Last Updated: November 21, 2023, 08:46 IST
A Santhali, named Budhni Manjhiyain, passed away four days ago at the age of 80. Manjhiyain wasn’t a regular woman from Jharkhand. An incident in 1959, when she was just 16, changed her life forever. And she came to be known as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s “tribal wife”.
Manjhiyain was ostracised by her tribe as then PM Nehru had garlanded her at a dam’s inauguration when she was a 16-year-old project worker.
According to a report in Times of India, the garland placed respectfully by Nehru at the inauguration of the Panchet Dam — now near Dhanbad — became a millstone for Budhni for much of her life as the Santhal tribals considered the gesture a “marriage”.
She became an outcast for “marrying outside her community, particularly a non-tribal”, and was denied entry into her hamlet, the report stated.
On November 17, when Manjhiyain died in a shack in Panchet where she lived with her daughter Ratna, hundreds — including local politicians and officials — visited to bid farewell to what many there described as “the first tribal wife of the first PM of the country”.
TOI stated that it was then they sought a memorial in her honour, next to an existing statue of Nehru in a local park. They also demanded pension for Ratna (60). JMM leader Ashok Mandal said that Manjhiyain’s contribution in the construction of Panchet Dam will always be remembered.
According to the report, Bhairav Mandal, the chief of Panchet panchayat, and others have written to the DVC management about the memorial and a house for Ratna in the local DVC colony.
DVC is Damodar Valley Corporation, the PSU under which the dam was built and functions. Ratna’s son Bapi (35) is an accountant with DVC and lives in nearby Maithon, the report stated.
Sumesh Kumar, deputy chief engineer of DVC at Panchet, was quoted as saying that no decision on the memorial or the other demands had been taken so far. “These decisions can be taken only after consulting top officers,” Kumar added.
The Troubles of Budhni Manjhiyain
TOI stated that like the devastating Damodar, the eddies of Budhni’s life began in 1952 when her ancestral land was submerged during the construction of the dam. But she managed to stay afloat, becoming one of the first contract labourers in the project as she had no source of income other than land.
Then, at the inauguration on December 5, 1959, troubles started anew with Nehru’s garlanding. The DVC management had selected Budhni along with Ravan Manjhi, a Santhali man, to welcome Nehru. Local lore has it that Budhni pressed the button to get the dam going, the report stated.
In 1962, Budhni was retrenched along with scores of other DVC contract workers. She moved to Saltora in neighbouring Bengal’s Purulia and toiled as a daily-wager, the publication mentioned.
There, Budhni met Sudhir Dutta, a contract worker in a colliery who gave her shelter and later married her. After Rajiv Gandhi visited Asansol in Bengal as PM in 1985, a local Congress leader got Budhni to meet him and she narrated her ordeal. After that, Budhni was provided a job in DVC, from where she retired in 2005, TOI stated.