When politicians get invitations for night-time weddings in Jharkhand’s villages, they land up hours earlier, give the newly-wed good wishes and leave. When elections are held in villages, balloting is often held long distances away in areas safe from militants, where few voters are able to go.
And the sarpanch — the village headman — is a paper tiger.
All symbols of democracy are fast withering away from regions hit by insurgency, where panchayats are nearly defunct, politicians mostly keep away, and elections have poor turnouts amidst rebel calls for boycotts.
And from Jharkhand to Manipur, there is widespread resentment among tribals who say their village headmen, given powers under customary laws by British rulers, are out of the governance loop. In a country that has 32 lakh elected representatives of grassroots democracy — the largest such number in the world — all this sets tens of millions aside from the landmark democratic process.
Jharkhand has no panchayat elections due to a court battle involving pro-tribal groups and their opponents over seat quotas. For almost three decades, panchayats here have been administered by junior state government officials.
“The absence of panchayat elections has helped in the mushrooming of touts. Local people have no inducement. This is helping the Maoists,” said Gouri Shankar Rath, the additional director-general of Jharkhand Police. “If they are held, government funds will also not be pilfered.” But for now, that leaves villagers with no voice in making their roads and schools and dispensaries — especially because government officials won’t do it.
“If we could, we would do so much work through the panchayats. The Naxals have no problems with that, they say they will not interfere with that kind of work,” said Niyaran Topno, the munda or tribal headman of Digha village in the Saranda Forest. The worst blow to village-level democracy came in Chhattisgarh from Salwa Judum — a massive anti-militant programme that has involved some 50,000 villagers vacating their homes and several being armed into militias.
Politicians in Jharkhand got a new, terrifying reason this March to log out of grassroots democracy. Sunil Mahato, a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MP, was killed as Naxalites pretended to garland him during a village football match. “We had to eliminate him only because he has been actively involved in unleashing brutal repression on the revolutionary movement in Jharkhand,” Ganapathy, a senior Naxalite leader, said.
More violence is feared against local politicians. Police say local Naxalite commanders are gathering intelligence about politicians believed to have illegal wealth. Posters about them are expected to come up in small towns and district headquarters, a Jharkhand police intelligence official said.
“With the Mahato killing, the aim of the Naxalite was to send the message: they want to finish off democracy from villages,” the officer said. Along West Bengal’s border with Jharkhand, rebels have killed about 25 senior district level leaders of the Communist Party-Marxist over the past two years. But a senior rebel leader denied that they were engaging in random killings. “We do not kill everyone just because he/she is an MP or a minister,” Ganapathy said.
He added: “Real problems of the people can never be addressed by the Parliament and Assemblies, not to speak of solving them. The Parliamentary institutions are not meant for that. They have no real power.”
Holding elections is also not easy. “In the last elections, polling agents and election officials did not come to the booths in Saranda Forest, they were afraid,” said tribal village head Niyaran Topno, 50. “They called many people to the Orissa border and made them vote there. Who would go there?”