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Les Misérables : Musahars

Les Misérables : Musahars

On the 2nd April, 2020, I approached the local police station to get permission and assistance to distribute ration to the Musahars   of the area.   I saw two women at the police station, one with a little baby in her arms, being sent to jail for the crime of brewing liquor.   The women looked very cool and calm and they kept putting their thumb impression wherever the police asked them to.   This looked a very casual, routine affair.   Then, one of the policemen said to me, “Please do not distribute ration among the Musahars.   They brew liquor.   They are anti-social elements.   It is better that they die of starvation.”  

This is the common prejudice among the police and common people regarding the Musahars, especially in urban areas where they live in slums and shanties.   They are despised by almost all.   Nobody asks: Why are the Musahars brewing liquor?   Why do they want to go through the hassles of police atrocities, extortion and humiliation? Can they not take up any other work?   The fact of the matter is that Musahars are only contacted for contract works like clearing garbage, loading and unloading sand, bricks, etc., and seasonal agricultural works like planting, weeding and harvesting.   This does not sustain their families and so they have found a way to cope with the situation by brewing liquor.

As per the Census of 2011, there are about 29 lakhs Musahars in Bihar.   The unofficial number will not be less than 60 lakhs.   Their literacy rate is about 10%.   It is no exaggeration to say that 90% of them are landless.   Most of them are unskilled labourers.   That is why most of the men and in some cases the entire family migrate to other states for survival.   A good number of them work in brick kilns in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.  

Why no starvation deaths?

Though the Musahars suffer from extreme food insecurity, rarely does any Musahar die of starvation.   This is because many Musahars do scavenging of all sorts.   Those who live in urban and sub-urban areas pick up rotten potatoes thrown out of cold storages, fruits and vegetables discarded from markets, rotten eggs thrown out of poultry farms, and entrails of chickens from chicken shops.

The etymology of their name, Musahar, indicates that they catch rats and eat them.    The Musahars say that there was a time when they used to collect even up to 50 kilograms of paddy from the burrows of the rats. Today, they may not get even two kilograms in this way. Basically being hunters, they enjoy fishing in small ponds, rivulets, and in such places where they do not have to pay any money to anyone.   Besides fish of any sort, they eat crabs, ghongha (a type of snails), tortoise, a fish which looks like a snake, siip (a kind of shellfish), frogs (only the yellow- and green- coloured ones) and even water snakes.   They have acquired special skills in ridding croplands of predators such as snails and, most often, rodents.   

A common feature is that the Musahar women scour harvested fields of paddy, wheat, potatoes, etc., to collect what is fallen and the scraps.   It was reported, “In tougher times, even undigested grain from cow-dung is washed, cooked and eaten.” [1]

Mr. Lockwood in his work, Natural History, Sport and Travel (1878), writes, ‘The Mushirs, or Mousers, as they may be called, are found in every village of Monghyr, and are half-starved even in times of plenty.   They seldom see coin, but receive their scanty wages in coarse grain, which they flavour with rats, mice, snails, and jungle roots, whilst living in hovels which an English pig would consider poor accommodation.’ There is hardly any change in the situation except that of accommodation as many of them have benefitted from the Indira Awas Yogna.    

The Musahars are declared   the poorest of the poor.     It will be no exaggeration to state that 99% of the Musahars are destitutes.   Starvation, hunger, scavenging, etc, are words that are often mentioned in their day-to-day interactions and on the discourse on Musahar life by others who are interested in their lives.

The Musahars remain excluded from the mainstream as they are economically assetless, socially marginalized, politically powerless, and culturally de-humanized.   Together with this, a low self-esteem, the self-defeatist and self-destructive practices, and indifference to developmental schemes initiated by government and non-governmental agencies for their upliftment, make the situation of the Musahars worse.   

The Musahars do not think of the future. This is evident in their way of spending money. It is a common knowledge that 99.9% of Musahar men   drink liquor and some of them even on a day when they do not earn a rupee.   When one compares their income and the money spent on unhealthy habits like intoxication, gambling, etc, it may not be an exaggeration to say that they are the greatest consumers of the world.

The above critical aspects of their culture, namely,   the compulsion to live an   indisciplined, care-free, tension-free life;   to live a life of high consumerism which verges on self-destructive habits like alcoholism,   gambling, etc, based on a philosophy of life which is totally limited to the needs of today and no security for tomorrow   require an urgent attention.

Thus Musahars have become the pets of NGOs, INGOs, Funding Agencies, World Developemntal Agencies like World Bank and Governmental Agencies. They are ‘targets’ in the grand plan of eradication of poverty.   They are a ‘case’ to be studied for various epidemics like Kala Azar, Polio, TB, Leprosy, Cholera, etc, but not yet for Covid-19.   They are the ultimate criteria and acid test   of the success of   developmental programmes.

 My association with the Musahar community began when I lived with them in Sikandarpur village, Danapur Block, Patna District for 10 months in 1989.   In spite of extremely poor living conditions, I discovered that the Musahars are very human, warm and   honest. Their simplicity and deep respect for themselves touched me. They were ready to share with me what they had.   This   foundational experience gave me the inspiration to opt for working with the Musahar community. It is the same experience that motivated me to discover the community further in and through a doctoral programme. I have interviewed several Musahars in the 82 villages of 28 districts in Bihar, 2 villages in Jharkhand, 3 villages in UP and 4 villages in Nepal.

A question that has haunted me for several years is why the Musahars do not commit suicide when faced with such extreme poverty and social marginalization. I have asked this question to many but no Musahar answered anything more than with a poignant silence or at the most saying with a deep sigh, “kya bolun” (What to say?).   Hardly any Musahar commits suicide in spite of abject poverty.   And this becomes a very striking fact when we know that the highest rate of suicides in our country is in the state of Kerala, a state considered to be developed.   The same is true of the Western countries where in spite of all the affluence and comforts of the modern world, the suicide rate is very high.

Thousands of   farmers of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and some other states   committed suicide due to their inability to pay back loans.   In rural areas, there is hardly   any Musahar family which does not have debts, taken from Mahajans at one of the largest   interest rates in the world (120 % and above). Yet, I have not heard of a single Musahar committing suicide due to the debt trap.

In spite of severe deprivation, we also do not see Musahars begging in front of temples, railway stations, bus stands and other public places. I have not also come across a single case of infanticide among the Musahars so far.   There is no preference for sons practiced among the Musahars.   Abortion is unheard of.  

The Musahar women bear the burden of running their families as many Musahar men waste a lot of money in consuming intoxicants and gambling.   But very few Musahar women are involved in prostitution, the oldest and easiest profession to make quick money, in spite of extreme poverty.   Former Chief Minister of Bihar, Shri Jitan Ram Manjhi, is of the opinion that 5% of Musahar women in urban and semi-urban areas where liquor is sold and at times served in the Musahari itself may be   involved in prostitution.   But in my opinion, abject poverty should have moved at least 90% of adult Musahar women into prostitution. Why has this not happened?   

There have been a few reports in news papers and in magazines that the Musahars of Muzzaffarpur, Darbanga, Madhubani and a few other districts   have been selling their children because of poverty.   My interviews with the Musahars of these places and the genuine NGOs working there reveal that the parents were convinced by the agents that their children would   be given training and then employed in factories.   Believing these agents who are at times even Musahars themselves, the parents sent their children for employment.   They were trapped. And this has been interpreted as selling of children.   Musahars cannot think of selling their children as they are their only and most treasured asset.  

It is true that Musahars are the easy suspects of any dacoity, theft, murder, etc., for the police.   Most often they are innocents. It is society and the Government machinery that made them criminals and now some of them are caught in this vicious circle. In my opinion and following the analysis of Mr. A. K Bishwas, IAS, [2] not even 0.2% of the Musahars could be in this profession but the impression created is that all the Musahars are criminals and thieves.  

The Musahars have a great history.   There are sufficient data available from Gazetters, Census Records and other ancient documents to prove that the Musahars and the Bhuiyas are one. And that the Bhuiyas were Tribals and they were a propertied class.   There are many more evidences like this to prove that they were great a people. Their ancestors like Tulsi Biir, Rishi Muni, Diina Bhadri, etc, were superhuman heroes.   There are many myths and legends which depict the extraordinary powers these ancestors possessed.  

Musahars like the late Misri Sada, the late Naval Kishor Bharati, the late Bhagawati Devi and Mr. Jitan Ram Manjhi, and some others too came into the political limelight virtually on their own.   The great strength of these and many other leaders who struggled and still struggle against many odds, especially the domination of dominant castes is to be valued.   Nine Musahars were elected as MLAs in the 2010 Bihar Assembly election and 6 in 2015.   The population of Mushars is the third largest among the Dalits in Bihar and thus they matter to the arithmetic of politics.

The Musahars possess a rare sense of nobility, resilience, tenacity of life, self-respect, determination, other-centerdness, etc.,   and these qualities can be personified in the phenomenal Musahar, Dashrath Manjhi, known as the Mountain Man.   He spent 22 years in carving out a road from the long stretch of mountain in Gehlour, Gaya.   The initial inspiration for starting this project some time in the late 1960s came from the fact that while his wife was returning after reaching food to Dasharath who was cutting wood on the mountain,  fell and later succumbed to death.     Dasharath wears a cap on important occasions and on which it is written that the length of the road he cut through was 360 feet, breadth 30 feet, and height 20 feet.   The distance connecting Atarii and Waziirganj was shortened to four kilometers from 60 kilometres and reduced a six-hour journey to one.  

Some compare Dashrath to the Emperor Shah Jahan who built Taj Mahal.   Both took 22 years to complete the work and their wives were the spark to begin.   The comparison ends there.   Shah Jahan had 20,000 people to work for him and had huge resources to build Taj Mahal.   Dashrath was illiterate, landless and resourceless.   He was a social outcaste. When he was given five acres of land by the Bihar Government, he wanted a hospital to be built there so that common people could benefit.   He did not think of himself.   Once Dashrath asked for money from the former Chief Minister, Shri Jitan Ram Manjhi.   When he was offered Rs 100/-, Dashrath took only Rs 50/-.   Thus, in many ways, Dashrath stands as a symbol of contentment, self-sacrifice, other-centerdness and   determination.   If the goal of education is formation of men and women for OTHERS, Dashrath is truly an educated person.   He stands as a counter symbol to a culture based on greed, social exclusion, gender inequality, cut throat competition and corruption.   Some say that if he were not a Musahar, he would have been awarded Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of our mother land.  

Dashrath personifies and epitomizes the culture and consciousness of the Musahar community which is deeply noble, self-respectful, resilient, determined and contended in spite of abject poverty, social exclusion, subjugation, illiteracy, landlessness, deprivation, hunger, mal-nutrition, labeling and so on.   The dominant communities are invited to pause and reflect; examine the value system and restructure their life style. The Musahars show the way when the whole world is gripped by Covid-19, an aftermath of ruthless and aggressive ways of exploiting the mother earth and building a society based on crony capitalism and consumerism.

(Published on 27th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 18)