May 10, 2014


As the elections end, the truth about Modi's support among the young and poor – especially in Bihar – will become clear

By Kalpana Wilson
Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
A woman shows her ink-marked finger after voting inside a 
rural Indian polling station in April. 

As India's five-week-long elections come to an end and the world waits to see if Narendra Modi will become prime minister, several myths are circulating outside of India. First, that whatever the outcome it will be the result of a democratic process; second, that in any case it is really only the English-speaking elite that has a problem with Modi; and third, that young people who want to see a change are flocking to Modi. But the view from the ground in Bihar – a key state and one of India's poorest – challenges all of these beliefs.

In Bihar it is the poor who fear and are mobilising against a Modi victory. Glib references to "the world's largest democracy" obscure the fact that Dalits and other poor communities are once again having to defend a hard-won battle for the right to vote denied to them by higher caste landowners.

There was a civil rights breakthrough in the state in the late 1980s and 1990s when, riding a wave of movements for decent wages, land redistribution and an end to rapes of Dalit women by landlords, large numbers voted for the Communist party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the revolutionary left party which led these movements. As Shanti Devi, a Dalit female agricultural labourer told me in 1996: "We got the courage to fight. Things have changed, we answer back, we talk to them as equals."

The landlords responded by forming the Ranvir Sena – an armed group which has carried out a series of massacres of landless Dalit and Muslim women, children and men. The horrific nature of the violence prefigured the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat under Modi in 2002, but the connection doesn't end there.

Like Modi, the Ranvir Sena's founder, Brahmeshwar Singh, was a lifelong cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the organisation at the heart of India's Hindu far right. Nitish Kumar, the incumbent chief minister who was until recently in an alliance with the BJP, hastily disbanded the judicial commission set up to look into the political links of the Ranvir Sena before its findings could be made public.
But it is common knowledge that while all the major parties utilised the Sena to try to crush the assertion of the rural poor and its left leadership, its core loyalty remains with the BJP. Like many other armed and violent Hindu rightwing organisations across the country, the Ranvir Sena is a key ally for Modi on the ground.

What this means for democracy was demonstrated when the Ranvir Sena assassinated two people days before polling in the Ara constituency – one was Budhram Paswan, a local Communist party (ML) leader, himself a Dalit. His killers fired shots in the air to mark his murder as a political assassination, and to terrorise those intending to vote for his party. The other was a young Muslim teacher, Akbar Khan, whom the Ranvir Sena claimed to have murdered for cheering on Pakistan during a cricket match. His murder was an attempt to terrorise Muslims and – as has been the BJP's pre-election strategy in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere – to orchestrate Hindu-Muslim violence. In this case it failed because Khan was very popular among local people of all communities.
Since then, Bihar BJP leader Giriraj Singh has publicly announced that opponents of Modi will have "no place in India" once he wins and should "go to Pakistan".

Despite this level of intimidation, in Ara the Communist party (ML) has seen hundreds of young people, including large numbers of young women, walking from village to village to campaign for their youthful candidate Raju Yadav. Among them was Rachna, a 20-year-old student from Ara town, who explained that she was drawn to campaign by her concern for issues around women's freedom: "Here we are consulted; we've helped to shape the campaign – it's a breath of fresh air."
So what then of Modi's alleged support among young voters? Bihar presents a very different picture – of a generation that wants a very different kind of change from the rapid slide into fascism Modi promises.
Since a series of unexplained blasts during a Modi rally in Patna, the state capital, Muslim communities have experienced a reign of terror in which teenage boys have been indefinitely detained without charge by the National Investigation Agency and tortured in an attempt to extract false confessions. Family members of these youths were also interrogated by NIA officers who demanded, "Why won't you and your family vote for Modi?"

This frightening administrative collusion with the Hindu right does not appear to be serving its purpose. Bihar appears set to decisively reject Modi.


Many migrant workers suffer terrible conditions in Lebanon, but poverty and lack of opportunity in Nepal drives them back 
By Pete Pattison

There are about 12,000 Nepalese domestic workers in Lebanonmany of whom 

face challenging conditions. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

When the 39 Nepalese migrant domestic workers spilled out of the arrivals gate at Kathmandu airport last month, many vowed to return to the country in which they had experienced terrible hardship. Some had been beaten and forced to endure slave-like conditions; the majority had been trafficked.
For years, the women lived illegally in Lebanon, with no means to return home after fleeing abusive employers. The country's stringent kafalasystem, which binds migrant staff to their boss, meant that when the women escaped, they lost everything: their legal status, passports and wages.
It was only with the help of a local association, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), as well as the Nepali embassy in Egypt (Nepal does not have an embassy in Lebanon), that the women were eventually able to return to home.
There are an estimated 12,000 Nepalese migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Many suffer harrowing conditions, according to a report published this week by Anti-Slavery International. Almost half of employers never give domestic staff a day off; a third of workers say they are locked in the house when their employer goes out, the report says.
"My madam used to scold me for nothing. I was forced to work all the time, yet madam was never happy. She even asked her husband to beat me. I was often beaten with sticks," says Anita Niraula, 27, who was one of the group recently returned to Nepal.
Niraula arrived in Lebanon in 2009. She had agreed to work for $150 (£89) a month in order to support her family. But after two years of abuse, she ran away, leaving behind her passport, which her employer had confiscated, and $1,800 of unpaid wages.
But, like hundreds of Nepalese women in Lebanon, Niraula found that by working illegally in the informal sector, she could earn 10 times what she made as a domestic worker. "Part-time work, though it was illegal, was much easier and [came with] a good salary," she says. "I used to earn almost $1,500 a month during the summer season working for various houses, and in winter $600-700."
Two years after arriving in Lebanon, Niraula was finally able to pay her debts and support her family. But it came at a price. As an undocumented worker, cut adrift from her employer and without a passport, she had no means of getting home.
"After working for so many years, I felt that I should return home at least once. I was missing my children. How are they? How much have they grown? Have they been fed properly or not?" she says. "It was for their future that I was in Lebanon. Now I have earned some money, paid back my loans and bought a piece of land in the village."
Niraula tried several times to return to Nepal without her passport – even attempting to bribe a police officer to help her – before she heard about the Non-Resident Nepali Association in Lebanon. The organisation helped Niraula get her and the other women to a safe house and the IOM and the Nepalese government helped get them repatriated.
But when Niraula was reunited with her family, she discovered jobs in Nepal were scarce and there was no way she could earn enough to make a decent living.
"I want to go back to Lebanon. There is nothing here in Nepal. I do want to live with my husband and children, but the problem is how will I secure my children's future?" she says. "I am very confident if I go back to Lebanon then I can find my way out – no one can cheat me as I know how things work there."
The fact that many women long to return to the country where they experienced so much suffering is partly a reflection of the lack of job opportunities in Nepal, but it is also a pragmatic decision based on sound financial reasoning.
"They know the system and [recruitment] brokers and can find a job," says Manju Gurung, chair of Pourakhi, an organisation which advocates for the rights of Nepalese women migrants. "They can earn between $1,200 to $3,000 a month [working illegally], but in a private home they can only earn $100 to $150. Some leave not because of abuse, but for the chance to earn more money. They speak the language, they know the rules and regulations, it's easy to adjust."
When they returned to Kathmandu, 12 of the 39 women who left Lebanon initially stayed at a shelter run by Pourakhi. According to Gurung, all 12 planned to return to Lebanon, probably doing so illegally via India because they did not have passports.
Bishnu Maya Kumal, 40, is one of the 12 women hoping to return to Lebanon. The widow, who has four children, was forced to work for 18 hours a day, seven days a week when she first moved to Lebanon. But after three years she could take it no more, and ran away to find part-time work.
"The part-time job was much easier than at the house. After all expenses I used to save almost 40,000 rupees per month (£237), and even more sometimes," says Kumal. "Now I have managed to build a small house and bought a piece of land for my children … I should also look to the future and at least save some money… I cannot do anything here to earn money … I know the language, culture and places, so I want to go back to Lebanon again."
According to Audrey Guichon of Anti-Slavery International, this is not a decision migrant workers should have to make. "The choice in Lebanon should not be between low-paid, and too often unpaid, legal work, and better paid illegal work," she said. "If the Lebanese system guaranteed that women were paid well and treated fairly in the first place, they wouldn't be forced to live illegally in order to make a living."
• Names have been changed.
Additional reporting by Ishwar Tauniy