Gorakhpur: A new political force, propelled by fishermen, is emerging in the Poorvanchal region - East Uttar Pradesh and bordering areas of West Bihar - asserting itself like never before.
Like Jats, Jatavs, Yadavs and Kurmi-Patels, Nishads (of which fishermen are a big sub-community) are finding their own voice and representation in parties made by them, for them. Interestingly Nishad politics, by and large, is poised against NDA in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
In Bihar, Mukesh Sahni, more popularly known as the ‘Son of Mallah’, has been at the forefront of Nishad politics with his party - Vikasheel Insaan Party (VIP). In Uttar Pradesh another cleverly named ‘NISHAD’ party has risen to prominence quickly.
Cleverly named because when its founder Sanjay Nishad wished to register a party in his caste’s name he was refused permission by the election commission. He decided to work around the abbreviation - ‘Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal’ or ‘NISHAD’.
This is the same party whose candidate - Sanjay Nishad’s son Pravin gained prominence after defeating BJP’s candidate in Gorakhpur Parliamentary by poll held in March last year. Pravin fought on a ticket given by Samajwadi Party, and with the support of his father’s Nishad party, BSP and other smaller parties like Peace Party, broke 29-year-hold of BJP and of the Gorakhnath Mathh (the current Chief Minister of UP - Yogi Adityanath held this seat for five straight terms and his guru Mahant Advedyanath for three terms) on Gorakhpur Parliamentary seat.
This is also the same party in whose violent protests, allegedly, in Ghazipur on December 30 last year, a policeman was killed. The party, which has been carrying out state-wide agitation demanding reservations, has maintained distance from the violence of that day.
Reservation has been one of central planks of ‘Nishad’ politics.
In both states, the population of Nishads is believed to be between 14 to 17 percent, around 14 % in Bihar and around 17% in UP. There are densely populated villages on the banks of river Ganga and Narayani in Bihar and on the banks of Ganga, Ghaghara, Rapti, Gandak and Yamuna rivers in UP, which are densely populated by Nishads.
Nishad tribes in Bihar were listed as Other Backward Community (OBC), which Nitish Kumar included in Extremely Backward Castes (EBC) category. Now Nitish Kumar has recommended their inclusion in the list of Scheduled Castes. In Bihar there are 20 subcastes of Nishad including - Vind, Kewat, Vanpar, Godi, Surahiya, Khulbad, Tiar, Beldar.
Nishad and its sub-castes were not always a united political force. Caste discrimination extended itself within the Nishad sub-castes, among which inter-marriage was strictly forbidden till very recently.
But leaders who emerged from within the Nishads have for last several years been working to unite all the sub-castes into a larger pool. In Bihar Captain Jaynarayan Nishad, and in UP Phoolan Devi and Vishambhar Nishad are considered such tall leaders of the community who greatly mobilised Nishads across the two states.
The political behaviour of Nishads hasn’t been the same in Bihar and UP. As a community, for a very long time, they did not carry much political heft. For several decades, the Nishad electorate showed preference for candidates from their community, be they from BJP, RJD, JDU, SP, BSP or Congress.
After Phoolan Devi, a lot of Nishads were drawn towards the SP. But election after election, in which party after party has tried to woo Nishads by giving their members increasing number of tickets, the community has been turning into a constituency in itself.
Nishad Party in UP and Vikasheel Insaan Party in Bihar are a result of this political mobilisation, of a catalysis of a newfound political ambition. As their political horizons expand, the Nishad of today is more dissatisfied than he/she ever was. He/she has set their eyes on CM’s chair.
Mukesh Sahni, or the ‘Son of Mallah’, has repeatedly said that if communities with 3% population can have a CM why can’t communities with 14% have one also. Similarly, 'Jai Nishad Raj' is an assertion of the Nishad identity and a symbol of the growing political power of Nishads.
There is no doubt that the Nishad ethnic castes are extremely poor in both the states and lack greatly in all social, economic and educational parameters. Modernisation has affected their livelihoods, throwing them of their ponds and river basins that are being replaced by concrete jungles.
Yesterday’s self-sufficient fisherman has become today’s contract labourer, working for daily-wages at construction sites in Mumbai and New Delhi. Large scale migration to cities has forced many others to quickly acquire necessary skills and work in paint and furniture industries in big cities. Some of them have become big contractors over the years, but most still live a hand-to-mouth existence.
One way to understand the anger among Nishads, their hunger for political power and their want of reservation, is to see how they fared in comparison with other similar or equally disadvantaged communities.
Despite being in significant numbers, Nishads never got benefits from reservation that communities like Jatavs, Yadavs, Kurmi-Patels got. That’s because when recommendations of the Mandal commission were enacted, Nishads were mostly placed among the OBCs. Only a few subcastes were listed as SCs. While other communities produced their own leaders and prospered, Nishads felt short-changed. The huge support that Sanjay Nishad and Mukesh Sahni have been receiving for the past few years shows how ready the community was to express itself politically.
Mukesh Sahni comes from Bihar’s Darbhanga district and works as a set designer of movie sets in Mumbai. He created the Nishad Vikas Sangh before forming a political party. To assert his identity he prefixes his name with 'Son of the Mallah' tag. He announced his support to the BJP in the 2015 Assembly elections. The BJP gave him the status of star campaigner and plenty of advertisements of the BJP in the newspapers bore his name and photographs. ‘Aage badi ladai hai, NDA mein bhalai hai’ was a popular slogan coined by him.
Before joining the BJP, he was with Nitish Kumar. Though BJP ultimately ended up losing the elections, Sahni claims that it was because of him that 7% of Bihar's Nishad dynasty voted for the BJP, but due to the unity of Nitish and Lalu, Yadav, Muslim and Koiri-Kurmi united, giving the winning combination 41% votes.
In the 2017 assembly elections, he also became quite active in UP polls. In November last year he founded VIP and on December 23 he joined Bihar's grand alliance in the presence of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Tejashwi Yadav and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) chief Upendra Kushwaha.
In a recent interview to News18, he claimed that NDA won’t get more than 10 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the upcoming general polls.
Mukesh Sahni has received a lot of attention by national and regional parties though his mettle on ground remains untested. In a few months’ time he will face his first big test and find out for himself, whether his huge popularity on social media translates to votes on ground.
In absolute contrast to Sahni is Sanjay Nishad’s cadre based political outfit in UP. It has cultivated cadre in every district of UP and it has its own distinct structure. Though he didn’t win a single seat, Sanjay Nishad, who draws his inspiration from his days in BAMCEF (Backward and Minority Communities’ Employees Federation), tested his organisation in recent assembly elections in UP by fielding his candidates in 72 seats.
The growing political power of the Nishad will have an impact in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Nishad are present in significant numbers in every Parliamentary constituency in both the states. Their independent strength may not be able to deliver much, but Nishads, as the case in Gorakhpur showed, have a huge multiplier effect on the outfit they ally with.
There are 20 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, half dozen Lok Sabha seats in Muzaffarpur, East Champaran, Darbhanga, Begusarai and UP-Gorakhpur, Maharajganj, Mirzapur, Bhadohi, Jaunpur, Allahabad, Ambedkar Nagar, Sant Kobirnagar, Muzaffarnagar, Badayun, Lakhimpur Kheri, Fatehpur etc. where their political aspiration will be felt distinctly in the upcoming polls for the first time ever.