On 30 November 1948, Chandrika Ram, a member from Bihar in the Constituent Assembly of India highlighted that “Indian society is divided into three sections --- the highest consisting of that section of the society which is known as `Caste Hindus' and the lowest of the section known as Scheduled Castes or Harijan, while the third occupying a middle position between these two and consisting of a large portion of the people is what may be termed as the Backward Class”. When the Constitution of India was finally prepared, there was not much for this third section, the Backward Classes. But the category soon got social and political traction and a Backward Classes Commission was set up under Kaka Kalelkar in 1953. Today, the OBCs and nomadic and denotified tribes hold enormous power in UP elections. The OBCs constitute over sixty percent of the state’s population, while the nomadic and denotified tribes are about six percent.
The OBC is not a monolithic group, but comprises diverse communities. The OBCs carry multiple shades of religion, castes and occupations. The occupation of a pastoral ‘gaderiya’ is different from a blacksmith or a carpenter. The powerful Yadavs are significantly different from Dhuniyas. The economic and social status of a Kurmi, a peasant caste, is different from that of a madari. The madaris used to rear bears and monkeys for their livelihood; some of their hamlets are still present in Agra and Bareilly. Yadavas are present in most parts of Uttar Pradesh and dominate several districts like Etah, Mainpuri, Ayodhya and Azamgarh. The Bhar are strong in Chandauli, Ballia and other Bhojpuri-speaking districts of eastern UP. Lohar and Badhai are found all over the state since they were closely associated with the ‘jajmani system’ but their number is meagre. The OBC Muslims like chudihar (bangle seller) and mirshikar also have a significant number.
All parties eye the big OBC block. Except for the Muslim OBC, the BJP had successfully brought in several OBC castes into its fold both in 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections, and in the 2017 UP assembly elections. The Samajwadi Party recently broke into BJP’s camp and pulled in several caste leaders, damaging BJP’s chances. The BSP and Congress are also fielding OBC candidates, recruiting more and more cadres in party organisation and promising more perks for them.
Enter the Nishads
In the past twenty years, the Nishads have made strong inroads in electoral politics. Earlier every party has some Nishad leaders but the emergence of Phoolan Devi (1963-2001) changed the scenario, as she became a poster girl of Nishad identity and emancipation. Her election to Lok Sabha on a SP ticket helped the party to establish itself among this major OBC caste. The community gained more power with the formation of Nishad Party by Dr Sanjay Niashad in 2016. Today, nearly more than two dozen groups of Nishads are registered as political parties in UP including Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), Pragatisheel Manav Samaj Party, Sarvahara Vikas Party. Major political parties are recruiting cadres from the Nishad community. Led by its intellectuals like Lautanram Nishad and Toofani Nishad, the community is trying to write and spread its history and culture. The young community leaders are also negotiating with political parties for better positions in their organization. The case of Jaiprakash Nishad shows the electoral importance of the community. He contested assembly election as a BSP candidate in 2012 from Chauri Chaura and joined the BJP in 2018 and the party soon sent him to Rajya Sabha.
In February 2021, the UP police damaged some boats of the Nishad community in Praygaraj. A huge protest erupted and soon Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi visited Banswar village. The Congress started ‘nadi-adhikar yatra’ and Akhilesh Yadav promised that if their party comes to power, they will give every Nishad family a boat. Sandeep, 23, in Baluaghat of Chandauli district told me in August 2021: “Gone are the days when we were dependent on political parties, now they are dependent on us.”
This sense of emancipation of subaltern groups is also seen in nomadic and denotified communities, who live at the tail of the electoral, political and social prism of Indian society. I’ve been observing since 2012 that they have increasingly registered their presence in Panchayat, assembly and Lok Sabha elections in a range of districts including Gonda, Ayodhya, Prayagraj, Hamirpur, Lalitpur, Mahoba, Auraiya, Kannuaj, Kanpur Dehat, Kanpur, Unnao and Agra. The Congress noticed their potential as a political group and soon the UPA government formed the Renke Commission to recommend the measure for their welfare, but it failed to implement its recommendations. When the BJP came to power, the central government constituted a commission under Bhikhuji Idate. Though the Narendra Modi Government has barely accepted the commission’s recommendations, it is trying to embrace the communities. An electoral mobilization can be seen among these communites which may turn into a political and cultural mobilization in the next few years.
Changing face of Nomadic communities
Around 200 nomadic and denotified communities were declared criminal in 1871 by the enactment of the Criminal Tribe Act. It gave the police immense control over these communities. They now had to register themselves at the nearest police station and obtain a license. They could not go out of their designated district without the permission of the police. The government tried to ‘reform’ these ‘spoiled’ and ‘criminal’ communities through a range of educational and religious steps. The missionaries were asked to help the community to ‘achieve higher standard of moral life’. The United Provinces government established a school for ‘criminal’ tribe children run by Salvation Army in Rura, Kanpur in 1910. Some schools were opened in Lakhimpur Kheri district for the children of Bhantu community. One can see their colonies today in Kalyanpur of Kanpur and near the police line of Moradabad.
During my field work in Rania assembly seat of Kanpur Dehat in December 2021, an elder member of sampera (snake charmer) community told me that they can control the poisonous snake but they are unable to control hunger. Since the BJP government has provided them free ration, they will vote for the party, he said. The Habura community in Kalyanpur, Kanpur city, tells another story. Haburas are also called Sansiya in some parts of UP. During colonial rule, they lived in police supervision in government-constructed habitats that were meant for their ‘moral and industrial betterment’. Now, they have pucca houses, electricity and access to the newly inaugurated metro station in Kalyanpur. Their girls are going to colleges and some have government jobs. They are now asking for their ‘share in representation’ and dignified life. The Congress stated in its election manifesto in 2019 that if the party wins the Lok Sabha election, a special census and the enumeration of denotified and semi-nomadic Tribes will be carried out. It will examine the feasibility of providing compartmental reservation for denotified and semi-nomadic tribes under socially and educationally backward classes, repeal the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952 that has discriminated against and stigmatized denotified and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, will work with state governments to impart education and skills to denotified and semi-nomadic tribes, especially the children.
As these communities become a major electoral force in Poorvanchal, the outcome of the election has come to depend on their preferences.
(Rama Shankar Singh is a scholar based in Poorvanchal. His recent book, 'Nadi Putra: Uttar Bharat Men Nishad Aur Nadi', examines the relationship between the Nishads and the river.)