Fielding Fire

The farm laws are an assault on Shudra power

The Jat leader Rakesh Tikait at a mahapanchayat in Haryana. The massive protests against the new farm laws have been organised and headed by farming communities traditionally seen as Shudras in the varna system. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
28 February, 2021

As Christophe Jaffrelot wrote in a recent piece in the Indian Express, after the implementation of the Mandal commission’s recommendations, in 1990, Hindutva forces worked out an agenda to stop the advancement of the Shudras. The government, then under VP Singh, extended reservations in public universities and government employment to a large section of the Shudras that was officially labelled the Other Backward Classes. Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wrote at the time of “an urgent need to build up moral and spiritual forces to counter any fallout from an expected Shudra revolution.”

In the varna-fixated ideological view of the Sangh and its electoral appendage, the Bharatiya Janata Party, Shudras are immoral and unspiritual. The “moral and spiritual” forces, in other words, meant Dwijas—the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas who are above the Shudras in the varna ladder. Jaffrelot described how the Sangh has managed to mobilise greater support from the OBCs and deploy it in the service of upper-caste politicians, who are greatly over-represented in the BJP. The rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP, he concluded, has meant “a post-Mandal counter-revolution that has enabled upper-caste politics and policies to stage a comeback.”

The farm laws enacted by the Modi government last year, which propose a radical reconfiguration of agricultural commerce, have opened another front in this contest. Once again, Shudras are in the crosshairs. The massive protests against the new laws, ongoing for months in the northern states and on Delhi’s borders, have been organised and headed by farming communities traditionally seen as Shudras in the varna system. In Punjab, the Jutt Sikhs are in the lead. In Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan, it is the Jats, under the leadership of Rakesh Tikait. The new laws are connected to the Sangh’s core agenda—not just reducing the power of the Shudras, but also reducing the power of the states, a number of which are under the control of regional parties that draw their strength from a Shudra agrarian base. Even in states where the BJP is in power—in Karnataka, for example—Shudras assert themselves, often in opposition to the Sangh, from their agrarian caste base.

Nationwide, the “upper” Shudras have a huge say in the agrarian economy and the politics of their states. In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, this includes groups such as the Jats, Yadavs, Kurmis and Gujjars. There are the Patels in Gujarat, the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Kammas, Reddys, Kapus and Velamas in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. There are also the Lingayats and Vokkaligas in Karnataka, the Nairs and Ezhavas in Kerala, the Nayakars, Nadars and Mudaliyars in Tamil Nadu, and so on. The main exceptions are in West Bengal and Orissa, where the strongest regional parties remain under the control of the Bhadralok. Here the Shudras are kept so weak that they have not come up to control the agricultural market or have a strong say in politics. This is largely a legacy of the refusal to engage with caste inequality by the elite-caste communists and leftists who have had extended stints in power in these states, and have long insisted on speaking for agrarian communities while sustaining their own Brahminical dominance. (This has also left scope for Hindutva forces to bring the Shudras and Namasudras into their fold in these states.)