09/09/2020 11:38 AM IST | Updated 09/09/2020 1:01 PM IST

Bihar: The Manjhi-Paswan Feud Shows How Savarna Groups Exploit A Fractured Dalit Polity

Dalit-centric parties have always been limited to particular castes among Dalits and have never been able to attract pan-Dalit votes

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Union Home Minister Amit Shah with HAM (S) Chief Jitan Ram Manjhi and LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan 

NAGPUR, Maharashtra: With the election to Bihar assembly less than two months away, the state’s two main Dalit parties are openly at the loggerheads with each other despite being a part of the same coalition. 

Who does this help? The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is essentially a Savarna party, and the Janata Dal (United) which has expertly fractured the state’s Dalit polity over a 15-year tenure.

The events in Bihar are the latest illustration of the difficulty and complexity of uniting the Dalit community – a trend previously mirrored in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh — and of the short-sightedness of the Dalit leadership in these states, who have consistently valued short term gains over the long-term struggle of creating a strong cohesive base.

The most recent example in Bihar began when Chirag Paswan, the chief of the Lok Jann Shakti Party and son of party founder Ram Vilas Paswan, started publicly calling out the Bihar government despite being part of the ruling alliance. The Paswans were upset about being marginalised within Bihar, and Chirag’s frequent broadsides — usually delivered on Twitter –  were seen as an attempt to garner more seats within the alliance.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the Janata Dal (U), and the alliance largely stayed silent until Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) broke away from the opposition alliance and joined the NDA.

Manjhi and Paswan both belong to numerically significant blocks among the Dalit population of Bihar with Paswans forming the biggest caste group among 21 Dalit castes of the state followed by Manjhi’s Mushahar community.

Ideally, this could be seen as the creation of a broad Dalit front within the NDA – except Manjhi’s first significant public comments were to target the LJP and the Paswans. His party also put up banners in Patna which included pictures of all senior NDA leaders except the Paswan father-son duo.

“If there is any attempt by Chirag Paswan to damage Nitish Kumar, we will resist it. We have heard Chirag saying that he would put up candidates against JDU,” Manjhi told a local news channel in Bihar a day after he returned to the NDA. “We will also put up candidates in the seats where LJP will be contesting.”

“Despite having such a long political career, Ram Vilas Paswan never gave importance to issues most concerning Dalits,” Manjhi said. “He has no right to speak on scheduled caste issues.”

Given these events, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the NDA was simply looking for a figurehead Dalit presence in the alliance, the JD(U) and BJP have brought in Manjhi to marginalise the Paswans.

Bihar, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh, the three states which send over 30 percent Lok Sabha MPs,  have a significant Dalit population and prominent Dalit centric parties but none of these states have a political outfit capable to mounting a formidable political challenge. Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) briefly promised to do just that, but the party appears to have lost its way.

Bihar offers a useful case study explaining why.

Nitish Kumar, the current Chief Minister, doesn’t come from a numerically significant caste group unlike his rival Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Instead, Kumar has fractured the state’s Dalit polity to his benefit.

Kumar came to power in 2005 at the head of an uncomfortable alliance of upper castes, backward castes, a section of minority, and Dalits. All these groups had voted for him after 15 years of RJD rule in the state since 1990.

Realizing that he can not depend on his numerically less significant caste group, Kumar wanted to create dedicated voters groups like the Dalits and women.

Within two years of coming to power, Nitish separated 20 out 21 Scheduled castes in Bihar, called them “Mahadalits″, and launched a slew of welfare schemes for this group.

The only Dalit group excluded from this newly formed Mahadalit category was Paswans, who form the core support base of LJP and is also the largest caste group numerically among Dalits in Bihar.

In fact, Manjhi, who was not much known to people outside Bihar, came into prominence as a part of  Nitish’s Mahadalit politics.

After the 2014 Lok Sabha defeat, Nitish wanted to consolidate the Mahadalit community further so he stepped down as the chief minister and named Manjhi as his replacement with a clear eye on the votes of 20 Mahadalit castes. 

Yet when Manjhi tried to be more than a puppet in Kumar’s hands, he was swiftly marginalised and ejected from the government.

Something similar had been witnessed in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and other states in the past.

Prominent political parties in the state have always promoted one faction of Dalits over another leaving no chance of their coming together and putting up a challenge to them.

The Republican Party of India (RPI) is a glaring example of this politics in Maharashtra.

When Congress headed by Sharad Pawar began promoting RPI leader Ramdas Athawale by giving him ministerial berths in the 1990s, other RPI leaders began exploring other options with some of them reaching out to the BJP.

The result is RPI is now divided into more than a dozen factions  — each looking to ally with savarna political outfits. Athawale, it is worth noting, is now the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment in alliance with the BJP.

Dominant Dalit caste groups and their leaders have also proved reluctant to accommodate other Dalit caste groups: The Mahars in Maharashtra, the Paswans in Bihar, and the Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh have always been accused, by other caste groups, of appropriating the Dalit political space and disproportionately cornering the benefits of affirmative actions in the last few decades.

The example of RPI in Maharashtra is far more glaring where even Mahar leaders could not stay under one political outfit or form one political umbrella group. Paswan’s LJP has dedicated support of his community but has not expanded his appeal to other Dalit communities. This has opened up space for non-Dalit leaders like Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav to allure them.

Similarly, Valmiki and Pasi communities in Uttar Pradesh never warmed up to the BSP which was and is perceived to be, a Jatav-centric party. This opened up space for the BJP, which has long courted the Valmiki and Pasi communities. 

Numerically dominant Dalit caste groupings have also not made way for the benefits of affirmative action to percolate to other Dalit castes. 

There are some sections among Mahars in Maharashtra who even refuse to identify themselves among the larger Bahujan umbrella and take pride in the caste hegemony inside the Dalit community. Another example is the support of Hindu Dalits in Maharashtra to parties like Shiv Sena, BJP, or even Congress. The Shiv Sena often gets elected from SC reserved Lok Sabha seats but its candidates invariably come from the non-dominant Dalit castes in the state.

Like Manjhi and Paswan, the RPI group headed by Athavale is with the BJP while another faction headed by Prakash Ambedkar has often been dubbed as the B team of the BJP. Some RPI groups are with Congress and many others are used by mainstream alliances just because they need one blue flag to flaunt at the time of the election.

Mayawati’s anxiety with the rise of Bhim Army’s Chandrashekhar Azad also points towards a common saying used in Maharastra for the Dalit polity: “That Dalit political landscape has more leaders than workers”.