While the governments of India and the United States engage in a frivolous ‘diplomatic war’ over the strip-search of a female Indian diplomat in New York, a real war is brewing in Bihar, the northeastern province that is the poorest, most backward and most dangerous part of the country. The trigger for this conflict is, of course, land rights and India’s ancient caste system, which still holds rural Bihar in its deadly grip.
Police in Bihar fear that caste-killings could erupt in the wake of a landmine blast in late October that killed seven people, including a man named Sunil Pandey, near the village of Pisai in the Aurangabad district. Pandey was not just another Bihari, he was the former commander of the Ranvir Sena, an outlawed private army that carried out countless killings of lower-caste people (including Dalits, or “Untouchables”) on behalf of wealthy, upper-caste landlords. Pandey’s wife is also a district council member.
At that time, Bihar police arrested five suspected Maoists – members of the outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist -- who reportedly kept Pandey’s name on a ”hit list” after he had been released from jail, despite his role in the murders of many local peasants. The Maoists, who were found with arms and ammunition, claimed that Pandey and the others were killed as vengeance for the killings carried out by Ranvir Sena over the years. The Aurangabad district is considered a Maoist stronghold by local officials.
Now less than two months after Pandey’s murder, the Guardian reported, fears of reprisal killings hang heavy in the air of Bihar – a land trapped in a medieval world of desperately poor workers (ostensibly championed and defended by Communist insurgents) and upper-caste landlords closely tied to local police and government officials who will do anything to maintain their wealth and power.
The Ranvir Sena militia, allegedly formed in 1994 by members of upper-caste landlords, has been accused of committing a number of massacres of Dalits in the mid and late 1990s. However, those killings were themselves believed to be reprisals for murders committed by Maoists. The waves of violence culminated in the deaths of nearly five dozen innocent men, women and children in the village of Lakshman Bathe in 1998 (which was blamed on Pandey and Ranvir Sena). Convictions related to that mass killing were overturned by Bihar’s High Court recently, freeing 24 men (Pandey had been released earlier in the year on a legal technicality).
Now Pandey is dead and worries proliferate his killing will be avenged. "My husband did nothing more than defend his community. He was a social worker," his wife Sudhar Devi told the Guardian.
Maoists, who have operated in eastern and northeastern India for decades, have agitated for land reform by attacking symbols of the deeply entrenched social system that gives landowners the ultimate authority in lawless rural areas like Bihar (with politicians and police officials in their pockets). "In the prevailing system, it's impossible to get justice for the poor. The people's guerrilla army carried out the operation as the Ranvir Sena was trying to stop the people's revolution in Bihar," the Maoists said in a statement released to local media.
Bihar may be ‘ground zero’ for the ancient battle in India between powerful gentry and impoverished rural laborers. Bihar is one of the poorest, most corrupt and backward parts of India. Bihar is so beyond the pale in terms of vice and depravity that politicians are routinely arrested and charged with murder (with few, if any, ramifications).
Widespread poverty, an undereducated populace, underpaid police, extensive criminal gangs, vigilante justice, lynching and corrupt politicians all conspire to make rural Bihar a dangerous place. Nestled between Nepal to the north and West Bengal to the south, Bihar ironically gave birth to the peaceful religion of Buddhism -- Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) is closely linked to the region that now encompasses Bihar and attained “enlightenment” there. Over the centuries, however, a poisonous criminality and violence seeped into Bihar that is so deep that no one flinches when a local judge or politician is accused of committing murder or rape or other serious infractions of the law. Criminal gangs and politicians work hand in hand in Bihar and are frequently one and the same.
If the endemic corruption were not enough of a burden, Bihar is also wracked by communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, deep caste divisions and a decades-long insurgency by Maoist guerillas. Murders and kidnappings are commonplace; infrastructure is crumbling or nonexistent, and public services are dismal. Bihar is essentially a medieval, feudal society that has somehow survived into the 21st century, in defiance of the economic prosperity found in other parts of India. A handful of powerful and wealthy land barons and businessmen control much of the land (including farms and coal/iron ore mines), often with the help of compromised police and mafia-like private armies, while the overwhelmingly majority of the people work in agriculture and barely make a living.
A report from the World Bank said that almost 40 percent of Bihar’s 90 million people live below the poverty line. The wealthy landlords have declared an all-out war against the communist rebels as well as lower-caste peoples.
Pandey himself was one of Bihar’s “haves,” amongst a sea of have-nots. The Guardian reported that Pandey owned about 10 acres of property, drove a car priced at £10,000 ($16,360) and has a son studying medicine at a private school in Delhi. In contrast, field workers in Bihar, virtually all of whom are uneducated, earn about 100 rupees ($1.60) a day and four kilograms a rice for their labors.
One of Pandey’s nephews defends the rigid class system in Bihar. "It is a gift to the upper castes that they already have land. These are our ancestral possessions and our birthright," Ajit Kumar Singh told the Guardian. "We have had laborers in our fields for hundreds of years without problems. It's only in the last 20 years there have been problems. These laborers and these Maoist people want to snatch our land from us. Any actions we have done or taken are just in retaliation. We act just in defense of our honor and of our bread and butter."
The killing of Pandey may mark the resurgence of the Maoists who had been pushed into the hills in recent years as a result of a police and government crackdown. "A lot of senior Maoists have been arrested or laid down their arms, and the Ranvir Sena had virtually disbanded. The recent killing seems to have revived the old, bloody battle," Manoj Chaurasia, a Bihari journalist, warned The Guardian.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.