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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Mushahars of Mushahari

Thursday 3 January 2013, by D. Bandyopadhyay


Long ago, in the late sixties of the last century, the Planning Commission of India constituted a Committee on Land Reforms under the chairmanship of Dr Z.A. Ahmed, a redoubtable CPI leader, who among other things distinguished himself as a strident and vociferous peasant leader betraying his own class interest. That way he was quite a “non-Marxist” as he went against the interests of the class to which he belonged. He came from a family of landlords in Uttar Pradesh. Having worked under another formidable Marxist leader, Hare Krishna Konar, who was the Land Revenue Minister in two successive United Front governments in West Bengal, and having been associated with the major administrative programme of vesting of benami lands, I had the privilege of basking under the reflected glory of Hare Krishna Konar. So Dr Ahmed came to know my name. He insisted that though quite junior in service, I should be made a member. Thus I became a member of that, Planning Commission Committee presided over by Dr Ahmed.

With this team I went to Bihar and visited Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga. Muzaffarpur was then hitting the headlines for the “Naxal Movement”. I remember meeting Bhogendra Jha, a veteran CPI leader of Bihar. He told the Committee that it should visit the Mushahari area of Muzaffarpur where Mushahars still lived on field rodents as their staple food. They could not afford “fancy grains” like rice and wheat as they were too poor to buy them and as they were totally landless. After the grains were harvested, rodents fed on fallen grains and that would make them fat. Such well-fed field rats provided “delicious” meat for the Mushahars. They would catch these rats, roast them in open fire and eat them with salt if they could afford. Some Naxal leaders from West Bengal had visited this area and tried to organise a movement for occupation of land and for proper wages as most of the Mushahars worked as agricultural labour.

Dr Ahmed, though deeply moved by the narration by Shri Jha, could not go there as he had some important work in Delhi. He requested me to visit the area, talk to the Mushahars preferably in their huts in the evening when they would come back home from the day’s work, and find out from them all that could be gleaned. I did as I was asked. I spent a whole day in a couple of hamlets where the Mushahars lived and took down extensive notes for preparing the report. Later going back to Calcutta I wrote out a fairly extensive report and sent it to the Land Reforms Division of the Planning Commission to be placed before Dr Ahmed. A couple of weeks later, I received a call from Dr Ahmed who praised me for my comprehensive report and suggested that I should make a shorter version for publication in Mainstream. I had heard about Mainstream but did not go through any of the issues. Having rewritten the report I sent a copy to Dr Ahmed. I thought he would send it to the editor of Mainstream. Instead I received back my essay with a short note that I should personally hand over the matter to Shri Nikhil Chakravartty when I visit Delhi next. He gave his address which, if I remember correctly, was 35 Kaka Nagar.

On my next official visit to Delhi, I extended my stay by a day. I did not have his telephone number. Hence I could not fix an appointment. I took a chance. Early afternoon I took an autorickshaw to go to Kaka Nagar. As I was searching for the house, the driver asked me which house I was looking for. I told him the number. He paused for a moment and asked if it was ‘Lalkothi’ that I was looking for. He took me to a ground-floor flat with the front-door painted red. It appeared that ‘Lalkothi’ was quite a well-known place. As I pressed the bell, a kindly and cultured gentleman opened the door. Before I could introduce myself, he asked me: “Are you Debu Bandyopadhyay who worked with Here Krishna Konar?” I politely nodded and he warmly invited me to sit down. He obviously knew why I had come. He said: “Let me see the paper.” I handed it over to him. He asked for some tea for me. And started reading the paper. After a while he exclaimed: “Excellent! No one had written about the Mushahars before. I shall publish it soon.”

That’s how my association with Mainstream started four decades ago and it still continues. I hope this relationship would continue uninter-rupted till ‘death doth us apart’.

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