Students of India’s politics often marvel at the resilience of the country’s people, the bulk of whom have been made into living parts of the great Indian political experiment – pampered, mauled and often disfigured, and yet surviving to tell the tale of how democratic traditions are deeply rooted. Nothing characterises this saga better than the politics played out in the so-called Hindi heartland, the densely populated area of eastern Uttar Pradesh (Purvanchal) and Bihar. It seems as though every time national stalwarts of various hues reinvent political tradition, these ‘heartland’ dwellers are selected as the guinea pigs.
First it was the Hindutvavadi-based movement for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya; then it was the caste-based agitations against the Mandal Commission’s recommendations on reservations. Now, with the ports in the west and south on the verge of becoming success stories in a seemingly booming economy, the latest refrain is whether the rest of India should be forced to carry the burden of the impoverished, lawless heartland. It is as if the Indian population has suddenly woken up to the reality of this perennial economic ‘drag’.
What keeps being overlooked, is the fact that, even while the heartland remains ‘backward’ in certain regards, it is also constantly sending its people out, by the millions, to every nook and corner of the country. There, they undertake much of the labour that other communities shun, and contribute to economic vibrancy from a lowly posting. At the same time, however, the worry has been stoked that these migrants will swamp the host identities and cultures. Earlier this year, the tirade by Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray, with regards to such economic migrants to Bombay, raised a host of fundamental questions about this kind of identity-based politics and the skewed perceptions about the heartland and its people. The migrants from the heartland, unlike others, tend to dominate and show their political muscle, the junior Thackeray asserted.
The longstanding question is whether the heartland has truly dominated the Indian political landscape since Independence. Psephologists would certainly have us believe so. But when discussing this issue, analysts have long given too much weight to numbers over processes. With UP and Bihar accounting for nearly a fourth of the total Lok Sabha seats before the bifurcation of both, after all, the presumption was that whichever party carries the heartland rules the country. Such a premise, of course, has been proven false in both numerical and substantive terms. Not only has the share of the two states in the total number of seats declined; political forces at the Centre and the two states have been at loggerheads with each other. If the political configurations at the Centre versus in UP and Bihar over the last two decades were compared, one would see a stark distinction: the Congress party as a largely spent force in both of these states, yet still occupying power in New Delhi for substantial lengths of time. Nonetheless, the widespread perception of UP and Bihar being the ‘kingmakers’ continues.
Second, is there really much truth in the idea that Purvanchal and Bihar are an economic drag on the rest of the country? Going by the numbers, the per-capita allocation of central assistance to the two states has actually been among the lowest in the country. But wait, the drag theorists might jump and say, that’s because the people of the two states procreate so much! Alas, the story in absolute terms does not hold much water, either. The annual increase in total plan allocation for the last 25 years has been the lowest for Bihar and UP, as compared to other states. Meanwhile, states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, which have been ruled by strong regional parties that have enjoyed greater influence at the Centre, have done much better.
Finally, there is the socio-cultural argument, about migrants supposedly taking over jobs and negatively affecting local identities. Depraved and plundered in their own lands, the marginalised people of the heartland perhaps never had the option of taking up armed struggle and trying to secede (however unsuccessfully) from ‘India’. After all, they were supposed to be dominating the country, having given independent India eight out its 12 prime ministers, and accounting for nearly three-fourths of Lok Sabha seats. The truth was that their so-called political clout merely enabled the political leadership at the Centre and the state to perpetrate the myth of political dominance, conveniently supported by political analysts, while perpetuating the economic rut in one of India’s most fertile and mineral rich regions. How can you secede from what you yourself are controlling? the Purvanchalis and Biharis would have been asked.
Faced with this apparent paradox, the people of these beleaguered lands preferred to silently move out into the rest of India, assuming it to be theirs, too. As such, they began to occupy spaces at the lowest rung, where they competed with the impoverished locals, as well: daily-wage labourers, hawkers, vegetable vendors, rickshaw-wallas, carpenters, masons, doodh-wallas and the like. Those who dreamt a bit more expansively also took up studies outside the heartland, and dared to appear for all-India-level examinations that took them to far-off regions – assuming all the while that the Constitution of India gave them the legitimacy to do so. Unfortunately, the emerging India turned out to be a less-tolerant India, and suddenly found such citizens to be ‘encroaching’. The global India, poised for a 10 percent rate of growth, and keen on merging with the rest of the globe, therefore needed first to confront the regional India, consisting of deep inequalities and vulnerability to hate politics. As in the past, it has been the heartland that has been made the scapegoat.
What is forgotten is that migrating in search of better pastures is not unique to the peoples of eastern UP and Bihar alone. The India of today would not have been possible, after all, had it not been for the constant movement of peoples and ideas and practices within and outside the Subcontinent – whether the people were Malayali, Gujarati, Marwari, Bhaiya or Bihari. It needs to be understood once and for all that assertions of cultural identity by ‘outsider’ communities in no way undermine or disrespect local identities.
As for Raj Thackeray, he should be asked what sudden danger is being posed to the Marathi identity by economic migrants to Maharashtra. After all, the Nav Nirman Sena stands for the ‘reconstruction’ of the state. And in the midst of Raj Thackeray’s vituperative attack on the pan-Indian icon Amitabh Bachchan, equally mysterious is the supposed contradiction between Bachchan the ‘global icon’ and the Amitabh of the Benaras-walla variety. Why can Amitabh not be both an adored national idol as well as a mascot of Uttar Pradesh – identifying strongly with the sands of the Ganga at Benaras, in the much-publicised advertisement for that state?
One hopes that it is not too late before further disruption takes place, and that these questions are soon answered. On the other hand, perhaps such fears are imaginary. The catharsis following the Mandal Commission’s findings finally made Indians come to terms with the reality of reservations, in such a way that caste now appears to have become a largely insignificant factor among the youth – the same ones who would have taken to the streets or engaged in self-immolation during the early 1990s. The recent agitation by doctors against increasing reservations to ‘Other Backward Castes’, for their part, remained isolated, and could not generate the widespread support among the masses as the earlier agitations had done. The Ram Mandir experiment or Babri Masjid situation subsequently allowed for an exposure of the hollowness of the claim that religion could become the sole criteria for electoral mobilisation in India, as the votaries of Hindutva, after a point, were left to look for new slogans within years of coming to power.
The latest formulations on the ills of the heartland imposed on Maharashtra and others, as voiced by Thackeray, may therefore eventually bring out something positive. Perhaps this could even purge the country of the growing intolerance bred by what can be called ‘parochial sub-nationalism’, and the nation could finally accept the Hindi heartland as part of its own successes and failures. We might, therefore, be thankful to Raj Thackeray and his cohorts; indeed, we may need more of them. In the meanwhile, let the ‘heartland’ pay as it has always done – to prove to the rest of the world that India is truly a functioning democracy, including its impoverishment and limitations.
~ Rahul Tripathi is a migrant from the ‘Hindu heartland’, who teaches political science at Goa University.