In Bengal, the battle for Mahishya vote and the politics of turning OBC
Anita Khara’s summer routine starts at 4.30am every day.
The 30-year-old finishes her housework, makes food for her family of six and sends her children off to school before joining her husband, Uday Khara, in the field at 7am. The husband-and-wife toil away in the field until 4pm, taking short breaks for food and rest, before returning to their two-room mud house in West Bengal’s Howrah district.
Their 1.5 acre holding is fertile and supports up to three crops a year — paddy, potato, yam, sesame and occasionally jute. But poor irrigation forces the couple to spend on expensive mini pumps that cost ₹1,400 per acre per crop. Their average earning comes to ₹4,000 a month.
Two years ago, the nearby Damodar breached its banks after water was released from an upstream dam during torrential showers. Their village of Pancharul, on the western banks of the river, was inundated. “We had to wade through waist-deep water from the highway to get home. All our crops were destroyed. We lost ₹20,000,” said Khara.
Her neighbour, Basanti Hazra, has a different predicament. Her family owns no land, and work as wood artisans. But the rural economy is depressed and her family of five only makes money when someone in the village orders a window frame, table or bench. Anxious, they have now bought five buffaloes to sell their milk. “But sometimes we don’t get the just price. It becomes difficult to run the household,” she said.
The impoverished village of 1,200 people is ringfenced by green fields. Most people work in fields, either as farmers or agricultural labourers, live in cheek-by-jowl mud houses with a shed for cattle, and travel four or 5km to the nearest market of Udaynarayanpur to sell their produce. Young men have migrated to bigger cities, and the money they send back sustains their families. Most households have no one working a permanent job or graduating college. Attendance is dwindling at the only secondary school.
Ganesh Chandra Dolui is an exception. The 59-year-old is a state government officer who lives in a brick house, with furniture in every room. His sons have graduated college, but don’t have jobs. One runs a poultry farm while the other is getting ready for competitive examinations. Dolui also own farmland but the recurring floods have dented his income. Still, he isn’t happy.
“Look at us, we are not well-to-do. But as a general caste, we don’t have reservation either,” said Dolui.
Khara, Hazra and Dolui all belong to Mahishya community, arguably the largest caste group in Bengal with roots in farming and decisive influence across a broad swath of southern Bengal. By many estimates, they make up almost a quarter of the state’s population.
After decades of being a silent voting community, they have been pushed under the spotlight by an increasingly bitter competition between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for the community’s support. Both parties have promised to accord the community other backward class status, a game-changing pledge that is being described by many experts as Bengal’s mini Mandal moment. “This is a seismic shift,” said Anirban Bandyopadhyay, a professor at Karnavati University.
The Mahishyas are incredibly diverse, not centralised in their political mobilisation and scattered across five districts of southern Bengal — which makes electoral mobilisation difficult. Still, both parties are pulling out no stops to court the largely rural community and the resultant dynamics playing out in villages such as Pancharul can transform the politics of the state for decades to come. “All other communities talk about reservation. If they can get the benefits of quota, why shouldn’t we?” asked Dolui.
The evolution of the Mahishya identity
The Mahishyas occupy an influential space in Bengal today, especially in the provincial towns in Howrah, Hoogly and Purba Medinipur where people from the caste are prominent businessmen, industrialists and politicians.
They ruled the royal house in Medinipur, and several prominent estates. The 19th century zamindar Rani Rashmoni, who is responsible for constructing the famous Dakshineswar Kali Temple, was Mahishya. In urban areas, they form a section of the influential class; in rural areas, their condition is worse but significantly better than the lower castes.
“In some ways, they are the gentry of the districts; after independence, they wielded tremendous influence in Bengal’s politics and were accommodated in power structures,” said Bandyopadhyay.
But it was not always so.
Until 1931, the Mahishyas were classified as depressed class, a category that transformed into scheduled caste in independent India. This was a time when the community was known as an “ajalacharaniya”, which was barred from serving water to higher castes, explained Bandyopadhyay.
But more affluent sections had already started to identify by a different name — chasi kaibarta — and in 1931, wrote to the British government and asked to be removed from the depressed class list. The community leaders — who formed the backbone of the Congress party in the state — thought they were advanced and wanted to dissociate from the stigma of being attached to lower caste status.
“Yes, we didn’t want to be called scheduled caste; but that shouldn’t preclude us from being considered for OBC status. This is a 30-year demand that subsequent governments have dragged their feet on,” said Timir Halder, a community leader based in Kolkata.
Unlike other major communities in Bengal, the Mahishyas were largely untouched by Partition. After independence, they controlled the Bengal Congress but their political clout rapidly waned since the 1980s as the Left Front expanded its footprint and party structure permeated every section of society. The agrarian downturn, the rapid closure of factories in Howrah and Hoogly and shrinking rural income left the influential community fractured and weakened. In the 1990s, when a wave of OBC consolidation was sweeping northern India, the community began articulating its demand for OBC status. But it had very limited success.
The battle over reservations
The history of OBC reservation in Bengal is unique. When the backward classes commission visited the state in 1979, then chief minister Jyoti Basu told them that Bengal had only two castes: rich and poor. Even when OBC reservation was implemented across India in the 1990s, Bengal only instituted a 7% quota for them, and didn’t include any influential community in it. So, the kind of consolidation seen in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Tamil Nadu was absent in Bengal because of a lack of political will, or mobilisation by an influential caste.
The churn first began in 2006, when the justice Rajinder Sachar committee report found that Muslims in Bengal were worse off than their counterparts in most other states, despite the Left Front’s rhetoric on minority welfare and its strong hold on Muslim votes. In 2010, facing a massive electoral defeat, the government added a most-backward quota to the OBC category and included some Muslim castes in it. This is also when a section of Mahishyas were included.
When Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011, she expanded the categories. Eager to grow roots in the absence of a disciplined cadre structure, Banerjee eagerly courted backward castes — both Hindu and Muslim — at a time more families grew dependent on government jobs and subsidies in the absence of major industries.
Today, Bengal’s OBC “A” category of “more backward classes” includes 81 communities, 61 of whom are Muslims. 38 out of the 96 communities in the OBC “B” category are Muslims. The A category has 10% quota while B has 7%. In her 2019 election speeches, Banerjee repeatedly claimed to have brought 99% of the state’s Muslims under the OBC umbrella.
The move has transformed the lives of many Muslim families, especially in the rural districts. Amir Ali’s family, for example, never dreamt that someone in their clan could graduate college. “I could only get in because of the reservation. I am now hoping my sister will also be able to go to college,” said Ali, whose parents work as labourers.
But it has generated significant resentment among sections of the Hindu OBCs, a sentiment that the BJP hopes to exploit. The Mahishyas are a crucial piece in this puzzle.
“As some Muslims become more mobile and educated, sections of Hindu OBCs feel that their entitlements are taken away. But the real problem is the relatively small quota for OBCs at 17%,” said Abdul Matin, a professor at Jadavpur University.
Dulal Das agreed. “We are angry about this religious reservation and are ready to even go to court. The Left front cheated us, and now, the quotas we deserve are unfairly going to others,” said the retired doctor, a resident of Barasat in North 24 Parganas.
HT attended several corner meetings and rallies organised by the BJP in Mahishya dominated areas, where party leaders spoke about how the influential community was deprived of its resources that was going to Muslims, and what the party would go to get the community’s lost glory back.
“The state government has not given any facility to them. They created two categories to help the Muslims instead. We are speaking to Mahishyas against this divide-and-rule policy,” said Ajit Das, president of the party’s state OBC cell. “Mahishya are a very big community and this vote will come to us.”
The TMC countered this, and accused the BJP of communal polarisation. “This is a political ploy. We brought so many Hindu communities like Ghosh and Pal into the OBC fold,” said Binay Krishna Barman, the state backward class welfare minister. The party is also hoping that the thousands of OBC certificates distributed last year as part of the Duare Sarkar (government at your doorstep) initiative, and the welfare schemes that sustain rural population will help the party gain support. Moreover, Banerjee’s sustained patronage of the Dakshineswar Temple has also endeared her to the local Mahishyas.
The demand for OBC status
Hindu OBC castes have never had significant electoral clout in Bengal because of the relatively small quantum of quota, and the party-society structure, where the ruling party governs all affairs in the countryside.
But the inclusion of the Mahishyas, which will inevitably require an expansion of the quota, has the potential to change that. “Mahishyas are already a stable community. With reservation, they can consolidate and become the equivalent of Yadavs, Jats or Marathas,if not in this election then in the next,” said Bandyopadhyay.
Of course, this is generating some concern from castes already included in the OBC fold. “We hope the quota will be expanded, because we are poor and need the benefits. We fear the Mahishyas will dominate resources,” said Ratul Ghosh, an OBC community activist.
The TMC-BJP tussle has laid bare the similarities of the Mahishya with the crisis faced by other middle castes such as Marathas or Jats. Mahishyas are proud, have community icons such as freedom fighter Birendranath Sasmal, and yet feel shortchanged by the agrarian distress and vanishing jobs, which make them more dependent on government jobs and quotas.
“Two separate commissions rejected our demand. After TMC came to power, we were told we didn’t qualify,” said Halder. This crisis is forcing the community to come together and rethink earlier voting patterns of decentralised voting.
This churn between deprivation and aspiration is most visible in the rural areas. And, it is here that the BJP and TMC are most desperate for the community’s support in a close election.
Jayanta Biswas, for example, is a schoolteacher in Nadia district’s Bhimpur village. The region is roughly 25km from the border, largely agrarian, and only four families out of 150-odd have a permanent job. “Everyone here is very poor and have been hit hard by the lack of our boys and girls in higher education. We cannot pull ourselves up without government support,” said Biswas.
For many older Mahishya activists, the electoral focus represents a full circle in the community’s journey. Uttam Sau, a resident of Howrah district, remembers that when in class 8, his teacher walked in one day and asked all SC students to stand up. “We didn’t understand so the teacher said SC means low caste. All the Mahishya students said, no no, we are not lower caste,” said Sau, secretary of the Bengal Mahishya association.
But over the years, he saw the gains made by the community fritter away as land holdings fragmented, young men migrated as labourers and political power remained elusive. “We fell behind, because community leaders failed to rouse and unite them. We weren’t educated, but OBC status can change all that. It can save us.”