‘The SCs do not want a fill-in-the-blanks Chief Minister for Bihar’: Jitan Ram Manjhi 

The former Bihar Chief Minister says the Scheduled Caste communities want as CM someone who can resolve their long-pending problems.

Published : Apr 14, 2024 20:50 IST - 9 MINS READ

Jitan Ram Manjhi with paty leader Santosh Manjhi  on March 5, 2024.

Jitan Ram Manjhi with paty leader Santosh Manjhi on March 5, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

Former Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi hails from the Musahar caste, which is among the Mahadalit communities in Bihar. A seven-time MLA, he held the CM’s office for nine months from May 2014, propped up by Nitish Kumar following the JD(U)‘s poor performance in the Lok Sabha election. Despite asserting his independence as CM, Manjhi resigned in February 2015, yielding to Nitish Kumar’s desire to resume control.

During his political career, Manjhi has joined hands with various parties, including the Congress, JD(U), and RJD. He has been part of both RJD and BJP-led alliances. Despite consistent victories in Assembly elections, a Lok Sabha win has eluded him. His previous attempts in 2014 and 2019 under different party banners resulted in losses, leaving his fate uncertain in the upcoming election. The Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) leader contests under the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) from Gaya, which is part of Bihar’s crucial Magadh region. Manjhi spoke exclusively to Frontline in Belaganj after addressing an election rally on April 12. Excerpts:

The former CM of Bihar, Jitan Ram Manjhi speaks to Frontline about caste alliances for the election, Chirag Paswan, dalit politics, the NDA in Bihar, and so on | Video Credit: Interview by Anand Mishra; camera by Ranjan Rahi; edited by Karthik Chandrasekar

What are the key issues in the Magadh region as you campaign?

Drinking water is a serious issue. Even forest animals are straying into human habitats in search of water. The paddy and wheat crops are also getting affected. When I visited the city of Kal Bhairav, I saw water being brought from 85 km away from the Shipra river. The Sone river is just 25-30 km away from Gaya. The water level is going down, and if we can bring water from the Sone, store it in dams, it will benefit 7-8 districts. 

Elections in Bihar hinge on caste alliances. Your rival RJD-led alliance has a strong MY (Muslim-Yadav) vote base. How do you plan to win?

None of the traditional caste-based alliances are working anymore. Ask people in villages. It is not about caste combinations, but about people’s expectations. The Yadavs and Muslims are also voting for me because they believe that with a leader of my stature representing Gaya in Parliament, Gaya and South Bihar will see development. Even Chirag Paswan, in his speeches, has acknowledged this. 

We heard slogans about Chirag Paswan being the next Chief Minister. Are the SC communities now seeking a Dalit Chief Minister?

This sentiment has been there for a long time. People have felt that the State has seen CMs from the forward castes and backward castes, so why not a CM from the Dalit community? There have been three Dalit CMs before (Bhola Paswan Shastri, Ram Swaroop Das, and Jitan Ram Manjhi) but all fill-in-the-blank CMs (temporary/for a short time). SCs do not want a fill in the blank CM. The Scheduled Caste now wants such a face from the community as CM, which can resolve the long-pending problems of the community.

But Dalit politics in Bihar is not as politically productive as it is in Uttar Pradesh.

The SC community in Bihar is divided into multiple castes. Three castes—Bhuiyan Musahar, Ravidas, and Dusadh (Paswan)—have similar people. But there is no common understanding or unity between them. If these three castes were to join hands, they could easily propel a Dalit leader to power. But somehow, this harmony is lacking. In UP, the Jatav community forms around 85 per cent of the Dalit population, and Mayawati emerged as their undisputed leader. But in Bihar, the Dalit population is split between three major castes, each around 30-35 per cent of the total. If any one of these castes had a 50 per cent population, a similar political consolidation could have happened here as well. We do try to bring them together and unify the Dalit force, but it hasn’t materialised so far.

Also Read | ‘NDA is stronger in Bihar now’: Chirag Paswan

The NDA in Bihar has five big parties that have fought against each other in the past. Has true harmony been restored among all of you, or is it just a pragmatic coming together?

Let bygones be bygones. There’s no point in dwelling on old conflicts. We have all come together for the betterment of Bihar, under the leadership of Narendra Modi. All the NDA allies in Bihar are powerful parties, and we are united in our objective of seeing Modi as the Prime Minister for the third time. With an NDA government both at the Center and in Bihar, the State’s development will be accelerated further. There is no confusion like the INDIA bloc on who will be the PM candidate. 

Rahul Gandhi is talking a lot about conducting a caste census. How much impact will it have, and can the Congress benefit from it?

The caste survey was carried out in our State by Nitish Kumar, and I admit that there were some discrepancies in it. However, the caste-wise population data has still come out. We also want the central government to conduct a caste census. But the central government seems to have some reservations about doing it. Now, what will Rahul Gandhi do about a caste census? How will he get it done, if he is not in power? If it has to be done, it will be done by Narendra Modi alone.

The issue of “jungle raj,” was raised in the 2005 Assembly election and subsequent elections. Even 20 years later, when PM Modi comes here, he raises the same issue. Don’t you think the election issues should change now, and problems like unemployment, lack of education, and civic facilities should be raised instead?

I agree with you. The issue of unemployment is certainly there. But you must note that most of the factories in Bihar, such as the Gaya Cotton Mill and the sugar mills of Guraru and Warisaliganj, were closed down during the 15-year rule of those who talk of social justice and the welfare of the poor. People are migrating to other States for their livelihoods. The irrigation scenario is also in bad shape. These are the issues that need to be addressed. The issue of jobs is getting a lot of traction in the election campaign here. Both Bihar CM Nitish Kumar and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav are competing to claim credit for the recent teachers’ recruitment.

I pity the intelligence and the constitutional knowledge of the minister (RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav) who says he gave away these jobs. What can a minister do if the CM does not want it? The minister can only make a proposal, but if the Chief Minister does not pass a decision in the Cabinet, what can the minister do? Everything was decided at the level of the Chief Minister a year ago [when Nitish Kumar held the office]. If he [Tejashwi] wanted to do something, he could have carried out land reforms and distributed land among the landless. As the minister for rural development, he could have done something about that as well.

Also Read | ‘There is a groundswell of support for the RJD’: Tejashwi Yadav

“Ambedkar has said that politics is the key, and development is the lock. Today, we have reserved constituencies in name, but we fail to work for our communities. ”

The Ram temple issue has been raised in this election in Bihar as well. You have landed in a controversy over your comments on Ram, and then you went to Ayodhya. 

I’m scared to talk about this. You [media] will only run negative stories, not the truth. Do you consider yourself a Ram bhakt more than me? My name is Jitan Ram Manjhi, and my father’s name was Ramjit Ram. I had recently visited Ayodhya. While I accept Ram with my heart, you only engage in showmanship. Ram had gone to our ancestral mother Shabari and eaten the palm fruits already tasted by her. But you do not eat food touched by us and practice discrimination. When I went to a temple as the former Chief Minister, it was cleaned up. When Deputy PM Jagjivan Ram visited the Vishwanath temple, it was washed. When President Ram Nath Kovind’s wife went to the Jagannath temple, she faced problems. Tell me, is this not true? Why this discrimination?

Since you have talked about caste, let me ask about the Musahar community you belong to, which is called “mouse eaters”. Is there truth to it?

It is 100 per cent true. Even I am a mouse eater. The primary occupation of our Musahar caste is as land tillers. There is a gap between the production of wheat and rice crops. Mice take shelter in the paddy crop. When the crop is harvested, we catch those mice, fry them, and eat them. We do not eat vegetables for one or two months during the production of paddy and wheat - we eat mice. This is our occupation.

Has the community prospered now?

No, the Musahar community has not seen prosperity. In the SC-reserved seats, the population of other communities is less, but they matter more. They project that it is their votes that ensure victory, and candidates also accept and listen to them more, neglecting the Dalits. Like in MLC elections, where only graduates can vote in the “graduate constituencies” and only teachers can vote in the “teachers’ constituencies”, there was a plan for separate voting for SCs in SC-reserved constituencies. Here, I remember Ambedkar. The community is also responsible to some extent, but the government is primarily responsible.

I remember the Poona Pact of 1932, which came after the British, through the Communal Award, suggested earmarking separate constituencies for the Scheduled Castes and also giving them double voting rights to elect their own representatives and to vote in the general constituencies as well. While Ambedkar strongly backed it, Mahatma Gandhi did not allow this to happen, as he felt it would divide the society. Ambedkar withdrew after massive persuasion by many leaders as Gandhiji went on a fast, opposing it. The two agreed on the Poona Pact, under which the number of separate constituencies for the SCs was increased, but the double voting was done away with. Unless this happens, our community’s development will not happen. Ambedkar has said that politics is the key, and development is the lock. Today, we have reserved constituencies in name, but we fail to work for our communities. We fear the backlash from other communities. Our community lacks confidence, while the number of people from other communities is less, but they are more assertive and visible in the media.

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