Reinforcing old metropolitan biases
AAP making fun of Manoj Tiwari’s Bhojpuri work betrays cultural insensitivity
A FEW days into the campaign for the Delhi Assembly election, the Aam Aadmi Party had its Sidharth Malhotra moment. Its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party, denounced a series of videos posted by AAP and its leaders mocking the BJP’s Delhi unit chief Manoj Tiwari as an attack on Bhojpuri language and Purvanchali ethos.
Apart from the contentious videos, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also took potshots at one of Tiwari’s playful Bhojpuri numbers, Rinkiya ke Papa. If the AAP chief’s intention was to show Tiwari as a non-serious and coarse politician, AAP’s approach reeked of metropolitan bias similar to what is apparent in a short commercial for Cadbury Fuse chocolate.
The Cadbury ad features Bollywood actress Kriti Sanon playing a celebrity who is being complimented by an interviewer for her “grace, elegance and sense of style”. This is juxtaposed with her hysterical side as she gets up and runs frantically after spotting someone in the audience unwrapping a Fuse bar. The song played for portraying everything that’s supposedly the reverse of “grace and elegance” is in Bhojpuri. This could have been dismissed as a case of reading too much between the lines, but it’s of a pattern. Over the decades, Purvanchalis – migrants from Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand – have observed this pattern revealing itself in overt and covert ways.
In Delhi, despite the growing political significance of Purvanchali voters, or maybe because of it, political leaders haven’t gone beyond tokenism to dispel such deeply entrenched attitudes against generations of labour, professional, educational and commercial migrants from the Purvanchal in general and Bihar in particular.
The token gesture, for instance, made by the previous Sheila Dikshit government of setting up a Maithili-Bhojpuri Academy in 2008 couldn’t stop her from attacking Bihari migrants. Subsequent equivocations or damage-control statements couldn’t downplay the fact that the mask had slipped off the rhetoric.
Similarly, the AAP government’s measures for supposedly promoting Maithili and Bhojpuri languages and advocating constitutional status for the latter couldn’t conceal the condescension with which the party viewed the popular culture figures and expressions of Bhojpuri heartland. One wonders whether AAP can derisively dismiss the on-screen theatrics of its celebrity supporters or leaders such as Gul Panag, the party’s candidate from Chandigarh in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
The song-and-dance routine of a Bhojpuri potboiler isn’t different from what mainstream Bollywood, or the film industries in the South for that matter, has to offer as box office material. That makes Tiwari no different from many popular faces of the silver screen who have decided to either cheerlead or seek leadership roles in different political parties and governments. In fact, if AAP was elated to have struck gold of scripted buffoonery, the party should not have looked any further than routine Bollywood stuff.
In the context of what AAP attempted and how the BJP reacted to it, it would be useful to revisit a few things. Contrary to the giggle-inducing lyrics of Tiwari’s songs (they were written in the first place for just that, as playful numbers in films are), Bhojpuri is a language that has attracted the attention of linguists for its refinement and innate politeness.
Moreover, the sheer scale of Bhojpuri’s demography makes it one of the prime arbiters of the Purvanchal region’s cultural ethos. It’s the language of everyday use for a major section of the people in western Bihar (Maithili, Magahi, Bajjika, and Angika are the other major languages and dialects spoken in the state) and eastern Uttar Pradesh. As an alive lingual tradition which has in its fold Bhikhari Thakur’s Bidesiya and the folk tradition of Lorikayan, Bhojpuri has been staking its claim to be recognised as a distinct language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution and not merely seen as a dialect of the Hindi language.
Such understanding of the language has little use for political campaign managers who are keen to reinforce the metropolitan stereotypes about regional culture and its popular representation – even if the latter may lack accuracy.
However, beneath the surface of political campaigning, the last few decades have seen different forms of stereotypes about Purvanchalis (particularly Biharis) being recycled in the national capital – on its campuses, and in its workplaces, markets and residential areas. In fact, for decades, such stereotypes were shorthand for abuse. What has been less documented is the abuse Delhi had in store for Poorvanchalis whose influx to the capital gathered momentum in the last quarter of the 20th century. Many students from Bihar, whose fate as the target of such abuse was no different from that of Bihari migrant labourers, were witness to it more intensely in 1980s and 1990s before emerging as a force to reckon with in Delhi University. In his 1992 book The Republic of Bihar, the scholar Arvind N Das alludes to this.
“The out-migration of Bihari students, like those of labourers, to places of learning in other parts of India integrates Bihar further into the national labour market even as it produces a quasi-racial backlash in places such as Delhi which have started fearing incursions of Harrys (Biharis) from the east much in the same way as Britain did in the international realm,” Das writes.
As far as the mockery goes, desensitisation to it seems almost complete now. Bihar’s migrant young labour has been subjected to decades of quasi-racial abuse in different parts of the capital, a city where every attempt at overtaking a cycle rickshaw is preceded by an abusive word suffixed or prefixed with Bihari. Old-timers in Delhi University, for instance, may remember the “tetanus” remark and how those unable to get hostel accommodation were subjected to unusual rounds of scrutiny as the usual suspects and also the expectation of talking like Lalu Yadav. In addition to all that, they had to tolerate the regular bores making shoddy attempts at mimicking Bihari accent with the philistine Bollywood films as their only tutor.
However, a tinge of sadness creeps in when one considers that at least two generations of Biharis have been more keen on presenting themselves as the exception, and not correcting the distorted stereotypes about the land they originally belong to and the culture of its natives.
Irrespective of what they became – high-ranking civil servants, corporate leaders, media professionals – they were eager to distance themselves from the idea of the swarming hives of pan-chewing men and sari-clad women – the fellowship of simpletons which occupied perceptions about a Bihari in popular culture. There was, for instance, a proliferation of Bihari journalists who showed alacrity in being co-opted into a metropolitan consensus about “good taste” – in ideology, cinema, literature, and narratives in general. As a result, despite a number of journalists from the state working in the national media (a euphemism for Delhi-based medias), there is a clear dearth of voices that have an understanding of the developments, ideas and issues in the state. They can’t be expected to provide authentic register of the state, or of Purvanchal as a region, in their journalistic engagements. Rinkiya ke Papa isn’t odd actually.
While the Delhi election seems poised to be more about the rival promises of tangibles – ranging from freebies to civil amenities – and less about the narratives of identity politics consolidation, AAP’s social media tirade against its key rival reinforces plain old metropolitan biases, which are partly rooted in urban India’s cultural naivete.