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Illegitimacy of the State in Bihar

The massacre on 2 October of 16 villagers in Khagaria in Bihar is just the latest of many such incidents of caste-based violence that have plagued the state for decades. The lack of commitment to land reform and towards ending caste exploitation is responsible for such violence, in which the dalit landless are invariably the victims. Caste configurations have changed, some "upper" backward castes have become more powerful but the dalit landless continue to suffer. Land is at the heart of all the struggles, which are sometimes incorrectly and lazily attributed to Naxalite action by the state administration.


leading Congress leader L N Sudhanshu,

Illegitimacy of the State in Bihar

who was also the speaker of the Bihar

Avinash Kumar

The massacre on 2 October of 16 villagers in Khagaria in Bihar is just the latest of many such incidents of caste-based violence that have plagued the state for decades. The lack of commitment to land reform and towards ending caste exploitation is responsible for such violence, in which the dalit landless are invariably the victims. Caste configurations have changed, some “upper” backward castes have become more powerful but the dalit landless continue to suffer. Land is at the heart of all the struggles, which are sometimes incorrectly and lazily attributed to Naxalite action by the state administration.

Avinash Kumar (avinashmishra.jnu@gmail. com) is a researcher with the Religions and Development Research Programme at the University of Birmingham, UK.

n a night when half the world was going to sleep after celebrating the International Day of Non-Violence, Bihar once again experienced a murderous incident featuring caste violence. The incident in which 16 people were murdered happened at Amausi Bahiyar Diara, situated on the beds of the Kareh and Kosi rivers, in Khagaria district, 175 km east off Patna.

Of the 16 dead (upper backward castes), 14 were Kurmis and 2 were Koeris. The local police said it was the fallout of an old dispute between the Kurmis-Koeris and the Musahars (Mahadalits, as termed recently) over some diara land. However, surprisingly, the government was initially quick to declare the violence as a handiwork of the Maoists, giving a shade of a class war to the violence. It was done despite the fact that Khagaria has never been a Naxalite stronghold. Even the central government was surprised to hear about the involvement of Naxalites as the attack hardly fitted into the Naxalite pattern of violence in recent times. Maoist groups, they pointed out, refrained from killing villagers unless they suspected them of being police informers. They also rarely killed children (Singh 2009).

Historical Context

According to John Rawls (1999), “there is no society anywhere in the world – except for marginal cases – with resources so scarce that it could not, were it reasonably and rationally organised and governed, become well-ordered”. Bihar seems to be one among those marginal cases. The State in Bihar has never existed as a disinterested arbiter, particularly on the issue of land struggle. With its deep feudal character firmly “embedded in caste”,1 Bihar has always remained a party to the conspiracy. However, the situation started deteriorating, especially, after the first caste massacre over a fight for land in Rupaspur-Chandwa in Purnea in 1971, in which the family of a

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assembly, was allegedly involved. After that, caste-based violence became very common and throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, Bihar witnessed several brutal massacres. In all these years, it was the dalits who were predominantly burnt alive, shot dead or even but chered by the upper/dominant caste private armies. During the regime of Karpoori Thakur who became chief minister in 1977, people hoped that things would change for better. But Karpoori Thakur, surrounded by the same landowning upper/dominant castes, could not do much on the issue of land reforms. In 1980, however, when the Congress came back to power in the state, all hopes of change faded away. Throughout the decade, the State was busy with the political intrigue within the party and strengthening of the upper-caste alliances. It was during this phase of the 1970s and 1980s that the poor and the oppressed started organising themselves under the banner of Naxalism, which paid real attention to their demands and mobilised these hapless poor to struggle for their rights. However, the fact remains that throughout these decades, they were at the receiving end of the violence and could not gather enough strength to retaliate. On the contrary, the other group in the name of fighting the Naxalites, facilitated the growth of a heady brew of criminals in the politics of the state. The government had grown ineffective, inefficient and had no respect for rule of law. The evidence of this can be traced in a press note issued by the deputy inspector general of police (in charge of Naxalites) as reported on 28 May 1975 in a local newspaper:

The Bihar government has decided to arm all able-bodied persons in Bhojpur and Patna districts for self-defence to face the extreme menace (read the Naxalites), who have recently launched an armed struggle… The district magistrates of both these districts have been asked to visit the affected villages and issue licences for firearms on the spot to those who were able to possess them...The decision was taken following a spurt in the armed attacks on landowners by the extremists in these villages. The trouble was mostly of agrarian nature.2

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It was during the same time that Jayaprakash Narayan had openly expressed;

Since Independence…there has been no real change in the social, economic and political structure of our society. Zamindari is abolished, land reform laws have been passed, untouchability has been legally prohibited, and so on. But the village in most parts of India is still in the grip of the higher castes and the bigger and medium landowners. The small and marginal landowners are the landless, the backward classes and the Harijans…Yet their position continues to be miserable. Harijans are still burnt alive (Bhattacharya 1975). [i]t is not the so-called Naxalites who have fathered their violence but those who have persistently defied and defeated the laws for the past so many years – be they politicians, administrators, landlords, or moneylenders. When such happens to be the situation and when the institutions and process of democracy are found to be so woefully lacking, is there any wonder that discontent, frustration, anger, and what should turn the minds of some towards violence as the only possible saviour? (Vadlamannati 2008)

However, this could not help landless dalits and the poor in any way. They failed to build a strong base and their lives continued to be affected by traditional feudal decrees. Whosoever became the chief minister (between 1980 and 1990 the state had five upper caste Congress chief ministers) demonstrated their inability and unwillingness to carry out land reforms, and started presenting Naxalism as the only reason for the worsening law and order situation in the state. Though it is true that the Naxalites, after losing on many fronts, had vowed to conduct an open war against the landlords, in no case were they able to challenge the armed caste militias that were working in connivance with the state machinery.

All this just shows that the State had actually started withering away from all spheres, and the real problems of Bihar were continually ignored. There was no notice of the situation on how the democratic institutions of the State were being undermined; how they were being used as merely the tools to maintain the status quo; how the dividing line between local government and police on the one side and local society of landowning families on the other, was removed cleverly; and how the state government had been acquiescing in and supporting the local elite in organising and arming itself to put down peasant discontent.3

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In the 1990s, change occurred in the corridors of power and Lalu Yadav, a backward caste leader became the chief minister. The first measure that the people expected from Lalu Yadav was land reforms. However, Lalu proved them completely wrong. Throughout his tenure and later his wife’s, he hardly took any concrete step on the land reform front. During his initial days (1991) Bihar witnessed five caste massacres in which 54 dalit agricultural labourers were killed by the upper/dominant caste landlord senas (Louis 2002). But the state, as usual, in all these cases did not do anything and remained just a mute spectator. A year later, however, when in a retaliatory move, the dalits (some of whom were Maoist Communist Centre cadres) killed some 34 upper caste landlords, the state responded by invoking the now repealed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), and gave a unique twist to Bihar’s caste wars. The upper caste army has been harassing the lower castes in the district for decades, but in no case where the dalits were killed was TADA invoked. The antiterror law was brought into play only when those killed were from the upper castes (Varghese 2004). This clearly showed that the attitude of Lalu government towards the agrarian and rural situation in Bihar was no different from that of earlier regimes. And thus, year after year, the massacre of dalit agricultural labourers continued.

Anti-Naxalite Force

In addition, when the central government decided to build an anti-Naxalite central paramilitary force, Lalu played a leading role in getting it created. Analysing the deteriorating law and order situation in the state, a note prepared by the government said, “the crumbling of the feudal system and the emergence and assertiveness of the new economic and social forces have added a new dimension to the law and order situation resulting in socio-economic tension in the state” (Chaitanya 1991). Soon the state police started large combing exercise in areas identified as Naxalite-affected and peasant movements were repressed.

In 1999, in response to the question of land reforms, Lalu responded:

The land is not the question….There is no land in Bihar because the density of population is much higher as compared to the land.

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I’ve finished their (Naxalites) base. The day Lalu is gone, these Naxalites will surround the cities and butcher everybody. I say give the land to the tiller. The government is even ready to buy excess land from absentee l andlords and distribute them among the landless.4

It is hard to believe that Lalu Yadav simply could not understand the real reason for the turmoil; but a closer examination of such ignorance probably says that the upper strata of the backward castes (whom we call the upper backward castes or the dominant castes), to which Lalu Yadav belonged, had replaced the upper caste feudal lords as the ruling class in the state and in the process employed equally oppressive tactics against the most underprivileged but numerically the largest class of poor peasants and agricultural labourers. That apart, an administrative services officer who was appointed as the additional chief secretary of the state and who was assigned to look into the issue of land reforms, rural development schemes and problems of agricultural labourers and other sections of unorganised labour, said:

The Janata Dal rule was no different from its predecessors. One should not think that the Janata Dal was Lalu Yadav or vice-versa. It was still dominated by the same upper caste feudal lords. Despite Lalu Yadav’s keen interest on the issue of land reforms, the party never allowed him to take any step.5

In other words, because the demands of the underprivileged, exploited and oppressed sections of society posed a threat to the interests of the alliance, on which the Lalu government was based, the demands could not find a place in the government’s scheme of social justice. And hence it resolved, like its predecessors, to term them as Naxalism. The state government, as usual, not only allowed men responsible for massacring dalit peasants and labourers to go scot-free but at times even provided them with necessary protection.6 Throughout the regime of Lalu, and also during Rabri Devi’s term, the government remained unmoved by the demands of the oppressed and the marginalised. As a result, the division of society along caste lines came out of landownership and got penetrated deep into politics, bureaucracy, academics and several other professions. Caste tensions, and in some parts even caste riots,


seriously eroded social harmony. The serious breakdown of the law and order machinery and the scenarios of crime, kidnapping, social tension and violence prompted people to sarcastically remark that the State in Bihar became a synonym of Jungle Raj. It had become a lawless land ruled by armed bandits and dangerous gangs, a land where the scheduled caste and tribal labourers were burnt alive, and where lives of children were put on auction for money. In simple terms, it had become a state without hope (Sharma 1995).


The results of the 2005 assembly elections, once again raised some expectations of change. With yet another “socialist” leader Nitish Kumar as the chief minister, the people of Bihar believed that the voices and concerns of the marginalised would get proper consideration. Nitish Kumar responded in similar ways with his own style of janata durbar (people’s court) and tried his best to address all genuine concerns. He gave proper representation to caste groups in his cabinet and brought necessary legislation for the speedy trial of the criminal and civil cases pending for several decades.

In a clever step, to consolidate his vote base among the caste groups that felt neglected during Lalu Yadav’s regime, Nitish Kumar constituted the Mahadalit Commission to look into the status of the scheduled castes. The commission identified 20 out of 22 dalit sub-castes as Mahadalits.7 However, even before the government could initiate any policy measure for the five million Mahadalits on the basis of the commission’s recommend ations, the state witnessed a new episode of what is being described as one of the worst incidents of caste massacres. No doubt, this violence between the two castes – the Kurmis (his own caste) and the Musahars (an important caste among the Mahadalits) – has fixed Nitish Kumar in a very difficult corner – forcing him, notwithstanding his earlier commitment to make a difference, to initially go on record that the Khagaria massacre was a Naxalite attack.

Nitish Kumar’s decision to carve out a new sub-category of Mahadalits, despite being criticised as “unconstitutional” and “divisive”, could be accepted on the ground that it ultimately targets the most oppressed and the deprived. There is no explanation as to what has led him to use the old theory of Naxalite violence for explaining the caste struggle, prevalent in the state for decades. Two days later, though he went into a damage control mode by ruling out the possibility of Naxalite involvement in the Khagaria carnage, he could not yet come out clearly on the issue of land struggle and linked it to a “war of attrition between two groups of anti-socials” (Banerjee 2009).

It is no longer hidden anymore that the dalit and tribal landless labourers have been equally subjected to oppression and exploitation by the upper backward castes in addition to that by upper caste landlords. The massacres in Akodi (Bhojpur: 1976), Belchhi (Patna: 1977), Kaila (Jehanabad: 1978), Pipra (Patna: 1980), Tiskhora (Patna: 1991), Dumra (Purnea: 1992) are just a few of many. Though caste animosity certainly is not the only factor in all these cases, and in the recent case of Khagaria killings too, it is undoubtedly more relevant than other reasons for the massacres.

While no government in the state till date has been effectively able to implement land reforms, all have been equally responsible in polarising society along the caste lines in the past. Lalu Yadav, whatsoever critics may say, successfully galvanised the rural poor and the dalits by providing them a new sense of ijjat (sans development), and brought about a shift in the political base of all parties including his opposition. However, his regime outsourced law and order to the ganglords. Nitish Kumar, too, belongs to the same socialist school of thought and therefore one can hope that in search for development and growth (which Lalu Yadav’s government could not achieve), he would not compromise with the hard-earned ijjat of the marginalised and the oppressed. The response to the Khagaria massacre is a test of the Nitish Kumar-led government in the way it handles the fallout, different from the lax approach of the earlier governments in Bihar.


1 Agrarian class relations in Bihar have always been firmly “embedded in caste, because whether a person controls land or not is conditioned by that person’s caste status” (Chakravarti 2001).

2 Reported in Indian Nation, cited in Mukherjee and Yadav (1982). 3 For a seminal analysis, see Kohli (1992).

4 Rajesh Joshi in interview with Lalu Yadav. “If Laloo Goes, Naxals Will Surround the Cities”, Outlook, 22 March 1999. URL:

5 In a personal interview with the author in Delhi. 6 For more on the form of social justice, see Chaitanya (1991). 7 The number was initially 18, but Dhobis and Pasis were included later. The only two castes left out are Paswan and Jatav (Ravidasi).

National Seminar on “Social Audit – Relevance and Operational Mechanism”
Call for papers

Administrative Training Institute invites papers for the National Seminar on “Social Audit – Relevance and Operational Mechanism” to be held on January 15-16, 2010. Papers should address this larger question by analyzing ground realities in one of the following areas:

  • (i) Built in Mechanism of Social Audit in Participatory Planning
  • (ii) Community Empowerment and initiatives of PRIs towards Social Audit
  • (iii) Case Studies and Best Practices of Social Audit from States

    (iv) Institutional changes and civil society responses.

    Interested Scholars/NGOs/Institutions are invited to submit completed papers by November 30, 2009. A detailed concept note is available on ATI website: Completed papers may be sent to:


    Administrative Training Institute

    Lalith Mahal Road Mysore – 570 011, Karnataka Tel: 91-821-2522142, 2443264, 2443839

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    Economic & Political Weekly



    Banerjee, Shoumojit (2009): “Nitish Rules out Naxal Role in Khagaria Killings”, The Hindu, 5 October, p 8.

    Bhattacharya, Ajit (1975): (Selected and Introduced) “Notes on Bihar Movement”, Transforming the Polity – Centenary Readings from Jayaprakash Narayan (New Delhi: Rupa), accessed online URL:

    Chaitanya, Krishna (1991): “Social Justice, Bihar Style”, Economic & Political Weekly, 16 November, p 2612.

    Chakravarti, Anand (2001): “Caste and Agrarian Class: A View from Bihar” in Manoranjan Mohanty (ed.), Class, Caste and Gender (New Delhi: Sage Publication), p 47.

    Kohli, Atul (1992): Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press).

    Louis, Prakash (2002): People Power: The Naxalite Movement in Central Bihar (New Delhi: Wordsmiths), Table 8.8, pp 242-46.

    Mukherjee, Kalyan and R S Yadav(1982): “For Reasons of State: Oppression and Resistance – A Study of Bhojpur Peasantry” in A N Das (ed.), Agrarian Movements in India, Studies on 20th Century Bihar, pp 119-47.

    Rawls, John (1999): The Law of Peoples (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), p 108.



    Sharma, Alakh Narayan (1995): “Political Economy of Poverty in Bihar”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 30, Nos 41/42 , 14-21 October, pp 2587-2602.

    Singh, Santosh (2009): “Caste-Naxal Massacre in Bihar Tests Nitish’s Base”, Indian Express, 3 October.

    Vadlamannati, K C (2008): “Socioeconomic, Institutional and Political Determinants of Human Rights Abuses: A Substantial Study of India 1993-2002”, William Davidson Institute Working paper No 926, July. URL: SSRN_ID1253482_cod e599.pdf

    Varghese, K George (2004): “Massacres in Bihar Never Invited TADA Until Bara: Killers in This Case Were Dalits”, Indian Express, 2 December. URL: 3/.




    Economic & Political Weekly

    October 31, 2009 vol xliv no 44

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