In the ongoing elections in Bihar, the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) Liberation/CPI(ML)-Liberation – or ‘Liberation’ – has emerged as the dark horse. The Left party managed to secure 19 seats for itself in the ‘Grand Alliance’ (Mahagathbandhan) led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). So far on the margins of mainstream politics in Bihar, it has been able to come out of the closet and is confidently knocking at the doors of Bihar Assembly.
Even though the party was able to grab 3 seats in the last Assembly elections in 2015 amidst a dual wave of ‘Mahagathbandhan’ (grand alliance) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and has been sending legislators to the Bihar assembly since 1995 (except for once in 2010), it has been largely considered ‘untouchable’ by media (both alternative and mainstream).
This is mostly because of the long history of ‘violence’ attached to the CPI-ML during its underground days in Bihar, often presented as ‘caste wars’ in popular discourse. This is even more so because of the party’s roots in the Naxalbari uprising.
In the context of the ongoing Bihar Assembly elections, several mainstream media houses like The Indian Express, NDTV and BBC have recognised and given some space to CPI-ML. But even if the mainstream media has ignored the party for a long time, academia picked up interest in one of the most remarkable social movements led by it in Bihar.
The Bhojpur Movement, or the Naxalite Movement, in Central Bihar (now South Bihar) has drawn the interest of many academicians and researchers over a period of time. Research and studies on the various aspects of the movement and its afterlife continues to be a part of academic studies even after 25 years since CPI-ML decided to come over ground.
In popular memory, the Naxalite movement in Central Bihar is usually associated with caste wars and violence, while the social transformation which it brought by challenging the feudal order and relatively democratising rural Bihar is not even acknowledged or imagined in the popular discourse.
Genesis of the Bhojpur Movement
The Bhojpur of 1970s until the 80s was a region characterised by extreme form of poverty emanating out from a deeply exploitative agrarian structure. Dalits, most of whom were landless labourers and small peasants, were not allowed to exercise their voting rights and never paid minimum wages.
This economic exploitation was exaggerated and justified through the caste system, the worst aspect of which was the infamous Dola Pratha – a traditional practice according to which Dalit brides were forced to spend their first night after marriage with the landlord of the area.
Apart from this, rape and sexual exploitation of Dalit women at the hands of Upper Caste men was an everyday affair in the region. It was in the backdrop of this socio-economic-political condition that the Bhojpur Movement arose.
In Bhojpur Mein Naxalvadi Andolan (Radhakrishna Publication, New Delhi, 1980), one of the first accounts of Bhojpur movement, Kalyan Mukherjee and Rajendra Yadav have recounted an unprecedented rally which took place in Ara on 14 April 1970 on the occasion of Ambedkar Diwas. A pledge to fight for ‘Harijanistan’ was taken during the event. This rally was organised by, among others, Jagdish Mahto, Rameshwar Yadav, Latafat Hussain under the banner of Bhim Sena – an organisation formed to resist oppression on Dalits. In time, as the news of Naxalbari uprising travelled to Bihar and impressed Jagdish Mahato, he travelled to West Bengal and started to seek out like minded individuals in which he was joined by Rameshwar Yadav, along with Ram Naresh Ram – the trio who led the foundation of Bhojpur Movement.
Jagdish Mahato, a school teacher, who has been immortalised through Mahashweta Devi’s novel Master Saab (Bharitya Gyanpeeth, New Delhi, 2003) did not have a communist background like Ram Naresh Ram. In fact, he was a radical Ambedkarite who once proposed the idea of ‘Harijanistan’ – a separate nation for Dalits.
Thus, the Bhojpur Movement was a result of coming together of a radical Ambedkarite current with the revolutionary spirit of Naxalbari uprising, which fused together the question of caste-class and articulated it through the notion of izzat or honour.
The Bhojpur Movement, apart from mobilising people over economic questions – like land rights, redistribution of surplus land amongst the poor for hosing or agricultural purpose, increasing wages and implementing minimum wages, changing the tenancy relations biased in the favour of landlords, and rights over common property resources – dealt with two other very important issues: social dignity of Dalits; and democratising the electoral space.
Bela Bhatia in her study of the Naxalite movement in Central Bihar (Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 40, No. 15, 2005) says: “the Naxalite movement in central Bihar has fought against exploitative relations in social as well as in economic terms. Izzat (dignity or honour) is one of the crucial social freedoms it has attempted to restore…movement has been effective in its assertion of Dalits as human beings and individuals entitled to equal rights. Instances of rape of lower caste women have decreased dramatically. Arbitrary beatings are no longer tolerated. Labourers are free to sell their labour to whomever they please. Dalit children are able to go to school. Labourers are able to wear clean clothes, sit in front of their homes on khatias (string cots) welcome their guests without interference from the landlords, amongst other gains. All this has come about because the landed are no longer in a position to exercise illegitimate power with impunity.”
Another transformation that was ushered during the Bhojpur Movement is with regard to the exercise of political rights – the right to vote. Booth capturing was a common phenomenon in rural region of Bihar since the advent of parliamentary democracy. Dalits were often kept away from polling stations by Upper Caste-Upper Class henchmen who would cast the votes in favour of their candidates. In fact, this was the reason for the genesis of the Bhojpur Movement in the first place.
As the story goes, in 1967, when Ramnaresh Ram was contesting the Bihar Assembly elections, his mentor and friend Jagdish Mahato tried to prevent vote rigging for which he was brutally beaten by the henchmen of a local Bhumihar leader, while Ram Naresh Ram was locked in a room. This incident led to the genesis of the Bhojpur Movement, as Ram Naresh Ram in an interview said:
“Master Sahib resolved to avenge the attack and demolish feudal ‘pride.’ Meanwhile Comrade Rameshwar (Sadhuji) came back from jail influenced by the politics of the CPI-M and joined hands with us to begin his journey in the Communist movement.”
With the participation of Liberation in elections, as Bhatia has emphasised, this phenomenon began to be challenged, thereby extending political rights granted under the constitution. In fact, the challenge to booth capturing and denial of voting rights to Dalits was the reason behind the electoral success of Liberation in the 90s.
Another contribution of the Bhojpur Movement has been on the empowerment of Dalit Women who used to face double exploitation or ‘sexploitation’ at the hands of Upper Caste landlords. The challenge to ‘sexploitation’ of Dalit women at the hands of Upper Caste landlords and their goons was acknowledged even by police officials.
A People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) report titled ‘Terror in Jehanabad, 1989’ quotes the Superintendent of Police as saying, “In this area no one has the guts to touch a poor peasant woman, thanks to the work of the MKSS and the IPF….”. The Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samiti (MKSS) was a mass organisation of erstwhile CPI-ML Party Unity, while the Indian People’s Front (IPF) was the the electoral front of Liberation.
According to Indu B Sinha (In her unpublished dissertation titled ‘Escape and “Struggle”: Routes of Women’s Liberation in Bihar’, University of Bath, 2002), one of the unique features of the Bhojpur movement was that on many occasions, it subsumed the economic issues within gender question. She writes: “at many occasions, gender issue, i.e. the issue of izzat sparked off strong mobilisation, which later culminated into class struggle. The culmination of gender issue into class issue is a unique path that the radical mobilisation has discovered…Assigning ‘patriarchy’ a secondary place in relation to ‘class’ with a flexible approach to attend ‘gender’ first, when and wherever needed, is another unique feature of [this] radical mobilisation.”
Bhojpur movement and the question of violence
If anything, the Bhojpur Movement has left a mark in popular memory due to the violence that followed in the wake of assertion of marginalised communities. As landless Dalit labourers and peasants began to assert themselves and resist exploitation – both economic and socio-cultural – the Upper Caste landlords initiated their reactionary violence, which, as many reports show, were backed by the state machinery. The movement was marked by many massacres that were projected as ‘caste wars’ between various caste groups.
Even today, this false imagery is very well alive, particularly in the discourses of Upper Caste-Class. Recently, President of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), JP Nadda, during his rally in Buxar, accused Liberation of “creating unrest and massacres.” Similarly, Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, labeled the alliance of CPI-CPI(M)-CPI(ML)-Congress-RJD as “extremist.” All the accusation stem out from the struggles of the Bhojpur Movement.
Violence is a very contentious issue and divides public opinion. But the violence which happened during the Bhojpur Movement must be seen in the context of socio-economic-cultural relations in which one group was at the bottom rung of the ladder, while the other was powerful and backed by the state.
The Die Is Caste (2017, Youtube) is a feature documentary completed in 2004 exploring the dynamics of caste conflict and plight of Dalits in the state of Bihar. It is funded by the Open Society Institute in 1999 and was later acquired by the Sundance Documentary Fund.
The responsibility of ‘violence’ completely lies in the hands of the feudal Upper Caste groups and the State whose duty was to ensure the dignity and livelihood of every citizen – a mandate in which it failed miserably. If a Dalit women resisted ‘rape’, the entire family and village was attacked by Upper Caste people. Every time Dalits refused to continue the ‘dola pratha’, they were attacked by the Upper Caste landlords. Every time landless workers demanded minimum wage and right over common public resources, they were attacked by the local dominant castes.
Thus, it is the dominant castes that initiated ‘violence’ as they resisted losing their ‘privileges’ and their self-given right to exploit the Dalit community. Whenever oppressed communities assert themselves, the ruling class-caste interprets it as an attack on their natural rights and engages in reactionary violence.
The other argument around ‘violence’ that is prevalent in the liberal academic and civil society discourses is the ‘sandwich theory’, which argues that Dalits (and thereby marginalised communities) are victims of dual violence, that is, the violence of State and violence of revolutionary groups. This argument, which reflects middle class liberal sensibilities, completely ignores the point that it would be almost impossible to sustain a ‘violent’ movement if the revolutionary groups did not enjoy support from the oppressed communities.
George Kunnath in Rebels from the Mud Houses: Dalits and the Making of the Maoist Revolution in Bihar, (Social Science Press, 2012, New Delhi) has shown that Dalits are, if anything “but rebels against their will…coerced by the guerrillas as well as the state”. Several other studies (some of them mentioned above) have noted the agency of Dalits (and other marginalised groups) in their participation in social movement of which violence becomes an important part.
It must be understood and emphasised that violence results when ruling castes-classes are not ready to let go off their privileges in the interest of equity, justice and freedom. The sole responsibility of violence, which marked three decades of violence in Bihar rests at the state and the upper caste-class, who resisted their “loss of power” with regard to the landless labourers and peasants from marginalised castes-classes.
In the much acclaimed movie Article 15, Manoj Pahwa’s character, Brahmdutt, an upper caste policeman, apples to his superior (Ayushmann Khurana), “santulan mat bigaadiye (please don’t disturb the natural order)”, when Khurana’s character begins to investigate the rape and murder of two Dalit Girls.
This warning is the vantage point of reactionary ‘violence’. The moment the Upper Caste begins to believe that their ‘natural right’ is being challenged, they immediately resort to violence. During the Mahad Satyagrah, it was the caste Hindus who attacked the satyagrahis as in their understanding, Dalits had broken the “santulan” (balance).
Similarly, even today, Dalits are attacked for entering temples or riding horses. In the Brahminical worldview, these acts seem like an attack on the natural order of things as envisaged by the Upper Castes.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
CPI-ML (Liberation) logo in featured image from Wikimedia Commons.