Nitish Kumar’s ‘Mahadalit’ dilemma

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar virtually exhausted his Dalit cards by announcing that Dussadhs also known as Paswans would now be included in the list of Mahadalit castes

Getty images
Getty images

Soroor Ahmed

When on Ambedkar Jyanti (April 14), Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar announced that Dussadhs also known as Paswans would now be included in the list of Mahadalit castes, he virtually exhausted his Dalit cards. Barely 18 days later, former Speaker of the Bihar Assembly, Uday Narayan Chaudhary, quit the Janata Dal (United),.

A few months after coming to power in November 2005, Nitish Kumar had constituted the Mahadalit Commission and launched the ‘Bihar Mahadalit Vikas Mission’. The objective was to help the poorest and the weakest among Dalit castes to get the benefit of government schemes.

There are in all 22 castes in the Scheduled Castes list in Bihar. At the time of launching the Mahadalit category, it was argued that four of the 22 Dalit castes were walking away with most of the government benefits. These four castes were identified as Dussadhs, Ravidas (Jatavs called elsewhere), Pasis (toddy-sellers) and Dhobis (washermen). So, Bihar government decided to launch special programmes for the development of the remaining 18 castes among Dalits, who were later christened as Mahadalits.

However, the Chief Minister soon succumbed to pressure as his party, JD(U), had several senior leaders belonging to Ravidas, Pasi and Dhobi caste. While former Chief Minister Ram Sundar Das (who later became a JD(U) MP) was a prominent Ravidas face, the then Speaker Uday Narayn Chaudhary was identified as a Pasi leader. Shyam Rajak, now JD(U) national general secretary, was then in RJD and was the most prominent face of his caste, Dhobi.

Thus, as a strategic move, Nitish soon included these three castes also among Mahadalits. The only caste left outside this grouping were the Dussadhs. There was a political motive behind this move as the tallest leader of the Dussadhs was Ram Vilas Paswan, who was then a part of the UPA and close to Lalu Prasad’s RJD. Nitish was then arguably the most powerful NDA leader in Bihar.

However, although after a series of political realignments, both Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan found themselves in the NDA, in the initial days the Bihar Chief Minister was not too favourably inclined towards the Lok Janshakti Party leader.

Nitish soon realised that anger is brewing among Mahadalits, who along with Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs), were instrumental in his party’s and BJP’s victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha and 2010 Assembly elections.

It is said that the ‘humiliation’ meted out to Jitan Ram Manjhi after he was made the Chief Minister was an important reason for the anger of Dalits, especially Musahars. They were upset over the manner in which Nitish tried to rule the state from behind. Secondly, the Nitish Kumar government’s prohibition policy drove many Mahadalits away from the JD(U).

In January last Nitish’s cavalcade was stoned by women, men and children belonging to Mahadalit communities in a village in Buxar district. This was the first instance of open anger against him. More than a month later, that is on February 28, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s party Hindustani Awam Morcha, announced they were quitting the NDA. With the death of Ram Sundar Das and the rebellious former minister Ramai Ram, the JD(U) was left with no prominent leader of Ravidas community in its fold.

While Nitish was still coping with this situation, hardliners within the BJP such as Giriraj Singh and Ashwini Choubey (both Union ministers) started putting pressure on Nitish. The latter was left with no option but to mend his fence with LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan. On Ambedkar Jayanti, Paswan organised a Dalit Sena programme in Patna.

His brother Ram Chandra Paswan and son Chirag Paswan, both MPs, reiterated the demand for Mahadalit status for Dussadhs. Nitish Kumar agreed as he is in need of more friends within the NDA. Paswan, who was feeling neglected in the NDA, too got a shot in his arm.

In fact, the process of coming closer started a few months back when Nitish inducted Pashupati Kumar Paras, another brother of Ram Vilas into his cabinet though he was then neither a member of the Assembly or the Legislative Council.

After the inclusion of Dussadhs in the list of Mahadalit caste, it is back to square one in Bihar. This move raised two questions: if all the 22 scheduled castes are of the same category, where was the need to form a Mahadalit Commission and a Mahadalit Vikas Mission?

Secondly, why did Nitish annul a similar decision taken by the then Jitan Ram Manjhi cabinet in 2015? How is it that Dussadhs were not Mahadalit in 2015 but have become so now? Another related question is: Will Nitish Kumar one day end the difference between OBCs and EBCs if any such move politically suits him.

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