Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi has been caught in the eye of a storm, primarily because of his speeches. The Bihar dailies, the social character of which is well-known, are ridiculing the chief minister. They say that the chief minister was prone to putting his foot in his mouth. They neither want to apprise themselves of the background of the chief minister nor of the context and circumstances in which he said the things he said. I believe that the people’s tendency to stick to their traditional beliefs and of disregarding exceptional circumstances is at the root of this controversy.
Manjhi had to take over as chief minister in exceptional circumstances. After the crushing defeat of his party in the Lok Sabha elections, Nitish Kumar suddenly quit the chief minister’s post. He wanted to overcome his embarrassment. Narendra Modi’s resounding success had shaken him. After his resignation, the party authorized him to nominate his successor. Savarnas had not voted for his party in the LS polls and the OBCs-EBCs had disappointed him. Of the 15 per cent of the votes he had got, probably more than half came from the Dalits. That is why, Nitish Kumar chose Jitan Ram Manjhi, born into a Mahadalit Mushar family, as his successor. The decision surprised almost everyone. This was Nitish’s political astuteness, and he was extremely pleased with himself.
Manjhi is an educated person. He has served in the central government for 10-12 years. He has been an MLA and a minister for many years. However, unlike other Dalit leaders, he does not hide his poverty, helplessness and the bitter experiences he went through. Just as Narendra Modi and Laloo Prasad Yadav describe themselves as sons of tea and curd sellers, similarly Manjhi proudly proclaims that he is the son of rat-catchers. His father was a ‘natua’. Natuas are men who dance wearing saris. Manjhi has no hesitation in accepting this. In his public meetings, he talks of how he ate rats and how he was humiliated at every step in his life. Obviously, he must be enjoying describing all this. It seems he was gradually succeeding in building a rapport with the poor. He told his audience in public meetings that he was forced to bribe officials of the power department. He also said that consuming a small amount of liquor ‘as a medicine’ was not bad. This comment fetched him newspaper headlines.
But his recent comments have created quite a stir in political circles. Addressing a public meeting of Dalits-Tribals, he said that only they are the original inhabitants of India. Those who call themselves Savarnas are descendants of the Aryans from abroad. The next day, when this news was splashed in the newspapers, the Savarna politicians of Bihar launched a bitter attack on him. He was described as a fool, a madcap, an illiterate person, and other choice epithets were hurled at him. His party president Sharad Yadav also criticized him. However, Laloo and Nitish preferred to keep mum. The newspapers also published the statement of a muscleman of the JDU who did not take oath as an MLA for more than a month because he was unlettered. Then, somehow, he learnt how to write his name and officially became an MLA. The statement of this ‘scholar’ MLA was published by the newspapers as if they were words of wisdom from a great historian.
The intelligentsia of Patna and the country believes in maintaining a stoic silence on such occasions. The fact is that Manjhi had said exactly what historians such as Jawaharlal Nehru, D.D. Koshambi, Ramsharan Sharma, D.N. Jha and Bhagwat Sharan Upadhyaya had said. But can Manjhi say such things? He should be shown his place! How does it matter if he is the chief minister? I can only pity Sharad Yadav, whom I considered better educated. He has warned Manjhi not to repeat such things in the future. Mind you: ‘warned’. Could he have issued such a warning to Nitish Kumar? What was he doing when Nitish had constituted the Savarana Commission?
Manjhi is a Dalit. Anyone can say anything to him. There is a Bhojpuri saying that anyone can flirt with the wife of a poor man. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is issuing warnings to Manjhi. But Manjhi is a brave man. He says that he knows why these people are saying such things. Like Kabir he wants to say, “Pande, Boojh na mor gyana.” (“O’ Savarnas, you can’t comprehend my wisdom.”
Jitan Ram Manjhi is the third Dalit chief minister of Bihar. Prior to him, Bhola Paswan Shastri and Ramsundar Das – both Dalits – had served as chief ministers. They were made chief ministers by the people of the upper castes to serve their vested political interests. Both were puppets in the hands of their mentors. Nitish wanted to make a puppet of Manjhi too. But the puppet has started speaking. And astonishingly, the puppet is not mimicking its owner. It is speaking of its own accord. This is the reason for the furore.
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