Tribal anger

Print edition : May 10, 2019

(From left ) Former Union Minister, Subodh Kant Sahay, Congress MLA Alamgir Alam, JVM chief Babulal Marandi, JMM chief Shibu Soren, president of the State Congress Ajoy Kumar, and JMM working president Hemant Soren at a press conference after announcing a seat-sharing pact, in Ranchi on March 24. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Raghubar Das with BJP candidate for Daltonganj Bishnu Deo Ram in Daltonganj on April 6. Photo: PTI

The consolidation of the tribal people and the minorities behind the Congress will see the alliance it leads put up a good fight in the State.

Jharkhand, a predominantly tribal State, is set to witness an interesting contest between bread-and-butter issues on the one hand and the concept of rashtravaad (nationalism) and national security on the other. The State, which turned saffron in the 2014 election, handing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 12 out of 14 Lok Sabha seats, has woken up from its saffron reverie and is debating issues like unemployment, communalism, lynchings and hate politics in urban areas while tribal people in rural areas are debating how to protect their jal, jangal, jameen (water, forest and land resources). (Jharkhand votes in four phases starting April 29.)

“We used to protect our jal, jangal and jameen with bows, arrows and axes since time immemorial. But once the country gained independence, our leaders told us not to pick up our weapons but to protect them with our votes. This time, our vote is for saving our jal, jangal, zameen and nothing else,” said Johan Nag, a nonagenarian, in Khunti, Jharkhand. Khunti is where Birsa Munda, whom the tribal people worship as their God and who laid down his life fighting the British for tribal rights at the age of 25, was born, at a village called Uliathu. Safeguarding their land has been the primary concern for tribal people since 2016 when the BJP government led by Raghubar Das sought to amend the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhalpargana Tenancy Act, which takes away tribal people’s exclusive right over their land. The amendments are pending with the Governor.

“We cannot pick up our bows and arrows now, but we will definitely use our vote to protect our land,” said Nag, who has been a Congress supporter since his childhood. Nag was elected sarpanch of his village in the second panchayat election soon after Independence and has been an active participant in all the protests against the changes in the land laws despite his advancing years and frail body. The Raghubar Das government had ordered the police to fire on a group of protesters who were on their way to Ranchi to take part in a protest rally in Khunti in October 2016. Nag was part of that group. Abrahm Kundu, a close acquaintance of Nag, was killed in the firing and several others were injured. The police had arrested scores of tribal people for violating Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. First information reports were filed against 13 persons for rioting and prohibiting government officials from discharging their duty. They were immediately arrested, while over 50 others were detained under various other Sections. In due course, everybody, except a man called Yogesh, was released on bail.

The protests may have died down, but the witch-hunt by the police continues and is now a major election issue for the tribal people of the State. “The late Muchrai Munda, a veteran Congressman, predicted in 1970 that the day a Sangh-supported government comes to power, we would lose our jal, jangal, jameen. He has been proved right,” said Nag. Muchrai Munda, incidentally, is the father of the Congress candidate from Khunti, Kalicharan Munda. Kalicharan Munda is facing former Chief Minister Arjun Munda (BJP) in a contest which does not seem to favour the BJP if the tribal people’s sentiment is any indication.

Anger against Chief Minister

They are so upset with the BJP government that they threw chappals at Raghubar Das when he visited Khunti district to pay homage to those killed in British firing in the Munda uprising. They protested with black flags when he inaugurated a power substation in Japud village in the district. The Khunti Lok Sabha seat, with the veteran BJP leader Karia Munda representing it for eight terms, has been a BJP bastion. Karia Munda, perceived to be getting on in age, has been replaced by Arjun Munda. Asked about his prospects, Arjun Munda was non-committal. “Let the nomination process get over; only then I will be able to tell you,” he told this correspondent. His campaign, predictably, revolves around “the making of a grand Bharat where each individual is proud of his grand origins”. He promises to rid the area of the “illness” caused by the long Congress rule.

Kalicharan Munda, on the other hand, is confident of winning. “We will definitely win 12 seats. I will not be surprised if we win all 14,” he said. He felt that Pulwama, Balakot and similar nationalistic issues would not work in Jharkhand because “the Moolwasis [natives] are upset. For them, it is a matter of their jal, jangal, jameen. There has been no development here.” His confidence arises from the fact that tribal people and minorities number roughly four lakh in the area, enough to make a winning combination.

Khunti is not an isolated case. The consolidation of tribal and minority votes across the State seems to be working against the BJP, especially in rural areas. While the BJP harps on national security and teaching Pakistan a lesson, the Congress talks about the rights of tribal people, unemployment, the hate politics of the BJP and farmer stress.

“Land is a major issue here. Thousands of acres of tribal land are being acquired by the government in the name of creating a land pool for the development of industry. But this is just an excuse for land-grabbing by their cronies,” said Subodh Kant Sahay, former Union Minister and Congress candidate from the Ranchi Lok Sabha seat. According to him, since the BJP has no achievement to speak of, it is hiding behind Pakistan and national security to divert attention from the real issues of starvation deaths, unemployment and lack of development in the State. Sahay, who has been a Lok Sabha member three times, faces the BJP’s Sanjay Seth, a prominent businessman in Ranchi who has been a BJP foot soldier since 1980, but is contesting an election for the first time.

Seth replaces veteran BJP leader Ram Tahal Chaudhary, who was denied the ticket because he was thought to be too old. Chaudhary, who has contested from Ranchi seven times, winning five times, has rebelled against the party and is in the fray as an independent. He has the potential to damage the BJP’s prospects even if Seth does not consider him a threat.

According to Seth, “Modi is the only issue. Modi has given people cooking gas, toilets, the Ayushman scheme, bank accounts, houses and development. What more can they ask for?” he said. Seth is optimistic that his three-year stint as Chairman of Khadi & Village Industries Commission in Ranchi has given him a fan following among tribal people. He is confident that this, combined with his support base among the business community and the popularity of Modi among the upper castes and the middle class, will see him through.

While the upper castes and the middle classes are solidly behind Modi, along with a section of the backward classes whose support depends on the candidate, the tribal population is against the party.“Getting the tribal people to vote for the BJP is going to be tough,” admitted Jalnath Chaudhary, president, All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), Ranchi district. The AJSU is the political party that spearheaded the Jharkhand movement and is now a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Minorities favour Congress

According to him, the consolidation of minority votes, both Christian and Muslim, which is substantial in Jharkhand, is undeniably in favour of the Congress. This, coupled with the support base of the candidates themselves, could carry many Congress candidates through. The support for the BJP and the Congress will be put to test in the Lohardaga Lok Sabha seat, where the BJP has fielded its two-time MP Sudarshan Bhagat. Shopkeepers and businessmen, big and small, and those belonging to the upper castes were in favour of voting for the BJP because “national security is a priority”. It did not matter to them who the candidate was. The BJP’s Rajya Sabha member Samir Uraon, who is in charge of the Lohardaga seat, said there was a Modi wave in the villages because they believed in the BJP’s philosophy of “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” and also because “the country was a priority”.

On the other hand, Nizamuddin Ansari, a tailor in Bhandara village of the constituency, said the Congress candidate, too, enjoyed support. “People want jobs and peace, that is why it is important for the Congress to come back,” he said. Maruf Quereshi, a garment shop owner, and Asif Iqbal, also a shop owner, were unanimous that BJP leaders were talking about Pakistan and Balakot only to divert attention from real issues. “But people want sukoon [peace]. The BJP is pushing the country towards civil war. It is a communal party. BJP leaders celebrated those accused of mob-lynching. For us, it is important to vote for the Congress this time to save the secular character of our democracy,” they said. The Congress has fielded the sitting Lohardaga MLA Sukhdeo Bhagat from this seat. Both Quereshi and Iqbal said Bhagat had done nothing for Muslims but they would still vote for him because they wanted the “Ganga Jamuni culture of the country to survive”.

Interestingly, in 2014, the Congress had fielded Rameshwar Uraon, a popular leader, from this constituency. In spite of the Modi wave, he lost only by 4,000 votes. Many people told this correspondent that had Uraon been the candidate this time, it would have been a cakewalk for the Congress. Still, the party seems well placed because the Muslim-tribal people combination has made this a winning seat for it.

However, Hazaribagh, which is being contested by Union Minister Jayant Sinha, is another matter. Here the Congress has fielded Gopal Sahu, scion of the Ranchi liquor baron S.P. Sahu. His brother Dhiraj Sahu is a Rajya Sabha member. Congress supporters appeared disappointed with the candidate because they consider him an outsider. BJP supporters, on the other hand, sounded upbeat. “Jayant Sinha will win. He has got a medical college for us. Besides, there is a Modi wave,” said Pradeep Chandra Lala, a medical shop owner in Gola, Hazaribagh.

Gopal Sahu is also confident of his prospects. He based his optimism on the lies being pedalled by the Modi government and the general discontent with the government. “Unemployment is the highest ever. How long can they fool the people?” he told this correspondent.

Mohammad Yaqub, a tailor in Ramgarh, summed up the feelings of many like him when he said that the uppermost thought in his mind while voting would be “freedom from the goondagardi of the Bajrang Dal and the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad], freedom for people to eat what they want, and peace. If you impose a ban on eating [what we liked], how can we survive? It is wrong to say that the Congress has done no development in the last 70 years.” For him, the candidate does not matter as “it is important for the Congress to come back at the Centre”.

The stakes are high in Jharkhand for the BJP. With 12 seats and a 40 per cent vote share, it has a high benchmark to defend. The Congress is in alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) of Babulal Marandi, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The alliance is putting up a good fight this time. Even though the Congress did not win any seats in 2014, it polled 13 per cent of the vote. The JMM won two seats in 2014 with a 9.3 per cent vote share, while the JVM did not win any seat in 2014 though it polled 12 per cent of the vote. The combined vote share of these parties, along with a surge for the Congress, makes the contest evenly balanced this time.

Purnima S. Tripthi has travelled in Ranchi, Lohardaga, Ramgarh, Khunti for this story.