Election In Pincodes: Caste, gender spur a churn in India’s migration sink | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Election In Pincodes: Caste, gender spur a churn in India’s migration sink

By, Aditya Nath Jha
May 07, 2024 12:49 AM IST

HT looks at some key constituencies across the country that encapsulate the issues shaping the ongoing Lok Sabha electoral contest.

Manjari Begum’s days are long, with back-breaking labour under the searing sun – waking up at 4am to tend to her poultry, sweep her mud courtyard and sprinkle it with water, snap twigs and small branches to tie together and mend the makeshift fence that separates her house from that of her brother-in-law, before starting to cook for her eight children.

In Maratipur, only a few stay back due to a lack of jobs. (HT photo)
In Maratipur, only a few stay back due to a lack of jobs. (HT photo)

Then, her real workday begins.

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Her husband, Mohammad Jumman, 45, has been away working on a construction site in Meerut for a decade. Like most other men in the Muslim-majority village of Chandodayi in Bihar’s Araria district, he returns home once a year around Eid, if at all. His earnings are based on the whims of the middlemen, and so does the flow of money back home. Begum has learnt not to bank on her husband’s income, instead spending her days working in the fields, chopping chaff and crops, the scorching sun much too fierce for the feeble ends of her mossy green saree stretched over her head. A day’s work fetches 300.

“Us women work all day. Ghar chal jaye toh bohot ganimat hai (we’re lucky if we make enough to run the house),” said Begum. Her neighbour Hasbun Khatun agreed. “Can you imagine bringing up so many children? There’s not a moment to rest. “

In her father’s house, Begum was strictly confined to the chardiwari (four walls) of her house. Yet, in Chandodayi, she is everywhere – picking up the 5kg of grain from the ration shop, going to the local market to shop for vegetables every other morning, and to the bigger haat that sits at the village’s main crossroads for provisions. Last month, she even went to the local panchayat office, all by herself, to rectify some errors in their land records, and to the government office to point out a typo in their Aadhaar card. Her lifelong reticence to politics didn’t come in the way of her going to the local election commission drive to get voting cards made for her and those of her children that can vote. It’s an independence that is complicated, and at times, unwanted, but she cannot deny that it has its perks.

“I start running in the morning and keep running all day. But there is no other adult in our house who will get this work done. At least, I don’t have to depend on anyone,” she said.

She is not the only one. Across Chandodayi, women run households, the absence of their migrant labourer husbands helping them pierce the veil of dogma that prevent their compatriots in other regions from accessing public spaces or even stepping out of the home for everyday tasks. In household after household, their entrances marked by undulating sheets of tin stapled together in a facsimile of a gate, stories abound about the men working in Noida, Kanpur, Bengaluru, Surat and Kochi, coming back only during festivals and only when they’d saved enough to buy new clothes for the family and toys for the children. Left to helm these households of sparsity, the women find their lives irrevocably transformed – from mundane tasks such as bringing new chaff to plug holes in the makeshift roof to delicate affairs such as managing the ego of the local panchayat chief, the only local man to own two cars and a horse.

Ansari Khatun is clear this wasn’t her choice. “My husband and son haven’t returned for three years. If I don’t do everything alone, who will do it?” asked the 60-year-old.

In this village of 6,000 dominated by Muslims and also comprising some Dalit families, weekly markets spill into the three tarred roads around which the localities coalesce, households loosely linked to each other around a communal courtyard, and the most common vehicle on the road (the occasional Mercedes speeding towards Purnea notwithstanding) is the chota hathi, the all-weather truck that can transport chicken, bovines and humans with ease.

By the time boys turn 15, they follow a father or an uncle to an industrial town in Delhi or the south, their poverty and the lack of industrial jobs on offer in the countryside standing in the way of any income prospects. There, 10-12 men squeeze into airless cubbyholes near their factories, with only the richest able to afford a room to bring their families. A trip home, if not sponsored by a political party, is synonymous with debt.

In this void, women step in, their mobility resulting in what academic Rithika Kumar calls the feminisation of everyday civic engagement, with deep resonances on the political dynamics of the region. The empowerment coexists with the trepidation every time a husband or a father switches off their phone – a proxy of abandonment – or there is an illness with the potential to devastate family financial planning. Yet, the confidence is unmistakable.

“Now that we deal with everyone, we also take the decisions about voting. We don’t have to ask anyone, and parties pay us attention,” said Rangli Devi.


The Araria Lok Sabha constituency subsumes six assembly segments.
The Araria Lok Sabha constituency subsumes six assembly segments.

Defiance for dignity

The serenity of Halhalia can make Chandodayi look like a metropolis. Yet the verdant fields of sunflower and maize that ring this village mask a mutinous silence. Forty years ago, the first man from this village dominated by members of the Musahar community – a Dalit sub-group – took a train to a village in Punjab near Ludhiana. Farm incomes were falling and Narender Singh was in search of a source to supplement his earnings during harvest season. But something else caught his eye. “He was startled to see that in the local gurdwara, everyone sat together and prayed every morning and evening. Here, no one would even let us drink water together,” said his brother Sanjay Singh Rishidev.

That December, Narender converted to Sikhism, travelling back to his village in Bihar to tell his family about his spiritual resistance to the shackles that bound the impoverished community that is often forced to eat rats to stave off hunger. Sanajy is now the chief of the local gurdwara committee and the most prominent member of the now burgeoning Sikh community that counts 350 people as members, all sporting yellow or blue turbans. “Here, people will kill themselves before eating with a Dalit or giving their hand in marriage with us. So, we wanted a religion where there is barabari (equality),” said the 45-year-old.

A bare-bones concrete structure, its concrete skeleton exposed to the elements, and a smaller building with a bamboo gate and plain walls function as the spiritual nodes for the local Sikh community. They append Rishidev – an attempt by the community to dispel the stigma associated with the word Musahar – to their names to ensure quota benefits. At any point, 30% of the village is in villages in Punjab, performing odd jobs in agriculture, construction and everyday labour. Economic vagaries fuel their migration, but a key element is their quest for dignity.

“Here, they won’t allow us to sit next to you. They’ll quietly exclude us from every temple or social functions. We won’t ever rise in their eyes, so why should we languish in their religion?” asked Anup Kaur, a local resident.

Locals underline the progress they’ve made – the gurdwara now has a permanent roof , and a small school in an adjoining quarter; and the village is on the cusp of its first college graduate, a young man of 20 who wants to become a government officer. Anup Kaur’s neighbour Geeta Kaur is proud that almost every child in the village goes to the school, a remarkable feat in a region where many Dalits are either denied admission or forced to undergo humiliation in front of their peers to discourage them from pursuing education.

Migration and the egalitarianism of the gurbani has helped Halhalia rise above the resentment between communities that forms the central fault line in the region. “The Yadavs and the Mandals (both members of the other backward classes community) both look down upon us.” Sanjay said. Being Sikh has helped them bypass the caste-controlled access to finances and instead appeal to sangats in Delhi and Kolkata for funds. “What we have done, politicians couldn’t do. Even our leaders such as (former chief minister) Jitan Ram Manjhi are too busy playing games,” he added, “but we’re no longer content being slaves.”

The EBC shift

Maratipur sits at the head of the sweeping flatland that separates Nepal from India in northern Bihar, on the other extremity of the region from Halhalia or Chandodayi. A film of festivity hangs in the air – the son of the local village chief is getting married at the end of the month. Every morning before they go to the field, villagers take turns to show up at the panchayat office, where a mountain of yellow invitation cards with gold trimmings await them.

Not everyone can write, so a few volunteer while others brew tea or loudly discuss whose invites should go out first while two men sit on chairs, one striking names off a list and another using his best Marathi cursive to adorn the names of local elites. Pan in his mouth, Arvind Mandal, the husband of village chief Soni Devi, is monitoring the process. A contented spit indicates a job well done.

Across the brick pavement that bisects the village dominated by members of the extremely backward communities (EBC), there is a clear divide. The thatched roofs and bare walls belong to the men who haven’t left the village, instead toiling away in the paddy fields or using the porous border to smuggle in liquor. In dry Bihar, all liquor sells at a premium but across the countryside, purchasing powers are depressed and hence margins are slim. On the other side are a mass of unfinished houses where men who’ve returned from Kerala or Punjab are adding a second storey or making their walls pucca with bricks. “If you stay here, work in the fields will let you earn a maximum of 7,000 a month because who can pay more? But I work as a labourer in a highway construction company and get a minimum of 35,000,” said Chaturbhuj Kumar Mandal, pointing to the cement mixer whirring in his front yard.

Almost 90% of the village hail from the Kewat community, classified as EBC – a grouping that sits at the core of chief minister Nitish Kumar’s electoral calculation. Yet, signs of disquiet are unmistakable. “We are always looking for someone who can help us. That’s why we were loyal to Nitish ji because he gave us respect first. But it doesn’t seem he has that might now,” said Chintlal Mandal, former village chief.

Villages such as Maratipur were critical to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) storming to power in 2005, and were rewarded with motorable roads, a somewhat-ramshackle bridge that eased access to the region, and a general improvement in law-and-order. “Suddenly, we were not so afraid of the strongmen anymore,” said Umesh Mandal, a resident. Yet, progress stalled, forcing hundreds of young men from the village to fan out across north India – the EBCs went to Noida and Kanpur and the Dalits went to Punjab, every community using a blend of kinship and caste networks to gain a toehold in hostile cities. Before an election, 8-10 buses full of migrants would return to vote en masse, before taking off again.

This time, though, there is no mahaul, admitted Chintlal. The only decent job left in the village is taken by his son Sunil, who is paid 20,000 to help local residents upload their UPI details and pay or receive money over an app. “The jati samikaran (caste equations) are changing. Earlier, such political competition would give us more opportunities. Now there are no jobs.”


A Modi supporter at a BJP rally in Bihar. (HT Photo)
A Modi supporter at a BJP rally in Bihar. (HT Photo)

The political churn

Chandodayi, Halhalia and Maratipur represent some key strands of the still-evolving story of India’s 100 million internal migrants who spend months away from home for money, and its sub-narratives of gender and caste. This large-scale, semi-organised churn is a consequence of what economists call the spatial rift of India’s unequal development – where industries and economic opportunities are bunched up in the country’s west and south, prompting vast provinces in the east and north to act as ready sink of cheap and young labour.

Nowhere is this more acute than Araria, home to all three villages where migration, and the anxieties it engenders, have deep political echoes. The Araria Lok Sabha constituency subsumes six assembly segments in the impoverished Seemanchal region, where the NDA holds four. Over the last two decades, the Lok Sabha seat has swung between the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the BJP. It is currently held by the latter’s EBC face Pradeep Kumar Singh, who won by 130,000 votes in 2019.

“We are fighting elections on the basis of development work carried out by the Modi government and we are getting the support from all sections of society,” said BJP leader Shahnawaz Hussain.

This time, Singh is squaring off against the RJD’s Shahnawaz Alam, the youngest son of former MP Taslimuddin, himself from the Kulaiya backward Muslim caste and the last man to win the seat for the RJD. “We are going to the people with specific issues such as unemployment, corruption in government offices, illiteracy and backwardness…we are fighting on the work of Tejashwi Yadav,” said Alam.

But he is weighed down by family rivalries – the RJD nominated his brother Sarfaraz in the assembly elections, prompting him to join the AIMIM, win, and then eventually rejoin the RJD – and the perception of him being a strongman.

“The BJP has not only aggressively wooed the EBCs, but it also managed to draw a communal divide within the group that accommodated both Hindus and Muslims. Plus the bahubali image of the RJD candidate will hurt him among Hindu EBCs who are wary of dominant groups,” said Murshid Raza, a local analyst.

The sharpest impact, though, might be on the BJP’s ally, the JD(U). In Maratipur, support for Nitish Kumar has cooled ironically for the same reason that once endeared him to EBCs. “In this last government, no work got done at the block level. We used to hear that babus run the government but that structure has decayed. And local leaders are powerless,” said Mantulal Mandal.

That may spell trouble for the party -- perhaps now, perhaps later “The BJP is wooing us and so is the RJD. The JD(U) will get squeezed,” said Chintlal.

“Mark my words when the assembly polls come, Kumar will be in trouble.”

This is the 18th in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.

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