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A lesson in village democracy

When Biharipur decided to launch a village-style putsch, the campaign left a community riven by both caste and wealth

By John Stackhouse
First published Dec. 27, 1995

Biharipur, India

He was known simply as pradhanji -"respected village chief," purveyor of justice, broker of development, the man who got the broken bridge repaired.

For five years, pradhanji lorded over almost every aspect of public life in Biharipur, from the laying of a brick lane to the assembling of a voters list for state elections. At the pinnacle of his power, Ahivaran Singh Yadev - called pradhanji by everyone - would sit on his charpoy cot, puff on a handrolled bedi, flash his gummy grin and speak of "my village."

But in recent years the people of Biharipur noticed a change in their pradhanji. It was not only the fact that the village's first water pump was installed in front of his house, or that the voters' list contained the names of several deceased farmers. What rankled Biharipur, from the mud floor of the harijan compound to the concrete roof of the landlord's house, was that pradhanji no longer had time for his people.

"He became a dictator," said his brother-in-law, Rajinder Singh Yadev. "He never consulted us. He had to go."

With that edict, the people of Biharipur decided to launch a village- style putsch. They would band together against pradhanji. They would find a willing opponent. They would embrace India's grand tradition of democracy.

Or so they thought.

What followed in Biharipur was a democratic debacle, a campaign that left a community riven by caste and divided by wealth, and in the end a village without a pradhanji.

When the Uttar Pradesh government announced this year that village elections in the vast state would be held under a new amendment of the Indian constitution, the people of Biharipur began to plot.

Unlike previous village elections, which were rigged by the landlords, the new round for pradhan (the suffix ji is added for respect) was guaranteed to be free and fair. Polling booths would be set up in villages, and the state would assign outside election monitors. For Biharipur, with its mud lanes and open drains, and empty dreams of a school, the election seemed a fresh start, as if a new nation were to be born.

When the writ came down, Ahivaran Singh Yadev quickly announced his candidacy. Because of its small size, Biharipur would be lumped in with its rival village of Kuvandanda, which is known to everyone as "the place over there, by the railway tracks."

Since the pradhan controls all development funds entering the village, now equal to $1,000 a year, Ahivaran Singh expected someone to contest his post. He did not expect Radhay Shyam.

A quiet farmer, barely 35, the only person in Biharipur with a college education, Radhay Shyam is from Biharipur's lowly dheever caste, a people born to be fishermen in a village with no open water.

Although they form the biggest caste in Biharipur, the dheevers could never control the village, for all power rested with the landowning, middle-caste yadevs, who had held the post of pradhan for as long as anyone could remember.

"We wanted to change that," said Radhay Shyam. "We wanted our own person as pradhan."

Such intellectual insurgency sent the yadevs reeling. There was no way on Ram's green Earth that any cow-herding yadev would vote for a fisherman. But the minority yadevs suddenly found themselves divided and vulnerable, while the dheevers, for the first time in living memory, stood united.

Several yadevs wanted to stick with pradhanji; after all, they had put him there. Others, led by the powerful landlord and school teacher Rajinder Singh Yadev, wanted him to go.

Rajinder Singh would have run, but as a government employee he was barred from seeking village office. He would have put his illiterate wife on the ballot, but she already was nominated for another village post.

There was no other obvious contender; that is, until vaidh Khan, a Muslim trader from the local town of Tilhar, declared his candidacy. Biharipur was vaidh Khan's birthplace and he still owned land there.

He also returned to the village for the 15-day campaign with lots of money and whisky.

vaidh Khan was not Hindu, but he was not a dheever, either. "He is a rich man," added Kartar Singh, Biharipur's Sikh patriarch, who was concerned with the dheevers' poor farming skills. "Maybe he can help us. These other candidates are all poor. What can they do for us?"

By the time the two ballot boxes were brought from town, Biharipur and Kavandanda was an electorate divided. From Kavandanda, no fewer than nine candidates were listed on the ballot with a colourful array of symbols, from the wishful tractor to the pragmatic padlock. From Biharipur, pradhanji and vaidh Khan fiercely contested the middle-caste vote bank, while Radhay Shyam appeared to have a lock on the lower castes.

That night, after the ballots were counted at the local administrator's office, the two villages fell silent at the reading of the final result.

In sixth place, with only 66 votes, was Ahivaran Singh Yadev - pradhanji no more. Two unknown farmers from Kavandanda won more votes than the disgraced Ahivaran Singh. In third place was vaidh Khan, who collected a respectable 140 votes.

As the results were released, the only hope left for the yadevs was Arun Singh Yadev, a popular farmer from Kavandanda, but when his total was announced it amounted to only 185. The dheevers shouted with glee. After marshalling more than 200 dheevers to the polling booth, Radhay Shyam could almost see caste justice dancing in the air.

But before declaring a winner, the administrator announced that 42 ballots had been rejected. It seemed in each case voters had marked two names: Radhay Shyam's and one other. The final result: Arun Singh Yadev, 185; Radhay Shyam, 165.

Many days later, in the cool morning light of a north Indian winter, Radhay Shyam milked his only buffalo so that he could serve a visitor chai, and reflect on his valiant campaign and brave defeat.

"Arun Singh is a good man," he said. "He will make a good pradhan."

Warming her hands over the embers of burnt rice stalks, Ram Siri, Radhay Shyam's mother, did not want to be so conciliatory. "Those other people cheated," she muttered. "They stole the election from us."

But what could the dheevers do? The results, like so many aspects of village life, were final.

Since that fateful voting day, Radhay Shyam has returned to his fields. Ahivaran Singh has fled to another village. vaidh Khan has moved back to Tilhar with his whisky supply.

Not much else has changed in Biharipur, except that for the first time in anyone's memory the village does not have a pradhan to call its own. Electricity, a paved road, a school: When the farmers want to ask for their dreams, they must now walk to the place by the railway tracks.

It is a long walk.

"You look to be British," one elderly woman sighed after discussing the results of village democracy.

"Your people were good rulers."

She paused for a few seconds, and then asked with a hint of a smile: "Would you like to be our pradhan?"

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