Those Who Till the Land Own the Land: Dalit Resistance in Bihar

by Kushal Choudhary

Bodh Gaya, the land of Buddha’s enlightenment in the state of Bihar, is said to still keep alive the Bodhi tree. The Bodhi tree, a spiritual marker under which it is said that the Buddha attained enlightenment.

Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya where the Buddha is said to have been meditating and attained enlightenment, Photo by Neil Satyam, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

However for over 400 years, the land and villages around it were all under the control of the Bodh Gaya Math (BGM). The Bodh Gaya Math (pronounced Boh-dh Gah-Yah Muh-th), a Hindu-Shaivite monastery was first built in the 16th century as a layover for a sect of Hindu pilgrims that then turned into a monastery. Over time it turned into a powerful religio-political order, that with the support of the ruling state, whether the Mughals or the British. Consisting of around 4000 villages spread across more than 9000 acres. They received villages through the patronage of the ruling state, and held the villages tax-free.

Much of the visible work done by the Math was of charity, of providing food to the hungry peasant class in the villages they controlled. However, the Math also acted as the feudal centre of the region — extracting labour from the peasantry to work on their large fields and keeping most of the wealth it generated (Geary 2013, 369).

The Math managed the vast number of villages through local Math sub-centres known as “kachheri”s. Each kacheri acted as an administrative block managing the interests of the Math in a defined group of villages. (Geary 2013, 369) The majority of work supervised under the institution of the Math was agricultural labour. Landless labourers, known as “kamias”, were central to these operations, to work the fields of the mahant. The caste-structured villages obviously disadvantaged certain Dalit castes to be landless, and hence one of the Dalit castes, known as “Bhuiyans”, were the predominant landless labour force (Prasad 2021, 4).

Indentured slavery under the institution of the Math was maintained by force and complex caste political play which divided Dalit castes on the basis of graded hierarchies of the caste system.

The armed guards of the Math were known as “goriaths” belonged to the Dalit “Dusadh” caste which is considered higher up in the hierarchy in comparison to Bhuiyans. (Prasad 2021, 4). As recounted in scholar Indulata Prasad’s account of the Bodh Gaya Land Movement (BGLM), Karu Majhi, an elderly person from the Bhuiyan caste living in the village called Kaari, said “We were at Babaji’s (mahant) mercy and we did whatever he asked us to do. Even the slightest sign of insubordination was dealt with firmly. You could not call in sick [laughs]. The goraith would come and beat the pulp out of us and take us to the local kachheri to be disciplined further.” (Prasad 2021, 4)

Sexual violence and exploitation of Bhuiyan women was too common under the rule of the Math. It was said to be customary that newly-wed brides of Bhuiyan men were sent to the local kachheri on their wedding night. If the women protested against the custom, “the local kachheri officials would arrange for another marriage of the husband, thereby making Bhuiyan women’s position furthermore vulnerable and always at the mercy of the kachheri officials.” Prasad notes (Prasad 2021, 4).

Bhuiyan workers were tied up in ropes to be taken to harvest crops in the mahant’s lands, Art by Aravindh Raju

An elderly woman from Kaari, Bedamia points to less explicit ways of gendered subjugation. “We would sing while performing arduous agricultural tasks such as stooping over to plant paddy in knee deep water and this old b*****(a supervisor from the Math) would sit there and watch over us and prod us to sing more as it pleased him a lot.” (Prasad 2021, 4) As in other parts of feudal India, violence against women is used here as a means of caste-based subjugation to maintain the status quo of the order of the Math (Prasad 2021, 4) .

Remedies tried by post-independence India

Post-1947, Bihar was the first state to legislate land reforms. The Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950 sought to legally abolish “zamindari” (landlordism) in Bihar. The mahant, now under the legal radar of the state, approached the courts and claimed ‘personal rights’ over his excess landholdings. This was upheld by the Supreme Court, compromising on the interests of the state. (Geary 2013, 371) 

Another threat posed against the Math was the passing of the Bihar Land Ceiling act of 1961, which targeted excess land-holding zamindars and set a limit to the area of land one could hold. The mahant settled much of his ‘personal’ land as he could by ”gifting” it to his disciples. This was followed by a division of the property of the Math into several estates, settled as ‘religious trusts’. “As a result of the subdivision of the Math estate into small parcels of land below the legal ceilings and incorporated as ‘religious trusts’, these properties were arguably within the designated limits set by law.” (Geary 2013, 372) 

 Parallel to the state-mandated efforts land redistribution efforts was a social movement called was the "Bhoodan movement aimed at “obtaining 50 million acres of land through peaceful and nonviolent means.” notes Geary. The district of Gaya, Bihar turned out to be the space of much mobilisation under the movement, convincing many privileged landlords to give up their large holdings for the benefit of the poor and landless.

Instead of having the effect it should have had, this movement seems to have strengthened the social positions of many zamindars, including the mahant of the Bodh Gaya Math. Meagre amounts of land were given away with huge pomp and show allowing the landlords to act like humble donors who only wanted the well-being of the poor and landless. All the while, the hegemony and exploitative feudalism of the mahant which greatly affected the Dalits continued unabated and largely unquestioned.

The Bodh Gaya Land Movement(BGLM) and the rise of Dalit resistance

Growing resentment in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to uprisings among the exploited Dalits and other lower castes who took to many different forms of resistance to resist the injustices of the mahant. Naxalism, a local brand of militant leftism, was raging across Bihar in the 1960s (Prasad 2021, 2). Many Dalits from Bodh Gaya took up arms and joined the violent rebellion (Prasad 2021, 5) .

Sukri, an elder from the Kaari village comments on the situation of joining the communist rebellion in Prasad’s account of the Bodh Gaya struggle: “Partaking in an armed struggle meant not only arming oneself but one’s entire family and willing to both take and pay with lives…[But] we have nothing against the grihasts. We have no enmity with them or anyone. We don’t want to kill or destroy anyone. All we want is to live with dignity, with respect. We just want our right to livelihood. But the grihasts were not ready to part with even an inch of land. They wanted us to serve them like we did the BGM. The government too thinks we support violence and treat us as suspects. We don’t support any violence. We just want the violence directed at us to end. We are humans too.”(Prasad 2021, 5)

The unsustainability of the use of violence led Bhuiyan peasants to seek alternate forms of resistance.

The rising tide of the JP movement, named after the socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan, all across India had its roots in student movements against the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government of the 1970s. Student groups later expanded and protested against the issues of famines, food scarcity, and inflation, all of which were surfacing under the Indira Gandhi regime. JP’s call for a ‘total revolution’ reverberated across rural and urban areas. It led to the formation of “Chhatra Yuva Sangarsh Vahini” (CYSV, Student Youth Struggle Brigade), consisting of urban youth who were committed to dismantle feudalistic structures in rural areas.

“Jo zameen ko boye jote, voh zameen ka malik hai!’” (‘those who sow and plough the land are the owners of the land’) Art by Aravindh Raju

In Bodh Gaya, serious mobilisation by the Brigade and protests against the Math bore some fruit and the mahant could feel the heat. “From Gosain Pesra (a village which was the key site of resistance of the Brigade against the Math), many of the Dalits began to implement a series of non-cooperation tactics that included boycotting the winter harvest crops and intercepting contract labourers who were hired by the Bodh Gaya Math to carry out the seasonal work.” (Geary 2013, 375). Protests spread like wildfire after the one at Gosain Pesra. Through these efforts, Dalits went against the order of the kachheri and stopped tilling the land of the mahant.

Uprising in Mastipur 1979

In the village of Mastipur, near the Mahabodhi temple, the uprising of the kamias resulted in direct confrontation with the strong-arm of the Math. “August 8, 1979 marks the “real” day of independence for the Bhuiyan Dalits of Kaari as it was the day when two Bhuiyan Dalit activists were killed by Math goons and one injured.” (Prasad 2021, 5) The mahant hired goons to suppress the protesting kamias who have refused to till the land of the Math. The goons attacked a procession of 200 kamias with grenades and bullets, in which 2 Dalits were martyred. In response, the kachheri was stormed by the other kamias with hatchets and axes later, while the Student Youth Struggle Brigade activists mobilised the police. Public outcry after this chaotic event led to the arrest of many administrators and monks of the Math (Geary 2013, 375) .

This is said to be the beginning of the fall of the hegemony of the Math.

Karu Majhi, who was a teenager at that time, was surprised to see such a huge procession of kamias: “They were marching en masse towards BGM headquarters in Bodh Gaya town demanding their rights to land. The women were in front and the men at the back. I watched our fellow brothers and sisters, women, men, children, old and young, unafraid and ready to face whatever consequences. There was a firm resolve. One could feel it.” (Prasad 2021, 6) The consciousness to resist the order of the Math reached Kaari after rumours were heard that kamias in other villages obtained land rights as a result of the 8 August protests. Thus started the “kranti ladai” (revolutionary struggle) of Kaari. Villagers asked the Brigade to extend support to their cause, which was duly supported by the Brigade soon (Prasad 2021, 6).

The demand for fertile land in the village to be redistributed amongst those who have tilled it, manifesting in the popular calls by protestors such as

“jo zameen ko boye jote, voh zameen ka malik hai’” (‘those who sow and plough the land are the owners of the land’)(Geary 2013, 374), shook the grihasts

and they launched an affront against the kamias as well. Not backing down against the heavily armed force of goons of the grihasts, the Brigade’s help in mobilisation pressuring the state and support has to be noted as well. A villager commented to Prasad: “Had it not been for the Sangharsh Vahini (The Brigade) activists who got the police on time, there would have been a blood bath in Kaari. We would have been massacred that day. On one side stood the grihasts with hired goons on horses with rifles and bombs. And the other side was us. All of us kamias, women, youth, children, elderly — holding sticks or sickles or simply pumping our bare fists in the air — were ready to die that day. Had the police not come on time, who knew what would have happened.” (Prasad 2021, 6)

Bedamia, speaking of the days of struggle said: “In those days, we not only sold our pots and pans to [afford to] attend protests, but we also took part in marches, oftentimes on a hungry stomach. We faced the police because they could not behave as brutally towards the women as they would towards the men. I have also gone to jail. The state gave us land rights because we women fought for our rights.” (Prasad 2021, 6)They were finally granted control over the land, officially by the state. To curb resistance by the grihasts, police were stationed in the village for over a month. (Prasad 2021, 6)

The 1979 Mastipur incident led to the liberation of around 3000 acres of land, and the continued BGLM in the coming decade resulted in an additional 3679 acres, redistributed amongst the landless. (Geary 2013, 376)

The larger BGLM and the death knell of the institutional domination of the Math arrived with the order of the Supreme Court of India in 1987 which “ruled that the BGM can only hold on to 100 acres of land and the remaining land was to be redistributed among the landless”(Prasad 2021, 6)

The aftermath of the BGLM and the winning gait of the kamias consists of many discontents. Many complain that the state gave them infertile land, and for what it is worth, they still hold on to it. In Kaari, Prasad reports that Bhuiyans have been able to hold on to their land till now. But many complain that the land assigned to them is infertile while the fertile land remains in the hands of the landed-elites of the village and the grihasts. Neither did the state help anyone in the context of resources and capital for the cultivation for the Bhuiyans to help them sustain themselves through their landholdings. (Prasad 2021, 6) Larger structures of a brahminical state that favours the elites and supports capitalist exploitation has put a halt on the overall progress of the Bhuiyans and they still fight for their rights. Prasad notes “In 2014, Sukri told me the Kaari Bhuiyan were still participating in “dharna, juloos, [sit ins and protest marches], but it seems that the Sarkar (the government) has decided to remain deaf and mute to our pleas.”(Prasad 2021, 6) 

Visiting Mastipur Today

This author visited Mastipur recently and found that the land-ownership in Mastipur of Dalits was short-lived. While they won land rights through the movement, the ever-changing nature of the agrarian crisis couldn’t let them benefit from it.

Power and capital remains in the hands of the upper-castes, to whom the Dalits have sold their land over time due to economic and financial crunch in their families related to medical emergencies, marriage and the like. The social and material conditions of the Dalit community is largely unchanged, cut off from the mainstream.

The fall of the Math has provided many opportunities of employment in the context of the Mahabodhi Temple becoming a World Heritage site in early 2000s and becoming a major tourist attraction. Though, most Dalits remain in low-paying jobs provided by the administration of the Mahabodhi temple.

Few dalit castes such as Paswans and Chamars, since they are better off and higher up in the caste hierarchy, have managed to retain some portion of their land, while Bhuiyans are once again falling into the category of ‘landless labour’, working on the fields owned by landlords belonging now to the dominant-castes such as Thakurs.

Education has been a key issue, as the elders of Mastipur say that their generation has not been able to procure jobs in the government sector or find opportunities. The present youth, either migrate to larger cities or work in Gaya doing labour work. A crunch in government sector opportunities bother the youth and many feel that they would have to continue in the present scenario. 

Did the BGLM ultimately fail in dismantling structures of caste and capital ? One can partly agree to this claim, as the larger structural forces remain unchanged, or even after going through massive change, as we see Dalits finally having land titles, there are issues of sustaining and prospering from the victories. The consciousness of resistance too is in decline as the strangulating grip of the agrarian crisis which grips not only rural Bihar but the whole of rural India has concretely reinstated the power-play of the landlords. This crisis has lead to an "ever-increasing figure of farmer’s suicides in India. Farmers are debt-ridden and at the mercy of the moneylenders and banks.

The increasing inequality due to globalisation and neoliberal policies that enable large corporates to enter the agrarian scene has specifically disadvantaged the agricultural labour class and the price they pay is by either leaving farming or by their death. Majority of Dalits in rural India still work as agricultural labourers, and the BGLM provides a historical frame of resistance that is inspirational, yet inadequate.

The state ultimately favours landlordism, and reinforces the same structures of caste, class and gender. A socialist formation of resistance, that understands and acts on the present malaise of capitalist forces in rural India is required to truly liberate the Dalits and the larger proletariat labour class.

Kushal Choudhary is an independent writer based in Banaras, Uttar Pradesh. He is interested in the history of traditional and modern cultures of India. You can reach them at their email: kushalchoudhary007@gmail.com or through twitter: @kushalpitfall

References:

1.Indulata Prasad (2021) “We have achieved great feats…but our struggle is far from over”: Centering caste difference in feminist discourse of the Bodhgaya Land Movement of Bihar, India (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2021.102438)

2.David Geary (2013) The decline of the Bodh Gaya Math and the afterlife of zamindari, South Asian History and Culture, 4:3, 366–383, DOI: 10.1080/19472498.2013.808513



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Redefining the History of the Subcontinent through a Dalit lens. Participatory Community History Project

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