JNU, HCU and Once Upon a Time in Bhojpur

Manoj Manzil is a popular leader among the young Dalits of Bhojpur, a region that has witnessed numerous acts of oppression.

Bhojpur: The generation that survived the Ranveer Sena in Bihar is a generation that had to fight for every inch of space. The Sena once said they killed women because they give birth to Naxalites and they killed children because they grow up to be Naxalites. They of course did not know the difference between the Maoist Communist Centre, the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist), or the CPI (ML-Party Unity), like their kindred spirits today barely know the difference between the Students Federation of India, All India Students Association (AISA), All India Students Federation or the Democratic Students Union.

The children of the caste massacres did grow up though, and when the ‘butcher of Bihar’, Brahmeshwar Singh was gunned down on June 1, 2012 near Arrah, it wasn’t too long before a mob burned down the nearby Rajya Ambedkar Dalit Hostel in Katira, home to 250 Dalit and Adivasi students.

Four years since the attack, no arrests have been made and the students who live there do so in fear but with a resolve that is driven from the strength they find in each other and their candidate in Agiaon in the Bihar assembly polls – 33-year-old Manoj Manzil, an AISA student leader and now a CPI (ML) activist.

Rakesh Kumar recalls their first brush with Manoj: in 2004 he and five other Dalit students were given ‘transfer certificates’ from the Dr. Ambedkar Awasthi Vidhyalay at Maula Bagh in Arrah, for taking part in ‘anti-social’ activities (they were all in the ninth and tenth standard). Soon after, when a student was slapped by the superintendent of the hostel, the students protested by going on a hunger strike. When they took their demands – working fans, a better library, a working computer, that they not be served spinach at every meal – to the district administration, the school was shut down.

“We first didn’t know what to do, we were agitating alone,” said Raju Ram Ranjan, one of the students transferred at that time, adding, “But it was Manoj who met us, who taught us how to speak, how to sit with principals and officers as equals.”

Their month-long agitation culminated in a mashaal juloos (torchlight march) organised by Manoj, who at the time was the 21-year-old student president of the Katira hostel. Manoj encouraged all the welfare schools and colleges across Arrah to march, and started a sit-in that soon galvanised others. Eventually, a frightened administration reopened the hostel and cancelled the transfers of the six students.

Of those six in 2004, today Rakesh Kumar has just finished his post-Graduation in economics from Arrah’s Veer Kanwar Singh University and ranked sixth, Raju Ram Ranjan is a graduate of the Madhya Pradesh school of drama and is now studying theatre in Darbhanga. He is also a theatre activist, a Bhojpuri singer, and actor who performs across the country. Another student, Shivshankar, has joined the Bihar police, Samir did his inter in SV College at Maula Bagh and works in a private firm, Manoj had moved out of Bhojpur after his tenth. Other members of the school, Shivprakash Kumar, from an army family, is an MA in economics, Raju Ram is a graduate of Maharaja College in political science, as are Sanjay Kumar and Arvind Kumar, both now working for the railways.

They would also be the same students who would one day hear the mob tearing down the gate of their hostel on June, 1 2012.

This is what Shivprakash and another student, Sabir Kumar, said at a convention in Delhi for Bathani Tola: ‘Very early in the morning of June 1, Ranveer Sena gundas, along with JD(U)’s youth wing district president Naveen Kumar Singh, attacked the hostel. They were raising slogans of ‘AK-47 Zindabad’, ‘AK-56 Zindabad,’ ‘A 100 lives to avenge the death of one’ and ‘Ranveer Sena Zindabad’. They were also firing. They began by setting students’ bicycles on fire and breaking the hostel’s windows and doors. Terror-struck students initially locked their rooms and hid under beds. For a full hour, there was arson and looting in the hostel, with no sign of police. When the police finally arrived, instead of stopping the attackers and protecting the students, they forced the students to flee. Sixteen ground floor rooms were fully burnt, and belongings looted. 30 students’ marksheets, certificates, and other documents were burnt. 40-50 cycles and 3 motorcycles were burnt. Laptops, TV sets, gas cylinders, cookers, vessels were either destroyed or looted. A bust of Dr. Ambedkar was vandalised.’

Today, in the rebuilt hostel at Katira, Rakesh sits reading a newspaper, a large group of other students play volleyball around him. In a group conversation it appears that most of the students are the first of a generation in Bhojpur that has reached higher education, many are children of families with Left affinities; some of them have now joined the army of unemployed looking for work.

Rakesh takes me to his room, where he has a portrait of Chandrashekar, the slain AISA leader, and one of celebrated ML leader Ram Naresh Ram. Sandeep Kumar, who follows Rakesh is doing most of the legwork for CPI ML’s signature campaign, taking the Cobrapost expose on the Ranveer Sena on to the streets, asking for justice for Bathani Tola, Laxmanpur-Bathe, and even for the Bhagalpur riot victims. Sandeep is the younger brother of Chintu Kumari, one of the students accused of sedition in JNU. ‘Our struggles may be different, but the people who attack us are the same,’ he says.

‘It was Manoj Manzil whom we first met,’ recall the students of Katira. ‘It was he who brought the new generation of Dalit leaders into the CPI (ML),’ adds Shivprakash.

A local king in a local jail

Manoj is currently lodged in Arrah jail, arrested just before polling on October 8, 2015, in what Bhojpur’s marginalized people call farzi (false cases),

From the civic to the revolutionary, there is a standard formula on what happens in Bhojpur – the people organise themselves for electricity, roads, education, land rights and wages, to meet government officials who ignore them. They then march to government offices where the administration continues to ignore them. As they protest, by marching to the offices en masse or taking action themselves, the police arrive and cases are filed against the main agitator. This is how Manoj landed up in jail.

In Ratnarh village, Manoj was part of an agitation demanding the land that had been allocated for a school in 1990. The land had since grabbed by persons from the dominant caste. When the government rejected repeated requests to reclaim the land, the villagers acted on their own and retook the land on January 22, 2015. Thus a case was filed against Manoj.

In Pavana village in Agiaon block, the struggle was for electricity. Like many villages across Bihar, on paper the village is electrified, yet like the minds of those who promulgate the laws of Manu, the Dalit part of the village remains in darkness. Manoj worked with the youth of Pavana to petition, to demonstrate to every possible official. When no one paid any heed, they resorted to a road jam. This led to another case being filed against him.

The landless poor of Garhani in the newly created Nirmal Nagar.

The landless poor of Garhani in the newly created Nirmal Nagar.

A few kilometres from Garhani village, an empty plot of land belonging to a man who migrated to the United States is now an experiment in land distribution. About 22 bighas of land have been distributed to the landless poor, all Muslims and Dalits, who work as informal labourers.

The new village of tarpaulin, sticks and leaves, has been named Nirmal Nagar, after a slain CPI ML activist from the 1970’s, Dr.Nirmal Singh, whom the CPI (ML) newspaper, Liberation has described in these words:

Dr. Nirmal Singh was a bright student, born in a middle class, backward caste peasant family in Bhojpur. He qualified for the Darbhanga Medical College by his high marks is his intermediate school exams.”

“He took on the suffocating Brahminical-feudal hegemony in the DMC hostel and administration (a feature which persists in many medical colleges in India even today). A popular student, he soon rallied progressive students around him in the fight against caste discrimination, braving several attacks on his life in the process. On one such occasion in February 1973, he was injured, abused even in hospital and jailed on false charges. Spurred by a sharp sense of the inherent injustice of the judicial process towards the oppressed communities and the poor, he returned to Sahar, Bhojpur where the CPI(ML)-led movement against feudal oppression was raging. Eventually, on 29 November 1975, Dr. Nirmal was martyred alongside CPI(ML) General Secretary Comrade Jauhar (Subrata Dutta) following a 72-hour gun battle.”    

Four decades later, it is Manoj Manzil who is a familiar face to the people of Nirmal Nagar. House after house knew him, he was there when they marched to officials demanding that the land be legally handed over to them.

There are a total of 13 cases on Manoj Manzil, and in 11 of them, he is charged with rioting, and obstruction of government officials. All of those cases are referred to as the ‘andolan’ (‘movement’) cases by the people who voted for him. In one of the two murder cases on him, the family of the victim, Gulab Ram, claims that he was killed in a family feud and Manzil has nothing to do with it.

The other murder case revolved around the killing of Satish Yadav, a CPI (ML) party worker, and an incident involving the alleged abduction of Jayprakash Singh of Aseemabad, who disappeared soon after the murder but was found hiding in his own village. When an unclaimed body was found a few days later, Jayprakash – who is related to a BJP leader called Rinku Singh whom the CPI(ML) blames for Yadav’s murder – denied any knowledge about its identity. Later, he said the body was his father’s.

Jailed but not constrained

In prison, Manoj seems to be a master of his fate. A classic nightmare of a political prisoner, he has been at the forefront of multiple struggles against the prison authorities – agitations for blankets in winter, for a library, for clean water and for clean toilets.

When I met him at Arrah Jail, a few of the students from Katira had come to offer him sweets, yet instead, out of prison came a huge plastic bag of jalebis which were being distributed to all, guests and prison guards. One guard responds that he’s tired of eating jalebis from Manzil.

The jail’s attending doctor, who used to commit a mere hour to the prison, is offered some as he enters prison. Manoj led an agitation that not only cleared the prison hospital of the ‘unsick’ mafia but also made the doctors commit themselves for the duration of the entire day.

In prison, the Bhumihars of the Ranveer Sena are separated from the activists of the CPI (ML). Yet in one of his four prison stints, Manoj once spent a nervous night in their wing.

They otherwise only cross paths during ‘mulakat’ – which takes place through windows across two walls, through grills and spider webs.

‘We were having a meeting on Rohith Vemula in prison,’ he said. It was the 29th of January, it was just a few days after his suicide. Forty-five prisoners later went on a hunger strike on February 22-23 during the all-India agitation for Vemula and JNU, and 112 inmates from Arrah jail boycotted their court hearings in protest.

“A few years ago, a young man called Mithun Paswan died in his hostel,” Manoj said. “He was electrocuted in the bathroom. But we don’t look at it as an accident. The Dalit hostels are in a bad shape, the wiring was faulty, and they don’t release funds to fix them,” he added. Mithun died on June 23, 2013, a year after the attack on the Katira hostel. The agitated student community, with Manoj at the helm, demanded an FIR be lodged against the administration and compensation be given Mithun’s family. Instead, a case was filed against Manoj.

“As for the hostel attack, even today there’s no recognition, no compensation, no arrest. The SC/ST commission has done nothing,” Manoj said.

The CPI (ML) office in Pavana, where the Dalit hamlet was deprived of electricity for over two decades and was only recently was electrified. Credit: Javed Iqbal

The CPI (ML) office in Pavana, where the Dalit hamlet was deprived of electricity for over two decades and was only recently was electrified. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Manoj, an avowed communist, insists that any representation of him should not erase the fact that his politics are revolutionary. It is evident that he is the protégé of the ‘Lenin of Bhojpur’, Ram Naresh Ram – a multiple-time MLA from Ekwari, whose poster is found in every home sympathetic to the CPI (ML).

“The dream of Bhagat Singh, Dr. Ambedkar and Ram Naresh Ram saw a world free of feudalism, capitalism, brahmanism and casteism, a world free from exploitation, and today I see the mazdoorkisaan, the students, the persecuted, the younger generation coming together. Dalits, adivasis, minorities, farmers, women, students, whose struggle for justice is facing this violent communal fascism, while these corporate houses are selling the country. You have Kalburgi, Pansare, Dabholkar and Rohith, who all face this violence…and tactics do have to change,” Manzil said.

“Since the Sangh parivar is speaking so much about nationalism, I wonder if they’re aware of the progressive nationalism of both Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh?”

Outside of jail, Manoj’s wife Sheela lives in a 10X10 room along with the daughter of another slain CPI ML activist Satish Yadav, who was killed on August 20, 2015. (The killings of CPI (ML) workers tend to happen as commonly, as easily, as they’re ignored beyond Bihar: since the new coalition government of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad was formed, four party workers have been killed suspiciously – Sanjay Chaurasiya in Siwan, Rajendra Mahto in Arrah and just recently on March 21, Mahesh Ram and Rampravesh Ram were killed in Begusarai).

“We thought we were going to win the elections,” recalls Sheela “So many people came to the public meetings, even though Manoj was inside.” Manoj got 31,789 votes and polled third behind the winning Grand Alliance candidate Prabhunath Prasad’s 52,276 and the BJP’s 37,572 votes. Sheela now plans to contest the zilla parishad polls in Agiaon’s Charpokari.

‘It was the Yadav vote and the upper caste vote bank that cost us the election,’ rues Raju Ranjan Kumar, ‘It’s the actual caste politics.’

Javed Iqbal is a freelance journalist and photographer