Sunday's violence in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh by Kapus demanding reservation is a farce that is played out in Indian politics regularly.
Over the past few years, with help from opportunistic politicians, the drama has played out twice in Rajasthan, once in Gujarat and is now ready to explode in Andhra Pradesh. Only a miracle is keeping western UP and Haryana, where Jats are awaiting OBC status, from burning in the quota conflagration.
The script is familiar.
First, a community that has a lot of political muscle drums up hysteria by claiming it needs reservation to save it from financial and social ruin. The demand is ignored by the party in power and covertly supported the Opposition.
The demand simmers under the surface for some time and then explodes with violent agitation, arson and deaths. Jolted out of its stupor by the flares, the government tries to either suppress it with brute force or by pouring an assurance over it, which, it later forgets.
And, thus, the quota drama continues.
The agitation by the Kapu community too borrows heavily from the agitation by Jats — who were given OBC status by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, the Gurjars of Rajasthan and Patidars of Gujarat. On Sunday, the agitators, gathered at Tuni to attend a public meeting addressed by their leader and ex-minister Mudragada Padmanabh, pelted stones at the train and attacked some police personnel, before ransacking the railway station. Padmanabh, like Patidar leader Hardik Patel who advocated violence in support of their demand, was quoted as saying the CM should realise the gravity of the situation.
Like the Jats and Patidars, the Kapus are a powerful political entity. Though there are no official figures available since the 1921 caste census, they are said to be around 16 percent of the total population in Andhra, a figure almost identical to Patidars and Jats.
According to various sociologists, the Kapus (literally agriculturists from Kapudanam, farming, in Telugu), again like the Jats and Patidars in their states, were the dominant peasant class of coastal Andhra. In a 2002 study, K Srinivasulu, a professor of political science in Osmania university, called them a fairly prosperous community of Andhra Pradesh.
Srinivasulu wrote that the Kapu-Reddy-Raju-Naidus (similar communities that use different titles) were major beneficiaries of agrarian reforms in Independent India. "These reforms, initiated by the Congress Party with a view to legitimising its progressive image and co-opting the left’s agenda, strengthened the party’s social support structure by rallying those who benefited from them. The rich peasantry of the Reddy, Kamma and Kapu castes, which were the main beneficiaries of the above reforms, thus constituted the core support base of the Congress Party in the countryside," he argued.
Notice the similarities with the Patidars (Patels) of Gujarat when Srinivasulu writes they have also entered into the cinema industry (Chiranjeevi and Vijay Kanth are Kapus) and dominated its production, distribution and even exhibition; invested in education and contributed to its commercialisation, and even come to dominate even the media — both print and electronic. The families belonging to this class constitute a large chunk of the so-called NRIs — the non-resident Indians.
This influential, affluent, politically empowered comprising entrepreneurs and NRIs now wants to be called backward and claim a share of the quota pie.
Again, like the Patidars.
Their stir has created a problem the Andhra government can't push under the carpet. The state government can't give them quota benefits without crossing the 50 percent limit imposed by the Supreme Court on reservation. And tinkering with the existing quota can lead to a backlash from communities that comprise Other Backward Class in the state.
Andhra CM Chandrababu Naidu has managed to douse the fire by promising to look into their demand. He managed to convince the agitators to call off their stir by saying he is keen to look at their demands and had already set up a judicial commission for this purpose.
But, the complicated caste dynamics of the state may re-ignite the fire. The Kapu-Reddy's were originally communists who later migrated to the Congress. Since the Reddy's started dominating the Congress politics, the Kammas — the other dominant community — migrated to the Telugu Desam Party launched by NT Rama Rao, himself a Kamma. Initially, the Kapus also supported the TDP to counter the influence of Reddy's in the Congress. But, they gradually started seeing TDP as a Kamma party and returned to the Congress.
A discussion on Quora sums up the political trajectory of the Kapus. " NTR did break the Reddy domination of state politics, but in the process he created a new Kamma hierarchy. NTR openly promoted many of his caste members to the higher positiions in both the bureaucracy and legislature, creating a Kamma elite of sorts. Kapus who were already feeling marginalised in the state's political scene, felt even more sidelined. The feeling among Kapus was that the TDP was more or less a party of the Kammas, and that made them switch over to the Congress. "
The socio-economic structure of the state, according to Srinivasulu, is such that the market-oriented and capital-accumulating class of peasantry almost uniformly belongs to a single caste in the village microcosm, ie either to the Kammas or the Reddys (or the Kapus). So, the Kammas and Kapus are generally on the opposite side of political, social and economic spectrum.
Aware of their importance, both the Congress and the YSR-Congress are trying to woo them. In the 2014 Assembly campaign, YSR-Congress chief Jaganmohan Reddy promised OBC status to Kapu's on becoming the chief minister. So, he won't let the stir die down. Naidu, on the other hand, can't easily give in to the demand, fearing a Kamma backlash. As a result, the quota conundrum in Andhra is unlikely to get resolved in a hurry.
The lessons from the stir are obvious. As long as politicians continue to use quota to divide the society, use its leaders as political pawns — Gurjar leader Kirori Bainsla was rewarded with a Lok Sabha ticket by the BJP — and find effective ways to deal with violence and blackmail, India will continue to burn.
In addition, the government will have to frame a concrete policy to deal with such agitations.
It will find it difficult to get away when it cites the 50 percent limit in one state — Gujarat and Andhra — and violates it in another — Rajasthan, where Gurjars have been promised five percent reservation in spite of the current reservation being 49 percent.