Tuesday, February 8, 2011

about "Biharis" and other such 'abused' people

(Note: Some part of this post can be socially offensive to certain communities. I apologize for the same. The specific names of communities have been used only to provide examples and I do not approve of their usage as abuses, neither do I condone their practice as such.)

In some of my earlier posts, I have expressed my dismay and agony at 'bihari' being used as an 'abuse' (i.e., to swear at people) in some parts of India, especially Delhi. The agony had more to do with me being a bihari who has lived in Delhi/Gurgaon for about three years now. Recently, however, I have begun to think about the issue more impersonally.

It has left me wondering why is it that only particular communities get such pejorative connotations attached to them. Moreover, does the entire community feel 'equally' humiliated when sworn at or is it only some members of the community who feel that humiliation? To answer several such queries, I have been interacting with several biharis who have lived in Delhi, Mumbai or other places and asked them how do they feel about it. The obvious choice of such interactions is friends and family. They, obviously, echoed my feelings of disgust and wanted 'something concrete' to be done about it. As for what are the reasons for such abuses, most people blamed politicians for it while some blamed the chauvinistic attitude of the Delhiites or the Mumbaikars. I was quick to conclude that 'biharis' are being unnecessarily abused and looked down in the metropolitans of the country.

My conclusions were contested when I interacted with some 'other' biharis. These were mostly the rickshaw-pullers, the chai-wallahs, the gurads outside the ATM's, the paper-wallahs etc. Most of these had stayed in places like Delhi (or Mumbai) for more than a decade and some also for more than a generation. When I ask them about "bihari" or "bhaiyaa" being used as an abuse, they don't seem to be as enraged as me or my friends. They mostly resign to the fate of being abused, by whatsoever name, responding that earning their bread is more critical to them than making an issue out of such 'redundant' matters.

Trying to analyze the two varied set of responses, I am tempted to look at their social background as a source of their responses. The first set of people who are quite enraged at being sworn at are mostly Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars, Kayasthas and Banias. Only very few belonged to a lower caste. The second group (rickshaw-wallahs et al) were mostly the Scheduled Castes, or 'Harijans' as they mostly referred themselves and  Muslims (who are mostly low caste converts in Bihar). Educationally, the first group was quite well to do and were mostly in these metropolitans for either higher education or jobs that resulted from them. The second group, instead, mostly migrated as manual labourers and constituted of illiterate or lowly educated people. This tempted me to ask a question - "Do the affluent feel more humiliated? And if so, why?"

To understand further, I look at other examples. I am reminded of my hometown Bokaro, presently in Jharkhand. It is mostly inhabited by Bihari migrants, who came down to work in India's largest steel plant. The local tribals of Jharkhand also share the space with them. Biharis, however, do not find themselves as abused as they do in Delhi, for instance. Rather, it is the local tribals who get abused by the biharis. As a result of the setting up of the steel plant, the tribals were displaced from their original forest dwellings and resettled in the outskirts of the Steel City. They were also promised jobs in the plant as compensation. They are, therefore, technically referred as 'Locally Displaced' people. Over time, though, the term and mostly its abbreviation LD has become synonymous with tribals and is one of the most common abuses one would hear in Bokaro. A dress which is out of place or a persons with very dark skin colour are generally ridiculed as LD, as they resemble the local tribals.

When I reach my parents' native place, Bhagalpur, which lies in present Bihar, I observe other abuses. 'Chamar' and 'Dom' are commonly used abuses for unlcean or untidy people. These are actually caste names for cobblers and basket-makers, respectively. Chuhar and Junglee are also similar abuses. Chuhar is a tribe of Santhal pargana (close to Bhagalpur region) and junglee is a general term used for forest dwelling tribals. 

When I meet some of my friends who have stayed in the UK or the USA, they tell me how 'Paki' is an abuse there, referring to Pakistanis, in particular and South Asians, in general. Niggers (or Negros), similarly was an abuse in USA for the African Americans. In most of north India, similarly, people from North eastern states who have Mongoloid origins are ridiculed by the name 'Chinki', probably referring to their similarity in appearance with Chinese, with whom Indians share a strange kind of hostility. In much of UP and Bihar, even 'Kattu' is used as an abuse, which has its origin as a ridicule to Muslims of the region, for their circumcision of the foreskin in males. Mohemedan or Miyan in itself is also used as an abuse in parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, there are swearing in the name of Sikhs, mostly aimed  at their attire and their typical turban. In Mumbai, similarly, 'Ghati' is an abuse, connoting low status, taking its origin from the people who lived in the Western Ghats, who old time Mumbai residents found non-urbane.

Not all abuses are rooted in specific communities. Some of them are also general. Junglee, as already pointed out, is an abuse to all forest dwellers. 'Ganwaar' similary is an abuse meaning someone who comes from a village (and hence, unclean, uncivilized etc). 'Jahil' similarly is an abuse for illiterates, in general. 

Therefore, racial abuses generally trace their origin from communities which are placed low in the social, political or economic hierarchy in a particular region. When a large section of people from a particular community are abundant in a place, mostly staying at the lowest level of the hierarchy, their community name becomes an abuse. Biharis, mostly the manual workers, maid servants, rickshaw-wallahs are placed low in hierarchy in Delhi and thus their community name becomes an abuse. These same rickshaw-wallahs when in their homeland Bihar were abused by the names of Chamar, Dom, Chuhar, Malechchha (meaning unclean, actually a term for untouchables) etc. In the cities of Jharkhand (Bokaro, for example), most of the manual workers are tribals and not biharis. So bihari is not abused there, but the tribals are (LD, junglee etc). The community placed in the lowest rank has been historically much exposed to such exploitation for generations and it does not complain any further. It either resigns to its fate or else finds justification in such an exploitation. (Marx's concept of 'false class consciousness' can explain this further).

Examples show that when such an abuse has become part and parcel of a group's language, it is the upper cream of the 'abused' community which also has to face the brunt. The sense of humiliation germinates in this upper cream, which is generally well educated and well accomplished, but of the lowly origin. Indians were called 'coolies' in South Africa because most Indians who went there worked as coolies in the mines. It is only when a First Class Attorney of an upper caste Gujrati Bania family landed in South Africa and was thrown out of a train for being a 'coolie' that the sense of humiliation germinated. That well educated 'coolie', Mahatma Gandhi, as he is known today, sowed the seeds of a mass movement. Similary, Dr. Ambedkar, a PhD from London School of Economics, when was ridiculed as a 'Mahar' (a low caste), felt the humiliation and devoted his life to the cause of upliftment of the the low castes. Educated African Americans, similarly led the Civil rights movements in USA.

Thus, to blame Delhiites for being chauvinist in calling us biharis, is only part of the picture. We bihari too call people as 'Chamars' and Junglees and Kattu. No changes in the abusive status of bihari is possible unless the educated upper caste biharis themselves do away with abusing entire communities just because they have been traditionally placed in lower ranks in social hierarchy. If one wishes to see that Bihari is no longer an abuse in Delhi or Mumbai, the need is not to fight the residents of Delhi and Mumbai, but the need is to uplift the conditions of the rural, low caste and illiterate biharis who have no choice but to exchange their manual labour and their dignity in lieu of bread and water. Otherwise, till the time, Chamar is an abuse in Bhagalpur and LD is an abuse in Bokaro, Bihari will remain an abuse in Delhi.