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The Backwards Label

Why everyone’s favorite adjective for Bihar is just plain wrong

Six weeks ago, I travelled to Bihar by car from West Bengal. I was full of ideas of what I’d find. Caste Wars. Violence. Extreme poverty. Corruption . One word in particular had polluted my entire perception of Bihar before I’d ever set foot in it: backward. The backward state with backward castes.

The word is used everywhere, from casual conversation to national policy. Whether it’s in The Economic Times or in the name of a national governmental organization, “backward” hasn’t just permeated the discourse about Bihar—it has dominated it. The label has spread from journalists to government officials to foreigners, and even to Bihar’s own citizens. That’s the worst part. The label isn’t just used by people outside of Bihar—people in Bihar have begun to adopt it and believe it. As a foreigner, I am frequently asked why I chose to come here. “Bihar? Why would you want to live here? It’s backwards.”

It’s not just damaging to label an entire state backward—it’s ridiculous. Bihar has 38 districts, 14 major languages, 6 major religions, and over 100 million people. Any attempt to homogenize such a diverse group of people is absurd. But more than that, it’s lazy. Instead of understanding and recognizing the incredible complexity of a place like Bihar, it’s easy to write off the entire state with a single derogatory adjective. But of course it’s easy—bigotry is easier than tolerance, because it doesn’t require understanding.

But even if you’re a fan of ignorant categorizations of heterogeneous groups, and you still want to apply a single adjective to the entire state of Bihar, “backward” would certainly not be it. There are other, more fitting words that come to mind—innovative, agrarian, and growing. Bihar is an excellent model of Indian growth. It has the fastest growing Gross State Domestic Product and the fastest growing per capita and household income. It already boasts infant mortality rates and life expectancies better than the national average. It led the way in women’s empowerment when it became the first state to reserve 50% of local offices for women. Its simplified tax system was awarded $30,000 by the United Nations, and is held up as a national model of economic success.

Still, journalists and government officials do not give Bihar the credit it deserves.  Forbes, in an attempt to praise Bihar’s tax model, writes in the tagline of its article: “Bihar shows how a gentle touch can improve tax revenues even in backward states.” Bihar’s success is delegitimized with a simple label. The message is clear—tax reform is so simple, it can be done even in a hopeless state like Bihar.

What does Bihar have to do to lose its label? Its growth and successes are continually dismissed as the unlikely triumphs of a desperately backward region. I can just imagine headlines forty years from now: “Backward Bihar becomes first state in India to harness cold fusion,” or “Backward spaceship sends Bihari astronauts to Mars.” If everything Bihar does is overshadowed by its label, its true potential will never be recognized.

 "It is hard to walk backwards in these suits."
“It’s hard to walk backwards in these suits.”

Instead of interpreting everything Bihar does through this idea that it’s “backwards,” we should instead view Bihar’s successes and failures for what they are—the successes and failures of a growing state; nothing more, nothing less.When I travelled from West Bengal to the more rural Bihar, the first thing I noticed was the beauty. Sprawling tea gardens that seem to stretch to the ends of the earth, slow-moving rivers that carry calm waters and calm vibes, and vast expanses of agrarian paradise, with green grass, fresh air, and incredibly beautiful avian life (seriously, have you seen Bihar’s ubiquitous White-Throated Kingfishers?). I didn’t think, “Wow, there’s so much beauty even in this backwards state.” I just thought, “This is beautiful.”

Look how beautiful this is. It’s ridiculous. (thanks graeme guy for the photo)
Look how beautiful this is. It’s ridiculous. (thanks graeme guy for the photo)

As I’ve spent more time with the people in Bihar, I’ve found that its true beauty is not in its land—it’s in its citizens. The people I’ve met here are the most generous people I’ve ever met. It’s almost impossible to walk 5 minutes outside of town without being invited to someone’s house for chai. Beyond that, the people here are inspiring, intelligent, and profoundly curious. The students we teach have an insatiable desire to learn. One of our students, Saif, a sixteen-year-old volunteer who teaches younger students how to read and write, is teaching himself how to code using an online learning platform. The instructions are in English, so he uses Google Translate to translate the instructions and complete the assignments. But over the past few weeks, he’s relied on Google Translate less and less, because he’s learning English as quickly as he’s learning how to program.

Again, I don’t think, “Wow, these people are awesome, despite how backward they are.” They’re just awesome.

Bihar isn’t backwards. It’s just another state in India. If it continues to grow at this rate, it’ll be the most developed state in India in just a few decades. Despite the labels that slow it down, it’s moving fast. And it’s certainly not moving backward.

Article by Jason Fernandes:  Jason is a Summer Innovation Fellow at SEEKHO

Jason is a SEEKHO Summer Innovation Fellow and an incoming senior at The University of Pennsylvania. He joined the fellowship because it combines his interested in education with his experience doing evaluation research.  Jason also loves performing arts, and he dances in a latin dance troupe and plays the djembe in a Middle Eastern drum and dance troupe.  

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