At a time when many states in India are witnessing communal violence, attacks, and bigotry, Bihar has remained largely peaceful. It is one of the puzzles of contemporary Indian politics. The state commonly known for Jungle Raj has resisted and probably prevented large scale Hindu-Muslim flare-up for nearly three decades.
Bihar is widely panned for an inefficient administration and lack of development. But the conundrum is that the same inefficient administration has ensured a peaceful era. This calls into question both state capacity and state will. If there is a determination to ensure peace, even the most inefficient machinery can be made to work. And the credit goes to the change in politics that Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar have presided over.
It wasn’t always like this
But Bihar has its own communal past. The state has seen some of the worst communal carnage during India’s partition and several riots and religiously motivated violence later on. During partition, large-scale anti-Muslim rioting happened in Bihar. Since the state shared its boundary with then undivided Bengal, which was one of the states to be partitioned, the spillover effect was felt in Bihar as well, resulting in the death of thousands of people, mostly Muslims.
Even after the partition, communal incidents kept happening at regular intervals. The worst incidents include the 1967 Ranchi-Hatia riots in then undivided Bihar; Ram Navami violence in Jamshedpur and Hazaribagh in the late 1980s; and the 1989 Bhagalpur riots in which more than 1,000 people were killed. In one of the villages, the rioters had buried the bodies of Muslims in fields and planted cauliflower over them.
During the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, cities of Bokaro (now in Jharkhand) and Patna witnessed a lot of mayhem and bloodshed, including the exodus of many Sikhs from the capital city.
Bihar has also witnessed some of India’s most gruesome Dalit massacres, including the gunning down of 58 Dalits of Laxmanpur Bathe by members of a militia outfit called Ranvir Sena (whose members were upper-caste Bhumihars) on 1 December 1997. The spiral of violence and counter-violence in central Bihar has claimed hundreds of lives over the decades.
And then the turnaround
But while the rest of India continued to simmer with communal anger, exploding every now and then, Bihar slipped into a peaceful slumber when it came to communal riots. A lawless land presided over by an ineffective, almost non-functional administration did something that even developed states like Gujarat or Delhi or Maharashtra could not.
But given Bihar’s past and its poor administrative machinery, how did it manage to remain peaceful on the communal front for almost three decades? This question warrants some deep sociological-political scrutiny. But here are three things that could explain Bihar’s phenomenal turnaround.
Role of the political class: If we take 1990 as a rupture or departure in the contemporary history of Bihar, then we notice that this is the time when the Congress lost the sheen and was sidelined in the state. The period shows the end of hegemonic political control of the Hindu upper castes and the emergence of the lower castes. This was a silent revolution, a term popularised by political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot. This newly empowered social group of backward classes allied with Muslims in Bihar – which was the genesis of M-Y-D (Muslim, Yadav, Dalit) combination cobbled together by Lalu Yadav of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). This social combination was the masonic stone of the 15 years of ‘Lalu Raj’ in Bihar. The natural corollary to this socio-political coalition was that the state government ensured that no communal violence took place.
When Nitish Kumar took over in the post-Lalu era, he continued on this path – driven mainly by his desire to appear more secular than Lalu and win over the RJD’s Muslim support base. What gave Nitish the ground was Bihar’s Muslims’ non-alignment with any particular political force. This created a strange binary in Bihar politics, in which both principal parties – RJD and Nitish’s Janata Dal (United) – keep trying to woo the community. Even now, both the JD(U) and the RJD stand on the same side on the National Register of Citizens – a divisive exercise, which, if implemented nationally, could lead to several Muslims losing Indian citizenship and becoming stateless. And because the BJP in Bihar is piggybacking the JDU, it becomes very difficult for it to play the communal ball game in the state, which goes to polls later this year.
Role of the administration: Several studies have proven that any communal violence happens with the complacency, even complicity, of the local administration. It might not be possible for even the best of administrations to stop the communal violence from erupting, but it’s impossible that the violence would continue for long without the active or tacit support of the administration.
Because the ruling political class in Bihar found communal harmony beneficial to its interest, it ensured that the administration acts tough on communal forces. That is why when Lalu Yadav stopped the Ayodhya Rath Yatra of Lal Krishna Advani in 1990, and had him arrested, Bihar was one of the few places in India that didn’t erupt into communal fire. It’s the same with the administration under Nitish Kumar. It may falter on many fronts, but it cannot harm the political interest of the ruling JD(U). This administration in Bihar may not have performed on development, law and order, education or healthcare, but it has ensured that the state’s communal harmony is not disturbed.
Role of the social forces: Senior journalist Navendu Kumar, who has been covering Bihar since the 1980s, explains that Biharis must be lauded for this achievement of maintaining relative communal harmony. After all, no administration or government has the capacity to ensure permanent peace at the mohalla level and only people can exercise that agency to co-exist peacefully. Navendu argues that some sort of fatigue set in among Biharis, who, having seen decades of communal and caste violence, became more worried about their everyday lives and issues.
Bihar is peaceful because Bihar wants it to be like that. It is not that the BJP and the RSS have not tried to communalise the social and political aspects of Bihar, but these efforts have remained largely unsuccessful.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.
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