Millions of India’s lowest “untouchable” caste celebrated the election of a rat catcher as the state of Bihar’s chief minister Tuesday amid hopes that their days as the country’s most marginalized minority might be coming to an end.
Jitan Ram Manjhi, 68, who grew up catching and eating rats to survive, was sworn in as chief minister in a ceremony that marked the most extraordinary rise of any politician in the history of India.
While Narendra Modi’s journey to prime minister was aided by his origins as a tea boy, and several Dalits, or “untouchables”, have broken through the caste barriers to become powerful political figures, none can match the rise of Mr. Manjhi.
His rat catcher Musahar caste is the very lowest of India’s 900 Dalit sub-castes who do the dirtiest jobs that are considered the most repellent to higher castes.
Dalits live below the four Hindu castes of Brahmin priests and teachers, Kshatriya warriors and rulers, Vaishya traders and Shudra servants and have suffered violence and discrimination for centuries as a “polluting” presence
They are excluded from Hindu temples, banned from drinking water from wells used by higher castes and their children are forced to eat separately at school. Those who demand equal rights are often made outcasts and evicted from their homes.
But while all Dalits suffer inhumane and brutal treatment, no caste is quite as marginalized as the Musahar. It accounts for almost half of the 80 million population of Bihar, in north-east India, but hardly anyone from the Musahar caste has a government job, while literacy rates are among the lowest in the country — 6% of Musahar men can read and write and 2% of women. Many of them now work as bonded farm labourers.
Campaigners for Musahar rights said that they believe the election of Mr. Manjhi will allow such caste members to take their place in mainstream society.
“It’s an empowering development for the millions of Musahars of Bihar. We have been oppressed for centuries by the upper classes and his appointment as the chief minister of Bihar is a historic step,” said Umesh Kumar Manjhi, of the Rashtriya Musahar-Bhuyian Vikash Parishad group.
“Musahars are landless agricultural workers and are treated as outcasts even by Dalits. Traditionally we are a community of rat catchers and we continue to do so now because of poverty. Jitan Ram Manjhi is a first generation literate and the only one to reach the top.”
Shaibal Gupta, the director of the Asian Development Research Institute, said the Musahars are untouchable to other “untouchables” and their exclusion is so widespread that many of them have joined a Maoist insurgency. He said that Mr. Manjhi’s appointment was part of a strategy by Janata Dal (United), the ruling party in the state, to win over the majority “Mahadalit” community — the lowest Dalit castes — and prevent Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party winning power in the state.
Mr. Manjhi had a passion for education as a youngster and was helped by a tutor hired for the child of a rich man. He later attended university and in the 1980s became a Congress member of the state assembly. He then became tribal welfare minister in the Janata Dal (United) government and urged people to eat rats when rodents were blamed for lost grain stocks.