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Bihar's Blues

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
01.20.2006 | POLITICS

JEHANABAD-BIHAR, INDIA -- When George W. Bush visits New Delhi in February, we're sure to hear the familiar litany about America's new strategic partner. We'll hear how the Indian economy is surging at an annual clip of eight percent. We'll hear all about Mumbai's ceiling-less SENSEX and the middle-class stock market frenzy that resembles nothing so much as America's own NASDAQ euphoria of the late-90s. We'll hear about India's civilian and military nuclear programs, which the Bush administration hopes to legitimize in full. We'll hear all about India the Rising Democratic Power of South Asia--an elephant gaining steam.

Unlikely to make a cameo in the state-visit press reports is a broken man named Bijendra Mahto.

In the early hours of New Year's Day, 2006, Mahtos' village home in the state of Bihar was attacked by ten armed men. Mahtos had filed a police report against one of these men regarding a stolen ox in September, and now his posse was following through on threats against Mahtos if he did not retract the charge.

The assailants tied Mahto down and bolted the locks to his house, containing his pregnant wife and five young children. They then set the house aflame with a torch. By the time it was extinguished all that remained inside were six charred skeletons, most of them tiny. Mahto was taken to local hospital with severe burns covering 90 per cent of his body. According to the Times of India, he remained uncared for until the intervention of high-level local politicians.

The massacre was more than just a gruesome spasm of rural violence in a remote northeastern corner of the country. The Mahtos family was of the Kahar caste, near the very bottom of Bihar's long and dizzyingly varied caste ladder. The perpetrators were Yadavs, several rungs up on the ladder but still technically "backward," as Indians say.

In rural Bihar and similarly poor regions, the lowest castes--especially the Dalits at the very bottom, formerly known as "Untouchables"--are frequently reminded of their proper place in various ways, including immolation. Sometimes funeral pyres are constructed and dozens of villagers thrown screaming into the fire, one by one. The case of Bijendra Mahto and his family is shocking but not unique to modern India. In Bihar especially, caste-based violence among the poor is common.

"The whole system of governance has broken down in much of Bihar," says Ajay Kumar, editor of The Bihar Times, an online news journal.

"The rural credit system, the courts, the police, all basic administration--it's non-functional. So the void is filled by ultra left groups and the private militias, who have arms to enforce their dictates."

This wasn't supposed to be Bihar's fate. Throughout the 1950s it was considered one of the best-administered states in India, home to rich mineral resources, fertile plains and an educated urban population. Great things were expected from historically charmed Bihar, the site of Buddha's enlightenment and a renowned seat of Arabic and Persian learning under the Moghuls.

But poorly enforced land reform in the 1950s and 60s allowed the local feudal system to outlive its natural life, with caste fascism compounding the deepening plight of the rural, overwhelmingly landless poor. India's most densely populated state with the largest number of landless peasants, Bihar soon settled at the bottom of all national social-development indices. Today, less than half of Biharis are literate, the only state in India with that distinction. Kidnapping is a growth industry, offering less risk and higher return than Bihar's main business of rice, wheat and corn.

* * *

Just how far is Bihar from gleaming images of the new happy middle-class India? On November 13, 2005, Maoist guerrillas launched an offensive that shut down the provincial Bihari city of Jehanabad for two hours, reconfirming the area as the closest thing to an Indian Sunni Triangle.

At nine p.m., an army of 600 Maoists entered town in military formation. They fanned out in cells, ordering residents to stay indoors through the same antiquated megaphones that Jehanabad's movie theater uses to advertise Hindi potboilers from the back of bicycle rickshaws. The Naxalites, as the native Maoists are known, cut the city's power and detonated a series of crude diversionary bombs. They then surrounded and ambushed the Jehanabad administrative complex, including the court, collector's office, police garrison and prison. Squads of Naxalites kept the off-balance Bihari police line busy with cracks of AK fire, while another group scaled the prison's rear wall with a rope ladder, killed the guards, freed 369 inmates, and walked right out the front gate, all but whistling "Chairman Mao Forever."

The Naxalites left behind a few revolutionary posters slapped up with blood, plus one seriously wounded comrade who had mishandled one of the homemade bombs. Before dying at a local hospital, the stranded guerrilla told police that the jailbreak had been rehearsed with hundreds of new recruits in the Gurap forest south of the city. This was possibly the same jungle the Naxalites melted back into with 136 of their newly liberated brothers, including their notorious leader, Ajay Kanu.

The Naxalites scored big that night in another way: by killing two prisoners who were also leaders of the local Ranvir Sena militia, a paramilitary outfit aligned with Bihar's landowning castes. More than a jailbreak, the operation was the boldest revenge killing yet in more than two decades of caste warfare between Naxalite groups claiming to represent the landless Dalits, and militias working for the dominant landowning castes, led by the Buhimars.

The day after the Jehanabad jailbreak, the Ranvir Sena was promising the inevitable revenge against its leftist nemesis. "We will teach them a lesson in their own language. And such will be the befitting reply, that they will remember it for life long!" one militia leader roared with unintentional comedy to a local reporter.

The war between landlord militias like the Sena and India's Maoists has its origins in a May, 1967 uprising at the Naxalbari village in West Bengal--a sliver of which separates Bihar from Bangladesh. The armed revolt gave local radicals a name, a rep, and some confidence. Soon militant demands by lower-caste landless laborers spread, got louder: higher wages, more land, social dignity. By the mid-70s, the Naxalite groups had helped the poor make serious gains throughout the northeast through education and a series of non-violent strikes, in alliance with the mainstream Communist parties. "Dalit is Dignified" became the Indian answer to "Black is Beautiful." Times were changing. The Naxalites were on the militant vanguard of this change.

But the upper-caste landlords began to counter-attack in ways that would have made a Mississippi plantation owner proud, if not Anastasio Somoza. By the 1980s, a cycle of mass revenge killings was in full motion. Once synonymous with its great universities, Bihar became the subject of books with names like Bihar in Flames and Rural Violence in Bihar. These recount more massacres than can be listed here: orderly executions by rifle, gang rapes, death by iron hammer and rusty sickle. In some large-scale massacres, the militias have built funeral pyres and cremated their victims alive, as with Bijendra Mahto's family.

It the mid-90s the militias went on offense, slaughtering thousands of lower caste peasants in "Naxal infested" areas. Soon the Ranvir Sena and similar groups were known through AP blurbs around the world for the slaughter of Dalit children and even pregnant women. "Why allow a snake to give birth to a snake?" asked one Sena press release after the murder of several pregnant Dalits.

One especially large but otherwise typical Ranvir Sena massacre occurred on the evening of December 1, 1997, in the remote Bihari village of Bathe. There, Sena gunmen killed 16 children, 27 women and 18 men. In some families, three generations were wiped out. During the attack, at least five girls around 15 years of age were raped and mutilated before being shot in the chest. Most of the victims belonged to families that had been demanding more equitable land distribution in the area.

A survivor told Human Rights Watch: "[The purpose of the massacre was] to teach others not to rebel or raise a voice... A woman whose pregnancy was nearly complete was shot in the stomach. They said that otherwise the child will grow up to be a rebel."

The Sena is more vicious, but the Naxalites are no little red Robin Hoods. They often perform the function of a wannabe Khmer Rouge, setting up "people's courts" and liquidating "class oppressors" and "caste enemies" even among India's equivalent to kulaks. They've also been known to blow up the odd bus and train.

Not without reason, the Naxalites view the police as caste allies and state protectors of the landlord militias, who are rarely prosecuted. A recent study by a group of leading Indian civil liberties organizations found that a crackdown on Naxalite sympathizers in the state of Chhattisgargh--south of Bihar but sharing its problems--was in fact a joint state-vigilante enterprise. The report claims the crackdown is responsible for deaths of hundreds and the displacement of 15,000 people from 420 villagers, all now living in refugee camps around the state. Just a short night's train ride from Bangalore's storied software development centers, local Indian governments are "draining the swamp" with the assistance of death squads.

Farther south, at the tip of the subcontinent's so-called "red corridor," which stretches from the Nepalase border to Andhra Pradesh, the police recently set up an aggressive new vigilante group called the Green Tigers. Like their counterparts in the north, the Tigers target not just armed Maoists, but suspected sympathizers. In other words, any damn Dalit they please.

The Naxal response to landlord-police collusion is to go after them every chance they get. 2005 was a banner year for Naxal hit-and-run operations on the cops.

On January 5 they killed a district police chief. In March, an army of 30 Naxalites attacked a police station with machine guns and--a first for the group--a homemade rocket launcher; they kept reinforcements from entering the town by rolling boulders and burning tires onto the main roads. In June, more than 200 Naxalites attacked another police station, setting it aflame and looting its armory. In September, they ambushed a police transport vehicle, killing 24. And just two days before November's Jehanabad jailbreak, Naxalites raided a police-training center, looting 185 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammo.

* * *

In December, the Naxalites promised to take their war against the government and corporate interests to "a higher stage." In a rare press conference held on the Indo-Nepal border, the organization said it would target any company seeking to exploit the red corridor's mineral wealth at the expense of the poor.

"Multinational companies are eyeing to plunder, but the local people have the right over the land, and we will go to any extent to stop its loot [sic] by these companies," said a spokesman. He went on to elaborate that pipelines and foreign workers were potential targets.

As foreign direct investment continues to pour into India, caste-conflict and a spreading Maoist rebellion is not the picture New Delhi wants projected to the world. Surrounded by Islamic militant-infested Pakistan and Bangladesh to the east and west, and civil war-wracked Nepal and Sri Lanka to the north and south, India remains by far the most stable and attractive destination for foreign money on the subcontinent. But the problems of Bihar and contiguous states along the red corridor will not go away just because the urban middle-class continues to expand. It is possible that India's Maoist problem, today little known, will one day become central to the country's image, as it now is to Nepal and Sri Lanka. This is not an immediate prospect, but to paraphrase a recent comment by Indian-born economist Amartya Sen, you cannot expect stability or prosperity from a society that is half Silicon Valley, half Sub-Saharan Africa.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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