Sonam is too pale, too thin. The 15-year-old girl has despair in her eyes. She works as a kaam-waali (domestic help), a job she had no option but to take after her cart-puller father died during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic this April. Sonam had lost her mother long ago and when her father died, she was left with two younger sisters to care for and bring up.
Life had been easier for Sonam and her sisters Swati and Vaishnavi when their doting father, Omvir Rathore, was alive. Every evening after he returned from work, he’d play with the children and tell them folktales. During the day, while Rathore worked, the three girls went to local schools. Their family lived in a small house near the Barkhandinath temple, one of the seven famous Shiva temples in and around Bareilly on the basis of which this western Uttar Pradesh city is also known as Nathnagari. They didn’t miss their mother very much, Sonam said, because Omvir was both their father and mother.
“I belong to the Teli caste,” Sonam told me. “My father used to tell us folktales and had once told me that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an incarnation of a raja (king) of our caste.”
Thakurs or Rajputs largely use ‘Rathore’ as a surname. But my conversation with Sonam gave me a vital insight into how Narendra Modi, who belongs to the Ganchi-Modh caste of Gujarat and Maharashtra that is equivalent to the Teli or Telkar caste in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, entered the folklore of the people of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the Hindi heartland. Sonam’s father’s statement that Modi is the incarnation of a Teli raja explains why Modi has specifically and repeatedly mentioned his OBC caste identity in all the elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from 2014 onwards.
However, when Omvir Rathore died, no one came to the rescue of Sonam and her sisters, least of all the ‘Barkhandinath baba’ from her father’s folktales or the “incarnation of the Raja”. Instead, the land and business mafia that is apparently patronised by the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and allegedly works in nexus with the local administration took over Sonam’s house, driving the three girls out of the home in which they had been born and had lived with their father.
Fortunately, Sonam and her sisters were rescued by a poor but large-hearted woman from their own caste, 30-year-old Sunita who works in the neighbouring Pawan Vihar colony and whose husband, Pradeep, is an auto driver. Sunita took the three girls to her home and arranged household work for Sonam while Pradeep, like Sunita, appointed himself the girls’ protector, despite the fact that the couple already has minor children to nurse and raise.
In the medieval period of India’s history, ahead of the advent of the British in India, the Telis in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and the Ganchi-Modhs in Gujarat were agriculturists. They were the oil-pressers who supplied the oil needed to light up the deities in temples and households during Diwali and other cultural events. This made them an important component of the socio-cultural milieu of rural life. But they were on the bottom step of the Hindu caste hierarchy of four varnas: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. While Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas constituted the ‘elites’ who controlled rituals, power and resources, the Shudras were supposed to serve the three ‘higher’ varnas.
Eminent sociologist professor M.N. Srinivas, in his book Caste: Its 20th Century Avatar, writes: “In the first decade of the 20th century, upward mobilisation became a feature of Indian society when lower castes tried to move up the socio-economic ladder by assuming the names and practices of ‘upper’ castes. Like many other ‘lower’ castes, the Teli community claimed different surnames in different censuses in a bid to improve their position in the varna system of caste hierarchy. In 1911, the Teli community adopted the surname Rathore and started calling themselves Rathore Teli while in 1931 they claimed they were Rathore Vaishyas.”
The Arya Samaj movement also played a role in elevating several Shudra castes to the Vaishya varna in the Hindi heartland.
Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Ganchi-Modhs in Gujarat and parts of Maharashtra rose in enterprise and prosperity, elevating themselves to the status of the Vaishyas on a wider scale and much earlier than the Telis, Kumhars (potters) Turha (local fruit and roots sellers) and so on in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Post-independent India, as witnessed by the socialist Ram Manohar Lohia, fuelled this social churn and mobilised the hundreds of castes of Shudras, including Telis, Kumhars, Turha, Nonia, Ahirs (Yadavs), Gonds, Pansari, Rajbhar and so on, to elevate themselves. In fact, the socialist movement initiated by Lohia and his colleague Jayaprakash Narayan, which was carried forward by their followers Karpoori Thakur in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, became the basis for the constitution of the Mandal Commission.
Modi and the Mandal Commission
The Mandal Commission headed by B.P. Mandal, a socialist leader from Bihar, listed many castes including Telis – a sub-caste of rural Banias – and other Banias such as potters, Ahirs and Kurmis among others that would be accorded a quota in government services to bring them on par with castes that had already been elevated.
The commission excluded the Ganchis and Patels of Gujarat and Jats of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh apparently because they had already been socially and educationally elevated.
But when the Mandal Commission report was implemented in 1991, the leaders of the many castes that had elevated themselves socially, educationally and economically and so did not feature in the list clamoured for an ‘OBC’ status to expand their political clout. Narendra Modi, apparently, belongs in the same category as these caste-leaders who stooped to conquer because he identifies himself with the Telis and their equivalents in the Hindi heartland.
This is evident from the fact that when the Congress charged Narendra Modi with being a “fake OBC” in 2014, the BJP explained that the Ganchi caste had been included in the OBC list through a Gujarat government notification on July 25, 1994. However, it is clear that Modi’s Ganchi caste didn’t figure in the list of the original Mandal Commission beneficiaries.
Caste census report
Many non-BJP parties rooted in the socialist movement, such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) of Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal (United) [JD (U)] of Bihar, have repeatedly demanded that the Union government reveal the castes of all the Indians recorded in the 2011 census.
In the just-concluded monsoon session of parliament, these parties raised the issue again. The idea behind the demand is to expose the castes that have manipulated the shares of the actual beneficiaries of the reservations and ensure that the actual ‘lower’ castes have access to the reservation quotas. The SP, RJD and JD (U) are apparently planning to launch a protracted movement on the basis of the actual data from the census report.
Sonam and Pradeep
The devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21 had been preceded by the financial devastation of demonetisation in 2016 and the unplanned implementation of the Goods and Services Tax in 2017. These three events, together with the unprecedented rise in the prices of fuel and other essential commodities, the shrinking of employment and the loss of work opportunities, hit the nation’s poor the hardest. The large scale penetration of the corporate sector in retail sectors such as edible oil, vegetables, fruit and groceries in this era of liberalisation has further debilitated the Telis, Kumhars, Turhas and local Banias vending fruits, vegetables and snacks. This is reflected in the anger of the people affected by the growth of Big Business.
In a folk tale related by Sonam’s father Omvir to his children, he had referred to Narendra Modi as the “incarnation of a Teli Raja”. But Sonam’s adopted brother, the auto driver Pradeep, told me: “Modi hamare jaait ke naam par kalank hai. Diesel-petrol ka daam sau par ho gaya lekin passenger log bhada nahin badhate. Mehangai ne kamar tod diya. Yogi bhi Modi ka hi chatta-batta hai. Iss baar toh gaya (Modi is a curse on the name of our caste. The prices of diesel and petrol have gone above Rs 100 per litre. Passengers won’t allow the fares to be raised. The rise in prices has broken our backs. Yogi [Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath] is an appendage of Modi. Yogi will be gone this time).”
Pradeep had been ferrying me in his auto to the Satellite bus stand when I asked him about his mood ahead of the elections in Uttar Pradesh that will take place early next year. Many other auto drivers expressed similar sentiments when Pradeep and I arrived at the bus stand and engaged them in conversation.
It is not that they are opposed to all the BJP leaders. Pradeep and many other auto drivers are all praise for the mayor of Bareilly, Umesh Gautam, who happens to be a BJP leader. Umesh runs a philanthropic hospital which had taken care of the poorer patients of COVID-19.
“Mayor saheb listens to us and tries to help us. Santosh Singh Gangawar (the member of parliament from Bareilly) aur baki Bhajpa neta hawa hawai hai (Santosh Singh Gangwar and other BJP leaders are all useless),” said Raghubar, an auto driver.
The auto drivers spoke about how Umesh Gautam had given them food and medicine and also engaged them in assured road and building work in the city during the second wave of pandemic.
Elsewhere, at Nakatia on the outskirts of Bareilly, I overheard some young men in conversation as they watched a video on their mobile phone of senior journalist Ajit Anjum talking with farmers in a village in Moradabad.
The farmers Anjum interviewed narrated tales of woe and were up in arms against Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi.
“Iss baar to Yogi gaya. Agli baar Modi bhi jayega (Yogi will be gone this time. Modi too will go next time),” said one of the young men.
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, author and professor of journalism and mass communication at Invertis University, Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.