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The Politics of Pasi Dalit Assertion in UP Reaches Parliament

Privileged caste commentators often view caste assertion of marginalised Hindu communities through a parochial lens.

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Samvidhan zindabad! Manniya Netaji amar rahe! Veerangana Uda Devi amar rahe! Maharaja Bijli Pasi amar rahe! Manniya Akhilesh Yadav zindabad! PDA zindabad! Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar zindabad! Unka samvidhan zindabad!

Holding up a red-black pocket version of the Constitution, Awadhesh Prasad concluded his oath as a new Member of Parliament (from Faizabad) on 25 June by paying tribute to the Constitution and his party’s leadership. It was natural for him to remember his former leader, the late Mulayam Singh Yadav or Netaji, and hail the current Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav and his successful PDA (Pichda Dalit Alpsankhyak) strategy that trumped the Bharatiya Janata Party in the recently-concluded Lok Sabha election.

It was also in sync with the SP’s current political approach that Prasad, a Dalit by caste, evoked Ambedkar, an icon for the depressed and marginalised Hindu classes in the country, and the constitution, which provides these communities with their basic rights. However, what added a new dimension to his oath-taking was his mention of two historical personalities from the Pasi (Dalit) community to which he belongs.

Uda Devi, a Dalit woman freedom fighter from the war of independence in 1857, and Maharaja Bijli Pasi, a ruler in Awadh from the 12th century, are two of the biggest contemporary icons of the Pasi people.

Traditionally associated with toddy tapping, pig-rearing and petty agriculture, Pasis are the second largest Scheduled Castes community in Uttar Pradesh (around 16 percent of the Dalits, as per 2001 Census), much smaller than the largest sub-caste Jatav or Chamar (56 percent). However, they are a force in pockets of Awadh and East UP where they are concentrated in numbers. In fact, in UP’s sub-regionalism, Pasis are a significant part of the sub-altern Bahujan politics especially in and around Lucknow (the state capital), Prayagraj, Azamgarh and Gorakhpur divisions.

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Not only are they an important voting segment, but they also have a fair share of local representation in reserved Assembly and Lok Sabha seats. Prasad was among the eight Pasi MPs elected in UP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Five of them belonged to the Samajwadi Party. RK Chaudhary (Mohanlalganj), Priya Saroj (Machhlishahr), Pushpendra Saroj (Kaushambi) and Daroga Saroj (Lalganj) were the other four Pasis elected on an SP ticket.

By defeating an upper caste BJP MP on a highly-valued general seat like Faizabad (where the Ram Mandir is located), Prasad had already scripted history and delivered a sour blow to the BJP’s use of the temple as an edifice of Hindutva politics, one that the saffron party will take a lot of time to recover from. But by hailing Uda Devi and Bijli Pasi in Parliament, he has also brought focus to the shrouded iconography of his people and at the same time, also unabashedly balanced his lived reality as a Pasi Dalit with his identity as a Scheduled Caste guaranteed by the Constitution.

After All, Caste and Community Are the Singular Biggest Mobilisers

Dominant and privileged caste commentators and scholars often view caste assertion and identity politics of the marginalised Hindu communities through a parochial lens. However, for communities that were left in the margins for centuries by an oppressive system based on one’s birth, unsung icons from the past such as Uda Devi and Bijli Pasi are a means of expression of their self-respect.

The stories of these icons and heroes, many of them mythical and circulated from one generation to another through folklore, keep alive a record of their past and present, as their history was either never written or not written for them. That is why Prasad and Dalit leaders like him do not find any contradiction in deifying Ambedkar on the one hand and valourising their jati icons on the other. While one is a symbol of their constitutional rights, the others are a key part of the representational electoral democracy of the country where caste and community (baradari) are the singular biggest mobilisers even after seven decades of being an independent country.

Uda Devi is remembered for her valour during the 1857 mutiny. She fought in the Battle of Sikandar Bagh, where she is said to have single-handedly killed as many as 32 British soldiers before succumbing on the battlefield on 16 November 1857, according to the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav portal of the government that documents unsung heroes of the freedom struggle.

Uda was married to Makka Pasi, a soldier in the Oudh army, who was killed in the Battle at Chinhat. The government records Uda Devi’s martial legacy as thus: “On 16 November 1857, Uda Devi climbed a banyan tree disguised as a man and killed 32 soldiers of the British army. After the British overran Sikandar Bagh, an officer noted that many of the British casualties had bullet wounds indicating a steep, downward trajectory. Suspecting that a sniper remained hidden in a nearby pipal tree, British officers fired at the tree and shot her dead. Further investigation revealed that the rebel was in fact Uda Devi Pasi, who had donned men’s clothing to participate in the uprising.”

A small statue of Uda Devi was built at a traffic junction in Lucknow’s Sikandar Bagh area during the chief ministership of Kalyan Singh in the 1990s. After coming to power, the Yogi Adityanath government established a woman battalion of the Provincial Armed Constabulary and named it after Uda Devi, in a bid to appease Pasi sentiments.

Maharaja Bijli Pasi was a contemporary of Prithviraj Chauhan and a chieftain who owned 12 forts in the Lucknow Parganas, as recorded in British Gazetteers. He is said to have founded Bijnaur or Bijnor, today a small town near Lucknow. When Ram Vilas Paswan was a union minister, in 2000, he released a commemorative postage stamp on Bijli Pasi, to draw attention to the “reign of this legendary monarch, and his tales of bravery, deified through folklore traditions.”

“He was an able leader of the Pasis, a fiercely independent people indigenous to the locality. He constructed 12 forts which is an indication of the prosperity of his kingdom as well as the power he wielded. The Maharaja is believed to have lost his life in the fierce battle. Some historians have placed the timing of this battle as 1194 AD,” the union government’s PIB said then.

The ruins of a fort built by Pasi are still located in Lucknow. Dalit activists have often complained that it has not been given the due importance it should have. In February, the BJP government’s tourism department said it would invest Rs 19 crore to revive the neglected Maharaja Bijli Pasi Fort. The centre was also renamed the Nihalgarh railway station in Amethi, another Pasi-populated constituency, after Bijli Pasi.

There are several Pasi icons Prasad could have chosen to highlight his caste identity. Madari Pasi was a popular peasant leader who rallied poor peasants against the British during the Eka (unity) Movement of the early 1920s in the countryside of Awadh. Lakhan Pasi is another popular Pasi icon. Pasis believe that he ruled over a small territory in the 10th or 11th century in Awadh and was the founder of the city today known as Lucknow, although for many years the Hindu right-wing led by the BJP has demanded that the city be renamed Laxmanpur or Lakhanpur after Lakshmana from the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Then, there are other legendary Pasi rulers, such as Mahe Pasi, Khaira Pasi, Daldev Pasi, Satan Pasi and Maharaja Suheldev, whom the community counts among their icons. Since their historicity is shrouded in myths, legends and folktales, the exact nature of their existence is not well-known. Much of the information cited by Pasi chroniclers relies on material published in British-era books and district gazetteers. However, while one may dispute the historicity of the details, the gist remains that Pasis claim a past of valour and glory, much like many other aspirational backwards and Dalit castes. This image of a glorious past is etched in the common Pasi mind.

Caste Biases Against Pasis Still Exist, but a Lot Has Changed for Them

A look at the district gazetteers published in the early 20th century reveals how negatively the Pasis, which were among the many communities criminalised by the British in 1871, were perceived, as often linked to crime and liquor. Many of these documents, however, acknowledge the Pasis as the aboriginals of Awadh, often describing them as the “original lords of the soil”, mostly associated with agriculture with small holdings, which they varied with tending swine and entering government service as chowkidars.

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A gazetteer of Lucknow published in 1903 says: “There is a common tradition that in early days the Pasis were the lords of the greater part of the district…The old village sites and ruined forts which elsewhere are universally attributed to the Bhars are here assigned to the Pasis or the Arakhs, who appear to be of a very similar origin.”

The gazetteer also refers to their drinking habits. “There is not a story told of the conquest of any fort, but that it was effected by plying the occupants with wine.”

A gazetteer of Sitapur district says the Pasis ranked among the lowest castes, “their usual professions being those of labourers, cultivators, watchmen, thieves and swineherds.” The document adds: “In former days, the Pasis were generally engaged in service under the taluqdars; they were always notorious for their lawlessness and turbulence and had a considerable reputation for their skill with the bow.” The Bahraich gazetteer, too, paints a similar picture. “They are mostly the descendants of the armed retainers of the great taluqdars and still possess a bad reputation as thieves and drinkers.”

While caste biases against Pasis still exist in society, a lot has changed for them in modern India, where their numbers in representational democracy ensure their active participation in electoral politics, although they still lag behind in literacy, livelihood and other indicators of socio-economic uplift.

The present Narendra Modi ministry has a Pasi minister as did the previous government. The Yogi Adityanath government in UP too, has had a Pasi minister in each of its two terms. Since the Pasis are not loyal to any party, their votes are often up for grabs. And most parties resort to glorying their past icons to attract electoral support.

Ajay Rawat, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow, believes that the SP’s preference for Uda Devi and Bijli Pasi indicates long-term politics to claim their legacies and woo Pasis. It must not be seen as an opponent to Hindutva, he insists.

“Both these icons are popular across Awadh and secular in nature. The BJP cannot drag them into any communal discourse,” argues Rawat.

Over the years, the BJP has put all of its energy into popularising Maharaja Suheldev, a legendary Pasi chieftain, as an anti-Muslim crusader. This politics makes him controversial. Moreover, Suheldev’s legacy is contested as both Pasis and Rajbhars (a similarly-placed backward caste) claim to be his descendants. UP even has a party as part of the NDA that is named after Suheldev and run by a backward caste leader Om Prakash Rajbhar.

The nature of the number-driven representational marginalised-caste politics ensures that such icons can be conveniently fitted into Hindutva as well as into the social-justice politics of the Hindu right's electoral opponents.

Uda Devi, on the other hand, has a more recent history and is hailed as a nationalist heroine who fought against the British while serving in the army of the Nawabs. The evocation of Bijli Pasi must also be seen as a part of documenting “Pasi icons by historicising self-respect, a part of which is the claim by Pasis that they were once upon a time rulers,” adds Rawat.

Manoj Paswan, a Samajwadi Party leader from the Pasi community, views Prasad’s evocation of Uda Devi and Bijli Pasi in Parliament as a welcome gesture. “Awadesh ji represents that community which was not only backward socio-politically but there were also attempts to erase their cultural history and icons. This is an attempt to give them an identity. Uda Devi is remembered as a good warrior while Bijli Pasi is known for being a good administrator who fought against religious dogmatism, and not just for being a Pasi,” said Paswan.

(Omar Rashid is an independent journalist who writes on politics and life in the Hindi hinterland. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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