The Man Who Made War on a Mountain
He was ridiculed in 1959 when he started hewing a way through the Gahlaur Ghati hills of Bihar’s Gaya district, some 150 km from Patna. It would take 22
FOR THE PEOPLE: Manjhi’s feat will long outlive him
We met Manjhi a few weeks before the cancer that finally ended his life on August 17 forced him to take to his bed. The 73- year-old was frail, but his energy was undiminished as he relived his work on the road. “I knew if I did not do it myself, neither would the government do it nor would the villagers have the will and determination. This hill had given us trouble and grief for centuries. The people had asked the government many times to make a proper road through the hill, but nobody paid any attention. So I just decided I would do it all by myself.”
Before Manjhi’s road, the hill kept the villages of the region in isolation, forcing the villagers to make an arduous and dangerous trek just to reach the nearest market town, or even their own fields. In 1959, Manjhi recounted, this resulted in a family tragedy on the treacherous slope. “My wife, Faguni Devi, was seriously injured while crossing the hill to bring me water; I worked then on a farm across the hills. That was the day I decided to carve out a proper road through this hill,” he told us. The mission he had set himself meant that he had to drop his wage-earning daily work — his family suffered and he himself often went without food. But his wife was not to see the fruits of his labour — a short while later, she fell ill and died as Manjhi could not get her to the hospital in time. “My love for my wife was the initial spark that ignited in me the desire to carve out a road. But what kept me working without fear or worry all those years was the desire to see thousands of villagers crossing the hill with ease whenever they wanted,” Manjhi said. “Though most villagers taunted me at first, there were quite a few who lent me support later by giving me food and helping me buy my tools.” Today, the villagers have nothing but gratitude for Gaya’s mountain man, known almost universally now as Sadhuji.
Dashrath Manjhi belonged to Bihar’s Musahar community, regarded as the lowest among the state’s Scheduled Castes. While other Dalits in Bihar had at least some land rights under the erstwhile zamindari system, the Musahars never enjoyed any such. Nearly 98 percent of the state’s 1.3 million Musahars are landless today. Not even one percent of them are literate, which makes them the community with the country’s lowest literacy rate. For many of them, the day’s main meal still comprises roots, snails or rats, from which the community’s name is derived.
UNDETERRED: Ridiculed at first, Manjhi later became a local hero
Himself landless, he made a petition once for property on which to build a hospital. Then chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav allotted him a five-acre plot in a village called Karzania — the people of the village never allowed him to take possession as they were using the land as a grazing ground. More recently, the Bihar government recommended Manjhi’s name for the Padma Bhushan. This never materialised, nor did Nitish Kumar’s promised support for a road Manjhi wanted from Wazirganj to Gahlaur. Government sources say the forest department had refused permission for the road, claiming that Manjhi had violated regulations by cutting away at the hill without the department’s permission. The Padma Bhushan was reportedly denied to Manjhi because of claims made by certain quarters in the bureaucracy that he did not actually carve out the hill road single-handedly. The villagers who benefited from his labour were outraged at these reports.
“Where was the forest department sleeping all these years when Sadhuji was creating history to help thousands of poor villagers? We have seen him from our childhood, hacking at the hill day and night as if he were possessed,” said Raj Kumar, a 30- year-old Gahlaur resident. But Manjhi was unfazed. “What I did is there for everyone to see. When God is with you, nothing can stop you,” he told us as we left. “I will keep working for the development of the villages here so long I am alive. I am neither afraid of any punishment from any government department for my work nor am I interested in any honour from the government.” Brave words, but perhaps only what one would have expected from the man. The government attempted amends by giving him a state funeral last week — but, as he well knew, it is his work that will live on longer than any honour.