Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pride and Prejudice of being BIHARI !

Who carries you on a rickshaw or an autorickshaw in Delhi? Biharis. Who drives the cars of Delhiites? Biharis. Who built the Delhi Metro? Biharis. (You may not agree with the last one.) Who is building the new houses and the expanding suburbs of Delhi? Biharis. Who made Punjab the most prosperous state in the country? The answer again is Biharis. (Here too you may not agree.) The credit for building the Delhi Metro or making Punjab prosperous will never go to Biharis. Does anyone ever say that blacks built America? In colonial days, Bihar supplied the girmitiya, or indentured, labourers who built countries like Mauritius, Suriname and Fiji. A bulk of the labour employed in the Raj capital of Calcutta came from Bihar. After Independence Bihari workers flocked to places like Delhi, Punjab and Mumbai.

At the same time, Biharis excelled in other fields. Many became great political leaders, ICS and IAS officers, scientists, doctors, engineers, writers and artists. Delhi and other Indian cities attracted huge white-collar Bihari populations and Biharis formed a large part of the Indian diaspora of professionals. But in the eyes of the rest of India, “Bihari” had come to mean a labourer, a person doing menial jobs. It had become a term of scorn and contempt. In their anglicized lingo, places like Delhi University turned the word into “Harry”, but the pejorative tone remained unmistakable. Heaping scorn on the working classes is a universal phenomenon. That is how words like Negro, Paki (used for Pakistanis and Indians in Britain) and some of the words denoting dalit castes in India earned contemptuous connotations. In fact, while Biharis were getting their hands dirty on Punjab’s farms, Punjabis were migrating in hordes to the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. Never mind that they would take up blue-collar jobs as taxi drivers, petrol pump attendants and waiters in those faraway lands. As the years passed, many of the Biharis who had come to Punjab or Mumbai as manual labourers started moving up the economic ladder as did the blue-collar Indian emigrants abroad. A usually unnoticed aspect of the so-called racial attacks against Indians abroad is the threat the rise of working classes poses to the entrenched social order. This accentuates the contempt they face. From this angle, the attacks on Biharis in Punjab, and Mumbai, and the attacks on Indians abroad are manifestations of the same phenomenon.

What stopped Biharis from bringing about a green revolution or building a Metro in Bihar? The answer is geography and history. Geography, because ravaged by floods, the land of Bihar was unable to feed its growing population. And history, because what was the centre of the biggest Indian empire in ancient times was reduced to an obscure provincial existence. The skewed landownership system introduced by the British rulers worsened the situation. Things could have improved after Independence had the political leadership of Bihar been able to exert influence on the rulers in New Delhi to get enough funds for development projects and set off a process of industry in the state.

On the contrary, Bihar continued to live the same, conveniently ignored, provincial existence. A system built on casteism, nepotism, corruption and crime came to dominate the state. It spawned a neo-rich class of netas, babus, contractors and government engineers who would build palatial houses for themselves with the money meant for dams, power projects, ration for the poor or even fodder for cattle.

The money meant for roads and public amenities would go into their bank accounts. No wonder, the roads in front of those houses would be full of ditches and become the playground of pigs every monsoon. With limited options of higher education and hardly any employment opportunities in the state, the youth of Bihar started looking out. They flooded places like Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. They started dominating the country’s toughest competitions like the IIT-JEE and the civil services exam. With this success, Biharis started believing they had the best brains. The world began to grudgingly acknowledge their capabilities.

Academic success, however, did not do much to rid the word “Bihari” of the scorn it had gathered. People in Delhi continued to laugh at those who spoke with a Bihari accent. Those without an accent would get this compliment: “Oh, you are from Bihar? But you don’t sound like a Bihari.” Biharis, meanwhile, were retreating into a shell, with little but the historic glory of Buddha, Mahavira, Chandragupta, Chanakya, Ashoka, Aryabhatta, Guru Gobind Singh and Sher Shah to bask in. Now comes 11% growth. The state can recover from the damage it has suffered over hundreds of years only if such a high rate of growth can be sustained for many, many years. Then Biharis would not have to till others' land or build cities and countries elsewhere.

Vinay Pandey | The writer is proud to be a Bihari.

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