Bihari Asmita and Its Blinkers


Manish Thakur & Nabanipa Bhattacharjee


The centenary celebrations of the formation of the state of Bihar would have largely gone unnoticed in the national media but for the provocative remarks made by the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at a function in New Delhi, the national capital. While emphasizing the indispensability of the Bihari migrants for the smooth functioning of the metropolis, Kumar urged for the cessation of the prevalent hostile attitudes towards his state brethren.

This could very well be a timely articulation of the much-needed cosmopolitanism amidst an increasingly nativist and regional chauvinistic national landscape. As usual, media pundits and political commentators have joined the debate: some hailing the Chief Minister for his successful marketing of the Brand Bihar while others critiquing him for unnecessarily fanning parochial

sentiments. Some are busy probing his hidden motivations and suppressed desire of catapulting himself to the national political stage in the likely scenario of a reconfiguration of political alliances. As is wont, the media would soon move to issues more promising for its competitive insertion in the hierarchy of readership surveys and TRP ratings.

What is disconcerting is the near silence of the very same cognoscenti when five Bihari youth were killed in Chennai by the Tamil Nadu police in the broad day light under the mere suspicion of their being the bank robbers. In the same city, a mentally deranged person from Andhra Pradesh was almost killed to death by a jeering mob under the misperceived identity of his being a Bihari thief. As per media reports, the police stood by as silent spectators as the ‘native’ Tamilians were giving vent to their voyeuristic urge for street violence. To top it all, the ethnic profiling of the Biharis is being carried on under the pretext of curbing crime rates in the city. What a glorious tribute to the much-celebrated constitutional ideals of respect for human rights and cultural diversity!

Indeed, these are not stray incidences. Nor is violence against the ‘outsider’ the sole monopoly of the champions of the ‘Marathi Manush’ any longer. We see it periodically happening in Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi. The list can go on. After all, it was poor Bihari labourers who bore the brunt of the beautification drive in Delhi on the eve of Commonwealth Games. True, all-pervasive hostilities against the Bihari migrants do not always translate into physical violence. But then, violence comes to us into different colours, and all their forms are equally debilitating for the self-respect and dignity of the victims. To be called a Bihari in New Delhi’s posh Khan Market can never be an innocuous descriptive label; it connotes heaps of ridicule and pun. A JNU history professor was once shocked to learn that one of his brightest girl students was going around with a Bihari classmate! Long live our progressive cosmopolitanism!

It is time we, as a nation, recognized the unanticipated consequences of the language based reorganisation of states. No doubt, it has contributed to the robustness of our plural and democratic polity. Yet, it has legitimated a new nativism on the part of both the ‘natives’ and the ‘migrants’ throughout our body politic. In a way, it places undue burden on migrants in a state to continually prove their credentials as an ideal migrant community mindful of their limits.

Thus, we have recalcitrant Biharis to be policed (and profiled) and disciplined, and hardworking and genteel Malayalees (like sugar in water as the metaphor goes). The implication being that an ideal migrant community should behave in a docile and subdued fashion, and should avoid trespassing on what is generally held to be the first right of the ‘locals’ in a given city, place and state. It is this logic which makes a Bihari taxi driver in Mumbai open to attack for he never felt the need to learn local Marathi to ply his trade. And, in effect, he failed to behave as an ideal migrant. So what is wrong if he gets punished for having been disloyal to the place where he earns his livelihood?

Put differently, language-based states have reinforced a subterranean moral divide between insiders and outsiders (which gets explicitly and violently articulated in the case of nativist parties like Shiv Sena or the MNS) that permeates the thinking of most of the inhabitants of a state. We hardly realise that, in the process, we end up narrowing down the possibility of a vibrant civil society as large number of migrants get morally coerced to keep themselves indifferent to ‘local’ issues out of the fear of exceeding their brief. This growing acquiescence to the nativist moral claims of the locals is, definitely, a worrisome phenomenon.

This has not always been the case. Bihar itself offers an illustrious case of political cosmopolitanism. For example, J. B. Kriplani, a Sindhi, was elected in a bye-election to Parliament in 1952 from Bhagalpur. Again, he was sent to Parliament in 1957 from Sitamarhi on the then Praja Socialist Party ticket, and could defeat the ‘local’ Bujhawan Sah. Madhu Limaye, a Maharashtrian, was sent to Parliament twice (1962 and 1977) from Banka constituency in Bihar. There is no point mentioning George Fernandes who has won from Muzaffarpur in 1977, 1980, 1989, 1991, and 2004. In 1996 and 1999, he was elected from Nalanda. Sharad Yadav, the President of the Janata Dal (United), though from Madhya Pradesh, has successfully contested from Madhepura in 1991, 1996, 1999 and 2009.

The point is that the growing nativism is going to limit such possibilities where politicians need not always be the ‘sons-of-the soil’. This would certainly constrain the healthy traffic of political statesmen across the linguistic divide. Paradoxically, the inhabitants of the state who could never distinguish an outsider from an insider even in the emotionally charged atmosphere of the general elections are the target of ethnic phobia all over the country. Even otherwise, the regional identity lacks its intensity in the Hindi-speaking states for obvious reasons. Not surprisingly, Bihar has never articulated sub-national or secessionist demands (howsoever feeble) despite its poverty, backwardness and other instances of discrimination in the federal set-up. On the contrary, Bihar has always been the nation-incarnate.

The current political regime in Bihar can potentially impair this worthy cosmopolitan legacy of the state. Too much of publicised rhetoric around the idea of a distinctive, and imagined, Bihari Asmita has become the order of the day. The pomp and gaiety accompanying the Bihar Shatabdi Samaroh and Bihar Diwas are fine by themselves. But they should not be allowed to anchor an uncalled for political game of competitive identity articulations. The state government would do better by putting its resources together to reduce the number of the poor in absolute terms than wasting its political energy in weaving together the co-ordinates of make- believe Bihari Asmita. Political genuflection to such populist impulses has hardly ever been the anchor-sheet of sushashan. At best, it can be the source of political arrogance for people who matter in Patna, and wish to be influential in Delhi.

*Manish Thakur, an Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, is currently a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.




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