December 7, 2023

Bihar: Battered by bias and years of apathy, Doms seek change

The Dom community is one of the 22 sub-castes among Dalits in Bihar, categorised as Mahadalits.

There is a pool of water behind their ramshackle homes on uneasy stilts in Khagaria’s Aguani. That is where the solitary hand pump for the community of 200 stands. The water has turned a poisonous green, with garbage collected over the years and a sheet of mosquitoes over its surface. For years, all that the Doms here have asked from their politicians is to at least remove the water and level the land, especially after a five-year-old fell and drowned here 10 years ago.

“Once, they came and threw some earth on the road outside. We thought it would finally get done. But they never came inside the village. They think we are untouchable. They don’t want to come near us,” says Vipin Mallick, a local resident.

The Dom community is one of the 22 sub-castes among Dalits in Bihar, categorised as Mahadalits. But even among the Mahadalits, the Doms are treated as the lowest rung — at Aguani village in Parbatta constituency, for instance. Parbatta is one of 94 seats that goes to polls in Bihar in the second phase Tuesday, with the RJD contesting in 56 seats, the BJP in 46 and the JD(U) in 43.

In the village, there is a narrow lane that leads to the shaded chaupal, with a high wall on both sides. “The land is owned by an upper caste family. They don’t like seeing us,” Mallick says.

Yet, it is not as if the community has not made strides it is proud of. Mallick points to eight young men standing behind him. “We fought to put them through school. They are all educated and have either passed class 10 or 12. They are the first from our community in Aguani to study. Even a decade ago, we used to collect wasted food from marriages. Without any food, sometimes even roadkill. But then, we became aware, and stopped,” he says.

This “awareness” did not come from government intervention, but from the work of Bahishkrit Hitkari Sangathan, an organisation led by Sanjeev Kumar, an MBA graduate who returned from Delhi in 2005 to Khagaria. Kumar is fighting elections for the first time from the neighbouring Khagaria seat for the Plurals Party.

The Plurals Party is headed by LSE graduate Pushpam Priya Choudhary, who is the daughter of JD(U) leader Vinod Choudhary and is contesting from Bankipur in Patna. Launched in March, the party’s website says it is crowdfunded and wants to end dirty politics for a “progressive” Bihar.

“Even among the scheduled castes, the situation of the Dom community was the worst. Now, slowly there have been changes. When there is some outward discrimination, they call us and the Sangathan stands with them. We encouraged them to send their children to school, and try new vocations,” says Santosh Kumar Das, a volunteer in the Sangathan.

Except, even the most routine tasks — school admissions, for instance — are still a problem. “What about the rest of the children? They still don’t admit us into government schools. They say we are Doms, and don’t write our name in the register,” says Munni Devi.

At Aguani, they cut locally available bamboo, and make baskets that sell for Rs 20 through the year, and Rs 30 as Chhat Puja approaches. The weaving is intricate and on an average, a family can only make five baskets a day. “Of course, we are also called to do the last rites of those who die, at the river ghats. They call us untouchable but in their most needy moments, they turn to us,” says Chhotu Kumar.

With these limited sources of income, life was hard enough, before the Covid lockdown inflicted more pain. “Every day, we tried to go out of our homes to sell the baskets, but the police beat us. We pleaded with them that our children will die without the money. But they didn’t listen. The only thing we had was the government ration of 5 kg, but even for that officials used to take Rs 50. Nearly all of us have debt from local landlords of up to Rs 20,000. There is no way to repay but what can we do?” says Mallick.

This lack of disposable income has real world ramifications. Rakesh Mallick, 20, is one of the boys the community is proud of, and has passed Class 12. Last year, he had filled the form for the Bihar Police Services. But he never made it to the examination centre. “The centre was far, and the journey would have taken Rs 1,000 to and fro. I couldn’t put that together. All I want is a job,” Kumar says. What does he do now? “Nothing,” he says.

In the last elections, R P Singh of the JD(U) won from Parbatta, the second time he was elected as MLA. The main contenders in this election are Dr Sanjeev Kumar of the JD(U), Digambar Tiwari of the RJD, and Aditya Kumar Shyour from the LJP.

For the last 15 years, the Doms of Aguani say they have been voting for the arrow symbol of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U). But this time, anger over the lockdown, years of apathy, lack of employment, discrimination and broken promises, seem to be key factors.

In 2015, the community had considered switching sides, but stayed on, “to give them one more chance.” “They said they would give the landless 3 decimals of land. We thought if they give that, at least our families can live with some respect. Forget land, they did not even clean the water behind our homes. This time, there needs to be change,” says Mallick.


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