Jharkhand: A battle over tribal identities

After bringing Babulal Marandi back into its fold, BJP is hoping to neutralise the tribal backlash over former CM Hemant Soren’s imprisonment.

Published : May 24, 2024 18:59 IST - 12 MINS READ

Jailed former Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren attending the last rites of his uncle at Nemara village in Ramgarh district on May 6. 

Jailed former Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren attending the last rites of his uncle at Nemara village in Ramgarh district on May 6.  | Photo Credit: PTI

In the Lok Sabha election in Jharkhand, a State with a tribal population of 26 per cent, the January 31 arrest of Chief Minister Hemant Soren in a case of alleged land grab has resulted in identity politics taking centre stage. Tied to this is the renewed call for “Sarna” dharma, the pantheistic religion that tribal communities in the Chotanagpur region follow. Both issues are keeping the BJP on edge.

Leaders of the BJP from Jharkhand, including Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda, have been asked to spell out their position on nature worship. Hemant Soren brought up the issue last year and made it known that tribal people are not Hindus and neither do they follow any religion other than Sarna. BJP State chief Babulal Marandi, the State’s first Santhal Chief Minister, is walking a tightrope on the issue, given the BJP’s stated Hindutva agenda.

The opposition was quick to seize the opportunity to claim that tribal people had been neglected. Addressing an election rally in Chaibasa, the headquarters of Singhbhum district, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi reminded the audience that the “BJP had jailed a tribal Chief Minister” and that “the husband of Kalpana Soren had been sent to jail”. Rahul went on to remind the gathering about other incidents of atrocities on tribal people in BJP-ruled States.

Earlier, in Chaibasa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at an election rally that it was his government that had recognised the role of tribal leaders like Birsa Munda in the freedom struggle by celebrating his birth anniversary as “Janjatiya Gaurav Divas” and also building a Janjatiya museum. Expectedly, BJP leaders have also repeatedly highlighted the fact that they appointed former Jharkhand Governor Droupadi Murmu, from the Santhal tribe, as President and that the Congress put up a candidate against her. Santhals are the dominant tribe in Jharkhand, with the Oraon, Munda, Khariya, Ho, and Paharia tribes also present in significant numbers. Hemant Soren’s arrest seems to have papered over the differences in the overall tribal identity of the State, which the BJP will have to fight hard to counter.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 12 seats (the BJP 11 and the All Jharkhand Students Union [AJSU] 1), but the opposition is pinning its hopes on its good performance in the Assembly election that took place soon after, when it won 47 of the 81 seats. It is also hoping, after Hemant Soren’s arrest, for a consolidation of tribal votes in its favour.

This time, the BJP is contesting 13 seats and the AJSU 1. In the Congress-JMM-RJD-CPI(ML) alliance, the Congress is contesting 7, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha 5, the Rashtriya Janata Dal 1, and the CPI(Marxist-Leninist) Liberation 1. The contest is intense in the five tribal seats: Dumka, Singhbhum, Khunti, Lohardaga, and Rajmahal. In the other nine seats, the BJP seems to have an edge, partly because the Congress has chosen to field political greenhorns.

While Dumka, headquarters of Santhal Pargana division, is the home turf of both the Soren family and Babulal Marandi, Chief Minister Champai Soren, who replaced Hemant, and former Chief Minister Madhu Koda, a Ho, hails from Kolhan division. The State has five divisions: Palamu, North Chotanagpur, South Chotanagpur, Santhal Pargana, and Kolhan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being felicitated by Jharkhand BJP chief Babulal Marandi at a public meeting ahead of the fifth phase of the Lok Sabha election, in Jamshedpur on May 19. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being felicitated by Jharkhand BJP chief Babulal Marandi at a public meeting ahead of the fifth phase of the Lok Sabha election, in Jamshedpur on May 19.  | Photo Credit: ANI

In the Kolhan region, the BJP has chosen Geeta Koda, Madhu Koda’s wife, who was a Congress MP from Singhbhum. She won in 2019 against the BJP veteran Laxman Giluwa and joined the BJP in February this year. Numerically speaking, it is a no-contest for Geeta; her tribe, the Ho, constitutes 51 per cent of the voters in this seat, while the Santhal, her JMM rival Joba Majhi’s tribe, constitutes 11 per cent.

But the fact that all six Assembly segments of Singhbhum are with the INDIA bloc (five with the JMM and one with the Congress) could work to the advantage of Joba. Besides, Joba has been an MLA for five terms and was Minister of Social Welfare, Women and Child Development and Tourism in the Hemant Soren government from 2019 to 2024. Madhu Koda won this seat as an independent in 2009.

Also Read | With Champai Soren installed as Chief Minister, JMM hopes to shore up support before election

Dumka is one seat whose outcome could well decide the future course of Jharkhand politics. Shibu Soren won it eight times and Marandi twice. The BJP’s Sunil Soren won it in 2019. Sensing the emotional connect that Hemant’s arrest could have with the constituency, the BJP turned to Sita, wife of Shibu Soren’s late elder son, Durga Soren, as the bhabhi (sister-in-law) who could be expected to counter the sympathy vote for the devar (Hemant, brother-in-law). Aware that a section of the party is sulking at Sunil being dropped, the BJP’s top leadership has promised a future role for him. The JMM candidate, Nalin Soren, is an old-timer who has worked with Shibu Soren for many years.

Addressing a rally in Dumka after filing her nomination, Sita lambasted the JMM government over corruption, saying: “The opposition is trying to push the point that Hemant was sent behind bars because he was a tribal and that tribal people are being undermined. They are also trying to project Modiji as someone who will destroy the Constitution. Do not be misled.”

On the Congress’ charge that Modi and the BJP were bent on ending reservation, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh countered in Hindi: “Kisne ma ka doodh piya hai jo aapka aarakshan khatam kar de” (who has got the guts to end your reservation). In poverty-stricken Dumka, Singh repeatedly used the phrase “dhan, daulat, dhanwan” (wealth and the wealthy) to hammer home the point that the BJP would bring prosperity to the region.

At Khunti, the birthplace of the iconic freedom fighter Birsa Munda in South Chotanagpur, Union Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda is locked in a rematch with the JMM’s Kalicharan Munda. In 2019, Arjun defeated Kalicharan by just over 1,400 votes. This was because the then Chief Minister, Raghubar Das, tried his best to defeat Arjun Munda due to internal political rivalry.

  • Rampant unemployment and the lure of quick money has pushed youth into cybercrime in places like Jamtara.
  • Besides the lack of development, the loot of jal, jangal, jameen (water, forest, land) continues unabated. Even tribal villages close to Ranchi do not have basic infrastructure.
  • Hardly 20 per cent of households in the State have access to tap water even after the Centre approved 315 water supply schemes for Jharkhand in December 2021.

The veteran politician Karia Munda won this seat eight times, seven times as a member of the BJP and once as a candidate of the Janata Party. The Mundas constitute 50 per cent of the population in the constituency, so the votes of other communities could be decisive. However, within the BJP, Arjun and Marandi do not have the best of equations, and Arjun’s only hope is that Marandi will allow him to breathe easy.

The former Jharkhand Congress president Sukhdev Bhagat is fighting the BJP’s Sameer Oraon in Lohardaga, also in South Chotanagpur. With the former JMM MLA Chamra Linda contesting as an independent, which could queer the pitch for Bhagat, Oraon seems well placed to win the seat.

In the only Scheduled Caste constituency in the State, the Maoist-dominated Palamu, Vishnu Dayal Ram, BJP MP and former State DGP, is locked in a contest with the RJD’s Mamata Bhuyian, but Kameshwar Baitha of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a former Maoist, has jumped into the fray, muddying the waters. Baitha won the seat as a JMM candidate in 2009 when he was in jail. Bhuyian is seen as a weak candidate. The contest here is being viewed as one between a former policeman and a former Maoist. The RSS has roots in the region, which could come in handy for Ram, who was Bhagalpur Superintendent of Police when “Operation Gangajal”, better known as the notorious Bhagalpur blindings case, happened.

In the remaining seats, the BJP seems to be ahead, partly because the Congress candidates are not well known, despite a couple of them being from political families. In Ranchi, for instance, former Union Minister Subodh Kant Sahay’s daughter, Yashaswini Sahay, is the party candidate, while in Dhanbad, it is Anupama Singh, daughter-in-law of the late Congress veteran Rajendra Singh. The BJP candidate in Dhanbad is Dhullu Mahato, an MLA who is said to have connections with the coal mafia, and this has not gone down well with the local party leadership and sympathisers of sitting MP Pashupati Nath Singh.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with his Jharkhand counterpart, Champai Soren, at an election campaign in Jamshedpur on May 21. 

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with his Jharkhand counterpart, Champai Soren, at an election campaign in Jamshedpur on May 21.  | Photo Credit: PTI

Some other key contests are in Koderma (North Chotanagpur), where former RJD State president Annapurna Singh is fighting the CPI(ML)’s Vinod Singh, son of the late Mahendra Singh, who was shot dead more than a decade ago, allegedly by Maoists.

In Godda (Santhal Pargana), the BJP’s Nishikant Dubey is fighting the Congress’ Pradeep Yadav, who was earlier in Babulal Marandi’s Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik). Dubey, a two-term MP, has brought many development projects, including an All India Institute of Medical Sciences and an airport, to this region and that could see him through. He was instrumental in the disqualification of Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra in the outgoing Lok Sabha and strongly backed BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri after the latter made a communal slur on the floor of the House against MP Danish Ali, then with the BSP.

The BJP possibly breathes easy in Hazaribagh, the seat that Yashwant Sinha and his son Jayant Sinha have represented. The contest is between Manish Jaiswal (Hazaribagh Town MLA) of the BJP and Jai Prakash Bhai Patel of the Congress. In fielding Jaiswal, the BJP denied the ticket to Jayant Sinha. It is the first time that no one from the Yashwant Sinha family is contesting the seat in the last 25 years. Patel was the BJP MLA from Mandu and also the party’s chief whip before he joined the Congress in March. Patel is the son of Teklal Mahato, one of the JMM’s old guards, and this could hold him in good stead.

The BJP’s decision to opt for Raghubar Das as Chief Minister in 2014 antagonised tribal people, who favoured the Hemant Soren-led opposition alliance in the Assembly election that followed. After bringing Babulal Marandi back into the party, the BJP is hoping to neutralise the expected tribal backlash over the jailing of Hemant Soren. The BJP is hoping not only to corner a lion’s share of the 14 Lok Sabha seats but also bounce back to power in the Assembly election due later in the year. The BJP and the AJSU hope to gain a big chunk of the Kurmi and other Sadan (the old non-tribal co-settlers) votes. One of the reasons for the BJP’s poor showing in the 2019 Assembly election was that the two parties contested separately.

While the main contest is between the BJP and the INDIA bloc, there are signs of the emergence of a third player, the Jharkhandi Bhasha Khatiyani Sangharsh Samiti, led by a young leader from the Kurmi caste, Jairam Mahto. In seats like Ranchi, Giridih, and Hazaribagh, the Samiti seems to have some support among the youth, who believe that the traditional political players have not done much for them.

In Giridih, from where Jairam Mahto is contesting, the support for the new party seems more pronounced despite the presence of veterans like MP Chandraprakash Choudhary from the AJSU and the JMM’s Mathura Mahto. All three candidates are from the Kurmi caste. The emergence of Jairam Mahto, on the lines of another young Dalit leader, Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan in Uttar Pradesh, could be a worry for the traditional Kurmi party, AJSU, whose chief Sudesh Mahto has twice been Deputy Chief Minister in two rival alliance governments in Jharkhand with just five Assembly seats.

Also Read | Jharkhand: Sympathy factor 

The outcome of the election could well decide the fate of the most popular and prominent political family in the State: the Sorens. Shibu Soren is a pale shadow of his powerful past, his son and political heir, Hemant Soren, is behind bars, and the party hurriedly elected a new Chief Minister from outside the family due to intense rivalry and competing claims for the post within the family. Champai Soren is likely to be replaced after the election with Hemant’s wife, Kalpana, who contested the Gandey Assembly byelection held on April 19, on the JMM ticket after the seat was vacated by the veteran party leader Sarfaraz Ahmad.

Nishikant Dubey said on the social media platform X: “Soren family has decided to insult another leader from Kolhan region after Madhu Koda. While Shibu Soren had removed Madhu Koda as CM and himself became CM, Hemant Soren has now decided that Champai Soren will be removed as CM and Kalpana Soren will become Chief Minister.”

What the intense campaigning does not talk about is the recovery of nearly Rs.35 crore in cash from the home of a domestic servant of a Minister’s personal assistant or that one can still see women trudging downhill to fetch water in villages close to the State capital, Ranchi. This absence of development could well be attributed to the political instability in the State since its formation in 2000; the State has had 12 Chief Ministers in 24 years.

Ironically, the only Chief Minister to complete a five-year term was the non-tribal Raghubar Das. The BJP has been on the ascendant since 2004, when it won only one Lok Sabha seat. It won 8 seats in 2009, 12 in 2014, and 11 in 2019. The Congress won six seats in 2004, one in 2009, none in 2014, and one in 2019. The JMM won four seats in 2004, two each in 2009 and 2014, and just one in 2019.

Besides the lack of development, the loot of jal, jangal, jameen (water, forest, land) continues unabated. Rampant unemployment and the lure of quick money has pushed youth into cybercrime in places like Jamtara. In fact, cybercrime in Jamtara inspired a Netflix series titled Jamtara: Sabka Number Ayega.

Even tribal villages close to Ranchi do not have basic infrastructure. For hundreds of villages, the drinking water source is the chua (shallow pit) or jharna (falls); water from taps is still a dream. Hardly 20 per cent of households in the State have access to tap water even after the Centre approved 315 water supply schemes for Jharkhand in December 2021 at a cost of Rs.9,544 crore under the Jal Jeevan Mission. Addressing an election rally in Khunti, Union Home Minister Amit Shah put the blame on the JMM-led government in the State for allegedly obstructing the scheme. To what extent such basic issues will impact the election is unclear, with all political parties unabashedly milking the tribal identity issue for electoral gain. 

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment