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Can development trounce caste, religion in Bihar?

Can development trounce caste, religion in Bihar?
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First Published: Sat, Apr 25 2009. 12 12 AM IST

Updated: Sat, Apr 25 2009. 12 12 AM IST
Bhagalpur, Bihar: Here, in this dusty district in Bihar, notorious for arguably the worst instance of police brutality and the most violent communal clash in the country, a new political equation is emerging that could play a role in deciding not just who wins the election to the Lok Sabha from this constituency, but which party gets to form the government.
The change has to do with the fracturing of the Muslim vote and also a breakdown, if only partial, of the community’s traditional alliance with the Yadavs of Bihar, a relationship that has ensured that Lalu Prasad remains a significant force in Bihar as well as the Centre.
The cause for this radical change is the development that this region has seen under the Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that came to power in Bihar in 2005.
Development isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Bhagalpur.
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It was here that in 1978, the police poured acid into the eyes of at least 31 undertrials. And it was here that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Muslims and Hindus repeatedly clashed in increasingly violent confrontations that coincided with the move to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh and build a temple there.
Deciding factor? (top) The busy Tilka Manjhi crossing in Bhagalpur. Rickshaw pullers say better roads have helped them make more rounds and so earn more; and (bottom) local singers campaign for the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Shahnawaz Hussain, who hopes to be re-elected on the development issue. Photographs by Utpal Bhaskar / Mint
On 6 December 1992, a mob of Hindu protesters did succeed in demolishing the mosque which they believe stands where a temple to Hindu God Ram, marking the place of his birth, once stood.
But it is development that Syed Shahnawaz Hussain is hoping will send him back to Parliament.
The 40-year-old Hussain, India’s former aviation minister during the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP-led NDA government, is seen by critics as a trophy Muslim in the BJP, a party that believes in Hindutva, or the Hindu way. But, here, in Bihar’s heartland, some Muslims also see him as the face of recent progress from which they have benefited.
“As compared to the development done in the last 50 years, Shahnawaz and Nitish have done a lot of work in the last two years, be it roads, healthcare or education,” says Imtiaz Hassan, a social worker in the district.
And that won’t just make Hussain’s job easier—he wasn’t as acceptable when he won the 2006 by-election from the constituency—but also have a bearing on which party accounts for the majority of the 40 representatives Bihar sends to the Lok Sabha.
By some estimates, Bhagalpur has about 1.4 million voters, of which Muslims and scheduled castes and scheduled tribes form the largest chunk, accounting for a 18.34% share of the population each, or a total of around 500,000 votes. They are followed by Kushwahas and Kurmis (agriculturists) with 200,000 votes, and Bhumihars (traditional landowners), Yadavs and others (such as Dhobis, Dusadhs and Kahars), who together account for 450,000 votes. The balance is with the Vaishyas, Brahmins and Rajputs.
The contest on 30 April is between Hussain and the Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD’s) Shakuni Choudhry, a 64-year-old who belongs to the Kushwaha community. There are 21 others in the fray, including the Congress’ Sadanand Singh and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) Ajit Sharma, but analysts reckon it will be a two-way fight between Choudhry and Hussain.
Since the NDA came to power in the state, analysts say, it has repaired old roads and built new ones.
Rickshaw pullers here—they are a large constituency in their own right, and provide the main mode of transportation—vouch for this.
“It takes us less effort to carry passengers and our income has increased because we can ferry more passengers on better roads”, says Kailu, a rickshaw puller, who gave only one name.
Under the centrally funded Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (prime minister’s rural roads programme), Bhagalpur district in 2005-06 was given sanctions for assistance in building or upgrading 24 all-weather roads, of which 20 were completed; in 2006-07, eight roads were sanctioned, of which six were completed; in 2007-08, 28 were sanctioned, but only one has been completed so far.
Bhagalpur voters say that things could improve even more if the NDA is elected to power at the Centre.
“If NDA comes again, the entire state will be completely overhauled. Roads have been built everywhere, not only the main roads but also the small gullis (streets). Doctors are back in the hospitals. Why was this not happening when Lalu was in power?” asks Prakash Kumar Rajak, who runs an outlet of the country’s public distribution system for food and other products.
Better roads and healthcare are fine, say some politicians here, but they may not be sufficient to make Muslims vote for the BJP.
“Bihar elections are still fought on caste equations. Laluji’s Muslim-Yadav equation broke in 2005 as the Election Commission conducted the elections during the month of Ramzan (a holy month for Muslims during which they fast), which led to low Muslim voter turnout… Everyone knows under whose pressure Muslims were killed during the riots,” says Samrat Choudhary, alias Rakesh Kumar, the RJD candidate’s son, referring to the communal riots in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
To be sure, the scars of the 1989 carnage still run deep. The riots affected 275 villages and destroyed 12 temples and 45 mosques. While government statistics put the final death toll at 1,981, people here believe the number was substantially higher. And while the government maintains that the riots happened between 24 October and 30 November 1989, Kamrul Rehman, special public prosecutor in the riot cases, argues that they went on till 30 March 1990. He has been handling cases related to the riots since 1995.
“Twenty-eight cases are still pending and 10 cases have been reopened. While Nitish is a just man, the riots will have some impact on the voting this time as a lot of people are still awaiting compensation,” he adds.
That impact will be insignificant, says a voter.
“The population of Bhagalpur has forgotten the wounds, but the politicians are trying to revive it,” says Shah Saab, a prominent leader of the Muslim community.
Hussain echoes that sentiment. “Riot is an issue for outsiders, not for the BJP. The secularism of the BJP is being seen in Bhagalpur. Development is the agenda this time,” says Hussain.
Perhaps recognizing this trend, Prasad and his new-found ally, Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party, have raised the pitch of their anti-BJP, anti-Congress campaign, holding both responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. And their candidate, RJD’s Choudhry, is convinced caste will call the shots in Bhagalpur.
People here marry their daughters to and vote for only people from the same caste, he says.
And some experts agree with this theory.
“Even now, after all this development, caste and religion are an important factor in deciding elections,” says Vijay Kumar Rai, a professor in the political science department of the Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University.
Still, for every expert that believes caste will play a role, there is one who believes development will call the shots.
“In some Muslim bastis (neighbourhoods), earlier, even a scooter could not go. Now, an Indica (a small car made by Tata Motors) can enter,” says P.K. Sinha, head of the sociology department in the same university.
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First Published: Sat, Apr 25 2009. 12 12 AM IST