‘BJP failed to end Naxalism, increased militarisation in Jharkhand,’ says Hemant Soren

Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s working president Hemant Soren speaks about the dilution of land tenancy laws in the state, mob-lynchings, hunger-related deaths and more.

ByAnumeha Yadav
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‘BJP failed to end Naxalism, increased militarisation in Jharkhand,’ says Hemant Soren
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Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) working president Hemant Soren became one of India’s youngest chief minister at 37, in a coalition government formed with the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in 2013. Hemant is one of JMM founder Shibu Soren’s three sons.

He is now among the key leaders of the Mahagathbandhan alliance in the state, and is credited with the alliance’s smooth functioning. Besides the JMM, INC, RJD, the alliance now includes Babulal Marandi’s Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) (JVM-P), an arch rival of the JMM in the Santhal Pargana.

In an interview with Newslaundry, Soren, the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, said he has successfully mobilised Jharkhand’s rural and Adivasi populations over amendments made to the land acquisition law, and the proposed amendment to dilute land tenancy laws. He said he expected the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to lose its vote share and seats significantly after alienating Adivasis (who form 27 per cent of the population), and lower caste farmers over worsening hunger conditions and deprivation in Jharkhand.

In 2014, out of Jharkhand’s 14 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP had won 12 seats in 2014, four more than in 2009, with 47.1 per cent votes, up from 27 per cent in 2009. The JMM had won the remaining two seats, retaining its hold in Dumka and Rajmahal in the Santhal Pargana in Jharkhand’s east. The INC and the JVM-P had in 2014 got nearly 13 per cent votes each, but had got no seats. In 2019, the Congress is contesting seven seats, the JMM four, JVM-P is fighting two seats and the RJD on one. Two phases of the elections are over, while seven constituencies including Jamshedpur and Santhal Pargana will vote on May 19.

Excerpts from the interview:

In 2014, just a few months after the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP formed the first majority government in Jharkhand after 13 years since it became a state. How do you view the BJP’s performance at the Centre and in Jharkhand?

The BJP’s political performance has been good, their marketing has been very good, but on the ground their achievements are zero. It is a performance limited to coverage in media and social media. No efforts of their output show after five years.

On the other hand, one can see the harmful impact of demonetisation, and of the haphazard Goods and Services Tax regime on financial institutions and industry. The United Progressive Alliance government had started work on the Goods and Services Tax. They organised consultations and collected a lot of public comments. The Modi government imposed GST overnight with the result that they have had to change it a thousand times, causing shocks and economic losses to people. The government is not allowing statistics to be made public. People working in government statistical institutes have resigned in protest.

They have taken five years just to create a false narrative, thinking that ‘if we cannot build Ram temple, what should be our next narrative’. So the next narrative is rashtravaad (nationalism), rastrabhakti (patriotism).

India’s among the most powerful countries. The Indian Army and border security forces are among the world’s best. Our border areas are not under threat. But from the campaign, one cannot understand, if it’s the BJP contesting the elections or the Indian Army?

You tell me, what is rashtravaad (nationalism) and rashtrabhakti (patriotism)? Patriotism is love for one’s country. That is good. Nationalism is claiming you are the most superior nation. If that is so, are other nations kharaab (inferior)?

Talking of border areas is fine, but why are they ignoring the problems inside the country–unemployment, farmers’ suicide, the crises in health, education. Why are they not talking of all this–of roti, rozgaar, and trying to fight the election on the nationalism narrative?

They started with small jumla, and now their lies are getting bigger.

In Jharkhand, Chief Minister Raghubar Das recently said that they will bring electricity everywhere by 2020. Earlier, he had claimed that if all villages are not electrified by 2018, he will not seek any more votes, and now he has changed it.

All the BJP is doing is paise ke bal pe politics. They are trying to fight on the basis of their huge financial might.

Modi had launched the Ayushmaan Bharat health insurance scheme from here in Ranchi. He has talked of the scheme in his campaign…

Will an insurance company treat people? People cannot find doctors where they live. Doctors live in cities that are difficult to access for most people. They should have created a system where doctors go to villages. Instead, they have handed over public funds to insurance companies. We all know insurance scams are going on, and to what extent are people really able to claim medical insurance.

Health will improve when you open more medical colleges, open more paramedical colleges, nursing colleges, correct fee structures, do this at minimum fees. Only then will you be able to fill the shortfall. Those who have studied medicine after paying ₹50-60 lakh are not going to help improve your health systems.

The government has done nothing, they have not even installed a foundation stone when it comes to creating better health infrastructure.

Right to Food Campaign activists recorded 19 deaths from starvation and hunger in Jharkhand between 2017 and now. All of them were either Adivasis, Dalits, or belonged to Other Backward Class (nine were ST, five SC, five OBC). Why is this happening in Jharkhand, a state that was created after a long struggle, asserting Adivasi forest dwellers’ and farmers’ rights, and their culture?

Over 33 per cent of Jharkhand’s people live below the poverty line (BPL). What does it mean to be below the poverty line? It is important to understand: what experts call the “poverty line” in India is a destitution line. It is like a death line. People will die if they fall any further, from any economic shocks.

Food grains that are provided under the National Food Security Act, 30-35 kilo rice under the Public Distribution System to the poorest is calculated based on the minimum calories they need to at least sustain and stay alive, it is designed to keep people at least alive. In Jharkhand, under this government, they have been denied even that.

From the reports that I have seen, more than 20 residents have died from hunger, most of whom were women, nearly 10-11. These deaths have taken place not in a few districts, but all over the state. When they cannot get enough to even eat and live without a daily struggle, will they eat nationalism?

Do you think hunger or starvation in the state has become a political issue? Is it on people’s minds as they vote?

The majority of Jharkhand’s population’s livelihoods are under attack. Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and religious minorities constitute 55 per cent of Jharkhand’s population. Any government that ignores this while framing policies is wrong.

The Das government tried to bring amendments to dilute land tenancy laws meant to protect Adivasi land rights, such as the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT), the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPT).

In February, the Supreme Court passed an order on Forest Rights Act that would affect nearly 12 lakh forest dwellers. It later stayed this order, but if this order is lifted, it will create havoc on people here.

In Jharkhand, the government is trying to remove people from forest villages in the name of protecting reserved forests. I do not know what is on this government’s mind that they want to always characterise tribals who live in the forests as forest’s enemy.

Why is this being done? Somewhere, the interests of mining mafia, land mafia are responsible for this. They want to displace people so they can mine here. This is being planned on a large scale and people often do not find out that these conspiracies are being planned against them.

We organised Sangharsh Yatra in the state to raise these questions. I travelled 8,000 to 10,000 kilometres through the state. Many youths joined in and it activated several communities to look at these issues. The yatra was on when elections were announced, the programme’s impact will help us.

The land tenancy laws such as CNT, SPT Acts have been amended earlier as well to allow industry and mining. Why did you organise protests against the current amendments?

The BJP government tried to create a false narrative that CNT, SPT tenancy laws obstruct projects or are a hurdle to “development” in a way that would adversely impact Adivasi farmers. It was while these laws were in place, all large industries such as Steel Authority of India Limited, Heavy Engineering Corporation’s plants, huge reservoirs, roads, hospitals all got made, so how have they restricted anything?

CNT, SPT apply to agricultural land. The BJP wants to amend it to allow the change of agricultural land to non-agricultural land. If I am wearing cotton, its main characteristic is the fibre. If I add synthetic fibre to it, it is no longer cotton. Once you start chipping away at it, it loses its character. That is what has happened to the land tenancy laws over the past decades originally put in place because 60-65 per cent population of Jharkhand was Adivasi.

For instance, under the CNT Act, Adivasi farmers have the right to sell or buy property from other tribals or non-tribals within the district boundary after notifying the thana (police station). The administration claims this restricts the land sale and purchase by Adivasi farmers, and claim their changes will help tribals. This is misleading.

In the 1930s, Ranchi, Hazaribagh were massive districts. For instance, out of Hazaribagh district, Ramgarh, Bokaro, Dhanbad, Giridih, Koderma, Chatra, and the present-day Hazaribagh, seven districts were carved out. Over time, the district jurisdiction has become much smaller with thanas for every 5,000 or 10,000 population and Adivasi farmers are being told to not move outside the reduced boundaries. Instead of allowing farmland to be made into non-agricultural like the BJP wants to do, there is a need to ensure tribals’ autonomy in what older, larger jurisdiction was.

We have also protested against the amendments to the land acquisition law of 2013, by which the government has reduced the requirement of Gram Sabha consultation to a mere formality for a varied category of projects.

In the name of creating a “land bank” for their corporate comrades, they have even taken lands that people hold a title to.

I have also come to know that the government is trying to remove a number of villages that are currently governed under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution (which provides for self-governance in tribal areas) to outside this list in name of urbanisation.

Fifty-sixty years back, things were very different. The state and the nation had a different face for the people. The population was also much less than it is now. Now people understand the value of land and they do not want to give it up so easily.

Has the Mahagathbandhan’s cohesion been below expectation? Political parties such as the RJD fielded candidates even in seats where coalition candidates were contesting.

Yes, it is true that everything has not turned out as we thought. For example, in Chatra, the RJD candidate Subhash Yadav contested against Manoj Yadav of the Congress. If this did not happen, results would have been better. In Godda too, there was anger among Congress local leaders who threatened to rebel and that did not look good. But the results will show how much the impact has been.

In many places, our parties cadre and the people have understood the last five years’ picture well and they will be voting based on their understanding. I believe all parties will transfer to allies.

JMM has a stronger presence in Jharkhand and won two seats in the last election while INC won none. JMM has 19 seats in the Assembly, while INC has nine. Then how did the coalition decide to give seven seats to INC to contest?

We, in JMM, want to concentrate on the state. The Assembly elections are coming up and we want higher shares then. We negotiated in such a way that in Lok Sabha, Congress should display its strength while we can do the same in the state.

Have JMM and the Congress already negotiated an agreement for the Assembly elections due later this year in November?

It is more or less decided which party will contest how many (seats). But all I can tell you is that in Parliament, the INC is coalition’s face, they are in the bada bhai (big brother) role, and in Assembly elections, we will be the older brother.  Right now, the INC will contest more seats, while in the Assembly elections, JMM will contest more seats.

Jharkhand ranks among the worst-affected states in cow-related hate crime deaths after Uttar Pradesh, with at least six killed in such attacks since 2015. Prakash Lakda, an Adivasi was lynched in April in Gumla district over carving a dead ox. How do you view this spate of mob lynchings?

The shape of mob lynching is changing and turning peculiar. First, they targeted Muslims, and now they are targeting Adivasis, and may target more and more groups. Prakash Lakda, who was killed in Gumla last month, was a Christian Adivasi. I think mobs are trained for these attacks, and this is especially expanding near Jamshedpur in Singhbhum.

They aim to create terror, hostilities, and social tension. The BJP wants to convert Adivasis to Hindu, they want to claim Bajranj Bali was a Dalit. What can one say now? This is a pre-conceived script playing out on how to instigate and cause harm.

In 2017, the BJP government passed the anti-conversion law despite our requests in the Assembly to send it to a legislative committee first. The Criminal Procedure Code already prescribed punishments for those who convert through coercion or allurement, then why this law? Why not implement the CrPC?  There is no relevance to such laws except to raise a show and be divisive.

Has the Opposition been able to counter this strongly?

Yes, we strongly opposed it in the Assembly. If you say anything to question this government, they say you are deshdrohi (traitor). If you protest strongly, they register cases against you, imprison you, use false charges against you. They are misusing the system.

They do not want to allow anyone to even organise meetings. They have reduced the country to a dictatorship, qabza kar liya hai, they try to control everything, one cannot move or think freely.

Right now, the country is like a small bird in the hands of a predator. Ghutan ki sthithi hai, lekin who apna panja dheere dheere aur tight kar raha hai. (One feels claustrophobic, yet the predator is tightening its grip.)

If anyone questions the government they accuse them of being urban naxals. They cannot tolerate any criticism.

The BJP has claimed, as part of their campaign, that they have finished off Naxalism and the Maoist insurgency in Jharkhand, that people can travel across the state, which they could not earlier.

What are they talking about? Jaana aane ki baat. Last week, I received a threatening letter from so-called Maoists. It may be fake, but even now things are in a state that you cannot even say when an incident may take place. So I have made a police complaint. They could not finish anything as they claim. All that has happened is more security forces and paramilitaries are being deputed in villages, there is more militarisation.

What is happening in the country? If there is a war and people are dying, then one can understand. But if security forces are being killed even in the absence of a confrontation, like in Pulwama, where a suicide bomber killed troops. If even without a physical conflict, people are dying, then what situation we have reached?

The country’s Prime Minister is bragging that ‘I am not going to keep nuclear arms for Diwali.’ What a disgrace. Before this, Indira Gandhi, Atalji, all carried out nuclear experiments in their terms, but they never threatened anyone on television like this. Cowards threaten people, the strong do not. They are not only threatening another country’s people, but trying to give the country a message: keep things volatile, both within and outside our borders, jhanjhat karte raho (keep causing trouble).

What are your comments on extensive counter-insurgency operations against the Maoists?

In 2015, they claimed to have encountered 12 people in Satbarwa, as one of their biggest operations. It has turned out it was a fake encounter in which they killed innocent people. They tried to bury the case after conducting a state police enquiry. Incidentally, the family members were able to persist by some means, and approached the High Court, which gave orders for a Central Bureau of Investigation enquiry.

Before this, in the name of surrenders by Maoists, they conducted 514 ‘surrenders’ which have also turned out to be fake claims of making innocent youth claiming to be former Maoists lured by government. They have ruined the careers of 514 children and youth. They have come out of prison after an enquiry, but cannot get character certificates to apply for jobs. And the officials who were responsible for this have been appointed to high posts.

Jharkhand is rich in mineral deposits of coal, iron ore, mica. Your manifesto released on April 27 cautions against large scale mining and says your party will focus on developing tourism instead for economic growth. Would the coalition, that includes the INC that has sanctioned large-scale mining in Jharkhand while it was in power at the Centre agree?

Mining has caused a lot of harm in Jharkhand—environmentally and socially. The state has not even got 25 percent of what it could have earned from mining, and suffered twice the harm. It needs very drastic changes. If we wish to use these mineral resources at all, the operating system, the utilisation, impact should be minutely studied before going further. Aisa nahi ki jaisa taisa, jahan tahan noch rahe hain, cheezon ko kharaab kar rahe hain. (We cannot allow haphazard decisions, resource grab and denuding the state.)

Further, when mining companies wish to get lease and carry out quarrying and mining illegally, to prevent scrutiny and deter officials inspections, they promote Naxalism in those areas. Unhi ka den hai. (It is to such companies we owe the Maoist conflict.)

If our state is getting harmed, we will bring it up with any coalition party.

The BJP alleges there were illegal sand mining contracts given to firms from Mumbai in your tenure as CM…

For sand mining contracts, I made a format that whatever the mode of mining, 80 per cent should be spent in the same panchayat. In 10-15 years, it would have improved the economy at the panchayat level. We carried out open bidding, so companies from outside the same also applied. That was all.

Your manifesto says you favour the implementation of “non-mandatory Aadhaar”. But we have seen that any “non-mandatory” use also becomes compulsory and there is no voluntary choice provided in practice to residents. If JMM comes to power in the state later this year, how would this be implemented?

Transparency in public schemes was the reason given for the use of Aadhaar. But so far, it has not had a positive impact in Jharkhand’s rural areas. The state has poor connectivity so the government must allow both online and offline modes parallel.

In practice, the damage and harm we have seen is that a worker who operates a hal or belcha (farm tools), her fingers keep getting worn out continuously. They are entitled to grains, but when they go to get their rations after Aadhaar authentication, sometimes the biometrics match, sometimes it does not. Often there is no network, or slow network, or the data is not read correctly.

If a worker has to run around for three days for this grain—which is their entitlement—lost three days wages over trying to get this ration, they have already lost worth ₹500-600 of their earnings in trying to obtain grains worth ₹1000-1200. They have suffered a loss of ₹500-600.

Thus, before implementing this, they should understand the ground realities. If there is elderly or sick person, earlier, their son or grandson could pick up their grains but now they cannot (after Aadhaar authentication was made compulsory). What should be done for such an elderly person? Should we take the older person on a stretcher to authenticate their thumb impressions? A dealer is not going to go to their house.

These are the gaps in how Aadhaar works, practically. They should not make such a huge insistence on this. Now when grains reach on time, people are aware enough that they go pick their grains from shops on time. Duniya bhar ke chakkar. (They are making people go in rounds, in the name of digitisation.)

JMM is contesting four seats that will see elections on May 12 and 19. What are your expectations? The party has chosen to field Shibu Soren to fight in Dumka despite his deteriorating health. Does this indicate a lack of new leadership?

We will win, what else. We have many young leaders. Kunal Sarangi, Amit Mahto, Vijay Hansda—all under 35-40. We have more young leaders than other parties.

Guruji (Shibu Soren) is no longer just a person for Jharkhand’s people, he is an ideology, ek vihaar. He can fight till his last breath. To people here, he is like a light that will always shine.

Your party has increased its social media presence, you engage on Twitter actively, but given the low literacy and connectivity in many parts of Jharkhand, how much will this impact elections here? Are people relating to social media messaging?

Yes, they do, and there is an impact. Everyone has a mobile now and we realised, if you are not giving any messages then someone else is. So, we see it as a medium to spread our message, and people are responding if not on Twitter then on WhatsApp. We have teams managing WhatsApp and Twitter communications now.

Livelihood issues, especially the jobs and domicile employment policy have been contentious in Jharkhand with demands and protests for preference to locals in jobs instead of diku or “outsiders”. How has the BJP regime performed on this?

This government’s ministers have openly stated that they believe Jharkhand’s people are not qualified for various jobs, and have given jobs to those from other states. In name of Skill India, ₹100-200 crore have vanished. If we ask in the Assembly, the minister cannot explain where the funds have been spent on. There have been fake skilling schools registered, and no work done.

A domicile policy, giving locals preference in employment, cannot be drafted haphazardly as the BJP has done in 2016. It is not easy. One has to act in a way that is accepted by all people.

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