As phase three of the Bihar assembly election draws near, opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav’s public image, allegations of misrule or ‘jungle raj’ under his father Lalu Yadav, the question of caste assertion and minority issues take centre-stage for the final time.
Senior editor Arfa Khanum Sherwani discussed all this and more in a conversation with senior journalist Satish K. Singh, professors Ratan Lal from the University of Delhi and Rizwan Kaiser from Jamia Millia Islamia University.
The full transcript of their chat is given below. It has been prepared and translated from the Hindi original by Zobia Salam.
Arfa Khanum Sherwani: Hello! Welcome to The Wire, I am Arfa Khanum Sherwani. Phase one of the Bihar elections has ended, two phases remain. The conjecture, however, that has remained constant is over Tejashwi Yadav’s rallies drawing massive crowds. Is this an indication of not just a change in power dynamics but social change too?
At the same time, however, there is a constant talk of ‘Jungle Raj (era of misrule)’, with the prime minister himself dubbing Tejashwi Yadav as the ‘prince of Jungle Raj (prince of the era of misrule)’ – ‘Jungle Raj ka Yuvraaj’. While he [Tejashwi Yadav] responded in a very dignified manner, a lot of people continue to ask if Tejashwi Yadav will be completely different from Lalu Yadav? Some people go so far to say that they accept Tejashwi Yadav if he comes [to power] ‘minus Lalu Yadav’, sans Lalu Yadav. If he leaves his father home; that they might vote for him if steps away from under his [Lalu Yadav’s] influence.
There is a curiosity about ‘Jungle Raj’. What was it really? Why was it called so? Is it solely a term in savarna discussions, that as long as upper-castes hold power it is ‘Mangal Raj’ or ‘era of good rule’ or ‘Ram Rajya (rule of Lord Rama)’ while lower-caste politics is labelled ‘Jungle Raj’? In today’s programme, we will try to understand all this since it will tell us about the kind of government it will be if Tejashwi Yadav were to form a government. What kind of a chief minister will he be? Will he be Lalu Yadav’s son or has he made his own brand? Is it even possible for him to leave Lalu Yadav’s legacy behind? Is it even sensible to do so, given Lalu Yadav’s term and his struggle is the foundation upon which Tejashwi Yadav dreams of becoming Bihar’s chief minister? Let’s talk about this.
To talk about this important issue, I have three special guests – a kind of a dream panel for this topic – Satish K Singh, senior journalist, who has been part of the history of TV news. He has built and developed several channels – from Zee News to NDTV India. My second guest is Dr Ratan Lal, a professor at the University of Delhi, who is considered an authority on the topic of Dalit politics. Professor Rizwan Kaiser is also present. He is a professor of History at Jamia Millia Islamia and a well-known face on TV, who has looked at history from a different perspective. If one is ever stuck, one often read Rizwan Kaiser’s work, his opinions on issues.
A warm welcome to all three guests.
The key point in this discussion is their [guests] background! Which is from Bihar. So, today, I have three authentic Biharis present with us.
AKS: First of all, Professor Ratan Lal, I would like to know from you. What is this constant ‘intrigue’? Just what was this ‘Jungle Raj’ that it is being used to scare people even today? What even is this ‘Jungle Raj’?
Ratan Lal: If a woman is living her life on her own will, they consider it ‘Jungle Raj’! The entire concept behind it has to be understood. The whole idea comes from the Puranas. Don’t they say ‘kalyug has arrived’? What is kalyug after all? There should be a debate on it. Kalyug refers to the destruction of varnashrama dharma – caste-based religious order. Kalyug implies a destruction, a backlash against caste system. When the caste system gets destroyed, questions are raised. It is either called kalyug or ‘Jungle Raj’/‘era of misrule’.
What is disappointing is that the various secular alliances and the Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance that have been formed have never included [stands on] secularism, social justice or even privatisation in their agenda. To the ones who are calling it [Lalu Yadav’s term] ‘Jungle Raj’ and to the spokespersons of the Mahagathbandhan/Grand Alliance, I ask: why aren’t you defending it? Before the 90s, was it ‘Mangal Raj’ in Bihar? Was it as pure as the Ganga, with people worshipping in it? Were Dalits, Brahmans, women living equally? Or were shots being fired inside colleges? People were entering hostels and firing shots. Colleges were divided as per caste; I have studied there myself! In Muzaffarpur, in Motahari…we have seen it! No one dared to speak.
So, this [is a] dominant narrative. Dominant section prepares a narrative. The sad part is that RJD spokespersons and the people of the Grand Alliance are so intellectually bankrupt that they’re unable to defend even Lalu Yadav’s rule! What can one say then? Fine, there may be a law and order problem, but is it any less in Uttar Pradesh? Narendra Modi – in Gujarat, during the [2002 Godhra riots/Naroda Patiya] massacre about whom the [then] Prime Minister [Atal Bihari Vajpayee] had said that ‘[he has] not followed raj dharma’ – is now in Bihar calling it [Lalu Yadav’s term] Jungle Raj. Why is there no question in Gujarat, which saw a massacre? For the past five years we have been out on the streets, resisting. You are killing Muslims [and] Dalits, at times in the name of beef, at times on something else. Go and see in Uttar Pradesh just how many are getting killed. What kind of a raj/rule should this be called?
AKS: But Dr Ratan Lal, if this was such a good era then why doesn’t Tejashwi Yadav put up posters and pictures of Lalu Yadav? When asked about ‘Jungle Raj’, why does he say it [his term] won’t be like that?
RL: This has to be answered by Tejashwi Yadav or their [RJD’s] spokespersons. If I have to write…I have read the history of post-Independence Bihar. I have even written an essay… I have witnessed caste oppression. Satish [K. Singh] sir and Rizwan [Kaiser] sahib may stop me if I’m wrong when I say that in the past, they [upper castes/dominant castes] could herd an entire Dalit village just with one stick! A lone boy could shout ‘get out!’ and entire villages of Dalits could be chased away! Guns are being fired.
You need to look at the process of social change. The revolution is not born in a day. I have seen Bihar, North India closely – as a teacher, as a reformer [and] as a journalist too! I have seen this, travelling from one village to the other. I too have worked in journalism; written an essay, an essay on diversity. Just with one stick, they used to chase away entire villages of Dalits. What type of rule was that? Narendra Modi and Yogi [Adityanath] should answer.
AKS: Satishji, would Dalit assertion be called ‘Jungle Raj’? And is savarna suzerainty over society, politics, wealth, [and] power ‘Mangal Raj’?
Satish K. Singh: Just because something is right doesn’t make another thing wrong. I would say that the notion of a ‘Jungle Raj’…if the Dalit assertion or the backward caste assertion that emerged, turns into kidnappings [and] extortion…and in that if 5-10 people…if a particular caste gains [dominance]…perhaps that has been termed ‘Jungle Raj’ by the political opportunists. But you cannot deny that the backwards, OBCs and Dalits…if you talk about them in the mainstream – and while I agree with what Dr. Ratan Lal is saying, that they could chase away entire villages by brandishing just one stick…but if that is converted into a rule of goons, it is more treacherous! Girls were kidnapped in broad daylight. Schools and colleges were in such a bad condition. I belong to that area; I can testify personally.
You may call this ‘assertion’, but what does a person like me have to do with all this! Even I could not leave my village after 6-7 pm. What kind of an assertion is this? The only aspect of ‘assertion’ is that a process existed to everything. Would anyone say that MNREGA is wrong, even though it’s a relief measure, welfare, a compulsion even? No one would say that the Right to Food shouldn’t have been granted. This too had a process. It is a matter of process that you have been given a toilet, a roof over your head, a house – this too is part of a larger process…
…On the argument that ‘Jungle Raj’ existed even before the 90s, I agree with Dr Ratan Lal. Very much so! But if that is corrupted, it is more treacherous. You tell me this: In 15 years, if 70 thousand jobs were to being given…during liberalisation, when governments were downsizing everywhere, how will there be any assertion? If you won’t give jobs, how will there be any [assertion]? In the 15 years that political opponents term ‘Jungle Raj’, 70 thousand jobs were given. I say, at least 70 lakh should’ve been given.
AKS: Rizwan Kaiser sahib, you just heard the experiences of the two panellists. True, the worlds that we come from, the lives we have lived shapes our views. But it seems as if – if you look at the map of Indian politics…the terrifying stories that are told about those 15 years – I have read those too. I may not have lived through it but I think and understand – having looked at backward-caste politics not just as a journalist; I’ve done a PhD on it too. Nonetheless, I cannot live the experience of a Dalit or backward-caste person living in Bihar. So, I would like to know from you. You, too, come from Bihar. You are situated outside that caste system. As a historian; as a person who belongs to Bihar but has nothing to do with the caste system, how do you see it? Would you term it ‘Jungle Raj’ or not?
Rizwan Kaiser: I think what Ratan Lal ji and Satish Singh ji said was from their individual perspectives. But [on] this notion of ‘Jungle Raj’ – for those of us who want to analyse all these issues – as a student of history, I would say that we have to record everything: good, bad, best [and] worst. Arfa I would like to tell you – Ratan Lal ji is younger than me, Satish ji might be the same age so he might recall – Karpoori Thakur ji’s arrival in 1977. And the process of reservation that Karpoori Thakur started anew, wherein the weakest section within the OBC would be given more benefits.
There used to be a savarna slogan in those times, which I would like to remind everyone of – ‘100 years ago, a Yadav was a cowherd; he still is and will remain so’. When Yadavs started seeking a position of respect he was called a cowherd. The politics of respect of the times of Lalu Yadav…(obviously Dalits and backwards were considered outside the bounds of respect)…to some extent – what Satishji was alluding to – when they got power, the did misuse it. This too is a part of history and has to be taken a note of. But the fact also remains that they [dominant castes] could chase Dalits away by brandishing just one stick. And the OBC communities, Arfa, couldn’t open their mouth in front of the bureaucrats. Thus, the slogan that Laluji gave – of a politics of respect – it was intended for the Dalits and OBCs…
There was yet another factor that the other two panellists haven’t yet mentioned – they might elaborate upon it later – you ask the Muslims what the 15-year long Lalu Prasad Yadav regime was like. During the 2005 elections, a journalist asked a paan seller who he will vote for. The paan seller replied, ‘Obviously Laluji!’. So, the journalist as him a counter-question, ‘Why Laluji?’. He replied ‘If I vote for Laluji at least my paan stall will not be destroyed’.
In other words, even a paan stall was secure because of Lalu’s rule. So just what is being called ‘Jungle Raj’? The bureaucracy of that very ‘Jungle Raj’ shuddered in fear because of Lalu Yadav. Agreed, there shouldn’t be riots. [But] for the 17% population of Bihar – you can ask them – was it ‘Jungle Raj’? Another consideration; for the sake of comparison – and I would urge Ratan Lal and Satish Singh to contemplate upon this – I belong to that generation of Biharis, Arfa, which began arriving in Delhi in the 80s. Lalu ji was nowhere to be seen; Bihar’s educational institutions had just begun their decline. The very presence of Bihari students in the University of Delhi, as well as Jawaharlal Nehru University, can be understood to mean that the educational situation in Bihar had undergone a collapse. Lalu Prasad Yadav was not to be seen anywhere. So, just which ‘Jungle Raj’ is being talked about? Indeed, there was a culture of extortion…
AKS: I would like to move on to Professor Ratan Lal…since there are a lot of questions… I understand all of your experiences and I want to document them through this programme. Since this is what, I feel, is important. This is not like any other discussion that I hold every day. I feel that the three of you have understood Bihar from your specific perspectives. We are documenting your life experiences via this programme.
What I want to understand is that does pro-backward politics have to necessarily be anti-upper caste? Because we understand pro-backward politics as a form of progressive politics; a kind of politics that takes us towards progress. When we take note of upper-caste oppression, need we claim that if the backward-castes come to power, they too will be oppressive? How should we view these two eras of rule? How will we claim that the rule of the backward-castes is better than the rule of the upper-castes?
RL: I’m not defending any kind of crime or extortion. What’s wrong is wrong and those wrongs have been committed during all regimes. The problem is when you only see half the history. Tell me one thing, before the 90s – Congress was in a position of responsibility. People may not want to talk about the RJD of the time before the 90s, because of the alliance – so, before the 90s, where did the party in power derive its social strength from? From the same source that strengthens BJP today! Or those that are with Nitish Kumar today. The society will remain the same, won’t it. If Dalits’, backwards’, Adivasis’ rights have been taken away; who has done this? A Bangladeshi immigrant? An American citizen? Who has committed deprived them of their rights?
If in University of Delhi – its been almost 100 years since [its inception] in 1922 – there hasn’t been one Dalit Vice Chancellor, is it an American who will be made [Vice Chancellor]? To raise such questions is our duty. I am not speaking as any party spokesperson, but as a student of history. In the 90s…I can tell you the names of the gangs in Bihar, in Muzaffarpur. They used to beat up rickshaw pullers; never pay them for their services. I am talking about Muzaffarpur! My house is situated there…where the DM [G] Krishnaiyyah was killed.
People used to come, eat at hotels without paying; used to get their shoes polished and not pay; used to travel by rickshaws, beat up the rickshaw driver…why don’t they talk about all this? What ‘raj’ was that, please define it. Who are the people making up this dominant narrative? Upper caste, upper-class people are defining this dominant narrative, which is why they don’t want to talk about the history before the 90s. I want to talk from the time of Krishna [Sinha] babu onwards. I want to talk about the times before Independence.
When elections happened in Bihar in 1937, what went on then? Let’s debate that! What happened in the University of Patna, lets debate that! All universities were strongholds of upper-castes and were filled with goons. I can name them! Everyone knows that every hostel a .56 [revolver]. All I’m saying is that I’m not defending if someone orchestrated a kidnapping Laluji’s regime. But if you want to criticise conscientiously then you must criticise the periods before and after it.
AKS: Satishji, let us now focus on the current election. One narrative is that ‘we accept Tejashwi [Yadav], we may even vote for him but so long as he comes without Lalu Yadav’. What do you make of this?
SKS: If a person with 4 kattha [land] defeats another with, say, 10 or 20 kattha [land], he won’t become rich. The one with 4 kattha [land] is poor, so also is the one who has 10 or 20 kattha [land]. Today, all of Bihar is battling for their bread and butter. This is not about caste. It is not about caste; I can show you forward castes that are battling extreme poverty. There is a massive crisis of employment today. It is a fight for bread and butter. It is a fight for existence.
It was said that reservation will get people government jobs. But if only appointments are made will government jobs be given! No appointments are made! There is vacancy in only the army. If the state has exited from the production process and the slogan of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ is raised, how will there be any jobs? Will they generate jobs in this era of COVID-19? Tejashwi [Yadav] – he’s a 31-year-old…sorry to use this terminology…a 31-year-old boy; he’s not Lalu and yet attracting greater crowds than Lalu!
AKS: But people are saying that they don’t want Lalu…’without Lalu’. I’m talking about this equation. What do make of this?
SKS: All I’m saying is that the large crowd of attendees may or may not give [Tejashwi/RJD] votes but Tejashwi’s [Yadav] biggest contribution has been of bringing Bihar’s central issues – of bread and butter, employment, business – to fore. He made them key issues! He may not become Chief Minister. But the rally of a 31-year-old boy! You look at the numbers of attendees in Nitish’s and Lalu’s rallies and compare it with the crowds this time.
This crowd has come for this [issue of employment]. It is a crowd for [specific] situation. It is true that the poor [and] the oppressed have it worse; truly! Where will you find money to spend for the three Ms – everyone wants a mobile, smartphone that is; a motorbike and medicine? Expenditure is rising! Basic expenditure. The fundamental struggle is for bread and butter; for earnings.
RL: I would like to add something. First of all, poverty has no relation to birth. Caste has a relation to birth. Secondly, you can keep Lalu away all you want but there can be no politics in Bihar without Lalu Yadav. Even the BJP asks for votes using Lalu Yadav’s name!
AKS: …yes, against Lalu Yadav!
RL: So, if RJD feels that it can fight elections without Lalu Yadav and upper-castes will consider them legitimate leaders, then they are deluded; they shouldn’t be. An upper-caste will consider Tejashwi [Yadav] his leader only when he becomes CM and when the upper-caste holds the 80% creamy layer to his benefit. Only then he will truly consider Tejashwi [Yadav] his leader.
AKS: Rizwan Kaiser sahib, does this politics of Tejashwi Yadav – since it is what will decide if Tejashwi Yadav will come without Lalu Yadav or with Lalu Yadav or will Lalu Yadav be in hiding – from your assessment of Tejashwi Yadav’s politics, is he trying to say, ‘yes I’m backward caste, my politics is backward-caste politics but I am not against the forward-castes’… ‘even though I am not in a direct face-off with Narendra Modi, I will hide the Muslims behind the stage’? A kind of a hesitance – I won’t call it hatred – towards the skullcap and the beard can be seen in him [Tejashwi Yadav]. About the politics of aspiration that he wants to do – which he has termed ‘economic justice’ – do you feel that it will continue even after he becomes CM, if he wants to stay in politics in the longer run? Is it a short-term concern, that the election should be won first and all considerations should be left for later?
RK: I would like to narrate an anecdote; it may not be the most appropriate but worth considering all the same. In our childhood, we used to read the story of a wolf who once asked a lamb why he was soiling the [river] water. The lamb replies, ‘Sir, I’m sitting in the direction opposite to the [river] stream, how can I soil the water?’ The wolf then says, ‘If not you, your father must have soiled it!’
If you look at Lalu Prasad Yadav, in a way, he was a force at some stage but I don’t think he is as big of a force today. You are focusing on Tejashwi [Yadav], but what about the forces behind Tejashwi [Yadav]? All of [CPI]ML is behind him, CPI, CPM, other various kinds of people – what is called the ‘aspirational segment’. And I agree with Satishji when he says that at the fundamental level it is a struggle for existence and survival. Tejashwi [Yadav] is the face; the forces behind Tejashwi [Yadav] are completely different people.
AKS: I want to add a question here since the discussion is not at all about whether Tejashwi [Yadav] is losing or winning. We’re trying to understand these elections by placing the political narrative and history on a map. So, my question is that even if Tejashwi Yadav wins…if there is a narrative of social justice…let me take the example of Narendra Modi – he’s not upper caste, he is an OBC but despite that if he is able to maintain upper caste supremacy then how does it matter who [the leader] is? If he is the bearer [of power] … our president is Dalit, but despite the huge incident happened at Hathras, he didn’t utter a word to express his sorrow; not in the capacity of a Dalit but in the capacity of the President. So, what I’m trying to say is that if a rule has to be established; if a rule has to be established of the politically dominant, then how does it matter whether Tejashwi [Yadav] wins or Nitish Kumar wins?
RK: One thing must be kept in mind: currently the Bihar elections aren’t even being fought on the issues of social justice. The Bihar election is being fundamentally fought on the issue of economic reconstruction. Reconstruction and reorganisation of Bihar. There is no call for social justice. He [Tejashwi Yadav] admits that socially we have Dalits, OBCs, other sections but we’re with the forward castes and the minorities.
In Bihar and in the entire country, Narendra Modi has marginalised Muslims to such an extent that other parties don’t mention them out of the fear that they will, in some way, become a focus in their election campaigns. Tejashwi [Yadav] at least is courageous enough to say that we are taking all sections together, even the minorities. So, this election is not in the name of social justice, Arfa. It is for the reconstruction of the whole of Bihar in the realms of economy, employment…
AKS: Ratan Lalji, are these the demands of our times that there are no takers for a politics of social justice? Should a new kind of politics be done?
RL: A politics of social justice exists and will continue to exist whether or not political parties want. We the activists will make it so! Secondly, economic justice has a relation to state policy. Is there any agenda on privatisation? Has any party said we will stop privatisation? That we will give representation to the small sector? If everyone has to serve [Gautam] Adani-[Mukesh]Ambani then what will you do? We know how one gets jobs in the media; how one gets private sector jobs, we know it all. Your bio-data speaks of your caste, religion…try searching for homes in Delhi as a Muslim. No one will give you a house. See it [economic justice] is related to [state] policy. If you don’t have a stand on privatisation, then you should drop it! Economic justice for whom? Reservation is related to suffering. For economic justice multiple state policies exist…
RK: I’d like to say something Arfa. I feel that in the current scenario – the entire conversation about social justice and various other things – these things will always be talked about. It is inherent in this kind of politics. What I’m saying is that…if you remember the slogan given during the Mandal Commission implementation; the widespread OBC assertion…in Bihar there was a slogan that said ‘bhura baal saaf karo’ – remove the brown-haired [i.e. the forward-castes]. Bihar’s OBC assertion has surpassed this today. Now it does not talk about ‘removing the brown-haired’ but says that our politics will be elevated to the state-level and everyone will find a place in it! Everyone will find a place in it only when Bihar’s own position is secure…
RL: Even during Lalu’s era there was place for everyone – you can check the data – how many secretaries were what [caste], how many vice chancellors were what [caste], how many builders were what [caste]. Places were fixed even in the times of Lalu Yadav. The only difference being that Yadavs were the dominant caste. This was the only difference; the rest of the structure was the same…it wasn’t as if Lalu Yadav chased everyone [dominant castes] away from Bihar.
RK: In a way, yes…
AKS: Satish ji for last comments I want to come to you. Is this 30-year-long chapter – 15 years of Lalu Yadav, 15 of Nitish Kumar – now ending? Is this now a new beginning? Do you think so?
SKS: I want to present some facts in front of you Arfaji. You may even know this – everyone would. In a state where no one knows what exists in the name of industry; no one knows how to get a job, whether or not one does get a job; which has high levels of malnutrition, which has the highest level of migration (out of all large states); where external forces contribute to 33% of its economy; where poverty ranges lies anywhere between 33% to 35 % and which has the maximum unemployed graduates (out of all large states) and which has the highest dropout rate.
Then that state – despite reservations, greater [reservation] for those who are more backward – needs major relief! Only if all these things exist will people get them! You saw what happened in Russia, when the poor got a voice. Please run the state as per due process. Start businesses. Generate employment. And what is all this talk about creating a ‘new’ Bihar? The forward castes will dominate. Technology jobs…obviously the one who is educated will get it. The fundamental thing, in one phrase, is that it is a fight for bread and butter.
The old times of those who studied using a chalk and slate have long gone. There is no online education in Bihar. You are preparing a new generation; you should at least provide employment. If you won’t give jobs…
AKS: Yes, thank you very much. You’re saying that it is a fight for bread and butter; for who will be able to learn…
RL: No, not just bread and butter. Bread and butter and respect. I’m sitting here in the campus of the University of Delhi, despite having written a dozen books and research articles, [apparently] I lack merit…a SC judge says it too. The issue is not of employment but of respect.