|Estimated 6 % of Bihari population plus significant population in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and West Bengal|
|Hindi, Bhojpuri, Magadhi, Maithili, Angika, Vajjika, Bundeli|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Kanyakubja Brahmins, Jujhautiya Brahmins, Saryupareen Brahmins|
|Commonly called Babhan|
Bhumihar (sometimes referred to as Bhumihar Brahmin and also known as Babhan) is a Hindu community mainly found in the Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bengal, Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh and Nepal.
The word Bhumihar is of relatively recent origin, being derived from bhoomi (land) and first recorded in 1865. It was adopted as part of a process of upward social mobility. The alternate name of Babhan has been described as a "distorted colloquial term".
Origins and migration
As with many castes in India, there are numerous mythical stories regarding the origins of the Bhumihar community, including ones that say they are the offspring of a union between Rajput men and Brahmin women and that they derive from Brahman-Buddhists whose position in Hindu society was lost due to a "fall". The Bhumihars themselves dislike these particular two tales and maintain that, despite some significant differences between themselves and other Brahmin communities, they are in fact more privileged in status than them.
Oral history suggests that the Bhumihars migrated to Bihar before the fifteenth-century CE, during a period when the Cheros and Bhars lost control of the region to incoming communities that included Rajputs and Muslims. From then, and including when the area became a part of the Mughal empire, the Bhumihars in particular were prominent in village and pargana life.
A part of the Bhumihar belief that they are more privileged than other Brahmins is based on their perceived kingly roles. In late-nineteenth century British India, Bhumihars were significant landholders in the Saran district of Bihar. Particularly notable among these zamindars was the Hathwa Raj, for which extensive records survive, but there were also many among the caste who had less elevated social standing, being ryots or even agricultural labourers. The lower-status members were not, however, treated as poorly as, say, the Chamars: the expansion in production of indigo at this time was reported by administrators to have caused a land shortage that resulted in increased rents being charged but the Bhumihar ryots suffered to a lesser extent from these than some other communities, presumably because they were favoured. Nirmal Sengupta describes the Bhumihars of Bihar as then comprising some zamindars with "fairly big" estates, such as Ganesh Dutt, and of the rest the majority "constituted the substantial tenantry which, in economic terms, would constitute a section of the upper-middle and rich peasants"; other agriculturalist caste groups in the area, such as the Yadavs and Kurmis, were significantly less diverse in their status.
Some Bhumihars served as soldiers in the Bengal Army, which comprised a greater number of upper caste recruits after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 but had fewer Brahmins from that time because it was believed that they had been significant players in the rebellion. As early as 1842, there had been 28,000 Rajput and 25,000 Brahmin members among the 67,000 Hindus in the force, with Bhumihars being classified as Brahmins.
The Permanent Settlement introduced by the East India Company under Cornwallis in 1793 to secure revenue from land rents dramatically affected land ownership and social standings in Bihar, giving considerable power to the zamindar class in whom the land was vested. These people became more and more alienated from the traditional village structure and were not generally known for their benevolence, even on the mostly small estates: they led profligate lifestyles, engaged in conspicuous consumption, attempted to extract money and services by illegal as well as licit means and, according to Mitra, were "ignorant idlers, slothful, devoid of education and abilities and therefore totally unable to play the role expected of them". The change in emphasis from rents based on production to rents based on ownership gave them no incentive to invest in such things as irrigation and every incentive in times of economic hardship to seek evictions of tenants so as to achieve higher rents from new occupants. A change in official tack from 1885, when the Bengal Tenancy Act was introduced and first guaranteed some tenant rights, served to annoy the zamindars and increase expectations among lesser groups. Agrarian tensions were thus not uncommon and further tensions were caused by the British census administrators, whose desire to categorise the numerous castes in terms of their standing socially and in the ritual varna system led to a politicisation of communities in the quest for a favourable official recognition.
The Brahmanic status of the Bhumihars was a matter of debate. They were accepted socially as such but not in ritual terms because they were cultivators. They were not allowed, for example, to perform priestly duties and they had no knowledge of Sanskrit but as they made economic gains it was this recognition that they sought. Like many other aspirational castes, they followed the process of sanskritisation to achieve their ends, forming the Bhumihar Brahmin Mahasabha (BBM) in 1896 as a pressure group.[a] One significant figure in the BBM was the sanyasi (mendicant) Sahajanand Saraswati.[b]
In 1899, the Bhumihar Brahmin Mahasabha, with financial aid from a zamindar, established a college at Muzaffarpur in northern Bihar. This was accredited to award degrees in the following year and it was a significant development because education in the area was improving rapidly but students desirous of furthering it had to travel to Bhagalpur, Calcutta or Patna. By 1920, 10 per cent of Bhumihars in Bihar were literate, making them one of the few castes of whom this could be said; in this achievement, however, they were well behind the Kayasthas (33 per cent) and some other groups.
As with the Rajputs, Kayasthas and other high castes of Bihar — and as opposed to the methods used by most lower castes — neither the Mahasabha nor any other formal body exercised power to make and enforce caste rules.
Persistent pressure from the BBM, who glorified the history of the community, led to official recognition of the Bhumihars as "Babhan" in the later Raj censuses. According to historian Ashwani Kumar, the Bhumihar claim to Brahmin status means that today "unlike other upper castes, [they] guard the local caste hierarchy more zealously for they perpetually feel the pressure of being dislocated and discredited in the topsy-turvy world of caste."
Bhumihars are considered a politically volatile community. Sri Krishna Sinha, born into a Bhumihar Brahmin family is considered the architect of modern Bihar. Barring the war years, Sinha was Chief Minister of Bihar from the time of the first Congress Ministry in 1937 until his death in 1961. He led Dalit’s entry into the Baidyanath Dham temple (Vaidyanath Temple, Deoghar), reflecting his commitment to the upliftment and social empowerment of dalits. He was the first Chief Minister in the country to abolish the zamindari system.
- The name of Pradhan Bhumihar Brahman Sabha is also used and appears to refer to the same organisation as the Bhumihar Brahmin Mahasabha.
- Some sources say that Swami Sahajanand Saraswati was in fact of the Jujhautiya Brahmin community but his involvement in the Bhumihar Brahmin Mahasabha is not doubted.
- Arun Kumar (25 January 2005). "Bhumihars rooted to the ground in caste politics". The Times of India. Retrieved 2008-04-05.
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- Kumar, Ashwani (2008). Community Warriors: State, Peasants and Caste Armies in Bihar. Anthem Press. p. 126. ISBN 9781843317098.
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