What’s caste for a youth in Bihar? As the state heads into Assembly polls, Muzamil Jaleel talks to young voters in three universities and finds that for this post-Mandal generation, caste should be “nothing” but is everything
The kurta, the stubble and the practised soft voice. As head of the RJD student body in Magadh University, Gaya district, 23-year-old Santosh Kumar Yadav looks the part of a politician. But he has decided to play it his way. So while his leader Lalu Yadav is talking about a “Mahabharat between the forward and backward castes”, the boy from Hemja village in Gaya has decided politics on campus needs a bit of improvisation. He has chosen two of his closest friends, one a Bhumihar and the other a Rajput, both “forwards”, as his lieutenants to strengthen the grip of his union on a campus where the BJP’s student wing, the ABVP, has been the dominant force since they won the first student union election in 2012.
“Times are changing,” says Santosh, who is studying for his MA in English and takes his ‘young politician’ role very seriously. “Though it will be long before Bihar rises above caste politics, the younger generation has begun to think a little differently. We live together in the hostel and though Sanjeev Kumar is from a Bhumihar family and Vishwas Singh is a Rajput, they agree with me on a lot of issues. That’s why we are together. It’s all about having the same vichardhaara (ideology),” he says. “We have our differences but that is inevitable, especially when we are part of a society where you are judged by your caste.”
It’s hard to escape caste in Indian politics, but more so in Bihar, where politicians, with their enviable grip over caste arithmetic, play the game like no one else can. Last week, the RSS queered the pitch for the BJP when sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat called for a panel to decide “which categories require reservation and for how long”. Though the BJP was quick to distance itself from Bhagwat’s views, for the party, the RSS chief’s remarks were just bad timing. Bihar’s voter, especially the young voter who has grown up on a diet of Mandal politics and politicians, is all too politically astute to have missed the significance of the remark. Lalu only sharpened the lines further with his call for Mandal II.
For young voters, many of them born after 1990 when caste changed the narrative of politics and elections, this is an election unlike any of the recent ones — 2005 was about RJD’s ‘misrule’, 2010 was a test of Nitish’s ‘vikas’ and the 2014 Lok Sabha polls were only about Narendra Modi. With the first phase of polling on October 12, the election and its complex caste calculations are the subject of discussions at street corners, nukkad sabhas and addas such as this one at Hostel No. 7 in Magadh University.
The common room in the hostel, one of the four functional hostels in the university, is cheerless, with a few dozen plastic chairs and an old TV. The discussion among the 18 students has now veered to “opportunities for aspiring politicians” like them.
“I am the first in my family to to be in politics. My father retired as an official in the jail police and my uncle was a mukhiya,” says Santosh. “It is very difficult for a young person to break through the ranks of political parties in Bihar, especially if you don’t have a relative in the party. The biggest challenge is to dismantle this system where jahil aur unpad safed kurta pehan ke humpe shasan karta hai (an ignorant and illiterate person in a white kurta rules over us),” he says, adding that members of his student group, along with those from the JD(U) student body, have started working for candidates of the JD(U)-RJD-Congress Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance.
Soon, the topic of reservation comes up and it is clear that the more this post-Mandal generation talks of ‘vikas’ and about “freeing the state from the clutches of caste”, the deeper they get entangled in it. There is consensus that caste has been the “single biggest divisive factor” in Bihar, but as soon as they talk about elections and reservations, the lines get drawn.
Vishwas Singh, vice-president of the RJD student body, talks about the “reverse discrimination” he feels as a Rajput. “It is becoming impossible for us to compete because of reservations. You chain a horse and make him race with a donkey, the donkey will win. But can it run like a horse?’’ he asks, adding that “less meritorious students manage to get through while students from forward castes are left out. This is destroying the state. The reservation policy is just aimed at getting votes in the name of caste.”
About 11 of the 18 students in the group identify themselves as Yadav, Ravidas and Paswan. They are furious at Vishwas’s analogy. “The donkey wouldn’t have been a donkey if he didn’t have to carry the load of the so-called forward castes for centuries,’’ says Santosh.
Shankar Kumar, an MCom student who wants to join the civil services, intervenes: “Two of my cousins are IAS officers. They could qualify only because there was a quota for SC candidates. Without reservation, people from my caste (Ravidas, a Mahadalit caste in Bihar) would end up doing the same job our forefathers did.”
Neeraj Kumar Vidhyarthi, a student of journalism, says he was with the RSS but drifted because “I realised that as a Yadav, my caste was coming in the way of my growth as a worker there. At the lower level, the RSS is all-embracing, but once you start going up, you aren’t encouraged”. The 25-year-old from Dawoodnagar in Aurangabad says he voted for Modi in the Lok Sabha elections but is now a Nitish fan. “If you ask me, I would say Nitish is the best CM.
He is an outstanding administrator. Unlike Lalu, he hasn’t brought anybody from his family into politics.” But, he says, “Nitish’s real problem will begin if he wins. Lalu’s children will be in his cabinet. If the Grand Alliance forms the government, do you think Lalu will make Abdul Bari Siddiqui or Ram Chandra Purve (senior RJD leaders) the deputy chief minister? They will be sent to the Rajya Sabha. He will want his son to be deputy CM.”
Santosh responds with an emotional defence of Lalu, saying he is being “singled out” for attack only because he questions the monopoly of the forward castes. “It is a fact that during RJD rule, there were problems. But when a large majority that has been subjugated for centuries suddenly gets power and feels empowered, what else can you expect? It was a pressure cooker situation and could have exploded in a worse manner,’’ he says.
There is a pause in the debate and Vishwas concludes the discussion isn’t heading anywhere. “All this talk of elections is causing social disharmony even in our hostel,’’ he says.
Santosh agrees, but says caste is something they have to live with. “The truth is, to us students, the reality of caste hits hard on two occasions — at the time of marriage and during elections. For four and a half years, we pretend as if caste doesn’t matter. Then the elections happen and we are made aware of our caste differences.”
The three Muslim students in the group don’t talk much. At the end of the adda, one of them says his biggest concern is the rise of communal politics, which will turn the Muslim community “into a common enemy to be kicked around”. He doesn’t want to be named. “Anyone but the BJP,” he says of his voting preference.
At nearby Sujata Mahila Chhatrawas, one of the women’s hostels in Magadh University, a group of young girls, many of them first-time voters, is excited about the elections. Bring in caste and their reaction is informed by a different set of realities.
Somya Bharti, 19, a first-year student of physiotherapy, says there is a need “to end the caste system because it is oppressive for women. It is impossible to think of marrying outside our castes. And what do we get out of it? Jitna hazaar ladka kamata hai, utna lakh dahej mangta hai (The more the boy earns, the bigger the dowry he seeks).” Somya says she supports Nitish “not because he belongs to my caste” but because she thinks he is the only “educated and honest leader” in Bihar politics.
A five-hour drive from Magadh University is Langat Singh College, part of Bihar University in Muzaffarpur. Established in 1899, this college is the oldest institution of higher education in north Bihar. On a humid morning, as young students enter its lofty gates on the busy Kalambagh Road, a few sit down for a conversation.
Vishnu Bhardwaj, 18, is a student of mathematics. His family lives in a neighbourhood called ‘Homeless’ near the university. “My father is a farmer. We own 15 acres,’’ he says. “All the people in my family of my grandfather Dinesh Jha’s generation were staunch Congress supporters. But that has changed. My father and uncles are all with the BJP now,’’ he says.
“I also think (Narendra) Modi is good. Even if he hasn’t done much until now, he talks well and gives us a lot of hope. Besides, he has selected Muzaffarpur for the smart city project,’’ he says. However, he adds, Ajay Nishad, the BJP MP who won the Lok Sabha elections from Muzaffarpur, has been largely missing. “He won in the name of Modi and now we don’t get to see him,” he says.
* Of the 38 districts of Bihar, Patna (1.42 lakh) has the highest number of newly eligible voters, followed by Madhubani (1.25 lakh). At 10,271, Sheohar has the smallest number of these young voters, followed by Arwal (16,494).
* Madhepura has the highest proportion of electors in the 18-19 age group, making up 4.93% of voters in the district. This is followed by Bhojpur at 4.77%.
Bhardwaj thinks Nitish was a good CM too “but then he went with Lalu. He forgot he had become a good CM only because he opposed Lalu’’. “If the Nitish-Lalu alliance wins, it will be like a scooter pulled by a buffalo-cart. It won’t move ahead much. For me, Lalu’s speeches are just good entertainment, like a Kapil (stand-up comic Kapil Sharma) show”.
But a lot more than politics worries Bhardwaj. He says that though they study in one of Bihar’s oldest colleges, the standards of education are dismal — “teachers are disinterested, there is no accountability”. “The biggest issue we face is of poor language skills. English is a global language but our governments have always discouraged us from learning it,’’ he says.
Change, he believes, can’t come by joining the civil services. “I think politics is the only way out. I am thinking of joining politics as soon as I finish my graduation. If Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi could do it, why can’t I?”
Bhardwaj’s friend and classmate Prabhakar Nayan listens intently. He is from Bhagwanpur in Muzaffarpur. “I am from a Baniya family and we are Modi supporters. Sushil (Kumar) Modi is from our caste,’’ he says. That’s where his interest in politics begins — and ends. “I want to study math and get a good job. But everything here works against it.
Caste is so deep rooted that there is no way out of it. Here, if a person needs to go to a doctor, he checks the doctor’s caste first,’’ he says.
About 75 kilometers north of Bihar University is Lalit Narayan Mithila University in Kameshwarnagar, Darbhanga. The university is housed in the heritage Raj Darbhanga palace, a beautiful campus dotted with ponds.
Sangeet Ranjan Natwar, 27, is a PhD student from Pohaddi Bela village, 45 km from Darbhanga. A cot and a bookshelf take up almost all the space in his room in Gandak hostel. His clothes are hung on a rope that he has strung across the room. “It gets really hot here. But we can’t afford anything better as students,’’ he says.
The conversation then moves to, what else, caste. “I am from the Devhar caste. I am told my forefathers were palmists. It is a small community of 80,000 people spread across 52 villages,’’ he says. He is grateful that Nitish put the Devhars in the list of Extremely Backward Castes. “That was a huge favour,” he says, before sounding out a warning. “No matter who comes to power, elected leaders have no choice but to work, irrespective of their caste.”
Vinay Kumar Jha, 27, an MCom student from Benipur in Darbhanga, says he speaks for all “forward castes” in the hostel. “I am pained to see Brahmins lose influence in society. Our governments are run by illiterates now. Bihar sadi hui dhoti hai, ek jagah siliye, doosri jagah phategi (Bihar is like a frayed dhoti, you stitch it at one place, it will tear at another),” he says. .
Sunil Kumar Yadav, 27, from Madhubani, steps in after Jha has said his piece. A PhD student, he says, “The only way out for people like us is to set right the education sector, starting with a new recruitment policy for school teachers.’’ He is clear about his political preferences. “I am completely with the RJD. For people like us from backward castes, Lalu has secured our interests for generations. I haven’t seen what my parents went through before 1990, but I have heard painful stories about how they couldn’t dare to question the upper castes. Lalu brought us out of that and my generation is grateful to him.”
Vishal Kumar Singh, 26, a Rajput from Madhubani, says he is confused — and worried. “We know Nitish did a lot of good but he is with Lalu. This combination doesn’t work,’’ he says. “I will vote for the BJP because that is the only way we can stop Lalu from going after the forward castes again. What if they add another 10 per cent reservation?”
Mukesh Mahatu from Vaishali has an MA in English. “Our biggest problem is unemployment. There is nothing here that can generate jobs. I don’t think it will change in the next 10 years, and by that time, we will be too old to qualify for jobs,” he says.
There’s something else that won’t change. “I am a Kurmi. The idea of a caste sounds medieval but we can’t afford to change it till there is absolute parity in the society. The privileged castes won’t understand this feeling but all others do.”
There are other barriers — students say most hostels on campus have an unwritten rule that keeps out Muslim students. “It is an embarrassing truth. I had a (Muslim) friend who wanted to be my roommate but decided not to come because it would have been impossible to tackle day-to-day biases,” says Mahatu, adding that Muslim students usually stay in Koshi hostel.
Mithila University has a healthy sex ratio on campus and in several departments, the girls outnumber the boys. One afternoon, a group of 20 girls sits in a classroom in the English department, discussing politics, elections and, inevitably, caste. In this group are four Muslim girls and four from OBC castes. All of them hold strong views against caste. “It is a disgusting how caste is sometimes the only reason why people come together. That way, the individual voter and her choices don’t matter,’’ says Yasmin Ara, 23. She says her mother is Christian and her father Muslim, a mixed identity that she finds liberating. “I don’t feel I belong to any group. I wish our nationality is our only identity.”
Tulika Swati, 21, says the university has other ways of identifying students. “Every time you fill a form, you have to write your religion, caste and even sub-caste.”
When Kiran Kumari, 22, says she doesn’t support caste-based reservation “even though I am an OBC”, her friend Rinku Kumari, 21, says education is the only way out of discrimination. “We live in Shreepur Bahadurpur village.
Whenever I pass through our neighbouring Brahmin village, they ask me my name and then ask me my father’s name to find out my caste,’’ she says.
The discussion is now an impassioned call to “seek liberation from caste”. But ask them who are they voting for, and the hands go up along neat, predictable lines. The girls from the ‘forward castes’ plan to vote for the BJP, the four Muslim girls and three of the four girls from OBC castes say they will vote for Nitish. There is no mention of Lalu.
Tulika says her family votes the BJP but she is considering NOTA. “There isn’t much difference among the parties in any case,’’ she says.