The book “Last Among Equals: Power, Caste and Politics in Bihar’s Villages” by M.R. Sharan tells the story of village politics, the power dynamics of Bihar’s local administration, and the resilience shown by citizens.
Development economist M.R. Sharan, in this book, tells a tale of hope: that those on the margins can challenge entrenched hierarchies. Through government action—reservation, decentralisation, transparency measures—and through citizenly engagement, social movements and elections, change is possible, if not necessarily easy.
This book eschews the usual sweeping narratives of national and state politics, reaching instead for the ‘swirling, vivid sub-narratives that escape easy categorisations’, the darkness of the material leavened with deep empathy. The result is a captivating, often searing narrative of how lives are lived in the villages of Bihar—and indeed in much of India.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Delhi’s Janakpuri was showcased in loving montages in the 2010 Bollywood sleeper hit, Band Baaja Baaraat. In it, we catch glimpses of this quintessential West Delhi locality: bustling, crowded and dusty, with walls often serving as partitions between eras: an old-school family-run saree shop will sit adjacent to a showroom selling the swankiest of cars; an electrician plying his wares on the street will boast an air-conditioned cybercafe for a neighbour.
Around the time that movie released, Sanjay Sahni, electrician of Janakpuri, could not help but notice people streaming into the cybercafe neighbouring his khokha. He would often sneak a glance inside as he passed the establishment. It seemed to be perpetually teeming with young women and men—many his own age—lost in the wonders of their virtual worlds.
One evening, when work was slow, Sanjay gathered the courage to enter that cybercafe. He positioned himself near the entrance, next to where the owner, a Sikh gentleman, sat. The owner, who knew him by sight, asked Sanjay what he was doing there. In Delhi, the city of outsiders, some were more on the fringe than others. Sanjay Sahni, of oiled hair, rough hands and stilted tongue, simply did not look like he belonged to the world of cyber-surfing.
Sanjay nonchalantly responded that he was doing nothing. Just looking. The owner was not impressed, but let him linger.
The observant young electrician watched intently: those surfing would typically tap the gol chakri, round wheel, at the bottom of the screen. This would cause a box to pop up. They would then type something in the box; and off they went, reading text, watching videos, playing games.
The box, Sanjay realised, held the key.
In 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin had invented a search engine that transformed how information would be classified in the virtual and real worlds. Thirteen years later—by when ‘Google’ had been verbified—Sanjay Sahni gaped in awe at the search-bar and the gol chakri, the Google Chrome icon, that seemed to serve as a portal to a vast, new world.
Emboldened by a deep desire to know, Sanjay slunk into a seat that had just seen a customer leave. The owner noticed. He tried to shoo him off. Sanjay, once more, said he was doing nothing, just checking. Mouse in hand, Sanjay clicked frantically, arbitrarily. At first, there was nothing. Then, it happened: the gol chakri transformed into a box.
Sanjay could spell his name in English. He could even read and write, if somewhat slowly. He typed, letter by letter, these words: Bihar narega.
I have asked Sanjay what made him type those words. He said he wanted to type something important or official-sounding, worthy of a computer. Elsewhere, he has said that he was curious about the foreign word ‘narega’ that seemed to be the cause of much agitation. I imagine it also had the flavour of something familiar, rhyming closely with a string of the most common Hindi verbs (karega, darega), and yet, like a thought that had momentarily escaped one’s mind, felt just out of grasp.
A few more clicks and Sanjay found himself on the NREGA website. It was mainly in English, which slowed down his progress. The owner’s patience was running thin. Eventually, he asked Sanjay to leave. Sanjay requested two minutes more, scanning the entire web page for something to hold on to.
And then he spotted it. In a corner, sandwiched between ‘Munger’ and ‘Nalanda’, was a familiar name: Muzaffarpur. His heart racing, he clicked on it. He then saw another unfamiliar set of names in English, but soon he found his block (Kurhani) and then, with another click, he navigated to his panchayat (Ratnauli). One final click more and, suddenly, he saw names, not of places, but of people. The first name he saw—etched clearly in his mind almost a decade later—was ‘Mahender Paswan’. As he went down the list, he saw more names, all familiar: ‘It was like I was sitting in Delhi, but also in my village.’
It is worth, if only briefly, pausing to consider how momentous and confusing all of this must have felt. The Indian state draws its awesome power from meticulous record-keeping that it stows away in a tower of obfuscations. In his ten-minute jaunt through the world wide web, Sanjay had stumbled upon the tower, found a virtual entrance and had navigated to precisely the location where vaults stored information about his village.
Sanjay was in a frenzy. He asked the owner to print every web page related to his village. The owner asked him if he had gone mad. There were hundreds of pages of names. It would cost Rs 450, three-quarters of Sanjay’s daily earnings. Sanjay was unfazed. The owner’s incredulity gave way to joy.
This decision to print everything was driven by a mix of uncertainty and astuteness. There were two sources of uncertainty: first, he was not sure the information would be there the next time he got to the website; second, he was not even sure he could navigate to the website in the first place. He needed to have everything in print.
Sanjay was also perceptive enough to know that the records were not all benign. The documents—entirely in Hindi—did not merely contain names, but descriptions of projects undertaken and wages paid under NREGA. These were, therefore, wage rolls; or, in the language of NREGA, muster rolls. Sanjay spent much of the night going over the records: he was onto something and would get to the bottom of it.
The next morning, when the owner arrived at his cybercafe, he found Sanjay waiting. There was a marked difference in how Sanjay was treated now, with the owner calling him ‘beta’, son, and ushering him inside with an invitation to sit: Baith, baith, baith, baith.
To his relief, Sanjay found that he was able to retrace his steps from the previous day. He clicked around on the NREGA website and found a mobile number on a contact page. He called the number and the man at the other end—a certain Rajeev Sharma—said that he was based in Rajasthan and could not help someone in Bihar. Instead, he offered another phone number, that of the activist and NREGA-pioneer Nikhil Dey.
Sanjay called the number. Dey answered and apologetically told him that he was travelling that week, and asked Sanjay to call him back. Over the next four weeks, Sanjay would call Dey ever so often, only to be told that the latter was busy. Fed up, he reverted to calling Rajeev Sharma, the man from Rajasthan, who asked him to call yet another number. This turned out to be of a certain Mohammed Afzal from Maharashtra, who politely told Sanjay that he was posted in Maharashtra and gave him the number of someone else who may help. Sanjay called the number and realised he was calling, once more, Nikhil Dey, his old evasive friend. Exhausted, Sanjay gave up. He stopped calling.
Instead, he decided to go to his village and investigate the matter on his own.
On the train back home, the questions kept playing in his mind: What were these documents? Why were there so many names? Why was there so much money—often in the thousands—against all these names? What did it mean when the labourers said they did not get paid? Where was the money?
On reaching his village, Sanjay lost no time in making enquiries. Documents in hand, he went to the tola, or hamlet, closest to his home and tracked down the names from the wage rolls, asking if they had been paid the amount mentioned in the documents. No sooner did he begin than Sanjay noticed the most powerful man in the village, the village mukhiya, trailing him.
The mukhiya, whom I had met once, was a large man, his size accentuated by the relatively shorter average heights of rural Bihar folk. He sported a greying moustache and was almost completely bald, which made him resemble, in one chronicler’s words, ‘the actor Amrish Puri at his most villainous’.
Sanjay, speaking about this first encounter with the mukhiya two years later, described it thus:
The mukhiya asked me, kindly at first: ‘Where have you got these papers from?’
‘Where? I got them from Delhi.’
‘You are making a mistake. You do not know what you are getting into. You keep these papers at home. You are making a good salary in Delhi, you should go back there. Don’t get involved in these things.’
I said I was not getting into anything.
A few minutes of back and forth later, the mukhiya lost his temper and insulted me in the worst possible manner. The documents were all muster rolls—payments for labourers, fakes he had created. Seeing these with me made him angry. He followed me all the way home and threatened me. He even found my parents, scolded them and said: ‘Your son will be destroyed. Send him back to Delhi.’
Sanjay’s parents were worried. The mukhiya was also a Sahni, though the families were not very close: a vast economic gulf separated them. Sahnis, traditionally fishermen (or practising fishing-related occupations like net-weaving), are officially classified as Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) in Bihar. Most Sahnis are poor, occupying the bottom few rungs of the wealth ladder. However, owing to their large numbers in certain pockets in North Bihar, some among them, like the mukhiya of Ratnauli, had become local strongmen and muscled their way through to power. This was not the case with Chandra Shekhar Sahni, Sanjay’s father. He had spent most of his life as a migrant labourer in cities like Calcutta and Ranchi. In the light of such obvious disparities, the senior Sahni persuaded his son to leave the village and return to the city.
Back in Delhi, Sanjay returned to his old life. One day, on a whim, he tried Nikhil Dey’s number again. To his surprise, Dey said he was in Delhi and could meet. Sanjay remembers hastily packing his tools, closing his khoka and rushing to Hauz Khas, his precious printouts in hand. He was relieved when Dey, after listening to Sanjay and scrutinising the documents, declared that this was indeed evidence of corruption. Later, acknowledging Sanjay’s resoluteness, Dey wrote that that the young man ‘doggedly pursued this trail until he tracked us down, and two months later he made sure that we met him and heard his story’.
Dey then put Sanjay in touch with A. Santhosh Mathew—a bureaucrat known for his dynamism and heart—who was then the principal secretary to the Rural Development Department in Bihar. Mathew asked Sanjay to meet him the next time he made his way back to Bihar.
Sanjay caught the first train out of Delhi and showed up at Mathew’s doorstep.
I asked Mathew if he remembered that first meeting.
‘What do you mean by “remember the meeting”?’ he asked in a manner that implied the answer was obvious. Sanjay was among those people ‘who leave a mark on your psyche’, Mathew explained. ‘[Sanjay’s] was a remarkable story … He was just struck by the exploitation but also the falsification of records.’
As a civil servant, Mathew had been involved in designing the NREGA, and had long recognised its potential. In Sanjay, he saw someone who shared that sentiment: ‘Here was this man who actually related to that vision and that promise. In him, I saw India’s future … and an important ally to understand the reality on the ground for a scheme I was responsible for the implementation of. What can be greater than that?’
Mathew proposed to send an audit team to Ratnauli. Sanjay was elated, even though he did not fully appreciate what that would entail. In the meanwhile, Mathew said, he would have prominent walls in the village painted with information from muster rolls. When Sanjay reached his village later that evening, he was amazed to see painters diligently painting walls with names and amounts. Mathew had kept his word. Mahender Paswan and the other NREGA labourers of the village had travelled once more—from the web pages discovered in a cybercafe in Delhi to the walls of their own Ratnauli in Muzaffarpur.
On reaching home, Sanjay found the mukhiya waiting at his doorstep. I will, once more, let Sanjay relate the conversation that followed:
The mukhiya said: ‘You are back again!’
I said, ‘What can I do? Am I doing anything to you? I have come back to my village—can’t I return home?’
‘You are responsible for all this—all the writing on the wall—I know you are making it happen.’
‘Me? Why will I make them write it?
The argument did not last long, but both parties had realised that something new, different, even dangerous, was afoot.
The writing was, quite literally, on the wall.
Excerpted with permission from Last Among Equals: Power, Caste and Politics in Bihar’s Villages, M.R. Sharan, Context. Read more about the book and buy it here.