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which really conforms to the image of India promoted by well-meaning Oxfam advertisements, all beggars, cripples and overpopulated leper hospitals: ‘Send £10 and help Sita regain her sight …’ For the reality after fifty years of independence is that India is now the seventh industrial power on earth, with a large, prosperous and entrepreneurial middle class.

      Yet while much of the south-west of India seems to be surging purposefully towards a future of modest prosperity, health and full literacy, Bihar has begun to act as a kind of leaden counterweight, dragging the north of the country back towards the Middle Ages. One of the state’s few really profitable industries is the manufacture of counterfeit pharmaceuticals – salt pills dressed up as aspirins, sugar tablets pretending to be antibiotics – a field in which it apparently leads South Asia. Recently an enterprising Bihari counterfeiter expanded his operations to include the manufacture of great quantities of a fake chalk-based toothpaste called Colfate. Otherwise, despite exceptionally rich mineral deposits and fertile soil, the state remains the poorest in India.

      Not only is the economy stagnant, crime is completely out of control: 64,085 violent offences (such as armed robbery, looting, rioting and murder) took place between January and June 1997. This figure includes 2,625 murders, 1,116 kidnappings and 127 abductions for ransom, meaning that Bihar witnesses fourteen murders every day, and a kidnapping every four hours. Whatever index of prosperity and development you choose, Bihar comes triumphantly at the bottom. It has the lowest literacy, the highest number of deaths in police custody, the worst roads, the highest crime, the fewest cinemas. Its per capita income is less than half the Indian average. Not long ago it even had a major famine. The state has withered; Bihar is now nearing a situation of anarchy.

      The day I flew back in to Patna, there were six stories vying for attention on the front page of the Bihar edition of the Hindustan Times; each in its own way seemed to confirm the collapse of government in the state.

      The paper led with a report about a group of tribals who were demanding an independent state in the hills of southern Bihar. They had just carried out a raid on a mine and successfully got away with ‘almost six hundred kilograms of gelignite, over a thousand detonators and fifteen hundred metres of igniting tape’.

      Below this was a report of a shoot-out in which the Patna police killed ‘a notorious criminal wanted in several cases of dacoity including the kidnapping of the Gupta Biscuit Company’s proprietor’.

      Next, a political piece carried a statement from the Congress opposition accusing the Bihar government of ‘ignoring the famine-like situation prevailing in the state’.

      Another report, headlined ‘Crime on the Rise in Muzaffarpur’, detailed the arrest over the previous three months of ‘1,437 criminals’ during the ‘116 riots’ that the town had apparently suffered since the New Year.

      At the bottom of the page was an item announcing an initiative to resuscitate the moribund Bihar tourist industry: a paramilitary Tourist Protection Force was to be set up, providing a heavily armed escort for any Japanese tourists wishing to brave a visit to the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya.

      But the most astonishing story concerned the goings-on at Patna University. There angry examinees had ‘torched a police jeep and damaged the car of the Vice Chancellor’. What had caused this? A cut in student grants? Nothing of the sort. ‘According to reports, the Vice Chancellor, in a surprise visit to the [exam] centre found all the examinees adopting unfair means. He ordered a body search and seized two gunny bags full of notes, chits and books from the examinees … In a brazen move the examinees then walked out of the examination hall and resorted to wanton vandalism.’

      That afternoon I called on the Vice Chancellor, to see if the reports were exaggerated. Professor Mohinuddin was a small, wiry man with heavy black glasses. He maintained that, on the contrary, the press had played down the violence. On being caught red-handed the students had attacked him, hurling desks and chairs, and forced him to take shelter in a sandbagged police post. There, despite a valiant defence by the six policeman on duty, the mob had succeeded in driving the Vice Chancellor from his refuge with the help of a couple of crude firebombs. Later, for good measure, the students had issued a death threat against him. ‘It is lucky I am a widower,’ said the Professor. ‘I only have my own safety to worry about.’

      Not far from Professor Mohinuddin’s house was the home of Uttam Sengupta, the editor of the Patna edition of the Times of India. Like his academic neighbour, Mr Sengupta had had a somewhat upsetting week. Two days previously, someone had taken a potshot at him with a sawn-off shotgun. The pellets had lodged themselves in the back door of his old Fiat. Sengupta had escaped unscathed but shaken.

      According to Sengupta, what was happening in Bihar was nothing less than the death of the state. Much of the problem, he said, derived from the fact that the Bihar government was broke and unable to provide the most basic amenities. The National Thermal Power Corporation, the Indian national grid, had recently threatened to cut off Bihar’s electricity supply unless its dues were paid. In the Patna hospital there were no bedsheets, no drugs and no bandages. The only X-ray machine in the city had been out of order for a year; the hospital could not afford to buy the spare parts. Patna went black at night, as there were no lightbulbs for the street lamps. (According to the writer Arvind Das, who researched the problem in some detail, the city apparently required six thousand bulbs. On one occasion during Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, the administration managed to muster as many as 2,200; but normally only a fraction of that number were available. Occasionally businesses clubbed together to light a single street; otherwise, every day at sunset, Patna, a city of over a million people, was plunged in to medieval darkness.)

      What was bad in Patna, said Sengupta, was much, much worse in rural areas. Outside the capital, electricity had virtually ceased to be supplied – this despite the fact that Bihari mines produce almost all of India’s coal. Without power, industry had been brought to a grinding halt. No roads were being built. There was no functioning system of public transport. In the villages, education had virtually packed up and literacy was rapidly declining: since 1981 the number of adult illiterates had actually risen from thirteen to fifteen million.

      There were two principal effects of this breakdown, Sengupta told me. Firstly, those who could – the honest, the rich and the able – had migrated elsewhere. Secondly, those who had stayed had made do. This involved a sort of unofficial wave of privatisation. As the government no longer provided electricity, health care or education, those who could had had to provide them for themselves. Middle-class residents in blocks of flats had begun to club together to buy generators. There had been a mushrooming of private coaching institutes and private health clinics.

      This privatisation had not been limited just to the towns. In rural areas, the richer villagers had begun to build their own roads to link them to the markets. In the absence of state buses there had even been a revival of the use of palanquins. The four men I had met on the road to Barra on my last visit were brothers, who were returning from carrying a woman to her relatives in a nearby village. They had made their palanquin themselves, they said, and were now bringing in more money from it than they were from their fields.

      All this was very admirable, but the situation became more sinister when people took in to their own hands the maintenance of law and order. It was the landlords who were the first to recruit armed gangs, initially to deal with discontented labourers. In response, the poor had fought back, organising themselves in to amateur guerrilla groups and arming themselves with guns made by local blacksmiths. Great swathes of countryside were now controlled by the private armies of landlords or their rival Maoist militias.

      When Delhi newspapers publish articles on Bihar’s disorders and atrocities, they tend to make a point of emphasising the state’s ‘backwardness’. What is needed, they say, is development: more roads, more schools, more family-planning centres. But as the ripples of political and caste violence spread from Patna out in to the rest of north India, it seems likely that Bihar could be not so much backward as forward: a trend-setter for the rest of the country. In a very real sense, Bihar may be a kind of Heart of Darkness, pumping violence and corruption, pulse after pulse, out in to the rest of the subcontinent. The first ballot-rigging recorded

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