Want Bihar?

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Theres a saying in Hindi that everyone salutes a rising sun. Ugte sooraj ko sab salaam karte hain. Biharis are different. On the three-day-long Chhatt Puja, a Hindu festival that begins next month, Delhi’s Bihari community will gather on the banks of the polluted Yamuna, wade into the river and pray to the setting sun instead.

This week the eastern state of Bihar starts the election process for its legislative assembly. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, a soft-spoken pro-BJP politician, will battle against his predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav, a staunchly secular leader. Yadav, who ruled Bihar for 15 years, is charming but his corrupt administration ruined the state. Kumar fared better: he brought roads and electricity to some villages. Better still, we havent heard of any scams in his regime. Early this year, The New York Times did a story on how he was turning around the hopeless states fortunes. Kumar is likely to win.

But it will take decades for Bihar to get even with Indias prosperous states (think Tamil Nadu). It is poor, uneducated, caste-ridden and violent. Since there are no opportunities for low-caste Bihari villagers in their homeland, they migrate to big cities like Delhi and Mumbai to become rickshaw-pullers, cab drivers and domestic servants. A large number joins the transitory daily-wage workforce that works in the wheat fields of Punjab and in the highways of the Himalayas. The Prime Minister-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi says, When the entire Delhi sleeps, Biharis work on the Metro (rail) project. Still, Biharis are considered lazy sloths. I know many Indians who say half-jokingly that they would happily give Bihar to Pakistan if it agrees to forget about Kashmir.

The fact that Biharis bow to the setting sun is symbolic of the dark continent character of their state. According to a 2007 report by the Delhi-based Center for Advanced Study of India, Bihar has the lowest human development index ranking among Indian states. It doesn’t help that they are treated with contempt outside their state. In 2008, native Marathis in Mumbai beat up Bihari job sekers. In Delhi, the Biharis face a kind of soft aggression.

When I was working for Amitabh Bachchans quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati a few years ago, I made my first Bihari friend, Kaushal Kishore Mishra, a colleague. Once, over lunch, he told me about his first day in Delhi University. Noticing the inferior paper quality of my graduation mark sheet, the clerk wondered aloud how Biharis could make their way through fake certificates. Ten years in Delhi and Kaushal is unable to feel at home in this city. Home is Gaya, he said referring to his hometown, one of Bihars largest cities and the place where Buddha, ironically, attained enlightenment. There, I freely chat in my lingo. Here I have to speak in a different accent to fit myself.

This is not the fate of Nimisha Sinha, a 25-year-old marketing manager in a Delhi-based advertising firm. Sinha is a yuppie Bihari: she watches Friends on Star World, and Bhojpuri soaps on Bihars local Mahuha Channel; she speaks in that peculiar sing-song Bihari accent at home but switches to perfect babalog English at the upscale Khan Market; she enjoys the pasta at the hip Big Chill restaurant and also has a taste for home-made litti-chokha, a Bihari delicacy in which eggplants are roasted overnight over red-hot coals.

Such seamless assimilation is because Sinha was born and brought up in Delhi. Though she never faced any barb directed towards her, her friends, uninformed of her origins, do occasionally pass a salty comment or two at those Biharis. Delhis definition of Biharis has changed, Kaushal said. Now, its not the natives of Bihar, but anybody who looks unkempt or does a menial job is labelled a Bihari. Calling someone a Bihari has almost become like a curse word in Delhi.

I then turned to one of Delhis most famous Biharis. Shovana Narayan is an award winning Kathak dancer, a secretary-level officer and the wife of an Austrian diplomat. Her family origins are in Bihar. Narayan blames the hostility towards Biharis on misconceptions and points out the states greatness. Do people know that Gayatri Mantra came from Bihar? she asked referring to a verse from Bhagwad Gita that is recited every night at bedtime by millions of Hindus. Are people aware that the first republic in the world, Vaishali, was in Bihar?

Most people are unaware of Bihars greatness. For instance, Nalanda, the worlds first grand university, was in this state. That was 800 years ago. In 2010, Bihar is like a black hole. After decades of disappointments, it is trying to be a more civilized place. But, dear Pakistanis, if you are interested, we Indians will be happy to give you Bihar.

The writer is a Delhi-based writer and photographer. He runs a blog called Pakistan Paindabad