Bhola’s chai ki dukan (tea shop) with space barely for one wooden bench inside and one outside, is a distinctive Muzaffarpur landmark. It prides itself on having been a hub of the “aandolan” (Jayaprakash Narayan’s uprising calling for radical change) in the 1970s.
“This shop had a code name, ‘Hotel D Paris’, so it didn’t come to the notice of the police,” says its bespectacled and amiable owner, Bhola Chaudhary. At that time, activists and students came here for secret meetings, knowing they would get help in finding a place to stay or the ticket to the train out of Muzaffarpur. “I would be a conduit. They would give me papers, pamphlets. Nitishji came here as a student leader.”
Tea was what you had with “charcha (conversation)”. Now, “charcha is hardly there. We have distanced ourselves from our own problems, we are scattered,” says a retired teacher, a regular from the old days, who sits silently on the bench inside and refuses to give his name. Today, he says, Bhola’s shop has become a symbol, a ceremonial halt for those who were active in larger causes once. “How can you talk today, when everyone speaks so loud, and divisions run so deep?”
“Mat bhed hai, man bhed nahi (we only have differences of opinion, no antagonism),” insists Abdul Majeed, district president of the RJD minority cell, also a regular. “For 15 days of the election, we curse each other, and then we go back to drinking tea together.” But “there are bad days to come”, he says. “This is the first time in this country when the majority of 86 per cent is feeling endangered by a
minority of 14 per cent.”
This statement hangs uneasy in the cramped chai shop and seems to provoke businessman Mukul Saran: “There are people who speak for Pakistan. How did Kanhaiyya (Kumar) come into the limelight? Because of those who say ‘Bharat tere tukde tukde…’.” It’s an awkward moment, and it passes, but the small chai shop that once accommodated fundamental rebellions and
debates while taking for granted a continuing civility now seems like a fragile outpost of an earlier time.
‘Desh bhakti’ in the mix
In the city outside, Hindu religious processions have become louder and more frequent, residents say, and “desh bhakti (patriotic fervour)” has been injected into the mix. The Ramnavami procession this time made its way through a city awash with saffron flags like never before, and it featured DJs who played songs with war-like lyrics on Pakistan and Kashmir, and a “shastra pradarshan”
After Pulwama, there were processions in memory of the CRPF personnel who were killed, every day, for 10-12 days. Local newspapers organised their own marches. After Balakot, “vijay juloos”, or victory marches, continued for days.
Muzaffarpur used to throb to national issues, says Pramod Kumar who teaches Hindi in Langat Singh College. “It was where Ashok Mehta came from Bombay as the socialists’ candidate in the 1950s, and later in 1977, where George Fernandes was elected as a symbol of resistance to the Emergency. Nobody was an outsider for Muzaffarpur. But in the last 20 years, the national outlook has shrunk, the talk is only of caste equations. Do we have a youth policy for an increasingly young population — it’s a question nobody is asking.”
Jobs have not been created, so Pulwama is being made to fill the gap, they say. And the ticket to Sadhvi Pragya Thakur only underlines the new politics: “Ab chunav kewal jeetne ke liye hoga (the election will be fought only to win)”. And ours is only “vidhwa vilap (the widow’s lament)”, says Jaikant Singh, Kumar’s colleague who teaches Bhojpuri, as talk shifts to a “mass hypnosis” being worked up helped by a pliant media through TV and smart phone.
The contest in Muzaffarpur is between two Nishad/Mallah candidates, the BJP’s Ajay Nishad vs VIP’s Dr Rajbhushan Chaudhary Nishad. The social engineering is all too visible — the VIP, floated just ahead of these elections has been given this seat by the Lalu-Congress alliance in an attempt to woo and divide the substantial Mallah vote. But if the caste calculation is obvious, Nishad/Mallah issues are missing from the contest.
Anil Prakash, a JP-ite who worked among the Mallahs in Bhagalpur in the 1980s and participated in their struggles for fishing rights, talks of the continuing crises and exploitation of the community along the Gangetic zone. “Mukesh Sahani (leader of VIP) has not gone beyond the issue of reservations for the Mallahs. He has not touched several economic issues tied to the riverine systems and the lives traditionally tied to them.”
The fish catch has depleted terribly after the building of the Farakka barrage and because of increasing pollution. As a result, livelihoods are being affected in eight states. In 1990, the zamindari and tax system in flowing water came to an end, a free fishing system was established, but now the question, says Prakash, is: Where is the water in the dying river?
Yet, the activist draws hope from a new roiling that has made itself visible despite the parties, outside party spaces: “This time, without any big leader organising it, there was a successful bandh against the dilution of the SC-ST Atrocities Act and against the move to shrink the quantum of reservations in Central universities by making them department-based — there was no Lalu Yadav at the forefront, no Tejashwi either. Yet there was golbandi (mobilisation)”.
A Dalit political echo
In the Thakkar Bapa Ambedkar (Kalyan) Chhatravas, a hostel for Dalit students inside the Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar Bihar university campus, the young men talk about the issue uppermost on their mind: “We participated in the bandh against the dilution of the SC/ST Act in April 2018 and then against the 13 Point Roster system for faculty reservations in universities in March 2019. This hostel was closed down,” says Bittoo Kumar, 20-year-old. “Modiji is only asking for votes in the name of religion and now in the name of Pulwama. He wants a Hindu Rashtra. But India is no Nepal”.
Pappu Kumar, 26, asks: “Why has this government announced reservation for forward castes? Howsoever poor the savarnas are, I know from my village that they have at least some land. Modi has only busied himself in travelling abroad, wasting public money. What is the proof that 300 were killed in Balakot? If Nitish had fought alone, we would have supported him because for SCs-STs, he has done the most. I do not like the Mahagathbandhan candidate or leaders on the other side, but hum virodh mein hain, majboori hai (we are on protest, we have no option)”.
Many students speak of the Nitish regime’s work for the SC-ST communities — but they have only heard from their elders how Lalu Yadav’s politics once helped give the disprivileged a voice, they say. But now, the Dalit mobilisations against the government have created a new political echo that could help the Lalu-led Mahagathbandhan, almost despite itself.
As if sensing the counter-mobilisation, the talk, on the other side of the political fence, is of the importance of ensuring a high turn-out.
Much will depend on voting percentages, says Chandramohan Khanna, RSS sanghchalak of Muzaffarpur vibhag, also a businessman. He frames the contest in dire terms: “Desh ke swabhiman ka, pratishtha ka (one involving national self-esteem and prestige)…” in which, “jis ke man mein rashtra bhaav prabal hai, woh sarkar ke paksh mein hai (anyone who is nationalist is with the government)”. The ordinary person wanted “badla”, revenge, for Pulwama, he says. Even in places where Nitish has put up his candidates in the alliance, he says, voters search for Modi.