Patna: Like many other young men their age, Suraj Kumar, Prem Kumar, Sarmesh Kumar and Manoj Kumar, who graduated from school earlier this year, are busy preparing for their competitive examinations.

All four scored an aggregate of around 70-75% in the school-leaving examination conducted by the National Institute of Open Schooling.

Two years ago, all had secured an aggregate in excess of 90% in their Class X exams conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education.

The young men, and their performance, would be considered normal if not for their background.

The four, all aged 18 or 19, are Musahars, a rat-catching community of Bihar that is the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of castes in India, even among Dalits. There are around 4.5-5 million Musahars in Bihar, accounting for almost 16% of the state’s population, but only three of every 100 members of the community are literate. Census 2011 has identified 21 of the 22 Dalit sub-castes as Maha-Dalits. These include Musahars, Bhuiyans, Doms, Chamars and Nats, among others.

On 20 May, Jitan Ram Manjhi became the first Musahar chief minister of Bihar, bringing the socio-economic status of the community into focus. Pointing out that the literacy rate of females and males among the Musahars was 1.3% and 3.7% respectively, Manjhi said only education could help the community. “I have been active in politics since 1980 and have been working for the uplift of the marginalized sections. Earlier only 82 crore was allotted for their development. This has now increased to 1,200 crore," he said.

The four teenagers come from different villages around Patna but together attend a free, English residential school, Shoshit Samadhan Kendra (SSK), run by a non-governmental organization (NGO), Shoshit Seva Sangh (SSS).

Prem, Suraj, Sarmesh and Manoj were part of the first batch to graduate from the school, which was started in 2007 by former Indian Police Service officer J.K. Sinha. In 1969, Sinha, then a police officer, raided a Musahar ghetto to apprehend a gang of criminals.

“Their sub-human existence, literally living alongside pigs, was shocking," says Sinha. When he retired in 2005, as special secretary, cabinet secretariat, Sinha founded the NGO and began raising funds for the school. In 2007, SSS collaborated with Samadhan, a Delhi-based NGO, and established the school.

“It was necessary to provide these children a level-playing field so that they could be empowered to compete with the best," says Sinha.

The school admits 30-50 Musahars every year and currently houses 320 Musahar children; it has a student-teacher ratio of 16:1. The school is housed in two rented buildings and takes up about 30,000 sq ft, but Sinha has plans to expand it soon.

The Musahars are landless, agricultural labourers whose lives are a tapestry of poverty, illiteracy, alcoholism, and malnutrition.

The four young men are amongst the lucky ones to leave their designated ghettos —compact settlements called musahar toli or musaharis—to lead a life only a few in their community dare to even dream of.

But it wasn’t easy.

Prem recalls nights when he slept on an empty stomach. His mother always used to keep aside some of their meagre harvest for his “studies" but one year, the harvest was poor and “there was nothing left" for his studies.

The school gave the young men direction. “There was no aim in my life before I came here. I didn’t know the importance of education because I didn’t have resources; no one at home talked about education. I had joined school and then dropped out and rejoined and dropped out again several times," says Suraj.

Roughly, half of all Indian public-school students drop out before eighth grade, and most of the dropouts are from lower castes, or the Muslim or tribal communities, according to a 22 April 2014 report by Human Rights Watch.

Sarmesh says that if it wasn’t for the school, he would have been doing what his ancestors had done for generations. “We are considered untouchables. For everyone, we aren’t clean, we aren’t chaste," he says.

Musahar literally means “rat eater". The Musahar community was named after their vocation of hunting rats and is known by different names in different regions of Bihar—Sada in north Bihar, Manjhi, Musahar or Mandal in central Bihar, and Bhuyian or Bhokta in south Bihar

G.S. Ghurye, an Indian professor of sociology, in his book Caste and Race in India, suggests that the Musahars are descendants of the sage Valmiki, author of the Ramayana.

The Musahars are scattered across the Gangetic plains of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. The school, located in Patna, chooses students from across the state by conducting basic tests in language and maths.

Initially, most families were sceptical about the school’s intentions.

“In my toli, there was a rumour that these people (the school) will pull our eyes, kidneys and other organs out and sell them," says Prem.

Simranpreet Singh Oberoi, the school’s chief project officer, says that most parents didn’t believe anyone really wanted to educate their children. “The idea of the school is to have a role model in every Musahar community and restore the community’s belief in education. This place should be an incubation centre where these kids come up with ideas and proposals," says Oberoi.

R.U. Khan, who is the new principal of the school, worked in the Ujjain region of Madhya Pradesh for 28 years in the education sector. Once, during a visit to Bihar, Khan saw a Musahar boy and followed him to his toli.

He says he was shocked to see their condition, more so because the place was just 8-10km from Patna. “The child had no clothes, no footwear, and he didn’t go to school," said Khan, who decided to relocate to Bihar to join the school. “Distributing blankets and clothes to the marginalized communities doesn’t help them. They need to be educated," he said.

The 20 teachers in the school say it is a challenge to teach these children. “For these children, the classes they are in do not match their ages. Teaching any first-generation learner is a challenge. This school, for us, is a type of a lab where we test different ways of teaching," says Sanjay Kumar Thakur, the school’s physics teacher.

Since most of the students do not interact much with the world outside their tolis, they are fluent only in their native languages. “It’s not like someone growing up in a mixed community in the mainstream world. To explain anything to them, I have to give references from their world," says the chemistry teacher, Savita Kumari.

Interestingly, now, students in all the classes speak fluent English with a moderate-to-good vocabulary.

Suraj says that when he was admitted to the school, he was so enthused that he and Prem would wake up at 3-4am thinking it was time for school. “Whatever I was taught, I would try to remember. We had a good English teacher and I copied the way she spoke. I wanted to learn everything," says Suraj.

The community is generally considered to be living in unhygienic conditions, and Prem, to get rid of the stigma, decided to bathe more than once a day, sometimes even “in the middle of the night".

All four know that even though they dream of big houses and money, they have a moral obligation to go back to their community to mainstream them, no matter how long it takes.

“Some in my family sell goats, others work on someone else’s land. I always thought I would have to do the same but I always wanted a better life. The situation is bad back home. But I know if I study, it will become better. Now, I feel like it is my duty to bring the change—work for my people," says Sarmesh.

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