Growing Up In The Jungle Raj

Posted by Piyush Manhar in Politics, Society, Staff Picks
January 24, 2018

People always forget what happened. This has been the mantra that has been driving Indian politics since we became a democracy. Watching the sons of Lalu Prasad Yadav, one a class 9 dropout and the other a college failure, take oath as ministers sharing as many as seven ministries between them gave us a rude jolt of this reality. Questions rose in the national media: was this the return of the “Jungle Raj” in Bihar? Had we forgotten the past? Had we forgotten what had happened?

What was this infamous “Jungle Raj”? Quite true to its literal meaning, Bihar was ushered into an era of lawlessness where might and strength were the only laws. My non-Bihari friends have often found it difficult to believe how a thrice-elected democratic government be synonymous with lawlessness. To them, I often quoted an incident from 1994, where a DM was lynched by a mob. Try imagining, a DM, with all his security, was lynched in front of so many people. For a 90s kid of Bihar, such stories were a part of our day to day life.

One such story was about my own uncle getting kidnapped, to be married to some girl. Such forced marriages were a menace in those days. A similar incident involving an engineer has been doing rounds in the media recently. Luckily, he escaped after two days of confinement. What later became scripts for Bollywood hits like “Apaharan” and “Gangs Of Wasseypur” were just another day’s story.

By the time I knew how to read a newspaper, Lalu Yadav was no longer the CM of Bihar. The baton had been passed on to his wife Rabri Devi after Lalu was sent to prison for the “Chara Ghotala”, a scam that has now become synonymous with his 15-year rule. I remember reading in a GK book that Bihar was the first state to have an illiterate CM. A CM who couldn’t write her name. It was hilarious. Somehow I never saw our teacher share a laugh about it. I thought teachers weren’t supposed to laugh in class.

The late 1990s and the early years of the 21st century saw the rise of electronic media in India. Television became a household phenomena and with it, electronic media reached out to unprecedented parts of the Indian population. What was the image of Bihar that was being sent out to other states at this time? The image that Bihar was a lawless state where crime and corruption were commonplace. An image we are still struggling to shrug off.

I know a girl from college whose father didn’t let her go for a department trip to Darjeeling because her train was supposed to pass through Bihar. I wanted to, but couldn’t really blame her father. Even my parents never allowed me to step foot outside alone, even during the day. An hour’s delay in returning from school meant that your entire family would be waiting at the bus stop, drowning in pessimism. I was living in the capital of the state, and I can only imagine the condition in other smaller towns.

I vividly remember the spring of 2005. The state was rocked with back to back high profile kidnapping cases topped by the infamous Kislay kidnapping case. The extortion industry was working day and night as money was allegedly needed for the upcoming elections. Elections had become a farce in Bihar. Booth capturing was a routine affair.

To add to election murders were the Naxals, who took a special interest in killing government officials on state duty. Elections in Bihar were no longer a festival of democracy. I had two family members working on election duty. The accounts they used to tell questioned the very idea of a functional democracy. The February elections ended in a stalemate. Cartoons of Ram Vilas Paswan running away with the “satta ki chabhi (the keys to power)” flooded the print media. Then came the October elections, and along with it came KJ Rao. For the first time in more than a decade, Bihar witnessed close to fair elections. It is often joked that it was Rao that defeated RJD and not the NDA.

By the time I started developing political sense, Lalu Raj was a thing of the past. Bihar was now being led by the duo of Nitish Kumar and Sushil Modi. But deep scars don’t heal so easily. The fear still persisted, and it was then that I started to fully understand what my state had been through in all those years. It was now that I started asking questions. Why am I not allowed to go to my friend’s birthday party tonight? Why does the rickshaw puller drop us on the road and not go on our street? Doesn’t he want more money? Why aren’t fairs and exhibitions held in Patna like they are in Lucknow? Why do all the bhaiyas I know go out of Bihar to study? Most of the times the answer would be “You won’t understand” or “it isn’t safe.”  

Now, when I return to Patna as a graduate with my understanding broadened, I can recall and contrast the situation in Bihar. The changes on the macro level have been talked about enough by the state government itself. I will talk about the changes observed by an individual on a micro level. Patna now feels a lot livelier. People now go for a late night show at Mona. A lot of fairs and exhibitions are organised till late in the night. While returning from one of these fairs one can see an exponential rise in the number of both roadside vendors and air-conditioned eateries. Earlier they were forced to pay rangdari (extortion) to many political goons, which they say has now stopped to a large extent. “It isn’t safe” is now used less often.

But one thing about that Jungle raj still persists. The image it gave us on a national level. Bihar is still looked down upon as a sick state. Our budget has grown by eight times in the last 12 years but we still lag behind in terms of development. Migration continues to be a persistent phenomenon. The fight against this is being carried out on many levels. There are a lot of things which a migrant Bihari has to go through. Things are said which hurt our self-respect. At times we have an answer and at times we don’t. It is thus the duty of young people like us who grew up in the days of that Jungle Raj to tackle that image head-on and restore what Bihar lost during those 15 years.