The Mahadalits of Bihar, who constitute an overwhelming number among the state's downtrodden, are in a festive mood like never before ahead of India's 65th Independence Day.
Possibly for the first time in independent India, more importantly since the promulgation of a constitution that guarantees equality, the Mahadalits will be hoisting the national flag in their "tolas" or community-based settlements. One from their ranks will do so.
According to Census 2011, Dalits constitute nearly 15% of Bihar's 104 million population. The census has identified 21 of the 22 Dalit sub-castes as Mahadalits. They include Musahars, Bhuiyans, Doms, Chamars and Nats.
Deepak Kumar, principal secretary in the state's general administration department, said that it was decided by the government that Independence Day functions would be organized in all such "tolas" and an elderly person among them would unfurl the flag.
Surender Ravidas, in his mid 40s, a resident of Mahadalit tola of Jituchak village near Patna, is pleased that his family can take part in the flag-hosting ceremony. "For the first time, we will get a chance to participate," the daily wage earner said.
He is not alone. Hundreds of thousands of Mahadalits, living in tolas across the state, are equally happy with the state government decision. It is part of the Nitish Kumar government initiative to empower the downtrodden.
Hari Dom, in his early 50s, a resident of Mahadalit tola near Lohanipur in Patna, believes that this year's Independence Day will be historic.
"We and our children used to visit other neighborhoods to witness the flag-hosting ceremony, either standing outside a school or a government office," the sweeper-cum-cleaner told IANS. "But now we will be part of the national day in our own settlement."
According to government records, there are over 25,000 such tolas in the state. In the six districts of the Patna commissionarate alone, the day will be celebrated in 4,799 tolas. Patna commissioner KP Ramiyah said that preparations were in full swing.
Letters have been sent out to all the district magistrates (DMs). "As the Right to Public Service Act is to be implemented from August 15, this programme will be an effective way to inform weaker sections of government programmes," Deepak Kumar said.
The government has earmarked Rs 500 for each Mahadalit tola to purchase flags, sweets and toffees for such functions. "It will cost the state exchequer Rs 1.30 crore," an official said.
District administrations are to depute a government school teacher for the function, who could explain the national anthem and events related to Independence Day and freedom struggles to Mahadalits.
Bihar was the first state in the country to constitute a Mahadalit commission. It was decided that the commission would study the status of the neglected sub-castes among Dalits and suggest ways to uplift them.
In power-starved Bihar, most Mahadalits are living without any electricity, except in the state capital Patna and some towns. Millions are still living in the lantern age, as electricity is a luxury or not available.
Akhilesh Kumar, who hopes to become a schoolteacher, summed it up well, "It may be a small thing for the powerful in society, but for us it is a big thing."