Bihar was overcoming ‘caste order’ and the media didn’t like what it saw

The book ‘Democracy against Development’ is the result of more than three years of fieldwork in Bihar, in which author and anthropologist Jeffrey Witsoe explains how terms like jungle raj came to be associated with the state   

In India, Bihar has become synonymous with backwardness, poverty, illiteracy, corruption and hooliganism (jungle raj). I remember a friend of mine advising me to be extremely careful while visiting areas around Bihar (I was going to visit eastern parts of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh!). Few dare to question this dominant perception of the state. Jeffrey Witsoe is one of them and his Democracy against Development is one of those courageous acts and stands out on the shelf. Sadly, sociological and anthropological works on Bihar have been thin for many years. Witsoe’s work goes against the grain to understand the connection among three axes– development, democracy and caste. The book deals with Bihar and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party at the empirical level and with liberalism, postcolonialism, democracy, development, caste and State at the thematic level.

Democracy and development are often perceived as the antithesis of one another. Witsoe, through his theoretical and empirical insights, puts forward the point that both are deeply interlinked with one another. The author uses the postcolonial understanding of democracy (and development) and refines it with his observation of caste-based politics. He argues that lower-caste politics has helped not only in the percolation of democracy but also helped in the sharing of the fruits of development. He thus departs from the usual postcolonial understanding of Indian society being merely non-West and critiques the usual assumptions of liberalism and postcolonialism. “More than three years of fieldwork” has paid dividends in the form of this rich ethnographic account.

Jeffrey Witsoe at a seminar in the Jagjivan Ram Institute of Parliamentary Studies and Political Research in Patna in August 2014

The book has seven chapters plus an introduction. All the seven chapters are systematically arranged and the argument and fieldwork data are sewn into a seamless narrative. Witsoe moves from meta to macro to mini to micro physical spaces. While the first chapter describes India, second chapter deals with the Bihar state, third with a district, fourth with a block, and fifth and sixth with a village and a single colony in the village, respectively. The introduction opens up the debates surrounding three themes of postcolonial democracy and lower-caste politics. In the first chapter, Witsoe goes back to the colonial rule and explores the ways in which consolidation of upper castes (Brahmin, Bhumihar, Rajput and Kayasth) as centres of power took place. Emergence of lower-caste politics is placed in this context. The second chapter examines the upper-caste nature of the Congress party and how RJD challenged it. RJD chief, Lalu Yadav, became synonymous with empowerment of lower castes. The third chapter explains the interface of society and State and posits the biased nature of Bihar state through an empirical work on Bhojpur district. The monopoly of the upper castes made the State machinery redundant in the resolution of the everyday issues of the lower-caste majority. The fourth chapter moves beyond the macro narratives of Bihar society and state to a block (Koilwar) and details the working of castes at the regional level. The fifth chapter elucidates the power dynamics of caste at the village level. The sixth chapter dwells on the minutiae of a Yadav colony in the village. The last chapter reflects on RJD politics and the challenges it had been facing till the time of research (around 2010).

‘Democracy against Development’ by Jeffrey Witsoe

The crux of the book is how lower-caste politics disempowered the State machinery as it was extremely casteist in nature and tried to fill that void, even if marginally, with newer centres of power having backward classes at the helm. This, in turn, paralyzed State-induced development activities, because of which that Bihar got the notoriety of being corrupt and the label goonda raj. For Witsoe, this came to be, as lower-caste politics could not effectively change the casteist nature of the State even after a lower-caste party (RJD) took over the political (legislative) apparatus. The difference was that earlier, party men and bureaucrats could hide their corrupt practices due to their (upper) caste networks, but this was not possible in case of RJD leaders and supporters. Time and again, Witsoe criticizes the poor role that the Hindi and English media played to defame RJD’s approach, which was actually in favour of the poor and the lower castes. Both the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Scheduled Castes (SCs) gained confidence and could articulate their voice in the corridors of power. Muslims were equally happy to live in a state where there was no threat of communal riots. It was this change in caste-inflicted culture that raised eyebrows and was labelled as jungle raj and Yadav raj.

In spite of all these achievements, RJD could not retain power. Witsoe is honest enough to accept RJD’s weak points. The rise in the aspirations of OBCs and SCs was something that Lalu missed. RJD, in its later phase, became ossified into Yadav-dominated politics. The State (both bureaucracy and universities) was weakened but no alternative was offered. It is here that Witsoe could have gone on to see what happened in the case of next-door Uttar Pradesh, where Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by Mayawati ruled by strengthening the State.

At the theoretical level, Witsoe is grappling with postcolonial scholarship and its elite (casteist) bias in understanding the Indian State, media, bureaucracy and academics. Nevertheless, this book is a must-read for all those interested to know about Bihar, lower-caste politics, and the anthropology of democracy and development. I myself could take a leaf out of Witsoe’s book and do some multi-sited ethnography and do it well.

Title: Democracy against Development: Lower-Caste Politics and Political Modernity in Postcolonial India

Author: Jeffrey Witsoe

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Year of Publication: 2013

Pages: 256

Price: Rs 3128

Copy-editing: Anil


Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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