The main parties in Jharkhand are led by charismatic tribal leaders, but Adivasis are demanding more than what has been delivered to them so far
On four spools of muddied thread that hang from his neck, Sukhram Munda wears two keys. Neither opens the door of his house, made of straw. The first key opens a metal gate down the road from his house and the second, a room within the tiled compound. “This is where he lived. Not in a pakka room like it is now, but in a hut,” he gestures around the room, empty except for a plaque and ceramic bust commemorating the birthplace of Birsa Munda, Jharkhand’s greatest hero and Sukhram’s grand-uncle.
Birsa Munda, referred to often by Jharkhand’s tribal residents as “Birsa Bhagwan,” led what came to be known as “Ulgulan” (revolt) or the Munda rebellion against the British colonial government-imposed feudal state. Born in 1875 to a poor family of the Munda tribe, Birsa died, aged just 25, in Ranchi’s Central Jail. In his short life, he not only mobilised and led tribals to a revolt that shook the British Empire, but also became known and loved as a prophet. Mahasweta Devi’s 1979 Sahitya Akademi Award-winning book, Aranyer Adhikar, was based on his life. “Mahasweta Devi came to my house. I gave her dal bhat to eat. She liked it,” Sukhram says.
Today, virtually everything in Jharkhand is named after Birsa Munda — the airport, the athletics stadium where the National Games opened in 2011 and the Central Jail where former Chief Minister Madhu Koda was imprisoned.
Ulihatu, Birsa’s birthplace, becomes something of a site of pilgrimage on November 15, his birth anniversary and the day Jharkhand was founded in 2000. “Atal Bihari Vajpayee has come here. Jairam Ramesh came. Babulal Marandi came. And Shibu Soren came,” Sukhram ticks off the names.
Yet the village of 1,126 people in the hilly Arki block has little to show for these visits. A motorable road comes right to the village, there is some electricity (“But at very low voltage,” complain some young boys of the village) and a few solar-powered streetlights. Until recently, the only school in the village was run by the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran church and was only up to Class V. Now there is a State-run boys school. The nearest college is in the district headquarter, Khunti, as is the nearest hospital; and no one in the village owns a vehicle and no buses ply here.
Of greatest concern to residents, however, is that there is no water for the fields and no jobs in the village or near it. Sukhram, slightly bent with spindly legs and rheumy eyes, cultivates his field alone, his plough driven by a bull. “Because there is no water here, we can’t grow too many crops. I grow rice but only enough for the house to eat. I also grow a little dal and some potatoes,” he says. In his small two-room house made with tightly stacked stones, flowers of the mahua tree are drying, which a trader will buy off him for around Rs. 30 per kilo to make liquor. On a shelf lie shampoo sachets and mini bars of soap — a tiny shop that brings in a little more money. His wife Lakhimani does a little tailoring. This leaves next to no cash in hand — two of Sukhram’s six acres of land are under mortgage, and a neighbour gets to cultivate them until a small loan is paid back.
Two of their four sons work in Khunti and Sukhram doesn’t resent the lack of help on the field. “Why will anyone stay here on the field all day when there is a job with fixed hours in the city?” he reasons. His third son went to the Andaman Islands over ten years ago and has not been heard of since, and the fourth is currently living at his parents’ home “doing nothing,” his father mutters.
Sukhram is conscious of the fact that this is a better situation than in many other villages. Just 5 lakh of Jharkhand’s 15 lakh tribal households have electricity; 1.5 lakh have toilets. In 2011-12, Jharkhand was India’s poorest State, with 37 per cent of its population under the poverty line. According to Census data, 4.6 lakh people don’t own a vehicle of any kind, a TV, radio or even phone. “From when I was a small boy, there has been change. There used to be bears in the forest. Now there is a road, there is an electricity line,” Sukhram says.
But some things have not changed in substantive ways since his grand-uncle’s time. Some part or the other of Jharkhand is in a constant state of battle against forcible land acquisition. Since 2000, the State has signed 110 MoUs with private companies, says Munni Hasda, a tribal rights activist in Dumka in the State’s north-east. “Earlier the fight was against mahajans. Now it is big companies,” she says.
Just this week, the descendants of those displaced by the Bokaro Steel Plant in the 1950s smashed the campaign car of a political candidate who came to offer platitudes, while on the edges of Ranchi, those displaced by the Heavy Engineering Corporation plant set up in the late 1950s are also still agitating. While Sukhram tells his story, in Khunti, the activist Dayamani Barla, who has led several agitations against forced displacement in the district, is campaigning for a Lok Sabha seat on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket. “The lands of tribals are supposed to be protected by the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act,” Dr. Karma Oraon, professor in the Department of Anthropology at Ranchi University says, referring to laws passed in 1908 and 1949 that debar the buying and selling of tribal land. “Yet the Acts are being violated across the State, often by tribal politicians.”
Politics in Jharkhand
Khunti, Jharkhand’s most tribal district, is reserved for Scheduled Tribes in the parliamentary elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kariya Munda is a seven-time MP from the district and was the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha. “I have worked hard for Khunti but there is always more to be done. Why hasn’t the Central government done more?” he says to a group of journalists in the courtyard of his simple home. “Jharkhand’s main problem is unstable State governments formed by regional parties.”
The regional parties he is referring to are primarily the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) led by Shibu Soren, and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik), led by Jharkhand’s first Chief Minister Babulal Marandi. Both parties are led by charismatic tribal leaders, but both Mr. Soren and Mr. Marandi are determined to be seen as more than tribal leaders. “I was never the leader of any one group of people. This is a creation of others,” Mr. Marandi says. In 2003, he attempted to bring in rules that would require proof of residence in Jharkhand for domicile status for government jobs. The anger among non-tribals has not gone away completely. “I did it in 2003. I was only restating what was already the law. What have other parties done since? When I come to power, I’ll say what I will do next on this issue,” he says.
The JMM, formed in 1972 on Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary out of Shibu Soren’s agitation for a separate State, has always been seen as a party for tribals, backward non-tribals and Muslims, a senior party functionary says. In large parts of the Santhal Pargana, and to a lesser degree among the Adivasis of the rest of the State, Mr. Soren is seen as the man who gave Jharkhand’s tribals a voice. But many of the State’s Adivasis are demanding more than what Mr. Soren and other politicians have been able to deliver so far.
On April 17, when Khunti goes to vote, Sukhram will be at the polling booth. The village is yet to decide who it will vote for, he says. “Someone who will help tribals. But I don’t know who that is.”