Don’t blame Rabri, Laloo

No mainline political party, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal, is really relevant to Jehanabad’s politics of bloody massacres

Home minister, L.K. Advani has made this point repeatedly: the rule of law does not prevail in Bihar. When he says this he possibly reflects his party’s political position on the ruling state regime of Rabri Devi–Laloo Prasad Yadav. Which is that the regime itself comprises lawless, if not unlawful elements and is, therefore, incapable of either upholding or enforcing the rule of law in the state. In the wake of the recent Jehanabad massacres, Advani and his party have become all the more convinced about their argument. But it would be a tragedy (probably no worse than the massacres themselves) if we were to get carried away by the argument and seek to find an answer to the curse of Jehanabad by focussing on the character of the state government.

This is because no mainline political party, including Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, is really relevant to the politics of Jehanabad. As is quite apparent, the bloody corpse count being done by two outlawed outfits in this deadly game of political one–up–man–ship, does not leave any scope for parliamentary politics. Of the two groups, one is the Ranvir Sena, a private militia of upper caste landowners, and the other is the Maoist Coordination Committee, a so–called militant organisation of the dispossessed lower castes. The very fact that the two are mobilising and nurturing their respective constituencies by mass murders proves that extreme violence has become acceptable to the supporters of the warring groups. In this situation, mainline democratic politics have become redundant.

Let’s first look at why Jehanabad is a special problem even in problem–ridden Bihar. Located to the southwest of Patna, Jehanabad district was created following the reorganisation of Patna and Gaya districts. It has no industry to talk of, but agriculturally it is well endowed. The land is fertile (part of the Gangetic plains) and is supported by the Sone irrigation system. Of course, the neglect of infrastructure has made this irrigation system non–functional in many parts of the district. The population is dependent on agriculture, but the land’s bounty has remained stagnant, and this makes the strife for land quite sharp.

On top of this, in a caste–ridden society, the caste divide in Jehanabad is particularly acute. The preponderant castes are Bhumihars, upper–caste land–owning farmers, Yadavas, politically assertive intermediate caste marginal farmers, and Dalits, landless lower caste peasants. A peculiar feature about Jehanabad is the high concentration of Dalits — in fact, it is the highest in Bihar. The sharp caste division has made Jehanabad a fertile zone for experimenting with extreme politics. One of the initial extreme leaders of Jehanabad was Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, a sadhu who got drawn to the communist movement and founded the Bihar Pradesh Kisan Sabha. He remains one of the revered figures of Bihar communists.

The communists were able to strike roots quite early in the region. In fact, the CPI was quite popular among the Bhumihars to begin with as the party’s leadership came from this relatively educated upper caste. But the honeymoon was brief — once the communists took up the demand for minimum wages and share–cropping rights, the land–owning Bhumihars felt alienated. As long as the CPI was organising movements against the zamindars, the land-owning sections felt drawn to it, but once the focus moved to  themselves, it became a different story. By the early sixties, the Yadavas became the vanguard of the CPI.

By the seventies, politics began taking a violent turn in Jehanabad. The CPI was furiously opposed by the Bhumihars and a measure of desperation crept in among them when despite their opposition, the CPI was able to send Yadavas to the Lok Sabha — Ram Ashrey Prasad Singh, a CPI leader belonging to the Yadava caste, was the main success story. The notorious King Mahendra, a Bhumihar Congress leader who patronised criminals and specialised in booth–capturing, grew in opposition to the CPI. Subsequently, there was Sardar Krishna Singh and other Bhumihar toughies. The ground, in other words, was being laid for a higher level of political violence in Jehanabad in comparison to the adjoining areas.

The Yadavas, unfortunately, were found wanting in their attitude to the castes lower to them — the most backward castes like Kahars (palanquin bearers) and Mallahs (boatmen) and, of course, the scheduled castes. By and large, the Yadavas did to the lower castes what the higher castes did to them. The Dalits were oppressed, denied minimum wages, and their women routinely violated by both the upper and the intermediate castes. 

Culturally, however, this region was different from north Bihar. The Brahminical varna system did not have the kind of cultural sanction as it did north of the Ganga. Acknowledgement of upper caste ‘supremacy’ could be obtained here only under compulsion.

The combination of the Yadava attitude — or roughly speaking, the CPI’s politics — and upper caste oppression created conditions for the growth of still more extreme politics: in the main, it led to the growth of the IPF, a Marxist–Leninist formation which mobilised the low castes and vowed to extract peasant rights by the power of the gun. Subsequently, the M–L groups splintered, some joined parliamentary politics, while some, like the MCC, became very ruthless and barbaric in pursuit of their theory of annihilation of class enemies. Today, there are charges of the MCC behaving like a mercenary army whose ‘services’ have been bought by political parties from time to time.

It’s a measure of the nature of politics in this region of Bihar that virtually every caste has built and developed its own private army. The Bhumihars initially had their Bramharshi Sena (now it has become the Ranvir Sena to which all upper castes pledge support), the Yadavas, the Lorik Sena, the Kurmis, the Bhumi Sena, while the Dalits had their underground squads under the banner of M–L groups to counter and fight these private militias. Survival, in other words, hinged on a group’s armed might and the political discourse developed accordingly. 

No where in Bihar has the macabre phrase, chhey inch chota kar dena (slicing six inches from a person’s height — by slashing of the throat), been actually practised the way it has in central Bihar. Easy availability of illegal arms has made it all quite widespread.

Since the mid–Eighties, there have been mass murders. Topping the massacre milestones are the killings in Arwal where 70–80 Dalits were killed, and the Damoha killings soon thereafter when 25 upper castes were beheaded. It fell into a pattern after that. Adding to the spate of killings were other vested interests who utilised private armies to settle different kinds of arguments. Overall, while in the rest of Bihar the upper castes were learning to come to terms with the politics of Laloo Prasad Yadav and grudgingly acknowledge the importance of backwards politics, in Jehanabad time virtually stood still. Caste contradictions remained just as strong and caste rivalries implacable.

In the backdrop of this was, of course, the land issue. For one thing, land reforms have not been carried out in Bihar and in the district of Jehanabad the state has failed to rustle up even relatively less fertile excess land for distribution. For another thing, despite the prosperity of the land–owning upper caste (not all of them are, however landed; a good 40 per cent of the upper castes are marginal farmers), and despite the mobilisation by M–L groups, statutory minimum wages are simply not paid in this area. As a matter of fact, the issue has ceased to be an economic one; for the landlords it is now a question of prestige — how can they buckle under duress and meet the demand? And at the same time, the Dalits are determined to extract their due.

In this situation of extreme polarisation, nothing really will be gained in Jehanabad by replacing the Rabri government by central rule. At most, central rule would be viewed by Bhumihars and other upper castes of the area as BJP rule and would encourage them to wreck a more ruthless ‘revenge’. And, as a corollary, it would make groups like MCC even more desperate to establish that its power has not been diminished by the change of government in Patna, thus possibly escalating the spiral of killings. Instead of getting dragged into the political football over the massacres, it is time to treat Jehanabad as a national challenge.

A ‘national challenge’, of course, sounds like a moth–worn cliché. The kind of thing that is said when no solutions are in sight. But as it happens in Jehanabad, a start can be made by persuading the landlords to pay minimum wages. Given the kind of complex emotions that this otherwise simple demand is expected to generate, it requires an effort from every national party. Those who wear bleeding hearts on their sleeves whenever the fields of central Bihar are strewn with corpses could, as a very minimum, campaign for this basic right. You would be surprised how dramatic can be the change in political mood if this were to happen.  

Archived from Communalism Combat, April1999, Year 6  No. 53, Comment



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