Like most ideas in Bihar, this one came directly from the Chief Minister’s office. One morning, a month ago, Nitish Kumar summoned a select group of bureaucrats and announced his desire to celebrate a ‘state foundation day’. Instantly, the state archives was asked to locate one. It came up with a fraying document from 1912 that proclaimed, ‘With the sanction of His Majesty The King, Emperor of India’, the creation of a new province of Bihar and Orissa, separate from Bengal. The document had two dates: 22 March 1912, its date of issue, and 1 April 1912, the date the order ‘shall take effect’.
The former date was chosen, historical accuracy be damned. After all the effort, why risk having Bihar seen as an All Fools’ creation?
And so, 98 years after the British carved it out of the Bengal Presidency, Bihar finally held its first birthday bash this March. An elaborate set was put up in the middle of Patna’s Gandhi Maidan, backed by a cardboard eulogising Bihar in bright red lettering, a black glistening highway strip swirling around it. On top, the ancient Ashokan pillar stood upright, while Golghar, the medieval granary, squatted, and a woman stretched out her arms towards the horizon. Development, heritage, emancipation.
If you still missed the message, children sang and danced it out. They also made rangolis, participated in painting competitions, did karate. Not just in Patna, but in more than 25,000 schools across the state. The special focus on children made sense. Unencumbered by long memory, they had the least trouble accepting it. Most assumed it was a new lesson in history. Some asked if there would be cake.
There was no cake that day. But there were balloons. And even a pledge: ‘On the occasion of Bihar Day, we pledge to protect the glorious heritage of Bihar, strengthen Bihar’s pride and identity, rise above narrow differences, and develop the state and the country.’
So, what explains this sudden burst of sentiment in the state?
It was neither sudden nor sentiment alone. In the last five years, along with building roads, crushing crime and putting the house in order, Nitish Kumar has doggedly chased two intangibles—image and identity. Why bother changing the state if you can’t change the way it is seen, and the way it sees itself? It called for a re-invention of ‘Biharipan’ or Bihari identity, taking it from ‘apman’ (contempt) to ‘samman’ (respect). New symbols, from Nalanda and the Gangetic dolphin to Madhubani paintings and Bhagalpur silk, have been deployed accordingly.
The idea is to empower the Bihari to proudly proclaim himself as Bihari. But underlying all the glory is a story of victimhood: the state being deprived by the Centre, its people being harassed in other states. In battleground Mumbai, it’s a fight against goons. ‘India is for Indians.’ So what if Bihar itself emerged out of an inverted slogan, ‘Bihar is for Biharis’?
In a letter dated 25 August 1911, a British official reported to the Secretary of State, ‘The cry Bihar for Biharis has frequently been raised in connexion with the conferment of appointments. An excessive number of appointments in Bihar being held by Bengalis, a strong belief has grown in Bihar that Bihar will never develop until it is separated from Bengal.’
The 19th century Bengali bhadralok had swarmed into the area, starting its first bank, co-ed school, library, English newspaper and so on. Their power and snobbery drew the resentment of Kayasthas, among the best-educated castes in Bihar. Their leader Sachidanand Sinha even launched a paper, Bihar Times, later renamed Biharee, that led the separatist movement. Some years after 1912, Bihar got for itself a domicile law requiring Bengalis to live in the state for at least ten years to qualify for appointments. Bengalis raised a hue and cry, formed an association, and wrote long, literary, anguished letters to the Congress. Said one written in 1938, addressed to Rajendra Prasad: ‘My services to my brethren have not been a whit less in ardour and character than any of your so called true sons of soil.’ Another declared, ‘The whole Bengali community is in a state of terror…’
It wasn’t until the 1990s that Bengalis finally fled Bihar in large numbers, though many see themselves as the ‘lost tribe of Bihar’. Says Dilip Sinha, a pathologist who heads the Bihar Bengali Association, “We too are celebrating Bihar’s birthday.” How? “By commemorating the day Rabindranath Tagore visited Patna, and the day Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose came here.”
Among the prominent Bengali-speaking Biharis who remain is Shaibal Gupta, an economist who argued in a 1981 Economic and Political Weekly article that Bihar’s ‘retarded sub-nationalism’ was a reason for its failures of development—that Biharis identified with their caste rather than state or citizenship, which kept them from lobbying collectively for the best deal from the Centre, and thus forsaken.
Three decades later, Gupta is mighty pleased: “Nitish Kumar has come to power based on a coalition of extremes [upper and lower castes]. A coalition of extremes requires maximum consensus. You can build maximum consensus only through a caste- and class-neutral ideology. Sub-nationalism is that ideology.”
In election year, ideologies need expression. Expression needs creativity. If Bihar’s birthday still confounds you, see it as an act of creativity.