Bihar: Upper-castes bitter and angry,his backward bastion confused

“If the massacre happened in Lalu's time,justice has been killed in Nitish’s regime”,a victim said.

Written by Vandita Mishra | Laxmanpur Bathe,bihar | Published: December 5, 2013 10:07 pm

The rage has not ebbed here. A group of villagers gather around the memorial to those killed on the night of December 1,1997- on a marble slab set in a brick wall is etched the name and age of every one of the massacre’s 58 victims,from the youngest,Chhote Lal,aged one,to Chhakiya Devi,60. All the victims belonged to the lower castes,mostly Dalits. In October,the Patna High Court acquitted all 26 accused,Bhumihars and Rajputs.

“Fifty eight died and yet this government says there was no murder. Why not let all the poor be killed,thrown into the river?” asks Bodh Paswan. “If the massacre happened in Lalu’s time,justice has been killed in Nitish’s regime”,he says. “We had high hopes from Nitish. But this court decision has destroyed it all”,says ex-mukhiya Ram Saroop.

Barely half a kilometer away,questions about the 1997 massacre are met with stony silence in the upper caste side of the village. Jitender Yadav is the only one willing to talk: “It’s a court decision. What can we say? It was a dark winter night,so cold and rainy that nobody could step out of their homes”. But when the conversation veers to the Nitish government,others join in,angrily. “There is only the road in the name of development”,says Sahib Singh. “No hospital,and no clean water.” “Our part of the village has no water tank,or solar light. Our lane is unpaved,while theirs (lower castes’) is paved. It’s all because of the backward-forward divide”,says Alok Singh.

And then he puts into words an old upper caste discomfort that is increasingly rearing its head again in the aftermath of the BJP-JD(U) breakup: “Mukhiya seats have been reserved for lower castes,even where the forward castes are large in number”. In the changing Bihar landscape after the political divorce in Patna,Laxmanpur Bathe is different from,and similar to,other villages. Different,because here the memory of caste violence has been stoked in a state where caste-killings and violent reprisals are now a mercifully fading remembrance. Yet,the similarity is this: even as the gains made by the Nitish government in the backward caste groups — through targeted programmes for SC groups renamed as Mahadalit,or reservations in panchayats for extremely backward castes (EBCs) — are still fragile,vulnerable to the court verdict in Bathe or to an incomplete empowerment elsewhere,an aggressive upper caste consolidation against Nitish has begun.

Scratch the newly apparent upper caste ire on “development”,and you hit an older resentment of Nitish’s alleged pro-backward tilt and the specific gripe on EBC reservations for mukhiyas. At Bikram,on the outskirts of Patna,Ashok Singh,puts it in figures: earlier,there were 18 Bhumihar mukhiyas out of 32 in the block,now there are 6.

At Nagwan village in district Chhapra,off NH101,Ajay Kumar Tripathi speaks for a group of upper castes: “If there is reservation for the mukhiya,why not for the chief minister? These people (backward castes) don’t follow any system,no work gets done”. While not far away,in the visibly poorer EBC-Muslim part of the same village,there is unanimity only on one thing: development is still where the Pandit and Bhumihar tolas (clusters) are. “This government works for EBCs and Mahadalits only in name”,says Mohd Rustam,a teacher in a private school,the only one in this part of the village who has even heard of the JD(U)-BJP break-up and Modi. “We cannot even access our entitlements because so few of us are educated”,he says. Even though EBCs have become mukhiyas,people here say that only the “boltu”,the powerful,can get their work done.

The story of a rankling,patchy empowerment is far more poignant among the Mahadalits,where every absence is more acute,be it of the school,hospital or electricity and where,above all else,the issue is land. Along with a slew of other benefits and programmes,the Nitish government announced that landless Mahadalits (which include all the state’s 22 Dalit groups except the Paswans) would be given three decimals of land — he later announced even Paswans would be entitled to it.

In many places,as The Indian Express revealed in a series of investigative reports last year,Mahadalits have not yet got the land “pattas”,or only as paper entitlements. No one has got the promised land,for instance,in the Musahar cluster that is the darkest,barest part of village Khairvan in Chhapra. In contrast to the better lit and bustling Bania and Yadav tolas in the same village,there is no electricity here,no road and only seven hand pumps for over 800 people.

News of Nitish’s split with the BJP hasn’t reached Khairvan,nor has Modi. “I know who he (Modi) is”,offers Sanjay Musahar. “He is a leader from Karnataka”. But ask him about Lalu Prasad Yadav and you can sense the unmistakable nostalgia. “Laluji gave us a voice”,says Sanjay,“though he didn’t give anything else”. Even today,Lalu’s RJD is a more visible presence in this area than other parties.

This nostalgia for Lalu,visible among lower caste groups like the Musahars,is also tangible in Bihar’s Muslim mohallas,where,not surprisingly,Modi figures prominently in discussions. In Muslim-dominated Mehsaul,on the edge of Sitamarhi town,for instance,which saw its last major communal conflagration in 1992,many remember how Lalu,then chief minister,had come down from Patna to personally ensure the stanching of communal violence.

Even for those young Muslims who admit to making a break from the past in the last election,in considering or voting for the BJP candidate of the Nitish-led alliance,Modi’s candidature for PM is reviving the question of security. As it has for Tauqir Ahmad Khan,who is doing his MBBS in Kanpur,and Aadil,with a travel agency in Bangalore,both from Ulhanpur in Chhapra district.

They are young,and their vote is for whoever offers the most development and the least corruption,they say. In the last LS election they supported the BJP’s Rajiv Pratap Rudy. But now,“We want development,but also safety”,says Tauqir. “There are so many good leaders in the BJP. Why did it have to bring Modi?” asks Aadil.

As yet,however,in old Muslims as well as young,there is no apparent surge for Nitish on account of his breaking the alliance with the BJP by citing Modi. He must have had his own political calculations,they say,to break what was,after all,a 17-year-long relationship.

After the BJP-JD(U) split,therefore,there is evidence of a new anti-Nitish consolidation of the upper castes. On the other side,however,Nitish’s “coalition of extremes” shows few signs of a similar banding together in his favour. The Mahadalits and EBCs are numerous and scattered groups caught in a stage of uneasy,incomplete empowerment. The Muslims,though fearful of Modi,regard with a certain dry-eyed wariness Nitish’s claim of breaking the NDA alliance because of secularism.

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