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Mainstream, VOL L, No 10, February 25, 2012

New Questions in Naya Bihar: The Cry of Vernacular Academics

Monday 27 February 2012, by Dev N Pathak

“I wonder whether Nitish Kumar is an offshoot of Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement; he seems to have emerged from Laloo Yadav’s movement,” said Prof Nawal Kishor Chaudhury, with a wink of sarcasm, in an informal conver-sation during a seminar in Saharsa (Bihar). Prof Chaudhury, an economist of eminence, affiliated with Patna University, had to disclose another barbed wit, that he turned down the offer of ascending to the position of Vice-Chancellor of one of the old universities in Bihar. For, most of the Vice-Chancellors are the charge-sheeted academics in Bihar. The trail of academic sarcasm and nuanced criticism continued to flow throughout the two-day long national seminar in the premises of R.M. College (a constituent unit of B.N. Mandal University, Madhepura) at Saharsa. All had to ask questions; all knew there were fewer answers. And the seminar, thematically titled ‘Economic Justice: Aspirations and Challenges, with a thrust to the Kosi region’, evoked utmost criticality amongst the academics across the rank and file. The new question of the much-touted Naya Bihar demands a creative engagement from the academics of India.

Naya Bihar and Purana Problem

WHAT did they really mean by the prefix naya, when they launched themselves onto refashion-ing Bihar half-a-decade ago? Looking at the newspaper reports and especially the Bihar Development Report 2010, the term naya con-notes a shift from ‘no-governance’ to ‘good gover-nance’ and thereby changes the economic profile of the province. The special story in Time magazine hailed Nitish Kumar as a miracle man who turned Bihar into a model of reforms (November 2011, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2097870,00.html) and thereby celebrated the being in the midst of nothingness as it were.

However, the question is whether nothingness is really empty; whether the emergence of the hero is in void. The problems inherent in the simplistic binaries, such as ‘no-governance’ to ‘good governance’, or ‘no-development’ to ‘good-development’, or ‘no-growth’ to ‘good growth’, are not far from the view. The catching binaries could be effective in sloganeering rather than in an analytical understanding of the situation. The binaries restrict the vision to see the perpetuation of purana (old) problems: that of negligence toward the deeper question of social inequality, that of socio-political reinvention of the categories of inequality, that of the short-lived political populism and window-dressing, that of systemic blinking at the deterioration of education (in schools, colleges, and universities), and so on and so forth. The coinage of naya is preconditioned by sweeping under the carpet everything purana, as it were. New roads, new schemes, new police stations, new universities et cetera, are often underlined to distract from the miserable condition of all that is purana.

Flood in the Kosi region is always discussed as a natural calamity about which the State can seldom do anything other than invoking the non-resident Biharis to contribute into charity funds. However, the political economy behind the flow of funds, unregulated and unaccounted, is never a question to be answered. Hence, akin to the critical argument of Sainath (Everybody Loves a Good Drought, 2005), there is a possibility of ‘everybody loves a good flood in Kosi’. For example, the plethora of the stunning video online, tell stories to vindicate the criticism. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHPwAkZwKv4& feature=related)
The dazzling naya produces hegemonic images, blurring the core and periphery. So, looking at the young girls peddling their government-given bi-cycles on the roads/lanes/gullis, it seems that the eternity of patriarchy has come to an end. However, the patriarchal gaze persists and relishes the feminine appearance in public. Ironically, the male patriarchs also decry the same as erosion of their values. Most importantly, the category of castes, hitherto the most crucial anchorage in electoral politics, continues to be socio-politically vital. Not only governments come into being by utilising the combination of castes, also social relations are forged along caste considerations. The persistent purana is too strong to be glossed over in the daze of the naya. Hence the cries of the academics and their crying questions become significant.

Hope of Academics: Ideology and Utopia

IT is not new that academics toy with the components of ideology and utopia. However, it is pretty courageous on the part of the Bihari (in this case Maithili) intelligentsia to ask a difficult question amidst the euphoria of Naya Bihar. One of such academics, a sociologist by training and teacher at the R.M. College, Dr Vinay Kumar Chaudhury, thought of a seminar on ‘Economic Justice’. For, the economic question seems to topple the castle of sand. But then, as sociologists are notorious for doing, the economic became a contested site and thereby ‘the idea of justice’ surfaced as a key category under discussion. Nearly four hundred participants, mostly teachers from various undergraduate colleges and postgraduate departments in the Kosi region, thronged to speak. The more they spoke, the clearer the question became: ‘we criticise, we hope, we aspire, and thus we dream’. In sync with the popular sentiments of the academics of the region, is the tenor of the book ‘Kosi Ke Sawal par (On the question of Kosi)’ authored by Dr Chaudhury, and released during the seminar. It maintains the historical Maithil tendency ‘to hope and to strive’. The book also invites the readership to understand that the criticism of new trends would not be meaningful if the scholars of the region do not comprehend the historical-cultural background of the region.

However, the role of the intelligentsia to be nuanced in criticism is as illusive at the moment as is the charm of Naya Bihar. No wonder then that the academics, in a way to be as loud as the political leadership and bureaucracy, get caught in the popular rhetoric. The podium thus becomes a mute witness to the casualty of academic standards; the audience then become a mere agency for clapping; the academia thus becomes another arena for the contestation of power; the scholarship then goes for a toss. Academics, thus, run the risk of polemics. This is likely to be the case when an academic event, like a national seminar sponsored by the University Grants Commission, is a rare pheno-menon in the region. It is also bound to happen when political loud-ness echoes more than academic sobriety/humility. And, lastly, it is a high probability if research/knowledge production is dominated by what C. Wright Mills called abstracted empiricism benefiting the corporate, non-governmental organisations, and policy-stakeholders. It is more rewarding, monetarily, to be an intellectual coolie for the agencies who seek for empirical data, statistical figures, and haphazard case studies. However, it also (de)generates the scholarship; mediocrity thus becomes the source of arrogance; regional compartmentalisation thus becomes intellectual fortification. All of it leading to further downfall of the castles that were, only benefiting the power-to-be, in the lack of a systematic criticism.

Notwithstanding the limitations, the event like the seminar mentioned above, there is a possibility of what Scott called the ‘weapon of the weak’. The underdogs in academics, parti-cularly in Bihar, would be able to realise their utopia with their steady pursuit of the same, while the ideologies may come to be confined to the studios of the electronic media. This may happen only on its own accord, without the state doing much or civil society bloating the body of Bihari academia. The articulation of academic resistance, the cries of the vernacular intelligentsia, would have to be more profound in ‘making the deaf hear’. Only then could we see the chargesheeted Vice-Chancellors replaced by well-meaning academics.

The author teaches at the South Asian University, New Delhi.


Bihar Development Report-2010, Prabhat Khabar, by Indicus Analytics (http://www.slideshare.net/indicusanalytics/bihar-development-report-2010).
Chaudhury, Vinay Kumar, 2012, Kosi Ke Sawal Par, Shekhar Prakashan: Patna.
Sainath, P., 2005, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Penguin: Delhi.

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