By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*
She was our Maai i.e. mother. Everyone in the villages, in our center or any visitor that came at our Prerna Kendra called her ‘Maai’. She would be there to greet us with her beautiful and energetic smile but that smile is now gone and we only have her memories with us. After a week’s struggle with life, Maai, probably around 80 years of age, passed away today at around 10 am leaving behind her one son, three daughters and their children and grandchildren. One can say that she lived a complete life and saw her great grandchildren.
Maai lived a life of great struggle but she never deviated from her path which was to protect her land and remained dignified all through her life. She would listen to visitors coming and brought her son and grandchildren also to learn and share their ideas with people. When I came to village Malwabar during our foot march on June 10th, 2007, Maai was in the forefront of the yatra to welcome in the village. After that, we bonded with this village and with her that we became part of it.
Maai’s name was Ram Rati. She was born in a Mushahar family in Bihar with two brothers and two sisters. Her father died when she was just a child and the uncles started quarreling with them for some piece of land that her father owned. Her mother and her siblings were then brought to a village called Udaipura by her maternal uncle where she grew up. She remembered Jawaharlal Nehru and talked about Gandhi baba as having heard about them. They were great people; she would say but she did not know much as what were they doing.
As happens, at a young age of 12 she got married to Banshi Dhar Mushahar in village Malawabar. She was a hard-working woman and did everything to nurture her children. They had about three bighas of land but her husband Banshidhar passed away after some illness and in the absence of a proper medication. This village was very isolated and nobody would visit the Mushahar basti except for some touts or local quacks.
After the death of her husband, her nephew named as Bansi connived with a few local feudal lords and got land transferred in his name, claiming to be brother of her husband and traditional property never got transferred to wives those days. The local feudals were interested to grab the land and hence they supported him for this illegal work. When Ram Rati came to know about it then she resisted and decided to fight. Her story of fight has been extremely powerful.
She fought for ten years. She was an illiterate woman yet she resisted any effort to grab her land. Without money, she would walk to district headquarter from this village about 40 kilometers away. She informed me that how she collected woods, sold them and then earn money to give it to a local advocate who fought her case. And after 10 years of court battle, she got decree in her name and it was restored to her. She could save about 2 Bighas of land but rest of her land is still in control of those grabbers they would threaten to kill her son.
She used to live in a thatched hut like all other houses in village Malwabar but in the past 10 years of our combined efforts resulted in one hundred percent housing in this village. Maai was the proud owner of her house but her hut remained there. She was extremely happy that she could see a roof over her head and that her future generation will be able to live a better life.
For the past few months, Maai was very tensed. She would come to me and say that her son wants to sell the land and she was determined not to let him sale the ‘ancestral’ property. I would not allow this to happen during my life time. We all discussed and asked her son not to do so in the greater interest of his family and the community. Now, the Mushahar basti has become a beautiful location, many feudal dominant caste people want to acquire the land here by hook or by crook. The mushahars are feeling uneasy. For Maai, it was important that the people particularly her children understand the value of land which gave her economic strength as she would get rice, mustered, parwal, brinjal, Arahar dal, Suran and other vegetable from her land.
Maai was associated with our work and was the on the front line. When we started informal schooling for children of Malwabar in the year 2008 in the Mushahar basti, it is she who offered us support. She would go to the village, asking the children to come and study. It was her duty to bring the children and she did it with great conviction as she wanted the girls to be educated. The informal school started in the open sky under the bamboo tree she had planted. With her continuous work with our organization, she was able to get new ideas and importance of linking the community with the organization and move ahead. She became a devotee of Nirankari Baba and would go to listen to his ‘preachings’. Even if she did not understand much, she was dedicated and wanted her children to work hard, protect the ancestral land and move ahead.
Maai also supported her daughters wholeheartedly even after marriage which does not happen too often in our societies. She would not only visit her daughters and granddaughters but advise them and help them financially from whatever she earned. This became a bone of contention between her and her son. This crisis continues to escalate as she wanted to see her daughters too live life with dignity and was actually trying to help them procure land and build their own house.
Maai was tremendously proud of how the Malwabar village was transformed. She would often tell me that she never imagined that living in such a difficult situation where caste forces and patriarchy was so powerfully entrenched, she could live life with dignity and self-respect. For me, she was like my mother. The bond was too powerful. We will miss her presence, her smiles, her talks and her wonderfully cooked Bajra and Makka rotis at our place. Maai will always remain a powerful symbol of a Mushahar woman’s resistance against land grab and protecting the ancestral land. We hope generations of the mushahar community will understand her resistance to protect her land so that they are not exploited by the dominant caste people who always felt that Mushahars have to be ruled and dominated.
Maai was fond of Nirankari mission. She used to go listen to the preaching and participate in the gatherings but through our Prerna Kendra she learned a lot about Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Savitri Maai Phule and Jyoti Ba Phule. Today, she has gone on her eternal journey and left behind a rich legacy. She fought and got what was right. Even the bamboo that the villagers were collecting to prepare for her last journey were planted and nurtured by her. It was under these bamboo trees that we had started our informal education with Mushahar children long back. Maai will always remain in our heart as her dedication and dignified struggle for justice will inspire generations of women and men of Mushahar community who are fighting for justice.
*Human rights defender