Musahars have long been trying to break free of their image. Jitan Ram Manjhi’s elevation, his native region hopes, will do it for them. Santosh Singh reports. Photographs by Prashant Ravi
Before he stepped down as chief minister last week, Nitish Kumar had given up his chair once earlier. It was for Dasrath Manjhi, Bihar’s ‘mountain man’ who is believed to have dug through Gaya Hills almost single-handedly for 22 years to carve out a road between Atri and Wazirganj, cutting the distance from 40 km to 8. Dasrath, who died in 2007, had come to visit Nitish and a respectful CM offered the 75-year-old his chair for 5 minutes.
Jitan Ram Manjhi is in his third stint as minister. However, for his community of Musahars, Jitan Ram’s ascension to the CM’s chair — even if symbolic — is no less than the parting of a mountain.
The lowest of the low in India’s inflexible caste hierarchy, the Musahars make up around 5.5 per cent of Bihar’s population, of which less than 10 per cent are literate. In new CM Jitan Ram Manjhi’s village and around, there are only a handful of Musahars who are graduates. Electricity is rare and a handpump that was installed the day after Jitan Ram was sworn in a major source of excitement. There are eight Musahar MLAs (including Jitan Ram) in Bihar’s Assembly of 243, and Jitan Ram is the first Musahar in the country to occupy a position as senior as his.
Mostly, the community is used to being identifed only by the image its name conjures up — ‘Musahars’ meaning the rat eaters, though at least in Gaya, it is rare to find someone fitting that description. Helped largely by the JD(U) government’s Mahadalit schemes, the Musahars of Gaya, like Jitan Ram, have taken some steps up the economic, if not social, ladder.
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On the road to Jitan Ram’s paternal village Mahakar in the Khizarsarai block of Gaya, there is still disbelief over Nitish naming him CM after resigning over the JD(U)’s rout in the Lok Sabha elections. More than Jitan Ram, Nitish is the hero here. “Nitish might have lost the elections but he has became a very big leader by making a Mahadalit the CM. Nitish has reserved a place for himself in history,” says Sonu Kumar, Jitan Ram’s neighbour and an undergraduate student at a Biharsharif college.
The Musahars make up around one-tenth of Mahakar’s 100 households. The village also has Yadavs, Kahars (an extremely backward class) and upper caste Bhumihars and Brahmins. Jitan Ram’s long stint as an MLA since 1980 has brought Mahakar a middle school, an additional public health care centre, a sub-health centre and, most importantly, an electricity connection. Jitan Ram was deputy minister for land reforms and revenue in the Chandrashekhar Singh-led Congress government in the early 1980s, served as a minister of state for education in the RJD government in the mid-1990s, and was the SC/ST Welfare Minister in the Nitish government till he became CM.
At Mahakar’s middle school (Classes I to VIII), walls are covered with slogans encouraging voting and warning against smoking in public. Of the more than 300 students on the school’s rolls, only 14 are Manjhi. Just behind the school is the six-bed additional primary health care centre that came up in 1980. The centre gets around 100 patients daily in its out-patient department. Serious patients are referred to hospitals in Khizarsarai and Gaya.
At the school, Chunnu Manjhi, a Class VII student and the son of a labourer, is proudly writing ‘Shri Jitan Ram Manjhi’ in Hindi on the blackboard. Chunnu’s classmate Gunjan Kumari, however, draws more cheers when she writes the CM’s name in English.
The only fully pucca house in the village belongs to Jitan Ram. Located near the school, it stands out for its size — it has 18 rooms — and its fluorescent green colour. Jitan Ram and younger brother Govind, a police inspector, now deceased, built the house in the mid-1980s. Jitan Ram’s elder son Santosh Kumar Suman says he chose the colour for its brightness and distinct look.
The family’s fortunes, villagers say, are tied to the fact that Jitan Ram’s father Ramjeet Manjhi, a labourer, encouraged his sons to study. Jitan Ram is a graduate and he himself ensured that all his seven children, including five daughters, did at least their graduation. Santosh is a Ph.D. Jitan Ram’s wife Shanti Devi never attended school.
Santosh, who teaches at a private college in Wazirganj (Gaya), divides his time between the village and the family’s home in Godavari area of Gaya town. Santosh has dropped Manjhi from his surname, as has his younger brother Pravin Kumar, who works for a social organisation. The two say they prefer Suman as their surname.
Of Jitan Ram’s daughters, Sunaina Devi is a a ward councillor in Gaya and her husband works as a clerk in a college. Pramila, who stays in Ranchi, works as a beautician. Ruby is a supervisor with the Health Department’s Integrated Child Development Services in Gaya. Prabha and Bebi are homemakers.
Upendra, Jitan Ram’s nephew and the caretaker of his house, says: “Mamaji (uncle) ensured that all his children studied for he believes that only education can empower one and dismantle caste differences. I regret not having studied beyond Class V but I am proud I am working for the CM now.”
Since Jitan Ram’s swearing-in on May 20, Upendra has had his hands full. His phone keeps ringing with queries about the new CM, his family and their background.
Upendra, originally from Atri (barely 20 km from Mahakar), has been living with Jitan Ram’s family for over 20 years. The CM has 19 bighas of agricultural land in the village, in which they harvest two crops. Upendra’s younger brother Jitendra, who also dropped out of school after Class V, cultivates the land to make a living. Upendra says earlier Jitan Ram too used to work in the fields. “He still likes to work in the fields. He is humble and does not bother about what people might think,” says Upendra.
The family has two cars. While the sons use the Scorpio, Jitan Ram prefers his old Ambassador.
Upendra points out proudly that Jitan Ram’s room, now locked since the family is in Patna, is the only one that is air-conditioned in the village. Upendra is also particular about another family “asset”, also rare here — the refrigerator. “We get 17 hours of power here, thanks to mamaji,” he says, instructing his assistant to offer cold water to the policemen now deployed at the house for security, but after “adding some normal water”. “We can’t give them totally chilled water.”
Just 500 metres from Jitan Ram’s house are the houses of the other nine Manjhi families of Mahakar. Upendra’s own house is the envy of others, both for being semi-pucca and for its air-cooler. Rukmin Devi, a relative of Jitan Ram, often drops in at Upendra’s house just to catch the cooler’s breeze for a few moments. Her thatched house, which doesn’t even have a door, is unbearable in the summer months. An electrical bulb outside is kept on day and night — charged a fixed rate for power, they don’t see the need to switch it off. Rukmin’s husband Tantu Manjhi works as a petty farmer.
Says Kamla Manjhi, a neighbour: “We are labourers. We work in the fields during wheat and rice seasons and take up odd jobs.” She adds that they came from adjoining villages to settle down in Mahakar at the insistence of Jitan Ram. The new CM wanted his relatives to come to the village because it had only a few Manjhi households.
“Now that he has become CM, he should make some difference to the lives of Musahars,” Kamla adds.
Even the Yadavs, traditionally RJD followers, are looking forward to a fellow villager taking over as CM. “Can he do something to get us water in this dry land? Can he get us a water tank?” asks Vikas Yadav. An elderly Yadav adds, “Hope he continues to recognise us.”
Around a kilometre away from Mahakar is Parbatti Nagar, where the Musahars make up 75 per cent of its population of 4,000. A kuchcha road leads up to the village. The day after Jitan Ram’s swearing-in, a handpump that had been sanctioned a while ago was installed overnight. It is the third handpump in the village, where groundwater table is very low because of land being arid and full of rocks. The village used to have two wells, but these dried up long ago.
Parbatti Nagar is a village of daily wage labourers, 40 per cent of whom between the ages of 18 and 50 have migrated to places such as Delhi, Ludhiana in Punjab and Aligarh in UP for work. Most of them are employed in brick kilns and visit the village around the paddy season as there is work to be done here then. They get paid around Rs 150 per day or 3 kg rice daily along with breakfast and lunch. None from the community has a government or private job.
Over 95 per cent of the houses are kuchcha and the rest semi-pucca and, when it rains, they take shelter in the village middle school building, which has cemented classrooms and a handpump. Most of the children attend the school only for the free mid-day meal, after which they return home to help parents at work. Elders have taken to hanging around the largely empty building — “the best structure in the village” — to play cards or just chat. The building is also the venue for all village wedding festivites.
Most children drop out of school after Class V and others after Class VIII. Though there is a high school 5 km away, most parents do not send their children there. “By the time one reaches teens, one thinks of earning. Teenagers either work in adjoining villages or migrate to Punjab and Delhi to brick kilns,” says Rajendra Manjhi (30). There are no matriculates in the entire village.
Ajay Manjhi is better placed as his wife works for an aanganwadi, adding to the family income. He has a mobile phone to show for it.
With a CM from among them, villagers hope the benefits of all the Mahadalit schemes launched by the JD(U) government will finally reach them. As a villager accuses officials of failing to do their bit, a youth brings out the radio set he got under one of the Mahadalit schemes. Pointing to the radio’s “poor quality”, Ganori Manjhi says: “It would have been better if the government had given us Rs 400 in cash.”
The village has no electricity. While some have purchased solar panels to charge their mobile phones, they say they can’t afford batteries for the radio sets.
They did get the benefits of the Kabir Antyesti Yojana, that provides money for performing the last rites of near and dear ones. However, instead of the allocated Rs 1,500 per death, villagers say they have been getting only Rs 1,000.
The village middle school has over 250 students. A Mahadalit student from Class I to IV gets Rs 600 scholarship per year, a Class V and VI student Rs 1,200 and a Class VII and VIII student Rs 1,800 per year. Besides, students get Rs 500 each for uniform and shoes.
Not a single family from Parbatti Nagar has got an Indira Awaas Yojana house, nor the free 3 decimals of land to raise a house. Says Kalo Devi: “We have heard about it, but no government official came here. All of us are landless.”
They have not heard of some of the other schemes — such as health cards, free vocational training and Rs 300 to build a toilet at home.
Ask what the villagers generally do and 30-year-old Rajendra Manjhi surmises in one line. “Majuri kar ke khate hain aur taadi peete hain (We work as labourers and then drink toddy),” he says, referring to the other stereotype about Musahars being toddy sellers and mostly heavy drinkers.
Villagers say only a few of them are involved in toddy selling. “One gets only Rs 10 per lota (a water pot that can hold up to 1 litre). Most toddy buyers are poor and it’s not worthwhile to do this business given the work involved in climbing up palm trees,” says Pankaj Manjhi. Some villagers, however, claim “neera (toddy collected early morning before the sun ferments it) is very good for health”.
As for rat eating, Ajay Manjhi says this is almost non-existent now, though some living in Munger and Lakhisarai hills may still eat the meat. “Musahars have begun to see rat eating as a blot and are slowly stopping it,” says Ajay.
He believes the change has come about because of the Mahadalit schemes launched by the Nitish government. “As we got some cash from these schemes, it did ensure us a fixed annual earning.”
Jitan Ram Manjhi being in politics for over 30 years has also helped. “We have approach roads and schools because of his efforts,” Ajay says.
While Jitan Ram has now made it to the state’s highest post, no villager in Parbatti Nagar is in politics, not even at the panchayat level. “Jitan is the only politician we know,” says Gangu Ram Manjhi.
The Musahars are considered aggressive and loyal JD(U) voters, almost in the same manner as Yadavs are an RJD vote bank. ‘Teer (arrow)’, the poll symbol of the JD(U), is the only election symbol most Musahars recall.
Murti Devi, four of whose six sons are migrant labours, shows her thatched house in Parbatti Nagar with a small room and an open courtyard. She lives with her two sons, one of whom is physically disabled. Murti, who says her sons do not support her except for bringing her clothes sometimes, wishes the CM could see how they lived. “At least, we should expect an Indira Awaas house now.”
The Class VII student from Mahakar, Chunnu Manjhi, hopes for a high school. “Then i won’t have to go to Karpi, 3 km away.” Teenagers say that the village must get the status of a block town like RJD president Lalu Prasad’s Phulwaria village in Gopalganj. They want better approach roads, a full-fledged hospital and a police station.
But Murti Devi has her doubts. “Officers come and at times mediapersons too, and write our names. Our hopes are rekindled each time. But nothing happens.”
After all, the story of Dasrath Manjhi, who occupied the CM’s chair for a few brief moments and who is set to feature in a Bollywood film this year, saw another ignominous chapter this month. Dasrath had begun carving the road out of a mountain pained by his wife’s death due to delay in medical care.
Thirty-five years later, Dasrath’s daughter-in-law Basanti Devi, an asthma patient, too died due to lack of medical attention. A hospital started in Dasrath’s name in their village is yet to start functioning.