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Castes Are Part of Indian Election

February 17, 1998

LAKSHMANPUR BATHE, India (AP) _ They stormed in at night, methodically shooting 58 villagers to death and leaving a clear, bloody message: Lower classes should not challenge those who traditionally have held power.

Two months after the attack blamed on an upper-caste militia, 20-year-old Shanno Devi is careful to show she knows her place. She doesn’t dare guide a reporter to the village leader, who is of a high caste, fearing he will be offended if an ``untouchable″ even approaches his home.

India’s last elections in 1996 were seen at the time as the dawn of a new era for low-caste Indians and for untouchables, whose status is so low they are considered without caste.

Regional parties representing them were for the first time poised to play a national role, at least as kingmakers in a coalition federal government.

Two years later, with elections for a new Parliament under way, life has changed little in places such as Lakshmanpur Bathe, a village in Bihar state 580 miles southeast of New Delhi. Hopes for a new social order have drowned in violence, corruption and self-serving politics.

Gajanand Pandey, a prosperous upper-caste farmer and a right-wing activist in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, said the rise of low-caste parties only made things worse for ordinary people by sharpening caste rivalry.

``Bihar is witnessing a fierce caste war, thanks to politicians,″ he said.

His own view of the lower castes is clear when he dismisses the plight of his neighbors in Lakshmanpur Bathe. He contends the only ones suffering are those who did not qualify for the $5,000 in government compensation given to relatives of people killed in the Dec. 1 massacre.

``Those who haven’t lost anyone are unhappy,″ he said.

In addition to the death compensation, a typical official gesture after disasters in India, the 16 affected families received about $800 each to transform their mud and thatch huts into homes built of bricks.

Lakshmanpur Bathe has no paved roads, no electricity, no telephones. It does have a dilapidated school, but teachers haven’t shown up for work in two years because they rarely were paid. Bihar is the poorest state in a poor country.

But it is caste, not development, that has been the central campaign issue in a state that will send 54 representatives to the 545-seat national Parliament. It is the second largest contingent among India’s 26 states.

Untouchables _ who prefer to be known as Dalits, or ``oppressed ones″ _ comprise more than 40 percent of Bihar’s 9 million people, compared with 25 percent for the nation as a whole. Yadavs, a low-caste group of cow herders and dairymen, account for 12 percent, Muslims for 14 percent, tribal peoples for 7 percent. High-caste Hindus, who own most of the fertile rice-producing land, are just 3 percent of Bihar’s population.

India’s age-old Hindu caste system can determine anything from where a lower-caste person works to where he lives, worships or drinks water.

The lower castes of Bihar had hoped the restrictions on their lives would be lifted when Laloo Prasad Yadav, one of them, was voted to power as the state’s governor seven years ago.

But Shaibal Gupta, a social scientist, said only Yadavs close to the chief minister benefited. ``For him, development is not the issue,″ Gupta said in an interview.

Yadav resigned in August 1997 after he was charged in a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal, to the glee of the upper castes. He installed his wife as his successor.

``Caste bonds have been re-energized by politicians in a society which is most anarchic,″ said Vinod Mishra, whose Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) is trying to organize Dalits.

Mishra’s party has built a red memorial for those massacred in Lakshmanpur Bathe.

Police said the killings could have been in retaliation for a massacre of upper-caste landlords by communist guerrillas a few months ago. It also might have stemmed from a dispute over a government-owned piece of land that landlords occupied and were cultivating. Lower-caste peasants had protested the takeover.

Communist supporters of low-caste Indians retaliated a month after Lakshmanpur Bathe, gunning down nine high-caste Hindus.

The Lakshmanpur Bathe attack was believed plotted in Bilaur, a village nearly 25 miles to the north, where high-caste Brahmins formed a private army, the Ranvir Sena, to stop communists from encouraging Dalit field workers to demand higher wages. Police arrested 80 people after the Lakshmanpur Bathe massacre, all from Bilaur or the surrounding area.

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