Jitan Ram Manjhi, has not only been derided and discriminated by the society, he has been poured with scorn by the media too. When his name was announced as the CM of Bihar, last year, though Bihar already had two Dalit Chief Ministers, Bhola Paswan and Ram Sundar Das, Media started creating sensation by announcing : “The First Musahar to Be Bihar’s Chief Minister!” And when he quit the Chief Ministership, many foreign newspapers carried the headline: “India’s Rat Eater Minister Resigns.”
The media which tried to sensationalise Manjhi’s sudden rise and his fall from favour has ignored the struggling years and perseverance of perhaps the first ever Graduate and known politician from the Musahar community. Media has also overlooked the fact that, the decline of Mayawati led BSP has given a dimension to Manjhi’s importance, the realtime example of inclusive politics starting from the caste cauldron of Bihar.
Jitan Ram Manjhi’s distinct Dalit identity has already made him a visible icon of Dalit politics in the politically active State and has effectively put the signal that in the new combination of Dalits, Mahadalits and OBCs are keen to occupy the space for social justice to the lowest strata of the society. Despite being in the centre of many past controversies, he is an ardent example of an extraordinary accomplishment.
Attitude That Never Changes
A case was filed against JD(U) President Sharad Yadav recently for calling Manjhi as a “Musahar” who never went to a school.
“How can he become the CM as he has not seen books and school,” Sharad had had reportedly said in Kanpur.
Sharad Yadav had simply forgotten that the same Manjhi had been instrumental in Nitish Kumar’s reaching out to a new vote base marked as ‘Mahadalits’, which ultimately changed the equation! Last year, it was reported that a temple in Bihar’s Madhubani district was washed and purified soon after Manjhi’s visit there, as the Chief Minister. Speaking at an observance of the birth centenary of Dalit Chief Minister of Bihar, Bhola Paswan in Patna, Manjhi said that he had visited the temple only after people had sincerely wished him to do so.
“I came to know later that the premises and the Sanctum were cleansed after my visit. This shows that the mindset against people of marginalised sections of society still exists,” he said.
Surprisingly some Bihar politicians, instead of condemning the incident, said that Manjhi was seeking ‘cheap sympathy’ and also coined him as a “Habitual Liar!”
In April this year, reports said that after former CM Manjhi paid tribute to the Ram Manohar Lohia statue in Supaul in North Bihar, allegedly, members of an organisation called the Lohia Vichar Manch, and a student leader of Rashtriya Janata Dal, poured water on the statue to cleanse it and replaced Mr Manjhi’s garland with newer one. Lohia Statue being cleased after Manjhi’s visit These all clearly shows utter caste-driven outlook of Bihar’s politicians. But no one talks about Manjhi’s achievement, his grit. Manjhi sarcastically remarked that when people come to him to get their works done, they felt no qualms about touching his feet. “This is the world we live in”, he concluded.
The Life Of A Musahar!
Musahar which literally means rat-catchers are the tribal people who traditionally lived in forests. Over the past century, deforestation forced the Musahars into makeshift shelters on unused barren land at the outskirts of villages. To earn a living they began hunting rats from paddy fields during harvesting seasons. Abject hunger and poverty drove them to eat the rodents they captured. Catching Rats for a living? Musahar caste is perhaps at the lowest rung of India’s 900 Dalit sub-castes. They are excluded from temples, banned from drinking water from the common wells in the villages, their children are forced to sit and eat separately at school. Those who demanded their rights were often evicted from their homes by upper caste goons. While all Dalits suffer inhuman and brutal treatment, none of them are quite as marginalised as the Musahar.
Landless , Helpless
In rural Bihar Musahar are mainly landless agricultural labourers, but often go without work for as much as eight months in a year. Those who have received land from the Government, ended up mortgaging it to money lenders for loans as little as Rs 500, at an interest rate of 400% per annum!
Children work alongside their parents in the fields or as rag pickers, earning as little as 25 to 30 rupees daily. Such exploitation has led to the marginalisation of the Mushahar community, both socially as well as economically.
Eating Rats for survival! By some estimates, as many as 85 percent of some villages of Musahars suffer from malnutrition and with access to health centres, diseases such as malaria and kalaazar, are the prevalent diseases .
Untimely deaths are rampant, due to hunger and chronic malnutrition. Till date, the Bihar Government report said there were no high school teachers or officials from the Mahadalits, in the State despite reservations in government jobs for them.
Dalit To Mahadalits
Dalits constitute nearly 15 percent of Bihar’s population of 90 million. The poorest Dalits were declared as Mahadalits.
Dalits were considered traditionally as untouchables and suppressed. The Indian Constitution recognizes Dalit as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
The 3.85 million poorest Dalits in Bihar come from 18 sub castes within the Dalit and are classified as Mahadalits and represent 31% of the entire number of Dalit in the State.
‘Bihar State Mahadalit Commission’ was set up by the Government of Bihar in 2007. The Commission has submitted two interim reports so far. The commission has recommended including 18 castes as the extremely weaker castes amongst the list of Scheduled Castes . The same Commission has identified 18 of the 22 Dalit sub castes, including Musahar, Bhuiyan, Dom, and Nat as Maha Dalits. They constitute 31 percent of the Dalit population in the state.
The commission has not included four Dalit castes – Paswan, Pasi, Dhobi and Chamar – in the Maha Dalit category. These four constitute 69 percent of the Dalit population in the state.
18 Mahadalits -Bantar, Bauri, Bhogta, Bhuiyan, Chaupal, Dabgar, Dom, Ghasi, Halalkhor, Hadi, Kanjar, Kuraria, Lalbegi, Mushar, Nat, Pan, Rajwar and Turi.
4 Dalit castes – Paswan, Pasi, Dhobi and Chamar.
Holes In Doles
Nitish Kumar Government announced a special package of Rs.3 billion for the socio-economic development of the poorest among the Dalits. The Government had set up a commission in August 2011,for the welfare of certain Dalit castes that are socially and educationally more backward than others. Bihar was the first state to constitute a commission to study the status of the neglected subcastes among Dalits and suggest ways to uplift them.
The commission in its first interim report to the government painted a bleak picture of the Dalit sub-castes. The report said there were no high school teachers or senior officials from these castes in the state despite reservations in government jobs for them.
The Musahar literacy rate is 3 percent, but falls below 1 percent among women.
An Incredible Journey!
As a teenager, Narendra Modi had sold tea at the train station in Vadnagar, became the Prime Minister of India on 26 May 2014. A few days earlier , on May 20, Jitan Ram Manjhi had taken oath as the Chief Minister of Bihar. It was also a widely covered news and reports said that Manjhi had been “born into the blighted Musahar community and grew up catching and eating rats.” Musahar are landless agricultural labourers and are treated as outcasts even by Dalits. Traditionally they are a community of rat catchers from the fields, and continue to do so because of abject poverty. Jitan Ram Manjhi is the first generation literate and the only one to reach at the top.
Manjhi was born on 6 October, 1944, at Mahkar village in Bihar’s Gaya district. His father Ramjit Ram was a landless agricultural labourer in a landowner’s farm. His mother was also an agricultural labourer, working long hours in the field. As a boy, Manjhi didn’t go to school. Instead, he would take the landlord’s cattle out to graze every morning and was given food in return. Once, Manjhi’s father suggested to the landlord that he’d like his son to be educated. The landlord got angry and started abusing and beating Manjhi’s father. The angry landlord started taunting him and sarcastically asked, “What your son will become! The District Magistrate?”
Study By Proxy
Most Musahar kids never go to school In another three years, a teacher was appointed to teach the landlord’s children. Manjhi eavesdropped on the lessons. Once, the teacher was angry when the landlord’s son couldn’t answer a question but Manjhi had the answer!
In the local Toddy shop the teacher once met Manjhi’s father. Both were drunk. Suddenly the teacher said, “Bhagat, why don’t you educate your son? He is smart .” So, when Jitan the boy was ready to take the cattle out to graze, the next morning, the father told him that he would study instead. The landlord came out angrily to beat both of them but a desperate Manjhi’s father told him that he would leave the village and work somewhere else. The landlord calmed down and told him that, Ok. the boy should work in the mornings but would be permitted to study in the evening , seating at a distance from his own kids. So, in the evening he would bring the cattle back and then sit on the floor, far from the teacher, and study. His persistence and hard work helped. He had cleared the seventh grade.
As a student from the Musahar caste, he got a small stipend from the Government. But the teachers were aloof and indifferent to him. Ultimately he cleared the Metric, and went to study in a college in the nearby town of Gaya.
Entry Into Politics
During the 1957 Bihar Assembly elections the local Congress Party members would take him on their campaign to attract the ‘Musahar’ people. Over the loudspeaker, they made announcements near the huts of the villagers. “This Musahar boy gets money from the Government to study. Vote for Congress, if you also want your sons to be educated!”
In 1966, Manjhi again helped an upper-caste candidate to get the Musahar votes.But in 1968 there was famine in Bihar. Manjhi’s father had no work in the fields. As the family was starving, he tried and got a small clerical job in the postal department. He worked there for 13 years.After that he decided to join politics. Manjhi quit job in 1980 to join Congress.That year he won on Congress ticket from Fatehpur (Reserved) Assembly constituency and became a Deputy Minister of welfare in 1983 in the Government of Chandra Shekhar Singh.
He also became member of Congress Government of Bindeswari Dubey. He earned the distinction of being elected from three other Assembly constituencies — Barachatti, Bodh Gaya and Makhdumpur in successive elections.
When Manjhi Became The CM
The people of Musahar Tola in Rohtas celebrated the day Jitan Ram Manjhi became the Chief Minister. A community feast followed by a cultural programme . Naach, Gana! “It’s a historic day for the Mushars .
A Musahar, the most backward among the Scheduled Castes, becoming the Chief Minister of a feudal state like Bihar is something unbelievable,” said a senior, Ram Chandra Musahar.
No one in the village could watch the oath-taking ceremony live however, as there was no TV set in their homes! The residents of Baghachal village in Muzaffarpur had also celebrated the occasion.
The village situated on the border of Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga has a population of around 4,000. They were confident that Manjhi would take initiatives to improve the living conditions of the community still deprived of basic amenities
Never On A Loser’s Side
Political observers say that Manjhi’s personal history is testimony to the fact that he has never been on the loser’s side. He entered politics in 1980 as a Congressman and remained minister in the Congress Governments through the 1980s.
He switched over to the Rashtriya Janata Dal in 1990 after the Congress’s debacle and became Minister first under Lalu Yadav and then under Rabri Devi.
Manjhi faced two successive defeats from Fatehpur between 1990 and 1995 Assembly elections.
When Lalu’s RJD lost power to Nitish Kumar in 2005, Manjhi promptly crossed over to the JD(U) and got a Ministerial berth.
But post JD(U) Manjhi has allied with BJP, a party he once despised.
Manjhi with Narendra Modi
So, for Manjhi, his rise from a poor rat eater to the present potential was fabled and arduous. But surely he was always at the right place in the right time.
BJP can take solace from the fact, as of now!
By Deep Basu