Jharkhand Elections: A Shifting Discourse on Politics in Adivasi Heartland


Which issues are at the forefront this election?

As Jharkhand awaits the five-phase legislative assembly election results to be declared on 23 December, key issues on whether to prioritize party over candidates, or to what extent can political parties be trusted, have come to the fore. This election comes against the backdrop of growing unemployment, mounting food prices, a rise in cases of mob lynching, increased threats to the forest and land rights of Adivasis and Moolvasis and strong anti-incumbency sentiments amongst the populace.

Since the Bhartiya Janta Party came to power in the year 2014, communally driven lynch-mob incidents in Jharkhand have dramatically risen, with twenty-one murders committed in the last three years. The BJP’s handling of the situation has been dismal, with their Ranchi MP Sanjay Seth adamantly refusing to acknowledge any of it. Jayant Sinha, the BJP MP from Hazaribagh went a step further and garlanded a set of convicts who were out on bail.

The track record of the BJP government in other sectors, especially employment, has been even more distressing. Thousands of para teachers have been protesting for years in vain for higher wages and a permanent contract. Despite the fact that there aren’t enough teachers in government schools, with several having only one teacher for classes I to V. The strike held from November 2018 to January 2019 affected classes in 35,000 schools.

Since Jharkhand’s formation in 2000—of which the BJP has been in power for almost 14 years — the Jharkhand Public Service Commission has failed to conduct even six successful civil service examinations (the first two are being probed by the CBI). Another pressing concern soaring food prices, which have been further exacerbated by a lax administration that couldn’t care less for the impoverished. The alarming deaths of 23 people in Jharkhand due to starvation in the last three years is enough evidence.

“For the last 27 years we have seen political leaders from different parties make promises to raise issues of protecting land and forest areas, but they have failed to take any steps after elections. It’s the people’s movement that have hitherto protected their lands and jungles and will continue to do so, hence it’s time to send people from this movement to the legislative assemblies…” — Jerom Gerald Kujur

The threat to the land and forest rights of Adivasis, though seemingly eternal, has worsened with the BJP government in power in Jharkhand and the center. In recent years, the state government has attempted to amend the protective nature of the Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act. The creation of land bank in Jharkhand completely disregards the customary Adivasi practice of holding common land in villages; this is happening in a Fifth Schedule Area, where law requires customary practices to be preserved. The forest rights too, as guaranteed under the Forest Right Act, are regularly violated by denying individual and community ownership of land in forest areas. The Supreme Court’s decision on 13 February, 2019 to displace forest “encroachers” who had not been granted ownership titles in forest areas violates the government’s assurance to protect Adivasi livelihoods; the lackadaisical attitude of the government’s lawyers in fighting the case has been duly noted. Thanks to large-scale protests across the country, the state was forced to plea that the SC withholds its decision.

The list of grievances remains glaringly incomplete without the mention of the Pathalgarhi Movement in Khunti. According to Adivasi sociologist Virginius Xaxa, Pathalgari is the traditional practice of placing a stone slab at the burial site of a person to commemorate them, widely prevalent amongst “tribes belonging to the Austro-Asiatic linguistic family such as the Mundas, Khasis etc.” In the late 1990s, this custom of erecting stones was creatively used by the government servants such as Bandi Oraon and BD Sharma to raise consciousness about P-PESA and constitutional provisions by inscribing quotes from the same on the stone slabs. Lately, the custom has been extensively used by Adivasis in areas of Khunti to articulate the special status of the region as guaranteed under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and emphasize the precedence of the Gram Sabha over other law-making bodies. It is also a stance of resistance against widespread land grabbing and the amendments made to protective laws. State functionaries have tried to quell such opposition and have filed mass sedition cases against more than 10,000 residents of Khunti.

Who’s to be blamed for the BJP’s electoral win?: A lesson from Khunti

While several opposing parties have voiced these above issues, they have failed to present a unified opposition to the ruling party. In Adivasi areas, where the concerns remain prominent, several political parties and candidates enter elections independently with promises of representing the masses’ discontent. As a result, the individual vote share of the multiple opposing parties often fails to match the numbers of the of ruling party. It was in this context that four major parties – Indian National Congress (INC), Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD), Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) – came together to contest the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections in May 2019, wherein the five reserved ST seats in Jharkhand were fought for neck-to-neck. The BJP was able to win three of the five seats, however, the victory margin raised serious doubts on the comfortable position of the ruling party in Adivasi areas.

Additionally, the rather small losing margin triggered a flurry of accusations against independent candidates and smaller political parties (who were not part of the alliance) for having scattered the votes, which would have otherwise ensured electoral victory against the BJP. For instance, in the parliamentary constituency of Khunti, the victory margin for BJP was a mere 1445 votes; even the least voted candidate (the eleventh runner up), Munna Baraik, had more votes than the difference – 1864 votes.

But does this imply that the aggrieved citizens blindly vote in favor of whoever contests from the opposition parties’ alliance, or in the case of no alliance, any of the dominant opposition parties? Is the only goal of current electoral politics to defeat BJP, or does it also matter who is being voted to power? Should the people vote for a seemingly appropriate candidate regardless of their bleak plausibility of winning?

Similar dilemmas might have arisen for activist Dayamani Barla – widely recognized for her struggle against land grabbing, displacement and human rights violations– who decided not to contest the Lok Sabha elections and support the alliance instead, after the Congress (the alliance party contesting elections from the Khunti parliamentary seat) denied her a party ticket in the last minute. As per sources, the Congress party, under the regional leadership of Dr. Ajoy Kumar, had sent initial feelers to Dayamani Barla that she might be given a party ticket for the Khunti seat; however, Congress leaders were opposed to this as many long-time party workers would have to be overlooked for a social activist. The Congress decided a couple of days before the nomination deadline, that it would rather give the ticket to Congress leader Kali Charan Munda. At the same time, rumors were rife that Dayamani Barla would be contesting the parliamentary election as an independent candidate, sending shock waves across party lines. Given her stature and widespread popularity, despite the short time she had for election campaigning, the alliance of opposition parties feared that she might take away a significant vote share from their nominated candidate, if not win the election herself. Barla’s decision to not contest and rather support the alliance came as a huge relief for parties, but it failed to push the alliance candidate across the victory line.

Since the Bhartiya Janta Party came to power in the year 2014, communally driven lynch-mob incidents in Jharkhand have dramatically risen, with twenty-one murders committed in the last three years.

The opposition parties in Jharkhand have relayed oft-repeated messages around election time – the only way out of BJP’s oppressive policies is to vote for the opposition-alliance; voting for any other party or candidate would scatter votes and  result in BJP’s win; any candidates who are not part of the alliance, or in the case of no alliance, are not part of any of major political parties are accused of being the B-team of the BJP whose only purpose is to cut into opposition votes.

The onus of BJP’s defeat by default rests entirely on the aggrieved citizens, who paradoxically have no role to play in choosing their representatives. In most cases, the nominated candidates have been imposed by the party leadership on the constituency, without assessing the willingness of the respective citizens to have these candidates represent them. The Khunti episode of the parliamentary election was no different, where Kali Charan Munda – brother of Nilkanth Singh Munda, a BJP minister in Jharkhand – was given the alliance ticket. This disheartened Khunti residents who had rarely seen Kali Charan Munda fight for the rights of Adivasis (several residents said that they had expected Dayamani Barla to get the party ticket). Many voters kept away from the election, while many others opted for NOTA (21,236 votes – second runner up), and a few opted for local candidates; votes were bound to be scattered. Who, then, is to be blamed for the BJP’s electoral win?

Electoral Politics: A changing landscape in Jharkhand

The social movements collective in Jharkhand, tired and frustrated from the political parties – who had failed to find an appropriate representative to voice Adivasi grievances – decided that they would seek representation by themselves in the legislative bodies. Activist and writer Jerom Gerald Kujur, general secretary of the Jan Sangharsh Samiti (JSS), a mass movement organized in the early 1990s against the proposed displacement of 245 villages for the purpose of setting up a field firing range for the army, said: “For the last 27 years we have seen political leaders from different parties make promises to raise issues of protecting land and forest areas, but they have failed to take any steps after elections. It’s the people’s movement that have hitherto protected their lands and jungles and will continue to do so, hence it’s time to send people from this movement to the legislative assemblies. The idea is also to defeat the political thought process which considers associates of mass-movements as mere vote bank for opposition parties.”

On the 18 September, Kujur along with central committee members of the JSS, announced that the organization would be fielding candidates for three legislative seats – Gumla, Manika and Bishunpur. For the Gumla legislative seat, the JSS had five names proposed by the people in its monthly meeting, who were made to pitch their ideas and opinions on their role as representatives to the people. Placidius Toppo emerged as the popular choice and was subsequently made the proposed candidate for the movement. It is important to note that the leadership at JSS did not abruptly arrive at the decision of contesting polls, rather the discussions had continued over months, if not years, of the need to have the movement’s own candidate in the legislative body.

On the other hand, in the Manika and Bishunpur seat, gauging the people’s mood and response, the JSS did not field any candidate from those seats. The locals in Manika constituency (in Mahuadanr block) decided not to support JSS’s bid for candidature, despite their strong presence in the region, for the lack of time. Many of the locals remarked that the organization’s decision to contest elections came too late, providing insufficient time to campaign for any proposed candidate.

It is worth mentioning the JSS’s approach to electoral politics for two main reasons: firstly, the organization took a bottom-up approach in deciding who their nominees would be, rather than taking a close-leadership decision and imposing it on the people. Secondly, instead of merely selecting from a limited choice of candidates, the organisation asked the political parties to support their (the people’s) choice. Of course, none of the parties listened, laying bare their hollow support of the movement.

In the late 1990s, the custom of erecting stones was creatively used by the government servants such as Bandi Oraon and BD Sharma to raise consciousness about P-PESA and constitutional provisions by inscribing quotes from the same on the stone slabs.

On the North western border of the Gumla constituency, in Mahuadanr (Manika constituency), many locals whilst having distanced themselves from the JSS’s decision to contest from Manika took up a different approach to engage in the legislative assembly elections. Several agreed that the BJP remained a huge threat to Adivasi interests, and that the scattering of votes would lead to its victory. Hence, they pitched for the alliance candidate – Ramchandar Singh from Congress. The pitch was also based on Singh’s background as a Kherwar leader and a former RJD candidate, who could potentially garner votes from the numerically powerful Kherwar community and RJD supporters. Under the banner of Chechari Adivasi Yuva Jagriti Manch, several youths from the locality campaigned across the constituency in distant and remotely located villages in support of the alliance. Interestingly, and perhaps a witness to the evolving political landscape in the region, the youth campaigning refused to carry any party symbols or flags; the message delivered on every doorstep was: ‘We don’t belong to any political party. We belong to the Adivasi community, and this campaign is for the community. If this candidate betrays us, we shall kick him out too.’

The Khunti constituency showcased a different evolution of local politics, where activist Dayamani Barla decided to contest on the JVM ticket for the state elections, which was not part of the JMM-Congress-RJD alliance for legislative assembly elections. In the aftermath of the Lok Sabha elections, introspecting on the defeat of alliance candidate, several of the Khunti residents opined that a better choice of candidate would have had a different result. However, the conundrum of the scattering of votes and the possibility of the BJP winning yet again still remained. In this light, Dayamani Barla along with her supporters reached out to the alliance party, JMM, which was set to contest from the Khunti seat as per the seat-sharing agreement. Her appeal to give her the party ticket was seemingly favoured by the party chief, Hemant Soren. He told her to prepare for elections, and get her documents read for filing nomination. However, as the final deadline for filing nominations approached (18 November), there was no communication from the JMM.

On 17 November, after having consulted the locals and her supporters, Dayamani Barla decided to contest elections from the JVM ticket, and on the following day filed her nomination papers. As anticipated, JMM instead of supporting her, had Sushil Kumar Lang – an unknown face in the region – file nomination papers from the party ticket hours before the deadline. When asked about joining JVM and not contesting as an independent candidate, Dayamani Barla remarked that besides the alliance, JVM and its party head Babulal Marandi were acceptable to the locals. In addition, the party had given her an ideologically-in-line platform to contest; as an independent, her role would be merely limited to further scatter opposition votes. To elaborate, with a recognized party’s face and symbol, it was relatively easier for her and her supporters to campaign and seek votes, which would have otherwise been a very difficult task (especially with a new symbol). The left parties, too, in their personal communication with Dayamani Barla, pledged support to her candidature.

The Khunti electoral dynamics, sharing similarities with the Gumla and Manika constituency, witnessed an increased participation of locals and their rejection of merely bowing down to the ‘party’ choice. This handful of examples, though not limited to, is only a microcosm of an evolving phenomena in the Adivasi heartland of Jharkhand. The blurring of boundaries between citizens and political leaders, in the realm of political representation, has immense optimistic possibilities for a citizen-based politics over a party-based one. On 23rdDecember, the Jharkhand legislative assembly election results are to be declared. Regardless of whether the candidates would make an entry into the legislative body, the erstwhile exclusive hold of political parties over the electoral politics seem to have shattered, paving the way for increased participation of Adivasis.

Photo: Richard Toppo

Richard Toppo

Richard Toppo is a PhD research scholar from Jharkhand.

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