kerala: how caste surpassed class

by the time the land reform movement in kerala was finally translated into state policy, it had actually become a moment of 'caste surpassing class' and not vice versa. it was a movement when the most politically active jati group among the bahujans, especially sections of the ezhavas, forged a tentative alliance with the erstwhile landholding upper castes.. kerala history after that moment should perhaps be seen as a chronicle of the fortunes of this alliance as more space was negotiated, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, from the upper castes by this emerging dominant group, through time.. so what the policy achieved was actually only a formalization of of transfer of titles to peasants from this group who were already tilling the particular holdings as tenants.. land reforms across india have followed a similar pattern..they have always been transfer of full rights to a few jatis who were engaged as tenants earlier, not to the whole category of shudras or obcs or dalits, at large. these successful jatis form a minority within the shudra/obc category. this was the case in up, were the yadavs, kurmis, jats etc benefited to some extent, not all of the 70 odd obc jatis at large.. it's again, yadavs and kurmis etc in bihar, not the 130 other jatis..the dismantling of zamindaries and jagirdaries in coastal andhra and telangana benefited the reddy, kamma, kapu sub-castes.. and so on. the same was the case with kerala.. where the ezhavas and a couple of other jatis benefited more than the 70 other jatis..

so the class struggles, which had been waged earlier, finally transformed into a triumphal caste alliance when they became policy in the late 50s. all the progressive 'reform policies' in kerala should be seen as a culmination of a century old class struggles, wrongly referred to as mere caste -particularly in its reductive form, jati - assertion movements or religious reform struggles.. whether it was ayyankali's first agricultural strike or right to education movements, or the movements led by narayana guru and others - all of these can only only be understood as movements against caste or class rule. as dr. ambedkar had indicated in aoc, caste rule should be seen as constitutive of power derived derive from 'religion, status and property'. so the 1950s land reforms ensured some property for the ezhavas and a few others, while ensuring the maintenance of the religious authority, social status, property and power of the brahmins, nairs etc.. a strengthening of the caste order or caste rule through the the infusion of some new partner jatis into its fatigued body.

stagnation is a marker of agriculture in kerala more than in any other part of the country - it had arrived a decade or two earlier, in the 60s itself, while in many parts of the country it started in the eighties or nineties.. for instance, kerala now produces less rice than it did in the sixties, perhaps.. a large quantum of essential foodgrains come in from other states while large tracts of agricultural lands lie fallow.. this might all seem very strange, considering one would expect land reforms to increase productivity and output. in kerala, both have gone down over time.. if we analyse closely, we'll notice two subterranean facts: one, that land reforms actually arrived when a large number of the largest group of landholders - the nairs and brahmins - had already decided to consolidate their urban assets (and move away from agriculture?)..the nairs, for instance, had the highest literacy rates, perhaps, among all shudra groups in south india - right from telangana to tamil nadu - next only to the brahmins, even as early as 1911. two, the new group of tenants who had become title-holding farmers, the ezhavas and others, did not have a) the same resources as the erstwhile upper caste landholders to invest in increasing productivity, and b) a large number of these new farmers were themselves becoming more interested in urban jobs..

this caste alliance, which calls itself a communist party aiming for a 'people's democratic order' and working for the interests of the people against the 'landlord-bourgeois' dominated society represents the strongest class interest - or a combination of interests - in kerala.. it is characterized by what could be called babu collectivist interests - bureaucratic capitalists, as they would call in their terminology - plus a wide range of state-dependent commercial interests - from those involved in plantations to tourism to other such services. all of these interests share some common caste identities, and have a common vision.. we can perceive the peculiar contours of their vision by looking at the political economy they have together tried to forge in kerala over the last 6 decades - stagnation in agriculture, increase in consumption (among the middle classes, all fueled not by increased capital formation but by remittances generated from a workforce aiding economies elsewhere) without a concomitant increase in production, stagnation in industrial expansion, lots of disguised unemployment and underemployment. this represents the starkest case of what i call caste mode of production - selective adoption of modernity to fossilize social relations around caste through the agency of state power.

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