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The Rediff Election Interview/Prakash Jha

May 10, 2004

Director Prakash Jha's films highlight society's underbelly. Whether it is the exploitation of women and their eventual uprising in Mrityudand, or the realistic Gangajal, they are a stark contrast to the fluffy kind of movies that most of Bollywood generally churns out.

Many were not surprised when Jha decided to contest the Lok Sabha election from Bihar's Bettiah constituency as an Independent candidate.


But Jha was disillusioned with the eventual political process, and was roughed up by Rashtriya Janata Dal workers after he complained to an Election Commission team.


Senior Copy Editor Salil Kumar caught up with him in Mumbai.

What happened in Bettiah during the election?


I did not expect political parties to become sane overnight. There was this undertrial called Rajan Tiwari who was supposedly in jail in Patna, but was campaigning in the constituency all the time, threatening me, threatening everybody. At other times, he was shouting that he would set Bettiah on fire. The BJP has no programme; they just excel in rumour-mongering and nothing else.

They (the Election Commission and state government) had requisitioned three companies of paramilitary forces. On the day of the election, the district administration, the returning officer, the control room and the Election Commission's observers, all became inaccessible. There was not a single patrol vehicle in the constituency. Eighty percent of the booths did not even have chowkidars, forget Home Guards.

The paramilitary forces were not deployed; they were kept in the barracks.


Booth after booth was being captured by whoever could do it and the presiding officers, I witnessed, were punching votes.


This is not an election.


There was no violence because I had told my supporters to exercise restraint. Otherwise, what happened in Chhapra would have taken place in my constituency as well.

What happened at the Motihari circuit house after you deposed before the Election Commission team probing irregularities in the polling in Bettiah?


They started shouting slogans and pushing people.


Were any missiles thrown at you?


The media was interviewing me and they started heckling the media. Somebody threw some mud and things like that, but I wasn't hurt.


They were all RJD men along with the RJD candidate (Raghunath Jha).


How did your meeting with the Election Commission team go?


Their job is to record and report what happened. I am satisfied with the meeting.


Was what you spent on the campaign within the ceiling stipulated by the Election Commission?


Yes. If you don't spend money on middlemen who manage votes, which is what others do, Rs 25 lakh is sufficient.

You have been a follower of Jayaprakash Narayan. So have been Laloo Yadav and many others. Where have your paths differed?

They are a bunch of opportunists. They were never ever aligned with Jayaprakash Narayan's mind, movement or principles. It was only a political opportunity. That was the time when the vehicle for social change was ready at hand. Jayaprakash Narayan used it to his advantage. Now these people are using it to their advantage.


If we can go back to the beginning, when you left your home, can you run us through those first 19 years when you were there? What was it like?

I went to boarding school, but my family is a farmer's family and I was closely associated with all that was happening. We were traditionally a zamindar family. Whatever I saw and whatever I observed in terms of society, the caste system, the feudal attitude of people, I don't know if I was sensitised at that point of time.

It was only later when I came away from Bihar to Bombay (now Mumbai) and became a filmmaker that the discrepancies became very clear to me and were reflected in my films.

When you go back to your village, what changes do you see?

It has gone through a series of changes. Initially, it was a feudal society, which was based on the class and caste system. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, changes were brought about by the Jayaprakash Narayan movement. 

Are you influenced by that movement?


I have just finished a film on Jayaprakash Narayan so I was witness to the changes that happened at that point of time, and the changes that came about in society with the new breed of feudal lords in terms of religious fanatics, contractors.

The traditional feudal system was decaying. That was reflected in my second film on Bihar, Mrityudand (the first was Damul). Although it is still a very, very caste-oriented society, it is more or less a new system, especially influenced by the market system. 

Mandates are being managed in a different manner. When I did Gangajal, partly the political part of Gangajal reflects the kind of scenario that exists today -- where a Yadav fights a Yadav -- and there is no more the caste and class kind of affiliation. 

My observation of social changes in Bihar has continued for the past 20, 21 years. I have seen that it has really degenerated. Students are suffering, the common man is suffering.

What do you attribute this degradation to?


You know the complete demoralisation of all values, which has been spearheaded by politicians like Laloo Prasad Yadav and his kind. But it is not he alone.

He took it to another level?

He has a very popular mandate. He will be historically remembered for bringing about some sense of social equality in an extremely caste-ridden society. But beyond that, he has created a society, which is now in a vice-like grip of goons, people who belong to a particular caste.

He manages his mandate, not through his work, not through his vision, not through upliftment of the society.


The word development does not exist in Bihar.


The situation today is that in my constituency, and probably the rest of Bihar, there are no roads.

The roads have not been repaired for the past 10 or 15 years.


There is no electricity.


There is no water management.


There is nothing for the farmers.


The sugar mills have shut down.


No new industry has come up.


The situation is so bad that every day thousands of people leave Bihar in search of work elsewhere.


Students have no future beyond the Xth or XIIth class.

There is no medical institution, there is no engineering institution, there is nothing called computer science.


So it seems like there is a design to develop a society that has no voice, which will be so backward that it will be too much for them to even speak up.


Every able body and every able mind is migrating out of the state.

Do any members of your family still live there?

My father. 


My father continues to live in our village, in Bettiah West Champaran district. We still have agricultural land. But the situation is pathetic. Farmers do not even get one good crop because there are floods half the time.


Even the administration, the IAS and IPS officers, are vitiated, and they are threatened.

More than 50 percent of the ruling party's candidates are criminals.


Crime rules in Bihar.


The one industry that thrives in Bihar in kidnapping. Anybody who has any source of income is at risk. The government has not created a single job in the past five years.


The sad part is people like Laloo feed on the media, which projects them like heroes or whatever and they just play the numbers game.


What kind of people will become ministers if Laloo becomes part of a ruling coalition you can well imagine. This is the fallacy of democracy. You get numbers by hook or crook and rule the roost.


What do you want to do to change the scenario?


It will be worthwhile to be able to make some kind of social change, which is badly needed. My social intervention has now taken a larger kind of responsibility.


By standing in the election, by contesting against all odds, I have taken on the powers-that-be, which is fraught with danger.

Somebody has to do it. We talk about fair governance, good governance, people with some kind of vision coming into politics, but most of the times we are hoping for things to happen. We don't make them happen.


I said to myself it is not just the question of winning or losing.


The question is: Should we do it? Shouldn't we jump into it? Shouldn't we start working towards it?


When did you think about contesting?

I thought about it a bit late. I did not have much time to work with the grassroots people. But it was an amazingly emotional experience.


When people in my district first came to know about my decision, they were surprised and apprehensive. But soon it became into a kind of an emotional bond.


It was the first time I was able to cut across the caste barrier.


As an Independent candidate, how was the experience?


I talked about development, I had a programme where I spoke to people about how we could make society better. It is a different thing that the RJD and BJP resorted to rumour mongering and management of booths.

I hoped the district administration, the police, paramilitary forces would be able to ensure a fair and free election, which did not happen.


It was like collusion with the negative forces. How and why they did it is something I would like to study, whether it was under threat or they were bribed.


But the fact of the matter is it is the same story everywhere in Bihar.


I now think one has to continue with what one started, continue making films about what I believe in and work directly with people at various levels, sensitise them and give them the hope that there are people who are willing to stay put.


I hope there are more people like me who will step out and not write off this society, because that will really, really be a sad day. The chief election observer in Bihar throws up his hand and says, 'This is Bihar, you know?'

It was very sad and I objected to that.


Would it have been better to join a mainstream party?


I thought about it. The question was not about winning the election but about contesting without compromising your principles. I mean, look at the way the BJP or RJD or Congress has behaved in this election. What kind of principles do they have?


It is the Congress that is aligned with Laloo Yadav.

So you couldn't align with the Congress, you couldn't align with the RJD. The BJP has a lot to answer as far as its guiding principles are concerned. I am not only talking about the communal face of the BJP but also talking about the economic and financial turnaround that the party has been claiming through the India Shining campaign.


I think that it is an extremely dangerous step. It is leading to the disintegration of the State. When you talk of PSUs and public infrastructure, it is the power of the State. And the power of the State is being sold bit by bit to individuals, to MNCs. Telecommunication will be sold, electricity will be sold, water management will be sold, roads will be sold, railways will be sold.


Why should the government be in businesses that it has no business to be in?


Because the State has to have capital. See what has happened. Today we have seen a surge of economic development through which the rich have become very rich and poor have become extremely poor.


If the government can't build roads then private companies will.


And if private companies build roads, all they are interested in is profit.


When you talk of profit, it means nothing to me if airfares are increased by 20%, but it means a lot to the common man who can't ply his vehicle on the road. So there has to be a mix.

When you open the market, you have to open it in a manner such that business develops. But we are surging towards becoming a powerful nation with very, very weak people. This is not going to stand.


What kind of an economy is it when a Bihari has to sell his land to pay capitation fees for admission to a medical college in Karnataka? Forty percent of children in colleges in Karnataka, Pune, Bombay, Delhi are Biharis. So there is a capital flight, there is a brain drain, there is a labour drain from Bihar.

Nobody can set up an industry. Nobody will go back because there is no earning opportunity. This is what the present leadership in Bihar wants.


Image: Rahil Shaikh

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