“No one wants to send marriage proposals to this village. We somehow managed to marry off our daughter, but now her husband regrets getting married here.” Chilia Devi’s concern is similar to that of other women in her village whose daughters are old enough to get married.
Sugnu village is located five kilometres east of Kokar Chowk in Jharkhand’s capital, Ranchi. There are about 1,500 houses in the village. Enclosed within the boundaries of an army camp, the village has access to electricity and water facilities, but no road to connect it to the city.
Chilia Devi and her husband Mangru Munda are currently worried for their newly married daughter, Sukhwanti.
Showing me the wedding invitation, Chilia Devi says, “My daughter got married on April 26 this year. We printed the invitation card as per the army’s directions and handed it to them as well. Yet the army did not allow the groom’s party to enter the village on the day of the wedding.”
“The marriage procession had to face a lot of trouble,” she says. “They had to take a long detour of five kilometres and enter the village through the fields. It caused a delay of two hours. The groom and his relatives got really upset because of this. I don’t know whether they will bring Sukhwanti back here again or not.”
Chilia Devi and her husband are not the only ones raising this issue. Other villagers too have been facing several such issues over the years.
Sugnu village falls under the Dumardaga panchayat in Ranchi’s Kanke block. The two-kilometre long patch connecting the village to the Ranchi-Hazaribagh National Highway Number 33 is under the control of the Dipatoli military camp.
The army dictates how wedding invitation cards are printed
According to locals, every time they go to the city, they have to present their Aadhaar card, voter ID or driving licence as identity proof.
The army needs to be informed in advance in case a wedding is planned. It is also mandatory to print an instruction on the cards that all motorcyclists – including those riding pillion – must wear helmets.
We were allowed to enter the village after several rounds of inquiries and checking. The military check post limit ends after 200 metres to the left of the army camp’s wide road. This is where the village boundary begins.
It was nine in the morning when we reached the village. Two-wheeler riders wearing helmets could be seen commuting on the road. A villager named Bhola Pahan had just returned from Ranchi on a bike with his 12-year-old daughter.
“We are not free,” says Bhola. “No one wants to marry their daughters or sons into this village. They come with marriage proposals but the way the army men behave with them at the gates, they never return.”
“If our relatives visit us, we have to show our identification cards at the gates in order to receive them,” he adds. “We have to request the soldiers to allow them in. No rickshaw or auto-rickshaw is allowed inside the village. If someone is ill, they have to ride on a two-wheeler wearing a helmet in order to go to a hospital.”
Village or prison?
According to the local residents, they have been facing the issue for the last 7-8 years. Earlier, they never had to go through this kind of checking.
Village head Jugun Munda says, “People are living like prisoners here. We have filed requests before our leaders, MLAs and MPs alike, but they have nothing to offer us except assurances.”
In the village, there are several small tolas or colonies. In Dadi Tola, a group of women is gathered near a house for a women’s committee meeting.
One of the women, Poko Devi, expresses concern over the situation in the village. Like Chilia Devi, she is also worried about her daughters.
Poko Devi’s husband is a agricultural labourer. They have two daughters and a son. With great difficulty, they managed to get one of their daughters married five years ago. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to find a match for their second daughter.
“The military men don’t let anyone pass through,” she says angrily. “Our children are getting old. No one is bringing any marriage proposals to the village. The village has become like a prison.”
No entry into the village without ID
Reema has finisher Class 12 from the women’s college in Ranchi. She wants to study further, but the idea of the daily ordeal of identity verification on the way to college is vexing to her.
“Once I lost my Aadhaar card in college,” she recounts. “The military men did not allow me to enter. I told them that I live in Sugnu village and travel on a daily basis, but they did not let me enter without the ID. It took a long time to persuade them to allow me through. Sometimes I feel it is better to stop studying than to face such problems daily.”
The village has a school till Class 8. To study further, children have to go to Ranchi – which means carrying a photo ID along at all times.
Most people in the village are daily-wage labourers. The only way out of the village is the Shahuria Dwar, Dipataloti Military Station which the villagers must cross. Locals claim that they are forced to wait hours at the gate if senior officers are visiting the station.
We contacted the army for its version of the story, but were not allowed to record it.
The gist of what they told us is as follows: “It is not our responsibility to provide them a road. It is the government’s responsibility. They are allowed to pass through only for the sake of humanity. The road belongs to the army camp. The checking process is normal routine and applies to every one, from civilians to special army officers. It is done from a security point of view. No civilian has ever been stopped from passing through. When the government gave us land in Sugnu village, they ought to have provided the locals with their own road as well.”
Locals boycotted Lok Sabha polls in 2009
Although the villagers accept that they have never been mistreated by the army, they still question their lack of freedom. When the country is free and the village does not share borders with any other country, why do they have to prove their nationality every single time?
Village head Jugun Munda asks the same question. “No incident of violence has been reported in this village, nor does it pose a threat of militants or terrorists. Why is the village then treated like China or Pakistan’s border?”
“A village map dating back to 1932 marks this road (now under army control) as Sugnu village road,” remarks Munda. “For years, the villagers have been commuting through this route. In 1974, land was acquired for setting up a military camp but no restriction was imposed on the movement of villagers.”
“Till 2010-11, people had no problem in commuting. Later, however, the process of checking was introduced. In 2017, the army constructed a boundary on all sides enclosing the village. When I asked their officers to provide the village with an alternate route, as even the law suggests, they refused and told me to ask the government.”
The army camp is spread across an area of seven square kilometres. Several schools and colonies share their boundaries with the camp, including Booty More Market and Khelgaon.
In 2009, the villagers had boycotted the Lok Sabha elections demanding a separate road for the village. The in-laws of five-time BJP MP from Ranchi, 77-year-old Ramtahal Chaudhary, live in Sugnu village. He believes that the attitude of the military men towards the villagers is oppressive and a violation of human rights.
Talking about his efforts to get an independent road for the village, Chaudhary points fingers at the ruling BJP government both at the Centre and in the state. “I have raised this issue in the parliament tens of times, but the government has paid no heed. I have had to fight a lot to get whatever little freedom the villagers enjoy. Earlier the military men did not even allow construction of houses in the village.”
First ever chief ministerial visit to the village – seeking votes
Chaudhary was barred from contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections because of the age limit. But this did not stop him from opening a front against the BJP as an independent.
Interestingly, chief minister Raghubar Das arrived at the village on April 28 to seek votes for Sanjay Seth, the BJP candidate who ultimately won from the constituency. Before him, no other chief minister had visited Sugnu village.
According to the villagers, he held a small meeting there before voting was held on May 6 in Ranchi. The village has around 6,000 voters from the Koeri, Kurmi, Adivasi and Sahu communities. The Congress candidate, Subodh Kant Sahay, did not campaign in the village at all.
A local BJP leader and MLA from the constituency, Jitu Charan Ram, who was present alongside the chief minister during his campaign in Sugnu village, says, “The issue of the road has been there for 35 years, not five. We have struggled a lot to get a road. The village locals cannot move freely. The honourable chief minister said that he will sit with their (army’s) higher authority and the civilians to sort out the issue.”
Neither the MP nor the MLA have been able to earn Sugnu village its independence so far. But the locals hope that after the chief minister’s promise, the village will finally get its road and its freedom.
All images by Mohd Asghar Khan.
Mohd Asghar Khan is an independent journalist.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.