Platform: Gods that failed

HT, 27th Sept. 2000
Janak Singh

For the exploited and outnumbered tribals of Jharkhand, a new state might mean the fulfilment of a dream. But this dream has already been hijacked by the 'outsiders'. If you visit any tribal village in Jharkhand, you will come across groups of adivasis selling Haria in earthen pots, the local brew made of rice. They drink the brew until they fall asleep. There is nothing else to help them cope with their wretched life; Haria helps them forget their existential paradox.

Sometimes they are employed by forest contractors on miserly wages. At other times they quietly accept their women's exploitation at the hands of contractors and officials. There is nobody they can turn to for help or justice.

The truth is that the social condition of the tribals is not likely to undergo any transformation with the creation of a separate state comprising 18 districts of Bihar. On the contrary, they might feel more frustrated when they fail to get anything even after a new state is born, something which has been part of their dreams.

The huge surplus of minerals found here are being extracted on a much larger scale than ever before, but the profiteers are outsiders - politicians, contractors or industrialists - who are using them in their factories or plants within Bihar or outside. The same process may go on even in the new Jharkhand state.

A sustained scenario of exploitation has been the lot of the tribals in drought-prone districts like Palamau, considered to be one of the poorest regions in India. There is the tale of a Bhumihar landlord who was called the 'man-eater of Manatu' (Manatu was the name of his village in north Bihar).

He was notorious for his mafia-like reign and the brutal treatment he meted out to the tribals who worked on his estate. The man-eater is dead and gone but many more equally vicious characters have made the Jharkhand region their private territory now, where they can do whatever they like and prosper at their cost.

The new state is being carved out ostensibly for the welfare of tribals, but actually it may do nothing to remove the cross of want from which they have been suffering since the British arrived. They have been outnumbered by outsiders in their own homeland. The industrial growth in the area has attracted all kinds of fortune-hunters.

Almost all the tribals in Bihar live in Jharkhand with Santhals constituting 40 per cent of the population and forming the largest group, followed by Oraons (19.46 per cent), Hos (11.81 per cent) and Mundas (10.72 per cent), with a sprinkling of Paharias, Asurs and other smaller denominations.

The total population of tribals in Jharkhand is only 27.67 per cent, as per the 1991 census; hence, non-tribals constitute the majority in the region. The tribals are in majority only in three of the 18 districts. The tribal-majority districts are Gumla (71 per cent), Lohardaga (56 per cent) and Paschimi Singhbhum (55 per cent).

Jharkhand was basically tribal territory, but a large number of tribals migrated to tea plantations in Assam as indentured labourers during the British era. With big development projects launched in the area after Independence, the topography of the region has changed drastically.

With the declaration of the new state, the tribals are now becoming a pawn in the chess game of power politics. The BJP, Samata Party and RJD are propping up 'loyal tribals' for the post of Chief Minister. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha led by Shibu Soren, which used to be the main political formation leading the agitation for a separate tribal state, has been thoroughly discredited. Of the 82 MLAs in the proposed legislature, only 12 belong to JMM.

Even if JMM and smaller tribal outfits join hands, their strength may not exceed the BJP's tally of 32 MLAs. The BJP wants to project its own tribal leadership, and cut Soren down to size.

The new state may have a tribal Chief Minister, but he will be installed as per the terms and conditions of the party, or parties, which will sponsor him. The Jharkhandis may derive some comfort from the fact that the Chief Minister is one of them. But beyond that there is no hope.

Historically, the tribals have always been led up the garden path. Jaipal Singh emerged as leader of the Jharkhand Party in 1949-50 and galvanised the region with his call for a separate tribal state. The Jharkhand Party won 33 seats in the Assembly elections in 1952. In 1957, the party did equally well.

At the peak of his popularity, Jaipal Singh merged the Jharkhand Party with the Congress. He became a Cabinet Minister, and betrayed the tribals.

When Shibu Soren arrived in 1979-80, he touched the people with his sincerity. The Santhals used to call him Guruji. They treated him like a god. The JMM-led by him became a force to reckon with, winning 20 to 25 seats in every Assembly election. But Guruji also had feet of clay. Along with five other JMM MPs, he was allegedly involved in a corruption deal with P.V. Narasimha Rao's minority Government.

The JMM bailed out the Rao regime, but got trapped in a corruption scandal.

Shibu Soren's popularity has suffered so much that he could not even get elected to Parliament in the last elections. For the Santhals, he is another god who has failed. And even if he becomes Chief Minister - by hook or by crook - this ground reality will not change.

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