Sister Mary Sujita and I met in the neat and clean Maurya hotel in Patna opposite Gandhi Maidan - the hallowed grounds of many an India-changing rally. A former superior general of the Sisters of Notre Dame, Sister had just addressed her own rally - the global congregation of her Sisterhood in Rome where she called on Catholic women to stop "theologising" about the needs of the poor and to instead get to work in the places most in need. She herself had lived in the 1970s with the poorest of the poor - a low-caste of sharecroppers living off the grain that they pulled out of rat-holes in fields. The caste is known as Musahars (those who are eaten by rats) because rats bite them when they pull the grain out.
She told the congregation how she lived in a tiny mud hut, sharing the struggles of the Musahars. "We had to find our own ways of living in this new reality. One day, the poor lady, Punia, whose hut I was sharing, lost her three-year-old daughter in the morning and five-year-old son later on the same day due to a cholera outbreak. I was so broken and upset that God would allow such a thing to happen to these poor helpless people. I was angry at the system that permitted such utter poverty and misery. All I could do was to weep in solidarity with all the weeping women in that village."
Her tears had a value. They were a call to action for clean drinking water, education and health for this destitute community. They matched the struggle of the socialists for political empowerment of this deprived caste.
In 1952, Kirai Mushar became the first Musahar MP on a Socialist party ticket from the joint parliamentary constituency of Bhagalpur-cum-Purnea. Dr BR Ambedkar had drafted the process to ensure reservation for deprived castes in Parliament. In spite of that, caste was so deeply entrenched at that time that Kirai Mushar was found crying in the Central Hall. He was being beaten, his parliamentary allowance was being taken away and he was not given food to eat by the upper-caste secretary who had moved in to stay with him!
But the socialists persisted. Another socialist, this time a woman, Bhagwati Devi, a stone quarry worker, the daughter of a Musahar, became a member of the Bihar Legislative Assembly in 1969 and was elected to the 11th Lok Sabha in 1996. She had been associated with Ram Manohar Lohia and Karpoori Thakur.
Half a century after Kirai Mushar came to the Lok Sabha, Bhagwati Devi was neither intimidated nor exploited. In fact, she had the self confidence to challenge Sushma Swaraj and Maneka Gandhi in Parliament during the debate on the Women's Reservation Bill. Swaraj and Gandhi did not want reservation along caste lines in seats reserved for women.
Bhagwati Devi said in Parliament: "I am clear in my mind about the need for caste-based, proportional reservation for women. The reasons are simple. This bill is apparently inspired by the need to uplift women who have over the centuries been deprived and oppressed. If that premise is correct, then anybody with even an iota of knowledge of social realities will know that the ones who are really underprivileged are the Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, and backward classes...
"I can testify from personal experience the social, economic and cultural biases that confront us. The other day I was travelling to Patna. At the station, as I was about to board the train, a gentleman came up to me and said ' Yeh AC hai (this is the air-conditioned coach).' He couldn't believe that we could travel in an AC compartment.
"When I first became an MLA in Bihar, my two-year-old child was in my arms and I was ordered off the reserved compartment by the TT. He refused to check my ticket and listen to the fact that, being an MLA, I could afford to travel in the reserved compartment.
"I am Musahar by caste. I earned my living crushing stones. I used to work from morning till evening, yet the Thakur zamindar refused to pay us for days. Whenever we dared to ask for money, our people were beaten up. Do you honestly believe that such people will give us justice?
"...people like Maneka Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj are opposing us. When such people visit our bastis (slums), they raise their saris to their knees out of fear of dirtying them. People who change their saris every hour cannot represent us...
"...The BJP favours a common civil code because Muslim women are in shackles, in burqas, and this will liberate them. So why don't you provide reservations for them? Let a burqa-clad woman contest against one of her own; let them win and come to the Lok Sabha. How can BJP women represent the aspirations or voice the pain of the minorities?"
I remember meeting Bhagwati Devi in her AC room in the Bihar government guest house. Her bodyguard used to sleep in the same room. "I know they laugh at me... bodyguards are supposed to be relegated to the dormitory... But it's so hot there." A far cry from Kirai Mushar's exploitation by his secretary.
Today the number of literate Musahars has gone up, as has the number of Musahars represented in politics. Thanks to the political representation of Musahars in panchayats, Bihar Assembly and Parliament, there is drinking water via hand pumps, pucca roads, and schools in Musahar Tollas.
Jyoti Devi, a Musahar from Barachatti in Gaya district, was an MLA in the last Nitish Kumar government. Put in an orphanage by her parents - poor, landless farmers - when she was just five in 1973, she learned farming at Bapu Gram. She was given three acres of Bhoodan land from the government, which she made cultivable in two decades by applying new techniques. Now about 300 Musahar families follow the technique in Bapu Gram and Sarvodyapuri, where land transfer to the landless happened under Bhoodan. The change in her constituency is visible. About a dozen boys have done their graduation and 10 villagers have been able to buy motorcycles; their children go to the middle school. And they are not bitten by rats anymore.
Gaya is one of the districts where Sister Sujita worked to organise collectives of women from marginalised communities under a national programme known as Mahila Samakhya in the nineties. The collectives did not lay down smart targets but emphasised the processes of empowerment based on decision making through Nari Adalats, Sanjeevani Kendras, and education through the Mahila Shikshan Kendras and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas. Education was linked with women coming together, discussing, reflecting, organising, analysing, and articulating their needs.
A study by Jyotsna Jha and Nivedita Menon from the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies reveals that the Mahila Samakhyas have improved women's ability to leave home without permission, changed power dynamics in the family, increased their political participation, reframed educational outcomes to much beyond literacy, delayed marriages, and improved immunisation rates as well as educational outcomes for girls in the community. It even has a spill-over effect in non-participating households, like community trust, increased parental awareness about school and education, women marrying later in these districts, diversification of their social networks and create relationships outside of caste and kinship networks, greatly enhancing social capital and contribution to community projects.
In fact, Mahila Samakhya laid the ground for some of the successes of the pink schools, more meaningful participation of women in the panchayat system, and increased women in jobs and businesses in Bihar. While reservation and quotas have ensured access to governance structures, Mahila Samakhya has enabled effective use of that access. With this capacity, empowerment programmes often get captured by brokers.
The Bihar government has set its mind to empowering women with missionary zeal. Jeevika, a livelihood programme tied to micro-credit, is their main tool. Right now the programme is showing great impact in terms of loan amount disbursed and number of bank accounts opened. But without overall empowerment of women which includes self-esteem, critical and innovative thinking, social and friendship networks, education beyond literacy, the Jeevika programme could very well force women into debt bondage and suicide like the farmers of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
The massive farmer suicides in the two states was a result of creating a structure that gave power to credit companies rather than to the farmers, built a model that was based on credit not savings, and established women's associations known as self-help groups that were built around money not solidarity. Social capital was destroyed by the formation of the self-help group and when farmers could not repay the loan they had no community cushion to fall back on.
Bihar is famous for its social justice approach. Ela Bhatt has organised women to generate capital from their own savings. Sewa is now the largest trade union in the world with 16 million female members. Md Yunus on the other hand has simply monetised credit to the poor. Impact assessments show that Ela Ben's approach also creates social empowerment and sustainable prosperity, whereas Yunus always has to depend on foreign donors and outside investments to keep cash flows going.
Perhaps Bihar could marry the collectivisation and empowerment approach of Mahila Samakhya with its Jeevika programme. After all, Sister Sujita is not far away. She lives and works in Patna.
♦ Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University, adviser to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Worldwide.
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