Friday, February 15, 2008

Starving ‘Gangsters’

In a state administered by a Dalit, the most oppressed of the Dalits have been arrested under the Gangsters Act, says VB RAWAT

THE UTTAR PRADESH Gangsters and Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act is one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of the state police. Strangely, three Dalit activists of the Musahar community — Ram Chander, Prasad and Kailash — were arrested under this Act on January 27, 2008. They were members of the Social Development Foundation. The charge was that they were caught “redhanded” brewing illicit liquor. The police claimed to have recovered three drums of illicit liquor from the Malwabar Musahar colony in Baghauchghat village, Deoria district.
Extreme impoverishment forces the Musahars — a community that has unfortunately come to be known as the “rat-eaters” — to resort to become labourers in this trade. However, the illicit liquor trade is not managed by the poor Dalit labourers but by the influential brick-kiln owners who wield political clout. Many Musahar families are bonded labourers at brick kilns and are forced into brewing liquor by their masters. The traditional occupation of the Musahars was hunting out rats from burrows in the fields. In return, they were allowed to keep the grain and chaff recovered from the holes. In times of scarcity, the Musahars would resort to eating rats. Why is the Gangsters Act being invoked against the most discriminated among the discriminated? That it happens in a state governed by BSP leader and Dalit icon Mayawati makes a mockery of democracy.
In June 2007, passing through this Musahar basti, I found that more than 200 children in the village had no access to either formal or informal education. Electricity poles had been erected here more than 10 years ago, but the village remains in the dark. The community owned no land. During the colonial period, the police would arrest them for petty thefts and they were listed as a Criminal Tribe. Despite denotification, the police mindset has not changed and they treat Musahars as criminals. Even the administration continues to use Musahars for unpaid work.
With no job opportunities, Musahars do not have the numbers to influence the political climate of their village, leave alone the state. Their “votes” have rarely mattered. Members of the community have also not been receiving any benefit from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS).
The Social Development Foundation started an informal school in the area last year. More than 225 children attend the school, including some older girls who have been abandoned by their husbands. During summers, one could see even children of the community asking for toddy. Seeing their enthusiasm for education and their subhuman conditions, an NGO, MCKS Food for the Hungry Foundation, decided to provide a mid-day meal to the children in SDF’s informal school. This scheme is being run by the elders in the Musahar community and women help in the cooking and feeding. The Musahar children remain hungry in spite of the world’s largest feeding programme for schoolchildren. Often the mid-day meal offered in the school is the only meal that the Musahar children get to eat all day.
It was at this juncture — when the SDF began changing the situation with the active participation of village elders — that news of the arrest came in. Ramrati, an elderly widow, had been mobilising the community to give up making illicit liquor. Participating in many SDF programmes, Ramrati was keen to ensure the children studied and moved ahead.
HER HAPPINESS was short-lived, since the police arrested her only son Ram Chander, aged 45. Ram Chander has four children aged eight, five, three and two. He was a day labourer and his family was dependent on him. The other person arrested was Prasad, aged 20, also the sole breadwinner of his family of a mother, two children and a wife. The third arrested, Kailash, 28, is similarly placed. The fact that Musahar children were seeking to move out of traditional occupations forced upon them was not acceptable to the local administration. The men of the community are constantly lured back to brew illicit liquor.
It is obvious that the Musahars do not have the resources to brew illicit liquor for sale. Most Musahars do not even have a small hut to live in. While governments across the country are inviting liquor companies to invest in their states, the Musahars have been branded gangsters for no fault of theirs.

Source: The Tehelka

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