Urban upper-castes driving Hindutva nationalism have little representation among Pulwama’s slain jawans

The wreath-laying ceremony of the CRPF jawans who were killed in the Pulwama attack was held in Srinagar, on 15 February 2019.
21 February, 2019

The attack in Pulwama has spawned a nationalistic fervour rarely seen since the 1999 Kargil war. In the deadliest militant attack that Kashmir has ever witnessed, 49 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed, when a suicide bomber drove a car filled with explosives into a security convoy, on the Jammu-Srinagar highway in Pulwama, on 14 February. While senior CRPF officials confirmed the deaths of 40 jawans, the media reported that at least nine others later succumbed to their injuries. The Indian government subsequently accused Pakistan of scripting the bloodshed in Pulwama. In the days since the attack, residents of metropolitan cities across India have held vociferous protest marches and news channels have been mulling possible methods of punishing Pakistan.

Underlying the feverish display of nationalism by the urban middle-class, comprised predominantly of upper-caste Indians, is an irony that few have paid attention to—the lower-caste poor account for most of the deaths. I tracked the caste background of the 40 CRPF jawans whose deaths were confirmed immediately after the attack. While the names of a few jawans revealed their respective caste identities, for those bearing caste-neutral last names, I spoke with their family members on telephone numbers registered with the CRPF. I also determined the caste identities through conversations with journalists who covered the jawans’s cremation; local politicians; social activists; sociologists; and by scanning media reports.

The 40 jawans were primarily from lower-caste communities. In all, they comprised 19 jawans from Other Backward Classes (or backward castes), seven from Scheduled Castes, five from Scheduled Tribes, four from upper-caste backgrounds, one high-caste Bengali, three Jat Sikhs, and one Muslim. So, only five out of the 40 jawans, or 12.5 percent, came from Hindu upper-caste backgrounds. This figure bears out a truism starkly visible in India at present—the Hindutva nationalism of the urban middle-class, largely spearheaded by right-wing groups, conveniently exploits the sacrifices of the downtrodden.

Two among the slain jawans, Sanjay Rajput and Nitin Shivaji Rathod, both of whom resided in Maharashtra, were from the Vimukta Jatis community, which is identified as a socially and educationally backward caste and included in the central OBC list for Maharashtra. Rajput, however, was unable to secure a caste certificate, and qualified for the CRPF through the general category. Excluding Rajput and the Muslim jawan, only eight, or 20 percent, joined the CRPF through the general-category quota.

The 40 jawans came from 16 states across India. Five of the eight in the general category were from Uttarakhand and Punjab. Of the two CRPF jawans from Uttarakhand, one was a Brahmin and the other a Rajput, and three out of the four casualties from Punjab were Jat Sikhs. The three other jawans from upper-caste communities comprised two Brahmins from Uttar Pradesh, and one Sudip Biswas from West Bengal, whose brother-in-law, Samapta Biswas, told me that his family is neither Brahmin nor Scheduled Caste, “but higher caste.”

Samapta made it a point to clarify the family’s social identity because the name “Biswas” is used by several castes. He said that he and others in the family are wage labourers based in the district of Nadia, in West Bengal. Samapta noted that the family feels compelled, at times, to migrate out of Nadia to find work, and that Sudip’s salary used to serve as comforting insulation in times of financial despair.

Maninder Singh Attri, a member of the Ramdasia sect, which is classified as a Scheduled Caste community, was the fourth jawan from Punjab who died in the Pulwama attack. His cousin, Sunil Dutt, told me that Attri’s family possesses land measuring less than one-fourth of an acre, and that the slain jawan’s younger brother also serves in the CRPF. “Dalits lacking in resources and social security opt for risky jobs such as security forces and sewer cleaning,” Dutt, a human-rights activist based in Dinanagar in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district, told me. “Isn’t it strange that those who are raising the slogan of nationalism live in comfort and their children do not have to make sacrifices for the nation?”

Dutt added that even the Jat Sikhs who opt for the security forces do so out of compulsion to earn a livelihood, because many in the community work as marginal farmers. His words were borne out in the case of Kulwinder Singh, one of the Jat Sikh jawans from Punjab who joined the forces to support his family. Singh’s father, Darshan, said the family owned less than two acres of land. “Kulwinder’s mother is in such a terrible state,” Darshan said.

While the fervour of nationalism grips the country, the families of some of the deceased soldiers feared that their sorrow and misery would soon be forgotten. Rubi Devi, the wife of Shyam Babu—one of the slain jawans from Kanpur Dehat, in Uttar Pradesh, who was a member of a Scheduled Caste community—was sniffling and choking with emotion when I spoke to her. Devi said that after a stream of visitors came to pay their respects on the first two days after the attack, her house is now desolate, and she has been left alone to endure her sorrow. When I mentioned that national leaders had promised not to forget the sacrifices of CRPF jawans, her voice turned steely as she said, “Bolne mein aur kaam karne mein bahuut antar hota hai”—There is a huge difference between saying something and doing it.

The family of Mahesh Kumar, a jawan who hailed from the Tulidhar village of Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj district, underwent a similar experience. Mahesh’s uncle, Sushil Kumar Yadav, told me that Anupriya Patel, the minister of state in the ministry of health and family welfare, and Rita Bahuguna, a cabinet minister in the Uttar Pradesh government, came calling on the family after the attack. Since then, however, the nation has moved on to chanting slogans on the streets. “We cannot shut them up, we only have our sorrow to drown in,” Yadav added.

Yadav said that the least the state government could do is to rename the Tudihar gram sabha after Mahesh and give a job to his younger brother, Amresh. A pugnacious Yadav noted, “If Allahabad’s name can be changed to Prayagraj, why cannot they rename our gram sabha as Mahesh gram sabha? It is the best way of keeping alive his memory. After all, don’t they say the Pulwama martyrs will not be forgotten?”

Twelve of the 40 jawans who died in Pulwama were from Uttar Pradesh, and they included two Brahmins, three from Scheduled Castes and seven from OBC communities. Sudhir Panwar, a spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party, noted, “Chest-thumping nationalism of TV studios conceals the grim reality that it is the peasant and lower castes of rural India who die to protect the country.”

Panwar’s comments are true of other states as well. Five of the CRPF jawans who died were from Rajasthan—three of them were Gujjars, one was from the Meena community, which is classified as a Scheduled Tribe, and one was a Jat. Two CRPF jawans from Tamil Nadu died in Pulwama, one of whom was a Parayar, a Scheduled Caste, and the other was a Thevar, an OBC community. The one death from Karnataka was of a Madiwala, or dhobi caste, jawan. Two jawans from Odisha died—respectively, from a backward caste and a Scheduled Caste. The pattern is overwhelmingly similar across India.

“The CRPF has reservation,” Satish Prakash, an academic and Dalit activist based in Meerut, said. “It is the reason why the people who died were overwhelmingly Bahujan.” The word “Bahujan” means majority and is used to denote individuals from non-upper and high-caste groups. “It is they who lay their lives for the nation,” Prakash said. “It exposes how bogus the argument for not extending reservation to the Armed Forces is.”

According to Paramjit Singh Judge, a professor of sociology at the Guru Nanak Dev University, in Amritsar, such Hindutva nationalism subsumes the story of caste and class because of the role it plays in politics. “Nationalism has a functional role in electoral politics,” he said. “For instance, the Bharatiya Janata Party knows that Dalits are not inclined to it. A deliberately crafted hyper nationalism helps combine people across class, caste and religion.”

The BJP has not spoken of the caste and class dimensions of those jawans who died in Pulwama. It is unlikely to do so—the party prefers to orchestrate the song of nationalism in the election year.