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Elections 2019: The rise of 'red star' Begusarai and why it might ditch Kanhaiya Kumar for Giriraj Singh

Editor's note: In this series on contemporary history, consulting editor Ajay Singh takes us to places and talks about people who left yesterday's indelible mark on today’s politics.

Begusarai, which captured the media’s imagination because of the intense contest between communist candidate and former JNU students union president Kanhaiya Kumar and BJP’s loudmouth Giriraj Singh, was called the land of the rising “red star” in north India after independence. The “red star” then was none else but a redoubtable Marxist Chandrashekhar Singh, whose father was a Congress minister.

In the 1956 by-election for the Assembly seat of Begusarai north (now Barauni), Singh, a young Marxist, having imbibed lessons from the Bolshevik revolution and with Lenin and Joseph Stalin as his icons, challenged Bihar’s most powerful politician and fellow Bhumihar chief minister Sri Krishna Singh. Begusarai was then part of Munger district, to which Singh belonged. Rebellion seduces the masses. Singh, known as “Sri Babu,” learnt this when the novice won despite his towering presence.

 Elections 2019: The rise of red star Begusarai and why it might ditch Kanhaiya Kumar for Giriraj Singh

File image of CPI candidate and former JNU students union president Kanhaiya Kumar. PTI

Chandrashekhar was indeed an ordinary Marxist. He donated his land and called for unity of peasants and workers for the cause of revolution. This had got Sri Babu’s goat who mobilised his followers and was believed to have instructed, “Kuch bhi ho pagalwa ko nahi jitne dena hai (come what may, this madman must not win)”, recalls a senior advocate, Ram Subhagh Prasad Singh, who fought many legal battles in the district court then.

That "do whatever you need to do" instruction in 1957 was the first brick in the foundation of booth capturing in India. This form of subverting electoral politics by money and muscle power lasted well into the early years of this millennium. And thus began the story of booth capturing in the country in the 1957 elections. Begusarai earned the dubious distinction of being the pioneer in rigging in that election. At Ramdiri village, polling booths were captured. Other adjoining areas followed suit. Landlords and affluent people belonging particularly to the Bhumihar caste muscled their way into booth after booth and denied OBCs and Dalits their right to vote for the CPI candidate. Chandrashekhar lost by a narrow margin.

But that one act of political indiscretion by Sri Babu sowed the future of destruction for Begusarai. Communists, who were never averse to armed struggle and violence, responded in kind to the Congress, then the most dominant political force. Though Chandrashekhar tried his best to restore social amity through his genteel demeanour, Begusarai witnessed the fiercest gun battles fought on the streets, like the ones shown in the Bollywood flick “Gangs of Wasseypur”. The Congress propped up Kamdev Singh, a powerful Bhumihar landlord whose business in contrabands earned him money and muscle, as an ideological counter to the rising forces of “Marxism” represented by the CPI.

However, this ideological battleground gradually got overwhelmed by the forces of history. In the sixties, Sri Babu launched a series of developmental projects in Begusarai to rid the area of Marxist influence. Big industrial units like the Barauni refinery, a power plant and a fertiliser factory came up, along with a slew of small-scale industries that changed the area’s economic landscape. For the first time, a bridge was constructed across the Ganga in the state in 1959 to facilitate movement of people and goods across the river to Begusarai and Munger. Begusarai began looking like the most developed region of Bihar.

In the seventies, the CPI appeared to be fighting for its survival and attenuated its ideological position to the extent that it ultimately sided with the Congress in 1975 during the Emergency. The rebellion that seduced the masses in the 1950s and 1960s got hugely betrayed. Though Chandrashekhar was still alive and active, he seemed to have lost control of politics that had mutated into outright criminality.

File photo of Giriraj Singh. PTI

File photo of Giriraj Singh. PTI

In 1980, Kamdev Singh, Bihar’s most powerful don, was shot dead by the police in an encounter that seemed to be a fallout of local politics.

That the lines between politics and the underworld were blurred became evident when in 1985, a group of CPI activists led by Digvijay Singh, Ram Vijay Singh, Hareram Rai and Balram Sav raided the district jail in 1985 and killed a rival and domineering landlord Ram Kishore Pehelwan. This was the first instance of a murder inside the jail in which the CPI local leadership played a role. In the ensuing gun battles that spread all across Begusarai, hundreds of people were killed as gangs of criminals started dominating politics. The ideology of Marxism became a convenient façade for many gangs and their leaders to camouflage their criminality. On the other hand, the emergence of Mandal/Mandir politics gave a veneer of respectability to criminals owing allegiance to caste or religion and initiated them into mainstream politics.

One of the most dreaded gangsters of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, Suraj Bhan, was initiated into politics by Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti Party (LJP). In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, Suraj Bhan’s victory confirmed the worst fears — Begusarai had irretrievably lost its “red star” that promised optimism and hope in the fifties.

It is in this context that Kanhaiya contesting as a CPI candidate makes the contest extremely interesting. Like Chandrashekhar, he is also seen as a rebel who is raring to challenge the established leadership of the BJP and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar. But unlike Chandrashekhar, who had then espoused an ideology getting traction in half of the world, Kanhaiya’s political beliefs are unlikely to get resonance in Begusarai. The reason is not far to seek. Begusarai is the worst victim of the eternal communist adage, “political power flows through the barrel of a gun”. In the shadow of Marxism, Mandal and Mandir, Begusarai had enough of it. As the electorate goes to the poll on Monday, they are unlikely to carry a pleasant memory of “red star” in Begusarai.

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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2019 21:24:13 IST