The Bihari : A Sucker For All Seasons
V S Naipaul in his Nobel Prize address observed that his novel The Mimic Men was not about mimics, it was about colonial men mimicking the condition of manhood, men who had grown to distrust everything about themselves. It shows how the powerless lie about themselves, how they lie to themselves about their own condition because lying is the only resource that they can command. The fact of the matter is that Bihar has been reduced to a colony for the rest of the country , catering to its burgeoning needs for cheap, uncomplaining labour .It brings up the bottom of any index of development and prosperity and yet the only way Biharis can rid themselves of their shame and ignominy is through fantasy. Bambai Mein Ka Ba, a dramatised rap , is our own version of The Mimic Men. In a classic case of lying to oneself about one’s own condition , a migrant sniggers at Mumbai for its mean, brutish life by making wild claims of prosperity and bluster of well-being that the migrant Bihari has left behind in his native Bihar .
But it is not only the powerless in Bihar who thus cope with conditions of poverty , mal development and lack of job opportunities . Even governments wedded to the concept of social justice, enjoying absolute power for more than three decades , are no less prone to fantasy and filibustering; by quoting figures to prove Bihar is doing just fine, thank you very much. I know I can be beaten down on figures , electricity, roads , hospitals , social empowerment, quality education are all available to the Biharis in some cuckoo land . But figures can be fudged , figures can be debated , inflated , manipulated , so let us deal with the corporeal , concrete facts- the plight of migrant labour from Bihar .The issue is topical, several Biharis are trapped in the tunnel that collapsed in Uttarakhand .
Uncertainty and vulnerability are the foundations of all political power: it is against those twin, vagaries of the human condition, against the fear and anxiety that they tend to generate, that the modern state promises to protect its subjects through planned strategies of economic growth . It is this promise that commands its citizens’ obedience and electoral support and keeps faith in the democratic hypothesis alive . For more than thirty years , Governments committed to social justice have been winning the trust of its voters with the same regularity as it has been betraying their trust in it ability or willingness to create avenues for employment.
According to an informed estimate close to two million Biharis migrate to distant states because of poverty and lack of opportunities. The last time I checked up, in the after math of Covid the only working data available were the NSSO figures up to 2007/8 as later figures were yet to be sanitised . Biharis don’t even constitute real numbers , they are imaginary numbers .
Seasonally Biharis travel – are transported like human cargo in overflowing trains- to every nook and corner of the country to satisfy the demands of the labour markets. Biharis are game for any job, from the most menial and hazardous to most intellectually demanding , because beggars cannot be choosers.
On a recent visit to Kashmir I found a Bihari selling golgappas at Betab valley in distant Pahalgam, another one was there, manning an ice cream cart near the Dal Lake in Srinagar . On a visit to the High Altitude War School, Gulmarg, I ran into some one who suspiciously liked look a Bihari because of his Khaini break . I fell back from the team that was escorting us to the museum to confirm my suspicion . He was indeed from Bihar and ,what cut the knife closer into the flesh , he hailed from a place which must be 15 20 kilometres from Ara which is where I come from .He was part of a detail which was stocking up constructions materials and other stores and supplies , preparing for the snow bound winter in coming months . I congratulated myself on my ability to spot one of my own kind from a distance – an underdog sniffing the presence of another underdog .
These human flotsam are in a continuous state of drift, they can be found all over the country . Wherever cheap and uncomplaining labour is required you will find Biharis in great demand . With such uniform distribution all across the country the law of probability ensures that whenever man made crisis or natural calamity strikes , it is bound to claim a couple of Biharis. Later in the evening at Srinagar , during the course of dinner I learnt that sometime back somewhere near Gulmarg four people were struck by lightning, one of them was a migrant labour from Bihar. They have been coming here , for the last several years and even the worst phase of terror held no terror for them. They are just everywhere , like hardy weeds, who will not die of sheer hard times , no matter how hard .
These waifs are victims of double jeopardy . Left out of the scope of state provisions at both ends – the “source” and the “destination” they discovered this to their horror during the nation-wide lockdown in wake of Covid 19. It was the moment of truth for the migrant workers. Suddenly so much indispensable manpower which had kept the mighty heart of Indian urban conglomerations beating became not only so much disposable waste but it was felt that it was dangerous to have them around. The much awaited state intervention for planned and regulated movement - either by the host States, home State or the Central government – was too little and too late in arriving . Staying put meant starvation and worse as all modes of affordable travel were suspended . So hordes and hordes of them chanced their luck and took to desperate measures of going on their own .
Thus began the long march, the kind that even us old timers had not seen . On occasion these migrants undertook a journey of 2000 kilometres on foot . There were epic stories of determination and filial devotion, like this girl carrying her father on her bike all the way to Darbhanga from Noida . In conditions of complete moral melt down and social chaos we came across demeaning stories of Biharis afflicted by hunger, of being reduced to mendicants on people’s charity . The media had a feast of its lifetime reporting on migrants’ plight, degradation and stories of suffering .
Layer after layer of the vestment of Bihari pride frayed, became a patch- work of rags, until the migrant labour crisis blew away even the fig leaf and Bihar stood in its entire nakedness and vulnerability . But the very next season Bihari migrant, dusted and done up , was yet again ready to be carted to those heartless lands which had discarded it earlier as objects of urban consumption which was past the use by date. Of course this time round they were escorted in airconditioned buses , some tasted the thrill of air travel for the first time. But again without any guarantees, without any insurance against such contingencies !The the lessons were learnt and forgotten quickly by all concerned- the victim , the callous employer , and the care- do - little supplier of cheap labour . The history of this infamous episode is written in invisible ink . ( Excerpted from a long writeup )