A week after agitators in coastal Andhra Pradesh burnt a train while demanding backward caste status for the agrarian Kapu caste, posters that advertised the rally in the two months leading up to it could still be seen in Kapu-dominated areas of towns and villages across the region.

The posters adorned the markets, main streets, even the walls of houses in Amalapuram, a small town in the Godavari delta with a high population of Kapus. Each of them exhorted Kapus to attend the Kapu Ikya Garjana (United Kapus Roar) at 1 pm on January 31, some with startling Telugu variations of the Marxist call to unite workers. The bills were reminders that while the national media began to pay attention to the Kapu agitation only after the train arson, the movement had been building for a while. Around 4 lakh people eventually attended the rally – a sizeable number by any standard.

Since then, the Kapu demands – for inclusion in the state’s backward classes list and for a welfare corporation endowed with Rs 1,000 crore annually – have sparked off strong reactions from people already on the backward class list in the state. Their contention: that including a socially powerful, though economically weak, group in their list will end up edging them out of existing benefits.

The conversation has trickled down to a government degree college in Razole, where students and teachers alike have been giving thought to the issue. One evening, a few days after the train burning, a group of four friends, all 19-year-olds and all first generation of women in their families to attend college, spoke about how reservations for Kapus would affect their lives.

“It is not as if the lower castes are all poor or all upper castes are rich,” said S Meenakshi, a student of zoology. “So this will help poor Kapus.”

“But as it is, we are facing competition from BCs [Backward Classes],” interjected D Sowmyasree. “With Kapus entering, there will be more competition for jobs. If it does not affect us, then we are fine with it.”

Backward class status will bring Kapus not just reservations in government education and jobs, but also a slew of other benefits, such as schemes for building houses and scholarships for private study.

“It is not difficult to get into this college,” Meenakshi said. “The fees are slightly higher for other castes than scheduled castes. But only those with no means come to government colleges.”

The students seemed uncomfortable with the rifts surfaced by the conversation. Two of them were Kapus and two from a scheduled caste and though they disagreed with each other, they were hesitant about expressing their opinions too freely in front of each other.

“We are all good friends anyway, but now because the Kapus are protesting, people are talking ‘your people, my people’,” said T Lalitha. “In school, we don’t know our castes, but then in college we find out.”

Professors at the college were more outspoken.

“Reservation is not for the economically backward, it is for deprived groups,” said K Srinivasa Rao, who teaches commerce at the Razole college. “Even Brahmins are begging. Can we give reservations to all the economically backward castes in Andhra Pradesh?”

For Srinivasa Rao, inclusion of Kapus in the list of backward classes simply on economic grounds goes against the very foundation of reservations.

“Economic backwardness is not permanent backwardness,” he said. “Pupils can develop financially. The socially deprived cannot. That is why we have reservations.”

Building an identity

The question then is whether the Kapus are indeed socially deprived. The trouble in determining this is that Kapus have only recently begun to identify as a single community.

The idea of Kapus coming together at all is a feat of political imagination only a few decades old. The word “kapu” across Andhra Pradesh refers to cultivators. As late as 1931, for instance, the Reddys, a powerful caste that has dominated Andhra politics since Independence, were identified interchangeably with Kapus in the census. But today, the Reddys’ domination of power has marked them different.

Under the broad and varied umbrella of cultivators, only two Kapu castes have been included in the list of backward classes so far: Munnuru Kapus in Telangana and Turpu Kapus in Andhra Pradesh. The Kapu movement at present wants to unite four castes – Balijas, Kapus, Ontaris and Telagas – into finding a common identity and seeking political and social gains. Together, the four castes form more than a quarter of the bifurcated Andhra’s population.

This movement began to take shape under the leadership of Congress politician Vangaveeti Mohan Ranga Rao in the 1980s. East Godavari, where the Kapu Ikya Garjana was convened on January 31, happens to be a Kapu-dominated district, as is the rest of coastal Andhra Pradesh. Ranga Rao, however, came from further south west, in Vijayawada, where Kapus are not as economically well off.

At the height of the movement in 1989, Ranga Rao was assassinated while on a hunger strike. Though he is still valourised in areas around Vijayawada today, it was Mudragada Padmanabham who stepped into the vacuum left by him, with his championing of the Kapu Nadu movement in the early 1990s.

ML Kantha Rao, a researcher at the University of Hyderabad, detailed the history of the Kapus and their political struggle in his PhD thesis submitted in 1999.

“This political amalgamation of the Kapus into one caste was a slow process that has been building since around 1982 […],” he wrote. “In Andhra Pradesh even though the efforts to bring together all Kapu sub-castes date back to early 20th century, there has been renewed and sustained attempt to achieve that for the last 17 years or so, with a specific demand to include them into the list of Backward Castes.”

Since the 1980s, much of this rhetoric has been around encouraging inter-marriage, which was not heard of earlier and to build solidarity with this common demand.

Social relations

After Ranga Rao’s death, the leadership seems to have shifted to the east. Mudragada Padmanabham, the senior leader whose presence was the rallying point of the January 31 gathering, has spent his entire political career contesting elections from constituencies in East Godavari.

The economic fortunes of Kapus in coastal Andhra Pradesh took a turn for the better in the early 20th century, with the construction of irrigation projects along the deltas of the Krishna and Godavari rivers.

Since Independence, political and therefore economic power in Andhra Pradesh has been concentrated between Kammas and Reddys, both agricultural castes that managed to lift themselves economically and move ahead in education and jobs with power. Kapus took later to education than these castes. This is perhaps why they perceive themselves as having remained behind.

“Of course socially we have more in common with the Reddys and Chaudharis than with Backward Classes people,” said Maddinsetti Surya Rao, a 42-year-old Telugu Desam Party leader from Amalapuram in East Godavari who is a Kapu. “But they are well off already and don’t need reservations. Though as per our caste we have status in society, still there are so many poor Kapus.”

There is however no doubt of the social and even economic superiority of Kapus in coastal Andhra Pradesh. At the rally in Tuni, there were large flex sheets of the lionised king of the Vijayanagara Empire, Krishnadevaraya, implying he was one of them. Kammas and Yadavas also like to claim him as their ancestor.

A more disquieting truth is that the perpetrators of most incidents of atrocities against scheduled castes in the region, according to human rights activists, are Kapus.

“Only SCs, STs and BCs [Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes] are ever beaten by Kapus,” pointed out B Murali Krishnan, another professor in the Razole college. “Kapus are never beaten by SCs, STs or BCs. And they are never prosecuted for that. If any other community had burnt that train, do you think they would have still been free?”

What can a commission say?

A commission report may be necessary to cut through allegations and vested interests to consider whether Kapus really require government benefits. All states already have established Backward Class Commissions to determine whether groups demanding entry into these lists can truly be considered backward. Various commissions have over time considered the Kapu case, while studying other backward classes.

In 1982, for instance, the NK Muralidhar Rao commission, which Kantha Rao dismisses as being conducted by only one man in nine months, concluded:

“[Kapus] are land owners and enjoy social status in the villages. They are already politically conscious and socially forward. On the educational side also they are not backward as the students belonging to the Kapu Community are in considerable number in the educational institutions in the state. The literacy in this community is higher than the state average… There is a good representation from Kapu Community in the employment under the state government, semi-government and local bodies. The Commission thinks that it is not necessary to disturb this”

The movement is now at a standstill until a new commission, headed by retired high court judge KL Manjunath, can submit its report. The government has promised this will happen in six months.

Other compromises

There is no doubt that there are many Kapus who are poor or who might not have a high social status when not in the majority in a village.

A few days after the burning of the train, a group of Telaga workers were engaged in removing the tiles of a house that was up for renovation in a village near Amalapuram.

“It is good the leaders started the movement,” said Galidevara Venkateswara Rao, 30. “But what happened is wrong. We should do what we went to do, not to make riots, just like here we are removing tiles, not breaking them.”

Instead of taking benefits from the existing quotas for backward classes, Venkateswara Rao, like many other Kapus, feels it is important to move beyond the 50% barrier on reservation set by the Supreme Court, as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have done.

Kesari Sai Babu, 50, does not think that a Kapu Welfare Corporation only for the economically weak among the Kapus can be a solution.

“If they give benefits exclusively to the poor that would mean a split in the movement and our aim would be lost,” he said. “The leaders are rich. Why else would they lead if they were not also going to get the benefits for caste?”

Opposition to Kapus getting any benefits has intensified since the burning of the train.

Dasari Satyanarayana, a leader from the fishing community and chairman of the India Confederation of Labour, believes that Kapus should not get reservations even within other classes. If anything, they should get only economic benefits, he said. At any rate, Kapus should get nothing at all in the immediate future, he said.

“They were saying that [the burning of the train] was a mistake, but it was all pre-planned,” he said. “Violence should not be the reason they get reservation. It sends wrong signals to other communities. They might become BCs, but they will never mix with us.”