A new mode of exercising local power: the case of Keralam

September 5, 2015

[Note: Com. Ajith (K. Muraleedharan) is languishing in jail and there has been a global outcry over the denial of proper medical treatment to him. We reprint a discussion based on his seminal work “Bhoomi, Jati, Bandhanam” (Land, Caste, Bondage).

The notes are from a symposium “New Modes of Exercising Local Power” held in Kolkata in 2011 and were presented by Porattam, Kerala. The paper examines the evolution of agrarian relations in Kerala through pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods. It affirms that the hold of caste-feudalism and comprador bureaucrat capital is strong, both of which are subservient to the interest of imperialism. Changes in the agrarian economy have diminished the land monopoly of savarnas. But they have not broken down the essential nature of exploitation where the marginalised are denied land rights. The paper is reproduced from here.]

We have gathered here to study and discuss “new modes of exercising local power”. The very formulation of the topic, the proposition of “local power”, implies an understanding of modern Indian society quite at variance with the official claims made about it. So it is appropriate that we start by presenting this counter-view. We understand that India is still dominated and exploited by imperialism. Moreover, though weakened, caste-feudalism is still a powerful factor in all spheres of society. This is the essence of characterising this country as semi-colonial, semi-feudal. It indicates an on-going, unfinished, transformation. We will proceed by first giving a brief outline of this dynamics, as seen in the case of Keralam.

Caste-feudalism and colonialism*

During the middle ages, one of the specificities of caste-feudalism, in what is now Keralam, was the near-total dominance in landownership of Namboodirees (categorised as Brahmin varna) and temples controlled by them. The share of the Varma kings (categorised Kshatriya) was minimal. Another distinct feature was the combined role of adiyaalatham and tenancy as the main forms of extracting agrarian surplus. Adiyaalatham was an exploitative system in which landless Dalits and some Adivasi tribes were owned by their lords who could trade or rent them out. They were denied right to land, even as tenants. Supplementing the meagre fare dished out by their lords with hunting and gathering from the surrounding land, waterways and forests, they barely managed to survive. Land tenure was graded.

At the topmost level, sub-feudatories, mainly from savarna Hindu castes like the Nairs (categorised Shudra), were the direct tenants of the Namboodirees and temples. They carried out agriculture either directly through the adiyaalars or by renting out to sub-tenants. These included savarnas and avarnas. Dalit and Adivasi adiyaalars were the main direct producers. Surplus was thus produced and extracted by two processes and at two levels. One of them was the surplus generated by the adiyaalar. In situations where they were put to work by the landlords, this was more or less wholly the lords property. When they worked under a tenant, this surplus was expropriated in turn over the various tiers of tenancy, all the way uptil the landlord. Other than this, surplus was also generated by the direct labour of tenants, from poor to rich peasant classes. This was in turn expropriated by the higher tenants and ultimately by the landlord.

The class and caste relations of this exploitative system were reproduced in the power structure and the rest of the superstructure. They in turn sustained and reinforced these relations. Within the kingdoms ruled by Varma kings, the sankethams (a temple and its lands) governed by its Namboodiri yogam (council) enjoyed a near-sovereign status. While they too had to concede ultimate allegiance to some king, this was not necessarily the one where the sanketham was located. They could decide whom to declare allegiance to. No king could enter the boundaries of the sanketham without the permission of the yogam, which wielded power within it. Below the kings, the bigger savarna sub-feudatories exercised power at different levels, with the right to punish or kill. For this, and to wage wars for the kings, they employed Nair troops. They were aided in local rule by the naattukootam/tharakootam, a local council composed with representation from the main savarna families, mostly Nair. Trade was controlled by prominent Maappila (Malayalee Muslim) and Nasarani (Malayalee Christians) merchants. They enjoyed savarna status and were part of the power compact.

The core of this compact, the Namboodiri-Varma-Nair nexus, was reinforced by a unique set of marriage relations. Only the eldest Namboodiri male married within the caste. The others entered into sambandham (loose pairing marriages) with Varma and Nair women. Brahmanical hegemony was thus secured through ‘blood ties’. The Varma males too had sambandham relations with Nair women. For the Nair, sambandham was the norm. Caste was directly employed to structure, reproduce and protect political power. The Muslims and Christians too were incorporated in its folds. To give an example, under the Saamoothiri kings of Kozhikode, the eldest boy of every Araya family (a sea fisher caste) had to be converted to Islam. This was to ensure the replenishment of naval manpower, essential to protect the sea trade. The navy was led and staffed by Maappilaas.

This loosely, yet strictly, held together Brahmanical power-structure underwent notable change during the colonial period. Starting from the end of the 15th century onwards, colonial powers began to intervene in the economic and political spheres. The colonial quest to widen the sourcing of spices prompted them to favour one king against the other. This led to the weakening and demise of some and the growth of others. Colonial competition heightened the demand for spice trade and promoted money relations. In the political sphere this aided the emergence of kingdoms, in some ways similar to the absolute kingdoms of late feudalism in Europe. This was particularly seen in the south. Under Marthanda Varma, the kingdom of Venad expanded, through conquest, to encompass nearly half the territory of present Keralam. Most of the land was taken over and became state property.

Namboodiri landownership was significantly reduced. Tenancy relations were changed but not ended. Systematic land tax assessment and collection were instituted. Trade in spices and salt were centralised. Evidently, the loose structure of the past had to be abandoned. A central state, with its paid army and regular bureaucracy, emerged. But this did not mean the elimination of all the earlier sub-structures of power. Now circumscribed within the ambit of the new central power, sub-feudatories continued to exercise local power. The independence enjoyed by Venad (Thiruvithamkoor) was short-lived. It soon came under British colonialism. Though the Venad monarchy was allowed to continue, it was fully controlled by the British. North of the Bharathapuzha, the whole of Malabar was incorporated within the Madras presidency. Kochi and Thiruvithamkoor remained as local kingdoms, swearing allegiance to the British crown.

Colonialism promoted the transformation of traditional caste-feudal production relations. This included the establishment of plantations, growth of primary processing industries, freeing of adiyaalars, fixity of tenure for the upper level of tenants in the two kingdoms, spread of commercial cropping and increased monetisation of the economy. Yet this was not an outright elimination of caste-feudalism. While some upward mobility was seen among the savarna Christians and the upper crust of the avarnas, land ownership remained overwhelmingly with savarnas. Adiyaalars were freed but continued to be denied land by the strictures of Brahmanism. They thus continued to live on the lands of the lords, always at their service, bonded in the new form of kudikidappu (hutments). The lower levels of tenants in all three regions suffered from the burden of feudal rent further weighted by colonial demands. They were also in danger of being turned off the land by merciless landlords, always keen on switching tenants in order to impose higher rents.

Complementing this in a certain way, the modern sectors were also marked by caste-feudal relations and values. The plantations were established on the foundations of feudal land monopoly, traditional as well as newly secured. Within them, the labour force was recruited, controlled and put to work by deploying a whole array of caste-feudal methods of inducement and punishment. The same was true of the new processing industries as well. The consolidation of British rule strengthened the structures of centralised rule. This was more elaborate in Malabar, directly ruled by the British. Yet, in all the regions, Malabar and the two kingdoms, local power continued to be exercised by feudal lords. Quite often, they were appointed by the colonial authority or kings as the local representative of the government. The old and the new combined in such a manner that the institutions of modernity like the bureaucracy and the courts strengthened the grip of landlords, even while they brought them within the supervision of a new type of centralised control.

This brings us to the question of assessing the nature of this transformation. It’s time for a ‘theory break’.


Colonial modernity is increasingly being subjected to critical examination. It is now recognised, even if unevenly, that its role was quite ambiguous. This critical view is a welcome departure from one-sided glorification of the ‘modernising role’ of British colonialism. But the hangover of simplistic linearity, of the capitalism vs. feudalism variety, lingers on. The fact is that it was, and is, a matter of capitalism and feudalism. Some propping up of the outmoded had always been an accompaniment of its transformation by colonialism.

The 1969 political resolution of the CPI (M-L) had noted that, along with feudalism, comprador-bureaucrat capitalism is “one of the two main props” of imperialism. The ruling classes were analysed as the “big comprador-bureaucrat bourgeoisie and big landlords”. The public sector was analysed as “state monopoly capitalism, i.e., bureaucrat capitalism”. This clarity on the character of the big bourgeoisie and the nature of the capitalism underlying it, fostered by and serving the interests of imperialism, was a decisive rupture from the confusion created by the CPI, CPM and various other status quoist centers. It was guided by the breakthrough achieved by Mao Tsetung, through his class analysis of China, in understanding the nature of the bourgeoisie in oppressed countries. These positions are commonly accepted by the Marxist-Leninist movement. Yet the understanding is not identical. For example, some consider comprador and bureaucrat bourgeoisie as factions of a single class. Some others view them as separate classes. It is also argued that this form of capitalism applies only to the state sector, the public sector. There is further the question of applying the concept of bureaucrat capitalism in analysing and understanding the nature of colonial modernisation and on-going transformations taking place in rural India.

Before proceeding further we need to deal with the concept of “distorted capitalism”. It is often used, mistakenly, as a synonym of bureaucrat capitalism. The qualifier – “distorted” – is believed to sufficiently clarify that this is a particular type of capitalism, one which is not independent. But, merely recording that the capitalist relations being fostered here are distorted, that they are qualitatively different from those in the capitalist (imperialist) countries, is of little use. The issue to be explained is the nature of the “distortion”. That these relations serve imperialism is only one aspect of the matter, only one of the manifestations of “distortion”.

As defined by Mao, it is also “closely tied up with … the domestic landlord class and the old-type rich peasants”. Bureaucrat capitalism is, in Mao’s formulation, “comprador, feudal, state-monopoly capitalism”. The links with imperialism, feudalism and the state, all three, must be kept in mind. In our view the formulation “distorted capitalism” conceals the essence of the matter. Similarly, the term “crony capitalism” is also insufficient since it addresses only the aspect of the close relation of this capital with political lobbies. The waxing and waning of the fortunes of different comprador groups in direct relation to their proximity to political centres is no doubt an important characteristic of the capitalism seen here. But all the same it is still only one aspect. Therefore neither of these terms can replace the comprehensive, scientific rigour provided by Mao’s formulation “bureaucrat capitalism” and its definition. This needs to be reasserted.

Here attention must be drawn to the contribution of comrade: Gonzalo, Chairman of the Communist Party of Peru (PCP), in reiterating the centrality of Mao Tsetung’s concept of bureaucrat capitalism in analysing oppressed countries. He applied and developed this concept. It was specified “… bureaucratic capitalism is the capitalism that imperialism generates in the backward countries, which is linked to a decrepit feudalism and in submission to imperialism which is the last phase of capitalism. This system does not serve the majority of the people but rather the imperialists, the big bourgeoisie, and the landowners.” Further, “… bureaucrat capitalism is no more than the path of imperialism in a semi-feudal and semi-colonial country and without semi-feudal and semi-colonial conditions there would be no bureaucrat capitalism.” This clarifies that the deepening penetration of imperialism in the villages is the development of bureaucrat capitalism and that it will never lead to the elimination of feudalism. Feudalism will be retained in one form or other. Bureaucrat capitalism is not just a matter of imperialism and the big bourgeoisie; it also serves the big landowners.

In a speech Gonzalo had pointed out, “Bureaucratic capitalism develops three lines within its process: a landlord line in the countryside, a bureaucratic one in industry, and a third, also bureaucratic, in the ideological sphere.” He added, “This is without pretending that these are the only ones.”(The National Question, 1974) Bureaucrat capitalism is promoted by imperialism through the transformation of feudalism. In the post-1947 period, under neo-colonialism, this has been mainly done through the comprador-bureaucratic bourgeoisie. This transformation is not a supersession of feudalism by capitalism. It is an intermeshing of both. This is the particularity of this form of capitalism. Therefore, similar to the marking of semi-feudal relations by bureaucrat capitalism, bureaucrat capitalism is also marked by feudalism, in our situation caste-feudalism. This is true of both industry and the ideological sphere. Furthermore it is important to keep this in mind while examining the question of the superstructure, including political power.

As can be seen from our account of the colonial impact in Keralam, the growth process of bureaucrat capitalism begins with colonialism. Once colonial domination was consolidated, the old caste-feudalism no longer remained the same. It was subordinated and enmeshed in the worldwide imperialist web. A share of the surplus of kings and landlords, though extracted through the old caste-feudal methods of exploitation, was now channelled into the formation of bureaucrat capital. Often they themselves were directly involved in setting up industries, railways and plantations. When modern big industries were being set up in Keralam in the late 1940s, the Thiruvithamkoor monarchy invested Rs. 11.44 crore as capital and loans in 16 big enterprises, collaborating with imperialist capital from the U.S, Britain, Canada, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. Caste-feudalism was made over into the social base of imperialism directly through its land monopoly and through such transformations, which were simultaneously the process of growth of bureaucrat capitalism.

The comprador-bureaucrat bourgeoisie had the leading role in the ruling classes’ alliance to which British colonialism transferred power in 1947. It was consolidated during the 1960s-70s spurts in the growth of bureaucrat capitalism. This leading role is an attribute of its origin rooted in the growth of bureaucrat capitalism, namely its emergence under conditions of subservience to imperialism and along with the imperialist transformation of feudalism. This leading role was not gained on its own strength, compared to caste-feudalism. It is not at all a matter of capitalism displacing or subordinating caste-feudalism. Caste-feudalism lost its leading role through the consolidation of colonialism. It is dominated primarily by imperialism, not bureaucrat capitalism.

Being a distinct class the comprador-bureaucrat bourgeoisie has its distinct interests. While this at times may give rise to contradictions with some or the other imperialist power, it can never act independent from imperialism as a whole. The leading role of the comprador-bureaucrat bourgeoisie does not give it unfettered rights or privileges within the ruling classes’ alliance or in deciding policies. Ultimately it is imperialism that matters and imperialism needs both feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism as its main props. Therefore every step taken by the state in the direction of furthering bureaucrat capitalism also recreates room for some caste-feudal elements and relations transformed according to the needs of imperialism, even while certain other elements and relations get eliminated or suppressed.

The matter of local power is to be understood in this frame. In a capitalist society there is only one ruling class. Its political power is exercised all-over the country. While kingdom-wide power existed in caste-feudalism it was mainly structured and exercised locally. In our situation, we have two ruling classes, both serving imperialism. The class content and structure of power has changed. The political power exercised throughout the country represents the combined interests of all three. But the leading factor is that of imperialism and the comprador bureaucrat bourgeoisie. This is mainly actualised through a common structure, bureaucracy, law etc. But imperialism doesn’t eliminate feudalism. Similarly, the modern, all-India power structure hasn’t eliminated local power. However the ambit of local feudal power is contained within this overarching relation. This is the frame within which we will try grapple with the new modes of exercising local power. But before that we must update the account of transformations.

Agrarian reforms and after

The first major attempt at agrarian reform in modern Keralam was the EMS ministry’s Act of 1959. What exactly was the situation then? Colonial influences, in particular its promotion of a plantation economy, had already brought about substantial changes in land relations. Around the time of the adoption of the 1959 Act, nearly three fourths of the garden land in Thiruvithamkoor and half of it in Kochi were free of tenancy. In Malabar most of it was still under tenure. Paddy lands in all the three regions were mainly rented out. New forms of tenancy had emerged in those very areas where traditional forms had more or less disappeared. All the landlord families who were collecting rent had entered new avenues. Overall, a situation where agrarian and non-agrarian sources of livelihood were intermingled in family income had already emerged. One fifth of those who enjoyed some form of control over land were not dependent on agriculture.

Even then, the link between caste hierarchical status and monopoly over land and the landlessness of Dalits remained as decisive relations of production. Nairs were at the top in landownership. Savarna Christians came second. Ezhavars (an avarna caste) were at third spot, but their share was way below proportion in population. The Namboodirees had 6 times more land. Other savarna castes had 13 times more. Half of owned land was controlled by all the savarna Hindus. If the savarna Christians are also included, then the savarnas, slightly more than a third in population controlled 66 per cent of the land. They still were mainly renting out land. Meanwhile, the number of landless had swollen. A large number from non-Dalit castes were pushed down into the ranks of agrarian workers. However, the Dalits continued to be the single largest group in the agrarian labour force. All of this should have obviously been a matter of great import for land reforms.

Adopted by the legislative assembly in 1959, the Agrarian Relations Act came into force in 1961, only to be struck down by the courts soon after. A new law was adopted in 1963 but a number of its key clauses were not made operational. This law was later modified to some extent through amendments brought in by the 1967 seven party coalition led by the CPM and finally implemented in 1970 by the CPI-Congress coalition. Over this period, many governments, quite varied in political complexion, came and went. The 1963 law was framed by the PSP-Congress coalition led by Pattom Thanu Pillai. It was more favourable to the landlords. Yet, a close comparison of the 1959 law and the laws and amendments that followed reveals that, except for the level of compensation granted for excess land and scope of exclusion from the ceiling, the degree of correspondence between the ‘non-communist’ law of 1963 and the ‘communist’ law of 1959 far outweighed all differences.

Plantation land was already exempted from the reforms by the 1959 Act. In fact, room for granting more commercial crops, other than rubber, coffee and tea, this benefit was first introduced by the 1959 Act itself. Denial of rights to the bonded landless peasants was yet another important area of agreement. All the land reform laws were united in granting the status of an agrarian relation solely to the one between the landlord and tenant. The undeniable role in agricultural production of the kudikidappu system, emergent from the colonial reform of adiyaalatham, was ignored. It was reduced to a mere matter of residence. The labour exerted by those living in the kudikidappu in reclaiming waste land, paddy production, coconut farming and the manufacture of agricultural implements was obviously agrarian in its nature. But it was categorised as casual labour. The rightful demand over land naturally posed by their agrarian labour was thereby excluded from consideration. Instead of the right to lands made fertile through generations of labour they were allowed the largesse of surplus land. Hence these laws never went beyond affecting some improvement in the right to permanency of residence, already granted by earlier reforms. All the agrarian reform laws ignored the structural importance of the kudikidappu system – itself a reform of adiyaalatham – and took the simple equation of “peasant equals tenant” as their basis. This was the caste-feudal kernel.

In the long journey of landless peasants from adiyaala labour, to labour tied up in kudikidappu relations in the ‘master’s’ land, and from there to the present dependent labour where they have to suck up to the landowners for livelihood opportunities, what persists untouched is the non-agrarian status enforced by caste-feudalism over the landless Dalits and Adivasi and their exclusion from agrarian land. Those who prefer to see this as an inevitability of capitalist reforms, liberating labour from traditional ties only to bind it up in new ones, should also explain why the poor tenants escaped this fate.

Before and during the whole reforms process a large number of tenants-at-will, share croppers and informal tenants were evicted from the lands they tilled. But this was not a due outcome of reform regulations. Rather, it was an exception; a result of evasion by landlords. The tenant status of poor peasants protected them to some extent. The loss of land they later suffered was an outcome of financial pressures. But this wasn’t the case with the kudikidappukar. Their right to land was never an issue for the reformers. Economic interest in forming a pool of cheap labour has evidently operated here. But the stamp of caste is also clear and not just because the majority of kudikidappukar happened to be Dalits and Adivasi. Caste-feudalism stands out as the prime culprit in setting the historical context for the denial of right.

The outlook of the Indian National Congress on the kudikidappu issue was quite expected. Traditional and new savarna landlords have always had a dominant standing in it and it has never gone beyond Gandhian savarna condescension in the caste question. Indeed, the surprise would have been if it had recognised the caste dimension of the agrarian question. But this was not the case with the 1959 Act and the 1970 Amendments. They were framed by those like EMS Namboodiripad who had written theoretical pieces about “caste-landlord-feudalism” and, in their political practice, had enough and more opportunities to directly observe the role of the landless kudikidappukar in the agrarian structure and the consequent caste oppression they faced. Which class and caste interests guided them?

Kudikidappukar and ulkudikars shouldn’t be evicted for any reason.” – other than this one sentence, the twenty-nine pages long manifesto-like Resolution adopted by the 1956 Kerala State Conference of the undivided CPI had nothing on the kudikidappu issue. Its three pages devoted solely to agrarian reforms didn’t take up an analysis of the kudikidappu system. After restricting this issue to one sentence it went on to discuss various demands of “agricultural labour”, as if this was totally unconnected to the kudikidappu question. And the demands listed out are surplus land, just wages and work time, cottage industries, houses and credit facilities. (The CPI and CPM can rightfully claim that their 1956 conference had anticipated the 20 point and IRDP programs of the late Indira Gandhi!) Apart from all this there is one demand that touches on an issue faced by agricultural labour in the context of the agrarian structure – “Abolish by law the system whereby agricultural labourers, in particular Harijans, are kept as slaves and rented out by landlords and naattupramanimar, in all of its forms.” This was certainly commendable.

But let us recollect that it was being proposed in 1956. The paradox of agricultural labourers being enslaved and rented out even a century after adiyalatham was abolished, the particularity that this was being done by feudal lords – all of this should certainly invite analytical examination from any Marxist. Quite expectedly, there was nothing of that sort. Besides, though adiyaala labour was still existent in this period, it was by no means the general form of feudal bondage faced by landless peasants. By referring to remnants of the old form of bondage in the agrarian economy and ignoring the particularities of the new bondage that existed widely in the form of the kudikidappu system, the 1959 Resolution was actually uniting with some aspects of reformed caste-feudalism. Other than taking up further reforms, the task of totally destroying caste-feudalism was never a part of its perspective. And if this was the content of a party Resolution, one need not be surprised at the output of the CPI government functioning within the framework of the Indian Constitution.

The agrarian reforms were finally formalised in 1970. By this time more changes had taken place. Savarna land ownership had further fallen and that of the Avarna castes had increased. Yet the Savarna castes are still in the forefront with a share well above their proportion in the population. Meanwhile, Dalit landlessness or land poverty remained unchanged, more or less. Though the Avarna castes gained land, only a tiny section could really benefit. A few elevated themselves to become landlords while the majority remain landless or land-poor. On the other hand, while the Savarna castes lost their land monopoly, Savarna landlords still own sizeable amount of land. Most of those who own more land are Savarnas, even today. But a large section of Savarnas have either lost their land or suffered reduction in its extent. They have joined the folds of industrial workers or agricultural labourers. This has mainly happened in the coastal strip and the midland, where the development of the non-agrarian sector is more pronounced. What stands out is that, despite all the transformations, the Savarnas still retain the highest proportion of landowners. As for those traditionally landless, the Dalits, they continue in that rut. To sum up, the basic elements of the caste-feudal landownership structure are still actively in place, particularly at the lower level.

It is meaningless to argue that caste-feudal or the caste structures have been overturned by pointing to shifts that are seen in the caste-landownership relation or the fact that some sections from the Savarna castes have been pushed down to the fold of agricultural labourers. The Avarna castes, especially the Ezhavars, obtaining land or a minority among them becoming landlords, do not even deserve consideration in this matter. The process by which those in the upper layer of the lower sections of the caste hierarchy improve their assets and status and some even became landlords has always been a part of the dynamics of the caste structure. To give a relevant example, it’s well established in historical studies that the Shudra Nair’s landlord status is barely six centuries old. The transformations undergone by various castes, in general, are totally insufficient to give a correct answer to the question of whether what is seen is the continuation of caste-feudalism or capitalist development. Our criteria must be the relations that rule over the landless, poor peasants of the traditional adiyaalar castes and tribes.

Have the landless, poor peasants and casual labourers in the countryside from various Dalit castes and Adivasi tribes, who were adiyaalar, become ‘free’ agricultural or non-agricultural labourers, liberated from ‘extra economic coercion’, a prominent feature of feudalism? Did the right to kudikidappu land (hutment land) prepare the material basis for this? At the level of caste, a fundamental principle of caste-feudalism by which it denied even a bit land to the adiyaalar caste and tribes was formally abolished. This was the caste implication of their getting land as a legal right, instead of acquiring it as a gift. Further, the servitude of the kudikidappu towards the landowner was formally ended. The obligation to give priority to their work also ended. None can deny these facts. But the truth that social consciousness cannot travel much ahead in space and time, separated from social existence, also revealed itself in due course. Extra-economic coercion and obligations – old and new – still continue to be an inseparable part of the existence of the landless, poor peasants (especially, for Dalits and similar Adivasi tribes).

By 1970, most of the tenanted land was in paddy fields. Garden land was mainly owned. A huge extent, far more than the declared surplus land, had already been taken out of the ambit of reform laws by conversion to plantations (exempted by law) and benami deals. Most of the tenants, who became landowners after 1970, were already engaged in other occupations. Therefore the reforms formalised and promoted land ownership of those for whom agriculture was no longer an economic necessity. We will term this ‘unengaged land ownership’. Though this was predominant, there still was a sizable section among the bigger landowners who continued to rely on agriculture. Their entrepreneurship led to a boom in paddy production in the immediate years following the land reforms. But the arrival of cheaper rice from the main Green Revolution areas like India, such as coastal Andhra Pradesh, soon cut into the profits made in paddy cultivation. Since then this has been on a steady decline. Unengaged land ownership has increased manifold. Huge tracts of land have been dug up for brick fields, filled up for resale as resident plots. Even more lie waste. This is often described as the paradox of land reforms in Keralam – instead of unleashing agricultural production it has triggered of a sharp decline. The fact is that the decline is seen only in food production.

The 1970 land reforms triggered off an even sharper jump in the acreage and production of plantation crop, like rubber, coffee etc. It promoted this by various means. Landlords who switched to plantations were exempted from surplus ceilings. Unengaged land ownership created a favourable base for plantation crops since they require the least amount of direct attention. Besides, as in the case of rubber, huge subsidies were given. At the other end, tenancy of all types – share cropping, cash rent and labour rent- is steadily spreading out. This is mainly subsistence tenancy, a supplementary occupation for the landless and poor. The rent is rather heavy, going up to even fifteen to twenty thousand rupees per acre. In recent years, self-help groups have been widely encouraged by governments – LDF and UDF – to take up tenancy, financed by bank credit. In sum, the net content of these agrarian reforms did nothing to break away from the trajectory set by colonialism – more of plantation economy, more of dependence, transformation/retention of caste-feudalism, landlessness of the bottommost sections of society.

We now return to the question of local power. How has this been affected?

New modes of local power

Let us start with some observations on the landlord class in Keralam. A handful at the pinnacle with land ranging from a few thousands to more than a lakh acre, below that a pyramidal spread out where the numbers increase in inverse proportion to the decrease in acreage –such is the overall composition of the landlords in Keralam. They separate out as the big, middle and small landlords. The basis of this differentiation is the variation in their monopoly over land. At the lowers level, at least half of their total income comes from land. But they don’t participate in agrarian activities. The topmost stratum is composed of private or public (state) comprador bureaucrat capitalist plantation owners. They usually don’t interact, directly, with the surrounding rural communities. Local control is exercised through intermediaries at the State level. Unlike this, the middle and small landlords are actively present at all levels of rural society. Their income is not sourced from land alone. It spreads out into trade, money lending, industry and other fields. Yet, they cannot be qualified as ‘capitalist’ landlords. Existing intertwined with imperialism and bureaucratic capitalism, they do exhibit some capitalist characteristics. But, the feudal element is inevitably present, though it may vary. There is no landlordism without it. They are the political, economic, social representatives of semi-feudalism. They are mainly traditional savarna Hindu landlord castes, with additions from the savarna Christians, Muslims and Ezhavars.

In the typical caste-feudal society, or any type of feudal society, political and economic dominance is a matter of birth right. But, in modern Keralam, its role in the political and social realms has been considerably weakened; strikingly so in comparison to other States. The credit no doubt goes to the democratisation promoted by the mainly avarna based renaissance and the communist movement. Both shared the advantageous feature of ‘coming from below’. In the absence of a radical democratic uprooting of the old, these values have eroded over the years. Yet, the semblance of separation of the economic realm from the political and social ones remains. This is sustained through an almost total spread of mainstream political organisations and a rich variety of social organisations. Therefore, instances of the local landlord or coalition of exploiters exercising power more or less directly are extremely rare in Keralam today. In its stead, they carry out local control through their ‘naattupramaanitham’, the police and other instruments of the power structure, and by way of political parties. Naattupramaanitham can be loosely translated as local hegemony. Derived from the Malayalam word ‘pramaani’, it carries the connotation of savarna feudal supremacy and arrogance.

In modern Keralam, mainstream political parties and their mass organisations appear as “intermediaries” between the people and the state. To get something done by the state apparatus, particularly by its repressive arm like the police, to get a loan from government institutions or co-operatives – their mediation is unavoidable. In actual fact this is nothing but the exercise of power appearing as “the mediation of power”. These servitors and representatives of different factions of the ruling cases (and thus of the different imperialist powers) are an inseparable part of the oppressive state. Therefore, if “party monopoly” at the local level – mostly of the CPM and also of the RSS, Congress or others – commonly observed throughout Keralam is reduced to a matter of organisational hegemonic sectarianism or social fascist tendencies, its class essence will remain concealed. The “party monopoly” protects and carries out the class interests of the local landlords and other exploiters. It is an instrument, a form, of the local exercise of their power.

In circumstances where the caste order still enjoys a prominent position, one also sees the sustenance of previous caste hegemonies or the institution of new ones through and within party monopolies. For example, where savarna Hindu landlords have waned and savarna Christian, Muslim or Ezhava landlords – alone or in combination – have usurped that position, the ‘local monopoly’ can shift from one party to the other. Relations of caste dominance within parties also get reconfigured. This creates space for the entry of new parties. Consequently, till the matter of ‘local monopoly’ is settled, a series of party clashes breaks out. (Local or class-wise differentiation within castes can also provoke such clashes.) Where the leaderships of the concerned political parties have common class or caste interests, clashes are provoked to keep the basic masses divided. Shared caste interests of leaderships at times acts in the opposite way to end clashes, especially where their caste-fellows are getting hurt.

The visible force mustered by political parties in Keralam lies in the mass organisations they control. Though not as shrewd in this matter as the CPM or CPI, this is true of the Congress and other political parties too. The RSS follows cadre-party methods and pays a lot of attention to mass organisation. The poor and middle classes provide most of the membership for all these mass organisations and they constitute the activist force. But control is with the local exploiters. This is commonly seen, even in the case of agricultural labourers or workers organisations. Moreover, in every area, all the mass organisations of a party get deployed as a hierarchy. In rural areas, those claiming to be peasants’ organisations are usually seen at the top of this pecking order. The old and new landlords are a direct, active presence in them.

We will cite a study of class relations in Keralam in the post-land reform period. The author evidently subscribes to the theory of capitalist growth. Hence all landlords are characterised as “capitalist landlords”. What is relevant for us is the fact that all of them were members of either the Congress led ‘Karshaka Samajam’ or the CPM led ‘Karshaka Sangham’ (peasant mass organisations). They had party membership. Meanwhile, all of them were also present in the local ‘Water User’s Association’, a body that represented the common interests of the landlords.[1] A large number of the rural poor were indebted to these landlords who had cornered most of the institutional credit.

Though published in the late 1990s, its field study was done in the 70s. Have things changed since? Yes, the overwhelming dependence of the rural poor on local exploiters has been reduced to a significant degree. But far more than institutional credit, easy, informal, credit, disbursed by Tamilian loan agents at the doorsteps of poor and rich alike (Tamil blades in local slang) has been instrumental in loosening up, and even making redundant, local usury’s traditional ties. The ultimate source of this credit is semi-feudal usurious capital from Tamil Nadu. The interest burden can go up to 120 per cent, and even more, per annum. This is an index of the heavy burden born by the rural poor when they free themselves from one tie of semi-feudalism by relying on yet another one. Yet this atrocious rate is still bearable since repayment is by weekly instalments. Most importantly, credit availability is collateral free and immediate.

But, besides this, the spreading out of co-operative banks has also been a contributive factor. This was initiated by the LDF and continued since then by the Congress led UDF ministries. Departing from the existing format, the CPM pushed through legislation that allowed co-operative banks to spread out in panchayats by opening up new branches. This immediately increased the availability and accessibility of institutional credit. As could be expected such ‘progress’ carried with it a significant cost – the replacement of traditional ties by new ones, more in correspondence to the changes taking place in the rural areas and quite sophisticated in its presentation.

Co-operative banks are an important convergence site of bureaucrat capitalism and semi-feudalism. They are funded, and re-capitalised, through the Central government’s NABARD, in its turn initially seeded by the World Bank. They also garner a good share of the surpluses of local exploiters, mainly landlords. Co-operative capital is thus a mix of imperialist, bureaucrat capitalist capitals and local, semi-feudal, surpluses. Controlled by factional coalitions of the local exploiters through elected party panels, they are not just a source of easy credit for them. These institutions are a potent means of exercising power. By ways of the right to grant or deny loans, insist on mortgage recovery or postpone it, the landlords and other local exploiters are able to impose relations of patronage, a prominent aspect of naattupramaanitham, on the poor and middle peasants. This is also done through other types of co-operatives, such as industrial ones and milk societies. There, the promise or denial of employment is deployed in the service of patronisation. Panchayats, which now have budgets running into crores with Central-State funding, are also means of dispensing patronage. These institutions have in turn tightened the grip of political parties over the lives of the masses.

Thus, earlier forms of local control are replaced by new ones. Yet this is not a process of total elimination of feudalism. Modern institutions, the political and economic instruments of capitalism, the co-operative and its loan capital, or the panchayat and its services, are employed to refurbish the old. Feudal relations and values, i.e., naattupramaanitham and it patronisation, are now entrenched in rural society through modern means. Of course, these relations and values are not a simple repeat of earlier ones. Elements of capitalism are now intrinsic to them. The support points in the matrix of local power are also strikingly different.

In other words, even where the scion of an old landlord family is seen in a position of power – as a party leader, the president of the panchayat or co-operative director – it is premised on ‘political support’, not overt birth right. This is both posture and substance. It is posture, since the political lives (a symbol of modernity) of such feudal elements are means to protect and sustain, to the extent possible, the traditional caste-feudal dominance their family used to enjoy. It is doubly a posture because they are chosen as candidates and front-end representatives by political parties precisely for the feudal worth of their “family name”. But the substance is also undeniable – on their own, without the instrument of a popularly acknowledged political party, their chances of acquiring position would be rather low. This is indeed an index of transformation. The landlords have more flexibility in handling this since their caste-feudal social and economic worth provides them the opportunity to tender it to some other political party. But once again it must be mediated through these modern institutions.

This substance is brought out most strikingly in instances where persons of ‘low feudal worth’ are in positions of power, solely due to political backing. All the styles and patronising attitudes of caste-feudal naattupramaanitham are readily and quickly imbibed by them, irrespective of political colour and their own class, caste background. But the moment they lose the favour of political bosses they are shorn of all position and privilege and return to the ranks of ‘nobodies’. Those who till then sucked up to them for patronage now ignore them. The exception to this is where those who have come into some position are able to utilise it as a means of personal economic elevation. This brings us to another facet of the issue at hand. While examining the new modes of exercising local power we have mainly dealt with the power of traditional landlords. We will now take a look at the new lords.

Following the land reforms in 1970, three large paddy fields in Kuttanad (Chithira, Maarthandam and Rani), totalling 1756 acres, were seized as surplus land from a landlord. It was distributed among 1600 poor and landless peasant families. This was done on condition that they would all become members of a collective farm to be tasked with cultivating that land. In effect their landownership became a formal affair. It was more like a share in the collective farm. This too was of no tangible value. The director board of the collective was composed of trade union activists. All of them came from poor, landless peasant, avarna or Dalit families. In law the board was only an executive body. Ownership resided with the 1600 families. Yet the very structure of the collective was such that they were bound to it in perpetuity. They didn’t have the right to dispose of their land or utilise it according to their choice. They couldn’t even identify their ‘own’ piece of land since such marking out became ‘unnecessary’ with the formation of the collective. Other than possession of a piece of paper that recorded their ‘ownership’ they had nothing new. In all senses they were made dependent on the director board. The board not only exercised control, it became the de facto owner.

What passed as collective land ownership was in fact corporate land ownership of the board members. They acquired this position through the backing of the government and its capital investment. In other words, this was another form of bureaucrat capitalist ownership – the corporate form of bureaucrat capitalist landlordism. In the production relation that contained this new form of ownership, the de facto owners put on airs of savarna landlordism, used the levers of patronage and lorded over the real toilers. The peasants remained trapped in ties of dependence having more in common with their earlier status under the old landlord, than their new one as ‘owners’.

Over the years the collective went on making losses. The members of the collective were saddled with huge debts run up by the director board. Unlike the elusiveness of their ownership, this burden was quite material. It was apportioned out. Each one was held liable separately. The land was finally leased out to others. Meanwhile one of the director board members came to possess 50 acres, and another 26 acres, individually! The corporate form of bureaucrat capitalism thus spawned new additions to the private form of landlordism. Incidentally, the caste-feudalism specific to Keralam was quite conversant with corporate ownership. The ‘Namboodiri yogam’ of the middle ages, charged with the collective control and management of the temple and its properties, was an example. Historical and contemporary evidence thus illuminate that collective control or management in itself is not representative of any specific production relation. We must dig deeper to get at the essence. Incidentally, this form of ‘collective’ farms was widely employed by the CPI-Congress ministry headed by the C. Achuyutha Menon. Landless Adivasis too were ensnared in the corporate landlord form of bureaucrat capitalism.

In the example cited above, the private acquiring of land by some members of the collective’s director board was visibly a case of misappropriation. Public position and property were illegally used, directly, for private gain. Let us examine another example.

The Parappoor Co-operative Bank, located in Thrissur district, is in the business of procuring paddy from the peasants. It delivers this to a private rice mill at Kalady in the neighbouring Ernakulam district. In 2008 the mill’s outstanding dues amounted to nearly R 4 crore. 3362 tonnes were additionally delivered in 2007-08, while a due of R 2 crore was pending. Meanwhile the final payment to peasants was delayed by three months on the plea that the co-op didn’t have sufficient funds!

Co-operatives’ procurement of paddy was supposed to help peasants escape from the clutches of private traders who forced distress sales at low prices during harvest time. It has no doubt made a difference. Though the peasants have to wait for months to get full payment, better rates are assured. But what exactly is going on behind this scene of benevolence? After procurement, a part of ‘co-operative’ capital gets transformed into paddy, i.e. a commodity. This is delivered to the mill without payment. Thus the mill gets its raw material on credit. When this is milled and sold it makes huge profits with very low investment. Capital-wise, this is the same as carrying out its operation with the backing of interest free, extended credit from the co-operative bank. And this done while the bank loans out money to peasants on interest and gets quite nasty when they fail to pay up in time.

Obviously, a share of the profit made in the paddy deal must have gone to those controlling the co-operative. Is this merely a bribe, a kickback? What we see here is corporate capital (in the form of co-operative finance capital) collaborating with private capital, and sharing in the profit. This co-operative capital is itself a blend of local surpluses with bureaucrat capital. By virtue of their position as directors of the co-op, those in control are able to employ this capital to serve private interests. Simultaneously, they can use it to extend or deny patronage and thereby build up or consolidate their social position. The tools employed by the director board to hang on to power, when its illicit deal was politically exposed by Porattom, were quite illuminating. On the one hand, the party machinery of the CPM was activated to carry out a public campaign. The widespread extension of credit facilities compared to the Congress-board’s days was invoked. On the other hand, monetary inducements were employed by giving a liberal bonus to all members, a first in the history of this co-op. The board thus got re-elected with considerable majorities. In the process it also revealed the chinks in this new set-up.

The new mode of local domination and exploitation is based on control of public assets/funds and positions. It often appears as a progressive step compared to the earlier situation. For example, in the case examined above, under a Congress director board the co-op mainly acted as a tool to serve the needs of local landlords and the rich. Under the CPM, while membership remained tightly controlled, credit was eased up. However, it could be availed of only on recommendation of a CPM branch committee. Even then, this new form of control was legitimised by populist political sympathies and, quite importantly, wider availability of credit. But, in the final analysis, the new mode of domination is meant to serve exploitation. The extracted surplus must be transferred. This invariably necessitates one or the other form of misappropriation. In turn it becomes a powerful source of delegitimisation. In the case examined here, the fact of illicit dealing for the benefit of private interests was undeniable. So too was the comparison of the easy terms granted to the private mill with the harsh ones borne by the peasants. By trying to deflect public anger against this through invoking ‘progress’ from the old, Congress-led, period, the CPM only succeeded in sharpening the exposure of its degeneration. It could retain its control of the co-op only at this cost. The peasant members obviously returned it to power, not out of illusion, but because they didn’t have a better choice.

Unlike the earlier direct exercise of local power by landlords, the ‘party-co-op-panchayat-police’ nexus has a public, collective, face. This makes the task of exposing and targeting it more complex. The complexity increases where the concerned ‘party’ has a ‘Left’ hue. But this does not mean that it can perpetually evade the people’s wrath. This mode is manifested concretely through the overt or covert clubbing up of party leaders, panchayat authorities, co-operative society directors and local police chiefs. Since it is only another mode of exercising anti-people political power, this nexus necessarily exposes itself through its feudal methods, for example the “naattupramaanitham” of its agents, and their misappropriation of public assets. No matter what the populist banner, it is thus revealed as a power ‘standing above the people’ and alienates itself from the people. It would be appropriate to target it by mobilising the masses to “Rally and struggle against the new lords who have appropriated public assets and positions.”

* The narration and analysis that follows is largely based on Ajith’s “Bhoomi, Jati, Bandhanam” [Kanal Publishers, Kochi, 2002], a study on the agrarian relations in Keralam.

[1] ‘Caste, Class and Agrarian Relations in Kerala’, Abraham Vijayan.

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