Bihar stares at a new phase of caste wars

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Reprisal A key activist involved in mobilising witnesses in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre case of 1997 (above) was killed in March
Reprisal A key activist involved in mobilising witnesses in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre case of 1997 (above) was killed in March

Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi has been targeted by the media for his unsavoury remark against doctors. On 17 October, while inaugurating a six-bed hospital in Motihari, Manjhi said: “Agar garibon ke ilaaj ke saath khilwaad hua, main haath kaat dunga (If there is any negligence in the treatment of the poor, I will chop off the doctor’s hands).” His latest comment came just a few days after his outburst against doctors at the Patna Medical College and Hospital (Robin Hood mirth for poor patients in Bihar, 18 October).

Though Manjhi later clarified that he was using the words only as a metaphor, the damage had been done. The doctors refused to calm down and demanded an apology from the chief minister. Soon, there were speculations in the media that Manjhi was trying to wrest the mantle of being the patron of Dalits and Mahadalits from his mentor, former chief minister Nitish Kumar. In the backdrop of the resurrection of violent reprisals against Dalits and Mahadalits, an attempt was made to pit Manjhi against Nitish.

Manjhi was considered a protégé of Nitish until recently. In recent times, however, an impression has been gaining ground that the chief minister has stepped out of Nitish’s shadow and is asserting himself as an independent entity. One of his off-the-cuff remarks that Nitish may not be the JD(U)’s chief ministerial candidate in the 2015 Assembly election is being cited as proof of this assertion of independence. It is also being argued that Manjhi is convinced his Mahadalit background will enable him to stay in power as long as he continues to work in accordance with the caste equations associated with his party.

Manjhi’s outburst against doctors is being viewed in this background. Surely, as the chief minister, he should have been more careful in his choice of words. He had observed that doctors often stay away from duty at the cost of a large number of poor patients who visit the hospitals every day in the hope of receiving good treatment. The patients and their relatives often have to return disappointed as the doctors are missing, often for hours. The targeting of Manjhi by the media, following his outburst, is indeed part of a strategic attempt to deride him.

Ever since the campaign for the Lok Sabha election, the threat of feudal violence has once again reared its head in rural Bihar. The manner in which the feudal forces started taking refuge with the BJP ahead of the election had given rise to the apprehension that Bihar may witness a resurrection of the kind of rural violence that had rocked the state in the 1970s. It is not merely a coincidence that there has been a sharp increase in violence against Mahadalits and Dalits in the villages of Bihar in the past six months. These incidents underline a new trend of consolidation of the feudal forces and intensification of oppression in the rural areas.

Many people expected that with Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan joining the NDA, a new political equation would crystallise in Bihar. That hope has been belied. The antagonistic relations between the upper castes and the Mahadalits acted as a stumbling block. Instead, the feudal forces consolidated in rural Bihar in the wake of the installation of the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre.

There has been a spurt in crimes against Mahadalits in the past six months. On 23 March, Budhram Paswan, a Mahadalit who was also involved in election campaigning for an overground Naxalite party, was found dead in Repura village of Bhojpur district. He was one of the key activists who had ensured that witnesses in major massacre cases withstood intimidation by upper-caste landlords and testified in court. His efforts resulted in convictions in the Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe massacre cases. Unfortunately, the Patna High Court later overturned the verdicts and acquitted all the accused.

Since then, Budhram had been helping the survivors to appeal the Supreme Court against the acquittals. Naturally, his murder was a big victory for members of the Ranvir Sena, an upper-caste militia allegedly involved in the massacres, and they are said to have celebrated it as well.

A fortnight ago, more than 300 Mahadalits had to flee Pura village in the chief minister’s home district of Gaya. The exodus was triggered by the murder of their leader Arjun Majhi by upper-caste goons. Arjun was killed in order to stop his brother, Vakil Majhi, from contesting the election for the post of the president of the Primary Agriculture Cooperative Society. The Mahadalits who fled the village took shelter at the block headquarters for three days and returned only after the district administration assured their safety. The police are yet to arrest most of the murder accused. Just imagine the audacity of the upper-caste goons, who had little fear of the law in a state ruled by a Mahadalit chief minister.

On 15 October, Sai Ram, a 15-year-old Mahadalit boy from Mohanpur village in Rohtas district, was burnt alive by an upper-caste landlord, Kunkun Singh. Three of Sai’s goats had strayed into the landlord’s fields and nibbled at the paddy crop. An enraged Kunkun rushed to Sai’s home and thrashed him as well as his mentally challenged brother. When Sai resisted, he doused him with kerosene and set him on fire. The villagers were too scared to intervene and watched the gory incident as mute spectators.

Mahadalit assertion Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi
Mahadalit assertion Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi. Photo: Sonu Kishan

In yet another gruesome incident, Ranvir Sena goons raped six Musahar women ragpickers on the night of 8 October at Kurmuri village in Bhojpur district. The incident took place when nine ragpickers from the nearby Dumaria village approached a scrap dealer in Kurmuri. The shop owner, Neelnidhi Singh, his brother Jayprakash and their associate Guddu allegedly kept the payment on hold with the excuse that it would take time to arrange the cash. The total value of the scrap sold was Rs 1,000. As it was already past 6 pm and the women had to walk 8 km back to their village, they kept insisting on prompt payment. Neelnidhi allegedly flashed a gun at the women to terrorise them into staying back at the shop. The women were then allegedly forced to drink alcohol and raped. The women regained consciousness around midnight and jumped into a drain to escape from their tormentors.

One of the victims reported the matter to the police the next day and an FIR was lodged, in which three persons were named as the accused. Neelnidhi is a former area commander of the Ranvir Sena and is facing 18 criminal cases. Kurmuri, a village of 4,000 people dominated by upper-caste Bhumihars, has been witness to inter-caste tension since the killing of former Ranvir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh in June 2012. The militia’s activities are said to be on the rise in the area.

While these incidents are ample proof of the deepening caste divide in Bihar, another incident involving the chief minister provides further insight. In August, after Manjhi visited a temple in Madhubani district, the place was washed and cleaned, presumably to ‘purify’ it. The Mahadalit chief minister had polluted the temple! Ironically, after Manjhi made the revelation, he became the target of ridicule. Political leaders across the spectrum denied the incident. It was even argued that such an incident could not take place in Bihar. Some even accused Manjhi of creating a political controversy. Surprisingly, even his Cabinet colleagues openly expressed their disbelief and said that the chief minister was misinformed. Perhaps, that is why no case has yet been filed against the temple authorities.

If a chief minister is treated like this, what can a poor Mahadalit expect?

It cannot be denied that the BJP’s rise to power at the Centre has boosted the morale of the upper castes in Bihar. They had been lying low since the 1990s, but now they want to reassert their power and regain their hegemony. They are not willing to tolerate anything that they perceive to be an insult.

In several interviews that he gave in the months leading up to his death, Brahmeshwar Singh had openly admitted to having been a member of the RSS since childhood. He had said that he wanted to see Modi as prime minister. Significantly, the upper-caste Bhumihar leaders of the BJP did not feel shy in openly identifying with Singh. BJP leader Giriraj Singh even described the Ranvir Sena chief as “Bihar’s Gandhi”.

In fact, the upper castes have been angry with Nitish for severing his relations with the BJP. After parting ways with the saffron party, Nitish focussed on consolidating his support base among the OBCs, EBCs and Muslims, and the upper castes did not like it. They took it as an affront to their hegemony. They did not switch their loyalty to the BJP because of a newfound love for Hindutva. Instead, their move was aimed at gaining back the ground they had lost to the OBCs and Dalits during Lalu Prasad Yadav’s rule.

Significantly, after Nitish floated the grand alliance with Lalu, he was accused of ushering Bihar into ‘Jungle Raj’. Elections in the state are usually fought on the basis of caste and religion. By bringing in Manjhi as the chief minister, Nitish sent out the signal that he would undertake the task of empowering the Dalits, who comprise more than 15 percent of the state’s population. Nitish’s bid to consolidate the EBC and Mahadalit vote banks came within days of his launching a no-holds-barred attack on Modi. Undeniably, Nitish had foreseen a future without the BJP and wanted to consolidate his vote banks among the communities that are likely to back him to the hilt in the polls. Now, Manjhi is suitably assisting his mentor.

letters@tehelka.com

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