reportage

The Battle for Bihar

Jitan Ram Manjhi and the politics of caste

By PRIYANKA DUBEY | 1 July 2015

| ONE |

OUTSIDE 1 ANNE MARG, on a foggy morning last December, employees of the Patna Municipal Corporation swept away dry leaves knocked loose by a mild winter storm the night before. I sat inside the official residence of Bihar’s chief minister, in a waiting area with freshly mopped floors that reeked of phenyl, walls decorated with Madhubhani paintings, and posters of the Buddha. The chief public relations officer to Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was then the chief minister, chattered at me about how “the media misinterprets Mr Manjhi’s statements.” I was the day’s first visitor, but in half an hour a handful of political and social callers had joined the queue.

Suddenly, a small mouse scurried through the hall. A few men laughed, others suppressed giggles—and everyone present immediately knew why. As the chuckles subsided, the joke was whispered around: when Manjhi—who comes from the Musahar Dalit sub-caste, traditionally associated with rat-catching—took his seat in the state capital, “he must have brought the rats from his village.”

Surreptitious caste-based mockery was a constant feature of Manjhi’s nine months as Bihar’s third, and most assertive, Dalit chief minister. He was nominated to the position in May 2014 by the Janata Dal (United) veteran and current chief minister, Nitish Kumar. Kumar had resigned from his third chief ministerial term that month, after the JD(U) was crushed in the sixteenth Lok Sabha elections. With the party’s position weakened, Kumar needed to put someone else in a position of authority to shore up the teetering state government. And Manjhi, a long-time Bihar politician, might also attract Dalit voters to the JD(U) in the state legislative assembly elections, due this coming September or October. He took Kumar’s place, becoming the twenty-third chief minister of Bihar.

However, the relationship between the two leaders soon soured. Manjhi accused Kumar and others in the JD(U) of undermining his position, while Kumar accused Manjhi of aiding the Bharatiya Janata Party’s efforts to make electoral inroads in what is India’s third most populous state. Manjhi was eventually kicked out of the JD(U) and, on 20 February, forced to resign in favour of Kumar. As the state assembly polls draw nearer, the conflict continues to reverberate, adding one more element of confusion to the caste-inflected election campaign in Bihar.

When I met Manjhi in Patna, his term’s dramatic climax was still two months away. Yet even then, the 70-year-old seemed remarkably clear-eyed about his tenuous position. He met me in his large office, clad in a crisp white dhoti and kurta under a dove-grey Nehru jacket, looking every inch the energetic career politician, with neatly parted salt-and-pepper hair and a warm smile. Right off the bat, he said, in confident and measured Hindi lightly sprinkled with English, “When one gets an opportunity to work, generally it’s not for a fixed time. But my allotted time is fixed from the start. This has become another source of inspiration for me. Within this very period I have to do something for the society from where I came. So my first concern was to give a voice to their problems.”

ON AN AFTERNOON IN MID-OCTOBER last year, Sai Ram took his family’s goat out to graze, as he often did. A little while later, the 15-year-old returned to the semi-pucca house he shared with his parents and brother, near the Dalit tola, or hamlet, in Mohanpur village, in Bihar’s Rohtas district. Sai’s mother, Sonamani, was stepping out with a basket of dung to make cowpats. She had cooked some rice and vegetables and told him to share them with his elder brother, Munna, who is mentally disabled, before fetching the goat.

The brothers bolted the door and started eating, unaware that the goat had wandered onto the property of a local landowner. Incensed to find the animal grazing on his property, the man arrived at Sai Ram’s house with a few others in tow. They shouted abuses and started beating at the door with a brick. When Munna opened the door, the men dragged him out and began to hit him. Sai pleaded with them—“Uncle, please let him go, he’s my mad brother.” the landowner started beating Sai instead. When he shouted back, the man went into the house and grabbed a bottle full of kerosene, bought just the previous week from a ration shop. He doused Sai with it, struck a match from a box he found near the chulha, and lit the boy on fire. Then he ran.

Some village children went to fetch Sonamani, who hurried back to find her son being burned alive. Sitting on a string cot outside her house two months later, she spoke to me through sobs, clutching at her old shawl and floral-print sari. She recounted how Sai screamed out, named his alleged attacker—Kulkul Singh—and pleaded to be taken to the hospital. “We took him to the nearest one, in Bikramganj,” she said. “He gave his statement in front of doctors. But his body was completely burned. He died around 9 that night.” She started weeping again. “If the goat ate his field, why didn’t he kill the goat? Why my son? Who will light the lamp in my house now? Who will give us water?”

A few residents of Mohanpur’s Dalit tola gathered around us. Bihari, a 55-year-old man, told me Kulkul Singh belongs to one of the 125 “babu sahib” families—the Rajputs that make up roughly a quarter of the village. Mohanpur has about ten Yadav families, classified as Other Backward Classes in Bihar; the rest of its residents—40 Ravidas families and a handful of Kanu, Lohar, Paswan, or Dusadh, ones—are Mahadalits, a category created by Nitish Kumar during the previous assembly elections in 2010.

“My father was beaten to death by the babu sahibs,” Bihari said, “because he sat on a cot and wore a dhoti below his knees.” He thrust six bundled sheets into my hands. “Look at this list—all the crimes against us, from 1954 to 2014. A detail of each is listed in the Bikramganj police station. But there is no end to the discrimination we face.”

Kulkul Singh’s family owns 84 of Mohanpur’s 2,200 bighas of cultivable land. He was arrested the day after the attack, charged with murder and offenses under the Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The villagers told me that a few days later the Rajputs of 12 local villages held a chakka jam—a blockade—in Bikramganj, to protest against the charges.

Jai Jai Ram, one of the villagers, told me Singh’s family “alleged that the boy burned himself.” After Sai’s death, he said, the local superintendent of police, his deputy, and the senior Bihar minister Ramai Ram, who was in Manjhi’s cabinet, all visited Mohanpur. The state government promised Sai’s father, Jeeyut Ram, R2.8 lakh as compensation, but so far he had received only R81,000. “They promised a job for Sai’s father but he didn’t get one,” Jai Jai Ram said. “Instead, all the babu sahibs and other upper-caste people of the village have become united against us.”

Others described recent threats. “They say ‘Kulkul bhaiya will come out of jail in three months. Then we will decide how many of you to cut down,’” said Dharmendra Kumar. The intimidators invoked the 1977 massacre of Dalits in Belchi, as well as the Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur-Bathe massacres of the late 1990s, when the Ranvir Sena, an upper-caste militia, was at its peak.

In the last three years, several cases related to such violence, including the Shankar Bigha massacre of 1999, have been thrown out of court or seen verdicts overturned. Mohanpur’s villagers had little confidence in the justice system, despite having a Dalit as chief minister. “Three months ago,” Dulhe Ram said, “members of Kulkul Singh’s family beat me when I was going out to sell eggs and I went to the Gorari police station to complain. The babu sahibs were already there. One of them said he would cut me down like a goat, and the police inspector just guffawed.”

“When women go out to urinate,” 50-year-old Bhagwan Paswan said, “upper-caste boys shine their bike headlights on them, and knock them down with their front wheels. After Sai Ram’s death, we patrol the tola by turn. Even after a Manjhi became chief minister, nothing seems to have improved. On the contrary, upper-caste people have a new taunt for us—that we are so full of ourselves, ever since a Dalit has become CM.”

IN SOME WAYS, Manjhi’s early childhood was not very different from Sai Ram’s. After meeting him in Patna in December, I travelled to his home village, Mahakar, in the Khizarsarai block of Gaya district—about 40 kilometres east of Gaya by road to the market town of Kudwa, then two kilometres further on a concrete track. In the pale winter morning sun, Mahakar looked very much like a new chief minister’s village: yellow dust swirled up from various construction sites, settling on rows of parked SUVs and around the boots of a handful of state policemen.

Manjhi inaugurated the police outpost here himself. As chief minister, he also laid the cornerstones of a primary health centre, a high school, an electrical substation, and a branch of the Bihar Gramin Bank, located in a structure attached to his own home. The concrete road I took to the village was also built during his tenure.

Walking along this road, the first building I encountered was Manjhi’s large, lime-green bungalow. Only a handful of Musahars now live among the 100 families in Mahakar. Seventy families are Yadavs, and their neighbours include ten upper-caste Bhumihar families, and a mix of Brahmins, Badhais, Dusadhs and Kahars.

Manjhi was born on 6 October 1944, to a family of bonded labourers, he told me in Patna. “Living on the landowner’s property is difficult,” he said, “because the landlord can throw you out, or summon you at any moment. You may feel sick, or unwell, but the landlord will make you work every day if you live on his land. To evade these problems, my father lived near a deserted rivulet on the outskirts of Mahakar. That’s where I was born.”

Some months later, a flood swept through the area, shifting the course of Manjhi’s life. “Our mud huts were swept away,” he said. “The people who lived in that deserted place climbed a nearby banyan tree. My parents sat on a branch with me in their arms as the rain fell all night. The next morning, Kameshwar Singh”—the landlord—“came looking for his mazdoors. When he saw that our huts were gone, he asked my father to live on his land. My parents took the one or two utensils they had and went. They were given a small patch of dirty land. My father worked hard to clean that spot, raising four-foot-high mud walls and building a low-ceilinged, two-room mud hut. We scheduled-caste people had no system of doors. So, later, my father wove a few long bamboo sticks with rope to form the only parda or kiwaad”—shutter—“that we had. I grew up in this environment.”

Kameshwar Singh’s family is now divided between four houses, which I soon reached along the Mahakar road. He died a decade ago, but Naval Kishore Singh, his 85-year-old brother and the family’s patriarch, knew Manjhi, whom he addressed as mantri-ji, as a child. “I remember, mantri-ji was only a few months old during the flood,” he said. “His parents floated him across the water in a bamboo basket to reach the village.”

“My father was extremely fair,” Manjhi told me. “He used to dress up in ladies’ saris and dance” at folk festivals—“he had memorised at least 150 bhajans. A local troupe of musicians took my father with them to perform at festivals. In Kaloner village—in Makhdumpur district, where I fought elections—at a Dussehra festival, someone told him, ‘Ramjeet, you are not educated, but you have a good memory. If you have a son, educate him.’ This was the first time the idea or thought of education touched my father.”

When he was about eight years old, Manjhi said, Kameshwar Singh sent him to the animal enclosure to give fodder to the cattle and do other small tasks. “My father was worried. He decided to ask the landlord about my education, and, if denied, run away.” Kameshwar Singh agreed to let Manjhi listen in on his children’s tuition classes. “I used to graze the cattle and finish the other household work. A master-ji came to the house to give tuitions. Listening to all his talk about education, I became curious about studies. So, I’d finish my work and listen to the lessons from the gate. One day, the teacher gave a test and the children were unable to answer. The master-ji was about to beat them, but I intervened, saying that I would answer the questions. And I gave all the correct answers.

“The teacher did not say anything then,” Manjhi continued. “But later, he met my father outside the village, where both of them used to drink taadi every evening. Master-ji told my father the whole episode. My father decided that he would educate me, come what may. He soon stopped going to work. When Kameshwar Singh confronted him, he said the landlord could kill him, but he would educate his son at any cost. So I was given a broken slate and half a pencil, and my named was enrolled in the lower school of the village. I was not allowed to go there—just to sit on the floor during the tuition classes for the landlord’s children. Slowly, I learned to read the Hindi alphabet. I took my slate with me to the pasture. Sometimes, I would read while the cattle grazed someone else’s farm, and I would be scolded. Sometimes, I would ride on the back of a buffalo and read as it grazed.”

Finally, Manjhi began attending a high school in a neighbouring village, seven kilometres away. “The children of upper-caste families stayed in a hostel nearby,” he said, “I used to courier food, grains, flour, for the upper-caste students, knowing I was not supposed to touch the food or grains inside the packs I was carrying.”

I spoke to one of Manjhi’s schoolteachers, Ram Vilas “Achkan,” from the Baldev Uccha Vidyalaya in Naili. Now retired, the 85-year-old taught Manjhi in Class 10, and said he also mentored his early political moves. “Manjhi-ji was an ordinary student,” he said. “No doubt, he was determined to study and was hardworking. Travelling 14 kilometres everyday on foot to do school is not possible if you are not determined. But he was never the Kanshi Ram or Lohia”—both Dalit icons—“that people today make him out to be. He was never ideologically aggressive or thoughtful in a politically conscious manner.”

Naval Kishore Singh said his brother helped Manjhi “in every possible way to get an education,” and that the youngster did only “small work, like giving water to someone,” for the family. “He used to play here and study with other children.”

“His father’s landlord used to come to the school once in a while,” Ram Vilas told me. “He used to ask about Manhjhi-ji’s progress in studies.” Manjhi did fairly well, graduating 15 marks short of the first division, and went on to secure a bachelor’s degree in history, with honours, at Gaya College.

“Mantri-ji was very hard-working, no doubt,” Singh said. “We are very happy that our boy has become chief minister. He never forgot his roots and his village. Even when he was a minister in the state cabinet, he used to come to his village home on every Saturday. After becoming chief minister, he still meets us with affection.”

Singh’s son, Ajay, added, “What was here before? Nothing. But now our village is top-class. We have everything from roads and electricity to banks, hospitals and police outposts. High-rank police officers keep patrolling here. Mantri-ji has changed the stars of Mahakar.”

When I spoke to Ram Vilas after Manjhi was booted out of the JD(U) and had floated his own new political front, he was more circumspect. “Earlier, in his legislative assembly days, we used to talk a lot,” he said, “and he would come to me for guidance. Now that has changed a bit. Everybody here knows he showered his own village with announcements, projects and constructions, but did nothing for us. He was born and bred in Gaya district, but every benefit of him being the CM has gone only to his village. So if he comes with his new party to address Dalits in Gaya, they will listen, but you never know how much of that will translate into votes. Nitish Kumar is still very popular here, and people feel that Nitish-ji has done something for everyone. So it’s not an easy choice for the people of Gaya.”

| TWO |

THOUGH MANJHI HAD SOME INTERACTION with the Congress party as a student, he did not take up politics full-time until he was in his thirties. He first worked, for over a decade, in Bihar’s postal department in order to support his family. In 1980, he contested and won his first state assembly election, from Fatehpur in Gaya district, on a Congress ticket. Two years after the Janata Dal was formed, in 1988, Manjhi joined it. Then, when former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav split to form the Rashtriya Janata Dal in 1997, Manjhi went with him. Seven years later, he switched allegiances to the rival JD(U) when, allied with the BJP, it came to power in Bihar. Manjhi spent most of the past four decades as a relatively low-profile MLA, including in his latest post, as Kumar’s minister for the welfare of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

Manjhi’s first real exposure outside of Bihar came when he became chief minister. “Did anyone know Manjhi, even within the confines of Gaya, before this?” the journalist Sankarshan Thakur, who has written a book each on Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, asked me over the phone last month. “Did anyone even know that Jitan Ram Manjhi has been a minister in Bihar since 1980, for god’s sake? What has he been doing for all this while?”

But the writer and political analyst Prem Kumar Mani, a former member of Bihar’s Legislative Council from the JD(U) who worked with Kumar and Manjhi, told me Manjhi shouldn’t be underestimated. “For a Musahar-caste boy to finish his BA Honours in an extremely feudal and caste-ridden place like Gaya in those days is not a small deal,” he told me at his Patna residence in December. “He also worked in the post and telegraph department of Bihar as a clerk. We can only imagine the day-to-day abuse he must have faced.”

Mani listed Manjhi’s strengths: “he is very good with people and speaks fluently in Magahi, Maithli, Bhojpuri and other regional languages of Bihar.” As a cabinet minister, “Manjhi successfully made a strong base among the Dalit population … Manjhi was a very efficient minister. He is known for maintaining files and for his impeccable paper work.” Mani even claimed that “ideologically,” Manjhi is more “mature, well-read and knowledgeable” than Kumar, Yadav, and the JD(U) national president Sharad Yadav—“And Manjhi knows this.” For his part, Manjhi has also stated that he is “more qualified” than some of his colleagues and rivals.

Manjhi contested Lok Sabha elections for the first time last year. He garnered fewer votes than two other Musahar opponents, but the JD(U)’s miserable performance in that election led to him becoming chief minister. The party’s past electoral successes were due in no small measure to its strong alliance with the BJP, which fell apart after 17 years in 2013, after Narendra Modi’s ascent. As Thakur put it, “Nitish is incapable of working under Narendra Modi. Their personal differences are too deep.”

Yet the JD(U) was electorally weakened by the rift. The BJP won a remarkable 22 Lok Sabha seats out of the 30 that its candidates contested in Bihar. Its prime ally, the Lok Janashakti Party, led by Ram Vilas Paswan, won six out of seven seats it contested, and another ally, the Rashtriya Lok Samata, led by Upendra Kushwaha, won three out of four. The JD(U) claimed only two seats out of the 38 it contested, and the RJD fared only slightly better, winning seven seats in alliance with the Congress.

Analysing these results in the Economic and Political Weekly, Sanjay Kumar, a director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, wrote that “the 2014 Lok Sabha election seems to have marked a new beginning in the politics of Bihar.” If the last two decades in Bihar were marked by the “massive social and political mobilisation of people belonging to the Other Backward Classes”—specifically Yadavs, who favoured the RJD, and Kurmis and Kushwahas (also called Koeris), who favoured the JD(U)—“the 2014 elections marked the beginning of a massive consolidation of the upper caste in favor of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party.” This process “was also supported by the mobilisation of sections of dalit and the OBC voters in favor of the BJP and its allies,” namely Ram Vilas Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha’s parties.

Just before the Lok Sabha elections, the senior Bihar BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi claimed that over 50 JD(U) MLAs were unhappy with Kumar, and in touch with the BJP. “They are also helping BJP candidates to ensure their victory in the polls,” he said. Amarnath Tewary, a senior journalist with The Hindu in Patna, told me last month, “Actually there were only 19 to 20 MLAs who rebelled… but the BJP played it out of proportion.” After the JD(U) lost, “Nitish was under pressure to change the government’s leadership” to prevent a possible dissolution of the assembly. Manjhi must have seemed a good choice to tap into the vote-share of Bihar’s large Dalit population: a candidate who would suit the “social engineering interest of the party, and be easy to remove when the time came,” as Thakur said.

Manjhi was so loyal, Pavan Kumar Varma, a Rajya Sabha MP and advisor to Kumar, told me in June, he even had “a life-size portrait of Nitish Kumar in his room.” Varma related how Kumar told Manjhi that he would bestow power upon him. The two were at the chief minister’s residence. “Manjhi was going to a wedding, and in between he got a call from Nitish Kumar asking if he would like to have a cup of tea before leaving. When Manjhi came in, Nitish said, ‘Chai peejiye—aap hi ka ghar hai ab. Aap mukhya mantri honge’”—Please drink, it’s your own house now. You’re going to be chief minister. “Manjhi was totally knocked out. And Nitish really made him chief minister and left 1 Anne Marg within a few days.”

Manjhi’s first few months in office were marked by a mix of humble gratitude and tentative independence. “Kumar genuinely did not interfere in Manjhi’s work,” Varma insisted. “All those conversations about Manjhi being a puppet in the hands of Nitish are bullshit.”

Still, it was clear where true authority rested. Mani observed that “though Manjhi is about seven years older than Nitish, whenever they meet he greets Nitish with ‘pranaam.’ Nitish never does so. While on the other hand, Nitish could be easily spotted greeting upper-caste leaders, like Ramashray Prasad Singh, himself first.” Even in December, although cracks had appeared in the relationship, Manjhi told me, “Only one photograph hangs in my room, and that is of Nitish-ji.”

MY NEXT STOP AFTER MAHAKAR was the village of Dumaria, in Bhojpur district, about 80 kilometres south-east of Gaya. Dumaria consists of about a thousand households, roughly a third of them upper-caste and a third of them OBC. Most of its 400 Dalit families live in two ghettos—the villagers call them “chamar tolas”—while its 30 Musahar families occupy a separate, muddy settlement near a neem tree beyond the main village.

I plodded across several hundred metres of open field to reach the Musahar tola. In the morning chill, several scantily clad children played in a mound of sand, singing folk songs. A few hens and two small goats wandered between piles of damp fodder and clothing, scattered amongst a clutch of mud huts and four semi-pucca houses, built in 1998 under the government’s Indira Awaas Yojna programme.

The settlement has been here for over 50 years. People wake up at around 6 am, eat leftovers from the previous night’s meal, and head out to work. The older boys are away in Kolkata or Vijayawada, working as wage labourers; the men work in the fields of upper-caste landowners, or catch fish from nearby ponds. Women collect and sell scrap to help make ends meet. Families come home early in the evening to eat a meal on good days, and sleep hungry on bad ones. No one here can read or has ever gone to school.

The only sign of change was a new concrete road inside the tola. Last October, six Musahar girls from Dumaria were gang-raped by three upper-caste men. The road was one of the improvements—including pucca houses, electricity and water supply—promised to the community by the district collector in the wake of the event.

The six rape victims met me on the concrete road, where  we sat in the December sun, taking a few minutes to warm up to each other. Four of the victims were still minors—the youngest only 11 years old. Another, 18 years old, said she had been married, but her husband left her after the attack.

The eldest was 20 and married, with children. Encouraged by a gathering group of neighbours, and ignoring the occasional whining toddler, she began to narrate the story in steady, thick Bhojpuri. “On 8 October, we left home as usual to collect scrap from the nearby villages, all six of us together, with two of our brothers, ” aged nine and eleven. “There had been a wedding, so we got a lot of waste from there. We went to Kurmuri village to sell it. Neelnidhi Singh, Jai Prakash Singh and Jaggu Ojha used to buy scrap in Kurmuri village, so we went to them. They weighed the scrap and took it from us. When we asked for money, Neelnidhi Singh said that they didn’t have change. He said Jaggu-pandit will go and get the change from Fatehpur. He ordered us to sit and wait.

“Neelnidhi and Jai Prakash were drinking alcohol. After some time, Jaggu-pandit came with the change and more alcohol. All three of them started drinking. ‘Sir, give us our money,’ I asked them. ‘Please let us go, it’s getting dark.’ But he told us to sit back down, or he would kill us with his gun. Then Jaggu-pandit forced us to drink alcohol. They first tied our brothers with rope. Then they started beating them, and told them to watch while they raped us. After that, they began raping us, one by one.”

The second-eldest victim said, “We asked them to let us go, but they refused. We started begging them to let us go and urinate. After a while, they allowed us to go, but said that we should come right back. We agreed, but after untying our brothers we ran as fast as we could—jumping across the rivulets, over the fields—and reached home by 10 pm.”

Despite threats of retribution if they talked, the community encouraged the women to file a First Information Report the next day. When news of the event reached Manjhi, he demanded that the police arrest those accused within 24 hours. The men were charged with rape, and with violations of the SC/ST Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. As news of the crime spread, Dalit villagers protested on a nearby road—at least partly galvanised by supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), which is still fairly active in these parts. All three men were rounded up within a few days.

As the case proceeded, all the victims, except the youngest, were given compensatory jobs, cooking huge quantities of khichri at two local primary schools. Each was also promised government compensation of R90,000, to be deposited in new accounts in their names in the Bihar Gramin Bank. The first installment, of R20,000 each, came through, but the girls had difficulty extracting the rest, as the bank manager required a written request from another officer.

Meanwhile, Manjhi pressured officials to conduct a speedy trial. “Bihar probably got one of its fastest verdicts ever in a rape case,” Sudha Varghese, a social worker and Padma Shri awardee known locally as “cycle-wali didi,” told me. By late January, the men were convicted and sentenced to life terms, with an additional 30 years of imprisonment for the gang rape and assault of a minor. But Varghese was “disturbed,” she said over the phone from a girls’ school and hostel she runs in Danapur, near Patna, by the fact that the charges were filed on the testimony of only one girl.

“All six girls were cross-examined,” she explained, “but the charge sheet mentions only the youngest one as the victim, and has turned all the other girls into witnesses.” This despite the fact that medical examinations on all six victims confirmed the strong possibility of rape. After meeting the victims several times, reading the case reports and speaking with the police and local government authorities, Varghese felt strongly “that something has been ‘managed.’” She pointed out recent developments in cases involving Dalit massacres in the Patna High Court: “Be it Bathani or Bathe or now Shankar Bigha, all upper-caste accused are released from higher courts. The same can happen in this case too, I am afraid.”

Neelnidhi Singh, one of the rapists, is a former area commander of the Ranvir Sena. He was previously arrested in 2007, and charged in a 1994 murder case. Some of the villagers told me about that violent incident from Dumaria’s past. “It was when Lalu-ji was chief minister,” Sabruddin, a Muslim resident of the chamar tola, said. “Three Kahars were fishing, when the Ranvir Sena tied their hands and legs down and ripped apart their stomachs. Within 24 hours, three people—one Yadav, one Muslim and one Rajwar—were killed in neighboring Dehri village.”

Even after the verdict in the rape case, the victims remained nervous. I spoke to them in February, on Sabruddin’s phone. “I know that they have been jailed,” the eldest said, “but their relatives have threatened to kill at least 30 of us to avenge their three men. One night, a few weeks ago, we saw around 20 armed men standing around our tola. We thought they were going to kill us. But there is a police camp near our tola… so that day the men went away. But we are very scared. They can come back any time, any other day and kill us.”

In December, the 18-year-old victim told me upper-caste people in Kurmuri had threatened them, saying “kaat-chheel ke maar denge”—we’ll cut you down, and skin you till you’re dead. “Out of fear, we have kept some poison handy,” she said, gesturing to some bottles against a wall nearby. “Better to die by drinking poison then being slaughtered by their weapons.”

| THREE |

HEADLINES SUCH AS THOSE surrounding the Dumaria rapes brought renewed attention to crimes against Dalits. Last July, the National Crime Records Bureau released data showing that in 2013, the number of caste-related crimes went up in Bihar, which has the second-highest occurrence of such crimes of any state. The data also showed a disturbingly low rate of disposal or conviction in cases related to these crimes. “Dark days of violence on Dalits return to haunt Bihar,” the Indian Express reported in October, noting an uptick in crimes in the months following the Lok Sabha elections. One possible explanation for this, the story noted, was as ground-level effect of the end of the BJP–JD(U) alliance.

In Patna, in December, Manjhi said that the rise was actually “a good sign,” indicating increased reporting of crime. “The section of society that used to bear all the atrocities done to them by upper-caste people was silent before,” he said. “Whether a case of land-grabbing or rape of women or murder of children—they used to bear it all silently.” He said he understood “that my words are not in and of themselves doing enough for them, but they have raised their self-confidence.” He pointed out that, during his tenure, he had increased the compensation paid out to victims of SC/ST Act abuses, increased the number of police stations dedicated to handling caste atrocities from 10 to 40, and made it compulsory for officials to register crimes against Dalits. “I have given jobs and pensions, warned the administration and made appeals in front of my community to not suffer in silence. I am asking people to come out and complain.”

As he stretched into his chief ministership, Manjhi became more assertive himself. Several incidents—and some rumours—contributed to his gradual break from Kumar. The most widely-publicised case of disrespect—when a temple in Madhubani was ritually purified after Manjhi visited it in September—turned out to be most likely flimflam (although an activist group did wash a statue of the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia with water from the Ganga after Manjhi garlanded it in April). But the temple story compounded Manjhi’s perception of indignities against him: bureaucrats loyal to Kumar didn’t take him seriously; Kumar allowed spokespersons “to abuse and attack” him; officials weren’t present to meet him, as he found when visiting victims of a stampede, at the Patna Medical College hospital in October.

Shivanand Tiwari, a former JD(U) member of parliament who worked with both Kumar and Manjhi, told me that “it was beyond Nitish Kumar’s imagination that this man, who comes from the Musahar community… could ever revolt or go against him.” Tiwari, who was expelled from the JD(U) himself last year, following criticism of Kumar’s earlier support of Narendra Modi, claimed Kumar “picked up Manjhi for his own image-building exercise, then ensured that he was humiliated every day. Under Nitish’s eyes, young, spokesperson kind of people—kal ke ladke—and party MLAs, publicly abused Manjhi on national television… his own party-men said Manjhi should be sent to a mental home. Nitish Kumar kept quiet.”

When I asked Manjhi about these incidents in December, he said, “I will not blame any individual for the behaviour I am facing in my own bureaucracy and party. I blame their caste-ridden mentality.”

Manjhi’s criticism while in office wasn’t exclusively directed at his own party. Commenting on Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign, he once told reporters that it wasn’t enough to have a photo taken with a broom in hand. “If his intentions are pure, Modi ought to sit and eat dinner with Adivasis, as I have done; only then will he be worthy of thanks.” Around that time, the BJP also found fault with the chief minister. In November, the party condemned Manjhi for appointing one of his sons-in-law as his personal assistant. The relative had been Manjhi’s assistant since 2006, and resigned shortly after the controversy erupted.

As the chief minister made increasingly awkward headlines, the media’s so-called “misunderstanding” of Manjhi became a growing problem for Nitish Kumar. If Manjhi were an established politician, some of his more half-baked statements—“Upper-caste people are foreigners, descended from the Aryans,” for example—may not have gotten quite the kind of attention they did, or engendered the same level of embarrassment. But Kumar couldn’t ignore statements that subverted the JD(U) party line. “If Bihar is given special status,” Manjhi said in mid November, referring to a long-held demand for extra assistance to the state from the central government, “I will back Narendra Modi even if no one else does.” A few days later, the JD(U) reportedly warned Manjhi to mind his tongue. “His statements have only been giving leverage to the BJP,” KC Tyagi, a national spokesperson for the party and a Rajya Sabha MP, told the Indian Express. “Manjhi should follow the development map drawn by Nitish-ji and not try to rewrite history. He should try to run the government, not bring about a revolution.”

In early February, Manjhi was asked to step down in favour of Kumar. When he refused and was expelled from his party, Kumar called for a numerical test of confidence in the chief minister in the legislative assembly, which the JD(U) still dominated. Meanwhile, the BJP saw the value of bringing Manjhi into its fold. Manjhi had a meeting with Narendra Modi in Delhi, and the Bihar BJP MLAs were instructed to support him. Ultimately, Manjhi resigned before the vote, complaining he had been used as a “rubber stamp” and his supporters had received death threats.

Prem Kumar Mani pointed out that this wasn’t Manjhi’s first resignation. In 2005, Manjhi resigned from Kumar’s cabinet 24 hours after being sworn in, following allegations that he ran a fake-degree racket while in the RJD. Manjhi was later absolved, and re-inducted into the cabinet in 2008. Kumar, Mani said, must have thought “that Manjhi will always keep on resigning on his orders.”

“Politics is a rough-and-tumble game,” Sankarshan Thakur commented. “It could have been handled better, but it could have been handled worse. These leaders—Lalu, Nitish, Sushil Modi, Narendra Modi—have spent decades in the jungle of politics. They all commit mistakes… but they suffer for those mistakes, then they correct course. They move on or they fall.”

Manjhi quickly moved on. On 28 February, about a week after resigning, he floated the Hindustani Awam Morcha, later registered as the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular). After meetings with Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders, on 12 June, he formally announced an alliance with the party.

“History tells us that Dalit chief ministers were always roped in in Bihar for crisis management, as immediate stop-gap solutions,” Mahendra Suman, a Patna-based political analyst and writer, told me. “But this is 2015 and not 1979”—when Ram Sundar Das was made chief minister. “Manjhi was bound to retaliate.”

Shivanand Tiwari noted that there was “huge disappointment in the lower-caste population of Bihar after Manjhi left.” Dalit groups protested the departure outside the JD(U) office in Patna, and elsewhere. “Nitish cannot ignore this mobilisation,” he said.

Bihar’s Dalits, Suman said, “were literally socially and politically nazarband” —under house arrest—“until now. Before the nineties, the voting pattern was always alongside the upper castes”—a pattern dubbed the “coalition of extremes” in Bihar. “After the Mandal Commission came in,” in 1990, “Dalits and backward caste people started voting on the same lines, which Lalu exploited for a long time. But after Nitish came in, the backward-caste vote got divided between Lalu and Nitish.”

OBC castes account for 51 percent of Bihar’s population, and “forward castes” and Muslims comprise 15 percent and 16 percent, respectively. Most of the remainder are Mahadalit or Dalit—terms which in Bihar are now interchangeable for all practical purposes. This 16-percent Dalit share is Manjhi’s bargaining tool, and one he believes is ready for a new leader. During our interview, he brought up England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, saying that “When the kings realised that people would not tolerate any more, they surrendered. Similarly, our community has started rising up.”

Sudha Varghese, who called Manjhi “one of the most intelligent Dalit chief ministers India has ever had,” felt he would get a lot of support from this vote bank in the coming election. And Suman said, in early March, that while “Manjhi may not be the king in the next elections, he is surely the kingmaker.”

But Shaiwal, a screenwriter who scripted the acclaimed film Damul, about the Dalit massacres of the 1990s, told me it’s quite possible that “just having a ‘Manjhi’ surname is not enough.”

LAST SEPTEMBER, a group of upper-caste men beat to death a man named Arjun Manjhi in Pura village in Gaya district, less than 40 kilometres from Mahakar. Arjun’s 25-year-old son Nitay, who witnessed the attack, told me it was retaliation for his uncle’s attempt to run for the presidency of the local Primary Agricultural Co-operative Society. “They said we should not dare to think that we can contest elections,” he said in December. Six of the attackers had been arrested and the case was in progress, but Nitay confessed that “I always feel scared.” There had been further threats, which was “why people from our tola fled.”

About six days after the crime, there was an exodus of over 250 Dalit families from Pura. “We were forced by the administration to go back,” Nitay said. “We had a lot of hope from our chief minister. After my father was murdered, Manjhi-ji spoke to me on the phone and promised that he would turn Pura into an ideal village. He opened a police outpost outside the Dalit tola and gave us R5 lakh as compensation.” But Nitay was upset that Manjhi never visited Pura, though his home village was so close by.

Satish Kumar, who runs the Dalit Sangharsh Morcha activist group in Gaya, agreed that the Dalits of Pura had high expectations of Manjhi. “Especially since the murder took place in his own district, everybody was hoping that he will stand for his people on the ground. He did phone the victim’s family and gave them compensation, but that even Nitish Kumar would have done.”

Nitay told me “the upper-caste people of the accused family still come to threaten us. They openly ask us how long we will be able to defend ourselves with police protection. I can’t even go to court to fight my father’s murder case. I always feel that someone is going to ambush me.”

“Diktats like ‘No ‘Dalit can study beyond eighth class’ and ‘No Dalit can leave his area to urinate’ are still commonplace here,” Suman told me. “The Brahmarishi Sena”—an upper-case militia—“was very active and had a strong following in Pura in the nineties. The organisation does not exist on paper now, but it instilled the arrogance of being upper caste deeply in the minds of people of this region. It’s not a big deal for them to kill a Musahar.”

On the evening of the day I visited Mahakar, I travelled to Bodhgaya, famous as a Buddhist pilgrimage site, but also home to one of Bihar’s biggest Musahar slums. The roughly 400 Manjhi families who live in Miyan Bigha, also called Siddharth Nagar, mostly arrived here over the past two decades from nearby villages. As darkness fell, I struck up a conversation with Lallan Manjhi, a 40-year-old labourer who was tying his cotton muretha around his head while his wife made chapattis on the floor of their home. Lallan said the slum’s one-room houses were constructed under the Indira Awaas Yojna, when Lalu Prasad Yadav was chief minister. He guided me through Miyan Bigha’s sludgy lanes, past small Buddhist eateries that glowed orange under halogen lights as the night’s last dinners were served.

“We were initially very happy that a man of our caste and community had become the chief minister of Bihar,” Lallan said. “We had hoped that he would visit us at least once, but he never came. His SUV caravan passes from the highway near our slum, but he has never turned his car in to meet his people in the biggest Dalit slum of his own district. But Nitish Kumar came to see us a number of times. He also gave cycles to our children for going to school.”

We met Gautami Devi, a 30-year-old domestic worker,  as she was returning home from an upper-class residential colony, where she cooks for four households. With her was Neena Devi, 20 years her senior. “Wherever we go to work,” Gautami said, “upper-caste people taunt us—that we think ourselves great people now that Manjhi has become chief minister. But, frankly, Manjhi has done nothing for us. He did not even come to meet us. The problems of corruption and unemployment that we face daily have not changed.

“We all like Nitish-ji very much,” she continued. “He opened a school for our children, gave them cycles. Also, our children get money to buy books and clothes for school. He did a lot for us, and we will never forget that.”

“We are waiting and watching Manjhi-ji’ s work and attitude,” Neena added. “But if we have to choose between Manjhi-ji and Nitish-ji, we will vote for Nitish-ji.”

The state elections were a year away at that point, and Manjhi was chief minister then, but the extent of his hold over diverse Dalit communities is still unclear. Before leaving Gaya district, I spoke to Jitendra Pushp, a local freelance journalist who has followed the region’s politics for over 20 years. Over chai in a roadside shanty in Gaya, he observed that “the Gaya and Jehanabad belt are stronghold areas of Nitish Kumar. And here, people are also a bit angry at Manjhi, because he only focused on the development of his own village and did not pay attention to the growth of Gaya district as a whole. So on the ground, the mandate, even of the Dalits, is fractured between Nitish and Manjhi. But it is true that a lot of Dalits identify with Manjhi and they can shift in his direction. It all depends on how Manjhi campaigns in the next six months.”

| FOUR |

ON A MUGGY EVENING IN MARCH, soon after forming HAM(S), Manjhi was in Delhi, to deliver a lecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University titled “Politics, Caste and Discrimination: Experiences of a Dalit Chief Minister.” Most of the 200 or so people at the event, organised by a Dalit students’ association, were sympathetic, but I overheard a couple of Bihari students sitting in front of me casually remark, “What, we’re going to have to listen to these Musahars now?”

“I was an accidental chief minister,” Manjhi told the audience. His hour-long address sounded like a stump speech. “Particularly in Bihar … if a Dalit leader becomes too assertive, he is either murdered or framed in false cases. That is why I intentionally kept myself low-profile for three decades, just to survive.” After admitting he had “not been able to do much as an MLA,” he highlighted his efforts as chief minister, which he said made him unpopular with Kumar: to give Dalits residential plots at market rates, and provide free education for girls up to the post-graduate level.

As the summer set in, the battle for Bihar heated up. State and national politicians prepared for what Nasim Zaidi, the chief election commissioner of India, described as “the mother of all elections.” The first sign that the contest would include some surprises appeared during the by-elections in Bihar last August, when Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, historical rivals, teamed up for the first time. Their joint effort, with the Congress, to capture Bihar’s Muslim and OBC vote banks, paid off, with the three parties winning six of the ten open assembly seats.

Then, in April, Kumar and Yadav announced the formation of a new “Janata Parivar” party that would bring together the RJD and the JD(U)—as well as the Janata Dal (Secular), the Indian National Lok Dal and the Samajwadi Party, which have their bases outside Bihar—under the aegis of the Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav. The merger’s stated goal is to keep “communal forces out of power.” Yadav called the 2015 Bihar elections the “beginning of the end of the BJP.”

“This is not the first time that contrary forces in Indian politics are coming together or are trying to come together,” Sankarshan Thakur said, citing how the BJP and the Left worked together during the National Front government some 25 years ago. “It was an anti-Congress coalition, and that’s how it worked. I am not defending this present RJD–JD(U) alliance. I am just saying that, for Nitish and for Lalu, they are both fighting a battle for their survival … It remains to be seen whether they are able to project the image of a cohesive alliance on the ground or not.”

Pavan Varma pointed to the “ideological overlap” between the JD(U) and the RJD, and their shared history. “During the past decade,” he said, Kumar and Yadav “fought on the ground, but of late both of them have realised that we are now in a post-Mandal phase.”

Over the next few months, as Yadav and Kumar slowly bridged their differences, building what Thakur called a “ramshackle and uneasy” alliance, a new pole of tension emerged. Manjhi’s efforts to establish his own base along caste lines created an opportunity for the BJP to expand from its mostly upper-caste core in the state. Despite the JD(U)’s assertions that Manjhi had sold out to the BJP much earlier, the BJP–HAM(S) alliance was not a done deal when Manjhi quit 1 Anne Marg. Others had also extended support, including the former RJD leader and MP Rajesh Ranjan, better known as Pappu Yadav. Pappu, who was expelled from the RJD over disagreements with Lalu Prasad Yadav in May, now plans to contest the polls with his own new party, the Jan Adhikar Morcha.

At his house in Delhi in June, Pappu told me he had “invited Manjhi to form a third front with me, but Lalu”—who had earlier tried to rope Manjhi in himself—“didn’t like my proposal.” Pappu thought that “Lalu is going to do huge damage to Nitish. Nitish has his own problems, but at least he is a political leader.” In the run-up to the elections, loyalties shift incredibly easily to accommodate electoral alliances. “I can consider the BJP also, if the party leaves their communal and love-jihad kind of politics,” Pappu told me.

For its part, the BJP is focused on the same calculations as its competitors. Manjhi is just one conquest, neatly shuffled into a deck of caste cards the party has won through alliances with various communities across the state. Rather than put forward a Bihari leader as its chief ministerial candidate, the BJP will use Narendra Modi as the face of its campaign. “In Modi’s scheme of things,” Thakur said, “this Bihar election is the next most important election after the May 2014 Lok Sabha elections … He has won India, and now there is one man whose nose he needs to rub on the ground—and that is Nitish Kumar.”

Thakur alluded to two recent events in which the BJP engaged in “deliberate caste-based cultural showcasing of past icons” to capture voters. In Patna in May, the party supported a celebration of the 2320-th birthday of the emperor Ashoka, where the historical figure was claimed for the Kushwaha caste. In Delhi, the party celebrated the national poet Ramdhari Singh “Dinkar,” who was opposed to the Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh, as a great Bhumihar poet.

To up the ante, in April, the BJP-led central government announced a whopping special package for Bihar worth one lakh crore rupees. Last month, when a high-profile cabinet meeting was held in Delhi to discuss the package, not one member of Kumar’s ruling state government was invited. The Bihar government responded with a statement which noted, “Everybody knows that Sri Nitish Kumar has continuously placed the legal and financial arguments for Special Category/assistance for Bihar and unflinchingly campaigned for the same.” Now, it said, the BJP wants “to take the entire credit, completely ignoring all the efforts of the State Government.”

In all this, Manjhi is lost in the fray. As this story went to press, he was in Delhi, embroiled in meetings with the BJP regarding seat-sharing in the election. It remained to be seen how many of the 125 assembly seats he wanted HAM(S) to contest would be allotted to him.

Manjhi’s rift with Kumar has been relegated to side-show material. Last month, for example, Manjhi sparked a row over the mango and litchi trees at 1 Anne Marg, where he resided until 21 June. He told the press that two dozen policemen had been deployed outside the house “to prevent a schedule-caste leader from eating the fruits growing here. This shows the narrow mindset of Nitish Kumar.” He pointed out that Yadav, after his last term as chief minister, had also remained in the building for an extra few months. “Was such discrimination done to him? While I am here, everyone has the right to pluck and eat fruits from the garden.” Manjhi’s supporters showed duty slips ordering several policemen to protect the trees, and the HAM(S) spokesperson Danish Rizwan told me that Manjhi’s aides were not allowed near them.

Nitish Kumar rubbished the charges, and asked police to investigate the matter. “I will ensure that all mangoes and litchis are sent to Manjhi … I am ready to pay for it from my own salary,” he announced. Later, a high-level police official told reporters the security detail was posted as part of a regular safety drill, and that a guard was posted near the trees during the fruit season as a matter of course. “In our internal inquiry, we have found out that no police person has ever stopped Manjhi and family members from consuming the fruits in the premises. Around eight to ten days back Manjhi and his family had tasted fruits of the trees at Anne Marg residence and nobody stopped them,” the officer said.

Not to be outdone, Lalu Prasad Yadav reminded the press who was really responsible for the trees in question. “It was me and Rabri Devi”—his wife, who succeeded him as chief minister—“who planted those trees,” he said. “The lucky ones are eating the fruits.”

At 1 Anne Marg in December, by the time I took my leave of Manjhi, the sun had burned the morning fog away and was shining brightly through the branches of the trees outside the building. “You mediawallas go on rejecting me like this,” Manjhi had said to me. “Yet haven’t I become chief minister? If you keep up this sort of rejection, who knows—could I not become prime minister somehow? I said that once, and people took it the wrong way. Sharad Yadav even said, ‘Some people are not prime minister material.’ But my meaning was different. I just meant that gold is only burnished further by fire.”

Just before the Lok Sabha elections, the senior Bihar BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi claimed that over 50 JD(U) MLAs were unhappy with Kumar, and in touch with the BJP. “They are also helping BJP candidates to ensure their victory in the polls,” he said. Amarnath Tewary, a senior journalist with The Hindu in Patna, told me last month, “Actually there were only 19 to 20 MLAs who rebelled… but the BJP played it out of proportion.” After the JD(U) lost, “Nitish was under pressure to change the government’s leadership” to prevent a possible dissolution of the assembly. Manjhi must have seemed a good choice to tap into the vote-share of Bihar’s large Dalit population: a candidate who would suit the “social engineering interest of the party, and be easy to remove when the time came,” as Thakur said.

Manjhi was so loyal, Pavan Kumar Varma, a Rajya Sabha MP and advisor to Kumar, told me in June, he even had “a life-size portrait of Nitish Kumar in his room.” Varma related how Kumar told Manjhi that he would bestow power upon him. The two were at the chief minister’s residence. “Manjhi was going to a wedding, and in between he got a call from Nitish Kumar asking if he would like to have a cup of tea before leaving. When Manjhi came in, Nitish said, ‘Chai peejiye—aap hi ka ghar hai ab. Aap mukhya mantri honge’”—Please drink, it’s your own house now. You’re going to be chief minister. “Manjhi was totally knocked out. And Nitish really made him chief minister and left 1 Anne Marg within a few days.”

Manjhi’s first few months in office were marked by a mix of humble gratitude and tentative independence. “Kumar genuinely did not interfere in Manjhi’s work,” Varma insisted. “All those conversations about Manjhi being a puppet in the hands of Nitish are bullshit.”

Still, it was clear where true authority rested. Mani observed that “though Manjhi is about seven years older than Nitish, whenever they meet he greets Nitish with ‘pranaam.’ Nitish never does so. While on the other hand, Nitish could be easily spotted greeting upper-caste leaders, like Ramashray Prasad Singh, himself first.” Even in December, although cracks had appeared in the relationship, Manjhi told me, “Only one photograph hangs in my room, and that is of Nitish-ji.”

MY NEXT STOP AFTER MAHAKAR was the village of Dumaria, in Bhojpur district, about 80 kilometres south-east of Gaya. Dumaria consists of about a thousand households, roughly a third of them upper-caste and a third of them OBC. Most of its 400 Dalit families live in two ghettos—the villagers call them “chamar tolas”—while its 30 Musahar families occupy a separate, muddy settlement near a neem tree beyond the main village.

I plodded across several hundred metres of open field to reach the Musahar tola. In the morning chill, several scantily clad children played in a mound of sand, singing folk songs. A few hens and two small goats wandered between piles of damp fodder and clothing, scattered amongst a clutch of mud huts and four semi-pucca houses, built in 1998 under the government’s Indira Awaas Yojna programme.

The settlement has been here for over 50 years. People wake up at around 6 am, eat leftovers from the previous night’s meal, and head out to work. The older boys are away in Kolkata or Vijayawada, working as wage labourers; the men work in the fields of upper-caste landowners, or catch fish from nearby ponds. Women collect and sell scrap to help make ends meet. Families come home early in the evening to eat a meal on good days, and sleep hungry on bad ones. No one here can read or has ever gone to school.

The only sign of change was a new concrete road inside the tola. Last October, six Musahar girls from Dumaria were gang-raped by three upper-caste men. The road was one of the improvements—including pucca houses, electricity and water supply—promised to the community by the district collector in the wake of the event.

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Priyanka Dubey is a staff writer at The Caravan. 

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