Nitish Kumar’s Dilemma

What the Ram Navami violence in Bihar Sharif signals for Bihar

Police in Bihar Sharif after violence broke out during a procession on 31 March 2023, a day after Ram Navami. PTI
30 April, 2023

There is no official version of how the violence started in Bihar Sharif, a town in Bihar’s Nalanda district, where I grew up. On 30 March, in Sasaram—a city six hours from Bihar Sharif by road—a heated exchange between Hindu and Muslim youth during Ram Navami processions led to communal violence, according to the state police. The next day, fights broke out in Bihar Sharif, various residents told me, when revelers, armed with swords, stomped over a roadside burial ground in Gagan Devan—a Muslim neighbourhood on the southern end of the city. In the ensuing violence, a Hindu mob set a mosque and a century-old madrasa on fire at Murarpur, a few yards away from Gagan Devan. Several shops, buildings and vehicles were burned down. Many people were injured and a Hindu man, belonging to other backward classes, was reported to be killed in the violence.

Until this year, Bihar Sharif rarely saw communal violence—the last time was in 1998. The town has a population of four lakh people, of which 33 percent are Muslims. It was once the seat of the Magadha Empire that ruled much of the subcontinent for over three hundred years. The empire was known to give political protection to Buddhism. As a Dalit native of Bihar Sharif, I grew up celebrating Muslim and Hindu festivals. We went to Hindu temples and visited two shrines, Baba Maniram and Baba Makhdhoom, dedicated to a Hindu wrestler and a Muslim Sufi man, respectively. There were annual festivals called Langota at Maniram’s shrine and Roshni ka Mela, or fair of light, at Makhdhoom’s shrine. Hindu and Muslims alike attended these festivals, without any objection. The processions themselves were mostly displays of stick martial arts—this was a hallmark of Langota, performed in the streets. I do not remember Ram Navami being celebrated at this scale and it certainly did not involve any swords, spears or any kind of weapons.

In 1998, on the last day of Durga puja, during the idol immersion, some Hindus shouted provocative slogans in Muslim neighbourhoods at Katrapar, barely a kilometre from Gagan Devan. It led to one of the worst incidents of communal violence in the area. I lived yards away from Katrapar. I remember the disruption of daily life for the days that followed—schools were shut down, there were curfews and stone pelting. It took us almost a decade to repair ties with Muslim neighbourhoods, predominantly from the working class. This included regaining friendships and businesses. A generation grew up without knowing the close connections Dalits, Bahujans and Muslims in Katrapar once had.

Following the incident, the administration banned any procession through residential areas. Religious festivals were no longer a thing of display, grandeur or of community participation for almost two decades. During that period, if you had asked a local about any of these festivals and the way they used to be, they would have likely expressed nostalgia but also perhaps relief, because it reduced the likelihood of provoking communal violence again. Processions at smaller scales were taken out unnoticed from roads that were sparsely populated. They were diverted through what used to be bypass roads then. But, with the city expanding over the last 25 years, Ranchi Road, which leads to Gagan Devan, is now a bustling residential area. Two new temples have come up on the stretch. And the politics of the country has changed dramatically.