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 Madaria (86,658 people).
Castes were not created in the heavens. Nor did God ask humans to discriminate amongst themselves. There is no dearth of evidence for this. One such piece of evidence is existence of the Madaria people – a caste which came into being during the British rule, after 1857.
This isolated caste is present only in the border districts of Bihar and Jharkhand. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to locate members of this caste anywhere else.
Their story is not very old but it has not been recorded in history in a systematic manner. Ethnographers never paid attention to them. Most sociologists also did not give them much importance. Madarias currently live in Sanhaula and Dhoraiya blocks of two districts of Bihar – Bhagalpur and Banka respectively. But who are they and what earned them the name Madaria?
Let us first find out about their traditional profession. The members of the Madaria caste have largely been engaged in farming. Most of them own tiny tracts of land where they grow food to sustain them for three to six months. For the rest of the year, they have to work as agricultural or daily wage labourers, building and painting houses, working in grocery shops or sorting grain in the markets.
At this point one might be wondering whether they are Hindu or Muslim. If they are Hindus, one might further wonder if they are a so-called ‘untouchable’ caste. I would not be surprised if such questions come to your mind. As stated above, castes were not created in heavens, and it was on the earth that inhabitants created religions and castes to identify themselves. For example, someone who rears cows and buffaloes is a Gwala or Yadav. Someone who makes comfortable shoes and other items from leather is a Chamar. Someone who beautifies people by shaving hair is a Nayi. If someone makes society clean by washing the dirty clothes of others, he is a Dhobi, and if someone cultivates paddy, he is a Dhanuk.
The people of the Madaria caste are basically Dhanuks, and categorised as Madaria Muslims and Dhanuk Hindus. The Dhanuks of Bihar are no longer the same Dhanuks who used to add the word Mandal to their names. Now, they consider themselves equivalent to the Kurmi caste living in the area south of the Ganges. It is a matter of research why the Kurmis living in the districts like Patna, Nalanda, Jehanabad, Gaya, Nawada, etc. have huge land holdings, whereas in the region where the Ganga crosses the state boundary, the Dhanuks have smaller land holdings. Could there be a connection or is it political propaganda?
The population of Dhanuks, according to the report of the caste-based survey conducted by the Bihar government, is 2,796,605. One can observe that the caste is widely spread in areas of North Bihar. Meanwhile, the total population of Kurmis in the state as per the report of the Bihar government is 3,762,969. If one adds the population of the Madaria caste to it, that is, 86,665, the total is 6,646,239.
Before analysing the political implications of the data, one may ask why the people of Madaria caste accepted Islam. Was there any pressure on them? Had any Muslim ruler persecuted them and forced them to do so?
As already mentioned, this caste came into existence during the British era post 1857. At that time, there was no fear of any Muslim ruler in the region of Bihar inhabited by the people of this caste. But there was certainly the influence of saints or peer–fakirs. The impact was such that Bhagalpur, an industrial city situated on the banks of Ganga, which was once famous for silk clothes, is named after a Peer – Bhagalu Mian – whose tomb stands in the centre of the city even today.
Therefore, it is clear that when the Madaria people accepted Islam, they did it out of their own will and awareness. It is possible that they had learned from the saints that there is no caste discrimination in Islam, unlike Hinduism. No matter which caste a person belongs to, no one discriminates against anyone. In the mosque, everyone prays together and embraces each other. After embracing Islam one also does not have to take a dip in the Ganga.
This is what might have happened with the Madaria people. They accepted Islam but their caste stayed with them for a long time. This is why they kept using the surname – Mandal. Even today, names like Suleman Mandal, Rahim Mandal or Ashfaq Mandal can be seen in land deeds.
Later, their understanding of Islam expanded and they shed their Hindu identity. But then they were faced with the dilemma of the names to use. They could neither identify themselves with Syed, Shaikh or Pathan on the pattern of Hindu upper castes nor were they like the Qureshis or the Lalbegis or Halalkhors.
Later, they would have opted for a different set of surnames for themselves. If they faced opposition, the next generation would have switched to other names. Again, it is because castes were not created in heavens but are man-made.
The situation changed when the country gained independence and the question of reservation arose. The people of the Madaria community accepted that they are neither Dhanuks nor Ashraf Muslims. They are either landless or farmers with very small land holdings, whose social status is in accordance with this.
In fact, social status in this country is proportional to the rights on land. That is, the more land one has, the higher one’s status. If the Madaria people have smaller land holdings, their status is also low.
Well before the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations, when the recommendations of the Mungerilal Commission were implemented in Bihar in 1978, Madaria people were also declared entitled to reservation and they were placed in the category of Yadavs, Kurmi, Kushwaha-Koeri etc. This continued until Nitish Kumar came to power and the caste was declared an extremely backward class. This had political implications as the decision was taken to cause a dent in the support base of Lalu Prasad Yadav.
But beyond politics, Madarias are still present in the paddy fields of this region. Now, the people of this caste have adopted other professions because farming is no longer as profitable. In addition, their population has increased but the size of land holdings is just as small. After the separation of Jharkhand, the situation became even more difficult. Earlier the caste had a sizeable population, due to which they played an important role in elections. They are still quite a significant vote bank at least in Sanhaula of Bhagalpur and Dhoraiya of Banka, where they hold an influence on the poll outcome.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. Read the Hindi original here.