Cover Story

The Liberation Struggle of Bihar

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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The BJP stands to gain from a revolt brewing among Dalits, lower Backwards and a section of upper OBCs against the political clout of Yadavs and Kurmis

If bridges could speak, this one over an offshoot of the Phalgu river in Nalanda district of Bihar would protest in resentment at the burden it has had to bear over the years. With bamboo and wooden slats bound haphazardly together with hessian and jute vines by locals, it seems like a sight from an overgrown jungle as it sways, creaks and groans in exhaustion under the weight of a schoolgirl’s bicycle. The world famous tourist site of Nalanda University is not far from here—even state capital Patna is only about 80 km away. And the Mallah enclave of Jol Bigha village, despite being on this route, has somehow remained wedged inextricably in a black hole of development.

Leading the way, Kishan Mallah negotiates traffic on the footbridge with the familiarly of a man who also deals with political and social marginalisation every day. From a community of 23 related sub-castes comprising of Nishads, Mallahs claim descent from the Hindu God Nishad and have been relegated for years to the lower rungs of the OBC pecking order in Bihar’s socio-political life. Kishan Mallah’s ancestors traditionally earned their livelihood from the river, but in today’s Bihar, Mallahs are also cultivators. As we lurch towards the opposite bank, he maintains, “In the 21st century, this is the only way to reach the road from our village. In sickness, for education, work, social relations, for the young, the elderly, the weak, this footbridge is our mainline. It is especially difficult during the rains. This is where Nitish Kumar’s development agenda has left us,” he says.

Months ago, during the centenary celebrations of Bihar, a state minister had boasted that while in a span of 100 years the state had got only 21 river bridges, 16 major new ones had been built in just six years under his government, 17 were under construction and 12 were at proposal stage. Jol Bigha, however, stayed mired in a time warp with its bamboo bridge, despite two pre-2005 bridges on the Phalgu and two built after that.

“Mallahs have traditionally been boatsmen, vital to all forms of river transport, of goods and passengers. And during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s time, there was a proposal to rejuvenate river transport, using boats to transport foodgrain from farmlands to new storage facilities. It didn’t come through. We showed allegiance to Nitish Kumar after he committed to notifying Mallahs as STs, with the attendant reservation in government jobs and education. But now, he’s allied with Lalu Prasad whose party never backed any of our demands,” says Dinesh Kumar.

On the ground, though, despite that promise, Kurmis— the OBC caste to which Bihar’s Chief Minister belongs— proved to the biggest tormentors after Nitish Kumar assumed office for his second term. “We are harassed and bullied daily by them—subjugated socially and lorded over politically. Look at this river. Even our traditional fishing rights are no longer a matter of clear right for us. A Kurmi leader of the area has wrangled the sole right to fish in this steam. He got it by bullying the secretary of the fishermen’s cooperative,” says Dinesh Kumar.

The resentments and sense of entitlements denied, simmering for long, seem set to boil over now. Riding high on the prevailing tidal wave of political consciousness, Kishan Mallah and the younger men of his clan have picked up a whiff of transformation in the air. It promises to rescue them from their current state of deprivation. “This time, we are working to vote en bloc in order to assert our social and political clout in Bihar’s emerging landscape. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has committed to a Rs 1.25 lakh crore development package for our state, and we don’t plan to be left behind on growth under any circumstances. We Mallahs will redraw the map to give ourselves our rightful place in the progress story,” says Dinesh Kumar.

One man spearheading the Nishad aspirational revolution in the caste-mired state is Mukesh Sahni, who calls himself ‘Son of Mallah’. Sahni gave up his vocation as an events manager for an Ambani company and an organiser for Bollywood, and has devoted the past six months to canvassing untiringly for a political awakening among Nishads. As a group, they are spread across Darbhanga, Purnea, Nalanda and other districts, and constitute close to 11 per cent of Bihar’s population. ‘Aage badi ladai hai, NDA mein bhalai hai (there is a big fight ahead and NDA is the best bet),’ say the advertisements, dominated by a huge picture of 34-year-old Sahni. “The people of Bihar will give a befitting reply to both Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in the Assembly elections,” Sahni tells Open. He is determined to get the Nishads their just representation in the Vidhan Sabha as well as Parliament. In comparison, upper castes such as Bhumihars, with as little as 4 per cent of the population, sport two ministers in the current Nitish Kumar government. And that is a power equation that this Mallah man is hellbent on changing. This time, Mukesh Sahni contends, there will be no more swaying or lurching; Nishads will stand tall and firm.

Asha Nagar in Bihar Sharif, the district headquarters of Nalanda, is home to hordes of disgruntled Kushwahas (also called Koeris) who feel they have been pushed around by the Chief Minister. At one time, they felt a sense of kinship with Kurmis as fellow OBCs. Not anymore. Over the years, the land-owning Kushwaha/Koeri community has slowly come into its own, and so even as Yadavs began to dominate the state as a powerful group of OBCs. Today, Kushwahas are ready to voice community- specific concerns and question the socio-political status quo.

Down the road is the prestigious Kisan College, affiliated to Magadh University where some prominent Kushwahas studied. Numerically, Kushwahas are stronger than Kurmis. In enclaves such as Sohsarai, the relatively progressive community of hardworking agriculturists has pushed the envelope in local development. In Sohsarai, for example, one cannot miss the towering presence of a cold storage facility owned by members of the clan. Such progress has contributed to the changing economic profile of farmers in the region. “Nitish Kumar did not allow our leaders to grow and rise to commanding positions of power, although Kurmis and Koeris have had close bonds and even common concerns against upper castes in the pre-Mandal days and against the Yadav domination after Lalu Prasad’s ascension to power. Nitish will be made accountable for betraying the community in the coming election,” asserts Gyanu Mahto, a worker at the cold storage facility.

For close to seven decades, a close alliance of Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris had thrived in state politics. The Triveni Sangh, as it was named when it was floated n 1933, became a driving force for rebellion against the state’s upper-caste dominance. The pressure group, led by Sardar Jagdeo Singh Yadav, Chaudhuri Yadunandan Prasad Mehta and Dr Shivpujan Singh, had social engineering as its aim.

All that, however, changed in early 2005 when, determined to cast off the yoke of Yadav dominance under Lalu Prasad, Bihar’s Koeris joined hands with their once-bitter enemies, the land-owning Bhumihars, a group of upper- castes with whom they has been engaged in battles in Nitish Kumar’s own Nalanda district (besides Nawada and Sheikhpura) under the leadership of Ashok Mahto. When the NDA won power in Patna in 2005, the JD-U’s Nitish Kumar became Chief Minister and moved Kurmis up to the next level of socio-political dominance in Bihar’s caste matrix.

Now, the ‘Grand Alliance’ led by Nitish Kumar (and with Lalu Prasad in tow) is making desperate attempts to revive the alliance of powerful OBC caste groupings. It is not going to be easy, as the years between November 2005 and June 2013, when Kumar broke off relations with the BJP, have changed the political reflexes of Koeris. Apprehensions of a return to the days of subjugation by Yadavs are making it difficult for the Chief Minister to revive an alliance of these ‘Luv-Kush’ castes, as the Kurmi- Koeri caste combination has come to be known. “We have seen the aggrandising tendency of Lalu Prasad and his community. And in power, Nitish Kumar sidelined every Kurmi leader,” says Amaresh Mehta, an analyst.

The real migraine for the JD-U led alliance is the emergence of strong leaders within the NDA who command Kushwaha loyalties as effectively as Ashok Mahto once did for the fight against Bhumihars in the past. Rocking the Grand Alliance’s prospects are Kushwaha leaders such as Upendra Kushwaha, Shakuni Chaudhury and Mahendra Singh.

Nitish Kumar has only himself to blame as he realised pretty late that sidelining a man like Upendra Kushwaha could cost him heavily in the Assembly polls by pushing the Kushwaha vote further into the arms of the BJP. He then sent him to the Rajya Sabha, but he resigned two years short of his term-end and, in 2013, launched his own political party, the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), which later forged an alliance with the BJP for the General Election of 2014. The RLSP won three Lok Sabha seats, including Kushwaha’s own Sitamarhi seat. Today, he’s the man leading the flock into voting together so that each vote counts. According to Kishan Kumar, he is a man to watch. Not only is he keen on making Kushwahas the ‘king makers’ of Bihar, he could even make them kings.

Nitish Kumar’s ancestral village of Kalyan Bigha in Nalanda is not far from Dwaraka Bigha, a Musahar stronghold. A little further away is the now decrepit Fatua- Islampur ‘light railway’ line, a vestigial sign of the trade and affluence that once attracted Usha Martin to set up a private railway network here. Long destroyed by floods, this railway line had a twin that connected Ara to Sasaram. Dwaraka Bigha is where Kundan Kumar, a Sao, leads us, right into the midst of a gathering of Musahars.

Dashrath Manjhi may have become a Musahar icon by carving a road through a mountain to end the isolation of his village after his wife died of an illness without access to a health centre, but his community has failed to blast away the hard neglect of political leaders. In several constituencies such as Atri and Wazirganj in Gaya, as well as in Nawada, Nalanda and Patna districts, Musahars continue to live in abject poverty. They reside in thatched- roof mud huts in colonies with no potable water and no access to primary healthcare centres.

“We will not vote for Nitishji this time. He snatched power from a man who belongs to our community, Jitan Ram Manjhi,” says Janeshwar Manjhi. Asked whether he had heard of the man before he became Chief Minister, he replies, “We did not know about him. But a member of every household here attended the rally organised by Jitan Ram when he was removed as Chief Minister by Nitish Kumar.”

In several Musahar enclaves (or Musheris, as they are known locally), we encounter similar sentiments. At the Musheri in Jandaha on the other side of Patna, the community voters are waiting to avenge the insult meted out to Jitan Ram Manjhi. “Nitish Kumar’s worst crime was to set a plate of food before us first and then grab it right back before we could even take a bite,” says Lakhan Manjhi. The women in the village, too, join Lakhan to voice their grievances. “We will vote for the BJP this time as Manjhi is with that party.”

Jandaha was once a place—like many others in the state—where upper castes would never let Dalits have their say, leave alone align with their political party of preference. Elders in the area recollect the election campaign of Virendra Singh, who won as an independent candidate in 1980. “He would go around atop an elephant. His campaign speeches were just two sentences: ‘If you want to sleep in peace, I will have to be at peace.’ And, ‘I can’t be at peace if I get defeated’,” recalls one of them.

Musahars are no longer afraid to speak out. “We will vote as a block to defeat Nitish Kumar’s candidate,” Lakhan says, clutching to a transistor radio. “We hear messages of the ‘kamal’ on the radio,” he says, referring to the BJP symbol. Incidentally, the family acquired the radio set from a ‘radio mela’ organised by Nitish Kumar for Mahadalits.

After carving out a Mahadalit political constituency— by clubbing together several Dalit castes to form a block accounting for 16 per cent of the population, a block to which the Musahars belong—Nitish Kumar had dangled the luscious carrot of a better life. But Musahars remained mostly voiceless, even though far more politicised and upwardly mobile castes such as Paswans forged ahead in the political quest for clout.

Suddenly, an accommodative man willing to make many compromises for power in Patna saw his political stock shoot up on a sugar rush and his soaring ambitions being taken cognisance of by the BJP against a backdrop of both formations shopping for poll-winning caste combinations. This man was Jitan Ram Manjhi. Exactly how high the stakes were was clear when the BJP even went to the extent of irking ally and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Ram Vilas Paswan while seat-sharing negotiations were on. The Paswans of Bihar have long been the most vocal and politicised among the state’s Dalit communities, way above Musahars in the social and political hierarchy. Under the leadership of Ram Vilas Paswan, who has held key berths in varied governments in New Delhi, including Railways and Telecom, they have grown vocal. But for the NDA, the strategy was clear: wooing the fast-rising if self-styled leader of Musahars, the most deprived of Mahadalits, would send out an unalloyed signal of hope and empowerment to the entire community from the BJP. “In the past, Musahars and Paswans never voted together. But the entire Dalit community will vote as one in the coming election,” says Sonelal, Lakhan’s elder son, as he volunteers to take us to another Musheri to demonstrate the growing clout of Jitan Ram Manjhi.

The time has come, the new political message is going out, for the marginalised Musahars to be their own moving finger that turns the pages of both history and destiny.

Sanjay Kumar Sao’s ancestors sold puffed rice and roasted chana. Sao, 21, however, decided to break the tradition. He is now resplendently couched on the state’s symbolic ‘super highway’ to development and progress. He vends mobile phone and iPad chargers, not roasted chana, on the four-lane toll road from Patna to Bhaktiarpur. As cars stop at the toll pay counter, he turns up, proudly offering an entire range of modern products: thick pins, thin pins and flat inserts for every kind of cell phone available in the market. Nokia, Micromax, Ericsson, Samsung, BlackBerry are names that bounce off his tongue with ease and confidence. He is not highly educated, having barely managed to scrape through high school, but he is spiffily dressed to blend in with his work environment. And he is a marketing man with a special talent for sales. He seems the kind of man who is genetically endowed with a knack for selling blue skies to birds in flight. In the run-up to the winter Assembly elections in his home state, he has decided to use his skills to also sell the virtues of the BJP and Narendra Modi.

Zipping past him are sedans, SUVs, ATVs, minis and pick- up trucks of every size and sort, shape and form. In Bihar’s socio-political matrix, Sanjay Kumar Sao comes from an EBC (extremely backward class) caste of Kanus, whose lives were once heavily dependent on Bihar’s extensively agrarian economy as vendors of foodstuff and sundry eats.

Sao is not slow to catch on that you have no interest whatsoever in his mobile phone chargers; and he makes them disappear with a speedy conjuror’s trick. Instantly, he switches his attention to Open’s queries on the state of the Republic and the political party that is likely to catch the upwind this time round. The numbers he cites may be dubious, but his enthusiasm is not. “We are part of a group of castes that have for long been engaged in hawking things on the streets and working in micro agro-industries. We are the most progressive among this group which includes others such as Halwais (makers of sweetmeat) Thatheras (utensil makers and sellers), Turhas (vegetable and fruit vendors) and Telis (oil pressers),” he says. Sao, like many others of his community, has also doubled up this election season as a self-appointed publicist of the BJP.

Unlike in the rural-agrarian society he hails from, where caste-based vocations regulate social interactions to an extent even today, Sao’s newfound friends are from a range of castes. Points out Pandu, a Turha who sells fruits and cold drinks to commuters on buses and other modes of public transport: “I moved here just two months ago from my village in Nawada. In the village, our income mainly depends on a good monsoon and a good harvest. But even the paddy crop in several places has been destroyed this year as a result of the poor rains. I have to earn a living for my family… I have three children and elderly parents to take care of.”

Of the five men gathered there, four are in their early twenties, but unlike their cousins in the countryside, they are exposed to a vastly different environment. Patna is a hop-skip-and-jump away. As is also Varanasi and, thanks to newfound mobility, even Bengaluru. Pandu’s friend tells me he worked at a petrol pump in the South for a year before he grew nostalgic for his food and friends and returned to Patna. It was only recently that he moved to his current job location, the four-lane toll road. He ‘connects’ public transport passengers with local dhabas and eateries along the highway, he says. “There are no jobs to be had for love or money in the village,” he maintains. Away from the rural and still feudal milieu in what promises to be a highly competitive election season of ‘Do or Die’ aggression, the youth are all vocal, enriched by mobility and exposure to new societies.

The voices of the young and restless among the economically aspirational but relatively poor EBCs of Bihar offer a good indication of the resentment that threatens to go against the state’s incumbent government. A weak education system and rampant unemployment have injured the Chief Minister’s prospects among these groups even more. “Nitish Kumar’s government has perverted the education system. Teachers here are not equipped to teach. Prime Minister Modi speaks about providing quality education and healthcare,” says Ram, an EBC leaning towards the NDA.

All said and analysed, a post-Mandal tectonic shift in Bihar’s caste-clad society seems to be in the offing. This election season, the youthful discontent of the small trading class of EBCs will likely provide an interesting new epilogue. For now, as the battle rages, it’s an edge-of-the- seat thriller that all of them want a piece of.