22 March, 2012 marked the first centenary of Bihar as a separate administrative unit. After the British colonial rulers were forced to undo the partition of Bengal, they shifted the capital from Kolkata to Delhi and downsized Bengal by according the status of separate states to Bihar and Odisha. Before quitting India in 1947, the British colonialists of course saw to it that Bengal was partitioned into not just two states but two countries. The march of history and the process of administrative reorganisation have however not stopped with the exit of the British. East Bengal did not accept the absurdity of being called East Pakistan for long and emerged as the independent republic of Bangladesh in December 1971. The geographical boundary of Bihar too has not remained the same, the southern part of the twentieth century Bihar has become Jharkhand in the twenty-first century.
Is there really much point then in celebrating a centenary of an administrative event, especially in a state like Bihar which has a rich and glorious history spanning not only centuries but millennia? The current rulers of Bihar are of course bent upon seizing the centenary as a ‘windfall gain’ gifted by history. Nitish Kumar is using the centenary celebration to project himself as a beaming beacon of light for Bihar, the grandest thing to have happened to Bihar since the halcyon days of the great Nalanda University. The propaganda blitzkrieg unleashed by the Bihar government reveals the plot with giant billboards virtually limiting the century to the last seven years and lauding Nitish Kumar for engineering ‘waves of revolution restoring the lost glory of the state’!
It will however be wrong to see the centenary celebration as just yet another image-building exercise by the ruling regime of Bihar. It is also not just another platform for Nitish Kumar to project himself as the champion of Bihar against the Centre and stake his claim in the national political arena. What Nitish Kumar is trying to do is something much more insidious – he is trying to rewrite the history of Bihar and reconstruct and reinterpret the Bihari identity. He would like us to believe that it is only with the rise of his government that Bihar has got something to pride itself on, and his biggest contribution to the cause of Bihar is the replacement of the erstwhile stigma of ‘shame’ with a new-found sense of ‘pride’. His halo of ‘pride’ thus rests on the acceptance and internalisation of the ‘shame’.
Let us take a closer look at this so-called theory of shame and pride. All through the feudal-colonial era, Bihar has been known as the land of labour. From the days of the indentured labourers transhipped from Bihar to foreign destinations along the colonial trajectory and early internal export of labour to the tea gardens and jute mills of Assam and Bengal to the more recent migration to green revolution pastures of Punjab and Haryana and the continuing exodus of labour to virtually every corner of India, labour has been the biggest motive force in the modern history of Bihar. And in an environment of decadent feudalism and retarded capitalism, this labour has historically been denied its basic freedom and dignity.
If the migrant labourer from Bihar has had to battle constantly against insecurity and indignity, those labouring within Bihar, agrarian labour as well as the labouring peasant, have had to face much fiercer modes of oppression and exploitation and patterns of bondage and feudal-patriarchal violence. The brutalities inflicted on the toiling and oppressed people of Bihar should be a matter of shame for anybody who values freedom and dignity. This shame is not Bihari but universal human shame, and it does not lead to a sense of guilt to be expiated by some benevolent ruler, rather it arouses anger against injustice and steels the resolve to fight it.
It is no wonder then that Bihar has been a key battleground in modern India’s quest for dignity and emancipation. If the rulers have been treating Bihar as a labour-exporting internal colony tied down to the feudal-colonial yoke, the people of Bihar have never missed an opportunity to rise in anti-feudal, anti-colonial struggles and challenge the chains of bondage and backwardness. Whether one looks at major pre-independence milestones from the revolt of 1857 and Gandhi’s peasant satyagraha to the Quit India movement of 1942 and the radical assertion of Sahajanand Saraswati’s Kisan Sabha, or post-1947 upheavals like the early communist-led peasant movement, the 1974 student-youth movement or the CPI(ML)-led battle for social transformation and the emancipation of the oppressed, Bihar has always stood out as the bastion of mass uprising.
There can be no talk of a Bihari identity removed from this historical reality. If one has to discuss the physiognomy of this identity, it is labour which constitutes its core, its face lit up by the glow of resilience in the face of adversity, both natural and man-made, and its heart beating to the pulsating rhythm of the drumbeats of struggle. The stigma of shame has no place in it.
Equally facile and fictitious is Nitish Kumar’s empty talk of pride. While his government has done everything to block the passage of land reforms and deny a life of opportunities and dignity to the toiling millions, it is presiding over a regime of land scam and treasury loot bolstered by bureaucratic control, feudal-communal offensive and police brutalities. While he has been waxing eloquent about record-breaking economic growth, in the last seven years another five million people have been pushed below the poverty line which itself has been reduced by our Planning Commission to the level of what can only be described as the starvation line.
Bihar has always fought simultaneously against external invasion and deprivation as well as internal loot and bondage. Behind the veil of the benevolent ruler delivering Bihar from ‘shame’ to ‘pride’, Nitish Kumar is actually busy colluding with the forces, both within and outside of Bihar, that have historically sought to hold Bihar back. Bihar is therefore little amused by the state-sponsored spectacle of an administrative centenary and the attempted construction of a synthetic Biharipan (Bihariness ) which is singularly devoid of the fighting spirit of Bihar.
The vision of a New Bihar is inseparably intertwined with the vision of a New India and this newness can only emerge and flourish on the basis of a decisive victory over the forces and policies of bondage and backwardness. Just as the British colonialists had propped up and colluded with the feudal gentry to suppress the great war of 1857, today once again global capital is seeking to exploit and suppress Bihar in local alliance with feudal-communal forces. Nitish Kumar’s slogan of regional pride seeks to mask the truth of this dangerous alliance and sacrifice Bihar’s aspiration for development at the altar of institutionalised loot. The toiling and fighting millions of Bihar will reject this misleading trap and move ahead in their battle for a life of freedom and dignity and development and democracy, to realise the dream of a people’s Bihar in people’s India.