Tribal anger in Jharkhand forces BJP to promise a ‘Sarna’ code

Tribals demanding a distinct religious identity for themselves, separate from Hinduism, have been assured a code by 2021 by chief minister Raghubar Das

Tribal anger  in Jharkhand forces BJP to  promise a ‘Sarna’ code
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Ashlin Mathew

A visitor can sense both anger and fear in Jharkhand just before three constituencies –Chatra, Lohardaga and Palamu – go to polls on April 29 in the fourth phase of the seven-phased elections.

Jharkand has 14 seats. BJP had won 12 of them in 2014 and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha the remaining two. Somewhat curiously, the polling in the state is spread over four phases till May 19. This has enabled both the Prime Minister and the BJP president to campaign in the backwaters of Jharkhand.

All the three seats for which polling is scheduled on April 29 were won by BJP in the 2014 elections, but this time around the going is tough for BJP in all these seats. However, what is noticeable in all these districts is a fear to speak up against the BJP. Many do it after assessing the speaker or they simply refuse to participate in a conversation if there is a vocal BJP supporter around.

In several parts of all the three constituencies, the exasperation with the BJP MPs can be seen. This has led to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP President Amit Shah and Jharkhand CM Raghubar Das sweating it out in these districts, while no major leader from the grand alliance, which includes Congress, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha and Rashtriya Janata Dal, have conducted a rally here.

All the BJP candidates are seeking re-election in the name of Modi. The PM has already campaigned here and Amit Shah will address a rally in Chatra on Saturday, the last day of campaigning. In fact, in all the rallies, the Prime Minister claims that as long as he is the head of the state no land will be forcibly acquired from the tribals. Realising that they are on a sticky wicket, CM Raghubar Das has even announced in Lohardaga that they will enact the Sarna religious code by 2021.

The tribal communities in Jharkhand have been demanding for a Sarna code for long, which will provide a separate code for traditional tribal religion that worships nature. While tribal communities follow varied religious practices and traditions, they are forced to identify as Hindus as there is no separate code for them in the census.

This has been one of the major demands of the tribals and that is one of the major concerns in Lohardaga. BJP has been reluctant to enact the code as the RSS believes that all tribals are Hindus. The constituency which has been reserved for the scheduled caste will see Congress’ Sukhdeo Bhagat take on incumbent BJP's Sudarshan Bhagat. Congress last won this seat in 2004. Sukhdeo is also the MLA of Lohardaga and his wife is the Panchayat President in the area too.

This time around there is no independent candidate to cut into the votes of Congress like 2014. “The Congress candidate lost by 6000 votes. This time that won’t happen. Moreover, most of the tribals have realised that BJP will not work for them,” claims an ac vendor Shamsul Haq. The constituency has 20% Muslims, 4 % Christians and 51% tribals.

“We will vote for the Congress. At least they are willing to listen to us. On the eve of elections, people can claim many things. We have seen what they have been doing,” insists SukhnathOraon, who lives just outside Lohardaga city limits in a mud house.

Down the road is VineethaOraon, who makes a living selling pakodas. “This road has come up in the last few years. It has definitely made our lives easier, but that can’t be the reason for choosing a government,” she reasons.

“Where is the bypass that was promised? That is still pending. What about the amendments in land laws like Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) and the rail link to Gumla? If we elect the BJP, there will take away the OBC reservation too. They are against giving us reservation,” contends Kamal Kesari.

In Pesrar village, there were a number of men aggressively supporting BJP near the only bank in the region. Around them, several other villagers deferred their opinions.

It is relatively easier in Palamu, where the RJD candidate Ghuram Ram is in a straight fight against BJP’s Vishnu Dayal Ram. Bahujan Samaj Party’s Dulal Bhuiyan is also contesting here, but is of little consequence.

Here the issues are many. It begins with drought, water shortage, pension and Aaddhaar woes, in ordinate delays in NREGA payments. All of them have been worsened by the current BJP government.

“Here the fight is between principle and money. BJP is the only party with inordinate amounts of cash and that can be seen in the number of posters, hoardings and vans around the city. Christians are likely to vote for the candidate in the best position to defeat BJP, if there is no Congress candidate. That makes the fight relatively easier in this constituency. The Sarna votes are also likely to go to the RJD candidate. Unless alcohol and money is used to influence the tribals, Ghuran Ram is in a better position to win,” explained James Herenz, a civil rights activist.

Chatra is where all the drama is. It is the scene of a triangular contest between Congress, BJP and RJD. There is considerable anger against the incumbent BJP MP Sunil Singh. The locals are angry that he hasn’t ever visited them and during rallies, he is forced to apologise for this. But,the anti-BJP votes are likely to get split between RJD and Congress. Congress has fielded Manoj Yadav, who is known to be a principled politician, and the RJD candidate is Sanjay Yadav, a sand trader who is close to RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav’s family.

“The Christian votes will go to Congress, but RJD is strong in a number of pockets in the district such as the Barewadi Block, Netrahat and Mahuada. Manika block swings towards the Congress. There is a likelihood that the votes will get split,” says Herenz.

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