Given Bihar’s extreme backwardness, the slightest indication of initiative and progress shines out like a beacon of hope. The Mushahars of Bihar’s Jamshaut village, just 20 kilometres from Patna — one of the most wretchedly oppressed communities among the untouchables — have wrested back an important right for themselves: the right to worship in the local Shiv mandir run by the upper castes. When a group of Mushahars went to the inauguration of the new temple, they were violently denied entry. Just a few weeks ago, on Mahanavami, a Dalit family had gone with puja offerings to a pandal patronized by upper-caste landlords, also in a village near Patna. As they walked in, they were first physically assaulted, and then one of them was shot dead with a rifle. But this time, after initially being assaulted and denied entry, the Mushahars got together and returned to the other Shiv mandir, and forced their way in, partook of the prasad and then walked out, with the upper-caste worshippers looking on helplessly.
The person who has been preparing them for this action and then led them to the temple is a Christian missionary from Bangalore, Ms Sudha Varghese. Ms Varghese has been living among the Mushahars in this village for the last 15 years, and singlehandedly running some sort of an improvised development centre for them from her home. Her main focus is education, for the children as well as the adults, particularly the girls and women. She sees this focus on education as crucial for their self-esteem and empowerment. She has managed to create a self-sustaining programme, in which one of the girls is already travelling around the villages on her bicycle to educate others in the community. They also keep a firm eye on the quality of the educational facilities provided by the state government. This has managed to stall the customary sexual exploitation of the Mushahar women by the upper castes, and has perceptibly transformed gendered violence within the Mushahar families. Ms Varghese’s efforts, and their fruit in this peaceful storming of the temple, need to be noticed by the state and Central governments, whose bureaucratic attempts at the empowerment of Dalits in Bihar have been quite brutally inadequate.