Several cases of conversion to Christianity have come to light in Bihar’s Buxar district, where Mahadalit families belonging to the Musahar caste in at least half a dozen villages have changed their religion. While members of the Musahar caste told The Sunday Guardian that around 500 families have converted in the last few months, the district administration, while admitting that the number of such conversions would run into hundreds, stated that it was not possible to give an accurate figure.

Rajaram Musahar (25) of Chaugai village under Dumraon sub-division, who converted to Christianity recently, told The Sunday Guardian over phone, “Of the 1,000 Mahadalit families in our village and the neighbouring villages, around 500 families have embraced Christianity in the last few months.”

The district magistrate of Buxar, Raman Kumar, told this newspaper, “The number of such families is in hundreds. We cannot give an exact figure right now as they are spread over large areas and different villages. This has been happening for a long time. They have converted on their own free will.”

Surendra Musahar (35) from the same Chaugai village, explained to this newspaper over phone, why he embraced Christianity. He said that a local priest helped the Musahars get rid of bhoot rog (ghost disease). “Bhoot rog has affected several families in our village and the neighbouring villages. The traditional ojhas (witch doctors) could not get rid of the disease. Some padres (priests) came to the village and suggested that we should visit the church at Nandan village, 5 km from Chaugai. Regular visits to the church and prayers and pure water offered by the priest cured us of bhoot rog.” He said that he changed his religion out of gratitude and because he got respect from the church.

Rajaram Musahar too stated that his wife got cured of bhoot rog after she started attending the church and drinking the “pure water”.

When asked, Pastor Mukhan told The Sunday Guardian over phone from the sub divisional headquarters of Dumraon, that Mahadalit families of the area were converting because they were getting respect and because they were deprived of basic facilities in their settlement and villages. “They are living in abject poverty. There is no electricity, no roads and not even proper houses for them,” he said.

The neo-converts denied any monetary considerations, or indoctrination, for converting to Christianity. They said that rather they were offering donations to the church every Sunday. “There is no coercion; we did it because we felt we will get more respect if we convert. We are ready to return to Hinduism if we are allowed to live in self respect and our economic welfare is taken care of. After all that is the religion of our ancestors,” said Rajaram.

Jataha Musahar of Ariaon village near Chaugai, was among the first Musahars to get converted. He played an instrumental role in persuading the other villagers to switch to Christianity. Ariaon, which has around 1,000 families, has many talented graduates from Dalit families who became members of the Bihar Public Service Commission, deputy collectors and deputy SPs. The village is located 20 km from Dumraon, a town which was in the news because of Chetan Bhagat’s novel Half-Girlfriend.

Chaugai had become famous when its zamindar (landlord), Sardar Harihar Singh became the Chief Minister of Bihar for four months in 1969. Basant Kumar Singh, a former minister and a relative of Sardar, while confirming that conversions were taking place, said, “I welcome their conversion. They are not getting a decent living as government schemes have not reached them. At least they are getting some respect in their new faith.”

The Mahadalits stated that they have not been getting any benefits under Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s “Mahadalit Mission” scheme — neither any assistance for self employment, nor any pensions. The Nitish Kumar government runs special schemes for uplifting the socio-economic conditions of Mahadalit families, which include distribution of 5 decimals of land, total sanitation and scholarships for children from the Mahadalit caste. However, the villagers The Sunday Guardian spoke to claimed that they were not even aware of these schemes. They stated that even during the tenure of Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was the first Musahar leader to become Chief Minister of Bihar, government schemes did not reach them.

Central schemes such as Indira Awas Yojna for the rural poor too have not reached them, so they continue to stay in their age-old madai (huts). Even the Centrally sponsored Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana (LPG connections) has not reached the Mahadalit tolas (settlement). Religious conversions were common in the tribal belts of the erstwhile undivided Bihar and later in parts of Jharkhand for decades, but the Dumraon conversions are a new phenomenon in the region where Maoist violence and caste conflicts were common for decades since the mid 1970s.

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