How a Jharkhand Land Dispute Led to Heightened Communal Tensions – With 'Help' From BJP-RSS

The dispute between the Dalit Mushahar and Muslim communities started 18 months ago. It became public on August 29, 2022, when members of the Muslim community allegedly evicted around 54 people of the Mushahar community from land which the former claim they own.

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Ranchi: A land ownership dispute between members of the Dalit Mushahar community and members of the Muslim community in Murumatu village of Palamu district in Jharkhand has spiralled into an issue of communal tension, with locals blaming the involvement of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The dispute between the two marginalised communities had started some 18 months ago, but became public on August 29, 2022, when members of the village’s Muslim community allegedly evicted around 54 people of the Mushahar community from land which the Muslims claim they own.

According to Sadai Mushahar, a member of one of the evicted families, the 54 people evicted were to be transported to Chhatarpur, a nearby block village, where they were prevented from approaching the police. But the next day, they filed a first information report (FIR) at the Pandu police station against 12 named and 100 unnamed Muslim residents of Murumatu, accusing them of forcibly evicting the Mushahar community from land that the Mushahars claim as their own.

Based on this FIR, Rajesh Kumar Shah, the sub-divisional officer of Medininagar, and Surjit Kumar, the sub-divisional police officer of Bishrampur, met the Mushahar families who claimed that they had been evicted and promised them that they would be returned to their lost homes. As of September 8, officers of the Pandu police station have arrested seven people from Murumatu and have been searching for the rest.

Community claims

According to members of the Muslim community, the dispute between the two communities started when a few Mushahar families settled down on a vacant piece of land adjacent to Murumatu village, located near the highway and opposite the Karbala where Muharram processions gather.

The Muslim community claims that three-fourths of this piece of land is owned by one Ahmed Rasool and one fourth is owned by a madrassa and there is a documented history of the land’s ownership.

In 1943, Sheikh Doman Miya, Ahmed Rasool’s grandfather, bought 17.5 of acres of land from zamindar Tirathnath Sarkar. The disputed piece of land, identified as Khata No-44, Plot No-437, was a part of these 17.5 acres of land.

Years later, when this property was divided, Nabi Hasan Miya, one of the sons of Doman Miya, received one acre of land.

In 1987, Nabi Miya donated 25 decimals of his one acre to the Madrassa Manzar-e-Islam and had it registered as Khewat No-02, Khata-44, Plot No-437.

Since 1943, the land revenue receipts have been issued in the name of Doman Miya’s family, records of which can be found in Register 2 of the Circle Office.

As of now, according to the records shown to The Wire by Murumatu’s Muslim community and submitted by them to the Circle Office as proof of ownership, Nabi Miya’s son Ahmed Rasool owns 75 decimals of the land, whereas the Madrassa possesses the Waqf (gifted) land of 25 decimals.

Land deed of Nabi Miya donating land to the madrassa in 1987. 

Contrary to the documented claims of the Muslim community, the Mushahar families say that they have been staying on that piece of land for hundreds of years.

“Our forefathers were on this land nearly 180 years ago,” said Sadai Mushahar, the man who had filed the FIR at Pandu police station. “But they were unable to store the documents correctly. Nobody had ever questioned our right to live there before August 29, 2022, when the Muslims of the village gheraoed (encircled) us and told us to leave.”

According to Sadai, the Muslim community acted against the Mushahars with great viciousness.

“They made us prisoners. Our children weren’t allowed to go to the toilets. We were beaten, slapped. They demolished our homes and attacked our Shiv Linga as well. Then we were packed in two trucks and told to go to the jungle,” he said.

Halfway through their journey, the Mushahar families persuaded the truck drivers to let them disembark, Sadai added. They then returned to Pandu  to lodge a police complaint.

Fact finding

On September 3, a team from the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) under the leadership of its vice chairman Arun Halder visited Murumatu village. After conducting the primary investigation, the team instructed the police to relocate the Mushahar families to the disputed land until the final decision regarding its ownership is taken by the Circle Office.

Anjaneyulu Dodde, the deputy commissioner of Palamu, also assured the evicted families of the full cooperation of the administration in their rehabilitation.

According to Dodde, the land dispute in Murumatu village has been communalised by “anti-social elements”.

“Mushahars are actually a nomadic community. They don’t live anywhere permanently. They have been staying on the land for the last three years. There were just temporary huts, no permanent structures,” Dodde told The Wire.

He added: “The land as of today belongs to a person from the Muslim community. According to the information we have got, the Muslims gave some money and food to the Mushahar people and asked them to shift somewhere else. One day later, the issue was blown out of proportion and a communal element was given to it by some anti-social elements.”

Dodde has examined Google Earth photos of the land dating back a few years to check how long the Mushahar families have lived there.

“The Google Earth photos show that the Mushahar families did not live on that piece of land even in 2016,” the deputy commissioner told The Wire. “They have lived there for only three years, even though some people say that they have been staying there for centuries. In 2005, the then deputy commissioner Vinay Chaubey had constructed some houses for them in another block, but they lived there for only two or three years and then shifted elsewhere. Basically, they relocate every few years. However, we will rehabilitate these families either through the Prime Minister Awas Yojana or the Ambedkar Awas Yojana.”

Contradictory statements

Contrary to Sadai Mushahar’s statement to The Wire that his community had lived on that land for nearly 180 years, his own FIR states that the Mushahar families had been staying on that piece of land for 10 years.

Meanwhile, the Muslim families of Murumatu believe that the issue has been communalised by activists of the BJP and RSS.

Shahrukh Alam, whose close relative was arrested for beating and insulting the Mushahar families, said: “The right-wing organisations are writing the scripts for them. Last year, around March, they came and settled on the land owned by the madrassa. When people from our village asked them to leave, they said that they would leave as soon as they completed their work. They had been recruited to cut Palash trees for the local landlord, Dev Narayan Pandey. Several months later, they were still on the land, so the madrassa committee met them again. Then they started claiming that they own the land.”

In response to this claim by the Mushahar families, the madrassa committee asked for evidence and a panchayat of neighbouring villages was called to resolve the dispute.

While the madrassa committee submitted the ownership documents it possessed, the Mushahar families couldn’t do so. When the local RSS and BJP leaders began involving themselves in the dispute, the madrassa committee and Ahmed Rasool, the son of Nabi Miya, approached the police. However, the police asked them to take the matter to the Circle Office. On August 20, 2022, Irfan Alam, the son of Mohammed Alimuddin Ansari, submitted an application to the Circle Office, asking for someone to visit and demarcate the land. However, nine days later, when no one had arrived to measure the land, the Muslim community began to think of another way to resolve the matter.

Application for demarcation of the land submitted to Circle Office, Bishrampur. 

“On August 29, we, along with a few village seniors, went to the Mushahar families and asked for an amicable solution,” said Akhlaq Ahmed, speaking to The Wire on the behalf of the Madrassa Manzar-e-Islam. “As we were planning to expand the madrassa, we politely asked if they would accept some compensation from us and leave the land. We reached a compromise and an agreement was signed between both the parties.”

According to this agreement, the Muslim community were to pay each member of the Mushahar community living on the disputed land Rs 500 and provide them with 100 kilos of rice and transport to move to a new place. The agreement also stated that in return for this compensation, the Mushahars would leave the madrassa land ‘happily without any discontent’.

Agreement reached between two parties on August 29 with the signatures of members of both the communities. Photo: authors provided

“With the money and sacks of rice, they were first sent to Nawdihwa Tola, a place within the village mostly inhabited by people from Pal and Harijan communities. But when these communities turned away the Mushahar families, we took them to Lotte, three km from Murumatu village. Leaving them there, we came back to our village. We had no clue the things would turn out like this,” said Akhlaq Ahmed.

The signing of the agreement on August 29. Photo: Abhik Bhattacharya and Arshad Raza Khan

Akhlaq Ahmed’s explanation of the events as they took place contradicts Sadai Mushahar’s statement to both the police and The Wire that the evicted Mushahar families were packed into trucks and sent to Chhatarpur and that they stopped at Lotte only after persuading the truck drivers to drop them there.

It is these contradictions in Sadai’s statements that make the Muslim communities of Palamu convinced that the dispute has been communalised by right wing organisations.

“The local BJP-RSS leaders such as Dharam Dev Singh Yadav, Buchun Sahu, Saguni Sahu and others have been provoking the Mahadalits against Muslims to gain political dividends,” alleged Shafiq, a social activist from a village neighbouring Murumatu.

He added: “Last year in the panchayat elections, the BJP candidate and former panchayat chief Jawahar Paswan was defeated by Israr Ahmed and they have been waiting to take their revenge. This dispute is an opportunity for them to breach the peaceful relations between Muslims and Dalits.”

According to Shafiq, on August 30 when the Pandu police asked Ahmed Rasool and representatives of the madrassa to present their land ownership documents, Israr Ahmed, the chief of the panchayat, had accompanied them to the police station. When they arrived at the police station, they had to make their way through a crowd of at least 150 supporters of the local BJP and RSS organisations.

“This was a routine call, but the police arrested all of them. This was Paswan’s revenge,” Shafiq alleged.

Some of the regional media, as they covered the issue, communalised it, said Dodde. “It is very unfortunate that a simple land dispute is being given a communal angle,” Dodde told The Wire.

Clash of beliefs

Meanwhile, political leaders of a certain ideological hue began arriving at the disputed piece of land. Ramchandra Chandravangshi, the local BJP member of the legislative assembly (MLA), arrived with his supporters on September 1. Vishnu Dayal Ram, Palamu’s BJP  member of Parliament, went to meet the Mushahar families on September 4. Hindutva activist Bhairon Singh, who has a record of violence, was reportedly also planning to go to Murumatu village on September 4, but by then the police had imposed section 144 around the disputed piece of land, making it illegal for anyone to visit it.

“These Mahadalit families have been staying here for around 179 years,” Bishrampur MLA Ramchandra Chandravangshi told The Wire. “Murumatu is a village of Muslims and on August 29 they came in numbers and forced the Mahadalit families to leave. As soon as I received this information, I went there with the evicted families to reinstate them. However, the Muslims pushed armed women in front of them and the situation became tense. I have asked the police to settle the Mushahar families in the old police campus for now.”

Chandravangshi does not believe that the documents that Rasool and the madrassa committee possess are genuine instruments of ownership.

“The land is gairmajrua (land that could not be found in the possession of any zamindar during previous land surveys). So it is highly possible that they made some zamindar register the land in their name,” alleged Chandravangshi. “We should investigate that as well. But we will settle the evicted families only in their old place. We are already in process of making their identity cards.”

From the highway adjacent to the disputed land. Photo: Abhik Bhattacharya and Arshad Raza Khan

On September 2, the Muslim community of Murumatu wrote a letter to Hafizul Hasan, the state minority affairs minister, about the threats they have been receiving regarding the disputed property, the way the incident has been communalised by the local right wing forces and the way the FIR, filed against a hundred unknown persons, has put their freedom in jeopardy.

Letter submitted by Muslims to Hafizul Hasan, minority affairs minister, Jharkhand. Photo: Abhik Bhattacharya and Arshad Raza Khan

“The land is situated at a very strategic point. There have been efforts to possess the land for years. Our Mushahar brothers are saying whatever they are told to say, which is a blatant lie. For almost 90 years the possession of the land has rested with Doman Miyan’s family. And since 1987, 25 decimals of it have been with the madrassa. The major problem of the local Hindutva organizations is with the expansion of madrassa for which the land in question was vacated at the first place,” said S. Ali, the president of the All Muslim Youth Association (AMYA), emphasising the gravity of the situation.

Ali urged the deputy commissioner of Palamu, the deputy superintendent of police and the Jharkhand government to conduct a fair investigation of the incident so that “the false implications of innocent Muslims are stopped immediately”.

Recently, the circle officer of Pandu issued a notice in the names of Nabi Hasan Miya, the son of Doman Miya, and Kamruddin Ansari, the secretary of the Madrassa Manzar-e-Islam, to arrive at his office with the ownership documents by September 6.

Though the notice was dated September 1, the recipients got it only on September 5, said Akhlaq. As September 6 was a state holiday for Karma Puja and the Circle Office was closed, they had to submit the documents to Pandu police station instead.

Notice from the circle officer to Nabi Hasan Miya and Madrassa Manzar-e-Islam. Photo: Abhik Bhattacharya and Arshad Raza Khan

In a parallel development on September 5, the office of the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Sadar Medninagar, sent a notice to the Pandu police station naming 15 people, including Dharma Dev Yadav, Nandu Yadav and Guddu Singh, as potential fomenters of communal tension. The 15 people named in this notice were asked to be present at the office of the SDM by September 8 to secure a bond of Rs 1,000 declaring that they would maintain peace.

A few names have been changed on request to conceal the identities of the speakers.