Jitan Ram Manjhi: Breaking barriers

Manjhi, the oldest Minister in the Modi Cabinet and a member of the Mahadalit Musahar community, is aware of the expectations from him.

Published : Jun 25, 2024 14:23 IST - 6 MINS READ

HAM(S) chief Jitan Ram Manjhi speaks during the NDA parliamentary party meeting at Samvidhan Sadan, New Delhi, on June 7.

HAM(S) chief Jitan Ram Manjhi speaks during the NDA parliamentary party meeting at Samvidhan Sadan, New Delhi, on June 7. | Photo Credit: PTI

Indian politics is replete with stories of men and women who have surmounted their socio-economic challenges to occupy seats of power. The narrative of how a tea vendor’s son rose to be Prime Minister or how a Dalit’s daughter became Chief Minister of the most populous State of Uttar Pradesh needs no retelling.

Yet, one story that has escaped public attention is that of a Mahadalit from the Musahar community who is now the Minister for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises in the Narendra Modi Cabinet. His Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) is a constituent of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). From his humble origins in a community that survived by eating rats to overcome food scarcity in the monsoon months, Jitan Ram Manjhi has come a long way.

At 79, Manjhi is the oldest Minister in the Modi Cabinet. A party hopper who has changed alliances at the drop of a hat, Manjhi, ironically, sought to assure Modi of his unflinching support this time, alluding to the mountain man Dashrath Manjhi, who cut through a mountain after chipping at it for 24 and a half years. Addressing the NDA Parliamentary Party meeting on June 7, Manjhi said he belonged to the same community as Dashrath and that, like him, he would shine the light of development on areas where it had not reached.

Also Read | The changing face of Dalit politics

The Musahar community is part of the Mahadalits, who make up around 10 per cent of Bihar’s population. They do not own land and work as sharecroppers. Manjhi has no qualms in admitting that he belongs to a community that has survived on eating rats. “Even I am a rat-eater,” he once told Frontline in an interview. “The primary occupation of our Musahar caste is tilling land. The production of wheat and rice crops happen at different intervals. Rats take shelter in the paddy crop. When the crop is harvested, we catch them and eat them.”

Political career

The early adversities in life strengthened Manjhi, whose political career began with the Congress in 1980. He changed parties several times, joining the Janata Dal (1990-96), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) (1996-2005), and the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), in 2005 before founding the HAM (Secular) in 2015.

Manjhi first became an MLA in 1980, from the Naxal-affected Fatehpur Assembly segment of Gaya. This is Manjhi’s first Lok Sabha victory. He lost the Gaya Lok Sabha seat in 1991, 2014, and 2019.

WATCH:
From his humble origins in a community that survived by eating rats to overcome food scarcity in the monsoon months, Jitan Ram Manjhi has come a long way. | Video Credit: Interview by Anand Mishra; Camera by Ranjan Rahi; Edited by Karthik Chandrasekar

Manjhi has served as a Minister under several Chief Ministers in Bihar since 1983, including Chandrashekhar Singh, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, Jagannath Mishra, Lalu Prasad, Rabri Devi, and Nitish Kumar. In Nitish Kumar’s Cabinet, he was SC/ST Welfare Minister before Kumar named him Chief Minister.

He was the “accidental” Chief Minister after Nitish Kumar, hurt by the decimation of his party at the hands of the Narendra Modi-led BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election (when the JD(U) won just two seats), decided to hand over the mantle to Manjhi. He served as the 23rd Chief Minister for nine months from May 20, 2014, to February 20, 2015.

Later, he formed the HAM (Secular), but his party won just one seat in the 2015 Assembly election, which he fought in alliance with the BJP and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party. He then joined the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan but failed to make an impact in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. He returned to the NDA last year.

As Central Minister, Manjhi is aware of the expectations people have of him. “They believe that since Manjhi did a lot of development work in the State and Magadh [region] as Chief Minister for nine months, he can develop the region in future as well. People believe that since Manjhi has a good rapport with Narendra Modi, if he becomes MP, he can do great work for the region,” he had told Frontline in an interview during the election campaign.

Highlights
  • Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit from the Musahar community, is the Minister for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises in the Narendra Modi Cabinet.
  • He has served as a Minister under several Chief Ministers in Bihar since 1983, including Chandrashekhar Singh, S.N. Sinha, Jagannath Mishra, Lalu Prasad, Rabri Devi, and Nitish Kumar.
  • He served as the 23rd Chief Minister for nine months from May 20, 2014, to February 20, 2015. He formed the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) in 2015, but his party won just one seat in the 2015 Assembly election.

Controversial remarks

Soon after he was sworn in as Minister on June 10, the Aam Aadmi Party held a press conference in New Delhi, denouncing the appointment of one who had said “Ravan” is better than “Ram”. They were alluding to Manjhi’s statement in March last year when he reportedly said that Ram is not a “historical” figure and that Ravan was far more well-versed in karma kanda (rituals) than Ram. He had also said that he considers the Ramayana to be a work of fiction. Manjhi was then part of the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan in Bihar.

When the opposition used his remarks against him in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, he apologised and hurriedly made a visit to Ayodhya.

Manjhi is no stranger to controversy. In 2021, he raised questions over the Hindu religion and the Satyanarayan Puja, a ritualistic worship popular in the Hindi belt. Addressing a meeting of the Musahar Sabha in Patna, Manjhi had said: “Satyanarayan Puja is held even in our tolas now. Brahmins perform the rituals but do not eat at our homes and demand cash in place of food.”

Manjhi has never shied away from saying that he does not believe in puja path (rituals). He has said in interviews that he was once forced out of a temple during a puja when he was in class VII and became convinced that the gods belonged only to the dominant castes.

After the 2022 Assembly election, Manjhi had said: “I keep telling Dalits that you think yourselves as Hindus, but you have been treated as slaves for the past 75 years. Priests are reluctant to perform ceremonies at your place, and even when they do, they do not agree to accept food offered by you.” He also called those who identified themselves as “upper caste” as outsiders and not natives.

The BJP had then hit back asking Manjhi to come clean about his religious identity if he did not consider himself a Hindu: “If sporting a tilak causes him discomfort, does he want to wear the skull-cap?”

Also Read | Caste returns to centre stage in the 2024 Lok Sabha election

In November 2023, when Manjhi questioned the veracity of the Bihar government’s caste survey, Nitish Kumar said: “It was because of my stupidity that he became the Chief Minister. He doesn’t have any sense.”

In 2015, a controversy erupted when cops were deployed to guard the mango and litchi trees at the Chief Minister’s residence in Patna when Manjhi was still occupying the bungalow after his resignation. Manjhi claimed it was proof of Nitish Kumar’s “petty mindset”. Kumar laughed it off by saying he was focussed on the development of Bihar, but if someone’s entire focus was on eating mangoes and litchis, he would have the fruits picked and delivered to him.

While a section of the people considers Manjhi a motormouth, to many others he is an iconoclast who calls a spade a spade. Indeed, it has taken Manjhi more than 45 years to reach where he has now. Now is the time to make good every promise he has made all these years.

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