Mountain Man's legacy lives on as politics heats up

As Dashrath Manjhi, the man who broke through a hillock, working for 22 odd years with hammer and chisel lives on in the memory of people even after 12 years of his death in 2007, politicos are invoking his memory.

It’s Manjhi's turn to hit the headlines again in Gaya Parliamentary seat, which has the holy pilgrimage destination of Hindus, Vishnupad and the international township of Buddhist monasteries, Bodhgaya.

No, Ketan Mehta hasn't made any sequel of his Bollywood magnum opus ‘Manjhi-The Mountain Man' featuring Nawazuddin Sidiqui in the legendary character of Dashrath Manjhi.

As Dashrath Manjhi, the man who broke through a hillock, working for 22 odd years with hammer and chisel lives on in the memory of people even after 12 years of his death in 2007, politicos are invoking his memory.

The Parliamentary seat of Gaya, the holy township of Hindus, has been a stronghold of BJP for almost three decades. But this time the two-term MP Hari Manjhi was dropped and the seat went to JD-U, which fielded Vijay Manjhi from the same community.

The symbolism was not to be lost when Nitish Kumar brought him to ensure the defeat of the former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was anointed by him and later refused to vacate the chair. Vijay Manjhi is son of legendary Bhagwatia Devi, the first woman from the community to have become an MP from RJD in 1996, whose job was breaking stones. Both Manjhis belong to the Mushhar (mouse catcher) community.

The significance that Nitish attaches to this seat could be gauged from the fact that for the first time he addressed a joint rally with Narendra Modi. Clearly, it’s a prestigious seat for Nitish Kumar, and he will not leave any stone unturned to ensure his bete noire’s defeat.

Parties invoke Dashrath Manjhi in poll pitches

Magadh has most of the times elected a Manjhi. For last 20 years, the seat with 17 lakh voters has been won by Manjhi community leaders. Interestingly a lot of significance is being attached in election rallies this time, to Dashrath Manjhi, whose village Gehlore, a testimony to the legends of the Mountain Man, is 40 kilometres away from the city.

Training guns on Congress for ignoring Dalits and Mahadalits like no other political party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in the rally: "No other party has ignored Ambedkar as much as Congress". He added: "people like Dashrath Manjhi will teach such people a lesson."

Manjhi, who had brought down the distance between two naxal-hit blocks of Gaya district by almost 70 kilometer by breaking a hillock after his wife died negotiating the rocky terrain, has been the subject matter of a number of documentaries and films. Now he is being featured in poll pitches.

Nitish Kumar, who had famously made Dashrath Manjhi sit on his chief minister’s chair for an hour in 2006, is now using it in his speeches. Modi government in 2016 began a move to provide rail connectivity to the Mountain Man’s village Gehlore. 

“Magadh has lot of Manjhis but the tallest among them is Baba Dashrath Manjhi. His heart really beat for the poor and the under-privilleged,” says Suresh Paswan, a resident.

Gaya Parliamentary seat is reserved for Scheduled Castes (SC). Each party vies with each other to woo the communities. The Mushhars, a mahadalit caste in Bihar, which is equivalent to Madigas in Karnataka, has its significance. The divide between Dalits and Mahadalits in Bihar is somewhat like Right and Left Dalits. There are 23 sub castes in the SC category in Bihar and Gaya has the highest proportion of around 30 percent.

Hunger was such a big problem that many in the Mushhars ate rats, a fact mentioned in many books and acknowledged by leaders of the community. Mushhar community's children captured on camera were typically naked with distended bellies, a sign of malnutrition.

Rise and fall of Jitan Ram Manjhi

As such the rise of Jitan Ram Manjhi, from a clerk in post and telegraph department to the chief minister of the state, was meteroric and miraculous. He was anointed chief minister of the state by Nitish Kumar after his party performed badly in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. When after some time Kumar wanted Manjhi to make way for him again, Manjhi declined, and used his Mahadalit origin to paint Nitish Kumar as anti-dalit. The bad blood between Nitish and Jitan Ram Manjhi continues since then.

In 2015 assembly polls, when Nitish Kumar joined a grand alliance with Lalu Prasad’s RJD and Congress, Manjhi was an ideal choice for BJP. It made good use of him as an ally to berate Nitish. Politics moved a full cycle since then. Nitish came back to BJP's fold in 2017 and Jitin Manjhi in 2019 shifted his allegiance to Lalu-Congress alliance.

With Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP also party of the alliance, Manjhi can breathe easy as Kushwaha (koiri) votes could come to him without much effort. In last Lok Sabha poll, Hari Manjhi had won the seat in a triangular contest defeating the nearest rival Ramji Manjhi from Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal with a margin of 1.26 lakh votes while Jitan Ram Manjhi had got 1.3 lakh votes.

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