Elections & Fear in Khunti

KHUNTI (Jharkhand)

The spirit of democracy is felt closely by the ordinary citizens only during the elections. The absence of it, too, is felt exactly at the same time with growing violence and malpractices. But, for the people in “war” ridden conflict zones, it is the reality of everyday. Elections become mere reasons for state crackdown and security hassles. However, despite all odds, many have already decided to speak the language of elections, and defend what is theirs.

Walking slowly with his grip firm on the crutches supporting his legs, Budhram Munda, 34, comes to rest under the tin shed of his neighbour’s house in Jikilatta, a village south of Khunti, with about 100 residents. “When we begun to fight to save our land by protesting and have met with fierce crackdown. First, we had decided to boycott elections. How can we vote in this environment? We are scared for our lives, should we not live well to think of voting? But, now we think we cannot keep quiet, we will speak with votes,” he says.

Munda’s fears aren’t ordinary. After the Pathalgadi movements that rocked Khunti last year, the danger is tangible. For Munda, it is very personal. One night in June last year, he was picked up by the police when he returned to his village after being away from home trying hard to make a living. “I was taken by night, and I had returned to the village a few hours ago, I did not know anything,” he recollects. He was made to spend 4 months and 10 days in Khunti jail after his arrest. “My legs are weak, and I don’t keep well anymore. Those months in jail broke me down,” he adds. The story is not only his, it has many parallels. It is an ordeal that many face here.

A little while later an old christian-converted couple joined the discussion. They were quiet for a long time, trying to gauge the situation. They knew I was an outsider, and trust was not a good word with such people. Later, without revealing her name the elderly woman spoke. “The police come here every other day. At night, in the day, they do not leave us to our own self, often forcefully,” she said, pointing at the door which now dangled loosely with a rope’s support from the wooden frame, after the police broke it down.

In Udburu, a neighbouring village, which became the central point of the movement after Joseph Purty, a professor in Government University who lived there was named as the king-pin and charged with sedition along-with other severe other crimes, things still remain critical. Two young men standing under a large jack-fruit tree speak under the condition that they should not be named. “The police harass us every day. If we do not wear leather sandals while riding a bike, or miss out on helmets, we are dragged to the police station and the fines run into thousands. Where will we get so much money from?” they add, “nothing is ours, anymore. na ye ped, na murga, na bakra, sab lene aa jaate hain aur dhamkake le jaate hain.”

The Pathalgadi movement that began mid last year, asserted villagers’ rights to administer their own areas based on provisions of Fifth Schedule of the constitution and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. Thousands of adivasis claimed their own rights, through mechanisms put in place by the constitution. However, the state claims that self-styled leaders of the movement are working with the Naxals, violating the constitution and creating lawlessness.

To control the growing lawlessness, the police have registered several cases against named and unnamed people who have allegedly participated in the movement. They are charged under different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) including 124A (sedition). As many as 25,000 villagers, most of whom are unnamed and unidentified are booked.

The Jharkhand Janadhikar Manch, a civil rights organisation along with a few villagers in Khunti, in apprehension of the shrinking space for free and fair elections had urged the State Election Commission to ensure special observers for polling in sensitive places, and to take measures for proper conduct of awareness of voters by withdrawing police presence. However, no actions were initiated until today, nor did the Election Commissioner acknowledge the delegation in the office.

The fear, definitely, has dampened the free-spirited debates that precede the electoral season. However, the adivasis of Khunti haven’t forgotten what they need the most. In Remta, the gram pradhan, Jai Singh Munda, a straight-forward, no-nonsense man steers clear of the smoke-screen of the governments. “We do not have electricity for half a month, there are no clean drinking water projects and there are no LPG connections for most, here, and this vote will be crucial for us to determine how we lead our lives,” he says, blowing holes in all the promises that the ruling-party boasts of.

The constituency is now represented by Karia Munda, a BJP strong-man, eight-time Member of Parliament and the former speaker of Jharkhand Assembly. However, the dissatisfaction with him is clear. “Munda has hardly visited the constituency in the last five years, and we have not received anything through the MPLAD funds. Visiting two times of five years in office is not a good record,” Jai Singh adds.

The angst against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is strong. Especially, the state administration’s abuse of rule of law and the environment of mistrust has led to strong responses against the incumbent government. The voters have also weighed in the electoral promises very carefully. The young have called out the bluff on Modi-Das government. “We did not get 15 lakhs but if someone promises a reasonable 6000 rupees and can deliver, then why not give them a chance?” they ask referring to Congress’ NYAY scheme that guarantees 72,000 rupees a year to the poorest families. Having heard the Congress’ manifesto, they also know that the fate of section 124(A) rests squarely on the outcome of the next elections. “We have been booked to be seditious, but, we are as much Indian as anyone else is. BJP’s criticism that they will not change that law is not good for us, innocents are being harassed by that law,” they assert.

The distrust in elections, however, is not a secret one. “What we say must be heard the way we say it, and that is our concern. The EVMs are traitors; they listen to someone else even when we are the ones speaking to them. They are bad,” says an elderly man, smiling. In Udburu, the villagers who once joined the movement in Ghaghra and burnt all government documents including voter-id cards, say that they will speak in the tongue of electoral numbers, despite all odds. “We have always believed in the powers that the constitution has given us, our protest has been to make space for our concerns, and this elections we will give a sharp reply,” the old woman whose door was broken said. For two young men of the same village the elections are crucial, “agar ham bahr nikalke batan nahi dabayenge, toh yeh logon ko lagega ye jeet gaye,” they said.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has chosen Arjun Munda, a three-time chief minister of the State in place of the incumbent Karia Munda. The Congress has fielded Kalicharan Munda, the brother of sitting BJP legislator of Khunti, and Rural Development minister in state cabinet, Nilkansh Munda. The constituency goes to poll on 6th of May.

Khunti Lok Sabha constituency election is a significant reminder of how democracies are not only about elections. The space for creation of a democratic intuition is as much important as the process of conducting polls. “The struggle for Khunti’s normalcy and the rights of adivasis is a continuing one that will use the language of elections. For us, elections don’t change much, our fight is long, it has continued since Birsa’s days, it will go on,” says Balbir Munda, a local activist.

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The author is a Skye Fellow, currently based in Jharkhand, Ranchi

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