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JMM's Big Win: The Resurgence of Regional, Identity Politics in Jharkhand?

The JMM has inherited the legacy of Jaipal Singh's Jharkhand Party, which stood for a statehood identity inclusive of tribals and non-tribals before its untimely demise.

Ranchi: In the 2019 assembly elections, Jharkhand has not only rejected the divisive appeals of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah, but has also catapulted the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) into its strongest ever position in 47 years, leaving analysts to ponder over whether the state’s regional and identity politics are making a comeback.

The last time regional and identity politics had won so many seats was in 1952, when Jaipal Singh’s Jharkhand Party won 33 seats in the Bihar Assembly, and 32 in 1957. Interestingly, the JMM traces its politics back to Jaipal Singh’s regional and identity politics and was formed on November 15, 1972 – November 15 being the birth anniversary of tribal icon Birsa Munda.

After the formation of the state in the year 2000, the JMM grew in strength, albeit slowly, from 17 seats in the 2005 assembly election to 18 seats both in 2009 and 2014– only to make a huge jump to 30 seats in the just concluded elections. The only difference is that the Congress, which was very strong in the aftermath of independence, was the arch-rival against whom the Jharkhand Party had fought in 1952; now the same Congress is an ally.

“The surge of JMM can be seen in terms of resurgence of regionalism and identity politics in Jharkhand, though situations this time are very different,” said Giridhariram Ganjhu, a former Head of Tribal and Regional Languages Department of Ranchi University.

Coincidentally, as a boy, Ganjhu grew up watching the popularity of Jaipal Singh and his Jharkhand Party – which spearheaded the movement for a separate state of Jharkhand – grow and diminish. Regional and identity politics had their beginning in the Chotanagpur region of British Bihar when Jaipal Singh, who had given up the Indian Civil Services to take up captaincy of Field Hockey team of British India at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics after he was denied a leave of absence from ICS training in London, had wandered around the world teaching in different colleges only to come back home to form Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Mahasabha in 1938.

Also read: Regional Issues Triumph Communal Fervour as BJP Learns Yet Another Lesson in Jharkhand

Singh even fielded candidates to fight elections under this organisation and later himself managed to enter the constituent assembly. However, when he realised that he should include the non-tribal population as well, he changed his politics and gave non-tribal populations a place in it by replacing the Adivasi Mahasabha with the Jharkhand Party in 1950. This was an expansion of the initial regional and identity politics—where the centre was just the tribes—which included Jharkhand statehood identity on the subject of culture of tribes and non-tribes alike.

Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) working president Hemant Soren addresses a press conference as JMM and Congress alliance lead in the Jharkhand Assembly election results, in Ranchi, Monday, December 23, 2019. Photo: PTI

This approach made Jaipal Singh the supreme leader of the tribals and non-tribals alike in the dream state of Jharkhand, and for two successive elections in Bihar, his party won a huge number of seats. In 1962, however, when the Congress nullified every move of Jaipal Singh to get the state of Jharkhand, the Jharkhand Party got reduced to just 20 seats. This made many supporters feel that regional and identity politics were no longer in fashion and was waning, and therefore they should desert the Jharkhand Party and support the Congress. Then came the party’s merger in 1963 with the Congress, forcing regional and identity politics an abrupt end.

But, people like Braj Kishore Nath Shahdeo, N.E. Horo, Bagun Sumbrui stood up and managed to revive regional and identity politics in the post-Jaipal Singh period. During this time, Shibu Soren had been fighting against the exploitation of Santhals by the moneylenders and the sahukars. He teamed up with people of similar thought like Vinod Bihari Mahato and A.K. Roy and formed the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. Thus, the JMM came to inherit the legacy of the Jharkhand Party and stood for regional and identity politics. Interestingly, both the Jharkhand Party and the JMM did not restrict their ambit to tribes alone but included in their fold the original non-tribal populations as well.

“Things like BJP government’s act of providing many jobs government jobs to candidates of neighbouring states, formation of a Local Resident Policy which gave residential status to recent comers from other states, attempt to amend Chota Nagpur Tenancy and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts etc, prepared a pitch for regional and identity politics. Somewhat similar were the issues even during the time of Jaipal Singh in which statehood politics had started,” Gaunjhu said.

Gaunjhu said things like the Pathalgadi stir in Khunti, Kolebira, Simdega, Singbhum areas, too was basically a part of identity politics – all of which played a role in the surge of the JMM. Interestingly, this time the rival was the BJP – which had stepped into the shoes of the Congress of the 1950s and 60s – and the nearly-decimated Congress in the state, gained out of this politics.

Also read: Will Pathalgadi Dominate the Second Phase of Jharkhand Polls?

While the united Bihar Congress leaders had always opposed the idea of Jharkhand – a reason behind the party’s base being nearly wiped off the region – there were only a few local Congress leaders like Gyan Ranjan, who stood for the idea of statehood of Jharkhand. The BJP, on the other hand, had supported the idea with its own Hindutva agenda, terming the tribes as ‘Vanvasi’ and the state as ‘Vananchal’. As the BJP was the one which gave Jharkhand statehood under Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, the party had managed to include, in its larger ambit, even regional and identity politics. This line of the BJP had helped it rule the state for a long time.

Coincidentally, the seats won by the JMM are largely from areas with a strong history of identity politics, except places like Khunti and Ranchi. In Jamshedpur, Congress’s Banna Gupta and Independent Saryu Rai pulling up surprise results may not have been a part of regional and identity politics, but rather feelings of anti-incumbency.

“Regional Jharkhandi politics seems to be coming back in Jharkhand. But success and future of it will largely depend on how effectively the new government headed by Hemant Soren will deliver in the next five years. As Jharkhand has multiple regions, each with its own language and peculiarities, holding regional Jharkhand politics for long is a difficult task and the JMM knows it,” said Hussain Kutchi, a Ranchi-based socio-political leader, who has worked with former Indian Prime Minister Chandrashekhar. Kutchi, however, is no longer in politics though he continues to watch and analyse the unfolding politics of Jharkhand.

Regional and identity politics in India is strong and states like West Bengal, Odisha, Telengana, Maharashtra etc, are proof of the success of this type of politics and their peaceful co-existence with national politics. Voters today seem to be conscious of their regional identity and, at the same time, go national. Any political party which can create a balance between these two factors manages to garner seats in the assembly as well as in the parliament.

Hemant and Shibu Soren. Photo: PTI/File

Some analysts, however, slightly differ and say that what has unfolded in Jharkhand after the assembly elections, is actually a result of many other factors like anti-incumbency against Raghubar Das, non-action of the BJP leadership on unemployment, abysmal national economy, poor law and order etc.

“These national issues, mixed with local issues, helped the JMM, which coincidentally stands for regional and identity politics of Jharkhand. However, if the new government does not respond to the aspirations of the people, soon the people may get disenchanted with this government too,” opined Ashutosh Pandey, a professor in the Department of Political Science at St Xavier’s College, Ranchi.

Also read: Jharkhand: Modi, Shah and Adityanath’s Aggressive Campaigning Did Not Help BJP

Hemant Soren who is poised to become the next chief minister is the new face of regional and identity politics. Born on August 10, 1975, Soren is the second son of Shibu Soren. His elder brother Durga Soren passed away a few years ago. Hemant has a younger brother Basant Soren and a sister Anjali. According to the affidavit filed in the Election Commission of India, Hemant completed his intermediate from Patna High School and had taken admission at Birla Institute of Technology (BIT), Mesra, but dropped out to join politics.

Chief minister Raghubar Das, who resigned soon after the JMM-Congress coalition achieved a clear majority in the 81-seat house, had always raised the alleged violation of the CNT Act by Hemant in Ranchi. However, Raju Oraon, the man who sold his land to Hemant reportedly never filed a complaint case in the court. Das, however, set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into such matters of violation of CNT Act across the state and give a report. The SIT, however, never gave its report. This apart, Hemant had, in 2012, appeared in the court in connection with the violation of the model code of conduct during the 2009 assembly elections.