As UP Reeks with the Acrid Smell of Hatred, Bihar Freshens the Communal Atmosphere with Harmony

Makar Sakranti preparations by politicians across the board demonstrate that the amity between Bihar's various communities remains as strong as it ever was.

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Patna: In stark contrast to its neighbouring state, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Uttar Pradesh where the run-up to the assembly elections this February has led to an atmosphere that reeks of a safayee abhiyan (ethnic cleansing) of minorities, Bihar offers a reasonably fresh and fragrant mood of communal amity.

As of this moment, all the political parties in Bihar – the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Congress and even the BJP – are preparing for the Makar Sankranti festival from January 14 onwards, where people from all sections of society – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs etc – will feast on dahi-chuda with gud and tilkut (beaten rice and curd with dollops of jaggery and tilkut – a famous Bihari sweetmeat).

RJD leader Lalu Prasad is famous for feeding thousands of people, mostly the poor from all the sections of society, at his Patna home for two consecutive days. He also hosts party leaders across political lines at this time.

Similarly, JD(U) senior leader Bashitha Narayan Singh throws a dahi-chuda party almost every year for Makar Sankranti and Sushil Modi, the BJP’s senior-most leader in Bihar, also celebrates Makar Sankranti in a grand manner.

These celebrations serve as a rendezvous for people of all sections of society to meet and mix, in the same way that the iftar (post-fasting) parties hosted by the state’s political leaders across the board – again including the BJP’s Sushil Modi – during the month of Ramzan attract the people of Bihar regardless of their religion.

Failed polarisation

The convivial atmosphere between the different communities of Bihar remains strong even at this time, when India appears to be at its most disunited, because, “Bihar’s social fabric is not as fractured as that of Uttar Pradesh,” according to Nasir Khan, a social sciences scholar from Bihar living in London.

Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, has been the focus of the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu right-wing organisation that birthed the BJP, since the 1980s.

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It was via the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir controversy in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, that the BJP built its anti-minorities politics over the years; politics that it now uses across the country. By now Uttar Pradesh reeks of anti-minority hatred, with open calls for genocide from hate-mongers masquerading as Hindu priests and sadhus such as at the recently-held Dharma Sansad (parliament of religion) at Haridwar.

The Yogi Adityanath government in UP, which will face elections next month, has backed these exercises of hate by passing legislations such as the ‘love jihad’ laws to tyrannise the minorities.

But flanked by Uttar Pradesh in the West and West Bengal in the East, Bihar, led by Nitish Kumar of the JD (U) in alliance with the BJP, appears to have largely escaped the communal polarisation of the RSS-BJP.

Dahi chuda.

It is not that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah have not made efforts to produce an Adityanath in Bihar. Operating through Chirag Paswan, the son of the late Dalit leader, Ram Vilas Paswan, the BJP tried to weaken Nitish Kumar and promote the likes of Giriraj Singh, who uses anti-minority rhetoric. The RSS-BJP succeeded to the extent of weakening Nitish, whose JD (U) was reduced to 40 MLAs in the 2020 assembly elections. But though Giriraj Singh won the Begusarai Lok Sabha seat in 2019, he was never taken seriously by the people of the state and the BJP, despite winning 74 seats in the elections, had no option but to accept Nitish as chief minister again.

In a bid to clip Nitish’s wings, the saffron party sidelined his old friends in the BJP – Sushil Kumar Modi, Nandkishore Yadav and others – and pushed Tarkeshwar Prasad, known for his proximity to the RSS’s militant wings, as the deputy chief minister. Amit Shah also felt that Bhupendra Yadav and Nityanand Rai rather than Sushil and Nandkishore would increase his clout in Bihar politics. But nothing seems to have worked. The BJP is quite far from gaining control of Bihar the way it has done in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. And even if Nitish is replaced in near future, in all likelihood it will be Tejashwi Yadav, son of RJD leader Lalu Prasad, who will replace him, because the RJD under Tejashwi’s stewardship is the single largest party in the Bihar assembly with 75 MLAs.

Nitish and Adityanath

Running the government in alliance with the BJP, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar deserves credit for not allowing the putrid stink of hate to travel beyond the River Karmanasa that separates UP and Bihar.

Nitish has his limitations, of course. Even the Supreme Court has discredited the blanket ban on the sale and consumption of liquor that Nitish had imposed on the state in 2016, which has taken a major toll on the state’s economy, police and excise systems. Nitish’s party also supported the Citizenship Amendment Bill introduced in parliament in 2019 and indirectly helped the BJP read down Article 370 of the Constitution of India regarding Jammu and Kashmir. His party also supported the three contentious farm laws that led to a year-long protest by farmers in which 700 farmers died. However, the Bihar chief minister has managed to stop his state from going the UP way.

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“RSS supporters can’t even think of organising something like a Dharma Sansad and calling for the safayee abhiyan of the minorities in Bihar. If they do it, they will be put behind bars in no time and they will not get support from the society either,” said a senior Bihar cadre Indian Police Service officer who asked to remain anonymous.

Nitish Kumar and Yogi Adityanath have not a single thing in common except for the fact that they are the chief ministers of their respective states.

While Adityanath demonises Muslim emperors from Shah Jahan to Aurangzeb and changes the name of districts, towns and cities with a connection to the Urdu language and Muslim history and culture, Nitish derives inspiration from Sher Shah Suri who established the Suri empire with its capital at Sasaram, Bihar, and went on to take control of the Mughal empire in 1540.

Nitish regularly prays at the Imarat-e-Sharia shrine at Phulwari Sharief, the Sufi shrine of Maner Sharief, and also prays at gurudwaras and important temples in Patna and other parts of the state. He regualarised the salaries of Madrasa teachers and allotted adequate funds for the growth and development of these educational institutions. His government has fenced most of the graveyards in the state and has been paying pensions to the victims of the 1989 Bhagalpur riots on the lines of the pensions paid to Sikh victims of the 1984 riots.

The Narendra Modi and Amit Shah brand of BJP leaders are unhappy with the way Nitish functions. Nitish pays no attention to many of their demands, particularly those that appear to be tinged with communal animosity. For example, although the BJP has demanded that Nitish change of the name of Bakhtiarpur – his birthplace – because the army of Bakhtiyar Khilji had ransacked the ancient Nalanda University, Nitish has done nothing of the sort – and not only because there is no evidence to prove that Bakhtiarpur was, in fact, named after Bakhtiyar Khilji.

The BJP’s demand to glorify the ancient kingdoms of India by changing the name of Patna to Pataliputra, the capital of the Maurya empire in the 5th century BCE, has also been ignored.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, author and professor of journalism and mass communication at Invertis University, Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.