Jesus, Mao or AmbedkarWho is the best or most suitable to free the Musahars from the bondage of caste domination?
On December 26, 2019, Tula Narayan Shah of Nepal Madhes Foundation and I were heading south after an overnight stay in Bardibas on the East-West Highway. It was one of the many stops we had made on our 20-day journey through the villages of Tarai-Madhes, from Jhapa in the east to Kailali-Kanchanpur in the west. Once we crossed the Koshi bridge and entered Province 2, I depended entirely on Tula’s experience and resources for the journey. After our morning conversation over breakfast with one of the prominent politicians of Madhes in Bardibas, we were heading south, through Rautahat district.
So far, I had seen a famous Maithil Brahmin village, an equally famous Rajput village, five Dalit villages and stayed overnight on the highway, between the highway and the India-Nepal border, and in a border village in Dhanusha. We had stayed in the capital Janakpur and interacted with the government officials of Province 2, including its Chief Minister. And now, after a turn, we came to a Disneyland-like village of the Musahars in a place called Santpur not very far south of the East-West Highway. After paying the entrance fee, both of us entered the village. The houses looked like make-believe little huts neatly laid out on a narrow lane. After our initial walk through the village, we began chatting with women and boys.
On that cold sunny December day, little fires called ghoor were giving off smoke here and there. As we had done before in other places, we sidled up to one of the smoky fires, while avoiding the winding smoke, and began chatting. I asked the young men and women about their work, their education, and how happy they were living in such neat little houses. Someone brought two bamboo-and-jute mooda. I sat and went on conversing in the hybrid Maithili and Bhojpuri that they spoke. After a few minutes of talking about their joblessness, their tenth-grade education (one young woman said she had completed 12th grade), a young man in his North Face jacket barely out of his teens suddenly asked me a question in Hindi, ‘Do you believe in God?’ He used ‘Ishwar’ for God. I was taken aback.
Where I was asking them questions about their earthly existence (well-being, joy and suffering), here was somebody in an exploratory age asking me about bigger questions. It felt like a curveball was thrown at me. I was not prepared for God there, that afternoon. I thought maybe the young man was like me in my teens, curious and angry, trying to figure out if this world truly has a maker. And if there was such a maker, why would he or she fill it with so many scoundrels? In the case of this young man, he was probably wondering why the maker would make it so unjust and unfair, where the Musahars are treated as social pariahs—where they can’t get jobs even after attaining higher secondary education (not a small feat in the community).
The village had been built by a comedian couple on donations from overseas Nepalis. And now these people couldn’t keep any livestock, nor use firewood or straw to cook food inside the houses. They could use only propane or cooking gas, for which they had to pay. Without employment, life for them had become tough and a bit prison-like, with little organic social life to support them. So, naturally, I thought this neat little living had made them unhappy. And, given their centuries of Hindu caste oppression, it was natural for them to ask if there was any God in the world. Because if there was any God, things wouldn’t be so bad for them for so long.
Through our journey from Jhapa to Kailali, one of the questions I consistently asked my interlocutors was how they got their ideas about their society, country or the world. ‘Where did you hear about Ishwar?’ I asked the young man. He hesitated for a bit. When he saw me waiting for an answer, he said, ‘One of my uncles asks me this question—very often.’ I asked, ‘What have you told him?’ He said he told him that he didn’t believe in God. ‘Where did your uncle learn about asking this question?’ I followed. ‘I don’t know,’ he said.
It occurred to me that he might have learnt it from the Maoists to ask the question and answer for himself in the negative. Then, I asked if his uncle was talking about Ishwar that is related to Ishu? He replied that it was indeed that particular Ishwar his uncle was talking about. ‘But I told him,’ he said, ‘I don’t believe in Ishwar.’
This conversation has stayed with me; because in our visits to a few other Musahar villages, where they lived in their own little huts or government-built houses (many among the Musahars do not have citizenship certificates for lack of written documentary evidence of their residency or birth, landless and illiterate most are or were born before registration began), I had felt the need for some Ishwar among them, whether it was Mao or Ambedkar or somebody whose ideas could liberate them from the tyranny of caste ideology.
In this particular village, I asked a few other questions and then took leave to head south. As we were exiting the ticketing gate, I saw a little boy of two or three watching a fight between two videogame characters in his hand-held phone-like device. In the coming months or years, I don’t know who will enter their beliefs—Mao, Ishwar, Ambedkar or Disney cartoons. It is doubtful that it would be Ambedkar: In the Dalit villages I visited, Ambedkar’s name did not ring a bell. Perhaps Ambedkar was a little too intellectual and not as exciting as a Disney cartoon, not as powerful as Mao or as persistent as the agents who brought Ishwar to them. Who is the best or most suitable to free them from the bondage of caste domination? I have my own ideas; but for now, I would leave it to them to make their own choice.
What do you think?
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