Mainstream, VOL LIII No 6, January 31, 2015 - Republic Day Special
Musahar Binda Devi and Gaud Saraswat Brahman Rajdeep Sardesai on same foot?
Saturday 31 January 2015, by
On May 20, 2014 Jitanram Manjhi was sworn in as the 23rd Chief Minister of Bihar. On the previous evening, I received a phone call at Calcutta from Minapur Banglatola, a hamlet in Muzaffarpur district, North Bihar. The caller, one Binda Devi, a Musahar woman, informed me: “Apna aadmi will take over as the Chief Minister of Bihar tomorrow.” Referring to Jitanram Manjhi as apna aadmi in Bihar parlance, she was stating that the leader to occupy the top seat belonged to her caste. The excitement and jubilation over phone of the rustic woman was quite palpable.
In 1994, as the Commissioner, Tirhut Division as well as Saran Division stationed at Muzaffarpur, I visited this village inhabited by Musahars, locally referred as Musahartola, to familiarise myself with their socio-economic conditions. Barely literate, Binda was an enthusiastic volunteer enlisted by the district administration in the literacy drive. The villagers, illiterates and landless agricultural labourers, had too many grievances to ventilate before me. The literacy of this caste in Bihar was not even two per cent then.
But Binda Devi’s pride over Jitanram taking over as the State’s Chief Minister skyrocketed. No Musahar leader hitherto steered the destiny of Bihar’s 100 million people. Though a number of leaders of the community were Ministers, MLAs, MPs earlier but none rose to this height yet. Jitanram had filled that vacuum. Binda told me that she along with her caste men and women would go in large numbers to Patna in a few days to felicitate the new Chief Minister. This was indeed an event of felicitation and celebration.
Dean Nelson’s report from Delhi for the British daily, The Telegraph, articulates their excitement aptly: “India’s lowest ‘untouchable’ caste rejoices as ratcatcher sworn in as Bihar Chief Minister. For centuries the Musahar ‘untouchables’ have caught and eaten rats to stave off hunger—now one of their fellow ratcatchers is the most powerful man in Bihar.” On a broader canvas he also adds: “While Narendra Modi’s rise to Prime Minister was aided by his origins as a tea boy and several Dalits have broken through the caste barriers to become powerful political figures—B.R. Ambedkar, the revered author of the Indian Constitution, and Mayawati, former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh — none of them can match the rise of Mr Manjhi.”
Catching and eating rats by Musahars “to stave off hunger” is widespread as a perception, which may not be very appropriate or true. They were highly valued as labourers by colonialist and native indigo planters in large parts of Bihar until indigo was replaced by the discovery of a chemical substitute in Germany. Further, Musahars in thousands were engaged for extermination of rats as a part of the official drive when plague carried off millions of people in Bihar for as many as three decades beginning 1899. Undoubtedly they made valuable contributions, often risking their own life, in combating the dreadful death by killing rats, which are the vectors of black death. This role is rarely acknowledged by their countrymen for reasons not far to seek. The image of ratcatching, I am confident, was aimed to “stave off” crimes. They rather preferred to eating rats than resorting to crime for survival in natural calamities, epidemic, pestilence, etc. In the colonial era, let it be noted, the Musahars were rarely visible in criminal courts and records when many castes, high and/or low, were deeply involved in crimes.
Elite Journalist equals Illiterate Woman in Caste Pride
“Big day for my Goa. Two GSBs, both talented politicians become full Cabinet Ministers. Saraswat pride!!”
GBS implies Gaud Saraswat Brahmins two of whose induction on November 10, 2014 into the Union Cabinet propelled a journalist to flaunt his pride in public. Often personal achievement or tragedy, in the past, has been projected on an extraordinary canvas by certain sections. When Rajdeep Sardesai was attacked for his tweet, he wrote a column in The HindustanTimes in his defence. “Is expressing pride in a community’s achievements a sign of casteism as the critics suggest? Casteism is when a caste identity is used to promote hatred and separateness towards the other, when it creates social barriers based on occupation, marriage or inter-dining. My tweet was aimed at highlighting a piece of trivia which I believed was interesting: of the four Cabinet rank Ministers sworn in, two belonged to a small Brahmin community with no real political base.”
The telecaster and many like him prove Dr B. R. Ambedkar prophetic and relevant almost daily in some corner of the country. “A Hindu’s public is his caste. His responsibility is only to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste... There is no appreciation of the meritorious... The capacity to appreciate merits in a man apart from his caste does not exist in a Hindu. There is appreciation of virtue but only when the man is a fellow caste-man.” Rajdeep’s brimming pride was packaged and presented as “Saraswat pride” equivalent to Goa’s pride! Nobody has yet gone gaga over Jitanram Manjhi. The journalist paraded in his column several GSB cricketers, film stars and directors, dramatists, theatre personalities, educationists, businessmen and entrepreneurs etc. lauding them for their contribution to the nation. This is axiomatic truth that no Hindu—high or low, rich or poor, intellectual or illiterate—looks beyond caste. What is the actual difference between an illiterate woman and an elite journalist with intellectual pretension in the given case?
In less developed communities, there is drought in their icons. Those few are rarely held in esteem by advanced communities within the wider canvass of the Hindus, save and except in rarest cases. In the ‘Quit India’ Movement of 1942 Bihar had witnessed a violent upheaval against the British Government. Lathi-charges, teargas shelling, and firings, besides detention were resorted to on a large scale to contain and suppress the patriotic movement. Many people died and many more were rendered incapacitated for life. A Dusadh widow, named Akli Devi of Sandesh police station in Shahabad district, participated as a volunteer in the ‘Quit India’ Movement. She was shot dead by the police while protesting against the British rule.1 My efforts to know about this fearless freedom fighter yielded no results. Administrative and police officers posted in the district (now bifurcated into four districts Bhojpur, Rohtas, Kaimur and Buxar districts)—besides political leaders and social activists—could not enlighten me about the Dusadh freedom fighter. Many freedom fighters and/or their relatives (not excluding concubines of the freedom fighters in some cases) enjoy privileges and benefits bestowed under a scheme of the Union Government as a mark of respect for their sacrifices. Alas! Akli Devi has been erased from the pages of history and public memory. Not a village, a market place, a rural road or a primary school has been named after her.2 Whenever I have thought about her, I have felt appalled to figure out what had exactly propelled Akli to the vortex of a political movement that was marked by mindless brutalities against its leaders and volunteers across India. Did the widow leave behind a son or a daughter to mourn her loss with pride in silence? My efforts brought no answers. During President’s Rule in Bihar in 2005, a proposal with Governor Dr Buta Singh’s approval was submitted to the Railway Ministry for prefixing Akli Devi’s name to the Arah railway station to commemorate her supreme sacrifice for national independence. It did not materialise nor was it expected to in the caste-conscious country. Though she had voluntarily and fearlessly faced British bullets for the freedom of the country, her sacrifice remained officially yet unacknowledged unlike others.
A Musahar Woman enforced Prohibition in Champaran
The Dusadh widow may not be the only one to be trashed into the dustbin of history. An illiterate and rustic Musahar woman, Girija Devi, a resident of her “dirt-poor village of Bhirkia-Chhapaulia” in East Champaran district, was invited to New York to speak on February 27 at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affair’s “50th Commission on the Status of Women”. What did she do to receive a noble call as this? The British Broad-casting Corporation’s February 16, 2006 report said: “Alcoholism is rampant among Musahar men, who end up spending more than half of what they earn on cheap locally brewed liquor. This hurts the women and children most... Girija Devi decided to pick up the gauntlet and launch a war against alcoholism a few years ago. Leading a group of women, she demolished local liquor vends and toddy pots hung on the trees by their men. When the sorority found the men drinking, they shaved their heads, garlanded them with shoes and paraded them around the village to shame them into kicking the bottle.” Her crusade, like charity, began at home. Her “husband Singheshwar Majhi was the first alcoholic to face her wrath.... Her untiring efforts have led to 125 Musahar villages in East Champaran to become ‘alcohol free’.”3 What an incredible accomplishment the government never attempted!
But the tragedy of this big story is not the media’s breaking news. In the end, Girija Devi could not reach New York. She did not get her passport in time. The travel document inciden-tally was delivered to her the day she was due to address the august world body across the Atlantic. This happened during a period the media was overwhelmingly addicted to the sonorous song and dance around “good gover-nance and development” in the post-Laloo-Rabri Bihar. The same bureaucracy, coupled with the Ministry of External Affairs, dashed the honour the Musahar woman would snatch for the nation. But who cares if a Musaharni was deprived an opportunity to address a UN Session though this was a reflection of the same over-hyped good governance? The best adminis-tration is the one that caters to the needs and aspirations of the last and the lowliest. India is million miles away from that utopia.
Caste in Cricket:
Shameless Men at Helm of Sports
Sports is not only a game of physical stamina coupled with mental alertness but also a field where caste runs amuck. History and mythology bear ample testimony to prove the point to the hilt. In 1994, a Bengali cricketer, Prashanta Baidya, residing in Maharashtra, was selected for Team India. The East Zone was represented on the Board of Cricket Control for India (BCCI) selection committee by Sambaran Banerjee. A former Bengal captain, Banerjee, when the returned to Calcutta, was approached by newsmen for his reaction on Prashanta’s inclusion in the Indian team. His startling comments—“OK. But I would have really been happy had a Chatterjee or a Ganguly, or a Bose instead were selected”4 —went unheeded in West Bengal. Understandably, though Prashanta did not lack cricketing abilities in the estimation of the selection committee, he did not have the sheen in his caste tag to enamour the Bengali selector, who, thankfully, was not alone to determine the fate of Team India. But Banerjee might not be the solitary player in the dirty caste game against the underprivileged. There are many of his ilk in every branch of games and sports, nay, in every sphere of human activity. They are ever on the look out for Chatterjees or Gangulies, or Boses in their respective domain in every inch of India. Caste functions like a well-knit trade union. Cricket, Banerjee believes, is the exclusive pasture of his caste men. He seems to be an impeccable replica of archer-trainer Drona of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Sambaran, a kulin, could be more like the GSB and Chitpawan Brahmins in western India.
Soma Biswas(May 16, 1978) is a Bengali athlete in heptathlon. She rose to fame when she won the silver medal in the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea and in the 2006 Asian Games, Doha. She won the 110 m hurdles, the 200 m and the 800 m during that heptathlon.5 But West Bengal’s Sports Minister Subhas Chakraborti under Buddhadeb Bhattacharya had disparagingly compared Soma to an animal (goat) that is unfit for harnessing in agricultural operations! Such a philistine outburst aptly focuses on the mindset of the two aforesaid Bengali Brahmans against a low caste man or woman. But no public outcry or condemnation greeted them in either case. The Sports Minister did not hesitate to humiliate a woman athlete of international standing.
Glittering Jewels of Cricket Unsung:
Untouchable Baloo and his two brothers
This brings Babaji Palwankar Baloo (March 1876-July 1955), lauded as ‘the Rhodes of India’ by the contemporary media, cricket lovers and fans to our attention. A Chamar of Dharwad, Maharashtra, he was the first untouchable to leave a glowing imprint on the world of Indian cricket. He is forgotten for he does not have cheer-leaders like Rajdeep Sardesai in his community to highlight his legendary actions on field. Acclaimed as the “father of Indian spin bowling”, his fame soared to such heights that this untouchable was serenaded on elephants through the streets of crowded towns, garlanded in public gatherings, eulogised in unequivocal language by the media when his bowling ensured defeat after defeat of English cricket teams in Poona, Dharwar, Bombay and Calcutta. His admirers included Maharashtrian stalwarts, for example, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal-krishna Gokhale, Madadev Ranade among others, some of whom were paragons of uninhibited orthodoxy though. Baloo’s cricketing sparks were portrayed by his countrymen as patriotic efflorescence as also outbursts.
An avid cricket lover, “Jagadindranarayan Ray, the Maharaja of Natore of district Rajshahi (now in Bangladesh), had invited Baloo to come to Bengal to coach his team.”6 Another account suggests that he had also recruited untouchable cricketers of repute, Shivaram, Ganpat, Vithal—all three Baloo’s brothers—and Sempre from Karachi for his team.7 The Maharaja challenged the Calcutta European Cricket Club. The team of Hindus included wicket-keeper K. Seshachari from Madras, fast bowler H. L. Sempre from Karachi besides spin bowler Palwankar Baloo and his brother batsman Shivaram from Bombay. The European team was defeated in 1907(?). This synchronised with the ongoing swadeshi movement in Bengal.8
Fertile Bengal never suffered from barrenness in giving birth to the likes of Sambaran Banerjee in any era. The Natore Maharaja had, therefore, faced orthodox elements arraigned against him for inviting untouchables from Bombay and Karachi. But the Maharaja trampled those toxic elements without a second thought. Imagine the patriotic euphoria that greeted the victory of the Hindu team over the European at a time when Bengalis were agitating against the partition of Bengal! In passing we may refer to the great excitement and jubilation at the Mohun Bagan Football Club, Calcutta defeating the East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 in the final of the IFA Shield in 1911. The victory was attributed to “Bengali masculinity”, a fight against “British imperialism”. They also described the English defeat as “a triumph of Indian nationalism” of the “ongoing freedom struggle”.9
Despite severe odds staring in the face of the untouchable Chamars, three brothers (Baloo, Vithal and Shivaram) had enormously enriched and glorified Indian cricket by their unruffled commitment to the game laced by sweat and toil at home and abroad. The discomfiture of Baloo who used to be served tea during intervals separately in disposable clay cups while Hindu players in porcelain could be imagined. He was chosen for “an all-Indian team to tour England in 1911, consisting of Parsis, Hindus, and Muslims, captained by a Sikh”. The tour was a failure. But Baloo’s was a stunning success. His “outstanding performance” comprised “114 wickets at an average of 18.84 runs per wicket, 75 of which were in first class matches”.10 Three early matches were played against Oxford University at the Parks, the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lords and Cambridge at Fenner’s. Against Oxford, Baloo claimed five wickets for 87 runs, against MCC he took four wickets for 96 whereas he returned the superb figures of eight for 103 runs.11 The spectacular performance of the untouchable player definitely did not go down well with ossified Hindu elements as one expects in a casteless society. The curse of India is untouchability, a byproduct of caste which benefits these elements. Cricket is one of its myriad victims. Nicholas Lezard writes in The Guardian, a British daily, May 3, 2003: “The Untouchables were learning the game, their Raj employers not being sniffy about caste. The first indisputably great Indian player, Palwankar Baloo, was a Chamar, a caste loathed by others as they work with cattle hides... Baloo learned to work with leather in quite a different way.” The daily refers to an exquisite tribute paid to this cricketer by a contemporary: an over from Baloo contained “six deliveries—each a different menace and yet looking as harmless as the morning dew on a grass blade”. This tribute illuminates his world of cricket, if prejudice did not vitiate the attitudinal approach of the Hindus afflicted by the caste virus.
Four cricketers—all brothers, Baloo, Shivaram, Ganpat and Vithal, all gift of the Palwankar family—graced and empowered Indian cricket greatly in its infancy. But despite their spectacular performances they were treated nothing better than dirt and undesirable. Their performances, however, were not considered adequate to qualify themselves for captaincy of Indian cricket teams. Ramachandra Guha writes: “Baloo though senior was deprived of captaincy. He retired and then the matter was hushed up. Shivaram retired before such a question could crop up in his case. Then came the turn of Vithal. But time and again he was put down. His juniors were thrust over his head. No wonder the Hindus failed—miserably failed—yet the diehards could not listen to justice and reason. But the force of circumstances was too great and after a lot of haggling at long last they liberalised themselves enough to throw the captainship at Vithal.”
Merit and Caste
With the adoption of India’s Constitution, the Union Public Service Commission came into being in 1950. The same year the first examination for recruiting IAS etc. was held. It was conducted in two parts—written and interview—as against three parts now. A Bengali Scheduled Caste, Achyutananda Das, not only made it to the IAS, his aggregate score was the highest (613 out of 1050) in the written part. In viva voce, however, he was awarded the lowest marks (110 out of 300) of all the candidates recommended for appointment. In the merit list he was the 48th or the last candidate. Aniruddha Dasgupta, Baidya by caste, also a Bengali and bhadralok, an euphemism for upper caste, despite the worst aggregate or the lowest marks (494) in the written examination amongst all those who qualified for interview, obtained, astonishingly, the highest (88.33 per cent of 300) marks in the personality test. When the pen of the bhadralok could not impress his examiners, how did he enamour the Interview Board with his personality? This remains an enigma unanswered yet.12 During the interview, the janam kundli or full personal details of candidates are disclosed to the interviewers. Both the underdog and the lapdog were, I guess, interviewed outside areas of their studies and knowledge, which might be largely unfair to test one’s mental ability, moral aptitude and alertness, judgment, decision-making, etc.13 The fact remains that the gap in marks in the written examination between the chhotalok (lowborn) and bhadralok was 119. In no subject, the latter scored 119 marks.14 Candidates know too well how a gap of even one mark makes their fortune in an open national level competition.
In its interview the bhadralok not only made up the huge gap but far exceeded also the scores of the first Scheduled Caste in the IAS. Dasgupta’s position in the merit list was 24th and was offered the Indian Foreign Service. In the first year itself, thus, the UPSC tainted itself and shook the confidence of underprivileged candidates in its impartiality. If the candidates’ caste identity and other details were not placed before the Interview Board, the result of the first SC IAS perhaps could have been different. Irrespective of merit or virtue, hatred against low castes is universal and integral to the Hindu ethos. The beneficiaries actually perpetuate caste and its abuses in India.
Perhaps in 1992(?) a young Rajdeep Sardesai, then a private TV correspondent, met me at Muzaffarpur and spoke to me at length on many social issues having bearing on the political-administrative life and culture of Bihar. He unequivocally denounced caste politics indulged in the State by the then Chief Minister to establish himself as the messiah of the backwards, minorities, Scheduled Castes and tribes.
1. In reply to a question in the Bihar Legislative Council in 1946, Dr Srikrishna Sinha, the Prime Minister of Bihar, read out a list of casualties in Shahabad district during the ‘Quit India’ Movement. His list, based on the report of the Superintendent of Police of Shahabad, contained the name of a solitary woman who was killed in police firing. She was Akli Devi.
2. In Calcutta, a locality has been renamed after a rank communalist of Barisal district (now in Bangladesh) by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation as a freedom fighter.
3. BBC News, Sunday, February 19, 2006, India’s feisty untouchable woman.
4. Ananda Bazar Patrika, August 8, 1994, Calcutta.
6. Boria Majumdar, ‘Hulla Baloo in Poona Gym’, Outlook, April 23, 2003.
8. Ramachandra Guha, Cricket and Caste.
9. Boria Majumdar, “Mohun Bagan’s ‘battles’ against the Raj’”, The Times of India, August 15, 2013.
11. Guha, op. cit.
12. A. K. Biswas, ‘Case of an IAS Topper, Fate of a Scheduled Caste Candidate’, Mainstream, vol. XXXII, no. 5, December 18, 1993. http://www.ambedkar.org/research/Caseof.htm
13. During his second term as the Governor of Bihar (1993-98), I had occasion to have the benefit of a discussion with Dr A. R. Kidwai, who was previously Chairman, UPSC (1973-77), at the Raj Bhavan, Patna. According to him, a candidate should be asked questions in areas conversant to him and be allowed to express his mind candidly so as to form an impartial opinion about his personality, education and values. It is unfair to put riddles to a candidate and puzzle him out of wit.
The author is a retired IAS officer of the Bihar cadre. He can be contaced at email@example.com