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A Foot Solider's Account of How Muslims Were Integral to the Jharkhand Movement

There have been several attempts, during the movement and after the formation of the state, to discount Muslim participation in achieving statehood.

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Whoever is aware of the Haitian rebellion against the French colonisers in the late 18th century some way or other must have heard about Sans Souci. Located at the northern mountains of the Republic of Haiti, this palace symbolises the victory of slaves against the colonial masters. It is well known and documented that the palace was made by the great black king Henry Christophe. However, it’s hardly ever asked why the palace was named ‘Sans Souci’.

Michel Trouillot in his book Silencing the Past delves deep into the question and found that it might be possible that Henry named his residence after a palace made six decades before his coronation at Postdam by the Prussian king Fredrick the Great. However, he also referred to another Sans Souci – a man who was one of the early rebels against the French colonisers and was allegedly killed by black king Henry Christophe. Nobody knows the exact motive behind naming the palace ‘Sans Souci’, but it is evident from Trouillot’s work that very few people are even concerned about its name. In between this glory of the palace and celebration of grand history, what is lost is the histories of Sans Souci – the man who fiercely fought against the French Army.

Every rebellion has its own Sans Souci or Sans Soucis. We hardly listen to them. And when we try to, we get seduced by the provocation of being the representative of silenced voices. We end up imposing histories on the people. The colonial fanaticism for chronological history leads us to put things in order, in continuity – if not in coherence. In this situation, our shares in the production of histories are secured against those whose histories we are seeking.

While working to find out the histories of Muslim presence in the Jharkhand andolon (Jharkhand movement), we met several people – sometimes with the motive to get historical accounts, but most of the time to just listen to what they have to say. In this journey, we met Zubair Ahmed, in his late 50s, selling eggs at a small stall near the Jharkhand high court. Known as Zubair Andewala, he is not only a living testimony to Muslims’ presence and activities in the struggle for statehood, but is also the one who acted as a bridge between Adivasi and Moolvasis in the late 1980s in Ranchi.

In a neoliberal world where trust deficiency is the norm, Zubair speaks with documents. Though most of the newspaper cuttings where his name was mentioned are now missing, a few books, articles and photographs still carry his legacy. “These are all I have – Yeh mere life ki punji hai (This is the capital of my life),” Zubair told us.

He couldn’t understand the importance of these documents until the Arjun Munda government in 2012 formed the ‘Jharkhand Andolonkari Chihnitkaran Ayog’ (Jharkhand Agitator Marking Commission) to identify the ‘andolonkaris’ under pressure from several civil society organisations, in most of which Zubair was also a member. The formation of the Ayog was welcomed, but the conditional clauses made it difficult for him to qualify as a ‘pension seeker’.

The criterion was set to accommodate only those who had spent days in jails during the andolon. Those who were detained several times but fortunately got saved from being imprisoned became less freedom fighters! This imposed a graded hierarchy among freedom fighters and made the claims of all those strugglers invalid who kept the movement floating outside the jail.

However, last year, Zubair’s name appeared in the Jharkhand State Gazette along with other renowned andolonkaris and undisputed leaders like Shibu Soren and Suraj Mondol. Significantly 40 names of andolonkaris from Ranchi that are found in the Gazette (Gazette No 118, February 26, 2020) contains 16 Muslim names indicating the formidable Muslim presence throughout the Jharkhand statehood movement. This recognition from the state though offered him a sigh of relief; still, he along with several other non-jailed freedom fighters, is waiting for a substantive resolution – pension scheme, government job, health benefit and a permanent house.

State Gazette dated February 2020 and Zubair’s name on it.

Last year, the commission’s term ended and from among more than 63,000 applications they had identified around 5,000 andolokaris. Claiming that there are several pending applications and the process of identification must go on, the Jharkhand Andolonkari Morcha requested Hemant Soren to reorganise it. Accepting the claims of andolonkaris, the Soren government through the State Gazette No. 327 (June 25, 2021) accepted the request of reorganisation and added the following clauses –

  1. Whoever had spent less than three months in jail would get Rs 3500/- per month as pension
  2. Whoever had spent three to six months in jail would get Rs 5,000/- per month as pension
  3. Whoever had spent more than six months in jail would get Rs 7,000/- per month as pension

The new notification also promises a state government job (Grade III or IV as per the qualification) to one family member or dependent of those who lost their lives or who had become more than 40% disabled during imprisonment. This provision of a government job would also be applicable to those whose family members had participated in the statehood movement (subject to identification).

On September 27, Soren government also declared the names of the members of the new commission (Notification 3689/ Home Department) and both the members Narsingh Murmu and Bhubneshwar Mahato have been warmly welcomed by Jharkhand Andolonkari Morcha.

Sailendra Mahato’s letter to the Hemant Soren government

Former MP and renowned leader of the movement, Sailendra Mahato also welcomed the decision of deploying former freedom fighters in the Ayog. But his letter to Hemant Soren dated September 30 clearly seeks pension for all those who (irrespective of jail terms) participated in the andolon. The hierarchical division of imprisoned and non-imprisoned andolonkaris has become a major point of contention in the newly revived efforts to identify freedom fighters.

For Zubair, it comes as a new hope – hope for substantial recognition beyond the instrumental use and mention of his name.

Zubair Ahmed’s story is not only an effort to find out the silenced Muslim voices of the Jharkhand Andolon, rather it tries to further challenge the Adivasi/Moolvasi binary at a time when polarising forces are gathering momentum in the state. The slogans of ‘Hindu-Muslim Sikh Esai, Sab Jharkhandi Bhai Bhai’ or ‘Johla-Kolha Bhai Bhai’ during the Jharkhand movement point to the unity among communities and promotes Jharkhandi sub-national identity.

In this context, Zubair’s life becomes a testimony – a witness to the struggle where people fought together, challenging every possible binary opposition (Sadan/Adivasi; Adivasi/Moolvasi; Adivasi/Muslims) propagated by anti-Jharkhandi political outfits. What brought them together was not an integrationist concept of a melting pot, rather it was a salad bowl – better to say as Zubair said – a guldasta (bouquet) where each flower stays side by side without losing its individual colour, vigour and beauty.

Jazba – emotions for the land

Zubair Ahmed was born in 1964 at Doranda, Ranchi. His ancestors came to Doranda village during the early 19th century and gradually settled in the locality. His father was a vegetable vendor. Besides studying in a government-run school, he used to sell eggs near Jharkhand high court to financially support his family. Around 1985 when the Jharkhand andolon was gradually taking its final shape, the pages of Prabhat Khabar and Ranchi Express were overwhelmed with the inspirational speeches of several leaders including the Jharkhand Party supremo N.E. Horo and JMM commander Shibu Soren, to name a few.

Zubair was among thousands of youths who not only read those as news of dharnas and meetings, rather made it a point to contribute to the ongoing movement.

In Zubair’s words –“Hum logo ne socha ki mein bhi yahan ka moolnivasi hoon, humara culture ek hai, Adivasi aur moolnivasi ka- aur iss jaga pe humne janam liya hai, toh kyun nah humara maati ke liye mein bhi awaaz uthayu…(We thought as the Moolnivasi of this land, we must also raise our voice. As Adivasi and our culture are same, we need to join the struggle).

In the same year, near Upper Baazar where one of his relatives used to stay, he met Jharkhand Party leaders Tako Ansari, Moin Ansari and Mohd. Farooq. Though he was much junior to them, his ‘jazba’ (precisely emotional connect) made Moin Ansari call him for his electoral campaigns. Ansari was the MLA candidate of the Jharkhand Party from the Ranchi seat. While talking about Jharkhand party and its earlier politics of dharna, Zubair told us, “Jharkhand party’s movement was limited to dharnas. As there were mostly aged people, they couldn’t make their voices reach Delhi.”

Having the responsibilities of painting the walls with electoral slogans, Zubair travelled to the different villages of Jharkhand where he found much more ‘Jazba’ among the rural people than the township. As per Zubair, the brutality of the Bihar police was one of the major reasons for the conviction among the rural population. What the people got habituated with was ‘Bhojpuri maa behen ki gaaliya’ (Slangs in Bhojpuri language).

“A backend plan was always there behind this attitude. They (the police and Bihar administration) wanted to suppress us to such an extent that we become unable to walk on our own. They took our coals, our irons, our jobs and everything. Anywhere if they found somebody speaking the Jharkhandi language, they would target and beat them. They created an environment of fear so that we don’t resist. The level of desperation for separate state in the rural areas was thus extremely high,” said Zubair.

However, in Ranchi until then the common people were not that much affected by the movement. There were continuous efforts by Congress and other anti-Jharkhand political outfits to spread Adivasi/Sadan binary. Non-Adivasis were told that the movement was for Adivasis and the non-Adivasi communities would be expelled if the newly proposed state of Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar.

Meanwhile, Zubair met Jolen Toppo, an Adivasi government official who came to his egg shop. Toppo asked him, “Why do you not participate in this movement? It is not only Adivasi’s jameen (land). It is the land of Moolvasis – the people who born here – Muslims, Sikhs, Punjabis and every other community who have been living here.”

His words were so effective Zubair couldn’t sleep for nights. The brutality and deprivation, his life was a testimony to, could not let him rest. In this period, the plans for creating AJSU (All Jharkhand Students Union) for the youths of Jharkhand were on their way. Toppo asked him to join the new outfit to give the cause of separate statehood a much robust footing.

Around mid-1986 at Sriramtoli Chowk, Ranchi, the first meeting of AJSU was held in a small room. Except parked bicycles, the other witness to the meeting from outside was Zubair. As he tried to peep in through the windows, the members caught him presuming to be a spy. The fear of police informers was so intense among the freedom fighters that anything suspicious was dealt in a stringent manner. However, it was Jolen Toppo who came to his rescue and told others about his Moolvasi identity leading to Zubair’s entry to the mines of freedom struggle – that was about to write a novel script for the politics of Jharkhand.

Zubair addressing the meeting of AJSU (Left); Zubair’s membership of AJSU (Right).

The speeches of Vinod Bhagat, then the president of AJSU, Mridul Tete, then the Ranchi town president, AJSU and James Horo, one of the known leaders of the outfit made him take the membership of the party then and there.

Zubair fierce speech in the meetings and the inherent ‘jazba’ was not overlooked by the then leaders. Within few days of joining AJSU, he was inducted as Ranchi town secretary. In Zubair’s words, “The leadership of AJSU wanted to take Adivasis and Moolvasis along. Their objective of giving me the leadership position was to make it a point that the movement was never of only Adivasis. To have its success, it must accommodate all the Moolvasis across the state.”

Guldasta – Beyond forced integration and binaries

Since taking the position of secretary, Zubair started campaigning for Adivasi-Moolvasi harmony and made Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus of Ranchi town join the struggle in numbers. To fight against the ‘Divide and Rule that Britishers employed and followed by several anti-Jharkhandi leaders’, he made Chhatra Samanvay (Student Unity).

For him, the unity of Adivasi and non-Adivasis, like Muslims and Sikhs, was the only way to give the movement its necessary momentum. Bihari officials used to tell them, “Why are you supporting Adivasis? Ye state banne ke baad to aap log nikal diye jaoge (You people will be expelled as the new state for Adivasis will be created)”.

Contesting these divisionary tactics was Zubair’s imperative. He made committees in different places and through campaigns made people aware of their Moolvasi identity. This was seemingly the period when Jharkhandi sub-nationality, as Amit Prakash in his paper Contested Discourses: Politics of Ethnic Identity and Autonomy in the Jharkhand Region of India” claims was taking shape. The earlier ethnicity-based struggle already was expanded to a regional struggle and now it was its turn to become nationalist in both its outlook and assertions.

According to Zubair AJSU was like a Guldasta (a collection of different flowers) into which the people from different communities continue joining. AJSU’s slogan ‘Hume Bhid nahi bhidnewale chahiye’ (We don’t want the crowd rather we want participants) made its appeal reverberate among the youths. The major objective of this organisation was to create such a noise that Delhi is compelled to listen to their grievances.

Also read: Silencing Muslims in Jharkhand: Why a Token Namaz Room Is Not Enough

“The earlier parties were submitting memorandums, petitions, calling dharnas but they were unable to force Delhi to look at their plight,” said Zubair. AJSU’s julus (processions) were not only supported by the common people rather it became a matter of concern for both the Bihar state government and the Union fovernment that started to term it as ‘militant organisation’.

Their militancy was reflected in Zubair’s reference to a 72 hours Jharkhand bandh in the late 1980s where ‘Mohalla ka dukan’ (Shops in residential localities) even didn’t ‘dare’ to open. Police arrests and detentions were the most common fate for the freedom fighters. Though Zubair never got arrested, he was detained more than 200 times during this period.

Zubair detained and at a police station. (at the centre of the picture sitting).

Using ‘Guerilla Dasta’ (a technique to escape from police thana) Zubair and his associates used to escape from police custody and arranged food for the arrested comrades. “We used to go to the missionary schools and asked principals to give us a few minutes for addressing the students. In the gathering, each student used to bring two rotis and gave it to us for feeding the jailed comrades,” Zubair told us. These were all part of the war strategies that not only created solidarities among different groups and communities, rather it was instrumental in furthering the supports for the ‘Andolon’ (Movement).

The efforts of Congress and other anti-Jharkhandi force to divide this movement was evident from 1990 Rairangpur (Orissa) conference of AJSU where the undisputed leader and the founder of the party Suraj Singh Besra was asked to resign. The leadership crisis led to the division of the party into two factions – one led by Prabhakar Tirkey and the other by Vinod Bhagat. Zubair along with his several other comrades joined Tirkey faction and continued working for AJSU up to 1992. However, as the internal factionalism broke, the objectives and motivation of the youths AJSU couldn’t hold erstwhile rigour.

The pledge of joining JMM from AJSU (signatures of the leader).

Under the leadership of Tirkey, Zubair, Mohd. Faizi and other comrades joined Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in 1992. Journalists used to maintain regular contacts with Zubair as he was among the key persons to inform them about the upcoming incidents. According to him, any bandh, dharna, julus or any other activity was meant to make Delhi aware of their situation. And the only way to reach them was through newspapers.

In 1995, during the Jamshedpur Adhiveshan (Conference) of JMM, Zubair was declared the central committee member of the party. Zubair was then in Jamshedpur at his in-laws’ place. The factional conflict of JMM became so intense that the conference had to be postponed for a day. In the meanwhile, JMM leaders Suraj Mandal, Prabhakar Tirkey and Prof. Abu Talib Ansari went to his in-law’s place to take rest.

“I had no idea that these big leaders would come here and on the next day, my name was announced as CC member. I was in tears. There was no word that could express my feelings. It was literally inexplicable,” Zubair’s voice was still shivering – as if he was walking through again the left terrains of struggle and jazba.

Zubair with Shibu Soren and other leaders in Ranchi (Zubair at the right corner).

“I never thought that they could even select such a common man like me as a CC member. Their bodyguards were repeatedly assuring me that they heard my name, but I was in denial. Later when was name was announced along with my abba’s name and reference to Doranda was made, I understood, it was me. They thought that I was competent enough to bear this responsibility. Mein pagal ho gaya thaa, ghar pe khana, pina, roza, tewhar sab khatam. Roza rakh rahe hai lekin kahan kar rahe hai Iftaar pata nahi. Eid mana rahe hai lekin namaaz padh ke gayeb ho gaye. Lekin Allah ka karam kamiyabi bhi mili (I was so engrossed in the movement that I lost the material senses. There was no schedule for taking food, festivals or fast. I was in Roza, but had no idea where I would have my Iftaar. I offered Eid’s Namaaz and got vanished. But thanks to Allah, we got succeeded),” said Zubair as his there was a glint of pride in his eyes for sacrificing every bit of material and spiritual savings for the cause of mitti (motherland) – where he belongs along with millions of Moolvasis across the state.

Salad bowl – Making Muslim presence visible

On being asked whether his religious identity was any driving force behind his engagement in the struggle, Zubair was silent for a while. Then what he said is not only relevant for every struggle across the globe, the use of participant/non-participant binary dominates contemporary politics more than anything else.

“Muslims had sacrificed their lives more than anybody else during the independence movement. Still, our patriotism is questioned. When I saw the condition of Muslims in Assam during mid 80s movements, I understood this was urgent for the Muslims of Jharkhand to join in numbers. Though since its beginning Muslims had been in leading positions in different parties including Jharkhand Party and JMM, it was the time to be more visible, so that in the future nobody claims that Muslims were silent during Jharkhand andolon and it was Adivasis only who fought and won the state”.

This sentiment was vivid even in Dr. Eliyas Majid’s book Jharkhand Andolon aur Jharkhand Gomke Horo Saheb, where he refers to the formation of the Jharkhand Muslim Front on May 14, 1988. When Dr. Majid accompanied Jharkhand Party supremo N.E. Horo in a meeting at Midnapore, West Bengal, he found lakhs of Muslim members in the gathering. It led to a discussion among Dr. Majid, N. E. Horo, Liaquat Ali from Binpur of Jhargram sub-division and Joba Chowdhury of Bankura. They came to the decision to bring the Muslims of the Jharkhand party together to not only consolidate their voice rather make their presence visible.

Similar efforts were taken by Muslim leaders and workers of AJSU and JMM. During mid-1995 under with patronage of Qazi Mujahidul Islam Qasmi, who was also the founder president of Islamic Fiqh Academy and was the undisputed leader of All India Milli Council, a meeting of Muslim workers from all the Jharkhand andolonkari parties were organised at Anjuman Plaza Hall, Ranchi. The meeting called for an umbrella organisation of Muslims and in the coming days at the same place where Zubair met Tako Ansari and other leaders, Jharkhand Milli Council (JMC) was formed. The meeting was held at Mohd. Faizi’s house that was considered by them as Markaz of Jharkhand movement.

Poster of Jharkhand Mili Council’s Jashn-e-Fateh before the formation of separate state of Jharkhand.

Under the leadership of Prof. Abu Talib Ansari and with the presence of leaders like Zubair Ahmed and Mohd. Faizi, JMC had put forth specific demands. In the proposed new state, they called for Urdu Academy, Haj House, proportionate reservation in governance, Waqf board and reservation in education and job sectors.

In this period, another organisation Jharkhand Quami Tehrique (JQT) was also created by the Muslim workers and leaders of AJSU. As Zubair told us though the names of the organisations and affiliations were different they were fighting for the same cause of separate Jharkhand and adequate recognition of Muslims’ presence in the struggle. In 1998, another Muslim organisation comprising members from different Jharkhandi parties came forth with the name Jharkhand Minority Union. Zubair was made the secretary of its central committee and was given the responsibility to look after the issues of Muslims in the state.

Zubair was very clear about their motive and relentless support to the Adivasis. “You cannot find any difference in villages between Muslims and Adivasis. We have same culture, speak same language and live by same ethos. It was Dikus who actually played diversionary tactics to divide Sadans and Adivasis. Our ancestors since the days of Sheikh Bhikhari fought along with the Adivasis for their rights. We had no difference. In Jharkhand Party, JMM, AJSU – everywhere the proportion of Adivasi-Muslim-Mahato were equivalent and there was hardly any difference.”

He also referred to the evolved meaning of Diku “Earlier Dikus were those who were the outsiders and exploiters. Now along with them anybody who was resisting the cause of separate Jharkhand state was termed Diku.”

Independent state and dependent fate

Zubair continued five years as a central committee member of JMM and it was only after the creation of the new state of Jharkhand he left the committe.

“I had to leave it. I didn’t have enough money, car, petrol to travel to different parts of the state. I had already invested every penny I earned for the andolon. I, Faizi never had believed in extortion and thus from flags to posters, everything we arranged was from our mehnat ke paise (hard-earned money).”

When the new state was born, several people like Zubair went back to their daily chores without reaping the benefits of their self-less struggle. Zubair had no money to continue and fight for the post of MLAs and MPs. Financial obligation and power politics not only sidelined hundreds of leaders like him, but rather also gradually led to what they most feared – the elimination of Muslims from the history of Jharkhand movement.

Though he is no more engaged in political activities, he was called even by the last Ayog to help them in the identification procedures.

“We are the people who knew who were there in the andolon – how can officers from outside know them?”

Besides running his egg shop, Zubair has been managing Doranda Kabarsthan as secretary for the last seven years. While taking us through the Kabrastan and showing us the new facilities that were installed in his tenure, he told us, “Position milna assan hai, wahan pe rehke kaam karna asli baat hai (Getting the position is easy, to work for good during the tenure is what matters)”.

During Covid 19, he along with his team buried several ‘lawarish lash’ (unidentified bodies) and offered Janaze ka namaaz for them.

It was about to rain and we were planning to leave the Kabrastan when Zubair said, “Jo bhi body aya hum log nahi dekhe ki wo Muslim hai ki nahi (Whatever body comes, we don’t check whether they are Muslims or not).”In saying so, he shared with us his most significant insight that we often forget – if not in death, at least in unidentified dead bodies, we are all same waiting to be buried or cremated as per the availability.

Note: All the photographs are collected from Zubair Ahmed and Mohd. Faizi’s personal archives. 

 Abhik Bhattacharya is a Doctoral Research Fellow,School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi. He works on ‘silencing and spatial segregation of Muslims in Ranchi’.

Arshad Raza Khan is the admin of the Facebook page Muslims of Ranchi. He is also currently pursuing his M. Tech from the Central University of Jharkhand. 

Ayan Tanweer is a freelance photographer based in Ranchi. He is pursuing his MBA from ISB&M, Pune.