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?
We start with Ghasi (1,462 people).
On October 2, the state government in Bihar released a list of 209 castes, enumerating their names and populations, and their respective share in the total population. From a political perspective, it was not just a census but the beginning of a new era in politics, being referred to as Mandal 3.0. The survey has had a snowball effect on the country’s politics, as the Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan announced that it will conduct a caste-based survey in the state just before the election notification was issued. The Congress party has also announced plans for caste-based surveys in other states. Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party is yet to come up with something to counter this demand – it is neither able to oppose nor support it.
Here, we will discuss the significance of the report released by the Bihar government. What are the traditions of these castes? How far do they extend and what is their status today? Although the social and economic status has not been released by the Bihar government, we will try to uncover these layers within the castes.
First of all, let us talk about a caste which has been considered one of the most politically powerful castes in Bihar since at least 1990 – the Ghasi caste. It is ranked 56 in the report released by Bihar government and its total population is stated to be only 1,462 people, that is only 0.0011% of the total population.
Ghasi is historically a caste of shepherds. Unlike those shepherds who live like nomads with their sheep, goats, cattle, etc., these are shepherds who have settled down in the plains. They are also called Ghasiyaras. The name is derived from the word for grass, which hints to their profession of the past – to chop and fetch grass to feed the cattle. The tradition of calling them Ghasi may have started when a group of nomadic herders decided to settle down for a secure and stable life. They must have had two things before them. Firstly, their cattle get fodder and water, and secondly they get land to grow grains to sustain themselves. In this way, the ancestors of this caste might have adopted farming and cattle rearing.
But circumstances have changed with time.
As a result of settling down in the plains, they must have gradually lost their tribal identity, which was replaced with a non-tribal identity. Ghasis are also called Ghoshi and Goshi. The meaning of these two words is not clearly defined anywhere, but in Hindi literature the term Ghoshi refers to ‘caller’, derived from the word Ghosh which means ‘to call’, and Ghoshi means ‘the one who calls’.
Apart from Bihar, this caste is spread over some areas of Uttar Pradesh. It is also a sub-caste of Yadavs. Many foreign historians – Horace Arthur Rose, Denzil Ibbetson, Edward Douglas MacLagan, etc. – have noted that the caste has both Hindu and Muslim members. Some historians believe that those Yadavs who converted to Islam were called Ghosi.
But no one believes this now. Now, even those who were born in Ghosi families have started calling themselves Yadav instead of Ghosi. People of this caste are found, if only sporadically, in the Magadha region of Bihar. They also live in the districts of Mainpuri, Etawah, Hamirpur, Jhansi, Banda, Jalaun, Kanpur, Fatehpur etc. in Uttar Pradesh.
Like all Indian Hindu castes which are divided into gotras, the people of the Ghasi caste are also divided into many gotras and even today they do not form marriage alliances outside their gotras. Some of these gotras are – Babariya or Barbaiya, Phatak, Jiwariya or Jarwariya, Fatkaalu or Fatkiyan, Karaiya, Shondele, Raut, Lahugaya, Angoori, Bhrigude or Bhrigudev, Gainduya or Guduya, Nigana and Dhoomar or Dhunr, etc.
The people of this caste have many legends of their own, and in them the connection with Krishna is central. However, a big change has been witnessed now that everyone has come under the umbrella term Yadav. Therefore, no need is felt for a separate existence in the form of Ghasi or Ghosi. There are political reasons behind this, too. The politics of Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh have come close to uniting all Yadavs. For this reason, they has become a big political force collectively.
However, the Ghasi caste has been separately mentioned in Bihar’s caste-based survey. It means there are still some people who do not like to call themselves Yadav. They are still Ghasi, the shepherds.
Nawal Kishor Kumar is the Hindi editor of Forward Press, New Delhi.