The trigger for a surge in communal tensions in Bihar may be localised — stone-throwing at a local procession in Bettiah; a dispute over where to bury the dead in Khagaria; a clash over the menu at a dhaba in Nawada.
But politicians and observers are linking it to the larger political realignments, as a result of the split between the Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the erosion in the State government’s authority.
The ruling JD(U) is blaming both the UPA government for creating a “fertile ground for communalism,” and an “insecure, friendless” BJP, returning to “old communal politics.” Its spokesperson K.C. Tyagi said: “LoC killings, war-mania, Jammu incident, and the attitude of the new leadership of BJP which can go to any extent to come to power have all come together to create a fluid situation. Small incidents can easily flare up.”
Rashtriya Janata Dal national spokesperson Manoj Jha attributes the incidents to the “Hindu Right” going “berserk.” “As long as the BJP was in power, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was expanding implicitly. [Chief Minister] Nitish Kumar chose to remain oblivious of it. Now, it has become explicit. The BJP calculates that it will be successful only if it superimposes a Hindutva identity on caste identities.”
But BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman has termed the allegations “unfortunate and irresponsible.” “Anything happens between communities, and it has become common to blame the BJP. The administration is in the hands of Nitish Kumar. What stops him from catching culprits and nabbing criminals instead of finding alibis?”
If the BJP is accused of practising “communal politics,” the JD(U) and the RJD have been criticised for taking to similar tactics to tighten their grip on minority votes. A senior police source told The Hindu that a “competitive game” was under way in the State, and Mr. Kumar and [RJD chief] Lalu Prasad hope to project themselves as “secular messiahs.”
Vinay Kantha, former president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), and a leading civil liberties activist in Patna, says new political equations have emerged. “The BJP, when in a coalition, could not afford to communalise politics… Muslims were given the protective umbrella by all other parties. Now, on either side, there is some attempt to politically mobilise communities.”
But if one factor is willingness to engage in the religion-based mobilisation, the other is the erosion in the government’s authority. BJP deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha and senior leader from Bihar Ravi Shankar Prasad said he condemned the riots and demanded firm action. “But see it in the larger context of the firing on Tharus, the midday meal tragedy, bomb blasts, and it is clear Nitish Kumar is spending more time on political management, with governance suffering.”
Independent observers in Patna agree that Mr. Kumar’s grip over the administration has “loosened,” and as he appears weaker and more indecisive, the law and order machinery is no longer effective.
Mr. Kantha says the government has always been very “cautious” while handling minority issues, but it appears to be in “dilemma” now.
Asked about the government’s weakness in handling the situation, Mr. Tyagi admits that the religious tensions were a “challenge.” “We are seeing this for the first time in several years, but want to assure Bihar’s citizens that we will not let situation deteriorate.”