By Gladson Dungdung
Indian Currents 7 September, 2003
Forty-five year old Parvatia Devi, a resident of Danapur, sat smoking in front of her broken hut and desperately waiting not for social justice and dignity, but for the rains to stop so that she could go out for rag picking. This is the kind of life the Musahar community leads in ‘Garib Ka Raj’ (State governed by poor) Bihar, for whom liberty, equality, dignity and social justice is a distant dream, even after the fifty-five years of independence. ‘Mooshik’ is a Sanskrit word which stands for rat; Musahar literally means, “Rat eater”. The Musahar community was named after their vocation of hunting rats. The community is at the lowest rung in the social hierarchical order even among Dalit communities. Musahars are the worst victims of human rights violations in Bihar.
The Musahar community is known by different names in different regions of Bihar. In north Bihar, like Darbhanga and Madhubani, they are known as Sada or Saday, in central Bihar in Patna, Navada or Nalanda, they are called as Manjhi, Musahar or Mandal. In south Bihar in Gaya, they are also known as Bhuyian or Bhoktas. ‘Their history takes an interesting turn when it is told that, originally being from tribal origin, from perhaps Gumla of Jharkhand, they moved northward as slaves’ (Ramagundam, 2001). In the pre-independence period, Musahar community was considered as Scheduled Tribe. After the Census Survey 1951, the community was integrated in the Scheduled Caste but the situation has remained the same.
They live on the fringes of society in isolation, carrying on with their lives silently. They depend on physical labor for their life and livelihood. The total population of the Musahar community is 30 Lac in the state. Among them, 96.7 percent are landless agricultural laborers. Musahar is the most deprived community of livelihood resources. A few pots, small broken huts, torn clothes and their bare bodies are the only property they possess. A majority of them are landless; they do not own housing land. They are known for their hard work and agricultural skills. They largely grow paddy for landlords. Still they only get 2-3 kg grain as wage for a day. This leads to famine, malnutrition and starvation among the Musahars. In 2002, 22 Musahars died of hunger in Champaran district but the District Magistrate strongly denied it. Consequently, none of their family members got relief from the Government.
The community has only 2.9 percent literacy rate and less than one percent among women. Mobilizing them for education is a great task. Caste discrimination too deprives them from education. The former Chief Minister of Bihar Mr. Laloo Prasad Yadav had launched a special education project called Charwaha Vidyalay (School for children who rear cattle) for Musahar children, but the project not alone light up their lives. Some Musahar children of Danapur reveal the facts about the education system of the state claiming that they earn 20 to 25 rupees by rag picking, going school doesn’t get them anything. Fr. Philip Manthara who has been working for upliftment of this community in Patna district for last 25 years says, ‘Earning living for the day is their philosophy’. There are lots of Musahar youth holding Education certificates but failed to get jobs. The state government claims to have spent about Rs. 35,6,783 for every person of the Musahar community for development. The situation has not changed. The question now, is that allocated budget was spent for development of Musahars or money was allocated in vested interest?
The Musahar community has no access to health facilities. Private dispensaries and hospitals are flourishing in the state. Government hospitals are ill equipped and doctors and health workers are absent during duty, which lead Musahars to dire consequences related to health. The deadly fever called Kalajar is an enemy for them, which the state government claims to have eradicated but the fact is the fever claimed approximately 400 lives of Musahars in Bilaur sub division of Darbhanga district in last two years.
In many ways a roof over the head contributes to the process of humanization. The Musahars have small huts in the name of shelters. A housing scheme called ‘Indira Awas Yojna’ was launched to provide homes to them. When Laloo Prasad Yadav came to power, he not only allocated more budgets per unit house but also invested the beneficiary with authority powers on expenditure and design. Earlier, it was not only the beneficiaries but also the contractors who were decided by local government authorities. The decision facilitates rising to immense corruption in the programme. Now people themselves not only contribute labour but also replace the contractors. Earlier, due to pressure from ruling class/castes the new houses were constructed outside the villages. It was a form of segregation from the mainstream. Ironically, the result of Indira Awas Yojna could not bear sweet fruit. Naubatpur development block (Patna) reveals the facts of Indira Awas Yojna. 50 percent of the houses built under the IAY programme have no doors and windows, and 25 percent of them are without terraces and a mere 25 percent of the houses in are habitable conditions.
The Musahar community is politically powerless. They have very less political intervention. They have very few representatives like Bhagwati Devi (MP), Jitan Ram Manjhi (Minister for Primary Education) in the Parliament and Legislatives Assembly. But the plight is that Musahars’ right to vote is pre-determined by the ruling classes, landlords and feudal forces. In the Panchayat election 2001, many NGOs and People’s Organisations like Pragati Gramin Vikas Samity (PGVS), Manthan, Musahar Seva Sangh, Bihar Dalit Vikas Samity, Ekta Parishad, National Dalit Human Rights Campaign, Lok Samity, etc promoted them for contesting elections. Several candidates (Musahar) were threatened by the upper castes candidates. For instance, Biteshwar Saurav (Paliganj), Mahesh Manjhi (Bikram) contesting as Mukhiya candidates were threatened by feudal upper caste landlords to withdraw their name as contesters. Many of them were elected as ward members, Panchayat members and Mukhiyas but still, they are far from decision-making processes.
The state is a mute witness to the worst kind of human rights violation against Musahar. ‘4243 cases of Dalit atrocities were registered in different Police stations in the last ten years. 694 cases of murder, 1049 of rape, 1658 of severe injury and 842 cases of insult and abuse were registered’ (Dung Dung, 2003). The peculiar thing about the violence is that most of the victims belong to Musahar community. The small broken huts with naked, shabby children, scantily clothed women around the huts and faces without any sign of hope, empty stomachs and clothless back narrate the suffering and injustice done to the community in contemporary India.
The Musahar community is the worst victim of violence in the state. Haibaspur (Patna) is a crucial example for it. On March 23, 1997, ten Musahars were brutally killed by Ranvir Sena (a private army of upper caste). Surymani Devi, Ramuna Devi, Bacchi Devi, Mano Devi and Santi Devi widows of the victims claim that government had made an announcement for providing jobs but promises are still unfulfilled, they do not know their offence for suffering? If this is the condition of Musahars residing near the corridors of power then one can imagine the plight of those residing in the interiors.
Ironically, the Musahar community is in peril in a welfare state. The constitution of India, Article 21 speaks about the right to life. But even after that the right to life of Musahars is being denied. Musahars live, as slaves in a democratic country like India where justice, liberty, equality and fraternity are basic features of the Constitution. Is it not a shame to us when Musahar children go in search of jobs instead of going to school, they become child labourers instead of enjoying childhood and instead of consuming nutritious food they on empty stomach go to bed and we celebrate silver jubilee in the name of Independence Day saying we are the people of India? Is this a democracy where their right to vote is being determined by the ruling class, feudal landlords or goons? Will they ever get opportunities to enjoy fundamental rights? Will their deprivation ever come to end? These questions may remain so, till there are a strong people to stand up in support of these exploited, deprived and betrayed communities.