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India’s “rat eaters” rise up

Patna (India), Dec 17 (EFE).- At the bottom of the Hindu caste system is the oppressed Dalit or untouchable community, and among them, in the depths, the musahars, literally the “rat eaters”. But their women have rebelled against discrimination in a movement for dignity and respect. They are no longer afraid. Jeetni Devi, 40, laughs out loud. She remembers how on one occasion, when getting into a horse-drawn carriage that she used as community transport, a high-caste woman jumped in fear because she was riding a musahar. “People were avoiding sitting near us.” They are polluting beings, they cannot be touched. At a public function, for example, if they were served food, they would do so when the upper castes finished in a remote area, often handing them only the remains. “Once we finished and left, they cleaned the whole place,” Jeetni explained to EFE in a community space in Patna, in northern India. But that was before, she remarks. Before she found out that she had the same rights as everyone else, regardless of caste. Jeetni speaks confidently, looking into each other’s eyes and holding her head up. “They also paid us lower wages. Now, if they pay us wages that we consider unfair, we don’t go to work. We don’t give in to their pressure. And if they come to our area (to pressure, even hit), we confront them.” , says this mother of two children. Since she was charged more for vegetables, she decided to grow them. She has helped 300 members of her community receive ration cards and another 50 register for public jobs, she also encourages families to send their children to school. “I put a lot of effort into motivating people and making them aware.” “Before meeting the activists, we had a lot of problems. We didn’t have much idea about things. We learned from them and now we are able to do it ourselves. Others (high caste) used to scare us, threaten us (…) I filed a complaint denounced and jailed for three months (the one who threatened me). Now people greet me with respect,” remarks Jeetni, who has become a leader in her community. THE ACTIVISTS Among those who helped them discover their rights is the Catholic organization Manthan, which has been working since 1975 with the Musahars in the state of Bihar, one of the most backward in India, where corruption and the law of the strongest prevail. . Father Juno K. George welcomes us to her parish on the outskirts of Patna, the regional capital, in a facility that was used by railway officials during British colonial times. She is calm, away from the chaos of the city. This priest follows in the footsteps in Manthan of its founder, Father Philip, who began working with the Musahars almost half a century ago, upon discovering the extreme marginality in which this group found itself, dehumanized by the rest. “He discovered that the basic problem was a lack of awareness about their rights (…) When he told them that they had the right to drink clean water, that generated a lot of interest among the people. He intervened and then the government put pipes for the first time in their villages,” says Father George, adding that it could otherwise take people an hour to get water from the upper castes. Untouchability is still present. If someone of high caste comes to their areas, they will not touch anything, and when sitting they will do so on a chair and the musahars on the ground. Even in the separation of the neighborhoods by castes, the Musahar neighborhood is at one end on the outskirts, where the wind will usually blow. The upper castes “don’t even want the breeze” that passes through that neighborhood to touch them. In this process of change, education is basic. “It may take a generation or two for it to set in, but then this ball of education will start rolling and moving. There is no other option, no pills or shortcuts to change” this situation. Currently, its programs cover some 30,000 people, of which around a thousand are children enrolled in their educational process, which for the first time managed to reach its culmination with two of the students: they have just graduated in nursing. “It is good for the entire Musahar community. Now (the youngest) have a model to aspire to,” celebrates the priest, acknowledging that in general it is a “lost” youth. WOMEN, THE ENGINE OF CHANGE To channel this change, Manthan realized that having women was essential, because “in the Musahar community, it is women who play an important role,” notes Father George. “So we started organizing them.” In one of the Musahar neighborhoods on the outskirts of Patna, the leaders of the community await sitting on the ground. There are no rats, but hundreds of fluttering flies that settle on their faces or clothes. Sohago Devi, a widow of “maybe 35 or 40 years, how would I know”, and mother of three children, naturally dismisses the subject of rats. “We no longer get them, I ate them when I was a child. When we grew rice we used to find (field) rats and sometimes we ate them. Now we don’t,” she explained to EFE. The elderly Fulwanti Devi, 65, has seven children, and tells that she had to live two realities, that of extreme untouchability, and the current one, in which, thanks to the support and teachings of organizations such as Manthan, “things have changed a bit.” lot”. “Before, if one of us sat on a cot and someone from a higher caste passed by, they had to stand up respectfully or they would start beating them. But now we are all the same. Before we feared them, but now there is no fear,” he says. . Moncho Torres (c) EFE Agency

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