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Rights

Five Ways In Which Hemant Soren and Jharkhand Are Carving a New National Agenda for Adivasi Politics

This is timely as the ruling dispensation reminds us of existing unchecked hegemonies, reinforce who’s in power, and the manifold ways in which the Bahujan including the religious minorities can be shown their place.

Hemant Soren, a sitting Chief Minister of a state (Jharkhand) was recently arrested on charges of money laundering and corruption. No other sitting chief minister with a similar, and/or far graver allegations have been arrested while in office. 

Himanta Biswa Sarma is a case in point.

Soren’s crime is not only that he is part of the opposition, but that as an Adivasi, he is irreverent and belligerent to the powers that be. Through his impassioned no-confidence motion speech, he reminded all the oppressed groups and the Adivasis of Jharkhand in particular, that they are the proud bearers of the legacies of resistance of the Santhal Hul and Birsa Munda’s Ulgulan. Any or all fights against the oppressive state machinery require drawing upon those very legacies and strengths — as the means of the marginalised are limited, compared to the might of the oppressive forces.

Though Soren’s speech was made in the Jharkhand assembly, it resonated across tribal groups in different parts of India. 

The weaponisation of central agencies by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the opposition is an open secret. However, two arguments, seem obvious here.

One, he ‘has’ committed a crime, and therefore, it necessitates the role of the central investigation agencies — the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in this case, to step in, investigate, and hold him accountable.

Second, as a party leader of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and who is part of the INDIA alliance, he has been subjected to BJP’s vendetta politics. 

First, the issue of corruption.

Any corrupt practice is problematic, and regardless of who commits it, it should be subject to scrutiny, investigation, and necessary action by the relevant authorities. The issue here is about intentionality and lack of transparency as to why and how certain allegations of corruption are probed with alacrity, while others are ignored, postponed, or buried by the central agencies (e.g. the Sahara Diaries, the Ahmedabad Cooperative Bank scam in Gujarat during demonetisation).

Are the institutions of the state (e.g. the ED/CBI/Income Tax department) doing what they are mandated to, and in the manner they are supposed to? The jury is (still) out.

Most of the time, in such cases, public memory is obfuscated with charges of defamation and counter-defamation by the concerned alleging, accused, and repudiating parties with no real outcome – until it fades public memory. The point is, the corruption of the Savarnas in the loot of public money and public assets is not only normalised but armed with impunity; but those, if committed or alleged to have been committed by the Bahujans (Adivasis, Dalits, and the OBCs), then the Savarna state apparatus (the legislative, executive, judiciary, and the corporate media) swings into action: ensuring that the issue made a spectacle of in the public eye.

The purpose is to remind us of existing unchecked hegemonies, reinforce who’s in power, and the manifold ways in which the Bahujan including the religious minorities can be shown their place, even at the cost of the law of the land and due process. Morality and ethics evade similar scrutiny and treatment in cases that pertain to the non-Bahujans. Overall, those pliant to the BJP are spared the scrutiny and action, and the defiant demonised in no time. 

Second is the issue of politics.

The stealth, slyness, and brazenness with which BJP attempts to destabilise elected governments in contemporary politics are plain to see. The country has seen this play out on a repeat mode for a good number of years now in different states — Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, and now Jharkhand. It follows the same familiar script. The BJP sets the agenda, the central agencies spring into prompt action, and the corporate media prostrates on cue, peddling a curated narrative that works in the interest of the government. This time too, the mainstream media, before due process, played the predictable role of magnifying Hemant Soren’s alleged crime. Some TV anchors demonising Hemant Soren, and what he is worth and deserving of, exposed their casteist mindsets.

The new CM, Champai Soren may have won the floor test; but the danger of destabilisation for the state government still lurks. Champai Soren, and the completion of JMM and its allied parties’s full term is not the issue at hand, but the potential return of Hemant Soren in Jharkhand politics is a threat to the BJP and RSS.

Why?

Because Hemant Soren is the proverbial enemy within the fascist Hindutva imagination. Five key aspects of his politics and decision-making in the past four years illustrate my point. 

First, announcing the intent to withdraw the cases of the Pathalgadi movement in 2019

The Raghubir Das government of the BJP framed sedition charges against more than 10,000 Adivasis and their leaders of the Pathalgadi movement between 2017 and 2018. Soon after taking charge of the government, the Hemant Soren-led government in its first cabinet meeting on December 29, 2019 announced the dropping of all the charges to acknowledge the right of the Adivasi to resist, assert, and claim their traditional customs and practices, in a way that is meaningful and empowering to them. Though he has yet to fulfil that promise — announcing his intent to do that itself was a subversive move in such a skewed and polarised political climate.

Second, puncturing the Hindutva narrative about Adivasis

In response to the growing RSS and Mohan Bhagwat’s penetration into the Adivasi hinterlands, Hemant Soren’s powerful stand that “Adivasis were never Hindus and they never will be” (2021) can be seen as a major impediment to RSS’s civilizing mission of the Adivasis .

This statement in a way has challenged the dominant narrative of Hindutva thinkers and their decades long politics that Adivasis are ‘ backward Hindus’, and reiterated their claim that the Adivasis and tribals are the first peoples (indigenous) of this land — before the birth, and spread of any major religion(s) in the Indian subcontinent. 

Third, advocacy for the Sarna Code Bill

In September 2023, Hemant Soren wrote to the Prime Minister of India for the inclusion of ‘Sarna code’ in the religion section of all future censuses. Though the movement for the inclusion of Tribal/Sarna religious code in the census has had a long history in Jharkhand, Hemant Soren’s support and advocacy on this issue speaks to the concerns of millions of Adivasis and tribals across India.

The ramifications of this can be significant, especially for Hindutva politics which is based on the idea that 80% of the Indian population are Hindus. The fulfilment of their idea of India or Bharat, presumably, will come from this chunk of the population.

The victory of the Sarna Code Bill for tribal politics, whenever that is, will be important, especially for states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand where attempts to create the ‘Other’ within the tribal community between the converted and the non-converted is in full swing.

Tribals are either considered ‘backward Hindus’, who if they adopt foreign religions like Christianity and Islam ought to forego their rights completely. This idea disregards the fact that the issues and struggles of converted and non-converted tribals are the same i.e. dispossession, displacement and marginalisation at the hands of neoliberal capitalism, state-corporate nexus, and the Savarna state apparatus. There is little in common between an Adivasi Hindu and a Brahmin Hindu, given their different histories, stories, memories, and struggles. 

Fourth, passing of the 1932 Khatiyan Bill

In December 2023, the Hemant Soren government, despite contestations, passed the new domicile policy titled “The Jharkhand Definition of Local Persons and for Extending the Consequential Social, Cultural and Other Benefits to such Local Persons Bill, 2022” with the sole idea of creating safeguards for the Adivasis and other marginal groups of Jharkhand from the non-Adivasi early migrants to the area, on issues of employment.

Fifth, instituting the Marang Gomke Overseas Scholarships

In 2021, one significant decision the Hemant Soren government took post-pandemic was to invest in the education sector. Through this scholarship instituted in the memory of Jaipal Singh Munda, one of Jharkhand’s tall Adivasi leaders, full financial support is given to 25 students belonging to the SC/ST/OBC and minority communities to pursue a Masters and MPhil from the United Kingdom. More scholarships for MPhil and PhD study abroad have been announced.

We live in interesting times. Some of our very own, have reached powerful positions in the country – Droupadi Murmu, as the President of India, and Hemant Soren as the chief minister of a state, both from the Santhal tribe – a rarity in Indian politics. The purpose of political representation in a representative democracy like ours has been to create space for the underrepresented groups to have a voice, and to work in their interest.

But the tragedy is that the enviable position of Droupadi Murmu, having held many senior posts and offices, has come with a cost to her voice and agency. That privileged position and access to power have only been used to embellish the crowns of the ruling dispensation but to never stand up for herself or her people. For instance, accepting omission from the inauguration event of the new parliament building or failing to speak a few words on the Manipur incident of the tribal woman being paraded naked. But to be fair to her, what she said of incarceration and the need to build fewer and not more jails in front of the senior members of the government and judiciary is speaking truth to power.

On the contrary, Hemant Soren, for the most part through his visionary, emancipatory politics, and astute political prowess has exactly done that. Through his policies and decisions, he has not only protected the long-standing needs and interests of the Adivasis and other marginal communities of Jharkhand, but he has also managed to reset subaltern politics from an Adivasi standpoint at a broader national level. 

Dr. Regina Hansda is a lecturer in Development and Justice at the School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, UK. Her email is [email protected].