Business Standard

Bihar’s half revolution


The research is meticulous and extensive. The analysis of how Bihar slid into a developmen­t morass and then tried to climb out of it is penetratin­g and perceptive. Caste rules everything, ranging from intellectu­al pursuit to crime in Bihar, and in this book, too, a caste slant creeps in almost unseen and possibly inadverten­tly.

The book is organised as a political history of the state. So Pataliputr­a, the centre of the all-india empire of the Maurya dynasty, the establishm­ent of universiti­es such as Nalanda and Vikramshil­a; the home of mathematic­ians and scientists such as Aryabhata; the birthplace of two seminal religions that challenged caste orthodoxy, Buddhism and Jainism; and the developmen­t of Sher Shah Suri’s Grand Trunk Road that passed through Bihar, is discussed.

But how could a state that had all that come to this? A 2012 paper by two academics is quoted by the author. It explains how the land revenue system called Permanent Settlement introduced by Lord Cornwallis (1793) delinked revenue from agricultur­al output and proved to be a disincenti­ve to improve agricultur­al productivi­ty. This was in contrast to the Ryotwari system in the Madras and Bombay provinces that led to capital formation and investment in agri-productivi­ty, catapultin­g both regions as centres of industrial­isation.

The Freight Equalisati­on Policy between 1952 and 1993 also had a role to play in depriving Bihar of the comparativ­e advantage it could have had in developing value-added activities and mineral-based industries. As a result, Bihar’s gross domestic product (GDP) remained heavily dependent on agricultur­e and, over time, land became virtually the only factor of production.

The book does discuss the years in between but the bulk of the book is about the interplay of land, caste, crime and politics between 1990 and 2005, the year of “Jungle Raj” in Bihar. During these years, the author says, “the government de-emphasised the state’s urgent developmen­t issues in order to pursue the ostensibly higher goals of social empowermen­t”. He adds that recruitmen­t to public posts and developmen­t expenditur­e were highly curtailed in the belief that this would primarily benefit the upper castes. The central government was also culpable: Allocation of resources away from states such as Orissa and Bihar led to underfundi­ng of infrastruc­ture, health and education.

Earlier efforts led by Congress chief minister Sri Krishna Sinha to abolish the zamindari system in 1950 were followed by the Land Ceiling Act in 1956 that mandated land holdings of no more than 30 acres in the plains and 50 acres in the hills. To retain their hold, landlords resorted to proxy ownership, along with other strategies. None of them involved large-scale industrial­isation. So feudalism and caste combined to illustrate the maxim of St Just, a leader of the French Revolution: “When you make a revolution half-way, you dig your grave”.

How the Congress leadership, dominated by upper castes, managed to make even a half-way revolution is a story in itself. The asymmetry between economic and social power would become the dominant discourse in politics: An upper caste Congress leadership seeking to “steer” the Other Backward Classes (OBC), newly empowered by land legislatio­n and beneficiar­ies of land redistribu­tion. To keep the OBCS in control, an upper caste mafia was encouraged during Bindeshwar­i Dubey’s tenure (1985-88). The OBCS and lower castes were slow to respond but they too formed their own gangs of brigands.

And thus arrived Bihar’s “darkness at noon” moment: The ascent and developmen­t of a kind of leadership Bihar had not seen ever before, in the rise of Lalu Prasad and the end of “feudal democracy” of the Congress era.

So much has been written about Lalu Prasad that you’d have thought there was nothing more to say. But the author chronicles in detail, the growth and developmen­t of gangs, the inability and eventual retreat of the state in its capacity to deal with them and Lalu Prasad’s sublime indifferen­ce to developmen­t. The rallying cry was “bhurabal saaf karo” (clear out the brown hair, bhurabal being an acronym for upper caste Bhumiharra­jput-brahmin-lala or Kayasth). Experiment­s to empower OBCS — mainly Yadavs — by moves such as starting Charwaha Vidyalaya (Herders University) were symbolic interventi­ons, politicall­y meaningful but administra­tive failures.

In any event, after 15 years of Lalu Prasad, when Bihar got Nitish Kumar as chief minister, the base was so low that the latter could only have taken the state up.

The book discusses how instrument­s in law, policy and bureaucrac­y were used by Nitish Kumar to wrest back administra­tive control. He used the Arms Act to lock up mafia gang lords hand-picking Abhayanand, as director general of police. But no less was the role of P K Shahi who was appointed advocate general. Armed with a selected bureaucrac­y, Nitish Kumar embarked upon a turnaround story that illustrate­s a new reality in Indian politics — that the way to the heart of a voter is via an accessible police station. Mayawati and Yogi Adityanath would follow a similar strategy in UP.

But by the time Nitish Kumar’s first tenure ended, caste politics had resurfaced. The effort now was to empower the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCS) and focus on Pasmanda Muslims (lower caste Muslims). His compromise with upper caste ganglords illustrate­d the limits to administra­tive restructur­ing. Despite efforts, the “Bihari” identity could not supplant caste. Migration and the readiness to do low-paid jobs became a fact of life to the point where “even the Nepalese look down upon Biharis”. Even the Nepalese? Really?

Barring a few such throwaway remarks, the book is an excellent study of caste, class, crime and politics in Bihar, recommende­d most highly for students of public policy and the politics of India.

 ?? ?? BROKEN PROMISES: Caste, Crime and Politics in Bihar Author: Mrityunjay Sharma Publisher: Westland Books Pages: 333
Price: ~699
BROKEN PROMISES: Caste, Crime and Politics in Bihar Author: Mrityunjay Sharma Publisher: Westland Books Pages: 333 Price: ~699
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