Posted On February 2, 2024

Door to acceptance is opening for thousands who have long lived on the fringes of society.

Tarique Anwar

Patna— Prerna is not a profit-oriented institute. Founded by Padma Shri Sudha Verghese, who has devoted herself to the Musahars, a Dalit community of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, it is dedicated for girls belonging to the most deprived group to help mainstream themselves and give their stories a new beginning.

The idea to set up such an institute germinated and devote her entire life for the upliftment of the extremely marginalized community germinated in early 1960s when Sudha – who belongs to Kottayam district of Kerala – was in her teens. Few photos published in a magazine in her school library caught her attention. The horrifying pictures showed the appalling conditions of Musahars, which literally translates rat-eaters, in Bihar.

The extreme socio-economic backwardness of the community that the young Sudha had never witnessed in her state transformed her forever. With a permanent imprint of the sorry state of affairs, she decided to work for the deprived community.

She shifted to Bihar in 1965 and began working in Notre Dame Academy in Patna where she learned Hindi and English. Leaving her comfortable life behind in 1986, she started living with the Musahars and educating them by devoting full time and resources to improve their lives.

She moved to a village at Danapur – one of the six sub-divisions (Tehsil) in Patna district – and began living in a hut. “It was not an easy decision that I had made, and I was prepared for it. It rained cats and dogs on first night when I started living there. Since the hut was flooding, I had to continuously throw it the rain water out with the help of dishes,” Sudha, now 74, told The Mooknayak

The fight ahead was not only against the extreme poverty but also centuries-old practices of untouchability and casteism. The discriminated Musahars were landless, no access to education and earned their livings by working in the farms of ‘upper caste’ people who frequently used to rape and sexually harass the girls and women of the downtrodden section.

The fight ahead was not only against the extreme poverty but also centuries-old practices of untouchability and casteism. The discriminated Musahars were landless, no access to education and earned their livings by working in the farms of ‘upper caste’ people who frequently used to rape and sexually harass the girls and women of the downtrodden section.

It was now time to fight back

But the community had no idea how to do it. They had lack of awareness of their legal rights. They even did not know that the sexual abuses they were subjected to were crimes, which required to be reported. The reasons were – they were scared of their right to speak up, fearing repercussions, and the prevailing social structure wherein they were placed at the bottom to make them convinced that it was their fate.

“They would sit on the ground and never dare to sit on an empty chair when they visited the place of people of the dominant castes,” she said, explaining that it was a conditioning to believe that their place in the society was at the bottom.

There was an economic reason behind them not speaking up and raising their voice against the sheer injustice. “Since the community worked in the farm land of the ‘upper caste’ people that was their only source of livelihood, its members were afraid of saying anything against their feudal landlords,” she said.

With an aim to support the socially outcast women to fight back, Sudha set up an NGO namely Nari Gunjan (women’s voice) in 1987.

She describes an incident, which reflected the deep-rooted discrimination even in the police administration. “Once I took to a victim of sexual violence to the police station. And the response of the cop stationed there shocking: ‘Who would rape a girl wearing such filthy clothes?’”

No one, she alleged, ever dared going to a police station to report the abuses as they the men in uniform would thrash them.

A lawyer herself, Sudha successfully dealt with the situation; and in less than two years, she managed to report nine rape cases – which took place in the same area.

The situation of the community, she said, was not restricted to a particular area; they were experiencing it everywhere. And therefore, fighting against it was difficult for a single person.

In addition, the activism also came with a cost. “Attempts were made to kick me out of the village. People were incited against me. I faced life threats,” she narrated, adding that she chose not to give up, no matter what.

Her spirit and courage have now begun reflecting in positive results. “In a short spam of time, the women were comparatively aware of their rights. Their attitude of tolerating the violence and injustices against them witnessed a significant change. They had now started reporting to such incidents. They frequently began calling me if the police did not listen to them,” said Sudha, with a smile on her face.

If the community needs to be reformed and brings a major change, she felt, its younger generation needed to be educated. And for doing so, a school was needed where they were not only imparted education but also they could change their perspective of life, had the confidence that they are deserving and could figure out how to make a place for themselves in the society.

As a result, a residential school called Prerna, a Hindi word meaning inspiration, was opened at Lal Kothi on the outskirts of Danapur in 2005. Interestingly, the site Sudha discovered for the school had a dilapidated structure meant for a hostel for Dalit boys. Its foundation stone was laid in 1988.

The structure was a “half public toilet and a half buffalo shed”. With a funding by the state government and volunteer donations, the building – which had the capacity to house 50 boys – was restored and renovated. The school came into existence in 2006 and now schools 150 girls.

She added there is no dearth of talent in the community if given a chance. They aspire to become doctors, engineers, sportspersons, etc. And rightly so, when given an opportunity, they proved themselves too. At a karate championship held in Gujarat, they won five gold five silver and 14 bronze medals.

“The girls living in out hostel are mostly first-generation learners. They get free education till 10th standard. They are trained in sports and music, apart from knitting, sewing and cooking. They are very good in martial arts. They have also gone to Japan and Armenia to take part in several competitions. They have brought several medals as well. Some of them play at state level. But because of lack of opportunity, their talents are yet unknown (to the country),” she said.

Rewriting history

Sudha’s NGO, the Nari Gunjan, operates in several districts of the state and offers many livelihood projects for women. The Nari Gunjan Sargam Mahila Band – a women only band – is one of its kind.

“States such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have all-women band. We tried to replicate the same here. Earlier, our women were sceptical; but later, they got convinced and the experiment turned to be a magical one. It’s a big success now. It made them self-sufficient. They now earn up to Rs 2,000 per performance. The sum is far greater than they were by working in the fields in inhuman conditions,” she said.

After prohibition (liquor ban) was implemented in Bihar, the women started cultivating on the small areas of land the land they own and selling excess produce.

“It’s a landmark change. The Musahar women are farminf for themselves rather than working in other’s farms. They mainly produce onions, which bring in a profit up to Rs 5 lakh for few. It helped them buy land in their own names,” said Sudha, adding that the women, once completely outcaste and downtrodden, are now “rewriting history” as they are now emerging as a land-owning community

With her face alive with hope, she said, “This is just a beginning. It a lot still has to be done.

Prerna’s walls reverberates off Dushyant Kumar’s famous poem: “Sirf Hungama khada karna mera maqsad nahin, meri koshish hai ki yeh surat badalni chahiye (Merely creating a ruckus is not my intention, my aim is that the situation must change).”

It serves as a reminder to both the society and the government that much more needs to be done.

Leadership still a challenge

The community still does not have any leadership, says Sudha, and therefore, it is lagging behind.

On being asked about the lack of political and social mobilisation, she said, “Reasons such as lack of confidence to stand up for their rights and bargain have led them to the place where they are right now.”

With regard to untouchability, she said, “You won’t see Musahar boys and girls, if they are working men and women, going to tea shops as they know they are untouchables. They are not allowed in temples. They know these places are not for them. They are given food and water from distance in the utensils meant for them.”

It will change, she feels, only if the society start looking humans as humans only. “That is where the equality would begin,” she concluded, hoping that the future generation of such marginalized communities heal the tragedies of the past.

The Musahars are part of the 21 Mahadalit castes in Bihar created by Kumar in 2007 during his first term. He had carved out this section to create a constituency for his party, the Janata Dal (United). But Kumar is certainly no longer their poster boy, who gave them special status.

All governments, said Fr Nishant, keep making promises and announcing schemes for the downtrodden community, but the impact is dismal when one looks at the ground reality.

“One good thing that happened to them during the RJD government in the state is that many of them benefited from the Indira Awaas scheme. This is due to the ingenuity of Lalu Prasad Yadav, who asked the people to build their own houses in three stages instead of asking the greedy and corrupt contractors to build house. This ensured the participation of people’s labour and construction of rather livable houses,” he told The Mooknayak.

The Nitish government, he said, too came up with schemes in the name of the Mountain Man, Dashrath Manjhi. “But I do not think that the Musahars largely benefit much from these schemes as the middlemen loot quite a big percentage,” he said, adding, “Lack of enlightened and empowered leadership among the Musahars is a big drawback.”

Asked why their condition remains the same despite so much of social and political focus on Musahars for so long, he listed out reasons such as “lack of empowering and enlightening education, no political mobilisation as it happened in the case of Paswans because of late Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan.” He further said, “Centuries of oppression resulting in a rather dead consciousness and lack of motivation, severe caste oppressions, no effective land distribution and no cultural revolution are among the various causes which pose hurdles in the development of this community.”

“The first elected Marxist government in Kerala in 1956 passed a bill which ensured 10 decimals of land to all landless. Almost 95% of Musahars are landless labourers. If they were given some land by the state government like in Kerala, their power of assertion would have been much stronger,” he concluded

He suggested that nothing short of a paradigm change is necessary for the integral development of the Musahars: cultural revolution and socio-economic and political empowerment.

Courtesy : The Mooknayak