People's Struggle In Bihar Bid For An Alternative Politics (By Om Prakash Deepak, probably published in 1974 in "Everymans")

Student movements in Gujarat and Bihar

What immediately strikes anyone looking at the students’ movements in Gujarat and Bihar is the fact that armed forces of the state killed about as many people in Bihar within three days, March 18, 19 and 20, as were killed during the entire three months' period of the movement in Gujarat. If we add to it the yet unknown number of' people killed in Gaya on April 12, we are faced with the unmistakable conclusion that the Central Government and the Government of Bihar, particularly the former, had decided to create an atmosphere of terror in Bihar to crush the movement before it could spread and get organised for sustained action.

One can easily see that the movements in Gujarat and Bihar differ in many and significant ways. For one thing, student leadership in Gujarat had no political affiliations. They accepted help from all quarters but gave their loyalty to none. Secondly, the movement in Gujarat had developed in a most spontaneous manner from issues like food prices in hostels to the dislodging of the corrupt ministry and dissolution of the assembly, which had put that ministry in power. With that the movement came to a sort of cul de sac. From all available information it appears that the students are no longer engaged in any agitation with any broad aims.

And yet, almost all political observers, and their readers, agree that the movements are links in a chain. Spokesmen of the Government of India (the Prime Minister in particular) invariably bracket the movements in Gujarat and Bihar as attempts to subvert the parliamentary system through violent disturbances. The students in Bihar also claim that they had taken up the movement from the point where the students in Gujarat had left it. A close examination of the two movements reveals, however, only one significant common factor - the involvement of prominent Sarvodaya leaders. But that became a fact of supreme importance.

Jayaprakash Narayan had first presented his programme of ‘Youth for Democracy’ in the Sarva Seva Sangh conference held in Paunar in December 1973. Incidentally, the appeal he issued at that time began with a quotation from Mrs Indira Gandhi to the effect that youth all over the world were rising in protest, and that the youth in India also had many things to protest about. The rest of JP’s statement was however so worded that most of those who read it thought he mainly wanted students to ensure that impending elections to the UP assembly were held in a free and fair manner. While JP was busy addressing student rallies and meetings in Bihar and UP, Gujarat students launched their movement.

The movement in Gujarat was blessed by Ravishankar Maharaj, and JP also toured the state for four days. By that time the movement had taken its own shape and JP's question - what are you going to do after the assembly is dissolved? - remained largely unanswered. Its achievements, however, inspired students and youth all over the country. It is proved that a sustained, determined, non-partisan movement could get results that otherwise appeared unattainable.

Organisation of Youth Movement in Bihar

The students' movement in Bihar, at least initially, was in a way, altogether different in character. An attempt was made to set up some sort of an organisation from the very beginning. A conference of 'student leaders' was held in Patna in the third week of February. The conference set up an action committee with one representative each from all the colleges and universities represented in the conference (numbering 67) and adopted an 11- point charter of demands after a section led by CPI men had staged a walk-out. While the main body of the conference called its action committee Chhatra Sangharsha Samiti, the CPI-led dissenters formed what they called the Chhatra Naujawan Morcha.

What followed is now too well known to be repeated. Two points, however, are worth noting. The steering committee of the conference, which later acted as a sort of executive body, was composed of' representatives of the Vidyarthi Parishad, both wings of the SYS, and also of the Tarun Shanti Sena. Secondly, the Sangharsh Samiti, initially, had only a one-day programme - a gherao of the state assembly on March 18 when the Governor was scheduled to address the legislature. I, however, feel that nobody, least of all the student leaders, had foreseen the massive response that the Sangharsh Samiti's call eventually received.

The State's Response

When some of the students managed to break through the police cordon, the police retaliated with a lathi-charge, followed by stone-throwing on part of the crowd and teargas followed by firings on part of the police. There was, a ding-dong battle between the students and the police, I was told, which went on for about three hours, after which the secretariat complex was cleared, the police fanned out, firing indiscriminately all over the town. In the meantime, there were also cases of arson and looting at some places, some of them obviously organised. The most significant case was the burning down of the offices of the Searchlight and Pradeep. At least the staff of the two newspapers are agreed on the point that students had nothing to do with the incident. In fact, they point an accusing finger at the CPI men.

The Union Home and Defence Ministers reached Patna the same evening, the army was called out in the state capital, and for all practical purposes, the state was handed over to the CRP and the BSF, for ‘maintaining law and order’. What followed was a massive demonstration of protest by the people, and a ruthless attempt to repress it through sheer force and coercion. Strangely enough, workers of the Tarun Shanti Sena and Gandhi Peace Foundation were chosen as special targets on a political level. The district magistrate of Bhagalpur gave a statement that the police had recovered daggers and other ‘lethal’ weapons from local office of the Gandhi Peace Foundation. Tarun Shanti Sena workers in Muzaffarpur, who, till a day earlier, had been working in cooperation with local officials against black marketing and profiteering, were suddenly found to be endangering 'public order' and arrested under MISA. One of the Sarvodava workers was even accused of being a foreign agent by the Chief Minister Abdul Ghafoor, a Statement made in the state assembly. He hasn’t apologised for it as yet, although this allegation as well as the others made against Sarvodaya workers were conclusively proved baseless.

Jayaprakash Narayan issued a statement on the incidents of March 18 and advised the Chief Minister to resign, as his administration had admittedly, failed to act in time and correctly. JP made special enquiries about the incidents in Muzaffarpur and Bhagalpur, and then refuted official allegations, in categorical terms. Along with this, he came out openly in support of the students' demands for fair prices, eradication of corruption and unemployment, and radical reforms in the system of education.

Members of the Sangharsh Samiti, still out of jail, met JP and requested him not only to guide, but to lead their movement. JP agreed to extend full support to the students' struggle, but on certain conditions. He asked members of the committee with political affiliations to resign from their respective political organisations. (Most of' them complied). Students should themselves lead their movement, and the leadership should be non partisan. He insisted that their struggle should be completely peaceful. They should not get involved in the game of toppling governments, but should relate their action to their demands. Lastly, they should organise the people in groups and committees behind their demands, which were also people's demands. He also advised them to call a meeting of the larger body of action committee members to decide about further action.

While Jayaprakash Narayan was thus breaking the grip of terror created by official repression, he became the target of' personal attacks by Prime Minister herself. Mrs Gandhi repeatedly said that his personal life was such that he was in no position to attack corruption among other people. JP on his part went a step further and mobilised the nonviolent will of the people against the coercive power of the state. On April 8 he led a silent procession of Sarvodaya, Shanti Sena, Tarun Shanti Sena, and student activists. So many people wanted to join the procession that the number had to be increased from 60 to 300 and again to 1000. Members of political parties were scrupulously kept out of it. In the words of newsmen, almost the entire town came out on the roads to march along with the procession for short distances. And everybody was silent. It was a remarkable demonstration of peaceful action. While a placard read ‘whatever be the form of attack on us, we shall not raise our hands in retaliation’, a police van with a sub-machinegun mounted on top followed the procession. It looked so ridiculous, perhaps even to the officials, that it was withdrawn after a short while.

Next morning, an attempt was once again made by the police and officers of the state government to provoke the students by using indiscriminate force against a few of them when they were not violating any law whatever. I was present on the occasion and to me it appeared a deliberate attempt to create tension. An ugly situation was somehow averted by the chance arrival of Ramanand Tiwary. Police patrolling was however intensified, and once again a police van went around with a sub-machinegun mounted on top. If the purpose was to frighten the people away from JP's public meetings held the same evening, the attempt was a total failure. 1 believe it was one of the biggest meetings held in Patna. An estimated crowd of between one to two lakh people gathered to hear Jayaprakash Narayan. He condemned brutalities, warned. the people against violence and declared that he would wage a nonviolent struggle against hunger, rising prices and corruption till the people were so organised as to be able to eradicate these evils through the exercise of their own democratic power.

During the week preceding the meeting, the people of Bihar had almost spontaneously and without any central direction come out on the streets for peaceful action. The Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti organised 12-hour fasts by batches of four students in each case at 10 centres on March 30. Within a week the number of such centres went up to over 150. In fact nobody had any exact idea of how many people in the city were observing protest fasts. People in various localities organised fasts on their own. Women, college and school girls, small children, rickshaw-drivers, teachers (both men and women) and writers - all joined the campaign of chain fasting. Just after two days, there were two silent processions of women in a single day,. Women's processions in different localities became a regular feature after that. As news spread through newspapers or even by word of mouth, fasts and silent processions were taken out throughout the state. Processions of donkeys to ridicule ministers, ringing of thalis with tumblers and other demonstrations of protest took place in various districts.

The movement was further intensified after April 9. Among the bigger towns, the move to stop official work through dharnas was most successful in Gaya. For four days, men and women in thousands set on dharnas and the administration was completely paralysed. What is more, the movement was completely peaceful through out the state. On the fourth day the government retaliated with bullets. I wonder if even the non-official enquiry started by JP will bring out all the facts, but from all accounts, the authorities deliberately provoked the people and then the CRP and the BSF indulged in what can only be called wanton killings. There is already enough evidence to show that official statements about the firings and the number of people killed have no relation to reality. In all probability, more than fifty persons were killed in Gaya on that day.

National Government and Vinoba

Meanwhile, the rulers in Delhi, realising perhaps that their attacks on JP had merely rebounded on them, began to make concerted moves to placate him. Congress MPs came out with statements that Mrs. Gandhi and JP should resolve their differences - they had the impertinence to try to equal the two. JP's reply to these and similar moves was characteristic. He had not started any controversy with the prime minister. The issues involved not personal, not even partisan. What was at stake was the survival of India as a democratic nation.

Another reason compelling Mrs Gandhi and her followers to change their tactics was their failure to drive a wedge between Vinoba and Jayaprakash Narayan. It is quite well known that Vinoba is not in favour of launching even a nonviolent movement against the Central Government for the present. Nandini Satpathy soon after she became Chief Minister of Orissa once again, sent a wire to Vinoba saying that all sorts of violent attacks were taking. place in her state against harijans, women and other suppressed sections, and requested him to advise her. Vinoba wired back that she should not bow down before violence, and also that the government could use force. This exchange of telegrams was released to the Press, probably by Mrs Satpathy herself, causing some confusion among Sarvodaya workers. By that time almost all Sarvodaya workers in Bihar were actively involved in the people's movement in Bihar. Some Sarvodaya workers and their institutions had, in fact, been some of the main targets of attack by the government and the CPI. An attempt was made to create an impression that there were great differences of views between those held by Vinoba and those by JP and that the former did not approve of the conduct of JP and other Sarvodaya workers in Bihar. The atmosphere was, however, soon cleared when Vinoba issued a statement that his differences with JP, if any, were mostly a matter of style of expression.

Peoples' Struggle

In reality, so far as the people's struggle was concerned, political power, governments and parties, had no place at all in JP's plan of action except in so far as its consequences are bound to influence and effect them. And in this context the opposition parties are affected as much as the government and the ruling party. It is true that Jayaprakash Narayan is in favour of electoral reforms even under the existing political system that would help make our legislatures truly representative in character. But what he is really interested in is a radical change in the system itself. That is clearly reflected in the shape that he is trying to give to the people's struggle in Bihar.

The main plank of this programme is the organisation of local assemblies (of all the adults in a hundred to two hundred families) in towns and gram-sabhas in villages and committees elected by them on the basis of unanimity or consensus for large areas. These assemblies and committees would, on one hand, be the main instruments of the people's struggles, and on the other, become institutions, of direct democracy, taking over the functions of the bureaucracy and in many ways even the business, by consent where possible, through struggles wherever necessary. They would, for example, fix prices, arrange the distribution of essential goods, fight corruption, and eliminate goondaism through non-cooperation and peaceful direct action.

He would also like the youth to take the lead, for the youth are least contaminated by corruption, but he would like the students also to observe certain norms in their conduct. His programme, however, encompasses the entire people. Right now, he would like to use these instruments to fight hunger and corruption, for, as he often quotes Gandhiji, one step is enough. But a step, by, its very nature, leads to further steps towards more distant goals.

The government as well as the opposition parties have an option in this programme. The government can either allow these institutions of direct democracy to grow and take over, or try to destroy them by force-in which case it will be trying to destroy democracy by force. JP has not permitted members of any political party even to join the people's action coinmittees that are now being, formed in Bihar. They can only participate in local assemblies and gram sabhas, when and where formed, as ordinary citizens. As these people's institutions are formed and gain in strength and power, political parties and their activists will also have to chose. They can join to work for the institution of direct democracy, or try to destroy them. The choice will have to be made at some stage even by those who are now support np- the people's struggle and oven claim to have accepted JP's leadership, while retaining their political affiliations.

But one step is enough. Right now it would preclude the participation of political activists in the people's struggle. In fact, thousands of them have already taken active part in it and a large number of them are in jails. Such participation must continue, even while ensuring that political parties do not dominate the movement or misuse it for their own sectarian ends. People's organisations are yet only in the process of formation and the process has only just begun.

Of course, it is going to be a long and grim struggle, conducted at various planes at the same time. So many people have already paid the supreme price of giving their lives. Many more, I am afraid, will have to do so before we reach anywhere near the goal of renewing our society. A constant feature of the struggle so far has been deliberate official brutality. There is evidence to believe that some people at least were shot down in cold blood. In most cases when arrests are made, the arrested persons are beaten up, quite often by officers of upper ranks. Prioners in one jail were lathi-charged, injuring 35, four of them seriously. To all this have now been added attacks on workers by ruling party or CPI goondas. Four Tarun Shanti Sena workers were injured in Bhagalpur after one such attack. Phanishwar Nath Renu, the noted Hindi writer, was the object of filthy abuses hurled by a jeep-load of men who came when Renu was addressing a large street-corner meeting. The number of such incidents is mounting.

Now that JP is in hospital and is away from Bihar for many weeks, there may be a concerted attempt to attack or even to murder student leaders and other activists, to provoke violent disturbances. A statement of the Chief Minister Ghafoor, made sometime back, that there was a conspiracy to kill some student leaders in order to defame his government, acquires a sinister aspect in this context. Maybe, there is a conspiracy of murder, and the Chief Minister is not only aware of it, but has no desire to prevent it from succeeding, and he issued that particular statement to be able to claim innocence later.

I suppose, however, that those who strive to renew a society like ours, have to accept risks as part of the struggle. It is true that JP's absence, however short, is bound to be felt by everybody. However, I am sure that the team of workers that he has brought together to conduct the struggle is quite capable of coping with all the problems that are likely to arise. The struggle will go on, un-deflected from the goals it has set for itself.


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