The Musahar Community in Bihar Struggles to Educate Its Children
A large number of Mushahars in Bihar’s villages see education as the only way to fight caste oppression.
Balmanti Devi and Renu Devi, landless laborers living in Hinduni Musahartoli village in Patna district, are sending their children to a government school in the hope that education will help them escape the oppression they have faced all their lives.
Balmanti and Renu are two among hundreds of Musahar women in villages spread across flood-prone north Bihar to drought-prone central and south Bihar who have been silently ensuring that their children go to school for a brighter future. They are in the vanguard of a slow change taking place in hundreds of Musahartolis or Musaharis, as the villages of Musahars are known as locally.
Languishing at The Bottom
At a time when India is making rapid social and economic progress, Musahars are still not allowed to live anywhere in Bihar, except in hamlets earmarked exclusively for them. Living in unhygienic conditions with very few benefits from the government, the impoverished and oppressed members of this community are overwhelmingly landless, eking out a miserable living by working as unskilled or farm labour.
Bihar has nearly 2.2 million Musahars, according to the state Mahadalit Commission’s interim report. Community activists, however, claim that the population of Musahars cannot be fewer than three million in Bihar. About 96.3 percent of them are landless and 92.5 percent work as farm labour. Literacy rates in this community, which upper caste Hindus still consider untouchable, is only 9.8 percent; the lowest among Dalits in the country.
“My elder son, who is 19 years old, is illiterate like most others of his age in the community. But my two younger children — 12-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son — are going to school to study. I have a dream for them: that they will be educated,” Balmanti of Hinduni Musahartoli told VillageSquare.in.
Hinduni Musahartoli is home to over 100 households, but has failed to produce a graduate till date. The situation is the same in Kurkuri Musahartoli, a neighboring village with a population of over 2,000.
A Ray of Hope
Renu, a widow who works as a farm labour to feed her four children, is determined to educate them. “No doubt I am struggling for survival, but I want my children to study for a better future. If my children do not study, they will be forced to work as farm labour like most Musahars,” she says. “Education will open opportunities for them.”
But Somaru Manjhi, a resident of Kurkuri Musahartoli, said none of his five children went to school. “Even today, a majority of Musahars are like me. Their children still do not go to school. This is a big hurdle for us,” said Somaru, who rears pigs.
However, a sustained effort by some Musahar households is reflected in the composition of students in the primary school near Kurkuri Musahartoli. There are 64 Musahar children out of a total of 68 children in the school. It is something not that could have even been imagined even a years ago.
Musahar parents are now ensuring their children attend school. The situation is changing, Geetasnjali Sinha, principal of the school, told VillageSquare.in.
Sinha, who has been teaching in this school since 1999, said that earlier, there was no inclination for education among Musahar parents. “Now more than men, Musahar women have a positive mindset towards the education of their children.”
Ghalib Khan, deputy director of the mass education department of the state government, said experts have observed that discrimination on caste lines and a strong reservation for their unhygienic lifestyle results in other communities discouraging Musahar children from joining school.
Musahars, known for hunting and eating rats, are at the bottom of India’s hundreds of Dalit sub-castes, who are still treated as untouchables. Asharfi Sada, state president of Musahar Vikas Manch, said high illiteracy among Musahars is due to the fact that they have been always kept away from mainstream society.
“Musahars were not only treated as untouchables, but were allowed to only settle outside a village and away from the main population for ages. Even today, Musahars are outcasts of society,” said Asharfi, one of the first few Musahars to earn a postgraduate degree in 1991.
He blamed society for ostracising Musahars from the mainstream. Even those Musahar children who go to school quickly discontinue because of the discrimination they face. They also lack a conducive atmosphere for learning in their mud huts.
“To change the condition of Musahars, the government has to provide quality education to an entire generation of children to make them stand on their own feet and become independent,” Asharfi told VillageSquare.in. “It is only possible by a special plan by the government. Private education is beyond their reach.”
Asharfi said that nearly 70 years after India’s Independence, there is only one medical doctor and one Phd scholar from the community, reflecting the sorry state of education in the community.
Vijay Prakash, a former Indian Administrative Service officer, said literacy among Musahars was 2.5 percent in 1961, which rose to little over 9 percent in 2011. In the past five decades, literacy rate in the community increased by little over 6 percent. If progress continues to be this slow, it will take some 500 years to achieve full literacy among Musahars, he said.
Innovation, Not Imposition
“The government and society have to join hands incentivise Musahar children to go to school and create a comfortable atmosphere comfortable for them, keeping their lifestyle, language and environment in mind. We should encourage them innovatively, instead of discouraging them by imposing our so-called civilised lifestyle,” said Prakash.
Vijay Prakash is running an alternative school for Musahar children in Danapur. “After decades of working closely with Musahars, I am of the view that teachers are not encouraging Musahar children to join school. We lack sensitivity to their special needs.”
He has found that creativity among poor Musahar children is better than in children of many other communities. “They are very much inclined towards creating jugaad (made–do) technology and handicrafts,” he said.
Philip Manthra, who has been who has been working for change through education of this community in Patna district for nearly 38 years, said Musahars need to be brought to the forefront of universal education. Manthra has founded an organization called Manthan to create awareness, and to motivate and facilitate Musahar children.
Creating an Environment Conducive to Education
“Education is the key to their development. Education-centric approach with skill development through special programs by the government can make a difference. They have not been given attention for centuries. Most of them are still living in huts. The government has to invest in creating shelter infrastructure to bring them to the mainstream. They need infrastructure development to create an environment of study,” Manthra told VillageSquare.in. “Unless there is proper environment, there is little hope for education.
Manthra recalled that in 1979, when he and a team of 25 activists visited Jamsaut village under Danapur block in Patna district, 65 Musahars households were living without a drop of water during summer.
“When I requested for a glass of water, it took 45 minutes for them to arrange it for me from the house of a landowner in a nearby village,” he recalls. “One can imagine how they were living without even water then. Now the situation has changed; hand pumps have been installed by the government in most Musahar villages.”
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has launched several special schemes for the upliftment of Musahars in the past 11 years, according to Manju Verma, the state’s minister for social welfare.
“The government has set up the Mahadalit Commission for their development and appointed thousands of Tola Sewak (village volunteers) and Vikas Mitra (development assistants) from among them,” she told VillageSquare.in. “We are committed to bringing Musahars to the mainstream.”
(Mohd Imran Khan is a Patna-based journalist. This story was published in an arrangement with VillageSquare.in)
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