The BJP’s strategy to douse the burning issues of forest land rights, and Chief Minister Raghubar Das’ perceived anti-tribal policies, along with Hindutva and muscular nationalism, came a cropper in Jharkhand.

The ruling party’s last-minute design to dilute a non-tribal Chief Minister’s extremely unpopular land policies with hard Hindutva, pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, proved unconvincing in a State where the government was facing strong popular resentment in the wake of the brutal suppression of movements against changes in laws protecting indigenous people’s rights over land.

Change of slogan

The BJP had made adequate structural adjustments in the run-up to the polls in the State, where about 26 per cent of the population is tribal. Midway through the elections, the BJP changed its thematic focus from the initially-coined ‘ Ghar ghar Raghubar (Raghubar Das in every home)’ to a fresh slogan, ‘ Jharkhand pukara, Bhajpa dobara (Once again, BJP in Jharkhand)’, to paper over the Chief Minister’s non-tribal credentials and the violent conflicts his land policies had resulted in.



Traditional tribal statues are seen at the entrance of a village in the Santhal Paragna area in Jharkhand's Dumka district. - Photo: Biswaranjan Rout



Subsequently, both Shah and Modi pushed a hard Hindutva line, with the former on December 16 promising to build a Ram temple “touching the sky”. He made this declaration in his election rallies at Poreyahat and Pakur, which border West Bengal and have a sizeable Muslim population. He also spoke about Article 370, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and alleged conversions by the Catholic church.

The PM, on his part, said the anti-CAA protesters could be “identified by their clothes” — this too at an election rally, at Dumka. The Opposition subsequently submitted a memorandum to President Ram Nath Kovind, accusing Modi of serving “narrow sectarian interests” by making such statements, “which is inconsistent with the status of the office he holds”.

In the end, however, the party did not benefit from the Hindutva outreach, with a seat such as Chakradharpur — from where BJP State unit President Laxman Giluwa contested — going to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s (JMM) Sukhram Oraon. At the time of going to press, Giluwa was trailing Oraon by a whopping margin of 13,328 votes in this seat reserved for tribals. The popular anger was attributed to Giluwa’s vocal support for police action against people who participated in the mass movement known as ‘Pathalgarhi’ in the State.

Two key Bills

The conflict emanated from the Chief Minister’s push in November 2016 to two Bills approved by the Legislative Assembly to amend the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act (CTA), 1908, and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPT), 1949, that protect the tribals’ rights over their land by imposing stringent restrictions on the acquisition and sale of tribal land.

A spate of protests and agitation, widely known as the ‘Pathalgarhi Movement’, since spread across 100 villages in the districts of Ranchi, Khunti and Chaibasa. The tribals, largely Munda and Oraon, erected stone plaques engraved with provisions of the Fifth Schedule in the Constitution and the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act at the village boundaries as an assertion of autonomy and independence from the Indian Union.

Although Jharkhand’s first tribal Governor, Droupadi Murmu, refused to give her assent to the two Bills, citing people’s protests and agitation as her main reasons, the resentment remains. The reason for this is that in a district like Khunti alone, 23 FIRs have been filed, 19 of which invoke sedition charges along with kidnapping, rape and other heinous crimes, mainly against tribal leaders.

Boycott call

These FIRs, registered over approximately the last two years, have led to the arrest of 43 people and sedition charges over 10,000 unknown people under Section 124A of the IPC. In some villages, a boycott call for election was given and people buried their Aadhar cards and voter IDs as a mark of protest against the police crackdown. The stone plaques outside the villages remain standing while those who did vote showed a clear preference for the JMM.

The performance of Giluwa, who became the face of the local government’s attitude towards tribal land rights, is reflective of the BJP’s tribal problem in Jharkhand, which could not be overcome by an over-emphasis on Hindutva. The local outweighed the national in these Assembly elections.