Thursday, May 26, 2016

Of a President, illegal halts and caste rejigs in Bihar

Varahagiri Venkata Giri was born in a Telugu Brahmin family in Odisha, and I grew up a thousand kilometres away in Bihar. He had no connection with my hometown Dumraon. We never met. In any case, he passed away a little before I came into this world. I often thought what made me wonder about him, India’s fourth President, and not so much about our own Rajendra Prasad.
Linked to my hometown through a dirt track was Ramsar Mathia, a village of 1,000-odd people. Most of them shared VV Giri’s surname. They fondly remembered him on his birth and death anniversaries as if he was one of their own. A village committee with members from six panchayats organised these events. Two-three of these men were our ‘bataidaars’ (share-croppers).
Someone would stand up and speak about his achievements: how he served in Nehru’s cabinet; his tenures as Governor; his work as India’s High Commissioner to Ceylon; how he became Vice-President, acting President and finally President. An ex-MLA from the area would often mention how Giri and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave each other the Bharat Ratna in a span of three years.
They also tried to institutionalise him. A few minutes from Dumraon is Twininganj railway station. It was perhaps named so to honour Sir Twin, a British responsible for pushing indigo cultivation. It became Turiganj like our famous Girls’ Training School was known as Gooltrainee School. Between these two stations, the Giris of Ramsar Mathia built a tiny railway station in 1996. It was named VV Giri Halt. It was illegal, but passenger trains running between Mughalsarai and Patna stopped there.
While Giris elsewhere in the state demanded to be included in the list of other backward castes (OBCs) for more government jobs and college seats, authorities demolished the halt, saying it was illegal and commercially unviable for trains to stop there. Giris kept writing letters to the railway board demanding the halt be rebuilt. Ironically, the ex-President was also a founding member of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation. I wonder if he would have appreciated his name being used for such an enterprise.
Giri went to University College, Dublin, where Thomas MacDonagh taught and radicalised him. When he returned from Ireland, he joined the Congress party and the trade union movement. As President, he made 14 state visits to 22 countries. The closest he came to Ramsar Mathia was perhaps when he occupied Raj Bhawan in Lucknow. There still was a distance of some 400 km.
But VV Giri was not the only halt. In the mid-1990s, when Lalu Yadav ruled Bihar, illegal stations—mainly platforms and no shelters—mushroomed under political patronage. During our commute we would crib when passenger trains stopped at Lalu Halt, Rabri Halt, Sarvodaya Halt, Parasia Halt and Dharali Halt. It allowed ticketless travellers to stream in with sacks of vegetables, herds of goats, huge milk containers and large cotton saree-wrapped paneer chunks. Bicycles also travelled, hanging from window bars.
Trains stopped as drivers and guards feared being bashed up. Some express trains also stopped as people would snip off the vacuum hose. Sometimes people would get off, run, finish a chore in one of those houses along tracks, and get back to the seats unapologetically. Because of back-breaking roads and rickety public transport in those days, trains were the only options for small traders and students to reach nearby towns and cities.
When Mamata Banerjee became the railway minister some of these halts were discontinued. Violence over scrapping of these structures was common. There were also numerous smaller stations created legally. Every time the country had a new railway minister, some trains would skip some of these stations. Mobs torched coaches and damaged tracks in protest.
VV Giri Halt was demolished when Lalu became the railway minister. But chief minister Nitish Kumar was to fulfil a bigger demand. Years later, he moved Giris into the OBC list to win over the 25-lakh-strong Brahmin sub-caste after he split with BJP in Bihar in 2013. The structure was gone, but caste rejigs to stay in power has not halted in Bihar.

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