Uncovering Transgressive Solidarities

rural scene in Tamil Nadu

By Divya Sharma, Relational Pathways project

In the Relational Pathways project, we are trying to understand the pathways in and out of poverty for farmers in India and Kenya. ‘Green Revolutions’ are a prominent way of discussing how farmers can benefit from technology.

In Tamil Nadu, India, we have been using a technique called ‘life histories’ to explore how farmers have experienced the decades since the Green Revolution. In particular, we’re looking at how people form and experience relationships with each other and the world around them.

Relations across class, caste and gender

Much has been written about how people draw on kinship and caste relations to craft their livelihoods, to meet their basic needs, social and ritualistic obligations, and navigate precarious circumstances such as health crises. How people develop relations across historically entrenched groups, however, has received less attention.

Such transgressive forms of relation-making consistently surface in life-histories of farmers and agricultural workers in northern Tamil Nadu. What happens when the expected support from kinship and caste networks fails to come through, particularly for people located at the marginalised intersections of class, caste and gender hierarchies?

An example of unexpected inter-caste solidarity

I meet Neelavati for the first time as she is resting on the porch in front of her single room concrete house after working in the fields all morning. In her 50s, she belongs to the dominant Mudaliyar caste in her village.  However, unlike most Mudaliyars who own small parcels of land (between less than one acre to five acres), Neelavati is landless. Her husband was murdered in a family land dispute. Evicted from ancestral land by her husband’s family, she returned to her natal village. Her parents and brother also refused to provide support, fearing that she would demand a share in the land.

As she recounts the difficult years after her husband’s death, some village women come to call her for transplanting paddy. This will be her second work shift of the day. As we all walk single file on the narrow muddy bunds between paddy fields, she whispers that her brother’s family continues to harass her over petty issues. Just a few days ago, she received a beating from her brother and his wife.

Neelavati raised her son who was 10 days old at the time of her husband’s death, by doing daily wage work. While most Mudaliyar women only transplant paddy or do weeding in other Mudaliyar’s fields either for wages or quid pro quo, Neelavati often says that she works ‘like a man’ or ‘like a lower caste Dalit woman’. As a young widow, she worked on construction sites and farms, performing physically arduous and often dangerous work such as lifting stones and sand when the digging and deepening of open wells after the onset of the ‘Green Revolution’ in the 1980s.

Over our several meetings, Neelavati reiterates that a ‘woman from the colony’ taught her how to transplant paddy. ‘Colony’ is the term used locally for the Dalit section of the village, lowest in the caste hierarchy. Like most Tamil villages, the ‘colony’ is spatially segregated from the oor, where other castes reside. Inhabited by Dalit Christians in this village, the ‘colony’ is separated from the oor by a small temple, a large concrete slab called kalam that is used to clean and dry harvested crops, and a church that marks the entrance to the Dalit streets. The geography of the village is structured to dissuade social interaction on equal terms among the Mudaliyars and the Dalits. Their interactions are largely confined to the fields.

Even now after three decades, when Neelavati works with other Mudaliyar women, she occasionally quips that they were not the ones to help her but instead a Dalit woman stepped in to show her how to work. This unexpected solidarity stands out in her memory as it enabled her to eke out a livelihood. Priests from the Catholic church, that has a strong presence in the area among the Dalits, also helped her with finding non-farm wage work.

After listening to Neelavati’s story, I became attuned to observing and probing relations that defy dominant social norms between the Mudaliyars and the historically marginalised Dalits. Such solidarity relations across caste and class lines are episodic but not uncommon. Unlike Neelavati though, for others, particularly landed Mudaliyar farmers, they are not central pivots around which they construct their life histories. Rather, these episodes are categorised as anomalous in their memory; and without explicit probing, they would perhaps remain invisible.

The limitations of inter-caste relations

Meenakshi, another Mudaliyar farmer with a four-acre farm, for instance, mentions in passing the support she received from an agricultural worker from the colony who worked on their farm for 14 years. In her 60s, Meenakshi, unlike most other women in the village, holds a land title for two acres. She manages the farm herself as her husband and three sons live and work in Bangalore. She buys inputs from the nearby town, takes the harvested crop to the market committee for sale, and irrigates her fields at odd hours, tasks generally performed by men.

When Meenakshi was younger, her husband worked as a bus conductor. He was often drunk and she would have to go and pick him up in an inebriated state to bring him back home. The agricultural worker who remains nameless in her story accompanied her on these trips.  When her husband met with a road accident, he contacted a church priest and got her husband admitted into the missionary hospital. Meenakshi adds emphatically that no one from her own community came forward to help.

Parvathan, the worker in question, unprompted in a separate conversation, narrates numerous occasions when he went beyond his responsibilities on the farm during those 14 years. This included going with Meenakshi to the bus station to collect the day’s earnings from her husband before he spent it all on alcohol.

For Parvathan, Meenakshi was ‘like a mother’ since she would bring food and tea for him several times a day while he worked in their fields. She also extended petty loans to him in times of need without the knowledge of others in her family. In contrast, other Dalit workers of Parvathan’s generation recall the derogatory practice of being served a watery gruel (generally made of millets) in their hands by landowners. Caste hierarchies continue to be inscribed through such embodied practices.

Parvathan, however, also articulates the limitations of such relation making. He quit the job because Meenakshi did not invite him for her son’s wedding. In a subsequent conversation, however, he suggests with hesitation, that the men in her family viewed him with suspicion and he did not want to provoke any trouble. Episodes of violence against Dalit men triggered by inter-caste romantic relationships continue to be rampant in Tamil Nadu.

A changing landscape

These stories reflect the landscape of agrarian labour relations approximately thirty years ago, when landed households employed Dalit men as semi-permanent workers. They received a small share of the crop, a highly exploitative paternalistic arrangement that provided bare subsistence for landless households within the village.

Rising political consciousness and migration to cities for work among Dalits, as well as the waning economic position of landed castes like the Mudaliyars, has led to a collapse in such dependency relations. Fragmentation of landholdings, mechanised ploughing and harvesting, unremunerative prices and declining availability of water means that Mudaliyar farmers now manage cultivation with family labour, hiring daily wageworkers only for certain tasks. Even the largest landowning households now merely have about five-six acres.

Dalit and Mudaliyar women rarely work together in the fields. There are separate caste groups both for agricultural wage work and for the government employment guarantee scheme (MGNREGA) work sites in this village. While Mudaliyar women accept very low wages for labouring in each other’s fields within the village as a quid pro quo, Dalit women prefer to work in neighbouring villages where they can command slightly higher wages.

Seated women being served lunch outside
Dalit workers being served lunch by the landowner in the fields. Photo: Divya Sharma

The potential of cross-caste and class alliances

Achin Vanaik has recently argued that addressing the agrarian crisis in rural India, affecting both small and marginal farmers as well as the rural landless, calls for cross-caste and class alliances.

Forging such alliances is particularly critical in the context of the rising tide of Hindu nationalist populism propagated by the current ruling regime, whose agenda combines divisive identity politics with neoliberal economic policies.

Narratives of transgressive solidarity highlight marginalised relations that do not neatly fit into the mapped terrain of structural inequalities, but they do reveal the contours of this terrain, and how it is lived and challenged in everyday practices. They suggest how people experience, negotiate with and challenge intersectional forms of power. Imbued with pragmatism these relations, developed while labouring in the fields, are incongruous with the discriminatory practices against Dalits that otherwise continue to mar everyday social interactions.

Drawing attention to these invisible forms of relation-making can help us interrogate assumed and crystallised categories of caste, class and gender. Although they’re not the norm, they deserve our attention because they contain kernels of possible radical intersectional politics that can challenge systemic inequalities.

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