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September 11, 1999


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Constituency/ Jehanabad

Of Bhumihars, bullets and the battle of the ballot

Soroor Ahmed in Jehanabad

Abki saal bhado mein, gore hanth kado mein (Let the next monsoon come and the delicate hands of upper caste women will become coarse like the soil). This was the slogan coined by veteran socialist leader and the founder of the Soshit Samaj Dal, Jagdeo Prasad, who in the sixties and seventies waged a peaceful struggle against the Bhumihar farmers of Jehanabad district.

By a cruel paradox, on September 5, 1974, the same Jagdeo Prasad fell to a police bullet in the monsoon month of bhado while addressing a meeting in Kurtha block of the district. And the man alleged to be responsible for the police firing was a Bhumihar minister of the Congress party.

A quarter century later, in yet another bhado, Jehanabad is bracing for the battle of the ballot on September 18. The polarisation in the rural areas is much sharper today. The Naxalites -- mainly the Peoples War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre -- have imposed an economic blockade of sorts on the Bhumihar farmers spread over 52 villages.

The Harijan farm labourers, at the instance of the extremist outfits, no longer work the fields of the Bhumihar farmers. This affects over 4,000 acres of arable land. Finally, in the third year of the blockade some middle Bhumihar farmers, pushed to the verge of starvation, started to till their land themselves.

And with that Jagdeo Prasad's prophecy has at last come true: the delicate hands of the Bhumihar women-folk have been soiled as they accompany their spouses to the fields.

Less than 50 kilometres from Patna, the Jehanabad parliamentary constituency is unique in many ways. Since 1967 to date the Congress has won only once: during the Indira wave of 1980. From 1984 till 1996 Ramashray Prasad Yadav of the Communist Party of India represented the seat in Parliament.

Jehanabad is not a CPI stronghold like Begusaria in North Bihar. Yet, each time Yadav was successful in roping in the Left outfits -- extremists included -- and backward groups against the Congress which most of the time fielded a Bhumihar candidate.

In 1998 the Rashtriya Janata Dal's Surindra Yadav -- who shot into fame when he snatched the Women's Reservation Bill from the hand of a minister in the Lok Sabha -- ended the CPI's monopoly by defeating the Samata Party's nominee, Arun Kumar, a Bhumihar.

Though Ramashray Yadav was in the fray he ended a poor third as his party had no alliance with the RJD in 1998. Thus a brief history of Jehanabad's politics reveals that any candidate who manages to cash in on the widespread anti-Bhumihar feeling has a better chance to win.

The Samata's Arun Kumar, who runs a number of private schools in Gaya and Patna, is in the fray again and has a better image than Surinder Yadav who has been renominated by his party. There is palpable anger among a section of voters, especially Muslims, against the RJD's nominee, yet even Arun Kumar's ardent supporters admit he cannot win.

Surinder Yadav, political observers believe, will soon win over the indifferent Muslims as they have no other alternative. He has already visited different Muslim localities and villages asking forgiveness and has promised not to ignore them in the future.

But unlike his predecessor, Ramashray Yadav, or even Arun Kumar, Surinder Yadav is an outsider. He is from neighbouring Gaya and lacks a strong rapport with local party workers.

Besides being native to Jehanabad Arun Kumar has the advantage that his father Brajnandan Sharma is a respected leader of the teachers union and is known all over the state. This has helped him cultivate relationships with the voters cutting across caste lines.

There are well over 300,000 Yadav voters in this constituency while the Bhumihars account for somewhere between 200,000 to 250,000 votes.

According to Jitendra Kumar, a postal department employee, Bhumihar youth are not going all out in Arun Kumar's favour as he lacks the capacity of previous Bhumihar leaders. "He cannot even ensure the release of party workers arrested during the election," he said.

There is another latent fear. "The economic blockade by the Naxalites has blunted the aggressiveness of Bhumihar youth. This may help the RJD candidate," felt Nageshwar Prasad Singh, a Bhumihar farmer of Kosdihra village.

Though the Ranvir Sena is active, the Samata Party candidate is not openly seeking its support as the move may backfire and antagonise all the non-Bhumihar castes. He is aware the Ranvir Sena's proximity to some BJP and Samata leaders has already harmed the party in the region.

The senseless massacres of Dalits and backward caste-members in the district by the Ranvir Sena earlier this year prompted the Yadavs, Koeris, Dalits and others to close ranks. Koeri voters may be in doubt elsewhere in Bihar, but so far as Jehanabad is concerned an overwhelming majority of them are either with the RJD or the CPI-ML whose candidate, Ramadhar Singh, belongs to that caste.

The Koeris of this constituency have always been against the Bhumihars. Jagdeo Prasad was a Koeri so are the leaders of many Naxalite outfits. Jagdeo Prasad's son, Nagmani, is the RJD's Rajya Sabha member and is contesting on the party ticket from the Chatra parliamentary seat in central Bihar.

So caste-wise Surindra Yadav may be on a strong wicket, but he is no doubt losing sleep over the Muslim votes, especially in the Kurtha assembly segment. Said RJD worker Ozair Ahmed: "Surinder Yadav rang me up at 3 in the morning asking me how to mollify the Muslims here."

The Naxalite threat has come as a windfall for Yadav. The People's War Group, in a recently published leaflet, accused Arun Kumar of being the treasurer of the Ranvir Sena. This is bound to alienate non-Bhumihars voters.


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