by Ashok Yadav & Khalid Anis Ansari
The police firing and subsequent killing of five OBC Muslims in Bhajanpur village in Forbesganj of Araria district in Bihar on June 3, 2011 has been analyzed in most reports in the public sphere through the frame of 'communalism' and there has been little effort to grapple with the other dimensions that the event entails. Increasingly, it is being felt that the discourse around secularism/communalism is being employed to reinforce the restorative politics of Indian ruling elite, broadly the upper caste sections of all religious identities, and is working as an instrument to subvert the counter-hegemonic peoples' solidarity at large.
While the normative understanding of secularism is under pressure in almost all jurisdictions, for all practical purposes secularism in India has been thoroughly trivialized and reduced to the stand one takes with regards to the 'Indian Muslim'. So any formation which takes a pro-Muslim stand, even for the sake of public consumption, is paraded as secular. On the other hand those formations that publicly interrogate or abuse the Muslim identity are communal. Thus, the Congress Party is 'secular' even when there is overwhelming historical evidence that implicates it in numerous riots against Muslims in the post-independence period simply because it never mouths anti-Muslim jargon. In contrast the BJP is undisputedly 'communal' because its growth as a political party has so far depended on its anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The Changing Nature of Political Space
In the last two decades the political space in India has transformed drastically. One of the most significant fallouts of the Mandal moment, especially since the report included both Hindu and Muslim lower castes in the OBC list, has been the fissure in the naturalized notion of the Hindu and Muslim monolith. Consequently, while on the one hand the Hindutva forces are facing sustained challenges in manufacturing an overarching Hindu vote-bank, on the other the enactment of the 'pasmanda' identity (OBC/Dalit Muslims) within Indian Muslims has interrogated the notion of Muslim unity in interesting ways. Hence, due to the counter-hegemonic identity politics of the lower castes as opposed to the entrenched politics of religious identity controlled by the upper caste elites, it has become increasingly difficult to consolidate the Hindu or Muslim vote-bank. The saffron brigade has so much weakened that it has to bank upon OBC leaders like Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, that too from outside the RSS-BJP fold, in order to conduct its politics. In a similar vein the Muslim upper caste elite sections too are experimenting with the Peace Party, by foregrounding a pasmanda Dr. Ayub, in North India.
Broadly, the constitutional and policy consensus on social justice (affirmative action) and minority rights is under pressure from various quarters. In this respect, the Mala-Madiga contradiction in Andhra Pradesh or the enactment of mahadalit identity in Bihar recently, the emergence of EBC/MBC (Extremely or Most Backward Castes) politics, the challenges to minority religious identities from pasmanda Muslims, dalit Christians or dalit Sikhs, and the growing assertion of women generally, have all contributed to destabilizing the dominant imagination of dalit, OBC or minority identities. While on the one hand such fragmentation and multiplicity is a sign of penetration of Indian democracy, on the other hand this differentiation has to be arrested at some point and some broad-based political principles need to be evolved that could enable subaltern solidarities in order to tackle the increasing crisis of representative democracy (the gap between the leaders and the lead). In the absence of the latter the popular issues like corruption, electricity, education, health, employment, etc. will eventually be taken up by populist movements led by the elite which will only go on to construct a false 'we' that reflects the most powerful. In recent times both Anna Hazare's and Baba Ramdev's movements indicate towards this crisis badly. Both movements have hijacked the peoples' legitimate anger that could have been channelized in reforming the actually-existing Indian democracy by debating on the pitfalls of First-Past-the-Post electoral system (in contrast to a Proportional Electoral System), Right to Recall, deepening of the Right to Information, and other such relevant issues so necessary to unleash the next phase of people-led democratization in India.
More pertinent to this essay is the manner in which the dynamics of the changing nature of political space have parochialized the received politics around the axes of secularism-communalism. If we look at the moves by pasmanda politicians in Bihar then in the assembly elections of 2005 they took a decision to reject Laloo Yadav led secular RJD alliance and opted to vote for Nitish Kumar led NDA with the communal BJP as an important ally. Nitish Kumar had later credited the support of pasmanda sections for ensuring his victory. Obviously, the preference of the pasmanda sections for a non-BJP government had not dwindled but at the same time they had stopped thinking in terms of the restricted options which secular-communal axis provided. Their support to JD (U)-BJP alliance was mostly driven by the fact that Laloo Yadav, under the influence of ashrafia politicians, had refused to acknowledge them. However, at that point of time it must be remarked that in the absence of non-BJP leaders like Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav, the pasmanda sections would have probably never voted for the NDA.
In terms of discourse, the pasmanda have claimed that they are one of the indigenous bahujan sections of India who in historical times converted to Islam due to various reasons. However, caste discrimination continued to be practiced against them within the Muslim body politic even after conversion despite the egalitarian teachings of Islam. Consequently, there is a serious discomfort in pasmanda discourse with the minority tag as it is seen to be inhabited predominantly by the upper caste ashrafiya sections who utilize it to bargain for privileges from the state. The overall focus is on discounting the emotive issues and addressing the basic issues of bread-and-butter by democratizing the state and community structures. In strategic terms the pasmanda sections are keen to develop a horizontal unity with the lower caste sections of the so-called majority (and other minority) communities. Afterall, if caste is the primary basis of Indian society then the concept of 'minority' and 'majority' is irrelevant because no caste in India is numerically so strong that it may claim to be a majority community. Hence, the pasmanda movement is fast rendering the hegemonic Muslim-centric secular politics irrelevant and forcing us to rethink secularism in a new light. In liberating themselves from the minority psyche, the pasmanda movement is also attempting to liberate the country from religious conflicts which have so far frequently rocked India. It is in this context that we will read the tragic incident that happened at Forbesgunj recently.
Forbesgunj Violence: A Brief Recapitulation
As we mentioned earlier the lower caste pasmanda muslims, the victims in this incident, had greatly facilitated the formation of JD (U) led NDA government in Bihar in 2005 as well as in 2010. It is no wonder then that the entire opposition politics in Bihar and the 'secular parivar' sees the event as an opportunity to beat the NDA with the secular stick so as to send a strong message to the pasmanda social block that their security is guaranteed only in a non-NDA regime. It also goes without saying that the interests, electoral and otherwise, of the Congress and its cronies goad them to capture the entire Forbesganj episode in a monochromatic frame: the epic battle between the BJP, the eternal communal evil and the Muslim, the good and hapless victim. This version of the event is further reinforced by the involvement of a BJP politician in the actual facts of this case and the visit of the Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar from BJP to the spot five days prior to the event. While one cannot discount this take considering the brutality of violence that foregrounded the deep rooted hatred of the perpetrators of the violence for the victims, one will also have to explore other dimensions of the issue for the truth of social events is seldom one-dimensional.
The background of Forbesganj incident in short is that some sixty years ago the villagers of Bhajanpur and Rampur, the twin adjoining villages predominantly populated by socially backward pasmanda (OBC-dalit) muslims, donated their land, money and labor to build a road that reduced the distance from their villages to the main Forbesganj market from eight to one kilometer. ANHAD has reported that in 1984 Bihar Industrial Area Development Authority acquired 105 acres of agricultural land from the villagers which was meagerly compensated resulting in the pauperization of farmers from small land holders to agricultural laborers. Very recently, in 2010, the Bihar Cabinet approved an industrial unit for the manufacturing of starches from maize to M/S Auro Sundaram International Company. Incidentally, one of the directors in the Board of this company is the son of a BJP politician. The road that the villagers had themselves built on their land with their money and labor was given away to the company. This was understandably resisted by the villagers. On June 1, 2011 in a tripartite meeting between the company, the villagers and the administration, the villagers showed their accommodative spirit by agreeing to forgo their right over the village road provided an alternate road was built. The three parties agreed to this. However, on June 3 the company, in connivance with the local administration, breached the compromise formula and without providing for the alternate road began to raise a wall on the existing road. Consequently, the villagers after returning from the Friday prayers protested against this breach of trust. The administration in collusion with the Company opened indiscriminate firing on the hapless villagers. A reign of terror was let loose on the poor villagers by the police. Five people were killed including a pregnant woman and fifteen persons were grievously injured. A petty police official kicked and danced on the injured and unconscious body of a young boy. The still alive boy was sent for postmortem where the doctor noticed life in the body. However, he later succumbed to the injury.
The Question of Developmental Violence
Since the occurrence of this macabre incident the secular brigade has been campaigning and working overtime against the state government which is a joint collaboration of JD (U) and the saffron BJP. Political figures like Ram Vilas Paswan, who once sang the song of Muslim CM so much that Bihar slipped into the hands of NDA, and Laloo Prasad Yadav, who enjoyed power for fifteen long years by flaunting the so-called MY (Muslim-Yadav) equation, are still to visit the spot. What is striking is that the entire campaign of the opposition parties/voices is being run around the anti-minority character of the state government with no mention of developmental violence whatsoever. The opposition parties have conveniently chosen to underplay the link of this event with the chain of developmental violence in other jurisdictions (Singur, Nandigram, Bhatta-Parsaul, etc.). In our view, this is yet another example where the dominant discourse of communalism feeds into a hegemonic identity politics than informing any processes of a counter-hegemonic peoples' solidarity. Very recently, we witnessed the strange use of the discourse of communalism again when the Congress suddenly discovered that Baba Ramdev was an RSS agent and the news that RSS was conspiring to burn the camp in the midnight hours and foment nationwide riots was broken not by the government and intelligence agencies but by a famous Muslim secular operator. While we have no sympathies with Ramdev's or Hazare's movement but the way the discourse of communalism was skillfully employed to polarize public opinion on this issue and further to elide the problems with actually-existing Indian democracy from the public discourse was indeed remarkable. In a similar vein, in the case of Forbesganj violence the fact that the land and road of the village were forcibly grabbed by the capitalist raiders has been reduced to a non-issue and the religious identity of the victims (why not caste?) has been continuously foregrounded. The spree of land grabbing of the poor and the marginalized by the powerful corporate and business houses in India and the crushing of subsequent peoples' resistance with brutality by the state in collusion with capitalist raiders has become the order of the day. It would be too simplistic and opportunistic to define the Forbesgunj violence in terms of religious communalism alone.
Foot Soldiers in, Masterminds out!
Moreover, the state government has lodged a murder case against the petty police official who danced on the unconscious body of the young boy. The state government has been forced to do this because the video clip of Suneel Kumar Yadav, the police officer in question here, kicking and dancing on the body has been uploaded on YouTube and a few TV channels have been broadcasting this continuously. It is indeed incomprehensible that while Suneel Kumar Yadav has been slapped with a murder case, no case has been lodged against the senior police/administrative officials or the company management who were present on the spot and who bear primary responsibility for the firing. But there is also a historical and sociological background to such selective action by the state machinery. Nitish Kumar, who succeeded Laloo Yadav with the support of the BJP, also ordered enquiry into Bhagalpur riots earlier. While the report of the Bhagalpur riots enquiry commission instituted by Nitish Kumar is not known but what is fairly clear is that the entire blame was sought to be imposed on Kameshwar Yadav, without mention of any action against the masterminds of the riots. The news portal thebihar.com had reported on April, 13, 2010 that: "The only thing the Nitish Kumar government could do is to get Kameshwar Yadav, a local goon, arrested and jailed. However, the big fish in the Bhagalpur riots are still free..." [http://www.thebihar.com/bihar-news/five-commissions-crores-of-rupees-no-result/]. In another related judgment fourteen persons were convicted of rioting and murdering Muslims at Sabour near Bhagalpur. Of these fourteen persons twelve were reported to be belonging to the lower-caste kushwaha community. The same news portal had reported on September 2, 2010 about the award of rigorous imprisonment for attack on a police party during the days of Bhagalpur riots. The news report has reproduced the names of all the ten accused and all of them are OBCs [http://www.thebihar.com/bihar-news/10-sentenced-to-ri-in-bhagalpur-riot-case/]. There is remarkable consistency in these cases where the masterminds of violence against minorities are never brought to justice and it is only the lower-caste foot soldiers from the majority community that are routinely axed. Neither Laloo Yadav nor Nitish Kumar could muster courage to lay their hands on the masterminds of the riots. The dalits and OBCs are selectively punished in symbolic actions to appease the hurt feelings of the Muslims and ultimately to get their votes. Moreover, this selective handpicking of the accused belonging to the dalit-OBC sections for punishment also symbolically subverts the attempts of horizontal consolidation of lower castes across religious affiliations. This becomes an important dimension as since the inauguration of Pasmanda Movement in the post-Mandal phase the attempts of lower castes to make inter-religious horizontal unity has gathered momentum.
The Silence of Pasmanda Politicians
Lastly, the reluctance of Pasmanda political leaders in different political parties to come out openly against the killing of their brothers and sisters in Forbesganj throws up another crisis of Indian politics (though a few pasmanda figures like Noor Hasan Azad, Dawood Ansari, Hishamuddin Ansari and Mohd. Hasnain did visit the spot and spoke against it openly). The political line of respective parties which is nothing but the dictate of the party boss has a stifling effect upon the leaders of subaltern groups. The politicians belonging to subaltern groups prefer to show their allegiance to their party boss rather than to their caste or community in whose name they get the political opportunities in the first place. Even where the party bosses themselves belong to subordinated groups they prefer not to rake up radical issues and generally align with the status quo. For example, the main opposition party of Bihar, Laloo Yadav led RJD, is still not recognizing the victims of Forbesganj violence as belonging to the lower caste pasmanda muslim group. They are still comfortable in playing the old minority card and do not wish to subvert the Muslim monolith. While the pasmanda are claiming that they are primarily Bahujan, the RJD and other secular parties are still pushing them into the quagmire of Muslim politics and learning nothing from the debacle of 2005 and 2010 in Bihar. The RJD is still under the impression that the Pasmanda movement is at the best an aberration and that majority of Pasmanda populations are still under the influence of religious Muslim leaders. In time it is hoped that with the increasing sedimentation of the pasmanda discourse they will be forced to do a reality check once again.