Bihar: Nitish Government's Onslaught on Democracy

In less than two months’ time Nitish Government would reach midway of its scheduled tenure, but there is no sign of the “change” promised to be delivered to the people of Bihar. The crime rate is climbing up, particularly crime against women, and the feudal-criminal nexus is wreaking havoc on downtrodden people in the state with impunity, because most of the ruffians in the state nowadays enjoy JD(U) or BJP patronage. The government has dismally failed in implementation of NREGS and rectification of BPL list. It has also failed to check corruption in PDS, provide relief to the flood and drought affected people, or to check hunger deaths.

The Nitish Government's only significant 'achievement' has been its brutal repression on people's movements. After a few months in power it created a new paramilitary force – SAP – recruiting ex-army personnel specifically to deal with ‘Naxalites’. In March 2007, it passed the notorious Police Act, giving judicial powers to police magistracy. Both these steps were the first of their kind in the country. Thus all the preparations were meticulously made to turn Bihar into a police state.

Be it poor peasants, flood-victims, displacement affected people, students, medicos, employees, shiksha-mitras, para teachers, women health workers, even home guards and media persons - none were spared from police lathis and bullets. In particular, the repression unleashed over peacefully agitating Asha health workers (all women) towards the end of November evoked protest all over the state. AIPWA took a lead in organizing these protests.
During the devastating flood in north Bihar, there were no less than three instances of police firing on people demanding flood-relief - in Darbhanga in July 2007, when 20 were killed; in early August in Madhubani district where one was killed and three injured; and in mid-August in Sonbarsa block of Saharsa district, where another person was killed and two injured.

The latest witness to the series of barbaric police atrocities is Kahalgaon in Bhagalpur district, where police resorted to unprovoked firing on people demanding their due supply of electricity. According to the government, Bihar needs 1500-1600 MW of electricity. But today in this “pro-development” regime, it produces nothing because its Kanti (Muzaffarpur) and Barauni thermal power plants have been declared “sick”. The central government is only supplying less than half of the said requirement. Of course, a political game is on between UPA in the centre and NDA in the state, of which people of Bihar have become a pawn, and they are bearing the brunt of power shortage. But what provoked people was not just shortage but a thoroughly prejudiced and lopsided distribution of available power. Rural supply has suffered most and crops are not getting proper irrigation because the villages get power only for 4-5 hours per day. And the people of Kahalgaon, the site of the NTPC Ltd., had even more reasons to protest against this injustice, because, despite NTPC norms that the plant must ensure 24-hrs supply within its 8-km range, they had been the worst sufferers throughout the state, getting not even 5 hrs power supply per day! Moreover, the local administration and the police officials have entered into a nexus with NTPC management to suppress any move against NTPC. To protest this injustice the citizens called for 72-hours bandh, starting from 18 January, in which thousands of people took part spontaneously and the town came to a standstill. The police, however, was brutally repressive on the very first day, firing unprovoked and indiscriminately, and killing at least three people. This further enraged the masses and they burnt police vehicles and entered into pitched battles with police on the streets. People in Bhagalpur observed a spontaneous bandh on 19 January. Again the police led by the local DSP and SDO of Kahalgaon fired and killed two persons in cold blood, dragging them from their houses. On the third day of the agitation too, Kahalgaon remained completely paralysed, with people announcing “hukka-pani bandh for NTPC”. A CISF jeep was set on fire and people compelled police and paramilitary forces to retreat in many incidents. Beating a retreat in face of defiant Kahalgaon people, the government has announced uninterrupted power supply to Kahalgaon, suspension of SDO and DSP as well as transfer of Kahalgaon BDO and Officer-in-Charge of police station. But the people are demanding arrest of the culprits of firing and institution of murder cases against them, removal of DM and SP of Bhagalpur, and a compensation of Rs.10 lakh to the family of each killed person and Rs.5 lakh to that of injured.

The CPI(ML) staged a protest march against the Kahalgaon police firing and increasing crime rate in Patna and burned the effigy of state government on 19 January. In Bhagalpur, AISA burned the effigy of the CM on 20 January and CPI(ML) staged a dharna on 21 January, demanding uninterrupted power supply and stringent action against the officials responsible for firing in Kahalgaon. CPI(ML) has called for a Bihar Bandh on 24 January to protest the killings. Later LJP too announced to observe a Bandh on the same day, while the RJD-led six party combine announced a Bandh on 25 January.

Earlier in late December 2007, auto-rickshaw drivers of the capital went on a 3-day strike against police highhandedness. The Nitish Government had convened a one-week Assembly session in the first week of December, and people chose this opportunity to vent their discontent and anger on the streets. After the session was over, the administration in Patna went on an offensive and announced that all encroachers will be firmly dealt with. Accordingly, on 22 December, hundreds of auto drivers all over the city were arrested under the new ‘Police Act’ and 56 drivers were dragged to the court with ropes tied around their waists. Their only crime was that in the absence of any parking space provided by the administration, they had parked their autos on the roadside bus stands. Auto drivers reacted immediately and a spontaneous strike all over the city ensued. The strike continued for 22 and 23 December and in the meantime all the five auto driver unions jointly decided to launch an indefinite strike.

CPI(ML) and AICCTU took an initiative and held meetings with our own union as well as other drivers. Processions were brought out and effigies of ‘Police Act’ were burnt. A dharna was organized by the Auto Rickshaw Joint Struggle Committee which was addressed by our corporation councilor Comrade Tota Chaudhry. After three days the leadership called off the strike following talks with transport minister, in which he allowed auto drivers to park their vehicles in some of the bus stands and promised on some other issues like CNG supply and longer permits, but did not give anything in written or accede to some other demands. As the discontent among auto drivers persists, the Party has started conducting propaganda among them and mobilizing them for launching a consistent movement.

Another sphere that has witnessed a lot of turmoil in the state is educational institutions. During his tenure Nitish has just toed the Laloo line of refusing democratic rights to the students. In addition, Nitish has given unbridled rights to the bureaucracy and promoted commercialization of education. This has resulted in widespread corruption in education, patronized by ruling political leaders. In the second half of December, AISA organized a parallel students’ senate (simultaneous to Patna University senate meeting) on the demands of students union elections, central university status to PU, immediate filling the vacant posts of teaching and non-teaching staff, withdrawal of fee hike and checking the assaults on campus democracy. The VC of PU had imposed restrictions in the campus to stall the students’ senate and section 144 was promulgated by the police and nominated a Disciplinary Committee. Rejecting this committee, AISA conducted a campaign among students and as a consequence, defying all these hurdles around two hundred students participated in the parallel senate held at BN College gate, and even some teachers and employees also attended it, who are very much opposed to the autocratic restrictions imposed by the VC to discipline them. AISA has raised the demand of sacking the VC of PU and restoration of campus democracy.

In the PU senate meeting, instead of participating in person, the governor had sent his OSD. Prof. Nawal Kishor Chaudhry opposed the OSD's presence in the Senate as well as the VC's attitude in general and supported AISA demands. AISA too held that sending the OSD reeks of unwarranted bureaucratic interference in university affairs. After that, YC Simhadri (the VC) went to tour France without taking permission either from the governor or the cabinet. After his return, the governor issued a show cause notice to Simhadri. In retaliation, Simhadri suspended Prof Nawal Kishor Chaudhry.

The recent news is that Simhadri has resigned from his post on the Governor's directive. However, before that AISA had already called for a 3-day University Band from 22-24 January 2008. Even after Simhadri's resignation, they have not called off their Bandh, focusing on the remaining two demands: revoking suspension of Prof Chaudhry and stopping intervention by OSD in university affairs.

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