A rising India is the flavour of the century but unfortunately all parts of India are not equally shining. Bihar is one such place—a province that has over 10% of India’s population. More than half of that population lives below the poverty line. The International Herald Tribune recently described it as “a state of 90 million people almost completely disconnected from the global economy”.
I was born in one of the most backward districts of such a state.
Decades ago, British writer Shiva Naipaul, the brother of Nobel laureate V S Naipaul, after his visit to Patna--Bihar’s capital—described the place as “the subcontinent’s heart of darkness”.
Perhaps that description still fits the state of Bihar. It was one of India's most mineral rich states, until a few years ago, when Jharkhand was cleaved out of. After Independence of India, as other states grew, Bihar became nearly stagnant, leading the group of India's laggard states, known as the BIMARU ('Bimaru' meaning 'sickly' in Hindi) states among the economists. The acronym Bimaru stood for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (UP).
But Bihar touched its nadir in the last 20 years or so, becoming synonymous with one of its most colourful politicians, Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose fame, for reasons both good and bad, spreads from Islamabad to Harvard. Laloo Yadav, who is now India's much feted railways minister, and his wife, Rabri Devi, were Bihar's chief ministers. Between the two of them, they ruled Bihar for close to two decades. Rabri had dropped out of school after the fifth standard and had forgotten the Devanagari script in which Hindi, India's office language, is written. She learnt to write her name in office as a chief minister. While Laloo championed the cause of the low caste dalits and the minorities, he strengthened the roots of caste-based politics in the state. Bihar's economic descent and lawlessness became unparalleled in the country.
While Laloo always claimed that the centre, meaning New Delhi, India's capital, always curtailed the budget for Bihar, thus shifting the blame of under-development to the federal powers, he himself got embroiled in what came to be known as the chara ghotala (fodder scam). In the said scam, Laloo allegedly siphoned off millions of rupees meant for cattle feed to his own account. Corruption, lawlessness, economic stagnation became the second name of Bihar. For 20 years, little good news would come out of Bihar.
All this led to many unsavoury developments, including the harm it has done to the identity and dignity of its people. "Bihari" –alluding to those who belong to this state—has become a term of insult in Indian cities, a sobriquet thrown at anyone who looks poor and rustic. In the eyes of Indians outside Bihar, Laloo's shadow seemed to loom large over ordinary Biharis and perhaps they began to see Biharis as carbon copies of a corrupt and venal Laloo. For no fault of their own, this created a sense of shame even in many middle class Biharis.
If you meet anyone from India, they would proudly declare where they came from. Not the ones from Bihar. They might not even acknowledge it, as if it were a big bloat on their CV. Civil servant and novelist Upamanyu Chatterjee, of English, August fame, once said rather pitifully in an interview, "I was born in Patna, I can't efface that from my history, it's in my passport."
Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, crime, and criminalized politics—all these have created a vicious circle trapping the Biharis in a parallax of image and reality that is difficult to disentangle.
Land of 'unwanted' migrant workers
Driven by poverty, hordes of Biharis have migrated to other richer parts of India, especially to the metros such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Today, out of a hundred million migrant workers in India, Biharis form the majority. Twenty-eight per cent of the adult male population of the state now works in projects and enterprises that stretch from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Goa to Arunachal Pradesh, wrote Prem Shankar Jha in Outlook (The Diaspora is Inside).
This high level of migration has sometimes engendered regional identity-based animosities in the host population against the poor migrants.
In February this year, for example, Biharis became victims of parochialism and regionalism in Maharashtra whose capital is Mumbai. They were targeted there, along with other northerners by party members of a regional political group, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj Thackeray. Their crime? They were migrants working in Maharashtra, coming from states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. “Maharashtrians aren’t getting jobs or houses. Why shouldn’t we send the migrants back?” is their justification for this indentity-based politics.
This is not an isolated incident. Apart from Maharashtra, Biharis have also born the brunt of political action in places like Assam, Punjab and Haryana, from time to time. Commenting on the recent anti-Bihari developments, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray dubbed the Biharis as the unwanted lots.
Not just politicians but even Bollywood actors have got embroiled in the issue. Some actors like Nana Patekar, Salman Khan and Saijd Khan support the regional party, on the grounds that such mass migration caused problems in Mumbai, even though the general Maharashtrians have long prided themselves on their peaceful coexistence with migrants. A Bollywood actor, Nana Patekar, a Maharashtrian, supporting a signature campaign to protest a police ban on Thackeray’s public speaking, reportedly said: “There may be two opinions about his method, but the issue he raises is important and linked with the rights of Maharashtrians. If that idea is wrong, then isn’t the creation of states on linguistic basis wrong? Why seek domicile certificates? Why can’t non-Kashmiris buy land in Kashmir?” However, actors like Shahrukh Khan and Rahul Bose protested this kind of violence against the people of one's own country. You are free to live and work anywhere in the country is their argument.
Aliens in their own country?
Novelist and Oxford University professor Dr Kunal Basu (Award-winning filmmaker Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife is the title of the film based on Dr Basu’s story that is soon to release globally) was in Mumbai when he saw the dignity of a Bihari violated. Dr Basu, who is researching for his next novel set in Bihar, sent me a poignant note on the incident: “On February 3rd, I was on my way back to my hotel from a book signing event at Crosswords bookshop in Mumbai. As we passed through Dadar, the car slowed and I saw a man being beaten up by a crowd. My immediate reaction was to dash out and come to the aid of the victim. But the driver of my car speeded up, and against my remonstrations refused to stop. The man being beaten up was a Bihari and his assailants were none other than Raj's Marathas.”
What happenend in Mumabi disturbed most Biharis in and outside of India. Jawaid Iqbal, a Chicago-based software engineer and President of Bihar Cultural Association of North America wrote to me: “The recent incident in Mumbai really shocked me. How could politics go to such a cheap level where someone would go against humanity and act with such barbarity? Just take the example of the roadside vendor whose hands were chopped off by the political goons. He had nothing to do with the Thackerys or their political ups and downs. That poor fellow was simply struggling to earn bread for his family.”
As it happens, the poor and the helpless become the first target of violence. Notes Jawaid: “Most of the sufferers are poor and weak people. Did you ever hear that IT professional from Bihar were getting tortured in Mumbai? No. Because they were needed there”.
"It is the harrassment of poor and vulnerable people," said Professor Amitava Kumar, a prominent son of Bihar, a writer and critic teaching English at Vassar College in New York
Crush the stereotype, stop the joke
"No matter what their background, educational qualifications and achievemnets, the term "Bihari" is permanently tagged to all us which unfortunately carries a negative connotation in India today," says my friend Sumit Shaw, a Delhi-based young Bihari filmmaker who has worked with BBC World Service Trust. He makes ad films and now he wants to make a documentary film on Biharis, exploring why they are the butt of jokes, and at the receiving end of violent discrimination in their own country. Like many middle-class well-to-do Biharis, he is irked with the sense of shame tagged with the identity of a Bihari.
The stereotype of a poor, illiterate Bihar, migrating to an Indian cosmopolis like Mumbai, makes Biharis easy targets of political goondaism. Biharis have become vicims of stereotyping--as in the words of Dr Kunal Basu--stereotypes are monsters that are kept alive by ignorance and by the greed of politicians, and the media savours its carcass.
"The reasons for stereotyping are obvious," says Jawaid Iqbal. "Due to media bias and our own inferioty complex. If anything goes wrong in Bihar, it comes out on front pages of newspapers and if someone from Bihar achieves something or contributes to progress it never gets covered or even if it does, it gets buried in the inside pages of the newspapers. But, honestly, we can't blame the media all the time. We are responsible as well. Why do we try to hide our identity as Biharis?"
When the dignity of a Bihari is attacked, it shocks him because he is aware of a proud legacy. At one time Bihar was at the centre stage of India. India’s first kingdom emerged in Bihar. Lord Buddha, who propounded Buddhism, got enlightenment in Bihar, and under Asoka, India’s first great emperor, the new faith of peace spread its light to South-East Asia. Bihar has the honour of developing India’s first place of global learning, Nalanda University, which is now in the process of getting revived with Singapore’s leadership. When India became independent, it was the same state that gave India its first President in Dr Rajendra Prasad. This is the place that has produced worthwhile talent, both in the past and present: Writers such as Kautilya, George Orwell (born under British Raj), Renu, M J Akbar, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amitava Kumar, Arvind N Das, Tabish Khair, Siddharth Chowdhury and artists such as Subodh Gupta (India's one of the top earning artists), Shatrughan Sinha, Manoj Bajpayi, Shekhar Suman, Prakash Jha and Manish Tiwary—all had their origins in Bihar. Today, Biharis can be found all over the world, and many of them are doing well. And yet, they find themselves humiliated or beaten up.
How can this stereotype change then? "To regain the pride and respect, we have to use our own resources," says Jawaid. "The main resource is the people. Lets encourage them to be educated. Education and economic empowerement go hand in hand."
But Prof Amitava Kumar has different view on trying to protest at the business of steretyping Biharis: "I disagree with people who fulminate about stereotyping because they are often the successful ones and don't want to be mistaken for an illiterate, uncultured person," he says. "I don't feel any need to participate in that protest. I think it is more honest to take note of, and if you are able, to help alter the really bad situation in Bihar. Asserting Bihari pride is a middle-class act. People with good means wanting a greater share of the cake. It doesn't interest me. Because the Biharis who are getting the stick shoved up their asses by the Shiv Sena goons aren't really crying for pride. They're crying for justice. Under the rule of law what is mine give it to me!"
Agrees Bihar's most well known director and producer in Bollywood, Prakash Jha, but in a different sense, who is quite optimistic about developments in Bihar. He says: "It's (Bihar's image) already changing. Economic activities are happening in Bihar, infrastructure building in on, the new governmnet in Bihar which has come in has done great things. Eventually it will be the economic and instututional activities that will make the difference. Biharis are already studying in colleges and universities outside Bihar. Once the infrastructure is there it will change. It is aready changing, we don't have to do anything."
Dr Kunal Basu also thinks that Biharis deserve respect and dignity like all other Indians, without showing any signs of success. He says, "Bihar and Biharis need no 'showcasing' of success, as with the rest of us, they deserve respect."
Bihar is everybody's problem
Whatever the feelings, the reality on the ground does not look that rosy. While the southern Indian states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have forged ahead with their silicon valleys, industries and foreign investments, Bihar has stagnated, partly along with UP, MP and Rajasthan. The International Herald Tribune (IHT) recently reported that the World Bank lent Bihar government $225 million, but private investors have not been so enthusiastic. And in a joke of surreal proportions, economists are questioning the current Bihar government's tall claims of economic achievements (Economic Survey for 2006-07) of hitting a 16 % Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate, almost double the national average growth rate. How could a state, which had its GDP growth in the negative, suddenly comeback with such fantastically high development figures, they are rightly asking.
But the glass can be seen as half full as well. In a sense, aren't the migrant Biharis contributors to the success of other states, at least partially?
Perhaps Bihar’s time will come too with the right leadership and progress. India took decades to shrug off its image of the land of snake charmers until she unleashed her own army of IIT and IIM professionals and her Tatas and Mittals. And Bihar must come up, as an economically backward Bihar, with about 10 per cent of India’s population, is simply not in the interest of a booming India. India must heed to what some said in a report in The International Herald Tribune: “If you think Bihar is not your problem, it will become your problem.”
The most optimistic is the Oxford don, Dr Basu. "Make no mistakes, Bihar isn't a backward state, it's a frontline state where the battle for India's future and the battle for democracy is being waged," he says. "From Gandhi to Jayprakash Narayan, the wave has always started in Bihar then lapped up on the shores of Delhi. For the last decade it's here that the caste armies have met their match, where large landowners have seen the fear of daylight struck into them, where violence has been met with resistance."
Meanwhile, I am asking my friend Sumit to make that film on Biharis—it might prove to be a little step in clearing the cobwebs of parochialism in the country.
An edited version of this article appears in today's Singapore newspaper, The Weekend Today.