Sunday, April 22, 2007

Journalists and Bihar Bashing

(This article is in response to an article by Rajdeep Sardesai raising Bihar bashing by the mainstream media to a new level. Here is the link)

"Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools talk because they have to say something" - Plato

Bihar has been the favourite punching bag of the Indian English language journalist community, actually not just the journalists but many English speaking "elite" of India. We see the parody of Bihar bashing being played out everyday. Sometimes one feels upset, sometime angry and sometimes pities those indulging in this. If one had hoped that with the end of the Lalu raj in Bihar, Bihar bashing would stop or at least abate, well nothing of the sort has happened.

What is it that makes Bihar bashing such a favourite pastime? Actually, it is not just a pastime, but a vocation or "dhandha" for a certain class of the journalist brethren, as we shall presently see.


Come to think of it, the rusticity of Lalu was just another ruse to denigrate Bihar and Biharis. Making fun of Bihar has existed for much longer than that.

There are unsavoury references to Biharis since the early days of journalism in Bengali. I remember seeing a black and white Bengali film whose protagonist was a thief who gradually reforms himself to become a saint. This person starts as a Hindi speaking guy when he is portrayed as a thief, but gradually starts to speak Bangla – his fluency in Bangla language keeps improving as he reforms himself. There is also the oft repeated joke about the Bihari who was counting the floors of a tall building at the Chowringhee. A policeman catches him asking how many floors he had counted. Our rustic replies 8 floors and the policeman asks him to pay a fine of Rs 40 for having counted those floors without permission, Once the policeman departs, our man mumbles to himself, but I saved thirty rupees as I had counted fourteen floors by then!

Though not in a very good taste, this was something that one could live with, even make fun when interacting with one's Bengali friends. To be fair, Biharis gave it back to them as well with equally comical stories about the lack of courage of the Bengali and the score was more or less even.

There were also fulsome praise of Bihari leaders like Dr Rajendra Prasad and Syed Ali Imam. Hence one may conclude that the fun poking was done with sensitivity, a bit like sibling leg pulling and without much malice.

Post Independence India

However, Independent India brought in its wake competition amongst the states for development funds. That unfortunately proved to be the undoing of Bihar as Bihar bashing was raised to a different level. There was only so much fund for irrigation and one who could project the image of a more progressive administration could walk away with the cake. There were only five IITs that had to be located amongst the various states, So states started to enlist the services of the journalists to project their image so that you could win. And Bihar govt did nothing of the sorts. Though Bihar started to lose at this stage, the damage was still controllable,

The image started to take a battering of a vicious kind sometime in the sixties when the examinations of the universities started to get delayed due to student agitations. In the state elections, the socialists came to power. Whatever be the merit or otherwise of his policies, Mahamaya Prasad Sinha became a favourite whipping boy of the so called establishment oriented newspapers. The political situation was complex, and it required a very sensitive portrayal by the press. Unfortunately, they chose to play their own game. It did not help matter that there were no media barons who were native of Bihar. If anything, the situation became worse due to lack of press empathy with the ground situation and non-sensitive portrayal.

Days of JP's Movement and Janata Party Days

The situation somewhat improved when the Congress came to power and the "National" press held its gun back. But that proved the legendary lull before the storm. With JPs movement, all the media guns started to blaze in full glory, demonising Bihar to ingratiate themselves to the powers that be. This is the time when MV Kamath, then editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, wrote his infamous "Biharis are not fit to rule Bihar" essay. In many ways, this essay may be called the turning point in vicious journalism for the portrayal of Bihar. It was to the utter dismay of the public of Bihar that no non-Bihari journalist of any standing deemed it fit to rebut Kamath. It was left to the speaker of the Bihar legislative Assembly to issue a rejoinder. Due to the lack of fluency in English, the rebuttal, even though of very sound logic, could not be very forceful and the journal of the powerful editor even used the rebuttal to further demonise Bihar.

It was expected that with the coming to power of the Janata Party, the situation would improve. However, Morarji Desai, suffering from a strange complex, soon sought to assert his 'authority' and distanced himself from JP. I still remember his totally unprovoked speech at Daltongunj asserting JP is not the Government of India as if Jayaprakash Narayan was interfering with the working of the government!!

Somewhere around this time, the Bhagalpur blinding incident was reported by the Indian Express and the 'national' press got a ready handle to start cursing Bihar. It is to the perpetual discredit of the editors and journalists of the time that none of them tried to see the other side of the picture. The same journalists who had earlier defended the police action against Naxals in Bengal or later went out of the way to defend KPS Gill, found absolutely no merit in the police officers who had sought to cleanse the riverine area near Bhagalpur of crime. In their hurry to denigrate Bihar, they refused to examine why the local people of Bhagalpur were so supportive of the police action. In a throwback to the colonial hangover, the 'national' press sought to portray this support of the local masses as some kind of innate love for crime by the Bihari people. There was hardly any mention of the fact that some of the criminals so blinded had committed up to 40 murders and the criminal justice system had utterly failed to bring them to justice. It was left to the deft hands of Prakash Jha a couple of decades later to give us a sensitive portrayal of the build up to the blindings in his movie Ganga Jal.

Sometime later, Belchi happened – an opportunity seized by Mrs Indira Gandhi to ride back to power. Again, the unfortunate caste killings were sought to be portrayed as the innate weakness in the character of the Bihari public. No serious debate on the socio political situation ensued, only denigration of Bihar. Alas, this shortcut has resulted in many Belchis since. It is a result of the limited intellectual capacity of the journalists and the social scientists that to this day, the increase in caste violence is portrayed in the simplistic term of the empowerment of the hitherto un-empowered. Nobody has ever sought to seriously examine the increased social rift and its causes.

Bihar portrayal in eighties and nineties

In the eighties, every Bihar ill was attributed by the 'national' press to Casteism and Land Reforms. I did not observe any journalist of the national press examining the serious under- investment in the agriculture of Bihar. Nobody ever sought to question why there has been such rural prosperity in Punjab and Himalayan UP (now Uttaranchal) where there is no land ceiling. Nobody sought to question why our Ministry of External Affairs had failed to engage Nepal for any meaningful solution to the floods of North Bihar. The column-centimetres devoted to Bangladesh's flood problems and India's role in it in the 'national' newspapers would be order of magnitude more than to our own North Bihar's problem!!! There are no central universities, IITs, IIMs, CSIR labs or DRDO Labs in the land of Nalanda and Vikramshila. Yet the 'national' press has failed to see the injustice of it all. The modern highways of the Golden Quadrilateral and the East West corridor would avoid each town and city in the twin state of Jharkhand and Bihar like plague. Muzaffarpur is the only exception to prove the rule that the planners at Delhi consider each Bihari population centres unfit to be served by these modern means of communication. Yet these have never been sought to be highlighted by the 'national' fourth estate.

I have reasons to believe that the national planning commission refused to clear the Ganga Bridge at Patna in late sixties saying it is economically unfeasible. These so called journalists who are so vocal in seeing each transfer and posting done by Govt of Bihar through the prism of caste considerations have never sought to question this. From the power enjoyed by the son of Jagjiwan Babu to that of Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav and now by the family of Lalu Yadav, the national press has always highlighted how Bihar is the fountain head of dynastic politics. Yet they refused to acknowledge the contribution of the brilliant engineer Neel Kanth Prasad, son of former CM KB Sahay, who kept the dream of the Ganga Bridge alive in spite of very limited resources in extremely trying circumstances and managed to execute it successfully. This great hero of Bihar finds no mention in any 'National' press.

In the nineties, the newsmagazines and the electronic media started to gain prominence and the importance of the Old lady of Boribunder and the Virgin Spinster of Chennai started to loose their importance in the National media. For sometime, there was relief as the new media barons sought to portray new ground. However, this was a short-lived honeymoon. Soon the new media discovered the power of denigrating Bihar to further their financial success. If one examines the news related to Bihar in the 'national' English press of this period, one would instead find the three issues of Land Reforms, Casteism and Criminalization of Politics. Like a broken record, each of these three issues was repeated to death. The portrayal became so hackneyed and to a script that one could almost predict the 'news' without going through it. Many journalistic careers were launched over the debris of Bihar by the tried and tested formula of raising these triple issues. Soon they found the success educated Biharis were seeing in various competitive examinations like civil services and officers of the bank and the issue of the corruption in education was added. Among these four, you could cover by far the majority of the articles on Bihar in the 'national' English media. I sometimes wondered if there was a special subject in journalism to indoctrinate the budding journalists in them.

Sometime around this period, the National media discovered Lalu and his rusticity and they had a new stick to beat Bihar. Mind you, Lalu was introduced only as a character in the script, the issues remained the same. None of the issues that Lalu stood for ever got a column centimetre of space. No consideration was spared for what Lalu meant to his constituency. It was either hate Lalu or love Lalu. If the journalist hated Lalu, he lamented what Bihar had become thereby giving full verbosity to his bile. If he loved Lalu, he would lament what Lalu had inherited, again repeating the same three or four points that I have mentioned above. Either way, Bihar came out as the living hell that the two types of journalists took turn to describe. And thus we stumbled into the twentieth century. If this were a joke, one would have had a hearty laugh. Unfortunately, this was the question of the future of so many youths from Bihar who would be joining the job market in days to come.

Modern Times Bihar haters

In this media savvy age, image is as important if not more important than the real stuff. We just can't afford to ignore the image anymore. With the objective to get a fair coverage to Bihar and Bihari, I would now try to analyse the characteristics of the modern Bihar bashers who increasingly operate in the interactive and instantaneous mode. The modern mainstream media is largely TV led since the channels are the ones with the power of money. The visual impact scores over every other way of reaching out to the audience.

The instantaneous nature of coverage by TV ensures there is little time to verify what is being reported. The visual appeal ensures that anecdotal evidence scores over well researched material. The debate format of coverage ensures that one can use casual language to bring home one's point. This also affords the opportunity to hit below the belt and draw instant conclusions.

This then brings us to the examination of the types of the modern era Bihar bashers whom I prefer to call the Oye Bihari Brigade or OBBs for short.

The most influential of the OBBs are the pseudo liberals. They are very fluent in English and are educated at a particular college of Delhi University. Many of them also have a degree from UK. They are a throwback to the days when going abroad itself was an achievement. Acquiring a degree abroad was the equivalent of being blue blood, even if the degree was in some obscure subject from some obscure university. They use a language that is quite peculiar, let us call it OBBLISH. It has heavy usage of terms like Biharisation, or Biharism as if these have already replaced terms like hopeless, dregs of the society and uncouth from the lexicon of English. It is as if the editorial board of the Oxford English Dictionary had already adopted this OBBLISH term into its latest edition.

Then comes the OBB category of the Bully. They are the unabashed Bihar haters. Not very sophisticated, the intensity of their hate is the highest. They were probably beaten by a Bihari in whatever pursuit they had undertaken in their younger days and carry that to this day. They are most likely to have a Bihar connection, though the connection is often tenuous, like marriage to a Bihari or posting of the parent in Bihar when they were kids. Short on self confidence, they have to denigrate something to feel better, and Bihar and Biharis are the easiest targets. Usage of OBBLISH is the highest in this category since they are always in the race with the pseudo liberal described above. They are also the easiest to spot. Due to the high intensity of their hate towards Bihar, they lose their influence pretty fast and are consigned to the dustbin of history. However, there are always new ones joining rank ensuring an unbroken chain of this variety.

The next category is of the prodigal child – he comes in two varieties: One who altogether denies his Bihari roots and clings on to his Cal/Noida/Mumbai/UK/US education or upbringing. In the Delhi Univ of the seventies, they were called the Harrys. The second variety of the prodigal son is loud in his proclamation of Bihari roots, but feels if he can be equally stringent in his criticism of Bihar, somehow the 'sin' of his Bihari roots would be washed away. Insensitivity to Bihari sensitivity is rather conspicuous in his demeanour as he is well aware of the Bihari sensitivity in the first place. A variant of this type is the eternal moralist who was born to find fault in the Bihari culture. From usage of Khaini to consumption of Sattu, he can find fault in the most innocent of situations. He can always find an explanation as to why Biharis are not doing well. If you want to provoke this type, criticise someone who is criticising Bihar and watch the fun.

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