Chhattisgarh: quiet arrival

Print edition : August 19, 2000

The passing of the Madhya Pradesh Reorganisation Bill to create Chhattisgarh State fulfils a long-standing demand of the local people.

BANNERS, welcome arches, festoons and garlands greeted Union Ministers of State Ramesh Bais and Dr. Raman and the Bharatiya Janata Party's Madhya Pradesh unit president Vikram Verma, when they arrived in Raipur by the Chhattisgarh Express from Bhopal on August 6. The functions were organised by the local unit of the BJP to honour the leaders for their role in the passage of the Madhya Pradesh Reorganisation Bill in the Lok Sabha on July 31 to enable the creation of the Chhattisgarh State. The BJP clearl y was in no mood to let go of an opportunity to secure political mileage out of the event, which has some degree of emotional significance for the local people. Now two formalities remained - the Rajya Sabha's approval (which came on August 9) and the Pr esident's assent to the Bill. But the celebrations could not wait.

Supporters of V.C. Shukla, former Union Minister and Congress(I) leader, gave him a big reception on August 10. Shukla is the convener of the Chhattisgarh Rajya Sangarsh Morcha (CRSM), a movement floated by him in May 1999 to work for the creation of a s eparate State.

Bar these celebrations, the region is quiet. In fact, Chhattisgarh has had an uncomplicated birth. The only visible signs of an agitation for statehood were the ones organised by the CRSM after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government failed to introduce the Bill in the Budget session of Parliament. The CRSM organised a rally on May 30 at Jagdalpur in Bastar district. On June 26, its activists courted arrest in the Chhattisgarh region. When it became almost certain that the Centre would introdu ce the Bill in the monsoon session, the CRSM sponsored a 24-hour bandh in Chhattisgarh on July 20, followed by an impressive rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, to coincide with the start of the Parliament session. Leaders of the CRSM alleged that the B JP wanted to delay the Bill until the Assembly elections, which are due in November 2003, in order to reap electoral dividends.

The BJP-led government at the Centre introduced a similar Bill in the Lok Sabha in 1998, but it lapsed after the government fell. Leaders of the BJP accuse the Congress(I) of blocking the introduction of the Bill in the Budget session by raising technica l objections that the draft Bill was not circulated to the members well in advance. Whatever the truth, Congress(I) leaders feared that the BJP would take credit for the passage of the Bill even though Congress(I) support was essential for its adoption i n both Houses of Parliament.

Although both parties had promised statehood for Chhattisgarh in their election manifestoes since 1993, it did not become a major issue until the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP began to espouse the cause of statehood only after it lost all the 11 seat s from the region in the 1991 elections. It groped for the right slogan to catch the people's imagination. By making the electoral promise to carve out a separate State, the party won six seats in the region in the 1996 elections. During the campaign for the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee promised statehood for Chhattisgarh if the voters elected BJP candidates to all the 11 seats. This pledge paid handsome dividends; BJP candidates were elected from seven constituencies. In the 1 999 elections, Vajpayee repeated the promise and held holding the Congress(I) responsible for bringing down the government before the Bill could be passed in Parliament. The result was again good: the BJP won eight seats.

Celebrations in Raipur after the Madhya Pradesh Reorganisation Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha on August 9.-SHARAD MOHTA

Analysts conclude that the BJP's decision to go ahead with the Bill now stemmed more from compulsions of electoral politics rather than any genuine desire to fulfil the aspirations of the local people. The BJP has no explanation to offer as to why it cou ld not get the necessary resolution passed in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly when it was in power in the State between 1989 and 1992. On the contrary, the Congress(I) government headed by Digvijay Singh got the relevant resolution passed in the Assembly in 1993 and forwarded it to the Centre. The Assembly passed another resolution in 1998 seeking statehood for Chhattisgarh when the President referred the Bill to elicit its views. It passed the resolution again when the President once again referred the Bil l to it, after the Centre introduced a fresh Bill to replace the 1998 Bill. Electoral compulsions appear to have influenced the Congress(I) too; the party had not recognised the need for Chhattisgarh prior to 1993 even though it was in power both in the State and at the Centre over several terms.

The CRSM has its genesis in the Chhattisgarh Asmita Sangathan (CAS) (Chhattisgarh Self-respect Forum), an independent group of intellectuals who met frequently in Raipur to exchange ideas on the concept and contours of the new State. The CAS was started in January 1994 by a retired professor of linguistics, Mannulal Yadu. It continued to function until 1999, when its members felt the need to expand the organisation under a charismatic and influential local leadership so that it made an impact. Yadu appr oached Shukla, who had been left in the lurch by the Congress(I) (it had denied him the ticket to contest the Lok Sabha elections). Shukla agreed to become the convener of the CRSM, with which the CAS merged.

The CRSM consists of former members of the CAS, Shukla's followers and activists from parties other than the BJP. Yadu said that the BJP was kept out of the CRSM "as it is essentially a secular movement". The movement created ripples within the Congress( I), as Shukla's political rivals suspected his motives. Shukla shrewdly used the picture of Sonia Gandhi in the CRSM's banners, although he had not obtained prior permission from the Congress(I) to launch the movement. The party did not oppose the CRSM, and this helped Shukla mobilise Congress(I) supporters, says Vijay Guru, a former State Minister hailing from this region. Shukla's political rival Pawan Diwan, a former Congress(I) member of Parliament from Mahasamund, accused him of hijacking the movem ent from him.

In fact the CAS was formed as a non-political organisation after earlier attempts to run the Chhattisgarh State All-Party Manch failed. The Manch was led at various times by Pawan Diwan, Chandulal Chandrakar (who had represented the Congress(I) in the Lo k Sabha from Durg) and the present Congress(I) spokesperson, Ajit Jogi. Pawan Diwan, a poet and an orator, started the Manch in the late 1960s and tried to make the local people aware of the advantages of having Chhattisgarh State. However, he lost inter est in the Manch after he joined the Congress(I) under the influence of Arjun Singh. Chandulal Chandrakar died before he could accomplish his mission. Ajit Jogi was then entrusted with the leadership, and subsequently the Manch became defunct.

Interestingly, when Madhya Pradesh was created in 1956 on the recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission, there were no demands for a separate Chhattisgarh state, partly because the Madhya Pradesh's first Chief Minister, Ravishankar Shukla, hailed from Chhattisgarh. Some of his successors, namely, Shyama Charan Shukla and Motilal Vora, also belonged to Chhattisgarh, and the demand did not gain strength.

In the mid-1960s, Dr. Khubchand Baghel, a Congress(I) Rajya Sabha member, launched the Chhattisgarh Bhratir (brotherhood) Sangh, at a time when no leader was in favour of a separate State. Baghel, as a member of the erstwhile Central Provinces (C.P.) and Berar Assembly, demanded statehood for the region. Pyarelal Singh, a freedom fighter and a leader of the Opposition in the erstwhile C.P. and Berar Assembly, also raised the demand for some time. After Baghel died in 1969, Pawan Diwan led the Sangh befo re it disappeared from the Chhattisgarh horizon.

The credit for launching the first political organisation bearing the name 'Chhattisgarh' should, however, go to Shankar Guha Niyogi. He launched the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), a trade union movement, in the late 1970s. (Janaklal Thakur, a CMM lead er, was even elected to the Assembly.) The CMM did not demand a separate State, but did not oppose the formation of one either. Its concerns are different - it champions the cause of the industrial and agricultural workers of the area. Says Anoop Singh, a leading CMM activist: "A new State of Chhattisgarh is welcome if it will fulfil the people's aspirations, but our struggle will continue until the exploitation of the working class ends." Niyogi himself was a victim of the oppression. He was murdered i n Bhilai in 1991. His killers are yet to be punished, pending conclusion of the case in the Supreme court.

The people of this region, which has a tradition of rich folk art and culture, are essentially peace-loving. That explains the absence of a popular movement for statehood or the kind of agitations and violence that marked the birth of Andhra Pradesh, or now Uttaranchal and Jharkhand.

Sociologically, the demand for a separate State is traced to the need felt by the ex-Malgujas (communities of rich peasants, who had the jagirdari rights to collect land revenue on behalf of the Maratha and British rulers) to become numerically powerful under a new State. The ex-Malgujas mainly comprise Brahmins and Kurmis. Baghel was a Kurmi, and those who are in the forefront of the movement are ex-Malgujas. The landless labourers and poor peasants are apparently not excited about the formation of Chh attisgarh State.

It is clear that in the new State, which is seen as having met the need for self-rule, there is no place for self-rule by the tribal people who constitute a significant section of the population. The Assembly passed a resolution for the setting up of aut onomous councils under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution in the tribal-dominated districts of the State. It remains unimplemented owing to opposition from non-tribal people and a section of the tribal people themselves who fear that under the jurisd iction of the councils it would be difficult to sell lands to outsiders.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) sees no basis for the creation of a new State. Its State secretary Shailendra Shaily argued that in the 1950s, new States were created on the basis of language, which was rational. The demand for Chhattisgarh "stems from political reasons rather than from any genuine popular movement. The language spoken here is Chhattisgarhi and the script used is Devanagari. So, Hindi will continue to be the official language of the new State," he pointed out.

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