(This article by Azera Parveen Rahman appeared in Deccan Herald & Kashmir Times in May 2013. It has been reprinted here with her permission)
The term ‘Musahar’, literally translates as ‘rat eaters’. The community that bears that name in the eastern districts of Uttar Pradesh, bordering Bihar, comprises mostly landless agricultural workers. The 7,00,000 Musahars in Uttar Pradesh occupy not just one of the lowest tiers in the caste hierarchy they are among the poorest communities as well.
This leaves them open to discrimination and repression at all levels. Women, in particular, have to cope both with the tribulations meted out to the community at large as well as suffer violent husbands. Lakshmi, 22, of Dahri Patti village in Kushinagar district, is a young mother of two children, a boy and girl. Reed thin, she reveals hesitantly that she is abused by her husband regularly. As she watches her three-year-old son eat the first of his two meals in a day, which consists of rice, watery dal and salt, she whispers, “He slaps me sometimes.” What is striking about Lakshmi’s words is the attempt she makes to justify her husband’s violence, “He gets tired after working in the field all day, and drinks alcohol to relax. Once he is drunk, he hits me at the slightest pretext, even if the food does not taste good. The next morning he is fine, and has forgotten everything.”This is a familiar story in the predominantly Musahar village of Dahri Patti. Illiterate and unaware that the country has a law in place against domestic violence, Lakshmi reveals that she makes no attempt to stop the violence. Pooja Devi, who hails from the same village, explains why this is the case, “If our husbands throw us out of our homes, where can we go? Where will we keep our children? How will we feed ourselves?” Durga, a member of the community, who also works as a local resource person for ActionAid, an anti-poverty civil society organisation, observes, “The most common reason for domestic violence is alcoholism. The money that the women earn can also be source of friction. If a woman refuses to part with her earnings – mostly because she wants to give her children a better deal in life – she gets hit.”Interestingly, almost 80 per cent of Musahar women in this region work outside their homes as daily wagers or agricultural workers. They earn meagre amounts – sometimes as low as Rs 15 a day – but quietly accept whatever is given to them, grateful that they can supplement the family income in some way.
Sexual harassment is a common experience here. Ask the Musahar women of Benuapur village in Kushinagar district, and they will tell you that even young girls are not spared. Recounts Savita Devi, an elderly woman from Benuapur.
It’s very common for our girls to get teased, harassed, touched by men of other communities as soon as they step out of the village. Four years ago, a girl from a neighbouring village was kidnapped by three men. They kept her locked up in a room and assaulted her. They threatened to kill her if she complained. Three days later, she was left in a relative’s home but was just too terrified to approach the police.
In the case of Indravati Devi, wife of an agricultural labourer from Jungle Pachrukhiya Gram Sabha, a piece of land was allotted to her under a land redistribution scheme. Four summers ago, when she had gone to her plot to attend to some work, she saw few men on a tractor attempting to raze the crops on the land and usurp it. “I raised an alarm as soon as I saw them. Hearing my screams, a few other women from my village came running and we rushed toward them. One of the men even told his associates, ‘Kill these Musahar women and we will see what the police does!’ They then started beating us up. One man even drew out a knife,” she recounts.According to Indravati’s account, the women somehow managed to escape and rushed to the police station to lodge an FIR. The men were caught by the police but were soon let off. The women however complained again. The men were apprehended once again and then released again – clearly, money had changed hands. Later, the police turned up at the village with the offer of an out-of-court settlement, but the women did not relent. With the help of a local Non-Government Organisation (NGO), the Musahar Manch, villagers then staged a sit-in protest in front of the police station until the FIR was lodged under the relevant IPC sections, including the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the victims were compensated.The incident is a pointer to change within the Musahar community, especially among the women who are now slowly becoming aware of their rights and adopting various strategies to protect themselves. For instance, whenever they have to go to the fields to relieve themselves, or for work, they go in a group. They have also begun to participate in government programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), and seek the help of NGOs to bridge the divide between themselves and the ruling elite.
Says Debabrat Patra, Regional Manager of Action Aid India in Lucknow, “Our aim is to help the community become more aware of their rights and learn to assert themselves. So, initially, when we started working with them about eight years ago, we used to take up their cases. Now they have started fighting on their own for their entitlements, and that is a hopeful sign.”
There is, indeed, hope when Durga, of Benuapur village, states with quiet resolve, “Politicians depend on us for their positions in power. Although they promise us a great deal, nothing really changes. So now we know we have to fight for our own cause. We will no longer be a voiceless or invisible community.”
In a related news, in May 2013, Sanjay Kumar of LokSabha TV travelled to Kushi Nagar and covered the story of Musahars as part of his programme ‘Vishesh’ – You can watch them here: (NO ENGLISH SUBTITLES)
(The episodes have been published here with the permission of Sanjay Kumar)
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