Patna: As the sporadic incidents witnessed in one or two pockets of urban Bihar over the past 10 days have slowly grown in range and intensity, the continuing communal tension in the state has become a matter of serious concern.
With leaders and groups aligned to the Bharatiya Janata Party attempting to whip up communal frenzy, at least nine out of the Bihar’s 38 districts have been affected and what is worrying observers is the failure of the state government to deal with these provocations.
Communal passions have not been stoked on such a scale for the better part of three decades – not even during the first innings of NDA rule from 2005 to 2013, when the BJP supported and shared power with Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal (United). But in his second stint with the BJP, Nitish now looks helpless as his alliance partner ups the communal ante as part of a calculated political strategy in the run up to the 2019 general election.
While Nitish had lost a certain amount of credibility among general voters by frequently switching sides – it is fair to say that today no party in Bihar, whether ally or rival, trusts him given his frequent change of stand over the issues of “corruption and communalism” – the only thing he could have boasted about was his commitment to upholding the rule of law. But in the span of quite literally a fortnight, this third and last commitment also appears to have been abandoned with the police failing to maintain communal harmony and instil a sense of confidence among the people.
Fallout from by-election defeats
It is not a coincidence that communal tension has once again surfaced in the state just after the BJP-JD(U) combine lost the by-elections to two key seats – one Lok Sabha and one assembly – and was able to win only the relatively safe assembly constituency of Bhabhua,
Despite a high-octane campaign by the NDA, the Jehanabad assembly seat went to Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal with an even larger victory margin than before. Jehanabad has a significant presence of upper case voters and a history of brutal caste violence involving the Ranvir Sena, a private militia of upper caste Bhumihar landlords.
In the 2015 assembly polls when Nitish’s JD(U) was part of the three-party mahagathbandhan or ‘grand alliance’, the RJD had won the Jehanabad assembly seat by a margin of around 30,000 votes. But in the by-poll, when voter turnout was relatively low, the RJD defeated the JD(U) by over 35,000 votes. What this implies, say analysts, is that the upper castes are slowly moving towards Lalu’s party and that the hold of the chief minister is on the wane. In similar vein, the RJD won the Araria Lok Sabha seat despite all efforts by the BJP to polarise Hindu votes in its favour. On March 10, in the midst of the campaign, the Election Commission registered a case against the state BJP chief Nityanand Rai for a speech he made that was seen as inflammatory.
Barely two days after the by-poll results came in, the BJP resumed its communal campaigning. In Bhagalpur, an unauthorised religious procession was taken out in the Nathnagar locality by the saffron outfits led by Arijit Shashwat, son of Union minister of state for health Ashwini Kumar Choubey. More than 35 people were injured and dozens of shops and vehicles were torched in the violence that this procession brought in its wake, resulting in the registration of a case against Shashwat. Though a warrant of arrest was subsequently issued by the courts, the police have yet to arrest him.
Choubey himself described the FIR registered against his son as a “piece of garbage”. In the face of Nitish’s inaction, communal tension has now spread to Aurangabad, Siwan, Kaimur, Samastipur, Nawada, Sheikhpura, Nalanda and Munger. A helpless chief minister also made a factually incorrect statement to the House over the curfew imposed in riot-hit Aurangabad, apparently to deflect the opposition’s attacks.
“Good governance was the USP of Nitish Kumar but right now he is finding it hard to implement the promise. Just speaking about it is not enough, rather it has to be seen on the ground, and the recent communal tension has shown it is clearly missing now,” political commentator Sachindra Sinha told The Wire.
What is happening, political observers believe, is that the BJP is beginning to dominate the chief minister – which was not the case before. An early manifestation of this dominance was Nitish’s appointment of controversial police officer K.S. Dwivedi as the DGP of Bihar, they said.
“Riots have never been a part of the agenda of the JD (U), which claims to follow the ideologies of socialist stalwarts Jayprakash Narayan and Rammanohar Lohia,” noted one commentator. But it was now apparent that a weakened JD(U) has outlived its utility for the BJP, he added. Indeed, the BJP’s leaders do not regard the Nitish-led JD(U) as a dominant force anymore and are therefore working on their own agenda in order to get ahead in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The JD(U )’s declining clout in the NDA is underlined by the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rejected just about every demand of the Bihar chief minister –from granting central university status to Patna University and special category status to Bihar, to the allotment of flood relief money to the state government despite a formal memorandum having been submitted to the centre.
Nitish’s frustration with the BJP was only too visible when he strongly backed the statement of Lok Janshakti Party chief and Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan, once an arch-rival. “He (Paswan) is not a small leader. I support what he said…We should respect his views,” Kumar told the media last week shortly after they held a meeting in Patna. In his statement, Paswan had urged the BJP to take care of every community and shed its anti-minority image.
“As the BJP-led government is working with the agenda of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’, it needs to do away with the perception that it is anti-minority. The earlier it sheds its anti-Muslim image, the better it will be for the NDA in the 2019 elections,” Paswan had said. Nitish Kumar not only backed this statement but went on to add, “I can’t compromise with the issues of minorities despite being in the coalition. I have always done politics on my own conditions. The country will move forward only with love, tolerance and mutual cooperation”.
But Bihar opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav dismissed Nitish’s statement as mere rhetoric. He suggested the chief minister take a lesson from the way in which Lalu Prasad had dealt with the BJP’s earlier attempts to communalise the state. “My father arrested Lal Krishna Advani who was taking out his rath yatra through Bihar”, said Tejaswhi, adding that Lalu sought to maintain communal harmony even if this meant sacrificing his government. “But Nitish Kumar is not able to arrest even the son of a minister. Just see the contrast.”
Manoj Chaurasia is a Patna based journalist.