October 20, 2020
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From Lanterns To Light

For many, Lalu's defeat has come as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. Now that Lalu's lantern has been extinguished in Bihar, one hopes that the light of progress will shine in the state.

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From Lanterns To Light
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I did not realize that Lalu Yadav was so popular even in Singapore. Recently when I stepped into a room full of Singaporean lawyers, many of them Indians, I was showered with a volley of questions on Lalu: What do you think of Lalu Yadav? Why did he lose the elections? And so on and on it went.

The news of his and his party's defeat in the assembly elections had been flashed in the Singaporean media. And when they asked about Lalu, naturally they asked about Bihar also. A newspaper here had called Bihar a 'lawless state' in its report. A little while ago, I was told, they were discussing capital punishment in Singapore. The grim subject seemed to jell well with that of Lalu and a lawless Bihar.

For outsiders, Bihar means danger and this danger could be a source of fun for some.

They did not know that Lalu initially came to power as a messiah of the low caste underclass of Bihar. They did not know that Lalu was instrumental in containing the communal forces in Bihar at a time when most of India was burning in the fires of communal hatred. What they had heard was of a caricature, a buffoon in India's vast political arena. Furthermore, what they had heard about was that Bihar was the wild east of India, with cows, cowboys with guns, and looting and kidnapping chieftains.

Not their fault really. Everywhere, the media is quick to highlight spiced-up negative news. And who has the time to go through the nuances of any commentary?

Even Indians in India look at Bihar in a similar way.

It was not that my Bihari pride was hurt. And I am not a fan of Lalu Yadav. More than amused, I was left wondering about their curiosity regarding Lalu and Bihar. Of course, their interest hinged more on the duo's notoriety than anything else. Lalu's corruption and Bihar's destitution is legendary. But what was interesting, it seemed, was that Lalu and Bihar had given them an opportunity to see a different aspect of an otherwise economically booming India.

Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew was in India that week and had come up with an apt homily: 'The first thing Indian politicians must remember is, do not promise something you can't deliver.' The contrast between the super-efficient Singapore and a lawless Bihar could not be missed.

This experience was similar to my chance meeting with two Pakistani businessmen on a flight from Bangkok to Karachi. They were also curious about many things Indian and when the topic of conversation veered towards Bihar and Lalu, they laughed uproariously. They knew all the jokes about Lalu, especially the one about Kashmir - about how we would happily hand over all of Kashmir to Pakistan, provided they took Bihar as well.

For more than fifteen years, Bihar has borne the brunt of being India's leading disaster state. Remember the acronym 'Bimaru' (for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh)? It has Bihar leading the pack. Lalu, who set off to correct the social imbalances, ended up treating it all as one big joke at the cost of the exchequer. His family and various cows happily grazed, while the fodder went missing. Development was consciously ignored - why, he was blatant enough to say even on TV that it was not development but caste that people would cast their votes.

Under Lalu, Bihar slid farther back into the dark ages. Jehanabad district itself witnessed repeated blood-baths in a circle of violence between the Ranvir Sena and the Naxals. Caste wars and crime became synonymous with the state. And criminalisation of politics became chronic with the Rama Singhs and Shahabuddins becoming the new political lords.

In school, in the 1970s, we were often asked in our civics classes: Why is Bihar so backward despite being so rich in natural resources? Then there was no Jharkhand. Now this question is irrelevant, but Bihar has gone from bad to worse. At least there were schools then. Today what exists in the name of education is a sham. This is what an MLA of state had to say: "Today our schools have walls but no roofs and where there are roofs there are no walls' (sic!). No wonder Bihar's current literacy rate is 48%, far below the national average.

A state larger than France and five times more populous than Australia has been reduced to a joke. A cruel joke.

The fact of being a Bihari sticks to one's identity like a limpet. It is used to slot one as a caricature and a stereotype.

When seeking admission in Aligarh Muslim University after matriculation from Bihar in 1990, I was told that my aggregate marks would be treated 10 percentage points less, to compensate for any inflation in my marks by the pliable and corruptible education system in Bihar. Every student was a suspect. Thankfully my scores were above 80% and I could get admission. When one of my seniors from Uttar Pradesh heard about my percentage, he said with a smirk, 'I would be impressed if you managed to get even a first division here.' I proved him wrong. I passed all the exams with distinction.

When I came to Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi for my postgraduate studies, I found the Biharis in the lowest rungs of society -- menial workers, teashop boys, servants, auto-wallahs-and the choicest of abuses were reserved for them. In fact, the term 'Bihari' itself has morphed into an abuse. If you are not slick and smart, and look like a poor village bumpkin, you are a 'Bihari'. I have heard many Delhi bus drivers shout 'Oye Bihari! Move away' (no, not in English, and suffixed invariably by the favourite north Indian invocation of one's sister and fornication) to pedestrians on the road.

Bihar's backwardness has forced millions of Biharis to seek education and employment outside of the state. In this process, hundreds of thousands of Biharis have benefited and done well through sheer grit and determination -- they have got into administration, academics and information technology and shined in their fields. Every year, a good number of Biharis crack the IAS and IPS exams or get into professional courses in various universities all over India. Biharis today form one of the largest group of skilled manpower in the country. Thousands of villages in Bihar can today claim to have their sons and daughters working abroad, mostly in the gulf countries. At the same time, the weak and the marginalized have become targets of jingoistic politics in various states.

From its glorious Ashokan past to its present caste-ridden 'slum of the east' status, Bihar's downward slide has been horrendous. But there is hope. For many, Lalu's defeat has come as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. Now that Lalu's lantern has been extinguished in Bihar, one hopes that the light of progress will shine in the state. Let progress ring from every village and mohalla of Bihar. It is a Lutheran call, but will the state's new leadership rise up to the occasion?

I hope they realize that this is not the time to engage in the luxury of celebrating their victory. If they don't fulfill the dreams of the people, the victory might turn out to be pyrrhic.


Zafar Anjum born in Bihar and educated in Aligarh and Delhi, now lives in Singapore.


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