Bihar recently played host to Sikhs from all over India and the world as the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh Ji Maharaj was celebrated at Patna Sahib, his birthplace. As a Punjabi officer in the Bihar cadre and posted as DIG Patna, I had a unique personal and professional connect with the event. The event has been a tremendous success and accolades are pouring in from all over especially from Sikh devotees, many of whom visited Bihar for the first time. That the visiting devotees were surprised by the show of Bihari warmth and hospitality is indeed surprising. This is something that would have taken for granted if only they knew the real Bihar.
My relationship with Bihar and Bihari goes much beyond my getting assigned to the Bihar cadre which was a matter of sheer chance necessitated by my randomly getting a certain rank in the Civil Services examination. It began nearly 20 years ago when I, as a final year student of Engineering at Roorkee, joined the "Bihar Gang." In those days at Roorkee, Delhi-ites were the best-dressed and the most career-minded in general with GRE and CAT being topmost on their mind. Most of them were good at time management and also excelled in whatever sports they played. I dabbled with them during my first year but was too inferior academically and too unambitious to keep up. Then there were the Kanpurites and Lucknowites, absolutely delightful with their great sense of humour and distinct accents. On campus we had some students from Southern India, some from the Western part, and a smattering of foreign students who were present as part of an exchange program.
But there was none more welcoming and accommodating for a 20-year-old good-for-nothing Punjabi student (that's me), placed at the bottom rung of the academic performance ladder, than the Biharis. I played no sport, was not a member of the dramatic or literary societies, and had no future plans for going to America, doing an MBA or preparing for Civil Services - in short, a classic specimen of an aimless loafer whose life's river seemed to be meandering through a hazy present into a bleak future. I wandered into the Bihari group and was accepted wholeheartedly. Lack of ambition and ability were not scoffed at or even seen as liabilities. There was a certain patience and tolerance for incompetence and inefficiency which at times might have hurt their development prospects as a state but it makes them people with a generous spirit and a rare ability to accept losers. (No wonder the Chhath festival in Bihar offers perhaps the only instance in the world where the setting sun is also worshipped.) I stuck to that group and was my happiest during the remaining period of my stay at Roorkee.
After finishing college, I continued working as a management trainee in a private firm for a year, but then the inevitable happened. Most of my Bihari friends had given up their campus-earned jobs and were preparing for the Civil Services examination in an area called Jia Sarai - "shadowland of dreams" as Alex Hailey would describe it. I too was invited and then persuaded to quit my dreary job to attempt the Civil Services. Imagine a man who barely managed to scrape through his Engineering at Roorkee being motivated to appear for what was then the mother of all academic rigours. It was generally believed that only the very hard-working, meticulous and fiercely-determined could pass the test, that too if they were lucky enough. I had not displayed any of these traits during my four-year stay at Roorkee. It was only the Biharis who saw some potential in me.
For the first and most crucial month of that preparation, I stayed with my Bihari friend Raghavendra Nath Jha and others as I searched for a room in that labyrinthine place. It was their affection and encouragement that kept this mediocre Punjabi boy away from self-doubt and allowed him to stay on course. As a UPSC aspirant, I went through periods of soul-searching and low confidence and was sometimes on the verge of quitting. It was my Bihari gang that gave me confidence. A more rational and logical people would have told me that I, with my poor academic record, didn't stand a chance. But not the Biharis - when they are with you, they'll go the whole hog.
My love affair with Bihar was destined to continue and blossom as I got ascribed to the Bihar cadre on successfully qualifying for the Indian Police Service (IPS). Subsequently, I have worked here for several years and interacted with people from all walks of life. It is indeed a place which has been vilified and lampooned without being property understood. A horrific rape case doesn't make all north Indian males potential predators of young women; the burning of buses on the Cauvery issue doesn't get all Bangaloreans labelled as vandals: and a few stray incidents of crime should not be allowed to hijack the entire narrative of Bihar and its residents.
It is always perilous to generalize, but my firm belief is that an average Bihari is intellectually sharp, God-fearing, bathes and eats slowly, is very curious and highly aware. This awareness and the fact that we have a robust democratic set up leads to a lot more argument and finger-pointing than in some other states that I know of. Combine this with a caste-ridden society and you see a lot more self-flagellation and self-deprecation than one would see elsewhere. Caste fault lines often divide the Biharis, making them hyper critical of each other, but the existence of these very fault lines also prevents parochial, self-serving sub-nationalism from gaining roots here which makes them naturally and wholeheartedly embrace all of India as their own.
The Biharis who migrate to do hard labour in Gurugram or Mumbai, or the IITian Bihari who works in Bengaluru and Chennai, deserves the same respect and affection that he extends to people when they visit his state. Lack of linguistic chauvinism and a complete absence of regional or sub-nationalistic feeling makes them very proud Indians. It is very common to hear a Bihari take pride in the development of Pune or another city as an Indian. He doesn't see them developing at the cost of a Patna or a Bhagalpur, and rightly so. Unfortunately, many people outside Bihar don't realise the generosity of spirit and the pan-Indian-ism behind it.
A superficial analysis of Bihar often hides the fact that there is a great deal of warmth, tons of affection and loads of kindness in this place - especially if you are a rank outsider. Bihar also abounds in courage. A Bihari will not be cowed down ever - not as a citizen or as an IPS probationer. It was always my Bihari batch-mate, the brilliant Najmul Hoda from Darbhanga, who would ask the most awkward, irreverent question to the senior-most officers while we were undergoing our police training. Similarly, you can trust the Bihari journalist to stand up and ask the question that anyone else would normally refrain from asking. Being anti-establishment may lead to your getting squashed like a bug elsewhere, but not in Bihar. Irrespective of the merit of your stance and argument, the very fact that you are seen as espousing a cause alone or taking on someone mighty will win you countless admirers and their support.
Biharis have some serious problems - social and economic, that they are grappling with, but what they do possess in abundance and in general is a big heart that beats for India, a humane and compassionate self that still has a special place for the not-so-able and the not-so cutthroat. You can step off the road to success and yet be accepted with respect. What more can you ask for in a people? (Shalin is the DIG of Patna. He is a Bihar Cadre IPS Officer and a Chemical Engineering graduate from IIT Roorkee)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.