The Brahmin-Kayastha hegemony has overridden political social justice in Odisha

Marginalised communities are present in a large percentage in Odisha, but the politics of promoting social justice absent from the state. NurPhoto/Getty Images
21 May, 2019

In April 2018, Srikant Jena, a veteran politician from the Khandayat community—which falls in Odisha’s Socially and Educationally Backward Classes list—who was heading the Congress’s manifesto committee in the state, sent a missive to Niranjan Patnaik, the party’s state chief, and other Congress members. Jena, a former union minister, had proposed a preamble to the party’s manifesto for the concurrent 2019 Lok Sabha and assembly elections in Odisha. He wrote that if the party is voted to power, the chief minister and the two deputy chief ministers should be selected from candidates belonging to the Other Backward Classes or Socially and Educationally Backward Classes, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. “This will enable equitable representation for all section of the society since these communities are collectively 92 per cent of the Odisha’s population and ensure the rule of Bahujan,” he reasoned.

Odisha’s contemporary political landscape had not witnessed such an assertive attempt to give political power to marginalised communities, not least by a senior leader of a mainstream party. But Jena’s proposition did not sit well with the Congress’s upper-caste leadership. If implemented, it would end Patnaik’s chief ministerial ambitions, because he is a Kayastha. In December that year, Jena was removed from the manifesto committee, and the following month, he was sacked from the party on disciplinary grounds, along with Krushna Chandra Sagaria, a Dalit leader.

Jena’s ouster was in keeping with the historical hegemony of Brahmins and Kayasthas over political power in the state. Yet, Odisha is also one of the few states where marginalised communities are present in a large percentage—SCs and STs constitute around 17 percent and 23 percent of its population, respectively. According to Jena, who served as the union minister of state for statistics and programme implementation, OBCs account for approximately 54 percent of the state’s population. This estimate includes the Khandayats, who are not in the central OBC lists, but figure in Odisha’s list of SEBCs. However, locals in Odisha consider the Khandayats as a sub-caste of the upper caste Kshatriyas. But in over seventy one years of independence, the state has had only Brahmin or Kayastha chief ministers for over half a century. As a result, the politics of promoting social justice is conspicuous by absence in the state.

The juxtaposition of the castes of former chief ministers with the percentage of upper-castes in the state reveals the disproportionate representation of upper castes in leadership positions. While there are no official figures for the upper-caste demographic, estimates by media reports and political leaders state that Brahmins only account for five to ten percent of the state’s population, but four individuals from the community have served as chief ministers. Kayasthas, locally known as Karans, constitute three to five percent of the total population in the state. But the Patnaiks, who are Karans, have held the chief minister’s post for almost forty years. In stark contrast, Odisha has had just two tribal chief ministers who were in power for a total of 16 months. Moreover, a Rajput and two members of the Khandayat community—which is estimated to account for around 22 percent of Odisha’s population—have also ruled the state. No Dalit leader has ever been appointed to the post. “The state has remained poor because the poorest did not get their due under the chief ministers who were upper castes,” Jena told me.

The political blind eye to caste-based discrimination was evident during the 2019 Lok Sabha and assembly elections—all the key political players ignored these issues in their campaigns. Moreover, their electoral discourse targeted groups such as women, youth and farmers, without being mindful of the communities they hail from. The ruling Biju Janata Dal highlighted its schemes for farmers and women during its canvassing. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress focussed on the lack of development in the state. None of the parties addressed crucial issues such as how the SEBC reservation does not match the quota recommended by the Mandal Commission, or the age-old caste-based systems of bonded labour that are still prevalent in parts of the state. Across party lines, the current leadership is in the hands of upper castes. Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister from the BJD, is the president of the party. Similarly, the Congress’s president in Odisha is also a Patnaik. Basanta Panda, who helms the BJP in Odisha is a Brahmin as well.

When I spoke to representatives of these parties about why their politics did not promote social justice, they denied the existence of caste. Most of them claimed that the all-prevalent cult of the deity Jagannath in Odisha proved that the state was “casteless.” According to Jagannath’s followers, he is the god of the entire world. But the Jagannath temple in Puri district is not as inclusive as the representatives claimed it was—the various categories of priests at the temple are collectively known as servitors and claim hereditary rights over priesthood at the shrine. This system of inherited priesthood continues to this day despite the recommendations of several judicial commissions formed under the supervision of the Supreme Court.

Representatives of the BJD and the Congress I spoke to conflated social justice for marginalised castes with negative caste politics. Sasmit Patra, a BJD spokesperson who said he was a Christian from the general category, told me that people in Odisha behave in a “very different way than how people in UP and Bihar behave … here we do not vote on caste and community lines or religious lines.” Satyaprakash Nayak, a Khandayat and the Congress’s Lok Sabha candidate from the Puri constituency, echoed Patra’s response. He said there was no “caste politics” and “religious politics” in Odisha. In an earlier story that I wrote for The Caravan, Samir Mohanty, the vice president of the BJP’s state unit, who is a Kayastha, referred to Adivasis and Dalits, as people who are “lazy” and “do not want to work hard and indulge in violence.”

Patra and Nayak went a step further and equated caste politics with secularism by giving examples that attacked the BJP. Alluding to the victory of the BJP in the 2014 general elections, Nayak said, “If it had to happen”—referring to religious polarisation—“it would have happened in 2014, but BJP won only one seat.” Nayak evaded my question about the failure of successive state governments to implement policies of social justice. By focusing on religious polarisation instead, knowing that Muslims comprise merely two percent of the state’s population, he sought to obfuscate the realities of Odisha’s prevailing caste inequalities.

Patra argued that the BJP’s dismal performance in the 2009 assembly elections, following the Kandhamal violence in 2008, indicated that religious polarisation was ineffective in the state. In August 2008, members of the Bajrang Dal—a militant youth-wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—targeted Christians in the state’s Kandhamal district. Though government figures put the death toll at 39, human-rights activists estimated that around 100 people were killed. The following year, the BJP lost all the seats from Odisha in the Lok Sabha elections, and its seats in the assembly reduced from 32 to six. However, Mohanty blamed the defeat on the “clever” delimitation process of electoral constituencies that was conducted in 2008. Mohanty said that the delimitation process was influenced by bureaucrats close to Naveen Patnaik, the BJD chief minister, and that while the BJP may have lost assembly seats, its vote share only reduced from 17.11 percent to 15.05 percent.

The wilful ignorance of caste issues by political parties manifests in various ways on the ground in Odisha. In February 2009, the state government passed the Orissa Reservation of Posts and Services (for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes) Act to introduce 27 percent reservations for OBCs in government jobs. Subsequently, a general candidate filed a petition in the Orissa Administrative Tribunal, seeking the revocation of the reservations because it exceeded the 50-percent cap stipulated by the Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney vs Union of India. The tribunal ruled in the petitioner’s favour, which was upheld by the Odisha high court. In August 2017, The Telegraph reported that the government was still undecided on whether it should file an appeal before the Supreme Court. As a result, while the Mandal Commission recommended 27 percent reservation for OBCs, the state only provides an 11-percent quota. Incidentally, in January this year, when the centre introduced a constitutional amendment to implement 10 percent reservation for economically weaker upper castes, the chief minister’s immediate response was that he was always in favour of the development of the poor. He added that they would study the bill before commenting further.

The state government’s actions seem to be tailored to appeal to the upper castes. In August 2010, Damodar Rout, who has served as a state cabinet minister, was accused of addressing two politicians and a government official as “Harijans”—a derogatory term used to refer to SCs, which was also recognised as such by the Supreme Court two years ago—at a public meeting. While Rout was charged under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989—the Orissa high court later dismissed the case—the chief minister did not seem to take any action against him. (Odisha is one of the top five states with the lowest conviction rate in the cases under the act.) But Patnaik’s response was starkly different in December 2017, when, at a public gathering, Rout said, “While no tribal is seen begging in any part of the state, one can spot Brahmins resorting to begging in places such as bus stands.” Within a week, Rout was removed from the cabinet. The chief minister had said at that time, “I strongly disapprove of anyone who makes derogatory remarks against any caste, creed or religion.” A year later, Rout was sacked from the party, and he has now joined the BJP.

According to Jena, one of the reasons that the politics of social justice did not emerge in the state was that the Congress ruled over it for over half a century. “Congress has killed the social political movement here,” he told me. He compared the party to Shikhandi—a character in the Hindu epic Mahabharatha, who manipulated events to orchestrate Bhishma death’s at the hands of his grand nephew Arjun—as the Congress consistently created hurdles for marginalised communities asserting their rights. Haldhar Shethy, a Dalit lawyer who has been associated with the Congress since 1985, told me that he never got a high position in the party or a ticket to contest the assembly or parliamentary elections. “Padhe likhe SC jo hotey hain party mein unko samman nahi milta”—Educated people from Scheduled Caste communities are not respected in the party—he said. Dalit leaders from other parties that I spoke to expressed facing similar issues.

Jena told me that Odisha has a “political vacuum” as far as promotion of social justice is concerned. He said the state needed politicians like Mayawati from the Bahujan Samaj Party, Mulayam Singh from the Samajwadi Party, or Lalu Prasad Yadav from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, who could bring the Dalits and backward communities together. He said Odisha’s backward communities lacked “an engine like the Yadavs in UP and Bihar” who could kick-start a movement. But he believed that the Khandayats, who are considered one of the largest communities in Odisha, could change that. Jena said Khandayats could emerge as the biggest political force among the Shudras. “Khandayat and Dalits, if organised together, can be a deadly combination.” Nayak echoed Jena’s thoughts about how Dalits and Khandayats should unite, but added, “In the past, some leaders did attempt this but couldn’t succeed because our community lacks the social consciousness of belonging to a backward class and instead consider themselves as Kshatriyas.”

Ashok Swain, an Oriya-origin Sweden-based professor, wrote in 2016, “Unless there is a serious challenge to the upper caste’s tight grip on political power in the state, Odisha will keep providing shocking images à la Dana Majhi.” Swain was referring to an incident in August 2016, when a district hospital had denied Majhi, an Adivasi man, an ambulance to transport his wife’s corpse. Majhi had to carry her corpse on his shoulder for 12 kilometres. Another scholar, Jitendra Suna, from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, also emphasised the lack of any challenge to Odisha’s upper-caste hegemony, in an April 2017 article in the Round Table India, a portal for news and thought on the anti-caste struggle. “The complete monopoly of Brahmin-Karan-Khandayat in every field i.e., education, government institutions, industries and all other aspects led to the complete disarmament and exclusion of Bahujans in all fields,” Suna writes. “As a result, there is only hyper caste consciousness of Brahmins-Dvija and no anti-caste consciousness of Bahujans in Orissa.”