The dominance of Thakurs in the polity of Uttar Pradesh has been a point of discussion after the alleged rape and subsequent death of a 19-year-old woman from the Dalit Valmiki community in a Western Uttar Pradesh village. The accused in the Hathras case are four upper-caste Thakur men. The Thakur community has dominated the social and political landscape of northern India in general and UP in particular. In terms of sheer numbers, the caste composition of the village where the incident took place is an indication of the same. Out of the 600 families living in the village, nearly half are Thakurs, another 100 happen to be Brahmins, while Dalits comprise 15-odd families.
Who are the Thakurs?
In the caste-based structure of Indian society, Thakurs stand right below the Brahmins and belong to what is known as the warrior caste. Anthropologists say Thakurs and Rajputs are almost synonymous with each other. The community is also the predominant landowners in large parts of north India.
V P Singh was one of the first Thakur chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. (Express archive photo by R K Dayal)
“Although cultivation is not a caste occupation of the Thakurs, they have traditionally owned large-sized farms and cultivated them with hired labourers in the region for generations and thus have developed managerial skills for relatively efficient farming,” writes sociologist Satadal Dasgupta in his article ‘Caste dominance and agricultural development in village India.’
Scholars agree that there is a close relationship between land ownership and socio-political mobility of a caste community. Renowned sociologist M N Srinivas, well-known for his work on caste, has observed that three important requirements for the dominance of a particular caste in an Indian village — land ownership, a relatively high ritual position, and numerical strength.
The disproportionately large amount of land owned by Thakurs in UP is established by a study conducted by a December 2016 study published in the Economic and Political Weekly titled, ‘Identity equations and electoral politics: Investigating political economy of land employment and education’. The study surveys over 7,000 households in 14 districts of UP and comes to the conclusion that while “upper caste Hindu groups accounts for 15 per cent of the sampled households, they emerge as the biggest owners of land, controlling close to 30 per cent share of the total cultivable area.” Within this group, the Thakurs’ share in land is 2.17 times their proportion in the number of households.
“The Thakurs lost a lot of land during the land reforms of the 1950s and 60s. This was particularly so in western UP, where the Hathras incident has taken place, where under Charan Singh the reforms were carried out very forcefully,” says sociologist Satendra Kumar. “But the beneficiaries of these reforms were the Other Backward Castes (OBC). The Scheduled Castes continued to be dependent on the upper castes. Thereby Thakurs and Brahmins continued to exert power.”
Yet another source of power for the Thakur community is the fact that UP had a high concentration of princely states. “If you look at the genealogies of the Thakur politicians from the state, a majority of them belonged to the royal families. For instance, V P Singh was the Raja of Manda,” says Kumar. Other notables include Raghuraj Pratap Singh, popularly known as Raja Bhaiya, who is an independent MLA from Kunda constituency. He is a descendant of the royal family of Bhadri. Chandra Shekhar, who became the eighth prime minister of India, belonged to a powerful zamindar family in Eastern UP.
Raghuraj Pratap Singh, popularly known as Raja Bhaiya, who is an independent MLA from Kunda constituency, is a descendant of the royal family of Bhadri. (Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)
Thakurs in UP politics
It is a well-known fact that caste has played a central role in the shaping of the political landscape of UP, especially in the last 30 years. In a 2017 research paper, titled ‘After silent revolution: Marginalised Dalits and local democracy in Uttar Pradesh, North India,’ Kumar suggests that politics in UP can be broken down into three main phases. In the first phase, lasting from the Independence to the 1960s, the Congress dominated the political arena and leadership was primarily concentrated among the Brahmins and Thakurs. The second phase was from the 60s onwards, when land reforms and positive discrimination brought social mobility to a few middle castes like Yadavs, Jats, Kurmis and Gujjars. During this period, UP got its first Thakur chief ministers in V P Singh and Vir Bahadur Singh.
The third phase of UP politics, beginning from the 1990s, is what Kumar calls the era of ‘silent revolution’. “This phase is associated with the rise of Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BSP, which mobilised the lower strata of society against the higher castes using slogans of social justice, equality and demands for a greater share of power,” he writes. Despite the seeming upliftment of lower castes during this period, a closer examination reveals how the caste hierarchies remained unaffected.
“For instance, it has been observed that when the SP wins elections in UP, the Thakurs emerge as the largest group in the state assembly, and in the scenario of BSP’s victory, none other than Brahmins occupy the maximum number of seats,” states the EPW report. It adds that “together these two castes do not constitute more than 15 per cent of the population of the state, but in each election they have held more than 25 per cent of the seats in the assembly.”
It was in context of the dominant status enjoyed by Thakurs in UP that Mulayam Singh Yadav brought in Amar Singh in 1997 as a Thakur face, and in the next few years, Thakurs became one of the biggest caste groups in Yadav’s cabinet.
Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and general secretary Amar Singh at a press conference, in New Delhi on Thursday. (PTI photo)
As far as the lower castes are concerned, Kumar in his article notes that social mobility among them has not been uniform. While the Jatavs acquired political visibility, the Valmikis remained excluded from formal village politics. “Moreover, the Jatavs and Valmikis failed to emerge as a coalition group against the dominant castes due to their deem socio-ritual divisions. The past associated with scavenging and ritually polluted acts made Valmikis the lowest in caste hierarchies even in the eyes of the Jatavs who are still not ready to accept Valmikis as their equal brethren and political partners,” he writes.
However, the ‘silent revolution’ did create a restructuring of caste politics in UP, in the sense that some sections of Dalits under BSP and Yadavs under SP acquired dominance, which created a frustration among the other castes. “After the Babri mosque incident, BJP never came back to power in UP for the next 20 years. The upper castes had a strong feeling of discontent. Consequently, BJP was successfully able to bring together the Thakurs, Brahmins, the non-Yadav OBCs and the non-Jatav SCs, in their project of Hindutva mobilisation,” says Kumar.
“Now that a Thakur is the chief minister, the caste is more dominant. It is true that caste aggression increases the moment the community’s member is the leader,” says social scientist Badri Narayan.
While a renewed political dominance of the Thakur community cannot be ignored, yet, the history of the state since Independence shows that no matter who is in power, the upper hand enjoyed by this land-owning community has remained largely unshaken.
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📌 ‘Caste dominance and agricultural development in village India.’ by Satadal Dasgupta
📌 Identity equations and electoral politics: Investigating political economy of land employment and education’ by Prashant K Trivedi, Srinivas Goli, Fahimuddin, and Surinder Kumar
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📌 ‘After silent revolution: Marginalised Dalits and local democracy in Uttar Pradesh, North India by Satendra Kumar