Capital Community — How Delhi Treat its Biharis

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Photo Essay – Chhat Pooja, India Gate

There’s a kind of soft aggression against the community.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

There’s a saying in Hindi that everyone salutes a rising sun. Biharis are different. On the second day of the three-day-long Chhatt puja, which ended on November 4, 2008, the capital’s substantial Bihari community gathered in Yamuna ghats near ITO and Wazirabad, waded into the river and prayed to the setting sun instead.

Hailing from different walks of life — chartered accountants, media professionals, IAS aspirants, Metro rail labourers, rickshaw-wallahs — they could as well have been praying for the sinking image of their home state.

The popular perception of Bihar is hardly flattering. “They have nothing in Bihar,” says actor Mr Roshan Seth. “They come to other places for work where they are exploited by others.”

According to a 2007 report by the Center for Advanced Study of India, Bihar has the lowest human development index ranking among Indian states. “Biharis deserve a better life in their own state so that they don’t have to migrate to other states,” says model Ms Lakshmi Rana.

Until then they have no option, even if things are getting worse for them. On October, 2008, Bihari job-seekers were beaten up a group of native Marathis in Mumbai. In Delhi, they fare better by coping with nothing more than a kind of soft aggression.

Mr Kaushal Kishore Mishra, a media professional in Siddhartha Basu’s Synergy Adlabs Ltd, has not been able to forget his first day in Delhi University in 1998.

“Noticing the inferior paper quality of my graduation mark sheet, the clerk wondered aloud how Biharis could make their way through fake certificates,” Mr Mishra says. Ten years of living in Delhi and he is still unable to feel at home here. “Home is Gaya,” he says. Gaya is one of Bihar’s largest cities. “There, I can freely chat in my language, while here I have to speak in a different accent to fit myself.”

This is not the fate of Ms Nimisha Sinha, a 25-year-old marketing manager.

Ms Sinha is a yuppie Bihari: she watches Friends on Star World as well as Bhojpuri soaps on Mahuha Channel; she speaks in that peculiar sing-song Bihari accent at home but switches to perfect babalog English at Khan Market; she enjoys the pasta at Big Chill and has also a taste for home-made litti-chokha.

Such seamless assimilation is probably because while Ms Sinha’s father hails from Deogarh, Bihar, she herself was born and brought up in Delhi. Schooling in DPS RK Puram, apartment in Mayur Vihar and office in ITO. “Delhi is my city,” she says. “I feel bored in Deogarh.”

While Ms Sinha never faced any barb directed towards her, her friends, uninformed of her origins, do occasionally pass a salty comment or two at ‘those Biharis’. “Most of us Biharis are hard-working, if nothing else,” she says. “Unlike in Mumbai, our hard work is respected here.”

Mr Mishra doesn’t agree. “Delhi’s definition of Biharis has changed,” he explains. “Now it’s not the natives of Bihar, but anybody who looks unkempt or does a menial job is labelled a Bihari.”

Mr Jitendra, an IAS aspirant living on the North Campus, Delhi University, is so dejected that he has made up his mind to return to hometown Patna. “They use the word Bihari as a swear word,” he says. “Recently, I heard it hurled at a particularly slow-moving petrol pump attendant in Azadpur bypass.”

“Things will change once Bihar becomes prosperous,” says Ms Shovana Narayan, Padma Shri dancer and an IAS officer whose family origins are in Bihar.

Ms Narayan blames the hostility towards Biharis on misconceptions and points out the state’s greatness. “Do people know that Gayati Mantra came from Bihar?” she asks. “That one-third of Puranas and shastras were written in Bihar and that the first republic in the world, Vaishali, was in Bihar?”

On the final day of the Chhatt puja, while worshipping the sun, the fasting Biharis were perhaps praying for the re-emergence of those sunny times.

However, Ms Nimisha is just praying for the Pragati Maidan Trade Fair to start. Then she would get her annual opportunity to buy anarsa, lai, tilkut and other sweetmeats in the Bihar state stall that she can’t find in the city’s more popular mithai shops — Nathu, Haldiram or Aggarwal Sweets.