As the Centre and the Nitish Kumar-led state government continue to fight to take credit for poor-oriented schemes, the Musahars of Bihar, the legendary rat-eaters who are at the bottom of the social ladder, are wondering what the debate is all about. Whether it is MNREGA or benefits promised under Kumar's Mahadalit initiative, development seems to have passed them by.
According to Musahars themselves, there is no other scheme which has failed them more than the high profile and ground breaking MNREGA. Right from Danapur near Patna to Jehanabad and Gaya in central Bihar, there is no dearth of Musahars who mouth expletives at the mere mention of MNREGA.
Tea Labourers dying of hunger in Assam
Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC) has learnt about 10 recent deaths due to starvation, malnutrition and lack of medical care in Bhuvan Valley Tea Estate, a privately owned tea garden, in the district of Cachar in North-East Indian state ofAssam. The conditions of at least 5 others are so bad that it would be hard for them to survive a month without urgent medical and nutritional intervention. Arbitrary and exploitative actions of both the estate management and government drove about three thousand labourers and their families on the verge of starvation. The management abruptly closed the garden on 8 October, 2011 without paying wages due for 9 weeks, dues from provident fund and other benefits and alternative livelihood. The government public distribution system (PDS) and health care facilities are conspicuous by their absence. It is feared that without urgent and substantial intervention reports of deaths will keep coming.
Vilas Ravi Raj, a Musahar, has brought his son Dileep, a shivering six-year old with bandages across his face like a zebra crossing, to the Anugrah Narain Magadh Medical College Hospital. The boy’s grandmother has walked with them from the village of Utlibari, around thirty kilometres away, in the same district of Gaya, Bihar. The father bends over his son, feeding him milk via a syringe and through a tube that goes up the boy’s nose. All the beds in the children’s ward are filled with similarly suffering children. By their side are parents in tattered clothes and haunted eyes, eyes that are shrouded by confusion and fear each time the nurses describe what is happening to their child.
District health officials have just announced there is an epidemic of meningitis and encephalitis amongst the 30 lakh strong Musahar population of Bihar; their living habits bring them in close proximity to pigs and cows, making the children of this community especially susceptible to infectious diseases. This hospital is at the epicentre of the epidemic because Gaya district has the highest concentration of Musahars, though they are found all over the state. 27 children have died in the hospital in just a few days, but members of the medical staff say that the number of children who receive poor or no medical attention far outstrips this number. This is the third year in a row that a meningitis epidemic has been declared in the district.
The Musahars are one of the most deprived communities in India. They were given Maha-Dalit status by the Bihar Government some years ago, testament to the abject penury in which most live. They are perhaps best known as rat-eaters (Mus – mouse; ahar – eater), a title many in the community are keen to live down, though the tradition remains. Even so, in the villages I visited, the villagers refused repeatedly to hunt rats for the cameras of the freelance photographer who accompanied me (in one ridiculous interlude, he offered the children ten rupees for every rat they caught. They still refused.) And this is one of the main problems the community faces; as the dominant caste groups in the area and a compliant, sensation-seeking media continue to frame the Musahars’ existence through practices like rat-eating, their perilous standards of living can continue to be justified as those deserved by a “subhuman” community.
Try this for a paradox. Dwarako Sundari is a 68-year old Sindhi gentleman who crossed the border at Partition. In his twenties he was entrusted by Acharya Vinobha Bhave to come to Bodhgaya and build an ashram where Musahirs could be educated and fed. He has been running his school for more than thirty years with no government support, reliant on the kindness of people who travel to Buddhism’s holiest place. He received the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Social Work in 1992, but otherwise there have been few public plaudits. Almost all the educated Musahars in the area have studied in his school, including the aspiring politician Biswas Manjhi, who is hoping for a RJD Vidhan Sabha ticket. He tells me: “Dwarakoji is akin to a saint. He has done so much for us.”
It is shocking, then, to learn Dwarakoji’s views on these people: “After much thought, I have realised the Musahars are a subhuman community. Jayprakash Narayan once visited my ashram and he said this exact thing to me. Now, years later, I have to agree. I have seen students of mine throw their parents out of the house once they cannot earn anymore, saying they need to feed their children. Women complain to me because their husbands refuse to acknowledge their marital contract. Other families desert their children. Is this the way human beings live?”
When I point out to him that the practices he has listed are prevalent in other communities – could even be considered common practice in countries like the United States – he brushes my objections aside. Once again the problem that faces these people is illustrated. Dwarakoji has done as much for Musahar children as perhaps anyone in the world, and when he speaks of the children you can sense his abiding affection. Yet, after thirty years of interacting with the community there is a sharp delineation, a need to see people with such strange and objectionable habits as something quite different from himself.
About fifteen minutes drive from the town of Bodhgaya, where the Enlightened One has ensured hundreds of tonsured Japanese and European tourists sit drinking imported lapsang souchong and bubble tea, there is the village of Parariya, a dot in the hinterland of 300 homes and 1200 people. To reach this village you must walk through an ankle-deep swamp until you arrive at a cluster of tiny mud huts. Like every village in India, living arrangements are segmented sharply along the lines of caste: in the distance are the houses of the Yadavs and further along are the Paswans (both of whom are considered upper-caste Dalits and have enjoyed years of patronage under leaders like Laloo and Ram Vilas Paswan). The biggest houses belong to the Thakurs, the landowners of the area, though I am told there is a smattering of Muslim families who have their own conclave.
The Musahar huts are the simplest, reflective of their status within the village hierarchy. Each hut has two windowless rooms, a small open-air courtyard that is used as a kitchen and a roof of thatched hay. The doors and ceilings are built so low you must bend at the waist to enter the room. It is clear that a Musahar roof cannot be higher than a Yadav roof, and so on up the chain.
Kuleshar Manji and his wife Sudama Devi have been married for thirty years. They have five children, four of whom scamper in and out of the house like the mice running around on the floor. They are landowners: “humraa paanch gaj”. Though this is not common in the community, this is one of the few areas in Bihar with strong Musahar politicians, and some years ago a land redistribution scheme was implemented that gave each family in the surrounding villages a parcel of land.
But in the village land without water is like no land at all. The Musahars have the smallest freehold plots of the worst land. Manji and his wife still spend the majority of the agricultural season cultivating the plots of Yadav families. The Yadav landowners pay each Musahar man Rs 15 for a day’s work, while every Musahar woman receives just 2.5 kilos of unrefined wheat, no money. Kuleshar Manji says, “There is no irrigation, so we can’t water any of the crops on our land. But the government put in pumps and pipes for the areas where the upper-castes have their land. If we don’t work on their land we won’t have anything at all.”
This works out to around Rs 500 a month during the agricultural season. Manji and Sudama Devi are lucky because their oldest son is working as construction labour in Bhutan, from where he sends Rs 500 a month. “Now with Rs 1000 we are more comfortable. Three of my children are in school. But most families here don’t have anyone to send money. If we had to get by on just the wages I am paid to cultivate the Yadav farms we would be in trouble.” Both husband and wife agree that NREGS has been a huge boon during the difficult non-agricultural season, when the steady daily payment of Rs 80 comes as a massive windfall. The Bihar Government has one of the best records of implementing of this scheme.
But such poverty can only breed discontent. Many young men from the lowest-caste groups in each village have taken up cause with the Naxalites, disillusioned by the unchanging patterning of society. One former Naxal, a young Musahar who studied in Dwarako Sundari’s school and is now a businessman in Bodhgaya, explains: “A lot of the villages here are named after Naxal heroes. People get tired of waiting for change. I drifted in and out of camps since I was 15. We used to hold tribunals here, because the villagers were tired of going to the corrupt courts.”
The Naxalite problem affects even the least political villagers desperately, because state functionaries now have a ready-made excuse for not doing their jobs. The former Naxal continues, “while I was growing up, the schools did not have teachers, no health officials would ever come to these areas. They all said the Naxals made it too dangerous for them to work. It is the same now.”
Bodhgaya is jammed with tourists from all over the world. The Bihar Government has built a shiny, metalled road from Patna to this small town. An international airport has been built at Gaya so Buddha-tourists can pop in and out without seeing the rest of India. But with so much spending allocated to ease the journey of foreigners, what remains for the people of this area? None of the tourism money trickles down to the poorest people of this district, of which the Musahars are only one community.
As the Buddha once left the grounds of his palace in Kapilavastu and found nothing but disease and desolation, leave the city limits of Bodhgaya and you enter a poverty-stricken wasteland. It is only the very richest people of Parariya, the Thakurs, who own motorbikes, so they do not have to trudge through the swamp that separates the village from the main road. In these villages, the difference between those who own motorbikes and those who don’t is not a simple one; it tells the story of a thousand years of caste-based repression, and of a people’s quest for dignity under a democracy that has failed them.
Prayaag Akbar Notes from the Periphery
Table 1 , Over all Sex ratio1 (Female per 1,000 males) from 1901 to 2001
In the year 1951 and 1981 sex ratio slightly improved in Haryana. In the same period number of girls increased to 865 and 911 respectively, in the source area.These figures show a slight difference in sex ratio between West Bengal (source area) and Haryana but not much difference occurred as it is believed. The tradition of importing girls in the region is known for the last fifty years. And as can be gathered from the above table, no much difference of sex ratio between source and destination area is observed. It is interesting to note that in 1951, West Bengal has 865 females per thousand males, whereas Haryana has much higher 871 females per 1000 males. Hence, the hypothesis that the ‘outnumbered’ girls from West Bengal compensate the declining sex ratio in destination region cannot stand before the reality. On the other hand if we compare child sex-ratio (see table below) with sex ratio it clearly shows that female infanticide is heavily practiced in West Bengal. In no way West Bengal is less patriarchal society than Haryana.Table 2 : child sex-ratio2 (female per 1000 males) of population Aged 0 to 6 year (1961 to 2001)
Numbers of people in Haryana are employed with police, army and transport mostly as truck drivers who during their visits and travel to other region started marrying outside their own society. These marriages provided links for bride trade. In the beginning they started this marriage business to acquire (bonded) labourer for their booming agriculture and animal husbandry. While the poor parents married their daughters to the ‘dilliwalahs’--as they are known in Purvottar—because they did not ask for dowry. However this kind of marriage is not considered socially respectable in the source area and more often regarded as ‘thag vivah’. These marriages provided further contacts to get girls and make them adapt according to men’s want. Interesting part of the marriage is that most of the molki girls are second, third and fourth ‘women’ and the age of man are almost double that of the girl’s.
The status of molki women is quite bad in Jat Land. The cases of “Paro” have come to light from Mewat region. Two cases were reported recently from the jat land where the girls were murdered and the case got registered with the police. Media remained ignorant of the incident and reported nothing on this issue from this region. Police officers in similar way are ignorant and it is natural that the voices are suppressed in this state of affairs. It is suggested that these molki women are not satisfied and happy with their status and situation, and they have to bear all this only for the sake of their livings and due to lack of any support system. They are well aware that they are being used as a toy on use and throw basis. Therefore if they get a chance to escape they had no way other than running away from their ‘homes’ with their belongings or they would be sold to other person. This lead to maximum number of molki women to adapt to the situation they are going through since they are helpless and cannot do anything. Some of the incidents have come to light where molki woman revolted and ran away to ‘unknown’ places. It has also been seen that some of the women took to sex trade to escape from their life as molki since they were unable to return back to their ancestral home. While others became member of cheating gangs, who arranged marriages with these girls who later on fled with groom’s belongings.
This issue has regularly been reported by so-called main stream and local media. Molki’ is an exact and true example of Catherine McKinnon’s (an American feminist, scholar) definition of the relation between the two major sexes, “man fucks woman: subject verb object”. Visit any region of Haryana and you will find Catherine’s definition to be true. In spite of the widespread and increasing practice of bringing molki, there is absolutely no attention paid towards this by government or the NGOs.
From agro-field and animal husbandry to so called ‘women’s work’ she is expected to do it all as ‘her duty’, and one can imagine if women who are brought as legal wives with huge dowry have to do all these then what happens to those who are bought and brought from far away? This may not be directly a case of women trafficking under definition of ITPA but circuitously it is! It is a very serious violation of women’s most basic human rights. Our network Empower People is doing a research on this issue. Before a wide research, it will not be appropriate to say anything conclusively. But early findings suggest seriousness of the situation. In Jaatland of Haryana, molki owning villages become the source of spreading the practice of molki horizontally as well as vertically. In the village of Kharakramji molkis were mainly from Maharashtra and in the village Shillakhedi mainly from West Bengal. We found that if a molki brought from one village in West Bengal other molkis would be brought from the same village because the first molki becomes a ‘contact’ who facilitate other men to get girls from her home region. And the ‘husbands’ of these molkis work as agents. For example, Hari Om (name changed) from Kharakramji, who did not want to be named, admitted proudly that he owns a molki. He also admitted that he was continuously in contact with the other dalals of the city. He warned us of dire consequences if we write anything about molki. He told us with pride that he will be bringing more molkis into the village for other unmarried and unemployed men who come to him to arrange one for them. A panchayat member of village Safidon admitted the bare fact, “bhai swaad len ke maare molki lyavain hain, saaryan ka kaam chalya reh ar ghar main lugai dikhe ja”( brother, they bring molki for enjoyment, all (the male members) take advantage of her and for the neighbours they have a girl to show off.)
It is found that the ‘husbands’ of molki and her so-called in-laws become the agents and they keep in contact with the bigger agents based on Hissar, Sonipat and Jind, the epicentre of the trafficking. The agents dwell in the village itself. Sometimes they are truck drivers or the people who regularly go out. A molki is sold more than once in many of the cases by their ‘husbands’/agents and the price varies from Rs.7, 000/- to Rs.40, 000/ according to their beauty and sexual experience. The molki owners also lead other relatives and neighbours to a place where they can find a molki. The person, for whom molki is being bought, affords all the expenses occurred in the way.
Our work in the field revealed a number of reasons why women are imported into Jaatland. It includes, practice of karewa, for cheap labour, small landholdings due to division of property, scarcity of girls, over age and heavy dowry. It is interesting to note that on the one hand men are purchasing girls and on the Second hand, graph of dowry is touching sky.
Bride trafficking is one of traditional Slavery system which has a deepliner history of the region so rescue and some other immediate relief or any harsh law can’t change the phenomenon. It can be abolish by cultural renaissance and sensitization of people. And we are working for the same.
Nowadays female feticide is a major pushing factor for this form of trafficking. Approximately there are ten million trafficked women in haryana and punjab. and it will regularly growing
The glossary of abusive words has increased with a new entrant, ‘paro’. The word ‘paro’ is well known today in regions like Haryana, Punjab, western Uttar Pardesh and Rajasthan. As with so many derogatory words, paro comes from the degrading and disparaging attitude of men towards women: it means ‘woman who is purchased for a few bucks’, ‘paro’ are those girls who are bought and brought from eastern Uttar Pardesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Bengal to compensate for the shortage of shortage of women of child bearing age. She is not a prostitute in open terms, but her levirate marriage today means that it is not only after the death of her husband that his younger brother takes his place, she is also obliged to have sexual relations with his brothers while her husband is still alive. How can it be appropriate to call a woman living like this a ‘wife?’
‘Paro’ is an exact and true example of Catherine McKinnon’s definition of the relation of the two major sexes, “man fucks women: subject verb object”. This kind of only example in Indian classical texts, is Draupadi (A character in the epic of Mahabharata who had pandavas— the five brothers as her husbands. The five brothers had their separate wives too.) Visit any region of Haryana and you will find Catherine’s definition to be true. In spite of this widespread and increasing practice, there is no wide or authoritative research in this field available, but scattered information and data do draw a sketchy picture of the situation. From field and animal husbandry to so called ‘women’s work’ a woman is expected to do it all as ‘her duty’, and you can imagine if women who are brought as legal wife with a huge dowry has to do all these what happens to those who are bought and brought from far away
This may not directly be a case of human trafficking but indirectly it is! And it’s very serious violation of women’s most basic human rights. Our radical organisation ‘Empower People’ is researching this situation now. Before completion of this research it will not be appropriate to say anything conclusively. But already some of the examples we have found underline the seriousness of the situation. One man who is held in very high regard in his society for being vocal against female foeticide and gender inequality, agreed to speak to me and when I got closer, I found that he has two sons and no daughter, wife and his widowed mother take care of agro & domestic chores and this man has took to social service.
Paro or Molki : Perception and Causes (An unknown face)
Our research reveals that in Jaatland of Haryana is that paro or molki owning villages become the source of spreading the practice of paro horizontally as well as vertically. In the village of Kharakramji the paro were mainly from Maharashtra and in the village Shillakhedi the paro are mainly from West Bengal. We discovered that a paro who had been imported from another village then became the contact through whom other paros would be imported from her area. The ‘husbands’ of those paro or Molki are were indulging in the heinous work of dalali (Broking system) . For example, Hari Om (name changed) from Kharakramji, who did not wanted to be interviewed, but admitted with a glory that he owns a paro. He also said that he is continuously in contact with the other dalals ( traffickers or brokers) of the city. He warned us of dire consequences if we write anything about the paro or polyandry. He told us with pride that he would be bringing more paro into the village for the other unmarried and unemployed men (people) who come to him to arrange for a paro for them. A member of Panchayat of Kharakramji village admitted this fact. He told me “they import molki to satisfy their sexual needs, all the brothers take advantage of her and for the neighbours they have a bride to show”
We found that the ‘husbands’ of the paro or molki and their relatives become the agents and they are continuously in contact with the agents in Hissar, Sonipat and Jind, which epicenter of the trafficking. The agents dwell in the village itself. Sometimes they are truck drivers or the people who are continuously out-goers. A paro is sold more than once in many cases by the agents and their ‘husbands’ and the rate varies from Rs.7, 000/- to Rs.40, 000/. The paro owners also lead their neighbours and relatives from other village to a place where they can find a paro. The person for whom the paro is being bought affords all the expenses throughout the way.
Our research in the field revealed a number of reasons why women are imported into Jaatland, including the practice of polyandry, the desire for cheap labour, the fact that small landholdings and division of property, scarcity of girls, the passing of marrying age and heavy dowry. But, the irony is that on one hand men are purchasing girls and on the other graph of dowry is touching sky.
Historical evolution of Paro (molki)
Social acceptance of karewa and its prevalence can be seen in folklore and local proverbs . Also this is noticed by one British administrator, observing the practice in early 20th century onward, recorded that even where there was only one married brother, the other brothers had free access to his wife. (M. L. DARLING, the famed writer and civil administrator of this region, writing in Prosperity and Debt, first edition, 1925 reprint, South Asia Books, Delhi, 1978) an oft-repeated story of those days jocularly related even now, to show what a marital association entailed in the past, concerns a new bride who had four or five jeth or dewar All of them had free sexual access to her. After fifteen or twenty days of her marriage, the bride requested her mother-in-law to identify her husband from among them. Upon this the mother-in-law came out in the gali (street) and started to howl loudly; when asked about it she replied: " It is difficult for me to live in this house any more. I have been married for forty years, yet even now I have never asked anyone to determine the identity of my husband. This fifteen-day-old bride is already asking about her's." (Prem Chowdhry “An Alternetive to the sati modal : Perceptions of a Social Reality in Folklore” )
The story gives a peep into the popular perception of sexual exploitation as it existed in those days and the extent to which it was accepted as common knowledge. Women's awareness of this exploitation is highlighted even more directly and in a very perceptive manner in a lokgeet (folk song), not commonly heard these days, sung by a young bride. While recounting her enormous work load she is made to tackle in her in-law's house every day, the bride revealingly discloses :
“Beaten and forced to live with my brother-in-law in sin, unending house work has emaciated me, oh God!”
In another ragini (song), used for enacting a swang (local folk theatre), the theme revolves around the unwelcome advances of the jeth who forces himself on his sister-in-law and refuses to take no for an answer. The proverb originates from the earlier practice, given above, which shows the brother-in-law to have sexual access to the sister-in-law. Even the father-in-law, given a chance, was not above the sexual exploitation of his daughter-in-law. That this was customarily practiced was recorded by British officials in the late 19th century. Certain villages which need not be named, have the evil reputation of deliberately getting girls older than their boy husbands in order that the father of the latter may have illicit enjoyment of them (E. Joseph, Customary Law of the Rohtak District, Lahore, 1911).
In fact, colonial Punjab and Haryana witnessed instances of the father-in-law claiming karewa marriage with the widowed daughter-in-law in
the mid-1930s (RATTIGAN, William Henry. 1966 A digest of civil law for the Punjab, 82). From the sexual point of view these attempts may very well have been to legitimize an already existing relationship which had possibly left the widowed Bahu (daughter-in-law) pregnant. An old folktale highlights these aspects:
A widowed daughter-in-law conceived from her sasura (father-in-law). She was deeply embarrassed about what the people were going to say. The father-in-law reacted to this by asking her to stitch him a quilt full of patches. This quilt he wrapped around himself and sat down in the front courtyard of the house. All the men and women who saw him laughed at the old man and commented on his heavily patched-up quilt. After a few days they stopped, having got used to him and his quilt. It was then that the old man said: " Look here, you woman, now it's all over. People take just a few days to get used to a thing."
The wide-scale social acceptance in the past of this level of sexual exploitation of women for the satisfaction of men has now been transformed into the current practice of buying women ‘paro’ or ‘Molki’ – women who are purchased from outside state - from West Bengal, Maharastra, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Pahad, Uttrakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Where paro women are imported they work as cheap labour. They are sent to do the daily farm work while the local brides seldom go to the field. One head of a family, Ram Singh (name changed), told us, “they (the paro) do all types and all of the work, they run very fast here and there, like in the fields, home, cattle, management of water, night duty.”
He also justified paro as a result of the law on land and property ownership “the size of the land remains the same but the claimants increased generation by generation, employment is scanty, education gives nothing, then tell who will come with marriage proposals and why?”
There is no doubt that the scarcity of girls is one of the reasons behind the import of the girls from other states. However, there are mixed opinions expressed when people were interviewed. Some of them agreed that there is an obvious relationship between female foeticide and the practice of paro. As an elderly women lamented “they kill their girls and now they bring other’s here, it’s like as if our ‘Barseen’ ( a kind of green leafy weeds for cattle) supply has run out and now we are going to make sure our neighbours does too”. On the other hand, some of the people clearly denied the relationship between female foeticide and importing of Molki or paros. A social activist Deepak Chahal, told us “until now the of killing the girls has not had any effect on encouraging the practice of paro, but for the upcoming generation or in future, its worst effects will be seen”.
When we looked at the role that age may play in the paro system, we found that the owners or the ‘husbands’ are in the age group of 25 - 40 years. In the words of jeth of a paro, Suresh Kumar Kataria, “ we did not have land and employment, so the people were not coming with proposals of marriages for our son, so at last we had to bring a molki”.