The Mallah Factor in Bihar

Ajay Nishad, Mukesh Sahni and Dr Sanjay Nishad (LTR)
     Mohammd Sajjad

Recently, there have been efforts towards political organization and assertion by the Mallahs (Hindu fishermen and boatmen) in Bihar, as well as in parts of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

In late 2018, Mukesh Sahni, a Mumbai-based film-maker, and a native of Darbhanga, formed his own political outfit, Vikassheel Insan Party (VIP), on November 4, 2018, and aligned with RJD-led coalition.

This was soon after, Dr. Sanjay Nishad formed an outfit, NISHAD Party, and his son, Pravin Nishad contested a by-election from Gorakhpur (UP), the home-turf of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (Ajay Bisht). With the support of SP and BSP he won. Yet, he is now contesting the 2019 elections, in alliance with the BJP, having fallen out with the SP. This tells a lot about alienation of lower OBCs away from the Yadavas. The lower OBCs constitute around 40% in Uttar Pradesh. In Bihar the lower OBCs comprise 32%.

Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) has been spreading in the adjacent Saran and Shahabad regions of Bihar also, particularly in the Rajput populated localities, a caste to which yogi belongs. Will this election really see a Rajput-Mallah unity in favour of the NDA, in the relevant parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh?

Media and political attention was drawn to Mallahs in Bihar more prominently with the communal violence of Azizpur (Saraiya, Muzaffarpur; in Vaishali Lok Sabha area) on January 18, 2015. They were said to have been in the forefront of the anti-Muslim violence and plunder (see my EPW essay, “Caste, Community and Crime: Explaining the Violence in Muzaffarpur”, January 31, 2015).

Arguably, in today’s Muzaffarpur–comprising the Muzaffarpur and Vaishali Lok Sabha (parliamentary) seats– the Hindu Ati Pichhrha (extremely backward) caste of Mallah, carrying surnames of Nishad, Sahni, Kaivarta, and sometimes Manjhi also, have become the “dominant caste”. They have replaced the Rajputs and Bhumihar-Brahmins, as well as the Yadavas, Koeris, Kurmis, who had become dominant some decades ago.

Many times, Muzaffarpur has elected its parliamentarians from the community of Mallah, including the incumbent one from the BJP, Ajay Nishad, son of previous MP from Muzaffarpur, Captain Jainarain Nishad (1930-2018). Before being elected MP, he had turned into an entrepreneur as one of the earliest dealers of cooking gas (LPG) in Muzaffarpur.

Prior to Jainarain Nishad, Ramkaran Sahni, a landed Mallah of Mushahri (Muzaffarpur), who was leader and legislator patronised by Karpuri Thakur (1924-1988) in Bihar politics, during the 1970s-1980s. Thakur addressed their rallies on June 19, 1983 and also on February 14, 1988, just three days before his death.

Also Read: Karpoori Thakur and the power of street politics

In the Vaishali Lok Sabha constituency, the JD (U) candidate in 2014 was Vijay Sahni, a Mallah. Unlike most of Bihar’s parliamentary seats, the JD (U) candidate from Vaishali had secured a very significant number of votes in May 2014. This vote-share secured by the JD (U) was supposed to be not going down well with the BJP-Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) combine. This was a possible reason why the Hindu Mallah-Muslim Pasmanda conflict has had become a growing reality of this locality.

This region also has a presence of Maoists and quite often press statements from local politicians would complain that most Maoists are Mallahs. In the 2010 assembly elections of Bihar, Paroo’s sitting BJP MLA, Ashok Singh, a Rajput, had to face the ire of the Mallahs for having made a statement in the press that most of the Maoists belonged to the community of Mallahs.

Cutting across religious and caste-barriers, the local population would express a certain degree of scare about the Mallahs, about their community solidarity and about “their proneness to violence and aggression”. This is a kind of stereotype about the Mallahs that is commonly found among the local population.

Now, the question arises as to whether Mukesh Sahni will be able to transfer the Mallah votes to the RJD-led coalition? Or, the BJP’s nominee from Muzaffarpur, Ajay Nishad will help NDA get Mallah votes across Bihar?

The Mallah consolidation as a political outfit in Bihar was in the offing at least since late 2015.

The “Nishad Samanway Samiti”, an umbrella organization of different sub-castes identifying with the Mallahs, and one of its constituents, the “Ved Vyas Parishad” made news in early September 2015 when it strongly rejected Nitish Kumar’s proposal to include them in the list of the Scheduled Tribes, which offers a reservation of 1% in the public employment in Bihar. What the Nishad Samanway Samiti wanted that they should rather be included in the list of Scheduled Castes for whom there exists 16% reservation in public employment as well as in legislative bodies. As of now they belong to the Ati Pichhrha (lower backward) community.

Entrusted with the task by the state government, in 2014, the A. N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, prepared an ethnography report and submitted its report to the Bihar government. Upon which Nitish Kumar moved ahead. Interestingly, the leaders associated with these organizations of the Mallahs, viz., Chhotay Sahni, Rajendra Chaudhry, and Uma Shankar Sahni, have also spoken against Mukesh Sahni, who was much in news for being consulted by Nitish Kumar, and Amit Shah on the eve of the Bihar Assembly elections.

Uma Shankar Sahni, the organisational secretary of the “Ved Vyas Parishad” expressed his disenchantment against Mukesh Sahni in these words. “We have been struggling and fighting for our rights for so many years and this new man suddenly comes into the picture to take the credit for our efforts. He does not know anything about the Nishad community”  (Amit Bhelari, “Fishermen Junk ST Quota”, The Telegraph, Patna, September 8, 2015. ).

Mallah in Colonial Ethnography

According to the anthropologist, William Crooke, the word mallah comes from an Arabic word, meaning salt, and which also means moving like bird’s wing. It is also believed that a long time ago, when there was no other means of transport, much of the merchandise was transported by boats, and the boatmen came to be referred to as Mallah, or “Maal- la” which literally means, ‘bringer of goods or merchandise’, in Hindi. Thus, fishing, transporting, agriculture and labouring in farms are their occupations.

The Criminal Tribes Act 1924 identifies them as ‘criminals’, which is dismissed by the sociologists as an ethnic/social group is not born as criminals, rather poverty, hardship, oppression and social stigma make them so.

What needs to be further added here that the Mallahs (the Hindu fishermen, including the allied/similar sub-castes like Gangotas and Kevats—the boatmen—those earning their livelihoods by river-water) are now emerging as the “Dominant Castes” in these parts of Bihar, more specifically in and around Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Local populace would share about them that quite a lot of them often either join the extreme Left (Maoists) or the far Right saffron, majoritarian chauvinists, Bajrang Dal.

Mallah and Chaur Economy

The chaur (low-lying waterlogged lands across north and east Bihar) are almost abandoned by the peasants, owning land in these chaurs; their males have migrated for their livelihood and education to children. The soil, of these lands, is used by the brick-makers and thereby emerge baolis (ponds and pond-lets) within the landmass of chaurs.

The Malalhs use these baolis for fisheries without paying anything back to the landowners. Besides, these lands also attract aquatic and semi-aquatic birds. The Mallahs sell these birds and fishes in the local village haats and markets. It fetches good income to them. Meat-sellers (mutton and chicken) are usually Ajlaf-Arzal Muslims. (In parts of western UP, Mallah caste is found among Muslims also).

Now the Mallahs have also begun to emerge as poultry-chicken meat-sellers. This appears to be creating an economic conflict between the two communities which at times turn into communal tension, as it happened in some parts of Bihar during 2013-18. (see my EPW essays: Caste, Community and Crime, Underscoring Political-Criminal Nexus; also see my Muslims between the communal-secular divide).

As the landowning peasants have migrated, they don’t have to pay anything for using these baolis to the “de-peasantised” landowning peasants. This economy has its implications. The rate of migration for livelihood among the Mallah males was quite low. The preponderant physical presence of the Mallah males in the villages is increasingly making them emerge as local toughs. Their defiance against the absentee landowners (not landlords, as most of them are marginal and middle peasants) exploiting the chaur lands make them cohesive groups, which has also started yielding a political-electoral advantage to them.

The peasants, owning land in these chaurs, look up to the state to make some investments towards making arrangements for the exit of the water of the chaur so that the extremely fertile soil of these chaurs could be used also for Rabi crops and for pulses. In some of the chaurs, with the collective efforts of the village communities, some success in making arrangements for exit of the water, have been made. This has brought perceptible improvement in the economic status of the peasants associated with these chaurs. Thus far, the state has been extremely callous about these issues.

Recent studies on internal migrations from Bihar, conducted by some Patna-based research centres, suggest that even among Mallahs, there is now male migration, and lot of economic discontent is to be found among them.

Assertion of the Mallah leaders in Uttar Pradesh has also become noticeable. Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, an MP from Fatehpur Lok Sabha in UP, was a Union Minister of State in the Narendra Modi cabinet. Prior to that, she was known to speak for Mallahs when she was MLA from Hamirpur. However, in Uttar Pradesh, with the rise of the Phoolan Devi (assassinated in 2001), first as a revenge-taking “Bandit Queen” in the 1980s, and later as Parliamentarian in 1996, and 1999 that the Mallahs became better known politically.

Besides the above-mentioned economic conflicts, electoral conflict between Mallah and Muslims, also seem to be manifesting: Khagaria and Madhubani are the seats which are supposed to have got significant Muslim votes (over 20-22 %). Both these seats are contested by the Mukesh Sahni’s VIP. While the RJD’s Muslim candidate had to be sacrificed in Madhubani for VIP, in Khagaria, the NDA’s Muslim nominee, Mahbub Qaisar is pitted against Mukesh Sahni.

RJD’s Tejaswi, in his campaign in Khagaria, therefore, quite patronizingly, had to insist more on the fact that RJD has nominated quite a few Muslim candidates.
In Siwan, the RJD’s Muslim candidate is pitted against the wife of a strong man of JDU, Ajay Singh, a Rajput, who is said to be affiliated with the Hindu Yuva Vahini.

In Bihar, the NDA has eight nominees from Ati Pichhrha. Invariably there prevails anti-Yadav sentiment among these caste-groups, as observed by Namita Bajpai who says that the ‘backward’ push pays dividends in Uttar Pradesh (The New Indian Express, April 9, 2019).

Many communities of Dalits are also supposed to be inclined more towards NDA in Bihar. A total of 22 communities are there among Bihar Dalits. Of these the most numerous ones are Paswan, Chamar (leather-workers), Musahar (rat-catchers), and Dhobi (washermen). Except Musahars, other dalit communities appear to be disposed more towards NDA.

The poll-analysts need to find out and take into account the electoral preferences of these lower OBCs and Dalits, while making their prognostications. As to the Mallahs, they may remain divided between the two competing coalitions in Bihar.

(Mohammad Sajjad is a professor of History at Aligarh Muslim University. His books include Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge). His abridged version of this article was first carried here.)

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