Sanjay Kumar (36) used to manage a cycle stand before joining his current job as mayor of Patna. Kumar belongs to the Kahar caste, which is less than half a per cent of Bihar’s population. He is one among the thousands from 108 extremely backwards castes (EBCs) catapulted to the orbit of political power by a 20 per cent reservation for them in local bodies introduced by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
How he did it
Extremely Backward Castes: 108
* Nearly 35 per cent of Bihar’s population
* Untouched by backward class empowerment — more political positions — that lifted the Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris.
* What they got: 20 per cent quota in local bodies, welfare schemes.
Mahadalits: 20 lowest Dalit castes such as Musahars (rat catchers)
* They are Dalits other than Paswans and Chamars who are politically mobilised.
* Nearly 10 per cent of the population
* What they got: Health, education and other welfare schemes
Pasmanda Muslims: Backward Muslims, such as weavers and dhobis
* 15 per cent of the populatio
*What they got: Money, pensions for victims of Bhagalpur riots; scholarships and quotas in local bodies.
A social combination of the newly empowered sections of backward castes, Dalits and Muslims is the anchor that Nitish is trying create for his political experiment and with visible success. “Nitish is doing to Bihar politics what Capt Gopinath has done to civil aviation — enrolling large numbers from hitherto excluded sections into the political process,” says Dr Shaibal Gupta, social scientist.
Over the last 40 months in power, Nitish has either created or buttressed three nascent community identities — the EBCs, the Maha Dalits and the Pasmanda (backward) Muslims. Upper sections among backwards, Dalits and Muslims have cornered the benefits of empowerment that came their way — such as Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris among the backwards; Paswans and Chamars among the Dalits; and Syeds and Sheikhs among Muslims.
“My government’s measures are bringing into mainstream those who have been left out so far,” says Nitish.
Reservation in local bodies firmed up an identity of EBCs while lower sections of Dalits — particularly the Musahars — are benefiting from targeted welfare schemes such as healthcare, education and housing. Pasmanda Muslims have benefited from reservation in local bodies and educational scholarships.
A generous rehabilitation package that the Nitish government has implemented for the victims of the 1989 Bhagalpur riots also has become a talking point.
“Almost all victims of the riots were lower caste Muslims. The government has started a monthly pension of Rs 2,500 for affected families, an unprecedented step in India’s history of rehabilitation,” says Ali Anwar, a JD(U) member of Rajya Sabha and leader of Pasmanda Muslim Mahaj, a forum of backward Muslims.
The EBCs drifted away from Lalu Prasad in 2005 and voted alongside the upper castes to bring Nitish to power in the state. Now, the upper castes are unnerved by the EBC empowerment.
“Panchayat mukhiyas have been given the power to issue marriage certificates. Many mukhiyas from lower castes take place of pride in marriages at upper caste homes,” points out Siwanand Tiwari, JD(U) spokesperson.
Lalu and Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan, who are jointly fighting the current election, are reacting to the realignment of caste with a two-pronged strategy. One, they accuse Nitish of dividing the Dalits, backwards and Muslims. Two, they are playing on the latent fears of the upper castes.
“I have never acted against the interests of the upper castes ever,” repeats Lalu at campaign meetings. “Nitish is dividing the society and trying to create artificial identities. He will not succeed,” says Paswan.