This town after all
Why doesn’t it say something
This town after all
Why does it lie
In the map of our Hindostan
– Rahul Rajesh in Hindi poem, “Yah Shahar”
The Five Freedoms that Amartya Sen so eloquently talks about – political freedom, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security – are conspicuous by their absence in most parts of South Asia. Dreams of midnight children of August 14 in Pakistan and August 15 in India lie shattered – only their shards glisten in the sun, competing for attention with the sweat on the brows of the likes of Pappu the rickshaw puller.
Afghanistan fell victim to the proxy war of Cold War powers. The karma of Burma is to endure the misrule of its military. The tyranny of the majority has pushed Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity to the precipice. The elite of Serendib is yet to show the courage to step back – it is still staring vacantly into the abyss.
Even Bhutan and Nepal have inherently authoritarian regimes to reckon with. But what went wrong with the three pieces of British India? To this day, neither India nor Pakistan seems to have fully recovered from the parting kick of the departing imperialists. Their ignoble ranking in the recently published Human Development Report of UNDP clearly show that promises made during the midnight “tryst with destiny” have not been kept.
Failure of political freedom to usher in any of the other vital freedoms is common to all South Asian countries, but nowhere is its absence as stark as in Bihar. This state has become such an embarrassment for the netizens of resurgent upper-class India that they prefer not to see, hear, or talk about it anymore. The plight of Bihar does not make news, except when national channels need an earthy soundbite from Laloo Prasad Yadav to enliven their ‘human interest’ stories.
State of anarchy
In a state where a popular song declaring “now that Jharkhand has separated, you would have to survive on roots” is being sought to be banned, the minister of tourism is planning “Root Tourism” for Bihari diaspora from Mauritius, Fiji, and Surinam. The government hopes that the prosperous progenies of Girmitiya labour would be interested in visiting the villages of their ancestors. But if some of them were actually to respond to such a scheme, they would have to travel exactly the way their forefathers did as they were leaving for indentured labour overseas – in rowboats along the banks of several tributaries of Ganga. Roads in Bihar are an insult to the discipline of civil engineering.
Despite being the third most-populous state of the union, Bihar is on the verge of falling off the map of India. Per capita income of an average Bihari – annually – is only INR 2193, which is about one fourth of the national average of INR 8399.
Other indicators are as bleak – rural poverty 43 percent (27.1 percent for India as a whole), urban poverty 41.2 (23.6), literacy 47.5 (65.4), female literacy 33.6 (54.2), increase in population over the decade 28.4 (21.3), and density of population per square kilometre 880 individuals (324, Indian average). Perhaps the worst showing is in electricity consumption (All figures in brackets are national averages of India), an indicator of economic sickness of the state – as against the national average of 334.3, an average Bihari consumes only 54.9 units of electricity per year.
Once you hear a student in Motihari reel off these figures, you do not blame him if he says that his sole aim in life is to get away from here. Not unlike some of his ancestors, Ram Ashray says that he wouldn’t mind being sold and resettled as Girmitiya in some unknown land. It must be difficult to get any more desperate than that.
When desperation is so extreme, it is but natural that crime rules the roost. After dowry, kidnapping for ransom is the second biggest ‘industry’ of Bihar, with annual turnover in billions of rupees, providing direct and indirect employment to thousands of pappus and ram ashrays. [Do not UC in Proof Reading.] Recently, a nephew of a state minister was abducted in broad daylight from the main thoroughfare of Patna where the boy was waiting for his school bus along with his grandfather. All that the minister could do was wail in grief, just like every one else whose child gets abducted, and wait for the ransom note to arrive
Doctors stopped work for almost a week in July to protest the abductions that plague their profession. Bankers did the same for a few days. Businessmen find it more convenient to pay up and pass on the cost to their customers. It is easier to pay the criminals, and a lot safer, than to rely on the law. “But doesn’t the government do something?” My educated interlocutor throws up his hand in despair, “What can you expect from a kitchen-trained political novice who is fronting for her husband enmeshed in corruption charges?” Rabri Devi has lasted as the de jure chief minister for more than seven years.
Biharis may want to flee, but they still want to marry Biharis. The same is true for Laloo Prasad Yadav who prefers Biharis from outside his state.
Biharis are similar to other subcontinetals who thrive as soon as they go out of the region and settle elsewhere. Only more so. Biharis have not done so badly at all for themselves, as soon as they cross over into Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, or Maharastra. In the central services of Government of India, the presence of Biharis belies the backwardness of their state. This has never been explained adequately – why Bihar produces the most successful civil servants [(after a particular breed of Tamil Brahmins)] who by way of thank you refuse to lift a helping finger for the ghar state.
Champaran is where Mahtma Gandhi first tested his Satyagraha technique of non-cooperation on Indian soil, in 1917, to champion the cause of labour against the exploitatative indigo planters. When served a notice, Gandhi defied the order and was arrested and tried. Pleading guilty, Gandhi submitted that he violated the order “not for the want of respect for lawful authority but in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience”. In humid, listlessness of the North Ganga Maidaan, nobody hears such a voice anymore.
Motihari town is close to Ramnagar and Sugauli, and is located on the banks of a muddy monsoon-fed lake. This where George Orwell was born as Eric Arthur Blair, on 25 June 1903, to a superintendent of the opium warehouse. His house still survives, and in June quite a few visitors came from England to mark his anniversary. Unfortunately, neither the Mahatma nor the Orwell connections are enough to jump-start to tourism to Motihari. Unable to find anything else that is worth showing to a visitor, my host suggests that we go see a film. Nothing to do with the movie, which is the kind that is shown at the B-class towns of north India, but because “the theatre is air-conditioned, with a generator in case the electricity goes.”
The lot of Biharis in Motihari may not be enviable, but some of their unfortunate neighbours who opted for East Pakistan in 1947 would still be envious if they were to know that their brethren back in Bihar are free to go wherever they want, whenever they want. Confined to about 70 camps in Bangladesh, are some 240,000 stranded Biharis who by nationality are now Pakistani. They continue to exist in the camps in Dhaka and across the country as what Dhaka-based journalist Ekram Kabir calls “the leftover unfortunates of distant past”.
These are ‘Biharis’ the way a South Asian in Fiji is ‘Indian’. The link to the land of origin is torn completely, even though it is just a few hundred kilometers up the Ganga/Padma. Back in 1947, their parents and grandparents left Bihar for their ideal nation and dream destination – the Land of the Pure. But Pakistan denies their existence. They refused to ‘behave’ like Bangladeshis in the 1970s, and for the Dhaka establishment it was too late for them to make amends. So the Bihari Pakistanis of Bangladesh are about the most stateless as it is possible to get anywhere (the Bhutanese refugees in the Nepal camps also make the grade, but they have suffered two decades less than the Biharis, and they make the grade for UNHCR assistance which the camp-dwellers of Dhaka do not).
Pakistan happily accepted and integrated wealthy Mohajirs from United Provinces. Bengali Muslims from West Bengal relocated and merged into the society of East Bengal with relative ease. But Biharis who had responded to the Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s call for “Direct Action Day” on 16 August 1946 were not to find much of a future in their Promised Land. The curse of statelessness befell only upon them. The lucky ones made it to Islamabad and Karachi. Those from Bihar, however, are trapped in the debris of history, with the collapse of “two nation theory” of the Indian Muslim League.
In the words of Kabir:
Steeped in inertia, enmeshed in poverty,
they are waiting because
waiting is the only thing that they can do.
As in the past, grateful tributes will once again be paid this year to Qaid-e-Azam on 14 August in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. Members of the Pakistani elite, at least, will be smug within the embrace of the country that they have got to rule since 1947. They will not be worrying about the Biharis languishing in the Bangladesh camps. But they should be. If the creation of Pakistan is justified, then the rehabilitation of all its loyal citizens from its earlier wing in the east is even more important than the jihad in Kashmir.
Just as the Mahatma – wherever he is, his soul is unlikely to be resting in peace – must be shedding tears at the plight of Biharis in India, the Qaid too must be grieving for the promises to his most ardent followers – the Biharis in the camps of Bangladesh and those who made it across to the Orangi slums of Karachi – that he could not keep.
Unification of the Subcontinent is a pipe dream of Indian saffronites hallucinating about a non-existent Akhand Bharat. But that does not deny the reality that both India and Pakistan are artificial constructs run by the well-to-do inheritors of the Raj. Indians have been comparatively more fortunate, for they have not yet fallen prey to those who wear the uniform and institute martial law. But India is too big a country to be run from New Delhi and Pakistan is too diverse to be directed from Islamabad cantonment. The imperial pattern of centrally controlled territory has to give way to truly self-ruled states.
On 14 August, Pakistanis will salute their flag – to them Azadi Mubarak and Pakistan Zindabad. The following day, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, premier Atal Bihari Bajpayee will in all likelihood read out a couplet (given his latest pronouncements on the issue) valorising the ‘martyrs’ of Ayodhya and Gujarat on 15 August. As likely is president Abdul Kalam dwelling upon the virtues of vegetarianism in his address to the nation. To the Indians, Swatantrata Diwas ki Shubhkamnayen (that’s quite a mouthful, Hindi is indeed not even a patch on Urdu) and Jai Hind. We all love our countries, even though it seldom translates into love for our less fortunate countrymen.
This independence day, General Musharraf is unlikely to spare a thought for stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh who do not qualify even as refugees. Forget Vajpayee, East and West Champaran – the two distressed districts among so many of rump Bihar – will probably not even be in the thoughts of Rabri Devi, Chief Minister.
Meanwhile, Qaid is an icon, and Mahatma is yet another deity of the Hindu pantheon. Let’s pray not to them, but for them, because their inheritors have failed to deliver on their promises.
On 14 August 1947, Jinnah was burdened with the worry of building a new nation from the country that he had received after a bitter and bloody struggle. This year, inheritors of his legacy have been busy bartering the sovereignty of their country for a few billion dollars in aid. On 15 August 1947, Mahatma Gandhi spent the day in Calcutta fasting and spinning. This year, the rulers of Hindustan in New Delhi will probably spend feasting and giving a Ramjanmbhoomi spin to Babri Mosque controversy.
Orangi will not reply to Rahul Rajesh’s query, “This town/ Why doesn’t it sleep all night long” and Motihari will be to afraid to answer him when he asks, “This town/ Why is it so scared/ Why is it so dead”.
Salute Aristotle, for he says: “Poetry is something more philosophical and of graver import than history”. Despite the ordeal of Biharis in Bangladesh, Biharis in Bihar, Pandits in Kashmir, and Muslims in Gujarat, poetry will survive. And towns revive once again. Of that, Rahul Rajesh, in Jharkhand, can rest assured.
Pappu the riksapuller
From Motihari in Bihar, New Delhi is a long way — Dilli door ast. ‘Nearer’ is Birgunj in Nepal where there is electricity all night long and the roads are paved. The street lights work. School buildings are clean. Temples are properly maintained. And pulling rickshaw is remunerative. Incessantly complaining about their fate, middle-class Nepalis need to visit Motihari to be told how blessed they are.
Pappu the rickshaw-puller had once been to Birgunj to listen a Hindu seer. He has nothing but praise for the Hindu Rashtra and blames secularism for all ills besetting his Hindustan. But he does not know that despite his government´s public avowal to secularism, places of worship vastly outnumber schools, colleges and hospitals in India. Though many of these temples and mosques date back centuries, quite a few of them have been built after the partition. Pappu does not even know that the single most important agenda for his rulers in New Delhi still is to build a temple on the exact spot where an ancient mosque had previously been pulled down by a frenzied mob of politicised Hindu zealots.
You do not expect Pappu to know that the poor in Birgunj do not use fans despite the searing heat, in order to minimise the electricity consumption. He would not know that the per unit rate of power in Nepal is one of the highest in the world, despite the abundance of hydroelectric potential, and that only 15 percent of Nepal’s people have access to electricity. Neither would he know that rickshaw-pulling in Birgunj is not as lucrative as it seems, because unlike in Motihari, very few peddlers in Nepal own their vehicles and the rest of them have to submit a substantial share of the day’s earning to their owners.
Each one of the working class in South Asia is unhappy in his own way just as every member of the Subcontinental elite is so much like the other.