Lok Sabha elections 2019: Congress hopes to storm Jharkhand’s BJP citadel riding on tribal discontent
Installed on the village outskirts, the Pathalgadi declares the village gram sabha the only sovereign authority in a scheduled area with a predominant tribal population.Updated: May 05, 2019, 08:08 IST
It’s noon on a Thursday in Bhandra village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district and women in traditional tribal saris are preparing to worship a large stone plaque -locally called Pathalgadi – on which is inscribed a declaration de-recognising the poll system.
Installed on the village outskirts, the Pathalgadi declares the village gram sabha the only sovereign authority in a scheduled area with a predominant tribal population. It says laws made by Parliament or a state assembly are not applicable in this area and warns outsiders against entering, wandering, living or settling down in the village.
The practice of raising Pathalgadis by tribal villagers in Jharkhand’s Khunti and Simdega districts gathered steam three years ago and gradually became a movement. It was quelled by the government last year after the arrest of five Pathalgadi leaders. The movement is directed against the government’s policy to amend British-era tenancy laws that the villagers feel will rob them of their land. However, the issue has returned to haunt political parties contesting the reserved (ST) Khunti Lok Sabha seat. At least 70 tribal villages are yet to decide whether they will participate in the poll process. Party flags and posters are conspicuously missing in these villages, with few exceptions. The constituency will go to polls on May 6.
Khunti, considered a BJP bastion, is heading for a direct fight between three-term former BJP CM Arjun Munda and Congress nominee Kalicharan Munda. While BJP dropped its eight-term MP Karia Munda, 83, on grounds of age, Congress is supported by grand alliance partners Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) and Rashtriya Janata Dal.
The women, who worship the Pathalgadi every Thursday in Bhandra, about 15 km from Khunti town, said in unison that they would not vote. “The village gram sabha has so far decided not to vote. A final decision will be taken in the gram sabha meeting in a couple of days,” said Maki Tuti, one of them.
Another villager, Ratan Tuti said, “During the Pathalgadi movement, we had destroyed our voter ID cards and other cards issued by the government. So, there is no question of voting.”
However, Rani Tuti, a graduate from Patra Toli village, said: “During the police crackdown on Pathalgadi supporters in JuneJuly last year, all the villagers spent the nights in forest areas fearing arrests. We can’t forget those days as many innocent people were arrested. We will definitely vote to establish peace and security in society.” Jitu Gope, a small grocery shop owner, added: “We had voted in the 2014 polls. Generally, we go by the diktat of the gram sabha, but this time that’s not going to happen. Many people will vote if the gram sabha takes a decision otherwise.”
The Khunti LS seat comprises over 11 lakh voters, of which nearly 4.5 lakh are tribals (followers of Sarna religion), three lakh Christians, three lakh Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes and 50,000 Muslims.
Congress Khunti district president Ramkrishna Choudhary said, “It will not be a cakewalk for BJP this time... Our candidate, Kalicharan Munda, is local whereas BJP’s Arjun Munda is a new face and an outsider. Moreover, the government’s crackdown on Pathalgadi supporters and the change in tenancy laws have annoyed the vast tribal population... We see a significant shift in tribal votes and this would be a game changer.”
The grand alliance is also confident of securing 100% minority votes. “Christians are unhappy with the government which enacted the anti-conversion law. Congress win in the recent Kolebira assembly bypoll under the Khunti LS seat is proof of the community’s annoyance,” said JVM(P) leader Dilip Mishra.
BJP’s Arjun Munda voiced confidence. “Development is our agenda and people are impressed with Modi’s government. I have been fighting for tribals and their problems,” he said.