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 Santrash, (287 people).
On October 2, when Bihar’s additional chief secretary Vivek Kumar Singh released the first instalment of the caste-based survey report, it undoubtedly created a stir in political circles. This report gave a new edge to the INDIA alliance’s attack on the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi called for ‘greater population, greater rights’. On the other hand, the BJP, which was on the back foot, started claiming that it did not oppose the caste-based enumeration in Bihar. However, it is well-known that when leaders of various political parties in Bihar led by Nitish Kumar demanded a country-wide caste census from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government’s response was negative.
Beyond the political corridors, the report has raised many questions for ethnography enthusiasts and sociologists. A major question is regarding the castes which were mentioned in the census report of 1931 or the reports of the Kaka Kalelkar Commission or Mandal Commission. One such caste is Santrash.
The caste-based occupation associated with Santrash is carving stones with an iron chisel and hammer. They are also called Sangtarash in Chhattisgarh. From a linguistic point of view, the name of the caste is also quite interesting. Both Sang and Tarash are Persian words: Sang means stone while Tarash means carver. But it is not a Muslim caste. They are Hindus.
There is no evidence on whether older generations of these stone masons have worked in palaces, forts and temples built across the country. But it can be said that they must have played a role and at one point they must have been spread all over the country.
Today, this caste is on the verge of extinction. It can be estimated from the fact that people hailing from this caste now live only in Bihar’s Nawada district, and they have a surprisingly minuscule population. In Bihar’s caste survey, only 287 people in Nawada district claimed to hail from the Santrash caste. However, a caste survey in other states like Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal would be able to offer more information about this caste.
Whether the Santrash of Bihar or Sangtarash of Chhattisgarh, their traditional profession is the same – carving stones. The development of traditional professions can make the study of history interesting and useful, although very little work has been done in this direction.
Another question is, what do people of these castes do now? Since other people also engage in stone carving and it has now become an integral part of sculpting, not everyone can be called a stone carver or a Sangtarash.
Those who call themselves Santrash still earn their livelihood by carving stones. They make stone slabs, on which women, especially in rural areas, grind spices and chutneys. But they abstain from revealing their caste publicly. They live like nomads, but are not a nomadic tribe. Since this is a caste that is also involved in the business and trade of stone slabs and statues, they prefer to hide their caste. In Chhattisgarh, they identify themselves as the Beldar caste, whose traditional job is to cut the soil.
Hiding their caste identity is probably a major reason why the population of this caste is dwindling in Bihar and is limited to 287 members in Nawada district alone. The Bihar government has categorised them as an extremely backward class, while in Chhattisgarh they are a backward class.
However, here are some questions that remain: Where have the Sangtarash of other states gone? What happened to their traditional art? Will the government of this country ever try to find out about them?
Nawal Kishor Kumar is the Hindi editor of Forward Press, New Delhi.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. Read the Hindi original here.
Read part one of the series, on the Ghasi community, here.