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India: Mushhars: Tales of untold miseries
In the Mushhar bustee of Village Noutan in Rampur Karkhana block of Deoria district, about four hundred of them gathered as a group of activist descend there. The village is situated around 12 kilometers from Deoria district headquarters. On the other side are the district like Kushinagar, Gorakhpur and Gopalganj of Bihar. Though the village constitutes people from other Dalit communities like Khatik and Chamars, the condition of Mushhars remains the most difficult. The faces of these people narrate their own plight at the hands of powerful village people. The entire village is made of about 300 families of Mushhars who live in the outskirts, virtually boycotted by the upper castes. Not a single one of them has a house to live and land for life. Their huts are the sole possession that they have. A politically as well as socially marginalized community, Mushahars did never have this kind of bad times when the are not only humiliated but also exploited. The dependency on the forest has reduced as most of them are living far away from it. Secondly, without tribal status, right to collect small forest produce has been snatched away from them. They cannot enter the forest without enticing the forest guards and other officials who shamelessly collect money from the people who are not even in 17th century of darkness. The quality of a Mushahar village are visible anywhere we visit. No school, no water, no electricity and virtually no literate. A community totally cut away from the modern world perhaps the best narrative would be that they are the victim of civilized society and its hypocrisy.
A former head of the Village Panchayat Ram Pyari Devi says, 'We don't have land. There are no toilets. In the absence of daily work, the family will remain hungry.î When I ask her about as what happened during her regime she retort : This land was given during my period but now other communities combined against me and hence I was defeated. The other communities also meant the Dalits primarily the Khatiks and Chamars.
It is strange that the Mushahr community has not been getting its due as it should have got though NGOs have made special programmes for the development of the Mushhars but it looks Mushhars remains at the last step of these programmes designed to serve certain interest. Interestingly, some people possess the BPL Cards but only 7 have the Antyodaya cards. The condition of this village is abysmal. Mushhars have virtually nothing to eat. They are not part of any government scheme so far because they are the real minority in the villages where their political and social representation is almost naught and hence exploitation level is high.
An old woman complained that the authorities, means the Pradhan and his cohorts took her photograph and got her signed but so far almost three years she is still groping in dark about the same.
For the village which has a population of over 1000 there is a single hand pump. Washing hand and rinsing itself is difficult because the community has no handpumps. Ram Chandra Prasad, a Dalit activist, through his own efforts got one hand pump built in this village. 'We want hand pump for us', said a woman. Another one is asking for a little land for agriculture, " If we have land we would not go begging." Schools have boycotted our children. The upper caste students beat up our children and force them to sit at the back and outside the room. Some of them are still trying to study while other leave and roam around in the village. As an activist, when I visited the place without promising I could donate some money to install two handpumps and promised for an informal school in the locality as the parents complained about the injustice done to their children in the nearby school dominated by the upper castes.
Self Help Groups and their impact:
Even communities like Mushahars can show wonder if the organizations and people have a will to work among them. If the civil society remain civilized and does not treat them a subject matter and give them an equal treatment. And this is clearly visible from our visit to a village Udiapur which is about two and half kilometer from the earlier village where we saw deeply disappointing scenes.
Gheona Devi, 45 is the president of 'Ujala Self Help Group' in Udaipura village of Pathardeva block. About 17 village women started this group over three years back. All of them belonged to Mushhar community. They have been paid Rs 3,20,000 against the three years work. Out of this Rs 2000/- went to the bank authorities and Rs 500/- to Panchayat secretary. In all about Rs 40,000/- has been paid to the bank for the 'service' charges. One can assume the level of corruption in the rural banking system and why it is failing. How are the authorities duping the innocent people and failing every system in this country.
Gheona Devi bought several goats. Seven of them are still growing. She has six sons and six daughter in laws and two daughters. It is said that even in the Mushahar families marriage has become expensive business. However, Gheona says that she does not believe in dowry. So she is a confident woman. A look at her face shows that she has been well groomed though our visit was unscheduled and hence cannot claim that she was taught to speak like that. But the changes between the two villages which are at a small distance of 5 kilometer are contrast.
Bechna Devi, 45 opened at general merchant shop in the village with her 10,000/- rupees and today she earns about Rs 400/- per day, which is reasonably well income even in the cities. She is able to save Rs 400/- per month. One interesting part of this womanís struggle is her support for the cause of education. Bechna Devi's son is an advocate in the local court. Her daughter in law is a graduate. Her children are equally good at study. They have a joint family who feel that education can change the dynamics of social life.
Some other womenís have also opted for things like buying goats etc for their work. However, the painful aspect is that while women are making every effort to learn and save, it is the corrupt official who are making up from the subsidies that is meant for the poor. Already the rate of interest is 11.5% which is well ahead from the market rate. The rural folks are therefore being victimized by the both. Unfortunate Indian tendency is that when you get money you donít question anything which make the bank officials happy as they get their money without much fuss. So the villagers not only pay a high interest rate on the loan but also loose a substantial amount of the subsidy.
Are Mushhar's Kshatriyas?
But education or mainstreamification brings its negative side also. Now the ëeducatedí Mushhar women try to follow the upper caste Hindu pattern, as Mushharís Hinduisation process is complete. Though, the women denied this and say that they donít call the Brahmins all the time yet the fact is that Mushhar being the 'tribal' ( UP government does not recognize this), they did not face untouchability in real sense and today they invite Brahmins for puja, who does not mind eating ëdahi chawalí or ëpoori alu; at their house. In the absence of a political leadership, the marginalisation of the community continued till date while the mainstream Dalit groups also kept themselves outside the ambit of the Mushhars for the fears of representation. They consider themselves as Kshatriyas whose land have been snatched from them. In the Poornamasi of Sawan, they worship Ranpal Kshatriya, a king, and distribute sweets in the locality. The money is collected from all. Mushhars used to depend heavily on the forest but today the forest have become out of bound for them. In their own lives, they had been active and enjoying things like the Adivasis without any pressure or subservient to any one. Today, the urbanization process has hit the Mushhars and they are virtually workless. It is therefore not ironical that none of the Mushhar bustees are ideally projectable. None of them have pecca houses. The situation is grimmer as Mushhar are a completely isolated community. Their children are now allowed to sit with 'other' students in the villages. Like the village Noutan has a primary school where Mushhars are not allowed to sit in. The students from other castes beat them up resulting in untimely drop out by the Mushhar students. Secondly, most of them are unable to pay their fees. Terror of Local powerful communities is so high that Mushhhar cannot properly clean their utensil because as they are situated on the margins of the village boundary, and any dirty water going there would invite elitist intervention. So in their own world Mushhar families may claim to be Kshatriyas but in the universe of caste and oppression, they are the lowest, who are caught to clean the dirty places, catch the rats and bats. During the British Raj, they were termed as a criminal tribe with policemen exploiting them for every theft in the villages. The freedom came for 'us' yet Mushhar remains very much saddled in the world of the 'imperialists', a tendency which the Hindus have with them. The nearby Thakurs don't even allow to pass the water of the handpump to flow into their land. They face Kangaroo trial if they venture out and question the misdeeds of the thakurs in this village.
Kala-Jar brings black magic to Koilsawa village: This village on the bank of a small river was in the news during April-May this year when about 18 children died of fever which the villagers claimed as 'kalajar'(black fever). On the border of Uttar-Pradesh and Bihar, this village is a part of district Kushinagar, famous for 'Mahaparinirwan' of Lord Buddha. There are many famous temples here constructed by not only the Indian business houses like the Birlas but also by various international organizations coming in from Japan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. While Kushinagar town is becoming famous and the foreign tourist taking keen interest in the landscape of the area, the rural Kushinagar tells horrific stories. None of the 'saintly' people have time to visit this area which falls under Fazil nagar block of Kushinagar district. This village Koilaswa has 22 tolas of which two belonged to Mushhar community. The average education here is zero and famous 'Kalajar' attacked this village in 1998 also. With in three days, this village lost around 20 people that time. From then onwards, this village continue to be attacked by this mysterious disease. When I asked a few villagers what exactly is the 'Kala Jwar' as they had number of stories right from the angry Goddess Kali to other Gods as the 'tantrik' and 'ozhas' are too active in the region. Our children suffer from fever and their face turn black thatís why we call it 'Kala Jwar'. Initially, people would go to the Ozhas and ask for the remedy yet when nothing happened then they ventured towards the government hospital, where the doctors donít treat them as human being. The population of this village is about 1000 and almost all of them are landless. There have been no efforts by the political leadership to resolve any of the basic problems belonging to this community. Landlessness is a major problem. The only school for the Mushhar children is at Ramghat which is about a kilometer. Many children go there but a majority of the small children find it difficult particularly during the rain as the river overflow and makes it nearly impossible to reach the school. Even then there are 30-40 students who go to school. Some of them gets the scholarship meant for the scheduled castes but there also the teachers never give them their dues. Most of the parents complained that the 'mid day meal' meant for the students is rarely given. Inspite of a huge population of children only 10% go to school reflect the awareness regarding education among them.
A visit to this isolated village reflect the racial prejudices in our minds as how we keep people isolated from the developmental activities. Mushahars are considered to be like that and hence the rural elite in eastern Uttar-Pradesh, feel no surprise in their condition. In fact, feel some of them, 'how can they be equal to us.' Mushahars have no political representation. Because of their numbers, they are not in a position to change the political discourse of the area unlike other Dalit communities. We heard that some ' NGOs' have been working in the area by formation of ' Self Help Groups', but so far this is one of the most pethatic villages, which I saw during my trip. Women's condition is to be seen to be believed. None of the villagers complains about the authorities and their negligence. When I asked about whether the authorities turned up there, most of them opined in the affirmative. Yes, the authorities have been coming here and the doctors attending us.
Two bold women in their twenties were forthright in their narratives. " These people become over joyous if some one come here. The fact of the matter is that the doctors came here and gave certain tablets but it is wrong to say that they diagnosed the problem. It was difficult for us to get treatment at the hospital when our children were dieing, as none of them would speak to us. There is a total lack of initiative from the government authorities and they are coming here because so much has been written about it in the newspaper", they said. It is therefore not surprising that this Mushhar bustee which has over 2,500 population does not have single pucca house. There is no electricity and therefore the life of the Mushhars remains in dark.
Every year there are hundreds of schemes for the rural poor but that never reaches the needy. We have been hearing much about Indira Awas Yojna for the poor. Now who could be poorer than the Mushhars and yet nothing has been visible in this village. Sir, the village Pradhan and Secretary are asking for Rs 3000/- towards sanctioning of the Indira Awas per family. I am amazed to see the level of corruption in our system which does not feel pain of the poor. It is not amazing when the poor people have to pay for everything. To get a red card they are demanded Rs 100/-, for the widow pension, they are asked to pay more.
Mushhars in this village thoroughly depend on the fishes including the tortoise. They not only eat whatever is found in the neighboring river. The other interesting thing for them is bat which they enjoy to eat. Since the Mushhar here donít own any land hence they don't have any pet animals. Yet elsewhere Mushhars used to keep pigs and can survive on the meat of pig for many days. The name Mushhar is basically mean a community that depend totally on the mouse. Catching the mouse and eating them has been the profession of the Mushhars.
Bihar is the lifeline for Mushhars: The state of Bihar is a matter of ëseriousí discussion among the 'educated class' in Delhi, for obvious reasons. One of that is the emergence of new ruling elite from the backward communities as well as growing assertion among the Dalits. One does not praise Bihar but the fact of the matter is Biharís negative image is the creation of desperate upper castes who are unable to digest this change among the poverty ridden people who they term as casteist as if caste does not exist anywhere else. Neighboring Uttar-Pradesh is considered a better option because the political leadership here flirted with all those whose interest clash with the marginalized. Interestingly, for the Mushhar of Uttar-Pradesh bordering Bihar, the state provides a lifeline. ' No body give us work here in UP. The farmers do their own work here and even if they ask for the work they pay very little. But the farmers in Bihar are not like that. We get our wages regularly and are happy working there. It is just two miles from this place. We start around 10 am and work during the whole day and by the evening we come back.' said one Mushhar woman. "If we don't get work in Bihar, we will not be able to survive as we have nothing to eat", she added. The payment made there, though, is lesser than what they should get which is around Rs 20-25 per days work, yet they are satisfied that atleast they are getting something for their survival. Secondly, a large number of families works in brick kiln which is a contract work. The conditions of these brick kilns are humiliating but for the sake of money people work irrespective of the humiliation. For every 1000 bricks they get Rs 100.-. But it is not that simple because for making these 1000 bricks which involves the entire family including children from morning 6 am till 6 pm in the evening for two days. So it is clear that one day earning of the family comes around Rs 50/-which is not only exploitative in nature but also cruel. The 'Int bhattas' are a constant source of their exploitation but then there is nothing left for them and working in these ëdení of exploitation is a necessary evil.
Interestingly, the medication for kalajar is available in Gopalganj or Siwan district of Bihar. Both the Kushinagar as well as Deoria districts show utter antipathy towards this community. Perhaps because of the composition of caste in Uttar-Pradesh has not been favorable to the Mushahrs. Secondly, due to thrasher and other kind of combine machine, a large number of Mushhar have become victim of this mechanization process. Now they have nothing to work.
Living in Isolation: At the Burihawa tola in Vishwnathpur village of Brahmpur block in Gorakhpur district, the Mushhars have their own plight. From the above, this Mushhar bustee looks much better than what we have earlier seen in Deoria and Kushinagar. But when we start speaking them, their pain and anguish is visible. Though the village is big and looks cleaner yet the exploitation and fear of the upper caste loom large on their faces. None of them have land. Whatever land they have does not go beyond 2 Kattas, probably 1/5 bighas. They are depended on forest which is about 10 kilometer from the village. For one day they go the forest to collect the leaves and the next day they make them. Ultimately they earn Rs 50/- for the 'leaf bowl' and leaf plates which is two days work as for 100 leaf plates they get Rs 10/- and the entire family cannot make more than 500 leaf plates per day. But this does not come free of cost as the forest department officials ask for their share in this. Since Mushhars are not given the right to collect small forest produce as the tribal of Madhya pradesh enjoy, the forest official ask them to pay Rs 10 per person per day. Hence if a family has four people visiting the forest, the official would ask for Rs 40-. The horror and humiliation of the forest guards is so much that a young child died from the tree for the fear of these foresters who are satisfied only once you have paid them money. This village has just 6-7 BPL card and strangely none of them have the antyodaya cards. Corruption for Indira Awas was visible when the Pradhan and secretary asked for money from various people if they wanted a house under the scheme.
According to senior member of the Mushhar community, the big farmers of the village have got compensation for the land on which the small minor was to pass through and yet despite that there is no minor in the village. No, water supply and money has gone along with compensation to the bigs of the villages. This was about 3 kilometer big small canal but thanks to the Pradhans and secretary it was build on the papers only.
Though there is no specific figures of the numbers of Mushhars in Uttar-Pradesh yet social activists estimate their number around five lakhs. The major concentration of Mushhars is in Maharajganj, Deoria, Kushinagar, Mau, Jaunpur, Chandauli, Ghazipur, Siddharthnagar and Varanasi. The main profession of Mushhars have been collecting forest leaves and make 'Pattals', piggary, and catching rat. Due to their concentration in different parts of the state, they are thoroughly marginalized. Even among the Dalits their number does not attract political leaders to come to their bustees and seek vote. Over 90% of the community remain illiterate and landless. Unfortunately, right from the social activists to political leaders, they have not considered Mushhars as a separate entity and an independent one which need dignity and self respect. The community remain thoroughly apolitical and therefore victim of social and political marginalisation. In the village despite being landless they have been given APL cards. The Poverty of Mushhar is clearly visible and need special attention. There is a need to target the entire community in different Parts of Uttar-Pradesh and Bihar. The officials would do well to organize camps and entertain the problems of the community directly. Since they have been left to village mafias, they were further marginalized.
The problem of hunger and malnutrition need to be tackled carefully. The communities like Mushhars are the biggest victims of shifting economic paradigms. Already, the forest is beyond their reach and at the villages they are not involved in any other activities like Food for work programme, Prime Ministerís Village Road Scheme or making of Khadanjas. The social isolation is complete as far as the Mushhars are concern. An overwhelming majority of them still live in huts and have virtually no land for their basic needs. A comprehensive agrarian reform is the need of the hour as far as isolated Mushhars are concern. There is a need to change the police manuals which catch hold of every Mushhars in case of a theft in the villages. You cannot decide about the criminality of a person on the basis of his caste or religion. This is simply racial and need to be stopped.
Since Mushhars are not even considered human being, the deaths due to various diseases do not become the splashing headlines of the newspapers. Social activists have also made several 'Mushar' development plan but that is limited to the agenda of the activist and not to the community. There is a problem with development planners who impose their thought on the community and think less about the aspirations of the community. Hundreds of people ( Mushhars) have died in various parts of the state due to malnutrition in the last two-three years but neither the health department, nor the revenue department takes care of it. It is not an unusual news for the authorities and the local media. For the government, it is important to involve itself in the problems of the Mushahars and try to understand their issues as why are they still isolated in the society. If any one is minority in this country it is the communities like Mushhars and Tharus who have been weakened over the years, dominated by the powerful rural elite and forgotten by the 'civil society' and the government. One wonder how can they ever say 'mera bharat Mahan', if their children are ask to recite this 'mantra' of greatness by the school teachers who beat them up and force them out of school compulsorily. Sadly, Mushhars stories are the saga of betrayal by a politically democratic society that refuses to democratize socially and still believe in racial practice of isolation and exploitation based on identity.
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