THE BIHAR FAILURE SYNDROME
Myth and Reality
Bihar is associated with failure. It appears that it has failed on every front -economic, political and cultural. This paper argues that the failure of Bihar is a failure of certain model of liberal democracy, including the potential left liberal democracy. The poor in Bihar are not significantly worse off than the poor elsewhere as compared to the middle and rich castes/classes. However they are waging a much bigger struggle in coping with their situation. The struggle of people of Bihar has thrown up issues of crisis of Marxism /Socialism in terms of caste, gender, migrants and environment. The struggle of people of Bihar is also throwing up alternative forms of struggle and cooperation, which can contribute to the development of a new model of socialism. The failure of Bihar is more a failure of scholars, media commentators and left wing politicians and activists in recognising this reality.
The May 2004 parliamentary election results have shown that the debacle that Mr. Naidu, Mr. S. M. Krishna and the NDA government faced was due to the failure of their development model.
Social activists have been criticising the development model, but they have no praise for a place like Bihar where the development model has already failed. It is like criticising the education system, but no one praises a child who has failed! “If I were to be punished for the sins I commit, then I should be rewarded for not giving in to the temptation!”
Much of my understanding about Bihar (including the present day Jharkhand) I owe to late Dr. Arvind Narayan Das. I take this opportunity to pay my humble tribute to his memory.
For the purpose of this article the word Bihar includes Jharkhand.
1. The Failure of Bihar
Bihar is normally associated with failure. It appears to have failed on every front - economic, political and cultural. All the traditional economic development indicators as well as the newer human development indices tend to show this failure. Articulate Biharis themselves talk about it, often contrasting with the past glory of Bihar.
Left wing commentators point out the tradition of protest and struggle. Bihar played a leading role in the formation of Kisan Sabha. After independence Bihar was the first state to have a land reforms act. In the Bhoodan movement again Bihar had a leading position. In the Naxalite movement only Bihar and Andhra Pradesh have significant presence. The Jharkhand movement is the biggest ethnic cum regional movement. Even in the offbeat left movement A.K.Roy's trade union movement in Dhanbad was quite unique. Yet, these comments are often coupled with a melancholy statement that it has all failed.
The poor in Bihar are not significantly worse off than the poor in M. P., U. P. and Rajasthan. Large areas of Orissa, Maharashtra and A. P. also have similar situation. Data about education, health care, atrocities on women, dalit and tribals are comparable. Yet it is Bihar that is singled out as a model of failure. Why?
One obvious answer is that the middle class and the rich in Bihar do not feel comfortable as they do in other states. It is their legitimacy to rule that is threatened. Hence the cry there is no government in Bihar. In short it is the legitimisation crisis of the ruling class. What has failed in Bihar is a certain kind of bourgeois development and a certain kind of government and state that has been held as a model. This includes the left democratic models too.
2. The Struggles of People of Bihar
The people of Bihar have not failed in participating in these development processes, or in protesting against it or even creating newer alternatives. In this century they have cleared jungle lands for agriculture and mining. Capitalist agriculture has developed in several large areas of Bihar. The working class in Bihar has worked in agriculture, mines and industries both in Bihar and outside Bihar including overseas plantation.
In their protest movements the people of Bihar have taken part in all forms of traditional left and ultra left movements at significant levels. That these have not led to 'successes' of the kind in West Bengal or in Kerala is a historical fact and has its historical reasons that have been well explored and argued by scholars.
What is not argued is that to look for this kind of success itself is wrong. Every latecomer social group in capitalist development has a different response and they give rise to a different kind of 'socialism'. So what are these different kinds of responses?
3. The 'Failures' of the Struggle
In the last few years there is a general talk of failure or crisis of Marxism. In India the issues generally raised are caste, gender, ethnicity, regionalism/federalism and ecology.
In Bihar the fat left or Naxalite movement is not just a breakaway group from the traditional left. There was hardly any CPI (M) presence in Bihar. And the CPI remained intact during the Naxalite upsurge. The Naxalite in Bihar inherited the socialist movement with its emphases on caste and oppressive social structure. Thus it has articulated the caste question in left wing politics both theoretically and in practice. We hear this articulation more strongly in Maharashtra due to Phule-Ambedkar Tradition. Bihar has no such bourgeois liberal advocate of the issue. Here the advocacy is more radical (and hence ignored?).
Bihar is the only state, which has hosted the All India Women's Conference for the second time. In the Patna conference the issue of class/caste within the women's movement figured very strongly, particularly on the issue of right to property. The Ranchi conference threw up the ethnic issue within the women's movement and feminist issues within the ethnic struggle. In many women’s conferences women from Bihar felt that the condition of women in other states is much worse than their own. This includes Kerala. The official statistics of crime against women also shows that Bihar is way down, 18 in ranking, that is, almost all the major Indian states are worse if. Only North East India is better.
The Jharkhand movement is a composite of several movements. Like other regional movement it combines ethnic issues with the issues of internal colony. However the ethnic issue is alive and separate as can be seen from the leadership as well as the kind of ethnic energy the movement has. In addition the issue of tribals as peasant and tribals as proletariat has also figured very strongly in Dhanbad and Singhbum district. Finally the environment issue, the relation of people and control of natural resources and the issue of big dams has also figured.
This brings us to the issues of ecology. Bihar is the only place where an anti dam movement succeeded in stopping the Koel-Karo project. When tribals from Koel Karo visited Bargi dam, the first dam on Narmada, they were aghast. “How did you let this happen?” they asked the NBA activists. ‘How could they build with your protests?’ The struggle against Subernrekha dam and the struggle of dam ousters have also been partially successful. The north Bihar region perennially suffers from floods and ill-conceived embankment and others flood control programmes. Every year about 4 lakh people migrate due to floods. The struggle against these policies has been going on for decades. It also represents one of the best-researched struggles by activists.
What emerges from the above is that their struggles have 'failed' in not allowing the hegemony of bourgeois liberal issues and leadership of the movement. Instead it has articulated and sharpened the differentiation within the movement.
4. Alternative forms
Everywhere there is a cry that there is no government in Bihar and some even say that the state has ceased to exist. There is anarchy! What is surprising is that anarchy has not been considered in a positive way. It reminds me of Brecht’s poem about government in crisis, in which he wonders how will the farmers plough the land and mothers feed the babies since the government is in crisis.
We fail to see that the people of Bihar are alive, eating, working and participating in full human cultural life. They are also protesting, struggling and migrating. As Laloo Prasad Yadav said “I want to ask Mr. Chandra Babu Naidu, ‘OK, you have video conferences and in Patna even telephones don’t work. But why is it that peasants are committing suicide in Andhra Pradesh, whereas in Bihar no peasant has committed suicide.’” One may also add that in Bihar no encounter murders are committed by the police. But more importantly, they have devised strategies to cope with the present difficult times with a genius of their own. Thus public and state transport is running without salaries for more than 18 months. How? It is co-operation between the people and the union of transport workers that is making it possible. Schools are running with teachers collecting their salaries from their pupils in the form of tuition fees. Post offices, railways and telephones are actually functioning. But more to the point is that the migrant workers are able to send moneys home. The informal sector of the economy is taking care of the needs of the people.
So what is being argued is that people of Bihar are coping with the situation in a viable fashion. Secondly they are throwing up new forms of organisation and methods in doing so. Struggle and co-operation are the key words.
5 Whose Failure?
So why is it that we do not see this or see a positive future? I would not dwell too much on the class bias of the observers. It is there. But surely we can try to go beyond that.
We are talking of a failure of a certain kind of socialist model. Not only it is failing where it appeared successful until recently. It is also not allowing us to see the possible newer models of socialism.
The 20th Century has been dominated by the theories of Marx, Darwin and Freud. It has also been dominated by the revolution of Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Vietnam. Their ‘successes’ have blinded us from looking at their weaknesses. It has not allowed us to look at the possible ‘truths’ on the side of those who have been defeated within the movement.
An important aspect of this is that we have looked more at the struggle aspect (within human psyche, in society and with nature) and neglected to look at co-operation. For arriving at a concept of socialism we will have to correct this balance. This socialism will be more like ‘an egalitarian, decentralised human society living in harmony with nature’. However we cannot be revivalists and think of the noble savage. Any vision of future society must combine the idea of sovereignty of the individual within a co-operative society.
To arrive at this we will have to look into the ‘failure’ within the movement, both in theory and practice.
Thus in the historical experience of the theory, we have to look at the possible truths on the side of those who ‘lost’ or failed in the past. These will be anarchist traditions, Rosa Luxembourg's Critique, Trotsky and various opposition groups in Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba.
Nearer at home we have a range of left wing experience outside the ‘Stalinist’ Tradition of CPI, M, & ML. There are also socialist and militant Gandhian traditions.
This should enable us to look more closely at the current movements where people’s energies are - both in Bihar and outside Bihar. In Bihar there are issues thrown up within the struggle, such as caste, gender and environment. There are also movements of dam oustees, migrant labour, ethnic and regional movement. Then there are emerging movements of struggle and co-operation. All these ‘failures’ of Bihar will contribute to the development of a new model of socialism for the 21st Century. Therein lies the importance of the failure of Bihar.
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Published in Frontier, October 3-30, 2004, Kolkata.