The increase in the visibility and profile of Nitish Kumar in national politics ever since he dumped the BJP and joined hands with Lalu Prasad has spotlighted the OBC Kurmi community to which the Bihar Chief Minister belongs. Kurmis are a smaller community than Yadavs, and they have not always had a cordial relationship. But the political aspiration of Kurmis has spiked in recent weeks — Yadavs for the first time appear willing to accept them as “elder brothers” — and if the bonhomie between Nitish and Lalu continues, the BJP might need some new social engineering manoeuvres in Bihar and UP soon.
Kurmis are a landowning farming community whose status varies from place to place. The People of India series edited by K S Singh refers to Kurmis as “progressive farmers” who “avail of maximum benefits of all the development schemes available in the area and region”.
Unlike Yadavs, Kurmis use a wide variety of surnames like Patel, Verma, Sachan, Gangwar, Katiyar, Baiswar, Jaiswar, Mahto, Prasad, Sinha, Singh, Pradhan, Baghel, Chaudhary, Patidar, Kunbi, Kumar, Patil, Mohanti, Kanaujiya, Chakradhar, Niranjan, Patanwar, and Shinde, etc.
Some Kurmi surnames are used by other communities as well, making it difficult to identify a Kurmi by name alone. Sometimes they use no surname at all.
Kurmis are distributed across several states — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Goa, and Karnataka. Besides Nitish in Bihar, the Congress chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Bhupesh Baghel, is also Kurmi.
Their caste status
In most states, Kurmis belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in both the central and state lists for reservations.
In Gujarat, Patels, who are linked to Kurmis, are in the general category, and have been demanding OBC status. In West Bengal, Odisha, and Jharkhand — where Kurmi is written as ‘Kudmi’ — Kurmis want to be included among Scheduled Tribes.
Representation in govt
No data are available on the representation of various sub-castes in government jobs. But in 2018, the Justice G Rohini Commission set up to sub-categorise OBCs analysed data on 1.3 lakh central jobs given under the OBC quota over the five preceding years, and OBC admissions to central higher education institutions including universities, IITs, NITs, IIMs and AIIMS over three years, and reportedly found that the main beneficiaries were Yadavs, Kurmis, Jats (Jats in Rajasthan, except those in Bharatpur and Dholpur districts, are in the central list of OBCs), Sainis, Thevars, Ezhavas and Vokkaligas.
The Indian Express has reported earlier that the analysis found that while Yadavs have significant representation in the security forces and police etc, Kurmis, particularly from UP and Bihar, have got better representation in the civil services, and in medical colleges and universities.
Kurmis in Bihar
In Bihar, UP, Odisha, Maharashtra, and Chhattisgarh, Kurmis constitute a significant political force. In pre-independence Bihar, a political front called Triveni Sangh formed by a Yadav (Jagdev Prasad Yadav), a Kurmi (Shiv Pujan Singh), and a Kushwaha (Yadunandan Prasad Mehta) leader took part in the 1937 elections.
Shiv Pujan Singh had a wide following among his castepersons. Prominent Kurmi leaders from Bihar (including Jharkhand) in later years include former MP and Governor Siddheshwar Prasad; former MP and a founder leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) Binod Behari Mahto who sought to link Shivaji with the Kurmis of North India through an organisation called Shivaji Samaj; and Satish Prasad Singh, who became the first Kurmi chief minister of Bihar in 1968, albeit for just four days.
The Yadav leadership of Bihar’s OBCs was established by Chief Ministers B P Mandal and Daroga Prasad Rai before Lalu’s decade-long dominance, which was ultimately ended by Nitish Kumar. After the rise of Lalu and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Bihar and UP respectively, the Kurmis in these states aligned with upper castes to give themselves a political leg-up. Nitish in particular utilised the dislike for Yadavs in North India to tie up or break with the BJP as and when he wished.
Kurmis in UP
The BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), promoted OBC leaders before their leadership passed to Chaudhary Charan Singh who broke with the Congress to form the Jan Congress (which later became the Bharatiya Kranti Dal, Bhartiya Lok Dal, etc). The finance minister in Charan Singh’s first government in UP (April 1967) was an Ambedkarite Kurmi from Kanpur called Ram Swarup Verma. Another prominent Kurmi leader of the decades of the 60s and 70s in UP was Jairam Verma.
No Kurmi has become chief minister of UP so far. Beni Prasad Verma was considered number 2 to Mulayam in the Samajwadi Party for several years. He joined the Congress for a few years and became a Union Minister in the UPA-II government. Subsequently, Sonelal Patel, a Kurmi leader, left the BSP and formed the Apna Dal, the two factions of which are now led by his two daughters, Union Minister Anupriya Patel and SP MLA Pallavi Patel. Pallavi and her mother Krishna Patel are trying to strengthen ties with Nitish Kumar in UP.
The number of Kurmis in the UP Assembly is currently 41, a record high, up from 34 in 2017. Kurmi leaders contesting on SP tickets defeated three ministers of the Yogi Adityanath government. From the BJP, 22 Kurmis won the elections. This is the second straight Assembly in UP in which Kurmis outnumber Yadavs, even though the number of Yadav MLAs increased from 17 in 2017 to 25 in 2022. The UP presidents of both the SP and BJP, Naresh Uttam Patel and Swatantra Dev Singh respectively during the Assembly elections, were Kurmis.
There is no current data, but a Social Justice Committee set up by then Chief Minister Rajnath Singh in June 2001 estimated that OBCs constituted 43.13 per cent of UP’s population, of which Yadavs were 19.4 per cent and Kurmis 7.46 per cent.
Nitish has long been seen as having national political ambitions, and Lalu’s family, struggling with allegations of corruption, appears to have happily accepted the leadership of Lalu’s “chhota bhai”, at least for now. What impact this has on electoral outcomes in UP, however, remains to be seen.