In March 2018, Praveen Nishad of the Samajwadi Party won the bypoll held for the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh, overturning an almost three-decade-long hold of the Bharatiya Janata Party over the constituency. The SP had the support of the Bahujan Samaj Party, as well as smaller parties including the Nirbal Indian Soshit Hamara Aam Dal party, or the NISHAD, which is helmed by Sanjay Nishad, Praveen’s father. The alliance brought together the core voters of the SP, the BSP and the NISHAD—the Yadavs, the Dalits and the Nishads, a community that comprises several non-dominant caste-groups that feature in the Uttar Pradesh and central Other Backward Classes lists.
“Last year’s bypoll overturned 27 years of the BJP’s hold on Gorakhpur and one of the major reasons was the consolidation of the Nishad vote,” Manoj Singh, a journalist and political commentator based in Gorakhpur, told me. For the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the SP and the BSP are set to repeat their tie up with the NISHAD party and other smaller parties in Uttar Pradesh, including an alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal. The coalition appears to be relying on its caste-based vote bank which has been strengthened by the support of the Nishads. Meanwhile, the BJP seems to be crafting its strategy around the claim of development under the Adityanath-led state government, Hindutva and its own caste-based electoral calculation.
There is little information on the demographic composition of the Nishad community as well as their history. According to multiple media reports, there are 3.5 lakh Nishad voters with around 15 percent votes in the Gorakhpur constituency. Singh told me that the Nishads are also known as “Gangaputras,” and their livelihoods are centred around rivers and water bodies—many of them are boatmen, fishermen and net makers. When I met Sanjay at his residence in Gorakhpur—which also serves as NISHAD’s office—in early March this year, he told me, “The Nishads fought against the Aryans, the Mughals and the British, and hence they were declared a criminal tribe.” He added, “This is the reason we have become deprived and backward.”
The community has demanded reservation under the Scheduled Caste category for decades now. According to Sanjay, groups under the Nishad community were categorised as SCs till the early 1990s, but after the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, “the most populous sub-castes”—among the Nishads— “Kewat, Mallah, Bind, Kashyap, were reclassified as pichdi”—OBCs. In December 2016, the SP-led state government passed an order for 17 OBC castes, including some Nishads, to be included in the SC list, but the Allahabad High Court stayed the order. “Our primary demand is reservation under the Scheduled Caste quota and we want a share in power in proportion to our numbers,” Sanjay said.
Sanjay has penned around a dozen books on the Nishads as well as social justice in India, including Nishadon ka Itihas—History of Nishads—and Bharat ka Asli Maalik Kaun hai—Who is the Real Owner of India? He asserts that the Gorakhnath temple belongs to his community because its founder was a disciple of Matsyendranath, who Sanjay says was a Nishad. Pictures of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus adorn a wall in his office. Sanjay claimed that both of them were Nishads. Singh told me, that some of the historical aspects of Sanjay’s discourse have not been verified by historians. “It is not clear what is historical fact and what is fiction,” he said. “However, it doesn’t matter to them because the Nishads have accepted what he has to say.”
Sanjay began his political career in 1979, as a student activist under the guidance of Kanshi Ram at the Backward and Minority Communities’ Employees Federation—an organisation which worked on socio-political issues of the Dalit community. He unsuccessfully contested assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh twice—in 2012, on a Rashtriya Mahan Gantantra Party ticket from the Campierganj constituency, and five years later, on a NISHAD ticket from the Gorakhpur Rural seat. He told me that his community’s votes were scattered between different parties in previous elections. “In 2014, Nishads voted for Modi because he said he would address the backwardness of Gangaputras,” he said. He added that in the 2017 assembly elections, too, Nishads voted for the BJP because of the promise of reservation. “But those promises have not been fulfilled.”