New Delhi, Aug.19: This morning when I saw television channels reporting a train running over at least 35 persons and injuring another 30 in Bihar’s Saharsa District, my memories went back to the year 1964 when I had my first glimpse of railway travel in Bihar. At that time, I felt that Bihar was trying to prove the Marxist theory of the “withering away of the state” -not what Karl Marx meant – an ideal society.
I have been to Bihar a number of times, on duty and on holiday; and on each visit, I observed the process of the state system withering away. One hoped that the establishment of a stable government by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar would have changed the situation and people would have become more disciplined. But the news of the tragedy this morning makes one wonder.
To recall my first encounter with Bihar. In August 1964, I was going to Shillong from New Delhi on transfer to assume charge as Public Relations Officer of the Ministry of Defence there. I was to be the Defence Public Relations Officer for the north-eastern sector.
The journey from Delhi to Shillong then took almost three days and two nights. One had to travel to Patna on broad gauge, change trains and take the Calcutta Gauhati train which was on metre gauge. The other alternative was to catch a metre gauge train from Delhi to the east and it took longer.
I decided to break journey at Barauni, where my relative was posted as an engineer in the newly constructed refinery there. After crossing the Ganges, I reached Mokameh and proceeded to Barauni where I had decided to stay for a day. I had planned to reach Shillong on August 16, the next working day. After a pleasant day at Barauni with my cousin, I boarded the Gauhati bound train.
At Barauni, my cousin insisted that I carry some poories prepared by her along with some dry vegetables. I was allotted a two berth coupe. The person traveling in the other berth was a trader from Calcutta.
The train started from Barauni a little late, but that hardly mattered. It was past noon . It chugged along for about half an hour and came to a stop at a wayside station. There was a crowd knocking at the door asking us to open the door. I was about to open it, when my co-passenger told me not to do so. He bolted the door firmly and asked me whether I was from the army as indicated on the reservation chart. He requested whether I could wear my uniform, as it would prevent people from forcing open the door.
I changed my clothes in the washroom, as the knocking on the door had chastened me a great deal. I asked what was the trouble. He told me that the tradition in Bihar since August 15, 1947 has been that on Independence Day, people travel free on the Railways. Reservation of seats and berths had no meaning on Independence Day. After all the country had become ‘free’ on that day and the government had no right to charge for anything.
When the crowd saw me in uniform, they moved away, but kept knocking at the next compartment. There was no sign of the train conductor or any other staff from the Railways. The shouting continued for nearly half-an-hour. One person from the platform hurled abuses to those inside the compartment and said open the door you s.o.b. or words to that effect. That provoked the person traveling in the next compartment, who opened the door and tried to push the people who made a dash to get inside the compartment.
The next thing I head was an accusation from the crowd that, while pushing the people back, the passenger inside had touched a woman. ‘Hamara aurat ko haath lagaya’ – ‘Niche uthro’ said one man and there was a chorus of abuses. By that time the travellers in the adjacent compartment had also lost nerve. They locked the compartment firmly. But the crowd started hurling stones along with abuses. Broken glass littered the platform. The train must have stopped at the station for nearly three hours.
It was only then I realized how wise my cousin was when she packed the poories for me. She also had filled my thermos flask with cold water and me and my co-passenger shared the food and water.
Nearly an hour after the stone-throwing, the train guard arrived along with some policemen, pacified the crowd and with the assistance of the police helped people to climb-not into the passenger compartments, but the roof of the train! The gentleman accused of ‘touching’ the woman was smuggled aboard somewhere . After nearly four hours, the train started moving, fully loaded, particularly on top . It passed many more trains coming from the opposite direction, similarly loaded.
If my recollection is right, the train reached Katihar late in the evening. The crowd melted away and everyone was happy at the nice outing. .
I reached Gauhati on the evening of August 16 after crossing the mighty Brahmaputra, stayed for a night in the city and left for Shillong by road the next day. I joined my post a day late, but the head clerk there told me that rules covered such delays and that I was also entitled to a traveling allowance. The glimpse of Bihar was a bonus.
My next exposure to Bihar was a decade and a half later when I visited Patna as Chief Media for Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 1981. I was on a familiarization tour to determine how to motivate the people to plan their families. I was received at Patna railway station early morning by the representative of the State Ministry of Health and put up at the Circuit House, as requested by me. The Circuit House, as usual, was located in a big bungalow.
I had to meet the State Health Secretary around 11.30 a.m., and was getting ready to leave the Circuit House. The attendant of the room asked me whether I will be having lunch or dinner there. I asked him why he needed advance notice. He said all others staying at the Circuit House were permanent residents. They had their families, servants, and even cattle. A look out of the window confirmed his statement. In addition to the cattle, there was also stacks of fodder. No wonder Bihar is not unduly worried over the fodder scam.
I was feeling guilty when I was ushered into the room of the Health Secretary, as many visitors were waiting for an audience with him. I told him that I can come later, but he assured me that most of those who were waiting were either parents or parents-in-law of government doctors who were seeking a transfer to Patna.
I was taken on a tour of primary health centres in the state for the next two days. In almost every place, I was told that the doctors were either on tour or were on leave, and the unit was being run by attendants. Surprisingly, there was no real opposition to planning their families. The people wanted health care facilities. Dr Shankaranand, the Health Minister at the Centre, to whom I reported wrote a long letter to the state suggesting the activisation of primary health centres. The situation in Eastern Uttar Pradesh was more or less similar.
As Media Officer for the Health Ministry, I planned a massive multi-media campaign to build up public pressure for creating a demand for health services, with help from the Song and Drama Division, the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity and the State Health Department. Some of the visuals used in the campaign showed overloaded buses which had the slogan – large families miss the bus – with appropriate visuals. My brief, but interesting assignment in the Health Ministry, came to an end soon after.
The recent mid-day meal tragedy in Bihar brought back memories and made me wonder when things would change in Bihar.
The next time I visited Bihar was in 1990 along with Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh. By that time, Lalu Prasad Yadav had become the Chief Minister. His stopping of the Rath Yatra of L.K. Advani had earned him accolades. His speech at the function supported the Mandal Commission recommendations and justified violent protests against ‘unfair’ governments.
The fodder -scandals that surrounded the Lalu Prasad-led Government are still not solved.
One expected that Nitish Kumar, whom I had known when he was the Railway Minister in the NDA government, and a close associate of George Fernandes with whom I functioned as media advisor in the Ministry of Defence, would make a change in the drift that was characteristic of Bihar. But the mid-day meal tragedy that took place last month and the rail tragedy that happened this morning makes one wonder.
Is Bihar still on the way to prove the Marxist axiom of The “Withering away of the State”
By: I. Ramamohan Rao, former Principal Information Officer. Govt of India. He may be contacted at email@example.com (ANI)