This is a limited call seeking 2-3 prospective contributions from authors who are well-placed to submit a complete first draft on the theme of our special issue by 31st December 2017. We have an agreement in place with a suitable journal and an existing list of authors committed to submitting articles, so there is only limited scope for accepting new ones. Those intending to submit a full first draft by 31st December 2017 are advised to contact Kenneth Bo Nielsen at the earliest possible with a title and abstract in order to confirm sufficient fit with the collection theme.

The Politics of Caste in India’s New Land Wars

Guest editors: Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Patrik Oskarsson, Siddharth Sareen

Land is back on the political agenda in India, just as it is in other parts of the world impacted by what is commonly referred to as ‘the global land grab’ (see e.g. Borras Jr and Franco 2011; Borras Jr et al. 2011). Yet in the Indian context, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the importance of caste in bringing this about. This special issue therefore seeks to explore the role of caste in India’s new land wars. Based on historically informed and empirically grounded contributions we analyse, from an interdisciplinary and comparative perspective, how caste mediates, fuels, pre-empts, or undermines processes of social contestation over land use and land transfers in contemporary India.

Over the past decade, economic reforms and the prying open of new spaces for private investment and accumulation have rendered land an increasingly scarce – and hence valuable – commodity (Chakravorty 2013). Whether through market transactions or imposed land acquisition, land transfers on a considerable scale have been sought by private investors for purposes as varied as mining (Padel and Das 2010), industrialisation (Nielsen and Oskarsson 2017), infrastructure (Sampat 2014), special economic zones (Jenkins et al. 2014; Bedi 2013, 2015; Levien 2013), urbanisation (Sampat 2016), airports (Nielsen and Da Silva 2017), real estate, as well as ‘greenfield development’ of various sorts (Kennedy and Sood 2016). Most observers of contemporary India agree that this spate of land transfers has resulted in a number of new urban, peri-urban and rural ‘land wars’ (Levien 2013), as people threatened with dispossession or displacement have mobilised to retain their land, or to be awarded greater compensation or made ‘partners’ to the proposed ‘redevelopment’ of their land. Yet importantly, responses to land takeover have varied greatly, with some land transfers and conversions proceeding without much public opposition. In this special issue on ‘The Politics of Caste in India’s New Land Wars’ we explore the significance of caste in generating these diverse outcomes, analysing how it inflects broader political dynamics as well as the formation, unravelling or mediation of particular localised contestations over land.

While the nexus between land, caste and power has been a recurring theme in the rural sociology and anthropology of India since at least the 1950s (e.g. Lewis and Barnouw 1956; Srinivas 1959; Pocock 1962), the insights this scholarship generated have spawned few systematic attempts to explore the importance of caste in India’s new land wars. Scholars adopting Marxist political economy perspectives have analysed the changes in the Indian state and its policies to unpack the macro-structural and political drivers of land-based conflicts (Levien 2011; 2013; Banerjee-Guha 2013). Scholars and legal activists have analysed and critiqued the laws underpinning the exercise of eminent domain and charted new paths towards more just ways of governing land. Political ecology studies on mining and industrial activities have often emphasised unified movements of Adivasi and non-Adivasi forest-dwellers and farmers without unpacking the complex cultural politics of land relations and public protest. In contrast, urban scholars have shown how cities continue to be embroiled in caste politics, but often their work neglects connections to sensitive land issues. And, while individual case studies of localised land struggles – alongside edited volumes focussing on land transfer for purposes such as special economic zones (Jenkins et al. 2014), rural industrialisation (Nielsen and Oskarsson 2017), or urban development (Bhan 2016) – indicate that caste identities and relations continue to play an important mediating role, fuelling or undermining social contestation over land use, there is a dearth of systematic, comparative research on this topic.

This special issue seeks to fill this gap by proceeding from the premise that while the land-caste-power nexus has weakened a good deal over the past decades, it has not been broken (Harriss 2012). The decline of the agrarian sector, partial land reforms at least in parts of India, increased access to non-agrarian work opportunities through migration, and the gradual ‘rurbanisation’ (Gupta 2015) of rural India, have indeed combined to render land a less secure foundation for caste-based influence and authority. But in the meantime, prosperous and upwardly mobile peasant castes – such as the Jats, Kammas and Gounders – have partially diversified out of agriculture and into trade, business and politics, enabling new forms of economic, social and political capital to be derived from, and invested into, social dominance in rural areas as well (Damodaran, 2008; Upadhya, 1988). Interest in land and its local uses has thus become embedded in wider webs of power and multiple forms of capital. Here, caste identities and relations continue to play definitive roles in generating inclusion, exclusion and adverse incorporation. This may be most acutely felt among the landless, the poor, and the low caste: as one of the leaders of the Dalit movement that recently emerged with force in Gujarat tellingly remarked, ‘In India, land determines the caste’ (cited in Katakam 2016, 11).

The special issue is divided into two sections. The first section takes its point of departure in localised contestations over land to analyse how particular configurations of caste, land and power work to mediate land transfers; shape the social base of popular mobilisation; and fuel or defuse social contestation. The second section analyses how larger configurations of caste, capital and political power at the state level mediate and influence the formulation, reception or implementation of particular forms of land use in certain locations, thereby entailing dispossession or displacement of some actors while others benefit from increased land values or new income opportunities. Together, these contributions constitute cutting-edge scholarship on how caste-based dynamics interface with social and political contestation over land in contemporary India.


  • Banerjee-Guha, Swapna. 2013. Accumulation and Dispossession: Contradictions of Growth and Development in Contemporary India. South Asia 36 (2): 165-79.
  • Bedi, Heather P. 2013. Special Economic Zones: National Land Challenges, Localized Protest. Contemporary South Asia 21 (1): 38-51.
  • Bedi, Heather P. 2015. Judicial Justice for Special Economic Zone Land Resistance. Journal of Contemporary Asia 45 (4): 596-617.
  • Bhan, Gautam. 2016. In the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship, and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.
  • Borras Jr, Saturnino M., Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones, Ben White and Wendy Wolford. 2011. Towards a better understanding of global land grabbing: an editorial introduction. Journal of Peasant Studies 38 (2): 209-216.
  • Borras Jr, Saturnino M. and Jennifer C. Franco. 2012. Global Land Grabbing and Trajectories of Agrarian Change: A Preliminary Analysis. Journal of Agrarian Change 12 (1): 34-59.
  • Chakravorty, Sanjoy. 2013. The Price of Land. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Damodaran, H. (2008). India’s New Capitalists: Caste, Business, and Industry in a Modern Nation. Ranikhet: Permanent Black.
  • Gupta, Dipankar. 2015. The Importance of Being ‘Rurban’. Economic and Political Weekly 50 (24): 37-43.
  • Harriss, John. 2012. Reflections on Caste and Class, Hierarchy and Dominance. Seminar 633, (accessed 6 September 2013).