Tribals torn apart by religion

The Hindu
Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened

Two months before polling began in Jharkhand, Ajay Tirkey began dividing his day between campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ranchi and attending to his real estate business. Mr. Tirkey, who heads the Central Sarna Committee(CSC), with lakhs of animistic Sarna tribals as members in urban parts of Ranchi, Gumla and Hazaribagh, believes that the BJP’s Narendra Modi will get the community what it has been demanding for decades: the distinction of being a minority religion with all attendant benefits. “We submitted a memorandum to Modi in December to introduce a Sarna code in the census, and [the] BJP’s State leaders agreed,” he says.

Mr. Tirkey — tall, stout, dressed in white shirt and trousers and wearing a golden watch on one wrist and a vermillion thread on the other — speaks softly and smiles often, even while narrating the violence that has broken out following his organisation’s attempt to stop religious conversions in the last decade. The office of his company, Deoshila Development Private Limited, is sparsely furnished, with only a poster of Hanuman for decoration. Mr. Tirkey owns the commercial complex we are sitting in. “This is a century-old fight. I have not let the Christians get away with conversions since I became the head in 2000,” he says. “We broke the walls of a church in Tape in Ormanjhi while it was being constructed. There was a case of conversion of five families in Ghagrajala village in Ranchi; we re-converted three. Then a few families in Gaitalsud, Angada, of whom only one member escaped because he worked somewhere else. He has not come back since; he fears us,” he recounts, beaming.

Mr. Tirkey, the BJP’s mayoral candidate from Ranchi in 2013, describes the “re-conversion” ceremonies as being similar to the ghar-waapsi (homecoming) ceremonies conducted by BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo in Chhattisgarh, in the mid-2000s. Mr. Judeo used to wash the feet of the converted person with holy water and declare the person Hindu again. Sarnas, Mr. Tirkey says, besides washing feet, made the converted person taste a drop of blood of a freshly sacrificed rooster and sprinkled water on them. A member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) or Dharam Jagran usually accompanied CSC members for this ceremony, he says. Sitting by Mr. Tirkey’s side, Manoj Kumar, a member of the BJP’s Jharkhand Kisan Morcha Pradesh Samiti, nods in agreement.

Conversion politics

In the last century, religious conversions in the Chotanagpur region have led to tensions. The first missionaries to arrive were the German Protestants in 1845, followed by the Catholics. The rift between Christian and non-Christian tribals was visible in 1947-48. Concerned with the growing influence of Christians, Sarna leaders formed a ‘Sudhar Sabha,’ notes academic Dr. Alex Ekka in an essay on the Jharkhand movement.

The former captain of the Indian hockey team, Jaipal Singh Munda, is credited with getting equal rights including reservations for Christian tribals, as a member of the Constituent Assembly. A few Sarna leaders opposed this move then. Congress MP Kartik Oraon introduced a bill in Parliament in 1968 to de-schedule Christian tribals, albeit unsuccessfully.

The Jan Sangh and the RSS began making inroads in the Chotanagpur region in the 1960s, initiating developmental activities in forest villages to counter the growing reach of Christian missionaries. While the VKA already has a strong presence in the Gumla and Latehar districts of West Jharkhand, more recently it has focused on increasing its influence in Sahebganj and Pakur along the State’s border with West Bengal, close to Bangladesh. Both districts feature in a map of areas from Uttar Pradesh to the north-east as “Areas of high Muslim and Christian influence” in a publication by Sankat Mochan Ashram, New Delhi.

“The church was trying to proselytize in Pakur but slowed down after we increased our presence. We recently performed ghar-waapsi for 50 families there. Sarna groups are doing re-conversions themselves now; we prefer it this way. We explain to them that 2000 years ago, we worshipped trees. Sarnas are Hindu too,” says Prakash Kamat, the Bihar-Jharkhand zonal secretary of the VKA.

Tribals constitute 26.3 per cent of Jharkhand’s population. According to the 2001 Census, of the State’s population of 3.29 crore, 68.5 per cent are Hindus and 13.8 per cent are Muslims. Only four per cent follow Christianity. Though Sarnas, who worship their ancestors and nature, are not counted separately, they make up most of the ‘Other’ category, estimated at 11 to 13 per cent of the population. Sarna groups claim that the actual numbers may be higher, given the absence of a separate category for them. A common perception is that despite their small numbers, Christian tribals have better access to higher education and jobs. Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened.

A deep divide

The most stark instance of this was in 2013 when a spate of protests erupted in Ranchi soon after the Cardinal Telesphore Toppo unveiled the statue of a “tribal” Mary — a dark-skinned Mother Mary wearing a white and red saree and bangles, holding an infant Jesus in a sling, as is common among tribal women. Sarna dharamguru Bandhan Tigga, considered more moderate than Ajay Tirkey’s group, gave the Church three months to remove the statue, describing it as a conversion tactic. In August, over 3,000 Sarna tribals marched to the site, a small Catholic church in Singpur on Ranchi’s outskirts, threatening to bring it down. The police imposed Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code in the area to stop the protesters. Three days later, a FIR was registered against members of Sarna groups after they threatened families in Ormanjhi, 50 km from Singpur, who had converted to Protestantism several years ago, to re-convert to Sarna religion within a week, even breaking the gate of the house of one of the families.

Sources close to the Cardinal claim he had not known that the statue was that of a “tribal” Mary before he reached the parish for the inauguration, but have chosen to stay silent, fearing that a step back now may only weaken the church’s position. Before this, in 2008, the church was on the back foot when Sarna groups questioned the ‘Nemha Bible’ published by a Lutheran church in the tribal language, Kuduk, which they said contained portions offensive to animistic worship.

In Singpur, the residents still recount last year’s protests cautiously. “Thousands marched from Dhurva to the parish. While the march had been called by Sarna groups, several Bajrang Dal members wearing saffron bands marched with them. Even tribals from neighbouring Odisha, Chhattisgarh districts reached here,” recalled a member of the community. It was done by evoking Sarnas’ pride, say Dharam Jagran members.

Disquiet

All love letters are
Ridiculous.
They wouldn’t be love letters if they weren’t
Ridiculous.

In my time I also wrote love letters
Equally, inevitably
Ridiculous.

Love letters, if there’s love,
Must be
Ridiculous.

But in fact
Only those who’ve never written
Love letters
Are
Ridiculous.

If only I could go back
To when I wrote love letters
Without thinking how
Ridiculous.

The truth is that today
My memories
Of those love letters
Are what is
Ridiculous.

(All more-than-three-syllable words,
Along with unaccountable feelings,
Are naturally
Ridiculous.)

-Fernando Pessoa. last Pessoa poem found in Ranchi.

In a forest village, a parallel conversation

The Hindu Blogs

It was a weekday when I got a call from Manohar*, an invite to attend a shahaadat diwas in Chotanagpur region the next day. Two months back, Manohar had helped us get in touch with the CPI(Maoist) for an interview. As he said shahadat diwas, a day to commemorate martyrdom, I was unsure if it was the rebels’ leaders’ lives the ceremony was meant to recount, but had little opportunity to ask till I was on the road with him the next day.
A few hours out of Ranchi as we reached the forest, the road gave way to a dirt track winding through rocky outcrops. Mahua trees were in bloom, its yellow fruit scattered on the ground. Sal was sprouting fresh green leaves.

Vote ke jariye sarkaar ke rang badalta hai, shoshan-shaashan bandh nahin hota hai – Bhakpa (Maowadi) “Voting will change shades of governance, not repression,” the banned CPI(Maoist)’s message for boycotting elections scrawled in large brown letters on the wall of a hut painted white. The hut’s inhabitants went about their routine.

The path soon gave way to a large clearing. Here, at the base of a hill, the villagers – men dressed in white shirts and dhoti, women in sarees, musicians with drums, dancers with plastic flowers in their hair – were under one tent, and in front of them were two six feet-high statues under a bright blue and yellow canopy.

It was only then that it became clear the farmers from several villages around the hills had gathered to celebrate the lives of two of their ancestors, whom they described as the first from Jharkhand to fight the British. They recounted that Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh had been executed to their deaths defeated by the British in April 1812 – nearly 45 years before what I had learned in textbooks to remember as the first year of Indians’ rebellion against the British, the Mutiny of 1857. “Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh of Navagarh and Panari Pargana amar rahein,” began Govardhan Singh of the village path pradarshak samiti that has been organizing the function every April.

Who were the two? What had they done? Was their any direct link between the Maoists’ presence in the area and this public ceremony? And how did this affect the politics, voting of these interior villages? I wondered as I watched ceremony those gathered had organized to honour their first freedom fighters.

This is how the organizers described the story of Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh’s lives:
Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh, two landowners, fought against the British in Chottanagpur region 1812 onwards. When the British government ordered Govind Nath Shahdeo, the king of Chotanagpur, to pay Rs 12,000 as tax to the East India Company, Bakthar Say refused on behalf of the peasants of the area Navagarh Raidih. This provoked a fight in which Bakhtar Say killed Hira Ram, the Ratu courtier sent to collect this tax. The magistrate of Ramgarh then sent an army from Hazaribagh under Lieutenant H Odonel, while reaching out to the kings of Jashpur and Sarguja (in present-day Chhattisgarh) to surround Say from all sides. At this time, Mundal Singh reached Navagarh to help Bakhtar Say. The battle lasted two days. Say’s armymade up of farmers of the area held off the British, something the kings and rulers of Navagarh, Panari, Gumla had failed at.
But a month later, E Rafreez of Ramgarh Battalion planned a second charge against both leading a large army. This battle lasted three days. Say and Singh were forced to seek shelter with Jashpur ruler Ranjeet Singh. The latter betrayed their confidence and they were arrested and taken to Calcutta where they were executed on 4 April 1812.
A Google search for the two’s names to read or corroborate for oneself yields nothing.

The sun climbed higher but the people kept coming in hundreds. By late afternoon, the numbers had increased to thousands. Those who took turns to speak paid homage, and compared Say and Singh’s revolt to the struggle of tribal villagers who sent several years in jail in Latehar and Chaibasa prisons charged by forest officials for collecting firewood from forests. Others compared the struggle of Say and Singh against the British in the 19th century to the displacement of lakhs of Jharkhand’s tribals in the last hundred years, reflecting the feeling many describe as Jharkhand’s “repeated colonisation” – first by the Biritish, then ruling governments, and now large mining firms.

“Political leaders visit and try as may to talk sweet, they will have to answer about our displacement,” Munna Kisan, the village shahadat diwas committee convenor, a frail old man wearing a white shirt over dhoti and canvas shoes spoke animatedly.

Manohar, who was in jail on charges of being a Maoist, asked questions that have been absent from the political and TV debates preceding elections – why do a majority of women in the country still have khoon ki kami (anaemia), if even a single school or wells had been built in the village every year since Independence would things not be different, why were gram sabha resolutions on use of land and trees flouted despite Constitutional provisions, were leaders living in Delhi capable of ever understanding the lives and priorities of Jharkhand’s villagers?

As the villagers watched, several young men dressed in shirts and trousers came and watched from afar. The organizing committee members identified the men as from the local squad of the CPI(Maoist). The carnival grew bigger. The karam dances grew more vibrant. The festivities would go on all night, Nagpuri artists were expected to perform at night. The villagers said they had collected over one lakh rupees to organize the meeting. The “party” (Maoists) had contributed additional funds. To celebrate two martyrs the villagers associated with the Indian freedom movement, I wondered.

“They maoists are samaaj sewi (social workers), except they carry guns,” offered the panchayat’s young woman mukhiya when I asked her about the presence of armed squads in the hills surrounding the village as we shared a big lunch of dal, rice, tomato chutney, and washed it down with sattu (gram flour, water). When I asked if the rebels had tried to constitute committees within the village as is common in pockets of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, she said the krantikari kisaan samiti had existed since several years but had made no active effort to carry out public works in the village. The perfectly amicable relationship the villagers seemed to have with the Maoists, panchayat institutions, as well as large NGOs operating in the vicinity of the villages seemed an unusual co-existence, peculiar to Jharkhand. But will the alliances of those with similar aims though different strategies here survive and evolve to question future rulers and governments?

Lok Sabha Palamu, Chatra: From jungles to the Parliament

TMC Candidate Kameshwar Baitha 1

The Hindu

In Haidarnagar market in Palamu district in Jharkhand, an area with a significant presence of Maoists, the roads are lined with red flags with images of Hanuman stitched over them. At the crossroad in the market, Bhojpuri songs blare out of loudspeakers kept in a mini truck. These are also used to announce that Kameshwar Baitha, the sitting Member of Parliament from Palamu will be holding a nukkad sabha.

In 2009, Mr. Baitha, a former Maoist commander, won the Lok Sabha elections from Palamu while serving a prison term in Bihar. He had commandeered the Koel-Sankh zone of the CPI (Maoist) along the Jharkhand-Chhattisgarh border. He won after defeating political heavyweights like the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Ghuran Ram. After being elected to Parliament, Mr. Baitha spent another two years and 7 months in jail, getting bail only towards the end of 2011.

Last month, Mr. Baitha switched from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha to the Trinamool Congress after it became known that the RJD and its ruling coalition partners, the JMM and the Congress would field a common candidate. The constituency is reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates. Among Mr. Baitha’s rivals this time is former chief of the Jharkhand police, Vishnu Dayal Ram, who is known for his term as Superintendent of Police in Bihar’s Bhagalpur when the infamous jail blinding incident took place there.

Mr. Baitha arrives dressed in a white kurta-pajama. He makes a brisk round of the market and shakes hands with shopkeepers and customers. He is stocky, with matted hair and a bushy moustache. Climbing atop a jeep, he then goes on to address a gathering.
TMC Candidate Kameshwar Baitha 2

“When I walked with a gun as a Maoist,” Mr. Baitha says, “I realised three things ail Palamu: unemployment, akaal (drought), and Naxalvaad (Naxalism). Mothers send their children to wash dishes in hotels, or to carry dung at landlords farms. Adults here migrate in distress to work in more developed States. Unemployment, hunger, oppression, and destruction of our culture is what causes Naxalvaad. Operation Greenhunt can never
end it,” says Baitha, as a crowd of men listens intently, while a few women watch from afar.

“By electing me, you made a social revolution possible. But I ask for your vote again to make an economic revolution this time,” he concludes, offering sattu (gram flour) water to those gathered.

Land wars, caste disparities

Back in his white SUV, Mr. Baitha explains what he means by an economic revolution.

“Palamu is an agricultural area. For the poor people’s lives to improve, the farmers need more watershed projects to irrigate their fields. Palamu’s farmers need effective land redistribution,” he says. Mr. Baitha’s nephew Mukesh Baitha sits at the back of his car, armed with a gun. A jeep full of armed police personnel is at the head of his ten-car cavalcade passing through the broken road winding through wheat fields.

In Palamu, as in entire Bihar, feudalism and the subsequent marginalisation of the lower castes, who were also landless, created a fertile ground for unrest. During the 70s, many low-caste tillers who got no relief from land reform movements joined the Maoists.

IMG_20140407_174553
Mr. Baitha, born in a mine worker’s family in a village in undivided Bihar’s Bishrampur, recollects he had joined the Maoist group Party Unity in the late 1980s after the Arwal massacre in which 21 supporters of the left-wing Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (MKSS) were killed in police firing.

From the 1990s until now, Palamu has repeatedly figured among India’s poorest districts. Splinter groups such as Tritiya Sammelan Prastuti Committee have prolifered here since the early 2000s, which Maoists allege receive police aid. In this complex milieu came Kameshwar Baitha’s unprecedented win of 2009.

At Devrikhurd village, when he stops at a paan shop, Vijay Mehta, a farmer, complains that this is Mr. Baitha’s first tour of the village after being elected. Mr. Baitha asks for forgiveness. “I got only two years and five months of my term to work,” he says. He points to a sheesham tree nearby. “If you plant a seed and it does not sprout to become a tall tree at first, will you not give it a second chance?”

At Gayabheega tola, there are several concrete houses but people from the Ravidas SC community live in thatched huts outside the main village. An old woman in a red sari, Sarda Devi, scolds Mr. Baitha for having failed to ensure that she received her widow pension. Mr. Baitha chats with her and her family and asks them to allow him to screen a CD inside their house. “This CD has recordings of the 258 questions I raised in Parliament on the Japla cement factory near here, on minerals use, on inflation,” he says as the group watches a recording of him taking oath in Parliament.

Many youngsters here have migrated to cities in search of livelihood. But several families still depend on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that they say is riddled with corruption. “You have been our old leader since the time we were young, but see what you can do for our livelihood,” the villagers tell Mr. Baitha as they affectionately bid him farewell in the night.

Rooting for a change

In the neighbouring Chatra constituency, former Maoist commander Ranjan Yadav is fighting on a Samajwadi Party ticket. In 2009, while serving a prison term, Mr. Yadav had unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) ticket. Later he joined the RJD and tried lobbying with the party supremo Lalu Prasad while the latter was in Ranchi jail after being convicted in the fodder scam. After the RJD gave up the claim to field a candidate from Chatra, allowing its coalition partner Congress to field Dheeraj Sahu, Mr. Yadav switched to the SP. The constituency consists of the tribal-dominated forested Latehar district and the plains region of Chatra that has a significant population of Scheduled Castes and backward castes.

“In Mahuadan in Latehar, and in many parts of Chatra, there is no electricity even after 60 years of independence. Big corporations mine coal and iron ore but children in villages cannot even attend a good school. These are issues I want to raise through politics,” says Mr. Yadav in a white dhoti in his sparsely furnished house, still under construction in Namkum on the Ranchi border.

Since Ranjan Yadav joined mainstream politics, the CPI (Maoist) has issued public statements dubbing him as a traitor. Last September, the local CPI (Maoist) leader Sudhir issued a six-page statement against Mr. Yadav and two others — Yugal Pal, a former member of the Maoist’s zonal committee who had announced that he plans to join the All Jharkhand Students Union and former sub-zonal commander Vinod Sharma — saying anyone supporting their candidature will be tried by a jan adalat (people’s court). Mr. Yadav says he fears for his life after the fatwa which he finds unjust. Yugal Pal has since withdrawn his announcement.

Mr. Yadav recounts he had joined the Party Unity in 1990 at the age of 23 while working as a petty contractor in Palamu. “The party did a lot of good work for ordinary villagers — building checkdams, schools in Garhwa. During marriages, we would distribute utensils. But I have stopped believing we will come to power through an armed revolution,” he says.

Mr. Yadav says the Maoists have weakened because some opportunists have joined them and also because of increased police pressure. “There have been instances where the relatives of party members have become contractors. The contractors would try to bribe commanders saying they keep a cut for themselves instead of collecting funds for the party alone.”

The Maoists have accused Mr. Yadav of collaborating with the police in paramilitary operations against the Maoists. He refutes the allegations. “The CPI (Maoist) have lost their hold in Chatra because of the Tritiya Sammelan Prastuti Committee. The police is exploiting cracks within the party by supporting such splinter groups,” he said referring to a Maoist splinter group formed in early 2000s by Brajesh Ghanju citing that Ghanju dalits were not treated on par with the Yadav who then dominated the top posts then. “I have not asked for TSPC for their support but I have told them not to disturb my workers and that we won’t disturb theirs,” said Mr. Yadav of his relationship with the TSPC.

Lok Sabha Giridih: AAP goes to villages

Aam Admi Party workers recruit members at Pandri haat, Giridih. Photo by Manob Cahowdhury

Aam Admi Party workers recruit members at Pandri haat, Giridih. Photo by Manob Chowdhury


In January, while Arvind Kejriwal led a dramatic protest against the Home Ministry occupying a garden outside Rail Bhawan in New Delhi, far away in Giridih, on Bihar-Jharkhand border, protestors gathered at the centre of the old mining town. As their numbers increased to nearly a hundred, the Aam Admi Party supporters marched to Ambedkar Chowk and set fire to an effigy of Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde.

Giridih does not feature on AAP’s website yet. But over 20,000 have enrolled here as members, among the highest in Jharkhand. Most of the campaigns are organized from the office of Career Campus, a coaching institute, which effectively serves as AAP’s district office. Rajesh Sinha who set up this coaching institute 17 years ago joined Baba Ramdev’s Bharat Swamibhan Manch in 2008. Through it, he joined the India Against Corruption movement in 2010, organizing lectures and distributing CDs in colleges in Giridih. He stayed at Ramlila Maidan for two days, and when Baba Ramdev and Arvind Kejriwal parted ways, he stuck to Kejriwal.

“Baba got distracted, he should have stayed with Kejriwal. Last April when we started visiting villages, some knew of Ramdev but no one had heard of Kejriwal. Now in the same villages, we have 200 members each,” says Sinha, who has a wiry built and is dressed in jeans, and a sweatshirt. In the small ground floor office, there are advertisements for coaching for public services exams and a large poster of foreign students in graduation gowns on the wall. AAP pamphlets are strewn around.

AAP's Rajesh Sinha who runs a coaching institute in Giridih. Photo by Manob Chowdhury

AAP’s Rajesh Sinha who runs a coaching institute in Giridih. Photo by Manob Chowdhury


Sinha is organizing a visit to a village haat (weekly market) as part of the party’s rural campaign. Mansoor Ansari, one of Giridih’s AAP 20 “Core Committee” members, will lead the meeting at the haat in Pandari, 18 km from the town. In the previous weeks, he had visited Leda, Kasiyadi, and Peertand villages, close to where a Prime Minister Rural Development Fellow and three panchayat officials were abducted by CPI(Maoist) in January.
“I heard AAP leaders speak on TV. A TV reporter told me where Rajesh bhaiya lives, so I got in touch. Because of him, the electricity department which initially demanded Rs 40,000 bribe for replacing a transformer in my village did it for free,” said Ansari who works as a LIC agent and joined the party in December. AAP’s district committee treasurer here is Sushil Kumar Sonu who works as administrative staff in a B.Ed. college. “BJP has a history of instigating communal tensions here, their focus is on big capitalists. Congress is opportunist and corrupt,” he says. Sonu explained that he usually voted for Jharkhand Mukti Morcha but had found a better alternative to the two national parties than JMM in AAP.

Over 75 percent of Jharkhand’s population lives in villages. Two-thirds villages have no electricity and have little access to TVs, crucial in AAP’s quick connect and reach in cities so far. Giridih’s sitting MP Ravindra Pandey is from the BJP, and the party has won here five times since 1989. The town, Coal India Limited mining site, produced coal and exported mica between the 1960s and 80s. Most mines have now been replaced by highly polluting coal-based sponge iron units.
Rajesh Sinha says he is hopeful that a campaign demanding civic repairs, jobs for local workers in Giridih factories, and against pollution from sponge iron plants will dent the culture of alcohol-induced voting and connect with voters, at least in peripheral villages equally affected by these issues. Drawing in student volunteers, for instance by offering free books, informal coaching sessions to 500 adivasi students, is part of the strategy, says Sinha, whose institute at present has 6,000 students at six centers. Recruiting villagers, talking to them at community spaces like the haat, is another.

At the colourful market in Pandari, when Mansoor Ansari and AAP workers try to get the villagers’ attention, at first there is little response. “We are from AAP. You may have heard Arvind Kejriwal had formed the government in Delhi. Membership is free at present, Rs 10 may be added later,” they announce. Adivasi, muslim, Bhokta dalit villagers from the hamlets nearby continue their chores, chimney stacks of sponge-iron plants visible in the distance. Baldev Pandit asks aloud if they are distributing pension forms, Sadhori Devi selling fresh tomatoes says she is unable to read what the banner says.

Soon after, Mohammad Tahir Ansari a college student and an acquaintance of Mansoor goes over to listen. He says he had read about AAP in the papers. Pritam Yadav, an electrician signs up for membership. “I have seen the AAP caps on TV,” he says, though he is uncertain who their leader is. Two B.com. students from Giridih College also recognize AAP from TV and sign up. “What party? Kejri who?” asks Shiv Lal an old farmer holding a bunch of spinach in his hands.

Kalicharan Soren who works as a night-guard since he lost his job his job in a factory listens carefully when party workers describe AAP will demand jobs for locals, fight against industrial pollution affecting the villages. But he remains sceptical. “We will see whether they will really challenge the factories,” he says.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Sunday magazine.

Lok Sabha Khunti: Dayamani’s long fight for the forests, for equality

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Dayamani Barla had made up her mind to fight elections soon after being released from jail. In the winter of 2012, the activist spent 69 days locked in a small cell in Birsa Munda jail in Ranchi. She was accused in a case relating to leading 400 Oraon tribal farmers in Nagri as they questioned why the campuses of elite institutes such as the IIM Ranchi, and a national law university be built on their fertile multi-crop farmland when there was ample barren land nearby.

Nagri’s tribal women farmers carried fruits for Dayamani at every appearance she made at Ranchi courts as the arguments for bail went on. She recounts being able to see only a patch of the sky from her tiny cell’s window. Her sister-in-law passed away while she was in jail. “When I came out I felt vulnerable. I needed a formal alliance to back me in this work. Market forces put a price on every human being and institution, and many are drawn to individualism. But there is still a collective spirit in villages here, even if there is a vacuum in leadership,” she says. It is this void the 48-year old believes she can fill if elected on an Aam Admi Party ticket from Khunti, from where BJP’s sitting MP Kariya Munda has been elected seven times.

Before Nagri, she had led a movement against Koel Karo dam in Torpa in Khunti where she was born in a Munda tribal household. From 1995 onwards, Dayamani, then 29 and working as an independent journalist with Jan Haq Patrika, organized tribal villagers in their struggle against the dam that would displace over 53,000. The resistance continued despite eight villagers dying in police firing in 2000. She received death threats when she travelled across four districts in Jharkhand between 2006-2010, organizing villagers opposed to giving up their farmland for Arcelor Mittal’s steel plant over 11,000 acres. She led them citing the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, enacted in 1908 after the Birsa movement, which prohibits sale of tribal land to non-tribals in this area. “Why should we settle for “compensation” when we should be co-owners?” she raised the question at the core of crushing disparities in mineral-rich Jharkhand, while addressing farmers in Bokaro who enforced an “economic blockade” against Electrosteel Casting Limited’s steel plant last September. The speech she gave at Bokaro resulted in a FIR against her.

When not traveling in villages, Dayamani can be found in the tea-shop she runs with her husband Nelson near Ranchi’s Sujata Chowk to support her public work. Photographs of Jharkhandi intellectuals such as academic Dr Ram Dayal Munda, and photos she has taken of paddy fields, festivals in villages adorn the walls. Sometimes she uses this space for her work appointments, discussions too. Her full-throated laughter rings in the middle of conversations.

“Dayamani does things at her own pace,” smiles her close friend film-maker Shri Prakash. “She is alert, sincere, and strong; she has achieved which few people could,” says Dr BP Keshri who retired as the Head of Ranchi University’s Tribal and Regional Languages Department. On an impulse Dayamani trails off to pick a jharoo – AAP’s election symbol – from the floor of a hut nearby before beginning her election speech in Ghorpenda village, or makes a piercing comment about how urban Ranchi perceives here, where the bureaucracy is dominated by the lighter-skinned. “When I go to government offices, sometimes peons ask rudely, what do you want, why are you here. There have been instances when I have waited outside offices for long and watched their reactions change when I say my name is Dayamani Barla and this is why I am here,” she says.

There is a lot Dayamani’s childhood taught her to steel up against. She watched her parents lose their land when she was nine to a businessman, after signing on documents they could not read. While they began working as domestic servants in Ranchi, she and her brother studied in their village in Arhara feeding themselves. At 13, she too moved to Ranchi, living in a shed with cattle, cleaning utensils and eating leftovers working at the Ranchi police barracks. She cleaned utensils in a household till her employer tried to sexually assault her one day. “I was 15. I do not know from where I found the strength from to throw that man off and escape. I left the work at the family’s house, and supported myself learning typing in Hindi, English till I enrolled in M.Com. at Ranchi University,” recounts Dayamani. She briefly worked at a NGO but left it when she found the organization made little attempt to account for funds got for public purpose. She soon started contributing articles to the newspaper Prabhat Khabhar. In 1995 she had set up the tea-shop. Her livelihood assured, she immersed herself in the Koel Karo movement. “She know what it is to be poor, and the poor’s problems. She believes if you have been given buddhi, social consciousness, it is meant to be passed on,” says her childhood friend and husband Nelson.
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At Jabra village, Dayamani takes time to slowly build the conversation about her election campaign with the tribal villagers who have brought their own mats to sit on to listen to her speak. “What is it that we are fighting for? How should do we take this campaign forward” she asks the villagers and listens as the group slowly comes to consensus. By the end, more than 60 villagers gathered here have decide to contribute 2 kg rice and Rs 50 each to her campaign. At Ludru, where villagers have erected a megalith to inscribe Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act 1996 rules governing use of community resources in the village, she asks whether these norms are really effective, if the village has reached what its idea of poorna swaraj. “Sometimes I act radical with a reason, at other times I wonder if I am being firm or stubborn,” she muses on her way back to Ranchi, 40 km away.

On the evening before her nomination, Dayamani visits a Birsait village, where Birsa Munda followers, who avoid meat, alcohol and food from outside and wear only white, live. After listening to her, Jagai Aba, an old man in white dhoti and gamcha listens to her speak about her campaign. Then softly, he warns her: “The party (Maoists and Poeple’s Liberation Front of India, a Maoist splinter group) will try to decide whom the village votes for. There is danger and you should stay away from the forest.” In turn, Dayamani invokes an annual rite the Birsait perform in Singhbhum’s forests where they declare the forest to be sacred. “Mango, mahua, sal trees; bears, tigers, scorpions – everything is in its place, is it not,” she says. “Now is the time to save them.”

An edited version appeared in The Hindu.

Lok Sabha Hazaribagh: The royal, the dynast, and the trade unionist

BJP candidate Jayant Sinha, Yashwant Sinha's son, at Banadag village outside Hazaribagh town. Photo by manob Chowdhury

BJP candidate Jayant Sinha, Yashwant Sinha’s son, at Banadag village outside Hazaribagh town. Photo by Manob Chowdhury

In 2009, former finance minister BJP’s Yashwant Sinha had won from Hazaribagh constituency in central Jharkhand reversing his defeat in the 2004 elections by CPI’s Bhuvneshwar Prasad Mehta, a coal workers’ union leader. This time, the BJP, a trenchant critic of the Congress’ dynastic politics, has given the ticket to Mr Sinha’s investment entrepreneur-turned-politician son Jayant Sinha.
Among Sinha’s rivals is another dynast, a royal, the sitting MLA from Congress Saurabh Narayan Singh who is the grandson of the former king “Ramgarh Raja” Kamakhya Narain Singh, and CPI’s Mehta, now 74. Also among the candidates, is three time-BJP MLA Lok Nath Mahto, who switched from BJP to Sudesh Mahto-led All Jharkhand Students’ Union (AJSU) a few weeks before the elections.

Ask who will win this time from Hazaribagh, and invariably there is a reference to a large meeting of the OBCs Mahtos last December. The community makes up a significant section of the electorate in this old coal mining zone of the two districts Hazaribagh and Ramgarh. More than two lakh participated in this Mahto samaj meeting, he who attracts the combined vote of the Koeri Mahto – marginal farmers – and Kurmi Mahto – richer agriculturalists who migrated from Bihar – will lead this contest, claim most observers. While CPI’s Mehta is a Koeri, that Lok Nath Mahto is a Koeri and has the overt backing of AJSU MLA from Ramgarh Chandraprakash Chaudhary, a Kurmi, is seen in his favour. His previous work in BJP and OBC community links both may undermine BJP here, say observers.

While Yashwant Sinha had won with a third of the over 6.9 lakhs votes polled in the last elections, most party leaders and voters criticise his record as MP for having remained “inaccessible”, or “absent.” “BJP workers, whether on their own or on being prompted sent 2,800 letters to central leadership criticising Yashwant and then he was replaced by his son,” says a state BJP leader.

In Hazaribagh town, there are a few signs of his presence besides a billboard from last December crediting the arrival of a new railway line to Sinha. The announcement of his son, Jayant, 50, an IIT Delhi and Harvard Business School alumnus who worked with investment firm Omidyar Network till December 2013, too set off a mixed reaction. Most voters say they have not seen or heard of him. Some BJP supporters say a “change of face” may help, others claim former BJP MP from Hazaribagh Yadunath Pandey would have attracted more votes.

At 11 am, when BJP’s Jayant Sinha preceded by a vehicle with a loudspeaker reaches Banadag village, 8 km from the town, dressed in white kurta pyjama over sneakers, he invokes caste but to argue against it. Instead he invokes Gujarat’s model of development, and frequently refers to his father’s tenure as MP. Speaking in Hindi, he slips up crediting Yashwant Sinha as a “dabbang MP” (a muscleman) for bringing a Rs 3000-crore railway line to Hazaribagh. “Gujarat has 24-hours power and good roads and ambulance services, I will ensure the same here. For BPL, pension beneficiaries sisters, we promise an online database that will allow a direct benefits transfer to bank accounts”, he promised, adding that the latter was a project he worked on as part of Narendra Modi’s IT team in Gujarat.

CPI's Bhuvneshwar Prasad Mehta (in dhoti) in Badkagaon, 27 km from Hazaribagh. Photo by Manob Chowdhury

CPI’s Bhuneshwar Prasad Mehta (in dhoti) in Badkagaon, 27 km from Hazaribagh. Photo by Manob Chowdhury

In Badkagaon, 27 km away, CPI’s Bhuvneshwar Prasad Mehta, whom his supporters describe as a “zameeni neta,” finalized details of a public meeting scheduled on Sunday over tea with CPI cadre. Mehta who worked as a trade union leader among coal miners, defeated the former Queen of Ramgarh in 1980 and first became MP in 1991 defeating BJP’s Yadunath Pandey. He rattles off a list of 27 villages nearby where farmland is marked for acquisition for coal-blocks, and talks to several villagers addressing them by their first name. “Our cadre and groundwork will bring him back,” says Chottu Thakur, CPI member. “We have voted for him before, what did he change?” says Abdul Karim, a farmer in a Chaupdar Baliya village.
With Mahto and OBC vote split between BJP, AJSU, and even CPI, it is Congress’ MLA Singh, the king’s descendant and Hazaribagh MLA, who may make off with the largest chunk of votes, speculates another observer.


2009:
1. Yashwant Sinha, BJP – 31 percent votes
2. Saurabh Narayan Singh, INC – 26 percent
3. Bhuvneshwar Prasad Mehta, CPI and Shivlal Mahto, JMM – 7 percent

2004:
1. Bhuvneshwar Prasad Mehta, CPI – 50.4 percent votes
2. Yashwant Sinha, BJP – 35.5 percent
3. Chandraprakash Chaudhary, AJSU – 5.2 percent

This report appeared in The Hindu here.

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