The special category status given to political prisoners of Ireland was under tight scrutiny, all set to be completely abolished. In the 1970s inside the cells of Her Majesty's Prison Maze, also known as the Long Kesh, a strict regime of silence was imposed on the prisoners. This was the fallout of the Blanket protests initiated by Kieran Nugent, a new entry to the prison, on September 14th 1976 when he refused to wear the prison uniform which was meant for ordinary prisoners.
The new batch of political prisoners were segregated from the ordinary prisoners and more importantly from other political prisoners. In the days following the crackdown on mere conversation, a Catholic priest walks into the prison. The inmates begin to use him for the exchange of scéal, literal meaning - story. The exchange of Irish literature among the three batches of prisoners had converged the thoughts of all the three types of inmates towards a common enemy. Their weapon was one – words. Such was the problems posed by these words that the Irish accent was seen as a threat.
Two years prior to the linguistic movement in Northern Ireland's prison, Vibhuti Chauhan who was working with the Musahar community started a movement of his own. The Musahar communities of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh replaced Namaste -the much revered symbol of 'Indianness' and hospitality, with 'Namaskar Bhaijee'. The propagation of this idea, like the Irish struggle for words, was done in hushed voices, a covert mechanism until it blew into a full-blown movement.
It is strange how two words which are spelled similarly can mean things which are at two extreme ends of the vocabulary domain. Bow, for instance, can mean to show respect. It can also mean a weapon used to wound or kill. This lexical change sometimes shows the banality of the language we use, but sometimes the communicative conflicts of words are pure symbolism. The history of Namaskar Bhaijee and Chauhan go back in to the 70s when he put forth the concept of abstaining from the using of words like Salam Sahib, Malik and so on. Chauhan, a college president in his student days, is a social activist who has been organizing for the Musahar movement. In a struggle spanning for over 40 years, he has closely worked with the Musahars for their upliftment. "It was not only the Namaskar movement alone, we made people aware of the importance of sitting on a charpoy". Chahuan, on 13th July 1980 was shot when a physical confrontation broke out between the state police and Musahar villages.
The word 'Musahar' literally means one who seeks the flesh while some say it means 'rat eaters'. The later version of the meaning is more appropriate as the word 'Mus' originated from ' Moos' which in Bhojpuri means rats. According to the 2011 census, Dalits comprise 15% of the total population of Bihar. With a population of over 10.4 million, 21 of these Dalit communities make up for the MahaDalits, Musahar being one of them.
Other names for the community which belong to the Hindu Scheduled caste category include Banbasi and Arya. However, the Musahars of Bihar recognize themselves as Rajvanshi Kshatriya. Kshtariya or not, Mushars have been at the receiving end of the stringent caste system that prevails in India 65 years after its independence from the British rule. The rat eating habits of the Musahar community is justified on the basis of mythologies and religion. Parmeshwar, the god of creation, is said to have given a horse to every member of different communities. The 'first Musahar' is said to have tried to dig holes in the belly of the horse in order to ride it. This agitated the god of creation as a result of which the Musahars were given the punishment of catching rats. Another theory is how a Musahar licked the plate from which god had eaten, which prompted god to say that from now on the Musahars will always lick plates.
While Mushars might not have been licking used plates in practicality, their conditions have been pretty close literally. After the government allotted pattas (Pieces of land) to every Musahar family, a majority portion of the lands has been occupied by high caste villagers. This is at the behest of political hooliganism which prevails in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Vibhuti Chauhan, like he has been doing in the past four decades, will be fighting for the rights of a people who have none. But how many would care about these radically dehumanized sections of the Indian society. The story of this community was brilliantly summed up by Chauhan when he said "We are talking about a people who considered sitting on a charpoy a sin, you can never imagine how it makes the Musahar feel when they greet their so called superiors in a way which defines their own identity". He adds "It might be a small thing, but it is a huge gesture for us".
Azaan Javaid is a Kashmiri journalist based in New Delhi. He is the author of 'Social media in Kashmir' (2012).
Picture of Vibhuti Chauhan courtesy: this YouTube video.