A few days before the Jharkhand Assembly election got under way, the Union government withdrew amendments to the Forest Rights Act (FRA), which had evoked sustained protests by tribal and environmental activists. It was an acknowledgement by the ruling party that tribal sentiments were hurt by the amendments that would dilute tribal rights over forests.
Proposed changes to the FRA are not the only problem facing the BJP when it comes to tribal communities in the State, which account for nearly 27% of the votes and 28 reserved seats in the 81-member Assembly. Analysts say 25 constituencies have a dominating tribal presence.
The BJP’s problems got compounded when the Raghubar Das government tried to amend the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act to facilitate easier land acquisition norms.
After protests by Opposition and tribal groups, these amendments, too, were withdrawn.
But later in Mr. Das’s tenure, these decisions engendered a discomfort among tribal groups that gave rise to the “Pathalgarhi” incidents in the tribal belt, especially Khunti, demanding implementation of the FRA and provisions of the Panchayats (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996.
“Pathalgarhi” is a protest in which tribal people embed stone slabs ( pathals ) on the outskirts of a village or area, demarcating the limits of where their writ runs, prohibiting the entry of any institution connected to the state.
These incidents may have an adverse impact on the BJP’s prospects, though party leaders deny it.
After one such incident at Adki block, Rita Devi Munda, the BJP candidate from Tamar, personally interceded with protesting tribal people.
“The Collector was new and didn’t know Mundari (local Munda dialect), and it was an issue that could be resolved through dialogue. There is nothing anti-tribal about the BJP, it’s just propaganda,” she says.
Indeed, according to figures from the 2014 Assembly polls, the BJP won 10 tribal-dominated seats, while the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) got 11.
BJP leaders also say that a firm anti-conversion Act by the Das government has demonstrated to the non-converted “Sarna” tribes that the BJP is serious about preserving indigenous culture from outside influence, even the Church. Party leaders expect that the Sarna community which is more dominant numerically, will vote for the BJP.
Tribal groups are also anxiously awaiting signals from the “Maajhi Pargana Mahal” a decentralised socio-cultural outfit of tribals in the State that stays out of direct elections but is considered influential. In Ghatsila, however, Bahadur Soren, a block president of the “Mahal” and “Desh Bichar Sachiv”, has decided to break ranks and stand as an Independent.
“None of the political parties have fulfilled the mandate of why a separate State was formed; neither PESA, nor FRA, domicile issue or official language issue have been addressed by the MLAs. I decided to fight polls for this reason alone,” he said.
The formation of Jharkhand as a State in 2000 was, in large part, to give voice to aspirations of the large tribal communities there. Nineteen years after the fact, these are the same aspirations that will affect the course of the polls here.