Carving out a Vananchal state

Print edition : May 23, 1998

The Union Government's decision to create a Vananchal state comprising 18 districts in southern Bihar marks the failure of the decades-old Jharkhand movement.

THE decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government at the Centre to carve out a Vananchal state comprising 18 districts of southern Bihar has led to the virtual collapse of the 55-year-old movement for a Jharkhand state. It was principally the BJP that had campaigned for the creation of Vananchal, and the acceptance of that demand amounts to a de facto rejection of the demand of the people in the tribal heartland of Bihar for a Jharkhand state comprising 27 districts of Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.

The collapse of the Jharkhand movement has coincided with the erosion in the political support base of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Sibu Soren group), which spearheaded the movement. Its reputation tarnished by the July 1993 bribes-for-votes scandal, the JMM(S) today appears to be losing its support base among the tribal people of the region; the Jharkhand movement also seems to be slipping out of the hands of the traditional tribal leaders. Simultaneously, the BJP's political fortunes in the region have been on the ascendant. The party has emerged as the strongest political force in the region, winning 11 of the 14 seats in the region in the recent Lok Sabha elections.

Babulal Marandi, who was elected from south Bihar on the BJP ticket and was appointed Union Minister of State for Forests and Environment, said that a Vananchal state comprising 18 districts in the Chhotanagpur and Santhal Parganas region was now a certainty. The districts are: Chatra, Koderma, Hazaribagh, Giridih, Bokaro, Dhanbad, Godda, Deoghar, Dumka, Sahebgunj, Pakur, East Singhbhum, West Singhbhum, Ranchi, Gumla, Garwa, Lohardanga and Palamau.

The Centre, he said, was making "all possible efforts" to introduce a bill in the next session of the Lok Sabha session recommending the formation of a Vananchal state.

Addressing a rally in Ranchi on April 15, Marandi said that the BJP-led Government considered the demand for the creation of a Jharkhand state comprising 18 districts in Bihar, four districts (Sundergarh, Mayurbhanj, Sambalpur and Keonjhar) in Orissa, three (Purulia, Bankura and Midnapore) in West Bengal and two (Surguja and Raigarh) in Madhya Pradesh to be politically infeasible.

He said: "The idea of a Vananchal state emerged because party leaders doubt the feasibility of the Jharkhand concept. Orissa, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh are not ready to cede any area. Therefore, there will be technical hurdles in the creation of a Jharkhand state. There is no point in demanding something which is practically impossible."

The Jharkhand movement has over the years been considerably weakened by fragmentation, factionalism, politicking, rivalries within the tribal communities and social divisions between people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and others. The Jharkhand parties, which initially sank their differences and unitedly demanded a separate state, soon got caught up in a game of one-upmanship. Each accused the others of being "agents" of one national party or the other.

Former Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav capitalised on these differences and put down the movement, which was characterised by militancy in the 1980s and the early 1990s. With the formation in September 1994 of the Jharkhand Area Autonomous Council (JAAC), which granted a measure of autonomy to the region but fell far short of the demand for statehood, the movement lost much of its momentum. Barring the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) and the Jharkhand People's Party (JPP), all the other major Jharkhand groups, including the JMM(S), accepted the formation of the JAAC.

The demand for a Jharkhand state was revived again in August 1996 when Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, in his Independence Day address, declared that the Uttarakhand region comprising the northern hill districts of Uttar Pradesh would be granted statehood. On August 18, 1996, JMM(S) president Sibu Soren and vice-president Suraj Mandal warned of an "intense agitation" if the Centre did not initiate soon the process of granting statehood to Jharkhand too. Welcoming the decision on Uttarakhand, the two leaders said that the demand for a Jharkhand state, which had first been raised over 55 years earlier, should also have been conceded. AJSU leader Suraj Singh Besra and JPP leader Vinod Kumar Bhagat threatened to revive the Jharkhand movement. But none of the Jharkhandi parties could get a campaign going.

Over the years, the Jharkhand leadership had several opportunities to swing public opinion in favour of the statehood demand, but it squandered them. There was merit in Sibu Soren's charge that the Jharkhand region was discriminated against by the Centre; but even so, his words sound hollow today to the people of the region, because their faith in their leaders stands shaken. Further, over the years, the Jharkhand parties gradually gave up their claims over the nine districts in the three neighbouring States. This was a consequence of the strong opposition of the Governments of West Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, and the Jharkhand parties' weak political base in territories outside south Bihar.

It is no wonder that the JMM(S) failed to win a single seat in south Bihar in the May-June parliamentary elections.

A demonstration by BJP workers at Barhi Hazaribagh in September 1996 to press for the creation of a Vananchal state.-

The other Jharkhand parties - such as the AJSU, the JPP, the JMM (Mardi group), the Jharkhand Party (J.P.) and the Jharkhand Kranti Dal (JKD) - too are to blame for the petering out of the movement. They devoted little time and attention to the cause of building up a strong and united movement against the exploitation of the tribal people in mineral-rich south Bihar. Instead, they were caught up in a game of one-upmanship. The erosion in their credibility created a leadership vacuum, which the BJP filled. At a convention in Ranchi on April 30, 1988, the Bihar unit of the BJP adopted for the first time a resolution demanding a Vananchal state comprising 18 districts.

The circumstances in which the BJP took up the cause of a Vananchal state show that it was driven not by a commitment, but by political compulsions. The demand for Vananchal was first raised by two leaders of the party from south Bihar, Inder Singh Namdhari and Samresh Singh, in the late 1980s, and the BJP was initially reluctant to take up the issue. Only when it became difficult for the leadership to ignore the statehood demand did the party consider the matter.

A close aide of Namdhari recalls that he (Namdhari) faced stiff opposition from the party leaders, particularly those from the Bihar plains, when he first raised the demand. In fact, Namdhari was forced to resign as president of the Bihar unit of the BJP for, among other things, continuing to demand a separate state. Subsequently, Namdhari formed the Sampoorna Kranti Dal, a pro-Vananchal party in south Bihar. Even then the majority of BJP leaders were opposed to the creation of a Vananchal state.

However, following the intensification of the Jharkhand movement, the BJP realised that its political survival in south Bihar was dependent on its accommodating the aspirations of the tribal communities for a separate state. This was particularly so after the united JMM won eight of the 14 seats in south Bihar in the 1991 parliamentary elections.

BJP leaders and activists in southern Bihar are optimistic that the creation of Vananchal will boost its political fortunes in the region.

However, there is serious concern over the economic plight of Bihar once Vananchal is carved out. The 18 districts that will make up Vananchal are mineral-rich and many major industries are located there. According to sources in the State Finance Department, of the Rs.3,000 crores generated by Bihar as internal resources, over Rs.2,000 crores come from the Vananchal area. Of the Rs.1,700-crore sales tax collections in the State, about Rs.1,200 crores come from the Vananchal region; of this, Bokaro Steel Plant alone accounts for about Rs.140 crores. Likewise, of the Rs.830 crores generated from mines and minerals, about Rs.700 crores come from the Vananchal area. In addition, Bihar will lose Rs.30 crores a year in forest revenue once Vananchal is created. These considerations have led to demands that Bihar be adequately compensated for the loss of revenue when the new state comes into being.

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