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

Cultural transformations and a growing fear of socio-economic alienation are breeding a deep sense of social angst among adivasis against those perceived as 'outsiders'.

Jamshedpur: Nagadih, a Santhal-dominated adivasi hamlet 20 kilometres south of India’s first steel city, Jamshedpur, wears a desolate look. It is three in the afternoon, the time of the day when male residents usually relax at the chaupal – a common meeting place – as they play cards, drink their daily dose of country liquor and talk.

But life is not the same anymore. A police party stands guard at the entrance to this empty village. A majority of houses remain locked as most villagers have fled. It is as if life in this village has come to a halt.

On the evening of May 18, a mob in Nagadih beat three young men to death. Villagers suspected they were part of a child-lifting gang rumoured to be roaming the area. Several low-resolution videos circulating on social media show that the brutal violence occurred even as a small police group unsuccessfully tried to stop it. Since then, residents have fled as the police have cracked down on the village.

In a separate incident the same morning, another mob of around 10,000 people surrounded four men in Shobhapur village, around 40 km away from Jamshedpur, and lynched them, again based on similar rumours of child lifting.

The victims of the Nagadih lynching were Hindus while the four men attacked and killed in Shobhapur were Muslims.

As mobile phone videos of the two incidents began circulating on social media platforms, south Jharkhand’s mineral-rich Kolhan region – comprising East Singhbhum, West Singhbhum and Saraikela-Kharsawan districts – shot to the limelight for all the wrong reasons. The mobs, reports said, were formed by informal village councils earlier this month to protect village children against the rumoured child kidnappers.

The wild rumour that child-lifting gangs had entered Jharkhand from West Bengal and Odisha had spread like wildfire through WhatsApp over the past one month, fuelling a tense environment across villages in the region.

In the days following the incidents, several media agencies wrote about the incidents and blamed the adivasis, who were said to be at the forefront of the mobs, for the murders. Their impressionability, many government officials told The Wire off the record, had led the tribals to act on a rumour unsubstantiated by facts.

The unwillingness of adivasis to abide by constitutional principles and their “primitive” lifestyle, which is marked by their belief in superstition, witch hunts and mob justice, were crucial aspects to understanding the murders, the officials said.

At the same time, the state police has dismissed two police officers for remaining mute witnesses to the incidents and ignoring the dangerous rumours which had been circulating. It has also arrested 33 persons, from across all communities, for the murders and has been trying to locate the source of the social media messages.

The state government has instituted an inquiry committee, which has been asked to submit a report within a month.  

A close look at the turn of events over the last few months in the region, however, indicates a much more complicated scenario. The stated reasons behind the murders explain only half the truth, at best.

The first mob attack

The four Muslim men targeted belonged to Haldipokhar, a Muslim-dominated village around 12 km from Shobhapur, where they were murdered. According to Syed Zabeeullah, the village’s mukhiya (elected head), at about 9 pm on May 17, the 35-year-old Sheikh Naeem, a prosperous cattle trader, received a call from someone saying that one of the cows which had gone missing from his brother-in-law’s house was being smuggled in a truck and taken to Odisha. Naeem, a resident of Ghatsila, some 60 km away, was stopping by his brother-in-law’s place on his way back from Rourkela, Odisha, which hosts a weekly cattle market. Naeem had purchased a buffalo which was to be transported to Ghatsila in a week.

Since his brother-in-law had been ill for sometime, Naeem asked his friends, Sheikh Halim and Sheikh Sajjad, for their help. The truck with the stolen cow had apparently been spotted at Dandu, a village near Shobhapur, so the three of them, and Halim’s driver, Sheikh Shiraz, set out in a car in pursuit. The three men had worked for many years as plumbers in the same firm in Dubai and had recently returned to start their own businesses.

While looking for the truck, however, they were accosted by a group of villagers near Dandu. The villagers enquired about their identities and suspected them of being child kidnappers. As a section of the group started to throw stones at their car, Naeem and his friends quickly drove on and decided to halt at Halim’s brother-in-law’s house in Shobhapur.

“They looked traumatised as they narrated their story,” Halim’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Murtaza Ansari, told The Wire. “I calmed them down and said there is nothing to fear. All of them (the villagers) know me. So I did not think this would happen.”

However, at about 4 am on May 18, a huge mob started surrounding Ansari’s house and  kept increasing in number as the day progressed.

Murtaza says media reports that blamed the adivasis of the village for the horrific murders which followed were wrong. “It was the Brahmins from Kamalpur, the neighbouring colony,” who led the mob, he alleged.

“Adivasis accompanied them but the Brahmins were the ones who did the talking and created further tension. They accused me of harbouring child lifters,” Ansari told The Wire.

“Naeem knew some people in the crowd and expected they would understand the truth. But the mob, which had come prepared to kill, dragged him outside and beat him to death,” said Ansari, adding that the mob attacked him subsequently and destroyed his house and property. Much of his house lay in ruins when The Wire visited Shobhapur on May 26.

Though Naeem’s three friends managed to escape from the back door, they were caught – one by one over the next few hours –  by the mob, which had dispersed into three groups to find them. All of them were hacked to death.

Charge of cow slaughter

The Hindu residents of Kamalpur that The Wire spoke to, however, gave a different story.

“While the murders happened because they were suspected to be child thieves, the Muslim men were actually cow smugglers. Why would they be out at that hour of the night? We suspected they were butchers who were looking for cows in the area,” said a Brahmin resident of Kamalpur who declined to give out her name.

Remains of Naeem's car, set ablaze during mob action in Shobhapur. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Remains of Naeem’s car, set ablaze during mob action in Shobhapur. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Following the incident, most male residents of Kamalpur too have fled.

Shobhapur’s Sher Mohammad, a BJP activist and the nominated head of the village council, alleges a concerted attempt by an unknown group to disrupt peace in the area.

“Shobhapur is the only Muslim hamlet out of 252 villages in the Rajnagar tehsil. There was no problem before. But in the last one month, we have heard adivasis complaining about child thieves and Hindus talking about cow smugglers. I don’t know how this fear came into being, as we have no evidence of such crimes in the area. Now, people in Shobhapur, mostly poor farmers and hawkers, are scared to step out of the village. If we can’t trust our neighbours, whom will we trust,” Mohammad told The Wire.

Was the mob acting under the influence of propaganda? Or did the mob play to the tunes of a script written by Kamalpur residents based on some sort of personal enmity? No one knows at present, as the police have still made no progress in its investigation.

At Haldipokhar, however, the families of the dead are still trying to make sense of what happened. Sajjad was married only two months ago. His wife, Nazneen Parveen, is still in a state of shock, as are the families of the other victims.

“Their children, most of them toddlers, have not registered what happened. However, it is difficult to explain the events to their wives. They frequently break down. And no one knows what to do,” says Sheikh Salim, Halim’s brother. The other victims’ families feel the same. They say that compensation is not enough for what they are going through at the moment.

“The loss is irreparable. Until the guilty are punished, we will not have a sense of closure,” said Halim.    

The second mob attack

As the people of Kolhan were still trying to come to terms with the Shobhapur lynching, three other men, all of them Hindus, were killed in a similar fashion the same evening.

Earlier in May month, a group of residents in Nagadih near Jamshedpur and adjoining villages, responding to a rumour of frequent child lifting in the area, came together and constituted a vigilante group to protect the children of the village. The group guarded the village at night.   

On the evening of May 18, the vigilantes caught hold of two brothers from the Jugsalai locality of Jamshedpur, Vikas Verma and Uttam Verma, were visiting the area to inspect a piece of land in the village where they planned to set up a printing business. Sensing trouble, the duo called for help but when their 75-year-old mother arrived on the scene with her third son and a friend, they were targeted too. The mob, which alleged the group was part of the much-rumoured child-lifting gang, beat Vikas, Pawan and the friend to death in front of a few policemen who had rushed to the spot after receiving an anonymous complaint.

“Ours was an extended happy family until May 18. Our world has turned upside down,” says Manik Chandra Prasad, who lost two of his three sons in the incident.

Prasad’s family runs a scrap business. In the past two months, he and his sons were contemplating a new business – printing banners and constructing cheap toilets under the Union government’s Swacch Bharat Abhiyan.

“My youngest son, Vikas, left on a bike with my eldest Uttam to see a piece of land in Nagadih, where they could set up their printing machine. When they were gheraoed by the mob there, Vikas called up one of my other sons Gautam to come to scene with their identity cards. As Gautam panicked, he took his friend Gangesh Gupta and my mother to convince the mob that they were residents of Jamshedpur and not child lifters as they thought,” said Prasad.

As it turned out, Gangesh, Vikas and Gautam were beaten so brutally that they succumbed to their injuries. Prasad’s 75-year-old mother is still fighting for her life at a hospital. Uttam managed to escape.

As their family is trying to cope with the sudden demise of two young men in the house, they feel the police is responsible for what happened. “My sons died in front of a small group of policemen. I understand they could not have done anything in front of the mob’s rage but they should have called for more support when things became grim. Even today, the police have hardly taken any action,” said Prasad.

Meanwhile, the few women who have not fled their homes in Nagadih are struggling to make ends meet. The school is shut, the anganwadi is not functioning and the government has stopped providing rations to the only government facility in the village.

“I understand that what happened was wrong, but the police should catch the culprits and stop victimising everyone in the village. They come and abuse us, say we will not be spared. We are living under the constant threat of more mob action on similar lines against us,” said Basanti, one of the few women who has dared to stay in the village. Basanti, an anganwadi worker in the village, feels that the government officials recognise her and may not come after her.   

A deserted road in Nagadih. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

A deserted road in Nagadih. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

The two incidents sent shock waves across Kolhan division, the impact of which was felt in Jamshedpur city soon after. Responding to the daylight lynching of the four Muslim men in Shobhapur, three leaders of the community – one each from the Congress, the BJP and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) – held a meeting and called for a march to the deputy commissioner’s office on May 21.

In response to this, some Hindutva groups started to circulate a provocative message on WhatsApp, saying Muslims were defending cow smugglers and that Hindus must assert themselves by disrupting the march.

On May 21, as the march progressed, clashes between the Hindutva disrupters and Muslim marchers broke out, followed by one between the marchers and the police, crippling the city for a day.

In backstory, fears of land grab

As the residents of central Jharkhand grapple with the eruption of sudden violence in the area, a concerted attempt by administration officials and Hindtuva activists to criminalise both adivasis and Muslims is visible on the ground. While the tribals are at the receiving end of this campaign for their “primitiveness”, Muslims are being branded as cow smugglers.

The events that unfolded here in the past few days may sound like a series of coincidences. Different communities have different versions of what happened. The police is clueless, as are the people of Kolhan.  But there is a definite sense of unease among political observers in the state.

“Jharkhand was formed in 2000 after a huge movement led by adivasis for a separate state. Yet, adivasis have barely any political stakes in the state. They have been excluded not just from politics but from every sphere of life. In the last three years, the sense of alienation among adivasis has further deepened,” Raimul Bandra, an adivasi activist who has taken part in many agitations against forcible land acquisition in Jharkhand, told The Wire.

He believes that a growing sense of social and political alienation among adivasis is leading to such incidents.

Although his assessment may not cut much ice with the administration, is evident that the state’s deep cultural fault lines form a crucial part of the lynching backstory.  

In Kolhan, a growing sense of insecurity among adivasis is perceptible. All members of the Santhal community that The Wire spoke to feared losing their land to outsiders, whom they call diku in Santhali.

“The small piece of land that we own is our only support. The outsiders want to occupy our village,” said one Santhali woman from Matladih, a village close to Nagadih.  

According to a regional journalist, who is a witness to the Nagadih mob lynching, the murders happened because the adivasis felt the victims had come to occupy their land.

“By the end of a heated argument, it was clear to many in the crowd that the people whom they had held hostage were not child lifters. Yet, they were angered by the fact that they were looking to buy land in the area,” said the journalist, asking not to be named.  

A mineral-rich region which remains largely unexplored, Kolhan, in the last few months, has become the hotbed of agitations against amendments passed by the Raghubar Das-led BJP government to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT), 1908 and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy (SPT) Act, 1886.

The amendments to the CNT and SPT Acts, which were hastily passed in the state assembly last year but are awaiting the governor’s approval, seek to give the government the power to change the “land use” patterns of tribal land. The Acts, which are more than 100 years old, prohibit the sale of land owned by adivasis to non-adivasis. The amendments will pave the way for the government, private companies and individuals to buy land in adivasi-dominated regions and use it for “non-agricultural” purposes.  

Also noteworthy is the fact that the BJP, despite forming the government, lost in most seats in Kolhan to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) led by Hemant Soren, son of veteran state politician Shibu Soren.

In the past few months, Soren has managed to consolidate a majority of the Santhal and Ho adivasi populations living in the area in the context of the CNT/SNT amendments. As a result, a political tussle between the BJP and the JMM in the region has led to strong sense of fear among adivasis, who are convinced that the amendments will harm their livelihoods.

“Our only possession is the land we hold. If that goes, we will be forced to beg,” said an adivasi resident of Seraikela-Kharsawan.

Hinduisation of adivasis

A parallel Hindtuva campaign too seems to be taking shape in the past one year in the belt that stretches from Kolhan to Sundergarh in Odisha, all adivasi-dominated, mineral-rich regions.

“A number of Hindu religious sects with names like Amma Bhagwan or Baba Bhagwan have emerged in this region. They preach to the adivasis to renunciate their traditional Sarna faith and adopt new rituals. They condemn the adivasi rituals as superstitious and try to replace them with their own set of superstitions. Many among the adivasis are attracted towards these sects,” Xavier Dias, a Ranchi-based activist, told The Wire.

In recent times, some sects have asked the adivasis to put cow dung cakes in front of their houses and hang a banner saying ‘Om’ (a holy symbol in Hinduism) to fend off the alleged child lifers, Dias said.

“We do not know who spread the child-lifting rumour, but one thing is clear – that these sects stand to benefit the most out of it,” said Dias, pointing out that an organised campaign to “Hinduise” adivasis – which has been around for a while – is gradually taking a “monstrous shape” in Jharkhand.

The adivasis, who have always been treated as the cultural “other” by the communities who hold sway in businesses in Jharkhand, are now faced with a situation where they are being asked to shift away from their traditional faiths towards the mainstream Hindu religion.

“My experience in the field shows that even the adivasis who have espoused the new rituals feel distanced from their cultural roots. This has led to a rough situation where the village society stands divided according to sect-wise affiliations. Belief systems are being nudged to drive a wedge between adivasi communities,” said Bandra.

The twin factors – cultural transformations in adivasi society and a growing fear of socio-economic alienation – are breeding a deep sense of social angst among adivasis against those they perceive as ‘outsiders’.

The concerted campaign to criminalise both adivasis and Muslims and pit one against the other not only helps saffron groups in the region consolidate their hold, it also aids them in weakening the strong land movements against the government. For the BJP, it is also an opportune moment to neutralise the JMM, which has become much stronger than it was before.

Jharkhand is sitting on a ticking time bomb. And the signs of it are there for everyone to see.