Persecution of Dalits is on the rise in Bihar. Every such incident leads to a frenzy of arguments and counterarguments, which continues for a few days and then there is silence. On 25 September, more than 100 Mahadalits fled Pura village in Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi’s native district of Gaya as a result of threats from upper-caste goons. Five days earlier, Arjun Manjhi, a Mahadalit from the village, had been beaten to death after his younger brother refused to withdraw his nomination papers for elections to the local Primary Agricultural Cooperative Society. When the other members of the community spoke out against the murder, the goons allegedly threatened to massacre all of them. This is what led to the exodus.
The villagers expected the chief minister to visit Pura in the aftermath of the incident, but he chose to stay away. Though the local administration somehow managed to persuade the Mahadalits to return to their village, they continue to live in the shadow of fear. “Even today, the main accused, Guddu Sharma, often turns up at the village, but the police do not arrest him,” says Sunil, one of the Mahadalits who had fled Pura.
The Pura exodus was only the first of a number of recent cases of caste atrocities in Bihar. On 8 October, six Mahadalit women were gangraped in Kurmuri village of Bhojpur district. One of the main accused, Neelnidhi Singh, was allegedly a former member of the Ranvir Sena, an upper-caste militia said to be responsible for several massacres of Dalits. An FIR was filed 24 hours after the incident, but no action was taken on it — not even after Chief Minister Manjhi’s statement promising speedy action, a trial in a fast-track court and jobs for the victims. The victims are so scared that they are not willing to speak to the media.
While these incidents somehow managed to make it to the headlines, many others largely went unnoticed.
In Nawada district, a Dalit family had to face the ire of the upper castes because it dared to organise a music and dance programme as part of a wedding celebration. The upper castes took it as an insult and threatened the family, which was forced to leave the village and seek refuge in a school.
In yet another incident in Bihata, a town near Patna, upper-caste youth raped a Mahadalit college student.
Another barbaric incident was reported from Mohanpur village in Rohtas district. An upper-caste landlord burnt alive a 14-year-old Dalit boy, Sai Ram, after the boy’s goat wandered into his fields. The persecution did not end with the boy’s killing. After the murder was reported to the police, the upper castes began threatening the boy’s father, Jiut Ram. And Sai had to be buried by the roadside as the upper castes did not allow him to be cremated within the precincts of the village.
“I have no idea how far the murder case has progressed,” says Jiut Ram, weeping inconsolably. “I didn’t try to find out and no one bothered to inform me. I am more worried about what is in store for me. Sai was the only one who could have taken care of me; my other son is mentally challenged.”
Politicians made a beeline for Jiut Ram’s hut and made promises galore — free ration, employment and land. But all he has got so far is a cheque for Rs 28,000 as compensation for losing his son.
In the face of numerous such instances of atrocities on Dalits, the administration seems to be least bothered. Chief Minister Manjhi, himself a Mahadalit, has often been in the spotlight for making controversial statements such as “Only Dalits, Mahadalits and some most backward castes are natives, the rest are outsiders”, but he has done precious little to address the issue of the persecution of Dalits.
So, should the rise in anti-Dalit atrocities be seen as a backlash against Manjhi’s political ascent? Is it the result of growing anxiety and resentment among the upper castes? Why has there been a spike in such incidents after the JD(U) severed its ties with the BJP?
On 6 December, BR Ambedkar’s death anniversary was commemorated in a big way in Patna. The programme was organised by members of the ruling JD(U). Analysts say that it was a brazen display of tokenism to divert attention from the continuing persecution of Dalits in the state. It was here that Manjhi and Nitish Kumar made a public appearance together after a long time. While Nitish was being booed by some protesters, Manjhi kept smiling at them. The chief minister also announced a plethora of schemes for Mahadalits.
There have been many such events in the past three months, but violence against Dalits has only gone up. The real issues are lost in the din of a war of words between various political factions. And the debates fail to address the question of whether there is a link between the growing atrocities and the shift in the political equation at the top.
Last year, the Patna High Court acquitted almost all the accused in the Miyapur, Lakshmanpur Bathe and Nagri Bazaar massacre cases. Did the verdicts embolden the feudal forces to perpetrate more atrocities against the Dalits?
Experts link the growing violence against Dalits to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls as well. They argue that the unprecedented victory of the BJP and the dismal performance of parties such as the JD(U) and the RJD resulted in the upper castes regaining a position of strength in the state after a long time. This could have led to the recrudescence of anti-Dalit violence.
While 5,538 cases of atrocities were reported between 2002 and 2005, there were 9,052 such cases between 2006 and 2009. In 2012, 4,950 incidents were reported, of which 191 were rapes. The number of cases saw a major spike this year. Between January and August, 10,681 cases were reported, including 91 murders.
“Manjhi’s elevation as CM has certainly caused unrest among a large section and it has turned anarchic, but the issue should not be viewed from that angle alone,” says sociologist S Narayan. Of the 580 elected representatives who were murdered in Bihar in 2013, 60 percent were Dalits or Mahadalits. That happened when Nitish was the chief minister and the alliance with the BJP was intact.
“Manjhi has been in politics for nearly three decades and has held various ministerial posts,” says Narayan. “There are eight other Mahadalits in the current Cabinet. In all these years, has Manjhi or any other Mahadalit leader framed a policy for the all-round development of their community? The Mahadalit issue is raised only to score brownie points, while the issue of development remains on the backburner.”
Another Bihar-based sociologist, MN Karn, agrees that while Manjhi’s rise has brought about greater awareness among the Mahadalits, the issues of the community remain trapped in vote-bank politics. “I am sure the government doesn’t even have precise statistics on the social and educational condition of the Mahadalits,” he says.
Baban Rawat, a member of the State Scheduled Castes Commission, has a different take on the rising violence against Dalits. According to him, the Dalits are getting empowered and that is why the upper castes are attacking them. Another member of the commission, Vidyanand Vakil, believes that by creating an anarchic atmosphere, the upper castes are trying to send across the message that a Dalit chief minister cannot run the state.
Playing the Dalit card, Chief Minister Manjhi hopes to mobilise a strong vote bank by the next Assembly polls. And Nitish is quietly watching from the sidelines as a coalition of the Mahadalit, most backward, Muslim, Kurmi and Yadav communities is getting forged, hoping that it would guarantee his victory. The BJP, which has become a party of the upper castes, is also trying to take along the Kushwaha, Bania and Paswan communities, besides some most backward castes.
All the parties involved in the Bihar political scene are, however, shying away from some key questions. Even as Manjhi is coming up with alluring policies such as providing land to Mahadalits and raising the enrolment of Dalit students in residential schools, those like CPI(ML) state secretary Kunal ask why Manjhi is not following the guidelines set out in the D Bandyopadhyay Committee report, prepared under Nitish’s watch, on the distribution of land. According to the
report, there are 17 lakh landless people in Bihar, of whom 6 lakh do not even have land to build a house. The committee had recommended a ceiling of 15 acres on agricultural land, which would free up 21 lakh acres for distribution among
WHAT HAPPENED IN PURA VILLAGE?
Vakeel Manjhi, a young man from the Mahadalit Musahar caste, decided to contest against an upper-caste candidate in the elections for the local Primary Agricultural Cooperative Society. The upper castes took it as an affront and murdered Vakeel’s elder brother Arjun, who was canvassing for him. When the murder was reported to the police, the upper-caste goons threatened that they would massacre the Mahadalits. More than 100 Mahadalit families fled the village on 25 September and camped in the nearby Tekari town. The local administration persuaded them to return to their village after a few days. Chief Minister Manjhi issued a statement, but didn’t visit the village. Arjun’s wife received a compensation of Rs 5 lakh. Six of the accused surrendered, but the main accused, Guddu Sharma, is still absconding. Villagers allege that Sharma continues to visit the village and threaten them. Arjun’s elder brother Ram Swarup Manjhi, too, has been missing for the past few years. He had dared to contest for the post of sarpanch against an upper-caste candidate.
The genesis of the current chaotic situation in Bihar can be traced to the time when Nitish was at the helm in alliance with the BJP. Nitish disbanded the Amir Das Commission after it prepared a report exposing the role of several political leaders in the massacres carried out by Ranvir Sena in the 1990s.
Now, with Assembly polls scheduled for 2015, there are attempts to give the debate surrounding Manjhi a Dalit-versus-upper-castes colour. Political analysts such as Prem Kumar Mani are repeatedly emphasising the fact that the upper castes were thrown out of mainstream politics several years ago. The actual fight now is between the Dalits and the Other Backward Castes. Manjhi never talks about the OBCs and remains focussed on the Dalits, Adivasis, minorities and the most backward castes. Leaders of the OBCs are desperate to be a part of Manjhi’s new political club. But Manjhi seems to believe that preferring Dalits over the OBCs would be beneficial for his political career. That is why he keeps reiterating that the Dalits comprise 22 percent of the population and the Muslims, 16 percent.
In an interview with Tehelka (‘Policies should focus on educational and economic status rather than caste’ by Nirala, 16 August), Manjhi had said that he is not in favour of reservation for OBCs in lease contracts, while he supports reservation for Dalits and Mahadalits. However, his failure to stop the atrocities on these communities indicates that perhaps he is only interested in retaining his position in their name.