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India Today, April 12, 1999
April 12, 1999



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KAUTILYA
Why Bihar is Aflame

No swarg out there but certainly lots of swar and swabhiman.

By Jairam Ramesh

Last week, the Central Government announced a Rs 500 crore "package" for Bihar. This is not the first of such packages. Over 10 years ago, a Rs 200 crore package code-named Operation Siddharth was launched by the Centre in the very part of central Bihar that is burning these days. Earlier in 1982 Indira Gandhi had deputed the then member-secretary of the Planning Commission, Manmohan Singh, to make a comprehensive study of the Naxalite phenomenon in Bihar. Some measures were taken following a detailed report. Going back even further, 1973-74 was declared "land reform year".

Scheduled Castes constitute about 15 per cent of Bihar's population. In the central Bihar districts of Patna, Nalanda, Gaya, Jehanabad, Aurangabad, Nawadah and Bhojpur, most affected by violence unleashed by Naxalites and the caste senas, the proportion is higher, at around 20 per cent. Central Bihar also has a substantial population of aggressive land-owning upper and backward castes like the Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kurmis.

But these provide only the backdrop. What is more significant is that farm prosperity and literacy in central Bihar are higher than in the rest of the state. Bihar's overall literacy rate in 1991 was 38.5 per cent, whereas Jehanabad's was 46.4 per cent and Nalanda's 47 per cent. Thus in some ways the violence in central Bihar is not the offshoot of stagnation and poverty but is instead a reflection of development and growth, however stunted.

Jehanabad is no stranger to violence. April 19, 1986, saw what the American historian of Bihar Walter Hauser describes as a Jallianwalla-like episode. Police opened fire on 700 men, killing 21, at Arwal. The issue was a dispute over a parcel of public land that was being claimed by landless Dalits in the face of opposition from local land-owning Dalits.

In June 1987, 18 Dalits were massacred in Nonahi-Nagawan and in August 1988, 11 more were killed in Damuha. Other central Bihar districts fare no better. Twenty two Dalits were shot down at Danwar-Bihta in Bhojpur district in November 1989. December 1991 saw the killing of Dalit farm labourers at Barasima and Main in Gaya. Pipra in Patna district witnessed the killing of 14 Chamars by Kurmis in February 1980. This is only a selective list.

The past two decades have seen the growth of a new assertiveness among long-suppressed and quiescent communities in central Bihar. Democracy may not be alleviating poverty but is certainly imparting dignity and self-respect. The election of Karpoori Thakur as chief minister in 1977 was a watershed, as was that of Laloo Prasad Yadav in 1989. Australian political scientists Oliver Mendelsohn and Marika Vicziany, in their recent book The Untouchables, discuss how the Musahars, the most downtrodden of the Dalits, have emerged as the symbol of insurrection. Remittances from Punjab have also helped improve the standard of housing of Dalits, something that is an eyesore to the traditionalists.

Arvind N. Das, one of the very few serious writers on Bihar, has written that legislation arouses expectations and, it might be added, also fuels aspirations. When expectations are belied, struggles start. Undoubtedly, Naxalite groups have organised the poor in central Bihar. Ironically, these groups say they derive their inspiration from that great crusader for land reforms and social justice Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, himself an upper-caste Bhumihar.

There have been many twists and turns in Naxalite politics. Right now, there are three major groups - the CPI-ML (Liberation Front), Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the People's War Group. The first believes in elections and the second has been used by Laloo in the past.

K.B. Sahay was almost alone in his crusade for land reforms in the formative 1950s and '60s. Bihar suffered for want of a Charan Singh from an upwardly mobile intermediate caste who would push land reforms. Even so, Bihar was the first to introduce legislation to abolish zamindari. But the Patna High Court struck down the Act, as did the Supreme Court. It was this that led an exasperated Jawaharlal Nehru to push the first amendment to the Constitution. The legislation on land ceilings was introduced in the Assembly in 1955. A watered-down version was passed only in 1959 and got presidential assent in 1962.

India's foremost authority on land reforms is P.S. Appu, a distinguished IAS officer of the Bihar cadre. In 1994, Appu put forward what he himself calls "a modest programme for the '90s". First, he suggests the implementation of ceiling laws against the 84 landowners in the state who own more than 500 acres. The Bihar Government claims to have acquired 3.85 lakh acres of surplus land, while scholars like Indu Bharati have estimated that the land that is surplus is actually 18 lakh acres.

Second, he recommends a campaign like West Bengal's Operation Bargha to secure permanent rights for bataidars and tenants. Third, since there are real limits to land reform, he advocates that the government should acquire private land and turn it over to the four million-odd landless families. Sadly, the new package does not even recognise what Appu has been saying. The police will benefit, not the poor.

The author is secretary of the AICC's Economic Affairs Department.
The views expressed here are his own.

 

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