Aftermath of Jharkhand Mob Lynching is Reflective of the State's Brewing Political Turmoil

While civil society activists say journalistic malpractice fuelled the recent mob lynching, the media has blamed the police's lack of timely intervention.

A charred vehicle that was torched by an angry mob during a violent protest over child-lifting incidents in Jharkhand. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Days after nine people were killed in four different incidents of mob lynching in the Kolhan division of Jharkhand, the state police on May 31 named three regional journalists and one young businessman as persons responsible for circulating unverified social media messages related to the presence of child lifters in the region.

Throughout May, rumours of alleged child lifters roaming the area spread like wildfire on social media, in response to which many adivasi-dominated villages formed vigilante groups to protect children. In four separate incidents, these groups held nine innocent people hostage and beat them to death.

In the aftermath, the misuse of social media for circulating rumours that could have such far-reaching impact was widely discussed even as the police began to probe the origin of the WhatsApp message that declared the presence of the so-called ‘baccha chor’ (child lifters) in the region.

In its investigation, the police found that Sourav Kumar, a businessman from Jadugoda, located 30 kilometres from Jamshedpur, first posted about false child lifting incidents on Facebook on May 10 and the three freelance journalists – Sushil Aggarwal, Shankar Gupta and Vinod Kesri – then circulated the message on various WhatsApp groups, members of which included many villagers, and top-level government officials and police personnel.

According to the police, who have so far only arrested Kumar, no case of child lifting was reported from the region recently, yet unconfirmed messages were circulated widely by the accused. A police official told The Wire that Gupta has been granted bail, Kesri has turned a police approver and that Aggarwal has been out of reach.

However, the police, too, have been at the receiving end of criticism from the civil society for ignoring the rumour and waiting for the drastic incidents to occur before beginning its probe.

Speaking to The Wire, Aggarwal said that he had been away from Jharkhand in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, for his wife’s treatment at the Christian Medical College.

“Sourav, a resident of Jadugoda, first circulated the message. I posted it on social media only for awareness. Many of the journalists keep circulating such messages on social media. How are we supposed to anticipate that this inadvertent act would lead to murders,” Aggarwal asked.

He also alleged that the local police had been nursing a grudge against him. “I had exposed a fake chit fund company a few years ago in Jadugoda. The inspector-in-charge of Jadugoda police station, who was complicit in the crime, had then accused me and my younger brother in a false case of violating the SC and the ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. I had appealed to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to intervene then. Last year, the NHRC found I was falsely accused. It also ordered the state government to pay us a compensation of Rs 50,000,” Aggarwal added.

‘Journalists and villagers have become scapegoats’

The media fraternity around Jamshedpur seemed to defend Aggarwal and the other accused while blaming the state for the police’s failure in controlling mob violence in the region.

Sriniwasan Suman, the chief editor of Jamshedpur-based magazine Jharkhand Vananchal Times, told The Wire, “I am not sure of whether the accused persons circulated the message with the intention of disrupting peace in the area. I, however, believe that the police have to take much of the blame for what happened. Why didn’t the police take any action when the rumours spread? Journalists and villagers have become easy scapegoats now.”

He said that the first two incidents of mob lynching in which two people were killed occurred on May 2 in the Uranium township, Jadugoda, and on May 9 in Dumuria, East Singhbhum district. “The police have traced the social media messages back to May 10, which is after the first two incidents had already happened. But when the police is supposed to investigate further, it is trying to find easy ways to close the case,” Suman said.

The mob lynchings caught attention only after seven people were murdered on May 18 around Jamshedpur in two separate incidents. By then, a number of stray incidents where a mob was violent towards individuals who were suspected to be child lifters, had already taken place in Kolhan.

Journalists come under fire

In light of these developments, even as many journalists, like Suman, defended the accused scribes, civil liberties activists felt that the journalists in the region frequently circulate unconfirmed and alarmist messages, and more often than not playing into the hands of the political establishment.

Deepak Ranjeet, an activist working among Adivasis, elaborated on the issue. “Many of the journalists are directly or indirectly linked with Hindutva fringe groups, who often create situations of conflict among communities in the region. For instance, Aggarwal, too, held important positions in Hindutva-propagating cultural platforms like Hanuman Bhakt Akahara and was also known as one of the chief organisers of communally-sensitive Ram Navami processions in Jadugoda.”

He added that a single person cannot be blamed for a series of such incidents but there appears to be a concerted campaign to popularise rumours of child lifting and illegal cattle smuggling.

“The fear of child lifting is not new in Jharkhand. In fact, among Santhalis (an adivasi community), this has been an age-old fear. One of the folk songs sung during the traditional Chhau dance performances relates to child lifting. However, I have never seen an organised campaign,” he said.

He added that this could not have happened without some political patronage. “It is entirely possible after the first few apparently spontaneous incidents, the issue of child lifting was flagged in an organised way through social media for political gains. We can’t pin its responsibility to one or other political group but all such campaigns have diverted the attention away from state government’s failures in addressing significant concerns of the state, and sadly have divided people on communitarian lines further,” he told The Wire.

Aggarwal, however, dismissed having any links with the Sangh parivar. He said he was active in cultural-religious platforms because of his interest in social work and those activities lie outside the domain of his profession.

A state of political turmoil

Such different versions drawing attention to diametrically-opposite political viewpoints are not uncommon in Jharkhand. Since Jharkhand was formed in 2000, many activists have said that Adivasis have been feeling distanced from the socio-economical mainstream, the most recent reflection of which were the state-wide agitations against the proposed amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT), 1908 and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy (SPT) Act, 1886. The amendments in tenancy laws, which are awaiting the governor’s approval, would enable the state to allow sale of lands owned by Adivasis to non-Adivasis for non-agricultural purposes.

The Wire, in an earlier report, had contextualised the recent mob lynching cases as arising from this sense of Adivasi alienation while also documenting a resurgent campaign to “Hinduise” Adivasis under the BJP regime.

Speaking about the recent lynchings, former member of state women’s commission, Vasavi Kido told The Wire, “It appears to be a conspiracy, which is being advanced very mysteriously. The lynchings have come at a time when the state of Jharkhand is going through a state of turmoil, with adivasis agitating against CNT/SPT Act and large-scale displacement.”

Kido, whose forthcoming book Bharat Mein Visthaapan Ki Awadharana Aur Itihas (The concept and history of displacement in India) has documented the constant process of leaving out Adivasis in governance, said that the BJP-led government has done nothing to gain the confidence of Adivasis, who constitute around 27% of the state’s population.

Also read: Loss of Land, Shifting Cultural, Political Terrain Fuel Jharkhand Mob Lynchings

“For instance, it has nothing to show when it comes to employment generation. I will not hold only the current government responsible for such a state of affairs as all the successive governments followed the same policy of alienating Adivasis. BJP has been in power for 12 years in the 16-year-old history of the state but in 2014, people voted for it as they saw a better party under the leadership of Narendra Modi. Unfortunately, their faith is lapsing very fast,” she said.

A combination of factors like insecurity regarding land ownership, increased displacement, lack of jobs in the state and a growing perception that the government has been partial to the rich, is seemingly powering a feeling of deep angst against the state government, especially among the Adivasis.

“Take for example the Jharkhand Public Service Commission, [which] has conducted only four recruitment examinations for all services in the last 16 years. Even in these appointments have not been done as candidates moved the courts alleging corruption and nepotism in recruitments,” Kido said.

She added that one of the first decisions that the Raghubar Das-led BJP government took after coming to power was to regularise 60,000 contract workers, who were mostly from outside Jharkhand.

While pointing out multiple layers of injustice meted out to the Adivasis, Kido gave the example of an electoral promise made to the Pahariya tribe.

The Shibu Soren-led Jharkhand Mukti Morcha government had announced that all candidates who belong to the tribe, and have at least an intermediate level degree, would be directly recruited in class-three and four jobs at different deputy commissioners’ offices. It had also finalised 956 candidates but no appointments have been done until now.

“To add insult to injury, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to a Pahariya-dominated village on April 6 this year to campaign for an assembly bypoll in Littipara seat, the state government officials made him offer a fake recruitment letter to a Pahariya individual who was already in service,” Kido said.

Similarly, she said that the BJP government, which came to power with its biggest promise of job generation, has done little on this front.

“Ever since Raghubar Das has become chief minister, his government has been advertising for appointments of police personnel and teachers. No appointments have taken place, however,” she said.

A substantial section of Adivasis in Jharkhand, unlike in Chhattisgarh or Odisha, is educated, thanks to the efforts of Christian missionaries and a two-decade-long movement for a separate state led by Adivasis. As a result, they have historically benefited from the state reservation policy and generally look forward to working with the government.

But when the job markets have more or less stagnated, the state government is on an overdrive to attract corporate investments in the state. This has further deepened the insecurities of Adivasis, who have been the most-affected by corporate-led displacement in the mineral-rich state.

“Various Ranchi University studies say that in Jharkhand alone, there are at least 65 lakh displaced people due to mining and other industrial activities since independence. Livelihoods of around 37 lakh people have also been in affected because of this. No government has made any effort to resolve these persisting issues. In such a volatile situation, the BJP went ahead and organised the ‘Momentum Jharkhand’ summit to attract private investments in the state,” Kido said.

“It is said that the CM signed 201 MoUs, which will lead to around 3.5 lakh crore private investment in the state. For this, the administration has created land banks. Only in Santhal Pargana the administration has identified 1.5 lakh acre land for acquisition,” she added.

The deteriorating conditions of Adivasis have forced them to turn towards informal and exploitative labour markets, Kido said, while adding that the BJP government has been specifically insensitive to the concerns of Adivasis.

“Imagine, all the seven major incidents of indiscriminate firing by police on agitating Adivasis against forcible land acquisition have happened under different BJP governments since 2000, when the state was formed. This definitely reflects the party’s attitude,” Kido said.

This socio-political alienation, in turn, is breeding a deep sense of social angst among Adivasis against who they perceive as ‘outsiders’, making the political situation in Jharkhand even more fraught. A frequent refrain among Adivasis, which this correspondent came across in Jamshedpur, was a complaint that Biharis (migrants from Bihar) have taken all jobs which Jharkhandis (people of Jharkhand) should have gotten and held the non-Adivasi chief minister responsible for it.

This anger, which may take the shape of an identity-based struggle – akin to Maharashtra where Marathi-speaking individuals have been asserting their supremacy over migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar –  is perceptible on ground in multiple dialogues.

Political manifestations

Politically, the BJP has faced the maximum brunt of this growing social wrath. The resentment against the state government clearly showed when, on May 24, the Adivasi council in Kolhan gave a call for “social boycott” of two BJP legislators – Menka Sardar and Laxman Tudu. Both belong to the Santhal community but earned the ire of their society for supporting amendments to the tenancy laws. This happened in the immediate aftermath of mob lynching cases.

Both the opposition parties and even the top leaders of the BJP have been forced to take notice of the socio-economic churning.

On May 29, Babulal Marandi, the former chief minister and leader of Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, asked the government to divulge information about the jobs generated in the state.

Similarly, Sudesh Mahato, leader of the All Jharkhand Students Union and an ally of the BJP state government, has also rejected the amendments to the tenancy laws and the new local domicile policy, another contentious issue.

The resentment against the Das government has also created enough dissensions with the ruling party.

Laxman Giluwa, the BJP state president, recently told the press that Modi was not ‘happy’ with the way the Das government has functioned over the last three years.

According to BJP insiders, the fact that Draupadi Murmu – Jharkhand’s governor and also one of the BJP’s most prominent Adivasi leaders who is touted as its prospective candidate for the upcoming presidential elections – has withheld her approval to the amendments proposed to the tenancy laws is an indication that the party’s top leadership is watching Das closely.

Arjun Munda, former BJP chief minister who is considered to be the arch enemy of Das within the party, has also allegedly tightened his boots to organise a revolt against the chief minister.

“Munda has met the prime minister at least twice in the last one month and apprised him of developments in Jharkhand. Things may not go the right way for Raghubar Das,” said a Jamshedpur-based BJP worker.

The mob lynching incidents have ironically, and unfortunately, come as a sigh of relief for Das. He was clearly on the back foot because of a series of governance issues. But it may not be long before a ground swell of opposition – both from outside and within – comes back to haunt him.