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21 November 2007

"Bihari Hai Kya?"

“Dream Girl” of yesteryears Hema Malini was, in January-February, in the eye of a storm for reportedly asking the migrant labour class from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — it’s funny, they are referred to pejoratively with the respectable address bhaiya — to leave Mumbai for ‘home’. It must be her personal opinion as none from her party, the BJP, seconded her ‘motion’, though some said she was misquoted. Her concern, if it may be termed so, is however not uncommon among Maharashtrians and people from other parts of the country eking out a living in Mumbai. This is a bogey often raised by the Shiv Sena too. It would do Maharashtrians a world of good if they stopped looking at Gujaratis with envy and Biharis with disgust. Why not compete with them with entrepreneurial skills and hard labour respectively?

Those averse to the bhaiyas forward a specious logic of economics to make their grievance sound authentic. They say these people mostly do not have identity proofs. Obviously, they also don’t fall in the tax bracket. Further, the slums they live in are notorious for theft of electricity.

Time and again studies conducted by energy-sourcing companies have marked factories as the biggest thieves of electricity (that the rich are the biggest tax evaders, too, is a foregone conclusion). But since these factories also help in the country’s substantive economic growth, it will be interesting to know how many Bihari baiters think that against each progressive act, one is permitted to commit a peccadillo, if not a crime!

The palpable aversion for the Hindi-speaking migrant labour class is more of an anti-Purvanchali feeling, if any. But not too many people outside Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are familiar with the term Purvanchali. The loathing has much to do with the dominance of these two States in the country’s politics for about three to four decades after Independence though even then the economic growth of much of the rest of India was more impressive. The ministerial politics in New Delhi kept being dominated by MPs from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar even as the labour class from their constituencies went into a mass exodus out of their birthplaces. Before PV Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister, it was often opined in the media that the post of the highest executive was reserved for Uttar Pradesh! So, is the juxtaposition of any pre-1991 Prime Minister from Uttar Pradesh with a bhaiya from the State an apt analogy for the quintessential slum next to a five-star hotel in the country?

North Indians may argue that most Prime Ministers from UP have been the Nehru-Gandhis, implying Kashmiris, though they were elected from UP. That does not matter. Where a candidate gets elected from dictates which part of the country benefits from that politician's governmental measures. It is the equivalent of Rohan Gavaskar playing for West Bengal in the Ranji Trophy to get the advantage of zone-wise quota system in the selection for the Indian cricket team. In this analogy, Maharashtra does not benefit though a Maharashtrian does.

Much as the erstwhile Fundamental Right, Freedom of Movement, cannot be disputed — an Indian has a right to live and earn a living anywhere in India — the political class of a large part of north India cannot disown its failure to facilitate industrial growth and thus generate employment in the region. History of labour movement around the globe shows that the working class has always been reluctant to leave its native place and hesitant to set foot for an alien environment initially, no matter how lucrative the employment scenario of the latter appeared from a distance. So, the SP and RJD head honchos, instead of demanding the scalp of Hema Malinis of India, should introspect and be ashamed of the state they have dragged their States down to.

Unfortunately, even a proven official record of intellect hasn’t helped Bihar. The State’s bragging of an enviable record of students successfully clearing the IAS preliminary and mains exams has not elevated the State’s people in general public esteem. The ubiquitous languid, paan-chewing Bihari-accented civil servant in safari suit has only institutionalised, rather oddly, the work ethic of people from that region of the country and has incensed the antipathy for them in the rest of India. So much so, in the National Capital Region, the term “Bihari” is now virtually an expletive. Sample this: In Delhi even when a non-Bihari person behaves awkwardly, or fails to follow what is apparently simple, it may be seen that none other than a Bihari thunders at that person thus: “Bihari hai kya?” What an ironical insinuation!

Curiously, Biharis cement their own stereotyping. Many years ago, my teacher of Sanskrit, a Bihari himself, had taught the class: Hari is someone who does haran (stealing/kidnapping); and one who steals a lot is a Bihari! I am sure the word is derived from one of the appellations of Lord Krishna, cutely infamous for stealing butter from all Braj households. But the Bihari teacher had not explained so. It is my interpretation.

Next comes the question of public education through mass media. If needed, journalists should not shy away from pointing fingers at people at large when correctives aimed at the political class alone do not help. Bengali columnists of late are commendably describing the flaws in the community’s beliefs and practices especially in The Telegraph and The Statesman. Premen Addy paints bleak pictures of self-congratulatory Bengalis in The Pioneer. If there is something essentially wrong, maybe anti-modern, in the ethos of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, scribes (mainly reporters; there is a phenomenal Bengali presence among editors) from these States being so prevalent in all media houses will be the politically least incorrect to tell their bhaiyas (respectable) the dos and the don’ts.

Risking a backlash, I may make a point: Stereotyping virtually runs in the Indian blood. If a “Bihari” (according to prejudiced eyes; he may actually be from any of the three other Hindi-speaking States) is being persecuted, other linguistic communities are not spared in Bihar either.

From 1975 to 1989 as a child and then a teenager in Bokaro Steel City which was then in Bihar, I along with children from a sizeable Bengali population had no option but to gulp down many a slighting limerick aimed at identifying our group as a bunch of meek scavengers. One of them was: “Sadal machhli, geela bhaat, Bangaliya mare lamba haath (Bengalis feast on rotten fish and stale rice)!” Accepting the not entirely untrue accusation, the supine Bengalis — the term ‘Bong’ was not coined back then, I guess — lived in fear of being heckled and manhandled to let any excesses committed by the native class go without protest.

Objectionable acts by the natives were many: They started with innocuous acts like not letting Bengalis have their indispensable afternoon siesta in the weekends by occupying their terraces and gardens by force so that Bihari children may play and women knit sweaters and indulge in gossip there. Irrespective of education and profession, Bihari women folk littered the walls of our houses with cowdung cakes and men spat so frequently when outdoors, it raised a terrible stink. There were more serious crimes like evicting Bengalis and “Madrasis” — there were hardly any Tamils in Bokaro; the name-calling was aimed at government employees from Andhra Pradesh — from their legally owned land. Except in extreme cases like murder, the local police station, a few buildings away from my father’s government quarter, refused to accept FIRs lodged by non-Biharis against Biharis.

Being identified as a non-Bihari was so scary a proposition, we all picked up Bhojpuri and Magahi dialects to mix with the milieu incognito. Learning any language is a great educational pursuit. But learning it at gunpoint (figuratively) is living the hell.

Bengalis are treated normally everywhere in India, sporadic offensive name-calling for them notwithstanding. But that is not the case in Bihar and Jharkhand. It did not happen to me because in conduct I was more Bihari than many Biharis themselves. It happened to all other Bengalis and people from Andhra Pradesh (whom Biharis called MADRASIS). In large parts of Hindi-speaking regions, mostly in eastern UP and Bihar, also in parts of cities nationwide where people from those regions are the most populous, no matter how long you live with them just like natives, when you are not around, in common references, you are called a Punjabi, a Bengali, a Gujarati, a Lalaji, a Panditji, etc… all parochial/ sectarian addresses. Nobody cares for the name your parents had given you, the name that is so dear to you, the name that is not merely a name — it is a symbol for emotions that you grew up with from your mother’s lap. But among the Purvanchalis, that emotion is unfashionable to be appreciated. Much as you may be Moinak or Venkatesh, in Bihar, you are a BUNG-AH-LEE or a MUD-RAH-SEE!

That reminds me of the language issue. Many Indians are today well versed in the written form of Queen’s English. Our accent, rightly and non-apologetically, remains Indian though. However, there is something called SIE (Standard Indian English) accepted worldwide today. Easier still should be the accent used for Hindi; choice of words may vary in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. As far as the English diction is concerned, people of India may be divided in two broad categories — those from an English school background and the rest. Normally, where a speaker hails from can be easily figured out from voice’s intonation and modulation when he or she belongs to the second group. But why is it that only in the case of Bihar, most people from English schools too have a heavy regional accent? And why is it that they seek pride in refusing to modify the accent of their Hindi as well?

The reason that language needed a mention here is the fact that it is a kind of an individual’s outfit. With due respect to the mantra of “unity in diversity”, in any society, mainstreaming those who sport a distinct look or sound becomes difficult. That may not be how it should be; but that is how it is.

It is to be noted, however, that the intellectual record of UP and Bihar is indeed impressive. The sad part is that it is elitist. That is why the exalted nature the language of Maithilisharan Gupt, Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ and Surayakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ dims in comparison to the crass nature of language of common Hindi speakers. Unlike elevated Hindi literature that is confined to lecture sessions inside school and university classrooms, standard Gujarati and Punjabi literary work (belonging to the States known better for their entrepreneurship skills and rich farming communities respectively) is read by commoners in Gujarat and Punjab.

Back to people of UP and Bihar, the knowledge of Hindi among Hindi speakers is so pathetic, I — a Bengali, generally known to be horrible in Hindi — have to correct their errors in office and in the neighbourhood as much as in the language-based communities I own in orkut. Yet people of the region think being unwashed is highly romantic! As an alibi they say that if your language is proper, it indicates you may be a crook within!

They say the miserable knowledge of hindi owes to the fact that actually Hindi is nobody's mother tongue. People of north India have rather spoken Bhojpuri, Magahi, Maithili, Bundelkhandi, Khadi Boli, etc. Then, why not strive to make these dialects graduate to the standard of well-regulated languages?

There is a more serious indictment of the people of Bihar. Stand at any of the railway reservation counters in Delhi. Passengers travelling eastward by train ask if it is possible to get a train that does not pass through Bihar. Can this be wished away as unwarranted stereotyping?

If Lalu Prasad Yadav’s regime turned Bihar into a living hell, why couldn’t any regressive government in any other State push its region so much backward? The experiences I have related above are those I had when Bihar, let alone the rest of the country, knew little of Lalu.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.