - The weekend massacre of 34 "lower caste" Indians and the resulting calls for revenge killings have focused attention on the fundamental question of land reform.

Addressing the violence purely as a law-and-order problem would not be enough, argued sociologist D.N. Gupta.

He said land reform would "address the fundamental problem of economic exploitation and social discrimination of landless agricultural laborers from among the lower castes, by upper-caste feudal landowners."

During the weekend attack, scores of assailants dressed in black launched a gun battle against a village called Miapur, home to mostly lower-caste cattle herders. Armed villagers fought back until their ammunition ran out.

The attackers then stormed in and executed 34 children, women and elderly men. Eighteen others were wounded.

The slaughter was the eighth major caste-related attack in the last six months in Bihar state, one of India's poorest. The landlords' militia, which claimed responsibility for the killings, said it was to avenge the massacre of 12 upper-caste landlords earlier in the week.

Bihar is India's most lawless state, with an average of 5,000 homicides, 12,000 incidents of rioting, and hundreds of abductions reported each year.

In a 291-page report, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's 'Untouchables', Human Rights Watch documented other incidents of violence in Bihar in which private militias such as the "Ranvir Sena" have killed Dalit villagers (indigenous tribal people also known as "untouchables") with impunity.

"The Ranvir Sena has been responsible for the massacre of more than 400 Dalit villagers in Bihar between 1995 and 1999. In one three-week span in January and February 1999, the Sena members killed 34 Dalit villagers in two separate attacks.

"On March 19, 1999, members of the Maoist Communist Center, a guerrilla organization with low-caste supporters, beheaded 33 upper-caste villagers in retaliation for the Sena killings," the report said.

During the last three decades much blood has been shed in Bihar in caste violence.

From the first reported caste-based massacre in Purnea district in 1971 there have been more than 60 recorded instances of mass murders, in which about 700 people have been killed.

Most of the violence has been directed at Dalits and was carried out by the private armies of the upper castes, known by such names as the Ranvir Sena, the Bhoomi Sena, the Brahmarshi Sena, the Sunlight Sena and the Savarna Liberation Army.

According to Oliver Mendelsohn and Marika Vicziany, authors of The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India, the caste-based massacres are brutal manifestations of the "violent and primordial casteism" that has overtaken Bihar.

According to government statistics, instances of atrocities against lower caste rose dramatically after 1977. In that year lower Karpoori Thakur, a leader from a lower caste, was elected Chief Minister.

Similarly, there has been another upsurge in violence against lower castes since 1989 and up to the present, a period coinciding with the chief ministership of Laloo Prasad Yadav and, lately, his wife Rabri Devi, both leaders from the lower caste.

Political analysts say upper castes, who enjoyed political, social and administrative supremacy during much of Bihar's recent political history, were responding to the elevation of leaders from lower castes to political power by stepping up attacks.