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 Pasi (1,288,031 people).
Whether humans can be identified from their clothes or other such identity markers is a question which has both political and non-political connotations in the present times. While it might be easy to distinguish a Brahmin from a Muslim, can one identify the caste of a person simply by looking at their clothes?
In a well-known couplet, mystic poet Kabir once said:
“What good is it being tall like a date palm
“If it has no shade to offer to a traveller and the fruits are beyond reach.”
The palm tree and dates which Kabir spoke of in this couplet are indispensable for the caste group we are going to talk about here. This is a caste group whose members can be identified very easily by looking at the black marks on their hands, chest and legs. They are the Pasi people, who climb the high-reaching palm trees and bring down toddy. Toddy is a naturally occurring beverage which was turned into an intoxicating substance by man.
Kabir was not a Pasi but hailed from a bunkar or weaver family. Muslim weavers were called Julaha. However, there is a similarity between a Pasi and Julaha. Like traditional weavers, the people of the Pasi caste group also weave. They not only weave mats from palm leaves, but also weave roofs for huts. Times may have changed but some things are still the same like hand-made fans made of palm which are used even today.
Pasi is categorised as a Scheduled Caste in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, etc. But an essential criterion for being a Scheduled Caste is that only ‘untouchables’ are included in this category. It raises a question in terms of the traditional profession of this caste. Even today in the villages of Bihar, the people of Pasi community are not considered ‘untouchable’ as long as they are serving toddy to the people. In the villages, toddy drinking takes place amidst palm trees, where people of all castes and communities gather to drink together. As a result, the question of being ‘untouchable’ becomes secondary here.
The economic condition of the people of this caste group has undoubtedly depended on palm trees, but not entirely. Since most of them do not possess agricultural land, they earn their living by working as farm labourers. But they are treated with disdain despite the fact that the beverage which they bring down from the trees with great difficulty and even at the cost of their lives has been described in the Vedas as ‘preferred by the gods’. In his book The Myth of Holy Cow, famous historian D.N. Jha discussed how Hindu gods and goddesses drank Som Ras. The name of a god, Soma, appears in the Vedas. There is also a tree bearing the same name in one of the richas or Vedic psalms. According to the Vedas, an intoxicant is obtained from this tree and the gods gave the responsibility of fetching it to the people of Pasi community.
In a book titled Anthropological Survey of India, Kumar Suresh Singh and B.V. Bhanu have explained the meaning of the word Pasi as well. According to them, one etymology of the word Pasi can be traced to the Sanskrit term Pashika. But neither this book nor any other explains how it changed from ‘Pashika’ to ‘Pasi’.
The Pasi caste group has its own history too. It is claimed that the people of Pasi community used to rule the area of Awadh once. Lucknow, which was called the city of Nawabs, was actually the capital of Lakhan Pasi. In addition, descriptions of Ganga Bux Rawat, Maharaja Bijli Pasi, Maharaja Suheldev Pasi, Chhita Pasi, Satan Pasi, Aman Rajpiyu Japla, Madari Pasi and Uda Devi Pasi also appear in historical accounts.
When it comes to the history of Bihar, no one can deny the contribution of Jaglal Choudhary, a resident of Chhapra district. His father’s name was Musan Choudhary, who was illiterate and used to sell toddy, and his mother’s name was Tetri Devi. His brother was a soldier in the British army – which helped Jaglal get educated. In 1914, he went to study at the Medical College of Calcutta. In 1921, at the call of Gandhi, he quit studies and forayed into politics. He was a minister in the interim government formed in Bihar in the year 1937. However, he was later given the responsibility of the excise and public health department. The chief minister was Krishna Singh at the time.
Today, hardly anyone is aware that it was Jaglal Chaudhary who had announced prohibition in the state as soon as he became the minister. Although it was not implemented in the entire state, its implementation was 100% in Chhapra, Muzaffarpur, Hazaribagh and Ranchi.
The population of the Pasi caste in Bihar is 1,288,031, which is less than 1% of the total population. It is clearly not an easy task for a caste with such a small populace to carve a decisive niche in a democracy based on numbers. The current politico-social equation is no different.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. Read the Hindi original here.