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A Class Analysis of the 'Bihari Menace'

Migrants from Bihar are accused of taking over urban areas and jobs, most recently in Mumbai. Bihar has come to represent a cultural symbol of backwardness, "dirtyness" and trouble, which is almost impervious to "development". This article attempts to understand the class and caste locations of these prejudices and analyses the reasons why Bihar and Biharis are the target of such singular chauvinism.

NOTESjuly 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28 EPW Economic & Political Weekly124A Class Analysis of the ‘Bihari Menace’Awanish KumarI would like to thank Saumyajit Bhattacharya, R Ramakumar and J Mohan Rao for encouragement and insights. I also received very useful comments from Aditi Dixit and Arjun Sengupta.Awanish Kumar (awanishkumar86@gmail.com) is a research student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.Migrants from Bihar are accused of taking over urban areas and jobs, most recently in Mumbai. Bihar has come to represent a cultural symbol of backwardness, “dirtyness” and trouble, which is almost impervious to “development”. This article attempts to understand the class and caste locations of these prejudices and analyses the reasons why Bihar and Biharis are the target of such singular chauvinism. The past year has been quite agonis-ing for many Biharis, both resident as well as the migrant. Since the time of the Kosi floods in 2008, through the anti-Bihari violence in Mumbai, Bihar has received much attention from the media and other important opinion-makers of India. Whatever the different positions, there seems to be unanimity among all commentators that underdevelopment in/of Bihar is at the root cause of these prob-lems. Unfortunately, this extensive cover-age does not bring any new insight due to its inherent inability to contextualise the Bihari predicament in the larger debate on development per se. It seems that this ina-bility, itself, stems from the absence of a coherent perspective on change in Indian society in general and Bihar, as the arche-type, in particular. In other words, the cov-erage remains just extensive enough to substantiate and reinforce the stereotypes about the state and never intends to go into the processes that operate underneath the apparent other-worldliness of Bihar.To reclaim Bihar from its own ghost, as projected by the media, constitutes a her-culean task mainly because the given perspectives seem to be founded upon certaindeep-rooted axiomatic understand-ings. Consequently, the primary objective of this essay would be to re-naturalise Bihar and its society and identify signifi-cant analytical asymmetries inherent in the dominant understanding of Bihar.On the Working ClassMichael Kalecki in his path-breaking anal-ysis of the political aspects of full employ-ment in capitalism elaborated on the reasons business communities in capitalist democracies oppose any kind of state intervention in the economy.1 In the final instance, he argued, every hue of opposi-tion boils down to two basic factors: the fear of the social and political fallouts of maintaining full employment and the moral premise of capitalism. This premise argues that every individual should “earn his own bread” and constitutes the funda-mental operating principle2 of the capitalist system. The political imperative of control-ling labour, in general, takes precedence over the systemic economic motive. It is in this peculiar manner that class struggle unfolds in capitalist democratic societies. In short, the point relevant to our dis-cussion is this: the working class remains in continual conflict with the bourgeoisie in capitalism, no matter what form the conflict takes. However, there are times when bourgeois hegemony becomes so strong, at least ideologically, that the con-flict does not seem to reflect the real con-tradictions between the two antagonistic classes. It ostensibly becomes an intra-working class dispute of interests where the bourgeoisie only takes a moral position, if at all. The recent incidents in Mumbai against the migrant Bihari labour-ers deserve to be listed in this category.The average response from the media on the Bihari migrants issue has been, to say the least, patronising. The English lan-guage media has shown considerable interest in the debate on migrant labourers from Bihar. One major argument, which comes from the business class in Mumbai and elsewhere, allegedly infavour of the powerless Bihari migrants, assumes the superior, hard-working nature of the Bihari migrant labourers. In this perspec-tive, the very argument that Bihari labour-ers have taken away jobs from the locals contains its own antithesis, i e, it reflects the truly enterprising spirit of the Bihari labourers who can work in the most adverse circumstances, even with below-subsistence wages. Is there some other motive behind this apparent defence of the Bihari migrant labourer? To start with, it is important to note that unemployment and uneven development (i e, concentra-tion of capital in spatial terms) are prod-ucts of the normal functioning of the capi-talist regime. Scarcity is artificially creat-ed from within the system along with a perpetual demand constraint. The height-ening of these contradictions of capitalism makes the “industrious working class” –
NOTESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28125which is an euphemism for the moral premise outlined above – the mantra of the capitalists. For the capitalists, profes-sionalism and hard work become the only way for the working class to lead a mean-ingful life. The objective processes of con-trol are supplemented by the ideological hegemony on working class conscious-ness. The simultaneous immersserisation of the working class leaves only one way out: to fight against the system unitedly. There is no other way these contradictions could be resolved.In the recent conflict, however, the pop-ular image of a Marathi worker who mostly indulges in trade unionism or aggressive labour tactics as against the Bihari labourer who works on the condi-tions of the capitalists and does not pro-test; grossly misplaces the larger structur-al concern. Expectedly, the defence for Bihari migrants comes from the same classes who also argue for more labour re-forms in the liberalisation era and view the growing informalisation of employ-ment structure as inevitable in the course of rapid growth. The ruling class alliance, which apparently feels desperate for the Vidarbha suicides and Bihari migrants, never brings to the popular discourse, the phenomenon of acute landlessness as the common feature in both the regions. This discourse also ignores the historicity of the conflict between the Mumbai capital-ists and the Marathi working class; the latter always being identified with trade union activism and militancy. At the same time, right wing chauvinist parties like the Shiv Sena and its recent avatar, Maha-rashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), with covert support from mainstream non-left parties and big business, have always used such moments of crisis for their benefit and have displayed their anti-working class, anti-dalit and anti-Muslim character in Mumbai and elsewhere.3The conclusion of the preceding analy-sis concerns the real nature of the “differ-ence” between the Marathi and Bihari working class. This difference merely lies in the extent of their vulnerability, which is a general feature of labour. The support that Biharis might be getting from influen-tial quarters reflects the desire of the ruling classes to maintain a weak and sub-missive labour force. It does not constitute, in any way, a support for Bihari labourers who distress-migrate to earn whatever they get as wages and wherever they get employment. One should only wait for the “nothing to lose” Bihari labourers to unionise to see the response of the same powerful groups in the media and the corporate world.On Bihari SocietyThe quandary of development in Bihar, in the last instance, is the problem of the historically marginalised peasantry. Behind this, there lies the unsolved land question in the state. Bihar falls in the re-gion dominated by the zamindari system of land settlement during the British era which only reinforced the feudal bonds and obligations of the pre-colonial times. The penetration of modern methods of economic organisation was insignificant, notwithstanding the fact that Bihar was a part of the Bengal province which was the first region in India to fall under British control. The Bengal province was always the leading source of export revenue for the colonial regime. In her note on regional differentiation in India, Krishna Bharad-waj observes that this region, in fact, constituted “the prime experimental base for forced commercialisation” (1982: 605) which was, then replicated across the country in differing degrees according to the needs of the colonial state. Differential handling of regions in terms of land revenue, industrial and public in-vestment policies formed one of the most curious aspects of the colonial state in India. Furthermore, these policies also var-ied across time in their suitability to the overall revenue requirement of the British government. The system of land revenue followed in Bengal led to the rise of a para-sitic class of landlords who had no interests whatsoever in agricultural productivity in the region.4 It also led to a distorted devel-opment of these regions in terms of the evolution of a local bourgeoisie. Conse-quently, the phenomenon of de-industriali-sation (during the colonial period) in the Bengal province was most marked among all the regions in India with a secular de-cline of the traditional small-scale industry and establishment of a distorted industrial structure based on dualism. This dualism, though present in the overall economic structure of the country, reached its highest level within these regions of India. During the same colonial period, when Calcutta kept developing as a major port, the hinter-land (especially Bihar) faced both demand shortages as well as de-industrialisation with far-reaching effects. Unfortunately, post-independence policy in India did not take even the basic meas-ures to mitigate this baneful colonial influence of regional inequalities on the national economy. Though some measures were certainly introduced, but owing to the absence of a radical programme of restructuration of the property relations in the society, they could never alter the long history of distortions in agrarian structure and industrial growth in these regions. In the absence of basic land reforms, agriculture in Bihar could not, and did not, pave the way for modern industries in the post-independence period. To this day, landlessness among the lower castes in Bihar remains disturbing. The National Sample Survey data show that 75% of the poor were landless or near-landless in 1999-2000.5 It is a matter of common knowledge that the amount of land pos-sessed by individuals of a particular domi-nant caste in north Bihar often adds up to hundreds of acres. The phenomenon of private armies belonging to individuals and castes is nothing but a manifestation of the severity of the land problem in the state. It is another matter that the violence associated with land and distorted flow of resources has often been understood as a cultural feature of Bihari society. Addi-tionally, the feudal structures are so deeply entrenched in Bihari society that most forms of occupational mobility for the lower castes (even in terms of rural non-farm employment) remain out of the question. On the sociocultural plane, the lower peasantry in Bihar suffers from a general lack of any political power owing to an almost absolute control of landlords over all forms of social life. Often, cultural de-gradation in the form of violent folk cul-ture and criminalisation of politics is cited as the prime manifestation of whatever is wrong with Bihar. However, this predica-ment has strong historical content as well as systemic linkages. In this context, the alternative of migra-tion to other areas has, historically, been
NOTESjuly 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28 EPW Economic & Political Weekly126the only way for the lower peasantry to attain upward mobility, both in social as well as economic terms.Let us now turn to an analysis of the major perceptions associated with the state of Bihar and why it remains incom-prehensible to the extent of being other-worldly for most observers. To start with, it can be safely posited that Bihari society remains an object of disgust and shame for many Indians. The perplexity associated with the ruling classes as far as Bihar is concerned, is twofold. First, what can be called the “caste blockage”, refers to the inability of the historically outward-look-ing, and privileged, classes in India to come to terms with the phenomenon of caste. In itself, this could have led to a pro-gressive solution to the caste issue by the national bourgeoisie in a society aiming at transition. However, the dominance of landlords, reactionary petit bourgeoisie and other rentier classes in the ruling block pre-empt any such real possibility. Caste prejudices run deep in the “being” of these classes (dominated by upper caste Hindus) which, from time to time, find a vent on various private and political issues. The recent outcry of these classes on the issue of reservations for backward class students in the institutes of higher learning in India would suffice to illustrate this point. The most interesting aspect of this outcry, however, was the absolute sense of self-righteousness that these groups displayed during their agitation. According to them, support for reser-vations for the historically oppressed sections of Indian society was, logically, the same as perpetuating the existence of caste itself. Bihar as a MetaphorNow, if we superimpose this line of rea-soning to the same classes’ incomprehen-sibility of Bihar, we will realise that Bihar is construed as the metaphor for every-thing which the Indian bourgeoisie, limited in its strength by its own historical specificity and class-caste compromises, assumes itself to have transcended. In fact, the discomfort felt by the bourgeoisie in India over caste and many other ques-tions of immense political value to all progressive and democratic movements should be viewed as a direct consequence of the unsettled sense of location experi-enced by the bourgeoisie itself. In other words, Bihar is dictated its place because the Indian bourgeoisie itself does know where it belongs to or, in fact, where it stands. “Caste blockage”, hence, implies a two-sided reality on the question of Bihar; it refers as much to the existence of pre-modern and oppressive forms of social organisation in Bihar as to the fundamen-tal weakness of the Indian bourgeoisie in overcoming the shackle that caste places on its feet. The second form which this incompre-hensibility takes is related to, and in certain respects consequent upon, the pre-ceding exposition. The persisting feudal core of India’s bourgeois class has crucial implications for the construction of the very ideas of development and progress, as understood in India, and has special relevance to the debate on Bihar. One of the most fundamental notions associated with this ideal of development is (which is, in certain respects, Malthusian) the extraordinary emphasis on “worth” and “quality”. Though it may not be explicitly articulated in policy and public dialogues, its ideological influence remains strong. For instance, in the neoclassical model, unemployment is essentially viewed as an outcome of voluntary choices and tempo-rary adjustments within the economy. In other words, there exists no possibility of involuntary unemployment in the perfectly competitive system. Further, within this perspective, certain groups of individuals, like small non-economic producers and petty outlaws, do not even possess the “worth” to constitute the population of the economy.One must not be led to believe that these ideas are peripheral to the actual practice of development in India. Rather, as pointed out earlier, in league with its feudal core, this distorted perspective on capitalist development institutes a contra-dictory system of social organisation where modern valuations of worth go hand in hand with pre-modern forms of reward and vice versa. In this overall con-text, for instance, abstract categories like “merit” gain immense political strength whereas concrete social categories like “landholding” are ignored. In the end, structural problems like poverty, hunger and exploitation, associated with the movement of capitalism in a given social-historical context, get naturalised as necessarily self-inflicted and ahistorical. Bihar presents one such instance of the application of these hypotheses to comprehend a whole mass of people and their society.This section has tried to highlight the “political” and “systemic” elements in the analysis of Bihari society. This section argues that the roots of the developmental problems of Bihar lie in the inadequate politicisation of the process of develop-ment. The real imperative for progressive movements and social scientists is to save Bihar from both backward-looking romantics as well as mindless market- developmentalists. It is only thus that the dilemma of Bihar would be solved in academia as well as politics.On Bihari MigrantsThis section lists some features of out- migration from Bihar which provide a strong contrast to the dominant under-standings of internal migration in India. First, Bihar has a long history of migration dating back to colonial times. The current pattern can be traced to the period of the green revolution in the 1960s and the consequent rise in the real wage differen-tial between the green revolution regions and Bihar. It constituted a major push6 factor for rural-to-rural mass migration. Contrary to most analyses, migration from Bihar can only be seen as distress migra-tion with the free and rational elements of choice substantially constrained by the objective processes7 of development. In their need for urgent survival and flexibil-ity in terms of space and time, the Bihari migrants epitomise what Jan Breman calls “migrant wage hunters”. Second, migration from Bihar forms an integral part of the uneven character of the development in India, and is not inci-dental to it. The 1991 report of “The National Commission on Rural Labour” conclusively argued that uneven develop-ment was the main cause of seasonal mi-grations in the country.8 An idea of the extent of regional disparities can be seen in the increase in the ratio between the highest to lowest state per capita incomes (represented by Punjab and Bihar in the
NOTESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28127first period and by Maharashtra and Bihar in the second period) from 2.6 in 1980-83 to 3.5 in 1997-2000 (Srivastava and Sasi-kumar 2003). Displaying stark spatial pattern, regions with high poverty and low levels of social development mostly fall in the eastern, central and west- central parts of the country, with Bihar at the bottom. Third, the most important push factor for this kind of mass migration is an abso-lute decline in employment opportunities in the state in the post-reforms period. As is well known, the most significant sector in the state, namely agriculture, has a meagre existence whereas a survey by the Bihar Industries Association in 2003 found that 54% of the existing industrial units were closed, 26% were sick and only 20% were working.9 There has been an absolute and secular decline in all forms of economic activities in Bihar which has changed the trends and patterns of migra-tion drastically over the years. Fourth, as pointed out earlier, social reasons too play a significant role in induc-ing migration, particularly for historically oppressed groups like the dalits and adivasis. It is another matter that these motives remain largely unreported in most of the writings on Bihar and other poor states. And finally, there has been a profound directional shift in the desti-nation of Bihari migrants from rural-rural to rural-urban and from long-term to seasonal. This shift flows directly from the clear structural shift of the Indian eco-nomy in the post-liberalisation period towards the service sectors and a growing trend towards informalisation in the over-all employment structure. Rather than viewing Bihar as completely detached from the dominant movement towards a particular kind of change, it should be clear that it follows the identical logic of economic organisation in the country as dictated by the historical context and the current pattern of development.On the Bihari MenaceIn conclusion, a look at the precise nature of the Bihari menace that invokes such strong hostile responses from Punjab, Delhi and Haryana in the north, to Assam in the north-east, and Maharashtra and Goa in the west. As a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority of the migrant Bihari population, who are loathed out-side Bihar as representative of a sordid cultural milieu, do not come from the landed and aristocratic classes. A signifi-cant proportion of the Bihari migrants belong to lower castes and Muslim com-munities. It appears that the assertion of cultural superiority against the Bihari migrants and the display of aversion towards them is only a particular form in which the deep caste prejudices of these urban, upper caste, and middle classes are exercised against the lower castes and classes in general. The newly emerging gated-community consciousness, in most of the Indian cities where Biharis usually migrate, has always been suspicious of the dangerous and dirty “other”. Migrant Bi-haris, given their class and caste locations, stand in opposition to these “better” class-es, hence the gravity of the trouble. More often than not, the answer to a question depends critically on the way the question itself is framed. Similar is the case with re-cent disturbances against Bihari migrants all across the country. This essay has attempted to counter the disjointed and isolated analyses of Bihar which largely mistake symptoms to be the cause.10 Most of the popular-regressive notions about Bihar, elaborated upon in the essay, are justified under the garb of the peculiar character of backwardness in Bihar. This peculiarity consists of the supposed in-trinsic repulsion of the Biharis towards what is understood to be the magic wand of “development”. Marx had pointed out that the bour-geoisie creates a world of its own image. Strangely in India the continued existence of Bihar provides the bourgeoisie an opportunity to reassert its necessity with-in the class alliance it leads. Instances of “unruly Bihar”, now and then, in media only reinforce its reactionary class foun-dations by giving an ethnic and cultural form to what is essentially a class and caste issue. At the same time, however, owing to its rigid class origins, a genuine programme of transformation of Bihar remains out of scope for the bourgeoisie in India. Not surprisingly, Bihar is often viewed as a lost battle in policy as well as academia. In a quite real manner, Bihar tends to become the Indian Sudan which sells attractively in the media-market, where the feudal-bourgeois classes can overcome their guilt-conscience and get back to their business. However, none of these methods are a remedy for the state of Bihar which actually needs more politics: democratic and progressive poli-tics. Only a political movement aimed at transcendence from the current form of social and economic organisation can save Bihar. Anything less is likely to be a failure.Notes and References1 Kalecki, M (1943): “Political Aspects of Full Employment”,Political Quarterly, 14: 322-31.2 The avowed principle, however, may often be breached when it is in the interest of, at least, some segment of capital or, indeed, of the whole capitalist class. “Bailouts” can partly be explained in this manner. 3 For the most comprehensive analysis of the rise of Shiv Sena and the working class politics in Mum-bai (and Maharashtra), see Dhawale, Ashok (2000): “The Shiv Sena: Semi-Fascism in Action”, The Marxist, 16 (02). 4 Bharadwaj also compares the yields in agriculture for Bengal and other regions in India during the period from 1891-92 to 1945-46. The analysis con-cludes that Bengal consistently performed poorer than other regions across the time periods. See Bharadwaj, Krishna (1982): “Regional Differentia-tion in India: A Note”,Economic & Political Weekly, 17 (14/16): 605-14. 5 The rank of Bihar in Human Development Indica-tors among the Indian states has remained unchanged at 15 since 1981 while its score has in-creased marginally from 0.237 in 1981 to 0.308 in 1991 to 0.267 in 2001. See, for further discussion, Deshingkar, Priya, Sushil Kumar, Harendra Kumar Chobey and Dhananjay Kumar (2006): The Role of Migration and Remittances in Pro-moting Livelihoods in Bihar (London: Overseas Development Institute). The interesting point here is the decline in human development stand-ards in Bihar in the post-liberalisation period. 6 Wage differential is normally treated as a pull fac-tor in the analysis of migration. However, in the case of Bihar, it can be construed as both a push as well as pull factor, insofar as there is a complete lack of productive employment in the state and major sectors have abysmally low wage rates. Consequently, the migrant Bihari labourers do not expect an absolute increase in their living standard rather, for instance, the rural to rural migration in agriculture constitutes an urgent survival strategy for them. Precisely for this rea-son, they opt for jobs which pay evenmarginally higher wage rates. 7 A better way to understand this argument is to consider the contrast between what an individual distressed Bihari does and what the class of dis-tressed Biharis can do.8 Cited in Srivastava, Ravi and S K Sasikumar (2003): “An Overview of Migration in India, Its Impacts and Key Issues”, Paper presented at the Regional Conference on Migration, Development and Pro-Poor Policy Choices in Asia, Dhaka, Bangladesh, June.9 Ramakrishnan, Venkitesh (2005): “Migrant Labour as a Catalyst”,Frontline, 22 (22), Availa-ble at http://www.flonnet.com/fl2222/stories/ 20051104004302800.htm10 John Hariss uses this phrase for the idea of “Social Capital”, See Hariss, John (1997): Depoliticising Development: The World Bank and Social Capital (New Delhi: Left Word Books).

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