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Jehanabad signals deeper malaise
Aditi Phadnis | November 15, 2005 02:38 IST
The riot in Jehanabad prison on Sunday night in which naxalites attacked the jail, killed at least one major leader of the Ranveer Sena and liberated at least 340 prisoners, including several of their own comrades, is a symptom of a deeper malaise afflicting this area.
In a gunfight that lasted more than two and a half hours, the naxalites kept not just the town awake but also the home ministry that held an emergency meeting.
Bihar Chief Secretary G S Kang has sent a report to the home ministry that is sending in 25 additional companies of paramilitary forces.
But at the heart of the jail-storming incident is neither a law and order issue nor lax security.
It is a function of caste politics that is so endemic that it permeates every aspect of life in the state -— that itself is teetering on the edge of the failed state category.
The Dalits and the "Ati Pichhada" (most backward) castes have been in servitude to the upper castes for years. This stems from the land revenue collection system put in place by the British, called Permanent Settlement.
This was a grand contract between the East India Company and later Queen Victoria's administration and the then undivided Bengal landholders, by which they were admitted into the colonial state system as the absolute proprietors of landed property.
Besides being turned into proprietors of land, the zamindars were endowed with the privilege of holding their proprietary right at a rate which was to continue unchanged for ever.
Peasants in the Ryotwari areas — in operation in the Bombay and Madras presidencies, however, paid revenue directly to the government.
This meant that a conflict between the owners and tillers of soil was in-built in the history and politics of this eastern region.
This changed when the nature of feudalism changed. As half-baked land reforms took place in Bihar and in some areas tillers became owners, the previous owners refused to yield their rights on the land. When this conflict sharpened, it turned into an armed stand-off.
Thus, the upper caste Bhumihars formed the Ranveer Sena and the Dalits, some tribals and the most backward castes became members of various Naxal outfits.
Fratricidal wars among naxal groups took as many lives as armed caste clashes. What happened in Jehanabad over the weekend was a caste-class clash -— except that it happened in a jail at the time of elections.
The UPA's Common Minimum Programme promises to treat the naxalite issue not just as a law and order problem, but also as a socio-economic matter. In Bihar, Jehanabad has all the lowest Human Development Index indices.
There is no industry and no jobs, and agriculture also offers only a perilous existence.
"Not much can change there," say Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders in Patna about an area that has been notoriously and virulently anti-Congress (that party won this seat just once in the Lok Sabha in 1980, at the height of the Indira Gandhi wave).
It has been a Communist Party of India bastion, but gradually, because of the largely upper-caste base of the CPI in Bihar, has yielded space to Naxal groups.
Everything that happens in Jehanbad is political and prompted by caste.
Patna bureaucrats say unless there is some visible effort to impose rule of law in Jehanabad, nothing will change there.