Beyond politics, the Bihar caste survey is a revolutionary document.
A public document, the first ever after 1931, allowing for people to stand up and be counted.
We go down to the wire, on what each of the numbers unveiled mean.
Who are the people referred to by percentages in the survey?
Today we look at Koeri/Kushwaha (5,506,113 people).
In the history of human civilisation, power has always played an important role. It was power that caused stratification in the society and this is how castes were also created. But who created this divide?
The caste we are discussing today is not a single caste but a group of castes, all of whom are agrarian in nature – Koeri, Dangi and Kachi. Let us talk about Koeri or Kushwaha which has been a prominent caste in Bihar.
There is no clear answer as to how they originated and when. There is also no documentary evidence to pinpoint when and how members of this group transformed into a Koeri/Kushwaha.
One of the legends suggests that the Koeri/Kushwaha dynasty originated from Ram’s son Kush, a claim not found in any text and which can only be considered a myth. The fact is that they are farmers even today and farming has been their traditional occupation.
However, at some places they have also been described as Kshatriyas and people of this caste take pride in calling themselves so. But the definition of ‘Kshatriya itself has always been varied.
For instance, according to one of the definitions, one who owns a tract of land, or kshetra, is called a Kshatriya. Another definition given by Jotirao Phule in his classic book Gulamgiri in 1873 states that the Kshatriyas were actually regional, or local, warriors who fought the Aryan invaders. According to the third definition, which is the most prevalent today, a Rajput is a Kshatriya and a Kshatriya is a Rajput.
The identity of the Koeri caste is not clear from any of these three definitions.
First, they do not have enough land to be called Kshatriyas, and when there is no land, they have nothing to protect or stand for. Since a Kshatriya is someone who protects his territory, how can they be called Kshatriyas? The definition of Jotirao Phule is a broad definition and it is possible that people of this caste may also have been regional warriors, but who will testify to it?
Anyway, the Indian Hindu society is so divided that unity is not possible despite occupational similarities. For example, the Koeri/Kushwaha people are involved in farming but so are people of some other castes. In fact, Brahmins, Bhumihars and Rajputs also call themselves farmers. But there is a difference between their farming and the farming of Koeri/Kushwahas. They have large agricultural land holdings. The central idea of land reform – that the land belongs to its tiller – does not hold true in this case. They have rights over land, but do not cultivate it. Actual farming is done by members of other castes, one of which is Koeri/Kushwaha. Similarly, there is a Kurmi caste which does farming. They do not have many land holdings like Brahmins, Rajputs and Bhumihars, but they certainly have more land compared to Koeris, Yadavas, Dangis, Kushwahas, Koris, Kachis, etc.
Clearly, despite similarities in nature of work, there is no unity in these caste groups. Even if a classification was made on the basis of land holding, one might assume that there would be two categories of big and small farmers and they would at least happily co-exist with fellow members in their respective groups. But that was not to be the case. Even Kurmis and Dangis consider sitting next to Koeris ‘demeaning.’
This is in spite of the fact that before 2017, when caste certificates were issued to Kushwahas and Dangis in Bihar, Koeris were mentioned as a ‘caste’ and Kushwahas or Dangis were categorised as ‘sub-caste.’
The divide is also visible at the social and cultural level. Both the Dangi community, which is the closest in status to the Koeris, and the Yadav community, which is a only a little ahead, have almost the same nature of work. But neither the Dangis nor the Yadavs form matrimonial alliances or mix with the Koeris.
However, the Koeris have been an important section of the society in Bihar for many reasons. One, the Koeri caste has the largest population in terms of numbers. According to the Caste Based Census Report-2022, the population of Koeri/Kushwaha in Bihar is 5,506,113 while the population of Dangis is only 336,629.
This is an updated figure and the reason why it has been released is also very interesting.
At present, the political game in our democracy has stepped up with many an interesting strategy at play. Before 2017, Dangi was included in Appendix-2 of the backward classes in Bihar, which included Yadavs and Kurmis in addition to Koeris. But in 2017, Nitish Kumar’s government put the Dangi community in the Appendix-1 of the backward classes and tagged it as extremely backward – not without reason.
Earlier, apart from Kushwaha/Koeris, Mali (349,285), Gangota (648,943), and others formed a large group, which had political implications.
The outcome of this numerical strength was that the first OBC chief minister in Bihar – Satish Prasad Singh – hailed from this community. However, he had to vacate the chair for B.P. Mandal within just two days.
Satish Prasad’s deputy for those two days, Jagdev Prasad, proved to be the biggest and the most revolutionary leader of this caste group in Bihar, but he could not reach the post of chief minister only due to weaker numerical strength. This unity ended after his assassination in 1974 in Kurtha block of Bihar. Today the Koeri/Kushwaha community is engaged in politics of the region while the Dangis are also not lagging behind. Two active leaders are Nagamani (the son of Jagdev Prasad) and Bagi Prasad Verma.
It is a fact that due to the Mandal movement, some degree of leadership potential has been created among all the castes. However, its side effects have also come to light. Since the number of people belonging to the Koeri caste group is large, their political demand is naturally large too. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Janata Dal (United) have made Samrat Chaudhary and Umesh Kushwaha, who come from Kushwaha community, their state presidents. There is another leader who has made a distinct identity in Kushwaha politics – Upendra Kushwaha.
At the same time, people of Dangi community take pride in the fact that they have been marked ‘extremely backward’ instead of ‘backward’. This caste group is also divided into Badki Dangi and Chhutki Dangi depending on the size of land holdings. Badki Dangis have big land holdings and Chhutki Dangis have small land holdings. However, there is another difference. Despite having one deity for the clan (kuldevta), the Badki Dangis consider themselves better than the rest because they do not have the tradition of widow remarriage.
In this regard, former member of Bihar legislative assembly N.K. Nanda said, “Jagdev Prasad hailed from Badki Dangi. But for the first time, it was he who called for ending the divide, or shakha, between the two Dangi groups and establishing matrimonial alliances. He was also in favour of marriage between Ahirs, Kurmis, Koeris and Dangis. The people of Dangi community might be less in number, but they have been ahead of the Koeri/Kushwaha community in terms of education and economic condition. When Jagdev Prasad, despite coming from a large Dangi community, got his son, Senapati, married into a Koeri family, the people of the Dangi community ostracised him socially while the Koeri/Kushwaha community accepted him. However, later when Prasad was searching for a place to reside in Patna, the people of Dangi community in Murlichak offered him land. Today, the house he built, right next to Bailey Road, is still known by his name.”
“Now, shakha tod (inter-group) marriages and marriages between Koeris and Dangis have started taking place though the rate is still very low. But it is certain that a period of change has begun,” said Nanda.
However, whether they are Koeri, Kushwaha, Dangi or Kori-Kachhi, they are all farmers and identified as such. If ever they unify under this identity, Jagdev Prasad’s claim that “90% share in wealth land and power belongs to these castes” might become the truth.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. Read the Hindi original here.