Located in North Central Bihar, Khagaria is one of the most deprived districts in the state of Bihar. Ganga, Kosi and Bagmati are the main rivers flowing through the district, making the land extremely fertile but also prone to floods. A thick forest cover in the area acts as a hideout for the Maoists. Due to the highly unequal land holding patterns, most people work as wage labour on fields, and migration to Delhi, Haryana and Punjab is a common feature. About 70 per cent of the population consists of Dalits and OBCs. The caste system is a strong and oppressive presence in the region with women bearing the worst consequences of it. The upper caste, land owning Bhoomihars call the shots, and the practice of untouchability continues to be rampant.
After having understood that the people from the Dom community were being ill treated because they fell outside the caste hierarchy, Sanjeev decided to work towards addressing the issues of untouchability and discrimination, and the Bahishkrit Hitkari Sangathan (BHS) was born in 2006. Currently, BHS works in the Khagaria, Katihar, Bhagalpur, Sheikhpura and most recently, Aurangabad districts. Most of the work is focussed in Khagaria. In Katihar, the sangathan is working with the people of the Musahar caste. In Bhagalpur and Sheikhpura, they work with both Doms and Musahars.
Traditionally, Doms were forced to do the jobs that no one else would. For example, they had to cremate dead bodies, clean the toilets of the people in the village, manage the dead bodies of animals etc. The intervention of the sangathan has meant that they no longer do these kinds of work. BHS also started a campaign against eating leftovers by conducting several meetings with the people and explaining to them what exactly leftover food was. Slowly, they understood and took a vow that they will not eat food that has been spat out by others. The Doms have now decided to abandon the age old tradition of eating leftovers from the marriages and functions.
The condition of the Musahars was even worse. They lead a hand to mouth existence and are called Musahars because extreme poverty has led them to eat even mice. Most of them live close to the river banks and hence the floods displace them every year. BHS is beginning to work with them too, and encouraging them to live with dignity.
When Sanjeev initially moved back to his village, he realized that the greatest drawback of the Doms was their lack of education. So he gathered the Dom children in a house and taught them to read and write for about 2-3 hours everyday. He also made efforts to improve their hygiene. Later, after BHS was formed, work on education continued in full earnest, and the children who Sanjeev was teaching were enrolled in schools. This was of great significance since many of them were the first from their families to have stepped into schools. There were protests from higher caste parents, and the teachers too often neglected these students. Their fear was that if these children got educated and got good jobs, then it will not be possible to practise untouchability, and that would signal the end of their own dominance in society.
Along with the children, Sanjeev also started having classes for the women. But the men in the villages did not like the idea of the women getting educated, for that meant they would begin to question the men. Sanjeev ran the school in a make shift structure for three years before it was struck down by the men. One of the karyakartas of the sangathan, Rekha, continues to teach women in the village of Temtharakha. [Rekha Story]
Education of women has led to their rejecting oppressive practices, right from being paid extremely low wages for their labour, to being abducted at will by the feudal lords. [Atrocities against Women] Today, women have a strong presence in the sangathan, with 5,000 of its members and half of its 12 person core group being women. They take their own decisions and put up a strong fight against age old practices of oppression.
One of the key initiatives of BHS has been the Bahishkrit Chetna Mela, whereby women from the backward communities collect water from the Ganga and then congregate for a meeting and awareness camp. The number of the participating women has been increasing, with even Muslim women from the neighbouring district of Bhagalpur joining in the Mela.
Changes are slowly becoming visible in the society. The backward castes have conducted their own elections, and its office bearers have newfound respect from the entire society. [Self-Rule] Upper castes are facing resistance from the Dalit community, but this resistance has come at a price. Sanjeev was forced to leave his forefather's village in Khagaria and his cousin was killed in an attempt to intimidate Sanjeev and stop him from doing his work with the backward castes. The sangathan also has to face the wrath of the Naxalites, as they opine that the BHS is preventing the youth from taking up arms and joining their cadre by providing an alternative.
During the Bhoodan Movement, many deprived and landless families were promised land, but it did not get transferred in their name. So BHS has taken up this issue to claim a house and arable land for those entitled to them. They are now getting children to be a part of this campaign—they will demand land so that their fathers can work on it thereby enabling them to go to school.
Focus has also turned towards education since 2010, when the Right to Education Act was passed. Buildings have been built as schools but children do not receive any education. The sangathan is raising its voice against the violation of the Act both in letter and in spirit.
BHS is attempting to make the village of Sirajpur an ideal one, and the process has led to getting 13 government schemes implemented in the village. [Claiming Entitlements]
The sangathan is also engaged in the process of getting more people in their fold through a membership campaign. People can become a part of the sangathan by paying Re 1, and there are about 10,000 members now, the numbers growing day by day.