More than 800 years later, in the police lines barracks of Patna city, a kilometre off the iconic Gandhi Maidan – the seat of many a socialist call to arms – a similar scene unfolds every night. Constables and hawaldars, young and old, battle for law and order unitedly. But around dinner time, they separate into groups formed on the lines of caste and geography.
Over 20 chowkas – makeshift kitchens that make up for the absence of a joint cooking area – spring to life between 8 pm and 10 pm every day. Clay ovens hot up and the firewood crackles as hot rotis disappear into hungry tummies.
“Yehi parampara rahi hai yahaan saalon se,” a constable says. “This has been the tradition for years.”
Wary their superiors might take umbrage, most policemen here request that they not be named.
Asked if the separate kitchens indicate a divide among the ranks, most brush away the concern, saying these groupings are based on friendship. “If you are a Yadav, you will generally have more Yadav friends. So you live together and eat together. The same is true for other castes. Also, if you are from a far off place like Darbhanga, it doesn’t matter whether you are Hindu or Muslim, you will live in close proximity.”
But Barrack number 3 is said to be a Rajput bastion. Barrack 5 is dominated by Bhumihars. Barrack 8 is identified as the one where the Paswans hold sway.
“These are mere indicators that that particular caste outnumbers the rest in that barrack. You will also find a Dalit in a Bhumihar barrack. It’s not that the entire barrack belongs to the Bhumihars,” says a hawaldar.
In need of a desperate facelift amid overflowing toilets, cramped sleeping areas and lack of official holidays during election season, the barracks are no less than war zones. The main buildings were built in the 1960s, says a senior officer. “The facilities were built keeping in mind the strength of the force at that time. Over the years, the numbers have risen exponentially but the facilities have remained the same. Major renovations are also a problem because we don’t have a place where we can shift these people to allow repair work to begin.”
As things stand now, there are over 5,000 people crammed in different buildings. Each floor is stuffed with beds where people are sometimes forced to take turns to sleep. The ceilings are crumbling after the monsoon rains and chunks of concrete can land on a sleeping policeman’s head at any time.
And the elections are not good news because the barracks, already bursting at the seams, will have to accommodate another few thousand men in the coming days.
The recent protests by the policemen’s association to force the authorities to take stock of their living conditions are yet to bear fruit.
“A lot is said about the improved law and order condition in the city and the state. Who made it possible?” asks a visibly frustrated cop. “People blame us for everything without realising what we go through to make Bihar a safe place. And look what we get for it?”