As both Gurjars and Rajputs in Uttar Pradesh stake claim to ninth-century ruler Mihir Bhoj, the controversy has reignited the debate on myth, history, identity, and community in the poll-bound state. On 22 September, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath unveiled a statue of ‘Raja Mihir Bhoj’ at a college in Dadri town in western UP. The controversy arose when the plaque of the statue that originally read ‘Gurjar Pratihar Samrat Mihir Bhoj’ was changed to only ‘Pratihar Samrat Mihir Bhoj’ before the unveiling. ‘Gurjar’ was hidden with black paint. This was not liked by Gurjar leaders who alleged that this was a conspiracy by Rajputs to appropriate the king. Both groups asserted their claims using collective caste–specific memories – exactly what French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs meant when he said that each social group has peculiar memory.
Caste associations are formal organisations made to consolidate caste at the national level in terms of demands, numbers, and political activities. Although started during colonial times, caste outfits in India have gained considerable importance in recent decades. They assert supremacy of memory over history, which is contested not in academic debates, but in political battlegrounds.
‘Kshatriya-isation’ of caste
Consolidating one’s caste prominence in various spheres of life, be it social, political, or economic, requires reworking of a series of factors. Caste associations help regionalise and nationalise caste, and bring it from local to regional or national plane. Many postcolonial anthropologists and historians have shown how caste converted itself slowly from a local to a national-level entity. Historian Nicholas Dirks’ study of an empire in colonial south India tells us that status and class might not always overlap. Kings were more powerful than Brahmins in pre-colonial (south) India, he says. This incoherence between caste and class has also been observed by English anthropologist Adrian C. Mayer in his study of Malwa region and erstwhile Dewas kingdom. Mayer observes how eating meat by Rajputs was not detested by Brahmins, though they abhorred it when it came to Shudras consuming it. For a man to be installed as a king, Brahmins needed to do royal affusions and acknowledge his Kshatriya (meaning, noble warrior) status. If you are a king, you must be Kshatriya. Thus, associating oneself with a historical king remains the plank of various communities to claim Kshatriya status.
This practice of claiming any king as belonging to one’s own caste group is at least a century old. Contestation over Shivaji’s valour by Brahmins and Marathas had received scholarly attention of Rosalind O’Hanlon, professor of Indian history and culture, in 1983. Today, we still find tensions simmering between Brahmins and Marathas of Maharashtra, with Brahmins alleging that Marathas are Shudras (Suryakant Waghmore, 2020). This allegation that many upper-caste Hindus are Shudras can be traced to as early as the 16th century when Raghunandan of Navadip alleged in his Smrititattva that Brahmins were the only twice-born people because both Kshatriyas and Vaishyas have degraded to become Shudras (Irfan Habib, 2007). This tendency to derogatorily label someone as Shudra is common even today. Many erstwhile peasant castes are slowly re-presenting themselves as Kshatriyas, while dodging their peasant/Shudra past. Yadavs of western UP now claim to be the descendants of Lord Krishna and have Kshatriya bloodline (Michelutti, 2004). This tendency has been noted in several social groups but mostly in middle ranking peasant castes like Kunbis of Maharashtra and Kushwahas of Bihar. This whole process is often called ‘Rajput-isation or Kshatriya-isation’, where Shudras claim Kshatriya status.
In a video, Gurjar women are seen protesting against Rajputs claiming Raja Bhoj’s legacy, and asserting kingly status. They use Gurjar surnames and can be seen wearing mangalsutras, making it clear that only married women are allowed in public spaces. Subjugation of women to alleviate one’s caste status has been observed by sociologists. For example, Banias around Delhi consolidated their position by tightening endogamy rules. Today, Guptas are accepted as savarnas, and people might only be talking about their Shudra past in private spheres. Such change of status can also be seen in the case of Jats. The Jats of Sind rose from pastoral outcaste status in the seventh century to Shudras in the 11th century after fighting Mahmud of Ghazni, who reigned between 998-1030 AD (Habib, 2007). In the video interview, Gurjar women are seen telling the reporter that Gurjars, Jats, Rajputs are all Kshatriyas. Still one is not sure whether any Thakur or Rajput would accept being labelled as Jat or Gurjar.
This contestation over caste as a system of hierarchy and/or identity has received scholarly attention from Indian sociologist Dipankar Gupta. He urges us to study castes as discrete identities independent of hierarchies (Gupta, 2004). This cannot be taken at face value – take, for example, the work of Indologist John E. Cort, which goes to the extent of saying that Jains of north Gujarat avoid marrying Brahmins (Cort, 2004). Though, one must never consider Brahmins as a homogenous block: South Indian Brahmins look down upon north Indian ones (Ambedkar, 1936), Nambudiris look down upon Tamil Brahmins, and even Deshasthas look down upon Konkanasthas. Social prejudices are found in every social group, and we know that even Brahmins and Kayasthas tend to avoid marrying each other (Drèze, Aggarwal, & Gupta, 2015).
What makes certain social groups assert themselves violently deserves sociological investigation beyond journalistic reports. Assertion of Gurjars against Rajputs must be seen as a fight for Kshatriya status, but also reworking of mythical figures as historical icons. B.R. Ambedkar in Who were the Shudras (1946) writes how many Huns – Eurasian warrior tribe – who established themselves in Rajputana were given Kshatriya status by Brahmins, while the rank and file of the unknown invaders became Gurjars. The tables are turning again as Gurjars claim Rajput status and Rajputs grow angry. Will Brahmins reduce Rajputs to their erstwhile Huns (read Shudra) past? As French historian Pierre Nora said, memory is magical and colourful, while history is dull and critical.
Zeeshan Husain has done MSW (TISS, Mumbai) and MPhil (CSSSC, Kolkata). His interests are historical methods and sociological traditions. He tweets@ Zeeshan41296096. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)