The Socially Excluded

“All their lives, they are told, ‘You are the last.
You are the least. You do not deserve to have.’
They learn very fast to keep quiet, don’t expect changes
– and don’t ask for more.”
– Sudha Varghese, The Marginalised (1990).

Padma Shri Sudha Varghese, Founder, Nari Gunjan the Prerna girls in the background. Different colours denote different hostels

Mission Musahars
“I have lived a thousand lives and died a hundred deaths in these 45 years with the Musahars (rat catchers) in Bihar. Since I met them in 1977, this tribal community even today sits on one of the Dalit’s lowest rungs. Having faced decades of societal exclusion, their living conditions amid squalor and filth, I’m sad to say, remain the same, or even worse since the pandemic. They follow the maxim ‘Earn today, eat today,’ introduces Padma Shri recipient, Sudha Varghese, and adds about the fourth highest civilian award, “Such honours as this one in 2006, are because of the Musahar people. If they had not accepted me, I would not have been able to do what I am doing.”

“I remember my first visit to the Musahar village, a deliberate distance segregating them from other communities as they lacked self-esteem. Poor and marginalised, most were landless, unskilled and underpaid bonded labourers for farming landlords. I felt they deserved my life, love and service the most,” said Sudha plunging into a long, arduous journey of upliftment, including giving up her job at the ‘big school’.

Going back in time, Sudha, born in 1949 to an upper-middle-class family in Kerala, left home in 1964 and joined the Patna Province of Sisters of Notre Dame. Upon receiving her teacher’s training, she taught at what she remembers as “big schools and children from rich families, which did not satisfy my search”.

Malayalam- and English-speaking Sudha’s initial hurdle was Bihar’s Hindi-speaking language barrier. Overcoming that soon, she started her mission with a two-pronged approach – first, to educate the Musahar girls; and secondly, to inculcate the rights of the community. They faced court cases and were cheated by middlemen for boundary disputes of land which none of them owned! To save them from this menace, Sudha studied law. The Musahar women believed getting raped was their destiny, as there were numerous assaults by the upper-caste Yadav men, mainly under the influence of alcohol. For her activism, Sudha got death threats from the intimidating community. But she continued her battle, aided by women who had been victimised.

L: Sudha (ext. right) distributing sanitary napkins to the Musahar women R: Students Dancing

Nari Gunjan – The Voice of Women
Under the umbrella of Nari Gunjan, since 1987, Sudha and her team have brought revolutionary changes by coordinating multilayered activities such as education, advocacy, and welfare. 

Knowing education being integral for removing them from the quagmire they were steeped in, Sudha moved to Asopur village under Danapur Block which had a concentration of Musahars. Going door-to-door, she convinced mostly unschooled or school dropout girls, to go back to school and to look beyond their social deprivations. Women were taught about reproductive health, nutrition, cleanliness, sanitation, and small savings initiatives.

“Initially, being unaware about the evils of the caste system, prevalent illegal child marriages, and immense poverty in Bihar, I also faced death threats. During the last five decades, realisation has dawned that I can’t be afraid of losing my life to some goons who don’t own my life. God has given me this life – this became my resolution to move forward,” Sudha affirms.

Concrete work started by Sudha in 2001, with 40 Kishori Kendras opening pan-Bihar, each housing 40 teenage girls. The first milestone was the Residential School for Mahadalit Girls in 2006. Presently about 250 students reside in hostels at Danapur and Bodhgaya. Prerana (literally, inspiration), started in a building described as a ‘half public latrine and half water-buffalo shed’ on the outskirts of Danapur

In 2012, Chief Minister of Bihar, Mr. Nitish Kumar asked Sudha to replicate the model and allocated resources to open another Prerana at Gaya. Nari Gunjan has since expanded to 80 educational centers, going beyond Patna to Bihta, Danapur, Punpun, Phulwari, and Naubatpur.

The Alcohol Ban in Bihar in 2016 led to Nari Gunjan guiding the jobless, landless Musahar women towards farming. Some continue working on leased land, while others have become proud landowners. Onion cultivation has been their most profitable cash crop.

Each school is non-denominational and also includes calisthenics and art programs. After receiving a basic education, the students are sent to mainstream government schools for higher certified education. So far, over 2,500 girls have continued their education at various levels. Still, a long road ahead where the literacy rate for the Musahars is still an abysmal 1% among women.  

The Alcohol Ban in 2016 discontinued the Musahars’ income from brewing country liquor. Under Sudha’s leadership, Nari Gunjan stepped in and turned it into a golden opportunity for the landless Musahar women. 

“Initiating them into farming on 2-1/2 bighas of leased land which we bought for Rs. 30,000, and in kitchen gardens, the women soon became bread earners with onion cultivation giving them highest returns. Subsequently, some of these ‘new’ farmers bought land from their savings and today, proudly are landlords themselves. Simra Musahar tola (village) presently has 35 women farmers. An upgraded lifestyle means their children moving from government schools into private schools which the parents can now afford. This shows their path of progress,” affirms Sudha. 

During the lockdown, online teaching has been difficult as many girls did not have smartphones. Some worked, earned money, and bought their own phones. With students of Classes 6 to 9 returning to the hostel soon, Sudha will know how many are continuing their education. 

Nari Gunjan has been counseling parents against illegal child marriages. Where parents resist, police intervention has helped postpone the marriages of almost 10 minor girls.

L: Creatively colourful display of the students’ crafts. by Prerana hostel girls R: Anand Shiksha Kendra teaches both boys and girls, between four to seven years.

Confronting Corona
“The pandemic has scattered the lives of these highly vulnerable Musahars. They still have no work and no sustainable livelihood, nor any government schemes to support them. Their conditions remain precarious.   

According to Sudha, “Food insecurity and economic hardships in rural Bihar continue. Even in such situations, the Public Distribution System has not fairly provided ration to our people. Instead of Midday meals, an equivalent amount was to be remitted to children below six years and pregnant and lactating women. Over 90% have not received any money. Under MANREGA’s employment guarantee scheme, very few people got jobs but were paid only half daily wages amounting Rs. 150/- each. 

“During 2020, seeing the extent of poverty and hunger, we requested Oxfam for help. They provided 500 ration kits of 37 kgs. each. The Rotary Club of Patna provided 350 ration packets; Jagori Rural Charitable Trust, Himachal Pradesh, gave Rs. 50,000/- for rations. The Rotary International’s substantial donation was shared as rations and as utility kits in other Musahar Tolas.

“Our concern continues about the spread of covid in congested tolas with inadequate water and electricity supply, jobs and education. Wearing of mask is not totally followed because they believe their strong immunity system is because of the food they eat – many still survive on rats, snails and other waterborne species – and the country liquor they brew and consume.”

Summing up, the Founder says, “In retrospection, my biggest award came when the Musahar people built a hut for me in their village. That was the turning point in my life. I found a new meaning and much satisfaction as a person, as a woman in my commitment to the poorest of the poor.” 

“Going forward, I tell them, ‘Get educated, secure even a small job and continue to work hard for a better future. This is the only solution. A day will come when the sun will shine on us too!” Sudha Varghese signs off optimistically.

L: Prerana’s Karate Kids! R:The Prerana football team ready to play again after a one year covid break.

Sudha Varghese
Nari Gunjan Prerana Hostel
Lalkothi, Danapur
Patna – 801503, Bihar, India 
Office: +91-6115-224448
Mobile: +91-9431025201
Email: [email protected]

Amita Sarwal
Amita Sarwal

After an erratic 10-year practice as a homeopathic doctor, Amita took to writing in 1973.  Her 45+ year career encompasses contributions to a very extensive gamut of magazines and newspapers- in India and abroad-on lifestyle, travel, architecture, personalities, book, and restaurant reviews, etc.  
During her 21 years based in Singapore, she was an Editor with the renowned publisher Editions Didier Millet and completed six pictorial encyclopedias on Indonesia and Malaysia among other coffee table books.  Her personal passion was writing ‘The spirit of SKV’- Chronicle of a Girls’ School to mark the Golden Jubliee (2006) of her alma mater Scindia Kanya Vidyalaya, Gwalior. Now Amita has an increasingly strong focus on featuring Changemakers/Unsung heroes of India who are helping make a difference to society-“because the world needs to know about their exemplary work.”  Yoga, social work to help the underprivileged, reading and collecting forms of Lord Ganesh also keep her busy.

Read more by Amita Sarwal.


Picture Credit : Nari Gunjan, Patnativl

27 thoughts on “The Socially Excluded”

  1. Wonderful to read about the stellar work being done in uplifting one of the most vulnerable and marginalized s cations of our society. Hats off to Sudha Varghese for her dedication to this cause!

  2. Truly an eye opener.

    Thank you for sharing the life experience and mission of such a selfless achiever, who obviously was SO determined, against all odds. Sudha Varghese is truly a Page 1 personality.

    SO heartening to know about this GREAT upliftment of this marginalised community.

  3. Great article by Ms Sarwal. Such a wonderful work being done by Ms Sudha Varghese of Nari Gunjan for these completely forgotten & neglected sect, Musahars …. it’s an inspiration. It was an eye opener as never before had I read about the struggles of this community. Keep up the great work

  4. Nice to know that you are interested in changemakers/and unsung heroes.We observe feel sad for them but never thought of bringing them in the picture to change the society. It is nice job you have taken up and I’m sure it will bring change in society.

    1. Glad you think so Revati. Please help spread the word further, globally so that Sudha & Nari Gunjan get the recognition & support they deserve.

      In case you know of NGOs I could write about, am open to looking at them.

  5. I am so impressed with Sudha. She is doing such a noble work. It’s hard to even imagine what these girls go through. More power to Nari Gunjan and and Sudha.
    Thank you Amita for bringing out the truth. Love your writing

  6. It is a good read. But I would be satisfied, when we (women of Bihar) equally feel responsible & either join hands with Suhani or start something of our own , on these lines. I had the good opportunity to see her when she came on KBC’s “Karamveer” episode. I belong to Bihar, my native village (Ahwar Sheikh) comprises of maximum Mushahars only. Would love to go there &do my whatever bit for their upliftment

    1. Thank you for your message, Rajyashree.
      A bit confused! You mention ‘Suhani’ – did you mean Sudha?

      Have you heard of Mr Jyoti Sinha? He is doing similar work for Musahar boys including has a boarding school. I have written about his work too. Could send you his article too. Am sure if you contact Sudha & Jyoti, they might be able help and guide you.
      What a noble intent you have!

  7. we were kids when heard the word musahar, never struck who they were because we did not have the knowledge of caste system . Good that you have drawn the attention of the society towards these downtrodden caste. Amazing work being done by Sudha & Nari Gunjan. Great work Amita for bringing state of Musahars to the public.

    1. Wow! What a first hand childhood experience. Please forward this article as Nari Gunjan needs recognition & support.

  8. I salute Sudha Varghese for her good work.
    And I congratulate Amita for your efforts to bring this to the public.

  9. Good interesting article Amita Thanks to your articles we get information about inspiring people that are doing so much for the forgotten people
    Had never even heard about these communities
    It is also heartening to know there are so many people in India that are doing their best for the people

  10. Sudha Verghese has done amazing work.
    Amita, you have rightly said that education will improve their plight considerably. Loved your article.

  11. Thank you so much Mrs.Sarwal for sharing this reality of life. Through your writing you are creating so much awareness about this issue, a noble deed itself. I hope Sudha Verghese continues her good work ,admire her dedication and may her mission find enormous success.

  12. What an eye opening article about the situation for the vulnerable Musahar people especially the girls and women. I’m intrigued by their country liquor. As an foodpreneur I wonder if this could be adjusted most likely, and marketed more widely for some economic stability for these people. Also so many jobs could come from a community owned business that reflects their heritage while improving their status and allowing those that want to stay in their village a viable option. Just a thought over ☕️ My greatest respect and appreciation Sudha’s impactful work and dedication and also Amita’s words that bring this cause to light in such a clear and thoughtful way.
    💚💫🌿 📚

  13. Amita this is a very revealing article about the great effort that Sudha has put in to educate this particular downtrodden society.I was quite unaware that they are still having to go through so much hardship.She certainly deserves this Padmashri award for all that she has put in for society.

  14. Amita, I read your very interesting and informative article on the Musahar Tribe in Bihar. I had no idea about this marginalized & downtrodden community and I applaud Sudha Varghese who has worked so hard for so many years to upgrade their lives. 👍

  15. Amita, an article that I read with great sadness and sorrow on one of India’s most marginalised communities. Even the browbeaten low-caste Dalits look down on them. While heroic individuals like Ms. Varghese toil to mitigate the hardship, it’s a Herculean task in a society like India where caste and women mixed with widespread poverty are treated with such contempt that it will require a miraculous evolution for any change to happen. But there is always hope and NGOs intervention will bring their plight to the world and result in a better beginning. You writing it is a good start.

  16. Hats off to Sudha Varghese for achieving so much in this short time, under such adverse conditions, including the life threats. A very well deserved Padma Shri
    God bless her and give her a long life to continue this extraordinary work. Such change makers are needed desperately.
    Thanks Amita for bringing it to limelight, a well written article.

  17. Amita, this article today brought tears to my heart and anger at the politicians. I had to wait a few hours before I could comment. Such noble causes to help the marginalized communities in the country should be a priority with all state governments as this will uplift their state society to prosperity. There is a rippling effect in society-one educated person doing well will inspire the next one. All of us together can be the ripples to stop casteism around us.
    Thank you for taking the time to inform us of these happenings going on in our environment.
    “Extending one hand to help somebody has more value than joining two hands for prayer”

  18. Your article Amita moved me to tears. I was saddened to read that there are so many rungs in our society that are neglected and living in such dire conditions. You are certainly creating a “ripple effect “with your articles. Well written as always.
    Hats of to Padma Shri Sudha Varghese for her commendable work. I’m so glad CM Nitish Kumar is supporting her efforts.
    May the sun shine brightly on Nari Gunjan.

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