Broken Promises breaks little new ground in chronicling Bihar’s troubled 1990s

Mrityunjay Sharma’s book on Bihar under Lalu Prasad documents a dark era, but falls short on analysis and rigour.

Published : Jun 26, 2024 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

Rashtriya Janata Dal president and former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad being welcomed by villagers with dhol during a byelection campaign at Bhagwanpur in 1994.  

Rashtriya Janata Dal president and former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad being welcomed by villagers with dhol during a byelection campaign at Bhagwanpur in 1994.   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES 

Since the trail-blazing work of the journalist Arvind Narayan Das, scholastic works documenting the politics and society of Bihar have been steadily rising. A State mired in stark backwardness undergoing deep sociopolitical transformation has been of much interest to policymakers, journalists, academics, and activists alike. In recent years, a new trend of writing accessible non-fictional book-length tales documenting events and personalities of the State has kicked off. Well-known journalists like Sankarshan Thakur, Santosh Singh, Arun Sinha, Nalin Verma, Shrikant, and numerous others with their books on Bihar have been pioneers in the same.

Broken Promises: Caste, Crime and Politics in Bihar 
By Mrityunjay Sharma
Westland Books, 2023
Pages: 333+ xiii
Price: Rs.699

The latest entrant to this list, Mrityunjay Sharma’s Broken Promises: Caste, Crime and Politics in Bihar, has a rather misleading title. Given what is inside the book the apt title would have been “Chronicles of the Jungle Raj: Bihar under Lalu Prasad Yadav”. Divided into seven major parts, the book is a tale of the ills that befell the State with the rise of Lalu Prasad in Bihar’s politics from scams, criminalisation, caste wars, misgovernance, to policy paralysis.

While the book cover sells it off as a riveting and meticulously researched account of the State, I found it short on both counts. However, we will come to that later. For now, let me recount the three important contributions of the book.

First, the book is written in a lucid narrative style that reminds one of Santosh Singh’s numerous books on Bihar. Although spanning more than 300 pages, one can breeze through it in quick time. Widely circulated tales of Bihar’s politics that generally form the bread and butter of political gossip in the power corridors of Patna have been documented for the first time. The veracity of some of these tales, though, remain doubtful.

Broken Promises by Mrityunjay Sharma

Broken Promises by Mrityunjay Sharma | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Second, the crime and caste wars that ravaged different parts of Bihar in the 1990s have been well documented. Apart from journalistic pieces, it is rather hard to find such a broad-stroked view of the State vis-a-vis the nexus between crime and politics. The book provides rich political documentation of how various ganglords literally provincialised the State, running their own parallel governments in their respective areas.

Third, examples of numerous incidents and events do well to substantiate the larger claim that Sharma seems to be making about the abyss of darkness that engulfed Bihar in the 1990s.

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However, it is here that Sharma’s work hits the ceiling and does not move beyond to give us answers to deeper scholastic questions that should have guided the framing of the book. The trope of jungle raj popularised by the media has come under increasing academic scrutiny since the publication of the anthropologist-professor Jeffrey Witsoe’s (2013) well-researched book on Bihar titled Democracy Against Development: Lower-Caste Politics and Political Modernity in Postcolonial India. In that book, Witsoe systematically shows how historically empowering Lalu’s regime was, not only for Yadavs, the primary beneficiaries of his rule according to Sharma, but also for the entire spectrum of historically marginalised Biharis.

It is owing to this empowerment that subaltern groups cutting across castes voted for Lalu in two consecutive elections since his coming to power. The trope that somehow these groups were misguided under false promises flies in the face of successive electoral results. Witsoe also shows how the systematic weakening of the State by design was instrumental in breaking the long-entrenched caste hierarchy in Bihari society. Counter-intuitively enough, the social change at the local level was so cataclysmic, argues Witsoe, that poverty levels actually declined during Lalu’s era despite recurrent charges of misgovernance and policy paralysis.

Two, the author while pointing to the unique nature of certain dominant caste groups (Bhumihars) that routinely indulged in violence against marginalised caste groups fails to question the connivance of middle-class Biharis (mostly from the dominant castes) in keeping their hegemony intact until the 1990s when they were suddenly forced to renounce their privileges. Marginalised caste groups who formed the overt majority in the State were systematically excluded from any power-sharing arrangements.

Three, while it is true that the law and order situation was abysmal during Lalu’s regime, two things need to be outlined here. In his analysis of public administration in the first decade after Independence, Bihar was termed as the best-governed State of India by no less an authority than Paul Appleby. What Appleby forgets to underline is the complete hegemonic hold on the administration by the privileged castes of Bihar. This began to be challenged as democratic politics began to diminish the hold of older social order.

The resultant lawlessness was partly an outcome of the conflict between public and political institutions as well, wherein public institutions (say, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and so on) were still controlled by privileged castes, while in politics marginalised castes had successfully asserted themselves. Secondly, as scholars have pointed out, the rule of law historically had largely remained marginal in the functioning of Bihari society. The fact that the cult of the gun had become a legitimate modality in Bihar’s politics has been well documented in the biweekly ground reports written by Arvind Narayan Das for Economic & Political Weekly in the early 1970s as well as the two newspapers, The Indian Nation and The Searchlight, that used to come out of Patna until the turn of the century. Thus, what happened in Bihar in the 1990s needs to be read in this broader context.

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Four, the book fails to ask the question why it is that most politicians with criminal backgrounds in the State come from privileged castes or dominant castes like the Yadavs. Why is it that Dalits, Adivasis, and Extremely Backward Castes have hardly any Bahubali politician of clamour? What does violence and the skewed distribution of violence wielded by certain caste groups tell us about the organising structures of Bihari society?

Fifth, in the absence of either fieldwork involving interviews with politicians, journalists, academics, and local residents or any substantial archival work, the book suffers from a lack of rigour, which would have provided it with academic credence. As a result, at times it feels like one is plugging in to gossip that one hears at political offices and tea stalls in Patna. This feeling is aggravated by mistakes like referring to Ranchi as the once “designated winter capital of Bihar” (page 223) or calling the All Jharkhand Students Union the All Students Jharkhand Union (page 225). 

Supriy Ranjan is a visiting faculty at the National Law School of India University and a PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.

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