Celebrating Jitan Ram Manjhi

Gupta-Combined-Files(4)_Page_07_smYou might wonder why today’s blog highlights the cover of “Kipling: A Brief Biography,” a Bayeux book authored by the eminent Alberto Manguel. Please wait till the end of this post.

What a week it has been for India and Indians all over the world. Joy, elation, anger and frustration are some of the emotions that spilled over in the wake of India’s momentous national elections. The emotions came from different classes of Indian society depending on whether their hopes were realized or dashed. The reactions came from political pundits, the professional as well as the arm-chair types, and also the “expatriate” type, most of whom have little to gain or lose regardless of which political party comes to power.

What is being lost in the clamour of hype, cynicism and apprehension is the opportunity to celebrate. Whether we are in India or elsewhere, we are today face- to-face with the ultimate vindication of the democratic process, however messy, unworkable, or paralyzed it may appear from time to time. There is no quick fix, certainly not a military take-over, to the endless trials and tribulations of governance.

I would happily drink chai to celebrate the triumph of Narendra Modi, the tea seller who will now be leading India. But, having been born in India – in a small town called Laheria Sarai in the state of Bihar – I would, if I could, augment my chai with a plate of Maner ka Laddoo for an even more joyous celebration.

The occasion I would like to celebrate is the rise of Jitan Ram Manjhi to the Chief Ministership of the state of Bihar. This is truly phenomenal. Phenomenal because Mr. Manjhi is from the Musahar caste, the lowest of the lowest castes in India, untouchable even to other “untouchables”. (of which Laheria Sarai is a part) the Musahars were known as Saday, in central Bihar in Patna (where I went to study), Navada or Nalanda, they are called Manjhi, Musahar or Mandal. In south Bihar in Gaya, they are also known as Bhuyian or Bhoktas. I mention these names because, in a caste-ridden India, they all mean Musahar, literally translated into “rat eaters” in the Bhojpuri dialect. They number about 2.1 million in Bihar. For an excellent study on the human rights abuses they have endured for centuries go to the web link – http://centreforequitystudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/WP002_Musahars_Sajjad-Hassan.pdf
It is worth noting that while a vast majority of Indians and others know little or nothing about Musahars, their plight has been the focus of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) under the Presidentship of an activist Catholic priest, Father Philip Manthra.

It matters little that Mr Manjhi’s appointment was part of Bihar’s ruling Janata Dal (United)’s strategy to win over the majority lowest Dalit castes – and prevent Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning power in the state. It matters little that he is perceived as a puppet of the former Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Endorsement by other politicians prepares the path for political leadership, whether it is Mr Modi or Mr Manjhi who is being endorsed.

The reference to Kipling at the beginning of this post is not to suggest the obvious – that India has evolved into a society that the Raj could never have envisaged. Rather, it is to draw attention to a couple of lines I found in “Kipling: A Brief Biography.” They are actually from ‘Departmental Ditties,’ a collection of Kipling’s humorous and light pieces dealing with different aspects of Anglo-Indian life, from the rules of English and native courtship to the petty affairs of local officials which Kipling felt could be better criticized in verse than in newspaper columns:
Men who spar with Government need, to back their blows,
Something more than ordinary journalistic prose.

I know, so far, of at least two prominent North American academics, from History and Religious Studies, who are rearing to plunge into Indian politics essentially to “spar with Government.” Please take heed, you need to be poetic!

In the meantime, I will continue to celebrate Mr Manjhi and, of course, Mr Modi.

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They fought the dogs and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in the cradles,

And ate the cheeses out of the vats,

And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,

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