100 Years of Backward Caste Politics in Bihar

Ram Manohar Lohia, Karpoori Thakur, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and Nitish Kumar.
Why You Should Read This
  • Bihar has been the birthplace of numerous movements for social change in the decades preceding and following India’s independence.
  • These movements emerged as a challenge to the caste order since they were largely rooted in the the oppression and deprivation of the backward castes.
  • Over the course of the 20th century, these backward castes have succeeded in capturing political power, resulting in a drastic change in the state’s power dynamics.
  • We have condensed the original 10,000-word paper into a 1,700-word summary. You can read it in fullClick on each point to dig deeper and get the complete picture. in 6 minutes or skim itRead only the numbered points. in 2 minutes.
  1. The popular understanding of backward caste politics in Bihar is linked to the rise of Lalu Prasad Yadav in the 1990s. But the struggle for upliftment of these groups goes back to the early 20th century, when the dominance of the landowning upper castes had led to agrarian distress in the region. Over the decades since, their power has been challenged by Yadavs, Kurmis, Koeris, Momins and others through various movements for social change.
    • Upper caste groups like Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs, and Ashraf groups like Syeds, Sheikhs and Pathans, who also form the landowning groups, have been traditionally powerful in Bihar.
    • Lower caste groups like Yadavs, Kurmis, Koeris, Momins have made various attempts to challenge their dominance.
    • Apart from exploitative landlord-tenant relations and agrarian distress, other important factors which formed the context for these movements include…
      • Colonial rule, which recognised and contributed to caste differences in society.
      • And the national freedom movement, which completely neglected social change, in order to focus on fighting colonial rule.
  2. The 1920s saw the first modern struggles for backward caste empowerment in Bihar. The Janeyu Andolan saw Yadavs and other lower castes wearing janeyu – the Brahmanical thread — prompting violent counter-attacks by Brahmins. And the Momin Movement challenged the dominance of upper caste Muslim groups.
    • In the early 1920s, lower caste groups like Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris ‘sanskritised’ themselves by wearing janeyu. This movement was prevalent in both north and south Bihar.
      • Through this struggle, lower caste groups gained socio-cultural legitimacy, which also enabled their participation in politics.
      • Brahmins reacted to this movement by launching countermeasures and attacks.
    • Simultaneously, a Momin Movement was also being launched, which challenged the dominance of Ashraf groups like Syeds, Sheikhs, and Pathans.
  3. Since socio-economic oppression was linked to caste, fighting for the rights and status of one’s caste became the way to fight such oppression. Caste-based associations such as the Triveni Sangh, Yadav Mahasabha, and Momin Conference became important voices for the cause of social upliftment, which was largely ignored by parties like the Congress.
    • Caste sabhas like the Momin Conference and Triveni Sangh mobilised efforts to fight against the socio-economic oppression of lower caste peasants by the upper caste landlords of the regions.
    • Triveni Sangh was the organisation that emerged from the Janeyu Andolan, and it marked the first attempt to create a comprehensive political ideology for the Backward groups.
      • It was also the first attempt to apply independent political pressure outside the Indian National Congress, which was full of upper caste members who were indifferent to the concerns and ambitions of the lower caste groups.
  4. In the 1950s, the various groups fighting for social change began to unite under the common backward caste identity and numerous developments at this time encouraged such alliances. These groups asserted themselves politically. The upper caste-dominated Congress could not provide a platform for their demands. This led to the rise of Ram Manohar Lohia’s socialist movement. The Congress was ousted from power in 1967, after which Bihar was ruled by a series of backward caste and Dalit Chief Ministers.
    • Various political developments such as the creation of the Bihar State Backward Classes Federation in 1947, the passing of the Bihar Land Reforms Act in 1950, and the release of the first Backward Classes Commission’s report in 1955, contributed to the increased unity among backward caste groups and the  development of caste politics in Bihar. 
    • The Congress, meanwhile, still had 40 per cent of its legislators from among the upper castes, and could not cater to the political assertions of these emerging backward caste groups.
    • Therefore, the socialists emerged as the major opposition power.
      • Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia was at the helm of the socialist group, and tried to establish a separate ideology and base by combining populism and Marxism by bringing the movements of the backward caste groups and the socialists together. The rising groups among the backward castes resonated with his programme.
      • Lohia’s slogan ‘pichhda pave sau mein saath’ (‘60 per cent benefits to the backwards/downtrodden’), combined with the backward caste socialist leader Karpoori Thakur’s ‘Socialists ne bandhi gaanth’ (‘socialists have given their pledge’) became deeply popular.
      • Through the emphasis on various issues including social exploitation, racial, sexual, and national questions, and an anti-English language stance, the socialists under Lohia were able to capture popular support and consolidate anti-Congress forces. In 1965, they led the largest post-independence popular movement in Bihar on the issues of fee-increase in educational institutions, food crises, inflation and the corruption of the Congress government.
    • In this context, the electoral dominance of the Congress came to an end in the 1967 elections, and a non-Congress coalition government was formed, led by Mahamaya Prasad Sinha and Karpoori Thakur. In the next 4 years, Bihar had five CMs from the backward castes and two Scheduled Caste CMs.
      • The Scheduled Castes’ votes were divided across various socialist and communist parties, and this trend of the Scheduled Caste voters moving away from the Congress continued in the 1969 mid-term elections as well.
  5. The major development of the 1970s was the JP movement, which arose out of the anger caused by increasing inflation and unemployment under Congress rule. This movement further contributed to the breaking away of the backward castes from the Congress, and produced future leaders like Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar. The Janata government formed after this struggle was led by Karpoori Thakur, who implemented quotas in state government jobs with the aim of empowering backward castes.
    • In 1974, the rising dissatisfaction against the Congress in Bihar around issues like economic stagnation, inflation, unemployment, and shortage of commodities was taken to a national level by Jayaprakash Narayan.
    • The JP Movement decisively turned the politically conscious, rising middle class among the backward castes away from the Congress. 
    • Moreover, it became a ‘training ground’ for new leaders, and enhanced the shifting of power that was already taking place for some time now. 
    • Although the Janata government failed to sustain support for itself, the government led by Karpoori Thakur notably undertook decisions that supported Backward caste upliftment.
      • It implemented 25 per cent reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Bihar State Government Services, and held Panchayat elections which challenged the traditional upper caste dominance in local government.
      • The rise of Karpoori Thakur represented this twin phenomenon of dissatisfaction with the Congress and the emergence of backward caste politics.
  6. The struggle for social change also began to take place outside electoral politics. The unresolved agrarian crisis led to the rise of armed groups, which got involved in the landlord-tenant conflict. Some of these groups, like the Maoists, claimed to represent the interests of the oppressed, but there were also others who fought to maintain upper caste dominance like the Lorik Sena (Bhumihars) and the Kunwar Sena (Rajputs).
    • Between 1972 and 1990, many armed rebel groups emerged in Bihar.
    • Agrarian struggle, especially the landlord-tenant conflict, often played out through these armed groups.
    • Many of these groups contributed to the breaking of traditional upper caste dominance.
    • Although the Maoist Movement was losing support by then, Bihar had a major ‘Maoist Belt’ even in the 1980s.
    • These armed groups were not confined to any one section of society. The late 1980s also saw the rise of the Lorik Sena (Bhumihars), the Kunwar Sena (Rajputs), the Lal Sena (landless labourers) and a ‘Naxalite parallel government’ in parts of the state.
  7. By the end of the 1980s, the power of backward castes in Bihar’s politics was firmly established. The 1990 Vidhan Sabha elections saw backward caste MLAs outnumber upper caste MLAs for the first time. By the next election in 1995, backward castes held about two-thirds of all seats.
    • Even in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, which revolved around national issues like corruption under Rajiv Gandhi’s government and the Bofors scandal, the question of backward caste empowerment shaped results significantly.
    • This trend resulted in a continued displacement of upper caste politicians from positions of power by the upwardly mobile backward caste groups.
  8. It was at this juncture that Lalu Prasad Yadav became the Chief Minister in 1990. His assertive style of social justice politics, which countered upper caste dominance, became a source of pride and dignity for backward castes. Lalu’s electoral power was built on the support of Yadavs and Muslims. However, over time, favouritism towards Yadavs pulled other groups away from this populist leader.
    • The dominance and exploitation of upper castes was strongly countered under Lalu Yadav’s rule. His social justice politics allowed him to emerge as a backward caste icon.
    • Muslims also benefited from Lalu’s leadership, which embraced the ideal of secularism. The arrest of L. K. Advani and the stopping of his Rath Yatra, along with firm handling of communal riots made Lalu popular among Muslims as well, who formed the other major part of his main constituency, along with the Hindu backward groups.
    • The Yadavs, who were more economically and politically powerful than other backward caste groups, benefited most from Lalu’s rule. This skewed advantage led to many Muslims and non-Yadav backward groups moving away from Lalu by the late 1990s.
  9. In 2005, Nitish Kumar emerged as the new face of social justice politics in Bihar. He drew his support from a wider group of people, embracing women, backward castes, and Dalits (including those from Muslim groups), and Maha Dalits. While Lalu’s politics in the previous decade had focused on justice and dignity in the face of upper caste oppression, Nitish emphasised welfare and development programs.
    • Since 2005, the agenda of welfare and development has been taken up by Nitish Kumar.
    • A ‘Bihari’ identity is said to have emerged as a result of the class- and caste-neutral thrust of his economic policies.
    • The implementation of positive discrimination for women, lower backward caste groups, and Dalits in Panchayats has resulted in a broader support base for him.

This summary was by India Ink’s Academic Correspondent, Isha Phullay.

Source text: Caste Politics in Bihar: In Historical Continuum
Publication: History and Sociology of South Asia (2018)
Author: Rakesh Ankit

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