n the current battle for Bihar, caste has emerged as a more potent weapon than religion. There may be some churning among urban youth on caste-based quotas, their stated views depending not just on whether they have benefited from the present system but also on how they wish to be perceived — as pragmatic or forward-looking?.
But cutting across the urban-rural divide, slicing through religious affiliations and educational backgrounds, they see the beef debate — triggered by the Dadri lynching in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh — as one essentially about the freedom of choice.
The consensus among the young and aspirational appears to be: people must be allowed to eat what they like.
Understandably, therefore, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s suggestion to examine the efficacy of caste-based reservations has sent the Bharatiya Janata Party top brass scrambling to assure voters in Bihar that the present system will continue. Simultaneously, the party’s efforts to change the narrative by introducing the beef motif has failed to erase the suspicion in voters’ minds that ending caste-based quotas is on its unwritten agenda.
While responding to a question on cow slaughter and the eating of meat, particularly beef, a group of young men and women, doing their Master’s in Political Science, chorused, almost as if on cue, that food choices are personal.
“The subject has been raised,” said one student, “to polarise the votes along communal lines.” Another interjected, “We are all opposed to linking politics with religion.” Only to be interrupted by a third, “This is a democracy: we have the freedom to eat what we like.”
It was an electrifying moment, especially as the conversation — conducted thus far in Darbhanga House — on caste, quotas and development had thrown up a varied palette of opinions. Now they all sat united, endorsing and substantiating each other’s views, in defence of a liberal ideal, of modernity.
Till now, the students had agreed that caste ought not to be a consideration in elections, but they accepted it was a reality that would only wither away with universalisation of education. No one directly supported caste-based quotas. Upper caste students opposed reservation sharply; others, perhaps determined not to reveal their caste origins, said that perhaps the “creamy layer” should be excluded. Some made a plea for reservation based on economic criteria.
The students who had gathered to talk to The Hindu were a mixed bunch. The women came largely from upper caste, middle and upper middle class homes. A larger proportion of the men were from the backward castes, some even from rural backgrounds. There were barely any Muslims.
Identical responses But, curiously, while the views on caste-based quotas changed depending on the setting, the beef debate produced identical responses. At the Ramlakhan Singh Girls’ Inter College in Premraj, a rural corner of Vaishali district, the students, dominated by members of the Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes and Muslims, favoured the continuation of caste-based reservation, but when it came to proscribed foods, the answer was unanimous: “No one should tell us what to eat, what to wear!” They feel that all communities should live in amity. But their first goal was to get “higher education” and white collar jobs.
But Patna’s postgraduate students and Premraj tehsil’s fresh-faced girls were not an exception.
In Gaya district’s rural constituency of Barachati, young Paswans, Moosahars (both SCs) and Yadavs said: “End caste-based quotas, and there will be a revolution; we will picket the State Assembly.” But once again, when the question turned to the beef debate, Pradeep Paswan, a panchayat coordinator, said: “Dadri should never have happened: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians are brothers. We believe in communal harmony — and the independence to eat what we like.” Bihar’s youth are eager to get ahead, and forced dietary restriction — and all its implications — has no place in the brave new world they want to inhabit.