Saturday, October 27, 2007

The indefatigable Bihari

Dear Readers, Antara Dev Sen writes a beautiful article on Sify.

We saw the amazing ingenuity of the no-nonsense Bihari again this week. When a train got stuck, hundreds of passengers got off the train and simply push-started it. No kidding, it happened on 15th May, about 80 km from Patna.

Some dutiful citizen had done exactly what the rail compartments advise in big bold letters marking the lever for the emergency break: �Pull chain to stop train.� He had pulled chain and the train had stopped in its tracks, refusing to start again. Why? Because it happened to be in a power-neutral zone, where there is no electricity in the overhead wires to energise the engine. Usually, a train pulls through these short stretches simply on momentum. But once it stops, it is impossible to switch it on again.

So the resourceful driver separated the engine from the bogeys, and the helpful passengers rallied around for a heave-ho. After half an hour of pushing and shoving, the engine reached the electric wires 4 metres away, the engine came alive, the driver reversed and hitched the engine to the rest of the train as before and they were back on track.

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Bizarre!� screamed the railway authorities and the media. Why on earth? What were these passengers supposed to do? Well, they were supposed to wait, of course. Till news reached some rail babu somewhere, who would swear and spit and look at available options then finally sign an order that would dispatch an engine to the trouble spot, and after several hours the train would eventually be pulled into the powered zone by this saviour engine.

Instead of waiting all that while, the clever Biharis cut out the bureaucratic crap, filled in for the mechanised saviour and turned themselves into a human engine that got themselves out of the mess quicker. It was also more entertaining than waiting endlessly for the railway authorities to move, not to mention the sheer joy of immediate gratification. I bet Railway Minister Laloo Yadav was grinning with Bihari pride.

What is the big deal anyway? We have all faced these sudden stops with our rickety old cars, we have routinely pushed said car till it spluttered to life, then jumped back in and continued on our way. So why not push a train to start it? It�s just bigger, but then there are so many more people to lend a hand. Hundreds did, in this case.

Sure, there is that matter of feeling entitled to a peaceful journey, the assumption that you may recline in comfort while on your way, but for the ill-fated poor of Bihar these are irrelevant fantasies. They are prepared to travel huddled in the toilets of cramped compartments, prepared for dacoits and goons who routinely rob them, often killing those who resist. Pushing a train to continue their journey at least gives them the control over their immediate future that life in general does not.

And it is this resourcefulness that makes Biharis survive against all odds. Memories of Magadha and the magnificent empire of the Mauryas that dominated South Asian politics and culture for a thousand years may be trapped only in history books. Emperor Ashoka�s Buddhist aspiration for a non-violent and casteless society in his prosperous empire may be a far cry from the violent, caste-ridden society of this remarkably poor state where almost half the population live below the poverty line.

The refined brilliance of Nalanda � accepted internationally as one of the first and finest universities of the world � that nurtured intellectual potential from around the globe through exceptional education for 700 years may have been replaced by extensive illiteracy and institutional neglect of education. Even the excellence of ancient Vikramshila is inconceivable in the state today that doesn�t have influential institutes of learning anymore � not even an IIM or an IIT. The literacy rate is 47 per cent, which dips to 33 per cent for women.

The land of Buddha and Mahavira, the birthplace of Buddhism and Jainism, two world religions advocating equality and the primacy of spiritualism and Nirvana, may today be devastated by caste-persuasions and crippling corruption. The kingdom of Sher Shah Suri, who built the astonishing Grand Trunk Road stretching from Sonargaon in Bangladesh to Peshawar in Pakistan back in the 16th century, may be falling apart with lack of infrastructure. But the resilience to fight against all odds, the resourcefulness that once created a Nalanda or Vikramshila, that made Magadha blossom, that made Mahatma Gandhi launch his freedom struggle with the Champaran Satyagraha, is alive.

But Bihar is now India�s poorest state. It leads the BIMARU states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Its per capita state product stands at Rs 1,000 per month, and growth of per capita income at - 0.2 per cent per year. It is also the state that is uniformly poor, unlike others that have pockets of wealth. Riddled with corruption and bad state and central policies, the heirs of the Mauryas have been left with nothing but their spirit of conquest, the determination to overcome every hurdle and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

So for generations Biharis have left their crumbling state and moved elsewhere for a better life. They have swamped higher education centres all over the country and beyond, they have earned their place in the bureaucracy, they have worked their way into national politics. The less fortunate have flooded the streets of Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi as daily wage earners, earned their respect as dedicated workers and made the length and breadth of India, from Punjab to Assam and Kerala to Jammu, their home.

The Biharis are to India what Indians are to the rest of the world. They refuse to be limited by circumstantial disadvantage, they go out there and find their place in the sun. But they never forget their roots.

In short, the Bihari is the quintessential Indian. He holds the memory of our glorious past, the dream of a magnificent future and embodies the spirit of resilience that can make it possible. Meanwhile, he helps shape the local economy and development.

Which is why the periodic hostility towards Biharis is particularly reprehensible. This week, ten Biharis were killed in Assam by the ULFA. Oh well, we said. And left it to the Biharis to deal with. There is a history of hostility towards Biharis, we thought dismissively. They really are everywhere!

Like in Bangladesh. But the 3,00,000 odd Biharis living in miserable refugee camps for decades in Bangladesh pose a complex problem, mostly between Bangladesh and Pakistan. We have problems of our own.

And even the best of us fall for the stereotype of the lowly Bihari migrant sucking resources elsewhere. Last week, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit blamed the influx of immigrants for the strain on Delhi�s infrastructure. �Every year, thousands of people come from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other states, and more power, water, roads, etc. are needed for them,� she lamented. Vote-conscious politicians pounced upon her and Parliament was disrupted in politically correct protest. All her apologies couldn�t wipe out the stain of her silly gaffe.

But if we are indeed so concerned, how come we let things be in abysmal Bihar? How come we don�t try to improve its lot � after all, the Centre does have certain powers. Like we, the people, do. And there is much scope for improvement in Bihar. All we need is the resolve.

Not so, you say? Patna is not Pataliputra anymore? The past is gone and Bihar is a hopeless state, you announce? Not quite. We cannot brush aside the state that gave us ideological masters like our first President Rajendra Prasad or the legendary Jayprakash Narayan, that nurtured our culture from Vidyapati�s Brajabuli poems through the novels of Phaniswar Nath Renu and Devaki Nandan Khatri, the poems of Ramdhari Singh �Dinkar� to the fiction of Upamanyu Chatterjee today.

And Bihar still has visionaries like mathematician Anand Kumar and police officer Abhyanand, who run Super 30, a free coaching centre for aspiring IIT entrants culled from the poorest families. And they have a 90 per cent success rate in the IIT entrance exams. There are of course several others, doing their best to yank the poorest state up to a level where it can compete with more fortunate states. The destruction of Nalanda and Vikramshila can be countered, even if we need to catch up on 800 years. As we plan to rebuild Nalanda, let�s also rebuild our confidence in the incredible and indefatigable Bihari.

Antara Dev Sen is the Editor of The Little Magazine ( She can be reached at