When Ram Shakal was announced as one of the four eminent personalities nominated to the Rajya Sabha by President Ram Nath Kovind on July 14, Satish Prakash, an associate professor at Meerut College, began to work his phone. Prakash was surprised he had not heard of Shakal, a three-time MP from the reserved constituency of Robertsganj whom the Prime Minister’s Office described as a prominent leader from Uttar Pradesh who “has devoted his life for the welfare…of the Dalit community”.

Embedded in Uttar Pradesh’s formidable Dalit network, Prakash was even more astonished that none of the people he contacted had heard of Shakal either. Some 24 hours later, he spoke to Virendra Ram, an employee of the public sector mining company Coal India in Sonbhadra district, of which Robertsganj is the administrative headquarters. Ram repeated to Scroll.in what he told Prakash: “Shakal belongs to the Scheduled Caste community of Baiswar, which neither identifies with us Dalits nor we with it.”

Perhaps Prakash had not heard of Shakal, 55, because he had slipped out of public memory after three successive electoral defeats – in the general elections of 2004 and 2009, and a bye-election in 2007. The losses had been preceded by successive triumphs in the Lok Sabha polls of 1996, 1998 and 1999. In India’s electoral politics, anonymity is the fate of the losers unless they are engaged in social movements.

“Shakal’s nomination is a political stunt,” said Chitrasen Gautam, assistant professor, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith, Varanasi, which is about 90 km from Sonbhadra.

Gautam said he tours the districts around Varanasi almost every Sunday to participate in programmes designed to help empower Dalits. “In the last five years, I have never seen Shakal in these programmes,” he explained. “By nominating him, the state has ignored genuine Dalit activists who need encouragement. Our society’s system of reward impedes the progress of Dalits.”

Shakal’s personality, it appears, embodies the contradictions of Dalit politics. If the word Dalit signifies discrimination and exclusion, these ills do not plague Shakal’s Baiswar community; if it suggests assertion against the hegemony of dominant social groups, Baiswars and Shakal are not counted among the dissidents.

The Baiswars are primarily landowning cultivators. They are a fairly prosperous but minuscule community in Uttar Pradesh, numbering just 17,920, according to Census 2011, almost all settled in Sonbhadra and Mirzapur districts. But their number is high in the adjoining Madhya Pradesh, where around 1.6 lakh of them are spread in the districts of Singrauli, Sidhi, Satna and Shahdol.

Unlike in Uttar Pradesh, the Baiswars of Madhya Pradesh, where they are also known as the Bais, are in the Other Backward Classes category. That they are counted among Dalits in Sonbhadra but among the Other Backward Classes in Singrauli barely 11 km away has led to other Scheduled Castes perceiving the Baiswar community as faux Dalits, veritable interlopers undeserving of the social status legally assigned to them.

In fact, the Baiswars themselves believe they were originally Kshatriya but tumbled down the social hierarchy to land at the bottom.

“Our economic position is very dissimilar to other Scheduled Castes,” said Tirath Raj, a former Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Robertsganj, who is Shakal’s cousin. “On the basis of our economic standard, style of dressing, habits and social relations, we resemble more the upper castes and OBCs than Scheduled Castes. We have warm relations with the upper castes.”

Contrasting worlds

The Baiswars do not suffer social discrimination that is the daily fate of most Dalit subgroups. This is largely because they have substantial land holdings. Raj, for instance, owns 29 acres of fertile farmland. Ownership of medium and large landholdings and Scheduled Caste status is a sociological contradiction.

It was to fathom this contradiction that Raj, when he was general secretary of the Baiswar Sabha, a community group, researched their history. In the manner of academicians, he began with a hypothesis – the Baiswars were perhaps the people of Baiswara, the region which today encompasses the Uttar Pradesh districts of Raebareli and Unnao. Raj thought his hypothesis was correct after he read Amritlal Nagar’s Gadar Ke Phool, an account of the rebels who fought the British during the 1857 revolt. Nagar mentions Baiswari boli, or dialect, and calls Rana Beni Madhav Singh, a Rajput landlord who died fighting the British in 1858, as mukhiya, or chief, of Baiswara. To Raj, this suggested a Rajput ancestry of the Baiswars.

But he could not shy away from the counter-argument: the word for a caste chieftain is chaudhary while mukhiya is the title bestowed on the leader of a grouping of multiple castes. To unravel the knot of the past, Raj landed up at Nagar’s home in Lucknow one day in the early 1980s.

Nagar dashed Raj’s hope: he did not know beyond what he had written.

Consequently, the Baiswars were left with just the folklore that vaguely etches out their downward mobility centuries ago. The story goes that a Chandela Rajput prince of the kingdom of Mahoba, in Madhya Pradesh, had taken refuge in Baiswara, where he developed an illicit relationship with a woman from what Raj calls “neech”, or low caste. Their daughter was subsequently married to a Baiswara resident, the betrothal depriving the Baiswars of their exalted Kshatriya status.

The folklore does not offer a clue as to why the Baiswars migrated from Baiswara. Perhaps they were expelled for flouting caste laws. Nor does it explain why some settled in Sonbhadra while the bulk of them dropped anchor in the Chandela Rajput estate of Bardi-Khatai, in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh. The royal dynasty of Bardi-Khatai worships Bhavani Devi as do the Baiswars. Raj pointed to another similarity between his caste and the Chandelas: “Our community too has had zamindars.”

Their quest to invent a more glorified genealogy underscores the Baiswars’ ambivalence to their status as a Scheduled Caste. Perhaps a way out is to opt out of the grouping to resolve their identity crisis. “What is the point?” asked Raj. “The Thakurs will not marry into our caste. At least Scheduled Caste status gives us benefits.”

These benefits include reservation in government jobs, seats in educational institutions and the right to contest from constituencies reserved for Dalits. These privileges come to the Baiswars without the deprivation and exclusion that most Scheduled Castes suffer. But the Baiswars are not proud of their Dalit identity, flaunting it as, for instance, the Jatavs do.

This is why Professor Vivek Kumar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, contended, “Shakal’s nomination is nothing but designed to demean and disrespect the educated, assertive new generation of Dalits. The new generation wants equity and equality, not patronage.”

Keeping status quo

The Baiswars’ craving for reclaiming their supposed Kshatriya identity implies they are not heavily invested in breaking the hierarchical Hindu mould. Their favoured strategy is to court the upper and the backward castes, whose leaders, cutting across party lines, have praised Shakal for his genteel approach to politics: he is not abrasive, or corrupt, or partial to strong-arm tactics.

“I do not discriminate on the basis of caste,” Shakal said. It is typically the public position of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which Shakal joined during the Emergency, to oppose authoritarianism and because his “native village was entirely Jan Sanghi”, followers of the Jana Sangh, the BJP’s earlier avatar.

Arguably, the RSS, with its predominantly upper caste political culture, enables Shakal and the Baiswars to better negotiate their confusion over their caste identity. “You rise in the Sangh and get the BJP ticket to fight elections because of your work and thought, not because you are willing to pay money or belong to a particular caste,” Shakal said, laughing.

Broadly, Dalits in politics are communists or Ambedkarites or Hindutvadis, who have gradually usurped the role Congressmen once played, promising incremental progress to Dalits without flattening the Hindu social hierarchy.

About the communists, Shakal alleged that they “promote Naxalism and instigate Dalits against landlords”, thereby revealing his class background.

“As far as Ambedkarites go, Mayawati has moved away from the path of Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram,” Shakal added, referring to the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party. He repeated the familiar Hindutva propaganda that Mayawati sells her party’s election tickets and wildly alleged that she took Rs 2 to Rs 3 lakh each from sweepers who were given government jobs during her chief ministership from 2007 to 2012. “Modi and BJP president Amit Shah should be praised for besieging her, for reducing her party to 19 seats in the 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections,” Shakal said. “The BJP does not believe in caste.”

Many would argue that radical Dalit politics is the historical outcome of India’s caste system that Hinduism created centuries ago – and that still persists. This caste fault line has only widened during the last four years of the BJP’s rule, Prakash contended, manifesting in two major social trends.

“The first of these was symbolised by the disrespectful treatment meted out to President Ram Nath Kovind on his visit to Jagannath Temple in Odisha in March,” he argued. “It was a coded message to us that instead of humiliating 100 or 1,000 Dalits, we will insult the most eminent personality of your community.”

Shakal’s nomination symbolises the second trend, that of the Indian state’s refusal to reward or celebrate those Dalits who can become role models for their community, Prakash added. Shakal thus represents the alternative role model who emphasises submissiveness, quiescence and acceptance of the status quo. Only such a Dalit can blossom under the Indian state’s patronage.