Caste and conflict

Published : Sep 22, 2006 00:00 IST

The Nitish Kumar government in Bihar is confronted with conflicts as it tries to implement its social development agenda.


WHEN Nitish Kumar assumed office in November 2005 as the Chief Minister of Bihar, he envisaged new and creative dimensions to the State's socio-economic development, which he hoped would help advance the struggle for social justice in an innovative and non-confrontationist manner. He told this correspondent then: "The novel approach would seek to depart from mechanistic perceptions that sought to depict the struggle for social justice merely in terms of the social tussles between upper castes, Dalits, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Most Backward Castes (MBCs)."

He said that "the new struggle would draw from all sections and work towards the overall development and betterment of society" keeping the slogan of Agada, Pichada Ek Ho (Forwards, Backwards Unite) as its guiding principle.

Even as he said this, Nitish Kumar was aware that it would be an arduous task to convert the hope into reality, given the history of social tensions in Bihar. The latest developments in the State give an indication about the level and intensity of the difficulties that Nitish Kumar and his government will have to face in achieving "socially comprehensive development". A series of incidents, all extreme instances of anti-Dalit violence, shook the State in August and September.

Two incidents got wide publicity essentially on account of the "shock element". One of these happened at Ramnagar in Lakhisarai district, where higher-caste men of the village allegedly raped six Dalit women at gunpoint. The apparent provocation: the Dalit women voted for a candidate other than the one recommended by members of the higher castes. In the second incident, members of the upper-caste and the OBC communities lynched four Dalit youth belonging to the Nut caste at Balbatara village in Bhojpur district, accusing them of stealing a buffalo.

Significantly, in both cases the response from the police was singularly bereft of promptness and justice. The Ramnagar incident happened on the night of August 6. The women complained to the police the following morning. According to Manju Prakash, Chairperson of the State Women's Commission, the police registered a First Information Report (FIR), but not for the complaint of rape. No medical test was carried out on the victims. Finally, a fortnight later the women made bold to approach the State Women's Commission and political leaders, including Nitish Kumar, Railway Minister Lalu Prasad and former Chief Minister Rabri Devi.

In the Balbatara case, an FIR was not registered immediately after the incident took place although stringers of local television channels had captured the entire violence on camera and some of them had even aired it on their channels on the following days. In this case too, it took initiatives by Opposition parties, such as Ramvilas Paswan's Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP), to make the police act.

The extreme nature of these incidents helped them grab media and public attention. But police records indicate that these were not isolated incidents; there were at least 25 such cases in August itself. Two Dalits were killed by sections of the public in Patna in the last week of August. In this case too, the mob apparently enforced "justice" after the duo - Doman Kahar and Raju Kahar - tried to snatch a mobile phone from a doctor and cash from a businessman. Similarly, a mob killed Lallu Lal and Chirkut when they tried to sell two stolen buffaloes in a village in Rohtas district. Three Dalits were lynched at Siktiya village in Siwan district when they allegedly tried to break into a house. Police records show more than a dozen incidents of similar public violence against "criminals" in West Champaran, Saran, Munger, Shekhpura, Jehanabad, Vaishali and Supaul.

These incidents and the official responses to them highlight a contradiction in the conceptualisation and implementation of the social justice agenda in Bihar. The political parties' responses reveal that in terms of sloganeering all of them condemn these violent and discriminatory actions. However, the ground reality is that supporters of these very parties are involved in perpetrating the acts of injustice. In both the Ramnagar and the Balbatara incidents, supporters of the ruling parties, the Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party and also those of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the principal Opposition party, were involved.

Naturally, this has provided enough opportunities for both sides to trade charges. The August 24 fracas in the Lok Sabha involving members of the RJD and the JD(U) over the Ramnagar gang rape was a reflection of this tendency. While the RJD members tried to highlight the police apathy and the involvement of JD(U) and BJP supporters in the incident, JD(U) leader Prabhunath Singh tried to hit back with the accusation that an RJD member was involved in the case. This enraged Sadhu Yadav, RJD Member of Parliament and Lalu Prasad's brother-in-law, so much that he rushed across to assault Prabhunath Singh.

According to political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh, although the fracas registered a new low in the proceedings of Parliament it could also be seen as an indicator of how sensitive mainstream political parties of Bihar are to an issue relating to social justice.

Dr. Nil Rattan, Professor of Political Science at the A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna, points out that the sum total of all this is that caste imbalances, discrimination and power play remain central to Bihar society in spite of the significant gains made by the politics of social justice in the past few decades. "It is a unique state of affairs, characterised both by an element of tumult and by an uneasy balance of power between various castes and sub-castes. What is significant now is that the OBCs, which were once totally part of the oppressed lot, have large sections who have moved up in terms of social and economic status and many of them employ power in such a manner that they have become oppressors of immediate lower classes," he said. This, Nil Rattan added, was true even of some politically powerful and socially mobile Dalit communities.

In this situation, he finds merit in the initiatives taken by the Nitish Kumar government in keeping with its concept of "socially comprehensive development". "Nitish Kumar's concepts," asserts Nil Rattan, "have relevance in the present period and it must be said to his credit that whenever instances of caste discrimination and violence have come to his notice, he has ordered impartial, unbiased and stringent action, though he may not have been fully successful in imparting the same sense of justice to the administration as a whole." He is optimistic that the Chief Minister's sense of fair play will seep through all segments of the government.

A number of social and political observers are of the view that such optimism is not out of place, especially in the background of the steps taken by the government to give a new dimension to social justice. The measures to empower MBCs and women at the grassroots through reservation of seats in local bodies are seen as significant. Ironically, the Ramnagar gang rape took place as an offshoot of the local body elections, where women were empowered through reservation. "This shows that political and legislative measures for empowerment of the oppressed sections of society have to be followed up systematically by consistent mass awareness campaigns if they have to work effectively at the ground level," Indra Bhushan Singh said.

While such vital deficiencies may remain, there is no denying that the government's direction is seen as a positive one by many observers as well as vast sections of the people. Along with the reservation for women and the MBCs in the local bodies, the moves to rebuild infrastructure in areas such as public works (mainly roads), health and education are perceived as having the potential to promote "socially comprehensive development".

Some of the steps taken by the government on the law and order front are also credited with this "reformative potential". These measures, which include facilitating speedy trials and judicial actions by hastening the police procedures to file charge-sheets, have resulted in increased conviction in all the districts.

According to Abhayanand, Additional Director-General of Police (ADGP), 2,861 convictions have taken place since January. Of these, 564 criminals have got life sentence while 164 have been sentenced to more than 10 years' imprisonment. The convicted cases relate mainly to illegal possession of arms, dacoity, kidnapping and murder.

Although the convictions have not had a direct impact on crime statistics, the perception among the lay public is that such speedy conviction is bound to have a salutary effect on the law and order situation. Says Rajveer Singh, a farmer who lives on the outskirts of Patna: "Undoubtedly, we have greater hopes about security under the present regime, especially in the background of initiatives such as the ones for speedy trial and conviction." However, this farmer, belonging to Nitish Kumar's own Kurmi community, avers that the real test of the regime would be in ensuring that those involved in caste-related violence such as the case in Ramnagar, are brought to justice fast.

The Chief Minister told Frontline that at present his focus was on taking forward the administration without bias or favour. "The results may not be uniformly good or may take more time to have an impact, but you cannot accuse us of not trying," he maintained. In his view, the challenges before his government were accentuated on account of the administrative mess it had inherited. "But we have tried to move ahead, clearing the cobwebs systematically and laying down new and effective devices of administration."

Even so, Nitish Kumar points out that a change in social attitudes and behaviour to prevent a repetition of Ramnagar and Balbatara can happen only through sustained mass awareness programmes that go beyond politicking.

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