Bihar polls: Caste etched in heart, ‘silent’ in spelling

Bihar polls poster war

My name is Ajeet Bharti. However my father has another surname. Similarly, some of my friends have weird surnames like Kumar (the most prevalent in our generation), Sundaram, Ranjan, and Raj etc. Why is that weird? It is weird for they do not project caste, village or lineage as surnames are supposed to do worldwide. None of us have our fathers using such surnames in Bihar from my father’s generation. My father uses Singh, Kumar’s father uses Sahay, Sundaram’s father uses Gupta and so on.

These are manufactured surnames, often borrowed to hide the caste we belong to. The most prevalent, widely used surname in my generation is Kumar and Kumari (for girls). Literally, Kumar means an unmarried boy, and Kumari means, an unmarried girl.

When we look at it from a distance, from a perspective alien to Bihar, we can marvel at the idea of not having surnames that represent an identity. An identity which is often taken negatively by the people that take notice of. While at our school, Sainik School Tilaiya, most of the cadets didn’t have any surname that could reveal their caste.

This was a good thing for us on campus as we didn’t have to fiddle ourselves around who to sit with and who to talk to as we had no idea of caste. At the same age, my nephews, conditioned by the the social structures, very much know why they shouldn’t sit and eat with a guy from lower caste.

The doing away with surnames to hide the caste identity gained momentum after the Bihar Movement, helmed by dynamic Jayprakash Narayan or JP, as he is popularly known as. It was late 70s that the demand of reservations and upper caste people’s wrath ensured that the lower caste people hid their identities.

The surnames became a means to target the lower caste in jobs, exams, and at educational institutions along with the prevalent social stigma.

However, the time took a turn and lower caste people started targeting the upper caste as they reached good positions in various fields due to merit and reservation. This was the time when the upper caste people started to hide their surnames under Kumar, Raj etc.

From one angle, it is a beautiful thing to have. People respecting (or hating) people for what they are and not for what castes they belonged to. The menace of this carcinogenic idea becomes visible, and talked about, whenever elections take place.

Political importance

Ideologies, promises, perks and issues take a backseat when elections are announced in Bihar. I vividly remember an aspiring MLA ticket seeking industrialist from my district, taking stock of the caste factor every single morning I visited him. It was a daily ritual for him.

Everyone is, perhaps, clear about ‘how things work’ in Bihar. Jumlebazi is reserved for press meets and rallies. Development issues, problems of state are merely printed words in the manifesto. It is not that people don’t want to hear them or to see them getting realised, rather caste factor in Bihar elections is so rampant, that it percolates to the gene-level.

The aspiring ticket seeker I talked about, would micro-manage the caste equation. Ratio of Bhumihars (An upper caste) in a particular village, influential Bhumihars, Bhumihar mukhiyas would all be printed in a sheet as he would mark out the names on the voter list with caste column written by pen.

It would be followed by how to tackle low-caste dominated areas where the strategists would suggest trying to get the area declared as ‘sensitive’ which would result in lower percentage of polling.

(Mis)use and (ab)use of caste

The most dangerous, and pathetic, portrayal of the caste takes place when every leader from every party starts to use the ‘formula’ to woo voters. Convicted criminals like Lalu Prasad Yadav use the caste card to fool the voters. I remember the days when the schools in my village and adjoining places had no roofs, no teachers and everything was left to the Sun god.

This was the time when Lalu ruled. This was the time when his simple formula was to keep the mass uneducated and tell them anything and without any resource to ascertain the fact, they would believe. Precisely the reason why everyone from my generation had to study in mushrooming private schools or come to places like Delhi.

Now, Lalu Prasad Yadav, a convict who can’t fight elections, is going to rallies and spreading false ideas like BJP wants to end reservation etc. He is trying hard to sell himself as a messiah, a champion of the poor and Dalits. However, the fact remains that if Dalits or Yadavs are one of the most illiterate classes from Bihar, it is due to his ignorance.

Singing the same old tune on a broken harp, RJD supremo, with no other issue in sight, described the crucial Assembly polls in Bihar as a direct fight between the backward castes and forward castes. He gave a clarion call to Yadavas and other backward castes to rally behind the ‘secular alliance’ to defeat the BJP-led NDA.

This is an unfortunate situation for Biharis who are ridiculed for this kind of fixation with caste. It is sad that someone, convicted of scams and barred from fighting elections, has the audacity to incite the caste factor vocally when the Election Commission’s code of conduct is in force.

Lalu’s friend-turned-foe-turned-friend Nitish Kumar coined a term like EBC (Extremely Backward Class) and initiated a series of policies for their betterment. When he came in power in 2005, everyone had hopes. He did work hard to improve education and transport infrastructure. Roads are visible in villages, and schools have buildings.

People saw a ray of hope in Nitish Kumar. He became the metaphorical silver-lining in cloud for Bihar.

However, in the last two years he dumped the development politics and focussed himself on replying to ‘jumlas’ and jibes from BJP. When the future looked bleak, he had to shake hands with Lalu Prasad Yadav and try to justify it by playing the communal and secular cards. These cards didn’t do any good to any party in the 2014 elections as BJP moved ahead with issues while all others tried to counter it by sloganeering.

Caste equations and its implications came to the fore when Lalu, imitating Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’, gave the election-cry: BhuRaBaL Hatao. Where ‘BhuRaBaL’ denotes the top four upper castes in Bihar: Bhumihar, Rajpoot, Brahman, and Lala.

Centuries of oppression of lower caste was somehow subverted with Lalu’s ascent as they gave him 15 years of power that saw no governance. Deliberate ignorance to policy making was evident when Nitish came to power in 2005 and the state had nothing to lose as it had seen its nadir during Lalu’s ‘Jungle Raaj’. However, it did no good to the lower caste as Lalu was just preparing his family case while (not) running Bihar.

Recalling Lalu’s impact of governance (or the lack of it) in his Telegraph column in 2014, Ramachandra Guha remarked, “Murders and kidnappings were common. It was unsafe to walk the streets of Patna after dark. It was unsafe to drive in many districts even during the day. Fifteen years of rule by Lalu Prasad and his family had depleted the state’s finances and demoralized the bureaucracy.”

Assembly elections

Recently, when Lalu and Nitish were seen ‘championing’ the cause of lower caste (again) by making statements centred around caste, BJP swiftly said it would ensure that CM is not from upper caste.

But the question is, will this caste card have the same impact this time? If we go by this article on Indian Express, the mahadalits (EBCs) who had voted Nitish to power are now disenchanted by his theatrics and handshake with Lalu.

As the election dates are nearing, mud slinging has started with jibes like ‘chaara-chor Lalu’ (Fodder thief Lalu) and ‘Narbhakshi Amit Shah’ (Cannibal Amit Shah). Jungle Raj 2, Madal Raj 2 are the phrases in vogue as Bihar goes to vote.

It is an undeniable fact that as with the search for a suitable groom people go for caste and gotra match, similarly, during elections people vote for caste.

The reason is, they have no other connection from these leaders who seldom have anything else to offer. However, increased literacy and awareness has made this habit somewhat less obvious.

Ticket distribution pattern and caste

NDA has announced its list of candidates for the elections and the caste factor is abundantly clear in the ticket distribution. Although the upper caste constitutes just about 15% of Bihar’s population, it does influence the lower caste votes. They are the opinion leaders in villages where they dominate the power.

Unless, there is a reserved seat for the lower caste as mukhiya, the panchayat seldom gets a lower caste village chief. Even in the reserved seats, the backward caste candidate that wins is the one with the backing of upper caste.

For the coming Bihar polls, as many as 84 upper caste candidates have been fielded by NDA out of the total 243 seats in the assembly. This includes 36 Rajputs and 28 Bhumihars, the two dominant castes of the state.

The grand alliance (JD-U, RJD and Congress), for the 85% of Bihar’s backward population (including OBCs), has announced 64 Yadavs – 48 of them by the RJD alone – apart from 33 Muslims as candidates. This reflects the traditional social support base of MY (Muslim-Yadav) for the RJD and JD-U.

Apart from these 97, the alliance is also dependent on on the OBCs- Koeris and Kurmis. A total of 47 candidates from OBC, 30 Koeris and 17 Kurmis (Nitish Kumar’s caste men), have been fielded by the grand alliance.

The break up looks like this: OBC+EBCs 55%; Muslims 14%; SC+ST 16%; general or upper caste 16%. (percent data is in approx values)

Let’s see how it unfolds

It’s just a matter of few weeks when the results would be announced. It would be interesting to see if Biharis choose to fall for the ‘caste factor’ or go after the rhetorical ‘development’ agenda. Given the increasing literacy rate, still among the lowest in nation, and penetration of social media, people might have better idea of their leaders.

However painful it is for me, as a Bihari, to write this, but caste is not going to go away that easily from the Bihari psyche. Caste equation might not be so obvious in this election as in the 1990s but, for certain, it will have an impact till the realisation of its ghastliness comes to the voter.