‘Nothing is Going to Change, No Matter who Comes to Power’: Why Bihar’s Musahars are Sounding Cynical Ahead of Lok Sabha Elections 2024

The musahars, who are traditionally rat eaters, are allowed to live only in distant hamlets — “Musahari” and “Musahar Toli”. Despite their poor conditions, they play an important part in the state’s politics.
Musahars are still not allowed to live anywhere in Bihar except in hamlets earmarked exclusively for them.
Musahars are still not allowed to live anywhere in Bihar except in hamlets earmarked exclusively for them.

Sasaram/Nawada/Gaya/Darbhanga (Bihar): “You might find it awkward to sit on this rug, but take into consideration my limitations,” said Dahur Sada, an educated young man from Bharhi-Usrar village at Kusheshwar Asthan assembly constituency in Darbhanga district, while rolling out a jute bag for this correspondent to sit on.

Alluding to the terrible caste system that Dalits in Bihar have been forced to live under for generations, the 33-year-old man said 'upper' caste residents of the area do not allow the musahars to keep chairs in their homes.

They are allegedly forced to live in filthy surroundings with open garbage mounds and pigs all around them. They live at the bottom, like the last person in a long queue, and are still not a part of mainstream culture.

A medical representative with a Delhi-based pharmaceutical firm in Delhi, he is the first member of his community to attend college and earn a graduation degree in English literature.

“What did I get even after choosing higher education over addressing my family’s urgent financial needs — a private job where productivity and fitness are constant requirements? Didn’t I and other members of my oppressed community have the right to have a government job? If governments are so honest while making lofty promises with regard to our upliftment and mainstreaming, why are we facing social exclusion even in this 21st century?” he bombarded a battery of questions in response to queries regarding the promises made ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections and their fulfilments in the past five years.

According to the Mahadalit Commission of the state, at a pitiful 9.8%, the musahars have the lowest rate of literacy among Dalits in the nation. Moreover, the literacy rate among musahar women is less than 1%. Since the 1980s, the numbers have not greatly altered.

The caste group relies heavily on agriculture, albeit not as farmers but rather as laborers in the field. In the Magadh region of Bihar, a person with agricultural land is referred to as ‘khetihar’, and a person with a mouse or rat is termed ‘musahar’.

In the past, the musahars were one of the nation's nomadic populations, but unlike the shepherds and cattle herder caste groups, they did not own sheep or cows and buffaloes.

In Bihar, the numerically significant Scheduled Castes (SC), who are traditionally viewed as floating votes, are visibly upset with the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in the Centre for allegedly ignoring to address highest ever unemployment, skyrocketing prices and making “hollow promises” — few of the issues that hit them hard.

Musahars continue to be Bihar’s third-biggest SC group even after the state’s bifurcation in 2000 and have a sizable presence in Bihar politics. With their number standing at 4,035,787, as per the Caste-based Census Report, 2022, they form 3.0872% of the state’s total population.

Certain districts in the state such as Gaya, Madhepura, Khagaria, Purnea, etc., have a dense population of the community. In these constituencies, which are reserved for SC candidates, the community plays a significant role in guaranteeing victory.

“Rajwars and Manjhi in southern Bihar and Sada in northern Bihar are offshoots of the Bhuiya tribe. When combined, they will represent the largest SC group in the state and be able to negotiate for a larger political pie,” said Jesuit priest Fr. T Nishant, principal of St. Xavier’s College and author of the book titled ‘Musahars: a Noble People, a Resilient Culture’.

Some musahars identify as bhuiyans as well. But the bhuiyans, who number 1,174,460, are now considered a distinct caste by the Bihar government. In Magahi language, ‘bhuiyan’ means land. They identify as native to the area.

Bihar, one of the nation’s most important heartland states with 40 seats, is significant politically for both the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Opposition Congress.

The Election Commission has declared that voting for the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state will take place over the course of seven phases, beginning on April 19 and ending on June 1. On June 4, the results will be announced.

The literacy rate among musahar women is less than 1%. Since the 1980s, the numbers have not greatly altered.
The literacy rate among musahar women is less than 1%. Since the 1980s, the numbers have not greatly altered.

Measurable Life 

The Mooknayak visited their hamlets in many districts, including Madhubani, Darbhanga, Gaya, Nawada and Rohtas to gain insight into various facets of their lives and understand their marginalization from society despite their strong population and history of resilience.

Single-lane concrete roads end as their villages begin. Known as musahari or musahartoli, the settlements — generally located outside villages like an untouchable island — have a collection of straw huts, no pucca or brick houses. The villagers spend their lives with bare minimum survival needs.

Amid Swachh Bharat Abhiyan bandwagon, the ghettos still don’t have toilets. Both men and women attend nature’s call in the open. Most of the settlements have no street lights, though the households have electricity supply.

Just a small percentage of children were seen in clothing, covering their bodies. Majority of them were wandering around barefoot. Extreme poverty, illiteracy, landlessness, alcoholism, malnourishment, ill health, etc. appeared to be their fate.

Around 92.5% of Musahars in the state are agricultural laborers and 96.3% are landless.
Around 92.5% of Musahars in the state are agricultural laborers and 96.3% are landless.

Flood of Grievances

A single query was sufficient to let a torrent of grievances unleash. A number of women and men began attempting to voice their concerns simultaneously about ration cards, pensions for the elderly persons, irregularities and bribing in the government’s housing scheme, lack of development works, job prospects, etc.

Kunti Devi is a landless woman from Gangti village in the Imamganj Assembly constituency in Gaya district. She doesn’t know her MP — who, according to many, never showed up after previous elections. The only leader she knows is Jitan Ram Manjhi, who represents Imamganj in state assembly, though she said the former chief minister too did not do anything substantial for the betterment of the community.

“Despite politics being done in our name, what do we (the most ordinary people) get? Nothing. I don’t have a house to live and a piece of land to sustain,” said the frail woman in her late 60s.

Before assuming the Office of Chief Minister in 2010, Nitish Kumar had pledged to provide 3-dismil (or 1306.8 square feet) of land to the SC community’s landless members. Though he claims to have walked the talk, the evidence on the ground suggests that relatively few people actually received the land. Many people, who have received papers, have not yet been given possession of the designated land.

Around 92.5% of musahars in the state are agricultural laborers and 96.3% are landless. 

Rajesh Bharti works in farmland in Punjab. He is returning because he failed to find work back home. He won’t be able to cast his vote.

“If there were factories here, why would we need to go to Punjab? Who wants to live away from family? Officials had once come to inquire about our desire to work here. We had told them that if the government does something to address the livelihood issue, we would not leave. We were assured ahead of the last election that the government would provide us financial support for our chosen occupation, but it turned out to be a hollow promise and mere lip service,” he said.

Belonging to the same village, Raj Kumar is a daily wager, but he does not get work everyday. He said successive governments have deceived them. The Dalits, according to him, are remembered by political parties during elections. Once it gets over, the community is left at its fate.

“We are even deceived by leaders of our caste. Both our MLA and MP are Dalits. They were elected to speak on our behalf and strive for our advancement. However, we were cheated. We lack access to safe drinking water, education for our children, jobs and even a place to live in a pakka house,” he said.

Asked about the much-talked about distribution of “free ration” under the Public Distribution System (PDS), the young man said, raising her pitch, “The government only provides us with rations (wheat, rice and a little quantity of pulses) once a month through the public distribution system. However, it is insufficient. It provides very little food security. Give us employment and create its opportunity, we don’t need free ration. There is no work in MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act).”

Excluding planting and harvesting seasons, he said the labourers get to work agricultural fields for just 12-13 days a month. “The earnings of daily wagers like us are not enough to sustain an entire month. It’s ironic that we are still struggling for a dignified life even in this era of technological advancement,” he added.

The PDS coverage is scanty, some in the villages have managed to get a BPL card but most are not covered under the National Food Security Act.

Surji Devi, a native of Rohtas district’s Parasia village, has been struggling to get old-age pension benefits for years, but she hasn’t been successful. 

“Although I am above 60, I do not receive an old-age pension. I always get the same guarantee when I visit the relevant offices: ‘It will be credited in your bank account’. Every month, I visit my bank but return empty-handed. How am I going to get by without money? My three sons don’t take care of me,” the woman narrated her ordeal.

She hadn’t had any food till 1 p.m. when The Mooknayak spoke to her. And it was not by choice, but her compulsion as she had nothing at home to cook and eat.

Musahars are forced to live in unhygienic conditions, with very little benefits and lack of basic needs.
Musahars are forced to live in unhygienic conditions, with very little benefits and lack of basic needs.

Corruption and Neglect

The allegation of widespread corruption is consistent. The main grievance in the long list of complaints is: “koi na sunat hayi” (No one listens to us)”. 

Majority of people this correspondent spoke to said they had to pay a bribe to get funds under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna — a Central government’s scheme, targeting the housing needs of rural and urban poor.

Those who got the first instalment are still awaiting for the next as officials or mukhiya (village head) allegedly ask for money as bribe before the release of funds.   

In a village in the Nawada district, Kajal Devi was preparing pork for the weekly market. She was in her early 30s. She is the mother of a three-year-old boy and deserted four years ago by her alcoholic husband. 

She has lived with her parents ever since. She avoids working as labourer in agricultural fields owned by powerful landlords from the 'upper' caste out of concern for potential sexual assault.

“These people (‘upper’ caste men) regard us as untouchables, but they never hesitate to take advantage of us against our will in order to satiate their sexual cravings. And therefore, I don’t work in their farm land. Although staying with parents after a divorce is stigmatized in society, I am unable to avoid it since I have nowhere else to go,” she said.

She earns a living by cooking pork at the weekly market to be served as snacks, accompanied toddy. 

“The income is hardly enough to cover basic needs due to the growing cost of oil and spices,” she added.

Many complained about discrimination based on caste taking place in government offices. 

“We are ignored by ‘upper’ caste officials stationed in blocks and other government offices. For a meager amount of work, they force us to run from pillar to post. We often don’t receive funds the government announces under different schemes. When we go to complain, nobody listens to us, be it a BDO (block development officer), CO (circle officer), SDO (sub-divisional officer) or a karamchari (a clerk),” alleged Nathuni Sada from Bharhi-Usrar village.

Musahars are still not allowed to live anywhere in Bihar except in hamlets earmarked exclusively for them. They are forced to live in unhygienic conditions, with very little benefits and lack of basic needs.

Due to the yearly disastrous floods, the Bharhi-Usrar Mushari and many other settlements of the community in the Mithilanchal region stay immersed in water for approximately half of the year. The water that the residents drink comes from tube wells, which is life-threatening because of high levels of arsenic, sulfur and iron.

The chief minister’s plan, the Nal-Jal Yojna, to provide tap water to every family seems to be a major swindle. The water pipes, which should ideally be more than a foot below the surface, were seen laying sporadically over the ground.

“You will spot pipelines everywhere, but there is no water supply. Some villages get tap water, but it is useless because of the presence of soil and sand in it. If it was raining, you could not have reached the village as there is no road. No household in the entire area has a toilet. Two-three people from the villages got Rs 12,000 from the government for construction of toilets under the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan after paying Rs 2,000 to officials as bribe. But they never used the amount it was meant for,” complained Uday Sada of the same village.

Lost Hope

People are deeply cynical, with each village expressing the same despair that, regardless of who gains power, nothing will change for them.

When someone asks “kya mahaul hai” (how is the political atmosphere), the community’s decision appears to be divided — with a majority of them unhappy with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Prime Minister Modi.

The Musahars belong to the 21 Mahadalit castes that CM Nitish established in the state during his first term in office in 2007. In order to establish support for his party, the Janata Dal (United), he had carved out this area. However, Kumar is undoubtedly no longer their poster boy, who bestowed upon them a unique status.

According to Fr. Nishant, every government keeps introducing programs and making promises for the underprivileged, but when one looks at the actual situation on the ground, the results are depressing.

“One thing that went well for them during the RJD government was that a large number of them were beneficiaries of the Indira Awaas Yojna. This is because Lalu Prasad Yadav was clever enough to encourage people to construct their own houses in three phases rather than hiring dishonest and avaricious contractors to do it for them. This guaranteed self labor and the building of reasonably livable homes,” said the priest.

He stated that welfare projects in the name of Dashrath Manjhi, the mountain man, and others were also devised by the Nitish government, but it did not work.

“I do not think that the Musahars largely got much benefit from the schemes as the middlemen loot quite a big percentage,” he said and added "one major drawback is that the Musahars lack empowered and enlightened leadership”.

Asked why their situation has not changed despite the long-standing social and political attention on Musahars, he cited a number of reasons, including “lack of empowering and enlightening education and no political mobilization as happened in the case of Paswans because of late Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan. 

He went on, “Among the various causes, which pose hurdles in the development of this community, are centuries of oppression resulting in a rather dead consciousness and lack of motivation, severe caste oppressions, no effective land distribution and no cultural revolution.”

In 1956, he said, Kerala’s first elected Marxist government issued a law guaranteeing all landless people 10 decimals of land. Labourers without land make up nearly 95% of Musahars. 

“Their power of assertion would have been far greater if the state government had granted them land, like in Kerala,” he said.

For the Musahars to flourish fully, he proposed that socioeconomic and political empowerment, along with a cultural revolution, are tantamount to a paradigm shift.

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