Netarhat Field Firing Range

Sunrise in Netarhat

How People's is People's Struggle in Jharkhand?

(A commentary on the 8th anniversary of the peoples struggle against Netarhat Field Firing Range on March 23, 2002)

By Cyprian Ekka*

"Jaan denge, zameen nahin denge!" (We will lay down our lives, but not part with our land). The slogan reverberated for the first time on March 23, 1994 on the 3622-feet high Netarhat plateau, 144 km west of the Jharkhand capital Ranchi. A million-strong assembly was at a weeklong dharna (sit-in) to assert their rights to existence, livelihood and self-determination against an existing heavy artillery range, which the Tribals of the noted tourist destination had helplessly endured for 30 odd years.

In the wake of the proposal to develop the periodic firing range as a permanent Pilot Project covering 1659 square km (including 188 square km of impact zone), people were visibly restless. The historic Netarhat resolve has since thrived with rare vitality and determination. Anniversary celebrations of the event are held at the dharna site with seamless discipline to express the peoples firm resolve. Sylvan surroundings with blossoming Sal (shorea robusta) trees at the dharna site echo the peoples verdict Spring after Spring. The organizers expected over 50 thousand participants in the celebration.

This time the anniversary celebration has acquired additional significance, since the firing range mandate, scheduled to expire on May 12 this year, was renewed in 1999 through a gazette notification and extended till May 11, 2022. The agitators know that it will directly affect 2.35 lakh Tribals of Mahuadanr, Dumri, Chainpur, Raidih, Gumla, Ghaghra, Bishunpur and Netarhat Blocks of Palamau and Gumla districts of Jharkahnd. They have thwarted firing practice till now; they will predictably do the same in future. In addition, with Jharkhand governments unscrupulous handling of the Koel-Karo Hydel Project and the last years Tapkara police firing, which left 8 Tribals dead and several injured, the children of the soil question, why the creation of Jharkhand state has only multiplied their misery.

Jharkhand government on various occasions has assured that the projects will be realized only if people would allow their implementation. Evidently such statements only amount to Orwellian "double-speak", which people denounce with the contempt it deserves.

No one-up manship

A new paradigm of leadership is emerging through peoples movements. The representatives, elected from various geographic units of the afflicted people, form the central Jan Sangharsh Samiti (JSS) or Peoples Struggle Committee, which is vested with supreme legislative and executive powers through consensus. The buzzwords, like in the traditional village panchayats (village councils) at micro level and Parha (village confederacy) at macro level, are integrity and community interest. Various resource persons are engaged to provide them with necessary information and pertinent know-how. That may be one of the reasons political parties could not hijack the movement despite repeated attempts. Now the people are so alert and informed about their problem that they can make appropriate decisions and moves on their own. A truly Tribal way of functioning, which shuns personality cult like filth. It is high time the Jharkhand minded political parties had taken note of it.

On the contrary, political parties, including many Tribal leaders, have no faith in the egalitarian way perhaps because no such frame of reference (paradigm) is available in the mainstream politics. Not all Tribal leaders are ignorant of the Tribal way of proceeding, but the ground realities of party politics are so compellingly personality oriented and power surcharged that they have no patience for the people's communitarian power to emerge.

In fact, administrative officers and politicians alike were visibly skeptic to learn that there is no single leader of the Movement well, not in the conventional sense of the term. At negotiation table the administration had to face over fifty Netarhat JSS leaders, each equipped with equal voting right. A new phenomenon altogether, but it worked. Democracy is not the same as egalitarian society. The formers operative principle is vote, while the latters consensus. While the administration is accustomed to deal with a handful of representatives at the negotiating table, the politicians are accustomed to deal with individual leaders of various prospective vote banks. Both equations provide ample opportunities and motives for the ugly barter system. The administration and political parties were too uncomfortable to broker a compromise with the JSS leaders.

Should there be no political leader then?

Legitimately elected representatives are a must in democracy. But that someone would deliberately use JSS platform to serve his/her narrow political ambition, would be spurned. Even political leaders (including sitting MLAs and MPs) are welcome to participate in the Movement, but they would enjoy voting rights only when duly elected by their respective local units. One may recall their moments of embarrassment, when the members unanimously denounced their politically motivated interventions.

Such a norm is essential, because among the JSS members there are as many political leanings as there are political ideologies. Naturally, with Assembly elections round the corner, many JSS members individually allied themselves with Parties of their choice to contest election. None except Prof. Bernard Minj (Gumla) won with JMM ticket. His subsequent defeat forced him to switch allegiance. He is now a Congress member. Notably, the moment Bernard declared his candidacy, his primary membership from JSS, irrespective of his significant contribution, ceased to exist. As a seasoned JSS member, he was aware of its implications and he had no complaints.

However, many political rivals were critical of this particular policy of JSS, because it discouraged vote split. Voters nonetheless got divided in the election, because some parties were quick to field ambitious JSS members as dummy candidates. Such a thing happens anywhere. Netarhat Movement is too young to strike at this malaise. It will have to deal with the problem in the long run not with an edict, but through egalitarian process.

Come back, Ahimsa and Satyagraha!

Another significant dimension of the Movement is its firm faith in Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha (demand of the truth). One may need to experience them first hand in order to be convinced of their power. Gandhiji did not stick to them for nothing. Unfortunately, many Indians seem to have lost faith in them at present. If at all, they pay lip service to the Mahatma (Great Soul) as and when he suits them. Did the faith in Ahimsa and Satyagraha dawn upon Netarhat Movement miraculously? No. Initially few seemed to be convinced of their power. But could they risk thousands of women and childrens lives in the dharna at field-firing site? Resorting to violent means or even allowing its unsolicited entry would have proved disastrous and self-defeating. However, such a pragmatic justification soon became redundant as naturally as it had seemed obligatory. Ahimsa and Satyagraha are here to stay.

Womens emerging power

Brave Tribal ladies marshaled the show, when army lorries strayed in the firing spot during March 1994 dharna. The disillusioned troops had to retreat. Womens indomitable grit since became the lifeblood of Netarhat Movement. Through the years they have demonstrated much more commitment and consistency than men. From fiercely powerful orators to indefatigable grass-roots workers, the Movement has them all. Peoples movement in Jharkhand has a lesson or two for the Indian Parliament, which is mulling over womens participation to no end.

Did Netarhat succeed as peoples movement?

Some observers patently attribute Netarhats success to the predominance of Christian population in the affected area. The statement needs qualification. Contrary to the Sangh Parivars (Right Wing Hindu Nationalist group) concerted smear campaign with their much-flogged "missionary instigation" brush, the involvement of the institutional Church has been conspicuously absent. Yes, in their individual capacity priests, sisters and brothers are also in the movement. Why not? Barway and Chhechhari as the affected area is traditionally known are the biggest fountains of religious vocations in Chhotanagpur. But the clerics participation is no different from what has been earlier explained regarding party politicians. Affected people are Christians as much by default as anyone can be a Hindu or a Muslim.

Significantly whenever Christian presence is conspicuous in socially crucial issues, the missionary bogey is raised as though Christians have no right to individual identity other than their institutional affiliation. Interestingly, the bogey does not apply, when the Christians are engaged in education and health services, which benefit all. And who said Netarhat problem is religious in nature? Initially even the Sangh members and Muslims were not only active participants, but were also elected as representatives from various units. It worked out perfectly, but would divisive forces tolerate that? No. The first to dissociate from the Movement to launch counter propaganda were the Sangh Parivaris.

The presence of priests and sisters, still held in high esteem among the afflicted, is definitely a moral boost to the latter. Several villagers went on record, "Now we are convinced that the priests and sisters are also our people." True, Christians are enviably disciplined. They do not create unruly scenes during deliberations for petty personal or sectarian gains. As such, decisions are finalized within a stipulated time. That homogeneity would facilitate additionally frank interaction within the groups is hardly a unique factor. However, it is not religious affiliation but common stake at existence, livelihood and self-determination that determine single-minded pursuits of the Netarhat Movement.

Koel-Karo Movement, elder sibling

Koel-Karo Movement was initially too diversified to come to a Netarhat-like consensus, though the notion itself was familiar to the people on account of Guria Parha under whose jurisdiction falls the Lohajimi dam site (12 km south of Torpa) on Karo river. Raja Paulus Guria (expired in office two years ago) and his Parha colleagues fostered rare unity among the Tribals. Ironically, while in principle the Mundas fiercely resent alien (read "diku") interference, they were tricked by circumstances into making allowances for certain interest groups to operated on their behalf. As for the Koel segment of the ambitious hydel project, rival political parties held full sway. The Koel-Karo people have endured the enigmatic involvement of various interest groups for years. None fulfilled the promise. Hence, in sheer frustration they decided to apply the Netarhat formula, which was too eloquent to be ignored anymore, though not without stiff protestations from their long time opportunist associates and benefactors.

The historic decision has only fostered greater unity between the two segments and, in a sense, it has relativised the unfounded victory promises, which most political leaders and interest groups had sold to them as instant coffee. The long-drawn and discomfortingly trite anticipation has taught people to view the Movement as an ongoing struggle for survival rather than an isolated battle for victory. Add typical Munda resolve to this equation and what you have is an unshakable Tribal front. Predictably, no government will succeed to fool them anymore.

The Koel-Karo people were equally incredulous about Ahimsa and Satyagraha. However, some painful deliberations later, they accepted it as their core strategy. Tapkara massacre is a testimony of their non-violent resolve. Else an encroaching diku could as well be cut to half in the Koel-Karo heartland and no police would risk investigation. Such was the track record of the Mundas, which besides the dream of an ideal regime motivated the likes of Birsa Munda to revolt against the British colonizers in 1895-1900.

Peoples Movements, tutors of leadership

What Jharkhand leadership seriously lacks is Gandhiji a person of integrity and detachment to political office. It is unimportant to argue here if Gandhijis rejection of political office was right or wrong. Even if he were to assume office, one would concede, it would have been thrust into his hands by the masses not vice versa. It may sound too idealistic, but Tribal concept of authority is just that and more. It works out the same way in the Netarhat JSS and lately in the Koel-Karo Jan Sangathan (KKJS) or Koel-Karo Peoples Organization. Consensus makes it possible.

Tribal system, an ignored matrix

Tribal system at home level has inherent capacity to produce leaders, who may not be highly literate but may be persons with rare currency the integrity. But when exposed to the sunny glare of larger matrix, many seem to get confused. G. N. Devy, Secretary for Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group, writes, "The political leadership in tribal area has been a victim of the party-system. When the tribal representatives get elected, they quickly get submerged in the main concerns of the party to which they belong; and in these, there is at best a nominal place for the tribal issues. On the other hand, when tribal masses express their dissent, it is understood as an anti-state activity, resulting in an unnecessary burden on the state-funds at one end and a blatant violation of human rights at the other." (cf. "Rethinking Tribals" in Sunday Magazine "The Hindu Folio" (July 16, 2000) of The Hindu). Is Tribal system incompatible with the mainstream to such an extent, one wonders. Yet, even the Jharkhandi intellectual leaders apparently fall victims to the larger political matrix sooner or later.

Jaipal Singh

Mr Jaipal Singh (an Oxford alumnus and Hockey Olympian) enjoyed unconditional support of the people. He came into spot-light as president of the second general meeting of Chhotanagpur Adivasi Mahasabha (CAM), which was founded in the leadership of Mr Igance Beck in 1938. Incidently, as general secretary of Chhotanagpur Catholic Mahasabha (CCM), Beck had enjoyed considerable influence in the civic life of his time. Existing organizations Unnati Samaj (Society for Progress), Kisan Sabha (Farmers Council) and Catholic Sabha (Catholic Mens Council) were merged into CAM. All candidates fielded by CAM in the 1938 municipality elections won. Kharsawan-Saraikela police firing (1948) in which 14 persons died (local sources assert 1000 victims), and Mayurbhanj Adivasi Insurgency (1949) set the precedence for emergence of Jharkhand Party (JP) in 1950 with Jaipal Singh as its first president. "Akhand Jharkhand" (Indivisible Jharkhand) slogan had already reverberated in 1948 in Karsawan and Mayurbhanj Insurgency, because both princely states had predominantly Tribal subjects, who wanted to be part of Bihar (Jharkhand). Kharsawan-Saraikela insurgency notwithstanding, they were merged with Orissa.

Singh now draped the Jharkhand slogan with JP mantle. In 1951 the first general elections of the Indian Republic were held. With unprecedented 32 MLAS under its belt, JP formed the Opposition in Bihar Assembly. In January 1955 JPs demand to the State Reunification Commission for separate Jharkhand state, was turned down. Tribals disillusion with JP, whose leaders now allegedly distanced from their respective electorate, was conspicuous in the 1957 elections. JP lost its hold on Jharkhand. Singh further betrayed his peoples aspirations by merging JP into Congress in 1963, his demand for a Provincial autonomy forgotten. JP got permanently divided into several factions, each claiming authenticity to no avail during the 1967 elections. In the same year All India Jharkhand Party (AIJP) was founded as a reaction to the 1963 JP-Congress merger. But the Ho-Munda rift in AIJP was too glaring by 1969-70. Consequently it split into two: AIJP went with Mr Bagun Sumbrai (a Ho), while JP remained with Mr N.E. Horo (a Munda). The all-time high Jharkhand aspirations got stifled or so they had seemed.

Kartik Oraon

Mr Kartik Oraon (engineer, trained abroad) was also an illustrious leader. As a Jan Sangh party (precursor of BJP) member, he was a leading proponent of Sarna (literally, grove for ancestral worship) as the umbrella religion of the Tribals. In 1966 he founded All India Adivasi Vikas Parishad (All India Tribal Development Council) primarily to educate and develop Tribals, who followed their ancestral religion. Parishad was a sequel to the Academy of Indian Culture, which was founded in 1965 by caste Hindus for what they called "reconversion" of Tribal Christians and Muslims through "Shuddhikaran Samskar" (ritual purificaition). In his over enthusiasm Oraon pleaded the court in the late 60s to rule that the converted Christians are not Tribals and hence privileges due to the Scheduled Tribes be denied to them. Mr David Munjni challenged him in the court to wrest the ruling in the Tribal Christians favour, but the episode left a deep scar on the Tribals unity. Down the years, Sangh Parivar zealots have strived to widen chasm to their benefit.

Dr Ram Dayal Munda

Dr Ram Dayal Munda, an anthropologist, initially seemed to have a flicker of integral leadership, particularly manifest in his crowd pulling "Jan Jagriti Abhiyan" (Mass Awakening Expedition) in 1980-85. The Minnesota University scholars drum-beating image in remote villages and city streets alike, balanced with qualitative insights, deftly set a new paradigm of Tribal intellectualism, catapulting him in the process to top academic positions. Beginning his career as a Ranchi University professor and head of the Tribal and Regional Languages Department in 1980, he was soon nominated as Pro-Vice Chancellor and then as Vice Chancellor. The confidence his efforts inspired in the new generation of rustic villagers coincidently led to the rejuvenation of the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), which strongly challenged old guards of Jharkhand Movement on the ground of political integrity. In time with the Ram Dayal phenomenon also dawned a new cultural renaissance in Jharkhand, particularly conspicuous through unprecedented audiocassettes of folk songs, which became available in abundance. In ten years time the folk songs replaced film songs at festive celebrations and public buses. The immortal number "Nagpur Ker Kora" (The Lap of Chhotanagpur), composed in 1978, not by Dr Munda, and the likes were mesmerizing audiences at concerts. Tribals long-cherished hopes for a separate state never seemed more articulate.

Birth Pangs of Jharkhand

Mean while in 1987 Jharkhand Samanway Smiti (Jharkhand Coordination Committee) was constituted under the chairmanship of Dr B.P. Kesri. This included at least 50 different Jharkhandi organizations. A commendable feat indeed. With the demand for a separate state gaining grounds, BJP in 1988 floated the demand for its own brand of separate state: Vananchal (Forest Region). The decoy worked favourably to BJP during the ensuing elections. Finally in 1989 the Centre instituted a Committee on Jharkhand Matters, which recommend three options: separate state, centrally ruled state or Jharkhand Autonomous Council under the Bihar government. The recommendations were not tabled in the Parliament till 1992. But AJSU would have none of it. It roared, "No election, if no Jharkhand." But the slogan did not cut much ice with the parliamentary elections the same year, 1989. Dr Munda acted as a facilitator in the prolonged negotiations between the Centre and the Jharkhand leaders towards Provincial autonomy.

When the going gets tough

AJSU now decided to act tough. For one thing, it abandoned its apolitical garb. In league with AJSU, in December 1991 Dr Munda began Jharkhand People's Party (JPP) with two others Mr Vinod Bhagat (AJSU discovery) and Dr Sanjay Bosu Mullick who jointly formed the regional partys first presidium. The rationale was to develop a political platform with a sound ideology based on the aspiration and ethics of the indigenous peoples of Jharkhand as an alternative to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and Jharkhand Party (JP). March 1992 the AJSU-JPP combine reaped considerable success in the Jharkhand Bund (Closure) followed by a week-long economic blockade. However, the festering inner contradictions in AJSU made way for Prabhakar Tirkey and Harishankar Mahto, the two notable young leaders to join JMM.

Dr Munda changed tracks

Dr Munda contested elections (apparently a last hour decision) from Chaibasa seat, but lost. JPP soon degenerated and was deserted by its leaders, including Dr Munda himself, who joined JMM and contested losing elections for the Khunti seat against BJPs sitting MP, Mr Karia Munda. In both the elections Dr Mundas insufficient hold over the masses and his low-keyed campaign may be blamed. For one thing, his support base was confined primarily to Tribal voters, who were saddled with multiple choice of leaders, also Tribals. AJSU underwent similar somersaults to become almost a non-entity. At present Dr Munda is the president of Jharkhand Vikas Party (JVP) of Mr Suraj Mandal, who in 1999 broke away from Mr Shibu Soren after the notorious JMM MPs bribery case of July 1993.

With the founding of a short-lived political party, regardless of Dr Mundas justification, his cultural leadership drastically diminished. Apparently, he had no Gandhiji in mind. Leaving a cultural plank, he dared to nosedive into party politics. Had he continued to awaken the people from the cultural plank, they themselves in the long run would have put him on a pedestal. But no, he was apparently in a hurry to perch himself there. Presently his imposing presence seems to be confined to well-sponsored conferences in the country and abroad rather than to the domestic geo-political fabric. He may still strive to redeem his grass-root leadership.

Shibu Soren

Mr Shibu Soren's case is different. What Mr Amitabh Bacchan, the celebrated angry man, is to Bollywood films, Soren is to the Jharkhand resurgence. But their commonality ends with the meteoric rise. While Bacchan still hogs the limelight because of his chameleon-like theatrical prowess defying his age, Soren has lost even his biting teeth. You cannot ride on vengeance and fury all your life, can you? He is said to have entered politics to avenge his father's murder. His ability to provide a viable Tribal ideology is questionable.

February 1973 Soren and his associate, Mr Vinod Bihari Mahto, founded JMM, in order to strengthen agrerian revolt in Dhanbad area. While the distance between him and Mahto continuously grew, he allegedly entered into alliance with Congress in 1980 and won 14 Assembly seats and sacked his associate Mahto from the party in 1984 in favour of Mr Nirmal Mahto as president. The party nonetheless split into two, though Soren still managed to win 15 Assembly seats in 1985 elections.

Whether in or out of power, Soren rode piggyback on Suraj Mandal in the same way as Jharkhand Chief Minister Babulal Marandi is now doing with the Delhi Darbar (power block). Even as the demand for Jharkhand state seemed to be on high during late 1980s, his party alliance with Mr Laloo Yadavs Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) remained unshaken. Notably, Laloos aversion for bifurcation of Bihar may be gauzed from his public statement, Jharkhand may be constituted upon my dead body only! As for Marandi, his only convincing policy is having no policy of his own. His jellyfish-like pliability ironically won him the coveted Kursi (CMs chair), while BJPs master strategists summarily dropped a no-nonsense Karia Munda. Their arithmetic worked. To this day Marandi lives up to his reputation as a customized puppet for Sangh Parivars political brinkmanship.

Lady Integrity, where are you?

The manner in which Mr Shibu Soren ruined his integrity does not auger well with Tribal ethos. If despite this he may win elections, it may be because of his career precedence over the mediocre. Barely two months after the formation of Jharkhand state, Kalyan Chaudhuri aptly summed up Soren-Marandi equation in Frontline, "Marandi's assumption of office as the first Chief Minister of Jharkhand has ironically, paved the way for the political revival of Sibu Soren. Soren, who until the last moment nursed hopes of becoming Chief Minister, lost in the numbers game, which turned to the BJP's advantage. Soren, called 'Guruji' (teacher) and superhero to the Santhals, became a fallen hero after he was charged of accepting bribes, and reportedly getting his private secretary killed as well as playing into the hands of one party or another for pelt. Soren had almost sunk to political oblivion, but the recent developments have strengthened his role as an Opposition leader." ("Jharkhand Tensions", Frontline, January 20-February 2, 2001). Alas! Fourteen months later the political rug seems to have slipped under Soren, the stipulated Opposition leader.

Is Shibu Innocent?

Meanwhile on March 15 this year the Delhi High Court acquitted former PM Narasimha Rao and his cabinet colleague Buta Singh in JMM MPs bribery case regarding the July 1993 no-confidence motion. The acquittal came on the ground that the statements of the approver, former JMM MP Shailendra Mahato, "are neither relevant nor admissible" and "ought to be discarded."

All the bribe-takers and bribe-givers in the JMM case will now go scot free. Though Justice R. S. Sodhis verdict, which overturned the conviction handed down by Special Judge Ajit Bharihoke in October 2000, does not prevent CBI from appealing in the Supreme Court, yet it remains to be seen if the apex prosecuting agency will live up to its pursuit for justice. Soren, his estranged friend Suranj Mandal, Simon Marandi and approver turned accomplish Mahto may as well gleefully take their "innocent" story to town and win elections, but they still owe their voters an explanation regarding Rs 50 lakh deposite each in the Punjab National Bank's Naoroji Nagar branch, Delhi. CBI contends that the amount was indeed bribery money. Similarly, in the chargesheet regarding the Sashi Nath Jha murder case, CBI wrote that Shibu Sorens private secretary had mysteriously disappeared in May 1994. He was later killed by Sorens henchmen as he knew of the JMM-Congress deal to save the Narasimha Rao government in July 1993. Come election and the voters are likely to forget these episodes.

Then on March 27 this year, thanks to the support of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Shibu Soren, whose 12 MLAs form the largest single party in the Jharkhand Assemblys Opposition, secured a Rajya Sabha berth in the biennial election, while for the BJP candidate and the chief editor of Ranchi Express, Mr Ajay Maroo, it was a sure win thanks to his partys 33 MLAs in the 82-member (including one nominated) Jharkhand Assembly. According to media reports Soren denied this indicated his partys intension to join the NDA coalition. He explained that both Congress and RJD failed to back him for Rajya Sabha candidature, while NDA did, since "we had helped the NDA form the government in Bihar led by Nitish Kumar and it was the turn of the NDA to repay its debt of gratitude to us." (The Times of India, March 27, 2002) Sorens denial of possible alliance notwithstanding his party is unlikely to challenge the BJP-led NDA coalition in the forthcoming election.

What should young turks not do?

Many younger politicians, including careerist social activists, seem to emulate Soren to various degrees if not in letter then in spirit particularly while leading peoples movements. For one thing, their political ambition betrays their social activism much too early, since their frame of reference is political anyway. Rampant venality and criminalization of the present day politics make the novices look like na´ve walking in the mines field. In addition, when in power, few of them seem to break the unsavory precedence, which Mr Jaipal Singh had set during Jawaharlal Nehrus Prime Ministership succumbing to horse-trading. Jharkhandi Tribals may be simple, yet they expertly discern the dereliction of public accountability, especially in their respective leaders. Voting to dummy candidates in the full knowledge of endemic disenfranchisement of Tribals may be a fatalistic expression of their frustration.

An incorrigible Tribal

Mr N.E. Horo is one of the rare charismatic figures, who may have split with his confreres, but he refused to be devoured by bigger sharks. Yet despite his upright profile he failed to break free from the Munda cocoon. Till the 90s however the veterans writ ran freely in the Koel-Karo area. A ringside view of the Horo phenomenon and the Parha combine in 1995, when the much-hyped inauguration of the Project by the then PM Narasimha Rao had to be aborted with unconvincing face-savers, was all one would need to assess his moral stature. Unfortunately Horos political career is over, but his legacy will continue to challenge the aspiring leaders. Tribals quest for an uncompromising leader is on.

Drastic change of system

With the transition from village rule (Panchayat and Parha) to kings, princes and zamindars (landlords), Tribals were exposed to unfamiliar and vast political macrocosm. Disintegration of Tribal community is said to have begun, when the Mankis (village confederacys chieftains) decided to elect a Raja or king (Phani Mukut Rai of Sutiambe near Ranchi) from among them. Said to be an adopted son of Madra Munda (the chieftain of Sutiambe), Phani Mukut Rai became the founder of the Nagbansi royal dynasty. The dynastic chronicle liberally dates the event at 64 A.D. Although initially Phani Mukut Rai was only a titular king, the power vested in the royal office soon became arbitrary. His successors toed the line with gusto. In disgust, the Hos left for Singhbhum region in search of a king-free life. The Mundas followed suit. They moved to the South and East. Some of them became khuntkattidars (original clearers of forest), a designation that accorded them exclusive privileges in the village government.

In 1585 Moghul emperor Akbar conquered Jharkhand, then known to the Moghuls as the diamond rich Kokrah. The Jharkhand king became a vassal of Akbar till the latters death in 1605. Then in 1616 Jahangir conquered Durjansal, the 46th Raja of Jharkahnd, whose capital was Doisa. Durjansal was imprisoned in Gwaliar for 12 years. During the imprisonment he learnt about luxurious life style of the Hindu kings. When released in 1628, he returned to Jharkhand only to ruin what was left of the royal dignity of a Tribal ruler. He recruited courtesans to the court and imitated with relish the luxurious lifestyle he had seen at Gwaliar. Royal awards, nazrana (gifts) and privileges to the courtiers and jagirdars (lease holders), hitherto unheard of in the Tribal community, followed quickly too. Diplomatic relations included politically motivated inter-marriages with non-Tribals. The king also had recourse to tax collectors and middlemen most of whom were immigrants from outside. Gradually the invaders, including Muslims, encroached not only upon the land, but also upon the local government. The people of Chhotanagpur had a brief respite, when Moghul ruler Aurangjeb died in 1707, but were conquered again in 1724 by the Governor of Bihar, Sir Buland Khan. Then, under the British, the history of Chhotanagpur was dotted with numerous revolts and suppressions, beginning with Chuar Revolt in 1767.

Writes G. N. Devy, "History has indeed been extremely unkind to the tribal characteristics of the people. The entire burden of the logic and the rhetoric of modernisation has sought to detribalise the vast range of communities. Besides, those communities that are now marked as tribal have not been viewed with any degree of respect by the alienated middle classes and intellectuals. None of the brave fights of the tribals against the British has ever been treated as part of the national struggle for freedom. From the Bihar uprising of 1778 to Lakshman Naik's revolt in Orissa in 1942, the tribals of India repeatedly rebelled against the British in the North-East, Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. In many of the rebellions, the tribals could not be subdued by the colonial might, but terminated the struggle only because the British acceded to their immediate demands, as in the case of the Bhil revolt of 1809 and the Naik revolt of 1838 in Gujarat." ("Rethinking Tribals" in "The Hindu Folio", July 16, 2000, of The Hindu).

In short, while Tribal system of government steadily crumbled, the Tribals indomitable need for survival spurred them to take on whatever they considered alien. They hardly had opportunity to consolidate their power to match the larger matrix, which habitually compromised with integrity at the drop of a hat.

Since the village system has no distinction between the religio-social and the politico-cultural, it is virtually in confrontation with the so called mainstream system, which is considerably compartmentalized.

In the post independence era, even the remnant of village rule, i.e. parha, panchayat, pahan and khuntkattidari, came under attack. Village headmen and pahans (village priests) could no longer rule over the educated, white collared Tribals many of whom migrated to cities. Tribal laws regarding marriage, for instance, can hardly be enforced on the Tribals living in the cities even today. To quote Devy again, "Those tribals who have accepted facelessness as the only option for survival and have migrated to cities have yet to find a place even in the city slums. The slums too have their caste-structure; and tribals do not fit into it easily. Their children remain without any education and add to the already swollen ranks of child labourers." ("Rethinking Tribals", 2000). The countrys laws and regulations are too complicated for the village headmen to comprehend. Besides, the Republic unscrupulously replaced the village government with its own system. Although the Constitution still retains validity of "customary laws", they are ignored by the legal system in reality, because most Tribal legal practitioners themselves are ignorant of their customary laws. On account of loopholes in the government laws, Tribal land keeps on slipping out of the rightful owners hands.

Back to Square one : How peoples is peoples struggle in Jharkhand?

Even if clock may be reversed, time cannot. Adherence to the essentials of Tribal values should therefore be the mantra of the peoples movements in Jharkhand not the system in its antiquity. Netarhat and Koel-Karo Movements are decisive steps in this regard. Granted, these movements are "reactive" rather than "proactive". Inasmuch as they are "reactive", they may look forcefully vitalizing, but may loose their luster when the reactionary phase comes to an end. Fortunately, Panchayati Raj (rule of the village courts), shortly to be constituted, seems to be a timely boon which, if capitalized, can spell out "proactiveness" to the movements. Presumably, a hold on the Panchayat system will also give them a hold on the state and national elections much the same way municipal and Zila Parishad (District Council) elections do now. In other words, the villagers will be in a position to demand accountability from their leaders and dictate terms regarding their community development. In addition, in predominantly Tribal villages the Gram Sabha (village council) can be made to effectively function as Tribal system. With such objectives in mind, practical skills regarding savings scheme, problem solving skills, organizational skills, legal education etc. are being imparted to the people so that they be ready to shoulder responsibilities with the acumen their ancestors did not need. However, such experiments have some theoretical problems to be discussed:

  1. How to prepare Tribal leaders who, besides being persons of integrity in their own habitat, may become go-getters in the larger political arena?
  2. Related to the first question is how to adapt the movements so as to accommodate the socio-political requirements of party politics as soon as possible?
  3. How to coordinate similar movements so as to bring about mass mobilization towards reconstruction of Jharkhand?

(March 23, 2002)

(Box- 1a)

Koel-Karo Hydroelectric Project Factsheet

  • Two dams to be built at Basia on South Koel river (height 44 metre) and at Lohajimi village (height 55 metre) on Karo river.
  • 34.7 km tunnel to link both the dams.
  • Land to be acquired 50 thousand acres of which 25-30 thousand acres are used for cultivation, while according to the customary laws much of the remainder is Tribal land.
  • Displacement threat to 10739 families of 112 villages.
  • Estimated construction cost Rs 800 crore.
  • Optimum electricity output 710 MW.
  • At the completion of a preliminary survey (1959-1973), when the then Bihar government started acquiring land to construct approach roads, people of the region learnt about the Project for the first time. Contrary to norms, neither did the government give prior information to the people nor did it seek the latters consent.
  • Panic-stricken people of Koel region formed "Jan Niyojan Samiti" (JNS) or Peoples Organization Committee, while the Karo people formed "Jan Sangharsh Samiti" (JSS) or Peoples Struggle Committee.
  • 1975-76 Both the Committees were merged to form "Koel-Karo Jan Sagathan" (KKJS) or Koel-Karo Peoples Organization. Petitions were filed with the government.
  • 1977-78 Governments enigmatic silence forced the people to launch "Stop Work Expedition".
  • Following a tripartite talk (KKJS, Project officials and government) socio-economic survey was launched, in which all the three parties participated. After the survey of 2-3 villages was complete, the records mysteriously disappeared from the concerned office.
  • KKJS tendered 16-point "sampoorn punarvas" (total resettlement) demands, which defined the peoples terms regarding compensation and rehabilitation. Ignoring their demands, the government arbitrarily settled for monetary compensation only. Stand off continued.
  • 1980-81 The Project was entrusted to a Central Government undertaking, National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC).
  • July 1983-May 1984. Negotiation talks between KKJS and the government. Peoples demand for experimental rehabilitation of at least two villages was dismissed.
  • July 1984 Following a government declaration to implement the Project by force, an armed contingent was deployed at the site. Local women forced them to flee.
  • In response to a writ petition, Supreme Court stayed the Project and directed the government to ensure appropriate compensation and rehabilitation first.

(Source up to here: Society for Participatory Research in Asia. All particulars as of August 1985.)

  • July 5, 1995. Scheduled inauguration of the construction by PM Narasimha Rao was called off on account of unfavorable intelligence report. People enforced "Janata Curfew" or peoples curfew, prohibiting entry of government officials to the site.
  • February 2, 2001. Following the forcibly removal of "Janata Curfew" barricades on the Torpa-Lohajimi approach road by local police, people peacefully assembled at Tapkara Police outpost to demand restoration of the barricade. An unprovoked police firing left 8 Tribals dead and several injured.

(Box -1b)

Government least bothered about the human cost of Koel-Karo Project

"The submergence zone is spread over Gumla, Ranchi and Singhbhum districts. Official estimates regarding the extent of displacement have tended to vary. In 1973, the government stated that 42 villages would be submerged. In 1986, when the resettlement plan was prepared, this figure was revised to 112. According to non-official sources, however, even the revised figure is an underestimate and 256 villages will face submergence, of which 135 will vanish affecting some 1.5 lakh people, most of them Adivasis (indigenous peoples). Besides the villages, the project will submerge some 26,400 hectares of prime land of which roughly half is under cultivation and half is forest land. At least 152 Sarnas (groves that were part of forests before they were cleared for settlement and hence considered sacred) and 300 Sasan-diris (stone slabs that mark the ancestral graveyard of each family of khuntkattidars; these family Sasan-diris make up a village Sasan) will get submerged." (Bela Bhatia, "Against the Project", Frontline, March 3-16, 2001)


Pilot Project Netarhat Field Firing Range Factsheet

  • 1938. "Manoeuvres, Field Firing and Artillery Practice Act" was promulgated by the British Raj (regime). The same Act without revision covers the operations at Netarhat Firing Range till today even to the extent of Rs 1.50 as the daily compensation amount.
  • 1956. Periodic firing practice began in Netarhat. A few villages were vacated during the period of practice.
  • 1963. With post China war justification, the firing range was expanded to include 7 villages as affected.
  • October 1993. For the first time people learnt about the proposed gigantic Pilot Project. Government sources denied existence of such a plan.
  • March 23, 1994. More than a lakh People of the affected area sat on a weeklong dharna at Netarhats Jokipokhar-Tutwapani (confluence of Gumla & Palamau districts and the location of firing practice), to protest against the artillery exercise, which was scheduled to begin on the same day. (incomplete)

Sunset at Netarhat

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* The author, presently pursuing Communication studies at Manila, had extensively freelanced on Jharkhand Peoples Movements in the 90s.