(BiharTimes) The brutal murder of Pritam Bhattacharjee at Naugachhia on 15 July 2012 (a young man of 25 years who was travelling by Awadh-Assam Express on his way to Delhi to enroll in a Ph.D. programme in Physics at Delhi University) is a gory reminder of the utter lawlessness and mindless violence that have entered the veins and capillaries of society in Bihar.
It is a grim slap on the Bihar Government’s much-touted claims of sushashan. The fact that this promising young man from Silchar in Assam was abducted from the railway platform on 10th July and was kept hostage for five days before being chopped off and thrown under a railway over- bridge under Katariya railway station in Barauni-Katihar railway section reveals the utter callousness and heightened insensitivity of the law and order enforcement agencies in the state. What is more disgusting is that the police failed to act on his complaint of severe harassment and snatching of his luggage by the local goons. Having got no help from the police, Pritam went to recover his luggage containing his valuable documents required for admission, and ended up paying with his life. To add salt to the injury, over the last few days railways authorities and Bihar Police have been engaged in a mutual blame game while the murderers roam free.
Pritam’s murder raises a number of issues which we, as a civilized society, need to reflect on. It is not merely the story of a promising life cut short in the cruelest of manners. Of course, it is about safety and security of the citizens of India across the length and breadth of this country. It is about certain basic entitlements of citizenship which the Indian state through its multifarious agencies has failed to deliver. It is about our right to justice, about nabbing the culprits and the speedy trial. More importantly, it is about our collective design of living in plural society. In this sense, it is a shame for us that such an incident did take place in that administrative territory that we call Bihar. It is for Biharis to ask for justice in this case. It is for them to take out protest marches in Patna, Bhagalpur and Naugachhia. It is for them to demand explanation from the police and the railways authorities. It is for them to stand with Shri Shankar Bhattacharjee and Shrimati Uttpala Bhattacharjee (Pritam’s distraught parents) from the Barak valley in their hour of grief and unfathomable pain.
Unfortunately, the cold-blooded murder of this youth has come to be seen in ethnic terms. It has been made out to be an Assam-versus-Bihar issue. And, we cannot go on blaming politicians alone for the usual game of fishing in troubled waters. We Biharis are equally responsible through our callousness and lack of sensitivity. After all, why could not we demonstrate in the district headquarters of Bhagalpur seeking justice the way citizens of Karimganj district have done? Why do we have to wait for All Assam Students Union to protest in Guwahati and New Delhi? Why cannot our students and youth organizations take out rallies in Patna and gherao Bihar Bhawan in New Delhi? Why cannot Pritam’s murder be our issue? Why do we need to be reminded of that by the Assam Chief Minister or the Director General of Police?
Sadly though, we all are complicit in this process of othering. No wonder, Pritam comes to us as a distant other, as a Bengali, as an Assamese, as someone from that distant land of Silchar and Barak valley about which we have no clue at all. He becomes part of the multitude called the North-East who crosses Bihar on an everyday basis to fulfill their aspirations and dreams in the so-called mainland. We have dissipated those resources which would help us own Pritam up as our very own. Only then could we have fought for him the way we fight for our near and dear ones. So much for our nationalism and our loyalty to the great Bharat Mata!
The chauvinistic reactions to this episode in the social media are more disheartening. While taking great pride in the glorious legacy of the state and its contemporary growth story, some of them (presumably mostly Biharis) appear to make it a non-issue. Others’ diatribe against Bihar as ‘badlands’ feed into this reactionary and vicious cycle of ethnic one-upmanship. The ‘proud’ Biharis seem to advocate a politics of indifference, and more naively, a competitive ethnic politics in terms of settling the scores. They appear to be so ignorant of the fascistic implications of their politics. In their reading, since Biharis are anyway beaten up everywhere, from Assam to Tamil Nadu, it is but fair that they too should have their occasional moments of vainglory. This misplaced manliness and the advocacy of tit-for-tat is such a hideous proposition!
It is time we realized the limits of our erroneous understanding of this unbridled assertion of ethnic self-righteousness. The rhetorical discourses of the contemporary political regime in Bihar have unfortunately contributed to this misdirected pride. Without our fight for justice for Pritam, what moral right do we have to protest against profiling of Biharis in Chennai? Are we not playing into the hands of those zealots who would kill poor and innocent Bihari labourers in Tinsukia? Are we not strengthening the hands of Raj Thackereys of the world? Do we want to see Maharashtra Navnirman Sena type of organisations to emerge and flourish in Bihar? Do we want to fritter away our cosmopolitan political legacy and join the bandwagon of ethnic entrepreneurs and marauders? It would be truly Bihar’s shame if we go on sacrificing promising lives like Pritam’s at the altar of our governmental incompetence, and more dangerously, to the ugly logic of ethnic fault lines.
* Manish Thakur, an Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, is currently a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.