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The tribals’ fallen hero

JMM chief Sibu Soren climbed the political ladder espousing the tribal cause. He got what he wanted — a separate Jharkhand, but has since forgotten his people. Subhash Pathak reports.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2009 00:41 IST
Subhash Pathak

Sibu Soren is a god who failed.

When he first emerged as a tribal leader in the early 1970s — determined to free his people from the clutches of rapacious moneylenders — it did seem that one day he would rank a tribal hero only next to Birsa Munda, the legendary Jharkhand leader who led a revolt against British rule.

The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the party he founded in 1972 along with trade union leaders Binod Behari Mahato and A.K. Roy, to carve a separate Jharkhand state out of Bihar, where tribals would be their own masters, also promised a new dawn.

Though Jharkhand was created in November 2000, neither Soren nor JMM realised their larger goal. It is not even clear if they any longer want to.

While Soren and his family have prospered, the state remains just as poor and corruption-ridden as it was while part of undivided Bihar. Worse, his own people have seen through Soren — in January this year, the man once hailed as Guruji or Dishom Guru underwent a humiliation no other Indian politician has faced. As chief minister he contested the Tamar assembly bypoll. In similar circumstances, most chief ministers have won hands down. Soren, however, was defeated by a near unknown Gopal Krishna Patar compelling him to resign.

But despite its frayed reputation, in a post-poll scenario where every MP’s vote will count, the JMM may still matter. It
had, after all, five seats (one, admittedly in Orissa, the rest in Jharkhand) in the outgoing Lok Sabha; even if it repeats the performance, it can emerge a significant player.

Though nominally with the UPA, and part of the Union government, it has backed the NDA before and — given Soren’s
notoriously fickle temperament — may do so again. It could even go with the Third Front.

Soren’s unhappiness with the Congress for failing to rise to his defence when alleged past excesses caught up with him is well known.

The first of these excesses was the Chirudih massacre.

Soren’s movement against usurious moneylenders had by then degenerated into one against all ‘outsiders’ — ie, non-tribals in the region — and in January 1975, a mob, allegedly led by Soren, attacked and killed 11 people at Chirudih.

The second was the murder of Shashinath Jha, his private secretary, in 1994 — once again Soren and his associates were charged with the killing.

The verdict in both cases, delivered during the last few years, initially held Soren guilty but later acquitted him. But the government’s unwillingness to insulate him from the law — he even served a year-long sentence — has left Soren embittered with the UPA.

“These leaders hardly care for their people,” said K.K. Nag, former vice-chancellor of Ranchi University. “They are only interested in furthering their own political interests.”

Many former close aides have left Soren, while new regional parties have emerged to challenge the JMM’s dominance. But 65-year-old Guruji is not yet a spent force.