Where you live, who you marry and how you vote.
In the 21st century, caste still decides all three in most of rural Bihar.
The lower castes worship at the village temples, of course, and draw water from common wells. People of all castes attend the same social and religious functions, celebrate births and marriages together.
And yet boundaries remain.
The layout of almost every village is about the same — the upper castes to the north and east, the Dalits to the south.
The reason: The wind blows from north to south, so the stench from the Dalits will not carry to the homes of the upper castes.
Villagers say the layout has stayed by default; it is now a barely noticed tradition.
“In several areas across the state, caste is still a very powerful institution,” says Prof. Nawal Chaudhary, former head of the Economics Department at Patna University. “While there is no practice of untouchability, inter-caste marriages, for instance, are still looked down upon.”
In a slightly evolved Hindu hierarchy, Chaudhary adds, it is often class and economics that also help define where you stand. “People have been living in peaceful coexistence for at least 20 years,” says Umashankar Pathak, former head of Bakraur village in Gaya district. “There are no more caste riots, no social segregation. But when it comes to voting, people will still vote according to their caste and community.”
In the state’s politics, caste remains a formidable weapon. The Yadavs always vote for Lalu Prasad’s RJD, the Kurmis for Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), the upper castes for the BJP and the Dalits for Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP.
In election season, though, there are signs that caste may not indefinitely decide which way people vote.
There is more talk of development these days, and a growing respect for Kumar’s government. “We can see the changes. Good roads, more electricity and mobile connectivity have made it so much easier for all of us,” says Horilal Yadav (35) from Kinnaur village in Jehanabad district. “If the government can do this in just three years, why shouldn’t we wait and see what else they can do?”
Even within the Muslim population, a votebank Prasad has carefully cultivated, there are signs of a change of heart. Mohammed Zakhaullah, a maths teacher at a madarssa in Biharsharif district, says more girls are coming to school these days.
The JD(U) government introduced 50 per cent quota for women in government jobs and professions like teaching. “Now, women are going to work,” says Zakhaullah. “The last three years have been a welcome change and everyone’s talking about it.”