Jharkhand's crisis

Published : Aug 03, 2002 00:00 IST

By trying to resurrect a 1982 notification and expand its scope to provide an enhanced level of job reservations to Jharkhand's tribal people, Chief Minister Babulal Marandi seems to have opened a Pandora's box.

JHARKHAND is on the boil. The new domicile policy proposed by Chief Minister Babulal Marandi has triggered widespread turmoil and even bouts of violence involving tribal and non-tribal persons in the State, which was carved out of Bihar in November 2000. In the past one month, the functioning of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government has been seriously affected by a large-scale agitation. Violent demonstrations in turn favouring and opposing the domicile policy took place in Ranchi, Dhanbad, Bokaro, Jamshedpur and other parts of the State. Clashes with the police have become the order of the day. The State was virtually paralysed with three back-to-back bandhs in a span of a month. At least five persons were killed and many injured during the bandh called by 58 organisations on July 24 to support the government's policy of giving preference to those 'domiciled' in Jharkhand in the matter of providing jobs.

While a bandh on July 18 was called to protest against the domicile policy of the government, counter-bandhs on July 20 and 24 were called in response to the first one. There were reports of gun-fights between the supporters and opponents of the policy and of attempts by 'anti-domicile' activists at self-immolation. In Dhanbad, the police arrested the zonal president of the National Coolie Union, Ramnath Singh, when he tried to immolate himself near the railway station in protest against the government's domicile policy, for which he held Marandi responsible. The Jharkhand Upekshit Yuva Manch (JUYM), a recently formed anti-domicile policy platform, has reportedly launched a door-to-door campaign to seek support for its proposed 'self-immolation' programme, in order to put pressure on the government. The 'pro-domicile' organisations, comprising mostly Adivasis and Moolvasis (original inhabitants) came together under a Ranchi-based umbrella body, the Jharkhand Moolvasi Janadhikar Manch (JMJM) and demanded the resignation of six State Ministers - Baccha Singh, P.N. Singh, M.P. Singh, R.L. Sarda, Raghuwar Das and Ramchandra Kesri - for opposing the domicile policy.

On July 24, during the course of what appeared to be a state-sponsored bandh, five persons were killed in police firing. Railway, air and road transport services were disrupted. Life in Ranchi came to a standstill. Even essential services like the supply of electricity and water was affected. Thousands of people clashed at different places in Ranchi's Heavy Engineering Corporation township: groups exchanged fire and hurled crude bombs at each other. Three persons succumbed to bullet wounds at MECON township, while two others died in violence elsewhere in the city. From daybreak, armed groups went on the rampage. They torched the Hatia police station, apart from shops, markets and houses. Vandals damaged and burnt vehicles, forcibly entered houses, assaulted people and snapped the power supply to the city.

On July 18, anti-domicile activists staged a State-wide bandh. Pro-domicile activists led by BJP Member of Parliament Salkhan Murmu retaliated with another bandh on July 20. The situation became alarming when clashes between the two sides led to a reign of terror in different places in Jharkhand.

The government's domicile policy earmarks 1932 as the base year in the record of rights. Those who settled in what now constitutes the State of Jharkhand after 1932 are being labelled 'outsiders'. Supporters of the policy demanded a time-frame for the implementation of the policy. They demanded that people who did not meet the eligibility requirements under the policy be prevented from contesting elections and even from purchasing land other than for commercial purposes.

Intelligence sources say that the ethnic unrest, which is now in its initial stages, is limited to urban or industrialised pockets such as Ranchi, Dhanbad, Jamshedpur, Bokaro, Chaibasa and Chakradharpur, which have substantial 'migrant' populations. "We are keeping our fingers crossed. If pro- and anti-domicile protests spread to the rural areas, things could go out of hand with violence becoming the order of the day as had happened during the Ahom movement in Assam in the 1980s. The matter is political but all sides are trying to encash it to the maximum," an intelligence officer said.

SOURCES in the BJP said that the party was acutely divided over the issue, although in public it presented a united face. "The foundation of the party was led in this region by people who are now described as outsiders. The same outsiders have been the moneybags of the BJP here. Triggering divisions on the basis of place of residence will jeopardise the party's prospects in the State," one of them said.

It appears that tribal members of the Marandi Ministry have ranged themselves against the non-tribal members, keeping them away from decision-making on important issues. The non-tribal group believes that the agitation is not as much about job reservation as it is about power play. The tribal people have received little by way of social support since the State was carved out of Bihar. They expressed their disappointment in the recently held byelection to the Dumka Lok Sabha seat (which was vacated by the Chief Minister himself) by electing Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) supremo Sibu Soren. Marandi got the message and decided that something had to be done. He dug out a 1982 notification issued by the Labour Department of undivided Bihar, which puts the tribal and indigenous people in reserved categories for recruitment in factories and workshops. By quietly seeking to revive the notification, which was never implemented, Marandi wanted to give some extra benefits to the tribal people.

In the event, Marandi opened the floodgates of social unrest by suggesting that the ambit of the notification can be extended to government offices and educational institutions without providing any guarantee that the beneficiaries are adequately equipped for the jobs they apply for. The government's failure to evolve a mechanism to identify the 'original residents' of Jharkhand has added to the confusion. There were demands for setting up a commission to identify the 'original residents', but Marandi ignored them. Said a senior government official: "A substantial percentage of the tribal and other original inhabitants are landless. The government does not know how to identify them and where to place them on the domicile spectrum. The agitation will only end up creating an insider-outsider divide, which would spell doom for the State."

In fact, trouble has been brewing in the State ever since its inception, with organisations of various tribal groups, Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) fighting for enhanced levels of reservation for their respective communities in government jobs and panchayati raj institutions. All these groups are on the warpath and they have separate programmes of action.

In fact the State has become a hotbed of communal politics. The tribal people and the Scheduled Castes, who once fought unitedly for the realisation of the Jharkhand State, are now divided as each S.C. and Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) group wants an increase in its quota. Claims and counter-claims have made it difficult for the government to arrive at a decision. The six-member Cabinet sub-committee constituted under Welfare Minister Arjun Munda to study the legal aspects of the reservation policy sought several extensions but is yet to arrive at a conclusion. At a meeting of the sub-committee, Ministers belonging to the S.C.s and the S.T.s and representatives of Opposition parties traded charges and finally abandoned the attempt to find a solution. Two Ministers, one belonging to an S.T. and the other an S.C., threatened to quit the Cabinet should their views be ignored. Informed sources said that the sub-committee wanted the quota to be around 28 per cent for the tribal communities, 12 per cent for the S.C.s, and 27 per cent for the OBCs. The offer was not acceptable to OBC leaders. The demands presented before the State government are such that, if implemented, they would lead to 100 per cent reservation for the communities concerned.

The prominent pro-tribal players in the agitation are the Adivasi Jharkhand Janadhikar Manch (AJJM) and the Adivasi Chatra Sangha (ACS). They are supported by several tribal organisations. Both have held a series of rallies, demonstrations and dharnas to press for their demand. While the AJJM, led by Salkhan Murmu, has demanded 100 per cent reservation (60 per cent for the tribal people in State government services, educational institutions and even in the Assembly, and 40 per cent for the 'original inhabitants'), other groups are more prudent. The issue has become a volatile one and almost all political parties are divided on it. While Sibu Soren told Frontline that reservation should be in proportion to the percentage of each caste and tribal group in the population, Opposition leader Simon Marandi does not want anything less that 40 per cent for the S.T.s.

Salkhan Murmu said that the AJJM demand was reasonable. Jharkhand, he said, was created for the tribal people, who had fought long for the recognition of their identity and for self-rule. He believes that since the movement for a separate State was initiated by the tribal people, they must be empowered to govern the State by having 60 per cent reservation in the Assembly and in government jobs. The AJJM has also demanded an increase in the number of Assembly seats from 81 to 150 to ensure the reservation of 90 seats for the tribal people.

Murmu's demand was strongly opposed by the JMM and communities such as the Mahatos and the Kurmis. Soren lashed out at the government "for hatching a conspiracy to create social tension between the tribal people and the non-tribals of Jharkhand in the name of reservations". Asked about the JMM's position on the reservation issue, Soren told Frontline that it wanted the quantum of reservation to be fixed on the basis of population. The size of the tribal population had been understated in all Censuses, he claimed. "This," he said, "was done to deny the indigenous people their due. Even Census 2001 was carried out with the motive of suppressing the tribal people of the country in general and of Jharkhand in particular, and the records have been tampered with. It was the huge influx of settlers that reduced the tribal people to a minority."

The most vocal opposition to the AJJM demand has come from Kurmis, who constitute over 25 per cent of the population. Although they demand S.T. status and an increase in the quota for the OBCs, their opposition to the AJJM demand is unequivocal. Lalchand Mahato, Power Minister and prominent Kurmi leader, said: "The backwards constitute 65 to 70 per cent of the population and the demand for 50 per cent reservation for them is logical and should be considered."

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