Of Magadh, Manjhi, and Musahars

Published : Apr 18, 2024 18:31 IST - 6 MINS READ

Jitan Ram Manjhi tries his hands on a drum after filing his nomination papers for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in Gaya

Jitan Ram Manjhi tries his hands on a drum after filing his nomination papers for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in Gaya | Photo Credit: ANI

Roti is far more powerful than a commitment to vote for the Mahadalit caste of Musahar (mouse eaters) in Gaya.

The scorching sun brings no succour to “Manjhis” in Gehlore, Magadh, Bihar. Here is where sun-worship, in the form of Chhath, is popular, and the Sun temple of Deo is located. Women struggle for a bucketful of water as hand pumps go dry here, but the youth have to choose between the vote and bread: nearly two-thirds of them are in far-off towns earning a meagre living as the region goes to polls.

Clearly, roti is far more powerful than a commitment to vote for the Mahadalit caste of Musahar (mouse eaters) in Gaya, who otherwise swear loyalty to NDA’s Jitan Ram Manjhi, the State’s first Chief Minister from the community.

Musahars unimpressed

After BJP objected to Manjhi’s comments on the existence of Ram, the NDA candidate visited Ayodhya and is not tired of highlighting how Ram is his middle name. After his comments on Brahmins evoked protest, Manjhi recognised the electoral damage it could do in the pilgrim town of Gaya where Hindus from across the world come to offer pinda daan to their forefathers.

While a tense electoral battle between Manjhi and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) candidate Sarvjeet Paswan is on the cards in the reserved (Scheduled Caste) parliamentary seat of Gaya, with a campaign blitzkrieg by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, the Musahars of Magadh are unimpressed.

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

While Bhola Manjhi, a class IX pass, says he is tilling the land of upper caste land owners, Vikas Kumar, a 27-year-old BSc graduate, says there are no jobs. They both fetch water from the pump machine of a dominant caste Rajput. “There were handpumps but they go dry in summer as the water table goes down. Drinking water is a serious problem,” says Kumar.

A resident of Manjhauli, Shakuntala Devi says most youth have migrated to cities such as Delhi and Mumbai to eke out a livelihood. “Those who remain here are labourers. Problems are galore. If you fall sick, you need to travel to Gaya, 30 km away, as the local hospital is not good.”

The man who broke a hill

In Sakardas Nawada village, Vinay Kumar Veenu, from a land-owning Rajput caste, also says that the Musahars here either work in brick kilns in other States or till the land as labourers on batai (crop share division).

Just 2 km away is Gehlaur valley, which had shot to fame after a local Musahar, Dashrath Manjhi, brought down the distance between two Naxal-hit blocks of Gaya district by almost 70 km by breaking a hillock. He did this after his pregnant wife Falguni Devi died while bringing him lunch crossing a rocky terrain.

Manjhi shot to fame after he walked to New Delhi, along railway tracks, to meet Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. In 2006, the then Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, had famously made Dashrath Manjhi sit on his ministerial chair for an hour. In 2015, director Ketan Mehta made ManjhiThe Mountain Man featuring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who portrayed Dashrath Manjhi.

Manjhi, who is now called Dashrath Baba, died in 2007. Outside his house, there are two statues—one of Manjhi and another of Buddha. At the entrance of Gehlaur hill, there is a temple where Kabirpanthis hold events in his memory. “Our area got fame in the country and the world due to Dashrath Manjhi,” acknowledges Veenu.

But that has hardly changed the life of an average Musahar. The older generation of the community ate mice during the crop season due to acute poverty. Photographs of Musahar children with distended bellies mark signs of malnutrition. When Frontline spoke to former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, he said he used to eat mice too.

The new generation is, however, unwilling to talk about it. “Wo pahle ka baat thaa. Hum log chuha nahin khaate hain (That was an old thing. We do not eat mice), says Vikas in Gehlaur.

The Musahar community is the most populous among the more than 30 per cent Dalit electorate among 17 lakh voters in Gaya. There are 23 sub-castes in the Scheduled Castes category in Bihar with three dominant sub-castes being Bhuiyan Musahar, Dusadh Paswan, and Ravidas or Jatav. While Jitan Ram Manjhi failed to win the seat thrice in 1991, 2014, and 2019, the Gaya parliamentary seat has been represented by a Manjhi for the past 25 years.

A stone-crusher MP

In 2019, Janata Dal (United)’s Vijay Manjhi defeated Jitan Ram Manjhi (then RJD alliance candidate) as Nitish Kumar had made it a prestige issue after Jitan Ram Manjhi rebelled against him when he was forced to step down as Chief Minister after just nine months.

Vijay Manjhi is the son of the legendary Bhagwatia Devi, a stone crusher and the first Musahar woman who became MP from the RJD in 1996. Her election was reported by national and international media.

Gaya has been a stronghold of the BJP for nearly three decades; but for the last two terms, the seat has gone to an ally, a fact resented by many. The BJP’s Hari Manjhi had represented the seat twice in 2009 and 2014. In 2004, the RJD’s Musahar candidate Rajesh Kumar Manjhi won the seat, wresting it from the BJP’s Ramji Manjhi. Before Bhagwatia Devi won the seat, it was held by Janata Dal’s Rajesh Kumar (Paswan), who had then defeated Jitan Ram Manjhi in 1991. In 2024, Rajesh Kumar’s son Sarvajeet Kumar is challenging the NDA candidate.

Also Read | In Bihar, parivarvaad back in focus as RJD, NDA field kin of politicians

But if you talk to local residents, Ishwar Chaudhary, who had won the seat in 1989, was the most popular MP that Gaya has seen. Chaudhary’s murder hogged headlines in the ‘90s. Now there is a railway station in the name of Chaudhary.

Shantu Lal from Pachhatti in Bodh Gaya, whose family has been associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for generations, says: “Ishwar Chaudhary was a different man. Everybody could talk to him. He was a gentle soul. Jitan Ram Manjhi could be in a tight spot this time.” BJP workers are not very enthused to campaign for Manjhi as they are unhappy about the seat being taken away from them repeatedly. But a campaign by Modi can work in his favour. Sarvjeet has the local advantage and he is considered accessible.

Manjhi rose from the position of a clerk to the Chief Minister. Winning the Lok Sabha election might get him a place in the Centre’s politics. This is what he has been trying to hard-sell to voters, citing his closeness to the Prime Minister.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment