Will Ram Navami Communal Tensions Help BJP's Political Goal in Bihar?

Bihar Sharif and Sasaram, where communal disturbances were reported, have a sizeable population of Koeris, Kurmis and Yadavs – the political mainstay of the present establishment in Bihar. The BJP wants to break the Grand Alliance's hold on these communities.

The curious aspect about Bihar Sharif and Sasaram, where communal disturbances were reported a day after Ram Navami, is that they have a sizeable population of Koeris, Kurmis and Yadavs – the political mainstay of the present establishment in Bihar.

The two towns fall in the erstwhile Magadh region, which produced several leaders of Naxal and socialist movements. The then Triveni Sangh of these three other backward castes formed in the 1930s against the landlords was quite active in the entire belt south of the river Ganga. In the heydays of the anti-upper caste movement, the region produced socialist leader Jagdeo Prasad (founder of the Soshit Samaj Dal) and prominent ultra-Left figures like Master Jagdish, Jang Bahadur and Arvind.

And it is the hold of the Grand Alliance of the Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)], Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Congress and Left parties on these caste groups ruling that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to break.

The present state chief minister, Nitish Kumar, is considered the undisputed leader of the Luv-Kush (Kurmi-Koeri) combination and hails from Nalanda district, whose headquarters is Bihar Sharif.

Bihar Sharif is only 26 km from the ancient capital of Rajgir, while Sasaram, the headquarters of Rohtas district, was the capital of the 16th-century Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri. His tomb is also situated there. The town witnessed communal violence in 1989, i.e. the very outset of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

It was in Sasaram that the Union home minister Amit Shah was supposed to address a function on April 2 to mark the birth anniversary of Samrat Ashok, the legendary ruler who converted to Buddhism after a bloody war with Kalinga. It is said that Emperor Ashok was a Koeri, which is why the BJP planned such a big show for the occasion this year. As Rohtas district has a palpable number of Koeri of Kushwaha population, the party saw it fit to organise his birth anniversary there.

However, the communal violence of March 31 – a day after Ram Navami – meant that the Union home minister had to cancel his rally in Sasaram. He addressed the other one in Nawada, a town which is just 40 km from Bihar Sharif. Nalanda district too had seen communal violence in the past. Earlier, it was a part of Patna district and along with the neighbouring Gaya, witnessed massive communal violence on the eve of partition – leading to the deaths and injuries of thousands of people, mostly Muslims. Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi, toured the riots-affected towns and villages of the region.

Again in May 1981, Bihar Sharif was rocked by communal violence which left more than 50 dead. The riots started following disputes over graveyard land, which Yadavs wanted to use for cattle grazing.

What is significant is that barring some skirmishes, Ram Navami passed off peacefully on March 30 all over the state. Why and how tensions exploded in Sasram on March 31 is subject to probe. But regarding Bihar Sharif, the locals argued, that the Ram Navami processions are always taken out a day later.

What happens now?

The big question is: has the BJP succeeded in its political goal?

The answer can be traced to recent developments—right from the resignation of JD(U) parliamentary board chairman Upendra Kushwaha from the party on February 20. He floated his own outfit Rashtriya Lok Janata Dal. It was then claimed that the saffron party wanted to wean Koeris away from Nitish’s Luv-Kush combination.

On March 23, the BJP appointed Samrat Chaudhary as Bihar unit president. This came as a big surprise. Chaudhary joined the party only in June 2017, and there are many senior leaders in the Bihar unit whose claims were overlooked. If the party insiders are to be believed, he may be projected as the chief ministerial face in the 2025 assembly election. This is being done with the purpose of challenging Nitish, a Kurmi, who still enjoys huge support of Koeris.

There are several bitter critics of Chaudhary within the saffron party. This is because when he became a minister in the Rabri Devi government, it was the BJP which launched a campaign for his ouster, alleging that he had produced a fake birth certificate at the time of filing nomination papers. He was forced to resign in November 1999. Today, the same Samrat Chaudhary is the president of the BJP’s state unit. Thus he is not widely accepted within the party. He is also no match to the stature of Nitish Kumar, who still holds considerable influence on Kurmi, Koeri and Extremely Backward Castes voters.

Nalanda, no doubt, is a Kurmi-dominated district. Yet Bihar Sharif town has a substantial Koeri population. This assembly segment is represented by BJP’s Sunil Kumar, a Koeri. Interestingly, he got elected on the JD(U)’s ticket in 2005 and 2010. However, in 2015 and 2020, he won on the BJP’s ticket.

Chaudhary and Kumar, two converts to the BJP, have now adopted a hardline stand.

Another interesting aspect of Koeri politics is that while Upendra Kushwaha is originally from Vaishali district in north Bihar, he got elected to parliament in 2014 from Karakat, a part of Rohtas district in south Bihar. He subsequently became a minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet.