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Issue #16: 100 Years of Backward Caste Politics in Bihar

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India Ink
Issue #16: 100 Years of Backward Caste Politics in Bihar
By India Ink Team • Issue #16 • View online
Hello readers!
We’re back with another paper for you. This week, it’s about Bihar and its unique place in Indian politics. A lot of people are unaware that the state was the birthplace of numerous social movements that changed the history of India.
So we’ve taken the initiative to summarize a paper titled “Caste Politics in Bihar: In Historical Continuum” by Rakesh Ankit. It’s a great paper that really lays out the state’s grand history of anti-caste politics. From Ram Manohar Lohia to Karpoori Thakur, from Lalu Prasad Yadav to Nitish Kumar, it’s definitely worth reading.
Have a good weekend!
India Ink Team

100 Years of Backward Caste Politics in Bihar
  1. The popular understanding of backward caste politics in Bihar is linked to the rise of Lalu Prasad Yadav in the 1990s. But the struggle for upliftment of these groups goes back to the early 20th century, when the dominance of the landowning upper castes had led to agrarian distress in the region. Over the decades since, their power has been challenged by Yadavs, Kurmis, Koeris, Momins and others through various movements for social change.
  2. The 1920s saw the first modern struggles for backward caste empowerment in Bihar. The Janeyu Andolan saw Yadavs and other lower castes wearing janeyu – the Brahmanical thread — prompting violent counter-attacks by Brahmins. And the Momin Movement challenged the dominance of upper caste Muslim groups.
  3. Since socio-economic oppression was linked to caste, fighting for the rights and status of one’s caste became the way to fight such oppression. Caste-based associations such as the Triveni Sangh, Yadav Mahasabha, and Momin Conference became important voices for the cause of social upliftment, which was largely ignored by parties like the Congress.
  4. In the 1950s, the various groups fighting for social change began to unite under the common backward caste identity and numerous developments at this time encouraged such alliances. These groups asserted themselves politically. The upper caste-dominated Congress could not provide a platform for their demands. This led to the rise of Ram Manohar Lohia’s socialist movement. The Congress was ousted from power in 1967, after which Bihar was ruled by a series of backward caste and Dalit Chief Ministers.
  5. The major development of the 1970s was the JP movement, which arose out of the anger caused by increasing inflation and unemployment under Congress rule. This movement further contributed to the breaking away of the backward castes from the Congress, and produced future leaders like Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar. The Janata government formed after this struggle was led by Karpoori Thakur, who implemented quotas in state government jobs with the aim of empowering backward castes.
  6. The struggle for social change also began to take place outside electoral politics. The unresolved agrarian crisis led to the rise of armed groups, which got involved in the landlord-tenant conflict. Some of these groups, like the Maoists, claimed to represent the interests of the oppressed, but there were also others who fought to maintain upper caste dominance like the Lorik Sena (Bhumihars) and the Kunwar Sena (Rajputs).
  7. By the end of the 1980s, the power of backward castes in Bihar’s politics was firmly established. The 1990 Vidhan Sabha elections saw backward caste MLAs outnumber upper caste MLAs for the first time. By the next election in 1995, backward castes held about two-thirds of all seats.
  8. It was at this juncture that Lalu Prasad Yadav became the Chief Minister in 1990. His assertive style of social justice politics, which countered upper caste dominance, became a source of pride and dignity for backward castes. Lalu’s electoral power was built on the support of Yadavs and Muslims. However, over time, favouritism towards Yadavs pulled other groups away from this populist leader.
  9. In 2005, Nitish Kumar emerged as the new face of social justice politics in Bihar. He drew his support from a wider group of people, embracing women, backward castes, and Dalits (including those from Muslim groups), and Maha Dalits. While Lalu’s politics in the previous decade had focused on justice and dignity in the face of upper caste oppression, Nitish emphasised welfare and development programs.
(This is only an overview of the paper. There is more information on each of these points in the article below.)
100 Years of Backward Caste Politics in Bihar - India Ink
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