|The Making of A Mofussil Netaji: A Study in Urban Political Culture|
|Local political leaders/activists (Netaji in popular parlance) are an inalienable presence in the Indian urban landscape. In many north Indian towns and kasbas, one comes across scores of them almost on an everyday basis. They are a common sight in the teeming bazaars and the mohullas. Local people know them, their sartorial distinctions, food habits, their austerity and/or penchant for good life, their pastime, their influence, usefulness and other related traits that matter locally. Interestingly, in a mofussil town the distinctions between leaders and rank and file are taken lightly. Anyone who has taken to politics in the eyes of the locals is a Netaji even when s/he might be just an ordinary member of the local branch of a state or national level political party. Moreover, unlike their more established, bilingual and sophisticated metropolitan colleagues, these local Netajis are not merely confined to party offices. In most of the cases, there might not be any office worth its name. Though the locals know about the Netajis’ whereabouts, and can easily find and locate them as and when the need arises. On their part, the Netajis are always there with the local inhabitants – celebrating and mourning in their roles as ‘friend, guide and philosopher’, attending various rites de passage in the local families, participating enthusiastically in public rituals such as Durga Puja and Moharram (Tazia) processions, Holi and Eid Milans. The lack of a permanent address is hardly a deterrent either for the Netaji or the hoi polloi.
In empirical terms, we wish to present an ethnographic profile of this mofussil universe of everyday local politics by way of a case study of a district headquarters town - Sitamarhi – in north Bihar. Our primary objective is to unravel salient aspects of the local political culture as mediated through the varied personalities of local netajis. Our selection of Sitamarhi is guided by factors other than the present researcher’s preliminary exposure to the place. Sitamarhi has been the nerve-centre of Indian national movement and figures prominently in the context of Quit India movement of 1942 (see Yang 2000). Evidently, this town has witnessed the presence of leaders/activists whose political reputations have been based on sacrifices made in the course of Indian national movements. This should provide us an occasion to examine the hypothesis advanced by Mayer (1973) that political culture in such places is always unduly anchored in the past so that no immediate accountability in terms of good governance seems forthcoming. Secondly, it is characterised by substantial presence of Muslims and has seen some of the worse communal rioting after Independence. The riots in the early 1990s have made Sitamarhi a part of the communally sensitive geographical locations in the country (see Varshney 2002). By opting for Sitamarhi we wish to examine Mayer’s second hypothesis whereby the lack of a heterogenetic urban centre in North India is seen as a major obstacle for the evolution of a powerful regional identity that could have countervailed religion as an important and pre-eminent basis of identity formation in the North.
However, we wish to move beyond the received understanding of political culture wherein local level leaders/activists are seen, at best, as hinge groups mediating the state-society structures on behalf of the untutored masses. In much of literature, they have been portrayed as unseemly characters/political brokers out to grab the bounties of the welfare state amidst general conditions of poverty and backwardness. Even the sympathetic observers have looked at them as the purveyors and disseminators of the one-sided (from the metropolis to the village) political discourse and democratic procedures and, thus, have failed to grant them agency of their own. We would be rather interested in highlighting the ways through which these mofussil political creatures not only appropriate the discourses/procedures coming from the top but also the ways in which they recast them by imparting content that is locally rooted in political texture and design.
Another aspect of local political culture we plan to devote some attention to is the two-way traffic between the local media (predominantly print) and the local political class. It has been documented that the major Indian language newspapers had substantially fuelled the communal frenzy during politically turbulent times. In other words, there was total lack of any critical politico-cultural filter at the local level that would appraise the purveyed-down truth-value of the communally charged political propaganda. Is that so? If yes, what are the reasons behind that? At a time when local content is increasing in terms of news coverage and reportage as the major Hindi dailies have their local editions (for example, Hindustan and Aryavarta have their own local edition from Sitamarhi besides a few locally published newspapers) can we expect the growth and development of a relatively independent political culture that is more in tune with local ethos and regional cultural moorings?
Mayer Peter B. 1973. ‘Patterns of Urban Political Culture in India’, Asian Survey, 13 (4): 400-07.
Varshney, Ashutosh. 2002. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Yang, Anand A. 2000. Bazaar India: Markets, Society and the Colonial State in Gangetic Bihar. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.