Bhubaneswar: In an unexpectedly multicultural setting, caste politics are felt

The state capital of Odisha is seeing an unexpected political campaign as the state holds concurrent elections for Assembly and Parliamentary seats. Despite having the state’s most urban, varied, and educated population, the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat has been the focal point of a high-stakes political contest between the BJD and BJP because of caste.


Manmath Routray, the BJD candidate for Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha, has been aided by caste politics. After several years as a pilot, he left his position to run against Aparajita Sarangi, the current BJP MP and a former IAS official.

The BJD is basing a substantial portion of its Manmath campaign on its own history of prosperity in Bhubaneswar. The party questions Sarangi’s commitment to her own constituency since 2019, citing initiatives like slum redevelopment, urban transportation, sports infrastructure, and the refurbishment of cultural and religious institutions.

But the local party has subtly allowed a rival campaign to run in the district. Manmath’s father, seasoned Congressman Suresh Routray, a six-term member of the Congress Party legislature, is leading it. In an attempt to win over Congressmen, the BJD has deftly appropriated Manmath’s father. 2019 saw Suresh win an MLA seat from Jatni, which is a part of the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha constituency. He is among the select few opposition lawmakers in Odisha whose name is well known.

In addition to being an Odia by birth, Suresh also makes the argument for Manmath that he is a Khandayat pua (son). Sarangi, who was born into a Bihari Brahmin family and married an Odia from the same caste, stands in stark contrast to this caste narrative.

In Odisha, the Khandayats were a caste of peasant-militia owners. For their part in the Paika Bidroha, which is regarded as the first significant armed uprising against the East India Company in 1817, Khandayats are highly regarded in Odisha. Odias reveres Buxi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar, a Khandayat commander and the leader of the revolt, as the King of Khordha.

The BJP is well aware of how powerful the Paika story is in Odisha and how important it is to the prevailing Khandayats. As the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley honored the momentous occasion in his 2017 Budget Speech to Congress. Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the Paika rebels’ descendants. In a move that was not to be matched, Chief Minister of Odisha Naveen Patnaik wrote to the Central Government claiming that Paika Bidroha was India’s first fight of independence. The Odisha cabinet granted permission in 2022 to develop a Paika Memorial on around 10 acres close to the city of Bhubaneswar.

The caste movement in Bhubaneswar in 2024 is noteworthy from a political standpoint on two fronts. First, modern Odia masculinity is being interwoven with the valor of Khandayat warriors from the past. Second, the caste that is oppressed and fighting for legal rights and social justice is not the one spearheading the Khandayat pua movement. Rather, it is the local caste dominating member expressing their pride in their caste. Within Odia politics and society, Khandayats have had prominent roles, ranging from Chief Ministers Harekrushna Mahtab and Nilamani Routray to authors like Fakir Mohan Senapati and Sachi Routray.

Odisha has not been significantly touched by caste movements that have affected Indian politics, despite the state’s sizable OBC and Dalit populations. Purusottam Nayak of the Congress campaigned against Jadumani Mangaraj of the People’s Independent Party in a 1954 by-election in the Kendrapara Assembly seat. Mangaraj had centered his campaign on the pride in the Khandayat caste. Following a fierce election contest that included featured Congress Khandayat leaders and Chief Minister Nabakrushna Choudhury, the Congress candidate prevailed.

Bhubaneswar, which has become more multicultural over the last ten years, doesn’t seem like the right place for this caste experiment. However, the story is touching a nerve since a lot of MLA candidates are now presenting their Khandayat heritage.

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