A spirited crusade by Musahar women for land that is rightfully theirs in Uttar Pradesh’s Kolhua village yields success

Kolhua village, in Kasia block of Uttar Pradesh’s Kushinagar district, falls in a region where Lord Buddha is believed to have delivered his last sermon. Villages here can be mapped by their caste composition. The neighbourhoods of the poorest, who are also the most likely to belong to the lowest castes, are always on the periphery. Kolhua, too, is no exception. The hutments of the Musahar community lie on its very outskirts.

The term ‘Musahars’, or ‘those who feed on rats’, carries within itself the stigma that marks the lives of those who belong to this community. The thatched dwellings they call home are small, dark spaces walled by bamboo and clay. The only facility they have within that enclosed space is a couple of clay chulhas, which emit a pall of smoke that always hangs heavily in the air within and is ingested by every occupant, from newborns to the asthmatic elderly.

But despite the squalid conditions of their lives, this Musahar neighbourhood has achieved something truly special. They have conducted a self-driven struggle for land spearheaded largely by women. The appearance of these women — each with her pallu firmly over her head — belies the fire that burns within them. They have exhibited a fierce determination to access the modicum of government entitlements that exist in their name.

As Musahar women, they have experienced repression and know poverty like the back of their hands. Says Rampatiya Devi, “We live huddled in our small huts with our animals and our children.” As she says this, Rampatiya’s face does not reflect the tensions of her life. There is a certain air of calm determination about her — an attitude that served her well during the unique campaign that she and other Musahar women launched to get 36 decimals of banjar land.

One decimal of land is one-hundredth of an acre; and banjar land is excess land that has remained uncultivated for a continuous period of not less than four years and which the state, usually the gram panchayat, can allocate to marginalised communities.

But how did the Musahars of Kolhua, with their low literacy levels and lack of contacts in high places, get to know that there was such land in their neighbourhood? What is more, how did they figure out that Musahars, as an extremely backward community, were entitled to it? This is where the organisation, Musahar Vikas Pahal (MVP) sangathan, comes into the picture. Set up by ActionAid in 2004, it has been campaigning for Musahar rights in eastern U.P. over the years. Rampatiya Devi explains, “As part of the MVP, we would sit and discuss our rights and ways to empower ourselves. In one of our meetings, we learnt that as a landless community, we also had right to this land. So we decided to do something about it.”

The first move they made was to go to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) and ask him for the land. This was in early 2012. They came back from the meeting elated because he assured them that he would issue an order stating that the excess banjar land should be transferred to the Musahars of Kolhua. He asked them to return in eight days. When they went back to the SDM’s office within the stipulated time, they were told that the particular piece of land they were asking for had been allotted for a school. What he did not tell them was that the local Bhumihars were dead set against the Musahar community being given the land.

Kushi Devi, who was involved in all the action, says, “We already had two schools within a km radius of this village so we told the SDM that we did not want another school.” The women then decided to petition Uttar Pradesh Minister for Home Guards, Brahma Shankar Tripathi, who has a home in Kolhua. His first response when he saw them was of surprise. “He said he didn’t know that there were Musahars in Kolhua,” recalls Chand Bali, adding, “If the minister himself had no knowledge about our existence, you can only imagine how helpless we constantly feel when upper castes target us.”

In fact, even as the Musahar representatives were talking to the minister, members of the upper castes from their village got wind of their demand and also reached the venue. But the Musahars held their ground and argued that this land was theirs by right because they were the most marginalised in the village. The minister finally agreed to explore the possibility of giving them the excess land after earmarking a portion of it for the school.

Days passed and nothing happened. The Musahar women were shunted from office to office. Every time they went, they were told to come back a week later. Each time they visited a government office they had to hire a trolley after shelling out Rs 300, money they could ill afford, besides having to give up on the day’s wages.

But one thing that the Musahar women had managed to convey to the local administration was their absolute fixity of purpose. During the Holi celebrations of 2012, they chose the patch of banjar land they wanted as the spot on which to erect the Holika dahan. Seeing this, the upper castes tried to intimidate the women into removing the structure by sending a lathi-wielding mob. The police also turned up sensing trouble, but the Musahars stood firm and refused to remove the effigy.

When the SDM saw their confidence and realised that they were extremely serious, he said he would sanction a plot for them that adjoined a forest patch, about two km away. Again the women stood firm. They posed a straight question to the administration: why would they give up claims of land in their neighbourhood and go so far away? They were also clear that once they got the land, it would be jointly owned by the men and women of the community.

Finally, the District Magistrate himself intervened and issued the order that 36 decimals of banjar land in the Musahar neighbourhood be transferred to the community. The transfer was instituted not through individual pattas but as a combined holding in the name of the community.

The move led to great rejoicing among the Musahars of Kolhua, and it was the women who celebrated the most. As Rampatiya Devi quietly remarks, “This is our land and we fought for it, all the way from the village to the district level. We have fought for it, even by going hungry. It will be under our safekeeping and we will cultivate it jointly.” Jowar (sorghum), cultivated by the women, has now been harvested from that land.

Says local activist, Vibhuti Chouhan, who helped to mobilise the Musahar women of Kolhua, “I told them my job was to show the way, their job was to walk on the road. Today, the Bhumihars here are livid because the Musahars have dared to ask for land. This is the first example of the community in this region organising themselves for land and getting it. They took all the decisions themselves and it was the women who led the way.”

(Women's Feature Service)