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Meet the Mahadalit vote: the Musahars beyond Manjhi

Atul Chaurasia | Updated on: 7 October 2015, 12:21 IST
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The community

  • Musahars are a caste of rat-catchers residing in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Nepal\'s Terai
  • Practices like eating raw rats and snails are still common among the community
  • Historically, they were clubbed with other Dalit castes

Political impact

  • The Musahars haven\'t produced many tall leaders, barring a few MPs
  • For a long time, they were staunch supporters of the Left, and also involved in the Naxalite movement
  • Before Jitan Ram Manjhi, no one could really galvanise the entire community

More in the story

  • The terrible social conditions that exist even today among the Musahars
  • How Nitish Kumar\'s folly actually benefited Manjhi

Over the last few months, the Musahars - or the rat-eaters of Bihar - have suddenly become the subject of heated media debates and political commentary. In many ways, they are the corner piece of the BJP's election strategy: the impact group the party is counting on to bag the Mahadalit votes - 15 percent of the electorate .

The political face of the Musahars is Jitanram Manjhi - the state's former chief minister, protege of Nitish Kumar, and now his bitter opponent.

But that's as much as the average Indian knows of the musahars. Just one layer below Manjhi lies a story of a people who continue to face extreme distress and historic humiliation.

This is the real story of Bihar's Musahars - beyond the political babble that surrounds them.

The people behind the vote

The 'Musahars' are one of the primeval tribes of India, living in far-flung regions of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and the Terai of Nepal. The tradition of feeding on rats is still very much alive among the community.

The tribe was put among the 'depressed classes' under the British rule. It got the status of a separate tribe after the first census exercise in 1871.

Today, the Musahars are largely concentrated in Southern Bihar and Jharkhand. "The caste mainly belongs to landless labourers. Such communities have no mentors as they have no belongings," says Shrikant, director of the Jagjivan Ram Institute of Parliamentary Studies and Political Research, who has researched extensively on the Dalits of Bihar.

Nitish's new classification

The Musahars have been predominantly clubbed with other Dalit castes in independent India. The politics of Bihar revolved around six main communities till 2007. These included the forward castes, Yadavs, OBCs, Pasis, other Dalit castes and Muslims. A total of 23 castes of Bihar have been formally recognised under the constitution of India.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar bifurcated OBCs into extremely backward castes and other Dalit castes in 2007. This gave rise to a new category called Mahadalits. Musahars are now a part of the Mahadalits.

The Musahars have never been an organised group, unlike Chamars in UP or Pasis and Paswans in Bihar. They have remained politically insignificant despite a large population, as they are demographically dispersed.

According to senior journalist Sukant Nagarjuna, "Musahars are traditionally nomads. They are not concentrated in one particular region. But, they have started consolidating into a strong social unit over the years."

Historical impact on politics

Numerically, Musahars are the third largest Dalit group in Bihar after Chamars and Pasis, comprising 13.4% of the total Dalit population. They form 2.5-3% of the overall population of the state.

However, this numerical strength has seldom translated into political impact. The community has not produced a single undisputed political leader till date. A few Musahar figures appeared on the political horizon, but soon went into oblivion.

Karai Musahar was the first representative of the caste in the Lok Sabha. He won the 1952 general election on a Congress ticket.

In the 1960s and 70s, political churning started among the Musahars. The era saw Musahar leaders like Bhola Manjhi rising to prominence. He won assembly elections in 1957 from Jamui on a CPI ticket.

Bhola Manjhi entered the Lok Sabha in 1971, riding on widespread Musahar support. It was largely due to his influence that the Musahars remained ardent supporters of the Left for decades.

Another important leader among the Musahars was Mishri Sada, who became a state minister in 1972. The following period saw a relative void in Musahar politics.

Jitan Ram Manjhi, the tallest Musahar leader today, tasted power for the first time in 1985, when he was made a minister of state in the Bihar government.

Their political clout notwithstanding, Musahars have remained fairly active in anti-establishment movements. Many Musahar leaders were a part of the early Naxal movement. Most of them fell prey to police bullets.

Bootan Manjhi, a prominent Naxal leader of Bhojpur region, was gunned down in 1971. Another Naxal leader of some significance among Musahars, Birda Manjhi, was also killed in a police encounter.

Social upliftment, or lack thereof

The process of social and educational emancipation of Musahars has been as sluggish as that of their political upliftment. Musahar society is still marred by medieval superstitions like witch-hunting. One can still find Musahars hunting down rats and eating snails uncooked on the outskirts of Patna.

The community lags behind on all indices of human development. Looking at the state of the Musahars, all the claims of a changing Bihar seem to be coming from another planet.

Look at the literacy rate for example: only 13.67% of Musahar males were literate in 2001. The literacy rate of women among them stood at an abysmal 7%.

The backwardness of Musahars is evident even in Mahkar, Manjhi's own village. A group of 20-25 children thronged the Catch team as we entered the village, most of them scantily clad.

When we asked how many of them had enrolled in schools, all hands went up. However, not even a single child could recite the Hindi alphabet.

Mahendra Manjhi, the man who is entrusted with the task of taking the kids to the school, has not received his salary for the last six months.

The Musahar community is present in considerable numbers in Gaya, Rohtas, Araria and Sitamarhi districts. It also has a sizeable presence in Samastipur, Begusarai and some parts of Khagaria.

Manjhi's growing clout

The whole premise of forming Mahadalit and EBC groupings seems to have fallen flat on its face after Nitish's spat with Manjhi.

"The politics of identity has not taken root among the Musahars. Jitan Ram Manjhi was never a political heavyweight. He has shifted allegiance from Congress to RJD and then JD(U). Manjhi's politics was restricted to his own constituency before Nitish made him the Chief Minister. It was Nitish's folly that has elevated him to the stature of negotiating 20 seats with the BJP," opines Shrikant.

There were nine Musahar MLAs in the last assembly. Five of them were from the BJP, three from the JD(U) and one from the RJD. But, it is only Manjhi who appears to have hit the jackpot.

During his reign, he has tried everything to establish himself as the messiah of Mahadalits. Including Paswans in the category of Mahadalits was one such move.

Bihar has seen two Dalit CMs prior to Manjhi - Bhola Paswan and Ram Sundar Das. However, both of them had to contend with a Cabinet dominated by forward castes. They were by-and-large subservient to the upper-caste top leadership.

In contrast, Manjhi defied Nitish's diktats. This has sent an important message among the Musahars: that Manjhi is their undisputed leader, who was victimised by Nitish.

Today, they seem to be favourably inclined towards Manjhi. Clearly, the BJP has every reason to place its bets on him.

First published: 7 October 2015, 12:21 IST
 
Atul Chaurasia @beechbazar

एडिटर, कैच हिंदी, इससे पूर्व प्रतिष्ठित पत्रिका तहलका हिंदी के संपादक के तौर पर काम किया

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