It’s dishonest to deny the realities of Lalu’s misrule and lawlessness. Here’s why

Attempts to paint this as ‘upper caste allegations’ are dangerous and wrong.

ByAnand Vardhan
It’s dishonest to deny the realities of Lalu’s misrule and lawlessness. Here’s why
Shambhavi Thakur
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“Patna in 2004 is an open city, like Sarajevo in 1992, like Baghdad is right now,” wrote Siddharth Chowdhury in his debut novel Patna Roughcut.

He was referring to the penultimate year of the 15-year-old rule of the Lalu-Rabri government (1990-2005), a period in which the “openness” of the state capital could easily be decoded as lawlessness, the untrammeled run of functioning anarchy, and the brazen political patronage of crime syndicates. For a generation of Biharis, including me, this was as much a lived reality in the vast rural expanse of the state as it was in its urban centres. In the political lexicon, it was etched as the “jungle raj” phase.

Writing in 1992, two years after Lalu Prasad Yadav took charge as chief minister of Bihar, scholar Arvind N Das had identified two possibilities for the emergent Bihar . One of them was the state descending into a land governed only by the rule of its internal jungle, while the second was a more wishful possibility. The former was true for at least the next 13 years. In his work The Republic of Bihar, Das also evoked the Hobbesian pre-state condition to describe the situation in the early years of the Lalu regime: “nasty, brutish and short”.

More than the literary reference or academic assessment, “jungle raj”, as an expression of anarchic insecurity, got popular currency because it was the firsthand experience of a large section of the state’s population during that period, including that of the author. In the campaign for the recently held Assembly poll in Bihar, despite having the factor of anti-incumbency working to its advantage, the Rashtriya Janata Dal found it tough to shed its association with the collective memory of the dreaded period.

However, a section of political commentary during the recent poll campaign, and a form of misleading and decontextualised analysis offered in the wake of the poll results, have been engaged in denying this frightful chapter in the history of contemporary Bihar. In many ways, such a line of denial of civic memory comes across as a starkly dangerous aspect of a particular line of commentary on the recent Bihar poll.

While insidiously misdirecting the historical understanding of a period, such exercises also amount to a gross misrepresentation of the causes they supposedly value. In the process of being evasive about the lived reality of a period, the political defence or statistics fail to grasp that the sense of deep insecurity became pervasive and entrenched in the period because of the governing party’s brazen protection and promotion of crime syndicates, and the normalisation of thuggery in public space.

So, the statistical measures are of little value when the nature of crime and general condition of intimidation aren’t understood. Moreover, there is a difference between the sense of insecurity and anarchy that the political sanctuary of crime triggers, and the other forms of criminal incidents that a society encounters.

Given that it was a period in which both the frightened citizenry and the demoralised law-enforcing agencies were creaking under general anarchy and the blatant crime-politics nexus of the regime, it’s futile to draw any meaning from the numbers that the records throw up. The official registration of the crime itself became such a risky act for the victims as well as the police — from the upper echelons to the lower rungs — that the crime data couldn’t tell the story beyond a point. The scale of underreported crimes was very large, something only lived experiences could carry.

Journalist Arun Sinha, who had reported on Bihar for the Indian Express and the Times of India, wrote in his book Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar:

“The Lalu regime represented a culture of loot and larceny with open patronage to miscreants and roughnecks, whose premier symbols were Sadhu and Subhash (Lalu’s brothers-in-law). There was a mass reproduction of groups like those of Sadhu and Subhash, with ministers or MLAs of the RJD acting as their patrons, across the state. The towns and countryside of Bihar were infested with roughnecks who found extortion and robbery as the most profitable — and the safest-occupation. Officials at police stations would hesitate to register a complaint against delinquents who had the patronage of one or the other RJD leader...During the Lalu-Rabri regime, wide gaps existed in crime control all along the line: between the commission of the crime and registration of the case, between the registration and the arrest of the investigation and prosecution and between prosecution and judiciary.”

In the 1990s, the regime was a mute spectator and an active participant in the process of the political class using crime as a mode of what scholar Arvind Das saw as “speedy private accumulation”. The range of crimes covered in this accumulation kept widening.

Sinha wrote:

“The characteristic feature of the Lalu raj was the blurring of boundaries between white-collar and street crimes. While politicians made illicit earnings through fraud and deceit, they also shared the booty of kidnappers, robbers and extortionists to whom they provided patronage. While white-collar crime had been going on under other chief ministers in the past, Lalu would be remembered for opening up the avenue of an additional source of income to public servants through street crime.”

A demoralised police force had to face political roadblocks in the pursuit of mafia spearheads who formed the core of the crime-politics nexus. The then director general of police, DP Ojha, for instance, was transferred following his detailed report on the criminal activities of the then RJD MP Mohammed Shahabuddin. Even when judicial intervention sometimes led to jail term for dons like Shahabuddin, Rama Singh, and others of their ilk, the facilities they enjoyed had the makings of hospitality extended to state guests. One might recall the journalistic accounts of NR Mohanty (The Times of India) and Manuwant Choudhary (NDTV) about their jail visits to interview the dons; Mohanty was understandably startled to find Shahabuddin sitting in the jail superintendent’s chair while the latter was sitting on the floor among about a hundred of the don’s supporters.

There were occasions when the chief of a dispirited police force would plead helplessness before the judiciary. On January 5, 2003, the Indian Express reported a statement made by the then DGP RR Prasad in the Patna High Court. When the high court judge asked Prasad about no action being taken against unauthorised constructions in Patna, the police chief said the officers were as powerless as the blind Dhritarashtra (from the Mahabharata) who can’t stop Draupadi’s (here, the state) disrobing.

It is here that the nature of crime and intimidation becomes crucial to a sense of insecurity and fuelled anarchic nightmares. If the protection of property was one of the minimal expectations from the state apparatus, none other than the workers of the governing party and the supporters of the governing family ensured that even this low benchmark wasn’t met.

Remember, for instance, the raid led by RJD loyalists on the car showrooms in Patna to ensure that their party supremo’s daughter's wedding guests were transported in comfort.

Farzand Ahmed wrote in the June 10, 2002, edition of India Today:

“Several groups of RJD loyalists, miscreants to most people, prowled the streets of the state capital, raided car showrooms and drove away with as many as 50 new, unregistered cars.. They were not car lifters in the conventional sense of the term; they were merely doing it so the VIP guests and baraatis of Bihar's First Family could be ferried in comfort. For businessmen and traders, it means downing their shutters. The Patna operations of a leading automobile manufacturer were closed and the staff, including some senior executives, was shifted to Kolkata. Laloo's army of raiders even targeted small-time merchants and traders, who were too afraid to speak fearing retribution.”

The thuggery displayed in organising the party’s several rallies weren’t any different.

This was just a slice of the flagrant patronage to lawlessness that became the norm in the period. As a result, besides the rampant cases of kidnappings, the governing party-sanctioned loot meant that the period saw many businessmen and professionals like doctors leaving the state. At a time when other states were trying to woo investors in the wake of economic liberalisation, Bihar’s dismal law and order scene meant that Bihar was driving out even existing enterprises and professional avenues. But for those who stayed back or couldn’t afford to move out, the only option was to reconcile with the functioning anarchy.

In the realm of everyday experience, the brandishing of weapons and the roaming droves of hooligans meant that public space had an undercurrent of constant insecurity. The women were the worst sufferers, as their movement was heavily curtailed; in towns as well as villages, the idea of evening outings was considered an avoidable risk.

It was against this grim backdrop that the change of regime in 2005 was seen as a point of departure. Despite its imperfections, the focus on governance in the Nitish Kumar-headed government meant that measures were taken to improve the general sense of security among people through confidence-building measures.

First, and most significant, was the better detection of crime and prompt registration of cases in police stations. This step clearly showed the sense of seriousness with which the new regime was addressing the law and order scenario in the state. In 2006, the provisions of the Arms Act were strictly invoked with the twin objectives of bringing order as well as clearing judicial bottlenecks in the speedy conviction of criminals.

Following up on the October 2006 brainstorming sessions in a workshop-seminar attended by the chief minister, top bureaucrats, the state police chief and high court judges, an effective measure implemented was the speeding up conviction through fast track courts and the strict invocation of Arms Act. While the former meant that the number of convictions increased rapidly, the latter meant that the sight of criminals moving freely with arms in public view became rare. Both contributed to bringing a sense of order.

Even though the prevention of crime remained a continuing effort with varying degrees of success, it was the will shown in detecting and registering crime which instilled public confidence in the law-enforcing intent of the government. Even with the police showing promptness in registering crimes, the initial years of the new dispensation saw the number of kidnappings, murders and robberies decline.

Talking about the first term of the Nitish government, journalist Arun Sinha remarked, “Although it was hard to accept the claim that detection and speedy trial had completely re-established the writ of the state, there could be no dispute that the number of convictions had a direct bearing on crime.”

Moreover, another clear and very important hiatus from the phase of lawlessness and political patronage to crime was the new government’s tough stand against offences committed by criminal-politicians. With varying degrees of presence, social clout had ensured that such politicians were found in almost all political parties in the state, including the governing alliance. However, despite their place in the legislature or different parties, the government acted against them whenever they violated the law, including initiating action against legislators from the governing party, like Sunil Pandey, Anant Singh (then with JDU, now with the RJD), and Munna Shukla.

The first term of the new government saw speedy trials leading to the convictions of a large number of criminal-politicians, regardless of their party affiliations: Shahabuddin, Anand Mohan, Suraj Bhan Singh, Rajan Tiwary, Pappu Yadav, Munna Shukla, and Anant Singh, to name a few. As dons belonging to different parties bore the brunt of law enforcement, the fair-minded approach was certainly emblematic of the effort to restore law and order.

The cumulative effect of the above factors was a distinctly improved sense of security among people. This, however, hasn’t meant that the crime has made a dramatic retreat. The incidents of reported crime have fluctuated over the last 15 years, showing different variations. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau and the Bihar police, some forms of registered crime have dipped but other forms of registered crime, like family land disputes leading to killing of family members, have shot up. On some counts, Bihar is on the lower half of incidents; on others, it’s on the upper half; and on some, it is within the range of the national average.

However, the most significant feature has been the delinking of crime from the political patronage of those in seats of power. In the Lalu regime, it was the proliferation of political sanctuaries of crime that gave the state an anarchic ring. It was the nature of crime and impunity with which it was committed which contributed to the large part of horror.

Now, the restoration of the basic functions of the police in registering, detecting and investigating a number of criminal incidents has gone a long way to restore the core legitimacy of the state apparatus. To put a number to it, for instance, since 2005, there has been a 52 percent rise in the number of arrests made by the police in the cases related to various offences.

One of the indicators of a change in public attitude towards security has been the reclamation of public space. Women, in particular, have responded with greater confidence in moving out and participating in various forms of activities in the public space. Significantly, besides benefiting from women-oriented welfare schemes and empowerment measures through affirmative action, the improved sense of security has also been a reason behind the Nitish government’s popularity among women voters in the state.

Meanwhile, the recent Assembly poll campaign also saw a section of commentators, like journalist Arfa Khanum Sherwani, echoing something that has long been Lalu’s fallacious line of defence against the public memory of him heading the rule of lawlessness: it’s an upper-caste allegation to discredit the government of the backward castes.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Such convenient victimhood is historically a bogus argument, undermines the cause of social empowerment of the backwards, and glosses over the all-encompassing adverse impact of political patronage of crime on all sections of the society. While dubbing development, governance and law and order as upper-caste concerns, and even “elitist” wishlist (he had even alleged that the corruption cases, for which he is in jail now, were upper-caste machinations), has been typical of Lalu’s politics, even an elementary exercise in public reasoning tells us that a dismal law and order affects all, and hits the poor harder. The spurious argument about a conspiratorial design behind the defamation of Lalu’s rule and his brand of social justice has too many holes to stand memory and logic.

First, the very rise of a counter-social coalition led by Nitish Kumar, an OBC leader like Lalu (both belonging to the relatively better off among the backward castes, Kurmi and Yadav respectively), could be traced to Lalu restricting, and hence subverting, the OBC empowerment movement of pre-Mandal as well as post-Mandal politics only to the specific groups that formed his electoral base.

It’s important to remember here that the Lohiaite politics-inspired backward castes empowerment movement in Bihar preceded Lalu. Beginning in the late 1960s, Bihar had intermittent phases of backward caste leaders heading the state government. Karpoori Thakur, a Nai by caste (belonging to what’s now known as extremely backward class, EBC, within OBC) had proposed the Bihar formula (or Karpoori formula) for more equitable distribution of quota benefits among the caste groups within OBCs, and other deprived sections. When Lalu came to power in 1990, he limited the scope of empowerment.

In a phase which gave rise to what commentators called the M-Y consolidation, or some simply called the Yadavisation of OBC politics in the state, Lalu showed more interest in consolidating the support base of his own caste group Yadavs (around 11 per cent of the population ) among the OBCs and hoping to consolidate (around 17 per cent) voters from the Muslim community.

As detailed in my two part-series on social coalitions in Bihar politics, Lalu’s refusal to push for the application of the Bihar formula — also known as Karpoori Thakur formula of 1978 — in the deliberations over the Mandal quota didn’t go down well with the EBCs. While the Karpoori formula was seen as more sympathetic to the diverse claims and different conditions of the EBCs, among the OBCs, the centrally mandated Mandal quota in Bihar was seen as benefiting the upper backwards only.

I wrote:

“The sections of Dalit voters that were no longer the captive electorate for the Congress and the Left parties, including a few radical fronts, were now getting disillusioned with the Lalu regime too. A large section of non-Paswan Dalit voters had no reason to even support Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party. Hence, the LJP’s support base was confined to the Paswans among the Dalits.

“Moreover, even a section of Yadavs, either left out of Lalu’s patronage system or yearning for better governance, was courted by the emerging social coalition. Similarly, the lower section of Muslims (Pasmandas) had a long-standing grievance that the benefits of the M-Y axis were being cornered by the Ashrafs (Syeds, Pathans, etc) within their community.”

By the turn of this century, Nitish had grasped the importance of the EBCs in an OBC-led front. It helped that he was one of the conceptual contributors to the Bihar formula. Also, in the late Seventies, Nitish’s writings in Samayik Varta, a Patna-based Hindi fortnightly of contemporary Lohiaite thought, had made it clear that EBCs were going to be an important part of his imagination of OBC socio-economic empowerment. He was ideologically as well as strategically aware of the post-Mandal surversion of the EBC claims in the RJD-led Yadav dominance of OBC politics of Bihar in the ‘90s. While Nitish focused on the wide range of challenges confronting the state, from governance to law and order, he kept an eye on social engineering to sustain his Lohiaite project as well as a longer innings in power.

So, the naïve acceptance of Lalu’s false victimhood rhetoric, and turning a blind eye to his subversion of empowerment of backward communities, amounts to a gross case of misreading of contemporary politics. It also reveals the failure to grasp the dynamics of a strand of social justice politics in the Hindi heartland which has often abandoned its core cause at the altar of dynastic politics. In some ways, there is a different strand to it, and it’s represented by the stream of social justice politics represented by non-dynastic Lohiaties like Nitish.

The misgovernance and lawlessness of the Lalu regime, captured with the evocative phrase of “jungle raj”, was a lived reality for millions. The efforts to deny memory of that dreadful chapter of the past, and the comparative perceptions of the present, are historically dangerous exercises and journalistically dishonest exercises.

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