The Musahars of Varanasi were recently in the news after a local Hindi daily highlighted (with a picture) their plight, with their children literally having to ‘eat grass” in the wake of COVID 19. There was a strong rebuttal from the District administration who
presented a different picture by claiming that the children photographed for the story were actually eating a pulse, not grass. The district magistrate (DM) issued a notice to the author of the report, asking for clarification within 24 hours. The notice says "It is clear that the reporter associated with (your paper) by describing the consumption of “akhri daal” as grass-eating is a gross attempt by him to cast aspersions on the Musahar community and spread misinformation among the masses at a critical time. I had sent you a Whatsapp message at 1:30 AM denouncing this baseless report but you still went ahead to publish the misleading article on the front page." Whatever the merits of the case, in normal conditions the Musahars are one of the most deprived communities of India, so the stark reality is that among the suffering people (those who have to live from hand to mouth, the daily wage earners and the like) of the country today, they are without doubt the most affected.
Fr Tomy Nishaant , a Patna Jesuit and currently the Principal of St Xavier’s College and St Xavier’s College of Management and Technology has rendered yeoman service to all in his path breaking book ‘Musahars: a Noble People, a Resilient Culture’. It is a book much needed at a time like this when the poor and the marginalised of our country, are at the receiving end of a heartless regime and unjust system.
Right from the first chapter ‘I am not a Musahar’, Nishaant not only sets the tone of his book namely to restore dignity to the Musahars; but, in a studied and systematic manner he lays bare the generally accepted etymological understandings of the word ‘Musahar’ (literally ‘rat-eaters’). He asserts that “overtly, the name musahar appears to be on account of their association with rats/mice. But there are deeper reasons for it, connected to slavery, servitude and subjugation. It becomes clear that Musahar is not the original name of the people who are today known as Musahars. It must have been bestowed on them by the caste Hindus on the basis of their notion of purity and pollution, a religious one.” He goes on to add “such notions were closely connected to the economic and social structures of the time, namely feudalism and casteism.”
Eminent educationist and scholar Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat, a former Chairman of the University Grants Commission besides shouldering several other major responsibilities in the field of education has written the Foreword to the book. He writes, “the study throws inner insight into the life of this most deprived community, blow up the myth constructed by earlier researchers belonging to upper caste about the negative attributes such as Musahar being unreliable, unmotivated, useless, dirty etc.” In his concluding para he says, “We are grateful to the author for revealing the inner world of this most deprived community with great hard work and presented the need for articulated development efforts keeping in view the social and cultural universe of the Musahars.”
The book which is divided into ten main Chapters has several sub-chapters. Nishaant dwells at length on the tribal identity of the Musahars and tries to reconstruct it from various perspectives. Sufficient weightage is given to the economic, political, social and cultural dimensions of their lives. That blatant caste discrimination exists in our society today is no longer news but when Nishaant evidences these discriminatory and humiliating practices in the context of the Musahars, it surely makes one cringe.
The final chapter of the book ‘Paradigm for Integral Development’ is in a way the fruit of love’s labour. Nishaant makes a strong case for giving the Musahars a more dignified name ‘Rikhiyaasan’ (related to their ancestry Rishi Muni). He is convinced that they will be proud to go by this name; he calls for a return to their tribal identity. Above all in keeping with Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s core message to the Dalits “to organise, educate and agitate”, Nishaant feels that they must rediscover themselves through these fundamentals and thus embark on the path where they will justifiably reclaim the human rights which has been denied to them all these years.
Nishaaant’s study is seminal as it unravels the self-respect, resilience, and tenacity of the Musahars who inspite of abject poverty ranks the lowest in terms of abortion, infanticide, prostitution, theft and other crime; the value system they subscribe to is quite contrary to what has been generally and derogatively portrayed about them
Nishaant’s study is the fruit of him being in the midst of the Musahars of Bihar for a ten-month period, 1989-90. Nishaant acknowledges the “love and respect” he received from them and “who spent time talking to me, sharing the little they had with me.”In a way, Nishaant gives to all of us a very clear message: no study is relevant and meaningful if it does not emerge from one being in the midst of people. Long before Pope Francis made it a meter for all pastors to base their lives upon, Nishaant realised that only if one “truly smelled of the sheep”, one’s conclusions would have the much needed authenticity.
The book is also the result of an academic work; it would therefore be natural that the graphs, indices, appendices and other necessary data, may put off the ordinary reader. They are essentials however, if one truly wants to have a deeper insight into a much-reviled community. The book certainly is not intended for casual reading.
Nishaant’s conclusion of the Musahars are in the title of the book itself: they are a noble people with a resilient culture. Throughout this absorbing study, he goes out of his way to demonstrate that fact, which is replete with real life stories and anecdotes masterly interwoven in the book.
Caste discrimination is alive and kicking in India; we are in the midst of the pandemic COVID-19, and we witness how the sub-alterns (the daily wage earners, the migrants) are suffering all over. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to realise that most of these belong to the lowest castes and tribes of the country. In times like these, Nishaant’s book is not merely mandatory reading, but a challenge to all to walk the talk with the Musahars and others of their kind, who are at the receiving end of an unjust and exploitative society.
*( Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)