In a hamlet between Badlapura and Chirandgaon villages near Chhapra, Bihar, a small temple is packed with about 40 women. Unmindful of the summer afternoon heat, they are absorbed in worshipping the Hindu god Shiva.

It is a Shiv Charcha, Ajay Pandey, the priest of a nearby temple, explained. The women live in five villages surrounding the temple and get together for three or four hours of prayer every afternoon. Crucially, they belong to different jaatis, or sub-castes.

Shiv Charchas are a recent addition to religious life in Saran district. “These started in our area three or four years ago,” said Arun Kumar Das, a Dalit activist from a nearby village, Baniyapur. What sets these apart from other such religious practices, Das said, is the focus on Dalit women.

Shiv Charchas were apparently introduced to Bihar about five years ago by one Harendra Bhai. He was born into the Bhumihar caste in Bihar’s Siwan, according to Pandey, and he and his wife Neelam set up Shiv Charchas in Jharkhand before moving back to Bihar.

It isn’t clear whether the Shiv Charchas are affiliated to the Sangh Parivar, the network of organisations that espouse Hindutva, but they are aiding the electoral prospects of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state.

The game plan

For decades after Independence, the BJP did not have much of a footprint in Bihar, largely because the upper castes, who form the party’s core supporters in much of India, were with the Congress. Moreover, as Arshad Ajmal, director of the Patna-based Al-Khair Charitable Trust, which works for communal harmony, pointed out, the populace was syncretic enough to resist the Hindutva party’s majoritarian politics. The BJP started making inroads with the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the late 1980s which, among other things, precipitated the Bhagalpur anti-Muslim carnage. But its growth was arrested by Lalu Prasad Yadav when he became chief minister in 1990. Under him, the government cracked down on the Sangh Parivar – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates – which is the organisational machine of the BJP, said Shaibal Gupta of the Asian Development Research Centre, Patna.

The party’s prospects began to look up after it allied with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in the early 2000s. By mid-decade, it was a partner in power. The party then leveraged the state machinery to expand, agreed Sanjay Paswan, a senior leader of the BJP in Patna. Not only did the party’s workers get appointed to local governance committees in blocks and districts, its sister outfits in the Sangh Parivar started spreading in the state, each focusing on sharply defined voter segments.

Shiv Charcha at a temple in Chhapra. Photo credit: M Rajshekhar

Shiv Charcha, for one, is tailor-made for Dalit women, as Das pointed out. It is not excessively ritualistic; the prayers are in Bhojpuri; the deity worshipped is Shiva, who attracts a more syncretic following than other gods in the Hindu pantheon. “There is no set pattern of praying,” Pandey said. “Sometimes it is bhajan-kirtan. There is some katha prasang. It can be held as per the schedule at the temple. Or the women can ask for them to be held. Say someone’s boy is unwell, she might say that if he gets better, I will organise a Shiv Charcha.”

Mainstream Hinduism, Sanjay Paswan said, is exclusionary because of its focus on rituals. In contrast, the simplicity of Shiv Charcha draws people. “They feel hamare anusaar chal raha hai,” he said. “It is just how we want it.”

Sangh affiliates are similarly reaching out to different demographics. The Jhuggi Jhopdi Sangharsh Morcha works with the urban poor, said Uday, an activist with Paridhi, a Bhagalpur-based NGO that works for communal harmony. The Bajrang Dal is reaching out to youth in western Bihar. “They are mostly youth, mostly Dalit,” Sanjay Paswan said of the target group.

The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Das said, is active among the Musahar and Chamar communities. Then there are “volunteers” like Sanjay. A man in his 30s, he runs a Shiksha Kendra – education centre – for urban slum children.

From conversations with the people involved in these initiatives, it appears that they keep a distance from the party, publicly at least. “The problem is that with the VHP, people know it is linked to the BJP and is working with an ulterior motive,” Sanjay explained, referring to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. “Shiv Charchas etc work at an arm’s length. They are less contaminated.”

Sanjay recalled the suspicious reception he himself got when he first went to a slum. “They feel they are used by political parties and mistrust anyone who comes to help them,” he said. But he visited regularly and spent Rs 50,000 of his own money to clean the toilets there, knowing his work would eventually help the party. It took him about four months to make the breakthrough. “It is on our work that the political edifice will stand,” he said.

The sum total of these efforts is to achieve a dual goal – reconfiguration of caste alliances and creation of a ground-up organisation.

Shiv Charchas, for one, are aimed at effacing jaati identity, as Pandey said. “For the first time, all women are interacting with each other,” he said. “The feeling of jaati is gone. This is a great transformation.”

At election time, this can prove decisive. Chhapra, for instance, has about 1.25 lakh voters, 40% of them Muslims and Dalits, who have traditionally voted for Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal. In the last election, the Rashtriya Janata Dal took six assembly seats in Chhapra, the BJP won two while the Congress and the Janata Dal (United) got one each. If the BJP manages to take the Dalits away from the Dalit-Muslim alliance and into the wider Hindu fold, the party will gain at Yadav’s cost. The shrill rhetoric against the Muslims is part of the same strategy. “Lalu ke saath hum hain is liye hum dushman huve,” Jeelani Mobin, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Zilla Parishad Adyaksh for Chhapra, said. “We are the target because we are with Lalu.”

In parallel, an organisation is thus being put in place. Take the Shiv Charchas again. Not only do they mobilise women, they also help identify local leadership. As Charchas get established, the organisers find some women are more enthusiastic than others. “Such women will be given the responsibility to go to other villages as facilitators,” said Rupesh, a human rights activist in Patna. “In this way, a leadership structure takes form.”

Spreading violence

The work started by the Sangh affiliates in the early 2000s accelerated after 2005 but hit a bump in 2013 when Nitish Kumar snapped his alliance with the BJP. Not to be deterred, they resorted to more overt methods to try and split the people along religious lines as Bihar headed to national and then assembly elections. “In the 2014 election, the state saw open polarisation,” said Manas Bihari Verma, an educationist in Darbhanga. “People were told in the streets: you are Hindu, vote for a Hindu.”

The state saw a spike in communal violence. At least 667 communal skirmishes were reported between June 2013 and the end of 2015, according to Mohammad Sajjad of Aligarh Muslim University.

At least 62 people were injured and 55 shops burned during communal violence in Chhapra last August. Photo credit: IANS

The skirmishes followed a pattern, said Uday. Fights broke out between Banias and Muslims in some places, between Yadavs and Muslims at others. These variations are significant. “If you look at Vaishali and Muzaffarpur, the Mallah community is committing most of the violence,” said Sajjad. “That is because over the last 20 years, they have consolidated their hold over that area: they control the floodplains, they give out land to brick kilns, and they catch birds and fish.”

As they gained economically, Sajjad said, they became so powerful that the Rajputs resented their rise, causing conflict. “What the BJP is doing now is that it is fomenting anti-Muslim feeling amongst the Mallahs in the hope this will bring them closer to the party,” he said.

It was to blunt such polarisation that Yadav and Kumar, once bitter enemies, joined hands for the 2015 assembly election. They won but the alliance posed its own question. “Both leaders have grown through caste-based stratification of the society,” explained Arshad Ajmal of the Al-Khair Charitable Trust. “Can only casteism stop communalism?”

Perpetual campaign

The BJP’s defeat in the election and the formation of a “secular government” did not affect the Sangh affiliates’ work. They have particularly ramped up their messaging via WhatsApp. Sitting in his office at a village near Ara, a young banking agent played a video of a man beating a cow. “There must be some truth to it, no?” he asked.

The violence such messaging portends can be instrumental in reshaping allegiances of caste and community. “This is about politics,” said Mobin, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Zilla Parishad Adyaksh for Chhapra. “They did not win here. Now, how they get people to their side? By making it a Hindu versus Muslim issue.”

Of course, not everyone is convinced. Harekrishna Paswan, a young man in Chirandgaon village, said about Shiv Charchas: “What is the use of praying together if at the end of it, the upper castes go back to their homes and we to ours, and if they are still unwilling to eat with us? We are being given equality only in religion, not on the basis of common humanity.”

Shiv Charchas, indeed, seek only limited egalitarianism. “The day the Varna system ends, Indian society will end,” said Pandey. “Jaati is different. It was created by erstwhile kings and rulers.”

Same is the case with Bajrang Dal’s outreach. In the villages near Harekrishna Paswan’s house, most young men joining it are Brahmins and Rajputs. “Some youth from the lower castes go there as well but most of us don’t,” he said. “We are all busy working.”

For its processions, the Bajrang Dal usually gets people from outside the area. “In the crowds we see, for every 20 local people, there are 80 from outside,” said Mobin.

Still, polarisation is rising. In Wajidpur near Chhapra, a young Muslim man who did not give his name, complained, “People in our village say if we want, we can kill you. Now you people should leave the village.”

In places like Wajidpur, the distrust between the two communities now runs deep. Four young men in a nearby village claimed they “do not know what happened there” when asked about the killing of a Muslim youth on March 13. “It happened at night,” one of them added. “We heard that they had teased a girl. There is no Bajrang Dal in this area.”

Then, they started reciting a list of grievances. “Muslims stop us from celebrating our festivals,” one of them said. It was an implausible claim given that there are only a smattering of Muslim houses in the midst of a clutch of Hindu villages. It is hard to imagine them imposing their will on the majority community.

Do they know anyone in the Muslim basti? One of the young men curled his lip: “No. Why would we go to that area?”

If the utterances of state BJP leaders are anything to go by, the caste and community realignment is going well. They are so encouraged, in fact, that, according to Gupta, the majority do not want another alliance with Kumar. Sanjay Paswan confirmed: “Sushil Modi wants an alliance with Nitish but 98% of the party does not. They want to fight the election alone. If Nitish wants to join hands, it has to be on our conditions.”’s requests to Sushil Modi for a meeting did not elicit any response.

The previous piece in this two-part series on religion-based politics in Bihar can be read here. The other articles in the Ear to the Ground series can be read here.