Caste, territory and federalism


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WHEN Mayawati, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, called for the reorganization of the state’s territorial boundaries she drew attention to the momentous ways in which the politics of the state has changed in recent years. Fifty years ago it would have been almost unthinkable for a chief minister of Uttar Pradesh to promote the idea of dividing the state. This article explores the ways in which challenges to caste hierarchies and the politicization of caste identities by political parties in Hindi-speaking north India have been linked to new debates about the territorial organization of state boundaries in the region.

After independence, early defences of the unity of Uttar Pradesh drew on Brahmanical images of social order to make a case for the state’s geographical unity, which in turn was connected to the integrity of India as a whole. The sacred landscape of Uttar Pradesh as a heartland territory of Hinduism, and of India, became a central justification for the maintenance of its borders. The politicization of caste, however, opened up discussions about the possibility of redrawing state boundaries in Uttar Pradesh, and north India more generally. As upper caste political domination was peeled away and contested, and parties began to mobilize increasingly around horizontal identities, state boundaries came to be questioned in everyday political discourse.

The shift in the political landscape within north Indian states helped to make the creation of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand politically conceivable in 2000. There are other important histories related to Hindu nationalism and its conceptions of territory, as well as the territorial politics of indigeneity, which have also shaped thinking about state formation in these regions of north and central India. The creation of new states in practice has also owed much to political contingency too.1 But this article restricts its gaze to caste and its relationship to the territorial structures of federalism in India today. Just as the literature on Indian nationalism has been relatively silent on the question of caste,2 so too has the literature on federalism.


At first glance, the territorial structure of a federal system – in particular the design of its sub-units – may appear to bear little clear relationship to ranked or hierarchical forms of ethnicity or social organization, including caste. By contrast, non-ranked identities such as languages spoken by a majority of the population in particular regions seem more likely candidates to be the basis of statehood within a multi-ethnic or multi-national federal system. Nevertheless, the territorial organization of a federal state can also be closely connected to the preservation or otherwise of patterns of social and political dominance that have historically derived strength from hierarchy. Recognizing this, Ambedkar toyed in the 1920s with the idea of creating a homogenous state of Dalitstan settled by Untouchables.3

Radical Dalit activists today have resurrected such a call.4 But without the migration of Dalits en masse to a new territory, the (re)design of federal sub-units – on its own – is insufficient to challenge caste hierarchies. Ambedkar, therefore, proposed other devices – reserved seats and quotas in government employment and education – as ways of representing territorially dispersed ‘minority’ or ‘marginalized’ groups.5 In the 1950s, Ambedkar also argued that the creation of smaller states would offer one form of safeguard for minorities because they would form a larger proportion of the population. He wrote: ‘A small stone of a consolidated majority placed on the chest of the minority may be borne. But the weight of a huge mountain it cannot bear.’6


In the 1950s and 1960s, it was commonly argued that demands for statehood based on language barely concealed the pursuit of power by locally dominant intermediate castes such as Kannada-speaking Lingayats, Marathi speaking Marathas, Telugu speaking Reddys and so on.7 Caste endogamy meant that the frontier of linguistic regions corresponded to patterns of caste dominance.8 As Selig Harrison observed, ‘It is because caste lobbies function coherently on the basis of entire linguistic regions – for all their potential division, even the Marathas are a relatively unified lobby – that caste assumes such irrepressible importance.’9 In the Hindi heartland, by contrast, Brahminical and social organicist conceptions of social order were employed to legitimize the existing large boundaries of states in the region – especially those of UP.


Defenders of the unity of Uttar Pradesh in the 1950s drew on the idea of UP as what Gyanesh Kudaisya calls a ‘heartland’ territory. It was common for supporters of UP’s extant borders to draw on the state’s sacred geography, which both provided a rationale for the positioning of its borders and made the state central to imaginings of an Indian nation. Ishwari Prasad, a member of UP’s Legislative Council, thus employed the kind of physiological metaphor of an organic Hindu social order embedded in the varna system prominent in Hindu nationalist thought,10 to emphasize UP’s unity: ‘The state is an organism like the human body. It consists of large and small limbs but they must all function harmoniously in order to produce good results… The holy cities of Ayodhya, Mathura, Brindaban, Kashi, Hardwar, and Prayag are the repositories of those spiritual influences which lead to homogeneity and oneness on the higher plane.’11

Even Chief Minister G.B. Pant drew on this sacred geography to quash the calls for reorganization and called for the unity of UP, asserting: ‘No power on earth can cut up the land of Rama and Krishna, of Ganga and Yamuna, which has been shaped by nature to be indissoluble. Our culture dates back to the times of the Vedas. We have been the soul of Aryavarta. Our culture and language envelop Bharat.’12


Challenges to such conceptions did arise in some regions of UP – especially from Jats in western UP who sought a state of their own. Furthermore, Ambedkar argued that the large size of Uttar Pradesh – and other states in north India – would give them greater power in India’s political system and would effectively entrench the dominance of the conservative social structure and culture of north India, underpinned by caste hierarchy, across the whole of India. He argued: ‘There is a vast difference between the North and the South. The North is conservative. The South is progressive. The North is superstitious, the South is rational. The South is educationally forward, the North is educationally backward. The culture of the South is modern. The culture of the North is ancient.’ He went on to ask, How can the rule of the North be tolerated by the South?’13

In order to overcome this predicament, Ambedkar went on to propose that the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh each be divided into a number of smaller units: three states in the case of UP, two in Bihar and two in Madhya Pradesh. But the States Reorganization Commission – despite dissent from one of its members, K.M. Pannikar – recommended the preservation of UP’s existing boundaries. Furthermore, the commission made an a priori case in favour of larger states, where possible, on economic grounds.14


What changed in the 1980s to shift thinking about political boundaries within the Hindi heartland? In none of the regions that became new states in 2000 did a particular caste group or groups explicitly campaign for a state in which they would achieve numerical or social dominance. But there are two reasons why the decline of upper caste political dominance and new forms of political mobilization around horizontal caste identities influenced afresh how political actors think about the territorial structures of India’s federal system.

First, caste is a regional phenomenon. Variation in the political and socio-economic power, and organization, of different caste groups is as true within states in Hindi-speaking central-north India where language and caste dominance are less closely related, as it is between states.15 This means that political leaders in large states such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh (before and after the bifurcations of 2000) are constantly engaged in the building of frequently unstable multi-caste, multi-region coalitions. This is the case whether the states are ruled by lower caste parties, or a national party. These are states that had hitherto been held together by what Zoya Hasan has called the ‘framework of political bonding’ provided by upper caste domination.16 As parties representing lower castes have risen to political power, challenging patterns of upper caste domination and displacing the hitherto dominant Congress Party, the question of what holds the states of the Hindi belt together has become more pressing.17


The second factor which links changes in caste politics to a shift in thinking about territory is that patterns of social and political dominance provided legitimacy to certain constellations of state borders. Furthermore, borders themselves, particularly those of large states, support patterns of dominance within states. Large, socially weakly integrated and economically mixed states may have helped to preserve upper caste – and Congress – political dominance for longer because they made it harder for viable opposition coalitions to emerge. Opposition to Congress was more likely to remain confined to particular regional pockets within states – such as the Jharkhand Party in south Bihar or the Bharatiya Lok Dal in western UP.

By the 1980s, as upper caste dominance was increasingly challenged and after the implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990, talking about the idea of changing state boundaries became increasingly politically acceptable – even for some chief ministers – in ways that had been practically taboo in the 1950s. We now look at how emergent caste politics shifted the territorial visions of new political elites in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and helped to lay ground for the reorganization of these states in 2000.


Each of the regions that became a new state in 2000 has a distinct pattern of caste demography and history from its parent state. This is not to suggest that any of the states have a cohesive regional caste ‘system’ which offers a natural logic to the new state boundaries, nor that their distinctive caste histories in any sense propelled the creation of the new states. These were not cases of caste inspired ‘separatism’. Instead, the regionalized caste geography across each parent state provided challenges – and opportunities – for new political leaders who sought to craft new state-wide political alliances in the absence of a dominant new state-wide social coalition.

Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have sizeable populations of Scheduled Tribes (of 31.8% and 26.3% respectively in 2001 Census) although social geography is different in both regions with more intermingled ST and non-ST populations spread across Jharkhand as a result of migratory patterns. In Chhattisgarh, STs are more concentrated in the two regions of Surguja in the north and Bastar in the south of the state. In both Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, upper castes were present in relatively small numbers compared to elsewhere in north India. In Chhattisgarh, only 3% were counted as upper castes in the 1931 Census compared to between 12-21% in other regions of Madhya Pradesh. Chhattisgarh had a correspondingly larger OBC population of over 50%.18 Kurmis in Chhattisgarh (also only 3% in 1931), and Kurmi-Mahatos in Jharkhand, have been historically important and locally dominant peasant communities, although often sidelined from political power in Congress. Yadavs, who are numerous in north Bihar, are found in far smaller numbers in Jharkhand.


By contrast to Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand (and most other regions of India), Uttarakhand has a predominantly upper caste population, with only circa 2-3% OBCs and 18% Scheduled Castes.19 Uttarakhand, like Jharkhand, therefore lay quite outside the dynamics of caste politics that emerged in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh from the late 1980s.In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party had no base in the hills, the BSP only a weak one; in Jharkhand, the Rashtriya Janata Dal found very minimal support within Jharkhand. They were both regions, however, where the BJP found support from the 1980s onwards, and for which they later supported statehood.

Most accounts of statehood in these regions see them as a result of assertions by groups within those regions, typically tribals in Jharkhand, or upper castes in Uttarakhand. Jharkhand was home to a very long-running movement for a tribal state, and the movement for statehood in Uttarakhand saw some of the deepest and most sustained popular mobilization of any demand for statehood in recent years. Regional movements were, therefore, very important (less so in Chhattisgarh where there was no sustained campaign for statehood).20 But the creation of these new states also took place in the context of a changing set of dynamics within state politics as a result of caste based political mobilization, which altered dominant patterns of political thought about the organization of state boundaries.


Political leaders aspiring to state-wide leadership in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh had to forge carefully crafted regional strategies to deal with the fact that they were not able to appeal to state-wide horizontal social groups, or to easily construct such categories. In this context, quite apart from new social movements which were formed in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand from the early 1970s and statehood demands which were raised by local activists at various points in time in these regions, different politicians began to ‘play politics’ with borders. They raised the idea of creating new states or acted in ways intended to promote or provoke the formation of regional identity, as one means of coming to term with the difficulties of building stable state-wide political coalitions and in the absence of relatively cohesive state-wide political identities. This was done not only by politicians within the regions for which statehood was claimed, but also within state capitals – especially by Arjun Singh as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh.21


In 1994, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav began fuelling the demand for regional autonomy in the hills region of UP. As Emma Mawdsley has shown, Mulayam Singh Yadav sought to gain mileage from protests in the hills against an attempt to extend reservations for OBCs across the region (despite the tiny OBC population in Uttarakhand). These protests subsequently deepened into sustained demonstrations demanding statehood. Yadav portrayed the demand for statehood as a chauvinistic upper caste demand inspired by opposition to reservations for lower castes tout court. Although this considerably exaggerated the extent to which caste sentiment drove the statehood demand, it helped him in a bid to hold together a fraying lower caste coalition government in plains areas of the state.22

After Arjun Singh became chief minister of Madhya Pradesh in 1980, he reached out particularly to a new generation of lower caste politicians in Chhattisgarh whom he promoted in a bid to isolate both the Socialist Party which had developed a foothold in Chhattisgarh, as well as his factional rivals, V.C. and S.C. Shukla who had hitherto dominated Chhattisgarhi politics. He sought to encourage a sense of a Chhattisgarhi regional identity, in which context the Shuklas became increasingly identified as ‘non-Chhattisgarhi Brahmins’ because their families were more recent migrants to the region. State assemblies in both Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh passed resolutions supporting statehood for Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand respectively in the early 1990s.23 Few people expected statehood would follow as a result of such resolutions because of the need for legislation by the central government. But the growing political acceptability of talking about state division was significant.

Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar adopted a somewhat different strategy. For a time in the 1990s, Laloo Prasad Yadav sought to personify the unity of Bihar. He famously remarked, ‘Jharkhand over my dead body.’ This was part of his attempt to portray those, particularly in the BJP, who wanted to divide Bihar in order to create Jharkhand as upper caste enemies who sought to set back his programme of lower caste political empowerment. But even in Bihar, by 1997 the state assembly passed a resolution accepting the case for bifurcation, in order that the Rashtriya Janata Dal, then led by Rabri Devi, could continue in power with the support of legislators from Jharkhand. This reflected the reliance of the RJD and its social coalition of Yadavs and Muslims on legislators from Jharkhand where that social coalition was less powerful in numbers or political mobilization.

The BJP, whose role was crucial in creating these states in the final instance when they came to power in New Delhi at the helm of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, also used debates about statehood as one means of negotiating the Mandalized climate of north India by fostering sub-state regional bases outside the primary arenas of OBC political assertion.


The temptation for political parties to make regionalized political appeals, therefore, grew in the context of challenges in holding together pan-state political coalitions as new caste-based political parties contested Congress’s political dominance in north India. The BSP, in power in UP from 2007 to 2012 continued this trend by responding to a number of demands for statehood made in different regions of the state by offering its support for the ‘trifurcation’ of Uttar Pradesh, or in other words the creation of three new states in addition to the residual state of UP. The Congress made a strategic decision to focus on Bundelkhand in a bid to revive its fortunes in UP, and it is in the context of intensifying competition between Congress and the BSP that the question of reorganizing UP more generally found political voice after 2007.


The BSP presented the need for reorganizing UP as a question of development. Mayawati in December 2009 stated that: ‘I was always in favour of smaller states as they are much simpler to govern.’24 She highlighted the question of reorganization during the election campaign for the 2012 state elections, moving the state assembly to pass a voice resolution in favour of the state’s further division in November 2011. From one perspective, the BSP is likely to have seen the matter in strategic electoral terms. Dividing Uttar Pradesh would give the BSP the potential to come to power in more than one state, making it appear more of a national than regional party.

The state BSP president, Swami Prasad Maurya, denied that the BSP saw the question of reorganization in strategic terms. He argued instead that its thinking was influenced by Ambedkar’s views on the desirability of smaller states. He noted that while it was in government, the BSP had divided large districts within UP such as Meerut into multiple districts on administrative grounds.25 While it seems undeniable that the party’s position on statehood is driven in part by competition with other political parties (not least with Congress over Bundelkhand, and Congress-ally the Rashtriya Lok Dal in western UP who has been the main proponents for a separate state of ‘Harit Pradesh’), Swami Prasad Maurya’s reflections emphasize the fact that the question of reorganization is also a symbolic issue for the BSP.

This further underscores the importance of the erosion of upper caste political dominance for bringing into question the fixity of borders in the Hindi belt. BSP thinking on UP’s reorganization is connected to a broader attempt to recast the sacred geography of UP in ways that advance a symbolic agenda of social justice, in line with earlier traditions of Dalit political mobilization.26 This has involved perhaps most importantly attempts to highlight – and construct – an alternative, Buddhist sacred geography of UP. The return of the Samajwadi Party to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2012 leaves an uncertain immediate future for any agenda to reorganize the state. The party has opposed the idea of trifurcating UP. Nevertheless the politicization of caste, especially from the 1980s onwards, has inspired new ways of thinking about territory and power, with important implications for the political geography of the states of north and central India.



1. A full account of the federal restructuring which took place in 2000 is offered in my book. Louise Tillin, Remapping India: New States and Their Political Origins. Hurst&Co/Columbia University Press, London/New York, 2012, forthcoming.

2. See Hugo Gorringe, ‘The Caste of the Nation: Untouchability and Citizenship in South India’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 42(1), 2008.

3. I am grateful to Christophe Jaffrelot for this reference. See Christophe Jaffrelot, Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Fighting the Indian Caste System. Columbia University Press, New York, 2005, p. 81.

4. Hugo Gorringe, op cit., p. 145.

5. See B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Representation’, in Valerian Rodrigues (eds.), The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.

6. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘On Majorities and Minotiries’, 23 December 1955, in Sukhadeo Thorat and Narender Kumar (eds.), B.R Ambedkar: Perspectives on Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, p. 370.

7. For these reasons Ambedkar had opposed the linguistic organization of states in the Constituent Assembly, seeing it as a measure to entrench the power of dominant castes. But he made a pragmatic concession to linguistic regionalism in the case of Maharashtra given the strength of regional sentiment. C. Jaffrelot, Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Fighting the Indian Caste System. p. 87.

8. See Christophe Jaffrelot, ‘From Indian Territory to Hindu Bhoomi: The Ethnicisation of Nation-State Mapping in India’, in John Zavos, Andrew Wyatt, and Vernon Hewitt (eds.), The Politics of Cultural Mobilisation in India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2004.

9. Selig Harrison, India: The Most Dangerous Decades. Oxford University Press and Princeton University Press, 1960, p. 109.

10. For a discussion of the role of this bodily metaphor in Hindu nationalist thought from the Hindu Mahasabha in the 1920s onwards, see John Zavos, ‘The Arya Samaj and the Antecedents of Hindu Nationalism’, International Journal of Hindu Studies 3(1), 1999, pp. 74-5.

11. Shiva Nath Katju and Ishwari Prasad, in April and May 1954 respectively, cited in Gyanesh Kudaisya, Region, Nation, ‘Heartland’: Uttar Pradesh in India’s Body Politic. Sage Publications, New Delhi, London, 2006, pp. 391-2.

12. Cited in ibid., 394 The idea of Aryavarta, the land of the Aryas, had been reinterpreted by the Arya Samaj in the late nineteenth century to emphasize the sovereignty of the Aryas (the ‘twice born’ Hindus) in the sacred land of Bharat. This sacred conception of territory became a central trope for Hindu nationalism in the twentieth century. See Jaffrelot, ‘From Indian Territory to Hindu Bhoomi: The Ethnicisation of Nation-State Mapping in India.’

13. B.R. Ambedkar, Thoughts on Linguistic States. Delhi, 1955, p. 14.

14. Government of India, Report of the States Reorganisation Commission. New Delhi, 1955, p. 61.

15. The need to focus on intra-state regions in political analysis is a point made forcefully in Ashutosh Kumar (ed.), Rethinking State Politics in India: Regions Within Regions. Routledge, New Delhi, 2011.

16. Zoya Hasan, Quest for Power: Oppositional Movements and Post-Congress Politics in Uttar Pradesh. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998, p. 19.

17. Regional differences in caste histories and patterns of local dominance are not only found in the large Hindi-speaking states. Intra-state regional caste geographies have come to the fore as patterns of caste dominance have been challenged in linguistic states too. We see this expressed in parts of the Telangana movement in Andhra Pradesh today, as also in Vidarbha. But affective ties of language and regional parties drawing on linguistic identity and cultural nationalism such as the TDP, DMK or Shiv Sena have for some time provided stronger alternative sources of state-wide identity in linguistic states than were found in states within the Hindi heartland as the dominance of the Congress Party was challenged.

18. See Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India. Columbia University Press, New York, 1996, p. 133.

19. SC population figures from 2001 Census.

20. I write elsewhere at greater length about regional demands and movements for statehood. See Louise Tillin, Remapping India: New States and their Political Origins. Hurst&Co/Columbia University Press, London/New York, forthcoming.

21. The role of these chief ministers in fomenting statehood demands in Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand is explored further in Louise Tillin, ‘Reorganising the Hindi Heartland in 2000: The Deep Regional Politics of State Formation’, in Asha Sarangi and Sudha Pai (eds.), Interrogating Reorganisation of States: Culture, Identity and Politics in India. Routledge, New Delhi, 2011.

22. See Emma Mawdsley, ‘Uttarakhand Agitation and Other Backward Classes’, Economic and Political Weekly 31(4), 1996.

23. In Uttar Pradesh, the legislative assembly had passed such a resolution before the Samajwadi Party came to power, but the statehood demand acquired momentum in the mid-1990s.

24. ‘Mayawati for trifurcation of Uttar Pradesh’, Times of India, 11 December 2009. The Samajwadi Party responded with the riposte that if the chief minister was finding it difficult to govern, then she should quit. See ‘Mayawati’s Demand for Trifurcation Draws Flak’, The Hindu, 13 December 2009.

25. Author’s interview with Swami Prasad Maurya, Lucknow, 20 January 2011.

26. See Nicolas Jaoul, ‘Learning the Use of Symbolic Means: Dalits, Ambedkar Statues and the State in Uttar Pradesh’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 40(2), 2006.