The elections to the 8,452 panchayats in Bihar, held after 23 years, are marked by high voter turnout, despite violence.
THE six-phase, 19-day panchayat elections held in caste-ridden Bihar in April were swathed in blood. At least 100 people were killed and thousands injured in the turf war between the old masters from the upper castes and the newly empowered Dalits. There were 1,30,563 candidates for mukhia (panchayat head), 2,28,995 for seats in the panchayat committee and over four lakhs for membership in the district councils. The elections, in 8,452 panchayats in 29 districts, were held after 23 years.
Panchayat institutions in the State suffered badly as successive State governments, wary of relinquishing power in favour of local governments, withheld funds from them and avoided conducting regular elections to them. In the 1980s, these anomalies were addressed to some extent through an amendment to the Constitution and by adopting a new and improved model of local governance. But the objectives were defeated by caste-based politics, which rather deepened social cleavages than build trust among social groups. One reason for the bloodbath that accompanied the elections was the exploitation of caste affiliations by political parties, which viewed the elections as a round of mini general elections.
The police were unable to prevent the spread of violence in spite of having taken preventive measures such as the arrest of 40,000 people with criminal records, the closure of a number of mini gun factories and the seizure of illegal arms.
This is largely attributed to the social inequality and tensions that prevail in the State. The emergence of several ultra-Left groups, such as the outlawed Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), People's War and Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), has heightened tensions.
The government imposed shoot-at-sight orders, sealed the international border with Nepal and the boundary with Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal, and borrowed 115,000 rifles from the neighbouring States to arm its police force and home guards in order to prevent election-related violence. Although the Centre turned down the Rabri Devi government's request for 35 companies of paramilitary forces, the State managed to deploy 50,000 policemen and 57,000 home guards for election duty. The government provided an insurance cover of Rs.10 lakhs each to its employees and policemen engaged in election work.
Poll violence and electoral irregularities in Bihar date back to the first simultaneous parliamentary and Assembly elections held in 1951-52. Since panchayat elections are not party-based, the State administration this time did not anticipate violence. It seems to have ignored the fact that 500 persons lost their lives in the 1978 panchayat elections. The 73rd amendment to the Constitution bestowed on panchayat heads increased executive and financial powers. In rural Bihar polarised on caste lines, candidates go to any extent to win the battle of ballots. Major political figures, even if they are not in the fray, try to take power by proxy by pushing members of their family into grassroots politics. Even Laloo Prasad Yadav, former Chief Minister and the ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal's (RJD) president, resorted to this practice. Shiv Prasad Chowdhury, father of Laloo Prasad's wife Rabri Devi, had contested for the post of mukhia in Salar Kalam Panchayat. The elections in Salar Kalam in Gopalgunj district were "fiercely fought". A section of the media reported that Chowdhury's younger son Subhas Yadav, a member of the State Legislative Council, was present in the panchayat with jeep-loads of supporters and security personnel, intimidating voters. In his native Phulwaria block, Laloo Prasad's younger brother and nephew contested the panchayat polls. The wife of Animal Husbandry Minister Aditya Singh contested from Nawada, while former Minister Vijay Krishna's wife contested from Mokama. The brother and nephew of the Member of Parliament from Saharsa, Dinesh Chandra Yadav, also contested the polls.
The voter turnout, at 65 per cent, was impressive given the atmosphere of violence. More notable was the response from women voters. The presence of women in large numbers reportedly turned out to be a major deterrent for booth-capturers. Even so, a 63-year-old woman died in Vaishali after she was hit by splinters from a bomb. Official sources said that 50 per cent of the total votes polled belonged to women. Most of them were exercising their franchise for the first time in panchayat polls.
This is perhaps a lateral effect of the general rise of political consciousness among the backward castes, who earlier feared to vote as the booths were controlled by armed goons employed by landlords belonging to the upper caste Bhumihar and Rajput communities.
WITH the panchayat polls over, the village residents echo a demand that is common to the countryside: Gaonka samasya gaon me neptaiye (let village's problems be settled in the village itself). The traditional village court system (gram kachari) has run into a controversy. Polls to the village courts have been withheld by the government, and a case in this connection is pending in the Supreme Court. "The village panchayat court was a strong rural tradition. It was with the birth of the new Panchayat Act that the States began to impose their own concepts. Some States withdrew all judicial powers belonging to these courts, others granted only nominal empowerment," explained Tejnarayan Singh, secretary, Bihar Raj Panchayat Parishad, an autonomous organisation conducting research on village self-rule. The village-level judicial bodies gradually became defunct. An impression was born that the sarpanch, the head of the village court, was not often impartial. "Personal feuds and class and caste relationships perhaps resulted in biases in the dispensation of justice," observes a study conducted by A.N. Sinha Institute of Social and Economic Research, Patna. From the 1980s onwards, village-level judicial set-ups began to assume different forms in different States according to the respective Panchayat Acts - village self-rule being a State subject. As per the new norm, the governments of West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh withdrew all powers vested with the traditional village head to try criminal cases. Village courts could only deal with civic disputes or act as arbitrators in property disputes.
The Bihar act did have a provision for gram kacharis. The Bihar Panchayat Raj Act in fact bestowed upon the village court the powers to award jail terms up to three months and impose fines up to Rs.1,000 (failure to pay the fine would mean a month's jail). The underlying hope was that the bulk of petty disputes would be settled at the village level itself rather than encumber the subdivisional levels of judiciary. The Act also gave the gram kacharis some more teeth, by providing for the creation of a gram raksha dal, a village volunteer force, which would virtually act as the police in the village-level administration. As per the orders of the Patna High Court, the appointment of the Sarpanch has to be based on a minimum educational qualification; this is to ensure the Sarpanch can handle tricky cases. The State government, as well as several social organisations have petitioned against the court order on the plea that the high rate of illiteracy in rural Bihar would render the choice of a literate man for the job difficult.
With the panchayats to be formed shortly, village-level panchayat members will not adorn their seats, as elections to the posts of Sarpanch have been withheld. So the people's demand for the settlement of all disputes at the village-level will not be met until the dispute is finally settled in the Supreme Court.