India’s most marginalized community rises up

By Moncho Torres

Patna, India, Dec 17 (EFE).- At the bottom of the Hindu caste system in India is the oppressed Dalit community or “untouchables”, and the poorest among are the Musahars, meaning “rat eaters.”

But the women of this community have stood up against discrimination in a movement for dignity and respect. They are no longer afraid.

Jeetni Devi, 40, laughingly narrates how once, when she got into a horse cart used for transportation, a higher caste woman got startled because a Musahar had boarded.

“People would avoid sitting next to us,” she said.

At a public function and celebrations, the Musahars would be served the leftovers after all the other castes had finished eating.

“Once we would eat and go they would wash the entire floor,” Jeetni Devi told EFE in a community space in Patna, the capital of north India’s Bihar state.

But that was before she discovered that she had the same rights as everyone else, regardless of caste, she added, speaking confidently with an unwavering gaze and her head held high.

“They would also pay us lesser wages. Now if they don’t pay us wages that are acceptable to us, we don’t go to work for them. We do not come under their pressure. And if they come to our area (to coerce us), we even beat them,” she said.

Jeetni Devi has helped 300 members of her community receive ration cards to purchase subsidized food grain and another 50 to apply for public jobs, and encourages families to send their children to school.

“I also try very hard to spread awareness among the people and motivate them,” she said.

“Before we met the organization’s workers, we had a lot of problems. We didn’t have much idea about things. We learnt from them and are now able to do things by ourselves. Others (higher caste people) used to scare us, threaten us saying ‘we will do this and do that’” Jeetni Devi said.

“(Once) I walked all the way and filed a case in Junta Durbar (citizens’ meeting) and the person who threatened me was jailed for 3 months. Now people greet me with respect,” added the 40-year-old, who has become a leader in her community.

Among those who helped the Musahars discover their rights is the non-profit, Manthan, which has been working since 1975 with this community in the state of Bihar, one of the most backward in India and where corruption and lawlessness are rampant.

Father Juno K. George welcomed EFE in his parish on the outskirts of Patna, in a facility used by railway officers during British colonial times. It was quiet, away from the chaos of the city.

This priest follows in the footsteps of Manthan’s founder, Father Philip, who began working with this highly marginalized group almost half a century ago.

“He (Father Philip) found that the basic problem was that they were not aware of their rights, (…). When he told them ‘you have the right to drink safe and clean water,’ that created a lot of interest in people. He intervened and then, the government put tubewells for the first time in their villages,” the priest explained.

Untouchability is still prevalent. If a higher caste person comes to an area inhabited by Musahars, they do not touch anything.

They sit on a chair and the Musahars on the floor. Even in the segregation of neighborhoods by caste, the Musahars are located at one end, on the outskirts.

“They (upper castes) don’t even want the breeze coming from this village to cross (their neighborhood),” Father George said.

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