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The Cigarette War

CASTE, VIOLENCE &  MARXISM RURAL INDIA  by Greg Marinovich, copyright 1995.

Chandrabhusan’s chubby profile is picked out by the crimson mystery of an Indian sunset. His voice is silk. I lean halfway across the rickety wood table to hear what he is saying about the war between upper and lower castes being waged in a remote village on the banks of the Ganges.

I am doing my best to avoid drinking the murky liquid in a grease–smeared glass brought for me by the barefoot urchin, but I don’t want to insult Chandrabhusan, a Naxalite, one of many of India’s militant Marxist/Maoist groups.

Chandrabhusan purses his chubby lips, keeping his eyes on the cheap ballpoint his thick but nimble fingers continually toy with. He looks up with an unexpected smile, the sunlight glinting off his spectacles: “It is something approaching, but not quite achieving, the title of tea.” charmingly relieving me of any obligation to risk dysentery.

Chandrabhusan continues with the tale of violent conflict between the upper caste landowners and lower caste labourers in the north east Indian province of Bihar.
“It all began with a cigarette,” he said slowly.

A Bumihar watches an Untouchable cut up fodder for cows, Belaur. Photo Greg Marinovich

 

THE CIGARETTE WAR

Sunil Kumar, an upper caste landlord, came to buy a cigarette from the little mud shop that clings to the edge of the narrow dirt road under the shade of ancient mango trees.

But the shopkeeper Sidhanath Sah could not find the packet from which the single cigarettes were sold. He looked behind the tins of flour, underneath the big bag of sugar, and even dug through the loose–leaf tobacco. But his son had been minding the shop that morning and now the packet was missing.

Sidhanath Sah knew how fond Sunil Kumar was of an after–lunch smoke and would be irritated by his deprivation. As he obsequiously begged the man’s forgiveness, he was already mentally alleviating this humiliation by punishing his stupid son.

Sunil Kumar left in a huff. He was too peeved to enjoy the verdant beauty of the crops thriving in the fertile soil of the Ganges plain all around him. To the right were the waterlogged green rice paddies, to the left the drier green wheat fields. Brilliant yellow patches of flowering wild mustard signaled that the Monsoon season was not far off.
A little while later, another man, of the Bania caste – like the shopkeeper, came to the shop for a cigarette. By this time, Sah’s absent–minded son had returned; and after two swift slaps, the cigarettes were recovered.

As fate would have it, the customer passed by the thwarted smoker, Sunil Kumar. On learning he had bought a cigarette from Sidhanath Sah, Sunil Kumar went into a rage. How could he make a fool of a zamindar (landlord) and a Bumihar (the dominant, upper caste in Belaur)? He sells cigarettes to his own lowly caste, but lies to his betters.

Sunil Kumar gathered a gang of Bumihars and they took revenge on the shopkeeper. So severe was the beating that Sidhanath Sah came close to death.

The lower castes were angered and called for a meeting with the Bumihars. But before the meeting could take place, the landlords’ ghoondas (goons) went to the hut of one of the lower caste leaders and a known Communist, dragged him out and beat him. Yadav Birbal needed fifty stitches on his head alone.

“Dirty damn fucking behaviour, the zamindars are monsters,” the telling of the story is interrupted by the outraged of fellow Naxalite, Rabindra Kumar. He drops his fiery eyes to the mud floor and mutters contritely, “That is a personal opinion.”

Chandrabhusan, pursing his full lips, continues the tale as if the young man had never spoken. After the assault, the lower castes set up roadblocks. In one typically overloaded bus they spotted Barhoo Chowdri, the uncle of Sunil Kumar. They pulled him out, dragging him over the luggage, boxes and goats that cluttered the aisle. But once they had him in their clutches, they were unsure of what to do with their hostage.

That night, Barhoo Chowdri, sensing the indecision of his captors, tried to escape. He was chased down and killed.

The Bumihars couldn’t believe it. What had happened to the meek peasants who had always accepted economic exploitation, humiliation, beatings, rape and even death at the hands of their feudal masters? It is accepted that a low caste bride be deflowered by a zamindar on her wedding night, but now these same submissive peasants had taken up arms against their lords.

The upper castes were determined life in Belaur should continue the way it had for centuries. They recruited a private army of some four hundred men–at–arms, called them the Ranvir Sena, and set about quashing the rebellion. The lower castes called in the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) guerrillas.

The Cigarette War had begun.

Chandrabhusan is the front man for the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist). Not to be confused with either the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist – Party Unity), the Communist party of India (Marxist) or simply the Communist Party of India, with whom they are bitter rivals. There are dozens of communist parties, factions and splinter groups who all follow the path of the late Chairman Mao, in spite of the liberal reference to Messrs Marx and Lenin. Despite some groups having elected to become political parties in recent years, most of them still operate underground and wage a guerilla war against the state and the private armies of the rural landlords. Collectively, they’re called the Naxalites.

A plaintive cricket–like chirp intrudes; it is the dull black Bakelite telephone in a corner of the shack-office. The room is full of CPI (ML) members who blithely ignore the insistent bleating of the phone. Perhaps this is because it is covered by a soiled cloth, which apparently serves to render it mute as well as invisible. At least, they do until Onkar Tuwari, the local party chief, comes in. In direct contrast to his city comrade, Chandrabhusan, the local man is a tall, emaciated figure who moves hesitantly, in fits and starts.

Everyone shifts seats to let Onkar Tuwari take the honoured place behind the desk. When the phone first rings in his presence, the talk in the room hushes. He stares at it, as if waiting for the caller to be prove his sincerity. Finally he reaches over and gingerly picks the handset up, seemingly unsure of what will happen next. He grunts and then smiles and the tension in the room evaporates.

(**insert image)

Gandhiji, as Indians fondly refer to their most famous and beloved citizen Mahatma Gandhi, succeeded in overthrowing British colonial rule, but failed in his struggle to relieve the majority of his countrymen from the greater oppression of the caste system. He renamed the Untouchables, calling them Harijan – Beloved of God. Thus the Mahatma changed their epithet, but their misery continued.

India’s Apartheid began with the northern Aryan invaders conquering the indigenous, and darker, Dravidian peoples. They developed a divine hierarchy which strictly pigeonholed different groups. The Brahmins, the Aryan nobility, were at the top of the pecking order and occupied themselves with matters of God and learning. Their strong–armed cousins, the Rajputs and Bumihars, were the warrior caste. Lower down there are more than 300 castes, including that of shopkeepers; potters who make water jars; potters who make clay bedpans; night soil removers; etc.

The caste ladder descends into the hell on earth that is the lot of an Untouchable.

Modern India is proud to call itself the world’s largest democracy. With almost one billion people (noe over that, Ed), it is certainly the most populous country in the world where democracy is practiced. But democracy’s foothold is rather tenuous. Especially in Bihar, the home of booth capturing.

The lower castes and Untouchables make up the majority of the population. So, in a village like Belaur, where a minority upper caste makes life a misery for the majority lower castes, you could expect a champion of the underdogs to be elected.

It would certainly be so, but for that neat little trick of booth capture. In an area where the landlords know that they will lose the vote, they recruit gangs of goondhas who specialise in staging a military–style operation to occupy a polling station to ensure all the votes are for their employer’s candidate.

Not subtle, not nice, but booth capturing is totally effective. And a great line of business. Early on the morning of the poll, well–armed goons move in. They usually take about three hours to occupy and control an area, depending on the opposition they encounter. Then another three hours to stamp the ballot papers and have the presiding election officer countersign the papers, at gunpoint.

The cost of hiring the goons to capture a booth depends on the expected difficulty – if the polling stations are in an area where their candidate’s opposition is popular and powerful – and the seat’s prestige.

With the evil of inflation biting into every hard–working man’s pocket, the cheapest you can capture a constituency for is about $6 000, while the top seats go for as much as $20 000.

This is big bucks – a farm worker in Bihar earns about half a dollar for a back–breaking ten–hour day. But a seat in the provincial legislature is the gilded path to wealth and power. You and your mates decide which company gets that lucrative road resurfacing contract; who is granted permission to start a bus company; and who, quite suddenly, should find his trading license revoked for no apparent reason.

A young bride on her way to the wedding with relatives, Belaur. photo Greg Marinovich

A young bride on her way to the wedding with relatives, Belaur. photo Greg Marinovich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zamindar Purushottam Dubey is leading us on a guided tour of his village. We have been to see the gaudy Hindu temples dedicated to favourite gods. He has led us through the maze–like streets of the village centre, where one– or two– story brick houses invariably belong to big landlords – Bumihar zamindars, and the low mud huts are the abode of Untouchables who are bonded (enslaved) to the landlords or moneylenders for generations.

Debt might befall a family through a grandfather who had to borrow money to pay for an expensive dowry because he had one too many daughters. No worse luck can happen to a poor man than to be blighted with many daughters. Or perhaps the promise shown by a clever son might have prompted a proud father to take out a loan to fund an education; a desperate gamble to break the poverty trap. But there are many bright young men who do not make the cut. To rise above the circumstances of your birth in India you have to be extreme. Extremely brilliant. Extremely talented. Extremely vicious. Extremely lucky.

Dirt tracks raised above the monsoon flood level snake out through the fields to the big landowners’ farms that surround the village. Purushottam Dubey stops and turns with dramatic abruptness: “The fires of revolution brushed past this village in September of 1994.”

“That there,” he indicates a crumbling settlement of grey mud huts across a field, “is where the Naxalites began their war. It is deserted now, They did not succeed.”
He stares closely at me, waiting to see a reaction, a tightening of the eyes that might betray sympathy for his enemies. Satisfied, he continues the tour, his hands clasped behind his back. It is the affectation of a landlord; the landless do not have the luxury of strolling with idle hands.

We are to meet one of the heroes of the zamindars’ struggle. The man who faced the onslaught of the Naxalites and triumphed. The farmer is a massive man. His is nose bent to one side like a boxer’s. His powerful shoulders bulge out from a white singlet. His blank stare is suspicious and belligerent.

“This is a very brave man. Very brave.” states Purushottam, “The bravest man in Belaur.”

On hearing the translation of this favourable description, The Bravest Man In Belaur invites us to join him on a low wooden pallet where he and his cohorts are resting. The customary offer of tea is made and accepted. It is a silent and uncomfortable tea. After all, how does one make small talk with a hero?

We take leave of our zamindar hosts and cross the no–go zone that separates the Untouchables’ stronghold from their former feudal landlords. The Bazar Tola is a miserable collection of mud huts – no brick buildings here. Suffering worsened since the landless rose up against their former feudal masters in the Cigarette War, as they could no longer work the landlords’ fields.

They stare suspiciously at the strangers, young women cover their faces and pull back into darkened doorways, allowing strangers only a glimpse of sexy navels peeking from between layers of saris. I skirt the edge of the village, a coterie of curious men and children following a hundred yards behind. You have to sneak up on scenes to get that three– or four– second window to get a picture before everyone gathers and laughs for the camera. So, I sneak up on this home that looks out across the fields to the landlords’ village a kilometre away. A woman looks up, eyes widen in panic, starts to yell and grabs her toddler by the arm and sprints off. The kid is dangling like a puppet, feet only occasionally brushing the pathway. There is a chain reaction of screaming and yelling. Men rush to my side “Bumihars! Guns!” they excitedly point across the wheat at women quietly working the fields.

“No, no, it was me!” I point at myself. They stare blankly at me, no doubt thinking I am extremely stupid. We have insurmountable language barriers as my taxi driver, Ramisingh – who speaks some English – is not in sight. The Untouchables fearfully ready themselves to defend their hamlet. Fortunately Ramisingh returns and a crisis is averted. No war today, the goons have gone away.

Back in the village centre, zamindar territory, we bump into a slight man with a serious face and a piddling moustache. He is going door to door, canvassing for votes.
“I am an Independent Candidate,” states Bijander Yadav Singh. “I am campaigning for equality. Against Communist violence and against the violence of the landlords.” He speaks in clipped tones. He lectures to landlords, he preaches to the landless.

A bus in Bihar province, India. Photo Greg Marinovich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thing in Bihar is clear, and that is that no–one, but no–one, runs as an independent candidate if they realistically hope to win. A hopeful must be pretty desperate to try and match the resources of an entire caste or party in the strange, convoluted and very corrupt game that is Indian politics.

Back in the CPI (ML) office that night, I am being treated to one of Chandrabhusan’s discourses on The Struggle. Perhaps I will glean more insight into the political labyrinth.

After independence, Gandhi and Nehru’s party, The Congress, espoused mild Socialism. But all too soon, Socialism became a vehicle for government control, nepotism and corruption. The banner of Socialism fell to the vanguard, the committed Maoists and Communists. The radicals.

In those early days, the middle–ranked castes were at the forefront of the fight to create a society where every individual – no matter what their caste – had equal rights, opportunity and access to the nation’s resources. It was a time of heady optimism. The mighty British Raj had crumbled before the humble strength of Gandhi. It was the time to usher in India’s golden era, free of the shackles of caste.

And, sure enough, many of the middle–ranked castes broke through the social barriers that denied them a fair shot at success. They became transporters, businessmen, industrialists. And promptly forgot about the proletariat. They became part of the elite, and saw the advantages of keeping the masses poor and subjugated. After all, there are only so many slices to the cake. They became the system, and there are none so committed as the converted.

“In Belaur, take the example of Bijander Yadav Singh, a little– known but ambitious gangster.” says Chandrabhusan from the darkness that lies between us. The sun has set and the paraffin lamps are not yet lit. Mosquitoes gather and whine softly around my ears. I cannot hear the ones around my ankles, but feel the sharp bite of their attack.

When the Cigarette War began, Yadav Singh (of middle caste) saw his chance. If he could be seen as the saviour of the masses from the tyranny of the landlords, why, he’d be a shoo in for the election. He sent four of his gunmen to assist the lower castes against the landlords. It was his goons who gunned down the hostage Barhoo Chowdri when he tried to escape.

But as the conflict escalated and the landlords recruited a powerful army, Yadav Singh thought it smart to switch horses. His goons began to commit acts of brutality against their former friends, the lower castes and Untouchables. He hoped that his new–found zeal would earn him the support of the Bumihars as their election candidate.

The Bumihars accepted the firepower of their new ally, but nonetheless put forward a candidate from their own caste. Yadav Singh, in desperation to get on the gravy train, set himself up as an independent candidate. To fight injustice and radicalism. It suddenly dawns on me that this was the man we had seen canvassing in Belaur earlier that day.

Chandrabhusan calmly waits out my burst of excitement on discovering this co–incidence. This giant leap in my comprehension of the intricacies of village politics.
“We are going to eliminate him.” He says quietly, without infliction. “He thinks he can toy with the people, make fools of us. We will show him otherwise. Not now. We have too many other things to deal with. Later.”

 

A young man from an upper caste is carried in a palanquin by Untouchable porters, Belaur. photo Greg Marinovich

A young man from an upper caste is carried in a palanquin by Untouchable porters, Belaur. photo Greg Marinovich

This article first appeared in Living Magazine, 1995.

  • Mdwojewski

    what can I tell Greg… :) imprest

  • Chris Marais

    All looks very familiar. I remember you and Lorna arguing about the DPS’s and the sidebars on this one, but it worked out OK. Good enough for a Mondi Winner.

  • Marinovichg

    marais, that sounds like that editor who published it! hello Chris

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