A British-era law that essentially protects the land rights of Jharkhand’s Santhal tribe has become a talked-about topic this assembly poll amid political finger-pointing at the BJP’s alleged intention to amend the act.
The Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, enacted in 1876 and adopted post-Independence in 1949, provides the legal framework governing the land systems in the Santhal Parganas, which comprises the six districts of Godda, Deoghar, Dumka, Jamtara, Sahibganj and Pakur.
The law turned into a hot potato ahead of the fifth phase of the poll, slated for December 20, in 16 assembly seats after chief minister Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) said Union law minister Ravishankar Prasad was planning to amend the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act as well as the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908.
He told a gathering in Jama constituency not to vote for the BJP because the party would tweak the protective act if it came to power in Jharkhand.
BK Hari Prasad, the Congress’s state in-charge, stoked similar sentiments when he told voters the BJP would do away with traditional tribal rights.
The BJP scurried for damage control in the face of allegations on a topic dear to tribal hearts, a pocket they could ill-afford to offend. “How could they (JMM) spread such canards when the law minister has clarified that no change in any act was going to be made?” asked Raghuwar Das, the party’s national vice-president.
He recalled Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Dumka on December 15 where he pledged nobody could take the land rights of tribals in his rule.
Constitutional experts said the state cannot change the act on its own. “To amend the law, it has to first get approval from both Houses of Parliament and then the President must give his final seal,” said Ajoy Kumar Sinha, senior professor of political science at SKM University.
Tribals have been touchy about the act because Section 20, the main protective, ensures non-transferability of land and as such most Santhals have some land-holding. However, frictions do appear when tribals clear forests for cultivation, mostly for jhum or shifting agriculture, which is deemed illegal. They often have to pamper corrupt officials, though the Santhal Paragana Protected Forest Rules allow them to continue with their traditional methods of agriculture.