New Delhi: In the political landscape of Bihar, where caste identities often take precedence over most other factors, the position of one particular community has become the subject of much speculation ahead of the 2020 assembly polls — the Paswans.
The leader who represented them for over five decades — former Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) — died earlier this month, and there’s much guesswork underway on who the community will choose in his stead.
Will his son, MP and LJP chief Chirag Paswan, who brought all political calculations to naught just weeks before the elections by walking out of the NDA in Bihar, be able to inherit his father’s loyal vote bank?
And will the Paswan community, described by members as upwardly mobile, and relatively more powerful and better off than other Dalit groups in the state, continue to enjoy the same political significance they did under Ram Vilas Paswan, who held their place firm on the political map of Bihar, and even Delhi?
As these questions await answers in the Bihar election results, ThePrint explains why the community is crucial for leaders eyeing power in the state.
The watchmen, the informers
Paswan is the surname of members of the Dusadh community, which constitutes an estimated 5 per cent of Bihar population, with around 45.6 lakh members.
The Scheduled Castes (SCs) constitute 16 per cent of the state’s population. The Dusadhs account for over 30 per cent of the Dalit population, giving them numerical heft in the state — the first factor to make any caste group dominant, according to Rahul Verma, fellow at the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research (CPR).
The other two factors, according to Verma, are economic resources and political power. The Paswans, it is believed, have historically had access to both despite belonging to the lowest stratum in the caste hierarchy laid down in the Vedic mythology.
“The Paswans are a martial and warrior race. There is a school of thought that they were the Gahlots (Rajputs) of Rajasthan, and they migrated from Rajasthan fighting the Mughals, and moved to the eastern parts of the country after being defeated, and refused to convert,” said Sanjay Paswan, a senior BJP leader and former Union minister. “After the displacement, they lost their caste and social status.”
Their martial roots are believed to have lent the community a distinctive physical prowess. The word Dusadh literally means one who cannot be controlled or is “insurmountable”.
According to Paswan, when the British came to India and faced Siraj ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, they were advised to make use of the Dusadh community, which was considered physically strong, but socially oppressed, to defeat him. The British, he said, acted on the advice and won, defeating the Nawab in the 1757 Battle of Plassey.
The British, according to experts and members of the community aware of its history, rewarded the Dusadhs by making them chowkidars (watchmen) or police informers for the colonial government. And here lies the origin of the name Paswan — an Urdu word, which means bodyguard or “nazdik ka rakshak”.
During this era, the Paswans are believed to have primarily worked as lathi-wielding chowkidars or tax collectors for zamindars — giving them early proximity to power.
“Tab se hi satta ki bhook hai iss community mein (The community has had a hunger for power since those days),” Sanjay Paswan said. “If you see now also, you will find a lot of our people in police.”
In the 1900s, when caste associations became a tool for different communities to demand social and political rights, the Paswans became the first Dalit group to form a caste association, and lay a claim on their purportedly lost Kshatriya status, said Badri Narayan, director of the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
“They made a vibrant caste association by 1914… So, due to a host of factors like proximity to the landed class, the sahibs, and possessing lathi ki shakti (the might of the stick), etc, they emerged as a dominant, visible Dalit community,” he added.
The bravery associated with the community finds a reflection in their rituals. “One of the more prominent of our rituals is to walk on fire,” said Sanjay Paswan, who made global headlines in 2003, when he was the Union junior minister for education, for walking barefoot over embers and brandishing swords.
Asked what the connotation of the ritual is, he said, “It simply means we are Dusadh — brave, not scared to play with fire.”
Verma said the Dusadhs are the most “Sanskritised” among Dalit communities. The term Sanskritisation denotes a sociological phenomenon where groups occupying the lower strata in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper castes.
The historical closeness with power endowed the community with not just a sense of power themselves, but also aspiration.
Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a Delhi-based research institute, said the community is socio-economically much more well-off than other Dalit communities. “They have been able to diversify their work. So, in addition to chowkidari work, they have small shops and businesses as well,” he added.
Being the most dominant Dalit community in Bihar has also helped them emerge as among the biggest beneficiaries of reservation.
“An important factor to remember is that, unlike other Dalits, they were not seen as untouchable,” said Kumar. “So, the upper castes would be okay to accept food or water from them because they were not seen to be engaged in ‘impure’ work.”
Kumar said a better economic status vis-a-vis other Dalit groups had not translated into land ownership for the Dusadhs, but Narayan claimed their historical closeness with zamindars had allowed them to amass some land themselves.
“And, politically, they are aspirational as well. They’ve had their leaders since the British times,” Narayan added.
The source of political empowerment
The numerical strength of the Dusadhs, coupled with their social and relative economic might, contributed to their political significance from the very beginning, say experts.
“You might say that they are just 4-5 per cent of Bihar’s population. But that is a formidable vote bank,” said Kumar. “As a caste group, their ability to shift the vote has been immense,” he added.
“In Bihar, Dalits are more than 20 per cent in 20-45 constituencies, and, in the others, they are about 12-20 per cent. In a multi-cornered contest, this is a huge vote bank,” Kumar said.
It was as early as 1968 when Bihar elected its first Dalit chief minister, Bhola Paswan Shastri of the Congress.
“This was the time of Dalit unity… So, the Paswans and the Chamars (the largest Dalit group in Bihar) were united,” said Sanjay Paswan. “There was Jagjivan Ram (former deputy PM) at the Centre, and Bhola Paswan Shastri in the state.”
But they were both from the Congress, and the 1960s were also the time when anti-Congressism started to spread across the country, with socialists-led ruling coalitions being cobbled up as purveyors of the social justice movement, and alternatives to the grand old party, he added.
“So, the opposition needed a non-Congress Dalit leader, and that is when Ram Vilas Paswan emerged,” he said.
The rise of Ram Vilas Paswan
Much before the emergence of Dalit leaders like Kanshi Ram and his protégée, Mayawati, in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Ram Vilas Paswan was elected an MLA in 1969.
After emerging as a powerful leader during the Emergency, he went on to register a Guinness World Record by winning the election from Hajipur with a margin of 4.24 lakh votes, the highest margin for any politician in the world at the time, in 1977.
The sense of reverence that Paswan evoked in the community is captured by a slogan coined for him — “Upar Aasman, Neeche Paswan (the sky above, Paswan on the ground)”.
Be it the leader’s own charisma or the absence of another tall leader from the community, the Paswan vote followed whichever coalition Ram Vilas Paswan chose to be with — making the Paswans a readymade vote bank for his allies.
Through his five-decade career, Paswan hopped from one political alliance to another, and aligned with parties of all ideological hues to remain in power.
Over the years, he came to be known as “mausam vigyanik” or “weather scientist”, an acknowledgment of his propensity to always side with the alliance that would win.
This often led to allegations that Paswan was betraying his ideological principles. But it was not an accusation that hassled him.
“Whether that Dalit is in politics or not doesn’t matter. What matters is whether he or she survives for themselves and for the larger society. Things that one would consider normal for other communities, like getting primary education, is a huge mountain for the Dalit in north India,” he once told a journalist.
“That is why my MA and LLB were considered Herculean victories in Bihar and are still considered as significant achievements by Dalit communities here. In such a context, what is most important for a Dalit is whether he or she is able to do some good for the marginalised through what may seem to be inconsistent ideological orientations.”
In his book, Rise of the Plebians, French Indologist Christophe Jaffrelot said that, after the 2005 February Bihar election, the representation of upper caste MLAs in the state rose by 4.9 per cent and reached its highest level since 1990.
He attributed this phenomenon to the LJP. “Indeed, despite his strong desire for clubbing together a Muslim-Dalit combination to take on RJD leader Laloo Prasad Yadav (sic), Ram Vilas Paswan nominated about 30 per cent upper castes as candidates, and Muslims and Dalits together accounted only for 20 per cent of the candidates. Therefore, the percentage of the upper castes reached 55.2 per cent of the LJP MLAs and none of its Muslim candidates had been elected,” he wrote.
Senior journalist Nalin Verma, who co-authored Gopalganj to Raisina Road, a book about the life of Lalu Prasad, said Paswan did not make “any bones about giving tickets to upper castes in large numbers”.
“The Paswans are a formidable but small vote bank, so he needed to make alliances…” he added. “He did not pit the Dalits against the upper castes, like, say, Kanshi Ram did in UP… You see, he was a politician, not an activist.”
‘Brahmin among Dalits’
For these, and other reasons, Paswan was seen by many as the “Brahmin among Dalits”.
While Paswan, and the LJP, which he floated in 2000, were the undisputed choice for the Paswan community, he failed to emerge as a pan-India Dalit leader like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.
There were several reasons for this, say experts.
First, the nature of his caste group. The Paswan community is a very small, localised Dalit group, said Rajesh Paswan, a professor of Hindi at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It is not like the Chamars, who are found in every state and region of India with a different name,” he added.
So, while Paswan shared a legal affiliation with all the Scheduled Castes, it did not necessarily translate into a cultural affiliation, thereby limiting his acceptability as a pan-India Dalit leader.
Second, as the dominant SC community, the Dusadhs have the maximum representation, both politically and in government jobs. This, like in the case of OBCs, where the Yadavs are believed to corner the bulk of reservation benefits, led to resentment among other SCs, who felt that the benefits of political empowerment were being concentrated in the hands of the Paswans, analysts told ThePrint.
Nitish Kumar would go on to tap into this resentment, and create the category of Mahadalits in 2008 with the stated claim of ensuring a more equitable distribution of reservation benefits among the SCs. Paswan, whose community was classified as Mahadalit in 2018 when he and Nitish were allies under the NDA, saw the reservation as a bid to divide the Dalit community.
Even now, ahead of the 2020 polls, Chirag Paswan has cited Nitish Kumar’s decision to “break the unity of Dalits” as one of the foremost reasons for walking out of the NDA.
“It worked both ways,” said Sanjay Paswan. “The Mahadalit decision cost Paswan the votes of other Dalits, but consolidated the Paswan vote in his favour even more.”
With Ram Vilas Paswan no more, the political significance of this community is set to be tested in the upcoming polls.
Narayan said, in the wake of Paswan’s death, there is a possibility that the upcoming polls will witness a divide in the community’s vote. A split in the Paswan vote, if it happens, will be a first, and could cost the community its political dominance of decades.