When A Forgotten People Remember Their Dead

The 19th of January , 2016 saw the 29th anniversary of the police firing that claimed the lives of two Bhoonkars of Bhagalpur.

_MG_7557

Portraits of Jehangir Ansari, Shashi Kumar Chandra and Ganga Prasad.

This article appears in The Wire on the 21st of February, 2016. 

The Bhoonkars or Bunkars are weavers. They are powerloom workers. They own their own machines, but are slaves to capital. They are a caste of their own. They are a Muslim-majority, as Ansaris, with a minority Hindu percentage, the Tantis, who were just recently classified as Scheduled Castes. They all call themselves Bhoonkars.

On the 19th of January this year, most of the powerlooms lay quiet; the constant clatter and hum of powerloom machines signify Bhoonkar neighbourhoods, yet on this day silence prevails. Slowly, small groups of men congregate to  Nillmahi Mahi Maidan near Champanagar where a memorial has been held every day for the past 29 years. An hour into the event, there were over two thousand people, with the organizers claiming that almost every year they have an average of five thousand people. The crowd was stoic, quiet; they barely reacted to the maybe forty speeches that were given, from literally every political party, to NGOs, co-operatives, to those from the Bhoonkar Sangarsh Samiti, that evolved from the CPI(Marxist)-affiliated Powerloom Weavers Association, who have been holding the event for 29 years now.

It was in late 1986-1987 when there were a series of mass actions and protests against the Bihar State Electricity Board and the Bhagalpur administration. For years, the Bhoonkars have been decrying how their electricity bills and rates were completely ‘ad hoc’, and how local electricity board officials were clearly corrupt. They would be paying incredible rates for an unstable connection – they’d have a power supply for only a 2-3 hours, and still be at the mercy of inscrutable officials.

Electricity for powerloom workers is their lifeline, without which they can be led to the brink of starvation and complete ruin. They are supplied materials by ‘middleman’ and given contracts on a time limit, where if they falter, they can be held on penalty.

From Rs.60 per horsepower in the early 1980’s it had gone to Rs.100 per horsepower at the time of the protests. And right in the thick of the protests, which saw road jams and hunger strikes, an inscrutable official Baliram Singh, then Manager of BSEB, had decided to cut off power entirely for the Bonkers of Bhagalpur.

It was in this environment when a lathi-charge led to the death of three people on the 19th of January, 1987, on the fourth day of an indefinite hunger strike.

The march that tried to reach the site of the hunger strike was blocked by a lathi-charge, and as people began to retreat a single shot rang out.

Two young men, Jehangir Ansari and Shashi Kumar Chandra, both in their early twenties, both unmarried, were killed by a bullet from a .303 rifle. It first hit Jehangir in his neck and then Shashi in the back of his head. Sukhdeo Mehra, a Deputy Superintendent of Police was killed and his vehicle burnt when he was allegedly abandoned by a retreating police force. Two or three other police constables were apparently escorted out safely by some members of the crowd themselves. Then on the 20th of April, Ganga Prasad a man in his late 40’s who was on the hunger strike with two other people, died in prison, owing through the complications of the hunger strike and treatment in prison. Local folklore claims that the DSP was killed by his own, no one would even fathom an imagination that it was in their protest that a policeman was killed. They own up to the burning of his vehicle yet refute any allegations of murder. They pin the blame of all the deaths on an Inspector called KK Singh. A claim repeated by the opposition in Bihar at that time.

Fifty two people would spend time in and out of jail, and are still fighting cases in the courts. Twenty of whom have passed on. ‘hamare bees vakil ka bhi time hogaya,’ Added Sajan Kumar, one of the conveners of the Bhoonkar Sangarsh Samiti, and sympathizer of the CPM.

There were never any compensations, nor inquiries into the deaths of the Bhoonkars. Shashi’s father was quoted over the years saying that no case would bring his son back, but if they could honour him, they could change the Tantibazaar road in his honour.

_MG_7723

The portrait of Shashi Chandra is taken every year from his family’s living room and returned at the end of the event. The photograph of Jehangir’s was only found 3 years ago, as the Muslim Bhoonkars of Bhagalpur seldom photograph themselves.

This image, is seemingly shot by a journalist, of a body lying horizontal, ready for burial, with a man, probably his father, sitting behind.

The Industry that Bihar and Capitalism Forgot

_MG_7596

Bhagalpur today is a town lost in post-communalism and post-capitalism. It is today almost impossible to believe that Bhagalpur’s weavers produced a world famous silk. According to Alim Ansari of the Bihar Bhoonkar Kalyan Samiti, it was between 1970-1990 that the exports would be at Rs.250 crore while it is merely Rs.130 crore today. According to him, there are still over 50,000 families of weavers who still work in the industry today, and while there is migration to Meerut and Bhiwandi, Mumbai, there is a disinterest in the industry among the youth.

The industry has been in decline for years, the reasons going from lack of supply of raw materials, to the import of cheaper silk, to the breakdown of the systems of welfare, to social apartheid, to globalization, and its shadow twin, the breakdown of the union itself. There are countless ‘samitis’ and interest groups who claim to speak for the Bhoonkars, and therein lies countless exhortations for unity on the meeting on the 19th, and countless varying demands from different governments.

From the surface though, there are two things that most bother the Bhoonkars, one, which is a matter that became central to almost every speech in the meeting: electricity; and the other which was not mentioned even once in the speeches but was a point to be made by every common Bhoonkar: ‘lack of capital and the control by suppliers.’

Each family can have anywhere from two to five powerlooms. The middleman, called mahajans, sahukars, or baniyas, by the Bhoonkars will supply yarn to the family and only pay for the daily wage – which today can stand to Rs.200 to Rs.250 a day or Rs.300-450 a day. In four hours a single machine can loom about two saris. Eight hours consume about four units of electricity which is at Rs.21-22, which means the monthly bill for each machine can come to over Rs.600. There is also an ad hoc rate of Rs.450 per machine.

Yet ‘clients’ or middleman, are not always available and they share no profits in the sale of any of the produce from the machines, which is where the anger against the electricity board and rates is magnified. Ram Avatar Prasad, the older brother of Shashi exclaims how there is a lot of ‘bezati’ from the suppliers; and that they can’t respond to them in kind because they’d find another family to do their work.

Obaidullah, a middleclass Bhoonkar would exhort how many of the clients mistreat Bhoonkars on the question of identity.  ‘In front of me one supplier had come from outside the state and said he’d only want to work with Hindu Bhoonkars, and not Muslim Bhoonkars.’

71 year old Comrade Kishor, one of the original members of the Powerloom Weavers Association mentions how emporiums in every city for the Bhoonkars would’ve helped them immensely and was a popular demand at one time. Yet today there is little confidence in the movement to confront an entire ‘vyapar’ community, as they are referred to. Noor-ullah Ansari (28) said a ‘mandi’ or an independent Bhoonkar market from their side wouldn’t work as the ‘vyaparis’ or the ‘sahukars’ would put them out of business. He recalls at a time before him, how the government used to supply yarn to them for a cheap price but the ‘sahukars’ dropped their price even lower. After the government scheme was abandoned, the price was again raised.

In 2010, over 5000-7000 Bhoonkars had marched to meet the District Magistrate of Bhagalpur to demand they get access to electricity 24 hours a day, and that their rate be the same as that of the powerlooms at Uttar Pradesh – Rs. 130 per loom where in Bhagalpur, it is Rs.450 per loom.

The District Magistrate Rahul Singh was informed that they were coming to meet him, yet he was unavailable for the entire day. He would eventually meet a delegation and react to their demands with aggression. ‘Aap log gunda-gardi karne kyu aaye ho?’ He apparently responded.

They would walk away from that meeting with nothing: their demands for the fulfillment of the promised 4% interest bank loans from the State Bank of India, or that their ad hoc 75 crore electricity bill be written off, were not heard. ‘People who sold their looms still get bills from the company, (Bhagalpur Electricity District Company Private Limited.) ‘ claims Nujahid Ansari, one of the leaders of the march.

It was when they had threatened to protest during Nitish Kumar’s visit in 2014 that they had a meeting with him in the circuit house that led to his promise on the matter of electricity, a promise yet fulfilled.

In the recent Vidhan Sabha elections, Ajeet Sharma of the Congress had won the election after coming second in the 2010 elections. In 2014, the Bhoonkar Sangarsh Samiti had gone to meet him with the memorandum they had from the Nitish yet his response was lukewarm. In 2015, he attended the ‘shahadat diwas’ of the 19th and on stage claimed that he had no idea about the Bhoonkar Sangarsh Samiti and that he’d have brought up the Bhoonkar demands if he had been informed about them.

He was not present in the meeting on the 2016.

The Other Betrayal

_MG_7682

One of the old guard of the CPI(M), was more than vocal of his feelings against his party. He shakes in anger, and passionately exclaims that he is still a communist, that he will always be with ‘people’s politics’ – he claims that the stage on the 19th had even those who work against the interests of the Bhoonkars because the CPM had become weak. He lay the blame, on the central leadership of the party. Where are they? He asks, ‘they gave birth to this movement and where is a single leader of theirs?’

‘Nobody had come, a few of the local Bihar leaders were the only ones.’

There was an environment in the meeting that most people only responded to exhortations to march onto Patna. There was little applause in the entire four hour meeting, most people nodded to some points yet it was evident that their congregation was more as a marker for pride than a curiosity for the speakers.

A point indicated as the most vocal the crowd had been, was when a young man, Ansur Rehman Choudhary sang and recited a short poem, as it had started to rain:

‘Rorrraha hai aasman bhi, bhoonkaro ka haal dekh kar,

ho gaya shaheed jehangir, aur shashi hamare darmeyan.’

 (‘The skies are also weeping at the plight of the weavers/Here among us were martyred Jehangir and Shashi’)

 

Leave a Comment