Regular-article-logo Wednesday, 06 December 2023

Legacy of social justice, hope for change

Bihar Safarnama

Ruchira Gupta Published 18.06.16, 12:00 AM
The home of Alexander Forbes in Forbesganj, now inhabited by a local family. Picture by Girindranath Jha

Bihar Safarnama is a road trip from Bagdogra to Patna to see the changing face of the state through the eyes of an 
OBC scientist, a reform-minded jailor, the smiling Asha worker, the cycling girl, the well-paid teacher, the female panch, the safe Muslim businessman, the sensitive police officer, the SC university student, the unworried farmer, the free writers, poets, the uncensored journalists, the civil servants, and old and new socialists, some of whom are also feminists

Songs, stories, campaigns, speeches, rallies, meetings, dinners, books, conversations, and elections. In Bihar, I have experienced how movements are born and how they move. My family had migrated to Forbesganj a hundred years ago, when it was in Purnea.

Now the district is called Araria - an evolution of R.Area for the Residential Area where the British saheb, who had bought the Sultanpur estate, lived. The saheb's name was Alexander Forbes. His son Arthur took over when his parents died of malaria. He called the town Forbesganj, banned Indians from building pucca houses in the R.Area, flogged labourers for wearing shoes or a hat, did not allow them to ride horses, or even walk with an open umbrella.

The unmitigated oppression and exploitation led to the Great Bengal Famine. Forbesganj with its starving labourers, growing jute and indigo for the British empire, was part of the Bengal Presidency. Children died, mothers were sold, men wasted away. My grandfather, father and uncles saw this and were all infected with the spirit of freedom and socialism. Our home became a centre for freedom fighters, socialist leaders, political poets and writers, activists and philosophers. My uncle Balkrishna Gupta, known as Bhaisaheb to the entire socialist family, became a friend and ideologue of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia as well as BP Koirala, and his younger brother Brijmohan Bayanwala, known as Birju babu, made a home for this “family of choice," in Forbesganj, offering friendship, a roof, books, loans, food, transport, ideas, even serving as a post office…

I heard the Biraha before I saw the trains filled with migrant labour from Katihar; Phanishwar Nath Renu told me stories of caste as a lived experience of the people in my village, before I covered the caste riots as a journalist; Nagarjun danced and recited poems of a change that was coming before I attended Karpoori Thakur's swearing-in… I sat in on meetings with Girija babu (GP Koirala) and other Nepali Congress leaders living in exile at my home before I covered the movement for democracy in Nepal and saw Girija babu become the Prime Minister; I visited JP in Patna and heard him talk about Total Revolution, decades before Lalu Prasad or Nitish Kumar, as chief ministers of Bihar, spoke of getting schools to the poorest, food to the marginal and include women and oppressed, backward castes in jobs and politics. 

I understood social justice in Bihar.

I teach at New York University, have lived all over the world, worked for UN agencies in Nepal, Thailand, Kosovo, New York and Iran, but I keep coming back to examine the legacy of my uncles and their friends.

I see the legacy in the everyday changes in the lives of the people. Bihar gives me hope and courage that change begins at the bottom and transforms at the top. 

As I drive from Bagdogra in Bengal, we follow a river, we cross a bridge, we are driving past tea gardens and my driver says suddenly, we are in Kishenganj. I was surprised. I thought the tea gardens were in Bengal. 

There are 25,000 acres of tea plantations and three tea-processing plants in Kishenganj. Bihar has begun to export green tea. Against all conventional wisdom, tea is growing in the plains. I stop and go to the local university to find an expert who can give me an answer. I meet a woman scientist, Nandita Kumari. Nandita is one of the newly minted graduates in a college system limping back under the Nitish government and a beneficiary of his thrust to employ more women in all sectors. She is the first educated woman in her family. 

I smile with pride at her confidence as she explains the secret of tea in the marshy plains of Kishenganj. Bihar sits on one of the great aquifers of the world, and so has plentiful underground water. However, the resource remains highly under-utilised and unscientifically managed. Instead of being used to provide sustainable livelihood and food to millions of poor rural communities, it is wasted or contaminated with chemicals.

She takes me to meet an Oraon adivasi working in one of the tea gardens. They still speak an ancient Dravidian language called Kurukh and we are unable to communicate. But I can see in the bloated stomach and the yellow eyes that she is malnourished. Nandita explains that if the Bihar government harvested the 250 ponds in Kishenganj, kept them clean, gave them to the tea workers' families along with local fishermen, a sustainable source of food could be arranged locally.
The total fish production in the state is about 2.66 lakh tonnes with average productivity of about 2.2 tonnes per ha per annum though the demand is for 4.5 lakh tonnes. 

I feel happy and sad at the same time as I drive away. Happy at the economic activity generated by the tea garden, sad at the plight of the Oraon adivasi, happy at seeing Nandita Kumari break a glass ceiling, sad that I cannot get her ideas to Nitish Kumar.

But as the car drives fluidly past Belwa on the Kishenganj-Thakurganj Road, the earth feels like air, and I feel positive. The road is no longer bumpy in Bihar and the bridges are not broken. There is change. Perhaps the water management change in Bihar will be influenced by a female backward caste scientist from a district town.

Ruchira Gupta can be followed on Twitter @ruchiragupta

Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University, advisor to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organization Apne Aap Worldwide. 

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