Patna: For Nitish Kumar, 1994 was a watershed year as a politician. That was the year he held the Kurmi Chetna Maha-rally at the historic Gandhi Maidan in Patna.
At the time, Nitish, part of Lalu Yadav’s camp in the Janata Dal, was among the few politicians who were reluctant to speak about their caste, when others around him were flaunting theirs. The huge crowd was chanting ‘Garv se kaho hum Kurmi hain’ (say it with pride, I am a Kurmi), and yet, Nitish did not utter a word on caste.
But that was the moment he became recognised as leader of the Kurmis, a caste that comes under the OBC category. Kurmis make up just 2 per cent of the population of Bihar, and live mostly in and around the Nalanda district.
Twenty-six years after that Gandhi Maidan rally, Nitish is now being accused of favouring Kurmis in both political and administrative appointments by Lalu’s son and Rashtriya Janata Dal’s de facto leader Tejashwi Yadav.
How the maha-rally shaped Nitish’s political career
Leaders at the 1994 maha-rally strongly advocated “Luv-Kush” unity in Bihar, referring to Rama and Sita’s twin sons in the epic Ramayana — Luv stood for Kurmis and Kush stood for Kushwahas, another OBC caste that accounts for 6 per cent of Bihar’s population.
The maha-rally was the first indication that the backward caste unity under Lalu was breaking — the tone and tenor was definitely anti-Lalu. A Kurmi Janata Dal MLA spoke in praise of Lalu, and was heckled by the crowd and forced off stage.
There were appeals from leaders to have a ‘roti–beti’ (meaning exchanging food and inter-marrying) relationship between Kurmis and Kushwahas. Even 26 years on, Nitish is still regarded as the ‘Luv-Kush’ leader, despite the emergence of Kushwaha leaders like Rashtriya Lok Samta Party founder Upendra Kushwaha.
During the Lalu-Rabri regime, non-Yadav OBCs, extremely backward classes (EBCs) as well as upper castes faced the dominance of Yadavs, both politically and socially. Lalu’s party had over 60 MLAs belonging to his own caste.
So, Nitish became an acceptable alternative face to Lalu, because he belonged to a caste that was too small and too limited to one area to dominate society, unlike the Yadavs, who make up 14 per cent of the population of Bihar.
Kurmi ‘dominance’ in administration
In the Lalu-Rabri era, the IAS and IPS cadres in Bihar were also divided on the lines of backward and forward castes. Mukund Prasad was the most powerful IAS officer in the regime, and most upper caste officials were shunted out to insignificant posts.
When Nitish first came to power, he did not elevate the late K.D. Sinha — an upright senior IAS officer from the Kurmi caste — to the post of chief secretary. The buzz was that since Ashish Ranjan Sinha, also a Kurmi, was the director general of police at the time, making K.D. Sinha the chief secretary would send the wrong message.
However, later, Kurmi IAS officers from outside Bihar, such as Jitendra Kumar Sinha (Manipur-Tripura cadre), and Sanjay Singh and Manish Verma (Odisha cadre) were brought in and given the prized post of Patna district magistrate. Current Patna DM Kumar Ravi also belongs to the Kurmi caste.
RJD leader Abdul Bari Siddiqui remarked inside the assembly that Nitish only relied on “royal blood” from outside the state, a charge Nitish furiously rejected.
At the Chief Minister’s Office level, R.C.P. Singh, a UP cadre IAS officer was brought in and made Nitish’s principal secretary. A Kurmi hailing from Nalanda, Singh quit in 2010 and was made Rajya Sabha MP.
Even currently at the CMO, two Kurmi IAS officers Manish Verma and Anupam Kumar call the shots as secretaries, along with non-Kurmi principal secretary Chanchal Kumar.
ThePrint reached the secretaries via phone calls for a comment but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
Speaking to ThePrint, former Bihar chief secretary V.K. Dubey said: “Caste has always played a role, right from the days of Bihar’s first chief minister S.K. Sinha, when half the doctors in medical colleges belonged to his caste (Bhumihars). Successive CMs like K.B. Sahay (Kayastha) and Jagannath Mishra (Brahmin) promoted officers of their castes.”
Dubey added: “But there is a technical limitation: How many IAS and IPS officers of your caste can you promote in a state having 250 IAS officers? As far as recruitments are concerned, it is impossible for Kurmis specifically to get recruited because in an interview, apart from the name and roll number, the interviewer knows nothing (Kurmis have surnames common to other castes). But manipulation can be done in class III and class IV services like nurses and police constables.”
On the political side, though Nitish has never made a person from his caste the president of the state JD(U), the dominance of the aforementioned R.C.P. Singh is unmistakable. In recent e-rallies, he spoke just before Nitish, leaving senior leaders like Lallan Singh and Bijendra Prasad Yadav to play second fiddle. Singh’s dominance was reported to be one of the factors why election strategist Prashant Kishor, who was JD(U) vice-president, left the party.
Attempts to contact R.C.P. Singh for his comments were unsuccessful as of the two numbers listed on his Rajya Sabha profile, one was switched off while another “does not exist”.
A low-profile MLC, Sanjay Gandhi, a Kurmi from Nalanda, is said to wield influence over all ministers because of his proximity to Nitish. Bihar’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister Shrawan Kumar, also a Kurmi, is known as Nitish’s hatchet-man.
Focus on Nalanda
Nalanda district adjoins Patna, and is dominated by Kurmis. It is Nitish’s stronghold, but he used to leave the seat for his senior colleague George Fernandes for an easy passage to the Lok Sabha.
But since the JD(U) came to power in 2005, there has been a sea-change in Nalanda—infrastructure that has come up or is under construction includes a medical college, police training institute, the modern Nalanda University, IT city, an international cricket stadium, a world-class conference hall and a rifle-firing range.
All this has earned Nitish the tag he wanted to avoid initially — leader of the Kurmis in Bihar.
Shivanand Tiwari, national vice-president of the RJD, was in the Janata Dal with Nitish Kumar in 1994 and was among the founder members of the Samata Party alongside him. Since then, he has gone back and forth between Nitish and Lalu, and criticised the CM for “favouring” Kurmis.
“The perception that Nitish Kumar was above caste is a public perception created by him for political advantage. I went with Nitish to Kurmi Chetna Maharally. We were at Lalu’s house before we went to the rally. Lalu did not want Nitish to go, but Nitish went,” Tiwari said.
“Nitish did not promote strong and honest Kurmi officials like K.D. Sinha. He wants docile officials from the caste. Even in politics, he ousted a Kurmi leader like the late P.K. Sinha because he openly disagreed with him. There is nothing to say about how he brought Kurmi officials from outside the state and gave them key posts,” he said.
However, Rajni Ranjan Patel, spokesperson of Nitish’s ally BJP and a Nalanda resident who was among the main organisers of the 1994 Maha-rally, disagreed.
“Nitish Kumar has never indulged in caste politics. During his tenure, the two sections he has done the most for are the EBCs and Dalits. He has taken the state away from caste politics to development for all, and his community has never indulged in the sort of social dominance which Laluji’s community did. Nitish has not saved any criminal from any caste or community,” Patel said.
“Deputation of officials to Bihar from other states has been happening before Nitish Kumar came to power. R.C.P. Singh was with Nitish Kumar when he was Union railway minister. I would like to remind those who allege that Nitish promotes Kurmi officials that one of the first IAS officers to be targeted under Nitish Kumar regime for corruption was S.S. Verma (now retired), also a Kurmi,” he added.
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