Bihar’s caste survey can spark a new political consciousness 

It can empower the communities to demand transformative reforms in social justice policies.

Published : Oct 19, 2023 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

A potter making earthen lamps for Diwali in Patna, in 2017. Kumhars or Potters are one of five EBC communities that are integral to Hindu rituals and susceptible to Hindutva outreach. 

A potter making earthen lamps for Diwali in Patna, in 2017. Kumhars or Potters are one of five EBC communities that are integral to Hindu rituals and susceptible to Hindutva outreach.  | Photo Credit: RANJEET KUMAR

The last four decades of economic liberalisation have created new sectors of employment and entrepreneurship, produced a significant urban middle class, and expanded the Indian diaspora of engineers, technicians, and other professionals in developed countries. These developments, however, often veil the current economic crisis that the nation is facing. A large section of the population is still counted among the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) who have remained alienated from the profits of the nation’s economic and political developments. The majority among the EBCs are rural inhabitants who survive in low-paid occupations and remain peripheral to the electoral process. In order to measure class inequalities, educational backwardness, and to map the social demography of various caste and religious groups, the state often appoints various commissions and publishes reports (Kaka Kalelkar, 1955; Mandal, 1980; and Sachar, 2006). Such surveys and data are crucial for announcing appropriate legislative orders and initiating effective public policies for the welfare of economically backward and socially marginalised groups.

The Bihar government’s recently released Caste Survey Report (2023) also supports the idea that the state must undertake a detailed assessment of the population to substantiate the need for policy reforms for the Backward Classes and other deprived communities. The partially released report reveals that the population of the social elites is close to a minority of 16 per cent, whereas the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) constitute 27.12 per cent. Interestingly, the EBCs have emerged as the largest section with a 36.01 per cent share in the population. Together, the Backward Class accounts for 63.13 per cent of the State’s population.

This caste-based demographic assessment substantiates the assumption that key economic resources (land, public institutions, big industries) are dominated by the elite castes, while large sections of the population (OBCs, EBCs, and the Scheduled Castes) are passive, low-paid agrarian labourers or part of the poor urban working class.

Also Read | Bihar caste survey results challenge BJP’s Hindutva unity narrative

Earlier surveys that studied landholdings among different social groups also showed that the social elites (Brahmins, Bhumihars, and Rajputs) that are in a minority own the majority of land in Bihar, whereas the EBCs are mostly the landless poor. The dominant OBCs (mainly Yadavs, with a population share of 14.26 per cent) and Kurmis (population share, 2.87 per cent) have evolved significantly in the democratic process, but they, too, hold less land than dominant caste groups. Clearly, although the OBCs and EBCs are numerically strong, economic assets and institutions of influence are outside their reach.

Survey will impact national policy churning

The Bihar survey results will not only force the State to draft a policy framework for the welfare of the Backward Classes but also impact national political churning. In the regions with significant Backward Class populations, especially Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Haryana, similar surveys can provide an impetus to new political mobilisations of the EBCs, who might now demand an equitable share in state institutions, legislative bodies, and in the growing capitalist economy. The opposition parties will also utilise the new data to revitalise the dormant social justice politics and launch a comprehensive challenge against the current Hindutva regime at the Centre.

The Bihar caste survey and the EBC issue thus have transformative potential. The survey can spur marginalised castes into raising claims for significant reforms in existing social justice policies. A new influential leadership can emerge from the subaltern groups seeking a new arrangement of social and political alliances around the primacy of the EBCs and their welfare. Importantly, it will reform the conventional agenda of social justice, advancing the EBCs as the legitimate claimants for equitable representation in the power structure and deserving greater constitutional protections.

  • The Bihar Caste Survey report has the potential to lead marginalised sections to a new political consciousness.
  • In the regions with significant Backward Class populations, similar surveys can provide an impetus to new political mobilisations of the EBCs
  • The communities might now demand an equitable share in state institutions, legislative bodies, and in the growing capitalist economy.

BJP’s co-option of marginalised groups

In the past two decades, the right-wing BJP has effectively mobilised sections among the EBCs through diverse cultural tactics and effective strategies of social engineering. The BJP’s current political assertion and electoral success in north Indian States has been enabled by the considerable support it has garnered from the worst-off social groups, especially the EBCs. It helped the party shake off the allegation that the BJP was mainly a dominant caste political outfit. The party has successfully mobilised the subaltern castes with the rhetoric of “inclusive Hindutva” and through various cultural initiatives tapping into folklore, social customs, and community legends.

More importantly, the right wing has successfully targeted Yadavs as the dominant caste group, alleging that they have consistently dominated political power and exploited the assets of the State. Sections among the EBCs supported the BJP in the expectation that their claims for social and economic justice would now be addressed effectively.

It is also often argued that the BJP regime has successfully implemented populist welfare policies for the rural poor and urban working classes without giving much consideration to caste-based identities. However, such claims seem to divert attention from promises made by the BJP to fulfil the political aspirations and social claims of the EBCs. The possibility that the EBCs can emerge as a significant social and political bloc and initiate new reforms to democratise the conventional institutions of power has hardly gained relevance during the rule of the BJP.

Members of Dalit organisations on a protest march in Dharwad, in2022. The Bihar survey results could initiate an autonomous EBC movement that demands new and effective frameworks for social justice.  

Members of Dalit organisations on a protest march in Dharwad, in2022. The Bihar survey results could initiate an autonomous EBC movement that demands new and effective frameworks for social justice.   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The right-wing government has failed to provide marginalised caste groups any effective political leadership or visible representation in public sector institutions. It is clearly visible that powerful institutions remain exclusively under dominant caste control, with few measures to make public institutions and policies welcoming for socially marginalised groups, especially the EBCs. Even a cursory survey of the power structures (public or private) shows that the social configuration of major institutions of power and status such as the judiciary, top echelons of the bureaucracy, the media, and the cultural industry has not changed much and these spaces still operate under the hegemony of the social elites. Public institutions, especially, have consistently failed to address the growing burdens of the poor and backward classes.

The Bihar caste survey will bring anxiety and unease to right-wing corridors of power because it has the potential to create a new political consciousness among the worst-off social groups, making them new claimants to the state’s protection. The opposition, by flagging issues like equitable representation for EBCs, their undignified social location and precarious class conditions, and their absence of political leadership, has challenged the BJP’s claim of inclusivity in development.

While public institutions are visibly dominated by rich and urban social elites, the marginalisation of Dalit-Bahujan groups is more acute in spheres that are outside the state’s control, especially in the neoliberal market economy.

The release of the caste survey data could garner more support for the issue of equitable representation of social groups in all power structures, public and private. Besides being the biggest landholders, social elites also dominate the power spectrum because of their conventional feudal privileges, effective social networks, and powerful middle-class assets and generational connections. They produce policymakers, executives, CEOs and entrepreneurs, and sociocultural influencers in the neoliberal economy as they did in past economic models. There have been very few attempts to democratise the neoliberal economic structures in favour of the worst-off social groups. Even social justice initiatives do not touch upon these growing inequalities.

Where social justice parties failed

Worryingly, even when political parties that claim to represent the ideals of social justice were holding the legislative reins in some States (such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal [RJD] in Bihar and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh), the demands for equitable participation of the socially marginalised groups in public policy initiatives or in the planning of economic development was mostly neglected. Despite using the issue for its ideological merit, the parties lacked the political will to give centre stage to the issues and concerns of the worst-off social groups. Challenging the perpetual domination of the social elites hardly gained momentum or dynamic mass support.

Instead, in the general political discourse, the EBCs are often bracketed with the poor working classes, marked out for receiving welfare packages for food security, minimum wages, or other passive allowances. Such a patronising gaze has made the EBCs paltry claimants of basic welfarist initiatives from the state, which operates under the philanthropist guidance of the dominant castes. It has never been adequately acknowledged that such peripheralisation of the EBCs in the power structures is detrimental to democracy.

The Bihar caste survey might ignite a new political consciousness among the EBCs, motivating them to demand new policy initiatives for their substantive economic development and to press for effective reforms in the social order. At present, the political voices from the EBCs are fragmented into multiple small caste-based parties, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There is no normative vision to curate an independent political agenda for the worst-off social groups. Perhaps the survey report will force them to emerge as an independent political bloc.

Such a development will not only be detrimental to the communal inclusivity that is the bedrock of Hindutva politics, but may also hold up a mirror to the conventional leaders of social justice politics and expose how badly they have neglected their issues and concerns.

Also Read | Can the INDIA coalition revive social justice politics to counter Hindutva?

These conventional votaries of social justice politics now have the responsibility to examine and understand the anxieties and claims of the EBCs and provide them a sensible and justifiable space in political deliberations. Such responsible attention can ignite a new democratic upsurge against the domination of the social elites. Parties such as the RJD, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which often vouch for the principles of social justice, can reaffirm their commitment and provide EBC leaders substantive space on political platforms and in their manifestos. These parties can then form solidarities and alliances with political outfits that represent the interests of the EBCs and create a powerful discourse for a democratic polity based on the values of social justice.

The INDIA bloc has been quick to assess the political opportunity of the survey and has already proposed the primacy of the social justice agenda in its tentative programme, including a promise to conduct a national caste census. Such initiatives can be further strengthened only if the INDIA grouping provides the EBC leaders dignified space and ensures their participation in the new arrangement of power-sharing and economic policies, besides assuring them that their political representation, economic empowerment, and social security will be given primacy. Only such a concerted and sincere effort can help the politics of social justice become a lethal weapon to defeat the superficial inclusivity of Hindutva politics and its pro-rich, neoliberal economic agenda.

Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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