My village is about 200-250 years old but its socio-economic structure during my childhood (1950-70) was as it must have been a thousand years ago. Bullock-drawn ploughs were used in farms and water was drawn from wells and ponds using “charkhi” and “bedi”. Thanks to the sub-canals and branches from the dam built on Sharda River and government handpumps in the some villages, farming was comparatively developed. Like other traditional production techniques, “charkhi” and “bedi” are no longer seen and have become irrelevant. Most of the area had one crop a year. The fields where Rabi crops were grown were ploughed immediately after the rains. In the months of Kuar and Katik, when the soil was soft due to ploughing, boys played “jhawar” or “badi” in the fields after sunset. Water levels were maintained in paddy fields by building high “meds”. The water-filled fields were called “gadhi”. The water was so clean that we sometimes even drank it. Paddy cultivation was entirely dependent on monsoons. In the 1960s, the area experienced drought for two-three years. By then, bullock-driver Persian wheel had been introduced. This made irrigation easier. Chemical fertilizers revolutionized agriculture and most of the farmers started growing two crops a year. But here, we are not concerned about how the means of irrigation changed from “charkhi” to “Persian wheel” to tubewells and how, instead of bullocks, tractors started being used for ploughing. The changing means of production and production relations is not the subject matter of this article. Here, I want to dwell on the socio-economic structure of the village, as I saw it.
There was perfect harmony in the village. There was never any casteist or communal tension or violence because domination by certain castes was considered God’s will. How could anyone challenge the Almighty? Those who provided services and artisans were not paid in cash immediately. Their clients were fixed and received payments at intervals, mostly in kind. Different castes had different cultural practices and celebrated different festivals but everyone had great reverence for Satyanarayan Katha and for Ram of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas. During the recital of Ramcharitmanas, the lines “Dhol, ganwar, shudra, pashu, nari; ye sab tadan ke adhikari” were also sung. Marx has rightly pointed out that the level of social consciousness is in keeping with the specific stage of development. The Brahmin purohits did perform religious rituals in Chamar settlements but instead of tales of local deities like Kali Mai (who lives in Neem trees) or Kariya Dev (who lives in Peepal trees), they fed Satyanarayan Katha to them. As for the educational level, I was the first boy of the village to study in a university and my classmate Bhawati Dhobi was the first SC to pass high school.
People of all castes owed loyalty to one or the other rival Thakur families. I was told that until the 1952 Panchayat elections, political parties entering the fray here. Before reservation norms were put in place, the village chief (pradhan) was chosen alternately from the two families. Besides more people having access to education, aggressive electoral politics of the BSP also played a key role in developing identity-based consciousness among the Dalits of eastern Uttar Pradesh. When I was a kid, I could not understand why even elderly Dalits tolerated insults from the boys of upper castes, especially Brahmins and Thakurs. This, when their population was much bigger than of all savarnas, Yadavs and Pasis taken together, and given the fact that they did hard physical labour, they must have been stronger in body too. At that time, I was not aware of Marx’s analysis of zeitgeist and social consciousness and Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. Marx writes in Theses On Feuerbach that consciousness is the product of material circumstances and changed consciousness of changed material circumstances. But circumstances do not change on their own. Humans have to make a conscious effort to change them. The last 25 years have witnessed tremendous growth in awareness of education among the Dalits. Due to their numbers and more of them receiving an education, their clout in the village politics has grown. Now, they have started demanding just, cash wages and they resist caste-based humiliation. Many young boys and girls are educated and are in good jobs.
This was a long introduction to a short story. The story goes like this.
“Son, take me along with you to Delhi and get me the job of a peon or a guard. It has become impossible to live in the village because of Chamars.”
“Are they taking away the crops from your field?”
“No. They dare not.”
“Then, they must be abusing you in public places.”
“No. They still don’t have the guts to do that.”
“Then, do they pass comments on your women?”
That was more than he could take. He lost his temper and began abusing me for lacking values and for giving a bad name to my family. Then, he began pouring scorn on communists in general. I told him, “Chacha, they are not taking away your crops, though you have been living off their hard work for ages. They are not abusing you, though they tolerated your abuses for ages. They are not eyeing your women even though you forgot about they being Untouchables when it came to their women. Then, how have they made life difficult for you? You think that extracting unpaid work from them, treating them like dirt is your right. When they refused to work for you without wages, when they started resisting your abuses, you say life has become difficult for you.” By this time, a crowd had gathered and I found myself involved in a one-versus-all debate. Thankfully, there was no danger of my being beaten up.
People are upset because of the assault on their right to exploitation. These assaults should continue till caste is annihilated.