Identity politics, polarisation, and development aspirations mark the electoral battle for Bihar’s Mithilanchal

The numerically high Brahmins and Muslims once voted jointly for the Congress here, but that changed after the Ram temple shilanyas in 1989.

Published : May 12, 2024 14:45 IST - 7 MINS READ

During Navratri celebrations in Darbhanga in March. In recent years, these celebrations have taken on an increasingly militaristic tone, according to residents.

During Navratri celebrations in Darbhanga in March. In recent years, these celebrations have taken on an increasingly militaristic tone, according to residents. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

In the early hours of March 23, Muslim residents of Maulaganj Mohalla in Darbhanga’s Laheriasarai woke up to a troubling sight: saffron “Hindu Rashtra” flags planted across the street outside Muslim homes and the local mosque. Maulaganj and Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods nearby, such as Rehemganj, Purani Munsafi, and Khan Chowk, were shaken by this incident ahead of the Lok Sabha election. (Darbhanga is central to both the culture and commerce of Mithilanchal.)

The Chaitra Navratri festival was just around the corner. Residents of the area told Frontline that in recent years there has been a change in the nature of Navratri celebrations in the area, which are taking on a more militaristic tone by including sword-wielding performers. Resident Muslims believe this shift is a reaction to local Shia Muslim mourning practices during Muharram.

The Darbhanga Police acted swiftly, registering an FIR against four named and a hundred unidentified accused people, and District Magistrate Rajeev Roushan directed the local authorities to have the flags removed. The police also arrested Rajeev Prakash Madhukar, the district president of the Vishva Hindu Parishad. Ram Babu, Inspector General of the Mithilanchal range, told Frontline: “Compared with other areas, violent crimes are less frequent here. There have been some communal incidents, but we have a zero-tolerance policy for such incidents, however small.”

Also Read | Bihar: Navigating change and stagnation

Muslim representation

Although Muslims constitute a significant portion of Bihar’s population, their representation remains disproportionately low, highlighting broader challenges of political marginalisation and tokenism.

Nazre Alam, president of the All India Muslim Bedari Karwan, a Darbhanga-based organisation, said that parties were only interested in exploiting Muslims for political gain, adding that even the parties that claim to stand for Muslims do not give the community representation.

The INDIA bloc, consisting of parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Congress, and the Left parties, including the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, is contesting all 40 seats in Bihar but fielding only four Muslim candidates. Alam said: “Muslims should have got at least seven candidates as we form 17.7 per cent of the population in the State. We deserve representation that is proportional to our population.”

The State government’s caste survey numbers, released in October 2023, showed that Darbhanga was among the top 5 districts with high Muslim populations, while Madhubani was among the top 10. Darbhanga votes on May 13, in the fourth phase, and Madhubani on May 20, in the fifth phase.

While the RJD’s Muslim candidates include Mohammad Ali Ashraf Fatmi from Madhubani and Shahnawaz Alam from Araria, the Congress’ candidates are Tariq Anwar from Katihar and Mohammad Jawed from Kishanganj. The RJD is contesting 23 seats and the Congress 9, while the remaining 8 have been allocated to the Mukesh Sahni led-Vikassheel Insaan Party and the Left parties.

Alam said that recent years had seen a rise in organised attempts to polarise the region. He said that even parties claiming to be against the BJP were not voicing the concerns of Muslims. Despite that, he believes Muslims will support the RJD candidate in Darbhanga because they do not see an alternative. He added: “Muslims need to come out of the politics of defeating the BJP. We need issue-based politics; the target needs to go beyond just voting to defeat the BJP.”

In Siwan, the RJD’s denial of ticket to Hina Shahab, the widow of former MP Mohammed Shahabuddin, has caused huge resentment among the RJD’s Muslim supporters. In 2019, the party denied the Darbhanga ticket to Mohammad Ali Ashraf Fatmi, a four-term MP from the seat, which reportedly upset Muslim voters and contributed to the defeat of his replacement candidate, Abdul Bari Siddiqui. This time Fatmi is the RJD candidate in Madhubani, against the BJP’s Ashok Kumar Yadav, son of former Union Minister Hukumdev Narayan Yadav. While the RJD is relying on Muslim and Yadav consolidation, the BJP is banking on Modi’s popularity.

Ali Ashraf Fatmi, the RJD candidate for the Madhubani Lok Sabha seat, during a rally with RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav, in Madhubani on April 30.

Ali Ashraf Fatmi, the RJD candidate for the Madhubani Lok Sabha seat, during a rally with RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav, in Madhubani on April 30. | Photo Credit:

Rise in polarisation

In a hotel in Jaldhari Chowk in Madhubani town, Fatmi told Frontline that he has always had more Hindu supporters than Muslim. As a Ram Navami procession passed, with chants of “Jai Shri Ram” growing louder, Fatmi said: “This phenomenon will not last. In the end, people want development. Hospitals, roads, education for their children. Communalism will not feed them, and they will ultimately understand this.”

Mohsin Mumtaz of Madhubani’s Garhiya village said that Muslims and Brahmins once collectively voted for the Congress, but that changed after the Ram temple shilanyas was performed in 1989. “Muslims were disillusioned with Brahmins. At this time, Lalu Prasad won their hearts by stopping L.K. Advani’s rath yatra. With Lalu’s entry, a new Muslim-Yadav combination was formed. This proved to be a win-win combination for the RJD. Amid all this, Brahmins shifted towards the BJP.”

Makhana farmers in distress

Amid the election fever, makhana (fox nut) farmers of Bihar, particularly in Darbhanga district, find themselves grappling with deep-seated challenges despite being the torchbearers of an industry that is slowly gaining global recognition. In Mekna village of Darbhanga, where farming is a way of life for its 8,000 residents, Ram Vinod Yadav, a seasoned farmer and CPI (ML) Liberation member, said there was a wide gap between government promises and the ground reality. Despite an impressive yield this season, Yadav and his fellow farmers are disheartened by the bureaucratic hurdles that mar schemes such as Makhana Vikas Yojana, leaving them disillusioned and struggling to make ends meet.

Makhana, a prized cash crop, is deeply embedded in the culture of Bihar’s Mithila region, boasting a rich history rooted in local traditions. Yet, the benefits of this flourishing industry seldom reach the hands of small farmers. Despite Bihar’s dominance in makhana production, its farmers are unable to use it to improve their lives. Manoj Kumar, a senior scientist at the Makhana Research Centre in Darbhanga, is emphatic about the transformative potential of this crop, especially with growing international demand, but small farmers need to be given support to meet its exorbitant harvesting costs.

In this election season, the plight of makhana farmers is a poignant reminder of the untapped potential and unkept promises in Bihar’s heartland.

Ismat Ara

Kishor Kumar Jha, a veteran Congress politician based in Darbhanga, attributed the shift to the neglect of Brahmins by the Lalu Prasad-led RJD government. He said: “In subsequent governments led by Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, the Congress allied with both the RJD and the JD(U) [Janata Dal (United)] but did not reap any benefits. The party was not given constituencies where it could have won or its strongholds, like the Mithila region.”

There was no attempt to revive the Congress either, said Jha, even though it could have been done with Brahmin and Muslim votes. “The alliance should not leave out Brahmins but try to think of ways to bring them back to its fold.”

Mithilanchal is now a polarised landscape dominated by the BJP’s strategic outreach. In Darbhanga and Madhubani, Brahmins account for around 30 per cent of the population, followed closely by Muslims. While Brahmins in Mithila are largely in favour of the BJP, there are hints of support for INDIA candidates from traditional Congress-supporting Brahmin families, but the RJD candidates in both Darbhanga and Madhubani are not keen to woo these voters.

Politics dominated by caste

Darbhanga is a dingy, dirty town with pigs roaming around, heaps of garbage on the streets, and medical waste everywhere. People seem unaffected by the hours-long traffic jams, waterlogging, and rising pollution. And the politics still seems dominated by caste and communal polarisation by right-wing outfits.

Madhubani: Aspiring for development

Madhubani, once a regal town steeped in Mithila heritage, now harbours dreams of progress and development akin to its neighbouring twin town of Darbhanga. As the election season unfolds, residents like Rajendra Kumar, a 67-year-old shopkeeper, lament the transformation of their historical town into a mere backdrop for political rallies.

Once part of the princely state of Raj Darbhanga, Madhubani flourished for centuries until the 1960s as a land of palaces and celebrated gardens. However, in terms of development in the modern era, it remained behind Darbhanga. Following the death of the last king, Maharaja Kameshwar Singh, in 1962, the region’s rich legacy slipped into decay.

The desire for change is palpable among Madhubani’s predominantly rural population, facing challenges such as limited access to education and healthcare. Rajendra Kumar reflects this sentiment, expressing hopes for progress. “Modiji is the best,” he asserts, aligning with the sentiment that the current government could bring about the needed change.

In the fray for the Lok Sabha seat is sitting MP Ashok Kumar Yadav of the BJP, son of four-time Madhubani MP Hukumdev Narayan Yadav. His INDIA bloc rival, Mohammad Ashraf Ali Fatmi, strives to bridge the development gap, promising to elevate Madhubani to the standards of Darbhanga through initiatives mirroring his efforts in neighbouring regions. The election outcome will determine whether Madhubani can transcend its past and realise a future aligned with its long-held dream of development and prosperity.

Ismat Ara

Ram Babu Yadav, who teaches Hindi at Lohia Charan Singh University in Darbhanga, said that the reservation politics of the 1990s, which challenged the influence of the dominant castes, also led to the animosity of these castes towards the RJD. “Since reservation came in for OBCs in the 1990s, the dominant castes will never support the RJD,” he said. Having said that, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a popular choice, they also look at the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav as a fresh face in Bihar politics.

The Darbhanga seat holds special significance for the BJP because its candidate, Gopal Jee Thakur, won it in 2019, defeating the RJD’s Abdul Bari Siddiqui by more than 2.5 lakh votes. (In 2019, the BJP won all 17 seats it contested. In 2014, it won 22 seats.) The BJP has fielded him again against the RJD’s Lalit Kumar Yadav, who won the Darbhanga Rural seat in the 2020 Assembly election, the only RJD win in the six Assembly segments of the Darbhanga parliamentary seat. Residents said that Thakur, a Maithil Brahmin, is not a popular leader, “but Modi’s name is enough for us to vote for the BJP”. Darbhanga is considered one of BJP’s strongholds in Bihar.

In Mekna village in Darbhanga, dominated by farmers from the Mallah community, Chanda Devi sat with other women in a corner discussing the election. “We have been receiving benefits like free ration from the Modi government. We don’t want to lose out on it,” she said.

Also Read | Caste alliances will shape the tense battle between NDA and INDIA bloc in Bihar 

Gulab Yadav, another villager, said: “People are scared to lose out on the benefits like free rations, houses, or toilets. Those who have received them are happy, and those who haven’t look to the BJP with hope. The BJP is acting as though it is doing the poor a favour.”

Back in Darbhanga town, 47-year-old Pitambar Paswan, a tea seller in Allalpatti Chowk, is tired of Hindu-Muslim politics. “I don’t understand why people are fighting over temples. Will the Ram temple ensure food on the table?”

The BJP sees the region as a fertile ground to grow in Bihar, and the Modi factor is strong here, but beyond the festive fervour and rallies, Mithilanchal’s electoral mood reflects deeper undercurrents of identity and representation. With Brahmin support aligning with the BJP and Muslim voices seeking representation, the stakes are high for both communities in this election and in the 2025 Assembly election.

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