Seeking SC reservation, Nishads demand their pound of flesh from BJP

Nishad Party is offering a double dose of Hindutva and reservation to its support base

October 21, 2023 01:46 am | Updated 01:46 am IST - Ghaziabad

A poster depicting the statue of Lord Ram embracing Nishadraj that will be inaugurated later this year. 

A poster depicting the statue of Lord Ram embracing Nishadraj that will be inaugurated later this year.  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement 

As the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Opposition’s INDIA bloc attempt to cleave the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh on the lines of Hindutva and caste identity, a small pilgrimage town near Prayagraj is emerging as a test case for the latest version of Kamandal vs Mandal battle. At its centre is the Nishad Party, a small constituent of the National Democratic Alliance, that is demanding the removal of a mosque from Shrivengpur. Situated on the banks of the Ganga, Nishads consider it the abode of Nishadraj, the head of the riverine clan who helped Lord Ram cross the river during his 14-year exile and claim that the mosque falls within the periphery of the ruins of the Nishadraj Fort.

An acronym for Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal, the Nishad Party represents the communities that earn their livelihood from rivers, and rose to prominence with its strident demand for Scheduled Caste reservation for all riverine castes, most of whom are under the Other Backward Caste (OBC) category at present.

While the Samajwadi Party sees the demand for the removal of the mosque as a Hindutva mask to hide the BJP ally’s inability to deliver on its promise of providing SC status to riverine communities, Nishad Party sees it as an assertion of the Hindu identity of the community, marginalised by the parties that emerged out of Mandal politics. The upcoming 56-feet statues of Nishadraj Guha and Lord Ram in embrace at Shrivengpur dham is being projected as a symbol of the affinity between the marginalised community and the ruling party.

Sanjay Nishad, a Cabinet Minister in the Yogi Adityanath government and the president of the Nishad Party, has in the past collaborated with the Peace Party of India that works for the interests of Muslims and Dalits, and the Samajwadi Party, before being wooed over by the BJP in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll.

The catalyst was Mr. Sanjay’s son Praveen Nishad’s surprise victory from the prestigious Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat in the 2018 bypoll. A year after he wrested the prestigious seat from the BJP, Mr. Praveen joined the ruling party and now represents the Sant Kabir Nagar seat in Parliament. In the Assembly poll, Nishad Party’s candidates won 11 of the 16 seats contested, six on the party’s symbol and five on the BJP’s lotus, on the promise of shifting 17 OBC castes to the SC category.

The promise was not new, though. Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2004 and Akhilesh Yadav in 2013 and 2016 sent proposals to the Centre to shift 17 OBC castes to SC but it was neither approved by the Centre nor passed the judicial scrutiny. In between, Mayawati resisted the idea because it directly affected the interests of her core vote bank. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has maintained that if these castes are added, the SC quota should be increased proportionately.

So, when the Yogi Adityanath government revived the idea in 2019 and started distributing caste certificates, it was seen as a test of the double engine government. However, it was again stalled with the Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot describing it as inappropriate, unconstitutional and a transgression of Parliament’s jurisdiction. Before that, quashing the Yogi government order, the Allahabad High Court reiterated that it was Parliament’s prerogative to remove an SC, ST or OBC from one group and include it in another under Article 341 of the Constitution.

Influential in 38 seats

In the last three years, much water has flowed down the Ganga. On the ground, the Nishads, who, according to estimates constitute around 15-18% of the population and can influence the outcome of at least 38 Lok Sabha seats in the State, are reassessing their options in the race for jobs. Their youth are feeling the pressure of Yadavs, Jats and Kurmis, who bag most of the reserved jobs under the OBC quota. The competition in the SC category is comparatively easier.

Ravi Nishad, a graduate, says on one hand, Mr. Adityanath at the party’s Dalit convention in Hapur described Ved Vyas, the author of Mahabharata whom the Nishads consider as one of them, as a Dalit. On the other, the government is not giving the community SC status. “Sanjay Nishad is proving to be helpless in getting us the reservation and it seems he is preparing us for yet another kar seva.”

Building on the mythical connections is fine, but the community wants something more tangible. “When I go to attend a community dinner and praise the BJP’s nationalist approach, people say ‘ab toh nadi par karwai ki fees dilwa do (give us SC reservation in return for the legendary service rendered by the community),’” says Rinku Nishad, an advocate in Prayagraj who has been associated with the BJP since the former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh’s days, referring to the popular legend of a kevat (boatman) ferrying Lord Ram across the river.

Metaphorically speaking, Mr. Rinku says, it is like when the community is asking for water while the BJP is offering them butter naan. “Both reservation and nationalism have their value. But what matters more is the immediate need of the community.” 

The INDIA bloc won’t be easy either. For, many in the community feel that any caste survey as proposed by the SP and the Congress will count them as the OBCs. They want reservation before any caste survey is done.

Ravindra Mani Nishad, State president of the Nishad Party, alleges that the SP and the BSP have used the support of the community to their advantage without sharing the fruits of power. “With the BJP, we are in a position to raise our voice in the Assembly and Parliament. Sadak par nahin sansad main awaaz uthane se kaam banega. It is not only about agitating for reservation, it is also about asking for what is rightfully ours. Riverine castes such as Majhwar and Tureha already come under the Scheduled Caste category after the 1961 Census, but they have not been issued certificates. Like all the shoemakers and washermen sub-castes have been included in the SC category, we demand all the fishermen/boatmen subcastes or their synonyms should be included in the SC list.”

Reminding how Mulayam Singh Yadav brought Nishad icon Phoolan Devi into politics, senior SP leader Rajpal Kashyap, who also belongs to a boatman sub-caste, says that the community is now “wary of the BJP jumlas and empty promises of the Nishad Party”. “They have realised that only the SP can provide a permanent solution to their demand.”

For now, calibrating the community’s mood, Mr. Sanjay, a homoeopathy doctor by training, is offering a double dose of Hindutva and reservation since he knows the former won’t work without the latter.

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