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Home > 2023 > Should Khandayats Be Called Backward Again? | Radhakanta Barik

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 15, April 8, 2023

Should Khandayats Be Called Backward Again? | Radhakanta Barik

Saturday 8 April 2023, by Radhakanta Barik


SOME IMPORTANT SOCIAL movements rode the back of the national freedom movement in India, beginning in the nineteenth century. These movements helped construct social collectives. The most important collectives were the Dalit fronts and the backward caste fronts. Although other collectives were also formed, like for women, tribals and Muslims, the more powerful ones were the Dalit and Backward Caste groupings. These fronts got strengthened with the spread of education and with their association with the politics of the time.

The anti-imperialist struggles nurtured these collectives and blended together political and social issues that echoed in the Constituent Assembly in the freedom years. Thus, Dalit and Backward caste demands began to be articulated on the floor of the parliament in free India. Media supported these demands. These demands got translated into constitutional and legal language as the Right to Equality and the Chapter of Fundamental Rights carried these demands. This chapter of entitlement spotlighted words like ‘no discrimination on the basis of caste, gender and race’ which became the beacon of light for the people of India.

Articles 14,15, 16 carried the message that the state had power to provide justice through reservation policy for each collective. Dalits and Tribals got reservation in jobs and educational institutions. Some other groupings were kept in a waiting list. Such affirmative action cannot be underplayed. After seventy-five years, it has to be acknowledged that implementation of reservation has enabled caste and outcaste groups to move up the societal ladders and created an ‘educated elite’ community that can challenge upper caste domination.

Role of Union Government in Perpetuating Backward Castes

The Union government constituted the Kalelkar commission in 1953 (Adhering to Article 340 of the Constitution of India, the First Backward Classes Commission was set up by a presidential order on 29 January 1953 under the chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar) to look into the various issues of backward castes. Then the Mandal Commission in 1977 created a criteria of framework like literacy level and age of marriage of girls, while defining the ‘backwardness’ of these castes. Many State governments have constituted their own respective Commissions to look into the conditions of the backward castes in their regions of influence. With the coming of the Janata Dal to power in 1989, the VP Singh government implemented most of the suggestions of the Mandal commission to better the lot of the Backward castes. This was based on the 1931 census report and the British list of Backward castes. As such, many castes were left out of the ‘Backward’ list . Then the Union government created the National Backward Class Commission to look into the grievances of other backward castes in various States. This nomenclature also transformed caste into a class issue.

The Privileged Castes

The Karans are the most powerful caste in Odisha and comprise 1.5 per cent of society. Occasionally, they marry into the Chasa Khandayata caste, lower in ranking than the Karans. Often the Chasa (farmer) Khandayata families are richer than the Karan families, which is the reason why the upper caste boys marry into Khandayata families. The writer Manoj Das, in his stories related to Zamindars, tells us that Zamindars after getting ruined or turning bankrupt could not marry within the royal families like the Karans or Rajus. They then married into the cultivating caste, that is the Chasa Khandayata. Das appears to have been against inclusion of the Khandayata community into the Backward class, without actually understanding the context.

There is a proverb regarding the Khandayats which explain its origin and evolution as a caste. ‘Chasa badhile Khandayata’ meaning, when chasa (farmer) grows richer and then he turns into a Khandayat. This reinforces the sociological tradition of Khandayat caste — that they are farmers. However, the Backward Class Commission has not taken into account the sociological traditions of the caste. According to the 1931 census, this community is Backward. Many smaller groups work as a part of Khandayat community — like Paik, Pradhan and the similar groups from western Odisha.

Formation of the Odisha State during British rule made the caste elite of the State consolidate their positions in administration. As data shows, the famous Ravenshaw College produced the most number of graduates from these upper castes and, from 1920 to 1929 all the graduates hailed from just two castes. The best examples can be cited from the villages dominated by the Brahmins and Karans of Jagatsinghpur district. The case study of Gajrajpur-Bhatpara show the domination of these castes in that decade. Their families’ control over land helped children of six families go to study in the city. Today these twine villages are without these two castes, who have already moved out of the villages to the cities.

Social conservatism seems to have been introduced in Odia society with the Maratha power in the region. Once they left Odisha and handed power to the British rule, the colonial masters allowed them to settle in Odisha. The Maratha Brahmins remained as Brahmins but established kinship relationships with local Brahmin communities. Furthermore, the Maratha Kunbis merged with the Chasa Khandayat farming communities in a big way. They started controlling power in villages where the Marathas started living. They also brought the practice of untouchability into local society. Yet, in the novel Chhaman Athaguntha, the durbar of zamindar Mangaraj has a place for a Dalit and women.

There is also no village in Odisha today, dominated by the Khandayats. Their control over land and education once made them too a formidable elite grouping (K S Singh: 2002 p79), a salaried class. They collected rent from tenant farmers and collected rent from people for delivery of services. Thus, Khandayats emerged in Odisha as a powerful monied class, who had no interest in any farm production process. This harmed the economy and society at large. Their bond with the Karans and Rajus helped them to appropriate properties and revenues and the colonial administration branded them as kins of the elite (F G Bailey).

In the local government cabinet of 1937, only these people became ministers. They used power to make themselves richer and powerful. They came back to power by controlling land in rural Odisha. They used their surplus funds to invest in education. Educated, they got jobs as Dy Collectors, school teachers and peons as well. The community played an important role in Utkal Sammilani, which demanded an independent Odisha State.

Before other communities joined the national movement, the Khandayats compromised with the colonial rulers. They had a better understanding of the future than the present. With the formation of the State, they acquired all top jobs and they played an important role in the national movement. With the coming of the Congress government in 1937, the educated upper castes captured the State government without any representation, and have been in power ever since. They control the government because they form the bureaucracy. The lot of the Chasa Khandayat, however, has declined since the 1970s.

It was a mischievous design by the upper castes, specifically the Brahmin and Karans, to brand a cultivating caste like Khandayat as a ‘Khatriya’ group rather than an underprivileged Chasa group. Officers like Arun Samantaray even floated an association called the ‘Khatriya Kandayat’ association. Eighty per cent of people in this community are farmers but without land today. Professior D L Seth, a Member of the Backward Classes Commission, was in 1993-96 guided by the Chinese scholar Manoranjan Mohanty’s account of the Chasa Khandayat, though Mohanty is not an expert on Castes in India and changes his interpretations of the community over several decades. Studies say, educational aspirations have reversed the economical conditions of this community over the years. A majority are today landless cultivators. They need reservations as Backward Caste, to enable the children access to higher education. Upper caste teachers call the children of this community, ‘Mali-Mulia’.

Khandayat Chasa is not a single caste but a constellation of castes. Hundreds of smaller and lower castes have integrated into this caste, especially with marriage relationships among them. These small castes create a brotherhood among themselves. Some of the castes like Chasa and Paik have been given reservation, which is a shrewd move by the Union government but not the Khandayat Chasa community as a whole. Even Gierson, in his ethnographic study, does not keep the caste in the category of a high caste but below them, recognising the peculiarity of the position of this caste in Odisha. Khandayat Chasa community as a whole can play a positive role in Bahujan politics by incorporating all the Backward castes, Dalits and tribals into one large community. A real Bahujan samaj can be constructed by the Khandayat Chasa by including Dalits and the Hatua barga within the community fold. They can play a positive role in the politics of Odisha by demanding social justice for the Khandayat Chasa. These groups together comprise thirty per cent of people of Odisha but they hold only two per cent of the jobs in State and Central government. The Brahmin Karan community form only four per cents of people in Odisha with fifty per cent of land and eighty per cent of jobs in the State government in their pockets. And they actively sabotage the Backward class status for the Kahndayat community.

New thinking is required for determining the backwardness of a class, as the Mandal Commission criteria is today outdated. Literacy level cannot be the basis of backwardness as most of the backward community children today try to go schools. Joblessness has to be taken into account while determining the backwardness of a class or caste. Poverty due to e landlessness needs to be a considered. In our understanding, the Chasa Khandayat community, comprising many lower fractions in the caste hierarchy, remains a backward caste that needs to be incorporated into the Backward Class for affirmative action.

Author: Prof Radhakanta Barik is a former teacher at the Indian Institue of Public Administration, New Delhi


  • Mohanty M 1995. ‘Class, Caste and Dominance in Orissa’ in Dominance and State Power in Modern India: Decline of a Social Order, vol11 by Frankel and Rao.
  • Mohanty M 2012, Persisting Dominance: Crisis of Democracy in a Resource-rich Region in 2014. EPW April5,2014.
  • See Singh K S 2002 People of India Seagull, Calcutta p.79.

[Edited by Papri Sri Raman]

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