Bihar: Why the violence?

BBC World Report
February 24, 1999

More than 30 people have been killed in recent caste-related violence

By South Asia Analyst Alastair Lawson

More than 30 people, all low-caste Hindus, have been killed in Bihar in recent weeks.

Supporters of the dismissed chief minister of Bihar, Rabri Devi, have pledged to launch a campaign against the imposition of direct rule.

The opposition Congress Party has also said it will oppose the move.

The bill has to be passed by the upper house where Congress has a majority.

Violence and backwardness

The violence in Bihar has added to its reputation as one of India's most lawless, backward and corrupt states.

From being one of India's richest areas before independence from Britain in 1947, Bihar is now one of the country's most impoverished states.

Its infrastructure is perhaps the poorest in India: roads are notoriously delapidated and it is renowned for its dismal lack of public services.

The reasons for Bihar's decline are manifold, but a key reason is its entrenched caste system.

The overwhelming majority of the population of 86 million work on the land, producing only enough food for their immediate families.

Rural Bihar is basically a feudal society, where caste barriers are rigidly enforced and where landowners live in court-yarded houses nearby the mud huts of their workers.

Wealth gap

Linked to the caste system is Bihar's unequal distribution of wealth. Although it has provided much of India's coal, iron ore and mineral deposits over the last 30 years, the wealth generated has remained concentrated in the hands of a small minority of businessmen.

The huge financial divide between the ruling class and the poor has not only led to communal tensions but also to the growth of an extreme left wing "Naxalite" insurgent group.

This mostly operates in the central and southern part of the state, killing landlords and encouraging peasants to agitate for better pay and basic civil liberties.

The landlords have responded by forming their own private militias, the most well-known of which is the Ranvir Sena.

This organisation is alleged to have carried out numerous mass killings of low caste villagers.

High level corruption

Some commentators argue that Bihar's woes were exacerbated by the election in 1990 of the state's former chief minister, Laloo Prassad Yadav.

He is portrayed by the Indian government as epitomising the corruption that has bedevilled the state in recent years.

One of the most colourful politicians in India, Mr Yadav is currently facing the same corruption charges that forced him to relinquish power in 1997.

He rose to prominence by his pledge to bring social justice to the state. In particular he promised to improve the lot of impoverished Muslims and lower caste Hindus.

His message proved immensely popular, and despite the criminal allegations he remains one of the state's most popular politicians.

Congress party backing

Yet his detractors say that Mr Yadav practised even worse nepotism and corruption than his high caste predecessors. They argue that Mr Yadav's regime has proven links with organised crime.

The dismissed chief minister, Rabri Devi, is Mr Yadav's wife. Her supporters accuse the central government of behaving autocratically and have pledged to launch a campaign against the imposition of direct rule.

The opposition Congress party has also said it will oppose the move.

It looks as if Bihar's problems are unlikely to be speedily resolved.