Pluralism, Socialism, and Communal Extremism: A decade-wise political journey of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur

By Mohammed Sajjad for

The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat camped for around a week (February 6-11, 2018) in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. By the time he had to leave, his alarming and provocative statement hit the national news headlines. He claimed that the RSS cadres, having received martial training, are swifter and better equipped than the Indian armed forces. From there, he travelled to camp in the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) for Sangh Samagam.

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Is he targeting educational campuses as base of operation, and to recruit youth to its fold, to militarise them with an ideology of hatred, more so when youth unemployment is rising very high? Is this RSS way of diverting the youth’s attention from utter failure of the incumbent regime on economic front?

In a recent press interview (The Telegraph, January 28, 2018), a USA based scholar, Shridhar Damle, working on the RSS, said,

“What the media and others are ignoring is how skilfully and sublimely the RSS is working in the field of education. By 2024, they would have raised and readied a new generation of educated Indians who understand and believe in the philosophy of Hindutva. All the vice-chancellors of major universities are partners in this project…In the changed situation the RSS foresees a major role for Yogi Adityanath at the Centre post-2024”.

Damle is here in India to write a sequel volume on RSS and its 36 affiliates; the first one was Brotherhood in Saffron (1987), which he co-authored with Anderson. In March last year, the RSS think tank “Pragya Pravah” had summoned hundreds of academics and more than 50 vice chancellors to propagate Hindu perspective in higher education. The Indira Gandhi National Tribal University of Amarkantak in central India is already emerging as a saffron campus. The ‘Vivekanand Foundation’ is another forum which hires intelligentsia for propagation of Hindutva.

In the weeks preceding Mohan Bhagwat’s trip, various villages of Muzaffarpur-Vaishali were in communal flames, since 23 January 2018, when processions to immerse the Saraswati idol had to be taken out (See my columns: The Wire, 08 Feb 2018; Rediff 03 Feb 2018). Such a procession, never before, had a political saliency of communal divide. While in Muzaffarpur, Bhagwat’s only itinerary of stay in its countryside was a village Bandra, close to the village, which had communal clashes on 23 January 2018. Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), headquartered at Gorakhpur, is spreading its branches in the adjacent districts of Bihar, particularly, in the Rajput concentrated villages of Saran. Ajay Bisht alias Yogi Adityanath, warrior ascetic, the chief minister of India’s largest province Uttar Pradesh, is a Rajput (see my Rediff column, 21 July 2017).

Historically, socio-political spaces in this part of Bihar have largely been least communalised, with people living in harmony since ages. It is however now succumbing rapidly to communalization. The hostels and student-lodges are becoming dens of VHP and Bajrang Dal. Though, Muzaffarpur is said to be a zone of Bhumihar dominance, and it was also known for political conflicts between Bhumihars and Rajputs, the Karni Sena of Rajputs became much more visible here in last few months when the controversy around the film Padmavat(i) came up. In January the Karni Sena’s masked men, waving swords, had vandalised a cinema hall in Muzaffarpur.

It therefore becomes necessary to look into its late colonial and post-independence past. Leading founders of the early Congress in Muzaffarpur were Shafi Daudi (1875-1949), Manzur Ajazi (1897-1969), Maghfur Ajazi (1900-1966), Ram Dayalu Singh (1882-1944), Janakdhari Prasad, Mahesh Prasad Sinha (1900-1971), and many more. They resisted colonialism while fighting out communal forces within their co-religionists.

Peasant activism and socialist politics also became active from the 1930s onwards. It cultivated anti-Congress, Socialist leaders in the early decades of independence. In the 1970s, however, some neo-rich, upstart, unscrupulous politicians emerged who patronised gangsters of their caste. Eventually these gangsters replaced them to become legislators. During the era of Congress hegemony in post-Independence period, Socialist politics occupied the oppositional space. In the 1990s, the political hegemony of the ‘backward’ castes came up. Subsequently, communal forces occupied the political space, quite often in alliance with the Socialist and their offshoots. They now threaten the social fabric, having occupied the state power.

Many Bhumihar zamindars of these districts, in collaboration with the ‘Bihar Scientific Society’, Muzaffarpur, opened a chain of Anglo-Vernacular Schools for modern education in the 1860s and after. The ‘Bihar Scientific Society’ was founded on 24 May 1868 by the then Sub-judge of Muzaffarpur, Syed Imdad Ali (d. August 8, 1886). This was in response to the Aligarh Movement of Syed Ahmad (1817-98). Together, the Muslim and Hindu elites of Muzaffarpur, eventually opened a Collegiate School in November 1871 (surviving till date), and in collaboration with the ‘Bhumihar Brahman Sabha’, it opened a premier college in July 1899, now named after Langat Singh (1850-1912).

Further back, it claims its pride in having the birth place of Lord Mahavir, and a Buddhist council was also held there both known for Ahinsa (non-violence), where a 15th century sufi saint is also buried, pulling thousands of Hindus and Muslims for blessings.

Muzaffarpur derives its name from 18th century administrator Syed Reza Khan Muzaffar Jung, and also from Muzaffar Khan Turbati, who was an army general of Mughal Emperor Akbar, who had deputed him to chase the rebel Afghan chiefs taking shelter in Nepal foothills. Other two towns, Hajipur and Samastipur (Shamsuddinpur) were founded by 14th century administrator Haji Shamsuddin Ilyas.

Numerically, Muslims are a minority. Educationally, economically, and in terms of landholding, most of (even the Ashraf caste) Muslims are nowhere as compared to the Bhumihars, Rajputs, and even the intermediate castes. Yet, as my book (2014) on Muzaffarpur finds out, as our ancestors have been telling us, and as my own experiences testify, neither in the deeply divisive days of the 1940s, nor in the saffronizing era of the 1980s, did this locality ever succumb to the kind of communal divide it is agonizingly experiencing now.

Rapid communalization

During the last five years or so, this locality has rapidly been transforming into a hotbed of communal hatred and violence. Though, thanks to its long history, essentially of communal amity, fatalities remain the least. Loot and arson too remain relatively less. Overwhelming majority of Hindus has been in the forefront to condemn the violence, to help rebuild lives. Yet, this thread of bond is becoming visibly weak and vulnerable. Things are falling apart with alarming alacrity. Divisive politics, backed with state power, is consuming its beautiful long history of harmonious living. Social fabric is being torn apart.

As said earlier, Muzaffarpur is identified as a centre of Bhumihar dominance. The popular phase of the national movement saw huge participation of Muslim elites. Gradually, with the introduction of elections from the late 1920s onwards, they came to be replaced with Bhumihars and Rajputs.

In post-independence period, within the ruling Congress, there have been Bhumihar-Rajput conflicts, in which both sought Muslim elites as their allies. Traditional landlord-politicians had their own discreet modus vivendi to remain in power.

During the 1970s-1980s, Bhumihar gangsters, patronised by politicians of their own castes, kept making bad news. Besides, the assertion of the rural poor of Backward and Dalit castes, through Naxalite movement also emerged towards the end of the 1960s and continued till early 1970s. It originated from a village Mushahri (close to the town of Muzaffarpur), interestingly, led by a Bhumihar, Raj Kishor Singh, a kind of counter-elite, who began his political activism by waging struggles against fee hike in the colleges of Muzaffarpur.

In the 1990s, these gangsters met with resistance from backward caste gangsters turned legislator, Brij Bihari. Congress legislator, Hemant Shahi, a Bhumihar, was killed in 1992; the brothers Chhotan Shukla and Bhutkun Shukla were killed in 1994. Earlier, in February 1989, a gangster Mini Naresh was killed inside the university hostel in which, it is said, for the first time, in the Muzaffarpur crimes, AK-47 was used. The historic Duke Hostel of the L. S. College had then become a den of Bhumihar gangsters. Its Warden, Prof. Vageshwari, was killed in 1994, for his resistance against the gangsters. Some of the gang-wars were mainly for obtaining contracts to construct university and other government buildings and roads. (Now, the hostels are den of hot-headed Hindu supremacists!). The Lalu led ‘backward raj’ had Muslims as its ally, just as the ‘forward raj’ in the Congress era had Muslims as their ally.

In this wake of assertion of backward castes, Bhumihar-Rajput electoral unity came to be weaved to regain political power. Anand Mohan Singh, a Rajput gangster of eastern Bihar, took the initiative, fielded his wife Lovely Anand from Vaishali Lok Sabha bye-election in 1994, and won. This was first concerted electoral move of the upper castes against Lalu Yadav, the then chief minister. It eventually gave birth to the Samata Party of Nitish Kumar, now known as Janata Dal United. In December 1994, a mob led by Anand Mohan and Munna Shukla lynched a Dalit IAS officer and District Magistrate of Gopalganj, G. Krishnaiah, who happened to have travelling through Muzaffarpur. Subsequently, Brij Bihari, a minister in Rabri cabinet, was killed in June 1998, allegedly by Munna Shukla, who is said to have avenged the murders of his two brothers. Brij Bihari’s widow, Rama Devi is now BJP parliamentarian from Sheohar.

All through these gang wars, communal (religious) strife remained at bay in Muzaffarpur.

In terms of anti-Congress, oppositional politics, at the hustings, Muzaffarpur often elected Socialists, since early years of Independence. They included the stalwarts like Ashoka Mehta (1911-84), J. B. Kripalani (1888-1982), Rambriksh Benipuri (1899-1968), and George Fernandes, besides few other provincial legislators, such as Mohanlal Gupta (PSP) and Comrade Ramdeo (CPI) .

Overall, in Bihar in general, and in Muzaffarpur, in particular, during the era of Congress hegemony, the oppositional political space was occupied by the Socialist-Leftist formations. Communal political forces were quite marginal, despite the fact that, as early as in 1907 the Bihar Hindu Sabha was formed in Muzaffarpur; revived in 1911. This was also true, even for the period of most intense communalization, 1938-47, despite much of efforts by the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. The Muzaffarpur unit of RSS was started by S. S. Harkare in 1938, who, was sent from Nagpur, the RSS headquarters. Interestingly, both Muslim League and RSS-Hindu Mahasabha suffered from crisis of leadership in these localities during the last decade of colonialism, and had to import leadership from elsewhere.

On 28 Dec 1938, at Nagpur, 20th session of AIHMS, Savarkar had denounced Congress scheme of Hindu-Muslim unity. On January 25, 1940, B S Mooṅje (1872-1948), addressed meetings in Muzaffarpur, processions were taken out; Gandhiji’s Hindu-Muslim unity programme was denounced, and the Congress was condemned very strongly. Hindus were asked to elect only Hindu Mahasabha candidates in the next elections. On January 20, 1940, at Hathwa (Saran), he had emphasised on military training for all Hindus. They spoke nothing against the British rule.

In November 1946, Moonje (the acting President of the All India Hindu Mahasabha), along with Ganganand Sinha (President, Bihar unit of Hindu Mahasabha) toured through entire Bihar, and recommended violence as most effective means of Shudhi (re-conversion to Hinduism). Moonje noted that among Muslims the fear of death was great; this was evident during his Bihar tour. He advised Hindus to acquire firearms both lawfully and otherwise. …He was much more satisfied when some Muslims approached him with folded hands, saying, huzoor, Babuji ham Hindu ho kar rahengay. (We will be living in India only after converting to Hinduism). Moonje advised his votaries to convert the Muslims to Hinduism by all means.

Yet even during 1938-47, there were only few communal clashes in this locality, that too mostly, in the Sitamarhi subdivision, such as, on 9 January 1941, on the day of Baqrid festival, there was a Hindu-Muslim clash at Rakasiya tola, Rampur Runi, Belsand thana; on 25 October 1947, the day of Baqrid, there was a riot at Singha Chouri’ (Pupri), loot in Bagwasa (Katra), and communal tension in the nearby villages of Bajpatti, Hussaina, Mehsaul.

In this riot, however, there were also instances of ‘poor class Hindus showing courage and humanity in sheltering the families of the Muslim residents’, said the Commissioner (Tirhut Division) in his letter to the Chief Secretary, Bihar, V. K. S. Pillai, dated 26 October 1947. These Hindus were recommended by the Commissioner to be awarded suitably by the Government. Compensation to the Muslim sufferers was also proposed. This kind of gesture was displayed by Shail Devi in the communal riots of January 2015 in Azizpur (Muzaffarpur), when this widow, “guardian angel”, saved around 20 Muslim lives. She was rewarded by the then chief minister Jitan Manjhi (The Hindu, January 20 and 21, 2015). Interestingly, Shail Devi belonged to the caste of Hindu fishermen (Mallah), who were the aggressors (See my EPW essay, January 31, 2015).

After Independence too, only some parts of Sitamarhi (then a subdivision of Muzaffarpur), had some instances of major and minor communal clashes: On 17 April 1959, there was a riot at the Janki Asthan (Sitamarhi town) and at Akhta village; on 13 October 1967, there was riot at Sursand, about which Nawal Kishor Singh (d. 1981), Congress MLA, Paroo (Muzaffarpur), called it a handiwork of Jan Sangh. RSS was proliferating since 1957 there. It had claimed 50 lives, and 400 houses were burnt. Then there were riots in Revasia (1968), Pupri (1969), Sitamarhi town (1989), on Mahabiri Jhanda procession, and in Sitamarhi and Riga (October 1992).

The last one was firmly handled by Lalu Yadav, the then chief minister. But he too remained as much liberal in letting off the riot culprits as his predecessors, across the country. The criminal justice system, in the cases of religious strife has been failing quite wilfully in India.

Spurt in communal conflicts since June 2013

There were as many as 667 instances of communal skirmishes across Bihar after June 2013 (when Nitish broke away with the BJP alliance). “From throwing carcasses of animals in places of worship to digging up buried issues, police records in Bihar have listed a variety of ways in which communal tension appears to have been deliberately kept on the boil ever since the BJP-JDU ruling coalition split on June 18, 2013” (The Indian Express, August 22, 2015). This continued till the Assembly elections, November 2015 (see my EPW essays, September 10, 2016; and January 31, 2015; and Rediff column July 21, 2017).

Once again amidst the speculations of forthcoming elections, communal clashes are becoming quite frequent. In early 2019, or even earlier, the Lok Sabha elections are going to be held. There are speculations that Bihar Assembly elections may also be held simultaneously. For this, RSS desperately needs to consolidate Hindus. For this to accomplish, Muslims have to be vilified, for having:

Divided India in collaboration with the Congress and Muslim League, in the 1940s, and,

Replaced the upper castes by aligning with the backward and Dalit castes, in the 1990s.

Before its cadres, this is how the RSS is putting its own version of history about the two episodes of political changes.

Bhagwat’s recent trip to Muzaffarpur is, in a way, a repeat of the history of 1938-47 (when communal divide was the widest), more so when he claimed that the militarised RSS cadres are much better prepared than India’s armed forces. Simultaneously, it appears, post-2014 is more ominous than 1938-47, at least in Muzaffarpur-Vaishali. How ominously would such violent and divisive preparations manifest in the days to come? Is this the way a nation can think of overcoming its agro-economic and unemployment problems?

The author is Professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University.