Labour

When a Forgotten People Remember Their Dead

January 19 marked the 29th anniversary of the police firing that claimed the lives of two weavers in Bhagalpur. Nearly three decades after the incident, the Bunkar community is still plagued by the same issues.

Credit: Javed Iqbal

“Ek goli se hi doh mare gaye the, Jehangir aur Shashi, ek Muslim aur ek Hindu.” (One bullet killed two people, Jehangir and Shashi, a Muslim and a Hindu) Credit: Javed Iqbal

Bhagalpur: The Bunkars are powerloom weavers. They own their machines, but are slaves to capitalism. They are a caste of their own. In Bhagalpur, they are a Muslim-majority, mostly Ansaris, with the Tantis, who were recently classified as Scheduled Castes, forming the Hindu minority.

On January 19, most powerlooms lay silent. Small groups of men congregated at Nillmahi Mahi Maidan near Champanagar where a memorial has been held every year for the last 29 years. An hour into the event, there were over two thousand people, with the organisers, the Bunkar Sangharsh Samiti (BSS), claiming that each year an average of nearly five thousand people attend on the day. The BSS, which had evolved from the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-affiliated Powerloom Weavers Association, has been holding the event for 29 years. The crowd was stoic and quiet, barely reacting to the forty-odd speeches made by political parties, NGOs and co-operatives.

The incident: crackdown against Bunkar protestors in 1987

For almost all powerloom weavers their lifeline is a steady electricity supply, without which they could be at the brink of starvation and complete ruin.

In 1987, a series of mass actions and protests broke out against the Bihar State Electricity Board (BSEB) and the Bhagalpur administration. For years, the Bunkars had decried being charged ad hoc rates for an unstable electricity connection – barely two hours of power supply a day – by corrupt local power board officials.

From a rate of 60 rupees per horsepower in the early 1980s, the Bunkars were being charged 100 rupees per horsepower at the time of the protests. To make matters worse, in the thick of the protests, an inscrutable official, Baliram Singh, the manager of BSEB then, decided to cut off their power supply entirely.

It was in this tense environment that police action on the protestors on the fourth day of an indefinite hunger strike led to the death of three.

On January 19, 1987, a group of marching protestors tried to reach the site of the hunger strike but were forced to retreat when a lathi charge was ordered. Soon, a single gunshot was heard.

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Portraits of Jehangir Ansari, Shashi Kumar Chandra and Ganga Prasad. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Jehangir Ansari and Shashi Kumar Chandra, two young men in their early twenties, were killed by a single bullet shot from a .303 rifle. The bullet first hit Jehangir in his neck and then Shashi in the back of his head.

During the protests, Sukhdeo Mehra, a deputy superintendent of police, was killed and his vehicle burnt when he was allegedly abandoned by a retreating police force.

On April 20, Ganga Prasad, a man in his late forties, died in prison, owing to complications from a hunger strike he had been on and treatment in prison.

Many mysteries surrounded Sukhdeo’s death. Locals claimed he had been killed by his own. They owned up to burning his vehicle but refuted any allegations of murder. They pinned the blame for all deaths on an inspector named KK Singh, a claim repeated by the opposition in Bihar at that time.

Fifty-two people would spend time in and out of jail, twenty of whom have since passed away, and some are still fighting court cases.

No compensation was offered nor were any inquiries carried out into the deaths of the Bunkars. Shashi’s father has been quoted over the years as saying that no case would bring his son back, but the name of the Tantibazaar road could be change in his honour.

Shashi’s portrait is taken every year from his family’s living room to place at the memorial and is returned at the end of the event. A photograph of Jehangir was found only three years ago, as the Muslim Bunkars seldom photograph themselves. This particular photo, seemingly shot by a journalist, shows a body ready for burial, with a man, most likely Jehangir’s father, sitting behind it.

Crushed by capitalism

Present-day Bhagalpur is a town lost in post-communalism and post-capitalism. It is almost impossible to believe that Bhagalpur’s weavers produced a silk famous across the world. According to Alim Ansari of the Bihar Bunkar Kalyan Samiti, between 1970-1990, exports of the silk were worth around 250 crore rupees, but it is merely 130 crore rupees at present. Over 50,000 families of weavers still work in the industry, he says, and although there is some migration to Meerut and Bhiwandi in Mumbai, there is a general disinterest among the youth.

The industry has been in decline for years for a number of reasons, including the restricted supply of raw materials, the import of cheaper silk, the breakdown of the systems of welfare, social apartheid, globalisation and its shadow twin, the breakdown of the union itself. Countless samitis claim to speak for the interest of the Bunkars, all of whom spoke at the anniversary meeting on January 19 and called for unity.

At the surface, two things bother the Bunkars the most. First, the matter that became central to almost every speech at the meeting – electricity, and second, the lack of capital and the control by suppliers, although this was not mentioned even once in any of the speeches.

Each family may have up to five powerlooms. Middlemen, called mahajans, sahukars or baniyas by the Bunkars, supply yarn to the family and pay them a daily wage, which at present rates can be anywhere from 200 to 450 rupees a day. In four hours, a single machine can loom about two saris. Eight hours of work consumes about four units of electricity, which at 21-22 rupees per unit means the monthly cost per machine is over 600 rupees. In addition, there is an ad hoc rate of 450 rupees per machine.

However, there may not always be buyers for the products and middlemen seldom share profits from any sale they may make. This only aggravates the anger the Bunkars feel towards the electricity board for the high rates they are charged.

Ram Avtar Prasad, Shashi Kumar's older brother. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Ram Avtar Prasad, Shashi Kumar’s older brother. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Ram Avatar Prasad, Shashi’s older brother, describes the ‘bezati’ (humiliation) they are subjected to by the suppliers, saying that they cannot respond to them because they would find another family to do their work.

Obaidullah describes how many clients mistreat Bunkars because of their religion. “A supplier had come from outside the state and said he only wanted to work with Hindu Bunkars, and not Muslim Bunkars.”

Seventy-one year old Comrade Kishor, an original member of the Powerloom Weavers Association, says having emporiums in every city was a popular demand among the community once and would have helped the Bunkars immensely. Yet today there is little confidence in the movement to confront an entire vyapar (business) community.

Noor-ullah Ansari says a Bunkar mandi, an independent market from the community, would not work as the vyaparis or sahukars would put them out of business. He recalls a time long past when the government used to supply yarn to them for a cheap price but the sahukars lowered their price further. When the government scheme was abandoned, the price was raised again.

Political apathy

In 2010, nearly 7000 Bunkars marched to meet the Bhagalpur District Magistrate, to demand 24-hour supply of electricity and that be charged at the same rate as the powerlooms at Uttar Pradesh – 130 rupees per loom as opposed to the 450 rupees per loom charged in Bhagalpur.

District Magistrate Rahul Singh was informed that the Bunkars were coming to meet him, yet he remained unavailable the entire day. He eventually met a delegation, only to react to their demands with aggression. “Aap log gunda-gardi karne kyu aaye ho?” he is believed to have said.

The Bunkars walked away from that meeting with nothing. Their demands for the fulfillment of the promised 4% interest bank loans from the State Bank of India and that their ad hoc 75 crore rupees electricity bill be written off went unheeded.

“People who sold their looms still get bills from the power company”, claims Nujahid Ansari, one of the leaders of the march.

During a visit by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in 2014, a meeting was held with the Bunkars only after they threatened to protests. At the meeting, Nitish made promises on the matter of electricity, but these are yet to be fulfilled.

Ajeet Sharma of the Congress won from the Bhagalpur constituency in the 2015 Vidhan Sabha election, after coming in second in the 2010 poll. In 2014, the BSS had meet him with the memorandum they had from Nitish, yet his response was lukewarm. In 2015, he attended the ‘shahadat diwas’ of January 19 and claimed on stage that he had not met BSS representatives and would have raised the Bunkars demands if he had been informed of them. He was not present at the meeting last month.

Members of the Bunkar community attend the memorial ceremony on January 19, 2016. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Members of the Bunkar community attend the memorial ceremony on January 19, 2016. Credit: Javed Iqbal

The other betrayal

A member of the CPI(M)’s old guard is vocal in his criticism of his party. He shakes in anger and passionately exclaims that he is still a communist and will always be with ‘people’s politics’. He claims that at the anniversary meeting even those who work against the interests of the Bunkars were invited on stage because the CPI(M) has become weak, laying the blame on the central leadership of the party. “Where are they? They gave birth to this movement but not a single leader is here,” he says. “Nobody came. Only a few local Bihar leaders were there.”

At the meeting, most people only responded when calls were made to march to Patna. There was little applause otherwise. The audience nodded at some points, but it was evident that the congregation was more a mark of honour and pride than out of interest to hear the speakers.

The only time the crowd was vocal was when a young man, Ansur Rehman Choudhary, recited a short poem as it started to rain:

‘Ro raha hai aasman bhi, bunkaro ka haal dekh kar,
ho gaya shaheed jehangir, aur shashi hamare darmeyan.’

(‘The skies are also weeping at the plight of the weavers/Here among us were martyred Jehangir and Shashi’)