Beyond politics, the Bihar caste survey is a revolutionary document.
A public document, the first ever after 1931, allowing for people to stand up and be counted.
We go down to the wire, on what each of the numbers unveiled mean.
Who are the people referred to by percentages in the survey?
Today we look at Chaupal (748,059 people).
The concept of a caste-based society has led to two sharply divided sections within it – one of them does labour, while the other consumes the goods produced through that labour. This labour’s products are not always visible in the physical form.
For instance, when a barber works, his labour is clearly visible. The beauty of a person is enhanced when he gets shaved by him. His fingernails are no longer dirty after being clipped. If a potter makes a pot, the utensil is the proof of his labour.
But how will the labour of those who carry someone’s palanquin be seen? If someone stands guard at someone’s door with a stick, is his labour tangible?
This form of labour is called a service and according to modern economics, it is part of the service sector. But modern concepts do not work in the case of castes.
There is a caste group in Bihar called Chaupal. The literal meaning of chaupal is someone who sustains in all four directions or ways. It actually means someone who toils in the field and does farming, is a craftsman, is a protector and a cleaner or sweeper.
The caste-based system and the concept of patriarchy largely hinge on making one serve and in this assumption of subservience and service, Chaupals are no exception. Communities doing labour are made into servants. This means that if someone belongs to an ‘upper’ caste, their job is to rule, thanks largely to his access to resources. Governance does not mean being elected as an MP or an MLA. It also means the ability to lead a quality life without bearing any hardships.
It is a scene commonly witnessed in villages even today. The Brahmin priest can roam around the area with a plate in his hand and yet have more than two meals a day. But people of other castes cannot do so. One, the society will not give them anything but will only hurl abuses. Second, the labour castes are not used to this either.
The people of Chaupal caste are not assigned any definite ancestral line of work. They have been doing all kinds of labour. However, seldom did they get the wages and social rights that they have deserved. The concept of hierarchy in the caste system meant that for the people of castes like Kevat, Mallah, Nishad, Bind, Beldar and Noniya, it was the Chaupals who were meant to be the traditional labourers.
It means that even though there was equality among many caste groups in terms of work, not everyone was equal at the social level. They are not equal even today.
But now that we have a democracy, circumstances have changed a little. Those caste groups which were earlier considered ignoble now play an important role in elections.
This is the reason why the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh seems to have Hinduised the Chaupal caste. In fact, they have been doing it not only in the case of Chaupals, but with all the labour castes. For example, they used Ramayana to describe Kevat and Mallah castes as the followers of Hindu religion. The RSS, in fact, led an innovative experiment to Brahminise the Chaupal caste. Kameshwar Chaupal, a person from the caste which is categorised as a Scheduled Caste in Bihar, was roped in to lay the first brick of the Ram temple.
One may ask how the Chaupal caste came to be included in the category of Scheduled Castes, even though this caste has never been ‘untouchable’ for Brahmins. Another such tribe is Tharu, which has a population of 1,92,050 in Bihar. The people of the tribe are now being convinced that they have traditionally been equivalent to the Rajput caste. The traditions of the Tharu community have also been a factor behind it.
But the people of Chaupal caste never called themselves descendants of Rajputs or Brahmins. Moreover, had they been the descendants of Rajput or Brahmin castes, why would they carry palanquins, stand guard on people’s doors, or do forced labour in the fields?
In fact, the Hinduisation of Chaupal caste and, at the same time, its transformation from non-Dalit to Dalit has been done not without reason. According to the Caste-Based Census Report 2022, the population of this caste in Bihar is 748,059. Interestingly, this population is spread over parts of north and east Bihar. Thus, the arithmetic is as much sociological as it is political. For example, among the Dalit castes of Bihar, the Dhobi caste is undoubtedly present in the entire state, but the population is 1,096,158 whereas the Nutt caste, which is a Scheduled Caste, has a population of 105,063.
These are the figures which indicate why the Chaupals, who were earlier not considered Dalits because they were not ‘untouchable’, were categorised as Dalits.
By categorising the people of this caste as Dalits, the caste equation has been changed in at least a dozen assembly constituencies in Bihar in such a way that no candidate can win without their votes. No matter which party it is, they have to look after the interests of this community.
There is no official history of the Chaupal caste and its people. History, anyway, belongs to the ruling classes. The subjects are only sporadically mentioned in historical accounts. British ethnologist Robert Wayne Russell has described the Chaupal as a large non-Aryan caste of Bihar and the United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand). Regarding their activities, another British ethnographer, Sir Herbert Hope Risley, wrote that apart from farming, they were involved in soil cutting, fishing, hunting and collecting indigenous herbs and medicines for a livelihood.
However, the Chaupal caste has now transformed into a political caste as part of a larger political scheme. The RSS has also installed Hindu deities in their settlements, leading to Chaupal caste members getting rid of their family deities and perpetuating a cycle of subservience.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. Read the Hindi original here.