Musahar or Mushahar are a tribal-turned-Dalit community found in the eastern Gangetic plain and the Terai. They are also known as Banbasi, and on the plateau as pasi. Their name literally means 'rat-eater' due to their main former occupation of catching rats, and there are many who are still forced to do this work due to destitution and poverty.
|Languages||Bhojpuri, Magahi, Maithili|
|Country||India, Nepal, Bangladesh|
|Original state||Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand|
|Region||Eastern Gangetic Plain and the Terai|
|Notable members||Dashrath Manjhi, Jitan Ram Manjhi, Bhagwati Devi|
Origins and historyEdit
In Bihar, the word Musahar is said to be derived from the Bhojpuri mūs+ahar (literally rat eater), on account of their traditional occupation as rat catchers. According to a local legend, Lord Brahma created man and gave him the horse to ride. The first Musahar decided to dig holes in the belly of the horse to fix his feet as he rode. This offended Lord Brahma, who cursed him and his descendants to be rat-catchers. Herbert Hope Risley, in his 1881 survey of castes and tribes of Bengal, speculated that the Musahars were an offshoot of the hunter-gatherer Bhuiya tribe from the Chota Nagpur Plateau who migrated to the Gangetic plains approximately 6-7 generations prior to his survey, around 300-350 years before present.
Over the years this theory that the Musahars were originally tribals has become the prevailing theory for their origins. Modern genetic studies have found Musahars cluster very closely with Munda peoples like the Santhals and the Hos, and demonstrate similar haplogroup frequencies for both maternal and paternal lineages.
The theory goes that the Musahars were originally a Munda-speaking hunter-gatherer group living on the Chota Nagpur Plateau. Around 1650-1700, they migrated off the plateau to the eastern Gangetic Plain. They became agricultural labourers to landlords who spoke Indo-Aryan languages, and in order to communicate with them and gain social status, they learnt their landlords' languages. The stigma of their tribal roots resulted in their placement at the lowest end of the caste hierarchy. Some Musahars have claimed that they once had their own language but it was lost when they migrated. This process has been observed in another tribal population, the Baiga, who also once spoke a Munda language but shifted to an Indo-European language in the past. However, unlike the Musahar, the Baiga remained isolated from Brahminical society at large and so were seen as a tribe rather than a caste.
The Musahar consists of three endogamous clans: Bhagat, Sakatiya and Turkahia. Although they are now mostly landless agriculture labourers, they sometimes have to resort to rat catching to survive during lean times. They are one of the most marginalised castes in India, even among Dalits. Although the Musahar are Hindu, and celebrate most local Hindu festivals like Holi and Diwali, they believe in a number of tribal deities, including Dinabhadri and Buniya Baba. Musahars also have their own rituals like the kul pooja, in which participants bathe in boiling milk to worship ancestors. They also offer liquor during poojas and weddings.
The Musahar are found throughout eastern Uttar Pradesh, southern Nepal and Bihar, and are employed in Bihar's stone quarries. Many have also emigrated to the states of Punjab and Haryana as agricultural labourers, with many Nepali Musahars working as migrant labourers for 6 months at a time. They speak Bhojpuri, Magahi and Maithili but many now have working knowledge of Hindi.
Almost all Musahars live in rural areas, with a mere 3% living in the city. In the rural areas, Musahar are primarily bonded agricultural labourers, but often go without work for as much as eight months in a year. Children work alongside their parents in the fields or as rag-pickers, earning as little as ₹25-30 ($0.35-0.4) a day. The Musahar literacy rate is 3% overall, and falls to an abysmal 1% among women. By some estimates, as many as 85 % of some villages of Musahars suffer from malnutrition and with access to health centres scant, diseases such as malaria and kala-azar are prevalent.
The Government of Bihar operates the Mahadalit Mission, which partially funds some programs to expand education and other social welfare programs for the Musahar. An example is the Prerna schools operated by Sudha Varghese, residential schools for Musahar girls that include vocational training in the curriculum. Varghese also operates Nari Gunjan, which has 50 centres teaching 1500 Musahar girls throughout Bihar.
The 2011 Census of India for Uttar Pradesh showed the Musahar population as around 2.5 lakh. The same census also showed around 25 lakh Mushahars in Bihar. However, Musahar activists have disputed this figure, claiming the Mushahar population in Bihar is over 40 lakh. Over 2.3 Lakh Musahars live in Nepal, most in conditions similar to their counterparts in India.
Some Musahars in Uttar Pradesh wish to be listed as a Scheduled Tribe, citing their claimed tribal roots that they saw in tribals from other areas of the country as well as the perception that richer Dalit castes like Jatavs were the only ones with access to reservation benefits.
Mushahars from the Chota Nagpur Plateau were transported by the British to the Sylhet region where they were made to work in tea plantations. They can still be found in areas in Habiganj such as Teliapara and Rema where they continue the same livelihood. They are an ethnic minority with a mere population of 3000. They are divided into 6 clans; Trihutia, Maghaiya, Ghatwar, Darwar, Khairawar and Rikhian.
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