Minority rights and conversions figure among poll issues in Jharkhand
At a tea stall in Jamtara, a town in eastern Jharkhand known as a hub of cybercrime, Bhoothnath Soren and Mohammed Iqbal say the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has alienated the minorities through its policies. Vinod Kumar Singh rebuts the claim, saying the party has only pursued the agenda of “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas” (collective effort, inclusive growth).
Soren is a Christian tribal and Iqbal is a Muslim, Christian tribals and Muslims make up 4,3% and 14.53% of the population of Jharkhand, respectively, according to the 2011 Census. Tribals overall make up 26.3% of Jharkhand’s population, of whom 91.7% reside in the villages.
Jharkhand is in the midst of its fourth assembly election since the state was carved out of Bihar in 2000 and there is speculation of the polarisation of the Muslims and tribal communities against the BJP .
The BJP’s ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), tried to make inroads into the tribal belt of the state through the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, which runs boarding schools and community health centres, and Vidya Bharti, which has day boarding schools across the state. The ashram also provides training to young sportspersons in hockey and archery, according to its website.
“In Kunti district alone, the RSS has over 200 schools and most of them have come up since 2000 (when Jharkhand was created). In the state, RSS runs over 1,000 schools,” said Sanjay Sahu, who claimed to be Kunti district coordinator for the RSS.
He said the RSS has been working against conversion of the “poor tribals” since the 1970s, when the present RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was in charge of the state.
A confrontation between the BJP and the Christians came out in the open in 2017 when the state government enacted the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2017, becoming the ninth state in the country to put curbs against “forcible” religious conversions.
The law provides for approval by a district official for conversion and prescribes a jail term of three years and a fine of ~50,000 for those found guilty of religious conversion through coercion or allurement. Higher punishment has been provided for converting a minor, a woman, a person belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities.
“The law was brought primarily to target Christians and help the RSS,” said Bhootnath Soren. “When nobody provided help, they (Christians) came and gave us food and education,” he said.
According to Joseph Hans, a farmer in Kunti district, the Christian are always under the “radar” of various Hindu organisations and the authorities, and can hauled up for the smallest of mistakes such as having a fight with non-Christian tribal over a petty issue.
Manki Tubit, a youth coordinator at the Tribal Research and Training Centre (TRTC) in Chaibasa, said the Church wields influence among tribal voters even though it never asks them directly to vote for a particular party. “After the anti-conversion bill and action against different Christian organisations, everyone knows that they (Christian tribals) would vote for a candidate that can defeat the BJP,” he said.
For Iqbal, the reason for not supporting the BJP is different.
A native of Ara in Bihar, who migrated with his family to Jamtara about four decades ago for work, Iqbal said the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which the central government has said would be compiled for the whole country, would endanger his future existence.
“What will happen to my family, if I fail to get documents from Bihar to provide my nationality,” he asked, a few days before home minister Amit Shah introduced a Citizen (Amendment) Bill , CAB, providing for automatic citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. And after a pause, he said, “I and my family will be thrown in a detention centre as it has happened in Assam.”
He was reacting to Jharkhand chief minister Raghuvar Das’s recent announcement that the NRC and the Citizen Amendment Bill (CAB) will be implemented in the state to weed out illegal Bangladeshi migrants if the BJP comes back to power in the assembly elections. The opposition Congress and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) have opposed NRC in the present format.
In Mariam Khatun’s Manwa village in Ramgarh district, the fear of NRC and job losses were bigger issues then lynching of her husband Alumuddin Ansari by a mob in the town’s main bazaar in June 2017.
Fareed Akhtar, who runs a small grocery shop opposite the lane leading to Khatun’s house, said the village stands with Mariam Begum but for them the bigger electoral issues are the NRC and lack of development in their colonies. “Many of my Muslims friends and relatives have started collecting documents for the NRC exercise,” he said and accused the local BJP MLA of not doing anything for the community as their “vote does not matter to him.”
In Ramgarh district, most Muslims don’t have sizeable agricultural land. Most of them are dependent on small businesses and jobs in factories for their livelihood, unlike in the coal mining belt of Dhanbad, where most of them are industrial workers. “As the factories closed, many poor people including our community members lost jobs,” said Sayaz Syed, sitting on a motorbike with a JMM flag at Manwa village.
Some people such as Vinod Kumar Singh said the so-called alienation of Muslims and Christians would not have any electoral impact. “Only a few political people are talking about Christian and Muslims being targeted. To me, the BJP has done development works for all. And that is a real poll issue,” Singh said.
In Ramgarh’s Chatar village, Ganesh Mahota, who has got a home under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana housing scheme, said even Muslims in the area have received houses under the scheme. “Don’t forget there can be reverse polarization also,” he said, referring to the possibility of Hindu votes consolidating in favour of the BJP.
Political experts said the Christian-Muslim combine have electoral significance in the eastern parts of Jharkhand called the Santhal region, which has a sizeable population of Muslims migrants from Bihar and West Bengal. While Christians are primarily farmers or in government jobs, most Muslims are industrial workers and a very few, such as those in Inderbani village in Dumka district, have agricultural land and share village space with the tribals.
“In some constituencies in Sahibganj, Pakur and Jamtara districts, the Muslims and Christians together have more than 30% votes. In a few other constituencies, where their number is close to 20%, they can matter in case of a close contest,” said Pramod Pathak, a management professor at the Indian Institutes of Mines, Dhanbad.
Alok Nath, head of the political science department at Kolhan University, said the possibility of the Muslims and Christians coming together is high in this election, unlike in 2014, when the people voted for a stable government and there was not so much antagonism against the BJP among these two communities.
A Jharkhand BJP leader, who was not willing to be named, said the talk about the Muslims and Christians coming together is being spread by the opposition parties.
“Our (BJP’s) feedback from ground does not show this. We have given tickets to two Christian tribals candidates and have several leaders from the Muslim community. The opposition is saying this to keep its flock together in 10-12 assembly constituencies where Muslims and Christians have some presence,” said the state-level BJP leader.
A Congress functionary, who was not willing to be named for this story, said: “We have received reports that there is a ground swell in support of the alliance (JMM-Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal) among these two communities. We are confident that they would swing results in several seats for the alliance,”the functionary said
JMM general secretary Vijay Kumar Singh said the anger among Christian tribals and Muslims against the government can be more because of the religion-specific issues but the party was confident of getting the support of all sections.
“When a government brings a law to target Christians and persons accused of lynching on suspicion of carrying beef, the anger is palpable,” he said.