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Amberish K Diwanji in Murho |
February 11, 2005
Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji reports from Murho, a village that symbolises Bihar and all its many problems. This is the third dispatch from his travels in the area of darkness.
Part I: In Bihar, silence is golden
Part II: 'Lalu is a rascal, but we'll vote for him'
Let me call him Prasad. He is young, maybe 18, studying at a local college and is very keen to join government service. He is confident that he will do so. He wants to join government service because he believes that is the best way to serve the country. Ah, the idealism of youth!
I cannot give his name since I don't want this narrative to get him into trouble. He opened up after I spend a couple of hours in the village and made a series of allegations against the landed Yadav gentry, who, he said, are not happy with others prospering.
Incidentally, Prasad too is a Yadav, but he is poor and on the side of his class, rather than his caste, who behave typically like the infamous zamindars of Bihar.
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Prasad lives in what is a typical village except that this village is famous. It is known as Murho in Madhepura district (quite near Madhepura town).
It is the birthplace of B P Mandal, who is best known for authoring the Mandal Commission report that radically changed Indian polity. India has never been the same again. Whether that is good or bad depends on which side you are, and that usually depends on which caste you belong to.
B P Mandal was also the chief minister of Bihar, for just 48 days, in 1978, an era of turbulence. (His predecessor was chief minister for three days!).
B P Mandal was the son of Rash Beharilal Mandal, an extremely wealthy zamindar, who owned many bighas of lands. The villagers say he probably had no idea how much he possessed.
Rash Beharilal shot to fame because, according to legend, he raised the demand for Indian Independence at the 1911 durbar. He later became one of the leading politicians to emerge from Bihar.
The Mandals belong to the Yadav caste. But in north-eastern Bihar, Yadavs are not poor farmers or cowherds (as Lalu Yadav's family was, and millions still are) but wealthy zamindars.
Even after the land was divided between Rash Beharilal's three sons, including B P Mandal, and further divided among his grandsons, each of them own plentiful.
It must be the irony of ironies that the village of the man who changed Indian polity reflects all the prejudices that one reads about Bihar: of how those with land have consistently opposed land reforms; how they don't, and won't, let others to do well if only to retain their position of pre-eminence. India's prosperity and the dream of becoming a great power be damned. Murho exemplifies this attitude.
Inside the village, there are a series of bungalows where Rash Beharilal Mandal's descendants live. They own the farming land all around the village; the poor villagers work on them.
Two Mandals are contesting the assembly election. Maninder Kumar Mandal is contesting as a Samata Party candidate while Dr Arun Kumar Mandal is contesting as an Independent.
Deeper inside the village reside a few poor Yadavs, like Prasad, Brahmins, Muslims and Musahars. In Murho, the latter two are in a majority, even though Madhepura district and the legislative constituency are Yadav-dominated.
After all these years, the land still belongs to members of the Mandal family. Anand Mandal, a scion of the family who lives in Delhi and is currently in Murho to help his cousin Maninder, admits land reforms in this part did not take place. "But today, a paanwala makes more money than a person owning five bighas of land," he told me.
Then he turned to the gathered villagers, mostly Muslims and a few Musahars, who work on his field, for corroboration. They readily agreed.
Much later, after Anand had left, they insisted that what he said was not true. And even if it was true, the comparison was odious: a paanwala might earn more than a farmer with five bighas; but a farmer with five bighas always earned more than a landless labourer.
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Land measure in India runs thus: 1 acre = 2.5 bighas; 1 bigha = 20 kathas; 1 katha = 20 dhoor; 1 dhoor = 6 haath (the measure from the elbow to the fingers of the hand of a male adult) in a square shape.
The Musahars, as is typical of Dalits in Bihar and much of India, own simply no land, and have virtually no education. The Muslims are marginally better off; some among them own a bigha or less, usually a few kathas. Some in the village said they were into trades, such as carpentry, in Kolkata.
Some of the poorer Yadavs do own land but increasingly prefer to get into a profession or take up a job to earn more and let out the farms to others.
This reflects the changing priorities of the Yadavs: ever since the Mandal Commission report was implemented, increasing number of people from poor families are taking up jobs. There is reservation for Dalits, but what use are reservations if you have no education?
Prasad is one such poor who is determined to take up a government job. Many of his relatives have left working as farmers or cow herds and now hold government jobs. "My uncle told me that the best way to serve India is to have a government job and I am going to make sure I get one!"
According to Prasad, Dr Arun Mandal is a perfect gentleman who has been working for the welfare of Murho for the past two years and has started a Jan Jagran Manch (People Awakening Movement) aimed at revitalising the region.
"All villagers would really want him to win, but since he has no major political party backing, it does appear difficult for him," he said.
Lalu's arrogance will cause his downfall
Yadav is wary of most other descendants of the Mandal family. "They consider themselves hum persons," he claimed. ('Hum' means 'we', and often the powerful use the plural when speaking in the first person to denote their superiority; the weaker sections are expected to speak only in the first person singular.)
Prasad pointed to a small bungalow in Murho, owned by a Yadav farmer with small land holdings who made his fortune from the cow fodder business. "Some months ago, one of the Mandal family members told him, 'You are making a lot of money, aren't you?' It was more of a threat than a compliment, Prasad felt.
Such people are not keen to let others do well since they consider it a threat to their position in the village, Prasad argued. However, he quickly added that Arun Mandal was not such a person.
Murho village has schools and there is a college in nearby Madhepura named after B P Mandal. But few Musahars go to school. The reason: poverty. "The families go to work on the fields and the children are put to work as soon as they can," explained one Musahar.
A Musahar boy said he dropped out of school after class 2 or 3 (he can't recall now). He said he now worked in Punjab and earned quite well, which kept his family going.
Prasad had another take on the low Musahar attendance. Some Mandal family members said if all these children went to school, there would be no one to work in their homes, he said. "They really don't encourage Musahar children going to school," Prasad claimed.
Muslims in the region also have similar complaints against the Mandals.
"They don't care about us. They only care about their power and their money and land," said one Muslim.
"For instance, some years ago, the government said it wanted to build a small hall here for community activities. The land for the hall was taken from the Musahar area. Musahars own so little land, yet they had to provide space for a community hall, while these Mandals, despite owning so many bighas, would not spare any land for a community hall," one man said.
The hall, just brick walls -- it is not yet complete -- is on the main road. The Musahars were forced to move behind the hall and thus away from the main road. "Sarkar ne ek pardah laga diya (the government has put a curtain up)," said a Muslim.
It is also a money order village. Most men work in Punjab or Kolkata as labourers. The Musahars usually go to Punjab and the Muslims to Kolkata.
"There is no work here. What can we do here?" asked one Muslim. "None of the government's schemes are being implemented. If this is the plight of Murho village, the situation in others must be worse."
The Musahar locality is devoid of men, since the harvest season in Punjab is on. The Muslim men have come to the village only because of Id or for Moharram. Many have decided to stay till the election.
There are no upper castes in the village, except for four Brahmin families who live in the Yadav settlement, which is not far from the Muslim or Musahar areas.
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The positive aspect is that the caste divide is not so deep or vicious. The villagers freely mingle with each other.
This village, which should have been the first to see land reforms, witnessed none. "Since politicians and bureaucrats owned the land, they ensured that reforms were never implemented," alleged Anand Mandal.
Mandal, who is a member of the Samajwadi Janata Party, quoted a line about land reforms that summed up the problem: "Har samajwadi chahta hai zameen batwara apna chhod ke (Every socialist wants land reforms, but his land should be left untouched)"
When land reforms were sought to be implemented a couple of years ago on Lalu Prasad Yadav's orders, the land impounded was not that of the rich with excessive land but of small farmers holding only a few bighas.
"How will a small farmer ever part with his land?" asked one Muslim. "He will fight tooth and nail to keep it, and we understand his plight."
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